House of Lords
Monday, 14 December 2015.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.
Introduction: Baroness Watkins of Tavistock
Mary Jane Watkins, having been created Baroness Watkins of Tavistock, of Buckland Monachorum in the County of Devon, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Baroness Emerton and Lord Kestenbaum, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
My Lords, over the summer the Government consulted on proposals to devolve the power to extend Sunday trading hours to local areas. We are carefully considering the responses to the consultation and will publish our plans in due course.
Do the Government not believe in cutting red tape and devolving powers to local authorities? Does the Minister agree that we are a multicultural society and England should be as liberal as Scotland in Sunday trading laws? Will she assure the House that she is not going to put the interests of the SNP before the convenience of English and Welsh consumers and the economy of England and Wales?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to mention the Scots, who already have deregulated Sunday trading hours, but I emphasise again that we are looking at this carefully in light of the consultation. Our proposal is to make the decision a local one.
My Lords, I think my noble friend was saying that he likes the current compromise, which does have a balance. Equally, there have been a number of changes in recent years, not least the enormous number of sales over the internet, which continue to grow—by 15% this year. The Government are rightly looking at the issue again to see if there should be more local choice, not least to encourage sales to tourists.
My Lords, the Minister will recall that the last time a Conservative Government yielded to the supermarkets, the main points of controversy were protecting the terms and conditions of employment of workers in the retail industry, and protecting those who have a conscientious objection to working on a Sunday. What provision will be made in respect of these two matters?
My Lords, we have made it clear in our consultation that shop workers who want to work on Sundays will have greater choice to work more hours, but that those who do not wish to work on Sundays will continue to be protected. This important point comes through from the consultation.
My Lords, the Liberal Democrats understand the Government’s considering allowing this decision to be made at a local level. However, we are concerned that this power, if given, could be seen as a boon to out-of-town traders. Will the Minister reassure us that any devolution will come with strict caveats on its use to ensure that local authorities focus on benefiting small independents and not out-of-town shopping malls?
My Lords, under our proposals, this would be a matter for local authorities. I know that they have different views on how to benefit their local economies and SMEs, but actually, this measure could be good for SMEs, particularly in areas with great tourism potential, where the footfall would help small companies—not only retail shops but restaurants and leisure outlets, for example.
My Lords, would a useful reform be to go back to the good old days when people were paid double time for working on Sunday; then, shops, in the main, would not want to open? If I introduced a Private Member’s Bill, would the Government support me?
My Lords, will not such devolution result in a postcode lottery? Can one imagine, for example, a chain of garden centres across the country—in which, incidentally, I have no interest to declare—being allowed to open in local authority A and not local authority B?
My Lords, I think you would indeed get differences, and that would reflect different councils and the different views of different elected representatives. I am glad that my noble friend mentioned garden centres because the Horticultural Trades Association is one of the bodies that is particularly keen to see reform, so that people can buy their plants and pots on a Sunday.
My Lords, we look forward to hearing the results of the consultation, which must be one of the longest being carried out by the Government at present. However, for the avoidance of all doubt, I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that the Enterprise Bill currently before your Lordships’ House, or any other Bill currently before either House, will not be used to bring forward such regulations in this Parliament.
Will my noble friend accept that those of us who opposed the relaxation of Sunday trading restrictions many years ago forecast that Sunday would become another high street Saturday? That prophecy has been fulfilled. Will she please try to persuade her ministerial colleagues not to take it further?
My Lords, can the Minister explain exactly how, under the Government’s consultation proposals, workers are actually protected—not just protected at law, but protected from losing their jobs if they exercise their right not to work on Sunday?
My Lords, I am happy to take the noble Baroness through it in detail but it is unlawful to discriminate in the way that she seems to suggest might be possible. Shopworkers’ rights would be even better communicated if we were to change the law but, at the moment, people have a right—and if that right is broken, they can go to ACAS and an employment tribunal.
Transport for London
My Lords, various government departments have regular meetings with representatives of Transport for London. The Secretary of State, along with other Ministers, meets the Mayor of London several times a year. My ministerial colleagues and I also have regular meetings with the commissioner and other senior staff at Transport for London, as do our officials.
Given that smoking and the consumption of alcohol are now banned on the Tube, should not Transport for London follow the lead of some American cities, such as Washington DC, and consider banning the consumption of hot food on Tube trains? Many passengers in congested carriages find that very offensive; it creates litter and, when left lying around carriages, can create a health hazard. Will my noble friend the Minister raise this when he next meets Transport for London and suggest that it considers this proposal, and perhaps undertakes a passenger survey to find out what passengers would like?
My Lords, my noble friend raises an important area of concern to many commuters across London. There are no current plans at TfL to introduce such a ban but there is a current policy, under the guise of Travel Better London, which helps Londoners to think about travel etiquette and seeks to address passenger behaviours that can lead to improvements in services. I will of course put on the agenda of our next meeting with the commissioner, which will happen shortly, the specific issue which my noble friend raises.
My Lords, there is an advertisement from Transport for London and the Mayor of London on Westminster station which states that Transport for London does not make a profit because,
“we reinvest all our income to run and improve your services”.
Since Transport for London is directly responsible, through a subsidiary, for running the London Underground, would the Government, at their next meeting with its representatives, like to express their support for Transport for London and the Mayor of London for this approach that, as a train operator, TfL should reinvest all its income in running and improving the services that it operates?
We have wide-ranging discussions with Transport for London across a variety of issues. I will be pleased to discuss any matters that noble Lords wish to raise, put them on the agenda and report back. However, I would add that a great deal of investment goes into transport in London and that over the last 10 years, we have certainly seen great improvements.
My Lords, in view of the success of the conference on climate change over the weekend, will my noble friend have urgent discussions with Transport for London about the appalling increases in congestion and pollution caused by the introduction of bicycle lanes, which are in use in large numbers only in the peak period? Will he at least ensure that other traffic can use those lanes during the course of the day? In the present situation on Lower Thames Street, for example, they are likely to die from carbon monoxide or other poisoning from pollution any moment now.
I think that all noble Lords would acknowledge the benefits of cycling across London. I stress that the Mayor of London has primary responsibility for planning in London, along with the air quality strategy. The introduction of cycle lanes is partly to encourage more sustainable forms of travel across the capital.
My Lords, when the Minister raises the subject of smelly food at his next meeting with TfL, what will his answer be when TfL says to him that cutting the government revenue grant to TfL from £639 million this year to nothing at all in a little over two years’ time leaves it with no choice but to let more of its premises and underground stations? This will inevitably lead to the letting of more, not fewer, fast food outlets in underground stations and consequently more smelly food on tube trains, not less.
What is smelly food to some may not be smelly to others, but let us not go into that particular issue. The important thing to remember is that there has been a tough spending round, but in our discussions London government has a substantial settlement for the next spending review period of £11 billion. We are working together to improve London’s quality of transport across the board.
The Minister will be aware that there is a Private Bill working its way through this House to do with, among other things, disposal of assets by Transport for London. When meeting Transport for London, will he ensure that it and the local authorities in which these developments will take place have a proper proportion of social housing coming out of them, not just housing for the very rich?
My list grows for my meeting with Transport for London. Of course I take anything I hear from noble Lords seriously and I will put it on the agenda and discuss it. The important thing to remember, however, is that the Government work hand in glove to ensure that, although there is delegation and devolution in London on issues of transport, we provide the best transport for the best city in the world.
My Lords, we all know the Mayor of London’s addiction to cycling, but is my noble friend Lord Higgins not absolutely right that what is happening now has done more damage, and is doing more damage, to London than almost anything since the Blitz? Is it not also hugely age discriminatory? There is a huge section of the population of a certain age, well represented in this House—I declare an interest—for whom cycling is not a practical option.
My Lords, when the Minister meets Transport for London with his shopping list of requirements, could he also raise the issue of the growing number of hate crimes, particularly Islamophobic hate crimes, that are taking place on tubes and buses, particularly in London? There are reports of the driver, or whoever is responsible, doing absolutely nothing until passengers eventually intervene to try to stop these crimes. What responsibility does Transport for London have when it comes to these sorts of crimes?
The noble Baroness raises a very important point. She knows I totally agree with her on the importance of this issue. All kinds of hate crime, whoever the perpetrator and whoever the victim, must be eradicated, including on our transport system here in London. Additional policing measures have been put in place to address the specific issue of hate crime. As the noble Baroness will also be aware, in terms of Islamophobia, anti-Muslim hatred will be a specifically recorded hate crime from April next year.
Education: English Baccalaureate
My Lords, all state-funded schools are required to teach science and maths to pupils up to the age of 16 as part of a broad and balanced curriculum. Since the introduction of the EBacc in 2010, the proportion of pupils taking GCSEs in maths has remained stable at 97%. For science counted in the EBacc, the proportion has increased from 63% to 74%. We have also had a substantial increase of 15% or more in the number of pupils taking maths and science at A-level.
That is very good news indeed. Would my noble friend not agree that given the importance of these STEM subjects to the future careers of young people and, indeed, to the economy, it would be very profitable to continue the expansion of maths and science as compulsory subjects into the 17 and 18 year-old age group?
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the latest figures show that almost one in five secondary teacher training places for September has not been filled, and on non-EBacc courses, less than two-thirds of the number of trainees required have been recruited, with design and technology being the hardest hit. Does he think that the concentration on STEM and EBacc subjects will accelerate the decline in the number of art teachers in schools, which has already fallen 11% since 2010?
The position in relation to teachers is no different from what it has been several times over the past 15 years: a less than 1% shortfall. The substantial increase in the number of pupils taking maths A-levels—18% in maths and 27% in further maths—gives us good hope that we will see more maths teachers in future.
My Lords, the Minister will no doubt be pleased at the increase in the number of pupils studying science and maths. He used the phrase “broad and balanced”. He will also be aware that the creative industries are really important to the UK economy. Is he not concerned that we are seeing a decline in the creative and cultural subjects being taught at secondary school? If it continues apace, will he consider recommending that a creative or cultural subject be part of the EBacc offer?
We are not considering the noble Lord’s second point. There is no evidence that EBacc has had a detrimental impact on arts subjects. Since 2007, the percentage of pupils taking at least one arts GCSE has increased by 6%. A number of free schools—School 21, East London Arts & Music academy, Plymouth School of Creative Arts and the LeAF Studio School—specialise in arts and media.
My Lords, will my noble friend do everything he can to encourage the use of the baccalaureate? Under the old A plus system, at 15, children had effectively to choose whether to become artists or scientists. The result has given us a great raft of illiterate scientists and unscientific artists. The baccalaureate gives one a broad education up to at least 17 or 18. No one can consider themselves to begin to be educated unless they have a good grounding in both the arts and the sciences, and I hope that he will continue to promote the sort of exams that encourage that.
I am grateful for my noble friend’s comments. Of course, our Progress 8 measure will encourage a wider scope of subjects rather than what Tristram Hunt described as the great crime of the C/D borderline. On average, pupils take 11 subjects in total at key stage 4.
My Lords, I suspect that the Minister did not give us all the information. At A-level, although there has been a welcome increase in the number taking maths and science, what he did not tell the House was that the trend for increased numbers in those subjects significantly predates the introduction of the EBacc in 2010, and the pace of increase since then has actually slowed. Between 2002 and 2009, numbers in maths increased by 58%; since the introduction of the EBacc, they have increased by only a further 13%. In physics, between 2006 and 2010, numbers increased by 18%; since then, by 16%. The Minister also did not reveal that English and modern languages are also EBacc subjects, but take-up has fallen since 2010.
Last year, the director-general of the CBI said that,
“we have no debate at all about the 14-18 curriculum—only a debate about exams … we need curriculum reform, not just exam reform”.
Was not he right?
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that those concerned with music education are worried about the impact of the EBacc on music education in schools. That is partly because schools faced with hard choices on budget priorities are less concerned about recruiting music teachers. Is he willing to speak to people from the music education industry about those concerns?
The Minister will be aware of the huge shortage of engineers in this country and, particularly, in the Navy, Air Force and Army. What is being done to translate that increase in science and maths into engineering and to try to encourage that?
Schools: Faith Schools
The Education and Adoption Bill would require failing church schools to become academies, but land will not be removed from the church. Dioceses or their schools will sponsor the majority of failing church schools; where a non-church trust sponsors a church school, the religious character of the church school will be protected. The diocese would continue to own the land and make it available to the sponsor while it is a school, as happens with existing academies, solely for the purpose of a church school.
I thank the Minister for the clarity of his response. However, to provide reassurance to all faith groups, I ask that he add an amendment to the Education and Adoption Bill. In addition, what safeguards can he provide that the particular ethos of faith schools can be retained within a non-faith academy trust?
The noble Baroness raises an extremely good point. We are very anxious to ensure that the faith ethos is maintained. We have gone further than the noble Baroness outlines, in that we have had extensive discussions with the churches and there is a revised memorandum of understanding with them, which I believe is now largely, if not entirely, agreed. These have much more extensive provisions as to precisely how a school’s religious character will be protected.
My Lords, can the Minister expand on the nature and character of the safeguards being provided, given that the prime issue around this land is not the land itself but that it has been given by parishes and generations of generous citizens to guarantee the religious character of those schools?
I would be delighted to expand on that as the right reverend Prelate mentions. We intend to insert within the articles of association a faith object, which requires the trust to ensure that the character of the church school is maintained. There will be an entrenchment clause, which requires written consent of the diocese for changes to the articles relating to the maintenance of the church school’s religious character—for instance, those relating to local governing bodies or the church’s power to appoint staff. There is a requirement that members and trustees are appointed to provide proportionate diocese representation on the MAT, and to establish a local governing body, and for the creation of a scheme of delegation relating to the religious character of the school agreed between the MAT and the diocese. This will be protected.
My Lords, I hope that the Minister will have time to answer this question from me. I am sure that he will be aware of media reports over the weekend concerning Highfield Humanities College in Blackpool, where parents were very concerned about its conversion to an academy by the Tauheedul Education Trust, which already runs 10 Muslim faith academies—yet only 2% of the pupils at Highfield are Muslim. Will the Minister provide an assurance that there will always be full parental and community consultation when an academy changes from not having a religious character to having one—and, indeed, when it changes between faiths?
I am grateful for the noble Lord’s shorter question. I am very much aware of the case to which he refers. Of course, Tauheedul has had three of its schools inspected and they are all outstanding. We shall ensure, as our amendment to the Bill makes clear, that in all these cases in future, as has generally happened in almost every case in the past, parents are communicated with about the details of the change in status.
My Lords, a 2011 report by the London School of Economics found that by becoming a sponsored academy the school not only raises its attainment but raises the attainment of neighbouring schools. I declare my interest as managing director of a trust that operates two free schools. Does my noble friend agree with me that, while the ownership of church land is clearly very important, what really matters is the quality of the education that goes on in the schools that sit on it?
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chair of education in Lancashire, which has the largest number of church schools. I can tell the Minister that those church schools do not like glib references slurring one side or the other. Will the Minister give the House a total assurance that all church schools will be treated equally financially? At the moment, some schools run directly by the Government get more money—more capital and more revenue—than some local authority and voluntary aided sector schools. Can we have a guarantee that there will be no bribery?
I assure the noble Baroness that there will be no bribery—I believe it is a criminal offence. Ongoing funding for all schools is done on an equal basis. When some schools are started, there are some diseconomies, and some very small schools get extra money. I point the noble Baroness to the latest figures based on 2014 key stage 2: at Church of England schools, 82% of pupils achieved the required level 4, compared to 79% of pupils at local authority maintained schools.
My Lords, I was not clear on the answer given to the right reverend Prelate. I thought that part of his question referred to the property position and whether the church owning the land would be forced to part with it or have it compulsorily purchased. It seems a bit equivalent to a housing association, where the property was also often given by someone a long time ago. Can the Minister clarify the property position for me? If he does not know it offhand, which I would not necessarily expect, it could come through in an answer. I would like clarification about the property aspect raised in this Question.
Protecting the ethos of particular schools is not confined to church schools. There is a widespread feeling that multiacademy chains make new academies in their own image. How will the Minister ensure that locally developed values, nurtured over the years, can be maintained?
The noble Baroness makes an extremely good point. It is very important that sponsors coming into schools are very conscious of what the noble Baroness calls “locally developed values” and make sure that schools’ traditions, which I am very well aware of in relation to one school that I sponsor, are maintained.
House Committee and Liaison Committee
European Union Referendum Bill
1: Clause 2, page 2, line 7, at end insert “and persons who would be so entitled except for the fact that they will be aged 16 or 17 on the date on which the referendum is to be held,”
Commons Disagreement and Reason
The Commons disagree to Lords Amendment No. 1 for the following reason—
1A: Because it would involve a charge on public funds, and the Commons do not offer any further Reason, trusting that this Reason may be deemed sufficient.
