Thursday 27 October 2016
My Lords, welcome to Grand Committee.
Superfast Fibre Broadband
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity for this short debate and to other noble Lords who will participate. I hope to argue that we are in danger of overselling how well we are doing on broadband rollout and that as well as promoting more use of fibre we need to do more to stimulate demand.
I begin by declaring that I live in the wilds of rural Suffolk, in a home as yet untouched by superfast broadband. I am not alone in having broadband difficulties —eight days ago, the DCMS’s connectivity Minister, Matt Hancock, addressing the Broadband World Forum, said, “This Friday I appeared on our local news programme with positive stats about broadband in Suffolk, but at the time I was on my hands and knees under my desk trying to fix my wifi, and it stayed off all weekend”. I know the feeling.
Yet as the LGA has said, broadband is a vital element in our everyday lives, as we shop and pay our household bills online, access our bank accounts and stay in touch with distant friends and relatives. Excellent digital connectivity is also a major driver behind growth, jobs and the creative industries. Without high-quality broadband services, residents will be increasingly cut off from digital local and central government services, including major programmes such as universal credit. Fast broadband services are also essential for all rural businesses, enabling them to reach their full potential by competing online.
Of course, many homes and businesses are more fortunate than I am in rural Suffolk. Indeed, it is quite easy to paint a rosy picture about how far we have come with broadband rollout. In the UK, more than 99% of premises have access to basic broadband, at 2 megabits per second—that is the best in the G8. About 90% of premises have access to broadband speeds of over 30 megabits per second—that is the highest of the big five EU economies, 8% higher than our nearest rival, Germany. By the end of 2017, it is confidently predicted that 95% of premises will have access to superfast broadband, being defined as 24 megabits per second and above. It all sounds pretty impressive and the Government’s plans in the Digital Economy Bill for a universal service obligation, clamping down on poor service providers, and the introduction of an easier system of changing service providers, as well as completing the 4G mobile rollout, should help make the picture look even rosier.
However, if we look more closely, the picture is less rosy. Take, for instance, the language that is used: the Government define superfast as broadband with download speeds of 24 megabits per second and above. However, across Europe superfast means 30 megabits per second and above, and even our own regulator, Ofcom, uses this higher-value definition. As my noble friend Lord Fox will discuss, download speeds are one thing, but what about upload speeds, which are so important for businesses?
What exactly is meant by “access to”? Access to superfast broadband is one thing, but having superfast broadband operating in the business or home is another. For example, only 30% of premises that have access to BT’s Openreach superfast broadband are using it. That is partly due to BT investing in fibre to the cabinet, but often not using fibre for the onward connection to the premises. So there may be a superfast cabinet nearby, but the connection to it from the business or home is usually copper rather than the far more efficient fibre. The degradation along the copper wire means that the so-called accessible superfast speed is nowhere near that at the premises.
BT’s efforts, such as long reach VDSL, to get faster speeds along copper may help, but compared with many countries across Europe we score low on fibre to the premises deployment. No wonder the CMS committee in another place said in July:
“The UK is a laggard by international standards in providing fibre connectivity”.
It talked of a lack of ambition in terms of fibre to the premises. With faster connections from cabinet to the premises like those offered by Virgin, the take-up is 42% instead of 30%. With full fibre to the premises it is likely to be even higher.
Of course, I welcome the exciting fibre optic developments by, among others, CityFibre, Hyperoptic and even BT, but we need a strategic shift to encourage fibre to the premises solutions for homes and businesses. In his speech, Matt Hancock, said, “fibre is the future”, and I look forward to hearing the plan for its realisation. We also need concrete action to promote new mobile technologies to play a critical role in enhancing the UK’s connectivity such as in remote areas, in on-the-go uses like self-driving cars and even in broadcasting. The UK should lead the world in 5G and the Government need to seize the opportunity in the 5G strategy that they have promised to publish next year.
However, it is clear that, even when truly superfast broadband is available in their homes, in businesses and on the go, far too few choose to take up the opportunity—not least older and less affluent people, who make up a high proportion of the 30% of the population who are non- or limited users of the internet. Higher take-up means lower unit costs. More importantly, as the Tinder Foundation and others have pointed out, only when we have a very high take-up rate can we achieve the huge benefits to individuals, businesses and the nation that superfast broadband offers. To date, the Government’s strategy has been to concentrate almost exclusively on encouraging, and partly financing, the development of superfast broadband structures. But a connected Britain is not just about the availability of superfast broadband. Driving take-up is just as important, and there has been a lamentable failure to address demand management. As a result, digital inclusion has already become a huge missed opportunity. Far more should have been done and now needs to be done to drive up demand through skills training, through marketing the benefits, by addressing barriers such as cost and by developing quality technology and content.
Of course I welcome the work being done by many others, such as BT, local councils, the BBC—through its Make It Digital programmes and apprenticeship schemes—and Barclays. But we need more, not least because the lack of digital skills is becoming a real constraint to economic growth. Indeed, 90% of all new jobs require digital skills, yet nearly three-quarters of large UK companies already say that they are suffering from gaps in digital skills. The recent government announcement on digital skills is welcome, but it is not a silver bullet and it does not go far enough. Without intervention beyond what is currently scoped, it is estimated that there will still be 7.9 million adults without basic digital skills in 2025. We need nothing short of a digital skills revolution.
Far more needs to be done to explain the benefits of getting online. The digital TV switchover was a great success, helped enormously by a brilliant marketing campaign. We need something similar to drive online take-up. The BBC’s iPlayer is already recognised as a great demand driver, and I welcome new connected TV services, from the likes of Freeview and Freesat, giving consumers catch-up TV for free from all our public service broadcasters. But more needs to be done to encourage new and exciting technological developments and high-quality content.
Furthermore, we have to address cost. Some 26% of non-users say that it is too expensive to have the internet at home. BT customers on benefits can have BT’s Basic + Broadband, but not all internet providers have such schemes. Last week the LGA, in its submission to the Government’s consultation on the Autumn Statement, called for all poorer households to get subsidies for fast broadband—as a social tariff. I hope very much that the Government will consider it part of their plans for the new universal service obligation. Following the freezing in October 2015 of the Government’s voucher scheme to help small businesses get online, it would be good to hear what the Government plan as its replacement.
Like water and electricity, reliable, superfast broadband should become universally available, and all our citizens should know what it can do and have the skills to benefit from it. Much has been achieved and more is planned, but unless we raise our ambitions still further, move from copper to fibre and address the demand management issues of skills, marketing, cost and content, the full potential will not be realised. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reactions and details of the Government’s plans.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, for initiating this debate. When it comes to the challenges of rural broadband, at least for the humble end user, I can speak from first-hand experience. My partner and I are regular visitors to a lovely corner of deepest, darkest Devon and, even for visitors, the frustrations of a poor internet connection are very real. I can only imagine how much worse it is for residents. I am very pleased that the Prime Minister acknowledged the importance of rural broadband provision at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month. Not only is it a matter of basic fairness that country dwellers should have the same access to something so important, but greater connectivity is essential to unlocking the economic potential of rural areas.
The Brexit vote has made these arguments even more compelling. Not only did the result highlight deep divisions between our plugged-in cities and their rural hinterlands but we must now pull out all the stops to make the British economy as competitive as we can. Just as the canals and railways allowed the industrial revolution to flourish, so I believe will our broadband infrastructure prove the essential foundation for a globally competitive economy in the 21st century. According to the Countryside Alliance, 82% of adults believe that in the 21st century superfast broadband should be considered an essential utility, like water or heating. A similarly high proportion believes that investment in internet infrastructure would have a positive impact, more than the percentage that says the same for much higher-profile projects such as HS2 or a new runway. It is not difficult to see why.
We increasingly live in an online age and the Government are rightly trying to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by new technology to make their services available online, replacing long waits on the phone or mountains of paperwork with websites which can be accessed 24 hours a day, but it does not matter how impressive the Government’s digital services are if the national hardware is not up to scratch. For example, HMRC apparently expects all tax returns and PAYE to be completed online. Farms and other rural businesses that do not have access to adequate internet facilities have no choice but to shoulder additional costs by hiring an agent or adviser to fill in online forms for them. This is not a small number of businesses. A National Farmers’ Union survey found that 90% of respondents lacked reliable broadband while 40% had none at all and, according to the Federation of Small Businesses, half of rural SMEs are dissatisfied with their broadband connection. That is more than double the share of urban SMEs that feel the same. Such figures are deeply concerning, especially when research by McKinsey finds that businesses that have a proper online presence are growing twice as fast as those that do not.
If we are to make a success of Brexit, we need the entire economy to be firing on all cylinders. It would be foolish to strike out into the world without properly equipping ourselves for the challenge. Digital connectivity is part of this challenge. It is very important that we get ahead in this issue, otherwise the UK might find itself spending a lot of money delivering yesterday’s solutions to rural people as the cities embrace the next wave of new technology. The Government are clearly taking this issue seriously and I am sure that many of their proposals will be welcomed by rural communities, in particular the universal service obligation of 10 megabits per second and the commitment that 95% of UK households will have superfast broadband almost two and a half times that speed by 2017. However, what about those rural areas where the speed is currently under 2 megabits per second? Can we not start with these?
I recognise the importance of mobile internet so I am particularly pleased by the commitment to see 4G services rolled out to 98% of the population as part of BDUK. However, what about the other 2%? That 2% represents 1.3 million people who will be missing out.
Before this House can be satisfied that we really are building the state-of-the-art, future-proof, comprehensive and accessible internet infrastructure that this country needs, there remain questions to answer. I would like to hear a clear plan from the Government for how they intend to identify so-called not-spots—gaps in the coverage of the network. We must remember that poor connections can affect all sorts of areas and are not limited to the most remote communities and households. A good start would be reform of planning laws and the electronic communications code to make it easier for providers to build the infrastructure they need, while the Church of England's decision to allow 10,000 rural churches to use their spires as wireless beacons is a welcome and imaginative one.
I would like to see much more concrete evidence that the plans for mobile broadband will really deliver the coverage that rural businesses and communities need. I am also keen to hear how the Government intend to ensure that their rural internet solutions are sustainable. It is little use spending a lot of money to achieve equality today if cities retain structural advantages that will allow them to race ahead tomorrow. The Government must demonstrate that not only will the network they are delivering bring the countryside up to speed today but it will allow it to keep pace in the future.
Overrepresentation of our lovely county, indeed. I live in a very small village, and it is a mark of how village life has changed that when we come together for our social events one of the main topics of conversation is how bad the broadband is and how it has taken all night to download a two-minute YouTube video. I accept that the joint efforts of BT and the Government have taken us to a position where almost all households now have access to basic broadband, but I also agree with the proposition that in today’s world that simply is not enough. I note that the Countryside Alliance estimates that 48% of rural premises are not able to reach the speed envisaged in the USO.
Rapid digitalisation has meant that a whole range of rural services now require a good broadband link. As the percentage of households covered by superfast broadband increases, so that digitalisation gains pace. That means that a small minority of households run the risk of being left behind. I also observe that, as the assumption is made that households have superfast broadband, the functionality of the websites themselves has changed. What looks like an exciting and thrilling website to some people is actually a nightmare if you are trying to use it in a rural area with poor speeds.
The purely commercial case would have taken superfast broadband in Suffolk to around 50%. I pay tribute to the local authority in Suffolk, which, at a time when so many local authorities are strapped for cash, has invested heavily to meet around half the extension costs. However, around 3% of people in Suffolk—I think it is about 5% in the whole UK—remain outside any funded policy commitment, so as it stands there is a real danger of a big divide for them. There has been some speculation that this will be dealt with on a demand-led basis. To my mind, that is very much a suboptimal solution. The problem is that as we near the high 90s, the cost per premises increases dramatically as the civil engineering works and the distances become more complex and therefore the value-for-money question for those last few households becomes more and more difficult. We need to think about the cost per premises across the whole venture, not an ever-reducing number of houses.
I have other concerns about a demand-led USO. What if one house wants it now and then the neighbour wants it in two years’ time? That is simply not a practical or economical way of doing business. If someone who does not want it now sells their house, the new people coming in may want it; so the demand-led model has real problems.
