House of Lords
Monday, 8 February 2016.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.
Refugees: Unaccompanied Children
My Lords, the Government are working with the UNHCR to resettle unaccompanied refugee children from conflict areas where it is in the best interests of the child to do so. These are likely to be exceptional cases: for most children, their needs are best met in the region. We are providing an additional £10 million of support for vulnerable children in Europe.
On 2 December, the Prime Minister said that he was thinking again about our moral duty towards these children. That was 10 weeks ago. What has happened in that 10 weeks, and what is going to happen in the next 10 weeks, to those children who are spread out in so many ways? They are deserving of our compassion, and those who are showing compassion are the people—young people especially—working as volunteers in Calais, Dunkirk and other places. As a House, we should express our appreciation of everything that they are doing.
I certainly endorse what the noble Lord says about the volunteers who are giving up their time to help those people in need. The noble Lord asked what has happened since 2 December. On 28 January, the Prime Minister made a Statement outlining what he had done in the interim period, and he announced four new initiatives. He said that he was going to send the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, to look at the hotspots, as they are called, or reception centres, to see what was happening to children. We announced an additional £10 million of support, particularly for children who had arrived there. He also said that we would meet the UNHCR and Save the Children, and that is happening this Thursday. However, I thought the noble Lord might have given a passing mention to the fact that, last week, the Prime Minister announced a doubling of the aid we are giving to Syria—from £1.1 billion to £2.3 billion—by the end of the Parliament, which I am sure is welcomed by everyone in the House.
My Lords, following the statement last week by Brian Donald, the head of Europol, that 10,000 children had disappeared and an entire criminal infrastructure dedicated to exploiting migrants had been established, will the Minister tell the House what representations we have made to Europol and what discussions we are having with it about tackling this? Also, given that the 100,000 people now massing at Oncupinar, on the Turkish border with the Aleppo province, are facing an aerial bombardment campaign and the borders are closed to them—many of those refugees will be children—what action are the Government taking to ask that those borders be opened to allow the refugees safe passage across?
The noble Lord is absolutely right to focus on this. Europol estimates that some 90% of people who arrive at Calais have been trafficked by criminal gangs. That is why the Prime Minister announced that we are setting up the Organised Immigration Crime Task Force, and there have been some early successes, although we need to work much harder on that. That is also why Kevin Hyland—I know the noble Lord knows him and respects his work—is looking at those issues. On the situation in Turkey, that is why we have announced a further £275 million as part of the EU-Turkey agreement, to provide aid to that southern border.
I must admit that I wish there had been more. My noble friend is right to raise this matter. Kent is bearing an unfair share of the burden of caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children: more than 1,000 are being cared for there. The Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Education, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote in November asking local authorities to come forward. So far we have had interest from 24—but that is out of 440. Only eight children out of 1,000 have so far been offered places. I would like to think that all Members of this House who have links to their local authorities would be encouraging them to look again and see what can be done to help Kent in its hour of need.
My Lords, as the Minister may know, Eritrean children are fleeing from their country because of their experience of the most brutal human rights violations, often described as crimes against humanity. Will the Minister comment on the fact that, on the most recent evidence, the UK continues to reject Eritreans, including children, on the basis of a discredited Danish report, rather than using a balanced UN report?
The noble Baroness asked a Question on this subject a couple of weeks ago. We still accept a large number of Eritreans who come here, because of the open-ended nature of the military service that they have to undertake. So far, we have accepted a large number of them. The UN report to which the noble Baroness refers did not have access in-country; our policy is based on in-country information from our embassy, and we will continue to keep the situation under review.
My Lords, as one of the bishops from Kent, may I take the Minister back to his previous answer? In fact, some 1,300 unaccompanied refugee children are housed in Kent, and the local authorities and the voluntary agencies are under very significant pressure. May I push him a little as to whether, in the light of the somewhat unencouraging response from other local authorities, Her Majesty’s Government intend to do anything else to ensure a more effective national dispersal programme—given that we are talking not just about this moment, but about the likely 10 years that will be needed to get a young person from the point of arrival to full integration, with all the work in education, language and healthcare needed to go with that, and the considerable investment required? Some assurance would help my colleagues in Kent.
It is absolutely right to raise that point: we have a particular problem there, and we need more local authorities to come forward. We will take some action: the Immigration Bill before your Lordships’ House includes a provision that will allow the Secretary of State, where people do not step forward, to impose a settlement on local authorities—and that comes not only with the child, but with about £40,000 of funding per head. So we are not simply asking people to take additional responsibilities. If there is anything that can be done through the diocese of Kent to exert pressure on local authorities more widely to take their fair share, we would of course all welcome that.
Is the Minister aware that all over the country, the British public are anxious to do something to help Syrian refugees, particularly children? There is an enormous surge of enthusiasm to do something. Could the Minister, and the Government, not make a more positive appeal? I hear from people who want to be foster parents: foster parents will be forthcoming. We cannot leave these children to fester somewhere in Europe, uncared for and vulnerable to trafficking gangs.
Absolutely right—and I certainly join the noble Lord in appealing for more foster carers to come forward, to help not only children who are refugees but all children; there is a great shortage. But I also hope that the people of this country can take some pride in the fact that through their aid—through their taxes, which go through the Government—we shall be able to provide £2.3 billion-worth of aid, which is keeping 227,793 children in education and providing livelihood assistance to 600,000 families in the region, 2 million medical interventions and 15 million food rations. That is something we can be proud of.
My Lords, the latest statistics, released in January, show the creative industries going from strength to strength, with growth of almost 9% in 2014, nearly double that for the UK economy as a whole. The core sector was worth more than £84 billion in 2014—just over 5% of the UK economy. The Government support the UK creative industries in a number of ways, through direct and indirect funding, infrastructure provision, facilitation, advocacy and the production of statistics.
I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer and for the information about how active the industry is and how it is one of the best industries in the country. I declare an interest: my daughter is a music teacher. However, given the role that the industry plays, there is a fear that if music—which is one of the bases of the creative industry—and art are not part of the compulsory bacc, many schools would choose not to teach them and, therefore, the industry would not be able to continue to play the part it has played in the economy. Would the Government consider including both music and creative art in the EBacc?
My Lords, the noble Baroness draws attention to music in education, in particular in the EBacc. Young people should have the opportunity to study art subjects alongside the strong academic core curriculum, including the EBacc. Music is a compulsory subject within the national curriculum for five to 14 year-olds. All pupils in maintained schools will therefore study music for a minimum of nine years.
My Lords, I share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, about EBacc. However, turning to another aspect of the creative industries, does the Minister agree that Channel 4 and BBC Worldwide make a major contribution to the creative industries, both here and abroad? Will he commit the Government to supporting and protecting Channel 4 and BBC Worldwide, subject to their current arrangements, so that they can continue to deliver those benefits?
My Lords, as ever, the noble Lord makes an important point relating to overseas, the BBC and Channel 4. I know he is aware that the charter review is in progress at the moment and many representations have been made. I also know that there was a Question last week on Channel 4, which was answered by my noble friend.
My Lords, on the Answer given by the noble Earl to the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, it is true that the creative industries are doing very well just now. However, she made a serious point about whether they will do so in the future. Does he agree that the problem about them not being included in the EBacc is that there is a systematic erosion of their status in education and that, over time, the implication grows that they are not important and will not lead to good jobs? This is fundamentally untrue and unhelpful. Will he talk to his colleagues in the Department for Education to see whether that can be changed?
My Lords, the DCMS and the Department for Education liaise on all these matters, particularly in relation to music. I should add that, between 2012 and 2016, the Department for Education invested £246 million in a network of music education hubs. These hubs have a number of roles, including ensuring that all children have the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument.
Does the Minister agree that there cannot be much wrong with the creative industries in the United Kingdom if they can produce anything that will be missed as much as “War and Peace” on the BBC over the past few weeks? I am mourning it already—I do not know what I am going to do with Sunday nights. The growth of the creative industries in this country through the recession and so on is a testimony to successive Governments’ policies in respect of the creative industries. Does the Minister agree that the best thing the Government can do is to leave well alone?
My Lords, does the noble Earl accept that the creative industries make a massive economic contribution to these islands? The cuts that may be affecting them may emanate from local government, but the benefit of the economic input does not come to local government. Can central government find some way of ensuring that we do not lose out on the creative arts and the economic benefit that they bring to these islands?
My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord that we are losing out on creative arts, but I can tell him about examples of our funding, such as creative content tax relief. The noble Lord is no doubt aware of that. BIS, DCMS and UKTI offer access to finance, skills and export funding programmes. Then there is funding via arm’s-length bodies and other organisations, such as the British Film Institute, Arts Council England and Innovate UK.
My Lords, the Enterprise Bill introduces an apprenticeship levy and the Government have said that they recognise the need to discuss with the creative industries how to increase their apprenticeship levels without destroying the four voluntary levies currently run very successfully by Creative Skillset. What progress is being made on these discussions? Will the Minister reassure the industry that it is the Government’s intention to ensure that the apprenticeship levy is aligned with the current voluntary levies so as to protect the skills investment fund?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked about the apprenticeship levy in relation to this department. The levy will put apprenticeship funding in the hands of employers, encouraging them to invest in their apprentices and take on more. It will be collected by HMRC at a rate of 0.5% of an employer’s pay bill via monthly pay. In addition, the noble Lord mentioned the SIF, which is another way in which we have been developing training throughout the United Kingdom.
My Lords, the Office for National Statistics estimates that tourism directly contributed £59.6 billion to the UK economy in 2014, accounting for nearly 4% of the UK’s gross domestic product. Through our five-point plan, this Government are committed to further growing the tourism industry and spreading the benefits of its growth across the whole of Britain by encouraging more visitors to travel beyond the capital.
My Lords, I am delighted that the Houses of Parliament are making a significant contribution. Parliament gets around 1 million visitors a year; 33,000 people sat in our Gallery last year and the purpose-built dedicated education centre is now operating at full capacity. It can take 100,000 pupils a year or 20 school groups a day. May I urge the noble Earl to pay tribute to the 100 or so staff who work in Visitor Services here and urge more parliamentarians to visit the superb education centre?
My Lords, the noble Lord took most of my answers. He is quite right: everyone who works in Visitor Services does a great job. As the noble Lord suggested, last week I went to have a look at the education centre in Black Rod’s Garden, where I was told that 100,000 children will visit each year and how they have the different rooms available to look at. I very much recommend that all noble Lords go and take a look.
Given the importance of the tourism and hospitality industries to the United Kingdom, and the importance of the free movement of people and services within the single market of 28 countries in which we prosper, has the department made any analysis of the jobs that would be lost and the businesses that would close as a result of our absenting ourselves from that crucial market?
My Lords, the noble Lord made a point about how important the entertainment industry and those supporting it are to the economy as a whole and to all those who work in it—what a great job they do. I cannot say whether there has been any assessment of the situation to which the noble Lord referred, but I congratulate all those who work in that area on the work they do.
My Lords, would the Minister acknowledge, a great success story though British tourism is, that it is important that we do not price ourselves out of the market? There is a grave danger of us doing that because we are one of only four countries in Europe that charges VAT at the full rate on hotels and other tourism products. Will he ask his colleagues in the Treasury to model the effect of a major reduction in VAT on tourism? It may be that the lump sum that comes to the Treasury would be greater as a result of the growth of tourism.
My Lords, 20 years ago there were hundreds of tourist information centres all over Britain. They are now becoming very rare because local tourist boards and councils cannot afford to maintain them. I hope that the Government will agree that tourist information centres are really important to tourism in this country. Is there anything that the Government can do, possibly through VisitBritain, to try to revitalise tourist information centres in Britain?
My Lords, the noble Earl makes a good point. In 2007 there were 510 information centres; there are now 390. But it is important to note that each location and destination has different views as to what its funding and operational focus should be. One should not ignore the effects of the internet and the information available there for people who want to visit certain areas. Over the weekend I inquired locally where I am in the Cotswolds, which is a big destination area. More than 1 million hits go to our local website from people looking for what they can do in the area.
I am very surprised to hear that the Minister can get on to the website, given where he lives. In the current edition of The House Magazine, the Secretary of State explains that another major issue clogging up his in-tray is the Government’s aim of providing superfast broadband. He goes on to confess that providing a service which is fast becoming as essential as electricity is easier said than done. Last month, 52 chambers of commerce representing 750,000 companies said that companies’ performance is being “severely affected” by poor broadband. Many of these companies work in the tourism sector. Other than wringing their hands, what are the Government doing to remedy this sorry state of affairs?
My Lords, the noble Lord referred to where I live and my broadband speed. He will no doubt be very glad to hear that, for 18 months now, we have had fast broadband in Gloucestershire. I will not tell noble Lords what the mobile signal is like, but the broadband is quite excellent. We have been working at a number of different areas. In my area, Fastershire has been providing much improved broadband in the three counties surrounding Gloucestershire. The noble Lord is quite right that there is still much to do.
The noble Earl referred to 100,000 people coming through the education centre each year. Will he tell the House, if not now, by letter, what proportion come from the London area, and what from the other countries and regions of the United Kingdom? Those figures would be useful.
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. I will write to him, because I do not have the exact details, but the whole point of our tourism strategy and the Discover England fund is to get people out of London and into the other areas of the United Kingdom to visit these attractions. I will write to him.
Allied Health Professionals: Training
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with Health Education England to ensure that the number of student commissions for 2016–17 supports the goal of increasing the number of student places for allied health professionals set out in the comprehensive spending review, and ensures stability in allied health professionals’ education provision and workforce supply.
My Lords, Health Education England plans to commission, overall, 7,554 AHP training places in 2016-17—an increase of 344, or 4.8%, compared to 2015-16. The announcement in the 2015 spending review to move nursing, midwifery and AHP students on to the standard student loan system is for new students commencing their courses from 2017 only and therefore does not affect students commencing their courses in 2016-17.
Do the Government recognise that 500 more physiotherapy places will be needed in training each year until 2020 just to meet current needs? With Health Education England proposing cuts in training places in six out of 10 of the allied health professions—cuts ranging from 3.4% to 9.7%—how will the new models of care in prevention, patient treatment and reablement be met, given that they depend on these professionals taking on extended roles? This goes across sectors commissioned by the NHS and by other departments, including the Department for Education, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence.
My Lords, will the Minister clarify that? He says that there is to be a net increase, but he will know that in relation to some specialties there is actually to be a reduction next year. This is a shambles. The Government have announced an increase in figures by 2020, but next year we are going to see an actual reduction in some of those places. What is going on?
My Lords, as I said, overall there is a small net increase of 334. That is largely for paramedics, where HEE believes that there is a more serious shortage than for other allied health professions. As I said, we have seen a significant increase in AHPs of more than 16% over the last five years and we expect that growth to continue after 2017.
My Lords, how will the Government achieve their objectives in relation to modernised cancer treatment and an enhanced role for radiographers when Health Education England is cutting the number of training places for therapeutic radiographers by 4.3%?
Actually, I think the number of radiographers is going up slightly. I will check, if I can, and write to the noble Baroness. It is also worth mentioning that the number of medical endoscopists is planned to go up by 200 over the next three years.
My Lords, while I welcome the 4.8% increase for the allied health professions, I deplore the fact that this increase is accompanied by really quite savage cuts in some of the professions concerned: 6% in the case of speech therapy. Does the Minister accept that our ageing population presents us with an increased incidence of stroke and dementia, and that the skills of speech therapists are essential to maintain and repair the language faculty? As a past president of the Royal College of Speech and Language, I urge the Government to think again. Is the Minister aware that costs would be far exceeded by benefits and that, for example, the west Birmingham rapid response team has saved the NHS more than £7 million a year by making unnecessary 17,000 bed days per annum?
My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that the role of speech and language therapies, particularly in treating people with stroke and other serious conditions, is absolutely vital. Perhaps I may correct a previous answer that I gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. Therapeutic radiographers have gone down slightly but diagnostic radiographers will go up slightly.
My Lords, the Minister told us that the increase is among paramedics, which presumably balances the cuts in other areas. Is this the Government’s strategy for sorting out the problems in the ambulance service, which around the country is failing to meet emergency targets? Do the Government hope that by training some more paramedics, they will somehow solve the problem and money will magically become available for the ambulance service to function?
My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how diabetic patients’ needs will be met by maintaining foot care and thereby decreasing the risk of amputations, given Health Education England’s proposed decrease in training places in podiatry of 9.7%? That is at the top end of the list which my noble friend Lady Finlay was talking about.
My Lords, I first extend my congratulations to the noble Baroness: it is her birthday today. I of course understand the vital importance of podiatrists. We are looking at a very small reduction in the planned number of training places next year of some 35 places. I would also make a more general point: in the mandate to Health Education England, we have set it a target of reducing the attrition rate among people starting training by 50%.
Riot Compensation Bill
The Bill was brought from the Commons, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Criminal Cases Review Commission (Information) Bill
The Bill was brought from the Commons, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Motion to Approve
(1) that the order of commitment of 22 December 2015 be varied so that the provisions which have not yet been considered in Committee (from after Clause 43 to Clause 65, Schedules 10 to 12 and the Title) be considered in Grand Committee;
(2) that the Instruction to the Committee of the Whole House of 12 January (order of consideration of clauses and Schedules) be an Instruction to the Grand Committee; and
(3) that on completion of consideration of the Bill in Grand Committee the Bill be reported to the House in respect of its consideration in both Committee of the Whole House and Grand Committee.
Education and Adoption Bill
Clause 3: Other warning notices
1: Clause 3, page 4, line 4, at end insert—
“(5) In section 69B (power of Secretary of State to direct local authority), in subsection (3)—(a) omit paragraph (c);(b) in paragraph (d), for “60A(10)” substitute “60A(1)(b)”.”
My Lords, I am delighted to be opening the Third Reading of the Education and Adoption Bill. I take this opportunity to express my thanks for the support, challenge and rigorous scrutiny that the Bill has received in your Lordships’ House. It has been a pleasure to see the expertise that Peers from all sides of the House have brought to bear on the important matters of ensuring that our children receive an excellent education and improving our adoption system. I hope noble Lords will agree that our debates have been constructive and that the Bill has been improved as a result of the comments and contributions of your Lordships’ House.
Turning to the amendments the Government have tabled, Amendment 1 would make it explicit that two further sections of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 will be amended as a consequence of the Bill. The purpose of Amendments 4 and 5 is to tidy up the drafting of the Bill by removing and replacing a cross-reference which would misdirect the reader of the Bill and lead to confusion. Our aim in tabling these amendments is to ensure correct cross-referencing within the Bill and that consequential amendments to other Bills are identified. I hope noble Lords will agree that these amendments are straightforward and I beg to move.
Amendment 1 agreed.
2: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Regional Schools Commissioners
(1) The Secretary of State must make widely available to the public a coherent document that sets out the powers and responsibilities of the Regional Schools Commissioners which are connected with the provisions of the Education and Adoption Act 2016.(2) The document under subsection (1) must contain—(a) a list of the Acts of Parliament and regulations from which each responsibility and power of the Regional Schools Commissioners is drawn;(b) a user-friendly executive summary.”
My Lords, it became obvious during the progress of the Bill that the action proposed by Amendment 2 was needed. Regional schools commissioners are a new subject for us all. I became increasingly aware of just how important they are to the new structure roughly at the same time as the entire House of Commons did; nevertheless, we do what we can. It became clear that we could not find out very easily how this occurred. It needed a little bit of digging, and I thank Thomson Jones—a young lad who has been helping in my office—who did some of it. He is good at reading back on bits of legislation. Several bits had to be referred to, to find exactly what was going on and how it functioned and fitted together. Legally it was there, but you could not find it. Anecdotally, a lot of people are telling me that education authorities have people phoning up and saying, “What do I do about the academy?”. They do not know the new chain of command.