My Lords, this afternoon we return to the question of the voting age. Since we last debated the Bill, only two weeks ago, it has been considered in the other place. It agreed to all of the amendments made by your Lordships, with the sole exception of Amendment 1, which would lower the voting age to 16.
This House has now discussed the question of the voting age many times since the election in relation to this Bill and the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, so this is now well-trodden ground. The Government’s position is therefore well known. We do not believe that it is appropriate to lower the voting age to 16 and, even if it were, this Bill would not be the place to make such a change. That applies as much to the amendment before the House today in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely. I recognise that she has done what she can to minimise the charge on the public purse but that does not change the principle of the Government’s position.
Before I turn to the substantial arguments, I will set out the Government’s position on financial privilege and procedure. Along with the decision to disagree with Amendment 1, the other place has sent us its reason:
“Because it would involve a charge on public funds”.
This is a reference to the financial privilege of the House of Commons. There has been a great deal of discussion and speculation on this issue, so I will endeavour to set out the Government’s position. When this House amends a Bill sent to us by the House of Commons, our amendments are assessed by the clerks in another place in order to establish whether they engage the financial privilege of the House of Commons. That important process is carried out under the authority of the Speaker, and the Government—any Government—have no say in it.
The fact that a Lords amendment to a Bill has been deemed to engage the financial privilege of the House of Commons is announced to that House before it considers the amendment, but it does not prevent the House of Commons from agreeing to that Lords amendment and thereby waiving its privilege: indeed, this happens routinely. However, should it disagree to the Lords amendment, financial privilege is the only formal reason that it can give for doing so.
It should come as no surprise that the original amendment that we sent to the House of Commons, lowering the voting age, was deemed to engage the House of Commons’s financial privilege. The Government estimate that extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds for the referendum would cost at least £6 million. But, as my honourable friend the Minister for Constitutional Reform, John Penrose, explained to the House of Commons last week, that is not the reason why the Government invited the House of Commons to disagree to this House’s amendment. The Government disagree with the principle. We disagree with the proposal to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds for the referendum for the reasons I made clear to this House when we considered the original amendment, and which I will again set out briefly this afternoon.
I turn now to those arguments. Given the number of times your Lordships have considered this, I of course do not intend to rehearse every part of the argument. However, I will set out briefly why we firmly believe that the voting age should remain at 18 for the referendum. Society has drawn numerous lines for when a young person is able to take various decisions. A 16 year-old may join the army but not use a sunbed. An 18 year-old may be deployed in a war zone but not drive a bus. Only a 21 year-old can supervise a learner driver or adopt a child. For many activities, parental consent is required; in England and Wales, joining the Armed Forces and getting married require the agreement of a young person’s parents. It would hardly be appropriate to require parental consent to cast a vote.
The state also requires that young people in England remain in education or training until the age of 18, and in Scotland young people will soon apparently enjoy the protection of a state-appointed guardian until the age of 18. Indeed, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as a person under the age of 18, unless national laws set a lower age of majority. The Committee on the Rights of the Child goes further and recommends that if a country’s age of majority is below 18 it should be reviewed, and that levels of protection be increased for all people younger than 18. Similarly, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, led by Dame Lowell Goddard, has defined “child” to mean anyone under the age of 18.
These distinctions are, in the final analysis, a matter of judgment. There is no single answer to the question of when a young person should be able to take one decision or another. But it is at 18 that society generally views a young person as becoming an adult. The line has to be drawn somewhere, and we suggest that 18 is the logical, consistent place to choose.
The Minister knows that in Scotland in the Scottish referendum, 16 and 17 year-olds were allowed to vote. I spoke to many of them during the course of that referendum and found them intelligent, well-informed and exercising their right to vote with great enthusiasm and sense. Therefore, it was a successful experiment. Why does the Minister not agree that it was successful and why does he think there was something wrong with doing that?
I do not suggest that it was unsuccessful, nor do I for a moment cast aspersions on the intelligence of 16 and 17 year-olds in Scotland or in England and Wales. Enthusiasm is of course to be welcomed at any age. Equally, there may be 15 year-olds who are very well informed and intelligent, whether they are in Scotland or in England and Wales. But, although Scotland took the view that it did about the voting age because of the devolution arrangements, most democratic societies have made the same judgment as this Government makes. In every EU member state but Austria, the voting age is 18 for national elections, and referendums where they take place. The 1975 referendum proceeded on that basis, as did the referendum on AV—and, as your Lordships may remember, the EU Act 2011would in the event of a transfer of power on competences have triggered a referendum according to the franchise that is used for general elections.
Before the Minister moves on from the point that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, raised with regard to Scotland, he tries to give the impression that it was decided purely and solely by the devolved authority with no support. Can he remind the House whether the Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland supported the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds in the referendum?
With respect, whether the Prime Minister or the leader of the Conservative Party favoured a 16 year-old franchise is beside the point as to whether the Government think that it is appropriate in this referendum for those 18 and above to vote, in the traditional way of the franchise. I know that many have pointed to the Scottish independence referendum and have said, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that in some way that “opened the door” to votes at 16. Others point to the apparent inconsistency between elections for the Westminster Parliament and elections for the Scottish Parliament. However, inconsistency is a natural consequence of devolution. The decision over the voting age has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. It may decide to raise the voting age or lower it, but that does not bind the decisions made in any of the other legislatures in the United Kingdom. It would be quite contrary to the spirit of devolution if we thought that a decision in Holyrood should determine a discussion here or whether a discussion here, on a devolved matter, should determine the decision in the Scottish Parliament. Even if one were convinced of the case, this Bill would not be the right place to make the change.
I hope that all noble Lords can agree that this is undoubtedly a complex issue and by no means straightforward. The arguments on both sides deserve respect and a fair hearing. To suggest that 16 year-olds should perhaps wait is not in any way to disrespect or criticise them, or in any way patronising. Few things are as important as the decision about who is included in the franchise and, as such, the matter deserves proper scrutiny and consideration. There should be a proper debate in this House, in the other place and in the country at large before such a significant change is contemplated. Clearly there is no consensus between the two Chambers, but nor is there clear consensus in the country as a whole.
It would not be right to bring in a novel constitutional change through an adjunct to a Bill such as this, with a specific but limited purpose. This proposal is no replacement for the proper consideration that would be given to the matter in a representation of the people Bill. As your Lordships may remember, the last one was in 1969, following a widespread national debate. When the matter came before your Lordships’ House, many noble Lords did not accept that the franchise should be lowered from 21 to 18. Some suggested that the age should be 20 by way of a compromise, but it followed widespread national debate, not an amendment to a Bill brought about by the House of Lords.
I have a certain conceit over this matter, as I was the first Member of Parliament ever elected by 18 year-olds following the exact Act to which the noble Lord has referred. Is that not the model that we should follow? If we are going to change the voting age, it should be comprehensively considered as a separate matter. It is certainly not something on which this House should seek to override the judgment of the elected House, which has now been given three times.
I respectfully agree with my noble friend and, of course, the 18 year-olds showed excellent judgment on that occasion.
Finally, the House needs to consider very carefully the perception created by a change to the franchise. We speak of this as being a once-in-a-generation referendum. If that is really the case, all sides must be able to accept the result as fair and robust. There is a real danger that a change to the voting age for the referendum could undermine that. Rightly or wrongly, a change to the franchise may be seen as an attempt to engineer the result, and that perception would damage the public’s confidence in the result of the vote.
I do not pretend for a moment to know how 16 and 17 year-olds would vote, any more than we know how 18 or 19 year-olds would vote, but the House will no doubt appreciate that a considerable part of the electorate will be disappointed with the result of the referendum. It is crucial that those who are disappointed accept the result, notwithstanding their disappointment, and do not feel it appropriate—in their minds or expressly—to cast doubt on its legitimacy.
I therefore urge noble Lords not to insist on their amendment or to agree with the amendment in lieu proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely. Instead, I urge this House to accept the position of the other place. This Bill is not the place to make a change to the age of voting; it is not the way to make good law. I beg to move.
1B: Clause 2, page 2, line 7, at end insert—
“( ) the persons who, on the date of the referendum, will be aged 16 or over and are registered in the register of electors for parliamentary elections; any steps taken to register such eligible persons shall—(i) focus on registering 15 year old “attainers” (those who will attain the age of 16 by the date of the referendum); and(ii) utilise low-cost means of communication such as email, in particular making use of school email services,””
My Lords, I rise to move Motion A1. I start by thanking the noble Baroness the Minister and the noble Lord the Minister for their co-operation on this Bill. The Government have been in listening mode and have understood that the vote on whether we leave or remain a part of the EU is one of the greatest political questions that will be put to this country this century. Ensuring that there is a valid and fair vote and ensuring that the public have the knowledge that they need to make an informed choice were some of the key criteria that we were trying to attain during the debate. We are grateful that the Government have responded.
We now have one final hurdle over which we are at odds with the Government. This House voted overwhelmingly in favour of ensuring that 16 and 17 year-olds were given a voice and a vote in the forthcoming EU referendum. Many were convinced that it did not make sense to continue with the inconsistency that now exists across the United Kingdom on when young people should be allowed to participate in the political process. Others were persuaded that the enthusiasm and intelligence that were demonstrated by 16 and 17 year-olds during the Scottish referendum debate were an example to others and would be replicated throughout the United Kingdom. Many were satisfied that the factual-based evidence from Austria and Norway demonstrated that it makes sense to encourage young people to vote while they are still living in the communities where they were brought up and where they can be encouraged by their parents to undertake their duties as citizens before many leave home at the age of 18. Many were further convinced that the evidence from those countries showed that, if young people start voting at the age of 16, they are more likely to continue to vote when they are older.
Many Peers were also reassured by the fact that today’s 16 and 17 year-olds are the most informed 16 and 17 year-olds in history, having undertaken citizenship classes at school and having information not at their fingertips but usually at the tip of their thumbs, with their constant tapping of their mobile phones. Mostly, people were aware that this would be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for these young people to express their view on a long-term relationship between our country and EU member states, the outcome of which will affect them longer than any of us and over which they should have a say.
We were deeply disappointed that the Commons did not support our approach and were extremely surprised when the Clerk suggested that the issue was subject to financial privilege. I will address the issue of invoking financial privilege later. First, let me turn to the alternative amendment that we have set out. We are grateful that the Government have dealt with the merits of this amendment in principle and not hidden behind the financial privilege reason that has been put forward by the Commons. We have determined to submit a new amendment that will address the issue of cost. First of all, we dispute the amount that the Government have suggested this amendment would cost: £6 million. In the context of government expenditure of £760 billion, £6 million is chicken-feed. We are talking about 1/1,000th of 1% of the budget. The cost of the referendum is not known, but we know that the cost of the referendum on changing the electoral system to a PR mechanism was approximately £75 million. Given the way that young people energised the campaign in Scotland, even using the Government’s own figures it would be easy, I think, to justify this additional expense. It would be extremely useful if the Minister could give us a detailed understanding and breakdown of how the Government came to this figure.
We accept that about £800,000 would have to be spent on sending 16 and 17 year-olds information through the post during the campaign, as was promised to other voters—although the idea of 16 and 17 year-olds waiting for information arriving by post, when most of them probably have never received a letter in their life, is something of an odd situation. However, we dispute the fact that the Government can include in their estimates a calculation for any additional costs for counting officers’ and regional counting officers’ expenses. We have no idea what the turnout will be, with or without 16 and 17 year-olds. The Government are stabbing in the dark.
According to the head of the Association of Electoral Administrators, the cost of counting does not change in line with turnout. Whether there is a 30% turnout by the British public in the referendum or an 80% turnout, it would not change the amount that public officials are paid. Therefore, an additional 1.5 million voters—even if they all turned out to vote—would not make a difference to the costs of the counting officers’ and regional counting officers’ expenses. Indeed, the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, John Turner, has stated clearly that, while the Government estimate that £4.2 million of this £6 million would form a part of the costs of the conduct of the poll and thus come from the Consolidated Fund to cover counting officers’ and regional counting officers’ expenses, the association would question that, as the conduct of the poll has nothing whatever to do with registration. He said that, under the fees and charges order 2015, Statutory Instrument No. 476, it is clear that expenses for registration purposes would not be allowed. Indeed, for the last parliamentary election, not one penny for the conduct of the poll went to registration. Let me be clear: we refute the figure suggested by the Government as their estimated cost of implementing this amendment. Nevertheless, in our new amendment we have sought to give a clear indication of how costs could be saved.
I do not think that the amount is irrelevant. One of the points that I will come on to is the threshold for invoking financial privilege. It is like a dark art: no one has any idea what it is and there is nothing written down anywhere. I will come on to that point and deal with the constitutional issues later in the debate, when I will be happy to deal with questions relating to financial privilege.
In the amendment, we are trying to address the issue of the costs. We accept that £800,000 would have to be spent on information, because that is what everyone else is getting, but we can bring down the costs substantially. Currently, electoral registration officers write to households and ask for a list of individuals in that household. These individuals are subsequently sent a registration form. They are asked for the names of not only people over 18 but also those who will attain that age in the next year. Therefore, 17 year-olds and many 16 year-olds are already invited to put their names on the list. In other words, we already know who these young people are and they would simply need to complete the second part of the registration exercise. We can be clear that most of this generation would do so online—no postage, no cost.
Therefore, the people we need to focus on are those who will attain the age of 16—the proposed new age of voting in the referendum—in the forthcoming year. We emphasised time and again in Committee and on Report that this would be relatively easy, as we know exactly where these people are—at school.
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness, but is not the nub of the matter our saying to Members of the elected House that we know more than they know about what the franchise should be? We are even flying in the face, if we are misguided enough to support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, of the latest pronouncements by the Electoral Commission. This is about the constitutional place of this House and the constitutional supremacy of the elected House.
Of course we understand that the other House has spoken on this issue, but it has also invoked financial privilege. I am trying to address the issue of costs in this amendment. The problem is that there is no threshold—or we do not know what it is. What does that mean for the ability of this House to engage at all, in any way, with the Representation of the People Act?
Perhaps I may continue. The people we need to focus on are those who will attain the age of 16, the new age of voting in the referendum in the forthcoming year. Let me emphasise, in response to the comments of the Electoral Commission—I shall come to the point made by the noble Lord—that our amendment does not preclude electoral registration officers from chasing up 16 and 17 year-olds and it does not stop them using all available methods to identify and encourage registration. The Association of Electoral Administrators does not think it would be difficult to make changes to the electoral registration service. A relatively simple—and, I emphasise, extremely cheap—way of registering young people would be writing directly to schools to ask for help in sending out emails with the registration form attached, as is currently done with university students. I do not know of many, if any, secondary schools that do not provide their pupils with a school email address. The costs of registration would therefore be absolutely minimal.
Nor would this be a tremendous increase in work for electoral registration officers. If, as has been suggested, we are talking about an additional 1.5 million voters, given that there are 380 electoral registration officers—one for each relevant local authority—we are talking about each ERO registering on average only an additional 4,000 voters, which is not an enormous new burden. The organisation Bite the Ballot is co-ordinating a national voter registration drive which aims to inspire hundreds of thousands of 15 to 24 year-olds to register this February. It will include a national network of schools, colleges, sixth-form teachers, school leavers, student unions, youth clubs and charities, so this is being done anyway at no additional cost. The Electoral Commission itself has noted that EROs should be working with schools and colleges in their area because this is a key activity that we need and expect all EROs to explore. We are asking EROs to do only what they are expected to do anyway.
I turn now to the issue that seems to be vexing the Government: that this is not the right place to make such a change and that it should be debated seriously as part of a wider debate on franchise. We are happy that the Government agree that there is a need for a wider debate on franchise, and it would be useful to have a timetable for such a debate. Can the Minister give me a concrete answer to that specific question? The Government say that this should not be done in a piecemeal way. We on the Labour Benches believe that there should be a comprehensive constitutional convention to address this and other issues relating to our democracy. But I was under the impression that the Government enjoy piecemeal change. It was this Government who gave permission to 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in the Scottish referendum campaign. It was this Government who allowed the Scottish Parliament to determine whether 16 and 17 year-olds should be able to vote in its own election, and it was this Government who allowed the Welsh Assembly to determine for itself whether 16 and 17 year-olds should be allowed to vote.
Noble Lords may laugh. But perhaps I may remind the noble Baroness that we are on very tricky ground. We are playing with the constitution and with the fact that we are not supposed to check on financial privilege. All this stuff we are getting now is of no relevance to the Motion.