The BT community fibre grant scheme is very welcome but it is limited to communities with schools and, of course, many small villages no longer have schools. When I think about my very small village, there are a number of older people who are not interested in broadband, but we also have young families with small children and, as they get older, I worry about whether they will stay in the village if they do not have the access they need in terms of schooling and social media. Rural services, not only in villages but even in market towns, are declining rapidly as banks close and government and council offices shut their doors; for example, when the Ipswich tax office closes in a few years’ time our nearest tax office will be in Stratford, east London, so digital services are key. Of course, to add to the problem in many rural areas we have poor mobile phone coverage as well: 4G is pretty much non-existent where I live, so we do not have the benefit of that either.
Until May I was chair of your Lordships’ EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, which included agriculture. The last inquiry we carried out was about increasing resilience. Access to new information and innovation is key to helping farmers. Some of the most exciting innovators we saw told us how they were working from YouTube videos from around the world and how they use Skype, but very few farmers are far-sighted enough to make the investment; one farmer had invested in satellite. If farmers are to thrive in the new world to which the noble Baroness just referred, they need this, too.
Another problem is understanding what your speed actually is. It is usually given to you in terms of your postcode, but of course in rural postcode areas the distances are enormous, so these can be pretty meaningless and there is an issue about the masking of huge variations. We need to keep rural communities viable, not just in Suffolk or Devon but everywhere. Digital infrastructure is now as important to that as water, gas, electricity and roads.
My Lords, my thanks, too, go to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for securing this important debate. I, too, want to address rural issues and I declare an interest as president of the Rural Coalition. Many of our members are deeply concerned about this area. As other noble Lords have mentioned, nearly half of rural households in the UK currently struggle with broadband speeds of less than 10 megabits per second. Around one in five rural households can only access broadband speeds of under 5 megabits per second, and a significant proportion cannot access any broadband at all. This lack of connectivity acts as a huge obstacle to the growth of the rural economy and to rural sustainability. This is even more important as we get ourselves geared up for Brexit.
Without adequate broadband, small businesses cannot grow or thrive; freelancers struggle to connect with potential clients, particularly in an age of videoconferencing; farmers cannot complete the many forms for the smooth operation of their businesses, such as cattle movements or the basic payments scheme; and it is almost impossible for anyone to buy or sell anything online. Young people can also be very isolated from their friends. Noble Lords who, like me, know rural issues well realise that rural isolation is a huge issue. Children can also struggle to complete their homework. Students in remote areas cannot access resources or learning, which is particularly problematic as many educational institutions develop part-time and distance learning. So areas of the country without adequate access to broadband could increasingly fall behind.
The current minimum provision of 2 megabits per second is insufficient and although the 10 megabits per second universal service obligation promised by the Government for 2020 is welcome, it needs to go further. The USO must mean that households and businesses are connected to the network in the same way that electricity and water have to be provided. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said, BT currently adopts a demand-driven approach, providing new infrastructure and connections only when a minimum number of people in an area request it. I am aware of instances where households and small businesses have been prevented from moving to new premises, not because the broadband is not available but because there is no interest in providing the additional local infrastructure needed. The USO must also rise in line with the increasing demands of technology so that the hardest-to-reach areas are not continually left behind.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to improving competition when it comes to delivering broadband for the 1.5 million rural households without an adequate provision. That is important because, while fibre might be the appropriate technology for 90% of the UK, it is not always the best option for isolated rural areas, where mixed technologies, particularly wireless, can be far more cost effective. We have already heard reference to Broadband Delivery UK and its market test pilots, which suggest that where a hybrid technology approach has been used, particularly merging fibre and fixed wireless, it has proved effective in very challenging areas, delivering high-coverage percentages while demanding relatively low public subsidy. Can the Minister give assurances that the final assessment of these projects will be published soon, the findings implemented quickly and funding provided, so that these alternative services can be delivered on the large scale that is needed?
I hope that the Minister might also explain a bit more about how DCMS expects the USO to be fulfilled. Most public statements on fulfilment seem to indicate that the focus remains very much on fibre, without any real consideration of proven alternatives. There seems to be a danger that a focus on only one technology might mean that rural communities could end up paying over the odds for fibre, when alternative technologies would have been more cost effective.
Finally, on the issue of mixed technologies, already referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, I want to mention the potential for church spires in some of the hardest-to-reach rural areas to be adapted for wireless broadband provision. There are a number of examples of this in rural areas, including in Norfolk, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, which all have more than their fair share of hard-to-reach areas. WiSpire in Norwich has already shown how this kind of initiative can be successful and of real value to both the Church and the local community. It is a win-win situation. I hope that there might be opportunities for DCMS and the Church to have further discussions about how we can take that kind of collaborative working forward.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Foster for securing this debate, which serves as a useful preface to the Digital Economy Bill and the discussions that will ensue on that. I shall ask a number of questions of the Minister, but I understand that he has a limited time in which to answer them. This is part of the continuing debate that I am sure we will all be having as the Bill makes its way towards us.
First, I want to acknowledge the scale of the rollout challenge that has been undertaken. We can see from the numbers that it has come a long way. We should thank the hardworking teams in Openreach, who have done some pretty tough stuff to get us as far as we have. We should not debate this matter without making that acknowledgement. However, the UK’s broadband capacity is very important, as is access to it, and we need to be honest with ourselves about how far we have got on this rollout journey.
I want to set the scene slightly, while avoiding too much history. It is worth looking at the facts. BT has a number of irons in the fire. It has a considerable asset in its copper network and, understandably, like any company, it will want to leverage the value from that asset. Meanwhile, it is increasingly selling digital products down the network. These are products that add further strain to capacity where it is constrained, down the network that it has been tasked to build. It also has a business selling network services. This portfolio of businesses is not generally compatible with the building and operating of what should be a dull and efficient utility—let us call it a superefficient utility. To put that in context, it is the equivalent of asking a consortium comprising Network Rail, Eddie Stobart and Tesco to build and own our roads. We would not do that. I know Ofcom’s previously stated preferred option for how the ownership of Openreach might change and I am not going to spend much time—because we do not have it—debating that future ownership model, which clearly will be an issue, but I would welcome the Minister’s view on that.
Leaving that aside, does it matter who owns it and how it works? Do the ends justify the means anyway? My noble friend Lord Foster gave us a snowstorm of percentage signs and download speeds, proving how well or otherwise we are doing. Perhaps we should be somewhat wary of how those speeds are measured. My noble friend Lady Scott pointed out that, essentially, these are theoretical models based on the make-up of the network, how it gets there and postcodes. Who does that measuring? We know, as we heard from all the speakers so far, that the rates quoted rarely match those actually experienced in the office and at home. Above all, as my noble friend Lord Foster said, we should remember that the rate-determining link in the broadband delivery chain for most people remains a strand of often quite old copper wire linking them to a cabinet somewhere in the general vicinity of where they live or work. Will the Minister comment on having some independent verification of the measures we use for download speed? How would he seek to add to the confidence that consumers and buyers of these services can have in those speeds?
Perhaps we are looking at this the wrong way round. The focus on download speed is itself revealing, reflecting an aim by almost everybody to send stuff to people. It reflects an ambition to sell to consumers: the better the download capacity, the more we can put down the pipe and the more money we can make. But this is not a one-way street and for many who aspire to be part of the digital economy the priority is often the other way round: upload speed is equally important, and almost always lower in the available packages. Our budding designers, fintech entrepreneurs, games makers and whoever else need effective upload speeds to deliver their work to the next stage in their value chain. To realistically assess our success to date, this needs to have equal status with download speeds. Does the Minister agree with this analysis and will he push Ofcom and others to include stretching upload targets in the data we set for the network?
Finally, there is the industrial strategy—two words used by many people but we have yet to find out exactly what they mean. We heard from a Minister in the Chamber yesterday how important infrastructure will be in the industrial strategy—whatever that looks like. Last month, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, said, we heard from the Prime Minister in her party conference speech that we need better broadband connectivity to create equal opportunity across our country. Mrs May clearly does not think that what we have to date is good enough and I am happy to agree with Theresa on that. While it is important that we all adopt a realistic understanding—we need to develop that—of how far we have got, we also need to understand that the current targets are not good enough. The world has moved on substantially since those targets were set. We must raise the bar higher and be more ambitious, rather than merely meet the current set of targets. So my final question is: how will the Minister ensure that the industrial strategy will deliver a 21st-century broadband network, rather than the 20th-century one that we are currently trying to build?
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, on obtaining this debate on a subject of such great importance. Having served on your Lordships’ Digital Skills Committee, I particularly agreed with the points he made on digital skills and digital inclusion. It is also a pleasure to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Fox, who, in a previous life, was a business client of mine.
I shall address two issues, with apologies for repetition. First, my concern that the superfast broadband rollout strategy will not prove ambitious enough; and secondly, the need for a more aggressive approach to the challenge of bringing superfast broadband to the elusive “final 5%” of premises across the UK.
We pride ourselves on the fact that the UK is a leading nation in terms of our digital infrastructure, including access to high-speed broadband. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Foster, told us, the figures tell a rather less encouraging story. Our position in the Akamai global rankings for average fixed-line broadband performance is slipping. In the latest table we are ranked 19th in the world, down from 14th, 18 months previously; and ranked 13th in Europe, down one place. Our average speeds are improving, but at a slower pace than in many other countries in the top 30—only just over half of UK broadband connections achieve speeds of 10 megabits per second. Therefore, I welcome the proposed universal service obligation for access to broadband of at least 10 megabits. However, I question whether this will be enough. In these days of video streaming, catch-up television, big data, massive open online courses, and coming developments such as the internet of things, 10 megabits will soon fall far short. It does not even begin to meet the Government’s definition of superfast—namely, speeds of over 24 megabits.
As we have heard, most broadband supplied by BT’s Openreach subsidiary relies on copper wire, not fibre optic cable, for the final link to user premises—so-called fibre to the cabinet, rather than fibre to the home. This seems bound to constrain achievement of the even higher speeds likely to be required in the future—ultrafast broadband of 100 megabits or more, or hyperfast broadband of 1,000 megabits and up, for a truly gigabit society, as countries such as Singapore are aiming for. Fibre to the home coverage in the UK is below 2%, against a western European average of 25%. Therefore, I welcome Ofcom’s commitment to,
“encourage large-scale deployment of new ultrafast networks, including fibre direct to homes and businesses, as an alternative to the copper-based technologies currently being planned by BT”.
I realise that there are trade-offs between present costs and future-proofing, but I hope we will not rely too heavily on a single supplier, Openreach, and a single approach, fibre to the cabinet, lest we find in the future that we end up with the equivalent of only one runway—to use a topical comparison—at a time when we need several, if not many more. I certainly would like to see other suppliers encouraged, and indeed incentivised, to come up with more innovative solutions, not least to find ways of tackling that stubborn final 5%.
That brings me to my second theme. My home in Carmarthenshire has no mobile telephone coverage. BT provides a landline, with poor line quality and not infrequent interruptions or breakdowns. Until quite recently, BT also offered the only so-called broadband service available, which seldom, if ever, reached 2 megabits, despite being charged at BT’s standard broadband rates. No wonder Carmarthen East and Dinefwr was ranked third bottom in an Ofcom table of broadband speeds by constituency as at June 2015. Salvation came in the form of a small local network supplier, appropriately called ResQ, deploying a fixed wireless access system to which we were fortunately able to connect via a farm across the valley—I do not think we have a church spire in sight. We now get speeds of 10 megabits or more for both download and upload in order to support local businesses. However, the prospect of any significant further improvement seems remote, particularly if it depends on BT and Openreach, which already seem at full stretch just keeping the landlines working.
Would it not make sense to open up at least some of these hard-to-reach and less well-covered areas to a greater variety of different suppliers and technologies, with support and encouragement through some of the funding allocated to promote high-speed broadband rollout? Even if Openreach is not wholly split off from BT, there is surely a case for trialling new and more ambitious technologies aiming for higher levels of speed and service in some of these hitherto deprived areas. How otherwise can we avoid them slipping further and further behind in an increasingly digital world, as the right reverend Prelate pointed out? How nice it would be if some of the areas currently languishing in the final 5% backwater could be transformed through innovative technologies, including satellite and wireless technologies, for example, into the leading 5%, helping to bring the UK nearer to the top of the global league tables, where it surely needs to be to achieve the Prime Minister’s aspirations for our role in the world after Brexit. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us on plans to provide greater drive and impetus to make superfast broadband a genuine utility service, including for the final 5%.