This is merely a sin of omission, but if we can get it right now, we will save a great deal of trouble for ourselves in the future. Even if we do not like the structure that is coming, it is clearly going to be with us for a while, so we must make it function properly. The objective of the amendment—and presumably those which have been tabled as amendments to it—is to make sure there is a clear way of getting to the legal basis for operation. The schools commissioners are soon going to have far more of the problems of the education system put on their doorstep to deal with. I hope the Minister can give positive answers to show exactly how this is going to be done, even if he does not—for some bizarre reason—choose to accept this amendment. I beg to move.
Amendment 3 (to Amendment 2)
3: At end insert—
“(c) a guide for parents; and(d) information on other matters to do with the powers and responsibilities of Regional Schools Commissioners as may be appropriate.”
Amendment 3 seeks to add two further requirements to the document on regional schools commissioners mentioned in the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. Since noble Lords considered the Bill on Report, the House of Commons Education Committee has published a report entitled The role of Regional Schools Commissioners, which was not exactly uncritical of the role of these commissioners and the manner in which they have operated since they came into being in September 2014. Indeed, the report contains a total of 24 recommendations, to which the Minister will, no doubt, respond in detail in due course. I hope his response will not be delayed for long and that he will accept and implement most, if not all, of the very thoughtful suggestions made after hearing evidence from a variety of sources—not least the Minister himself. I dare say he will regard the report as carrying a considerable amount of weight, given that it was produced by a committee which is chaired by a member of his party, which has an inbuilt majority on the committee.
It is striking that there remain so many questions about the precise role of the regional schools commissioners and in whose interests they operate. This means that a guide for parents, as suggested in Amendment 3, is a necessity. Ensuring parents understand who to hold accountable for their child’s experience at school and how to do so is vital, yet the Bill consistently treats parents with disdain. I have given examples before, but if a group of parents wants to break away from a maintained school and establish their own free school, they are welcomed with open arms by the Government and given every assistance, as well as considerable amounts of cash, to enable them to do so. Put simply, they are listened to and treated with respect. However, should another group of parents want their children’s maintained school to keep that status in the face of forced academisation, they are ignored, told the decision is nothing to do with them and that the change will take place no matter what they think. Put simply, they are not listened to and are effectively treated with contempt. So under the Bill, parents are denied the right to have a say when the school attended by their children is forced to become an academy. We have said on various occasions that consultation is appropriate for all parents if they want to take advantage of it.
When the Bill was discussed in Committee, the Minister assured noble Lords that governing bodies of academies would include parental representatives. It was understood that those representatives would, in some limited form at least, have the ability to hold their school to account and have an influence in areas such as hiring senior staff, monitoring budgets and standards. Well, my Lords, just last month it was announced that those notions had been effectively thrown out of the window by the E-ACT academy group which, as noble Lords may be aware, has unilaterally decided to scrap local governing bodies for the 23 schools that it operates. There will be a centralised process for monitoring standards, and the governing bodies will be replaced by so-called advisory bodies, the chairs of which, to no one’s surprise, will be appointed by the academy chain. That is not merely a top-down but a closed-door approach, which it appears will brook no questioning of how the chain operates.
The fact that this has been handed down by an organisation that receives £135 million of public funds annually makes it even more serious. It appears that E-ACT is content to treat the public purse with respect, but quite unwilling to treat the public with respect. This behaviour would be serious enough for a chain that was operating effectively, but in 2014 E-ACT had the control of 10 of its academies taken away after Ofsted raised serious concerns about its performance. Not only its educational competence has been questioned; until July last year, the Education Funding Agency forced the chain to operate under a financial notice to improve. One might have thought that such inadequacy would have produced some humility at E-ACT, but as we have heard, the opposite is the fact. Perhaps the Minister can give noble Lords his take on this rather sorry state of affairs, including the action, if any, of the various regional schools commissioners, under whose auspices the chain operates.
My Lords, there are no circumstances in which a regional schools commissioner should stand by when an academy chain seeks to exclude parents, staff, local businesses and local politicians from the governance of their local schools. If regional schools commissioners are not there to ensure that academies operate to the highest standards, what, one might ask, is their purpose?
The education report highlighted a number of questions about whether the key role of regional schools commissioners was to help raise standards or whether it is simply to bring about more academies and free schools as quickly as possible. The key performance indicators institutionalise this confusion, which is a problem that must be dealt with, and soon.
It is not appropriate at this stage to go into greater detail on the recommendations of the Select Committee, which I believe has carefully put together a report that requires careful scrutiny. I am sure the Minister will scrutinise that report, but I hope that in doing so he will bear in mind the importance of parents being able to have some say in the way their children receive their education and how it is framed and delivered by academies. For that reason, I beg to move.
My Lords, as we are dealing with this issue of regional schools commissioners, I thought it might be useful to share with the House a personal story giving our experience at Floreat Education Academies Trust, which I founded, of dealing with the regional schools commissioners and of their role in regulating the system as it stands today. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, chose the example of E-ACT, which has had some problems in recent times, but it is important to note that the regional schools commissioner system has helped to generate the changes that have happened—schools have been taken away from E-ACT. To me, that is an example of a system that is working to crack down on low quality rather than one that is not working.
I have no idea. I was referring to the fact that schools of low quality were taken away from E-ACT.
The Select Committee report, to which noble Lords have referred, talks about in a specific recommendation the importance that,
“the Government reflect on the need to improve understanding of the role of the RSCs”.
I think that is what lies behind the amendments, so I welcome the sentiment, if not the vehicle itself. Our own experience at Floreat is from dealing with two RSCs: Dominic Herrington in south London and the south-east and Martin Post in south-central and north-west London. As a new provider, we found them open and responsive in a way that dealing just with the department would not have been by dint of the capacity at the department. So far, there has been just the right amount of support and challenge, which is at the heart of the role.
An example of the support offered—in this case, by Dominic Herrington’s schools commissioner region—was for multi-academy trust leaders’ training sessions: getting together with others, learning what works, being exposed to the new Ofsted framework, and so on. An issue of challenge would be around understanding the capacity and capability of a multi-academy trust to take on new schools and open new schools, and whether we have the finance and the expertise for doing so. That is a conversation that I had with our commissioner, Martin Post, on Friday.
So far, the experience has been of a productive relationship based very clearly at all times on raising standards for pupils. That shared purpose comes through clearly at all times. While I agree that it is necessary, given the importance of RSCs, to continue to explain in more detail the importance of the role and what it can and cannot do, I do not see that it requires an amendment to the Bill to achieve this, and I hope to hear positive news from the Minister about how the Government will actively promote the regional schools commissioners from now on.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 2, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and Amendment 3, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Hunt. Both concern the responsibilities and powers of regional schools commissioners. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, has proposed that the Secretary of State should be required to publish a document that would describe the powers and responsibilities of RSCs arising from the provisions in the Bill and other Acts of Parliament. Amendment 3 would extend this requirement to specify that the document must include a guide for parents and any other information to do with the powers and responsibilities of RSCs as may be appropriate.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for raising this issue once again, following the exchanges that he had with my noble friend Lady Evans on this matter on Report in this House. Since the last debate, he has also met officials from the Department for Education and he and I have had a number of exchanges on the matter. I hope that he has found these discussions helpful and has been reassured that the Government are committed to meeting the objectives of his amendment.
As my noble friend Lady Evans explained in the previous debate, RSCs are not defined in legislation: they are civil servants, and exercise only the powers and duties of the Secretary of State that he chooses to delegate to them. Accountability for the decisions made by RSCs rests with the Secretary of State, who remains fully accountable to Parliament. It is important to emphasise that the role of RSCs is very different from the role of local authorities. RSCs operate within a clearly defined framework, with the focus on monitoring and tackling educational underperformance in academies and free schools, approving new academies, advising on free school applications and approving changes to open academies, such as expansions or age-range changes.
To support these functions, RSCs also work to develop the sponsor market in their regions. Subject to the passage of the Bill, RSCs will also take on responsibility for formal intervention in underperforming maintained schools. RSCs carry out their functions within a national framework and individual decisions are made in accordance with the relevant legislation, academy funding agreement and/or published criteria.
Information on the work of RSCs is already publicly available. We have already set out the remit of our RSCs and the membership of each head teacher board, published registers of interest and made available the criteria for RSC decision-making. Academy funding agreements are publicly available, as are the criteria for other individual RSC decisions. For example, the criteria that RSCs use to assess schools applying to become academies are set out online in the guidance document, Convert to an Academy: Guide for Schools. Notes of board meetings that detail each decision made are also published on a monthly basis.
In addition, we have recently consulted publicly on revising the statutory Schools Causing Concern guidance that describes the responsibilities and powers delegated to RSCs resulting from the provisions in the Bill, and how they will be used in practice by RSCs to intervene in failing and coasting maintained schools and academies. Alongside this document the Government are also required, under the Academies Act 2010, to provide an annual report to Parliament on the expansion of the academy programme and the performance of academies during the year. This year’s report will include commentary on RSCs.
We recognise, however, that we need to go further. We acknowledge that RSCs are a new concept and that, as more schools become academies and the RSC remit expands, we need to clearly articulate the role, improve understanding of its responsibilities and increase transparency. Noble Lords will be reassured to hear that the new national schools commissioner, Sir David Carter, considers raising awareness, particularly among parents, as one of his top priorities and he made this clear in a Radio 4 interview last month.
As with any new system, we expect the level of awareness to increase over time, but to expedite this I am today making a clear commitment to the House that the Government will publish a full description of the RSC role and a guide to all RSC powers and responsibilities. We will ensure that this more detailed information is in understandable form, includes a succinct summary of the role and has clear links for the public to find more detailed information should they require it. We will make clear that this information is for parents and the sector.
The information will be published on the education pages of the government website, GOV.UK. This is the website where all government policies, publications, statistics and consultations are published. It is already used by parents to find information on matters such as school admissions, school performance and childcare. It is used extensively. In January of this year alone, there were nearly 1.3 million visitors to the education pages of GOV.UK. The website is designed for the public and is intended to be simple, clear and quick to find information. We will make sure that the information is collated and published in good time for the Bill coming into force. Furthermore, I assure noble Lords that we will keep the information up to date and revise it as necessary, following any changes to legislation or to RSCs’ non-statutory responsibilities.
Alongside publishing more detailed information, we recognise that it is equally important to ensure the public know where to find it. Once the new information is published, we will alert parent and governor groups such as the National Governors’ Association and the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations and encourage them to direct their members towards it. We will also publicise the information through the email which the Department for Education issues direct to schools at the start of every term and which sets out important changes. RSCs will also be carrying out a range of activities within their regions to improve awareness, to raise their profile and to ensure the sector understands and is prepared for the new legislation.
As the noble Lord has described, since we last debated this matter the Education Select Committee has published its report on the establishment of RSCs. While the committee welcomed the introduction of RSCs as a pragmatic approach to the expanding workload of academies oversight, the report also made a number of recommendations, including that the Government should reflect on the need to improve understanding of the role of RSCs. I assure noble Lords that the Government take this issue very seriously and will increase and improve the information available to the public on RSCs, with a particular focus on simplifying and improving the information for parents.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, referred to the situation in relation to E-ACT and parents. I can assure him that we regard the involvement of parents in education as crucial. The best way to do this is not necessarily through having two parents on a governing body. An equally good or better way may be to have parent forums. I understand that E-ACT has plans to do this and is meeting with Sir David Carter this week to discuss this further.
They can. They will have parents on their advisory boards and E-ACT is required, as are all multi-academy trusts if they do not have local governing bodies, to have two parents on their multi-academy trust board. So parents will still be intimately involved in decisions.
Perhaps I may follow that up. That is two parents in a multi-academy chain board. E-ACT has been mentioned by me. As I understand it, it has 23 schools and one academy chain board. Out of all those schools, only two parents would have any kind of representation. They could not possibly be representative in any way of the views of the parents in 21 other schools.
That is why, as I understand it, they will have advisory bodies, which will consist of parents. As I have said, the same point can be made about individual schools. Two parents cannot necessarily be representative of the body of parents, which is why a parents’ association may be a much better way of engaging with parents across a broader church.
I hope that, given the further explanations and reassurances I have been able to give in relation to information about the RSCs, the noble Lord will be assured that we are committed to improving understanding and increasing transparency relating to RSCs and will be content to withdraw his amendment.
Before I sit down, I would like to take this opportunity to put my wider thanks on the record for the careful consideration the Bill has received throughout this House. First, I thank my noble friends on the government Benches, in particular my noble friend Lady Evans, who has provided strong support and kept the Bill on track over the past few months. I also thank my noble friend Lady Perry for her continuing support and advice and my noble friend Lord Harris for his passionate words on Report about the difference that becoming a sponsored academy can make.
I also thank my noble friends Lord O’Shaughnessy and Lord True. I would particularly like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, for ensuring that the best interests of children are always at the forefront of all our considerations. Of course, I must pay tribute to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education who is committed to taking forward essential reforms to achieve real social justice for all children and young people.
I also particularly thank the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Storey, who have provided strong and thorough opposition alongside their colleagues the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Addington, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey and Lady Pinnock. I also thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris and Lady Hughes, for their contributions. While we may have crossed swords on many things, their challenges have been constructive and it has been clear throughout our debates that across the House we are united in our belief in the life-transforming power of education and in the desire to give every child the best start in life.
There have been very important contributions on this Bill from all sides. On the Cross Benches, I am grateful in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for bringing his extensive knowledge and experience of our education system to bear on this Bill and to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for his considered comments and amendments on children in care and mental health issues. I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely for supporting the Government’s ambitions with the important role that church schools play in our education system.
I also thank the organisations that have engaged with the Bill and contributed to ensuring that its content will benefit children waiting to be adopted and pupils in our schools. In particular, I wish to thank the individual head teachers and MAT CEOs who freely gave up their time to share with Peers their experience of school improvement at the outset of the Bill entering this House. They have improved our understanding of the very real issues that the Bill seeks to address.
Finally, I would like to put on record my thanks to the officials from the Department for Education, the Bill team, in particular Louise Evans and Kayleigh Walker, the lawyers, including Caroline Chalmers, the policy officials and others who have worked on this Bill and helped to ensure the good progress we have made in this House.
As noble Lords will have heard me say previously, the Bill has one essential principle at its heart: that every child deserves an excellent education and a secure and loving home. This Bill is about social justice and about building a fairer society in which every child has the same opportunities to reach their potential regardless of their background. To ensure that adoption is always pursued when it is in the child’s best interests, we have recently announced increased funding totalling £200 million over the course of this Parliament to further develop regional adoption agencies, fund the interagency fee and extend the adoption support fund.
To achieve a world-class education system, we need a school system that consistently and universally delivers high academic standards. To help deliver that, this House has accepted an important amendment to the Bill to give more consistent and effective powers to regional schools commissioners when academies underperform. The amendments we have made, alongside the original Bill provisions to strengthen our ability to turn around failing and coasting maintained schools, mean that I am confident that the Bill leaves this House with the potential to ensure that many more children and young people will have the opportunity to make the best start and succeed in life. I commend it to the House.
My Lords, I did not expect the Minister to make those remarks at this stage—I thought he would do it at the Bill do now pass stage. I would like to say a little more about my amendment on the question of regional schools commissioners. The Minister was kind enough to facilitate a meeting with the regional schools commissioner who covers the area in which I live. In a sense, that encapsulated one of the anomalies of regional schools commissioners—the way that they are divided geographically. The Education Select Committee report highlighted the fact that London is covered by three regional schools commissioners. The committee suggested that there should be a ninth commissioner for London, to mirror Ofsted regions, which is a very sensible suggestion. The fact that I live in a region that covers places as diverse as West Ham and Great Yarmouth suggests that there is room for improvement.
There is also room for improvement in the role of parents in education. That must be about the hundredth time I have mentioned it in our many hours of debate. I believe that the Government are plain wrong in trying to say that parents do not have a meaningful contribution to make—and not the token that the Minister recently mentioned of two parents on a board that covers 23 schools. Most parents care passionately about their child’s education. The fact that they have effectively been brushed aside by much of the Bill is unfortunate, to put it mildly. It is also grossly unfair. Many people who want to have that input are now going to be unable to do so. So even a parents’ guide to regional schools commissioners would be a step forward, to at least make sure that people know where to go and who to speak to when they have a complaint, and how to forward it. I regret that it has not been possible to get agreement. Perhaps we should await the Minister’s response to the Education Committee report; I do so with some interest. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 3 (to Amendment 2) withdrawn.
If we may draw back from the amendments we are actually discussing, I thank the noble Lord for his work and the courtesy of his department. There have been a lot of emails going back and forth. There was also an entertaining point when the good old-fashioned steam telephone was not working in my office, so in the end a piece of paper was handed to me by one of the doorkeepers. That meant that I knew the noble Lord was getting back to me, for which I thank him.
If we address what the noble Lord said about this amendment, it is a triumph of the bleeding obvious, if I may put it like that. We should let people know what is changing. What he has done is not quite as much fun as getting an amendment accepted, but half a loaf is better than no bread—and this is a bit more like three-quarters, so I thank him for that.
Given that we seem to be going slightly off-piste, I shall also take the opportunity of thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, for giving the assurance at an earlier stage that the KPIs for increasing the number of schools becoming academies were withdrawn. I should have mentioned that at the time, but it got rather swamped by other matters. Having heard that, and having those assurances on the record, I thank the noble Lord for his work on this and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Clause 14: Academies causing concern
Amendments 4 and 5
4: Clause 14, page 9, line 41, leave out “1A” and insert “14”
5: Clause 14, page 10, line 22, leave out “1A” and insert “14”
Amendments 4 and 5 agreed.
My Lords, we have now reached the point where this Bill must return to the other place. From these Benches we have to say that it is regrettable that it will take so little in terms of amendments with it. As has been outlined, it has many faults, and despite claims by both Ministers that it is all about rescuing children from underperforming schools, many noble Lords believe that there is rather more to it than that.
I should say that I do not doubt the bona fides of either Minister. The relish with which they have advanced their arguments during the Bill’s time in your Lordships’ House reflects their own backgrounds and motivation. I understand that the noble Baroness has a history in the free schools sector and that the noble Lord has a history in the academies sector, each with some success. If I may draw an analogy, to be handed this Bill is tantamount to a girl and boy being given the keys to the toy shop. It is clear that they are in their element, because it allows them to pursue their personal and particular priorities. But it has to be said that their priorities are not necessarily those of wider society, judging by the briefings we have had from a very wide range of organisations, all of whom I thank, and not to any significant extent those of the education professionals, all of whom also have as their raison d'être providing the best possible education for our children.
We have spent almost 24 hours in debate on this Bill—a full day. I wonder whether we might ask ourselves whether we might have put it to better use—some may say yes—and I am sure that we are now all ready to move on to other things. But before we do so, I want to thank the Bill team. We on these Benches have worked rather hard. On my behalf I pay tribute to my assistant, Molly Critchley, who did the heavy lifting when it came to negotiating over amendments. She did much more besides, and both I and my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath are indebted to her for her tireless efforts. This is the first piece of legislation for which I have had Front-Bench responsibility and I have leaned much and often on the experienced shoulders of my colleague Lord Hunt, for which I am most grateful. Having leaned much, I like to think that I have now learned much—but I suppose time will tell.
