Thursday, 16 July 2015.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I warmly thank all noble Lords who are to take part in this debate today. With your Lordships’ expertise in key areas, I am sure that we will cover a lot of what makes up a healthy ecosystem, including water and soil. I also pay tribute at the start of this debate to all the farmers who, besides producing quality food, manage to contribute to enhancing biodiversity, landscape and public access, despite the downward pressures on produce prices.
I want today to look at specific actions which the Government could choose to take to improve England’s crashing biodiversity on farmland and, at the same time, to help those farmers who I have just mentioned. Across the board, the worst-affected categories of wildlife are those dependent on farmland, such as farmland birds. The RSPB/BTO figures show that in 35 years we have lost well over half our farmland birds and, despite some good initiatives, the post-2012 figures show further overall declines. If we look at flowers, of the 1,556 flowers in the British flora 37% are considered threatened or rare in England, and of these 97% grow within the productive environment. Despite this, as Plantlife points out, 80% of threatened lowland meadow flowers are not supported by the entry-level stewardship options, nor are 72% of threatened upland meadow flowers, so that scheme really does not seem to be answering the issue. Butterfly Conservation’s most recent big study also shows a significant decline in the total numbers of wider countryside butterflies, which have fallen by 24% over 10 years.
I think all those who are speaking today know the problem: a massive, sustained and relentless intensification of agriculture. There have been a plethora of excellent studies and strategies on ways to improve the situation but no matching suite of policy changes from successive Governments. However, I welcome one current and very important example of government action with regard to pollinators: the Government’s stand on the continuing moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids. Pollinators are a very good example of just how closely food production and biodiversity are intertwined. The fate of pollinators is largely driven by what happens on farmland, and the fate of insect-pollinated crops is of course driven by what happens to those pollinators. The Government are quite right to continue with the moratorium because the oilseed rape crop is not in an emergency situation. The figures given in a Written Answer by George Eustice on 13 July this year showed that the crop saw a 16% increase last year.
The UK is far from alone is these concerns. The latest place to join in this ban is Ontario, in Canada. Its Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change has said that:
“A growing body of scientific evidence shows that neonicotinoid insecticides are highly toxic to honey bees and other beneficial insects”.
Another particularly good action of the previous coalition Government was to establish the Natural Capital Committee. Methodically and with hard data, the NCC linked economic well-being to environmental well-being. In its third and last report, it gave a clear recommendation about farming:
“Farming is an important sector of the economy but its impacts on natural capital are substantial. Addressing these impacts would deliver significant benefits for society. Channelling subsidies towards environmental schemes that demonstrate good economic returns would be very worthwhile. Also, investing in measures to connect wildlife areas across farming landscapes, as set out in the Lawton Review, will significantly increase net benefits to wildlife from these areas”.
Yet these advances are about to be undermined because, strangely, the Government appear to be going in the opposite direction: they are launching separate 25-year strategies for farming and biodiversity. Indeed, the farming strategy was launched this morning but I have not had a chance to look at it. No doubt it builds on the Conservative manifesto commitment to,
“grow more, buy more and sell more British food”.
The Natural Capital Committee is quite clear that increases in yields have been driven largely by the increased use of fertilisers and herbicides. As it says, those are severely affecting the wider environmental systems, including water and wildlife.
The NCC correctly analysed that part of the solution lies in new technology, such as real-time crop scanners, in a move towards more “precision farming” and more efficient use of agricultural inputs. However, the other part of the solution lies in supporting farmers who are trying to do the right thing. In the previous Parliament, the Government failed to deliver the maximum transfer from Pillar 1 production subsidy to Pillar 2 agri-environment subsidy. Every taxpayer in this country is paying £200 a year to support the CAP but it does not deliver on public benefits. There will be another opportunity in 2017 and I hope that the Government will make that essential change then, because farmers must be rewarded if they spend a great deal of time producing public goods and benefits to wildlife.
The NCC further stated:
“Government has missed many chances to line up farm support with public goods like flood prevention or farming that supports biodiversity. Continued support for maize farming, for example, was granted an exemption from strict cross-compliance rules on soil management, despite the fact that maize is a ‘high risk’ crop for soil compaction and erosion”.
I make no apologies for quoting so widely from its third report, which was excellent.
I hope the Minister will reinforce with evidence that the Government are committed to supporting farmers who are doing and trying to do the right thing. The Government’s own figures show that less land is being managed under the schemes they brought in to help improve environmental outcomes. In 2013-14, 450,000 hectares of land were managed under the Campaign for the Farmed Environment scheme, but in 2014-15 I understand that it is only 250,000 hectares. Why does the Minister think there has been such a big drop-off?
The most encouraging development in efforts to improve the chances for England’s wildlife is the part played by the public—those thousands and thousands of volunteers who, along with the scientists and NGOs, map what is happening on the ground. They map whether certain initiatives are producing the beneficial results we hope for, and changes in bird and butterfly populations. They have become a vital part of building a picture of what is in decline and where declining populations of a species is reversed by specific land management techniques. This connects all those people intimately with their food production.
Last month, in Westminster, we held the first meeting of this Parliament of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology. We held a “meet the farmer day”, where farmers with a range of best practices met MPs and Peers. Deborah Meaden, the impressive businesswoman from “Dragons’ Den”, spoke about people knowing where their food comes from, how it is produced and the impact of that production. As she put it so succinctly,
“if they don’t know, they can’t care”.
However, more and more people are interested in connecting with how their food is produced.
One of my questions for the Minister is: how will the Government interpret the fact that more than 180,000 people have responded to the public consultation on the regulatory fitness check of the EU birds and habitats directive, to which the Government will have to respond? It would be a tragic mistake if that directive were undermined in any way. Some species—for example, migrating birds—are not static and need EU-wide protection. I hope that the Government will put their every effort behind the EU birds and habitats directives.
Further, can the Minister tell me the Government’s intentions for publishing their 25-year plan to restore diversity? When will it be published? Will that be quite soon after the farming strategy, and will it be cross-departmental rather than focused just on Defra? Will the Government urgently step up action to ensure that the Office for National Statistics and Defra meet the target of incorporating natural capital into the national accounts by 2020, as recommended by the NCC?
Finally, will he confirm that it remains the Government’s intention to transfer a full 15% of funds from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 of the CAP so that the public and wildlife can get the most for the money?
The Committee will be enormously grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for giving us this opportunity to discuss biodiversity and agriculture. I declare my interest first and foremost as a farmer and, until recently, chair of the advisory board at the Natural Environment Research Council’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
I wish to concentrate my remarks on the need for a sound evidence base on which agricultural technologies and production systems can be developed to deliver optimal environmental benefits, including, of course, biodiversity benefits. However, I think we all first need to recognise that both intensive high-input and extensive low-input agricultural systems present challenges for biodiversity and ecosystem services. That is not to say that these challenges cannot be met but, of course, agriculture is about the production of food. We need to reconcile this with the enhancement of ecosystem services. Good research and long-term monitoring— that is particularly critical—have demonstrated the potential to reconcile productive agriculture with the provision of habitats and food for farmland birds, butterflies and pollinator insects, as referred to in the Question. Indeed, examples of best practice have been demonstrated. That is not to say that the impact of agriculture has not been extreme, as the noble Baroness pointed out. However, alongside that, there have been examples of good practice which we need to follow up.
My greatest concern is about not just the types of biodiversity mentioned in the Question—birds, butterflies and pollinator insects—but the need to look at the fundamentals, such as soil science. After all, this is the basis from which all biodiversity and habitats are derived. The ecosystem services on which we all rely, and on which the environment relies, depend on keeping the soil sciences in good heart. The trouble is, of course, that while any number of people join organisations to conserve birds, butterflies and lichen—like everyone else, I belong to several—somehow or other, to get people to take an interest in worms or soil biodiversity is rather more complicated.
It is a great pity that the debate is so often polarised between intensification and extensification. In both cases you require a multi-purpose approach. There is no technological panacea to meet the challenges of sustainable production. It requires a diversity of approaches specific to the crop in question, the locality and, of course, the ecosystem services which it is desired to enhance. If you are looking for flood control, there will be one set of requirements. If you are looking for biodiversity, there will be others, although of course there will be common factors. I give an example from my own farming practice. I am a fruit producer with intensive orchards containing 3,000 trees per hectare. That is intensive by anyone’s standards. Incidentally, we also have high-level schemes on different land, which are well funded and deliver their own environmental benefits. We do not get subsidies or grants for the intensive systems but they provide a surprisingly wide range of biodiversity benefits. Apple trees and the multi-species windbreaks they require provide habitats and food for invertebrates in spring and summer. The blossom provides pollen and nectar. The herbicide strips provide mining bee habitat—one of these insect pollinators which we simply have to learn to manage better. In winter, windfalls bring in whole flocks of birds which you do not necessarily see in other habitats. This system of production has its benefits, and delivers things such as carbon sequestration at levels that are about equivalent to woodland, and which are of course much higher than arable and grassland. Therefore the outcomes from intensive farming can be the same as, if not more than, the outcomes from some of the agri-environmental systems.
Delivering both food and biodiversity on the same land is known as land sharing, which of course we hear a lot about from organic farmers and the like. I would describe the sort of system of intensive agriculture that I am talking about as precisely that. Also, incidentally, you can call it “land sparing”, in the sense that if you are going to produce a certain quantity of food from a certain area, quite frankly, the more you can allow spare land for alternative uses, such as stewardship schemes and environmental enhancement, the better.
The Cinderella sciences on which we rely—agronomy, soil science and general botany—have been in decline for a long time. We get a lot of research workers who are specialists in very specific areas of technology, and we need to encourage these wider old-fashioned sciences on which we depend. Of course we have to reduce leakages to soil, air and water; I am absolutely certain that minimal cultivations make an enormous contribution, and ploughing in green crops can be a total disaster.
The greatest success with agri-environmental schemes is when you work on the landscape scale, when farmers in a parish and a region work together. SSSIs are usually too small and isolated and, quite frankly, are badly managed. Bring them together; let farmers co-operate on a regional scale, and you will start to achieve critical mass.
My Lords, as we are here in the Moses Room, your Lordships might like to know that my Hebrew name is Avram—but today I will sound more like Noach. I am talking about huge floods and unnatural weather patterns which will soon become the norm, resulting in widespread damage to farming, property, communities and industry. This is an “ecosystem” issue now.
Just this month, in Aberdeen, local news reported:
“The heavens opened, the thunder clapped and the lightning flashed from 3 pm onwards this afternoon and a number of roads across the city are now under water”.
The council went on to say:
“Yesterday’s storm was due to a rainfall of an intensity which previously happened once every 30 years, but has been happening more frequently recently and is likely to increase further due to global warming”.
This increased frequency of extreme weather events is not just affecting Aberdeen but is UK-wide, and the cost caused by flooding damage in the UK in 2007 was £3.2 billion. According to a House of Commons report last year, Flood Defence Spending in England, the total cost of maintaining flood defences until 2080 will be over £550 billion.
I have been following the work on “natural catchment solutions” of a wonderful social enterprise, the Flow Partnership. It brings together partners from around the world, including from Yorkshire, Newcastle and Aberdeen, but also from as far away as India and Slovakia. It uses the power in the flow of water to achieve long-term multi-benefit solutions. In seeing water as a “dynamic flow”, it uses methods to shape the landscape to direct this flow most suitably to where the water needs to be. It takes simple, low-cost measures to slow down the flow of run-off rain from the surfaces, along the river, creating ponds in which to store water when needed. Slowing the flow minimises erosion, recharges aquifers, allows water to filter and store, and creates wildlife habitats. This method is used to stop the build-up of flood waters before they reach our homes. By the way, it also can revive rivers in desert areas.
Best of all, this method needs no further investment, so it not only prevents floods and eases drought, but protects the whole countryside, improves soil fertility and increases biodiversity. The World Wildlife Fund also says that this would help the Environment Agency with the river basin management plans for the next five years to raise the number of healthy rivers above 18%. It also helps cool the land and so has a wider positive impact on climate change, actually reducing extreme weather events across the planet, and it saves the Government billions of pounds in damage costs. For example, in Belford in Northumberland the Government estimated that the necessary work to prevent flood damage would cost £2.5 million. In a pioneering trial using these low-cost natural community methods, the work was completed for less than 10% of the government estimate, less than £200,000, successfully averting future flooding in the village. With the Government’s involvement in developing partnerships these methods need not be confined to small projects but could be a huge self-financing venture implemented nationwide.
In keeping with the nature of a shared approach, the Flow Partnership is developing self-financing mechanisms of pledges and returns. Its proposed financial instrument is building on the Environment Agency’s partnership model as laid down in Defra’s 2012 paper Partnership Funding and Collaborative Delivery of Local Flood Risk Management, but also draws from the Government’s social impact bond framework to encourage all those parties adversely affected by flooding to contribute profitably to flood defence and river management. We are well placed in this country to involve our expert financial organisations to measure the real cost-effectiveness of these methods. The necessary expertise of this kind is in place for a nationwide solution in the UK.
We should take the opportunity when, next month, partners from the UK, India and Slovakia are coming together for a “world water walk” from Lindisfarne, Holy Island, to Belford village. This water walk is to highlight the outstanding work already taking place in the UK by Defra, the Environment Agency and others. It will visit potential future project sites on the River Dee and the River Dearne. The River Dearne was mentioned earlier this year in discussions we had with Defra as a possible trial river. For £5 million we could pay for the implementation of comprehensive catchment works along the whole river. This could be a model on which a river and landscape bond could be designed. Will the Minister arrange a meeting with the Flow Partnership to discuss how the Government can take advantage of its proven expertise? Eventually, in collaboration with the Environment Agency, we could deliver community schemes along 40 vulnerable rivers and their catchments in the UK and this might grow into an international movement.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. I regard her as my friend because we work together on so many topics in this field. I declare my interests as entered in the register.
In more than eight pages of answers to questions on biodiversity sent to us by the House of Lords research services, I was shocked that there was not one mention of soil health. Without healthy soil, you can forget a healthy ecosystem. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization gives this definition:
“Soil health is the capacity of soil to function as a living system with ecosystem and land use boundaries to sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain or enhance water and air quality, and promote plant and animal health. Healthy soils maintain a diverse community of soil organisms that help to control plant disease, insect and weed pests, from beneficial symbiotic associations with plant roots; recycle essential plant nutrients; improve soil structure with positive repercussions for soil, water and nutrient holding capacity, and ultimately improve crop production”.
Along with a lot of organic farmers, I believe that now is the time to take crop production away from the chemists and place it in the hands of the biologists, where it should be. A recent report by the Committee on Climate Change indicates that the degradation of soil is now a major crisis across the globe. It is particularly concerned about the state of soil in East Anglia, where intensive farming practices, deep ploughing, short rotation periods and exposed ground have led to soil erosion from wind and heavy rain. Soil is not simply dirt in which crops grow with the aid of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and fungicides. Indeed, it is these very products that destroy or inhibit the natural propensity for healthy soil to nurture the more than one tonne of bacterial and fungal biomass to be found in healthy temperate grassland. It has been calculated by microbiologists that 80% of soil nutrient functions are controlled by microbes.
Last August, I had the enormous pleasure of hearing Dr Elaine Ingham, founder of the Soil Foodweb, Inc, address a conference on soil health. She also addressed this year’s Oxford farming conference on the same subject. This lady has studied soil for more than 40 years and I recommend all noble Lords look at references to her work on the internet. They really are enlightening. She explained that plants use sunlight to make sugars, most which are sent to the plants’ roots as exudates that aerobic bacteria and fungi feed on. These beneficial microbes cluster around the roots. They protect the plants from anaerobic micro-organisms that cause disease; they break down and transform inorganic nutrients in the soil into organic nutrients for plants; and they play a critical role in the formation of the soil structure, which is necessary for water retention and to prevent nutrients from leaching. She explains that, in the life-to-death-to-life cycle, protozoa, nematodes and micro-arthropods eat the nutrient-containing bacteria and fungi, and it is their excretions of excess nutrients that constantly replenish the food supply for plants.
Every time chemical pesticides and fertilisers are applied to crops, they have an effect on the micro-fauna in the soil. Every time heavy equipment passes over the ground to apply these chemicals, the soil is damaged by impaction, and aerobic bacteria cannot survive in the anaerobic conditions that result.
That ubiquitous product, glyphosate, has recently been categorised by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen. It was first licensed as a powerful chelator. This means that it locks up many of the essential trace elements and minerals that plants, animals and humans depend upon for their health. It was later registered as an antibiotic. We do not need much imagination to envisage what an application of glyphosate, in the form of Roundup or one of its many other trade formulations, can do to the soil microbes, do we? It has been found to remain active in soil and water for much longer than originally thought, and recent German research has shown that residues of glyphosate found in the water column and sediment of the River Elbe inhibit the nitrifying bacteria which play an essential part in the nitrogen cycle. Glyphosate affects the shikimate pathway in plants and is described by its manufacturers as being safe; they seem to have forgotten that bacteria in water, soil and in the guts of animals and humans also have the same shikimate pathway and are also weakened and destroyed by Roundup.
Is the Minister aware of a considerable body of research which indicates that Roundup is not the benign herbicide we have been led to believe that it is? Is he aware that commercial preparations containing glyphosate have been found to be more than 1,000 times more toxic than the active ingredient alone? Will the UK be following a number of other countries such as France, the Netherlands, Germany, Sri Lanka, Argentina and Brazil, which are considering severely restricting the use of, or even a ban on, glyphosate-containing products?
The Minister knows of my concerns around neonicotinoids, which I share with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. I am aware that an emergency application has been made by the NFU for a licence to use them prophylactically on rape crops in a limited area. In response to an Oral Question from me on 17 June, the Minister told the House that the application was being considered by the Expert Committee on Pesticides and by the Health and Safety Executive, and that their advice would then be considered by Ministers. In a recent paper, Conclusions of the Worldwide Integrated Assessment on the Risks of Neonicotinoids and Fipronil to Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning, the 30 researchers concluded that:
“Overall, the existing literature clearly shows that present-day levels of pollution with neonicotinoids and fipronil caused by authorized uses … frequently exceed the lowest observed adverse effect”.
My Lords, this is a vitally important debate, and it is a pleasure to follow the noble and knowledgeable Countess, Lady Mar, who has made a spot-on point about the soil. There used to be a wonderful Yorkshire gardener on “Gardeners’ Question Time”, who I think was called Geoffrey Smith. No matter what question he was asked, he always began his answer with, “The answer lies in the soil”.
I stand corrected, quite rightly so.
There is no doubt that farming practices in Britain and in all practices in Britain and in all efficient western economies have changed dramatically over the past 40 to 50 years. There is a huge demand for food, and most of the public seem to want it at dirt-cheap prices. That means that farmers have to farm more intensively. If we do not do it here, we will simply end up losing UK agriculture and getting all our food from abroad. The abandonment of the countryside may be good for some wildlife but it is not a practical consideration. It stands to reason that, if farming has changed, there will be a change in the numbers and types of wildlife that formerly depended on past practices. We know that farmland bird populations are half the level of 40 years ago. Hares and hedgehogs are declining, hedgehogs catastrophically so. What can be done about it? There is more wildlife on organic farms, of course, but organic farming is just not economic for more than 90% of farmers. If all our consumers bought only British organic produce, that would be a totally different matter, but that is not going to happen and it would not apply to most wheat and grain production. Part of the answer is in agri-environment schemes, where farmers are paid to keep field margins wild with no crops on them or to keep wetlands or other features that harbour wildlife. That is costly to the taxpayer, but if the public want it, the public will have to pay for it.
Cost of production is a determining factor. Take milk production. The big dairies and supermarkets are paying farmers less for milk than the cost of producing it. There is no way, in that situation, that dairy farmers can decide to grow hay, let the wild flowers bloom and the wildlife thrive and cut the hay late in July. Farmers have to grow silage, stuff it full of nitrogen, squeeze out at least two cuts per annum from every inch of their fields and leave them as bare as a bowling green at the end of it. Until that fundamental economic dynamic changes, we will not get Gainsborough-style scenes of flowering hay meadows and carts being loaded by glowing country lads and wenches.