My Lords, this has been a very good debate. As someone who is technologically a bit illiterate, I have learned much too much too quickly, and I am probably going to get confused as I try to go through some of my points.
Anybody who has got teenage children—I have children in their late teens—will know the agony of trying to match their expectations in terms of what you provide in your home environment. In Buckinghamshire, we have just experienced the rollout of fibre. I thought I could relax and retire at that point. It has been a nightmare because what you are not told is that there is a headline figure of 30 megabit downloads, but you do not realise that it is still two miles to the nearest exchange, it is still copper wires—why copper when everyone is giving up the landline, I do not understand—and you still have to compete with others in the same area, which is called the contention ratio.
That leads to a question about exactly what target we are aiming for. We have had a number of very good and interesting responses on that. There are already disagreements between the Government’s principal adviser, Ofcom, and the Government about whether it is 30 megabits or 24 megabits. We are still talking about people getting, on average, up to 2 megabits, not 10 megabits, which seems to be what Ofcom regards as sufficient to meet the needs of a typical household—not my household—to access government e-services, do basic web browsing and make video calls. We are not addressing what the noble Lord, Lord Fox, picked up, which is the way demand can change, and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans pointed out, people in rural and other communities have been relatively low users from necessity not choice. We are not measuring up to the demand that we are expecting over the next 30 years. It may well be that increases in data usage are coming and will largely be in urban areas on fibre, but if we roll this out and, as the noble Lord, Lord Foster, suggested, get behind an inclusion strategy that shows people why they could and should be using digital, then we are talking about huge increases which I do not think are envisaged.
If connection is the main aim, we are probably not going to get to the right place quickly enough. It is a necessary but not sufficient way of progressing. We will have to think much harder about education, skills, the current barriers, how content changes will make differences and the possibility of subsidies and additional support for people. Without that, we will continue to have a suboptimal solution to a problem which has to define us in the new economy that we are approaching.
To sum up, most people are saying that there is an opportunity here—presumably we will return to this in the Digital Economy Bill—to do something that is a step change not an evolutionary change. If we do not do that, if we do not aim high for the gigabit society, we will be rushing to catch up. We are not in a good place, as the figures mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, show. We are way behind other countries in western Europe in terms of the support that is being provided. Sweden and Spain now have 80% of homes served by fibre. We are a long way away from that. I spent some time in a very small place in south-west Ireland called Skibbereen. It is not well known, but it has one of the best internet offices I have experienced. You can get speeds that reflect almost frightening capacity and it is full of people taking their work in to the Ludgate Hub, as it is called, in order to try to build their businesses in a rural environment. Without it, there is no doubt that they would have had to travel to Dublin in order to survive. That is the future we should be thinking about. We should gain more experience from it and try to aim higher than we are currently.
Finally, when we come to the Digital Economy Bill, I hope that we will also look at consumer rights. The Bill takes some grudging steps towards trying to make sure that those who use the new technologies have redress, but we have failed to achieve some of the changes that could have been put into the Consumer Rights Act 2015 in terms of making sure that consumers have those rights. I give notice to the Minister that we on this side will want to come back to some of these issues when we get to the Bill. It is good that providers will have to be more responsible for what they provide in terms of broadband speeds and effectiveness, but there has to be compensation on a much greater scale than is currently the case from those who do not supply it. We also have to make sure that those who acquire products on the internet using the superfast gigabit services that are coming down the track will have the same rights as ordinary consumers.
My Lords, I will speak as quickly as I can because there is a lot of ground to cover. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for securing this debate and for all the contributions to it. Like the noble Lord, I live in an area with slow broadband and I share the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, of using a good local supplier—Wurzel in my case rather than ResQ—which produces 50 to 70 megabits per second, but that is not available to everyone. The other thing I should say is that I am looking forward very much to being invited to a party in Suffolk where the main topic of conversation seems to be broadband. There is rightly a lot of interest in the superfast broadband programme and we agree that fast broadband is increasingly regarded as a necessity of modern life. I agree with virtually all the points made by noble Lords that the question is how we will get there. So I am delighted to have the opportunity not only to celebrate what we have done to date—and that is a lot—but also to reassure noble Lords that we are doing even more to ensure the delivery of the sort of broadband service that is required for the UK not just for today but for tomorrow, which all noble Lords have spoken about.
I know that some noble Lords are worried that we are in the slow lane, so to speak, in terms of broadband speed. I cannot quibble with the statistics cited by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. I do not know how long it took him to find those rather depressing numbers because in part through the work done by Broadband Delivery UK, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Foster, we are sitting at the top of the EU five; Germany, Spain, Italy and France, and indeed we are 8% higher than Germany, our nearest rival. But I agree that within those statistics there are quibbles about upload and download speeds, average speeds and latency. However, that is not really the point and we want to make it better. When it comes to digital infrastructure connectivity, we want the UK to be not only the lead in Europe, we want to be a world leader.
Perhaps I may remind your Lordships at this point of the scale of the superfast broadband programme which in addition to the already extensive commercial rollout shows how much has already been achieved. We are investing £790 million to reach areas untouched by the commercial sector while local and European funding has increased that public investment to a total of £1.7 billion. In view of the concerns surrounding Brexit, it is also worth noting that all EU funding of broadband contracts is guaranteed for at least the next two years until the UK is officially no longer a part of the European Union. Along with the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and the noble Lord, Lord Fox, I pay tribute to the support of local authorities and the devolved Administrations for their tremendous support and investment in the Government’s superfast programme. That reflects their recognition of the local benefits that superfast broadband can bring.
My right honourable friend Matt Hancock, the Digital Minister—I should say the Minister for Digital; he is a real Minister, body and soul—explained recently that our path to a more digitally connected UK can be envisaged as a three-part journey. First, we must complete the rollout of universal 4G and superfast broadband between now and 2020. Secondly, we must continue to drive connectivity in the areas of need, both rural and urban, and support a competitive market for delivery. Speaking of competition, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, on Openreach, we support Ofcom’s position on the need to improve digital connectivity, including looking into the position of Openreach. It is already subject to wholesale access regulation that allows other suppliers to access its networks. Third in our trio of priorities, we must start work now on ubiquitous 5G and fibre over the decade ahead—by that, I mean fibre to the premises, and I will come to that later if I have time. That is, of course, the future for broadband, as the noble Lord, Lord Foster, said.
In answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Fox, the reason we talk about fibre to the premises is in part a recognition of the need to improve upload speeds. I understand quite well the issue about BT’s investment in its copper, but that will have to be dealt with in due course.
The first step of our journey is progressing well. Indeed, the figures coming out of the BDUK programme to date are encouraging. More than 90% of homes and businesses now have access to superfast broadband, up from only 45% in 2010. In fact, 88% has reached Ofcom’s higher measure of 30 megabits per second, which the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned. This will increase and be updated in December 2016. More than 4 million additional homes and businesses have access due to the Government’s programme. This will rise to more than 5 million additional homes and businesses by the end of the programme. We remain on track to get to 95% superfast coverage by the end of 2017.
In addition, more than 42,000 SMEs across 52 cities have benefited from superfast and ultrafast broadband connections because of the Government’s broadband voucher scheme. To choose a random example, coverage in Bath, the former constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Foster, is expected to reach 98% by December this year, well above the national average. At the moment, any home or business with speeds below 2 megabits per second can access a grant for better broadband through alternative technologies, such as satellite or wireless, through the Better Broadband Subsidy Scheme. In fact, 99% of UK premises have access to basic broadband, which is the best in the G8.
Furthermore, because of provisions in the BDUK contracts, funding is being returned by suppliers as a result of higher than expected take-up, so £129 million has already been made available, with at least as much to come again. Together with the project savings, local authorities and the devolved Administrations should have more than £400 million available to reinvest in superfast broadband coverage over the next three years. As a result of the superfast broadband programme, coverage should increase to around 97% by 2020. Indeed, 20 new broadband procurements are already being taken forward by local authorities and devolved Administrations using this funding and other local and European sources of funding that they have been able to access. This includes £14.5 million that the Government have allocated to support ultrafast broadband in south-west England. Each of these procurements is open to all suppliers, both large and small, to bid for.
As mentioned previously, we understand that fast broadband is very much a fourth utility in modern life and that the future most definitely lies with fibre and 5G. The challenge that we are now addressing is how to get there. It is important to have market innovation in this area, with the Government setting the framework and supporting competition at all stages to ensure the best outcome. The industrial strategy needs to recognise digital skills, infrastructure and the power of digital in the economy. I am sure that more details will be available in due course.
The importance of broadband to rural communities is well understood and unprecedented, and I speak from personal experience. As more and more government services move online, rural businesses and households need to be able to rely on a good broadband connection so that they can continue to operate effectively. That is why the Government announced plans last year to introduce the new broadband universal service obligation, of which many noble Lords spoke. This will ensure that anyone who does not benefit from the existing commercial or publicly funded programmes is not left behind. It will give all homes and businesses the legal right to a connection of at least 10 megabits per second on demand. The Digital Economy Bill will be coming before this House either at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year and we will talk about that then. Although it will be set at 10 megabits per second initially, the Bill includes a power to review the USO over time to make sure it continues to meet people’s needs, which the right reverend Prelate mentioned, but we realise that there are many details to be worked out, some of which were outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and others. We will take all these difficulties on board and look at the detail behind the USO and we will be making crucial decisions in due course. In the meantime the USO needs to be passed in the Bill in this House.
To conclude I want to mention some points that noble Lords raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, asked how we identify not-spots. Ofcom undertakes mapping to do that. The noble Lord, Lord Foster, mentioned digital skills and we certainly want digital skills to be embedded in education. We are actively looking at what more is needed to increase digital skills. The right reverend Prelate asked about the final report on market pilots which tested new ways of delivering superfast broadband in hard-to-reach areas. That is due to be published by the end of 2016. That is about all I have time for. The noble Lord, Lord Foster, made a number of other points. We understand the problem of not doing enough to get fibre to the premises and we will be addressing that. We agree with driving take-up and I will write to him on that.
We are working hard and we are making progress. I think we all agree with the ultimate objective, which is to not be satisfied with just superfast broadband; we want fibre to the premises for everyone and we want increasingly high speeds because that is what the future will require.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I never once thought that I would stand here to address this House on this topic. As has often been said, the UK is a wonderful place in which to be Jewish, free of the anxiety besetting Jews on the continent of Europe and causing some of them to emigrate. It gave refuge to my father in 1939, for which he was deeply grateful. He urged me to remember this hospitality and to contribute in return. Hence, many thousands of us are very grateful to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, to the many parliamentarians who led the fight against anti-Semitism—to name but two, John Mann MP and the noble Lord, Lord Boswell—and to the Government’s envoys for post-Holocaust issues, first Sir Andrew Burns and now Sir Eric Pickles, as well as for various government initiatives.
My generation of Jews has flourished here. I have known nothing but equality for most of my life. The problems emerged about 10 years ago, not as recently as some might believe. The rise in reported anti-Semitic hate crimes is no surprise to the Jewish community and has absolutely nothing to do with Brexit and the focus on hate crime since June. The Community Security Trust reports that 2015 saw the third highest annual total of anti-Semitic hate incidents since it started reporting in 1984, and 2016 saw an 11% rise in six months.
This is despite valued Holocaust education, which is part of the national curriculum. Yet a 2016 Commons report showed that that is superficial for too many young people. While the support of the previous Prime Minister was welcome, I doubt the value of yet another Holocaust memorial in Westminster, as recently announced. It will do little to teach the meaning of the Holocaust or address prejudice in our society. Indeed, it might serve simply as a target for graffiti unless protected by a barrier, which is not the reminder one would wish for. Do the Government agree that it is time for an impact assessment, and to check whether pupils learning about the Holocaust make the connection to Jews today and their bond with Israel? Moreover, it is widely reported that some Muslim schools teach Jew hatred to pupils. It is high time there was regulation of out-of-school teaching. Our young people are not getting the right message and that shows up in universities, as I will explain.
There have been three recent inquiries into anti-Semitism: those by the noble Baronesses, Lady Royall and Lady Chakrabarti, and that by the Home Affairs Select Committee. The weakness of such inquiries is that their remits include racism and Islamophobia, thereby sidelining anti-Semitism and its special characteristics, and failing to deal with the tricky issue of when hatred of Israel becomes anti-Semitism. This is a characteristic of some politicians’ statements on the subject—“We are against all forms of racism”—thereby acquitting themselves of anti-Semitism and failing to look at it from the victims’ perspective. For that reason, the Chief Rabbi said of the Chakrabarti report that its credibility “lies in tatters”. It is not enough to wrap oneself in the banner of the Cable Street clash. The modern equivalent of the Cable Street stand is Jews opposing rabid anti-Zionists, and in this scenario some self-defining anti-racists would be on the wrong side.