I think I am correct in asserting that this is also the first Bill as a Front-Bencher for the noble Baroness, Lady Evans of Bowes Park. She has perhaps had a slightly tougher baptism than she might have hoped for, but through it all she has retained an upbeat manner and an ability to assure—or at least attempt to assure—those on these Benches that the Bill was much more benign than we believed.
The noble Lord, Lord Nash, and I have had—what shall I say?—our moments throughout those 24 hours. It seems that neither of us is ever going to convince the other of the veracity of our respective arguments, but at least we have given it our best shot. I have made a discovery about the noble Lord and, in spite of the fact that he has offered precious little in terms of concessions on the Bill, I am about to offer him one of my own. I think he and I have only two things in common. One is clearly membership of your Lordships’ House. The other, I have learned, is that we were born in the same year. I am not about to divulge the year, but we were born just five weeks apart—and that provides me with both good news and bad. The good news is that the Minister was born first. The bad news is that it does not show.
My Lords, I take the opportunity once again to thank the Minister for being prepared to listen. There have been a number of changes—including changes of interpretation—to the Bill. I said to my colleagues at the beginning, “I am sure that Lord Nash will listen”, and he has done. This is a very small Bill, really. On the adoption side, I think real progress has been made.
On the school side, there are a few issues for me. The first is whether this is not just about the academisation programme and the slow strangulation of maintained schools and local education authorities. Maybe there is a much fairer way of achieving that. I recall the statement from the Chancellor that he wants all schools to become academies, and the same from the Prime Minister.
The second issue is that of parents. I have always believed that one of the hallmarks of a successful education system is that parents are at the heart of it. I think we said in Committee that if the school that your children go to is being closed, that is quite a traumatic occasion; you want to be involved in those discussions and to know the reasons and what is happening. To then be told that you are not even going to have a say on the new school or new academy sponsor is something that I am concerned about.
Another issue follows a couple of Questions that I tabled regarding the governing bodies of schools. Again, it seems bizarre that you can have academy trusts abolishing governing bodies. In maintained schools, of course, you have to have a governing body—quite rightly; parents are an important voice in a school—but in multi-academy trusts you can have one governing body for, say, 50-odd schools. In the Harris Academy chain there are now, I think, 52 schools. One governing body—which could be in another part of the country, for that matter—being the parental voice is really not good enough. It could be said—well-meaningly, I am sure—that parents’ associations are quite important. But many schools do not have parent associations; they tend to be, I have to say, in middle-class areas.
The area of schools commissioners is one that has vexed us for some time. Light needs to be shone on the work and there needs to be transparency, and I am delighted with the comments the Minister has made on that. It is a very important step forward.
Some of us have always believed that driving up standards in our schools is not about waving the proverbial big cane but about professionalism and trusting in the leadership of schools. One of my regrets from the coalition period was that we abolished the leadership academy. That was a great mistake. You need to make sure that the people you put as leaders of your school are of the highest calibre, quality and training. You have to have good leaders.
Secondly, it is all for nought if you do not have quality teachers. It is about ensuring that teachers are respected, highly trained and highly valued. It worries me that 40% of teachers leave in the first five years of their teaching. That is a very worrying trend. I hope that, now that the Bill is out of the way, we can do what the Minister is good at—listen and evolve policies or procedures that work for all our education services.
Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.
Trade Union Bill
Committee (1st Day)
Relevant documents: 15th and 20th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2: Ballots: 50% turnout requirement
1: Clause 2, page 1, line 14, at end insert—
“(3) Subsection (1) shall not come into force until—
(a) an independent report is published, and laid before each House of Parliament, which has been prepared by the Central Arbitration Committee in consultation with qualified independent persons, on the delivery of secure methods of electronic, postal and workplace balloting for the purpose of ballots held under section 226 of the 1992 Act, and(b) the Secretary of State has considered the report and published, and laid before each House of Parliament, a verification strategy for the rollout of secure electronic, workplace and postal balloting methods for the purpose of ballots held under section 226 of the 1992 Act.(4) The Secretary of State must publish and lay before each House of Parliament the strategy provided for by subsection (3)(b) no later than two months after the date on which this Act is passed.
(5) The report provided for by subsection (3)(a) must include—
(a) an analysis of different methods of authentication that can be used to enable voters to cast their electronic votes such as single use security codes, personal identification information or membership affiliation information; (b) an assessment of the ability of electronic voting systems to identify that the information being provided to authenticate the voter is the information required to enable a vote to be cast and recorded in that particular ballot and that the information is unique to the voter;(c) an assessment of the ability of trade unions appropriately to secure means of distribution required for the delivery of electronic voting information to maintain the security and integrity of any ballot;(d) a cost benefit analysis of the risks involved in methods of distribution such as email, post, text messaging and face-to-face methods;(e) an assessment of existing recognised industry standards for online voting systems; and (f) analysis of the role of third party administrators and the benefits of using rigorous quality assurance procedures and processes for delivering electronic voting.(6) The verification strategy provided for by subsection (3)(b) must include an assessment of how alternative, secure, methods of balloting will impact voter turnout.
(7) For the purpose of preparing the strategy, the Secretary of State must consult relevant organisations including professionals from expert associations to seek their advice and recommendations.”
My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 1 and indicate my support for the other amendments in this grouping. The central tenet of all the amendments, tabled and supported by Members of all parties and none, is the same: namely, that if we are to introduce thresholds on trade union ballots before industrial action is taken, we should seek to enable the widest range of methods for members to place their vote.
This seems such an obviously right thing to do that it is surprising to me that we have to debate it. If we believe that important decisions on whether to take industrial action should have the widest possible engagement and participation of those involved, we must surely all want to take whatever practical steps we can to encourage it.
Currently, ballots for industrial action can take place only through postal ballots. However, ballots for trade union recognition, which apply the same thresholds as proposed in the Bill for industrial action, can now take place through workplace ballots, so we already have a difference. At present, neither can be done through electronic balloting.
Digital technology has moved on fantastically since the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 was passed. We now expect routinely to undertake activities such as banking and shopping in a way that would have been unimaginable then. Today, 82% of adults are online. The public in general and trade union members in particular now expect to have the digital choice—an important point. It is a choice that their trade unions ought to be able to give them. The Government’s own policy is to be digital by default in the delivery of their services.
There is absolutely no doubt that electronic balloting can be made to work. I used it myself in Sheffield for the local and general elections as far back as 2007. The use of electronic voting has come on in leaps and bounds since then. For example, in 2014, more than 400 organisations throughout the UK provided their stakeholders with the opportunity to cast votes electronically using the services of Electoral Reform Services Ltd, an independent supplier of ballot and election services. These involved a wide range of bodies from companies to community-based organisations, with more than a million votes cast.
ERS is confident that it can meet the required standards for ballots under the 1992 Act—namely, that those who are entitled to vote have the opportunity to do so; that votes are cast in secret; and that the risk of unfairness or malpractice is minimised. It believes that it can meet all those tests. Given the widespread use of electronic balloting, the only possible remaining issue is security.
As a former returning officer, I take the issue of voting security very seriously. We should take every practical step to ensure that ballots of all types are as secure as they can possibly be. However, we should also be realistic and say that no system of voting can be made completely and utterly secure, just as no system of online banking can be completely protected from fraud. Therefore, the question is whether electronic balloting can be done in a way that is as secure, if not more so, as postal balloting. That is the key test. I am absolutely convinced that it can, and there is good evidence from Electoral Reform Services and others to back that up.
The response from Ministers so far to what I think is a perfectly reasonable request from the trade unions is to raise—rather vaguely, in my view—security concerns and then to seek to push the issue off for another day. I really do not think that this is an adequate or fair response when there is an opportunity to deal with the issue now. My amendments therefore propose that before the thresholds set out in the Bill come into force, two things should happen: first, an independent report should be undertaken by the Central Arbitration Committee on the delivery of secure methods of electronic, postal and workplace ballots; and, secondly, the Secretary of State should have considered this report and laid before each House of Parliament a verification strategy for the rollout of such balloting methods. I have set a timetable of two months after the Act has passed for the strategy to be done.
The amendment would allow the CAC, a well-established and respected arm’s-length public body, to look at the issues objectively and to give us its views. It is well within the remit of the CAC to undertake this review. Indeed, there is provision within its regulatory framework to introduce electronic methods for recognition ballots now—a provision that has so far not been taken up. The CAC has considerable experience in organising secure ballots but would not claim to be expert in electronic balloting. I have therefore included in the amendment provision that it could draw on an independent qualified person who is such an expert.
I am absolutely persuaded that we could securely introduce electronic and workplace balloting now. However, I recognise that to date this has not been the Government’s position. I have therefore, through this amendment, sought to meet the Government half way. Whether they are prepared to go the other half will be a test of their willingness to engage in open and constructive debate on the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am pleased to support the amendment which has just been so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and I also support other amendments in this group.
As the Committee will see, Clauses 2 and 3 introduce arbitrary thresholds of turnout and majorities in relation to union strike ballots, particularly affecting certain sectors. Never mind, for the moment, that no other organisations are under the same statutory restrictions as far as their ballots are concerned. Never mind, for the moment, the glaring discrepancies between these requirements and the requirements that exist for ballots in political life; for example, we all know the embarrassment of the low turnout for police commissioner elections in particular, and there are one or two other examples. And perhaps never mind, for the moment, the unprecedented nature of these requirements on trade unions, certainly in western Europe. The fact is that these thresholds must be seen alongside the existing requirement that a union must use postal ballots. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, has just explained, this has been the case since 1992.
Looking at different countries, only in Australia are there similarly tough thresholds on unions as far as strikes and other industrial action ballots are concerned. But in Australia, it is normal to use workplace ballots, with the postal ballot as the default position, and unions there can use online balloting too. This amendment seeks to develop that case for the United Kingdom.
In the impact assessment, which I am pleased we have now had a chance to look at—better late than never—the Government claim that the proposals are not about banning strikes and, rather disingenuously, claim that the thresholds are in fact an attempt to make the balance better. Other countries in western Europe are mentioned in the impact assessment, including Denmark and Germany, which do use thresholds in strike ballots. However, in both cases, those are agreed arrangements with the unions concerned that go back a number of years and, in the main, were done just after the end of the Second World War. But, again, there is no requirement on the method of balloting to be used in those countries. So, nowhere else in the advanced world is the requirement on how to ballot linked to questions of threshold, and nowhere else is there a requirement to have a mandatory postal ballot.
Those familiar with parliamentary elections—and there are many in this House—will know that easier rules on postal balloting were introduced to increase turnout. People apply for a postal vote from the local returning officer. In the union world, the ballot form is different; it is not solicited in the same way. It drops through the post with all the other stuff that we get and, too often, gets put to one side, forgotten about and ends up in the recycling bin. It has depressed turnout figures in most unions; it has certainly not increased them. The Government clearly do not trust—at the moment, anyway—alternative methods. In their wish to curtail the relatively few strikes that do take place in the UK today, the Government are using the combination of high thresholds plus postal ballots as a way of stamping out dissent and protest.
What redress is left to employees in these circumstances? Just imagine, for a moment, a large retailer with many casual workers, often low paid, a very high labour turnover and some harsh management practices: Sports Direct just happens to spring to my mind immediately. Under the proposed provisions in the Bill, how could workers do much collectively about the conditions in which they work? It would be virtually impossible, for example, to take lawful industrial action. I have to say that in some of these companies, it would not be easy to do that at all, even without postal ballots or any thresholds. However, it seems to me that an important artery of democracy is being blocked by making things more difficult. Not everybody is in a school or works for Transport for London—a tight group of workers with a common identity who are therefore relatively easy to organise.
The amendment in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Kerslake and Lord Oates, and myself suggests that Clauses 2 and 3 should not come into effect until an independent review has been carried out by the CAC. The Central Arbitration Committee is probably not very well known to most of the British population. It is a relatively small organisation, but it conducts ballots under the law on trade union applications for recognition. The turnouts in the ballots that it conducts are always high, and no evidence of fraud has been found since it started doing this work. It can decide on the most appropriate means of holding a recognition ballot—for example, with a dispersed workforce it could well use postal balloting, whereas with a concentrated workforce it would make sense to have a properly supervised ballot box. The key is proper supervision, with an independent scrutineer and a properly secure balloting method. The CAC has not yet used e-balloting, although as the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, said, it has the ability to use it.
Our amendment asks that before the provisions of the Bill come into force, the CAC be asked to conduct a review of the delivery of the various means of voting on industrial action. It would be asked to prepare an independent report to be laid before both Houses of Parliament considering the different methods of authenticating voter identification and security systems for electronic voting, and providing a cost-benefit analysis for unions using those different methods of balloting. As has been explained, the Secretary of State would be required to lay before Parliament,
“a … strategy for the rollout of secure electronic, workplace and postal balloting methods”,
on industrial action.
That seems to me, as I hope it seems to most noble Lords present, a very reasonable proposition, and I hope the Government will open their mind to it. It must be obvious to any fair-minded person that, provided that the balloting method is secure and can be trusted, unions should not be impeded from taking lawful steps in the interests of their members. The current proposals are draconian—unacceptably hard. The measures in the amendment and the other amendments in the group seek to make them more practical and fairer.
If e-balloting is good enough for the Conservative candidate in the London mayoral election, surely it is good enough for wider application—and it could ease the burdens that the Bill is putting on unions. I have a vision of a certain Minister acting like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Whitehall, scurrying around collecting ideas for hobbling trade unions and slapping as much red tape as they can find on them. This is unfair and unjust: it is the opposite of one-nation Conservatism. There are huge problems in the British labour market—problems of inequality, casualisation and productivity—but what trade unions are up to at the moment is not one of those problems. Rather, it has been picked on by the Government to attack. I hope they will think a bit more maturely about what they are doing, and try to find a way of making some of these provisions more acceptable. I hope that by adopting the amendment, or one very much like it, we will get a better, fairer and much more balanced Bill—one that the Government can be proud of, and the rest of us can live with.
My Lords, I am pleased to speak in support of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and of the other amendments in the group. I should first apologise to the Committee as I was not able to speak at Second Reading. That was an administrative mess-up on my part. I hope the Committee will forgive me, as a relative newcomer, for such a breach of protocol. I was, however, present throughout the debate, and listened carefully to the many significant points made by noble Lords, and to the Minister’s response.
We shall have the chance to discuss the merits or otherwise of the introduction of thresholds later today, but without doubt, as the noble Lord, Lord Monks, made clear, this is a significant departure from the usual democratic practices of this country—indeed, from those of any comparable democracy in the world. Given that fact, I would expect the Government, in putting forward such radical proposals, to accompany them with a means to ensure maximum participation and to take the opportunity to modernise balloting procedures.
The Minister stated at Second Reading that the Government’s purpose in bringing forward the Trade Union Bill was to modernise the relationship between trade unions and their members. One might debate whether that is not more properly an issue for trade unions and their members rather than for the Government but, be that as it may, if Ministers are sincere in their protestations about modernisation, it is unclear why they are resisting the one obvious modernisation measure—the proposal to allow electronic and other forms of balloting that could help increase participation.
The other amendments in the group, in slightly different ways, seek to achieve that purpose with the safeguard of independent scrutiny to ensure those ballots are conducted properly and without intimidation. I support those amendments because I am convinced that we could introduce electronic and workplace balloting now. However, we heard at Second Reading that the Government remain opposed. The Minister questioned whether electronic ballots would be secure or open to intimidation and vote-buying. The amendment in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Kerslake and Lord Monks, and myself, provide the Government with the opportunity to properly test this issue with the assistance of the Central Arbitration Committee, a respected body which has considerable experience on the issue of balloting, as well as with others with expertise in the specific field of electronic balloting. If security really is the issue, these amendments can help get to the bottom of whether it is possible to use alternative means of balloting in a manner as secure as, if not more secure than, the current postal ballot system.
The Government’s approach to these amendments will be important because it will give an indication of whether they are sincere in the claim, repeated by the Minister at Second Reading, that the Government’s objection to electronic voting is not a matter of principle but one of practicality. It will reveal whether the Government really want more people to participate in trade union ballots but cannot see a practical way to make it happen, as they claim, or whether, as many of us believe, their sole objective is to make it as difficult as possible for trade unions to take industrial action. I hope I am wrong in that belief and that the Minister will expose it as entirely unwarranted cynicism by accepting these amendments. If she is unable to do so, we will know where the Government stand.
My Lords, your Lordships will have seen the report published last Friday by the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the application of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of association, including the right to form and join a trade union. This is of particular relevance to the issue we are debating—electronic balloting.
The Joint Committee’s report mentions that in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights dismissed a complaint brought by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers about the ban on secondary action. I declare an interest: I was counsel for the United Kingdom Government in that case. The European court said that it will generally respect a legislature’s policy choices in relation to social and economic issues, including its laws on industrial relations, which it accurately describes as a,
“legislative policy area of recognised sensitivity”,
unless the choices the legislature makes are “manifestly without reasonable foundation”.
The European court said that a democratically elected Parliament is “better placed” to identify,
“what is in the public interest on social and economic grounds”.
The Joint Committee points out that the European court added that, the more far-reaching the interference with a core trade union activity—for example, requiring the dissolution of a trade union—the greater the justification required. I think, however, that the European court and courts in this country would almost certainly regard the basic provisions in Clauses 2 and 3 as not going to the core of trade union activity because the existence of trade unions and the rights to call a strike are unaffected, albeit that important limits and conditions are imposed. Parliament would, I think, be acting well within its broad scope of discretion if we decided that the disruption to the lives of others caused by strikes, particularly in the public sector, justified the general measures in Clauses 2 and 3.
I would be very surprised if the European court were to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Monks, that the threshold provisions are arbitrary. However, I agree with the Joint Committee that the Government may be vulnerable to a legal challenge under Article 11 because a court will consider the package of statutory provisions as a whole when it assesses whether those provisions are proportionate and whether they have an objective justification. If the Government do not compromise on some of the less attractive provisions of the Bill, to which we will come, such as check-off, they will be at much greater risk of a human rights complaint being taken seriously by the court.
Clauses 2 and 3 would be particularly vulnerable to legal challenge if the Government refuse to allow for electronic balloting. Allowing online balloting would manifestly promote the professed objective of the Bill to enhance democratic decision-making on strikes. My advice to the Government is to consider carefully the amendments in this group and to seek an accommodation to allow electronic balloting to reduce what will otherwise be the legal vulnerability of Clauses 2 and 3, which could damage an important objective of the Bill.
My Lords, I declare my interests as president of the British Dietetic Association, a TUC-affiliated union, and an unpaid adviser to BALPA, the pilots’ union. I also remind the Committee, as I do virtually every time I speak on the trade unions, that 30% of trade unionists—in fact, slightly more, we estimate—vote for the Conservative Party in general elections. Sometimes we tend to forget that and to think that the trade union movement is a sort of Labour Party at play. It is not. It is as diverse, almost, as the rest of the country.
In speaking about electronic balloting, I point out that I am always pleased when Governments carry out what is in their manifestos. It is not something that I have been used to for the whole of my political life. However, I must say to the Minister that at no point in the Conservative Party manifesto is anything mentioned about electronic balloting not being allowed. Therefore, this clause in the Bill is in no way connected with the election manifesto, although quite a few other clauses are and I will not be opposing them.