I would like to see some carefully controlled experiments with rewilding in the United Kingdom or in England. It has worked for beavers and I hope that Natural England, or whatever it is called this week, will look carefully at other proposals for, say, brown bears, lynx, wild horses and wolves in very carefully selected parts of the country, after full consideration of all potential negative effects on other species and humans. Creating habitats for those species will automatically create habitats for hundreds of others, for the bugs and little beasties we would not normally see, and for flowers, and so on.
However, without straying too far from the subject matter of this debate, preservation of our wildlife is not uniquely a countryside or farming responsibility. I suspect that most town people think that all wildlife is supported by the countryside and that that is a farmer’s duty. Not so. Our towns and cities are vital to UK biodiversity. Of course there is more biodiversity in our countryside, because it is larger than our towns, but acre for acre, towns and cities can support as much wildlife of certain species—particularly birds and mammals—as the countryside. However, in the last 40 years, the decline in species and urban areas has been even greater than in farmland. The noble Baroness rightly said that the public have a vital role. Yes, but not just in going out to the countryside to monitor what farmers are up to; they also have a vital role in their own back gardens and front gardens. The State of Nature report of May 2013 states:
“Of the 658 urban species for which we have data, 59% have declined and 35% have declined strongly”.
Reports show that our hedgehogs will be extinct within 10 years. How in the name of goodness can we let that happen? As well as being killed on roads, they are being driven out of town gardens. Thousands of gardens are being paved over every week, depriving a whole range of mammals and birds from getting a food supply, and precision larch lap fences and walls do not leave gaps for hedgehogs and other species to get through. Urban dwellers can save the hedgehog and they must rise to the challenge. Keeping hedges is also important. Even leylandii hedges provide tremendous cover for nesting birds.
I end with a more sensitive issue, but one that has to be addressed. A United States study in 2013 showed that US cats were killing between 1.3 billion and 4 billion birds per annum. That is just birds; when you add all the other species it comes to tens of billions. A United Kingdom study a few years ago estimated that British cats killed 200 million mammals per annum, including 55 million birds. However, that is a gross underestimation. The United States has 93 million pussycats; the UK has 12 million. If British cats are killing birds at the same rate as American cats—and there is no reason to believe that they are not—the British bird population killed per annum is 175 million.
Do noble Lords wonder why we no longer see any sparrows in our cities? That has nothing to do with farmers. Sparrows are the top kill birds for cats, followed by blue tits, blackbirds, starlings, thrushes and robins. Then, of course, one can add the shrews, voles and mice, including harmless little field mice. I am appalled to read of those millions of people who let their cats out to roam at night and others who think that they do not need to feed them so much because they can go out and kill things in the wild. They are killing things in the wild and wiping out our urban wildlife. Let me be clear, I am not advocating drastic action against little pussy cats and moggies. I do not want a fatwa against me from Cats Protection but I am asking for an education campaign for cat owners.
We will find it difficult to get measures to increase biodiversity in the countryside but it is not up to farmers alone. Everyone, especially people in towns, can do their bit and we will have to do our bit if we are to retain some of our splendid and unique British wildlife.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and congratulate her on tabling this excellent Question. I must declare not only my interests in the register but I am chairman of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, chairman of the United Kingdom squirrel accord, of which I will say more later, and I am on the council of the Royal Scottish Forestry Society. Biodiversity offered by well-managed broadleaf forestry is not something on which I need to lecture your Lordships. It is very special and very diverse. The trouble is that the grey squirrel problem in the United Kingdom is making this idyll very difficult and well-nigh impossible.
The United Kingdom squirrel accord came together last year as a response from a number of pretty desperate, fairly large organisations. There are 33 signatories covering every part of the United Kingdom, including governmental bodies, voluntary bodies and the private sector. Defra is one of the signatories and has a very good and active official on the accord. The private sector organisations have around 6 million members, so they are big, meaty bodies. People are worried about the twin difficulties of red squirrel numbers being severely impacted because of the disease they catch from grey squirrels, which I am not going to talk about today, and the threat to forestry posed by grey squirrels. For those who do not know, grey squirrels will ring-bark or peel back the bark on our native broadleaf trees, particularly on oak and beech which are delicious to them. They do that when the trees are semi-mature and at a height of about 10 to 15 feet. That introduces disease and insect damage to the trees which either kills them or certainly renders the trees economically useless. That means that considerably less planting is going on throughout the United Kingdom for broadleafs at the moment. There is less land management and, therefore, less biodiversity.
I want to make a number of points on which I hope that the Minister will be able to help. First, immuno- contraception is essentially a science whereby you give grey squirrels a drug and it makes them infertile. The delivery method would be something like medicated nuts. The major research on this type of technology for mammals is going on in the States. Britain’s only expenditure on this at the moment is around £10,000, which we pay to receive research from the United States into white-tailed deer, which are doing damage to American forestry.
The outstanding Pirbright Institute is doing research with very good immunocontraceptive credentials, as it has been big on insect immunocontraceptive. Will the Minister consider taking the lead in commissioning research in this area in Britain now? The voluntary sectors and the private sectors to which I have referred within the UK squirrel accord would certainly help with funding, but Britain should take a lead in this area of science and I hope that the grey squirrel could be the first port of call for that.
My second point is about warfarin, which was pretty well the only weapon that could be deployed against grey squirrels. In a very unusual way, warfarin has been withdrawn from land managers as an effective measure. Its use will not be allowed from later this year. This is entirely due to a vagary of EU procedure points, which I will not go through now. It is pretty odd seeing as it is our private battle in Britain—only Britain and a small part of Italy are impacted by the grey squirrel. Would the Minister consider looking again at the warfarin issue and having another go at seeing whether it would be possible to reintroduce this important weapon in the control of grey squirrels?
My final point is on traps. There are a number of commercially available grey squirrel traps but the world is, in fact, a wonderful place and lots of inventive people are inventing new traps all over the world and, in particular, in New Zealand and Canada. With adaptions, these traps could be more effective in Britain. The trouble—I am advised by the BASC—is that if you introduce a new trap in Britain, you would have to pay between €30,000 and €100,000 to license the trap. The difficulty is that none of the people inventing these traps has that sort of money available. Would the Minister consider sponsoring a trap or two through the process so that we could have access to the latest trapping technology, which would greatly help the broadleaf forestry industry?
As I have said, there is nothing better in our green and pleasant land than a well-managed broadleaf woodland and there is nothing better for biodiversity. These woodlands need our help.
My Lords, this has been a hugely interesting debate and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for introducing it and all other contributors for their remarks. I declare my interests as a dairy farmer in receipt of EU funds. The problem has been very ably documented: over the past 50 years there has continued to be a long-term decline in UK biodiversity. Farmland birds and butterflies have declined substantially since the 1970s and 1990s, respectively, and 14% of all farmland flowering plants—or 62 species—are on the national Red List. This certainly matters.
As Professor Sir John Lawton’s Making Space for Nature review in 2010 concluded, England’s collection of wildlife areas, both legally protected and others, does not currently represent a coherent and resilient ecological network capable of responding to the challenges of climate change and other pressures. Pollinators are vital to the successful production of crops, underpinning jobs throughout the food chain. Proximity, quantity and quality of open spaces are necessary to well-being and health. This has been brought about as a result of sustained changes in agricultural practice, overexploitation of nature’s resources, habitat destruction and, regrettably, pollution.
My noble friend Lord Stone of Blackheath spoke of the flood and water management issues resulting from climate change. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, highlighted the importance of healthy soils. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, was correct to point out that this can lead only to changes in nature.
The Government have inherited a long history of initiatives, strategies and organisational structures to halt and reverse this loss. In their manifesto, the Conservative Party committed to developing a 25-year plan to grow and sell more British food. This is an ambitious plan. Will the Minister update the Committee on the timetable for the publication of this plan? Will accountable milestones be set along the way? The noble Earl, Lord Selbourne, based his remarks on research and evidence-based conclusions to develop sustainable production.
The Government have also committed to developing a 25-year plan for restoring biodiversity, working with the Natural Capital Committee. How will these two contrasting plans be integrated? The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, also asked the Minister three questions on this topic. This represents an enormous opportunity to set out a clear vision for both agriculture and nature, how it will be transformational in the UK and how it will be managed, with the potential to promote significant social and economic benefits. Can the Minister clarify how these plans will be developed and how conflicts between the economic and environmental priorities will be reconciled to produce an integrated approach and be incorporated systematically into policy decisions? From this, I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm the long-term vision for CAP development and say whether the balance of these competing aims translates into a move to a 15% modulation rate, as Labour argues.
The balance to be struck is reflected in the present challenge over neonicotinoid pesticides. On 17 June, the Minister answered pertinent questions in relation to the EU’s ban on the use of these pesticides for agricultural crops. There is huge public interest in the issue. To my question, he stated that the application is being considered by the Health and Safety Executive and the independent UK Expert Committee on Pesticides. However, there seems to have been some dialogue with the NFU, which has stated disappointment that the reply received revealed a technical deficiency in its application that could have been clarified through yet more timely dialogue. Can the Minister clarify whether the HSE has reached a conclusion? Is it to accept or reject the application? Have any other applications regarding neonicotinoids been received? Why does Defra continue to refuse to publish the NFU’s application? Why has the publication been delayed of the minutes of the meeting of the Expert Committee on Pesticides of 20 May to consider the NFU’s application? The agenda of 7 May is also being withheld from publication. All of this is contrary to best practice and the code of practice for scientific advisory committees. There is great anxiety about this issue. Will the Minister provide full answers before the Summer Recess?
Labour supports the temporary ban and the precautionary principle as the basis for government decision-making on pesticides. We agree that this must be evidence based with the full knowledge that science can provide. The Government have a clear opportunity to halt the decline of the natural environment. Will the Minister go further than providing warm words and take decisive action?
My Lords, I should first declare my interests as a farmer and say in a different tone that I enjoy planting trees and the natural environment. I congratulate the noble Baroness on securing this debate, which provides an opportunity to set out the Government’s intentions. If there are any areas where, given the time, I am not in a position to give the answers due to your Lordships, I hope you will forgive me if I write to you.
The Government recognise how important biodiversity is for a flourishing natural environment. We are committed to improving the quality and extent of wildlife habitats. They are vital not only for the enjoyment and sense of well-being that they bring to us all, but also because of the important ecosystem services that they provide. Four years ago the Government published a natural environment White Paper which set out a bold vision for a resilient and connected natural environment, providing services vital to our economic prosperity and social well-being. Our Biodiversity 2020 strategy set out plans to take forward that vision.
The Government are committed to working with the Natural Capital Committee— an independent advisory body mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer—on how England’s natural assets can be better protected and improved. We now know that concerted action is needed to reverse historical declines and to safeguard the vital benefits we receive from those assets.
The Government are committed to developing a 25-year strategy plan which will set out our ambition for a healthy and resilient natural environment which benefits both our economy and our nation. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked about the 25-year plans. I can assure all noble Lords that Defra’s 25-year strategies on food and farming and the environment will complement each other. We are aware of how important the links between the two must be and are.
The Government will respond to the Natural Capital Committee’s third report in the second half of this year, including an outline of the 25-year plan for nature. Once this is published we will engage with a range of experts and industry bodies on the development of that plan. I very much hope to help to keep noble Lords in touch with all the plans, as 25 years is a decent period in which we want to do the best we can for our environment.
I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Selborne for highlighting the important role of research and soil science. I think that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, quite rightly also raised this. Defra has introduced new soil rules which, under cross-compliance, require farmers to put measures in place that prevent erosion, maintain a minimum level of soil cover and protect soil organic matter. I say as strongly as I am permitted in your Lordships’ presence that soil is absolutely critical and central to food production, and therefore that soil science and soil health are terribly important.
I am pleased to report that, since the publication of Biodiversity 2020 in 2011, progress has been made. We have set in hand the creation of 67,000 hectares of priority habitat including arable field margins, wetlands and woodlands. As promised in our manifesto, we have committed to planting 11 million trees during this Parliament, primarily through the rural development programme’s countryside stewardship scheme. This scheme aims to invest £18 million in new woodland planting each year. We have maintained more than 95% of our sites of special scientific interest in favourable or recovering status. These are some of our most important sites, covering 7% of England, but we need to do more. Twelve nature improvement areas have been established to create and restore priority habitats across entire landscapes. Partnerships have demonstrated how much can be achieved when people work together towards a common goal. Volunteers working with the nature improvement areas contributed more than 24,000 days of their time, which is good news for biodiversity as well as a benefit to the volunteers, who I thank very much.
I also acknowledge what the noble Lord, Lord Stone of Blackheath, said in drawing my attention to the Flow Partnership. I understand that the noble Lord has met my noble friend Lord De Mauley, who was at Defra in the last Parliament, on this issue. Indeed, I have made a careful note of the noble Lord’s words and I will pass them on to my ministerial colleague Rory Stewart, along with the desirability of a meeting.
The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, highlighted the threats to our native wildlife, which of course includes the grey squirrel. I have had first-hand experience of the considerable damage that this arrival on our shores has presented for us all in the countryside, and indeed in urban areas. I am very pleased that Defra has signed the squirrel accord and, more generally, that we are taking the lead in Europe in tackling the threats posed by invasive non-native species. On the funding of research, Defra is funding research into mammal fertility control in collaboration with partners in America for a better understanding of grey squirrel physiology and how this affects bark-stripping behaviour. I have made a careful note of the noble Earl’s questions. I want to reflect on them with colleagues because this is clearly important.
My noble friend Lord Blencathra spoke of rewilding. The position is very clear that native species can be reintroduced under licence only after careful consideration of the potential consequences on the local environment, farming and public safety. There have been recent examples where this policy has seen the reintroduction of the large blue butterfly, the great bustard, the red kite, the pool frog and other butterflies. Indeed, there is currently a trial reintroduction of the European beaver.
Investing in the agri-environmental schemes will deliver benefits for wildlife and are therefore a priority for this Government. More than £3.1 billion will be made available for schemes between 2014 and 2020.
I acknowledge the 47,000 farmers currently involved in these agreements. We simply cannot achieve our goals without the land management skills of farmers. I think that my noble friend Lord Blencathra spoke in support of the many land managers, farmers and landowners across our land who over many generations have secured the wonderful landscape and countryside that we have. However, lessons have to be learned from environmental stewardship and incorporated in the design of new stewardship schemes. These are to encourage take-up of the right action in the right locations and create more effective ecological networks across the landscape.
For this reason, countryside stewardship is more targeted and better focused than its predecessors. I hope it will meet with the approval of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, because it addresses some of the strands of her speech. Monitoring agri-environment schemes has shown that they have had a positive effect. The Defra/Natural England study showed positive benefits at individual farm level for the grey partridge, house sparrow, lapwing, reed bunting, tree sparrow and yellowhammer, for instance, from 2008 to 2011. We are encouraging all eligible farmers, foresters and other land managers in England to apply for the new scheme. I thank Natural England for ensuring that there is a considerable amount of promotional work going on. We have made funding available to nurture co-operation among groups of farmers and landowners wanting to work together.
The wild pollinator and farm wildlife package, which will provide benefits for wild pollinators, farmland birds and other wildlife, is a very important part of the Government’s commitment to playing a leading role in improving the status of the 1,500 or so pollinating insect species in England. The strategy is a shared plan of action between Government, our partners and the public. I am pleased to assure my noble friend Lord Blencathra that the strategy aims to support pollinators in towns and cities as well as across farmland and the countryside, but I hope that he will understand that, given the shortness of this debate, I am not in a position to go into cats today. We are in active partnership with our pollinator advisory steering group, made up of 17 stakeholders, and I am delighted that there has been enormous support from the public. How timely for the noble Baroness’s debate that this week is Pollinator Awareness Week. We are running a series of events and activities; indeed, yesterday I was delighted to visit the Defra beehives on the rooftops of Nobel House and to meet Hannah Reeves, the young beekeeper who cares for our bees and is learning her trade through an apprenticeship scheme that has been part-funded by Defra.
A number of questions have been asked today, and when I run out of time I will of course write to your Lordships. However, let me say to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and to noble Lords that on pesticides the Government are committed to ensuring a high degree of protection for people and the environment from any risks. All assessments are made on the best scientific data. The neonicotinoid application is still under consideration and as soon as we are in a position to make an announcement, following the best scientific assessment, we will do so. The Government are committed to supporting England’s biodiversity, recognising the multiple benefits.
Public Life: Values
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, the debate on this issue was much to the fore about five years ago. For example, in an article in March 2008 Gordon Brown wrote that what matters are,
“the common values we share across the United Kingdom: values we have developed together over the years that are rooted in liberty, in fairness and tolerance, in enterprise, in civic initiative and internationalism”.
He went on to suggest that these values live in the popularity of our common institutions, from the NHS and the BBC through to the Olympics and such movements as Make Poverty History. More recently, the debate has come alive again with a statement by the Home Secretary that the promotion of British values is a fundamental feature of the new Government’s programme. On the “Today” programme in May she said:
“We haven’t as a society in the past, been positive enough about the values that unite us as a society ... the key values that underline our society and are being undermined by the extremists”.
This stress on British values has also been promulgated by the Department for Education in a document of November 2014 headed Promoting Fundamental British Values as Part of SMSC in Schools; that is, spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. This said
“Schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.
That policy has aroused some unease in the teaching profession and a fair amount of resentment in the Muslim community, an issue which I intend to address.
First, however, let me stress that nothing in life is value-free and that nothing is morally neutral—not education and not our public institutions. They inevitably reflect a set of values and beliefs. What matters is that we should try to be aware of those values and reflect seriously on them, both in schools and in our role as citizens. Furthermore, this should already be part of citizenship education in schools, which many of us have long argued must be taken much more seriously as a fundamental element in our educational system. When pupils emerge from school, they should be capable of reflecting seriously about the fundamental values that underpin our society, including the rule of law and the nature of democracy—its strengths and weaknesses. Schools themselves should reflect such fundamental values in their own ethos, as of course the vast majority do. So why the worry?
The worry has arisen both among teachers and among the Muslim community because the stress on British values has emerged as very much part of the Prevent strategy, and has had the unwitting effect of making many Muslims feel singled out by it as though they did not share those values. They have been made to feel somehow outside the mainstream, different, or—to use the jargon—“other”. This is a serious situation and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these concerns. First, as a general point, we need to be aware of how others see us; it might be different from the image we have of ourselves. In relation to the current emphasis on British values, I am reminded of the response given by Gandhi when he was asked what he thought of western civilisation: “It would be nice”. Secondly, the values championed by the Government at the moment are in fact the values of any liberal democracy—they are not uniquely British. Moreover, they are human values, as witnessed to by the fact that they are now enshrined in human rights law.
I would like to see the question of fundamental values much more in terms of a continuing conversation with all the stakeholders—that is, one which includes all our communities. After all, our understanding of the values in question—the rule of law, democracy, freedom of expression, tolerance and so on—is the product of a long history. Where we are now is the result of many years of struggle and change. They were not set in stone once and for all; what they mean and how they apply have changed, are changing, and will continue to evolve in relation to the changing shape of our society. In particular, our society now contains significant communities with their own histories and insights to bring to the discussion—2.7 million Muslims and 817,000 Hindus, for example. As Amartya Sen has written, the Indian continent has a long history of the argumentative discussion that goes to the very heart of democracy. I am a champion of our own representative democracy on the familiar ground that it is the worst possible system in the world except for all the others, but it is absurd to think that at least some of the features and virtues are not reflected in other political and religious traditions.
The letter sent out by Eric Pickles and the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, to mosques earlier this year contained many helpful things. It said:
“You, as faith leaders, are in a unique position in our society. You have a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility: in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity … British values are Muslim values”.