The excellent report of the Home Affairs Committee is a blueprint for the way ahead. It examined the mutating forms of anti-Semitism over the centuries and its various ideologies, of which the most novel is the toxic mix of disillusioned left-wingers looking for a cause, western guilt over colonialism, Islamist extremism, fascism and age-old religious anti-Semitism. This report shows that it is important to abide by the definition of anti-Semitism endorsed by the Government and by Sir Eric Pickles. It is especially important that universities do so in order to help them draw the line between attacks on Israeli government policy and hate speech. The definition is valuable because it faces squarely the difficult area of distinguishing legitimate criticism of the Government of Israel from anti-Semitism, and gives examples. Will the Government ensure that in all situations where anti-Semitism is considered, the Pickles definition is applied?
Zionism is the Jewish people’s liberation movement—their end to servitude, their claim to equality among the nations—one of the most inspiring and successful national movements in human history. Over 90% of British Jews support Israel’s existence. To call for Israel to lose that right or to cease to exist is in effect to call for the obliteration of the 6 million Jews gathered there, and is anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for the Holocaust, applying double standards to Israel and drawing comparisons between Israel and the Nazis all come within the definition, as does accusing Jews of having malign power and of conspiracies, child killing and organ harvesting. Jew-hatred through the ages has been represented by just those libels, and they have now been transposed into Israel-hatred. Supporting a Palestinian agenda must not be allowed to morph into Jew-hating libels and fascist-type caricatures. Why do the EU and the UN ignore the occupation of Kashmir, Western Sahara, Tibet and Northern Cyprus while ceaselessly condemning Israel? Why do grave human rights breaches by Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the killing of civilians by the US, Russia and Syria cause nothing like the reaction to such inadvertent behaviour in self-defence by Israel?
Sadly, our universities have become hotbeds of anti-Jewish incidents. I have spoken previously in the House about the threats to freedom of speech on campus. Curiously, when it comes to hate speech or action against Jewish students, the normally oversensitive campus police are failing in their duty. From a chronicle of too many anti-Semitic incidents I highlight: the award to a student of £1,000 by York University for the abuse he suffered; the violent demonstration, ending in court, at King’s College London against an Israeli peace speaker; swastikas daubed on student doors; Jewish students being told they are not welcome or to leave the country; Islamist extremist speakers on campus using the most derogatory terms and voicing lies about Jews in the name of religious preaching; shouting “Filthy Zionist” at a girl every time she passes; and requiring Jewish students to denounce Israel as the price of entry to a committee, boycotting them if they do not. The NUS, whose own president is one of the worst offenders, has become tainted and does not take the issue seriously, in contrast to its vigorous opposition to the Prevent policy.
Will the Government urge the NUS to ensure that campuses are safe for Jewish students who find they have to stand up to the Israel-hatred thrust in their faces when they arrive, activists or not? UUK should provide a resource for students on how to deal with the Israel-Palestine conflict without resorting to anti-Semitism. The recent UUK report on sexual harassment and hate crime provided no focused answers.
Boycotts only harden resistance among Israelis—who themselves hold a whole range of opinions on peace and the occupation—and deepen defensiveness and mistrust of European countries. The Government have condemned them. Nevertheless, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement manifests itself in academic boycotts and the physical obstruction of students at checkpoints on campus. It is not only discriminatory against Israeli nationals but contrary to the public sector equality duty imposed on universities, contrary to the principle of the universality of science and, where it involves the expenditure of money, contrary to charity law. Not for a moment would universities tolerate a “Boycott China Week” or a “Muslim Misogyny Week”, to take apposite examples.
The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, should be thanked for her evidenced report on anti-Semitic incidents at my own university, Oxford. Oxford, officially the best university in the world, has made no public statement in response. Oxford, the home of Isaiah Berlin, Ernst Chain, Zelman Cowen, Hans Krebs, Claus Moser, Goodhart, Ayer, Hart, Beloff and Goodman, needs to condemn what has happened and explain measures taken against the malefactors in order to reassure Jewish students that anti-Semitism will not be allowed and so that justice is seen to be done.
Will the Government recommend to UUK the following? The equality and diversity offices at universities should pay as much attention to anti-Semitism as they do to gender and other race issues. Each university should monitor anti-Semitic incidents, and put out statements emphasising their commitment to combating it and to assisting students to make complaints, when, as I know, they are often too intimidated to do so. Training university authorities, unions and staff in the law surrounding this area should be mandatory.
We have already seen that where anti-Semitism starts and is unchecked, the hate and misinformation behind it spreads to infect other minorities and to poison the community in which it exists. As Edmund Burke said:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and I thank her for initiating this debate, and for doing it so well. I, too, want to concentrate on what universities need to do. Universities have duties to their students that they must not neglect. They must provide an atmosphere of free inquiry in which students learn to examine ideas and theories critically and rigorously, and, at the same time, they have a duty of care to students so that their precious time at university is not disrupted or destroyed by those who fail to treat fellow students with respect and decency. Anti-Semitism is as intolerable in the university context as it is in any other, and as unacceptable as all kinds of racism and hatred based on religious difference.
As the noble Baroness indicated, anti-Semitism has some characteristics which make it a particular challenge and call for extra effort, particularly in the liberal context of a university. Anti-Semitism often makes its appearance in the very thin disguise of attacks on the existence of the State of Israel, with the term “Zionist” used in a way that indicates that the attacker has an agenda or motive that goes far beyond criticism of the policies of any Israeli Government and extends to an attack on Jews in general. Those whose background is Pakistani or Bangladeshi are not held responsible for every action of the Governments of those countries or required to disavow the very existence of those countries, which are of a similar age to Israel as a state. They have other problems—Muslims are so often associated quite wrongly with Islamic terrorism—but the problem I have described is one that relates particularly to anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory that suggests that because some people share a particular racial background or religion, they must be engaged with each other in a conspiracy to exercise undue influence, subvert democracy or take over the world. It would be risible if it was not deadly—quite literally deadly, because that was the basis on which 6 million men, women and children were slaughtered in the lifetime of some of us present. Of course, the same conspiracy theory infects those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened or who try to excuse it—an utterly ludicrous position.
There are many things that have to be done about anti-Semitism and its close relations, racism and hate crime, which thrive on it. University authorities must make student unions aware of their legal responsibilities under criminal law and charity law, and must be ready to enforce conditions they can act on when they own property or land that unions occupy. Universities should continue to make sure that the rigorous, critical and well-informed examination of ideas is part of every undergraduate student’s education and development. They should see that vulnerable students are supported and helped and that respect for diversity is actively promoted. The National Union of Students needs to get rid of leaders who pander to anti-Semitism—calling Birmingham University “a Zionist outpost”, for example, as Malia Bouattia did—otherwise that organisation will find more university unions disaffiliating from it, as those in Birmingham and Newcastle have done.
Time does not allow me to go into the detailed proposals of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee on dealing with anti-Semitism in universities and, indeed, more widely, but I commend its report and hope very much that it will be acted upon. I also commend the continued work of the Community Security Trust, which does so much to protect and reassure members of the Jewish community when they find themselves under threat. Finally, I welcome the interfaith dialogue that goes on in and around many universities, promoted by university chaplains of all faiths and by local churches, mosques, synagogues and religious organisations. It is an important part of educating a wide range of students.
One omission I must repair is to say that I have been president of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for securing this debate on such an important subject. While I was, of course, aware of the issue, the detailed evidence of anti-Semitism on campuses in the UK still makes for appalling reading. What is described there is totally unacceptable. I chaired the 1994 Runnymede Trust report on anti-Semitism titled A Very Light Sleeper. Sadly, Conor Cruise O’Brien’s resonant phrase is all too true today.
I will confine myself to one section of the APPG report on anti-Semitism: that dealing with the Israel-Palestine issue and the toxic nature of the debate on campuses. In particular, I commend the recommendation of the Home Affairs Select Committee that Universities UK should work with appropriate bodies to produce a resource on how to deal with the issue sensitively and to ensure that,
“students are well-informed about both sides of the argument”.
I recommend that the bodies it consults on this include the Council of Christians and Jews, which has many decades of experience of handling this issue. This arises from the fact that historically the churches have had very close links with Palestinian and Arab Christians, and are deeply involved in aid work. At the same time they have made strenuous efforts to overcome the long history of anti-Jewish teaching—the teaching of contempt, as it has been well labelled. These twin claims have resulted in valuable experience of how debates on the subject can avoid becoming toxic.
I shall make three points that bear on this. First, the State of Israel is not simply a result of European guilt for the Holocaust. James Parkes, that remarkable Christian priest who in the 1930s pioneered the serious study of anti-Semitism and after whom the library and centre in Southampton University is named, put forward in the 1940s a five-fold case for Israel, which was little known or understood even by most Jews at the time. One element is the fact that there had always been a Jewish population in Palestine, as large as the circumstances at the time allowed. Another was that, throughout history, Jewish communities had never given up hope of returning there, hence the refrain at the end of every Seder: “Next year in Jerusalem”. These facts enable 19th-century Zionism, and any use of the word Zionist, to be seen in its proper historical context.
Secondly, I always find it helpful to bear in mind that the fiercest critics of the particular policies of different Israeli Governments are often Jews in Israel, and they make these criticisms out of loyalty to the State of Israel, whose validity they continue to uphold and whose existence they feel is sometimes threatened by those policies; nor, so far as I am aware, do they support boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions, in contrast to campaigners in South Africa at the time of apartheid.
Thirdly, after World War II all the Christian churches wrestled with the issue of the State of Israel and its legitimacy. Endless church documents were produced. The American scholar Paul van Buren, summing up these documents, put forward the minimum Christian position in these words:
“Because the state of Israel is in part the product of the ancient and living hope of the Jewish people and is of deep concern to almost all Jews, disregard for its safety and welfare is incompatible with concern for the Jewish people”.
A concern for the suffering of the Palestinian people and a desire to see a just peace in which some historic wrongs are righted must never lose sight of those words, so I look forward to seeing some resource material produced by Universities UK which can help this painful debate take place on campuses in a way which is well informed and not toxic.
My Lords, in thanking my noble friend Lady Deech for initiating today’s important short debate, I refer to my interests in higher education. For nearly 20 years, I held a chair in citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University, where I am an honorary fellow, and was director of the Roscoe Foundation for Citizenship. I have also been a visiting fellow at the University of St Andrews.
In September, I was in Jerusalem and Warsaw—two cities which have the toxic story of anti-Semitism written into their DNA. As we have heard, universities have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to provide a safe and inclusive environment but, as the experience of a Jewish law student at York University illustrates, students have had to use their own resources to seek legal redress and apologies where anti-Semitism has occurred. That should have been done on their behalf by the university authorities. It is the job of an institution’s leaders, and it is a task that they must take very seriously and prioritise without fear or favour. My noble friend is right to remind student leaders of their duties, too, and to insist on monitoring and training.
On our campuses, and in political parties, contemporary anti-Semitism can often be the wolf concealed in sheep’s clothing. Jihadist attacks in Toulouse, Brussels, Paris and Copenhagen, the burning of kosher shops in the Jewish quarter of Sarcelles, and the sight of Jews fleeing their neighbourhoods and synagogues under siege by thugs brandishing placards threatening death to Jews have uncanny and terrifying echoes of Germany in 1934. We know how that began and to what it led.
I have been particularly disturbed by the growth of online bullying and hate, and by the targeting of opposition Jewish politicians. What is being done to engage the industry and online comment editors in tackling online hate? What response have we had from companies such as Twitter about taking stronger action against hate crimes on their platforms? With around 1,000 anti-Semitic hate crimes every year, it is clear that far more needs to be done, so what assessment have we made of the effectiveness of initiatives such as True Vision and the UK No Hate Speech Movement? Through counter-narratives and the smart power of aid programmes, the BBC World Service, the British Council and the Commonwealth, we must use every possible outlet to combat internet postings and, among other things, Wahhabi-sponsored school textbooks, funded by Saudi Arabia and distributed worldwide.