I cannot believe that we are being accused of playing with the constitution, given what is going on in this place at the moment. It is important for us to remember that it was suggested that the Government should decide this, but only 37% of the public voted for the Government. More people voted for Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Green candidates, who had this provision in their manifestos. It is worth noting also that the Minister leading for the Government on this Bill was the shadow Chief Whip when she led this House to 81 defeats of the Labour Government. Let us also not forget that the Labour Government had a substantially larger mandate than this Government. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us as to whether his colleague thinks that all those victories were wrong during that period.
Let me turn to the constitutional aspects of the relationship between the two Houses, which have been thrown up as the result of financial privilege being applied to this amendment. I am no expert on constitutional matters and, no doubt, there are many experts in this Chamber. However, over the past few days, I have been trying to understand when and how financial privilege is invoked, and to find out specifically who decides on these matters. What are the guidelines or factors which determine the threshold concerning when and whether such a decision should be subject to financial privilege? I am grateful that the Minister set out some of the rules.
As this decision is crucial to the Lords’ ability to consider amendments, and as the Government have no option but to cite financial privilege as the reason for rejecting an amendment, I assumed that the system for deciding these matters would be open and transparent, with a clear set of criteria for determining each outcome. At the very least, I thought there would be a clear indication of the minimum threshold at which financial privilege would kick in.
I have requested specifically of the Commons Clerk an answer on minimum threshold. Search as I have, I have been unable to find anything written anywhere which sets out the criteria. I would be grateful if the Minister referred me to such a document, if one exists. I understand that the Government have a clear political agenda, not just in this Bill but in all Bills which come before this House. We accept that they have a majority, and have been elected and are accountable. But if it is the Commons Clerks, who are unelected and unaccountable, who decide what is subject to financial privilege, at the very minimum we need extremely clear and transparent procedures for determining this, as they have such a major impact on the ability of this Chamber to influence policy decisions.
That is only half true at best. In 2012, we were told by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the Speaker, as the Minister says, is advised by the Clerks, but the Clerks are not expert in the financial details of legislation. Therefore, they consult the Government and so the Government have an input.
I thank the noble Lord for enlightening us on that point. We need transparency in all of this. We need to know who is making the rules and under what criteria they are being made. If the Clerks are going to cite financial privilege in a case such as this, it can be cited for almost every policy change that we suggest which will incur a minimal cost.
It could be argued that the powers of this Chamber, the role of which is to make the Government think again on policy issues, are severely restricted, particularly in relation to electoral issues, where the other Chamber has a very clear vested interest. It is a shame that this issue has now become involved in a wider constitutional debate on financial privilege, but we hope Peers will still assess the merits of this case on the substance of the amendment. We believe that 16 and 17 year-olds are and can be responsible participants in our democracy. We believe that this is their one-off opportunity—a once-in-a-generation vote on the profoundly important issue of whether we should remain a member of the EU. I urge fellow Peers to support us on this issue, and to give these young people the respect and the voice that they deserve. I beg to move.
My Lords, in an otherwise very careful speech, the Minister implied that this was simply, but only, a once-in-a-generation decision. That is not what the Prime Minister said in his Chatham House speech on 13 November, when he said that the EU referendum,
“is a huge decision for our country … And it will be the final decision”.
The Minister referred to disappointed voters; the people who will be most disappointed by this decision will be those who are excluded from it when it is their one and only chance to influence a vital decision for our country.
For the sake of brevity, I shall not rehearse all the arguments that I have so often used in this Chamber on the merits of extending the franchise for this vote. I endorse absolutely what the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely, said. It would be surprising if I did not; my colleagues and I have supported this increase in the franchise for young people for many years. It would be very inconsistent if we did not do so now. Instead, I want to highlight two wider issues that have been gently referred to already but have perhaps even greater salience for our House.
One of the oldest tricks in the Whips’ trade—I used to be a Whip—when you are losing an argument is to change the subject. That is, effectively, what the Government are now doing. They have moved from trying to defend the inconsistency of the franchise for the Scottish independence referendum compared to that for the forthcoming European referendum to insisting that a clear majority of your Lordships’ House should be ignored on the grounds that we voted in a way that will cost money.
In their letter to us on Friday, Ministers told us, and were at pains to emphasise, that what they termed the Government’s formal reason for disagreeing with the Lords amendment was because,
“it would involve a charge on public funds”.
The Motion and the Minister’s speech this afternoon confirm this statement. That suggestion—that they had no alternative—is simply specious. Elsewhere in the letter, they say:
“It is our view that should this significant change to the franchise be made, it should be debated seriously as part of a wide debate on the franchise, not done piecemeal for a one off electoral event”.
The Minister has already made that statement again in this afternoon’s debate. That has been a constant and respected theme of Ministers at all stages of the debate in both Houses, and indeed from their party’s supporters throughout all stages of the Bill. But it could have been perfectly well incorporated in an amendment in lieu in the other place in last week’s debate. That is what they could and should have done; that would express what is, apparently, the view of the Government. They did not do it. Instead, Ministers deliberately chose to trigger the financial privilege threat. Why?
We are now faced with yet another attempt to restrict the role, responsibility and sheer relevance of this House of Parliament. This time it is the franchise. What next? If in future we amend a Bill in any way that could incur additional expense—a “charge on public funds” as the Minister put it—the Government could use this as a precedent. Next time it could be international development, childcare, legal aid or NHS priorities. That is what they are trying to do—to clip the wings of your Lordships’ House. We should be under no illusion. This is not just a casual, minimalist tweak of the relationship between the two Houses. This is part of a much more insidious exercise to dilute our role—some would say to completely neuter your Lordships’ House.
Yes, but it is done now in a deliberate attempt to try to prevent us pursuing a very important issue. I suggest to your Lordships that we should be very careful of any attempt to do that, particularly in those circumstances. Look at the wider context. Taken with this House’s effective exclusion from discussions on English votes for English laws, which is now going on—we were not allowed in—and with the Strathclyde review, we will have only ourselves to blame if we fail to note the way the wind is blowing. Please observe the words of Mr Stewart Jackson, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Peterborough, in last week’s debate:
“In conclusion, it is a constitutional outrage that the superannuated, unelected, unaccountable panjandrums in the House of Lords have told us what the elected House should be doing even though we have a settled view on this. They should learn their place. They must be subservient to the elected House, and it is high time that we had House of Lords reform”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/12/15; col. 880.]
Amen to the last one. That is what is behind this: it is not to give new influence to this House, but to take away what little influence we have.
I want to ask the noble Lord a practical question. We are discussing a Bill, not an order. The elected House will always have the last say under the Parliament Acts. I ask him to be more practical about this: given that the Commons has sent this back without an in lieu amendment, if this House carries this amendment and it goes back to the Commons, we would be put in the position of not being able to provide another in lieu amendment. Next week we will have the same reason back—financial privilege. What will he do then?
My Lords, let us wait and see. If the House of Commons and the Government do not take this House seriously, why are we here? That is the question we have to ask ourselves.
I take up in particular this issue of the elected House having a right to bulldoze through what they think is right for election law. I have been a Member of the other House. I have to tell your Lordships that it is not unknown for Members of Parliament to have a particular interest in the electoral arrangements that got them there. I reject utterly the idea that somehow your Lordships’ House is not allowed to have a view on electoral law. I have been here some time now—more than 10 years. I have been involved in revision of electoral law many times. No Government have ever sought to stop us.
My Lords, if that is the noble Viscount’s view, perhaps he will not want to whip the vote this afternoon.
In the very last minute of his speech in the Commons debate last Tuesday, the Minister suddenly introduced this financial privilege issue. However, he did not even mention the estimate figure that the Government were playing with. Perhaps he could not bring himself to give credence to the incredible. During previous debates there and through all stages of the Bill in your Lordships’ House, no Minister has ever advanced the argument that forecasted cost was a substantial reason for opposing this change to the franchise for this specific vote. The figure of £6 million has not even been hinted at at any stage in either House.
When I heard about this I was reminded that, during my period in the other place, the Serjeant at Arms had to keep an opera hat, neatly collapsed, by his chair, so that, if a Member wished to raise a point of order during a Division, he could do so seated and covered. I once or twice used that essential accessory for that eventuality. It is sad that it was subsequently abolished. The opera hat disappeared on the initiative of the then Leader of the House, Robin Cook. George Young and I were accessories to its removal. Last Tuesday, the Minister would have made good use of that hat. Perhaps I should refer to him as the magician, because he pulled this extraordinarily large rabbit out of the hat as a suspiciously rounded total, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said.
The following day, I was chairing a conference of electoral administrators. Nobody there seemed to know the basis of this estimate. So far as I can establish, neither the Electoral Commission, nor the Association of Electoral Administrators, has actually endorsed it. Moreover, we had a presentation at the conference from the convenor of the Electoral Management Board of Scotland, Mary Pitcaithly, who gave an extremely detailed, meticulous account of all the challenges she faced as chief counting officer for the whole Scottish independence referendum process in September 2014. She left nothing out of her remarkably comprehensive account of that very successful exercise. She did not identify any excessive additional expenditure on this scale as a result of the inclusion of 16 and 17 year-olds in the electorate.
We seem to be failing to understand the point which the Minister put very clearly. The identification of extra expenditure was not done by the Government. The noble Lord should know, as he and I were both in the other place for long enough, that it was a technical exercise, done by the Clerks, who reported the matter to the Speaker. With respect to the Lord Speaker in this House, the Speaker’s law carries much more weight in terms of how procedure will be observed. I understand that the Government could have chosen to waive financial privilege, but that is an entirely different matter. The noble Lord has said that the Government are trying to bulldoze through their view of electoral law and that that is an outrage to this House. Who is actually trying to change the law at the moment and who is trying to sustain the present position?
My Lords, I am afraid that that sequence is not quite correct. I think the noble Lord will accept this, but if we have a difference of opinion, we can discuss it afterwards. The critical point about the process is that it is for the Government, first and foremost, to decide whether they want to table an amendment in lieu or simply reject the views of this House. That was the Government’s decision, not the Speaker’s. Whether there is advice or not, it is the Government’s decision that they wish not to pursue the idea of a more general review of the franchise. They simply wanted to reject the view of the House of Lords. They then triggered the issue of financial privilege and it is indeed correct that neither the Clerks nor the Speaker could then gainsay them. However, this figure has now got common currency and it is thought that that somehow justifies this process. If your Lordships’ House was only proposing a little baby, they might have let it through; but they thought it was a big baby and they produced it in the way they did to try and scare us. This rabbit has been inflated by Ministers for their own political ends. We should be told exactly what the calculation is; what, realistically, it is as a proportion of the total referendum budget; and who now endorses this figure.
My Lords, that is not absolutely true. First, it has not specifically rejected the amendment proposed by your Lordships’ House. Secondly, as I thought I had just explained, the issue of an amendment in lieu means that it is no longer necessary. If the Government had decided on such an amendment to express their apparent view that a general review is required, and that it should not be in this one Bill, financial privilege would not have been triggered in any way. That is the process that should have been undertaken.
The issue before your Lordships’ House today is no longer simply whether the electorate for the EU referendum should or should not be expanded, important though that is. I have given a lot of time and effort to trying to make sure that this referendum is one that we can be proud of because it has the same electorate as the one that was so successful in Scotland on a similar issue of the future of that generation. However, this matter has now been deliberately escalated by Ministers into an insidious attempt to undermine the constitutional role and responsibilities of your Lordships’ House. We must stand firm, pass Amendment A1 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and reject this attack.
We have heard a frankly terrible speech from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. How does he have the brass nerve to lecture your Lordships’ House, coming, as he does, from the most grossly overrepresented party, which, moreover, allegedly believes in proportions and proportional representation and most of whose members, including the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, would, like Samson, like to bring this Chamber down about their ears? Indeed, I heard a noble Lord from those Benches say only recently, “It does not matter what we do so long as we destroy the House of Lords and replace it with an elected House”. However, those of us who do not believe in an elected second Chamber and believe passionately in the supremacy of the elected Chamber at the other end of the corridor, believe that what we are now embarking on is an extremely dangerous course of action. If we accept the supremacy of the elected Chamber and accept that your Lordships’ House, of course, has the right to invite the elected Chamber to think again, but, if the elected Chamber, by a majority far in excess of that enjoyed by the Conservative Government, says no, who are we to persist, particularly in a matter concerning the franchise?
Many noble Lords on the Labour Benches do believe in this House and believe that an unelected and appointed House, with its accumulation of experience and expertise, adds value to the constitution without challenging the unambiguous elected authority of the other place. I appeal to those Members on the Labour Benches, many of whom I am privileged to count as personal friends, not to play this game and not to go along with the destructionists on the Liberal Democrat Benches, most of whom do not believe in this place and would use almost any spurious and specious reason and excuse to damage it.
We have exercised our right and a number of my Conservative colleagues voted for votes at 16. I did not, but a number of them did. I respected their integrity but now the time has come to say, “You haven’t decided to think again. We must move on”. I urge all your Lordships to recognise that we have reached the limit. We should not seek once more to overturn the mandate of an elected House with a majority of 50. As I said earlier, that is far larger than the 12 that the Government nominally enjoy.
Noble Lords may have a brief moment of euphoria if the Government are defeated tonight, but it will be followed by the danger of a real constitutional crisis arising between our two Chambers that could do enormous damage to the standing of Parliament in general, and of this House in particular.
My Lords, if I understand it correctly, the House of Commons, through the Speaker, has said that this is a matter of finance. If that is correct, it is the short answer to what we are dealing with tonight. I cannot understand why noble Lords are banging on about all the other subjects if we really cannot deal with this matter because it is a financial issue. I find it very difficult to understand what we are spending time on at the moment.
My Lords, since this may be the last opportunity that any of us have to discuss the Bill, I will start my few very short remarks by paying tribute to my noble friend Lady Anelay and her ministerial colleague, my noble friend Lord Faulks—but particularly to the noble Baroness. I speak from the heart, and from a little raw experience, when I say that this historic Bill holds the prospect of many bear traps but that all of them, except one, have been avoided by the patient and very sensitive work of the Minister. I am sure that the whole House will want to not only congratulate but thank her for her tireless efforts.
But—there is a bear trap. I must apologise for not being able to be in the House for Report but it seems that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made up for my absence in spades. I was on the other side of the world but, reading Hansard, it was as though I was here. He quoted me extensively, repeatedly and even voraciously—and, as always, far more eloquently than I could. I felt rather like Banquo, the ghost at the feast, with the characteristically shy and retiring figure of the noble Lord in the unaccustomed role of Macbeth. I am grateful for the praise that he showered upon me. He was kind enough to mention beforehand that he might and I make no complaint.
I think it is reasonably well known that I, along with a good number of other Conservatives, support the principle of giving the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds. I would have been happy to have signed the original amendment. I will not repeat the arguments today; others have done that and the lines are all too well known. But I am still waiting for a convincing answer as to why the Government acquiesced in granting the vote to young people in the referendum in Scotland. It all seems a little untidy. I know that our unwritten constitution is often a rather rumpled bed, depending on who was the last to sleep in it, but every so often it is wise to give the sheets a bit of a tug to straighten them out. That is why I supported the original amendment.
Yet—how may I put this delicately?—while the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, quoted me largely correctly, I am afraid that he did not quote me completely. He failed to mention the comments I made in Committee about this not being a black and white argument, but one that is actually quite subtle and a matter of judgment and of balance. I find it alarming when some see this matter as one of absolute principle in which no quarter can be given. I wish that I was as certain about anything as some appear to be about everything. I think that there is a stronger argument for giving the vote at 17 rather than at 16 and, in my view, probably not at 15. We have to draw the line somewhere, but where to draw that line is no longer the issue here today.
If I may stretch my metaphor, we have by this stage climbed into an entirely different bed. This is no longer about the rights of vibrant young people but about the rights of largely elderly, perhaps less vibrant and entirely unelected Peers—if that is the right and polite way to say these things; I am never quite sure. We asked the other place to think again, as is our right. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, mentioned, last week there was in the other place an explosion of incontinence, with one honourable Member calling our vote “a constitutional outrage” by,
“superannuated, unelected, unaccountable panjandrums … They should learn their place”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/12/15; col. 880.]
It was pretty exciting stuff, I thought. Perhaps the honourable Member for Peterborough was looking for a job. The remarks seemed to show little understanding of the role and work of this House. It is sad that so many MPs seem to disappear by tea-time and so never get to see the work that this House does late into so many nights. There may be many bars where you can find a Member of Parliament, but sadly so few—present company excepted—seem to bother to come to the Bar of this House and find out what it is we really do.