Yet the Muslim Council was overall unhappy with this letter, claiming that it contained the implication that British Muslims were,
“inherently apart from British society”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, a supporter of Eric Pickles, writing in the Observer at the time, said that the widespread resentment at the letter arose not so much because of what it said as the fact that the Government, over a number of years, had failed to engage with a number of organisations, regarding some of them as beyond the pale. If you have not fostered trust, she wrote,
“even the most benign of correspondence can become toxic”.
So the issue goes beyond language to the need to engage with a whole range of organisations, even very conservative ones, for a conservative religious position is not synonymous with a violent one. That reinforces the point I was making earlier that what is needed at the moment is a continuing conversation in which all our major communities feel they have a say in shaping what it is to be British and what our fundamental values are.
It is very unfortunate that such a key issue has become so closely associated with the attempt to combat extremism, when it is crucial in its own right. The need for reflection on such values will continue long after the present phase of counterterrorism is passed. So my plea to the Government is that they will see this issue less in terms of the top-down promotion of certain values and more in terms of engaging a range of communities in a continuing conversation.
Secondly, there should be a particular sensitivity to the nuances of language. I had the opportunity yesterday to raise this issue directly with the Prime Minister at the Cross-Bench meeting. He gave me a very robust defence of the continuing stress on the use of the phrase “British values”. The fact is, however, that because British values have been championed as part of a counterterrorism strategy, this inevitably gives a certain colouring to the words, which has resulted, unfortunately, in them being heard by some in a negative way. That is why my Question talks about “shared values”. I commend the word “shared” to the Government, for it assumes that we are together in this, not set apart. It is not a question of dropping the phrase “British values” altogether, but using it in a more nuanced and qualified way that does not make some feel distanced from them.
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for bringing this debate before us. I have just under three minutes in which to speak.
There are many British values but I want to concentrate on just one which should be close to us in this building—that is, the concept of having a loyal Opposition within the British system which can oppose the Government, question them, and state publicly that they are prepared to replace them, while still not being considered traitors. In my veneer knowledge of history, I have discovered that this concept was first coined by John Hobhouse in 1826, when having a go at George Canning, apparently. That was a period of liberal Toryism, if I remember my A-level history correctly. The concept that we could criticise the Government without risking impeachment or imprisonment or being sent to the gallows did not exist 100 years before that time, or had only just started to emerge then. This idea that those in opposition can criticise and talk to the Government and, indeed, have status, position and influence within the system of governance is something that we should extend to the rest of our society and move it out from here. Indeed, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, spoke of getting other faith groups et cetera to feel that they are part of this process of criticising and having a different agenda—but not being alienated or criticised is an important factor. Also there is the fact that politicians, when under pressure, think, “You’re not being patriotic—you’re not representing the true interests of the country”. If we carry on down that road, we get into a very odd position, because the only civilised position is to say that anybody who opposes you is well intentioned but wrong. If we start from that assumption, sometimes it is proven that it goes a little bit beyond that; if we do that, we have grounds for a discussion and civilised disagreement. If we go beyond that, we get into very odd places. I do not know what is going to happen when the hunting Bill gets here, but I think that this is one of those occasions when this position was left behind—as horns, hooves and forks were pushed into the hands of both sides who did not love each other or the rest of the world, or cuddly animals, or understand the countryside. Take your pick and go round it twice. Unless we accept that people in positions of opposition at least deserve the courtesy of being listened to for a period of time, we are going to end up in a period when we listen to nobody—and then nobody needs to listen to us.
My Lords, I join in congratulating and thanking the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for having secured this important debate at such an important time. When I gave my maiden speech to your Lordships some five years ago, I was able to reflect on the journey of my own parents who came to the United Kingdom in 1961 to continue their medical training as part of a substantial wave of immigration from India at that time, which resulted from a broad consensus, recognising that immigration was a good thing but also that those newly arrived communities needed to integrate and make their full contribution to British society.
Some nations attempt to deal with the question of values by way of their written constitutions. That includes France, for instance, and the United States. We know about “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, which is written in tablets of stone in the French constitution—a top-down approach to the definition of and imposition of national values. Regrettably, experience in France has shown that that does not necessarily achieve the greatest integration and cohesion in society. Our own approach without a codified written constitution has been to focus much more on institutions playing a vitally important role, both in establishing and helping us to understand over centuries what our values are and then ensuring that those values are broadly consolidated. Such great institutions as our constitutional monarchy, this great Parliament, a free press and an independent judiciary have all played a vitally important role in securing an understanding and a basis of our national values. But then smaller institutions throughout the land, which compose civil society, have provided the opportunity for a variety of disparate communities to be able to engage with those values, to understand them and start to live them. It is therefore vitally important that we reflect on the role of institutions in securing the values that we hold so dearly in our country and the opportunities that they have to ensure that all communities can understand those values and participate in living them.
Bearing in mind the dependence that we have on institutions, what role do Her Majesty’s Government take towards protecting and promoting them and ensuring that they can play their vitally important role in securing the values that underpin our country? If those institutions, both large and small, were to fail, there would be a very great risk to our nation, broadly, and to the security and functioning of communities, both established and newly arrived in our nation.
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for initiating this debate. I grew up in a Muslim household, an immigrant child of immigrant parents who held certain values stemming from their religion and culture. I received my formal education in a typical Scottish Presbyterian state school where I was instructed in certain values to live my life. There was no conflict between the two. The values were the same—hard work, patience, loyalty, compassion for those less fortunate, charity, public service, respect for other religions, aspiration to succeed and, most importantly, abiding by the law of the land where one lives. If the values of both cultures I inherited are so much the same, I ask myself, “Where did it all go wrong?”. Why are there such divisions—or perceived divisions—in our society, especially concerning members of my religious and ethnic community?
We must first understand what we mean by communities and what we mean by culture. When we speak of ethnic communities we must remember that these are not homogenous entities; they are diverse, just as diverse as the indigenous society at large. They are a microcosm of the countries from which they originate. Diversity is part of humanity; it is, indeed, the shared values which make sense to any civilised society, bind us together and provide social cohesion.
For a long time, diversity or multiculturalism were celebrated and encouraged on this island. Indeed, I believe that we were, for a while, quite comfortable as a society. Our nation worked hard to bring about equality through race relations and equality legislation. Ethnic communities of many hues enriched the lives of this nation: the food that we eat, the colours and clothes that we wear and the music that we listen to have changed beyond recognition from the days when I came to live here as a little child. It is deeply disappointing to think that multiculturalism was simply a failed experiment. The celebration of multiple religions, ethnicities and cultures is now understood to have done little in the way of social cohesion.
I argue that it is not multiculturalism per se which was at fault but the way that we went about promoting it. For too long, people were encouraged actively to withdraw into silos and given funding for separate organisations. We cannot encourage people to live separate lives and then expect them to be full and active members of mainstream society. Diversity is one thing, division is another. Along with the celebration of diversity must come a single narrative of nationhood, where people feel that they belong.
We all have a huge task in front of us to tackle the root causes at the heart of this disaffection, to remind people, particularly the young, of our shared values and to foster acceptance that there will always be some differences but that the core values are the same. What binds us as British citizens is far greater than that which divides us. The point I make to the Minister is that in our efforts to promote the shared values that underpin British public life, we should bear one thing in mind—that just because we got multiculturalism wrong, we must not be reactive, go to the other extreme and impose assimilation. That would merely be intolerance, something we can ill afford in what can often seem an increasingly fractured society.
My Lords, I congratulate and thank my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries. This is a well-chosen topic; it is timely and another of the many nails he drives into the coffin of extremism.
The function of the state is one of the critical questions underlying this. What is the role of the state? I like to plumb the depths of British philosophy and history in trying to answer such questions, so I shall turn to John Locke and A Letter Concerning Toleration —he wrote three but I shall deal just with the first. It was written from a context that, if we think about it, is not unfamiliar now. He was an exile in Holland and all around him were the terrible deprivations of the Huguenots, driven out of France by Louis XIV, who had revoked the edict of Nantes. Locke saw persecution going on. He was an exile from religious persecution in Britain in 1685.
He raised the question of what the function of the state is, because he saw that as the starting point. The function of the state is to deal with matters temporal: life, liberty, health and property. The function of the state is not to take a view on what religion is appropriate or inappropriate. However, Locke moved on from that and asked: what kind of limits do you set to the function and the powers of the state? The limits had to do with his general philosophy—with what empirically can be shown to be true, and pragmatically what can be achieved. For example, today a separate question has to be answered pragmatically about the use of electronic surveillance, which we will come to in this House in due course. That was not a question for Locke, but it is for us. Let us deal with it in a way that looks for evidence rather than putting words in the sky.
My point is that right now in our schools and colleges, to our shock and amazement, young people from very sensible and pleasant homes who have been brought up to think of themselves as British are moving out and going—perhaps driven by ideals or perhaps by other things—to parts of the world where ideology reigns, not criticism or pragmatism. Locke’s point is: as part of how we carry on our practice of public values and education in public values we have to draw this very clear line and say, “Matters temporal have to be settled empirically and pragmatically”. You cannot settle matters political in the way that, for example, people will find they are settled as they move to certain parts of the world. There is a huge distinction here which I hope underlies how we begin to teach social values in our state.
My Lords, I join in thanking the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for enabling us to talk about values, and it is a particular pleasure to follow the former vice-chancellor of my old university, especially as he was kind enough to give me an honorary degree—so I have to say that about him.
Among the vehicles for translating values for the public are the political parties. It is well known that I am not the greatest admirer of Nick Clegg’s leadership of my political party. However, just before the election he came to a dinner in London which was held for the 50th anniversary of my election to this place, and he made a magnificent speech on liberal values. During the rather dreary election campaign I sent a message to our campaign headquarters saying, “Please ask Nick to repeat that speech, because it would elevate things a bit more”. I do not know whether he ever got the message, but the next time I heard him talk on liberal values was in his very dignified resignation speech as leader. That certainly had an effect, because thousands of people have rushed to join the Liberal Democrats since our crushing election defeat, and that was largely due to his inspirational speech.
I was reminded of that when my friend Colin Eglin, who was leader of the Progressive Party in South Africa, said, after a totally disastrous election:
“There will be people who will ask ‘What’s the use?’ Let me make three comments in response to this cry of frustration. The first is that certain things are worth fighting for. Justice is worth fighting for. And freedom is worth fighting for. And decency is worth fighting for. The commitment to fight for these things should never depend on the perceived prospect of electoral success”.
That is true. Two of our parties are at the moment engaged in leadership elections. The Labour one certainly opens up the prospect of different sets of values being put before them. We will not know the result of that until September; personally, I rather hope that Jeremy Corbyn will win, not just because I rather like him but because that would open up the ground of politics in Britain for the Liberal Democrats. Our leadership election is going on today; the count is taking place as we speak. During the campaign I was a bit surprised that Tim Farron came under attack for being an evangelical Christian. I thought, “What have we come to, when somebody can be attacked for that?”. I may disagree with him on some things—I am sure I will—but the fact that he is an evangelical Christian means that he is somebody rooted in his own convictions, which is very important.
One of the people whom I met in South Africa many years ago, over a quiet little lunch, was the great Alan Paton, who wrote Cry the Beloved Country. He was leader of the Liberal Party and caused it to fold rather than accept the apartheid rules. He said,
“by Liberalism I do not mean the creed of any party or any century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism and a love of freedom”.
No one can better that, and I hope that our new leader will take those words to heart.
My Lords, this is a political arena so it is appropriate to ask whether and what values, shared or otherwise, are promulgated through the current practice of government. The key test for government came in 2008. My belief, shared by others, is that the greatest priority of a Government in the face of a financial crisis is to protect the poorest and disadvantaged. That protection has not been provided—indeed, the opposite is the case. Today I read that the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ annual poverty and equality report says that the number of poor children in working families rose from 54% in 2010 to 63% in 2014. The use of foodbanks, which service the employed and unemployed, is at record levels. Values, whether positive or negative, are invoked implicitly through government policy, which we perhaps need to recognise more.
The second point is that, if there is one value that we as a society should share, it is sharing itself. It is sharing financially, certainly—many economists who hold that value dear believe that the current privations have been entirely avoidable—but also sharing democratically, and the sharing of ideas, including beyond national borders, which is a reason for valuing the free movement of people between EU countries. Out of sharing comes much else: caring, generosity, kindness, democracy—kindness is underrated by both the left and the right for different reasons. My heart sinks when a Minister says “I have to make a tough decision”, because I know that decision is one against sharing and one that may well increase the poverty divide. I would like to hear a Minister say “I’m going to make a kind decision”.
Education, at its best, ought to be a site of sharing. I do not believe that the main value of education lies in making a young person fit for a job but in enabling a student to think for oneself, which also means thinking beyond oneself. That is the reason why I am against faith schools, which try to narrow and predetermine a student’s thinking. If citizenship is taught in schools, it needs to be on a comparative and discussional basis. I have come across, I think, apposite lines in a book called The Soul at Work by the Italian writer Franco Berardi. He says,
“Democracy cannot stem from any cultural root or belonging, but only from a boundless horizon of possibilities and choices, from opportunities of access and citizenship for every person … Democracy cannot have the mark of a culture, of a people, of a tradition: it has to be a groundless play, invention and convention, rather than an assertion of belonging.”
Values change and the values of things change. Democracy itself is not a settled thing. We pass laws and affect institutions through which values are refracted but the values that we hold individually and those that we share should emerge not, I believe, through overt prescription by government but from the individual’s ever-evolving discussion with others.
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for securing this debate. I suggest that shared values might be a dangerous focus and something of a displacement activity. Values are changing and are often vague. The Prime Minister wants to uphold freedom, toleration and the rule of law. My wife Caroline receives lots of information from Johnnie Boden about clothing and, this week, an email came with his values for being British: to be rebellious, daring and timeless. The point is that it is a shifting landscape, which can open up a lot of confusion and miscommunication.
The issue for British public life is not so much about values, which will always be part of the scene; the key issue, I think, is about the processes by which different perspectives participate in public life. That is the notion of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, of a continuing conversation. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, made a similar point. From the seventh century, when different kingdoms came together and had to negotiate, to the current legislation proposed by the Government about cities and local government, there is a presupposition about different elements somehow being drawn into conversation about our future and how we operate.
The problem about this is that the process of participation is patently not open to ordinary people very easily. It is designed for those of us who live in the suburbs and, in my experience, working a lot with very needy people in the inner city, there is a great disenfranchisement from being able to participate in this continuing conversation. For example, in the last three months, I have been approached by Muslim leaders in the city of Derby where I work to see if I can help to create a safe space, to use their words, in which radical, young Muslims—who, like young people, want to explore radical ideas—can do that without feeling intimidated or at risk of a kind of Prevent agenda which sees that exploration of different perspectives not as part of the political process and the give and take of what a value is about but as something that might be dangerous and almost illegal.
I want to ask the Minister two questions. What might the Government do to encourage the participation of a range of perspectives that includes those who are so patently disenfranchised in the inner cities and among the poor? What might they do to help the Prevent initiative, which I see as very necessary, be perceived by people, especially young people, as an invitation to participate in a grown-up discussion about a range of radical views in a political culture rather than signal, as other noble Lords have said, that this is territory to keep away from because you might be punished for it?
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries on obtaining this debate. As my noble friend Lord Sutherland was speaking, I was reflecting on the marvellous essay by Field Marshal Viscount Slim on the foundations of morale, which he wrote in 1943. One of the things he said is that a man must feel that he will get a fair deal from his commanders, and his living and working conditions must be made as good as they can be. I fear that one of the things about people leaving this country is that they do not feel that.
I declare an interest as having been a member of the Select Committee on Soft Power, which asked the Government exactly the same question at the end of its report. What were the British values which underpinned the so-called British way of life? We were influenced to a slight extent by Mr Hague’s statement that we must work,
“to persuade other nations to share our values and develop the willingness to act to defend and promote them”,
“allowing our soft power—those rivers of ideas, diversity, ingenuity and knowledge—to flow freely”.
The most interesting evidence that we took during the whole period was from the High Commissioner for Mozambique who explained why it was that Mozambique had sought to join the Commonwealth. He underpinned the values which it felt that it would gain from doing so, which were exactly the ones quoted by the right reverend Prelate; namely, freedom, tolerance in others, accepting responsibility, absence of corruption and, above all, respecting and upholding the rule of law. Those are terribly important and we lose them at our peril. What worries me is that that may be fine when said by the Prime Minister but is the Minister certain that Ministers are practising, exercising and accepting responsibility, and upholding the rule of law?
My Lords, I shall concentrate in this welcome debate on a particular British value admired across the world and cherished, I think, by the bulk of our people; that is, the idea of politically neutral Crown service, a concept which speaks deeply to our national instinct for public service. When I first reported Whitehall as a young journalist 40 years ago, this was little talked about by insiders who assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the virtues of a politically and powerful career Civil Service were better lived than proclaimed. Few felt a need to capture them in code or statute. Perhaps regrettably, this became necessary in the intervening decades as some of the relationships within the governing marriage of Ministers and officials became testy, even scratchy. Yet the old 19th century deal, sculpted by the Northcote-Trevelyan report, is as crucial as ever to our good government: that in return for permanence, career civil servants will speak truth unto power, telling Ministers what they need to know rather than what they might wish to hear.
Public service, defined in this fashion, is a state of mind and therefore not susceptible to the performance indicators that have swept through Whitehall like a rash over the past 30 years. Crown service in all its forms depends upon the survival and the flourishing of such principles: the greatest governing gift of the 19th century to the 20th century and our own. The notion of Crown service in the round is the superglue that should bind all those engaged in the Civil Service, the Diplomatic Service, the secret services and the Armed Forces. All these great professions would be sullied and diminished if a creeping politicisation took hold, and given the constitutional uncertainties we face, possessing a UK-wide Civil Service is critical to keeping our union together. Perhaps it is time, amongst many other constitutional requirements, to refresh our notion of public service and those precious values that bring Crown service life and lustre.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for this opportunity to reflect. When preparing my speech, I looked at my membership card for the Liberal Democrats. The preamble to our constitution says:
“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.
Those are the words that endure for us. They are our guiding principles in all we do, not least in our work at local government level to try to make those principles have some meaning in people’s daily lives. Those words are a commitment to build communities in which wealth and opportunity are attainable by all. At the heart of it is an understanding that diversity and respect for difference are a prerequisite for sustainable and prosperous communities. Over the last 40 years, voluntary organisations, local government and national government have campaigned for and legislated for a society based on equality of opportunity and diversity. That has been a long process of changing people’s hearts and minds. It was right. Today, everywhere in the world, every multinational company that succeeds is committed actively to diversity and inclusivity within its business model.
My fear is that, in these times of austerity, the local government base that was there to see this work through in communities is being put under very severe pressure. Those small community groups were so effective over so many years, not just in fighting for equality and diversity at a theoretical level, but in connecting people who had believed themselves to be of such a different background that they could never come to an understanding. I wonder whether that local network of activity, which is so badly needed, will be there in future. In times of austerity, the politics of geographical location and identity become very compelling and life is hard. Nevertheless, in times of austerity and in a world where global communications and commerce are never localised, nationalism can never be an answer to the problem. That is tough, and it is an issue that is arising around the United Kingdom in ways that we have never envisaged before, at least in my lifetime. It is tremendously important that the Government pursue equality and diversity, not just because it is politically the right thing to do but because it will secure the economic basis for those secure values to flourish.
My Lords, this is one of those debates where you want to lock the doors and start the conversation now, as is often the case, I find, when the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, introduces a debate. His debates are never dull, and he always starts us off with such characteristic thoughtfulness that the conversation feels like it is only really beginning now. In three minutes, I cannot give an opposition response to the range of views expressed or even to his opening statement, so I shall take the opportunity of giving a few thoughts of my own on what we mean by values and on what kind of conversation we can have.