The recent death of Sir Sigmund Sternberg brings me to my final point, which is about interfaith relationships, a point touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Beith. My noble friend Lord Sacks has always led by example. His inspiring books about how we build our home together and learn to appreciate the dignity that comes through difference brilliantly show us what needs to be done. Those ideas need to be understood and implemented, especially at grass-roots level. On this International Religious Freedom Day, when we celebrate Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which had its origins in the horrors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and the other camps, and which promotes the right to believe, not to believe, or to change your belief, we must insist that our Jewish citizens are an essential part of who we are as a nation, and anything which compromises their safety or devalues their place in British society devalues us all. No one should live in fear because of their beliefs or because of who they are. Difference is to be prized and upheld, and the political imperative which flows from this assertion is that wherever it manifests itself we must counter anti-Semitism.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for initiating this extremely important debate. I found myself, in contemplation of it, recalling my own modest experience of anti-Semitism. As a non-Jew, I am not normally in the firing line. My interest is as someone who cares about the values of a free, multi-ethnic, multicultural, liberal democracy, who has as a parliamentarian taken a particular interest in justice and civil liberties—including combating all forms of prejudice, bigotry and discrimination.
However, I had a personal moment when I experienced an echo of anti-Semitism when I was a Member of the European Parliament, probably almost 15 years ago. I reacted with some frustration to what I saw as a gap in the output of the EU racism monitoring centre, the forerunner of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. From memory, I said that it was unfortunate in terms of the perception of balance that the EUMC had produced three reports on Islamophobia while doing nothing on anti-Semitism. I was then criticised for condemning the EUMC’s production of three reports on Islamophobia—they chopped off the final part of the sentence.
An important element that we need to bear in mind is that anti-Semitism evolves and mutates, a point picked up in the Home Affairs Select Committee’s excellent report. Old stereotypes do not disappear, and of course they still get a regular outing, particularly those linked to Jewish power, especially financial power, but new ones arrive to sit alongside them. Some are related to the State of Israel, while others seek to diminish the unique nature of the Holocaust—the Shoah—by talking about other holocausts with a small “h”, as if Holocaust Memorial Day did not also commemorate other genocides. I am mindful of the paragraph in the committee’s report that says:
“Antisemitism is a problem of such gravity that no party can afford to be complacent. It is an issue that should transcend party loyalties and inter-party conflict”.
Now I will quote the leader of the Labour Party, only to illustrate an issue. Jeremy Corbyn told the committee:
“Antisemitism is where you use epithets to criticise people for being Jewish; where you attack Jewish people for what they are”.
This is possibly where things can go wrong and it is not unique to any one party. That kind of direct racism, alarming and deplorable as it is, is in a sense easier to recognise and deal with, but it makes the contemporary kind—which tars Jews with all the perceived ills of the existence of Israel as well as the activities of the Israeli Government—easier to ignore and overlook and thus to evade responsibility for. No one thinks that the Government of Israel should be above criticism, but context is all. The blaming of Zionists for the actions of the Government of Israel is what is so pernicious. As the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, the disproportionate concentration on the so-called wrongs of Israel compared not only with other players in the Middle East but other Governments around the world makes it obvious that Israel is indeed held to a different standard.
I conclude by asking the Government whether they will consider providing additional funding for the Community Security Trust to work with the Union of Jewish Students to assist in an increase in the reporting of anti-Semitic incidents on campus, and what they are going to do to implement the recommendations of the Home Affairs Select Committee report, especially, as has been mentioned, the necessary resources so that students can be well informed about the Israel-Palestine issue.
My Lords, in 1927 a French intellectual called Julien Benda published a prophetic book called La Trahison des Clercs—the treason of the intellectuals—in which he described the process by which universities that were once known as places for the collaborative pursuit of truth had become homes, in his phrase,
“for the intellectual organization of political hatreds”.
Sadly, that is what some universities in this country have become today. I speak from personal experience.
I was Chief Rabbi for 22 years and during that time I was under constant security protection, but only once in all those years did I feel genuinely afraid. That was when I gave a talk to students at Oxford University. Just before the start of my lecture, a whole group of rather menacing Muslim students came in and occupied the centre of the front row. It was a blatant attempt at intimidation. Luckily, my capacity to be boring at length saved the day and after half an hour they left, but that is increasingly what Jewish students, and indeed Jewish university chaplains, are facing. So threatened do Jewish university students feel that in 2012 they asked me personally to address the annual conference of the National Union of Students. I did. I spoke about academic freedom. I explained that this means that a university is a place where you give a respectful hearing to views with which you disagree. There was a wonderful atmosphere, with people of all ethnicities and faiths. A group of young women Muslim students came up especially to thank me, and I left on a high. That evening, when I had left, the Union of Jewish Students stand was vandalised and threatening messages were left all around.
One of the most frightening books I have read is Ed Husain’s The Islamist. He describes in detail how a mere handful of extremists from Hizb ut-Tahrir were able to dominate and intimidate an entire university. In that case, the primary victims were not Jews but predominantly Muslims, primarily young Muslim women who were not wearing the veil. This is how it begins. The ending of this story is not a happy one—not for Jews, not for Muslims, not for anyone. In this age of extremes, we need to be vigilant in defending academic freedom, which means zero tolerance for intimidation of any group of students. It means insisting that in student debates all sides are given a respectful hearing. It means refusing to allow universities or any other institutions to become homes for the intellectual organisation of political hatreds. If the report in today’s Times is to be believed, that includes Her Majesty’s parliamentary estate. If we do not, this will be the treason of the intellectuals of our time.
My Lords, I can think of no one better suited than the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, to lead this debate on anti-Semitism. She has a long history of fighting racial intolerance. The noble Baroness and I were trustees of the Coexistence Trust. Our mission was to help heal the toxic atmosphere that existed on our university campuses between Jewish and Muslim students. We made a great deal of progress. What shocked me at the time was the sheer ignorance of university administrators and faculty about the religious requirements of Jews and Muslims. Will the Minister tell me what progress has been made to educate the educators?
I have also been shocked by the pronouncements of the president of the NUS, Malia Bouattia. The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report into anti-Semitism criticised her when she denounced Birmingham University as being,
“something of a Zionist outpost”,
which the committee said “smacks of outright racism”. Will the Minister comment on that assertion? That committee turned its attention to the Labour Party, which it said had created,
“a ‘safe space’ for those with vile attitudes towards Jewish people”,
and that its passivity risked,
“lending force to allegations that elements of the Labour movement are institutionally anti-Semitic”.
That hard-hitting document contrasts starkly with the anaemic report, also on anti-Semitism but restricted to the Labour Party, written by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. Her description of the anti-Semitism that even she said existed within Labour was that it was an unhappy incident. It is more than an unhappy incident to me; it goes to the very core of my political being. The press has had a field day with the report and made legitimate points on the sequence of events. The noble Baroness joined the Labour Party one day, she commenced writing the report shortly afterwards, she received no payment for two months’ work, she received a peerage, she became the shadow Attorney-General and she sits in the shadow Cabinet. You can call it whatever you like, but to me it feels like a massive stitch-up. The report recommended that those found guilty of anti-Semitism be suspended. I would have thought that those found guilty of any racism should be kicked out of the party for life.
Ken Livingstone is a case in point. Not for the first time, Livingstone made a comment that he knew would cause maximum distress to Jews. Stating that Hitler was a Zionist was like a punch to the stomach for every Jew. Why has Corbyn not had him banned for life? I am Jewish, and last month I resigned from the Labour Party. Today most Jews have given up on Labour. They feel alienated by Corbyn and his coterie. They feel that Labour is a cold house.
I am often asked whether I think Jeremy Corbyn is an anti-Semite. In truth I do not know, but he certainly surrounds himself with close colleagues who flirt with anti-Semitism. He certainly stood by and smirked when a Jewish MP, Ruth Smeeth, was being verbally abused by a Momentum thug. Israel is a Jewish state, Jews support Israel, therefore Jews must be the enemy. As a Jew and a supporter of the State of Israel, how could I possibly remain in a party whose leadership is so hostile to both?
Today’s Times reports that the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, recently hosted a reception in your Lordships’ House where Jews were blamed for the Holocaust. Even here, in our own House, such things are happening.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for initiating this debate.
Despite there being Jewish societies in over 60 universities, a study in 2011 found that half of all Jewish students in the UK attend only eight universities. Safety in numbers seems to be key, as Nottingham, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester all boast Jewish societies with over 1,000 members. None the less, we know that Jewish staff and students experience anti-Semitism in a significant number of higher education institutions today. As the recent Universities UK task force report on hate crime makes clear, anti-Semitism is a practice for which there is no place in universities, nor in the Church or society at large.
Anti-Semitism is a virus that latches on to existing beliefs—for example, in the relationship with the Christian story, with Christ’s death in Jerusalem and with the promises of God to all humanity, Jew and Gentile alike. We know that anti-Semitism has also found roots in dangerous forms of nationalism, and today it corrupts political activism as people turn criticism of Israel into an attack on all Jews as “Zionists”. While the rights of Palestinians remain an unresolved matter of social justice, I suggest that to challenge the right of Jewish self-determination and the existence of the State of Israel is, in itself, anti-Semitic.
In each case, anti-Semitism hides behind the respectability or popularity of a common belief, concealing the fact that it is not implied by any of them. Such a shift is often subtle, yet in our universities such a failure of logic should be identified and criticised in open debate. Anti-Semitism must therefore be confronted in the student union bar, the halls of residence, the common room, the public lecture and, if need be, the governing body. So I particularly welcome the proposal that Universities UK should work with appropriate student groups to produce a resource for students and lecturers on how to deal sensitively with the Israel/Palestine conflict, and how to ensure that pro-Palestinian campaigns avoid drawing on anti-Semitic rhetoric.
To combat anti-Semitism we must continue to build relationships between Jewish students, student societies and university chaplaincy teams, and encourage NUS leaders to take the issue seriously, distinguishing between anti-Semitism and racism in general and focusing on the need for collaboration and mutual support in the context of our pluralist society. If we are to maintain universities as communities of wisdom and learning, it is vital to support and protect free and open debate, both by defending individuals’ rights and by confronting practices that seek to curtail them. How will the Government play their part in ensuring that anti-Semitic practices are challenged?
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Deech for initiating this debate. I, too, can claim a parent who came to this country and sought refuge here—a very proud Brit with a very strong German accent.
Back in April, I was somewhat surprised to find myself commenting on anti-Semitism publicly and in the media for the first time in my life. Apart from very occasional anti-Semitic comments from a very few people in politics and outside, it was something I had not really feared or experienced, despite hearing of such things as my noble friend Lord Sacks raised. We knew what was going on on campuses. I felt—and feel—proud to be a subject and citizen of what has historically been such a deeply tolerant and diverse country, and I have felt nothing but acceptance and respect for my traditions and beliefs throughout my life’s work.
However, last year—though we know it did not really start last year and has much deeper roots in a combination of anti-Israel views and a definition of anti-racism that is exclusive and perverse—things began to change. I found myself appearing on “Newsnight” with the noble Lord, Lord Levy, discussing anti-Semitism in the Labour Party—the Labour Party in which I grew up—and on campuses, where the cry, “Zio, Zio”, said to Jewish students, is ringing in our ears. This was all in the wake of Naz Shah’s comments, for which she rightly apologised.
Add to that what we can read and what is repeated and retweeted in the blogosphere and on Twitter, where we see ad personam attacks of a disgraceful and upsetting style, particularly against MPs such as Luciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth, who are both Jewish, let alone others—the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, talked about that—and we have reason to be worried. This is a style of attack that makes no attempt to tackle the issues but just goes for the person and is anti-Semitic to boot, while hotly denying that anti-Semitism is even possible in a left-wing, anti-racist party. “I am an anti-racist”, goes the cry. “By definition, I therefore cannot be anti-Semitic”. Really? That thinking has become a serious problem for Jewish students around campuses in the UK, for that cry keeps emerging.
Now, we know that the Labour Party has had very serious issues with anti-Semitism, with significant resignations because of it, or indeed exclusion in the case of Michael Foster on the basis of a headline he did not even write. It is not only in Labour, although it feels as if it is becoming institutionalised and part of the party. Of course, there have been instances in other parties and elsewhere in considerable quantities. Social media need to be looked at and sorted out if anything is to be done about all this.