Yet the other place has done its job. We asked it to think again, and it has—not once, but repeatedly. On five different occasions in recent weeks it has considered giving votes to 16 and 17 year-olds, and on every occasion it has rejected the idea, last week by an increased majority of 50. To me, that seems pretty decisive. Just as we have exercised our right, so the other place has exercised its right: it has clearly made up its mind and decided, which is why I say that we are now in an entirely different bed. If we continue to vote down the elected Commons on a matter of the franchise, it is likely to be seen at least as petulance on our part, and more likely as being partisan and deliberately provocative. What part of a 50-strong Commons majority do we not understand? This House has defeated the elected Government on 69% of all votes in this Parliament—more than two in every three votes we have taken—and now we claim rights over the franchise. We cannot go on down this road.
I agree with the last point which the noble Lord made. I do not think your Lordships’ House can continue in this way, especially when the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions, Conventions of the UK Parliament, was accepted unanimously, including by the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps the noble Lord might reflect that we are coming to the time when this House, on a simple Motion, should be invited to endorse the conventions of the United Kingdom Parliament again.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for that fascinating point. So much has already been said about how we should not be chopping our constitution into pieces in a piecemeal fashion. That is something that I think the whole House, including this side of the House, should consider very carefully.
Do we today want to add weight to the views of those who regard us as unaccountable panjandrums—the unwashed, the unelected? Where will that leave us? It would be like passing around the rope to those who want to hang us. Ultimately, matters of the franchise have to fall within the privileged remit of the Commons, just like matters of finance, as matters for those who have been elected with a duty to decide. In my view, we would be overstretching our rights and certainly overstretching our wisdom if we were to take this matter further. This is one barricade we should not build. I will continue to support the cause of young people, but I cannot support this amendment. The referendum is waiting; we should get on with it.
My Lords, there are many reasons for supporting the Government today, all of which were given by the Minister, but I have to say to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, that I do not agree that financial privilege is a reason to support the Government. It is an obscure subject, and I commend to the House the very helpful paper published by Dr Meg Russell and Mr Daniel Gover of the Constitution Unit of UCL in March 2014.
Financial privilege did not prevent the other place from addressing the merits of this House’s amendment; equally, the fact that financial privilege was asserted by the House of Commons after the certification by the Speaker does not prevent the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, from bringing forward her amendment in lieu. It does not prevent this House voting on the merits of the amendment—or, as I see it, its lack of merit.
As I understood him, the Minister accepted that that is the case. The Constitution Unit paper concludes on page 13 that,
“it is not considered contrary to the convention for the Lords to respond to financial privilege with … an amendment in lieu … for as many rounds of ping pong as it wishes”.
The normal rules of ping-pong apply. Therefore, financial privilege is a distraction rather than being central to this debate. That is not to dispute the supremacy of the elected Chamber, especially on the issue of the franchise, but that is a different matter. For the reasons given by the Minister, I shall be supporting the Government in the Division Lobby.
My Lords, I intervened earlier, and I would like to take up the point I made in that intervention in a moment. I begin by saying a little about the substance of the proposal about votes at 16. I remain of the view, as does my Front Bench, that this is an inappropriate vehicle to carry out such an important constitutional change. The danger is that we have had a precedent of changing the franchise in the Scottish situation, and if we were to persist and succeed on this issue this evening, it would be yet another precedent. That would prejudice a longer-term, overall survey of what we ought to do about the age at which people are entitled to vote.
Having said that, if one looks back to 1969, which is the last time we debated it, on that occasion there was very widespread consultation. If we were to have another Bill on the issue, there would have to be widespread consultation. On this occasion, to the best of my knowledge, there has been virtually no consultation whatever. Back in 1969, when the issue had been widely consulted on, I said to my secretary, “If I get a single letter”—at the time, I had 100 letters or so a day—“asking me to give the vote, I will vote for it”. I did not get a single such letter.
Nowadays, we get thousands of emails sent to us. I have not had a single email from someone in this age group saying, “I am a highly intelligent, very politically motivated person”, or even, “I voted in the Scottish referendum”, and “I would like the vote”. I have had no such representation. I believe that this is being generated inside the House itself.
I turn to financial privilege, which has been raised. I totally reject what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said: that this is somehow a massive conspiracy suddenly cooked up in the other place to override us, and so on. I do not think that is so. The procedure on financial privilege is well established. As my noble friend Lord Dobbs said, it has been used time and again. The reality is that if the Commons decides to reject something, as it has done very decisively on this issue several times, a committee is sent behind the Chair to look at the reasons why the Commons is rejecting the Lords amendment. That committee sits behind the Chair, it is advised by the clerks and not infrequently comes up with the proposal that it has relied on on this occasion. It is a quite normal process and in no sense a sudden new conspiracy. I am not at all sure about the point made by my noble friend on the Front Bench as to whether that is the only option that that committee has to put forward as a reason. I believe that, if it wished, it could put forward other reasons as well. But, normally, it comes up with a resolution as far as this is concerned.
What is happening is perfectly normal and not, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, suggests, in some sense a conspiracy. As my noble friend said a moment or two ago, we really have to consider very carefully whether it is appropriate to bounce the amendment back yet again. I believe that the answer very clearly is no, because the response that we are going to get at the other end is equally clear—it is going to be to reject whatever amendment the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely, puts forward. So the sensible course of action is to reject Amendment A1 and accept Amendment A. That would be an appropriate thing to do.
Finally, one might consider why there is such an enormous apparent division on this issue between this House and the other place on the age when it is appropriate to vote. This is not a partisan issue and not something where everyone has clear-cut positions. It is rather curious—but perhaps this House is more expert on grandchildren and the other place is more expert on children. They have clearly taken the view that they do not think that their children should have the vote at the age that is suggested. We should respect that view, go along with the amendment proposed from the government Front Bench and reject that put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Patel will recognise the advice given to all trainees in the craft specialties—that to be a good surgeon one needs to know how to operate and, to be a great surgeon, one needs to learn when to operate. So, too, one might presume that a Second Chamber, certainly one with the powers of your Lordships’ House, to be a good Chamber needs to know how to use its powers and to be a great Chamber needs to know when to use its powers for the maximum benefit of our fellow citizens, for the good of this Parliament and for the good of our nation.
We have heard important arguments on financial privilege. I have always understood that it is not the position of your Lordships’ House—and it probably has not happened this afternoon—that a decision of the Speaker of the House of Commons is criticised. Those are very important pronouncements, made as part of a considered and long-respected process. It is also difficult to argue that the other place has not considered this matter on a number of occasions and has reached the same conclusion: that at this point it does not wish in this manner to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds. Most importantly, it is a question of a referendum in a representative democracy. The people of our country send their representatives in the other place and, in that place, on the vast majority of occasions, to exercise their judgment on behalf of those who have sent them. On very few occasions, those elected representatives decide that they must seek the further advice of those who have sent them to the House of Commons by way of a referendum to help to guide the decisions that they will take on serious matters. This is one such occasion, and it seems completely wrong for the unelected but powerful second Chamber to keep on insisting to those seeking the advice of those who have sent them to the other place that the franchise must be changed. It seems completely logical that those who have responsibility in the other place for these matters seek the advice of those who have elected them—that is, the general election parliamentary franchise—and that your Lordships’ House, having I think quite rightly previously argued the case for extending the franchise, on this occasion respects the views of the other place and allows this matter to pass.
I speak as one from these Benches who participated in the earlier discussions on the Bill, and my name was on the amendments debated in Committee and on Report which would have permitted 16 and 17 year-old citizens of this country to vote in the EU referendum that will be held before the end of 2017. I have not wavered from that view, even though my name is no longer associated with the amendment that we are now debating. I believe that the issue at stake in this referendum is of a sufficiently fundamental and long-lasting nature to justify the inclusion in the franchise on this occasion of 16 and 17 year-olds. As other speakers have said, the evidence from the Scottish referendum in 2014 supports the contention that that age group is well able to handle the privilege of voting thoughtfully and responsibly.
That said, while this House has the right to ask the other place to think again, it has the duty, in due course, to recognise the primacy in legislative matters of the other House. In this instance, with a substantial majority, we asked it to think again, and as we have been forcefully reminded this evening, it did so and, by a slightly increased majority, again rejected the amendment providing the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds. Had the Bill returned to this House in the normal legislative procedure, I would have supported calling an end to the process.
Unfortunately, the waters have been massively muddied by the frankly rather risible invocation of financial privilege which the Government chose not to waive but rather to endorse. Someone will need to tell me how the authorities in the other place regarded a measure which we rejected some weeks ago, which involved the expenditure of many billions of pounds, as not covered by financial privilege whereas this one, which covers £6 million—and I do not imagine that the Government have underestimated the figure—falls within it.
It seems that to a lot of noble Lords constitutional language is a foreign language that is not easily understood. I shall put what the Commons have said into English. It is, “You have asked us to think again. We have thought again several times. We are not going to change our minds, so please don’t waste any more time”.
Section 3 of the Parliament Act 1911 states:
“Any certificate of the Speaker of the House of Commons given under this Act shall be conclusive for all purposes, and shall not be questioned in any court of law”.
That being so, the only amendment we can go back with is one that does not involve any financial element. Otherwise the House of Commons will repeat that statement and the exercise is pointless. I have had amendments turned down on financial privilege over far less money than we are talking about here.
I shall continue, but I say to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that I have agreed with him. I have already stated that if this matter had come back to this House in the normal legislative procedure, without the invocation of financial privilege, I would have supported the Government, so I think I have been very clear on that point.
Financial privilege has been brought into the matter. I regret it very deeply. Frankly, the arguments, as just read out to us, amount to the Red Queen’s argument in Through the Looking-Glass: “It’s so, because I say it’s so”.
What I think is arising in this debate is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the use of financial privilege. We have to realise that by that £6 million yardstick, pretty well every piece of legislation that comes to this House could be ruled as being covered by financial privilege. There really are not many pieces of legislation, although I am sure that someone will provide me with chapter and verse if there are, that do not involve a cost as modest as that. That makes it difficult for us because it sets a precedent with far-reaching and damaging implications for the future work and role of this House. That is where I concur entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I do not yield to him in any way in his love of this House and his desire that we should be able to do our work properly but, with the best will in the world, and for the reason that I have given about financial privilege, I am afraid that I will not be willing, in these circumstances and for that reason alone, to support the Government if a Division is called.
My Lords, this has been an interesting and passionate debate. However, not much has been said about the amendment. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely, for setting out the thinking behind the amendment in her name, but I confess that I am somewhat puzzled by it. I appreciate that she has done what she can to minimise the cost to the public purse, but unfortunately this has left the policy in a fairly odd place, as I shall endeavour to explain.
The amendment would entitle those over the age of 16 to take part in the election if they were on the register for parliamentary elections. It goes on to say that steps taken to register eligible persons shall focus on 15 year-olds who will be 16 at the time of the referendum, and shall use low-cost means such as emails. The amendment would not enfranchise all 16 and 17 year-olds; it would enfranchise only those 16 and 17 year-olds eligible to be on the register for parliamentary elections, known as attainers. The formula for working out who is an attainer is surprisingly complex. It is set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983. A young person is eligible to be on the register for parliamentary elections if they will,
“attain voting age before the end of the period of 12 months beginning with the 1st December next following”,
the date on which an application for registration is made—that is to say, a person who will turn 18 during the year beginning 1 December following the date of the application.
The practical upshot of this is that there is a significant cohort of 16 year-olds who are not eligible to register for parliamentary elections. Because the legal definition of “attainer”, which defines who is eligible to register, is pegged to 1 December, the number of people who can register changes over time, but it means that there is never a period when all 16 year-olds can register, nor is there a period when any 15 year-olds can register. Bizarrely, therefore, the number of 16 and 17 year-olds who could vote would depend upon the date of the referendum. The closer it was to 1 December 2016, the fewer young people could take part—until 2 December, that is, when almost all 16 year-olds would be eligible. For example, a young person whose 16th birthday was on 23 November this year—a date that noble Lords may remember, as your Lordships were debating the Report stage of this Bill—would be able to take part in a referendum held before 1 December 2016, but their friend whose 16th birthday was today, only three weeks later, would not be able to take part in a referendum held before 1 December 2016.
This quirk makes the requirement to focus registration activity on 15 year-olds rather perverse. We would be left in the situation of being legally required to encourage the registration of 15 year-olds, despite there being no legal mechanism to register people aged 15 and despite the fact many people currently aged 15 will not actually be allowed to take part in the referendum. This is not a way to encourage democratic participation. The rules here are complicated because they are not designed to determine who may or may not take part in an election. They are designed to ensure an orderly administration of the electoral register. This is a wholly different thing and in no way suitable as a basis for the franchise.
I have been challenged at various times during the course of this debate on how I would explain a voting age of 18 to a 16 year-old. To turn this on its head, how would one reasonably explain this formula to a young person who would turn 16 shortly before the referendum? They ask the question, “Am I allowed to vote?”. The answer would be, “Have you got a moment? I’ve got an algorithm here, and I may be able to give you an answer in due course”. That is not a satisfactory way to make law.
The Government’s estimate of the cost of lowering the voting age for the referendum is in excess of £6 million. Most of these costs are created by the need to change the systems to deal with the addition of new young people to the registers, to register those young people, and by the increased activity by counting officers and regional counting officers to accommodate these additional voters. Of course, the noble Baroness’s amendment avoids the first two of these costs: no new people would be entitled to register for the poll, and the registration efforts must be “low-cost”. I have already explained that some of this low-cost effort will be expended on 15 year-olds who are not eligible to take part anyway. However, the amendment still expands the franchise and so expands the cost required to run the referendum. Counting officers and regional counting officers will have to take extra actions to accommodate the increased franchise. They will need to print more ballot papers and send additional postal ballots, for example, and the lead campaigners are entitled to a mailshot paid for out of the public purse; clearly, expanding the franchise means printing and sending more material.
The Government estimate that this amendment would cost the taxpayer an additional £2.8 million or £2.9 million, depending on when the poll is held. This figure is made up of the additional costs of running the referendum—printing ballot papers and so forth—and the additional cost of a bigger mailshot for the designated campaigns. There may be further additional costs, such as those relating to awareness raising amongst newly eligible voters, which we have not included in our estimates. Obviously I cannot say whether this infringes financial privilege. That is an assessment carried out by the clerks in another place, under the authority of the Speaker. However, it is clear, with great respect, that in seeking to reduce the cost the noble Baroness has had to make some rather on-the-hoof assessments of the costs.
For the reasons I have endeavoured to outline, the Electoral Commission has advised that it does not support this amendment. The briefing makes very clear that it does not have a policy position on the voting age but that if the voting age is to be changed, this is not a sensible way to go about it. The Electoral Commission notes that,
“only a small proportion of 16-year olds are currently eligible to be included in electoral registers”.
The commission is also concerned about the provisions on registration. It wants to be free to use “proven methods” to contact young people, such as by post, and warns that although email is widely used, it is,
“not yet a well-established method of encouraging electoral registration”.
The amendment requires a particular focus on registering 15 year-olds, which the Electoral Commission says could,
“lead to a significant proportion of the newly enfranchised group not being targeted”.
Clearly, this amendment is a deeply unsatisfactory way to go forward.
In conclusion, the role of this House is to scrutinise and revise legislation, to make amendments and to ask the other place to think again. I remind noble Lords that on many issues the other place has thought again. Indeed, I refer your Lordships to what was said by my honourable friend John Penrose. In introducing Clause 2 and the amendments, he said about the House of Lords that,
“I should begin by paying tribute to”,
the House of Lords,
“for their diligent and considered approach. For the most part, their scrutiny has been fruitful, and the Bill returns to the Commons improved in a great many ways”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/12/15; col. 865.]
The House made changes on a wide range of issues, including: the provision of information to the public; the designation of just one lead campaigner; the rules around donations and loans; putting a 10-week minimum referendum period on the face of the Bill; and other, more technical recommendations of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. On every occasion, the Government and the other place stopped, listened to the arguments and did everything possible to accommodate the changes proposed.
This Chamber sent 46 amendments to the other place and only one has returned, so noble Lords cannot suggest that the Government have failed to listen. However, on this one issue when this House asked the other place to think again, the other place declined to change its position. Indeed, it has divided on the question of the voting age in one context or another five times since the Government were elected. Consistently, the other place has decided that the voting age should remain as it is. There can be very few issues on which the elected House has expressed such a clear view quite so many times in the short period that we have been in government. We should respect that decision. Debate and disagreement between the Chambers is a natural part of our system, but repeated stand-offs between the two Chambers are not good for the democratic process.