There have been various attempts over the years to produce lists of British values, many of them articulated today and all of which I would subscribe to. I even sat briefly on a committee whose job was to review the book which was given to people to learn what it meant to be British before taking a test to be allowed to become a citizen. But even when really good, commendable lists of values come out, they are rarely lastingly satisfying. Somehow, lists of abstract values do not seem to have traction with people. I think that the reason is that, in the end, their meaning is lodged in the context from which they grew and the purpose they serve. In the end, our values come back to the story that we tell about ourselves as a people.
Any list of concepts in the end offers too thin an account of who we are, what we value and what we are about to be able to serve a useful purpose. If we describe a list of British values to our children, to migrants or to other countries but do not tell them the stories of how those values grew up and of the way in which the culture shaped them, was shaped by them and changes over time, why do we expect them to embrace them and take them to their heart?
So, shared values are not enough. I want to go back even further than Locke. The American ethicist Stanley Hauerwas illustrated that point by comparing the Stoics with disciples of Aristotle. He said that they shared the classical values of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice, but that the Stoics saw them as values that you adopt because you are expected to —essentially, values were contractual. Aristotelians did not see it as being about presentation; rather, virtues were essentially character traits which you acquired over a long period. A virtuous person was one who became habitually virtuous spending years learning and practising those virtues.
If we want our citizens to embrace a set of values, then they—we—need to know why. We should not just set out propositions to assent to; we need a kind of culture, an ethos, a national, living, breathing culture which we all absorb and change over time through repeated practice. We need to raise and educate children and welcome new citizens into a living culture where we all model those values. That includes government and politics. If we want people to treat others with respect, even if—or especially if—they have a different view of what is right and good, then so should we. And politicians, myself included, are not very good at this. If we want people to act in the best interests of their community or their country, we need to find a way in which they do not just look out for themselves but are encouraged by seeing that we take political decisions and organise public life in a way which puts community at the heart both of deliberations and of service delivery.
What Aristotle and the modern virtue ethicists like Hauerwas understood was that if you do something repeatedly over a long period, it forges your character. You might start out consciously modelling something, but in the end you are changed by it. If we want to end up changing other people, maybe the starting point is changing ourselves.
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for calling this timely debate and all noble Lords for their contributions. I shall speak quickly to get through everything and hope that I will not sound too garbled, but there is so little time.
The issue of shared values that underpin British society is a wide-ranging topic and even in a short debate we have managed to touch on many important topics. I plan to pick up various points that noble Lords have made as I go through the speech. If I leave any noble Lords out it is because of time and I hope that we can come together at a later date to discuss further.
In modern Britain we share many values, as the noble Baroness, Lady Mobarik, stated when talking about her upbringing. Those values in turn support a stronger society. Fundamental values such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths are, thankfully, normal concepts in our society and are rightly promoted through the education systems in this country.
The values of tolerance and individual liberty extend into many areas of our lives and I am pleased that today we have heard contributions regarding the rights of all in society to enjoy freedoms. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned democracy and opposition parties. We can debate and disagree and move on, and we have respect and support for all, including those experiencing mental health issues and disabilities, individuals from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and of course those of all ethnic backgrounds and faiths.
To my mind, “British values” are just values and are not necessarily British in particular. I appreciate the stance that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, has taken in this debate by referring to “shared values”. However, I also agree with comments made recently by the Prime Minister that in Britain we enjoy traditions and history that anchor these values deeply into our culture. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, mentioned going far back in our thoughts; from the Magna Carta, from our parliamentary democracy, from our independent judiciary and many other long-standing institutions, we have seen shared values accumulate and those values have shone through, not least of all in the conflicts of the 20th century and more recently in events such as the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
While there are many great endeavours in our nation’s history that have helped shape our shared values, we should not forget that many of today’s commonly accepted values have been forged from darker periods and events. It is our ability to acknowledge this history and entrench its lessons in the present that has truly strengthened our ability to confidently promote our shared values as a firm basis for a strong and healthy society in which all people and communities can participate and thrive. In Britain we have a proud tradition of successfully bringing people together from different countries, cultures and ethnic backgrounds to live peacefully alongside each other and prosper.
Bringing people together in such a way is not always easy and we know that in doing so there is often potential for distrust, disrespect and even conflict to arise. I believe that a society that welcomes all and promotes mutual respect and tolerance is a stronger society, one that benefits from that which all people and communities have to offer and one that can more confidently reach out to its neighbours and face the rest of the world as an effective and vibrant member of the global community.
The Prime Minister recently highlighted the difficulty of balancing the need to protect and promote the values of respect and tolerance with the need to deal with the challenge presented by those who are disrespectful and who are not tolerant. While maintaining a vibrant and tolerant society is not always straightforward, it is worth the effort. I should take the opportunity to highlight some of the efforts that this Government have made to drive this agenda. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, talked about the education system. The promotion of fundamental values and citizenship education in schools prepares children and young people for life in modern Britain. Ofsted now inspects both these elements closely, which means that every school in England will be held accountable for its performance.
The cases of Olive primary school in Blackburn and the Trojan horse scandal in Birmingham over the last few years have highlighted the importance of this. If positive promotion of shared values is not pursued, a vacuum is left, into which dangerous and negative messages can fall. Clearly, this danger is posed only by a minority and I should highlight that intertwining the teaching of faith alongside shared values can be achieved successfully. Olive primary school and other schools run by the same Islamic trust have produced stunning results in Ofsted inspections this year. All four primary schools have been praised for promoting British values. One sends its youngest pupils to Jewish schools several times a week. They are encouraged to support the English football team, they dress up as kings and queens, they have links with church schools and they take part in exchanges to celebrate Christmas and Eid.
While I do not want to dwell on extremism, it cannot be ignored. The harm that a minority of extremists can do is immense and there is a broad spectrum of extremism that poses a real threat in the UK. The Government’s counterextremism strategy is due to be published later this year and it will outline measures, including legislation, to tackle extremist individuals and groups and the premises they use to spread their influence. At the heart of this counterextremism strategy will be a positive vision of Britain and our values and an open offer to work with all those determined to eradicate extremism. For me, the heart of this matter is ensuring that shared values are woven into the fabric of our communities, ensuring that they are tolerant, respectful, integrated and strong. The health, economic and cultural benefits that strong and diverse communities can enjoy are immense. The report Creating the Conditions for Integration, published by the Department for Communities and Local Government in 2012, identified that in the past our attempts to deal with the challenges of integration and shared values have concentrated too much on legal rights and obligations, which has had the effect of encouraging a narrow focus on single issues and specific groups. Indeed, in some cases it may have exacerbated existing problems. As the report states, today the challenges we face are too complex for laws and powers to provide the sole solution. Perhaps this is where the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, comes in.
We all welcome legislation to better promote our shared values. Recent advances such as ensuring that marriage is an option for all loving couples, including same-sex unions, as well as this week’s announcement by the Prime Minister that employers will be required to be transparent about the gender pay gap in their organisations, are two examples of this. It is not the full picture, however. The Government have worked hard to support a range of initiatives that sought to build a bigger, stronger society in which all individuals and communities can thrive.
As the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, suggested, working in partnership with civil society organisations and communities is important. The Government have an ambitious agenda to ensure that at every stage of their lives people are supported to fulfil their potential and have the chance to contribute positively to their community. Britain has a long and proud tradition of charity; of giving time and money for good causes and to help our fellow citizens in whatever way. An estimated 32 million adults volunteered last year, 3 million more than in 2010. Since its creation in the previous Parliament, more than 135,000 young people have taken part in the National Citizen Service, which instils in people the values of reaching out, helping others and engaging positively in their communities and in public service. A long tradition of communities coming together to work in partnership exists. There are already 3 million volunteers working in hospitals up and down the country and the Government’s Centre for Social Action has already backed 250 innovative projects to improve public services through more and better social action.
Since the beginning of the previous Parliament, the Government’s Community Organisers programme has recruited and trained more than 6,500 organisers in England. These organisers bring local people together to tackle local problems in partnership. As to bringing people from different backgrounds together effectively, we should lead by example in this place. I am chairman of the committee on candidates for the Conservative Party. We now have 68 female MPs compared to 48 in 2010; 17 BAME MPs compared to 11 in 2010. It is not enough but it is encouraging.
The Office for Civil Society has supported the UpRising programme in recent years to scale up and better demonstrate its impact. It opens pathways to empower talented young people from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds, helping them to fulfil their potential and transform the world around them through social action. This programme enjoys cross-party support, having had three main party leaders as its patrons, and nearly 3,000 young people have been supported to date. I can assure noble Lords that the Government will work hard to enable and support them. We will do all that we can.
The Government are ambitious. We want to build on this foundation and to encourage more social action, more giving, and greater awareness of those around you and of what you can do to help them to help each other. That is a vision of a stronger, bigger society, where everyone can enjoy a good life and fulfil their potential regardless of their background. Underpinning all this is a society that is, and needs to continue to be, grounded firmly in shared values. Today we have spoken about many of them, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, mentioned, including tolerance, respect, freedom of speech, freedom to practise your faith or not, democratic rights, a society that offers all the right to justice and one in which all people can live harmoniously together as a result.
I again thank noble Lords for their valuable contributions. I hope that the sentiments and convictions expressed here today will continue to extend into positive actions outside the Chamber to maintain and advance our shared values and the healthy, rich and varied society that we can all enjoy as a result of them.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am very grateful to all those who are going to contribute to this debate, which is an opportunity to highlight the importance of sustainable rural communities to the life of this country and to consider the challenges that exist in providing the services needed to support those communities so that they can continue to be engaging and vibrant places to live and work. Many definitions of vibrancy can, and indeed have been, applied to rural communities. Previously, these definitions have focused on the services available in the community—for example, a shop, a post office or a school. But in the final analysis it is the people who count and who make a rural community, indeed any community, what it is. A rural community becomes sustainable when people care about its future and have an opportunity to engage in that future, shaping it themselves for the common good.
When we talk of the sustainability of rural communities there can be an understandable resentment that we are asking rural places to justify their existence, which is a question we do not normally ask of towns and cities. This reflects the vulnerability that the residents of some rural places feel when the shop and the pub have closed, the school long since closed and public transport is a distant memory. In some villages, often only the church remains as the last open public building.
Here I should declare an interest. The Church of England has 10,199 open church buildings in the countryside, as defined by Defra’s rural definition, which is two-thirds of the total number of our churches. Through the parish system, we therefore have an interest in communities of all shapes and sizes, and we want to ensure that the smallest places have as much chance to thrive as more substantial communities and settlements. There is a quiet revolution going on in many of our rural church buildings. Increasingly, they are adapted so that, as well as being places of worship, we are returning to the medieval understanding that the nave can be used for a variety of purposes. Many rural churches now have a meeting room that can be used by villagers, toilets, a kitchenette and so on, which is a real win-win situation. We are seeking to use these buildings for the wider community.
The rural areas of the United Kingdom are diverse and varied. They are not a single homogenous unit that can be described simply or dismissed as affluent and therefore of little concern to policymakers. One of the features of rural communities is that, on average, the population is older than in urban areas. This demographic means that providing health and social care that is accessible to this age group is already a challenge that needs to be addressed.
Some academics are already warning that the countryside could become an exclusive place open only to those with enough money to buy property there. The long-term sustainability of rural communities will be challenged if this becomes the case. Proposals such as the right to buy housing association properties will not help the long-term future for rural communities, and will exclude those whose life experiences and skills are just as valuable, although their incomes are less.
Similarly, removing the requirement for affordable units on new build sites of 10 houses removes one of the major sources of affordable housing, particularly in smaller settlements that are not considered to be service villages. Her Majesty’s Government have given assurances in the past that rural proofing of policies takes place. In terms of providing affordable housing this does not appear to be the case. Neighbourhood planning has much to recommend it, giving rural communities the opportunity to have a say in the development that takes place there.
However, neighbourhood planning is complex, time consuming and costly. The schemes already in place to assist communities in this process, particularly across civil parish boundaries, are extremely welcome, as is the grant aid available, but more is needed, particularly around simplification of the process and plan, as to date only a small proportion of rural communities have plans in legal force, 3.5 years after the original legislation was enacted.
It is well established that rural households pay higher rates of council tax per dwelling, receive less government grant and have access to fewer public services than their urban counterparts. Delivering services costs more in the countryside—the rural premium—and applies to healthcare, education, social care and a great many other things, including public transport. Funding allocations per head of population tend to be consistently lower than towns and cities and do not take into account the sparsity factors of distance and small total population numbers. The local government finance settlement remains unfair to rural local authorities and this needs to be addressed now honestly and openly, as it is unjust to the rural population.
Health and social care is a particular concern. We already know that accessing health services in rural areas is more difficult, because travel times, distances and costs are greater. As such, we need to be much more creative in how health services are delivered, by using outreach centres, video links or tele-medicine services. Social care provision is particularly valuable to allow people to stay in their homes and remain part of their community. Rural areas are difficult, where travel times between each client are longer and the wages for carers are low, recruitment is difficult and the time spent is unsatisfactory to both the client and the carer. Many rural residents benefit from the knowing and being known of small places, although others, sadly, live isolated, lonely lives. Sustainable communities will be ones where trust has been built, and knowing who one’s neighbours are is a matter of pride, not surprise. The voluntary sector and the churches have a continuing major role to play here in bringing people together and looking out for who is missing. As a church, we invest hugely in the number of rural clergy, who in some cases are among the few professional people actually living and working in that community; many of the others commute out of it to work. However, this cannot be done for ever on a shoestring and good will. We have to plan now for providing these services and acknowledge the extra costs associated with them in funding settlements.
A rural community will often be able to articulate its own needs far better than those doing the planning, and these voices need to be heard clearly and not dismissed. Supporting the rural economy has been a stated priority for Defra for the past five years, and no doubt will continue. Supporting the additional costs of service provision and delivery also needs to be a priority. How does Her Majesty’s Government propose to do this? Service delivery plans also need to address all rural residents, including the hard-to-reach areas. How will that be delivered within Defra, now that the Rural Communities Policy Unit has been subsumed gently and quietly into other policy areas?
My Lords, I begin by thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for giving us this opportunity to discuss something that I think is very close to all the hearts of our speakers this afternoon. It is an important debate.
For many people living in rural areas, there is increasing concern about the future of services, whether the provision of healthcare, school places and transport, or access to jobs or affordable housing, to name but a few. The right reverend Prelate rightly highlighted other aspects and gave us some of the solutions, indicating how church parish communities help. Two-thirds of those churches are in rural areas; many, as we have seen, have altered the way in which they are used and are now in multi-use. Care for our elderly is one of the biggest challenges that we face but I will come back to that later.
This debate also gives me the opportunity to thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, on his leadership in taking the rural dimension—or challenge, I should say—to various government departments, speaking to Ministers and senior civil servants. It was indeed a Defra initiative but I will not steal his thunder as I am sure that he will talk about this in his contribution later. The most important thing to come out of all this, and his report, is that the valuable research that was undertaken should not be lost and should be acted on.
Over the years, I have attended various conferences and discussion groups looking at ways in which service provision in rural area could be enhanced. The Commission for Rural Communities, in its comparatively short existence, brought together much valuable data. The common theme coming out of all these is that no one size fits everybody; that includes whether they are working with public provision or alongside voluntary organisations and individual giving.
I was particularly pleased to see this morning’s news that Cornwall, a very rural area, has been given new powers—English devolution—to take responsibility for regional investment, countryside bus services and franchises and the provision of healthcare and social care. I hope that this is the start of freeing up service provision for others in different authorities. I hope also that, in future, different counties and districts will work closely on provision, so that one is not limited by a boundary. I was concerned, however, also to see in this morning’s news that some of our magistrates’ courts are to be closed. I accept that, where they are not fully used or circumstances have changed, it leaves them no longer viable and that such decisions are right. Nevertheless, I draw to the Minister’s attention my fear that such closures will affect rural communities more significantly.
Challenges lie ahead of us but I am encouraged by some of the excellent community work that is already ongoing. The right reverend Prelate referred to our growing number of elderly people. I will share with you my own experience when, two years ago, my husband was not well; he was in hospital and, sadly, eventually died of bowel cancer. The link-up between the hospital and provision at home, where he chose to come back to die, was enormously helpful—I reiterate that because I think that we were exceptionally lucky. The hospital linked up with the local doctors and nurses, and Macmillan and LOROS came in to us and were enormously supportive, which meant that he was able to live where he wished to live for as long as he could. Such linking up between hospital and home is crucial, and I am glad that this Government are committed to making healthcare much more accessible for everybody.
I suspect, however, that this afternoon quite a few of us will be looking at what the state might do—I have written in my notes the need for us to help ourselves as well. State provision is quite rightly there when it is needed, but there are ways, as the right reverend Prelate has said, that we can help each other: giving time and support, knowing your neighbour, befriending, mentoring, and churches working as post offices and foodbanks are all important. What is key for long-term success is ensuring that we have access to broadband and to jobs—some of the local authorities are very good at helping youngsters to have a bike to get them to work. These are small, practical ways in which we could help and I am grateful to be part of the debate this afternoon.
My Lords, my home is in the north-east of Cornwall. When you drive west on the A30, if you are on holiday, you will drive straight through the middle of Lewannick Parish. It has a population of just under 1,000 and the two main settlements are separated by that road—Lewannick to the south and Polyphant to the north. Their closest town, Launceston, five miles to the east, has the basics: a secondary school, a community hospital, a library, a leisure centre, a mix of shops—several charity shops—and many estate agents.
I shall describe the parish. There are more people over 65 than the Cornwall figure, which in turn is much higher than the national average. There are fewer people under 18 or with degrees or professional occupations. Car ownership is high—poor public transport—home ownership is not. For any community to start on the path to sustainability, there must be people to live there, jobs for them to go to and houses for them to live in. There is a primary school in Lewannick, a pub, a village hall, a shop, a branch GP surgery and the parish church—open at all times. Polyphant has a Methodist chapel and a mobile library. Both villages have residential care facilities. In a neighbouring village on Monday the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro opened a shop and post office in the parish church, a project of our energetic shared vicar.
Today the first rural devolution deal was announced. Lib Dems have long campaigned for local devolution. This deal, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said, will give Cornwall the ability to franchise bus services and commission what is needed—even a bike—when and where. It will give the promise of integrated health and social care, support for the renewables industry, improvements to home energy efficiency and the reshaping of training and skills provision, leading to innovative apprenticeships and local jobs. Cornwall will have intermediate body status for the two EU structural funds, letting us make our own minds up about what to fund, not be told by Westminster.
We are disappointed—we should not be lacking in gratitude, but we are disappointed—that there was no ability to deal with a burgeoning second home market which pushes out locals and does little for our economy. Cornwall has world-beating natural beauty but in 1997 had an economy on a par with Portugal. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Teverson who, as MEP for Cornwall, worked incredibly hard to ensure that Cornwall became eligible for Objective 1 funding, which was the highest funding available and which has completely changed the economy of the county. Thanks to this European funding, and others, we have wi-fi and, for those who want it, fibre-optic provision is available. This is a boon for those running businesses from home. I am short on time, but I must pay tribute to the work of the Cornwall LEP. It will play a large part in delivering the devolution agenda.
Back to Lewannick. The past few years have seen a marked increase in the availability of affordable housing, which is not common across Cornwall. Some 40 units across the parish have given the opportunity for young people to stay in the village and young families to move in. This is good news for the school, the shop and the pub. Sadly, this is not typical. Core services are fairly well provided for, but what of their sustainability, and what else is available that makes the village a good place to live?
The factor that will mean one community is sustained over another is the people who make a place worth living in: the volunteers and those who are committed to running services that do not have to make a major profit for a multinational—I welcome the description of vibrancy given by the right reverend Prelate. It should be said that the volunteers in Lewannick would not recognise this as a description of themselves or what they do, but these vibrant volunteers run the village hall committee, the pantomime, the May Day with its maypole, the film club, the garden club, the ladies club—this in a village of 1,000—the flower and produce show, the fete and dog show, the oil-buying consortium, the parish council and, of course, the PPC. My apologies go to those groups I forget—I am sure they will remind me at the weekend. Villages in Cornwall that are not sustainable are those that are dead out of season, with dwindling working populations. They have often lost their shops and services, and suppliers find it difficult to provide services such as education, health and care or transportation.