All this should be a wake-up call. The Government need to act in relation to campuses and universities, as do the political parties—notably, but not only, Labour. I end by asking the Minister two questions. First, apart from the Government’s power to legislate, how will they set or indeed change the tone around this anti-Semitism debate and give leadership, particularly in regard to universities? Secondly, in the wake of the Commons Home Affairs Committee’s excellent report, what assurances can the Minister give that action will be taken to force Twitter and other social media sites to take action against the appalling anti-Semitic tweets and posts, and other extreme blogs, that allow this poison to fester?
My Lords, I join this debate in the context of the current wave of anti-Semitic incidents, ranging from abuse to violence, and the deplorable, disgraceful and disheartening activities in some university campuses, such as the appalling events at King’s College London.
We are apparently seeing the convergence of the hard left and the hard right, lapsing into this grotesque world of an ancient hatred, often not only under the cover of criticism of the policies of the Government of Israel but also in opposition to the very existence of the state. I declare my interest as vice-chairman of the New Israel Fund. For all the criticism of Israeli policy, where, for example, are the protesters outside the Syrian Embassy or the embassy of Syria’s supporter Russia?
It is particularly important that the three Abrahamic faiths work together to tackle anti-Semitism, which recent surveys suggest is higher among Muslim communities than is generally the case. Of course, there is good collaboration between the Community Security Trust and Tell MAMA and between local community leaders in many parts of the country, but this needs to be reinforced in our schools, colleges and universities.
My Lords, I will start by reading out a brief comment from my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn. Many of your Lordships know of his interest and commitment in this area. He would have been speaking here today, but unfortunately the trade debate, in which he is taking part, has overrun. I see a number of people have come in to listen to the concluding part of this debate, which is important. What my noble friend wanted to say is that he has a strong personal connection to these issues, not least the fact that his daughter is now at university, and he hopes that there will be an opportunity in the future to set out some of his trenchant views about what has gone on in our party. A number of other noble Lords have made these points already. He and I are particularly anxious that the issue of anti-Semitism is not just properly acknowledged, as it must be, and that it is recognised to come from many different quarters, but that it is seen to be best dealt with by nurturing our values, with, in the case of universities, a much stronger commitment than we have seen in the past to ensure that a culture of openness and diversity exists on campus.
In her excellent speech introducing this debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, asked Her Majesty’s Government what steps they propose to take to combat anti-Semitism both generally and in particular in universities. So there are both general and specific points to which the Minister must respond. We have had two very good reports recently. The best one is the Home Affairs Committee report, which is available here and has been widely discussed. It is as good as any of the best reports from the Lords committee system —that is very high praise indeed—and I recommend it.
To focus a little more closely on universities, the recent Universities UK task force deals—although perhaps not as much as many people would have wished—with anti-Semitism in universities. The report is quite clear when it states that there is no place for anti-Semitism or any other kind of unlawful discrimination in our universities. Although it may be that the number of reported incidents is low, the report accepts that even a single incident is one too many. We all want our universities to be tolerant and inclusive places. As the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, put it so well, we want academic freedom but zero tolerance of those who practise or preach anti-Semitism.
There are questions for the Minister to answer in the time available to him. If he is not able to respond, I hope that he will write to us because this is such an important subject. The new guidelines place a duty on university authorities to engage more closely in incidents which may be a criminal offence. What discussions have the Government had with the universities on this issue? It is a difficult one. Are we confident that the new guidelines will ensure that any cases that might engage criminal proceedings will indeed be pursued with vigour?
Secondly, the Universities UK report recommends that universities develop and maintain partnership working as a fundamental component of preventing and responding to the sorts of issues we have been talking about. Can the Minister assure us that all that can be done is being done to ensure that the partners identified in this report, many of which are attached to central government, not only know that it is their duty to support staff and students in universities but will assist in delivering the necessary training and help to assess the nature and scale of the issues affecting universities? In the past the barriers have been too great, and they must be removed.
Thirdly, will the Minister consider whether there might be an opportunity in forthcoming legislation—for instance, the Digital Economy Bill—to provide a better regulatory framework for issues relating to the internet? This was mentioned by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger. The internet has become a place for trolling and worse, and behaviour of that type is not being curtailed in any way. I am obviously anxious that we do not see a backlash against it, but it is very important that we use the opportunities we have—there are not that many—to make sure that the legislative framework is appropriate for our aims.
Finally, will the Minister use this debate today to make it clear to all and sundry that the Government will be single-minded in their determination to make sure that every Jewish student has a safe and positive university experience?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for securing this debate. I will attempt to address, in brief, the main issues raised. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, this is an important issue, and the passion that came out in many of the speeches today reinforces that point.
Britain is proud to be multi-ethnic and multifaith. As the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, it is also a good place to be Jewish. There is no place in our society for anti-Semitism or any form of harassment, discrimination or racism. Therefore, anti-Semitism is abhorrent, and we must take it very seriously.
As the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, mentioned in his speech, many noble Lords will have read in the Times this morning with dismay that a Member of this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, hosted an event at which Jews were blamed for the Holocaust. I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in condemning this shameful display of anti-Semitism.
The UK has one of the strongest legislative frameworks in the world to protect people against incidents of violence and hate crimes and other forms of harassment, including racial and religious discrimination. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, was very helpful in raising the issue of how one might attempt to define anti-Semitism. I am pleased to inform the noble Baroness that the Pickles definition she mentioned has been part of the operational guidance for police officers responding to hate crimes since 2014. The Government are currently reviewing whether the definition should be more widely applied. The Government know full well that there is more to be done. Anti-Semitism is a hate crime, and in 2015-16 UK police forces recorded 62,518 hate crimes. The Community Security Trust, which is the main recording medium, recorded 557 anti-Semitic incidents across the UK in the first half of this year. This is up from 500 incidents recorded in the same period last year.
I now turn specifically to universities, the subject of this debate. Twenty-seven anti-Semitic incidents were recorded in the first six months of this year, affecting students, academics, student unions and other student bodies. Eight of these incidents took place on a university campus and 15 involved social media. While this number is relatively low, one incident affecting one individual is one incident too many. We recognise the debilitating effect such incidents can have on students and the atmosphere of hatred they can create.
The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, among others, raised concerns about the level of anti-Semitism on social media, which is a very good point. The harm caused by anti-Semitism on the internet is a growing concern for the Government, and we have outlined a firm plan to hold social media companies to account in the recently published hate crime action plan. The noble Lord, Lord Sacks, mentioned the chilling effect of the boycotts, divestment and sanctions campaign on university campuses. I assure the noble Lord that this Government wholeheartedly condemn and reject the BDS campaign and strongly believe that it has no place on our campuses.
The question I am sure noble Lords will be asking and have asked is: what are the Government doing about this? The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, stressed the importance of leadership in tackling anti-Semitism, and that is why the Government have accepted and are acting on all 34 recommendations provided by the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism following its 2015 inquiry, which communicated the reality of anti-Semitism on the UK Jewish community. For example, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police are working on publicising all arrests and prosecutions relating to anti-Semitism, underlining that public bodies take anti-Semitism very seriously indeed. Government’s relationship with the Jewish community has been built on the solid work of the cross-government working group on tackling anti-Semitism. This ensures that we are alive to any issues and concerns of the Jewish community and can respond quickly.
This is a tolerant country, and universities are an extension of that tolerance. Freedom of expression and academic freedom are fundamental principles, but not a licence to propagate hate speech. As the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Beith, said, the Equality Act 2010 places a duty on all public bodies, including universities, to protect individuals from discrimination and harassment with the aim of helping them to feel safe and to live in an inclusive environment which respects their difference. Free, open debate offers the best tool available to challenge those who espouse intolerance or discrimination. It is vital that universities have policies and procedures in place to ensure that ideas can be heard and challenged in a safe and well-managed environment that allows for the free exchange of ideas without harassment or intimidation. The Government have an overarching responsibility to ensure that the laws of the land are upheld. This takes on board that universities are autonomous institutions, but it does not mean that the Government bear no responsibility. Universities clearly have a legal obligation to ensure that students do not face discrimination or harassment. The noble Lord, Lord Sacks, made some powerful comments on this very point.
We look to universities to have robust policies and procedures in place. The Union of Jewish Students and the CST provide guidance to universities on addressing illegal and unacceptable behaviour on campus, and some institutions have successfully addressed it. For example, as was mentioned in one of the speeches today, at the University of Birmingham the campus security staff have been very active in their attempts to protect the welfare of the Jewish student population. However, as a Government and as a society we cannot be complacent. One incident of anti-Semitism is one too many.
I turn to the more serious matter of the NUS, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lords, Lord Beith and Lord Mitchell. The NUS also has a role in ensuring that safeguarding, anti-discrimination and harassment policies are implemented on the ground. Sadly, as the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, has pointed out, the actions and words of the current NUS president, Malia Bouattia, have undermined the positive engagement that Jewish students have had with the NUS for decades. I agree with the noble Lord that Jewish students’ concerns about some of her comments have aroused disquiet. It is important that the national president acknowledges that her past rhetoric has caused much harm and that she apologises.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, referred to the payment from University of York Students’ Union to Zachary Confino for suffering anti-Semitism. It is absolutely right that it should not be up to individual students to fight lengthy battles of this kind. I am aware that following this incident the University of York ran a day of inclusivity training for all staff, which is most welcome.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, made an excellent and rather sobering point about how anti-Semitism, often called the world’s oldest hatred, has the ability to morph from Palestine and Gaza and the role of the state of Israel into a hatred of Zionism and incitement to hate Jews. This ability often to hide in plain sight is what makes anti-Semitism so dangerous. If I have got this right, the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, described anti-Semitism as being a virus. She reminded us all of the importance of not holding Israel to a different standard.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, spoke about University UK’s harassment task force report. In September 2015, the Government asked UUK to set up a harassment task force on violence against women, harassment and hate crime, including anti-Semitism. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester said that anti-Semitism can hide behind respectability. I could not agree with him more when he says that universities must ensure that anti-Semitism is confronted whenever and wherever it arises on our university campuses.
The task force has brought together vice-chancellors of institutions, students, university experts and external organisations. It published its recommendations in its report last Friday. They set out clear, practical steps that institutions should take to prevent and respond to hate crime in all its forms, including anti-Semitism. We are committed to ensuring that the task force’s recommendations are implemented, and we have asked UUK to scrutinise progress over the next six months. I make it clear that if we are not satisfied with the progress made, we will consider further action.
The work of the UUK task force and partnerships between the universities and organisations such as the Union of Jewish Students are important steps towards changing behaviours. While the Government are acting on many fronts to tackle intolerance and racism, we are never complacent. The effects of anti-Semitism on an individual can be devastating. The Government will diligently pursue our commitment to tackle intolerance and bigotry in whatever form and continue to work in partnership with public bodies and communities to support universities in the pursuit of eliminating anti-Semitism and all forms of harassment, discrimination or racism in universities.
I want to pick up a point made by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, about the importance of faith and interfaith. We are supporting faith communities because, frankly, practical co-operation between faith groups is crucial to the kind of society that we want to build. It is about people from different backgrounds coming together, not just sitting around tables but working together for the common good and tackling shared social problems. The Government have invested over £8 million in the near neighbours project run by the Church Urban Fund to build productive working relationships between people of different faiths at the local level.
I realise I am running out of time but there are two questions that I failed to answer.
Immigration: Detention of Pregnant Women
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I make no apology for returning to an issue that was discussed at length in this House earlier this year during consideration of the then Immigration Bill, now the 2016 Act, and which I raised again on 25 May, but I do regret having to do so. I feel that the Government have behaved badly here and I would like to hear an explanation. This is a vital issue that goes to the heart of the sort of nation we want to be and think ourselves to be. In the words of the Royal College of Midwives:
“Women who are pregnant are uniquely vulnerable in so far that they (and their babies) will always have specific, and sometimes serious healthcare needs which are time critical and may impact on health outcomes … Given these risks, and the fact that pregnant women are very rarely removed by means of immigration detention, there is simply no justification for detaining pregnant women in immigration facilities”.
To their credit, after more than a bit of nudging by this House, Ministers largely accepted that argument and Section 60 of the 2016 Act provides for a new 72-hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women. This can be extended to seven days if authorised by a Minister. In common with the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Maternity Action, Women for Refugee Women, Medical Justice and many members of this House, I believe that pregnant women should never be held in detention. I would have much preferred to see the Government agree to an absolute ban on such detention. In the words of Medical Justice:
“Even short-term detention can be harmful to pregnant women and their unborn babies”.