This is not a coherent amendment, and that, of itself, is a reason for rejecting it. However, I believe that the vast majority of your Lordships will be concerned for the reputation of this House. By gracefully accepting our limitations, that reputation will be enhanced. This is not the way to make law. We should accept what the other place has so clearly said.
My Lords, we believe that we have challenged the question of the cost of the amendment. We also believe that our focus on targeting 15 year-old attainers does not preclude the targeting—through, in particular, work in schools—of 16 year-olds who currently do not come under the definition of attainers.
I make it clear to the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, that the decision of the Speaker and the Clerk is not being questioned. However, we continue to want an answer on the issues of transparency and the minimum thresholds for when financial privilege, which can and will severely curtail the power of this Chamber, can be invoked. However, we accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that this does not stop this House dealing with the merits of the amendment. We believe that there is an appetite in the country for the young to become more engaged in political debate. We believe that they are more equipped than any generation in history to become involved at the age of 16 in determining the future direction of their nation.
Young people are the future of this country. This is their one chance to have a say in the country’s relationship with the EU. It is an exceptional vote. We need to reach out to a new generation of voters to demonstrate to them that we have faith in them and that we respect their opinions. We have not been convinced by the arguments put forward by the Minister and we therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
Motion A agreed.
Welfare Reform and Work Bill
Committee (3rd Day)
Relevant document: 13th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
57: After Clause 15, insert the following new Clause—
“Review of application of sanctions
(1) The Secretary of State must, before the end of the financial year ending 31 March 2016, provide for a full and independent review of the sanctions regimes attached to working-age benefits, including but not limited to jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance and income support, to determine whether they are an effective and proportionate means of meeting the Government’s objectives.
(2) The terms of reference for the review must include consideration of—
(a) the application of sanctions to lone parents with dependent children;(b) the application of sanctions to claimants who are disabled;(c) the effectiveness of sanctions in moving claimants into sustained work; and(d) any other matters which the Secretary of State considers relevant.”
My Lords, I speak to Amendment 57, tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton, and with the support of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor. Its purpose is to provide for a full, independent review of the operation of the sanctions regime, to determine the effectiveness of sanctions in moving claimants into sustained work as well as any adverse impact on particular groups. It echoes a recommendation made twice by the Work and Pensions Committee but rejected by the Government.
The Government gave three main reasons for rejection in response to the committee’s recent report on sanctions. First, they wanted the improvements already made to bed in. Welcome as the improvements may be, they do not meet all recommendations from either the committee or the earlier Oakley review. There is evidence from many quarters that problems persist. Secondly, the Government argue that international evidence is clear that benefit regimes tied to conditionality get people into work. Last week the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pointed to how the international evidence is not unequivocally in support of the value of sanctions and getting people into sustained work and achieving positive, longer-term outcomes. In any case, I do not see the relevance to the case for a review of this sanctions regime. Similarly, the Government point to wide agreement that sanctions play a vital role in supporting conditionality—up to a point, provided they are,
“applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately”,
to quote the Work and Pensions Committee. But the whole point is that few agree that they are. That is why we need an independent review that goes beyond the narrow remit of the Oakley review, helpful as that was.
Last week the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, referred to the toxic effect of sanctions. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, cited some of the evidence, drawing on her experience as a member of the Fawcett inquiry into the impact on women, particularly lone mothers, rather spoiling the rosy picture painted by the Minister on Wednesday night.
There is also evidence from a wide range of organisations, such as Gingerbread, Citizens Advice and local advice agencies, including an Advice Nottingham report I helped to launch the other day. More evidence has emerged since our last sitting from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty, in the foreword to which the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed shock at sanctions’ contribution to widespread hunger and reliance on food banks; and from Crisis, which published a study from Sheffield Hallam University that found that sanctions were leading to homelessness and exacerbating the situation of those already homeless, particularly those with mental health problems. I do not have time to document this evidence, but I want to interrogate some of the department’s responses to the Work and Pensions Committee’s recommendations, drawing on an analysis by Dr David Webster of Glasgow University, to whom I am indebted, as I am for his regular analysis of the sanctions statistics. I am glad to say that these show some improvement recently, but the rate remains well above the pre-2010 rate.
The response to the committee’s report was perhaps spun to give the impression that it had conceded rather more than it had. In particular, what was dubbed acceptance of a yellow-card system looks more like a deferred red card to allow for representations to the referee. I am sure my colleagues know that I do not normally draw on football metaphors. The recommendation was that the:
“DWP pilot pre-sanction written warnings and non-financial sanctions”,
for first-time incidents of non-compliance. The response was to,
“trial arrangements whereby claimants are given a warning of our intention to sanction, and a 14-day period to provide evidence of good reason before the decision to sanction is made”,
“provide further evidence to explain their non-compliance”.
That is a welcome improvement but I am sure noble Lords can spot the difference. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, himself, in a previous role, called for first-time non-compliance to be met with a written warning rather than a sanction. The Oakley review called for the trial of non-financial sanctions for first-time failures. SSAC, too, favours such an approach.
In eliding it with a recommendation for an independent review, the department also rejected without explanation the call for an evaluation of the efficacy and impact of the four-week minimum sanction period under the 2012 Act, compared with a minimum period of one week. Perhaps we could have an explanation now.
The current chair of the Work and Pensions Committee has written to the Secretary of State to express his disappointment at the refusal to accept the recommendation on monitoring the destination of sanctioned claimants. As he argues:
“Monitoring employment outcomes is surely fundamental to understanding … the ultimate aim of getting claimants back into work and out of poverty”.
The Secretary of State’s response to this crucial recommendation referred simply to quality-assuring universal credit statistics, with a reference to other unspecified factors that might affect claimant destinations, which was not very encouraging. Surely the department wants to know whether sanctions are moving claimants into sustained work and what happens when they are not. The Crisis study found that, perversely, sanctions were pushing some of those affected further from the labour market and that homelessness service users were begging, borrowing and stealing to meet their daily need. Indeed, some actually said that they were trying to get put into jail because it would be better than destitution. Surely the department wants to know the impact on the health and well-being of those sanctioned and their families, which, again, the Crisis study and others have shown can be very negative. These are all issues that an independent review would address and that I really believe that the department itself surely wants to know the answer to.
I will finish by putting a human face on the operation of sanctions. I recently co-hosted with my noble friend Lord Beecham the presentation of a report, Our Lives: Challenging Attitudes to Poverty in 2015, which recounted 20 true stories, illustrating the damaging effects of previous social security reform and the endurance and efforts to survive of the people affected. One of the women whose stories were told, called Sally in the report, spoke at the meeting, which was also addressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro. People were very moved by her account of how her disabled son, who lived with her, was sanctioned. It is a shame that the Minister could not hear her, so I am enabling him—and her—to hear an edited version now.
Sally’s son had had extensive back surgery, which limited him in what he could do. He was forced to leave college in order to sign on. She explained that,
“once on JSA, Chris had no consideration shown for his condition, but was bullied and pressured and put down, judged. He was sent for jobs he could not do because of his back. The disability adviser was the same and no help. On the way to an appointment at the back to work scheme provider, his bus was held up with a number of roadworks and with no credit on his phone, he panicked. He arrived 10 minutes late and signed in at reception. The adviser sat glaring at Chris for a while as she typed away, before walking over to him and going at him verbally abusing him including a threat of a sanction. When the sanction happened I couldn’t believe it. In tears I asked an adviser what am I meant to do, chuck him out? She told me, ‘Fine, let us know when you’ve done it because we need to update the change of circumstances’. It was soul destroying. I had to support him on my benefits. I felt disrespected. They showed such callous, unfeeling indifference. In shock and shame and embarrassment, I went to a church food bank, their humanity and kindness and awareness of the huge struggles we all face made me weep. I still keep in touch with them.
Seven months later at the tribunal the papers clearly showed the adviser had lied [a regional manager of the work scheme provider had accepted that Chris should not have been sanctioned as he signed on but was just a bit late]. I felt sick to my stomach and really disturbed the whole time and I hated the politicians who spoke on the telly who strongly maintain that sanctions are rare, that it’s a last resort”.
She praised the tribunal and the food bank and finished by observing, “There but for the grace of God go any one of us in need”. Afterwards, when I asked her if I could have her speaking notes, because I said to her that I wanted to try to relay what she said to this House, she added—she said, “Please say this”, although she did not want to say it herself in the meeting—that her son had said to her at one point, “If it wasn’t for you, Mum, I’d throw myself on the tracks and kill myself”. This is what this inhumane system is doing to people. Its operation must be reviewed. I beg to move.
My Lords, I attached my name to this amendment because in past experiences of working with young people in hostels, I have often seen how the administrative machine makes mistakes and causes young people such hardship. On Friday I visited the First Love Foundation food bank in Poplar. I spoke with young people and families asking for help from the foundation. I heard that often, because of mistakes in sanctions, or because of sanctions, children were going hungry. I was also told of the case of a man who would be sanctioned if he failed to finish a course he was on, but who would also be sanctioned if he failed to attend the other course he was supposed to be doing. He was put in an impossible situation. This amendment is a reasonable request to make of the Government and I hope the Minister will accept it.
I accept everything the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, have said. The last time this Committee sat, noble Lords touched on the question of how we can learn lessons if we do not put reviews in place. If we do not review sanctions, how will the Government assess whether they have been effective or whether they can be adjusted to get people back into work? That is surely what it is about and why sanctions have been put there in the first place. We must have an independent review and I hope the Minister will look seriously at this issue.
My Lords, I do not object to reviews in principle. I have done some for the Government and I am now doing the official review of Part 2 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act, which covers the impact on non-party political campaigning. They have a useful role and, in light of the work I have done for the Government, it would be strange if I objected in principle to what the noble Baroness and the other noble Lords proposing these amendments are saying. I leave aside the question of whether there is a real purpose here: the noble Baroness rather disregarded the Oakley review and other things as being of little value. If reviews are to have worthwhile purposes, they need to meet certain tests. Other noble Lords will have their own tests, but I will share three with the Committee this afternoon.
First is the question of timing. The full impact of legislation takes time to emerge. In these circumstances, we are obviously seeking to change people’s behaviour. Their first reaction may not be their last and further reactions—good or bad—may emerge over the months and years after the legislation comes into effect. The amendment suggests 31 March 2016 as the date by which the review must be set up into whether sanctions are an,
“effective and proportionate means of meeting the Government’s objectives”.
I doubt whether it is possible to adhere to that timescale and reach meaningful outcomes, given the complexity of the subjects we are discussing and the likely evolution of events and behaviours. I am therefore concerned about the timing.
The second question is about the remit, which is too narrow. Each statute contains a number of pieces, as in a jigsaw. If one piece of the jigsaw is moved, all the other pieces have to move as well. The amendment looks at just one piece and does not pay enough attention to the wider implications, strategic aims and objectives of the Bill as a whole. Its benefits and value suffer as a result of its proposers making it so narrow.
The third question is the terms of the review. To be worth while, a review has to be reasonably even-handed as it sets out. I notice that the word “sanctions” is used four times in the amendment. By no stretch of the imagination can “sanctions” be said to be a neutral word: it is a pejorative term. The review sets out with these terms in order to arrive at, and find, a particular outcome.
In these circumstances, a word such as “provisions” would be a better and more even-handed way of looking at the measure.
From my point of view, the timing proposed in the amendment is too soon, the remit is too narrow and the terms of reference are designed to achieve only one result. Therefore, I hope that my noble friend will reject it.
My Lords, I also have a slight reservation about my noble friend’s amendment, but it is not the kind of semantic quibble which the noble Lord has just advanced, if I might term it that way. I would like to see the review of the out-of-work benefits regime and sanctions, which she rightly calls for, extended to certain other aspects of the welfare system as it is now operating.
In debates in your Lordships’ House, I have referred before to the area in Newcastle I represent as a councillor. It is a ward in the west end of the city with high levels of deprivation and a life expectancy 12 years lower than that of the area where I live, some 12 minutes’ drive away. The ward has six primary schools, two of which are Roman Catholic schools. All the schools, together with the Excelsior Academy, founded by a Conservative philanthropist, provide breakfast clubs for their pupils. The ward is served by the largest food bank in the country and poverty is a very real local issue.
On 26 November, I was contacted by a constituent, a single parent with two very young children, whose child tax credit payments had been stopped for eight weeks. The family was left with £33 a week child benefit and £117 a fortnight income support. The children’s milk tokens had also been stopped, and formula milk needed by one child who suffers from asthma could no longer be afforded. The parent of these children could not top up the gas meter, when required, to the usual extent.
Concentrix, the firm dealing with my constituent under contract to HMRC, had initially stated that it would take six weeks to check the eligibility for child tax credits. I forwarded the details and my reply to the constituent to the local Member of Parliament, and advised my constituent that I had done so and would also endeavour to take up the matter with the Minister. However, three days later, on 1 December, I was again contacted by my constituent, who told me that a further telephone conversation had taken place with Concentrix. The initial response—now nine weeks after payments ceased—was that inquiries were ongoing. A request was then made to speak to a supervisor. Initially, that led only to an assertion by the supervisor that the mandatory reconsideration was being carried out by another department which did not accept calls from claimants. However, after it was said in the course of this telephone conversation that the local Member of Parliament had been informed about the case, the problem was miraculously resolved and payments immediately resumed, even though for weeks Concentrix had claimed that this could not be done by the department to which the calls had been made.
This sorry saga raises serious questions about the administration of the child tax credit system in general, and by Concentrix in particular. Of course, it is right that claims should be validated, but your Lordships might think that even six weeks seems like a long time for payments to be suspended, let alone the nine weeks which had elapsed in this case and the even longer period which, but for the mention of the Member of Parliament, would otherwise have ensued.
There are also issues about the approach taken by Concentrix in dealing with the matter, not just the length of time taken. This US-owned company, another beneficiary of the passion for outsourcing these services, was featured in an article in the Independent in February. Staff claimed they were under pressure to start 40 or 50 inquiries a day into possibly fraudulent claims without any initial cause. In effect, they were asked to fish for fraud. As of August, the Mumsnet website carried 91 cases of applicants complaining about how they felt intimidated by the company’s approach and its demands, for example, for original documentation such as bank statements, rent payments or catalogue, fuel and other bills, which were often prefaced by unsubstantiated and false assertions that claimants were not lone parents but were living with someone.
All of this is symptomatic of a deeply troubling approach to an important component of our welfare system, or, as I prefer to characterise it, our system of social security, which in so many ways the provisions of this Bill threaten to undermine.
A week last Friday, I watched a recording of JB Priestley’s powerful and moving play “An Inspector Calls”, set more than a century ago, which deals with the tragic history of a young woman driven to suicide by poverty and the withholding of what was then known as poor relief. I am not, of course, suggesting that we are in a similar position today or that this Bill, however imperfect, will take us back there. But I believe it is time for an inspector to call not only on Concentrix but on HMRC, the department and the Government as a whole to review not just how the system is administered, but the implications for those in need of the policies embodied in this Bill.
I have already tabled a Written Question to the Minister to ask specifically about Concentrix. The question, which the noble Lord will no doubt be answering shortly in written form, so I do not expect him to answer it today, was:
“To ask … what provisions the contract with Concentrix regarding child tax credits and other benefits makes concerning the time within which decisions must be made about the eligibility for such benefits once they have been withdrawn, and … how the company has performed against any such requirements in respect of the number of cases in which that period has been exceeded”.
This is but one example of the potentially serious problems posed to people in dire circumstances by a system which relies on a commercial organisation performing what ought to be a public service as if it was a routine exercise under which it seeks to find, expose and penalise people who abuse the system, but in a way which causes distress and worse to people who are quite innocent of any such charge and who will be denied benefits, even for a period of weeks, before a decision is made.
In addition to the serious matters raised by my noble friend Lady Lister about sanctions in a slightly different context, I urge the Government to look very seriously at reviewing the operation of this system and, in particular, the operation of the company administering it, admittedly not on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions but on behalf of HMRC.
My Lords, perhaps I may make two points on this very important subject, which will become more important as universal credit comes to be rolled out. That will happen significantly over the coming months and it is causing fear and anxiety that the sanctions regime, which at the moment affects individual benefits, as colleagues know, will start to be applied on a much wider scale on a wrapper which contains within it six benefits. The stakes are therefore a lot higher and, as I said last week and as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, mentioned, I am getting strong signals that people are worried about universal credit, in a way that I hoped they would not be because of the extra 1 million people who will be embraced on full rollout. In steady state, universal credit will bring that new degree of conditionality, so we need to be careful to answer some of the questions that have been raised.