Today’s devolution deal offers a hope that decisions will be made closer to the provision with less need to be bound by nationally determined criteria. Communities that survive are those where work and housing are fit for the population and the local economy. They have a living heart. They are not always where you might want to spend your holiday, but they are places where you would say hello to anyone you meet and expect to get caught in the shop for a long chat about the weather or the state of the world. These are true communities with a stake in their own sustainability.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for initiating this debate. I will speak as the chair of the Rural Housing Policy Review, which reported recently and among whose members were the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. I am grateful to them for their support.
The review looked at all the earlier reports concerned with rural housing to see what progress had been made since they were written. We discovered that they all said similar things. Indeed, we underlined and emphasised the things that they had said before us, including that housing is absolutely critical to creating and sustaining a community—a vibrant community, as the right reverend Prelate said. The reports also said that people in rural areas have special housing difficulties. They face competition, if they want to buy a home, from commuters, retirees and, in some places, second-home owners and holiday-home providers. All this extra competition means that prices are 26% higher in rural areas than elsewhere while earnings are 19% lower. These are tough times for anyone aspiring to be a home owner and have a job in a rural community. There is also less affordable housing in these areas, not least because the right to buy for council housing has depleted the amount of social housing available in villages. Across rural England, social housing provision is at a level of 9% compared with 20% in urban areas.
So are there any positives out there or good things happening? Yes, there are. We noted in our report that the neighbourhood plans drawn up by local communities have often been positive. They have not just been about nimbys saying, “We don’t want anything in this village”; they have been positive in many areas. Parish councils are now coming to local housing associations, as was reported to us by two major housing associations working in rural areas, saying “Please come to this village. Help us to get some cottages built for local people”. Not everyone is against anything happening in rural England. We were also encouraged by landowners who are willing to provide sites either free or on very good terms.
Yet despite some of those positive signs, things are very difficult and tough. We had to draw attention to the fact that government, we suspected unwittingly, made life more difficult for those in rural areas by decreeing that any housebuilder producing executive homes or new development in a rural community—or anywhere else—should not be required to include any affordable housing in that provision, as they would be in most cases, if 10 homes or fewer were built. Well in rural areas, almost all developments are of 10 homes or fewer, so almost no additional affordable housing can be produced on the back of those housebuilders doing their work in rural areas. We were disappointed to say that things were not getting better, despite some good signs and some energy at the local level—not least on the part of church people, who are often to the fore in these matters.
After we produced our report, we were very sorry that another blow hit those concerned with housing in rural areas with the extension of the right to buy to the tenants of housing associations, as with those in council housing. These very large discounts of up to 70% off the price, or up to £77,000, seem quite an extravagance to many when the same amount of money would provide some three times as many shared-ownership homes for half-buy, half-rent. We could get three times as many built as new homes in other villages.
However, that does not express the real problem, which is the loss of the homes themselves even if they could be replaced on a one for one basis. It is that loss which is so painful for local communities. People struggle, sometimes for years, to persuade landowners to make the land available, to get the planning organised, to bring these schemes together, to defeat opposition—because there is always some—and to get these homes built. Now we fear they are to be told that, after three years, the occupiers will be able to buy those homes with a large discount—bless them, I would not blame them at all for taking advantage of this. Those homes will then not be available in perpetuity, as often was promised to the landowners and the council, for those people who will need those affordable homes in future. I hope that the Minister is listening. I know that he is incredibly sympathetic to these issues and understands them deeply. I hope that he will prevail upon some of his colleagues to step back from the brink on this one.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate very warmly for raising this important subject. I should declare some interests. In particular, I chair the National Housing Federation, representing non-profit housing associations. I have also had a lot of interest in this whole area over some years: I led the Living Working Countryside review for Labour; I worked with Conservative Ministers in the last Government on planning guidance; as the noble Lord, Lord Best, mentioned, I was a member of the Rural Housing Policy Review; indeed, I was the founder chair of the Rural Coalition. The one interest, however, that may be most relevant to declare is that I am also from Cornwall, which is represented unduly highly in this debate.
I want to touch briefly on several issues. The first is that rural communities are not sustainable unless there are homes for those who work in the countryside and, across all rural communities, tend to earn in excess of 20% less than the national average. However, they live in areas where house prices are much higher and where rented accommodation is extremely hard to come by. This is particularly true in the more attractive areas, where what rented accommodation is available is typically in the holiday sector and not for full-time workers. That means that for the people who work on the farm, in the pub or the shop, or who look after the elderly in the community, the only accommodation that they are likely to be able to afford is either formal affordable housing or in the back of a camper van. I promise noble Lords that there are many who live in the back of a camper van: they may get a winter let in holiday accommodation, but in the summer months they live in the camper van. As communities and villages have become aware of that, they have started to make sites available for affordable housing. It is small-scale, but where there was resistance only a few years ago, increasingly there is support for it.
However, it is still the case that many fewer affordable homes are built in rural villages than their share of the population—less than half of them, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, touched on. The policy of not requiring affordable homes on sites of under 10 homes particularly impacts on rural communities, where generally that number would be typical of the sites. The right-to-buy policy—I know that this concerns the Conservative side as much as any other—could put a complete stop to people bringing forward exception sites for affordable homes, if they think that that decision will lead to those homes being sold off just a few years later at a massive discount. It is the permanence of the affordability of those homes that villages buy into when they take the decision to allow them.
Secondly, even if you have the homes, that is no good unless you have the work for those who live in the countryside. I did a lot of work to encourage the changes that have taken place in planning, to make planning policy and guidance much more amenable to businesses in the countryside being able to grow—not huge businesses that are inappropriate in the countryside but small-scale businesses of all sorts, not just those sorts typically thought of as rural. In the internet age, things have changed. There is an opportunity for new wealth in the countryside but not if old-school planning still directs businesses to the industrial estate in the town. I am afraid that that still happens. It is about a change of mind more than a change of policy but the Government have a role of leadership in it.
The third element is that rural communities are not sustainable without access to services. We all understand the need for value for money and the financial imperatives that sit on the Government in present times. But if value for money is costed per person, services are stripped out of the rural and into the urban because the same service provided to a large number of people is cheaper than that service in the rural area. Too often, we see the centralisation of services on value-for-money grounds: the bigger school is more cost-effective than the smaller school; the bigger hospital is more cost-effective than the cottage hospital; the rural post office serving a small community does not have the throughput which maintains the full service provided in the town, yet in the town there may be multiple outlets and multiple opportunities to get those services. There needs to be an understanding that what applies in one may not apply in the other.
Rural communities are not sustainable if we do not also have policies to help them be sustainable environmentally. Half the homes in rural areas have the worst SAP ratings of 30, which means extremely energy-inefficient. I chair a ground-sourced energy company—I should declare that interest. I do it because I am worried about this issue and want to make something happen. Too often, policy, which is all about value for money, the pennies at the edge and the numbers you can deliver, does not address the fact that in rural areas some of those biggest problems exist. In the past, policies to increase energy efficiency and reduce fuel poverty have been most cost-effective in towns and have ignored the fact that the greatest number of properties using night storage or oil, creating the greatest problems while being the most expensive to run, are in the rural areas. We need to understand peculiarities of rural communities.
My Lords, a sustainable community is one where the old and the young, the rich and the poor, can live together, assist each other and have a shared vision. With a nod to the right reverend Prelate, the greatest of these are the young.
What rural communities most require from government is understanding and rural-proofing, because to deliver to remote and small communities requires government departments to put in place procedures to work out how to reach out to rural people: where there is real deprivation, where there is little or no public transport, where not everyone has a car, where services are often miles away, where broadband is either slow or does not exist and where the costs of delivery per head are higher but the budgets available per head, as has been mentioned, nearly always lower than in urban areas. Rural-proofing is also about ensuring there are no unintended consequences in the countryside of policies which are usually poorly thought out by urban-based individuals.
For instance, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned, I gather today that Mr Gove wishes to close 140 courts to save money for the Ministry of Justice. Has this policy been rural-proofed? It may save money for the Ministry of Justice, but will it be easier for rural people to access justice? I suspect the answer is no.
Rural-proofing is also about training. In my tour around departments last year, I really noticed the difference where Defra had run a training workshop relevant to that department. Is Defra still running these detailed departmental workshops? Does it still have the budget to do so? They are its one opportunity to affect the quality of life in rural England through the Department of Health, the Department for Transport, the DWP et cetera. Personally, I think that rural-proofing should be the responsibility of the Cabinet Office, but I will not go there today.
The two most urgent policy areas for rural communities are affordable housing and broadband. The Government, as has been mentioned by others, are making a total Horlicks on housing. The bedroom tax should not apply because there are no single-occupancy units in most villages. Then there is the abolition of affordable housing quotas, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Best, on sites with fewer than 10 houses. The almost complete absence of housing for the next generation is the biggest worry for all rural families, and these quotas provide 60% of the provision of new affordable houses in the countryside. Their abolition is madness. Then there is the proposed new right to buy, also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Best. I have already vented my fury elsewhere on that, so I will say no more today.
On broadband, the Government have a better record. Not everything is perfect and certainly in Devon and Somerset, where we were supposed to have a beacon project, we have been badly let down by the complete incompetence of BT in spite of it receiving millions of pounds of public money. But the intentions of the Government are there and they are good. The Government just have to focus more on the actual delivery.
To underline the importance of fast broadband to this debate, apart from it being essential to help retain the young in our communities, there are many examples from around the world where government services are delivered by good broadband. You just need a special room in your village where doctors can talk to patients, courts can talk to witnesses, jobseekers can talk to the jobcentre, schools can talk to classes and business can talk to whoever. You can see why it needs a central body like the Cabinet Office to deliver this interdepartmental infrastructure. But, first, the Government really have to focus on delivering high-speed broadband to all rural communities and then get all departments to focus on how they can use it and best deliver to their rural electorate.
Lastly, I ask the Minister, and I have given him warning of this: when will the Government respond to my report on rural-proofing, which they themselves commissioned?
My Lords, this debate is a great pleasure, particularly as, I think, 30% of contributors are from Cornwall. First, I unreservedly welcome the Government’s moves in devolving power to the far south-west, which is very much welcomed across the political spectrum. I declare my interests in that I have a non-financial interest as chair of the Rural Coalition, following my noble friend Lord Taylor. I also am chairman of Wessex Investors and Anchorwood Developments Limited, which currently are in commercial negotiations with a social housing organisation in rural England. I also live in a hamlet of four houses, which will probably receive superfast broadband at about the same time that HS2 reaches Edinburgh. I still wait in anticipation.
Thinking back to the ancient history of April and May, and the election, there were a number of not-very-good days to wake up as a Liberal Democrat. But one particularly bad day, not as a Liberal Democrat but as a citizen, was when the proposal on the right to buy for social housing was announced. In my waking-up stupor and listening to the “Today” programme, I groaned with real fear that this had perhaps been thrown out to reflect the glories of Thatcherism without really thinking about its implications, particularly in rural areas. I would like to concentrate on that area in this debate.
This random allocation of taxpayers’ money to particular individuals—up to £100,000 in urban areas and more than £70,000 in rural areas—seems to be a lottery that has gone too far at the taxpayers’ expense. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, we cannot blame the individuals in any way if they take advantage of this. Given the great shortage of social housing, that is fundamentally wrong at the moment. Even more, why is this a rural issue? It is partly because we have a situation where the ratio of house prices to earnings in more rural areas is 8:1, which is much higher than in urban areas. Individual sales of social housing in villages or small towns potentially is disruptive to those communities and means that any replacements are not necessarily likely to be located in those areas. In fact, the chances of that are very small.
In terms of the undertaking to replace one-for-one, unfortunately, even if we look back to the coalition Government’s period, although there was such a requirement on right to buy and council housing during that time only 46% of houses were replaced. Therefore, the robustness of that offer is very low. I know the Government will say that that means that even if that happened, which is unlikely, one house would still be in the community and another would be there to replace it. At this stage I will not get into the mathematics of selling houses elsewhere of higher value. But even if that took place, that money could buy even more houses in those communities than if it was transferred in the way in which the Government say it will be. I believe that this is a corrosive and difficult policy for rural communities. Will the Government find any exclusions for rural communities as part of this policy, particularly in villages and small market towns?
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, a former noble friend until May, is a great champion of rural issues and has a great track record on them. I welcome the fact that he is answering this debate. But it is ironic that in the year in which we celebrate 800 years since the Magna Carta, Her Majesty’s Government are proposing to sequester and take away from private legal persons and charities their own assets.
I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for drawing our attention to the continuing sustainability of rural communities and the challenges of maintaining rural services. I declare an interest as a farmer in the rural community of south Cheshire.
The challenges to rural services arise from the relative lack of demand in rural, sparsely populated areas together with the additional costs of provision. This covers all aspects of life from affordable housing provision to planning restrictions, the amount and quality of jobs, health and education provision, energy costs, transport and bus services as well as to police and emergency services provision.
Rural communities are facing a low-pay, low-skill economy, a squeeze in living standards, a lack of affordable housing and insufficient power to make decisions about their future. Average wages are more than £4,500 a year lower than those in urban areas, and the gap has grown by £1,000 since 2010. Rural businesses and households have seen the same soaring energy bills as the rest of the country, but have an added burden as many have no grid access, forcing them to use more expensive alternatives.
All speakers have drawn attention to different difficulties facing everyday aspects of life in rural areas. All their contributions have been informative and I will briefly outline key aspects of concern. The provision of broadband in rural areas is essential to connect rural businesses and help them grow and compete, as was highlighted in the Efra Committee’s report of the other place earlier this year. In my area of Cheshire, the present limit of 2 megabytes is insufficient even to download collective catch-up television. Will the Government commit to raising in this Parliament this 2 megabyte universal service commitment to a much higher figure for superfast broadband? What will that figure be and what will be the cost? Will the Government commit to a level that is largely already the norm in urban areas?
Since 2010-11, the proportion of pupils at rural schools achieving five or more A* to C grades has been lower compared with those attending school in urban areas, with the gap widening every year. Will the Minister inform the Committee what steps the Government are taking to address this rural versus urban education attainment gap?
Living standards have been hit by public transport fare increases. Bus fares have risen by 27% as 2,000 routes have been cut. Families spend almost £4,500 on transport, almost £800 more than the national average. People in rural areas travel 50% further per year on journeys which often necessitate travel by car due to poor interconnectivity of public transport. What plans do the Government have to ensure that those living in the countryside and coastal communities have access to affordable, effective transport services?
There are currently GP shortages in many rural areas and anxiety about service provision changes and reconfigurations. Too often, patients and the public feel that they are not involved in drawing up proposals for changes to their local health services and have little say in decision-making. Have the Government plans to give local communities a real say in the future of their NHS? Affordable rural housing has long been a problem. Developers have now been allowed to end the provision of affordable housing on sites with fewer than 10 houses, as the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Best, said.
All this provides a real challenge to policy-makers in drawing up plans for rural communities. Now that the Rural Communities Policy Unit has been subsumed into other policy areas, will the Minister clarify how his department will address all these problems?
My Lords, I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate for raising this important issue for debate. I declare my interests as a farmer—perhaps more personally, as a countryman —and, because the debate has quite rightly raised the issue of housing, as a facilitator of a rural housing scheme. Rural areas and people provide security and opportunity for the entire nation—the food we eat, the natural resources we use, the beautiful landscapes and recreation we enjoy. However, the right reverend Prelate was absolutely right to emphasise that we must focus on people because it is people who make this extraordinary part of our United Kingdom so important to the nation as a whole. Of course, I also recognise—and do so personally—the role the churches play in many rural communities. I suggest that it is in the countryside—this will be controversial with more urban-minded right reverend Prelates—that the Church of England remains an enduring part of life.
Investing in infrastructure to improve connectivity, protecting key services, providing affordable housing and helping to reduce the cost of living are all central to this Government’s approach to achieving sustainable rural communities that are fit for future generations. I very much agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, that we should perhaps be thinking most of the young and the next generation. Sustainable rural communities must also be underpinned by a thriving rural economy contributing to national prosperity and well-being. The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, described the key features of her own vibrant community. We can all identify with many communities up and down the land that have many of the features the noble Baroness outlined. Of course I am delighted, particularly as we have three noble Lords from Cornwall, to hear the announcements about that great county.
The countryside already has a good track record of entrepreneurship and generating new businesses. In preparing for this debate, I was particularly interested to find that in fact the countryside is home to a quarter of all our firms, yet has only 18% of our population. Boosting productivity, investing in a strong economy and infrastructure and—most importantly in the countryside—high-speed broadband will bring businesses closer to markets and help people access the services that they desperately need.
The right reverend Prelate was absolutely right to refer to the cost of living in rural areas. Many noble Lords from the countryside know this at first hand. The Government have recognised that, for instance, spending on energy can be much higher in rural areas. In remoter rural locations, the car is a necessity not a luxury, and people living in some of the United Kingdom’s most rural areas now benefit from a 5p per litre fuel discount thanks to the rural fuel rebate. Some £25 million has been made available to provide hundreds of new minibuses to community transport operators in rural and isolated areas. Further help with energy costs is provided through the £15 million Rural Community Energy Fund, which helps rural communities in England develop community-owned, community-scale renewables projects.
There are additional costs for delivering services in rural areas, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, highlighted. Considerable progress has been made with local authorities in closing the urban-rural funding gap, demonstrating a positive uplift for rural communities. Since 2011-12 for shire districts this gap has closed from 19% to 11% and for unitary authorities from 11% to 6%.
Affordable housing allows people of all ages to live and work in rural areas. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, particularly referred to the essential element: “to work” in rural areas. I also listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor said in that regard. By encouraging sensitive developments we can ensure that communities remain vibrant and sustainable.
As the noble Lord, Lord Best, kindly said, I take a keen interest in these matters. It has been my privilege to open a number of rural housing schemes for Hastoe Housing Association, all of which have been enormous net contributors to their local communities. Almost 68,000 new affordable homes were provided in English rural local authorities between April 2010 and March 2014. Ten thousand of these homes have been delivered in settlements of fewer than 3,000 residents.
The right reverend Prelate asked about policy teams. I can assure noble Lords that Defra continues to have its own rural policy team. The responsibility for sustainable rural communities lies with a number of government departments but I can assure your Lordships that the Government are conscious of how vital it is to have cross-government working. When developing policies and programmes, it is important to take account of the specific needs of rural communities through rural proofing.
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, asked about workshops. Defra will continue to work closely, as I have said, with other departments and how we do this will be a key part of the review. I thank the noble Lord for his recent report on the effectiveness of rural proofing across government. Ministers are currently carefully considering all of the recommendations and will respond formally. Perhaps I may go off script and say to the noble Lord and your Lordships that this poacher turned gamekeeper will be keeping a close eye on this.
However, we want to go further in removing the barriers to growth and unleashing rural productivity. We announced last Friday that the Secretary of State will be publishing a ten-point rural productivity plan.
My noble friend Lady Byford and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, referred to the vital need for improved connectivity, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, mentioned Cornwall in particular. From my days in DCMS, I know that Cornwall has got a good track record and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, should be congratulated on what he has done to assist that. The Government are investing around £780 million to make sure that superfast broadband will be available to 95% of UK premises by the end of 2017 and everyone in the UK will have access to speeds of at least 2 megabits per second by the end of this year. I hope that helps the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. We all want to ensure that we have the building blocks for success so that we can demonstrate by the end of certain periods that we are succeeding. In practice, 2 megabits per second means access to BBC iPlayer, YouTube, internet radio and audio streaming, as well as the use of government online services such as submitting forms to the RPA.