As I said, the 72-hour time limit, which came into force on 12 July, represents a significant and very welcome step forward. However, if we are going to have confidence in this time limit and its effectiveness, and in the Government’s stated intention to end the routine detention of pregnant women, it is essential that meaningful statistics on the detention of pregnant women be publicly available. On this, not only has there been disappointingly little progress since the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, told me on 25 May that the Government were considering how best to collate the information on detained women, but the Home Office has actually actively hindered efforts by Women for Refugee Women and others to monitor the use of detention and compliance with the new time limit. Since the Home Office started collecting information on the detention of pregnant women in August 2015, following a recommendation from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, Women for Refugee Women has asked to access that data through freedom of information requests.
The Home Office took almost five months to respond to the first request, which was made in February this year, and did so only after the Information Commissioner’s Office upheld Women for Refugee Women’s complaint that the Home Office had breached Sections 1(1) and 10(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 by failing to respond substantively within 20 days. Women for Refugee Women put in a second freedom of information request at the Home Office on 23 August, but as of today it is still awaiting a response and has been forced to lodge a further complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office. I find it a matter of concern that even after the upholding of a complaint by the Information Commissioner’s Office, the Home Office still does not appear to regard responding to such requests in a timely manner as at all important. Its failure to comply with the 20 working-day period specified in the Freedom of Information Act hinders scrutiny of the use of detention of pregnant women.
More generally, I find it astonishing that five months after the Minister told this House that the Government were busy considering the options for the collection of data on detained women, we are still awaiting a mechanism for making that data publicly available. After all, we are talking—at least, I hope we are—about a relatively small number of women, so I simply do not see how difficult it can be. Once they have said that they might be pregnant and they have been examined, surely it is easy to collate that information. Ministers have asked us to accept that they have committed themselves to a new policy to minimise the number of pregnant women in detention. I am willing to accept that, if the Home Office would only make the tiny effort necessary to allow proper scrutiny.
Data collection aside, in June the Home Office issued a draft detention services order on the care and management of pregnant women in detention. It sought comment on the draft and stated that a final DSO would be published over the summer, but as of today it has yet to release that—not to mention that in the view of the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Maternity Action and a host of others, the draft DSO was absolutely inadequate. Accordingly, I have some questions to which I would very much like answers. I understand that it may not be possible for the Minister to give them all today, but I hope I do not have to go through a freedom of information request because obviously, that will take a long time.
I would like to know how many pregnant women have been held in immigration detention since the implementation of the new time limit on 12 July. How many of those women were held for more than 72 hours? How many were removed from the country and how many were released back into the community? When will the Home Office start publishing these figures and other data on a regular basis, and when will it publish the final revised detention services order? On a day when we have heard that the Government have been forced to pay out £14 million to 573 people who were wrongly imprisoned under immigration powers, and earlier this year an inspector’s report said that Europe’s largest detention centre near Heathrow was “dirty and run down”, “overcrowded” and with “seriously insanitary” toilets and showers, it seems that something has to be done. If we are a nation of people who pride ourselves on our compassion and upholding our principles, this is something that we need to deal with, and quickly.
Finally, I hope that the Minister can give us an assurance today that any further freedom of information requests on the detention of pregnant women will be dealt with by the Home Office in a legal and timely manner, and certainly within the 20 working-day time limit.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulescoomb, for securing this short debate on such an important question. It takes most of us back to not exactly happier times debating the Immigration Bill, which became the Immigration Act 2016. At that time, I and others called on the Government to commit to making the statistics on the detention of pregnant women regularly available for public scrutiny. This was partly in response to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, promising that he would continue to reflect on how best to create greater transparency concerning procedures.
Yet in place of transparency, we have a disgraceful situation whereby the Home Office appears to have done its utmost to block FoI requests submitted by Women for Refugee Women, despite a successful complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office. I, too, ask the Minister to explain why the Home Office is still failing to comply with requests in a timely manner, despite the ICO’s ruling. Will she give a commitment that any future requests will be dealt with in a timely manner—not that an FOI request should be necessary in the first place? Will she explain how the Government plan to monitor the very welcome commitment to reduce the number of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in detention? Will she commit to publishing the findings so that it is possible to assess how well the new policy is working?
During the last gasp of our debates on the issue of pregnant women, having failed to achieve the recommendation of the Shaw report that there should be an absolute exclusion on their detention, I expressed the wish that our colleagues in the other place might read our debates and,
“think about how, within the constraints of the legislation as it is, we could make this a more humane process”.—[Official Report, 10/5/16; col. 1.]
I hope we will use the opportunity afforded by this debate to do that now. In particular, I want to go back to an underlying issue that I raised during the debate on the Bill, which got a bit lost in the niceties of the wording of amendments. It is how we best achieve the Government’s stated aim that the treatment of pregnant women should be:
“Similar to the arrangements put in place as part of ending routine detention for families with children”.
Indeed, it was claimed that the Government are using precisely that model, and yet my second amendment, designed to help achieve that aim, was rejected by the Government.
The family returns process to which Ministers referred has been successful in significantly reducing the number of children in detention. It is based on the principle of engagement. Evidence from countries such as Sweden indicates that where engagement is embedded throughout the asylum process, it can reduce the use of enforcement and detention. According to Women for Refugee Women, to which I am grateful for its briefing, engagement generally takes the form of a case-management approach. Through this, ongoing structured practical and emotional support is provided to migrants and asylum seekers while they are going through the immigration and asylum processes, so that they are able to understand what is happening and participate fully in the resolution of their case while based in the community.
The evidence suggests that such an approach improves decision-making, particularly as women may be more willing to disclose information about what has happened to them. It can also help those who receive a positive decision to rebuild their lives more easily, having had practical and emotional support throughout the asylum process, but it also ensures a more humane and dignified process for those whose claims are ultimately refused. Comparisons between the experience of the UK, which relies so heavily on detention, and Sweden, where detention is much rarer, suggest that those refused are more likely to leave through voluntary return programmes in which policy prioritises engagement over detention. It is suggested that this is because people are more likely to accept a negative decision if they feel it has been reached through a fair and humane process.
Women for Refugee Women argues that engagement is not only more humane but more cost-efficient than detention, because operational costs are lower and it avoids resorting to forced deportations and potential compensation claims in the event of unlawful detention. It believes that this approach should also be considered for asylum-seeking women more generally, given their vulnerabilities and that many are survivors of sexual or other gender-based forms of violence.
I understand that Women for Refugee Women met the Immigration Minister in September to discuss these issues, and I would welcome a commitment from the Minister to continuing these discussions in the hope that we can make this a more humane process for this uniquely vulnerable group, in the interests of not just their health but that of their unborn children—a point made by a number of noble Lords during the debates on the Immigration Bill. Then, we can start to discuss how such an approach might help asylum-seeking women more generally.
I understand that a new draft rule contains a paragraph that states:
“when medical advice is given that locating the detainee in Rule 40/42 accommodation”—
that is, removing them from association or putting them in solitary confinement—
“would be seriously detrimental to a detainee’s health or is life threatening, the multi-disciplinary team should urgently consider this advice”,
and that any decision to continue the use of rule 40 or 42 must be recorded, clearly stating the rationale. Surely, there can be no acceptable rationale for action that has been deemed potentially seriously detrimental to health or even life-threatening. I have not been able to find out the current status of this draft. Will the Minister reassure us that this guidance is not and will not be contained in the final draft? It appears to fly in the face of everything the Shaw inquiry was trying to achieve.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, on obtaining this debate, and I thank her for it. I salute her persistent pursuit of the right course of action regarding the detention of pregnant women. I also thank the House of Lords Library for yet another comprehensive and helpful briefing pack.
My interest in the subject began in 1997, when as Chief Inspector of Prisons I was invited to take on the inspection of what were then called immigration detention centres. I immediately found that the detention of pregnant women was one of many issues demanding urgent attention. What was particularly disturbing was the lack of availability of reliable statistics with which to identify the scale of separate parts of various problems, and proper scrutiny was inhibited by a lack of information. Like the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Lister, I was a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees that reported on the use of immigration detention in 2015 so, while not exactly having an interest to declare, I must admit to having form on the subject.
Like other noble Lords, I was very glad when in April this year the Government announced that a 72-hour time limit was to be placed on the detention of pregnant women, which could be extended up to a week. However, that this debate has been tabled so soon after that makes me wonder whether the Home Office is producing the required statistical information. That scepticism results from numerous examples of poor availability over the years, and is reinforced by the recent experiences of the charity Women for Refugee Women, which the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has already spoken about. You would think that after being publicly castigated by the Commissioner for Information for having breached the conditions of the Act, any organisation would learn its lesson. Not the Home Office. I am sure the Minister will agree that this story is simply not good enough, and if the Home Office knows the facts it should be able to answer by return rather than having to be chased. This failure to produce data has been matched by the Home Office’s failure to produce its promised detention services order, which the noble Baroness has also mentioned.
That leads me on to two other issues, not solely about statistics but about which statistics should be available: the definition of torture and the short-term detention rules, both of which affect pregnant women in detention. On 12 September this year the Government issued draft guidance on adults at risk in immigration detention, which did not adopt the wider definition of “torture” previously used in detention policy but, rather, the rather narrower one in the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which limits torture to acts involving a public official. This conflicts with Stephen Shaw’s findings and recommendations in his recent report, including that there should be a presumption against detention for victims of rape and other sexual or gender-based violence. Therefore I have to admit that I was rather surprised by the Minister’s assertion in answer to a Written Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that those most likely to be adversely affected by detention are those who have been harmed by the state. I ask the noble Baroness from where the evidence for this assertion comes and how it was gathered? The Government’s time limit was based on evidence that pregnant women are extremely likely to be adversely affected by detention, which pregnancy may well have resulted from rape. Her assertion explains why I am also concerned that Home Office caseworkers should have appropriate statistical information available when considering a recommendation that any pregnant woman should be detained for more than 72 hours.
I now come to the conditions in which pregnant women are detained. When, as Chief Inspector, I expressed concern about the lack of facilities in detention centres, particularly for those detained for months or even years, I was told that they had not been deemed necessary because they were essentially only short-term holding centres. However, as their regimes did not appear to be geared to quick assessment and turnaround, I began agitating for the production of short-term detention rules which have since been promised over and over again. I thought, in vain, that we were there following a consultation on a draft in 2006 and again following a similar consultation in 2009. Yet again my hopes were raised and dashed following ministerial assurances that publication was imminent in connection with the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016, the latter accompanied by yet another consultation. Surely it should not take longer than World Wars I and II combined to produce a set of rules based on existing rules, but then this is the Home Office. I have to say to the Minister that I simply do not believe that officials have been so snowed under by new responses that they cannot produce something that allegedly has been so near completion for so long. In the past their habit has been to ignore submissions from outside sources, such as the Immigration Lawyers’ Association. I therefore ask the Minister: how many responses were received?
Noble Lords will no doubt sense that I am a long-time critic of our current immigration system but, starting with my time as Chief Inspector of Prisons and repeated since in numerous reports and inquiries, I hope that I have been a constructive one. Currently, the system has a millstone of over 630,000 unresolved cases around its neck that prevents it being able to handle new applicants quickly, which situation is likely to get worse rather than better as numbers increase. Ministers can only make timely and accurate decisions if they are given timely and accurate facts which emphasises the importance of timely and accurate statistics. If the Home Office cannot even produce timely and accurate statistics about the small number of pregnant women in detention, what chance is there of Ministers being given the facts about larger problems? I therefore suggest to the Minister that it is Home Office Ministers rather than Members of this House who should be pressing for the regular publication of accurate statistical information on the detention of pregnant women, thus ending the stream of very valid complaints from the many organisations that are trying to help the Government look after immigration and asylum seekers, including pregnant women, with the decency and humanity on which this country has always prided itself.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for raising the subject and the House of Lords Library for its briefings, which are wonderful. I hope I do not lose this one because it has so many helpful references in it. Like the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, I, too, was a member of the All-Party Inquiry into Immigration Detention. Before I start my rant, I want to say that I am sorry that the layout of this room somehow seems to support an adversarial process when actually I suspect that everyone here would rather be sitting round in a circle, trying to find a solution.