Some of the casework that we have heard about obviously needs to be thoroughly investigated, and we need to try to deal with that as much as we can. However, the issue for me is about working with interest groups, such as Gingerbread and others, to try to bridge the gulf—and it is a gulf at the moment—with what the Government say is actually happening. The noble Baroness, Lady Evans, did a valiant job against the clock last week in trying to set out what the Government believe to be the circumstances. I would just report that that explanation, while done in good faith, was met with incredulity by some of the specialists working in this field. It may be that they are dealing with families which are predisposed to the risk of the sanction effect, particularly in the lone-parent client category. But we really need to try to bridge the gap between what the Government think is happening and what the pressure groups, which we have all worked with for years and whose judgment I trust, feel is happening before universal credit gets too much further rolled out.
I am in favour of a review of the generic kind suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. Speaking for myself, what really needs to happen concerns decision-makers, particularly skilled and experienced decision-makers. The problem is that the people who I get access to in Jobcentre Plus offices are more likely to be experienced because, if I was the departmental manager, I would want visitors such as me to see experienced hands and I have been doing that for a long while, so I have factored that in. I am presupposing that the training and guidance have been rolled out properly; the departmental expenditure limit makes that harder and harder but the explanation of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, last week, which I accepted, was that you can front-load the staff because you save money on administration with the technology. But I am absolutely convinced that these decision-makers with experience are skilled and savvy enough to know whether a case in front of them is missing essential evidence. I do not think that they have enough discretion at the moment about freezing the application until they are satisfied that they have the information in front of them.
The trouble is that these cases are visited on them through the technology system, so they are not able to see the case all the way through in the way that case officers could in the old days. Jobs get passed around the system, which is technologically clever and efficient, but that deprives the decision-makers of being able to say “Look, there’s something missing here. I want this attended to, and within two weeks I need this other information. If it is absent, their sanction will be applied but if we can find it, I’d be much happier”. I do not think that that flexibility exists.
I know that the guidance is all online and people can see it, and that it all makes sense when read in a cold situation. But in a hot family situation, an experienced decision-maker should be given more latitude in looking at the papers which they have and estimating what other evidence, which because of their experience is likely to exist somewhere else, would make a difference. That would save a lot of money in successful appeals, which would be spawned once the evidence was received, and make the client’s experience a whole lot better. There are things that could and should be done, but my plea, as it is all through the Bill, is that we have to get these things straightened out to the best of our possible ability before universal credit is rolled out to 7.7 million households across the country by 2020 or thereabouts.
My Lords, I would like to ask the Minister a question. Concerns have been expressed to me by legal advice centres and the local equivalents of CABs and so on. Anybody who is threatened with a sanction can obviously appeal or ask for a second opinion, and that would then go to an independent decision-maker. How long will that independent decision-maker take to arrive at their judgment? The advice I have been getting is that that is where it is being held up and that there are sometimes waits of six, eight, 10 or 12 weeks before a decision is made. As a result, there is a long queue for the independent decision-maker.
However, you cannot go to appeal, where the original decision may quite possibly be overturned, until it has been reviewed by the independent decision-maker. I am in favour of the department reviewing its own internal decision-making before we go through to the tribunal appeal process, but only if that is done speedily and competently, as well as fairly. Can we be reminded of those statistics, because I am advised in case after case that it is being used as a narrow gateway? It puts a lot of delay in and doubles the difficulties of the sanction procedure.
Then there is an entirely different question, not connected with that at all, which goes back to the Minister’s words towards the end of the last Committee day on work conditionality and sanctions and on the preparation for work interviews for those with a toddler aged two years or more—although the requirement to work does not bite until the toddler is three. Are people required to attend such work interviews or work preparation without their toddler? Consider a situation in which a lone parent has recently had to move, perhaps six months before, from a privately rented, mouldy property on an insecure tenancy to another property, and there is no support system in place. The little two year-old boy still does not speak, although he perhaps has the beginnings of a bit a temper. That child still needs to be fed and to have his nappies changed, but there is no local support network in place and the little boy has never been looked after by anyone other than his mother. Given that we are not talking about a work placement or continuous employment, as would happen when that toddler is three years old, but about attending, often on quite short notice, a work interview or work preparation training, may I have the Minister’s assurance that the lone parent may bring her two year-old toddler with her? In that case, are the jobcentres appropriately staffed and do they have provision for nappy-changing facilities and the like for such small infants?
May I correct something I said earlier? On my visit to the food bank in Tower Hamlets on Friday, the principal reasons given for people coming to food banks were mistakes in benefits and their own lack of knowledge about their entitlements; it was not to do with sanctions brought against them. I have checked my notes and apologise for my mistake.
My Lords, I speak enthusiastically in support of Amendment 57, moved with her customary precision and passion by my noble friend Lady Lister. I am pleased that it also has the support of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, my noble friend Lord Beecham, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, with his particular focus on getting these things sorted out before we get fully into universal credit.
The amendment seeks a full and independent review of sanctions attached to working age benefits, with particular reference to their application to lone parents and disabled claimants. The review should also focus on the effectiveness of sanctions in moving claimants into sustained work. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, posed three tests for a review, based on timing, remit and even-handed terminology. I think that we have established that the terminology involved is that which the department itself uses. On timing, the issue here is that the hardship and detriment people are suffering because of the sanctions regime is happening to them now. They do not have the time to wait for a fuller, more extended review. On the remit, I doubt whether my noble friend would have great problems in seeing that expanded. We would be interested to know quite how much further detail the noble Lord wants.
The proposition follows a call from the House of Commons DWP Committee in its March 2015 report, referred to by my noble friend. We know the call has been rejected, but we hope that this debate will help the Government to change their mind. This is of course inextricably linked to conditionality issues, which we debated at some length on Wednesday. We can agree that conditionality has long been a component of social safety nets and needs a system to support compliance. But as the amendment makes clear, as did my noble friend in moving it, the system should be applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately, and with a clear focus on improving sustained employment outcomes. It should not be seen as a substitute for effective support to help individuals back into work.
We support the approach that says that the design and application of sanctions need to be considered alongside conditionality and employment support. The three go together. The coalition Government initiated the Oakley review, although as we have heard it was narrow in its remit. It focused on JSA claimants and back to work programmes, but the number of sanctions overwhelmingly associated with the Work Programme represented only some one-third of the total JSA sanctions in 2013.
So why a review now? There are a number of compelling reasons. The sanctions system was made significantly more onerous in the 2012 welfare reform legislation, with the higher-level sanctions potentially extended to three years. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how many three-year sanctions have been applied. Your Lordships will recall that at the time we were told there would only be a handful. How many have there been? We have JSA sanction levels amounting to 100% of the benefit, and there is a high threshold for access to hardship payments. There has been an unprecedented use of sanctions in recent years, with 6% of all claimants on JSA being sanctioned every month. In the space of less than three years, from October 2012 to 31 March 2015, 971,000 individual JSA claimants have been sanctioned—a truly staggering number.
There is concern that the sanctions system is actually discouraging claimants from staying on benefits. The share of the unemployed who are not claiming JSA continues to rise, meaning that such individuals not only are receiving no financial support but are not receiving any support to get back into work. It is also a matter of concern that a growing number of sanctions are being applied to people who have a health condition that limits their ability to work. The experience of ESA claimants appears to be overwhelmingly negative. Being sanctioned was found to have a series of so-called unintended consequences, pushing individuals into debt and hunger, straining relationships and exacerbating mental health problems.
There is evidence that young people are being disproportionately sanctioned. A report from Sheffield Hallam University, commissioned by Crisis, referred to an emerging evidence base that homeless service users are disproportionately affected by sanctions. They may be twice as likely to be sanctioned as the wider claimant population and this can be due to systemic and personal barriers rather than an unwillingness to comply.
There is also a series of horror stories that are received routinely in the postbags of MPs—reference to which was made when this issue was debated in another place. Specific cases were raised in your Lordships’ House last week and again today, including the harrowing examples given by my noble friends Lady Lister and Lord Beecham. There are always dangers in extrapolating from a few high-profile issues but the breadth of these examples is truly troubling. At the extreme, there are circumstances involving the suicide of claimants, and the department’s case for rejecting information about the circumstances where the claimant was subject to a benefit sanction is, frankly, pretty thin. Policy changes from such incidents are a proper area of inquiry.
There is also concern about the quality of some of the information emanating from the DWP on sanctions statistics. A leaflet had to be withdrawn because of manufactured comments. Changes to the way statistics are presented, as we have heard, have been recommended by the UK Statistics Authority following representations from Frank Field MP in his role as chair of the Select Committee. These touched upon multiple sanctions, where he pointed out that, for the application of more than a million low to intermediate sanctions and 137,000 decisions to apply high-level sanctions, there was no way of knowing for how long individuals had been without money. He also expressed concern about what happens to claimants once they have been sanctioned. What data does the Minister have which can help us on this point?
Prompted by Dr David Webster of Glasgow University, who we have heard about, the UK Statistics Authority is to write to the DWP—it may have done already—with a range of recommendations in an endeavour to obtain further clarity on what is actually happening on sanctions. This will include recommendations on repeat sanctions and hardship payments—at least a start to lifting the veil.
My noble friend has done us a service by bringing forward this issue. Given the pivotal role that sanctions are designed to play in helping deliver full employment and make progress in halving the disability employment gap, we need to be assured that the system is fit for purpose. An independent review must assist at this time. As my noble friend said, surely it is in the department’s interest to know, as well.
My Lords, the amendment, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, would put into statute an independent review of the sanctions system. However, we are not sure that that is necessary, as the Government already keep the operation of the sanctions system under constant review to ensure that it continues to function fairly and effectively.
There is clear evidence that sanctions are effective with more than 70% of JSA and more than 60% of ESA recipients saying that sanctions make it more likely that they will follow the rules, but, where we identify that there is an issue, we act to put it right. This is clearly shown in the improvements already made to the JSA and ESA sanction system following the recommendations of Matthew Oakley’s independent review last year. However, as I said, we do not stop reviewing the process to ensure that it is fair and effective. That is why we have accepted, or accepted in principle, many of the recommendations made by the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s recent report into sanctions.
The chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, the right honourable Member for Birkenhead, has welcomed our response and our willingness to work with the committee to ensure that the conditionality system works as it should. In our response to the committee, we announced that we will trial a sanctions warning system giving claimants a further two weeks to provide evidence of good reason before a decision is made. We believe that this will help to strike the right balance between conditionality and fairness.
I can confirm to the House that it is our intention that the trial will operate in Scotland from March 2016, running for approximately five months. A full evaluation of the trial will be undertaken, and findings will be available from autumn 2016.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked about the monitoring of the destinations of sanctioned claimants. DWP officials are currently quality-assuring the data for universal credit official statistics. As part of this review process, we will carefully consider the option of including destination data. We are not yet in a position to confirm which statistics will be provided in future.
We are also considering extending the list of JSA vulnerable groups for hardship payment purposes to include those with mental health conditions and those who are homeless. This will mean that these claimants can receive hardship payments from day one of their sanction, provided that they also meet the other criteria.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, also asked about sanctions being applied fairly. Any decision to sanction a claimant is not taken lightly, and there is a full and proper process that includes the claimant from the start. At the start of the claim, as noble Lords will know, all claimants receive a tailored claimant commitment, and the requirements take into account mental health conditions, disabilities or caring responsibilities. Any failure to meet a requirement is always thoroughly considered and claimants are given the opportunity to provide good reason for not complying before any decision to sanction is made by the decision-maker, but I will need to come back to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on the timescales that she asked about, because I do not have that information to hand.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, also mentioned the Crisis report. We absolutely understand that homelessness is a complex issue, and our priority is to ensure that individuals affected get the right support. That is why we have made more than £1 billion available to prevent and tackle homelessness and support vulnerable households since 2010, and we will continue to work closely with organisations such as Crisis to make sure that support is provided where it is needed most.
On the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, about lone parents being required to come to jobcentres without a toddler, no, requirements to attend appointments at the jobcentre should be tailored to take into account individual claimants’ caring responsibilities, and work coaches should be able to help to make appropriate arrangements, including helping to arrange appointments around childcare. I cannot speak about the range of facilities within jobcentres, but it is within the gift of the work coaches to be flexible in working with lone parents.
I have already said that I cannot speak to all the facilities, but as I am writing to the noble Baroness on a previous issue I will include that in that response.
It is important that we focus on ensuring that all the agreed recommendations proposed by the Work and Pensions Select Committee are delivered and can be embedded in the design and delivery of universal credit. To clarify for the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, I say that universal credit sanctions are just on the standard element, not on the whole amount. We believe that a call for a further independent review is unnecessary to embed this in legislation.
No, it will be within a particular region of Scotland.
Sanctions play an important part in the labour market, encouraging people to comply with conditions which help them move into work. We want the sanctions system to be clear, fair and effective in promoting positive behaviours and we will continue to keep it under review so that it meets its aims, but also to ensure that it is flexibly delivered, as noble Lords said.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about sanctions statistics. We will look carefully at the point raised and consider what further information is useful to inform public debate. We have made a start on this, and our statistical releases now include additional information on sanctions.
JSA sanctions continue to decrease, and the JSA monthly sanctions rate has slightly fallen—by 15%—over the past year. Each month, on average, 95% of JSA claimants comply with the reasonable requirements placed on them. On average, 5% of JSA claimants were sanctioned each month of last year. We can provide those figures; I will write to the noble Lord.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked about the gulf between the department and what charities say about sanctions. I can only attempt to reassure him that officials are working closely with charities to investigate concerns. For instance, we have worked closely with Crisis and Gingerbread on improving communicating sanctions and will continue to do so. I will take the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, back to the department, because I do not have some of the more detailed information that he was asking about.
On the basis of those responses, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
I realise that this is a sensitive issue, but the amendment in the name of my noble friend has been tabled for some time on sanctions, time, efficaciousness and the need for a review. I would have expected in the Minister’s brief the detail of how many sanctions for how long, how long the decision-making is taking, the number of people going through as a result to appeal, and the results of the appeals. I would have expected two or three pages in her brief giving her the statistical detail which would empower her to answer many of the questions which, understandably, she is taking away today. I am surprised at that, because the amendment has been tabled for some time. The department will have the statistics, and they should have been made available to us in Committee, so that we have that material here today before we consider what we—and my noble friend in particular—may or may not do on Report.
I am in no sense criticising the Minister, but Ministers are coming to this House woefully underprepared with the information they need, which is of a detailed sort, to deal with the amendments being discussed. Members on the Opposition Benches have a right to expect Ministers to have that at their fingertips.
My Lords, that was an unnecessary intervention. Most of the information that was asked for is available on public websites—in particular, on the question about the three-year sanctions. I will ensure that noble Lords have the address of that website to check.
It should not be a question of going to a website. If a question is asked on the Floor of the House, and it is on a website, I would expect the Minister to have that detail in the briefing from the Box. That is their function—that is their job. I do not blame or criticise the Minister in any respect, but I would have expected a higher level of appropriate technical briefing for her, with which to equip her to answer what are obviously technical questions.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response on vulnerable groups, the mentally ill and others. Perhaps in the letter that the noble Lord has kindly offered to send me on care leavers, he can confirm that care leavers were flagged up in the welfare system and will get this special consideration before any sanction is made on them—and whether he might consider extending that. Currently, if a care leaver is participating in work or education, up to the age of 25, they are flagged up in the DWP system and special measures can be taken for them—but if they are not doing that, they do not get that support; it finishes at the age of 21. So 21 to 25 year-olds not in education or training are missing out. I encourage the Government to think about extending the kind of considerations to vulnerable groups that she was just describing to care leavers who are not in education or training but who would be called care-experienced adults. In a sense, they are the most vulnerable, because they are not in education or training but have been in care and face all the difficulties. I am sorry to speak for so long—but in that letter, I would appreciate some comments on that.
I am very grateful to noble Lords who have spoken, particularly those who spoke in support of the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, made the very important point that we need to be clear about this before universal credit is rolled out any further. Increasingly, I feel that we are in two parallel universes—the universe of those on the ground and the voluntary organisations and the universe of Ministers and officials. I am very glad that the Minister said that they are meeting to talk but, unfortunately, it seems as if they still operate within these parallel universes, where there is a completely different understanding of what is happening. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord McKenzie for the very comprehensive and thorough case that he made for an independent review. I am grateful, too, to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, who said that he was not opposed in principle to reviews. Perhaps we could look again at his criteria.
My noble friend made the point about timescale—that people suffering as a result of sanctions need this review now. However, I am a very reasonable person and I accept that, by the time the Bill becomes law, it will not leave very long between that and the timescale in the amendment. I would be very happy to discuss with the Minister perhaps a more realistic timescale.