As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, rightly said—I have sympathy with him about not only superfast broadband coverage but mobile coverage as well—there are many parts of the country where it remains a nightmare for people to proceed as we do in many other parts of the country because of the need for improved coverage. The pilot schemes on the extension beyond 95% coverage are already exploring how to expand superfast coverage in remote areas using innovative fixed, wireless and satellite technologies, all of which I could not possibly invent but great people are going to do so for us. Extensive and reliable mobile connectivity is also crucial for businesses and local communities in rural areas. The deployment of new infrastructure is a key part of the Government’s manifesto commitment to hold operators to their legally binding agreement to provide 90% geographical coverage by 2017.
I say to all noble Lords who have raised the issue that the Government recognise that more homes need to be built and thereby ensure that many rural communities remain sustainable. For instance, we want more homes that people can afford, including 200,000 new starter homes exclusively for first-time buyers under 40. Indeed, we wish to fulfil the aspiration of many people to buy their own homes—it was, after all, in our manifesto—but I understand the concerns about right to buy in rural areas and we will work closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government on this.
We also recognise the importance of accessing high-quality services in rural areas. The future of rural post offices is clearly important. We will work closely with the health and education departments to make sure that essential areas of provision are properly reflected in the rural context. Areas such as transport, libraries and police are all absolutely essential for vibrant and sustainable communities.
Defra is also taking action to support sustainable rural communities. As part of the new rural development programme, for instance, we plan to invest nearly £500 million over the next six years for the benefit of rural businesses, people and communities. This will include £141 million for the Countryside Productivity Scheme, which will provide farmers and landowners with support for improvements in the productivity of their farming and forestry businesses, and £177 million through the rural development growth programme. Defra will be investing in rural businesses, food processing, tourism infrastructure, broadband and renewable energy projects. In addition, there will be £138 million though the LEADER scheme, allowing rural communities to decide their own priorities. I think the right reverend Prelate mentioned how communities are able to decide their own priorities.
The Government are absolutely clear about the importance of vibrant and sustainable rural communities across the land, built on a strong economy and making them great places to work, live and visit. We also champion the special way of life that makes our rural areas so splendid. Five per cent of the gross value added generated in rural areas comes from tourism and the GREAT campaigns have demonstrated the best of British landscapes and food to the rest of the world. Most importantly, sustainable rural communities need to be dynamic, resilient and ready to adapt for future generations. We should not just look to preserve them but instead provide them with the framework of support in which they will clearly flourish for future generations.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter that is crucial to the future of our society, but which does not remotely receive the attention which it deserves. I thank the House of Lords Library for its comprehensive briefing pack on this subject.
There will be many views on what would be a sustainable population for the UK, but what is clear is that our current population growth of half a million a year is simply unsustainable—socially, practically and politically. Indeed, the speed of our population growth is propelling the train towards an inevitable crash. It is not a case of signal failure. The Office for National Statistics is flashing orange and red lights, but at rather a low intensity. It seems that the train crew, in the shape of Governments past and present, are determined to ignore them. They seem to fear that they will be accused of seeking to impose on the passengers a Chinese-style one-child policy. Or perhaps they fear that they will be accused of blaming those passengers who have only recently joined the train.
Whatever the reasoning, the whole issue of the growth of our population needs revisiting. It is now increasing at the fastest rate for nearly a century. In the year to last August, the UK population increased by nearly half a million—that is the equivalent of the entire population of the city of Manchester, or, indeed, of Bradford
It is important to be clear that our birth rate has been below the replacement rate of 2.1 since 1972. Mortality is gradually falling, but in the long run immigration will be responsible for almost all our population increase, either directly or indirectly.
It is surely common ground that migration in both directions is a natural, necessary and desirable part of an open economy and society. Indeed, many immigrants have made an extremely valuable contribution to our society, including, of course, a considerable number of noble Lords.
Immigration becomes an issue only when its scale becomes excessive, leading to unacceptable increases in population. I believe that that is now the case in the UK, certainly in respect of England, and in recent years successive opinion polls have confirmed that three-quarters of the public share my view.
Until 1998, net migration was not much more than 50,000 a year and was even negative in some years. However, decisions by the Labour Government led to that flow increasing by a factor of five. Unfortunately, there was no substantial reduction under the coalition Government. As a result, average net migration over the past 10 years has been at an extraordinary 240,000 a year. If that level were to continue, as it might well, our population would grow from the present 65 million to around 73 million in 15 years. That is an increase of almost 8 million, which is the equivalent of the combined population of the cities of—wait for it—Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Bristol, Cardiff, Newcastle, Aberdeen, Leicester, Coventry, Glasgow, Nottingham, Stoke-on-Trent, Portsmouth, Bolton and Doncaster, all in 15 years. That is frankly absurd; we cannot allow it to happen. Indeed, of the almost 8 million I mentioned, 7 million in that 15 years will be in England. It could even be worse. Last year, net migration reached 318,000. At that rate, the numbers are even greater. The UK population would soar to 75 million in 15 years and to 80 million in 25 years. That would make the UK the most populous country in Europe, overtaking Germany some years before that.
There are, of course, some who continue to claim that Britain needs migrants because our population is ageing. It is surely obvious that immigration is not the answer, for the very simple reason that immigrants themselves grow older. The effect, therefore, is to add to our population in some kind of giant Ponzi scheme. In fact, it is well understood by demographers, including UN demographers, that population ageing cannot be solved by immigration.
There are many ways to tackle an ageing population. The most important is for people to work longer in their longer and healthier lives. So the Government have been exactly right, in our view, to raise the retirement age in the way that they have. England, the destination of the vast majority of migrants, is already one of the most crowded countries in the world, almost twice as crowded as Germany and nearly four times as crowded as France. Yet successive Governments have ducked the issue of population. They are happy to discuss it on a world scale but are not willing to address it as a national problem, despite the fact that there are huge implications for all parts of our society and government.
One immediate impact is on education. In many parts of the country there are already shortages of places in primary schools. The Local Government Association estimates that three out of five local authorities will have a shortfall of places by 2018-19. Even now more than 100,000 primary school pupils are being taught in classes of more than 30 children. Only yesterday we learnt that the proportion of children born in England and Wales to foreign-born mothers reached a record level of 27%.
Collective heads are buried even deeper in the sand over housing. Successive Governments have long failed to ensure the construction of the estimated 250,000 new homes that are required every year. Last year, only 140,000 were completed. The most recent publication on household formation from the Department for Communities and Local Government did not even consider the impact of immigration on housing. It was left to the Office for National Statistics to estimate that 95% of the growth in households since 2010 have been households with a foreign-born head—technically a “household reference person”. That is the source of most additional housing demand and has been for some years. Indeed, in the previous debate the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, spoke of the need for more housing in rural communities.
Certainly, we need to build more homes, but equally, we must tackle demand and in practice that means bringing down the scale of immigration. Effective action of that kind would help very greatly in tackling the housing crisis. Otherwise, the situation is perfectly clear: we shall quite simply have to go on building large numbers of dwellings indefinitely. That seems to me to make very little sense.
We also have to ask whether we can really integrate 3 million immigrants into our society in the next 10 years. What would such an influx mean for our sense of community and identity? What is it doing to the character of our nation? How do we stop our society becoming less cohesive and, indeed, more fragmented? We cannot allow these matters to drift any longer. The train is hurtling along and it is time to apply the brakes. In practice, that means applying the brakes to mass immigration.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Green, has done the House, and, indeed, the country, a service in continuing to raise this issue. In my view, the current and projected increase in the UK population represents if not the greatest, certainly one of the greatest, threats to our country, environment and society and to the cohesion of our entire settled population.
Historically, there has been an emphasis on growing the population because people have felt that an increasing population means economic strength and power. At a more atavistic level, it means larger military power because you have a greater number of people to enforce your will. Psychologically, it is a sign of national confidence if your birth rate is rising and people wish to come to your country. It shows that you are, as a nation, on the rise. Vestiges of those beliefs still affect our thinking on this issue today. But now, as the noble Lord, Lord Green, pointed out, we are faced with new challenges. He talked about population density. England has just overtaken the Netherlands as the most densely populated country in Europe. We always think of the Netherlands as quite a small country that is pretty densely populated but England is now more densely populated. As the noble Lord has just told us, the population of this country is increasing by 1,200 people a day, adding a large village or small town to the map of Britain every single week, 52 weeks a year.
As my noble friend Lord Bates has heard me say before, if we are to house those people to the same standard as we currently house ourselves—that must be right—which is 2.3 people per dwelling, we have to build 500 new dwellings a day. Noble Lords can do the mathematics—that is a new dwelling every three minutes, night and day. That is without improving the housing stock, which we all agree needs to happen, and before you consider the additional infrastructure demands of health, education, roads, fire services, police support and so forth. However, as the noble Lord pointed out, that is not the end of the story but just the beginning. As he said, the ONS projection for our population 20 years from now is an increase of at least 8 million. That is not the high or low projection but the mid projection. As he pointed out very graphically, 8 million people represent three times the entire population of Greater Manchester, which is 2.5 million people. That will mean 3.4 million new dwellings. We are going to have to build a dwelling every three minutes for 20 years. I hope that my noble friend will tell us when he comes to wind up where these three Greater Manchesters, or 3.4 million homes, are going to be built. This is not theory according to Malthus or expectation: these projections affect us and our country today.
This is not just about the physical impact of housing and other infrastructure. Equally important, perhaps more important, are the consequent challenges to our social cohesion and the impact of what sociologists are increasingly calling “crowding out”. Crowding out will affect all parts of our society. Above all, it will affect those who have most recently arrived, so the less well integrated sections of our community will suffer most.
My noble friend has heard me talk about our Premier League footballers, of whom 21% are born in this country. Does that matter? It is an exceptionally successful economic export which earns much for this country, but that statistic means that several hundred young British males do not realise their dreams. Among those several hundred young British males will be an unusually high proportion of young black members of the minority community—people we wish to see integrate, have role models and succeed.
At a lower level, in my home counties of Herefordshire and Shropshire, local people find it hard to get jobs as fruit pickers because the fruit farmers prefer to hire 200 at a time from eastern Europe than engage people in this part of the world on an individual basis. It is not just at that level. I invite my noble friend to go and look at the number of secondary degree MA students enrolled over the last 10 years, and he will find that in our settled population, of whatever colour, creed or racial origin, the numbers have gone up by about 10% to 20%. But the numbers from overseas have doubled. That means that, to some extent, we are educating people from abroad at the expense of our own people, and we are doing so in part because it is beneficial for our universities to do that, because they pay more. Then you go to the property prices. The influx into London and the ripple effect of property prices has meant that large numbers of our own settled population are unable to buy a house or flat in their own capital city. More and more of them are being asked to live at home.
Those who continue to argue that, in the face of all these facts, we need to continue with high levels of immigration use two arguments. The first is the economic prosperity argument. The Select Committee in your Lordships’ House, which is referred to in the back of the briefing pack, has done some excellent work on this, but its report summarises that it has,
“found no evidence for the argument, made by the Government, business and many others, that net immigration—immigration minus emigration—generates significant economic benefits for the existing UK population … Overall GDP, which the Government has persistently emphasised, is an irrelevant and misleading criterion for assessing the economic impacts of immigration on the UK. The total size of an economy is not an index of prosperity. The focus of analysis should rather be on the effects of immigration on income per head of the resident population. Both theory and the available empirical evidence indicate that these effects are small”.
We need much better data on population flows and the consequent impact on the country as a whole. We certainly need some restriction on the free movement of labour within the EU to form part of the Prime Minister’s renegotiation package.
The second argument that is much used, and the noble Lord, Lord Green, referred to it, is what is known as the dependency ratio, expressed as the number of people in work for every person in retirement. It shows the extent to which a country is exposed as an ageing population. As the ratio falls, those in work will have to pay more, either directly by paying tax, or by taking responsibility for their relatives. So some of our huge increase in population is essential to offset those impacts, but that ignores the fact, pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Green, that today’s young people are tomorrow’s old people. While you may have deferred the problem, you have compounded it, because they will in turn require a still larger number of people to support them in their old age. Indeed, people have pointed out that if we wish to maintain the present dependency ratio in the UK’s population, we will have to approach 100 million towards the end of this century, 50% more than we are today. The answer must lie elsewhere. Noble Lords have pointed out that if people are going to live for longer they will have to work for longer, and that will adjust the dependency ratio—and technology wars have to help. Modern monitoring devices will enable people to stay in their own homes without direct supervision for longer—and many of them wish to do that.
Why is it so hard to get the Government to focus on this issue? First, population increase is made up of two parts—the natural increase, in excess of births and deaths, and net immigration. Both are highly sensitive issues. Well-meaning people avoid discussing immigration for fear of being called racist, so let me make it clear that I am not talking about racial or religious make-up; I am talking on behalf of every member of the settled population in the United Kingdom, irrespective of age, sex, creed or racial origin. Secondly, family size is seen as a highly personal matter—and quite right, too. It is one that the Government steer clear of. When Sir Keith Joseph 35 years ago made a speech about it, it was more or less the end of his political career.
That is one reason why there is an anxiety about raising this issue. The second is that all demographic policies have very long lead times—15, 20, 25 years. It is the Government after the Government after this Government that may benefit from changes that we make today. There is an ineluctable temptation to keep kicking the can down the road and do nothing now, but continuing to kick the can down the road could lead to the one sure way of stopping our population growth. If, as a result of population growth, this country becomes too overcrowded or too expensive or if our traditional values of tolerance, sense of humour and, above all, a high regard for a sense of fairness—those shared values that were the subject of an earlier debate today—are threatened, then people will vote with their feet, either by leaving the country or by not coming here in the first place. This seems to me to be a high price to pay for continued inattention to this vital issue.
My Lords, this is clearly not a debate that has, if I may use the vernacular, packed in the punters—to the slight disappointment, I imagine, of the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, is the only noble Lord taking part who is not required to be here under our normal practices and procedures for holding a debate such as this. Whether that is due to a lack of interest in the subject matter or the fact that it is now well after 4 pm on a Thursday, or some other reason, is a question that I would probably be best advised to leave unanswered.
One thing is certain however: there is no lack of interest in the subject on the part of either the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, or the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. Indeed, I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, speak on the issue more than once—I do not make that comment in any critical vein—in debates in the Chamber on, I believe, Home Office legislation. I know that he feels there are serious, basic questions that need answering, as he has made clear very powerfully today. I assume that this debate is about the issue of the size of this country’s population both now and in the future, whether it is likely that the population size will reach a level at which it might become unsustainable and how “unsustainable” would be defined; I assume that the debate is not about the background of people who either currently or may in the future live in this country.
Questions that must arise from this debate on the Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, are what is an unsustainable level of population for the United Kingdom, what are the criteria against which we should judge that level, and whether we think we have reached, nearly reached, or are a long way from reaching it? There is also the question of whether the issue of unsustainability or otherwise should be looked at on a United Kingdom basis or on a country or region basis, since the population is not increasing uniformly across the United Kingdom. In the year to mid-2014, for example, the highest population growth was in London—1.45%—and the east and south-east regions had the next highest population growth. I am not aware of the Mayor of London repeatedly telling us that the population of London has become, or is becoming, unsustainable. Indeed, he spends much of his time telling us what a marvellous problem-free place London is—apart from, in his view apparently, the Tube drivers—and giving every appearance of encouraging people to come to London, including to purchase new homes in the capital that they have little intention of living in themselves.
I could make extended comments about the effect on any discussion about population size of promises made before an election to bring down net migration figures to tens of thousands not so much not being delivered but resulting, in some years, in the figure going in exactly the opposite direction. The effect of this is to lead some people to believe that the population of this country must either already be or be becoming larger than the Government think is sustainable. I could also make extended comments about the failure to secure our borders not assisting the situation, including the climate in which any discussion about population size takes place, which, on top of incomplete information for too long about whether those entering the country have or have not left again by the time that they should, means having a Government who apparently do not know how many people are in this country who should not be here. That too generates feeling among some that the population size is or must be becoming unsustainable.
I will not dwell on those points, though, because the size of our population is determined by other factors in addition to migration, including the birth rate and increasing life expectancy—the latter of which I am personally very much in favour of, albeit that I probably need to declare an interest. As the noble Lord, Lord Green, said, we have as usual been provided with a very helpful briefing pack for this debate by the Library. The population of the United Kingdom at the end of June last year was estimated to be just over 64.5 million, with the number of people resident in the UK over the year to mid-2014 increasing by nearly half a million, as has already been said. That includes natural growth of just over 226,000—that is, births minus deaths—and net international migration of just under 260,000, with net international migration in the year to mid-2014 being the highest since the year to mid-2011 and up by 76,300 from 183,400 the previous year.
Interestingly, the number of births occurring in the year to mid-2014 is down on that in the previous year, continuing the downward movement seen in births since the peak in the year to mid-2012. The number and proportion of older people continue to rise, with over 11.4 million aged 65 and over in mid-2014, compared to 11.1 million the previous year, with the number of deaths being, as I understand it, the lowest seen for over 50 years. These mid-year population estimates do not account for short-term migrants, whether they be people who come to the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom for a period of less than twelve months.
It is clear from the data that the population forecasts for the years ahead are not about whether the population will increase but the rate at which it will increase. A document from the Department for Communities and Local Government, dated 27 February this year, sets out the 2012-based household projections for England for the years 2012 to 2037. It states:
“The number of households in England is projected to grow to 27.5 million from 22.3 million by 2037, an increase of 5.2 million (24 per cent) over 2012. This equates to on average 210,000 additional households per year. The projected change in household population over the same period is an additional 8.4 million people, increasing the household population in England to 60.9 million by 2037 and representing a 16 per cent change”,
over 2012. The total household population in England in 2012 was 52.5 million. The projected figures through to 2037 also showed a projected total household population for England in 2017 of 54.4 million. The latest statistical bulletin from the Office for National Statistics states that the population estimate for England for mid-2014 is 54.3 million, which is very nearly the Department for Communities and Local Government estimate for three years later than 2014, namely 2017. That suggests that the projections through to 2037 already need updating, unless somebody is expecting a fairly dramatic reduction in the average annual percentage growth in population figure, which seems unlikely.
Of course, the population of this country has risen dramatically over the years and has not been found to be unsustainable or resulted in us grinding to a halt, but rather the opposite. The national infrastructure and public services have been developed to meet the needs of an expanding population and indeed to improve the quality of life of an expanding population.
I do not know how much the Minister will be able to say in response, but I would at least like to ask whether the Government think that the present level of population in the United Kingdom is unsustainable and whether they think that the present level of annual growth in our population is unsustainable. If so, for how many more years do they think that the current level of annual population growth can continue before we reach an unsustainable population size? What is the Government’s definition of “unsustainable”? I also ask whether the Government believe that there is a level of population size for the United Kingdom beyond which any further increase is unsustainable, and if so on what the Government would base that conclusion. It would also be helpful to know whether the Government have any criteria against which they would judge whether any particular level of population size for the United Kingdom, or for any country or region within the United Kingdom, is unsustainable. Perhaps the Minister could indicate whether the Government are doing or have commissioned any studies or reports on these questions in order to inform future policy decisions.
It seems that unless we can find some generally accepted answers to these questions it becomes very difficult to have a meaningful debate on this issue, because one person’s view on what constitutes an unsustainable population size will differ widely from another person’s view. For some, a significant increase, for example, in the number of houses being built in their country town, and thus the population of that town and the proverbial concreting-over of the countryside immediately around the town, will be seen as an example of unsustainable population growth. For others, almost any likely increase in the population of the country will be seen as sustainable provided the necessary investment is made in the infrastructure and provision of public services to meet the needs of that higher population.
There is also a need to try to achieve rather more accurate projected future population figures, since estimates which are regularly, and rather too quickly, proved to have underestimated the growth in population will not inspire confidence in either government or the ability of government to address properly the issues that arise, and have always arisen, as the population of this country grows, if that indeed is what will continue to happen over the long term in this country. I look forward with interest to the Government’s response to this debate.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Green, for tabling the debate on this important subject. I declare an interest: immigration is a subject which is dear to my heart, on account of a certain young lady who came to this country 25 years ago from China. Therefore, I will also commence my remarks by recognising the incredible contribution that the immigrant population has made to the UK, both to our culture and our economy.