I think that the Government are under the illusion that a lower turnout would somehow help to prevent industrial action. There is not much evidence for that. If anything, the people who do not vote may be less likely to support industrial action, but I do not think that one really knows. However, I know that strikes are not undertaken lightly. I have never been on strike in my life, but that is not unusual. Most trade unionists have never been on strike. They join their trade union for a wide variety of reasons. For instance, lollipop ladies who join UNISON get £5,000-worth of life insurance—an extremely valuable benefit that comes with their subscription. Most other unions offer a package of services. My union, Unite, offers a free legal advice service to all its members. I must say, having used it on two occasions, that it is an excellent service staffed by good solicitors.
I digress slightly, but by tabling my amendment I am not saying that this is the only way to deal with electronic balloting. There are, after all, five separate amendments on it. We will not force them to a Division, but I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity after the debate to look carefully at what has been said and who is in favour. She will have had a paper from 16 of what I would call the most moderate unions in Britain, all affiliated to the TUC. It says:
“At a time when many government departments are adopting a ‘digital first’ approach it is perverse that the … bill prevents unions”,
from running online ballots. It continues:
“If the government wishes for unions to ballot … members more often, and to shorten timeframes for industrial action”,
then unions should be allowed to,
“operate in the most efficient way possible”.
The First Division Association, which is the union of the most senior civil servants and which would look at how to make this work, has stated:
“The continued prohibition of electronic balloting for statutory ballots supports the view that the purpose of these reforms is to impede trade unions rather than encourage democracy as claimed”.
Despite this opportunity to make a positive reform, the Government have chosen to retain the ban on electronic balloting. These are not wild people.
As the Minister will know, because she was good enough to meet BALPA with me last week, and in response to her request, the general secretary of BALPA, Jim McAuslan, sent her a two-page letter, three-quarters of which is a list of organisations that have allowed electronic balloting to take place without any problems coming up. I will quote one other group that is not normally found in the same box as the TUC. The Institute of Directors has stated:
“Provided that a fair and transparent system of electronic voting can be delivered, there is no reason why—in return for asking for a higher level of legitimacy—the union movement should not be allowed to embrace technological advances to increase participation”.
That is fairly clear.
My challenge to the Minister and to the Government is to take the words of Nick Boles in another place that the Government did not object in principle to the introduction of e-balloting, but they had reservations about security. My view is that those reservations can be addressed and that, in a fast-moving technological world, they are not significant enough to keep this out of the Bill. The technology moves extremely fast. My amendment, like the others, provides safeguards in the implementation of the proposed new clause. It does not say that unions can set up their own electronic balloting company and have a closed system. All the amendments, in some way or other, provide for checks and balances that would enable the reservations of the Minister to be met.
Recently, an organisation called WebRoots Democracy produced a rather thick report dealing with many of the objections to e-balloting and pointing out ways forward. What is certain is that we will not get those ways forward and we will not end up where we want to be unless this goes into the Bill. So I ask the Minister to go away, rethink, look at what can be done and take note of the very strong feeling in many parts of this House that the time has come for the legislation to be put in place. This is a reform that can be made to work and I urge the Minister to make it possible.
My Lords, I shall give two reasons as to why the Central Arbitration Committee is uniquely qualified to carry out the inquiry and report as stated in the lead amendment in this group. I declare an interest as an ex-member of the Central Arbitration Committee. It has the following qualities. Most inquiries are judge-led. There is typically a judge, someone with experience of employers’ organisations—that is, an employer—and someone with experience of an organisation of workers, normally a trade union person. So employers would be confident that their experience was built in to the inquiry. I think the Minister could take that as an indication of the confidence that one should have in such an inquiry.
Secondly, the CAC has unique experience of what one might call access to the workplace. Of course, there are different models on show in this debate and no one is trying to say, as I understand it, that only one model can work. However, there are enormous issues around contact in the workplace and it is a fact, as far as I know, that over the 15 years or so of the operation of the CAC, no one has ever queried the standards. The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, is nodding his head. I think it is a remarkable record that everybody has confidence in the modus operandi of the Central Arbitration Committee.
My Lords, I, too, support this group of amendments; indeed, the arguments in favour seem compelling. It is a modest enough proposal and its safeguards are implicit in the very nature of the report which is canvassed. Personally, I support the turnout requirement in Clauses 2 and 3, but I cannot resist pointing to the bizarre consequences that could, at least theoretically, result from the new provision.
To take the illustration used in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill of a bargaining unit of 1,000 union members, if 499 vote in favour of industrial action and none against, a strike would be unlawful. If, however, 499 vote in favour and one against, then, because at least 50% of those eligible will have voted, a strike is permitted. So, too, of course, if 499 vote in favour of industrial action and 498 against. Doubtless, such anomalous possibilities as these are inevitable in any scheme, which, as here, has a combination of a turnout requirement but then a decision on the basis of a simple majority. However, it surely underlines—and this is my point—the imperative of ensuring that the best possible way is sought of achieving a maximum turnout of those eligible to vote. These amendments surely allow for that better way.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. I ask myself: why? I will make a plea for a travelling section of workers who are sometimes never seen because they are on unsocial hours and shifts—transport drivers, in particular. Not so long ago, a transport driver would work a five-day week. At the weekend, he—and it was more likely to be a he—would go along to the branch meeting in a local pub and cast a vote. Those arrangements no longer exist because of domestic and other demands on the time of the driver, who might be away throughout the week.
Very often the press, and indeed the general public and some politicians, cast real doubts on balloting arrangements. They reckon that they are unconstitutional, not fair and subject to a host of practices which are not democratic. I am pleased about this amendment because, at last, a methodology of engagement and participation can be found. It can be trusted and realised. Democracy at work in today’s world is important; Amendment 1 brings about its achievement.
The flexibility offered by the amendment will improve that democracy and public confidence in trade unionism. I am sure that it will find support among the large majority of employers, because when the press reports any malfunction of a process in a particular workplace, it is about not just the trade unions or the individual but the name and reputation of that enterprise. This amendment would therefore, in my judgment, bring about support and authority for all the parties concerned.
For those reasons, and because I believe that democracy can be found in and out of the workplace, I hope that Amendment 1 will carry support in this Chamber.
My Lords, it was nearly 50 years ago that I enrolled as a member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. I say that I enrolled, but I was enrolled—I had no choice. I was working between school and university and I worked in the Land Rover factory in Solihull helping to make Land Rover Defenders, the last of which have recently rolled off the production line. Since then, because of my career in the church, my direct involvement in the trade union movement has obviously been less, but I endorse what has been said about the union Unite, which some clergy belong to. It provides good advice and I much encourage my clergy, if they want, to join that union.
The 50 years since I ceased to be a member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union have been difficult for trade unions, one way or another. But they have a vital role going forward, not least in our globalised world which is driven by large economic forces. They have a place, but the key thing is to emphasise the process of modernisation, to which reference has been made. I, for one, fully accept that strike action should not result from a small and vocal minority dictating things to others, and I can broadly support the provisions in Clauses 2 and 3. It is a matter of judgment and it is in one sense arbitrary just where you draw that judgment. We will come on to that later. It seems to me that at the heart of the combination of Clauses 1, 2 and 3 is—to use a word which I think we have not used so far in the debate—a matter of fairness. That is what lies behind Article 11, to which the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, referred. It is fundamentally a question of what is a fair position, balancing all sorts of different considerations.
Having listened to the debate so far and some very interesting speeches—not least that by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, behind me—issues of fairness indicate that a proper consideration of electronic voting should be part of the process of modernisation. I offer, in conclusion, a final encouragement. If the General Synod of the Church of England can embrace electronic voting, so can we.
My Lords, I was wholeheartedly with the right reverend Prelate until he called the General Synod in aid, but he was totally right about fairness. As someone who does nothing electronically and has no intention of doing anything online at all, I believe we have to accept that those who want to move with the times in that way should be able to do so. My noble friend Lord Balfe made an impeccable case, as did the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. I find no particular affection for this Bill, but it is essential that when it goes on to the statute book—as it surely will—it must be seen to be fair. The right reverend Prelate is, of course, right. I pulled his leg, but if the Church of England can do it then we must allow the trade unions to do it. It must be fully supervised and properly secure. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, said, nothing is ever 100% secure—which is why I would never do online banking—but we can do most things to ensure that the system is secure.
I want to do one thing and one thing only: to appeal to the fairness of the Minister who will come to reply. It is the function of this House, from time to time, to ask another place, and the Government, to think again. In no sense does this destroy or undermine the Bill, but it allows those who wish to vote to do so, in privacy, online. One could argue that they might be under less pressure than if they voted in my preferred way—in the workplace—or by post. We have seen so many abuses of the postal voting system in general elections that we cannot hold that up as a great example. I hope my noble friend will bear in mind the words of Mr Nick Boles in another place, which have already been quoted: if there is no objection in principle then let us make sure we enact in practice.
My Lords, I added my name enthusiastically to that of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, on Amendment 22 about electronic voting. I thank him for his wise words, spoken with authority and knowledge of trade union activities. That is not necessarily linked automatically to the Labour Party in any way. This is especially so in the modern world, compared to the past when it might have been more automatic with the big trade unions. We now see a much more open scenario and there are many who support or vote for the Conservative Party in general elections who are enthusiastic about their own membership of different kinds of trade unions. That should be the norm in any modern, balanced society. It should not be two competing elites with nothing moveable in between.
This amendment helps to widen the possibilities for voting for strike action in the future. This is so infrequent and rare in British society nowadays, compared to the past, that it is not a general problem at all. That adds to the need for this cluster of amendments. I am referring now to Amendment 22, but the rest all fit together. They ask the Government to think again carefully about the underlying reasons why the Bill was introduced. There is still an element of surprise in wider society among people who follow new Bills about why the Bill was engineered and created as it was. Any Government, as was said in the Second Reading debate, who have the authority of only 24% of the electorate, have to be careful to introduce legislation that is not only properly drafted and intelligent but creates consensus, fairness and balance to deal with areas of pressing need for public governance.
There is considerable dismay about the Bill among those who are not keen on any limits on trade union voting activity. In my view, it should be completely open, but the threshold idea has caught on with some people, so one has to accept that it will be supported in the future, to whatever extent that is rational. The Government have to respond to that pressure and think again.
One of the ironies is that the Bill would be easier to get through if the Government responded to intelligent amendments that represent the views of Members from all parties in this House. I hope that the amendments will be received with some interest and enthusiasm in the other place if the Government do what we are requesting today.
On electronic voting, the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, referred in his speech to what he did in Sheffield. Electronic voting is feasible and can be just as secure as any other method of voting if proper procedures are put in place. It can be secure, as provided for in the Central Arbitration Committee report system, which is an excellent part of the amendment drafted by colleagues including Lord Monks.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, expressed reservations about Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown referred to the potential mathematical absurdity of the Government’s latest 50% proposal, which needs changing. All those problems were raised by Cross-Benchers, which is yet another illustration of the substantial changes that need to be made to the Bill.
I was in business for many years and we may compare the fairly easy-going procedures for corporate AGMs with what is being planned to bring the trade unions to heel. That might be an emotional phrase that is used fairly by some people and probably with enthusiasm by some of our right-wing newspapers. It would be a great tragedy if there were one standard for one set of people and another for another.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, very much for his advice on the common-sense element of trade union behaviour. There is a real need to make progress on this cluster of amendments. This is a great opportunity for the Government to refer positively to them and accept the ideas behind them. Then the Bill would make progress in other important areas.
For 30 years, I was president of BALPA, and I notice that the union is very well represented in the Committee today. I beg the Minister to think again about the Bill. Every speech that has been made so far has indicated that the Government ought to think again. We do not know whether the Minister will think again. I plead with her to do so, because this is not an ordinary Bill. It goes to the very heart of what not only the trade union movement or the Labour movement but the whole country thinks about this issue. I hope that the Minister will be more placatory than the Government have indicated so far. I repeat that the Bill is misplaced, as it is written. Therefore, I hope that she will say later on that she is prepared to think again about what the Government are putting forward.
I am very glad that BALPA has set a good example. Although on the whole the executive has been Conservative—there are one or two people who are not, but not many—the important thing about the union is that it is prepared to put aside its political views and think in a way that is representative of the country as a whole. BALPA has done a great deal for British aviation. It is not always right, but on the whole what it has advanced has been for the benefit not only of pilots but of those who use all the airlines in the world. Will the Minister say today that she will think again about the whole virtue and principle of this Bill, which is vitally important?
My Lords, I rise to make clear right at the start that I strongly support Clauses 2 and 3 in this Bill, and I will describe the reasons why. The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, obviously impinges on them, so I shall say a word about that.
The amendment refers to introduction of voting by,
“electronic, postal and workplace balloting”.
I am struck by one thing; this was described as the e-voting debate, but I have not heard a single person yet say that they think that workplace ballots should be reintroduced. In my own judgment, that is the reason why in the 1984 Act, which I had the honour of taking through Parliament, we introduced compulsory postal voting. I am not at all persuaded of the idea that you can get safely back to workplace ballots without intimidation or corruption in certain areas.
There is a need for trade unions, government and the public estate to carry public confidence at all times. If their lives are to be significantly inconvenienced, and in some ways seriously inconvenienced, with great personal distress, there should be proper protection for those people. As has been said already, striking should be only the last resort. That is in the interests of the union members themselves, for whom it may be a very expensive operation that may involve significant loss. They should never be taken out on strike by union leaders except as a last resort. But at all times we have protected that last resort of the right to strike, as was rightly said by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. It is the ultimate freedom—the right that people have under the law.
We talk about trade unions in general as if we were talking about—
May I just finish this point and then I shall give way? We are talking also about the change in the number of strikes. What is very significant is—and the right reverend Prelate referred to 50 years ago being on the shop floor, or maybe in a more senior position at Land Rover—that it was a very different world indeed. The world was very conscious at that time of strikes in the car industry. The noble Lord, Lord Monks, paid an indirect tribute to the progress that had been made under Conservative legislation. He pointed to the much more constructive industrial relations that now exist between the workforce and the management, which has been a major factor and a key to the success of our car industry at the present time. I give way to the noble Lord.
The point is: how do you maximise voting? It is very important that the public have confidence in the number of votes cast in these situations. The latest figure I saw, if it is correct, showed that there are now seven times as many strikes in the public sector as in the private sector. Public sector industries tend to be monopolies and you do not have to live long in London to see that a public sector or monopoly strike, such as happens, sadly, on the Underground and perhaps on the buses, can cause huge disruption and distress for millions of people. This is an issue for Parliament; it is not a party issue. We all have a duty to ensure that the public have the correct protection without preventing the right of a trade union in the final analysis to use its ultimate right to strike. I make that point very clearly. There must be a maximisation of that vote, without corruption and intimidation. It must be a full and correct vote.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, piloted electronic voting in Sheffield in 2007 and that is very impressive. I wonder how many people in Sheffield at that time were really familiar with the internet and whether the electronic possibilities had spread to the extent that they obviously have now. What has come with that spread is a far greater threat from the corruption of the internet itself. Everybody knows the challenges of cyber. It is a major defence issue now. We now know that nothing is secure against a cyberattack and the problems associated with hacking are much more prevalent. That is not an argument against electronic voting—before everybody sucks their teeth and thinks I am about to oppose it. I actually think we should bring in electronic voting, but we must do it with our eyes open to the fact that there are now far more risks than existed in 2007.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, will accept that there are now far more challenges and difficulties. I do not think many people outside realise just how insecure those systems are and just how professional different organisations and Governments are which do not bear us any good will and are interested in corrupting and damaging our systems. So if we are going to go ahead with electronic voting, we have to do it after the most careful examination of the challenges, because the worst thing to do would be to introduce electronic voting and then find that it does not work because it is corrupt. That would bring discredit on the whole system.
I do not claim to be an expert on the Central Arbitration Committee and whether that is the best body to do this, but one line in the amendment worries me. It states:
“Subsection (1) shall not come into force until—”.
I worry that this is trying to kick the whole thing out and that it might be used as a device to prevent Clauses 2 and 3 from coming into effect. The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, gave a very helpful speech making it quite clear that it is not his intention to do that, but there is an alternative way to proceed. The Secretary of State has the power under existing legislation, if he wishes to use it, to introduce electronic voting after a proper examination of these issues. That is the alternative way to go.
This is Committee. We shall no doubt return to these issues on Report, but I put that thought to the Minister as a possible way to proceed. I do not want to find that we have delays. If there could be proper consideration and the best possible examination of this by bodies really capable of really examining these very difficult issues that now surround the electronic world, I would support it in the interests of maximising the voting possibility because—my noble friend Lord Balfe made this point very well—the fullest turnout is the best safeguard against the wrong result. Active minorities working against idle majorities is the danger we have to guard against. We need the maximum commitment and the maximum vote in these situations. If electronic voting genuinely free from corruption and distortion can be made to work, I would support it.
My Lords, I want to raise a couple of points that are rather different from those which we have heard thus far.
First, what is the purpose of this legislation? What is the purpose of the Government’s proposal to increase the thresholds for turnout and participation, when we have not heard an inkling about their interest in enabling that increased participation to take place? Many noble Lords have already spoken about using electronic voting. It would be a real step forward and really interesting and heart-warming if the Government were prepared to say that they are prepared to trial it, look at it and to set up a group to study it, but thus far they have said nothing. That makes me very suspicious about the real intention behind the proposal. Could it be that the Government do not want an increase in thresholds to come about? Do they really want more participation, or is this a way of demonstrating that they do not want any strikes, particularly in the public sector, without actually saying that they do not want any strikes, particularly in the public sector?
The noble Lord, Lord King, said that nobody thus far has mentioned workplace voting. I know there is a range of issues and problems, but it might well be useful to take a look at whether, in certain circumstances and certain kinds of workplaces, workplace balloting would be appropriate. However, it seems to me that none of this is the object of the Bill. Increasingly, it looks as though it is an exercise in how to ban strikes without actually banning them. It is very clever. It saves all that performance of perhaps having to face legislation—all the global public opprobrium that would be likely to come from the ILO and others if strikes were banned. It makes it so difficult that most attempts at industrial action would fail. That is how it reads and that is how it is going to work out, it seems to me, if we do not have some measure of understanding from the Government about what is actually being suggested.
I am moved to comment in this way because this is not the only legislation or policy we have had in recent times which makes it appear that the Government are trying to close down voices of opposition. I mentioned at Second Reading the areas where this dismissal of opposition has become apparent. For example, there is English votes for English laws: of course, no pesky Scottish National Party is going to get in the way of things. There are the Boundary Commission’s changes to the electoral register; proposals elsewhere in the Bill to make it more difficult for unions to return and retain their membership lists, thereby certainly reducing membership income; and changes to unions’ ability to build up and retain funds for political and other forms of campaigning. Further, this weekend we heard that restrictions are to be placed on the charitable sector’s ability to conduct public policy campaigns. All that adds up to a frightening and worrying scenario. It all adds up to political interference. As I said earlier, I believe that it will be seen by many people as a very poor show and by many more as a demonstration of very poor judgment.
Many speakers have spoken in detail about the problems associated with postal ballots and participation and I am not going to repeat what they said. However, if industrial action is being considered, the most important work to be done—by unions and employers—is to engage in debate and try to solve the differences that have led to the industrial relations breakdown. Unfortunately, with one or two very good exceptions, few of the people involved in drawing up this legislation seem to have had any experience of the world of work or, certainly, any knowledge of trade unions.