On the remit being too narrow, I say that the whole point of the criticisms of the Oakley review was that it was too narrow. Indeed, Matthew Oakley himself acknowledged the narrowness of his remit and suggested that perhaps something broader was needed. So I am delighted that the noble Lord would like a broader remit than the one suggested in the amendment. The point about the term “sanctions” has already been addressed, but I just wonder how many times the Minister actually used the word; it was probably at least as many times as in the amendment itself. Perhaps, given that the noble Lord does not oppose in principle the idea of a review, he might help me to produce a better amendment for Report, if we decide to come back to this issue.
I am grateful, too, to the Minister. She started by saying that she was not sure whether the proposal was necessary. That seemed a rather tentative statement about something so important because, on this side of the House, we are sure that it is necessary. We have heard from my noble friend Lord McKenzie and others why it is necessary. She did not seem to have taken on board what I said about the yellow-card system. I welcome what is proposed, but it is not exactly the original Work and Pensions Committee recommendation. I was a bit disappointed that she did not explain why there had been that unacknowledged shift from what had been recommended. Perhaps she could write to me, and pop the letter to other noble Lords who have spoken on the specific question that I asked, about why the Government have rejected the Work and Pensions Committee recommendation that there should be a specific evaluation of the efficacy and impact of a minimum of four weeks’ sanctions. That was rejected without any explanation in the response to the report. I asked for an explanation and would be very happy to have one in writing. That said, I am grateful to her for her response. I do not think that it will satisfy the kind of organisations mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, or the people living in the universe that is engaging on a day-to-day basis with claimants suffering as a result of sanctions. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 57 withdrawn.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about airport policy. Aviation is a British success story. Today we have the third-largest aviation network in the world, second only to the US and China, but with that success comes challenges. Heathrow is full; Gatwick is filling up. If no action is taken, the entire London system will be full by 2040. Yet we need new connections to new cities in new economies. There are other challenges, too. Airports create jobs and opportunities. Technology is changing. Planes are becoming quieter and more efficient. But there is still, inevitably, an environmental impact.
To some, the arguments seem simple—oppose all expansion anywhere, or back it, but always somewhere else. And yes, there are opportunities in our network of national airports, with global connections from cities such as Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle. But growth here will come alongside growth in the south-east, not instead of it. That is why in September 2012 Sir Howard Davies was asked to lead a commission on the issue. Its final report was published less than six months ago. It made a strong case for expansion in the south-east. We have considered the evidence. The Government accept the case for expansion, and accept the Airports Commission’s shortlist of options for expansion. We will begin work straightaway on preparing the building blocks for an airports national policy statement, in line with the Planning Act 2008. Putting this new framework into place will be essential groundwork for implementing the decisions we take on capacity, wherever new capacity is to be built. That is the issue I want to turn to now.
Sir Howard Davies and his team produced a powerful report. Heathrow Airport Ltd’s scheme was recommended by the Airports Commission, but all three schemes were deemed viable. We are continuing to consider all three schemes, and we want to see action, but we must get the next steps right, both for those keen to push ahead with expansion and for those who will be affected by it. So we will undertake a package of further work.
First, we must deal with air quality. I want to build confidence that expansion can take place within legal limits, so we will accept the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendation to test the commission’s work against the Government’s new air quality plan. Secondly, we must deal with concerns about noise. I want to get the best possible outcome on this for local residents, so we will engage further with the promoters to make sure the best package of noise mitigation measures are in place. Thirdly, we must deal with carbon emissions, so we will look at measures to mitigate carbon impacts and address the sustainability concerns, particularly during construction. Fourthly, we must manage the other impacts on local communities. I want people who stand to lose their homes to be properly compensated for the impacts of expansion, and I want local people to have the best access to the opportunities that expansion will bring, including new jobs and apprenticeships. So we will develop detailed community mitigation measures for each of the shortlisted options.
We expect to conclude this package of work by the summer. Crucially, this means the timetable for delivering additional capacity set out by Sir Howard does not alter. The commission reported that an additional runway would be required by 2030, and we intend to meet that. In saying this, I am fully aware that some will wish we could go further and others will wish we were not making such progress. We are prepared for that because I want to get this decision right. That means getting the environmental response right and in the mean time getting on with the hard work to build new capacity to the timetable set out by Sir Howard in the commission’s report. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place this afternoon by the Secretary of State. It is typical of this Government that they should make the announcement that the commitment the Prime Minister gave to make a decision this month no longer stood, at a time when Parliament could not be told and was not in a position to hold the Government to account for nearly four days. I do not intend to spend any time on the entirely credible point that this Government’s decision to delay on a matter of national interest—not simply that of London and the south-east—is rooted in their own party political considerations, even though the Minister must know that has been an important factor.
I have one or two points to make, and then I have a number of questions. As recently as 23 November, in response to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, the Government repeated the Prime Minister’s assurance that a decision on London’s airports would be made before Christmas. When another noble Lord asked for confirmation that that decision would be final, not simply interim, he was told by the Minister that the Government’s position had been made clear and that he was clutching at straws. As we now find out, just three weeks later, he was in reality clutching at incredibly strong straws.
One area where this Government and their Prime Minister are extremely decisive is when it comes to avoiding decisions. Airport capacity in the south-east is simply yet another such case. Bearing in mind that the Government recently repeated the Prime Minister’s assurance that a decision would be made before Christmas, what issue has arisen or what information has come to light between 23 November and last Thursday evening, 10 December, that is of such significance as to require a further delay in making a decision, and yet was not known about before 23 November and could not, and did not, come to light during the lengthy consideration by the Davies commission or in the six months since the commission published its findings and recommendations? That is six months during which the Government have been considering the findings and recommendations of the Davies commission report, including on environmental considerations and air quality, for which the commission said there should be statutory guarantees. The items to be looked at, as set out in the Statement, are not new. They should have been being looked at during the past six months, and should have been known about when the Government gave a commitment to make a decision this month.
What specific further investigations or studies do the Government now intend to undertake to enable them to come to a decision, who will undertake those and within what timescale? Will the Government give an assurance that the results of those further studies and investigations will be made public well before a final decision is made? Will the Davies commission be asked to consider them, and say whether they would have led it to reach different findings or recommendations, with the views of the commission again being made public well before a decision is made by the Government?
We agree that there is a clear and immediate need for additional runway capacity in the south-east of England and a need to ensure that environmental and community concerns are balanced against the economic and operational case for expansion. The Government recently announced the setting up of the National Infrastructure Commission, headed by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, to provide independent, authoritative advice on the merits and compatibility of major infrastructure projects, including when they need to be undertaken. Will the Minister say why the Government believe that the lengthy indecision over future airport capacity and additional runways we have faced and continue to face would have been avoided under the new National Infrastructure Commission? What would have been different had the National Infrastructure Commission been in existence earlier? In view of the further government delay of many months in reaching a decision, will the Minister indicate whether the Government will now take the opportunity to seek the views and advice of the National Infrastructure Commission on the most appropriate long-term decision on airport expansion in the south-east?
Will the Minister confirm what, if anything, the Government are committed to in relation to increased airport capacity in the south-east? Are they committed to at least one additional runway somewhere in the south-east? Significantly, the Statement does not directly answer that question. Will the Government also say when they expect to announce a decision? The Statement does not specifically say when there will be such a decision, only when the Government expect a package of work to be concluded, which is a totally different issue.
We appear to have moved backwards in time, because the Government have indicated that the option of an additional runway at Gatwick is still in the frame, as well as that of a third runway at Heathrow, as recommended by the Davies commission. The uncertainty and blight for those living near Heathrow and Gatwick continue for an apparently potentially lengthy period, as it does for the less than impressed business community, which is worried about the impact on the economy.
Finally, we are still left to deal with the immediate problems of airport capacity in the south-east. Heathrow is effectively full, and Gatwick is operating at 85% capacity. What, if any, plans do the Government now have to ease this problem, which is already having adverse impacts? In the light of the apparent further lengthy delay in making a decision—which simply adds to the delay caused by the time it took to set up the Davies commission, and the decision that its report and recommendations should not appear until after the general election—do the Government intend to address the lack of capacity in the south-east as it stands, bearing in mind that additional capacity is clearly some considerable time away?
The Minister has my sympathy this evening because this delay is clearly all about Zac and Boris and has nothing to do with the need to look at air quality in greater detail. However, it gives us an opportunity to push the Government on the issues mentioned in the Statement and to test them. Surface transport access to Heathrow and Gatwick airports is an essential part of solving this problem, yet there is no reference to issues relating to it in the Statement. Will the Minister say whether there will be public investment in the surface transport infrastructure that is badly needed, or only private investment by Heathrow and Gatwick airports? Heathrow seems to believe that public investment will be needed; Gatwick seems to believe that it will not. I will be grateful for the Government’s take on this issue.
Given the further delay to which the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, just referred and the pressure it will cause, will the Government agree to look again at the increased use of regional airports alongside the work they are doing on the Davies solutions to airport capacity? Hub airports have moved on. We are in danger of answering yesterday’s question today; indeed, in the case of Heathrow, we are in danger of answering the day before yesterday’s question today, because this saga has gone on for so long. Dubai and Schiphol are now well established as the world’s hub airports, and a new generation of planes makes certain aspects of this issue redundant, so this question could be overtaken by events.
The Liberal Democrats have always believed that there needs to be much better use of existing spare capacity, which will need better surface connection before we expand Heathrow or Gatwick in the near future. However, if there is to be another air quality report, who will do it, to whom will it report and will that report be published in full? Any additional work on air quality must have greater public confidence than the work the Davies commission was able to produce.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked a series of questions about the responses given in November and subsequently, and what factors have been considered. As I have said, we are emphasising the importance of environmental considerations regarding both air quality and other pollution, such as noise pollution.
One significant development, which I am sure the noble Lord is aware of, is that on 26 November a decision was taken by the Environmental Audit Committee specifically on outlining the need to ensure that, whatever decision is taken:
“On air quality, the Government will need to re-examine the Commission’s findings in the light of its finalised air quality strategy”.
I pick up the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, on the specific issue of air quality. The commission published a large amount of analysis on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions. We will therefore accept the committee’s recommendation to test the commission’s work against the Government’s new air quality plan, which I am sure she is aware will be published very shortly. We will develop measures to mitigate impacts on local people and the environment.
The noble Baroness rightly raised the important issue of surface access to airports. The Government have a plan for investment in road and rail transport networks to promote growth. The Government’s road strategy for 2015-20, which I am sure she is aware of, includes investments that will improve strategic road access to Gatwick, Manchester, East Midlands, Birmingham, Heathrow and Stansted airports. I know that she has mentioned, and is a strong advocate for, regional airports, which I also support. I have always said that they are part of the overall offering of UK plc when it comes to airport capacity.
The noble Baroness may well also be aware that, as part of the Thameslink programme, we will deliver new state-of-the-art trains on the line between Brighton, Gatwick Airport and London by 2016. By 2018 these trains will start operating on two direct services connecting Gatwick to Peterborough and Cambridge, following the completion of the Thameslink programme. Turning briefly to Heathrow, I am sure noble Lords will be aware that in 2019 Crossrail will start running to Heathrow Airport and improve access to London City Airport from the west. Most recently, there have been improvements to the station at Gatwick as well. I am sure that noble Lords acknowledge that surface transport is an important part of whatever final decision is taken.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked various questions, such as what additional steps may be taken with regard to the final decision that we will be moving to. I mentioned in my Statement that we are looking to move forward on this and come to our conclusions by summer 2016. In terms of reviewing the position on all three options, we will be giving further policy consideration and prioritisation to the commission’s package in respect of both Heathrow and Gatwick. We want the best deal for all affected communities, as I said, particularly on the areas of noise mitigation, including respite; air-quality mitigation strategies related to that; offers to local communities, which I mentioned in the Statement, specifically relating to compensation and job opportunities in terms of apprenticeships and employment; wider housing issues and infrastructure considerations; and of course the importance of carbon impact mitigation and sustainability, particularly during the construction phase. We will also be considering how to engage with and take account of community and wider aviation views. There will of course be further engagement with scheme promoters on expansion, specific mitigations, public commitments and the potential to maintain some competitiveness between the different options.
As I have said, the Government have moved forward on this. We have agreed with the Davies commission conclusions, which did not rule out any of the three options. We sustain these and continue to work on ensuring that the important issues of noise mitigation and wider environmental impacts are duly considered as part of the Government’s decision.
My Lords, “Zac 1, United Kingdom 0” just about sums up my own view about the present situation, although I have to say that the Opposition are not throwing any particular light on the issue or coming up with any solutions of their own. Would the Minister at least concede that if this goes on for much longer, Heathrow Airport will drop out of the premier league of international airports; that Britain will be an island without an airport entry point commensurate with its economic size; and that the loss of jobs and investment will be massive, just at the time when some people think there is going to be an economic recession? Is this not a rather serious situation?
I thank my noble friend for his questions. He has been a consistent and vociferous questioner on this issue; indeed, he has another Question on the subject on Wednesday. He mentioned a particular scoreline. To get political for a moment, I certainly hope that there is a 1-0 scoreline when it comes to the May election in favour of my honourable friend in the other place.
My noble friend talked about the impact on the economy. I agree with him, and the Government feel very strongly that there is a need to make a decision that is based on the right decisions for the economy, the country and, as I have said specifically in my Statement, the environment.
We are now well connected. As my noble friend points out, there are constraints and they are beginning to bite. By 2040, all major south-eastern airports will be full. Failing to address this would cost passengers between £21 billion and £23 billion, and of course there would be wider indications for the economy, estimated to be in the region of £30 billion to £45 billion. However, with regard to the timetable of summer 2016 that I have talked about, the Davies commission reported that, whatever decision or option was chosen, we would need to complete by 2030. I assure the noble Lord that this would still allow for that decision to be taken and the appropriate expansion to take place in good time to meet the 2030 deadline.
My Lords, this is an absolute abdication of responsibility. British aviation has been put in a secondary position compared with other vital industries. What has been advanced is the interests of the Conservative Party, and as a result our competitors are going to be richly rewarded. Putting aside the Minister’s discomfort, should we not consider how best British aviation can recover from this grievous blow? Meanwhile, words hurriedly uttered by the Minister are no alternative to government policy.
I assure the noble Lord that we are moving forward. I have talked of the timetable that we are moving to. As I said earlier, it will ensure that we meet the required deadline. Whatever decision is taken, the Government have accepted in principle the findings of the Davies commission. Three options were put forward and none was discarded by the commission. We are ensuring that all three stay on the table, and we are firmly committed to south-eastern airport expansion. The important thing is to ensure that all considerations are taken into account. With the timetable that we have outlined, we will be able to proceed forward. It will be a great asset for UK plc to ensure that we reach a decision quickly on south-eastern airport expansion capacity in summer next year.
Does the Minister understand how deeply frustrated the business community feels about this further delay? We had a three-year independent commission, which was supposed to take the politics out of it, but it has come back into political soup. It appears that the Government have answered the interim report of two years ago, which suggested that we focus on three options and that we accept that there was a need for expansion in the south-east. I do not understand what progress has been made in the last two years. In the interim report there was a recommendation for an independent noise ombudsman to sort out the noise issues. We have known for 15 years that we are in breach of European air-quality limits in London. It is simply unclear to me what the Government have been doing for the last three years.
We are moving forward. We will begin work straightaway on preparing the building blocks for an airports national policy statement, as I said in my earlier Statement; that is the most appropriate vehicle to set the framework for the planning consent for new capacity. Noble Lords should be assured that, with the proposals we are moving forward on and the important consideration being given to environmental impacts, we will still be able to move forward on whatever decision is taken in line with the Davies commission proposals.
My Lords, can the Minister comment on the remarks made by the chief executive officer of International Airlines Group, who said that as far as the airlines are concerned there is basically no business case at all for the extension of Gatwick? When he focused his comments on the Heathrow proposal, he said that the runway would cost £182 million but the total cost would be somewhere around £18.6 billion. He went on to say that this is a,
“gold-plated airport to fleece its customers”,
and that he would consider moving his business either to Madrid or Dublin. If we are to spend all that money on one of these options and if the response of the airlines is to move business away, with the attendant jobs, will the Minister say something about that to your Lordships’ House?
The right reverend Prelate raises the media report of comments made over the weekend by the chairman of IAG, which I have read. I assure the right reverend Prelate that we continue not just on this issue of airport expansion in the south-east but meet regularly with all airlines to ensure that, as we plan our infrastructure and how we plan to move forward on this agenda, airlines are part and parcel of our consultation. Obviously, the chairman has made some comments on issues he feels strongly about, but perhaps it would be inappropriate to speculate on the true intent behind his comments.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a regular flyer from Scotland to London who avoids Heathrow at every possible opportunity because of congestion, and as a member of the Economic Affairs Committee, which interviewed Sir Howard Davies when he published his report. Can my noble friend say how much the Davies report cost? Given that it was a very expensive, thorough and authoritative report, what is the point of commissioning a report which makes a clear recommendation, at very considerable cost to the taxpayer, and then ignoring it?