However, the Government recognise that uncontrolled immigration makes it difficult to maintain social cohesion —a point to which my noble friend Lord Hodgson referred—puts pressure on the UK population and public services, and can drive down wages for people on low incomes. I will therefore take this opportunity to update the Committee on the actions the Government are taking across the system to bring net migration down to sustainable levels while ensuring that we continue to attract the brightest and the best migrants to the UK.
As all noble Lords referred to, the UK population increased by almost half a million—the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, put it in more precise terms of 1,200 per day—or 491,100 between mid-2013 and mid-2014, with 53% of the growth in the UK population accounted for by net migration. Net migration currently stands at 318,000. These figures show how far the Government have to go to reach our goal of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands—but also why it is important that we continue to do so.
As we have said for some time, we have been blown off course by net migration from within the EU, which has more than doubled since 2010. The figures show that by focusing on key areas we can make a big difference to net migration. In 2014, 86,000 EU migrants came to the UK looking for work as opposed to having employment to come to. There was a gap of 91,000 between non-EU students who came to the UK and those who left. Some will have stayed legally; many will have not. These two factors alone added nearly 200,000 to net migration. This is why the Government are determined to deliver the manifesto commitments on reform in Europe and tackling abuse and overstaying by students.
The immigration system today is very different from the one we inherited in 2010. Over the past 5 years, we have taken steps to control immigration and have fundamentally changed the approach taken by the previous Labour Government. Our reforms are geared towards an immigration system which works in the national interest, attracting skilled migrants for occupations where we need them instead of unskilled workers who drive down wages, and genuine students for our world-class universities instead of bogus colleges, almost 900 of whose licences we have revoked.
The Immigration Act 2014 is making it much tougher for illegal migrants to remain in the UK by restricting access to work. In this regard I note the comments on housing, benefits, healthcare, bank accounts and driving licences. Since July 2014, under the Act we have revoked the driving licences of more than 10,000 illegal migrants and deported almost 1,100 foreign criminals who would have had a right of appeal. The immigration health surcharge has stopped people from outside the EU using the NHS for free healthcare and has generated more than £20 million in net income. We have also clamped down on fake brides and grooms entering into sham marriages to stay in the UK. The Government will go further. The new immigration Bill will create a new offence of illegal working and extend our “deport first, appeal later” approach to ensure even more illegal migrants are removed from the UK.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked what the thinking was within government and what research was being done on the issue. We have commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to reduce economic migration from outside the EU. We will form our labour market rules to crack down on the exploitation of low-skilled workers. As the Prime Minister has set out, we will address the incentives for migration from the EU—which has led to mass immigration from Europe—in informed negotiations. We will deliver these proposals and our commitments in the manifesto with a new immigration task force, chaired by the Prime Minister, which will ensure that every part of the Government plays its part in helping to control immigration. That is not ducking the issue, nor is it not taking the issue seriously. The Prime Minister is committed to addressing this important matter.
While the Government are committed to controlling immigration, that desire is in no way at odds with how proud we are of our diversity and we will continue to welcome the brightest and best migrants to the UK. All those talented workers who have come to work hard and the brilliant students who have come to study at our world-class universities will help Britain to succeed and add enormously to our economy. The Government have been clear that there is no cap on the number of overseas students who come to study at our world-class universities and since 2010 there has been a 16% increase in the number of visa applications for UK universities and a 30% increase in the number of visa applications for our world-class Russell Group universities, underscoring that the policy is working.
I noticed today that Portland Communications had published its soft power index. It measures soft power—cultural power, diplomatic power, media, digital, education, which is a key part of it, architecture, buildings, attitude and the respect in which the country is held in the world—and I was delighted to see that the United Kingdom is number one in the world. We beat Germany into second place and the United States is now in third place. That shows that it is possible to make the tough decisions necessary to bring immigration to the UK down to sustainable levels.
My Lords, could my noble friend write and give the Committee an estimate of how many students have overstayed their visas? There is clearly a major concern that while a great deal has been done—he has told us about that—nevertheless there is still a great deal of overstaying going on and morphing into the workforce.
I mentioned early in my speech that the figure was 91,000 for the coming year for non-EU students. Overstaying is a significant problem that we face. The accuracy of that figure will increase significantly now that we have introduced exit checks at our borders. People who come here to study should study. If they want to come here to work, they should go back and then apply to come back to work here. In fact, from a technical point of view, tier 4 applicants, people who are studying here at bone fide universities, are able to transfer to a tier 2 status, which is graduate-level employment, so that they can continue to contribute to the economy. They can do that directly and there is no limit on the number who can progress on that route. We want to get that message out.
This debate is now turning into one about immigration, rather than one about what is and is not a sustainable level of population for this country. I referred to the projections of future population. Is it the Government’s view that, if those projections prove right, that constitutes an unsustainable level of population? What is the Government’s definition of an unsustainable level of population?
I hear what the noble Lord says. In essence, I am trying to answer in an indirect way but it is a way that may not be appropriate. I do not think that the previous Labour Government ever set out an arbitrary cap for a future level of population. There are certain things we can control. As the noble Lord, Lord Green, said earlier, we are not talking about embarking on some draconian clampdown on reproduction rates, or trying to make some forecast of mortality rates. The thing within our control is the levels of migration into this country, particularly from outside the EU, and that is where the attention of the Government is focused.
The noble Lord has the projected figures for the increase in population; they are in government publications. Do the Government believe that, if those projections prove right and the population increases in accordance with them, that will mean an unsustainable level of population?
I understand that the noble Lord is doing a good job of seeking to draw out from me a statement that X number represents sustainability and Y number indicates unsustainability. I am trying to say—I agree that it is a slightly nuanced argument even for a Thursday afternoon—that we want to talk about migration levels because, effectively, we can deal with those. He is talking about something in the future which we cannot control. We are interested in dealing with the now.
My Lords, the key point is that virtually all future population growth is as a result of immigration. We need to be clear about that. Therefore, as a practical matter, we do not need to say that we want 80 million, 90 million, 70 million or 40 million. If we think the numbers are getting too great and if we understand that three-quarters of the public think that, we have to bring the level of immigration down, as the noble Lord was outlining.
I agree, to an extent, with what the noble Lord, Lord Green, has said, but what I was trying to establish—and I appreciate that net migration has an impact on the figures, as do birth rates and mortality rates—was whether it is the Government’s view that their own projections constitute an unsustainable level of population. I am unable to get an answer from the Minister as to whether the Government believe that their own figures constitute an unsustainable level of population.
I think I said early on that the Prime Minister has set this as a key priority. He is chairing the immigration task force. If we did not think it was a problem the Prime Minister has many other things pressing on his agenda and requiring his attention. For the reasons I have mentioned, he has rightly focused on an area that he wants to ensure we get a grip on; that is, to reduce the pressure on our public services and all the negative factors, but also balance that by recognising the positive contributions that the right people can make to the UK economy and to our relations with the world.
The Government believe in controlled immigration, not mass immigration. Immigration brings real benefits to the UK and we will always be welcoming to people from around the world. That is why we have that standing that I mentioned in terms of soft power. We also know that immigration must be controlled. When immigration is out of control, it puts pressure on schools, houses, hospitals and transport, as noble Lords have referred to. That is why our policies are aimed at reducing immigration and building an immigration system that is fair to British citizens and legitimate migrants, that is tough on those who abuse the system or flout the law, and that ensures that people come to the UK for the right reasons: to work hard and contribute to our economy and society.
Sub-Saharan Africa: Healthcare
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I draw attention to the relevant entries in the Register of Members’ Interests. In particular, I am adviser to Gilead Sciences Inc, chair of Christian Aid’s In Their Lifetime Appeal and a trustee of the Planet Earth Institute. When I was fortunate enough to have my Question chosen, I had hoped that the debate would take place in the context of an end to the Ebola crisis, an end to the outbreak in Sierra Leone and that the last case would have been reported. Sadly, that is not the case and Ebola is still very much with us.
Lawrence Summers, the distinguished economist and a former Treasury Secretary in the US has described Ebola as a “stress test” on national health systems. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have clearly been found wanting. They simply could not cope. There were too few trained health professionals, too little equipment, too few supplies and too little capacity for public health surveillance and control. It is a stress test that the world cannot afford to fail, and a stress test that in some ways the WHO did fail, and the world was threatened. I suspect that if the perception of the threat had continued as it was at the outset of the crisis, more attention would be paid to the subject in our media and elsewhere today. But we are where we are.
The threat to the rest of the world is seen by all too many in the rest of the world to have passed and the circus is already beginning to move on. There is a sense that Ebola is yesterday’s story. As those who are attending today’s debate understand, that is not the case: it is still an ever-present threat and danger. This debate is particularly timely as it takes place at the same time as the world’s leaders, including our Secretary of State, are considering the future funding of development and the millennium development goals in Addis Ababa. Their considerations will have a considerable bearing on our success or otherwise in responding more effectively to the test that Ebola has presented to the health systems of west Africa and the wider world.
However, it is worth noting that a real contrast is to be drawn—Lawrence Summers draws it—between what happened in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, and what happened in Nigeria where, to a certain extent, the stress test was passed in at least one respect. Nigeria’s response to Ebola was able to be characterised by the WHO as,
“a piece of world-class epidemiological detective work”,
which it was. It was able to launch a response of aggressive, co-ordinated surveillance and control, using a system for Ebola that it already had in place for polio. That enabled Nigeria to have a response that was not able to be replicated in Sierra Leone, Liberia or Guinea where the health systems, for a variety of reasons, were already substantially degraded and underfunded. In Sierra Leone, that was most obviously because of the conflict from which it was recovering and from problems associated with that, including investment in health, healthcare and governance.
In the Lancet Lawrence Summers, building on his 2035 commission report, put the cost of health systems strengthening in the developing world at around,
“$30 bn a year for the next two decades”.
He identified this sum,
“through a combination of aid and domestic spending”,
“well under 1 per cent of the additional gross domestic product that will be available”,
from the expected growth in low and middle-income countries during the next 20 years, so that $30 billion is affordable. He goes on in the report to identify a lack of investment in public health and a lack of innovative research and development in the field of infectious diseases that affect the poor as having contributed to the crisis. We have an opportunity at this time, at the conference in Addis and the upcoming conference in New York, to do something about it.
Save the Children has estimated that the cost of dealing with the Ebola outbreak has been nearly three times the annual cost of investing in building a universal health service in all three affected countries. We have to ensure that the world learns the lessons of the crisis by a renewed focus on supporting systems of universal health coverage in the developing countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Will the Minister please tell us what steps the UK Government are taking to promote universal health coverage to give developing countries the resistance to contain this kind of outbreak in the future?
I recognise that no one-size-fits-all approach is either possible or necessary to address the issues of developing universal coverage. No one is suggesting an NHS in every country, as if one were promoting a chicken in every pot. It is much more complicated than that but there is inevitably a need for a mix of public and private, such as a role for insurance-based systems. All that has a role to play but there is at the end of the day a need for an irreducible minimum. That is, a recognition that there are some public goods the provision of which requires a role for Governments, with properly resourced departments of health, science and higher education working together with the support of ministries of finance across government to mobilise all the relevant departments in developing sustainable, effective healthcare systems that are backed up by assertive policies for public health and which tackle the root causes of the outbreak of such pandemics.
There is a need for adequate funding mechanisms and cross-sectoral work, led by finance ministries whose streams of work programmes are not dependent on the vagaries of external funding but rooted in a local set of priorities, determined locally and with a focus on value for money, local accountability and meeting the needs identified through the grassroots participation of the citizenry, who are essential to effective public health responses. All the evidence shows, as Christian Aid has shown on the ground in Sierra Leone, that you get a better response when you mobilise communities —when you work with traditional healers and leaders, alongside community healthcare workers and others, all to develop a response that is firmly rooted in communities, reflects their priorities and is capable of winning their support and confidence. It is that challenge to trust and confidence, and the lack of those now in institutions and Governments, which is one of the greatest casualties to have emerged from this crisis. It needs to be restored.
Underpinning all that work are adequate flows of revenue and resourcing which are not solely dependent on aid and development assistance from donors but rooted in the need to do better at revenue-raising locally and make sure, for instance, that we address issues and failures in the collection of revenue from extractive industries. That was a recommendation from the Select Committee of the House of Commons. There is also the need to make sure, as the Prime Minister has emphasised in a number of his interventions in this area, that we do better on illicit flows between jurisdictions and the loss to country revenues as a result of companies actively arranging their affairs and individuals to avoid tax.
So all those issues, and the response to them, need to be examined if we are to learn the lessons of this crisis. How do the Government intend to implement the Select Committee’s recommendations on improving DfID country funding and bilateral in-country assistance programmes? How do they intend to ensure that local communities are involved in that?
Finally, we need to ensure that we address an all too often neglected area of development policy—namely, the role of science and research and development. We need to make sure that diagnostic institutions and laboratories are established to build on the lessons we have learned from the Ebola crisis, and we must take account of the lack of trained personnel. The Ebola epidemic has decimated the health workforce in Sierra Leone. There are too few doctors to ensure effective recovery from the disease. The total absence of postgraduate medical training in Sierra Leone bedevils an effective response and the whole healthcare system in that country, rendering it unable to train its own doctors in-country. Will the Minister agree to receive a delegation from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which has come forward with a proposal to address this need which it has forged, together with its partners in Sierra Leone, and other institutions in the United Kingdom, including King’s College? So we have a crisis and a problem but also an opportunity to ensure that we put in place mechanisms that not just end the present suffering but avoid the possibility of yet further suffering in the future.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for introducing this very important debate. It is a pleasure for me to pay tribute to the more than 1,000 UK health workers who have volunteered to go to Sierra Leone to help combat the terrible Ebola virus. Eradication of this virulent disease presents particular cultural challenges as well as the need for rigorous medical practice. That is what makes it special.
The UK has made a tremendous contribution to the global effort due to three things: first, the willingness of so many generous skilled people to go to Africa to help others; secondly, the preparedness of the UK to help in such medical and disaster emergencies due to the training and care programmes for volunteers of the UK International Emergency Trauma Register; and, thirdly, the support for the campaign offered by DfID, the Department of Health and the NHS.
That support has been vital in providing the cash and facilities necessary to ensure that the volunteers are well trained, well supported and well cared for on their return. It is a tribute to the rigour of the systems that UK-Med and its NGO partners have put in place that only a handful of UK health workers in Sierra Leone have contracted the virus. Thanks to the quality of care that they have received, they have, thankfully, survived.
Currently, despite a small resurgence in the disease that the noble Lord mentioned, the support that the UK has given to developing local health services has meant that UK-Med and the International Emergency Medical Register are not looking for any more UK volunteers for the Ebola programme at the moment. In a way, that is encouraging, because it means that the local health services are sort of coping. Sadly, it is clear that the outbreak was so serious in the first place because the health system in Sierra Leone and the other victim countries was broken. However, local health services need to be forever vigilant, since rapid response to any small outbreak will be vital to ensuring that the outbreak is contained. So perhaps I could ask the Minister what the UK is doing to ensure that the improvements in local health services are maintained and taken even further, as the noble Lord demanded.
As for the NHS, we need to help the organisation to be geared up for releasing staff for this important work and other medical emergencies that will arise in future. We must remember that, by building a capacity to respond to health emergencies overseas, we increase our own capacity to respond nationally here at home at the same time. Following Ebola, we now have a cadre of NHS staff who have first-hand experience of treating and caring for patients with a highly contagious and lethal condition, exercising full barrier nursing and care. This will be a huge advantage when we have a major outbreak of what is likely to be an airborne infection in this country. We constantly hear about new virulent strains of influenza, for example, and the travelling habits of the world’s population make it inevitable that they will reach our shores sooner or later. Not only are these well-trained former volunteers a direct asset themselves but they can also train their colleagues wherever they work, so that these difficult cases can be managed safely and effectively.
By responding to Ebola and, indeed, earlier medical emergencies, we have built a national emergency healthcare workforce, which can quickly be mobilised to respond to emergencies overseas but is equally available for emergencies in this country, should we need it. What is to be done to ensure that we continue to have that workforce? Three initiatives have been suggested to me by Professor Tony Redmond, a trustee of UK-Med and professor at Manchester and Keele universities, to help to strengthen our response readiness.
First, on humanitarian posts, as he points out there is a great deal of altruism within the NHS and many staff wish to volunteer to help vulnerable people in other countries. However, they can find it difficult to take a break from their job, so he proposes that humanitarian posts be established in specialties and areas where it is difficult to recruit and therefore there are vacant posts. Those who take these posts will be guaranteed a period each year where they can be seconded to work overseas, either in an emergency or to help to build the capacity in vulnerable countries to which the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, has referred.
Secondly, there should be cross-trust volunteering. At present, it is difficult to work across two NHS trusts when you are not formally employed by both. The suggestion is to establish an agreement across the NHS so that volunteers who are on the register and appropriately trained and accountable can also deploy as cover across different trusts when teams are deployed overseas. This volunteering to cover for colleagues should have equal recognition with those who actually go overseas. This would also strengthen the UK’s resilience in the event of a major outbreak or mass casualty event at home.
Thirdly, volunteering needs to be incorporated into job plans and appraisals. As I have highlighted, many staff in the NHS are already engaged in volunteering to help support more vulnerable countries and also support the emergency response to disasters overseas, but this work is not recognised in training or in professional development and appraisal. Not only does volunteering help some of the most vulnerable in the world, it also increases overall job satisfaction, because healthcare workers, by and large, enjoy the opportunity to exercise their altruism. Most importantly for the UK, volunteering builds up very relevant skills and experience in managing conditions in difficult circumstances, managing resources effectively, and being exposed to a wide range of conditions and diseases that are rarely seen in the UK but which are important to recognise and to know how to deal with when they occur. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health has produced a very good document on volunteering and Professor Redmond and his colleagues would look for its recommendations to be widely supported.
I would like to ask the Minister whether the Government will consider these proposals and let your Lordships know whether they will be supported. I know that the NHS is keen to have a positive legacy from its response to the Ebola crisis. By facilitating volunteering overseas, that legacy will be strengthened. However, it is vital that, for volunteering to be safe, effective and of true benefit to the countries to which volunteers are invited, those volunteers are fully trained, insured, vaccinated, accountable and registered to practise in the relevant country. All of these things are promoted and facilitated through the International Emergency Medical Register.
Finally, I will say just a word about those left behind after the Ebola outbreak. I understand from recent research that the number of women who have been widowed by Ebola is considerable. Many have children but find themselves unable to look after themselves, let alone their families. Widows and their female children are often left in particularly vulnerable situations. Reports in the media highlight the disproportionate effect that the situation is having, as it unleashes secondary effects on economic and social development, all of which have harmful implications for women and girls. The charity Street Child reports the story of a young girl who, on the death of her father, became pregnant when she sold herself for sex in order simply to get food for her family. Widows can also face further hardship and abusive practices, such as losing their property and being shunned by society because they have no man to protect them. Therefore, I ask the Minister whether the Government are adding something to address these problems to the very significant medical programme that they have launched to eradicate this disease. Ebola will never be yesterday’s story for these people.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Boateng on having secured this debate and introduced it so effectively. I hope that I am not the only person present who feels distressed that there are so few contributors, as the Ebola epidemic still causes devastation across west Africa. As I discussed in a previous debate, the social and economic impact of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone has been particularly severe. The country went from having one of the fastest-growing economies in the world to one that has shrunk by fully 25% of GDP. Rebuilding the healthcare system will require a great deal of direct financial aid, which can come only from the international community. In turn, a viable healthcare system cannot be built unless there is a sustained economic recovery.
The backdrop to this is not encouraging. We live in the most interdependent world ever. There was a point when people in many countries were perturbed about the Ebola outbreak. However, this is not a world that has effective global governance; the United Nations is probably at its weakest ever. In many fields one finds that pledges are made but no money is forthcoming. My great worry is that this will also be true in the case of the Ebola outbreak.