The noble Lord, Lord King, commented that industrial relations now are very different from those that pertained in the days of “the Rover”, as union members always referred to the factory. That is absolutely correct; but the reasons for those changes are many and various. Not least, the improvement in industrial relations has something to do with having a better-trained management than we ever had in the past.
My Lords, I apologise for not being available to speak at Second Reading. I now rise in support of Amendment 20. Along with many other noble Lords, I feel that Clause 2 is an attempt by the Government to increase the participation in voting for industrial action. Surely the Minister will support any way of ensuring as large a turnout as possible.
I have taken part in postal votes on industrial action, and other trade union elections, as a member of my present union, BECTU, and as a former member of the NUJ. I have also taken part in elections electronically. I can tell noble Lords that it is much easier for me to take part in the latter ballots. When I talk to my younger colleagues in the media about whether e-voting should be allowed in trade union votes, frankly they are astonished, and in some cases appalled, that it does not happen already. Along with many of us, they already carry out incredibly secure transactions and make huge decisions electronically every day. For them, e-voting would dramatically increase their willingness to take part in any strike votes—which, after all, must be one of the aims of the Bill. Online transactions and decision-making are in every sphere of our lives; they are the reality of the 21st century and ought to be represented in this Bill.
I have read the objections of the Minister in the other place to allowing electronic voting to take place in industrial ballots and other trade union elections. He quoted from the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, which recommended not introducing e-voting yet on the grounds that e-voting equipment could not be trusted—that electronic voting software is not accountable and its complexity makes voting insecure. It strikes me that the Speaker’s Commission was looking at UK national elections and European elections, so the issue of trade union elections was not actually relevant. Even so, its recommendation 26 says that secure systems for electronic voting should be an option for voters in the 2020 general election.
Like my noble friend Lord Kerslake, I have spoken to Electronic Reform Services. As he said, it has supervised elections involving 400 organisations, and of course the Conservative Party used electronic voting in its own primaries for the London mayoral elections. If electronic voting is fine for these organisations, surely it should be considered for trade union elections as well. I also understand that, under the previous coalition Government, work was commissioned by the then BIS Secretary, Vince Cable, to investigate whether e-voting for trade unions was viable. I would be grateful if the Minister let the House know the findings of that work.
The noble Lord, Lord King, expressed his concern about how insecure electronic voting could be. Amendment 20 is a convincing response to any fears there might be about trade union e-voting being insecure, and whether the systems would be accountable. The Minister in the other place said he was willing to discuss practical objections with opposition parties, and anyone else in society, to overcome those objections. This amendment is a very good basis for such discussions.
Electronic Reform Services has indeed brought out a report, which seems to work very well with paragraphs (a) to (e) of new subsection 6 in the amendment. It has a voting system that could be made secure by separating the database used for the distribution of voter information from the database of the system used to store the votes that have been cast electronically. In that way, ERS can ensure that the voter’s identity is separated from their preference, as currently happens with postal votes in public elections. It can also ensure that the identity of the voter is authenticated by issuing randomly generated single-use security codes to enable them to access the electronic voting system. Alternatively, voters could provide personal identifiers such as dates of birth and membership numbers, but the former has been recommended as less open to manipulation.
New subsection 6(c) would work very well with ERS’s suggestion that security codes be sent only to the email address registered by the voter, a method that could be enhanced by delivering part of the authentication by a separate means—by email or by post. However, ERS points out that splitting information can be problematic. Through new subsection 6(e), we could ensure that the software system used for electronic voting was built independently using industrial standards, and regularly tested by an approved vendor.
These measures have been good enough for the millions of votes cast electronically over the past few years, and for the Government’s own party’s elections in the London mayoral elections, so surely this method would be good enough to ensure a high turnout for trade union votes. I commend the amendment to your Lordships’ House in the name of democracy.
My Lords, I must apologise to the House. My head is full of cold, and if I expire half way through my remarks I know that at least I shall have the support of a large number of your Lordships in that. I shall be mercifully short.
I have listened carefully to this interesting debate. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Oates, was wrong when he said in promoting his amendment that the Government were opposed to electronic voting. I trust that they are certainly not opposed in principle; it is more that they have not yet been persuaded of its practicality. That is an important distinction.
The noble Lord, Lord Monks, said that surely any system should be right provided that the balloting method is secure and can be trusted. I think we can all agree with that; the question is what that method should be. Anyone who can remember the remarks I made at Second Reading will know that I am generally in favour of e-voting. Postal balloting itself has scarcely been known for its security in many areas. We simply need to get on with it and find the right practical decision.
The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, has a fundamental flaw. It makes the threshold provisions of subsection (1), which I think are hugely important, consequential on the means of voting. The noble Lord, Lord King, has pointed out the flaw. It is as if the means of voting are more important than the principle of voting itself. I do not think that that is good enough.
The threshold provisions are a manifesto commitment of the Government. I am a little prejudiced—sceptical—about manifesto commitments. We all know how much work goes into manifestos and we all toil away as parties to get to the right sort of provisions. We then ask ourselves how on earth we get anybody to read it and take notice of it. This simple argument—that because a manifesto contains something, it inevitably must pass into law because it has the support of the people—can be stretched too far. When I was responsible for these things in Conservative Central Office back in the 1980s, faced with the problems of trying to get our manifesto publicised and read, we came to the conclusion that the only way to do so was to leak it to the Guardian, where it ended up on the front page. Nevertheless, we are talking about a clear public commitment of the Government, made in a manner that would satisfy the Government of any political persuasion.
I hope and expect the Government will take away the comments that have been made this afternoon in a very serious and sensible fashion, bang them about a bit, get it right and make it work, so that we have the safest possible mechanism to get the maximum turnout in any ballot. By putting the cart before the horse—the mechanism above the principle—the amendment is not helpful and is not the way to go. Although I support many of the details that have been expressed in support of the amendment, I myself cannot support it.
My Lords, I support the amendments and in particular Amendment 21. In my working career there has been a huge improvement in achieving a democratic mandate for strike action. The House has made the point that strikes are an action of last resort and it is important that whatever mandate is achieved for that strike should have the biggest and most representative turnouts.
If your Lordships look at the ballots and strikes that we have had in recent years—they have decreased in number, which is good—you will see that about 50% have already been achieving 50% turnouts. There has been a huge improvement in the way in which the ballots are conducted, certainly compared with the experience that the noble Lord, Lord King, talked about. We know that a very important social development took place at that time. There was a reaction against the intimidation of the factory gate meetings, but also in unions themselves a big change was going on because people were not attending branch meetings. As a result, those unions that depended on branch meetings to determine strike action were not fully representative.
I remember as a young graduate working for Sid Weighell in the National Union of Railwaymen going along to the No. 1 Euston branch of the NUR on the eve of a one-day strike, which was an action against the Conservative Government’s plans for transport at the time. It was remarkable—there was a room for 50 people, but there were 200 people queuing outside to come in. The branch secretary who was presiding was in a fluster and very bad tempered as to why all these people were suddenly turning up for a branch meeting when they had never come before. The following day, there was an action and Sid Weighell sent me there to find out how representative the feeling was in the union. Clearly, the reason people were turning up was because they did not want the one-day strike to continue.
Anyway, we then introduced postal ballots. We have had long experience that they are secure. We have good experience of them. Fundamentally, they have independent scrutineers to ensure that they are fair and representative, and we have 25 or 30 years’ experience of them. However, there is one problem—that the turnout in postal ballots is still not as high as we would like. If we have this threshold, trade unions will have to work harder to get the turnout up, and they will. They will be able to do second mailings and will use all sorts of means to encourage turnout and make sure that people vote in these important ballots. As we know is the case in general elections, people do not vote when they think that the outcome is predictable but they do vote when it is close, and the unions will be able to get this turnout. I am sure that they will use things such as second mailings and emails to get the turnout up.
The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, was right to say that in the other place the Minister said that he was not convinced about the practicality—he used the Speaker’s commission for that. However, that is unrealistic, because the numbers involved in national elections are vast compared with the numbers in ballots for this sort of strike. Therefore, we need to look at the idea of extending the different ways of voting and it is right that we should also now look at workplace balloting. If there are independent scrutineers, there is no reason why that should not be secure as well. There has been quite a social change. People are willing to use emails and digitisation to vote, and organisations are already doing that. That will help the turnout.
I do not think that we should consider putting a burden on the unions to get turnout up if we do not help them to do it. That seems to be a fundamental principle, and it will have a benefit. My experience is limited but I am sure that unions already use email addresses. If they go in for electronic voting, they will have to extend email use, and that will improve communication and turnout.
The CAC is already using a variety of methods to test people’s views on recognition, as has been mentioned in this debate. It deals with very sensitive issues. As those experienced in union processes will know, recognition is one of the most bitterly contested issues because employers are sometimes concerned to stop it and the unions are determined to get it. So these are very sensitive ballots and the CAC now has experience of using not just postal ballots but workplace ballots and electronic voting. Therefore, we support the changes proposed in the amendments.
In ending my remarks, I have three questions for the Minister. First, have the Government and Ministers had conversations with the Central Arbitration Committee about the processes used to improve turnout in ballots? Secondly, do the Government not think that the whole digitisation strategy means that, in all sorts of processes, electronic voting is the next stage in extending the voting process in all sorts of organisations? My final question, which is an abrupt one, is: is the Conservative Party satisfied that it had a fair election for its mayoral candidate in London when it used the sorts of processes advocated in these amendments?
My Lords, the first question for me is: will minimum thresholds for industrial action ballots improve democracy in the workplace? If postal voting remains the only option available to trade unions wishing to ballot their members, the answer must be no, and that is because, putting aside the question of whether the introduction of statutory thresholds is desirable, it is in the interests of trade unions and employers for a ballot properly to reflect the opinions of workers. I appreciate and thank—
The right reverend Prelate?
No. I was thinking of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and trying to think of the correct term for the legal profession—but in fact I do not need to do that. I hate breaching protocol. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, makes a very valid point in this debate: whatever our opinions of thresholds—and this is where the Government will, I hope, think hard about what the noble Lord said—it will undermine the Government’s position, if there is a legal challenge, by denying the opportunity for unions to ensure that there is a full turnout in the vote. So it is incumbent on the Government, in my opinion, to think hard about whether they can push through thresholds without allowing unions to consider other secure methods of voting.
I think that the Government’s response surely must be to see that the best way of increasing participation in union democracy would be to bring ballots into the 21st century by permitting the use of electronic and workplace ballots. Unions are the only organisation in the UK that are legally required to hold postal-only ballots. Postal ballots tend to be more expensive and lead to lower turnout. Postal-only ballots can also unnecessarily extend the voting period. Again, this is an important issue in industrial democracy and industrial action. Faster and equally secure balloting methods could support the earlier resolution of disputes and would also increase participation in union democracy. In answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, clearly the method of voting is a critical factor in participation. The evidence we have is that where unions have the ability to run secure workplace ballots, turnout increases.
What the noble Lord, Lord King, failed to mention in his contribution is that unions are now permitted to use workplace ballots for statutory recognition purposes. That is a very important and vital element to the success of an enterprise: whether a union is recognised. I would say that it would be for the benefit of an enterprise, but maybe the owners of the enterprise would have a different view. But workplace ballots are permitted in these circumstances. We are not talking about going back to the 1970s, with a show of hands and decisions being made at the gate. We are talking about new and modern methods of balloting.
In CAC recognition ballots, individuals vote using paper ballots and secure ballot boxes, and that is overseen by a qualified independent person. Average turnout is significantly higher in workplace ballots, at 88%, than all postal ballots, where the average is 71.6%. Also, there is no evidence that individuals feel pressurised to vote in support of union recognition where workplace ballots take place. Since 2004, the CAC has received a total of only seven complaints of unfair practices during statutory recognition ballots, none of which was upheld.
Can we be assured that secure workplace ballots will not be open to abuse? Electoral Reform Services, which is highly experienced in running industrial ballots, confirms that it is perfectly possible to run workplace ballots that are secret and secure against any possibility of fraud or intimidation. Amendments 19 and 21 in this group, which I have put my name to, would ensure that all ballot methods are confirmed by a scrutineer as safe and secure before they take place. All ballots would be monitored during the process and all outcomes declared safe by the scrutineer. The union would also be required to comply with any recommendations made by the scrutineer.
Amendment 19, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn, keeps the responsibility for the conduct and integrity of the ballot with the existing statutory independent scrutineer, but we recognise that the CAC has experience of statutory workplace recognition ballots, and such expertise should be available to the scrutineer. Existing legislation already requires that scrutineers must be independent of unions. BIS maintains a statutory list of approved scrutineers, and the vast majority of industrial action ballots are overseen by organisations on that list—primarily by Electoral Reform Services.
When a workplace ballot, or any other ballot, is conducted, it is important for employers to have a duty to co-operate with the ballot, as they have in relation to statutory recognition ballots. This could include a duty for employers to work closely with balloting agencies to ensure that company firewalls do not prevent union emails reaching members and that websites are not blocked. This co-operation is already common practice in workplaces holding elections for staff associations, and for information and consultation. Spaces should also be provided for voting free from surveillance by management, and employers should have a duty to ensure that union members can vote free from interference or constraint. Of course, this duty mirrors the existing duty on unions and is therefore even-handed.
As we have heard in the debate, we are not alone in supporting the use of electronic and workplace balloting methods. As the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said, even the Institute of Directors has long held the view that unions should be permitted to use electronic voting. Its 2012 policy paper stated,
“Provided that a fair and transparent system of electronic voting can be delivered, there is no reason why—in return for asking for a higher level of legitimacy—the union movement should not be allowed to embrace technological advances”.
I stress the words,
“a higher level of legitimacy”.
Surely that is what the Government are after in imposing thresholds. If they want to ensure that the case for thresholds is sustainable, they should consider the reasonable requests made in the amendments.
The case for electronic ballots has been strongly put in the debate. According to the latest Ofcom figures, 83% of people now have access to broadband and 66% of households own a smartphone. These figures are much higher among those of working age. There is also a growing expectation that individuals should be able to vote electronically in elections. The 2014 Electoral Commission survey found that 42% of respondents felt online voting would increase confidence in the way that elections are run in the UK. These views are particularly prevalent among younger people.
A further indication of the appetite among the British public to digitise democracy is shown by the Government’s own voter registration data. Between the launch of online registration in June 2014 and October 2015, 12 million people registered to vote online. Online balloting can be safe and secure, much like online banking. It is already used for a variety of purposes in both the public and the private sector.
As we have already heard, the Government are proactive in extending digitisation. The Minister has prime responsibility for that, so it is a pity she cannot turn that responsibility away from businesses alone and focus on the needs of workers, too. As the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, pointed out, political parties use electronic voting. Most recently, the Conservatives utilised online voting in the selection of their London mayoral candidate. More than 9,000 people recorded votes on line in that ballot.
As the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, highlighted, the Government are increasingly committed to digitisation of government services. Citizens are required now to make changes to their driving licences, pay vehicle excise duty and renew their tax credits—and, in the future, apply for universal credit—online. According to the Government Digital Service, 85% of tax returns are now filed online. On concerns that people are not used to it or are not accepting it, the key point is that people are asking for it.
That is when we come to this debate. The ability of people to exercise their responsibility will be governed by the options of secure voting. While I am satisfied that there is sufficient evidence for the introduction of secure alternative methods of balloting, I accept that if this proposal for a range of secure balloting methods was reviewed and examined by a totally independent source, such as the CAC, others may be more readily convinced than me. This is one measure the Government must surely consider appropriate. They should not sit back and delay but instigate quickly proper measures to ensure a system of alternative secure methods of voting. That is why I, too, support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake.
I hear what noble Lords have said, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, about whether the issue of security is acting as a barrier to the introduction of a commitment in the manifesto. I believe that if the commitment in the manifesto was to be made secure, then the Government would commit to do this first. It sustains the Government’s argument. Of course, in another group I shall be arguing the complete opposite but, for the purpose of this issue, it is important that there is a reasoned and responsible response from the Government. I hope the Minister will engage in an open and constructive debate on this specific aspect of the Bill to ensure that we end up with a system that creates greater participation.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, for his amendments and for bringing his wide experience of the public sector to this matter. I welcome new voices and new participants to our debate. We have heard from the noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Pannick, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross. It is good to have lots of people involved in our debate.
The essence of the Bill is to improve fairness and to protect the public from disruptive and undemocratic strike action. As this is the first day in Committee, I want to say that we will be in listening mode.
Let me turn to the subject of these amendments—electronic balloting—which was not in our manifesto, as my noble friend Lord Balfe pointed out. However, let me be clear that the Government have no objection in principle to electronic voting; indeed, we are encouraging a huge programme of digitalisation of the economy as a government. We are moving with the times, in the words of my noble friend Lord Cormack. It is an area of mutual interest to me and the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury.
However, it is vital that union members, employees, and the public have utmost confidence in ballot processes. Without that, of course, the integrity of the whole system is called into question. Members will not use it, unions will not rely on it, and employers and the public will not trust it. That is not in anyone’s interest.
I should at this point reply to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, and say that the former Secretary of State’s group was looking into the very issues that we are concerned about today, on legitimacy, safety and security of voting. It is clear from this work and from the various reports published on this matter that some important issues still need to be explored further.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, made this point neatly in the types of issue he outlined and wrote into his amendment. These are the matters that the Government have said need further consideration. Although there are more: I believe the amendment fails to address the security issues, such as hacking and malicious attacks, which my noble friend Lord King emphasised. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, proposes the use of the Central Arbitration Committee, also mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Lea of Crondall, and Lord Dykes, but it has no experience of industrial action or electronic balloting. The noble Lord acknowledged that today, but I am not sure that allowing it to bring in an expert quite does it for me.
I am not keen to stop the flow here, but does the noble Baroness not recognise that the CAC does have experience of workplace ballots, statutory recognition ballots? They are not a minor matter for those balloting or, for that matter, the companies subject to those ballots. Does she feel that those are somehow insecure or not valid because they are conducted in the workplace, overseen by the CAC?
That is a different matter. To respond to the question that was asked, we are in fact in contact with the CAC, but to bring in electronic balloting, as I have said, you need to be clear that the matter is extremely carefully addressed. A key area is to ensure that the electronic system correctly establishes an individual’s eligibility to vote. It has to capture the vote accurately while at the same time protecting the individual from being identified. The system needs—and I think there will be a lot of agreement on these points—to be both anonymous, to preserve individual privacy and secrecy, and accountable, to guard against malpractice and fraud.
Is the noble Baroness therefore questioning ballots such as the one in Durham, which finished last weekend, on whether the population want to accept the Northern powerhouse? Is she saying that such ballots, because they include online voting, are not legitimate and should be rejected?
If the noble Baroness will let me make a bit of progress, I am going to address the difference in good order. Obviously, avoiding malpractice and fraud is absolutely critical. I will explain why. There are many respectable organisations that were mentioned this evening, such as the National Trust, that choose to use electronic means to capture votes. However, strikes have a huge effect on our public services and can cause enormous problems for hardworking people. We heard a number of examples at Second Reading.
The public sector strikes in 2011 closed 62% of the schools in England and led the NHS to cancel tens of thousands of operations. We therefore need people to have confidence both in the way the ballot is conducted and in the outcome obtained. Thresholds will provide the level of confidence we need in the outcome that is currently lacking, but the method of voting is a separate matter. Postal ballots already provide appropriate confidence in the way the ballot is conducted, though there have been comments today about them. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said about postal voting, but the Government recognise this, which is why we do not object in principle to electronic balloting.