If I may, I will write specifically on the issue of cost, but it is not being ignored; estimates have been made of that. The important point my noble friend raises is about the commission. Yes, the previous Government initiated the commission in 2012. As I have said previously from this Dispatch Box, we have committed ourselves to ensuring that the report of the commission is duly considered, which we are doing and have done since its publication, and that will form the basis of however the Government choose to proceed. We are not discarding the findings of the Davies commission—on the contrary, we are supportive of them and are ensuring that all elements raised within the Davies commission and through the Audit Committee’s recent report are built into our response. We will move forward in a positive frame in that regard in the summer of next year.
My Lords, this is government with a vengeance: everything to do with the date of the mayoral elections in London and nothing to do with the environment. This has been trawled over for years. I will ask the Minister two specific questions. First, if the Government are going to resurrect the Gatwick proposal, has Gatwick local authority been consulted on the amount of storage space that will be required for all the cargo that arrives? Secondly, and very specifically—this is particularly important for the rest of the UK economy—have the Government taken into account the impact on the regional airports in the regions of Britain if Heathrow does not get that extra runway, thus enabling those regional airports to link into the global economy? Without that, there will be immense damage to business.
The noble Lord raises an important point about air freight, which of course contributes over 40% of the UK’s non-EU trade and over £140 billion in total, which is a very important part of the offering. As the noble Lord rightly pointed out, this is an important issue and one of the many factors we are considering. We will be working on the proposals in front of us from the Davies commission to ensure that the best decision is taken for expansion of airport capacity in the south-east. It is an important consideration and it will be part of our discussions going forward.
My Lords, might the Government consider spreading the pain and pollution by treating both Gatwick and Heathrow as just different terminals of the same London airport? A new runway at Gatwick, linked by dedicated high-speed rail link, might solve many of the problems that have been outlined this evening, as well as joining up the rail system with the other improvements that the Minister alluded to earlier.
The Davies commission put forward distinct proposals on south-east airport expansion. The important thing he raises, which the Government are fully committed to, as I have said earlier, is that when it comes not only to our airports in the south-east but our airports across the UK, we need to look at increased connectivity through surface transport. Indeed, a greater level of investment is going on through Crossrail, and the development of HS2 will ensure that our connectivity across our airports across the United Kingdom will be much stronger to allow for greater contributions to be made to economic development and to allow one airport to complement the other.
My Lords, the Minister has made much of the need for more capacity in the south-east and in the London system. Will he at last take the opportunity to acknowledge the role that London Luton Airport can play in delivering that extra capacity? In 2011, Luton accounted for 7% of passengers at London airports and on DfT forecasts it will contribute 17% of London passenger growth by 2030. While the Government have been dithering, a local public/private partnership has been getting on with investing £13 million, and will have invested up to £18 million by 2020. Will the Minister at last just acknowledge that that is a real contribution?
The noble Lord has asked me “at last” to acknowledge that, but I have previously done so and acknowledge again that London Luton Airport continues to be an important part of the UK plc airport offering. As he has just outlined, it has been a successful part of that contribution and I am confident that that contribution will grow in the months and years ahead.
My Lords, will the Minister not accept from me that even if a third runway at Heathrow or wherever were to be paved with gold, it matters little to some of us who cannot get access to it? The right reverend Prelate made the point about the comment made by the chief executive of IAG, which is only one comment. But the Minister will know of my interest in this matter; the regions do not have guaranteed access to a major piece of national infrastructure, and through European law the Secretary of State has no power to do anything about it and ensure access. Can the Minister revisit this issue, because it is fundamental? If it is a national piece of infrastructure, all parts of the nation should have access to it, but currently his department has no control over that.
I know that the noble Lord has raised this issue before and, again, I assure him that the Government have an answer to this. If a particular route is affected—for example, Gatwick to Newquay—the Government have stepped in when public concern has been expressed and have guaranteed support and financing for the route. We continue to ensure that all routes that need to be supported are supported. The Government take very seriously connectivity across the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.
My Lords, the Statement says:
“We expect to conclude this package of work by the summer”.
I take it that that is not a firm promise, as the Prime Minister said from the Dispatch Box that the decision would be made by Christmas. For the avoidance of doubt, for clarity and to stop this whole thing becoming a total Whitehall farce, will the Minister say when exactly we can expect to get this report?
My Lords, I remind the House of my interest as leader of a London borough council. Like hundreds of thousands of other Londoners, I welcome this stay of execution on Heathrow, although I see two nooses still hanging in the yard. The Minister referred to air quality and noise. A bigger Heathrow would fail on those. I put to him also the issue of security—it would be foolishness to fly another quarter of a million flights over our capital—and that good old Conservative principle of competition. How on earth can it be in our national interest to load more, as the right reverend Prelate reminded us, on to a single monopoly airport owned by foreign interests and hedge funds—our fair-weather friends in China and Qatar? Is not the truth that the Prime Minister took the right decision in 2010 with “no ifs, no buts”? Perhaps we should have got on with building the alternative then, and we should certainly do so now.
The analogy with nooses that my noble friend draws is certainly not how I or the Government view it. This is an opportunity to expand airport capacity in the south-east, which is a central part of ensuring the growth of our country and our future development. As I said, it is important that we listen to all views—the Airports Commission produced a very detailed and thorough piece of work—and that we consider all environmental impacts, including air quality, noise and carbon emissions. I know that my noble friend has made representations in this regard and we are listening to those representations. It is important that we make the right decision for the south-east, for our country and for moving our economy forward.
My Lords, someone coming anew to this debate and hearing the Minister’s opening remarks might think that Sir Howard and his colleagues set out three options, weighed them immaculately and left the choice open. It is hard to imagine a more thorough report than he and his colleagues wrote or a clearer conclusion and recommendation. What were the shortcomings in the report that have occasioned this delay? What did the commission not make clear?
One issue, which I mentioned earlier and which was referred to by the Environmental Audit Committee, was the need to ensure that air quality standards are applied to each proposal within each of the options that we are considering. We feel quite strongly that those need to be considered, reviewed and analysed so that we make the right decision on the basis of not just the economy but important environmental considerations.
My Lords, the failure to take this decision is seemingly either mind-blowingly incompetent or amazingly cynical. We have now had longer than the duration of the Second World War to think about this. As the noble Baroness said, in the last two years we seem to have gone round in circles. As I cannot believe that any Government would be so cynical over something so important for the wealth of our nation, I have to assume that it is mind-blowing incompetence. Will any heads roll in the Department for Transport because of this incompetence and failure to make a decision?
I totally disagree with the noble Lord. I do not think that it is either of the issues he proposed. I am sure he will recognise that it is important that these decisions are considered: they have to be the right decisions based on all the issues in front of us. The environment and environmental issues have been raised, and these are important considerations to ensure that we get the required expansion. I will be absolutely clear. I mentioned the summer of 2016. That timetable will in no sense delay the proposals in the Davies commission for achieving extra capacity by 2030.
My Lords, can the Minister now answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Rosser? What has changed since the Government told the House that we would have a decision before Christmas? Or is it merely that the Cabinet as a whole lacks the moral courage to make the decision?
My noble friend has said something that I cannot agree with—and nor do I agree with it on principle. The Government have moved forward. We have agreed that airport expansion will take place in the south-east, and I am sure that he will acknowledge the importance of the environmental considerations. I said specifically that in the interim, on 26 November, we received a reasonable and full assessment from the Environmental Audit Committee and I quoted from its report. I commend the report to my noble friend, as he will see that we need to ensure that all the key environmental considerations are taken into account in making the final decision.
Welfare Reform and Work Bill
Committee (3rd Day) (Continued)
58: After Clause 15, insert the following new Clause—
“Safeguarding of vulnerable claimants: guidance
(1) The Secretary of State shall issue statutory guidance for the safeguarding of vulnerable claimants in relation to any sanction, reduction of benefit, or disallowance of benefit (“the guidance”).
(2) The guidance shall incorporate all relevant provisions and operational protocols contained in the following Departmental operating guidance—
(a) procedural guidance within the Labour Market Conditions Guide;(b) universal credit guidance for agents;(c) Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) guidance for Jobcentres;(d) ESA operational guidance for benefit delivery centres;(e) ESA Incapacity Reference Guide;(f) Core Visits Guide;(g) Work Programme guidance;(h) guidance for health professionals.(3) The guidance shall specify—
(a) indicators of vulnerability and procedures for identification of vulnerable claimants;(b) situations which may demonstrate good cause for inability to participate in a work-focused interview, undertake work-related activity, or attend mandatory Work Programmes or back-to-work schemes;(c) where claimants must be referred for a Core Visit conducted by a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Visiting Officer;(d) how to support claimants with additional or complex needs;(e) liaison arrangements with mental health services where claimants are mental health service users; (f) collaborative approaches through which DWP can work with independent advice and support bodies in assisting such claimants;(g) who is responsible for ensuring that the guidance is complied with.(4) “Vulnerability” and “vulnerable claimants” shall be taken to refer to individuals who are identified as having complex needs or requiring additional support to enable them to access DWP benefits and use DWP services.
(5) Complex needs may refer to difficult personal circumstances, life events, or health, disability or incapacity conditions that affect the ability of individuals to access DWP benefits and services.
(6) In issuing the guidance the Secretary of State shall ensure consistency of definitions, terminology and language in the guidance.
(7) The Secretary of State shall ensure that consistent principles, good practice and fairness in safeguarding procedures is applied across all types of benefit claims, including Jobseeker’s Allowance claims, and by all agents involved in the assessment and administration of benefits.
(8) The Secretary of State shall report to Parliament annually on the application of the guidance.”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 62. At Second Reading I spoke about two issues that had been highlighted for me by my work as chair of an independent commission which had been considering the future of advice and legal support on social welfare law in England and Wales: how to protect the most vulnerable from the worst effects of sanctions, and how claimants might get the advice and support they need to adjust to the changes brought about by welfare reform legislation. Amendment 58 deals with the first of these and Amendment 62 with the second.
Operational guidance has been developed over a number of years to build some minimum safeguards into the application of conditionality-based decision-making—for example, in dealing with claimants with serious mental health problems or cognitive impairments. It has been evolved in a piecemeal fashion around certain minimum requirements covering, in broad terms: the identification of claimants with mental health conditions or a background of mental illness and liaison with social and mental health services, with such cases referred to a higher managerial decision-maker before a benefit withdrawal decision is made; the requirement for the DWP to consider any good cause as to why a claimant may not have met a particular condition; and a requirement for the DWP to attempt to contact the claimant, conduct a face-to-face discussion about the conditionality and, if necessary, arrange a home visit if they do not accept that good cause.
Welfare reform legislation and new policy on sanctions since the 2012 Act in particular has complicated matters, although the same guidance on minimum requirements carries over to a significant extent. The guidance is, however, piecemeal and scattered over several different operational guidance manuals, each with subtle differences in language and terminology, leading to application and practice that is far less consistent than it should be. Overall, this has meant that the guidance is weaker in its application to new JSA claims—in fact, there is no JSA-specific guidance—universal credit claimants and clients of Work Programme providers.
Welfare rights workers can also point to numerous cases where the DWP has failed to apply safeguards correctly, especially following ESA work capability assessments. The consequences for vulnerable claimants can be devastating. In its inquiry on benefits sanctions beyond the Oakley review, the Work and Pensions Select Committee concluded that:
“Given the complexity of the existing legislation, there is a strong case for a review of the underpinning legislative framework for conditionality and sanctions, to ensure that the basis for sanctioning is clearly defined, and safeguards to protect vulnerable groups clearly set out”.
The Select Committee further recommended strengthening and clarifying guidance around the protocols and purposes of home visits or core visits. It also recommended better guidance on vulnerability specifically directed to Jobcentre Plus staff in identifying vulnerable JSA claimants, including those with mental problems and learning difficulties who may face difficulties in understanding and/or complying with benefit conditionality.
I have a number of cases that illustrate the need for a stronger legal framework to protect vulnerable claimants in situations where they potentially face sanctions. Given the time, I will mention only one, but it graphically makes the point. Mr D had his ESA stopped after failing to attend a work capability assessment. The DWP was aware of his history of mental ill health and that he was receiving support from his local NHS mental health service. However, it did not carry out safeguarding procedures and did not attempt to contact his local NHS mental health service to find out more about the risks to Mr D’s health if his income were to be stopped. After benefit was stopped, Mr D’s mental health deteriorated and he became suicidal. His psychiatrist assessed that the benefits stopping was a stressor that put Mr D at severe risk of suicide. Mr D was assisted in contacting the advice service by his psychiatric nurse. After the advice service challenged the DWP on its handling of the case, benefit was reinstated and Mr D was placed in the support group of ESA.
Amendment 58 would address the state of the guidance and the recommendations of the Select Committee by inserting a new clause in the Bill which would provide a clear statutory underpinning and codification for all safeguarding procedures and guidance; put all the guidance in one place, which should make it more accessible, user-friendly and easier for professionals to use; require consistency and robustness of application, especially consistency between new and legacy benefits systems; and require the Secretary of State to report annually to Parliament on the operation of the safeguarding procedures. As the language used in the amendment is drawn from existing guidance—for example, as regards the approach to vulnerability—it does not attempt to impose a higher threshold of safeguarding requirements in relation to conditionality but rather to ensure that existing standards are made more effective, consistent and transparent. The amendment is therefore consistent with the scope of the Bill, and the 2012 Act and its predecessor legislation.
Amendment 62 addresses the question of how claimants might get the advice and support they need to adjust to changes brought about by welfare reform legislation. The universal credit support service framework is a DWP-led collaborative project with the Local Government Association to deliver local support for more vulnerable claimants and to assist those who might be unable to use the digital claims process or who may need help budgeting, given the transition to monthly payments. The DWP drives a lot of the demand for advice as a result of delays and failures within the system, so it is only right that it should have an obligation to support and fund welfare rights advice. It therefore needs to be engaged in directly supporting the advice sector to help vulnerable claimants transition to new benefit regimes and/or adjust to new entitlement rules, as well as helping to challenge the system when it gets decisions wrong.
Amendment 62 would insert a new clause in the Bill providing that the Secretary of State shall publish guidance for local authorities about their role in developing schemes to support claimants, especially claimants with additional needs or indicators of vulnerability, and report annually to Parliament on the operation of the universal credit local support service framework. It provides that guidance shall specify, among other things, the role of local authorities in developing partnerships to deliver support and a priority role for independent local advice agencies. Finally, it provides that the Secretary of State shall ensure that the universal credit local support service framework is appropriately resourced so that it can be rolled out to all local authority areas. It is difficult to establish how far the DWP intends to roll out its local universal credit support services beyond the initial UC pilot areas and how the funding for this works. Therefore, it would be helpful if the Minister told us what the department’s plans are in this regard and what the relationship is between the universal credit local support service funding and other grants to local authorities, such as the troubled families programme, and the information and advice strategies required by the Care Act. I beg to move.
I rise to support both these amendments and have attached my name to Amendment 62. I have an interest in this as vice-chair for the last 10 years of the parliamentary group for children in care and care leavers, and as a carer of a mentally ill adult. I know how fragile many of the individuals seeking welfare support are. The Minister himself may have been shocked to discover the issues around mental health as he has done his important work in building capacity in jobcentres. I strongly support my noble friend’s amendments.
My Lords, I intend to speak very briefly as we have had a good debate on sanctions and the noble Lord, Lord Low, introduced his amendment with characteristic care and detail.
I just want to say a couple of things to the Minister. I know that the department is not attracted to statutory guidance on universal credit in particular. One of the reasons is that it likes to make personalised decisions. Before the noble Baroness tells us how the system is meant to work, I want to flag something up. I worked in government and know that you always get complaints from non-profit organisations about how things are working. At some point, the noise being made reaches a certain level, and you know that maybe things are not working quite the way they are meant to work. It is my judgment that we are approaching that level. The level of concern expressed by charities about the way the sanctions environment is working, particularly for vulnerable groups, and about the severity of some individual mistakes that have been made, suggests there may be something systemic going wrong. I am not suggesting that means it is going wrong on a large scale across the caseload, but that something is going wrong often enough, and on occasions badly enough, to merit attention.
When the Minister responds, even if she is not attracted to the way the amendment might resolve this issue, could she address the underlying problems and tell us how the Government might like to deal with them?