A meeting of the UN last week saw pledges of $3.2 billion to help the recovery in the three countries most directly affected by the epidemic. As the Minister will remember, I mentioned in a previous debate that the World Bank has pledged $1.62 billion. I ask, again, whether she knows whether those figures have any reality. To me, as someone who works on climate change, they sound eerily like the $100 billion a year that developed countries have pledged to the poorer counties of the world to help alleviate the effects of climate change. Virtually none of money has ever become real; this must not happen in the case of the Ebola epidemic.
Zoonotic diseases are on the increase in Africa and are in fact connected with climate change—the chief connection is deforestation. They can cause havoc and have global implications. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned, Ebola could have become a worldwide pandemic if it had happened to be an airborne virus. In Africa, the impact of the Ebola epidemic overlaps heavily with diseases that are already putting great strain on existing healthcare systems. Sub-Saharan Africa suffers from the crippling effects of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Over three-quarters of total malaria cases across the world are located in Africa and over 90% of malaria deaths occur in that continent. More than 20 million Africans are living with HIV/AIDS, a staggering number, although, it has to be said, about 70% are now obtaining antiretroviral treatment.
While most attention has naturally been concentrated on the three countries that have borne the brunt of the Ebola epidemic, states not directly involved in the epidemic have also been deeply affected, again with major economic consequences. For example, a recent survey of holiday operators found a decline of up to 70% in bookings, primarily because of fear of Ebola, including for countries quite remote from those directly affected, such as Kenya, South Africa and Mozambique. The overall knock-on effect economically, morally and socially across large areas of Africa has therefore been profound—and continues to be so.
If the Minister can overcome her terrible malady, I have three further questions to ask her. First, everyone now accepts that the response of the international community to the Ebola outbreak—and especially that of the UN agencies—was too slow and fragmented. What are the main reforms that the Government would like to see put in place before the next potential global pandemic? We are in a situation where everybody is drawing lessons but the theorem that I mentioned at the beginning applies. These are mostly abstract; it is hard to see where the beef is—where the substance is. This is really dangerous, I think, for possible future pandemics. Any information that the Minister has on that point would be valuable. What would be the best reforms to produce a more effective response on the part of the international community to the next global pandemic? Any such pandemic will likely be zoonotic, as I have mentioned, but could be much more lethal.
Secondly, there has to be a step change—as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned—in the training of medical personnel. When the epidemic started, Sierra Leone had only one doctor for every 70,000 people; compare that to Britain, where there is one doctor for every 360 people—and now they are going to have to work seven days a week. How could this process happen quickly? I cannot see any way except by the sustained involvement, again, of the international community, which means medical personnel being in the affected countries and surrounding countries for a sustained period—at least five years further. What contribution will the UK make to that and has it got that kind of timeframe? To me it seems absolutely necessary.
Thirdly, however, I think that there is a theorem of hope around. This is a period of fundamental innovation in medicine, largely because of the digital revolution. For the first time ever in human history, I think, cutting-edge technology is going directly to the poorer countries of the world. A major example is mobile phones and smartphones. The case of Nigeria, which my noble friend Lord Boateng quoted, is really interesting because Nigeria contained Ebola partly by means of text messages sent directly to millions of citizens daily to alert them to the actions needed so that the disease did not spread. This would not have been possible even 10 years ago.
We know that in Africa it has been possible to produce a kind of leapfrog effect with mobile phones—that is, African countries have gone directly to a phone system without having the stage of fixed telephone lines. It is possible that the same thing could happen with medical treatment if there is an effective response by the international community. In other words, that community should continue to bring front-line treatments, even experimental treatments that have not been fully tested, to west Africa and other parts of the continent potentially affected. It is at least conceivable that there could be a kind of breakthrough effect, because it is not just a matter of training medical personnel. If we could bring medical innovation on a large scale on that kind of model directly to poorer countries in Africa, it could be transformative in its potential impact.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for securing this important debate and introducing it so effectively. The last time we debated this issue in the Lords was, I think, in a debate put down by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, at that time my noble friend, and I was fortunate to be the DfID Minster replying. In that position, I was privy to the absolutely outstanding efforts made by DfID to counter this epidemic in Sierra Leone.
Ebola illustrated, in the most appalling way, how we are all interconnected. Not only did we have a moral responsibility to respond to what was happening in Sierra Leone, a country in the development of which we played such a key role after its civil war, but it was and is in our self-interest to do so. We are all so interconnected globally that an epidemic such as this can easily move across continents, as we have heard, out of control. When that patient arrived and died in Nigeria, the world was fortunate that a nurse, in effect, gave her life ensuring that this patient was not allowed to leave the clinic, with appalling consequences for the nurse herself but astonishing protection for the people of Nigeria and the wider world. Indeed, they used the system for polio, but it was helped by the first case being received in the private clinic that it was. Too easily, the epidemic could have reached widely round the world.
We were lucky too, in my view, that we had in DfID, as Chief Scientific Officer, the outstanding Chris Whitty, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. There could not have been a better person to set about organising the UK’s comprehensive response to Ebola in Sierra Leone.
While the US concentrated on Liberia and France led in Guinea, work was undertaken at every level. Clinics were set up locally where patients could be identified, and those with Ebola sent to dedicated units. Lab facilities were improved to speed up diagnosis. Work with anthropologists was undertaken to work out practices which enabled those who had lost loved ones to have rites of passage which did not endanger all mourners. The development of treatments and vaccines was expedited. As my noble friend Lady Walmsley said, NHS volunteers were identified and trained to work as safely as possible in Sierra Leone. I pay tribute to them and to UK-Med.
When I answered the debate earlier this year, we seemed to be within striking distance of ending this epidemic. We seemed to have done so in Liberia. I would like to know whether the cases in the three countries are traceable to other known cases, or whether some do not fall into this category. What are the implications in either case?
The World Health Organization has rightly been criticised for its tardy response, lack of resources and inappropriate personnel in the region and elsewhere. What progress can be reported? What have we learned in terms of surveillance, early warning and response systems? How do we identify and respond to potential crises in future?
The Government of Sierra Leone were understandably keen to be supported as they rebuilt. Are we ensuring that such rebuilding is fully transparent and accountable? There was huge concern that other patients —for example, those with malaria—did not come to clinics lest they were infected with Ebola, and that vaccination and treatment for other diseases fell away. Will the noble Baroness give an estimate of the associated mortality and tell us what is being done to address this?
There has been huge concern, as others have mentioned, that children spent a long time out of school. What is being down to ensure that they make up for lost time? What is being done to support orphans, who have been mentioned? How are we best supporting women and girls, given that they are especially vulnerable, as my noble friend Lady Walmsley pointed out? The International Development Select Committee and others expressed concern about the weakness of the health systems that allowed the epidemic to take hold, and concern that these should now be strengthened. Like the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, I want to know what is being done to address that area. It is one thing to intervene in a humanitarian crisis like this, with popular support, but it is quite another to sustain long-term investment. What is the financial size of the commitment being made by DfID?
I would appreciate an update on treatments and vaccines. It was excellent that in the crisis, because of the work after 9/11, particularly by the Americans, there was some progress which could be built on. I would like to know how the vaccines from the UK, especially from the Lister Institute, have been faring. There was the proposal, of course, that we should take a shared public risk in developing these. Clearly, on the one hand, this could be an opportunity for drug companies to avoid their responsibilities. On the other hand, there could be a public good involved. The Minister’s noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill, has discussed such public pooling of risk in relation to the development of antibiotic-resistant drugs. Where are we in relation to Ebola treatments and vaccines? How do we protect from abuse by the pharmaceutical industry in this area? Are there proposals for delivering more rapidly clinical trials in this field? How might production be scaled up and adequate delivery put in place? What work is being carried out to assess other potential disease threats which may quickly cross borders in our globalised world?
I came across one bright note in relation to Ebola. Sierra Leone has a high incidence of FGM. From what I understand, in the civil war this stopped. It re-started thereafter. I heard that it stopped again in the Ebola epidemic. It seems to me to be vital—this is what I urged and I want to know exactly what we are now doing—that we build on that change. We cannot allow things simply to return to normal. If we can change people’s burial practices, surely we can, and must, address this terrible practice as well.
I would also like to ask what lessons have been learned about the deployment of NHS staff. UK-Med seemed to do a remarkable job. Like my noble friend Lady Walmsley, I pay tribute to it. I am sure that it will be learning lessons, which we will need to apply in other humanitarian emergencies. I look forward to the Minister’s response and pay tribute again to the astonishing efforts of those right across DfID, but especially Chris Whitty, Tony Redmond from Manchester and George Turkington and their teams, for their tireless work in tackling this disease.
My Lords, I, too, would like to thank my noble friend Lord Boateng for initiating this debate. It was only a few weeks ago that we had a debate on this subject; nevertheless, I am extremely grateful that my noble friend has raised this issue again because it gives us the opportunity to focus on key priorities as we move forward. As my noble friend and all noble Lords in today’s debate have stressed, the main lessons from this outbreak relate to the strengthening of health systems, increasing the number of primary healthcare staff, improving their training, building scientific capacity in diagnostics and public health laboratories and supporting public health messaging and outreach generally. These are all topics that we touched upon in the last debate but I want to come on to some specific points.
I, too, have previously acknowledged the Government’s incredibly positive response to Ebola on the ground and the incredibly significant role of British volunteers and their bravery. In the previous debate I mentioned how much I appreciated the Government recognising their courage with a medal.
As we have heard from my noble friend, over decades Sierra Leone has had insufficient investment in its health systems. Universal health coverage can make countries more resilient to health concerns such as Ebola before they become widespread emergencies, as highlighted by my noble friend. I therefore welcome the clear commitment given in recent debates by Ministers—the noble Baroness in particular—to support universal health coverage, free at the point of access, in the language of the health goal in the SDGs. I welcome their commitment to this in the forthcoming New York negotiations in September.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, I think that we are extremely lucky to have someone like Professor Chris Whitty and I have attended many of his briefings about the crisis. In recent briefings he particularly stressed the impact of Ebola on other diseases. That is one of the key lessons for us to focus on. It is clear, as my noble friend Lord Giddens said, that gains made against malaria are at risk as health systems are pushed to breaking point and people avoid using them because they fear contracting Ebola. Many children have missed out on routine vaccination services since 2014. Modelling by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on the long-term impact of Ebola on routine immunisation suggested that as many as 1 million children could miss out on measles vaccinations as a result of the knock-on impact of Ebola.
One of the big issues affecting immunisation has been trust in the health service, another issue touched upon in today’s debate. Rumours circulating in the region have falsely claimed that childhood vaccines, such as those protecting against measles, pneumonia and diarrhoea, could be linked to Ebola. Tackling that misinformation is key. This has dealt a severe blow to immunisation coverage, with parents refusing to allow their children to be immunised against common but potentially fatal conditions, leaving hundreds of thousands of children at risk. Additionally, as we have heard from all noble Lords, hundreds of health workers in the three countries were among the 10,000 people who lost their lives to Ebola during the crisis and many were forced to abandon their posts as the epidemic took hold. As the three countries begin their return to normality, there is now a severe shortage of trained health workers to administer vaccines, let alone carry out other primary care work.
In her written response following the recent debate, which I managed to get this afternoon and which was quite helpful, the Minister outlined the immediate steps that were taken to reinstate basic healthcare as safely as possible. Picking up on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, could the Minister set out for us today the longer- term strategy to develop more resilient and sustainable health services, particularly in Sierra Leone? What steps have been taken by the department to support the Government of Sierra Leone in developing a comprehensive strategy aimed at supporting communities to recover from the crisis and to put the country back on track to meet all the development targets that it has? Can the Minister tell the Committee whether the department, in considering the lessons of the outbreak, has examined the impact of previous changes to funding commitments to Sierra Leone? In doing so, can she tell us whether the department has reversed or rethought any planned funding cuts?
One other clear lesson on the outbreak highlighted by my noble friend Lord Boateng has been the role of community engagement—another issue that we touched on in the previous debate. I welcome the noble Baroness’s written response in relation to this, particularly on the Social Mobilisation Action Consortium, which brought together BBC Media Action, Centres for Disease Control, GOAL and Restless Development, all funded by DfID. In the debate I touched on the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, about the lessons in terms of FGM. I am disappointed with the written response on that. I know—I share the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Northover—that there are huge cultural issues but if we were able to address the issue and raise awareness during such a difficult period, surely we need to ensure that we continue with that and not back away from it.
It is important that we ensure this work continues and is extended to enable civil society organisations to work with communities, to hold meetings, to brief village chiefs and, as my noble friend said, to work with religious leaders not only on basic health issues but on the importance of immunising children. We also need to ensure that there are enough trained health workers to provide the vaccines to the children.
Last week I met with Dr Seth Berkley of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Unfortunately I could not attend the briefing organised by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, but I was able to meet him separately. He made clear that as the initial Ebola epidemic recedes we face a race against time to prevent outbreaks of other dangerous diseases by ensuring that children receive the vaccines they need to protect them. That is a key element of restoring trust. Rebuilding trust among parents and carers is critical, as is ensuring that they are provided with the services they need to protect their children.
My Lords, I apologise for my coughing and spluttering throughout the debate. I tried hard to keep it under control but sadly have failed.
I join noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for securing this debate and I commend his long-standing commitment to international development. I thank everyone who has contributed today and pay tribute to the recognition that noble Lords have paid to DfID and its work and to the great work that volunteers and the National Health Service have also contributed.
As noble Lords are aware, we have played a major role in Sierra Leone and the region in tackling Ebola. It is good that we have come together to discuss the lessons that can be learned from the outbreak in regard to the strengthening and development of sustainable healthcare systems in sub-Saharan Africa.
There were a great number of questions. I hope that my contribution will answer some of them but I fear that time will beat me to it. I therefore undertake to write to all noble Lords by addressing a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, sending a copy to all noble Lords and placing a copy in the Library.
New cases of Ebola have reduced from 500 per week in November 2014 to around 10 to 14 per week at the last count we have been given, which was 12 July. The UK showed incredible leadership, mobilising the international community and supporting the Government of Sierra Leone to halt Ebola’s spread. I join all noble Lords in paying tribute to the British, Sierra Leonean and other health workers who tackled this disease on the front line.
There are many lessons to be drawn from this unprecedented event. We are committed to identify them and use them to inform and reform, both inside the UK and with international institutions. We have called on the World Health Organization to up its game, securing reforms at the WHO executive board in January and the World Health Assembly in May. Dame Barbara Stocking reviewed WHO’s systems for responding to health emergencies and the UK agrees with her report’s recommendations. The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, said in his very eloquent contribution that Ebola posed a real challenge and a stress test on all health systems in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. This highlighted why we need to make sure that, in response to such crises, the World Health Organization looks at its internal systems better.
We will continue to apply pressure to improve global health security at the UN General Assembly, the World Bank autumn meetings and at the G20 update in November. The pressure needs to be continued. The European Commission has been a strong supporter of health systems in all affected countries. In particular, the Commission supports countries such as Guinea, where the outbreak started, but where the UK does not provide direct support as in Sierra Leone. The UK works as a critical partner of the Commission in Brussels and in countries, pressing it to do better.
As we identify lessons, we must remember that Ebola in west Africa is unique, as was SARS and as will be the next global health emergency. We need to be committed to improving resilience in relation to all infectious diseases. In 2013, only 10 countries were below Sierra Leone in the Human Development Index. It had the lowest life expectancy in the world. Ebola highlighted how fragile its health system was. We are committed to a “health systems approach” that helps a country organise health resources—money, workforce, buildings, supplies, services and information. Ebola shone a light on all these, but surveillance, rapid response and infection control limitations allowed the outbreak to get out of control.
We have learned three particular lessons for health systems in this respect. First, good surveillance makes the most of local context. I agree with all noble Lords that in countries with limited resources we must include local communities. People and community health workers must get basic training in what to look for. Health workers must have the right incentives to engage with local people, so that communities trust and are able to communicate with them. Communities must not fear formal health facilities.
Secondly, we have learned that health systems need capacity to respond to outbreaks fast, a functioning network of health centres and rapid mobile response teams with particular skills in managing outbreaks.
Finally, we have learned that infection prevention and control needs to be at the core of any health system. In addition to these lessons from Ebola, we have learned much about how to effectively support health systems from years of supporting health in developing countries around the world. For instance, we know from our experience that effectively supporting health systems requires a long-term approach. One reason why the UK engaged so effectively in Sierra Leone was our long-standing development partnership with the country and its Government. We also know that health workers are fundamental and in short supply in the health systems of most low-income countries. We know that they must be trained, motivated, supported and held to account.
We have learned that governance is critical. Whatever kind of health system you have—mostly private or mostly public—the Government must oversee and regulate the quality of care, and ensure that the poor are protected from poor services and financial hardship in buying services. In this respect, the UK helps by advising countries on how to finance their health systems, procure and distribute essential medicines, manage payroll systems and much more. Work to help countries build health systems needs to happen at several levels—national, regional and international. This is why we continually work to ensure that the international system is better equipped to help countries build health systems and support them in responding to disease outbreaks.
In building health systems other factors outside them are critical, including access to clean water, good sanitation and hygiene. We have learned that a good public health system must engage with private clinics. Because many people in poor countries use only the private sector, private clinics need to be informed about outbreaks when they occur. In extremely fragile states where NGOs may provide most health services, NGOs also need to be part of the surveillance and response effort. More lessons need to be learnt. I assure noble Lords that we will be taking these into account as we help Sierra Leone recover from Ebola and continue to support health in developing countries around the world.
The UK is providing up to £37 million to the health pillar of President Koroma’s nine-month recovery plan. This will support health worker and patient safety in clinics through support for staff training, water and sanitation facilities, and strengthening laboratory capacity. It will also help to re-establish basic health services through the donation of drugs left over from the Ebola response. We have also committed £13 million to help countries in the region prepare for future infectious disease outbreaks. The UK has supported more than half of all beds for Ebola patients in Sierra Leone and more than 100 burial teams, trained 4,000 front-line staff, tested one-third of all samples collected nationwide and delivered more than 1 million PPE suits and 150 vehicles. Our support will not stop there as we work to help the country get to zero and stay there by rebuilding its health system.
In the two or three minutes that I have, I will try quickly to ramble through some of the questions posed by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, asked about disease surveillance, what was in place and what the UK could ensure for future outbreaks of Ebola. My department and the Department of Health are seeking greater commitment from partner countries to implement the international health regulations. These regulations require countries to put in place a national system to protect, prevent and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease and other threats. The Fleming Fund is a five-year, £195 million programme, which was announced in the Budget and will be managed by the Department of Health. We are linking up with France, the United States and the Gates foundation, which have all recently announced plans to do more on disease surveillance.
The noble Lord also asked about illicit financial flows and tax evasion. At the Addis Tax Initiative in Addis Ababa, with the United States, Germany, Netherlands, Ethiopia and others, the Secretary of State launched an initiative to ensure that we commit to doubling support for tax reform in the developing world by 2020. This initiative specifically stresses the importance of tackling cross-border tax evasion and avoidance.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and other noble Lords asked about vulnerable groups, particularly young girls and women. We know that about 10,000 children will have lost one or both parents, or their primary care givers, to Ebola. This loss of family and protection makes them absolutely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. We are working with UNICEF and others to set up the observation interim care centres in all districts where children can be safely quarantined if they are suspected of having Ebola, families can be found if they have become separated and counselling can be received. There is a lot of ongoing work to make sure that vulnerable people, particularly children, have the right support in place.
I have a feeling that I am running fast out of time and I am struggling to breathe. Perhaps noble Lords will agree to allow me to undertake to write. I hope that at the next debate I will not be as infected as I am now. I have quite a lot of responses to get through and I fear that time and my own energy to keep upright are failing me. I thank noble Lords.
Committee adjourned at 6 pm.