John Cridland, the then director-general of the CBI, spoke to the Public Bill Committee, which discussed this matter at some length, as I am sure you know. On thresholds, he said:
“I think the provisions in the Bill that are of most concern to businesses are those that ensure that where there is strike action … it reflects a significant voice from the workforce … In principle, I think these are the right provisions”.
On e-balloting, he said that,
“we do not think at the moment the evidence is there that e-balloting can be secure and effective. We do not have a problem in principle with e-balloting, but it is probably premature to have it available … The need to protect the privacy of an individual trade-union member voting is important to their employer, and we would want more assurance that that could be effectively conducted”.—[Official Report, Commons, Trade Union Bill Committee,13/10/15; col. 6.]
Perhaps this is the point at which I should respond to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood—
John Cridland did make the point that he was unclear that there was sufficient assurance that the personal details could be maintained, although all companies now put their individuals’ records in electronic form. He never explained any of the duality of that particular point, nor did he go into detail as to why they were more at threat than any other form of individual record. By way of contrast, at the same committee, Dr Marshall from the British Chambers of Commerce said this matter could be dealt with, so I was very dubious as to the evidential basis of John Cridland’s comments. Can the Minister shine any light on that, rather than just quoting his opinion?
I think different people have different opinions on this matter; as the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, recognises, there are issues that need to be looked at.
I think there is recognition on all sides of the House that checks and safeguards are essential to any electronic balloting process. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, made this point admirably in his amendment. It is clear from today’s debate that noble Lords have given this issue very serious consideration. I have listened very carefully to the points that have been made, and in particular to all the ideas that noble Lords have put forward from all sides of the House. They have expressed their concerns on how to conduct safe and secure electronic ballots for trade unions. I will take a little time to reflect on these points.
In saying that, I want to be clear that it is modernisation of voting systems to which we have no objection in principle. As a Digital Minister, I can say with conviction that online is the way forward, but I agree with my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater that workplace balloting would be a regressive step. We must not lose sight of the fact that, however well supervised the ballot, people still need to get to it. That, unfortunately, provides scope for them to be under pressure of influence or intimidation.
Therefore, while we are keen to explore how to make electronic balloting work, we are not convinced that we could provide, especially in high-profile ballots, sufficient protection for employees voting in the workplace—that is, the protection of privacy and from the risk of intimidation or other influence, be it from the employer or the union.
The noble Lord, Lord Monks, was concerned that the practical effect of the thresholds would stop strikes taking place, and that results of other ballots in different areas would not have been legitimate had these thresholds been required. He quoted elections from the other place and, of course, those of the police and crime commissioners. However, the important point relating to all the examples given by noble Lords is that this is not a fair comparison. Everyone could participate freely in these elections and have a democratic say on the outcome. By contrast, only union members are eligible to vote in ballots for strike action and large numbers of people who do not get a say are affected by the outcome. It seems right that stronger support is required for strike action.
My Lords, I am reluctant to intervene and I do not normally, but I am genuinely puzzled by the arguments. Apply all this to the choice of the Conservative candidate for the Mayor of London, which was done electronically: was that not a significant choice? Could it not have a big impact on working people? There seems to be something not quite joined up in the thinking expressed.
I thank the right reverend Prelate, but I see it as different. The difference is that strikes have a huge effect on our public services and can cause significant disruption for hard-working people. We are legislating here not for the mayoralty of London, but for industrial relations. Statutory ballots require strong assurance on issues such as legitimacy, safety and security of voting.
The noble Lord, Lord Monks, mentioned that Germany and Denmark use thresholds and that these are not tied to particular ways of voting. However, I do not think that it is helpful to compare UK law and that of other countries when the context of each is so different. It is clear that all the relevant international treaties require national laws to be considered.
Finally in that connection, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, suggested that the proportionality of the proposed thresholds might be vulnerable to challenge were the Government to refuse to allow e-balloting. I note that he acknowledges that thresholds are a proportionate response, given the widespread impact of strikes on the public. I repeat what I have said twice now: we have no objection in principle to electronic methods of balloting, but we need to be reassured on issues of legitimacy, safety and security of voting.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness. All noble Lords now live their lives electronically. I exempt the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, from that, but the rest of us shop, bank and conduct any number of transactions electronically. What is it about a trade union ballot that exempts it from principles that are commonplace in society nowadays?
My Lords, the simple point is that we need to be assured that the electronic ballot will give us a safe and secure outcome. I have heard from many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord King, whose conclusion I agree with, that the fullest turnout is the best safeguard against a wrong result. Frankly, that has been the spirit of several comments this evening. I want to ensure that we take fully into account noble Lords’ detailed knowledge of these matters and experience of how we can get round the difficulties on electronic balloting. I want to reflect further on the very excellent arguments we heard today. I ask noble Lords not to press their amendments.
Before the noble Baroness sits down, I am sorry, but I asked three questions, none of which has been answered. I will not go into all three, but first, have the Government talked about the CAC’s experience of dealing with workplace ballots? Secondly, will she tell us whether the Conservative Party regards the ballot it recently had for its mayoral candidate as safe and secure?
My Lords, I did try to answer in passing the noble Lord’s questions. I think that I answered all three of them. We are satisfied that the arrangements used in London were appropriate for the purpose, but as I have sought to explain, this is a little different. We need to reflect further on the best way to conduct electronic balloting, which we have agreed to in principle.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her response, in particular her undertaking to reflect further on these issues. There were a large number of contributions—I counted a total of 17; I may have missed some—for which I am very grateful to the House. Recognising the length of the debate, and the fact that there are urgent debates to follow, I will not go through every one of those contributions. I ask noble Lords to bear with me. I shall highlight some of the key points.
There is absolute common agreement in the House about the need to maximise engagement. Nobody is arguing about this. There is absolute agreement in the House, including from the Minister, who spoke just a minute ago, about the principle of using digital means to carry out activities. There is no doubt about that point either. We are left with one question: can it be established that you can do this in a secure way? As a large number of Members said, there is ample evidence of very important transactions that are done securely. They do not get more important than how you manage your banking; perhaps with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, a lot of us use that method. The crucial point I make is that we do very important and serious things through electronic means. I cannot believe that it is beyond the wit of the House, and, indeed, of the Government, to find ways to ballot for industrial action in the same way.
Would the noble Lord not agree that anybody who has an understanding of the situation in the internet world and its security knows that every responsible bank is extremely worried about being able to maintain security? There are current stories of major companies that have had huge losses of information about their customers. I say to the noble Lord that the ballot on the Mayor of London was a little time back. We need to ensure that we have a fresh look at this in the current climate of risks to security.
The noble Lord is absolutely right that cybersecurity is critical. Indeed, I was going to come on to that. It is critical across every aspect of digital technology and use of digital systems. In fact, many security systems in this country are highly dependent on tackling cybersecurity issues. There is no doubt that we need to deal with it. I venture to suggest that, in comparison with those risks and issues, the risks associated with electronic balloting for potential strike action may not be quite as big.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, made a powerful argument about how this issue sits in the wider context of balance and proportionality as the Bill is taken forward. We are applying quite significant thresholds. Have we done everything possible to enable unions to achieve that turnout? Are we acting in a proportionate and balanced way? That is critical. In many ways, the amendment may well save the Government from themselves and a potential successful legal challenge in the future.
I will finish with two points. First, the whole purpose of my amendment is to actively and independently look at issues of security. I am 100% persuaded that we can have sufficiently secure electronic balloting, and, indeed, workplace balloting, which, as has been said, happens now through the CAC. Secondly, the purpose of my amendment is to look at this issue through an independent process. Let us not put it above the principle of thresholds, as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said, but if we put these thresholds in place, we should reasonably and independently explore the question and report back to the House.
This is most definitely not a manoeuvre to delay the Bill. In fact, I have put a time limit of two months in which to carry out the work, which should be more than ample to do work of this nature. Therefore, this is not about saying that we have definitive answers—although I personally think we do—but that we should properly and independently test this issue.
My last point goes to the argument made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester. Ultimately, this is about fairness. Are we acting in a fair way in the changes we are making, which affect a very important issue in this country: the right to strike? That should be our determination and, if we believe that that is the core of this issue, the amendment is entirely reasonable. I really hope the Minister will think about how we might do this. Given her very constructive commitment to think seriously about this issue, I will of course withdraw the amendment and hope to have further conversations on this issue.
Before the noble Lord sits down, we have of course discussed five different amendments. My amendment says that a trade union may only use electronic voting,
“subject to the agreement of the Certification Officer”,
which would obviously be if the system was secure. So I draw the noble Lord’s attention to the fact that the Minister has many different options to choose from, as well as his own very well-drafted, crafted and spoken to amendment. The principle of electronic balloting is at the heart of this debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, makes a very powerful point. I entirely agree that the aim here is to be able to say, by the point at which we introduce these thresholds, that we have given the widest range of choices. That is where we are trying to get to. If there are alternative ways of doing it, I am very open to that conversation. That is why I am willing to withdraw the amendment at this point, and to continue that conversation. It will not be good enough simply to let the issue drift and return to it as and when appropriate. We need to sort it out now, as part of the Bill.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Clause 2 agreed.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question on junior doctor contracts given in the other place by my honourable friend the Minister for Care Quality. The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, I will be delighted to update the House on the junior doctors’ proposed industrial action.
This Government were elected on a mandate to provide for the NHS the resources it asked for and to make our NHS a truly seven-day service. The provision of consistent clinical standards on every day of the week demands better weekend support services, such as physiotherapy, pharmacy and diagnostic scans, better seven-day social care services to facilitate weekend discharge, and better primary care access to help tackle avoidable weekend admissions.
However, consistent seven-day services also demand reform of staff contracts, including those of junior doctors, to help hospitals roster clinicians in a way that matches patient demand more evenly across every day of the week. In October 2014 the BMA withdrew from talks on reforming the junior doctors’ contract and, despite the Government asking them to return, did not start talking again until the end of November last year, in talks facilitated by ACAS. Throughout December we made very good progress on a wide range of issues and reached agreement on the vast majority of the BMA’s concerns.
Regrettably, we did not come to an agreement on two substantive issues, including weekend pay rates, so, following strike action last month, the Secretary of State appointed Sir David Dalton, one of our most respected NHS chief executives, to take negotiations forward on behalf of the NHS. Further progress has been made under Sir David’s leadership, particularly in areas relating to safety and training. However, despite agreeing at ACAS to negotiate on the issue of weekend pay rates, Sir David Dalton has advised us that the BMA has refused to discuss a negotiated solution on Saturday pay.
In his letter to the Secretary of State last week Sir David stated:
‘Given that we have made such good progress over the last 3 weeks—and are very nearly there on all but the pay points—it is very disappointing that the BMA continues to refuse to negotiate on the issue of unsocial hours payment. I note that in the ACAS agreement of 30 November, both parties agreed to negotiate on the number of hours designated as plain time and I hope that the BMA will still agree to do that’.
The Government are clear that our door remains open for further discussion and we continue to urge the BMA to return to the table. Regrettably, the BMA is instead proceeding with strike action over a 24-hour period from 8 am this Wednesday. Robust contingency planning has been taking place to try to minimise the risk of harm to the public, but I regret to inform the House that latest estimates suggest 2,884 operations have been cancelled. I hope honourable Members from all sides of the House will join me in urging the BMA to put patients first, call off its damaging strike action and work with us to ensure we can offer patients consistent standards of care every day of the week”.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Answer given in the other place. Clearly, the current situation is very worrying and we all want a speedy resolution of it, but I have three quick points to put to the Minister. First, he will know that imposing a contract which the overwhelming majority of junior doctors oppose risks industrial action further than that to which he has referred tonight, and more anger among NHS staff at a time when morale is low. If a new contract cannot be agreed, will he now rule out imposing one?
Secondly, the Minister knows that much of the angst among junior doctors has been caused by the Health Secretary’s repeated attempts to conflate reform of the junior doctor contract with the issue of a seven-day NHS. Will the Minister tell the House, for the record, which hospital chief executives have told the Government that the junior doctor contract is a barrier to seven-day service working? Will he tell me why this Health Secretary has gone out of his way to pick a fight with the very people who are already working across seven days?
The Minister is very well acquainted with the NHS and, indeed, with the views of junior doctors, with whom I know he keeps in very close touch. Does he not consider it absolutely appalling that these hugely important people, on whom the health service is going to depend for the next 20 or 30 years, have been so upset by the Health Secretary’s approach that they feel such estrangement from the NHS? Does he not think that the Government need to completely reset this process and what they have been saying about junior doctors and seven-day working, to get a proper resolution of this dispute?
My Lords, the noble Lord said he had three questions; I think there were only two questions there, which is unusual, if I may say so. We do not want to impose a contract. We want the BMA to come back and continue the talks and we still hope that that will happen. Clearly, imposing a contract is not what we ever wanted to do when this whole process started. As was said in the Statement, the Secretary of State’s door is open and we hope that we can resolve these difficult issues in a negotiated, consensual way.
On the noble Lord’s second question, he rightly said that this is an appalling situation, but actually I describe it more as a tragedy. Let me quote from a trainee doctor:
“I feel undermined and not valued at work and I have seen how this flagging morale among colleagues has caused more than ever to leave the profession. It is a hard job that takes dedication and stamina to continue. But as we are criticised and treated as ‘cogs in a wheel’ rather than as individual professionals, I think we will see ever increasing numbers of people leaving this profession”.
That was in 2005, after the contract came in. The issues facing the junior doctors go back a long way. It is not just about plain time on Saturdays or this particular contract but about how we value, reward, train and trust junior doctors. That is the issue we must come to when the current dispute is resolved.
My Lords, I think that the Minister did not answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about which hospital chief executives believe that the junior doctors’ contract is what is getting in the way of seven-day services. Surely the state of primary care, which is stretched all over the country, and the lack of diagnostics, laboratory services, X-rays and so on in hospitals are much more significant.
My own question is about plain time, which I believe is the sticking point. It occurs to me that the best way of ensuring patient safety is to make sure that we do not have tired doctors. Can the Minister convince me about the fact that we are being told that junior doctors will not have to work any more hours than they do now? If you are extending plain time from 8 am until 10 pm, instead of 7 pm, and into Saturdays, then it strikes me as quite possible that they will work much longer hours. I would be very interested to know what the average working week of a junior doctor is now compared to 20 years ago, because it strikes me that we are in danger of going backwards.
My Lords, I apologise for not replying to the question earlier about the number of chief execs. The point is that this is not just about junior doctors; I think we all understand that totally. We are hoping to have more primary care, more social care, more diagnostics and more senior consultant cover at weekends, which will support junior doctors and make their lives better at night time and over the weekend. As far as the hours are concerned, the new contract proposal puts far greater safeguards over the amount of time that junior doctors will be working. I think that is largely accepted by the junior doctors. Going forward, the maximum number of consecutive nights will be down from seven to four; the maximum number of long shifts—that is, over 10 hours—will be down from seven to five; the number of consecutive late shifts will be down from 12. We are putting in those safeguards to ensure that we do not go back to the bad old days of very long hours. They were the bad old days on one level but if you actually talk to most doctors, they did get tired and it affected safety but it built a sense of teamwork, camaraderie and purpose in hospitals. We need to be careful about rubbishing the old days when they built up a lot of really serious, good professional work.
My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister recall, as I do, that it was a Conservative Administration who introduced the new deal for junior doctors and established a process by which unsafe, excessive hours for doctors were not to be pursued? That started happening in the early 1990s and no one is thinking that we would go back to that. I was delighted that my noble friend was able to make it clear how the negotiations can introduce additional guarantees about not having unsafe hours for junior doctors. However, I put it to him that at this stage in the negotiations there may be an alternative approach—an objective of enabling seven-day rostering for junior doctors, in this instance but also more widely, and an overall financial envelope. It might be put to the BMA that rather than it standing aside from the negotiations, it should take responsibility and say how it proposed that junior doctors should be remunerated within that financial envelope to meet those objectives.
My Lords, we certainly do not want to go back to the days when junior doctors were working very long and unsafe hours but nor should we ignore the fact that they do not, by and large, like being treated as shift workers. The continuity of care is very important to most professional doctors. As for the actual negotiations, I have not been directly involved with them so I do not know to what extent the junior doctors have been asked to consider what my noble friend Lord Lansley has suggested. However, what he says has much merit.
May I take the Minister back to an answer which I think he gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley? He referred to his hope that other medical professionals will in due course be included in seven-day working in order, as I think he put it, to support the junior doctors. Can he say whether those people who are involved in the lab work, the diagnostics and so forth will also be asked to work on contracts comparable to those which the junior doctors are currently being asked to accept?
My Lords, I think that they will be different for different people but we already have seven-day working in some of our hospitals. Salford Royal is a case in point where we have a lot of seven-day working. This is something which will evolve over the next three years.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made in the other place earlier today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development. The Statement is as follows.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a Statement updating the House on the recent Syria conference, which the UK co-hosted with Kuwait, Norway, Germany and the United Nations last Thursday. For nearly five years, the Syrian people have suffered unimaginable horrors at the hands of the Assad regime and, more recently, Daesh. Inside Syria, there are 13.5 million people in desperate need and a further 4.6 million people have become refugees. As we have seen over the past 72 hours alone, the impact of this crisis on the people of the region is terrible and profound.
I was in Lebanon and Jordan last month and spoke to refugees, some of whom are now facing their fifth winter spent under a tent. Their stories are similar: when they left their homes, they thought that they would be back in weeks or perhaps months at most. It has turned out to be years, with no end in sight. Syria is now not only the world’s biggest and most urgent humanitarian crisis; its far-reaching consequences are being felt across Europe and touching our lives in Britain. More than 1 million refugees and migrants risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean last year. Of these, around half were fleeing from the bloodbath in Syria.
Since the fighting began, Britain has been at the forefront of the humanitarian response to the Syrian conflict. Aid from the UK is helping to provide food for people inside Syria every month, as well as clean water and sanitation for hundreds of thousands of refugees across the region. Our work on the Syrian crisis gives people in the region hope for a better future and is also firmly in Britain’s national interest. Without British aid, hundreds of thousands more refugees could feel that they have no alternative but to risk their lives by seeking to get to Europe.
But more was needed. The UN’s Syria appeals for the whole of last year ended up only 54% funded. Other countries needed to follow the UK’s lead and step up to the plate. That is why the UK announced that we would co-host an international conference in London on behalf of Syria and the region. This would build on three successful conferences held in Kuwait in previous years. On Thursday last week, we brought together over 60 countries and organisations including 33 Heads of State and Government.
The stage was set for the international community to deliver real and lasting change for all the people affected by this crisis, but in the end it will all come down to choices. Could we pledge the record-breaking billions needed—going much further than previous conferences? Could we commit to going beyond people’s basic needs and deliver viable, long-term solutions on jobs and education for Syria’s refugees and the countries supporting them?
At the London conference, the world made the right choices to do all of those things. Countries, donors and businesses all stepped up and raised new funds for this crisis to the amount of over $11 billion. This included $5.8 billion for 2016 and another $5.4 billion for 2017 to 2020. This was the largest amount ever committed in response to a humanitarian crisis in a single day. It means more has been raised in the first five weeks of this year for the Syria crisis than in the whole of 2015. The UK, once again, played our part. We announced we would be doubling our commitment—increasing our total pledge to Syria and the region to over £2.3 billion.
Going beyond people’s basic needs, at the London conference the world said there must be no lost generation of Syrian children, pledging to deliver education to children inside Syria and education to at least 1 million refugee and host community children, in the region outside Syria, who are out of school. This is an essential investment, not only in these children, but in Syria’s future. It also gives those countries generously hosting refugees temporarily the investment in their education systems that will benefit them for the longer term.
The London conference also made a critical choice on supporting jobs for refugees and economic growth in the countries hosting them. We hope historic commitments with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan will create at least 1 million jobs in countries neighbouring Syria, so that refugees will have a livelihood close to home. This will create jobs for local people and leave a legacy of economic growth. By making these choices, we are investing in what is, overwhelmingly, the first choice of Syrian refugees: to stay in the region and closer to their home country and their families still in it. If we can give Syrians hope for a better future where they are, they are less likely to feel they have no other choice left but to make perilous journeys to Europe.
The world has offered an alternative vision of hope to all those affected by this crisis, but only peace will give Syrian people their future back. The establishment of the International Syria Support Group at the end of 2015 was an important step on the path to finding a political settlement to the conflict. The Syrian opposition has come together to form the Higher Negotiations Committee to engage in negotiations on political transition with the regime, and the UN launched proximity talks between the Syrian parties in January.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria took the decision to pause these talks following an increase in air strikes and violence by the Assad regime, backed by Russia. The UK continues to call on all sides to take steps to create the conditions for peace negotiations to continue. In particular, Russia must use its influence over the regime to put a stop to indiscriminate attacks and unacceptable violations of international law. Across Syria, Assad and other parties to the conflict are wilfully impeding humanitarian access on a day-by-day basis. It is brutal, unacceptable and illegal to use starvation as a weapon of war.
In London, world leaders demanded an end to these abuses, including the illegal use of siege and obstruction of humanitarian aid. Our London conference raised the resourcing for life-saving humanitarian support. It must be allowed to reach those in need as a result of the Syria conflict, irrespective of where they are.
I also want to take this opportunity to provide an update on the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Since my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary last updated the House on the campaign against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the global coalition, working with partner forces, has put further pressure on Daesh. Iraqi forces, with coalition support, have taken large portions of Ramadi. In Syria, the coalition has supported the capture of the Tishrin dam and surrounding villages as well as areas south of al-Hawl.
The UK is playing our part. As of 5 February, RAF Typhoon, Tornado and Reaper aircraft have flown over 2,000 combat missions and carried out more than 585 successful strikes across Iraq and Syria. We are also leading efforts to sanction those trading with, or supporting, Daesh. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister gained agreement at the European Council in December on asset freezes and other restrictive measures.
Since day one of this crisis, the UK has led the way in funding and shaping the international response. We have evolved our response as this incredibly complex crisis itself has evolved. There will be no end to the suffering until a political solution can be found. The Syria conference, co-hosted by the UK and held here in London, was a pivotal moment to at least respond to help those people affected and those countries affected. We seized the chance to offer the Syrian people and their children hope for a better future. The UK will now be at the heart of making that ambition a reality and keeping the international community’s promise to the Syrian people. This is the right thing to do on behalf of those suffering and, fundamentally, it is the right thing to do for Britain, too”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I also congratulate the Government on bringing together last week more than 30 Heads of State, the UN Secretary-General, heads of international organisations and NGOs. I particularly welcomed the inclusive sessions on how we build support for Syria and address the growing needs of the Syrian people. There is no doubt that the conference has generated significant new help for the immediate and longer-term needs of those affected by the conflict, including increased funding.
I read a recent Save the Children report, which found that 47% of refugee households in Jordan rely, at least in part, on putting boys and girls to work to make ends meet. Even after up to five years of exile, the majority of refugee boys and girls are still out of school. All of this is amid the endemic hunger, biting poverty and untreated disease which affect the mass of the displaced persons. I also welcome the education policy changes announced by the Governments of refugee-hosting countries, including support for non-formal education which will need to happen hand in hand with increased funding to ensure children can access quality schooling.
However, any plan for the region must ensure that we in Europe do what our values command: treat humanely those refugees who are here now with a planned and orderly resettlement across the continent. While we seek the elusive peace, we must guarantee the regular flow of food, shelter and healthcare for those cut off at the centre of the conflict. Despite the panic we see in the media surrounding the levels of migration into Europe, 14 in every 15 of Syria’s displaced persons are still in the region. If we want families to stay in the region, we have to give them a reason to hold on. We have to give them hope. We have to ensure that their families have more than just food and shelter. The children need education and the adults need jobs.
Will the Minister outline in more detail the plans to create jobs in the region? How is it going to be done? I am keen to understand better how we can boost the economies of the host regions, so that assistance is not simply seen as a scheme for the refugees but as a plan to promote sustainable development in the host regions.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for welcoming the work that was done at the Syria conference last week. I think he will agree that many of the NGOs and civil society organisations that were present demonstrated their gratitude for the opportunity to establish a response on the ground that suits the needs and challenges of the people in Syria and in the region.
I agree with the noble Lord when he says that we must go beyond providing basic aid. That is why I was so pleased that the UK stepped up to the mark and doubled its pledge to £2.3 billion and other countries also demonstrated that they were keen to go beyond the basic needs and assist with livelihoods so that people could contribute to the economies of the host countries.
I agree with the noble Lord that we must not lose a generation of children who will not have the education and skills that will be really needed to rebuild Syria when peace comes—sooner rather than later, we all hope. Of course, these are complex and difficult crises, and we must respond to them.
I am pleased that the action that the UK Government have taken has encouraged others to raise their ambitions. But as the noble Lord rightly says, we can give hope only when genuine peace negotiations are going on. That is why we will push hard for those who are involved to press the Assad Government to deliver a successful peace negotiation as well as deliver support while the crisis continues.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for the Government’s continuing and massive commitment to Syrians in the region.
How will the Government seek to ensure that others who have pledged at this conference will in fact deliver? For those who are now besieged in Syria, will there be systematic air drops? For those who are on the border with Turkey—they are, apparently, not being let through that border—how will we guarantee their security if they are not allowed to cross that border?
I thank the noble Baroness for welcoming the conference and the commitments made by all those present. She is absolutely right to say that we need to press hard for others to make sure that they fulfil their commitments. It is right that, once we have made commitments, we deliver on them. The people who expect us to support them depend on all our commitments.
The noble Baroness is also right to say that in some areas it will be incredibly difficult to deliver aid. She asked whether we would try to use air drops. We do not believe that is an effective way to get food and other essential aid to people. We believe that using UN agencies and others delivering aid by road, and others who are respected and understand the situation on the ground, is probably the best way to ensure that the aid gets through to the people who most require it. But we do not rule anything out. We have to keep everything under check, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, will be aware from when she did my job in government.
However, what is really important is to recognise that we cannot allow starvation to be used as a weapon. We must press hard those who have influence on the Assad regime to make them understand that it is criminal to use food starvation sieges as weapons of war.
My Lords, within the past half hour a Yazidi woman gave evidence here in the House about the plight of the minorities in the region. The Minister will know that the European Parliament passed a resolution last week declaring these events to be genocide. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has done the same. What effort was made at the conference to prioritise the needs of groups such as the Yazidis, the Christians, the Shabaks and others who have suffered this genocide? Although everyone has suffered in this conflict, these people are peculiarly and specifically targeted because of their ethnicity or religion. What is being done to assist them?
Will the Minister return to the question that the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, put to her about events in the province of Aleppo today? Around 100,000 people are amassed on the border with Turkey. Because of the aerial bombardment by the Russians, these people’s lives are in the balance, but they are not being allowed over the border. What are we doing to persuade Turkey to open the border to give safe refuge to those people?
My Lords, on the question of the minority groups within Syria, there have been horrific attacks by violent extremists on Christians and other religious minorities within Syria. As the noble Lord is aware, all our UK-funded humanitarian assistance is distributed on the basis of need alone, to ensure that civilians are not discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion or ethnicity. We prioritise reaching the most vulnerable across Syria, and that includes all groups. Of course, it is a challenging environment; these are incredibly complex, difficult areas to navigate, but I take the noble Lord’s point. Of course, where we can, we will work closely with the NGOs on the ground to get aid to as many people as possible.
The noble Lord mentioned the latest indications about the numbers of people being displaced from Aleppo. We know that many of them are sheltering in the border area, with more people on the move. We are exploring all options on how we can ensure that their humanitarian needs are met.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that with Daesh we are seeing genocide. I know that the word has to be clearly defined, but the sooner that is recognised and settled, the better. The Statement was mostly about the humanitarian side, and it is perfectly clear that very fine work indeed has been done. I am afraid that the challenges will get very much worse in the future.
Does my noble friend accept that we need to be kept well informed and up to date on the apparent breakdown in the talks in Geneva and whether the Russians have almost deliberately undermined the talks by bombing the free Syrians with renewed ferocity? Will she reassure us that she and her colleagues will keep us up to date on that?
Could she just comment on reports that the British Army is now sending 1,600 troops to Jordan as part of some exercise, while the Egyptian troops are moving to Saudi Arabia to ally with them in preparation for possible moves to Jordan? The Jordan authorities have been urging for a long time that this is where we should open a new front, develop a buffer zone in the north and strike into the heart of ISIL territory. Is the war entering an entirely new phase? Could she just bear that in mind? She may not be able to answer that question at the moment, but we need to be kept up to date if things are changing as rapidly as it seems they really are.
My noble friend makes an important point about the talks and making sure that they do not stall. They have come to a pause. The UN special envoy decided to pause the talks until 25 February as it was apparent that there was little prospect of progress being made at this time. But my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will be in Munich on Thursday 11 February and will press the Russians, who I am sure will be attending, too, to ensure that they put pressure on the Assad regime, so that the conditions allow unfettered humanitarian access across Syria and that we have an end to the violations of international humanitarian law, as set out under the UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
My noble friend is absolutely right to ask that we keep the House updated and we absolutely commit to do so. He also mentioned Daesh—and of course our goal is to defeat Daesh so that it no longer presents a threat to the UK or to international stability. As he rightly says, we are dealing with very complex circumstances. He asked about the troops on the ground in the countries that he mentioned. I shall have to write to him, because I do not have that answer at hand—so if he will allow me to, I shall write to him and place a copy in the Library.
My Lords, I am sure that many of us in all parts of the House will want to express our appreciation to the Government for the successful work last week. It was very important. Does it not illustrate beyond doubt that, with all the tragedies that confront us now and in future, international co-operation and effective international arrangements are absolutely indispensable, and that, unless we work on foreign policy as a priority and build these up all the time, we shall be sticking our fingers in the dyke?
The Minister talked about the importance of education, and that of course is right. But if we are going to talk about reconstruction and the long-term future of these young people, it is not just a matter of getting children into schools; it is also a matter of further and higher education. Can she reassure us that there are plans in hand for adequate access to higher and further education, as well as to schools?
The noble Lord is absolutely right—it will not be just about primary and secondary education; it will be about vocational skills and higher education. Often, the length of time a person is a refugee is around 17 years, so he is absolutely right that we need to make sure that we are addressing not just children’s needs but wider needs, including making sure that people are being trained up with the right skills. That is why I am really pleased that we have doubled our efforts to give support in Jordan and Lebanon. We have put extra money there to ensure that people get that training and investment, and get the help that will help them to go on and rebuild Syria.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate Her Majesty’s Government on calling this conference and on the UK showing the lead that it has in money and resources to help the refugees. Nevertheless, I am reminded of what happened in the Second World War. Is my noble friend clear that the Americans and Churchill found themselves having to work with Stalin? I cannot understand why the West, and the UK Government in particular, cannot bring itself to do business with Assad. There is no way out for peace in that country—and certainly no way to deal with Daesh—unless there is some dialogue and connection with Assad.
My Lords, my noble friend absolutely puts the focus on Assad. Assad and his regime have got it in their hands to stop bombing their own people. If there is to be a political solution, it is incumbent on everyone to come around to the talks and ensure that we get a positive outcome that enables peace to take place.
My Lords, I noted with great pleasure the Government’s achievements the other day at the conference. However, I am deeply disturbed by the Russian bombing at the moment, which seems to have two clear aims—one to keep Assad in power and the other to drive thousands of new refugees towards Turkey, with all that that implies. Have there been any discussions with the Russians about that? Are the Russians giving any money to this fund?
My Lords, on the latter point, I shall have to write to the noble Lord; I cannot give him an answer right now. On his point around the Russians needing to do more, it is absolutely right that they need to do more to meet their obligations under international law. As a member of the UN Security Council and the International Syria Support Group, Russia needs to step up and put pressure on Assad. What I hope will happen when my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary goes to Munich on Thursday is that those are the conversations that will take place.
My Lords, would my noble friend agree that negotiations are not likely to be successful and may not take place so long as Assad—clearly, in the present circumstances, backed by the Russians—believes that he might achieve a military solution? In that context, are we really sensible to use our resources and air power in bombing ISIL in Syria as well as in Iraq? Should not we redeploy those forces to attack ISIL in Iraq and, once that task is done, turn to ISIL in Syria? At the moment, in Syria we are helping Assad to take the pressure off as far as ISIL is concerned. We really ought to shift the balance more towards our intervention from an air power point of view into Iraq, until such time as that is solved, when we can go on to Syria.
My noble friend highlights the complexity and difficulty of what we are having to deal with, and what the international community has to deal with. It is really important to understand that our goal has to be to defeat Daesh so that it no longer presents a threat to UK or international stability, which means focusing on Daesh’s core in Syria and Iraq and working with our allies to support those countries where Daesh is becoming a threat to help them prevent its spread.
My Lords, in welcoming the Minister’s insistence that only political negotiations will end this disaster of almost biblical proportions, I ask for some recognition that western foreign policy has in large part been responsible for this disaster. Why? Because we insisted at the very beginning on imposing a precondition that Assad must go when he was never going to; then we tried to arm the rebel groups, when parliamentary support was not present for that; then an ill-fated decision to try to bounce Parliament into military strikes was attempted by the Prime Minister; and now we are still setting preconditions by saying that Assad must go within six months. You cannot get negotiations off the ground or deal with Russian malevolence—a fact my noble friend has drawn the House’s attention to—unless you learn the lessons from Northern Ireland, which are that you do not impose preconditions and you try to get a political settlement in the context of everybody co-operating and finding out where the different interests can be reconciled. I urge some sense of humility on the Government, who have acted with far too much bombast and blunder for years now and therefore bear a share of responsibility.
My Lords, it would be much more constructive for us to work with international partners to ensure that the voices coming from all of us are about supporting the people of Syria. While I understand the main thrust of the noble Lord’s points, it needs to be very carefully worded so that we give a very clear message that what Assad is doing to the people in Syria is not acceptable. Across Syria, Assad and other parties to the conflict are wilfully preventing and impeding humanitarian access on a day-by-day basis. That is why we need to be incredibly careful with our words and to continue with our ongoing support to the UN and international NGOs which risk life and limb every single day to help the people of Syria.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Jordan and Kuwait. I congratulate everybody who took part in the donors conference. There was a great deal of generosity and warmth of spirit in London last Thursday. I also congratulate the Prime Minister, who for some time now has been determined to provide jobs not only for refugees in the region but also for locals within those countries. It is going to be very important, if those jobs are going to be meaningful, for the private sector to be involved. Can my noble friend confirm that the private sector, both here and in the host countries, is being consulted at an early stage?
My noble friend is absolutely right. Like her, I congratulate the vision of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for DfID, who have led the charge in encouraging others to look at the long-term planning for a lot of economic investment and jobs not just for refugees but for people in the host countries. It was very evident when we were talking to people from Syria that that is exactly what they were looking for. I know that we will encourage that and work both across Whitehall and with other countries to ensure that investment does go in so that it gives confidence, hope and opportunity to not just the refugees but all of those very generous, very kind host countries which are taking so many of the people fleeing. The private sector is going to be key and it played a key role in the conference, particularly around the education agenda.
Local Government Finance
My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat the Statement made earlier this afternoon in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
“Mr Speaker, I am pleased to report to the House my response to the consultation on the provisional local government financial settlement for the next financial year. I have considered all 278 responses to the consultation. My Ministers and I have met with local government leaders of all types of authority from all parts of the country. I have listened carefully to each of them. I am grateful to everyone who has taken the trouble to make suggestions. The provisional settlement contains a number of important innovations.
First, although the statutory settlement is for 2016-17, I set out indicative figures to allow councils to apply for a four-year budget, extending to the end of the Parliament. Such a change permits councils to plan with greater certainty. The offer was widely appreciated in the consultation. This is not surprising, since it has been a key local government request for years. I want to give councils the time to consider this offer and formulate ways to translate the greater certainty into efficiency savings. I will therefore give councils until Friday 14 October to respond to the offer, although many have done so positively already.
Secondly, in the provisional settlement I responded to the clear call from all tiers of local government to recognise the important priority and growing costs of caring for our elderly population. In advance of the spending review, the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services had written to me requesting that an additional £2.9 billion a year be made available by 2019-20. Through a dedicated social care precept of 2% a year, equivalent to £23 per year on an average band D home, and a better care fund of £1.5 billion a year by 2019-20 to address pressures on care, the provisional settlement will be made up to £3.5 billion, available by 2019-20.
Thirdly, recognising that council services in rural areas face extra costs, I proposed in the provisional settlement that the rural services delivery grant should be increased from £15.5 million this year to £20 million in 2016-17—the year of this settlement—and to £65 million in 2019-20. Councils and colleagues who represent rural areas welcomed this, but some asked that the gap between rural and urban councils in central government grants should not widen, especially in the year ahead for which this statutory settlement is concerned.
Fourthly, this year’s provisional settlement marked the turning point from our over-centralised past. At the start of the 2010 Parliament, almost 80% of council expenditure was financed by central government grants. By next year, the revenue support grant will account for only 16% of spending power, and by 2019-20 only 5%. Ultimately, the revenue support grant will disappear altogether as we move to 100% business rates retention. Local financing through council tax and business rates rather than a central government grant has been a big objective of councils for decades. However, some authorities argued for transitional help in the first two years, when the central government grant declines most sharply. They argued that other local resources would not have time to build up fully. So, much in the provisional settlement was welcomed, but specific points were made about the sharpness of changes in the government grant in the early years of this Parliament and concerns about the costs of service delivery in rural areas.
Another very important point was made. Many councils felt that too much time has passed since the last substantial revision of the formula which assesses a council’s needs and the costs it can be expected to incur in delivering services. These responses to the consultation seem to me reasonable and ought to be accommodated if at all possible.
Everyone will appreciate that the need to reduce the budget deficit means that meeting these recommendations is extraordinarily difficult. I am pleased to be able to meet all of the most significant of them. I can confirm that every council will have, for the financial year ahead, at least the resources allocated by the provisional settlement. I have agreed to the responses to the consultation which recommended additional funding to ease the pace of reductions during the most difficult first two years of the settlement for councils with the sharpest reductions in revenue support grant. I will make additional resources available in the form of a transitional grant, as proposed in responses to the consultation by colleagues in local government. The grant will be worth £150 million a year, paid over the first two years.
On the needs formula itself, it is nearly 10 years since the current formula was last looked at thoroughly. There is therefore good reason to believe that the demographic pressures affecting particular areas—such as the growth in the elderly population—have affected different areas in different ways, as has the cost of providing services. So I can announce that we will conduct a review of what the needs assessment formula should be in a world in which all local government spending is funded by local resources, not central grant, and use it to determine the transition to 100% business rates retention.
Pending that review, I recognise the particular costs of providing services in sparse rural areas, so I propose to increase more than fivefold the rural services delivery grant from £15.5 million this year to £80.5 million in 2016-17. With an extra £32.7 million available to rural councils through the transitional grant I have described, this is £93.2 million of increased funding compared to the provisional settlement available to rural areas. Significantly, this proposal ensures no deterioration in government funding of rural areas compared to urban areas for the year of this statutory settlement. I have also, at the request of rural councils, helped the most economical authorities by allowing them to charge a de minimis £5 more a year in council tax without triggering a referendum. I will also consult on allowing well-performing planning departments to increase their fees in line with inflation at the most, providing that the revenue reduces the cross-subsidy that the planning function currently gets from council tax payers.
A final point from the consultation is that although the figures for future years are indicative, a small number of councils were concerned that as their revenue support grant declined, they would have to make a contribution to other councils in 2017-18 or 2018-19. I can confirm that no council will have to make such a payment.
These are important times for local government. The devolution of power and resources from Whitehall is gathering momentum, yet I am aware that there is serious work for councils to do to provide excellent services to residents at the lowest cost possible over the years ahead. I acknowledge the important role of councils which deliver the services on which all our constituents depend. I am grateful for all their contributions. My response to the consultation has responded positively to sensible recommendations, in as fair a manner as possible, while holding firm to our commitment to free our constituents from the dangers inherent in the deficit. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, I extend the customary thanks to the Minister for repeating the Statement, although what is being offered to local government could best be described as the equivalent of a cup of hemlock, slightly diluted. It is seven weeks since the provisional local government finance settlement was announced. Today, barely a month before councils are required to determine their budgets and set the council tax rate for next year, we have the final instalment.
The reaction to December’s announcement was interesting. The Conservative leader of Bracknell, Paul Bettison, an old sparring partner of mine in the Local Government Association, protested vigorously at the cuts that his and other Berkshire councils were facing. The leader of West Berkshire district council rejected the notion, consistently promoted by Ministers, that councils could easily deploy reserves to close the gap, and the leader of Lincolnshire was critical of the Conservative-led Local Government Association for what he described as its muted response to the Statement, saying that it did not put across the scale of the issue. These are councils whose problems of deprivation and need are significantly less than those of many cities and urban areas—and, indeed, of some rural areas—which have been especially hard hit over the past five years.
The LGA in its response, while welcoming the four-year period of the indicative settlement, raised a number of issues. It asked that the rating appeals system be reformed and that the new system in which councils will retain business rates should be based on a fundamental review of the needs basis and include equalisation as well as incentivisation to promote business development. The Government have announced a long-overdue review of the needs assessment formula in the light of the abandonment of the revenue support grant, but what is the timescale? What is meant by the phrase that this will be used,
“to determine the transition to 100% business rates reduction”?
What action, if any, will be taken in relation to the rating appeals system?
The LGA pointed that while the better care fund is to enhance the amount spent on social care, there is no extra funding for next year and only £105 million for 2017-18, when not only is demand rising but councils will have to meet the cost of the national minimum wage rises, which will be £330 million next year and £834 million a year by 2020. Will the Government comply with the call for the better care fund increase to be implemented in 2016-17, as opposed to two years later, and how do they envisage councils meeting the longer-term costs, not least in relation to the minimum wage point?
Council tax freeze grant will no longer be paid as it has been for the past few years—although, of course, this was top-sliced from the settlement in the first place in a piece of political legerdemain. How do the Government respond to the complaint that £74 million included in the current year for local welfare schemes is not embodied in the settlement? What is the position in relation to the independent living fund, where the £191 million passing to councils last year should be updated to £255 million, the full-year cost? Is that provided for in the settlement? It is noticeable that there will also be a cut of £600 million in education services, notwithstanding the growing pressures reported in the press of rising school rolls and teacher shortages.
Today, it is fair to say that the Government have slightly softened the blow for rural authorities, which will be welcome so far as it goes, but severe problems remain for councils and their communities. The boasted 2% social care precept which councils can levy will help wealthier areas much more than those with high numbers in the lowest council tax bands. As I pointed out last week, Newcastle, with 70% of households in bands A and B, will gain only £1.7 million to reduce the severe impact on its social care provision within the £132 million cuts that the council faces next year. That sum, an annual sum for one council, is almost as much as the entire national transitional grant payable over two years and not far from 10% of the total national amount to be raised by the 2% precept and the better care fund contribution combined.
The Secretary of State claims:
“The devolution of power and resources from Whitehall is gathering momentum”,
and that he has,
“responded positively to sensible recommendations, in as fair a manner as possible, while holding firm to our commitment to free our constituents from the dangers inherent in the deficit”.
What is gathering momentum is the devolution of responsibility without power and the danger of the constant erosion of the services which a civilised nation should be providing across a range of services from social care to education, policing to child protection, public health to libraries, museums and the arts and many others—the very essence of community life and of a healthy local democracy.
My Lords, in terms of the final settlement and councils about to set their budgets—and I totally appreciate that point because, like the noble Lord, I would wait with bated breath until I knew exactly what I was dealing with in terms of final settlement—through the final settlement today, the Secretary of State has made it quite clear that no council will be worse off and no council will lose anything from the provisional settlement. In fact, Newcastle will benefit to the tune of about £6 million because of the new approach to the settlement. We recognise the difficulties of the first two years, which is why we are providing this transitional fund.
The noble Lord talked about the national minimum wage. It is definitely a significant cost, particularly in the area of social care. That is why the 2% precept, plus access to the better care fund, is being made available.
The noble Lord asked about the review of the needs-based formula. I cannot actually remember the point he made. Does he want to repeat it?
I think that that will be in place for 2019 and it will be based on wide consultation with local authorities.
The noble Lord also asked why the council tax freeze grant was going. For many local authorities, the council tax freeze grant was a mixed blessing, because, while councils received it, it would also put their baseline down the following year. So many local authorities are pleased in many ways not to be dealing with the freeze grant but having far more control of their own destinies.
The noble Lord asked also about the Independent Living Fund. That will continue to be a separate grant made available to local authorities.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. I should declare that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I welcome the four years of the settlement period. The decision by the Secretary of State to extend the consultation to October is the right one. Will the Minister confirm that underlying that four-year settlement is an expectation by the Government that council tax will rise by up to 4% a year, each year, for the period of this settlement? Secondly, in issuing a Statement of this kind, I wonder whether greater care might be taken with words. It says that a four-year settlement is better for generating efficiency savings, but it is not just about efficiency savings. There is rising demand and there are rising costs, of which the living wage is one.
On the extra £3.5 billion that is going to be available for social care by 2019-20, £1.5 billion of that will be from the better care fund. What more can be said about how the better care fund is going to be distributed and, indeed, whether it could be distributed starting earlier? The point is that some councils are under exceedingly great pressure on the matter and need to have support earlier—and we need to ensure that the distribution reflects that need.
We welcome the extra help that is being given to rural areas. Will the Minister confirm that that is real, extra money for the whole of the settlement period and will not in the future be simply a transfer from other parts of local government, particularly the urban areas?
Finally, on the issue of business rates, as we move to 100% retention, there is an issue about those places less able to raise money from business rates because they grow more slowly than others. It is good that there is going to be a two-year transition period, but what is going to happen after that? I hope that the consultation that was announced in the other place a little while ago is going to be a genuine one that will end up with a revision of the formula for central government support. The Statement reminds us that all local government spending is going to be,
“funded by local resources, not central grant”,
and says that there will be a consultation to determine the transition to 100% business rates retention. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, talked about this. The implication is that the transition is going to be a great deal longer than two years. Will the Minister comment on that?
I thank the noble Lord for raising some important points. His first question was about the four-year settlement and whether there was an assumption of council tax rises. We are not making any assumptions about what councils might want to do; in those figures we are making an assumption of CPI plus 2%.
The noble Lord asked about the better care fund and how it might be distributed. It is intended to benefit most those with the lowest tax bases, so that it is fairly distributed and helps the places most dependent on central government grant. The better care fund is distributed to take into account additional income that could be raised through council tax.
Did the noble Lord have another question?
The Government are quite clear that the consultation will be done to reflect needs. The transitional fund is designed entirely to meet some of the pressures of getting through the period to 2018-19 that councils were talking to us about.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for all the work that has been done on behalf of local government. I have been in local government for 20 years and cannot remember a time when a Government have actually listened to local government, as far as the settlement goes, and changed their mind—so my thanks goes to the team for doing that.
The transitional grant was critical to councils, particularly those with social care responsibility. They needed that transitional fund to plan for the future. Together with the undertaking to review what the needs assessment formula will look like as we move from government grant to local resourcing of councils, this, too, is extremely welcome.
For me and for many others in rural authorities, we have won the argument over the costs of providing, in particular, social care services in large, sparse rural areas, and I thank the Minister for that. A lot of work has been done in both Houses to lobby the Government for this settlement and I thank them and the Local Government Association. I also assure the Minister that, as ever, local government will continue to be as efficient a part of government as it is now and will always be there to deliver those important services to the residents we represent.
What is meant by the “most economical” authorities? These are the authorities that will be allowed to make a de minimis charge of £5 on council tax without a referendum, but it is not made clear what the most economical authorities are.
I thank my noble friend for making some very constructive points, particularly about the issues that rural authorities face with things such as the delivery of social care in sparsely populated areas. The rural services delivery grant will be £60.5 million this year and £30 million next year, compared to the provisional settlement. That will be for all councils where 2% is less than £5—whatever is the greater—and will apply to all shire districts.
My Lords, in declaring an interest as a member of Cumbria County Council, perhaps I may associate myself, first, with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Beecham about the very serious threat to the quality of life and basic decency of our society that the cuts in the local government grant represent. This is a horrific situation for all those who care about the public realm. Having said that, my own instinct as a localiser is to move to self-funding, but I have always thought that we needed new and reformed methods of finance and a proper assessment of needs, along with some sort of transfer mechanism to make it possible.
Of course I welcome the increase in the rural services grant, but I point out that the numbers in the Statement that has been circulated show that the big increases are £11.9 million for Surrey, £5.7 million for Kent, £7.7 million for Hertfordshire, £9.3 million for Hampshire and £6.9 million for Essex. This looks like a Home Counties settlement, not one for the whole of England.
My own authority of Cumbria is glad to see that some consideration has been given to the problems of a genuinely stretched local area. However, in a Question in the House a couple of weeks ago, I raised the problem of how funding for the costs of flood recovery is going to be made available. Is what is in the local government settlement all there is going to be, or will some special announcement be made to reflect the hundreds of millions of pounds in costs facing councils in our area, and in the rest of the north, as a result of the floods? Is this it or is there more to come?
My Lords, I wish that the noble Lord had been in the House either last week or the week before, when we were talking about the floods and some of the infrastructure replacement requirements. The noble Lord makes the point that some of the infrastructure repairs in Cumbria are going to be far greater than we had thought, and I said to noble Lords at the time that if there were infrastructure repairs that they thought had been either overlooked or not identified yet, they should get in touch with me and I would speak to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. If the noble Lord thinks that the funding assumptions are out of kilter, I ask him to let me know. I look forward to having another conversation with him in due course about that and, perhaps, devolution.
The noble Lord also makes the point that Surrey and so on have had more. I have just been having a look at the figures for poor old Trafford, which has got minus 1.2%, while Manchester has had a £16.8 million increase. We always think we are worst off in our part of the world but Trafford, sitting beside Manchester, has actually done considerably less well. Still, this settlement recognises some of the challenges to those county areas. I hope that the noble Lord will get in touch with me over the flooding issue.
My Lords, I point noble Lords to my registered interests but more particularly, for the purpose of this, to the fact that I am chairman of the cross-party Local Government Association, in which the Conservatives are only 40% of the total voting weight. I need to make it clear that I am a Conservative but am chairman of a cross-party organisation, and our organisation broadly welcomes today’s announcement.
We all knew that the local government settlement was going to be tough, no matter which of the two main parties won the election. We knew before Christmas that it was going to be tougher than we had expected for some councils, and I am pleased that the Government have actually listened to the remarks that we made in the consultation period. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, on the opposite side of the House, mentioned Lincolnshire and its complaints about the way that the LGA handled its negotiations. Does the Minister think that the way we handled it had something to do with the fact that the Government have listened and found over £400 million of new money to alleviate some of the pressures that we have highlighted?
My noble friend is absolutely right. We have had an extremely constructive process, at the end of which £400 million more has been found to address some of the transitional pressures that local authorities say they have faced, and I pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lord Porter for the part that he has played in it.
My Lords, I declare an interest as leader of a London borough that in the provisional settlement faced a 48% grant loss, so of course I am delighted by the measures that have been taken, the finding of new resource and the provision of the transitional grant. I add to those who have paid tribute to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and indeed my noble friend on the Front Bench; there has been an outstanding willingness to speak and to listen, which has not always been the case in the past. I, too, welcome the chance for a longer discussion in relation to longer-term arrangements. Giving councils until 14 October to respond is a great step forward. I hugely welcome the review of the needs approach, especially, as the Secretary of State said, given that demographic pressures are changing in different parts of the country. I also welcome some chink of opening on planning fees, although I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that in the consultation it will be possible to look at the full recovery of costs locally as that dialogue goes forward. With many thanks to her and my right honourable friend, I welcome this adjustment.
My Lords, the minute that I got the list of figures, I looked at those for Richmond because I know of the problems and some of the challenges that it faces. That £2.9 million adjustment must have been welcome relief indeed. On the planning fees, obviously the consultation is just beginning but my noble friend has mentioned this to me before and I am looking forward to having a discussion with him during the consultation process.
Opticians Act 1989
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, adjustable-focus eyewear are pairs of glasses that allow consumers to adjust the focus of each lens separately. They achieve the desired focus for each eye by turning a dial located at the side of each lens. The quality of definition achieved is extremely good, and to demonstrate this I am wearing a pair of these glasses this evening.
They are produced by Adlens, an Oxford-based company. They are sold in some 57 countries worldwide, but the largest markets are Japan, where some 650,000 units have been sold, and the US, where some 500,000 units have been sold, many without a prescription. They are particularly valuable for people whose eyesight varies from day to day—for example, diabetics or those who have had cataract surgery—but they have many other uses, such as emergency substitutes for glasses that have been lost or damaged until permanent replacements are produced, or as a spare pair while travelling. They sell for approximately the same price as a pair of high-end ready-to-wear reading glasses—a few tens of pounds.
The concept of an individual adjusting the power of the lens in glasses until it reaches an optimal level is already the way in which we decide on the strength of the glasses that we get, the only difference being that, if I go to an optician, it is the optician who presents a series of lenses before my eyes and asks, “Which is better, lens one or lens two?”. With these glasses, I physically make the adjustment myself. So we are talking about a product that is quite cheap, of extremely high quality and for which there is an obvious demand. So far—but only so far—so good.
The logical next step for Adlens would be to sell its glasses in pharmacies and supermarkets in the UK in the same way in which reading glasses have now been sold for 27 years. In order for this to happen, an exemption needs to be specified under the Opticians Act 1989 to allow them to be sold without a prescription. Framing such an exemption is relatively straightforward and so, having seen a demonstration of the Adlens glasses, I suggested while in government that an amendment to that effect might be made to what is now the Deregulation Act 2015. I contacted the right honourable Oliver Letwin, the Minister in charge of the Bill. He, in turn, contacted the General Optical Council for its advice. The GOC is the standard setter for the optical sector. Its response was stark. The risks to the public of allowing adjustable eyewear to be sold without prescription was so grave, it believed, that it claimed:
“We do not believe that the proposed changes warrant further consideration”.
The council formed this view without seeking or obtaining any expert evidence whatever.
Undeterred, Adlens sought a meeting with the GOC staff, which took place in June last year. The GOC agreed at the meeting to commission an expert report on the Adlens glasses and Dr Charman of the University of Manchester was duly appointed and reported last October. His conclusions were broadly that the glasses worked well; that the risks were the same as for over-the-counter sales of fixed-focus spectacles with similar powers; and that there was no fundamental reason why Adlens glasses with the same characteristics as reading glasses should not be made available over the counter. However, he also made the point that Adlens needed to rebut the argument that such sales might result in fewer people having a full eye examination where they needed one on health grounds.
The GOC standards committee met on 8 October to consider Dr Charman’s paper. It turned a very balanced and positive assessment into a litany of objections, some of which were, frankly, ludicrous. My favourite was the following:
“It was noted that these products were originally developed for use in the developing world – it was felt that a solution for a developing world problem was not transferable for the UK”.
This statement was made, despite the fact that more than 1 million pairs of the glasses have been sold in Japan and the USA. However, buried among the criticisms, the GOC agreed that,
“if the product were restricted to 0 to +4 D”—
the D is for dioptres—
“(as ‘ready readers’ currently are) the view of the Committee was that this might be acceptable, as it would reflect the parameters of the current legislation”.
The GOC objections have subsequently been endorsed by the Optical Confederation, the trade body for the sector. Its concerns, when boiled down, essentially amount to two. First, if sold over the counter, the product would reduce the number of people who have eye tests and that therefore a number of eye diseases would go undiagnosed. Secondly, if used for driving, they would be unsafe.
On the first objection, the evidence shows that, since over-the-counter reading glasses became available in 1989, the number of eye tests has been on a steadily rising curve and has continued to rise steadily over the past 15 years, despite the growth of online contact lenses and online glasses. The GOC basically believes that restricting access to eyewear will force the public to have their eyes tested more regularly. However, this approach has failed in almost every public health initiative to which it has been applied, whether for the management of hypertension, obesity, diabetes or alcohol abuse. If we want people to have their eyes tested more often, the evidence suggests that the way to do so is by consumer education programmes such as the National Eye Health Education Programme, the Think About Your Eyes campaign and the EyeSmart campaign.
As for the second objection, there is no evidence that the product is unsafe to use while driving. There have been literally zero reported cases of driving accidents in Japan and the USA involving the million-plus consumers who wear variable focus eyewear. Indeed, when this issue was contested in court in Arizona in a case brought last year by the State Board of Dispensing Opticians, evidence submitted by Adlens persuaded the Assistant Attorney-General to support its arguments and the board of opticians to abandon their action. The case was lost simply because the evidence did not support it.
If I were a cynical type, I would think that some of the arguments put forward by the GOC and the Optical Confederation were designed to maintain the current rules in order to require people to go to an optician who did not need to do so. That may be harsh, but throughout my discussions with the industry there seems to be a distinct lack of interest in putting the interests of consumers first. There is certainly no appetite for reform and without a big push from the Government, reform simply will not happen.
The judgment which now needs to be taken boils down to what I think of as the paracetamol test. Paracetamol is a product which can be purchased cheaply over the counter to treat pain in a manner which is effective for the vast majority of its users. It can however, if abused, kill you and, as the instructions helpfully point out, it can cause many other potentially harmful side effects. We tolerate this situation because we believe that, on balance, over-the-counter purchase of paracetamol is hugely beneficial to consumers. There is no evidence whatever that adjustable eyewear can have the same deleterious effects as paracetamol if abused. I therefore believe that they do pass the paracetamol test and that it is in the consumer interest for them to be sold in the same way as reading glasses.
Can the Minister confirm that a decision about the type of amendment to the Opticians Act which I am seeking is at the discretion of the Government and cannot in effect be vetoed by the General Optical Council? Secondly, will the Department of Health now review the matter? Thirdly, subject to their being satisfied that the risks of making the proposed change are greatly outweighed by the disadvantages, will the Government agree to bring forward at an early legislative opportunity the amendment to the Opticians Act which I seek?