One of the frustrations of the job that we all do—this must apply to Ministers most of all—is having a continual, nagging anxiety that practice differs from the theory that we discuss in such detail, and that the formal position is a world away from lived experience. It sometimes seems that a Minister’s briefing is a different reality and that we are working in parallel universes. Statistical information would help with this. It would not be the complete answer. There would always be comments that the criteria were poorly chosen and that such and such should have been measured, but statistics are a necessary component for judging practice and, of course, they are necessary for an open society. Statistical information may sometimes dispel myths; it may confirm one’s suspicions or even prejudices, but it always should tell us—this is a point that the noble Baroness made—what sort of society we are living in, as well as the one we hope to live in.
How pregnant women are dealt with for the purposes of immigration detention is not the only example of a concession given by the Government to get a piece of legislation through. Many of us, led valiantly by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, wanted to see better protection than Section 60 of the Immigration Act, but the Government convinced parliamentarians of the validity of the provision. It is now a matter of good faith for the Home Office to demonstrate how Section 60 is operating. I am conscious of other matters that will be coming across the Minister’s desk—indeed, one of them has just been mentioned. Some noble Lords may have heard the programme on Radio 4 a couple of nights ago about the protection of overseas domestic workers, in which the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, and James Ewins, who reported to the Government with recommendations, both expressed the view that that protection is not working as it should.
The guidance on adults at risk in immigration detention, on which the Minister recently answered Written Questions from me, to which the noble Lord referred, distinguishes between torture by the state and by non-state actors. I recognise that this is not the subject of this short debate but it illustrates a failure to see matters from the point of view of the individual affected. In the case of torture victims, are the numbers so great that the system would be overwhelmed if those were treated as two categories? Is there some issue of comparative fairness? I am really quite puzzled by this. Will it be another frustration for the doctors from whom our inquiry heard about the operation of rule 35? There is no doubt they were very frustrated.
In the case of pregnant detainees, we understand that in 2014 the great majority were released to pursue their applications in the community. Again, what is the point in holding any of them? I am not sure that the more humane and effective approach taken in Sweden, which supports immigrants whose applications are unsuccessful and which we were told we were edging slowly towards, is actually happening to any extent at all. This leaves us with the same old question: what purpose does it serve to lock up pregnant women, not as a punishment but in administrative detention?
We may be told that these are nuanced issues, and that is inherent in Section 60 with its reference to “exceptional circumstances”—although of course Stephen Shaw said that it was a statement of the obvious that,
“detention has an incontrovertibly deleterious effect on the health of pregnant women and their unborn children”.
For the purposes of this debate, and given the wording of Section 60, I accept that. One has to wonder, without the information, how the Home Office can know whether its policy is working and whether it is even meeting its own objectives. If the Home Office does not know, how can the rest of us?
Of course, the collection of statistics is not the same as publication and in May the Minister then dealing with the matter told the House:
“The Government are considering how best to collate the information and whether it will be necessary to actually publish it”.—[Official Report, 25/5/16; col. 388.]
It is necessary. The Home Office itself says so. The guidance includes, in paragraph 6, one of the principles underpinning the guidance:
“There will be a clearer understanding of how the government defines, ‘at risk’ and how those considerations are weighed against legitimate immigration control factors to ensure greater transparency about who is detained and why”.
I think that that makes the case.
First, I join other noble Lords who have spoken in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for introducing this Question for Short Debate today. I very much agree with what she said. She raises a very serious matter that should be of concern to the whole House. By the publishing of regular statistical information, we are able to assess what the Government are actually doing on a whole range of matters, compared with policy objectives and pronouncements, and this is an area of both policy and action that requires a very detailed level of scrutiny.
It is my understanding that Section 60 of the Immigration Act 2016 provides for a 72-hour time limit for the detention of women known to be pregnant, and this may be extended for up to seven days only if authorised by a Minister. This policy, we have heard, was a compromise following a defeat in the House of Lords earlier this year on an absolute exclusion. A woman should be detained only if she will shortly be removed from the UK or if there are “exceptional circumstances”—I think that these exceptional circumstances are listed as public harm and/or national security. The reason mainly given for detention, of course, is to ensure a person’s removal from the United Kingdom.
It is my understanding that a pregnant woman needs an assessment of her fitness to fly if she is 37 weeks or more into her pregnancy and it is uncomplicated. I understand also that there are international air travel criteria that have to be complied with for any pregnant woman, not just those in detention. I hope we can all agree that having a reliable assessment in less than 72 hours in what can be described only as difficult circumstances will be a challenge, to say the least. My understanding is that matters such as prior medical history would ideally be considered and additional medical tests might also be required. I am aware of the review on vulnerable people in immigration detention, and the comments of the former prisons ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, to which other noble Lords have referred, on the damaging effect on the health of pregnant women and their unborn children.
It would be useful if the Minister could tell the Committee, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has asked, in the years for which figures are available, how many pregnant women held in immigration detention were deported direct from that detention and how many were released back into the community to pursue their cases there. I find it puzzling that the Home Office has been collecting data on the detention of pregnant women since August 2015, following a recommendation from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, but that it has no plans to actually start publishing this information. The reason given is that it has not been assured to the standard of official statistics, which I find to be a very weak reason indeed. Will the Minister tell the Grand Committee what needs to be done to get this information to the standard of official statistics? Have the Home Office started doing that, and if not, why not?
Would the Minister also like to comment on the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, when he told your Lordships’ House earlier this year that the Government were considering,
“whether it will be necessary to actually publish”,—[Official Report, 25/5/16; col. 388.]
the information at all. As I said earlier, Governments can come up with all sorts of policy announcements, objectives, plans and procedures, but unless we have some evidence as to what they are actually doing in specific areas, they cannot be held to account. As we have heard, FoI requests have been put into the Home Office and I think it is fair to say that the response times have fallen well below the expected standards for promptness of replies. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has told us, the first FoI was complied with only following a complaint to the Information Commissioner and the complaint being upheld. We have also heard that the second one has still not been complied with. It feels like the Government are very reluctant to publish this information, and perhaps the Minister can tell us why. We need to know why these FoI requests have not been dealt with in a timely manner because it is not acceptable. Is it due to staff shortages or some other reason? What is going to be done to get this information released in the expected timeframe?
The detention of vulnerable pregnant women should be something that never happens, and I think the Government would agree with that as a policy aim. So I say to the Minister that if that was achieved by the Home Office, the Government will receive only praise for having delivered on it. The present situation appears to be clouded in mystery and there is a reluctance to provide information. That leads to people thinking that the policy aim and pronouncements and the actual situation are miles apart, with little chance of ever being brought together, which is why the Government are so reluctant to release the information as it would confirm what the situation really is. That is a bad place for the Government to find themselves in and they would be better advised to allow the maximum amount of light to shine on where we actually are. We can then debate how we can get to a place where I think we all want to be.
I was very impressed by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. He made a devastating critique, highlighting the policy failures at the Home Office. I await with particular interest the Minister’s response to the noble Lord’s points. I do not expect her to respond to everything I have raised, of course, but I hope that she can give a commitment to note any points that require a response in writing to noble Lords.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who spoke in this debate, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, who secured it. The issue of pregnant women in detention is a delicate one and understandably it is often quite emotive. Perhaps I may be clear on behalf of the Government that the decision to detain any individual under immigration powers is never taken lightly. As published Home Office policy already makes clear, detention must only ever be used sparingly and for the shortest period necessary. There is a presumption of liberty for any individual and our preference will always be that those who have no right to remain in the UK should leave the country of their own volition, but unfortunately that does not always happen. Where that is the case, regrettably detention may be necessary to enforce an individual’s removal.
Where we decide that detention is the appropriate course of action, it is important that the individual is treated with respect and dignity for as long as they remain in our care. To underline this commitment, in February 2015 my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, when she was still Home Secretary, announced that she was asking the former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, to undertake a review of the welfare of those in detention, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, referred. Mr Shaw’s comprehensive Review of the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons was published under cover of a Written Ministerial Statement in January. It made a number of recommendations addressing detainee welfare and vulnerability, including in relation to pregnant women.
The Government accepted the general thrust of Mr Shaw’s recommendations. We were not, however, persuaded by his recommendation to completely exclude pregnant women from detention in future. Home Office detention policy has never been based on excluding entirely any particular group of persons, including pregnant women, from detention. There will be occasions in which it is both appropriate and justified to detain a person, even if they are vulnerable in some way. For example, a pregnant woman might pose a risk to the public which would make her detention in the public interest and outweigh the fact of her pregnancy. There is a need to keep the capability to detain at the border, pending removal, if entry is refused.
The Government listened to concerns about the detention of pregnant women. During the passage of the Immigration Act 2016, to which many noble Lords referred, we introduced statutory limits on periods of detention of any woman who we are satisfied is pregnant. Section 60, which came into force on 12 July, restricted the circumstances in which a pregnant woman who is being removed or deported from the UK may be detained. Detention of pregnant women is limited to a maximum of 72 hours, although there is provision—as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, pointed out—for this to be extended to an absolute statutory maximum of one week in total, only in exceptional circumstances. Ministerial authorisation must be obtained for any extension beyond the 72-hour point, to ensure that periods of detention are kept to a minimum and to provide an effective safeguard against the risk of the longer period of detention being used inappropriately.
Most noble Lords asked about the numbers of women in detention. There are no women in immigration detention today recorded as being pregnant. Since July, when the Immigration Act came into force, the total number of women recorded as being pregnant while in detention is 15. None of them were detained beyond the statutory limit bar one, where there was ministerial authority. That means obviously that 14 were detained up to 72 hours.
We do not propose to publish statistical information routinely on the detention of pregnant women. Such information would be limited by caveats as to scope and accuracy, given that it could relate only to those women known to be pregnant. In addition, any statistical information would not in itself provide a fully accurate, rounded picture unless it was accompanied by a detailed narrative on the circumstances of the individual cases, which would not be appropriate, not least given the risk of identifying particular individuals. For the same reasons, the Government do not propose to provide a running commentary on the numbers involved.
The legislation, as I have just discussed, also imposes a duty to have regard to the pregnant woman’s welfare in deciding whether or not to detain. This might include matters such as whether there have been complications with the woman’s pregnancy. The Home Office published comprehensive guidance for its caseworkers on the detention of pregnant women. That covers the general principles to be considered in deciding whether to detain a pregnant woman, consideration of the duty to have regard to the pregnant woman’s welfare, the operation of the detention time limit, and the procedures in exceptional cases for seeking ministerial authority to extend detention beyond 72 hours.
There will be occasions, particularly where a woman is in the early stages of pregnancy and not visibly pregnant, when it is possible that her pregnancy will come to light only after she has been detained. That might be because she does not want to disclose her pregnancy, or she might not even be aware yet that she is pregnant. The Section 60 restrictions still apply in such cases, with the 72-hour time limit being calculated from the point at which the Home Office accepts that the woman is pregnant.
To support the new statutory arrangements, we published a new operational instruction on the management of pregnant women in detention. All staff working in immigration removal centres, including healthcare staff, must follow this. It covers matters such as the woman’s welfare during her transfer to her place of detention, her care while in detention and the arrangements for her removal.
The Home Office has now introduced its new adults at risk policy for the detention of vulnerable persons, in direct response to Stephen Shaw’s recommendations. Under Section 59 of the Immigration Act 2016, the Government laid before Parliament draft statutory guidance on the policy in July. This guidance came into force on 12 September. Although the policy applies to all detainees considered vulnerable, it provides additional safeguards for pregnant women, beyond those set out in the 2016 Act. The starting point of the policy will be that an individual considered to be at risk in the context of the new policy should not be detained. This builds on the general presumption against detention and will be displaced only when the immigration factors outweigh the contention that the individual in question is at risk. The underlying principle is that the greater the weight of evidence of risk, the weightier the immigration factors need to be to justify detention.
Under the adults at risk policy, individuals are considered to be at a particular level of risk depending on the type and quality of the evidence available in their particular case. The mere existence of a woman’s established or accepted pregnancy will place her automatically at the highest level of risk. As a result, the pregnancy will be afforded significant weight when assessing the risk of harm in detention and require weightier immigration factors to be present to justify authorising or maintaining detention. The position of pregnant women in the context of immigration detention has changed. The combined effect of the statutory restrictions on the detention of pregnant women and the introduction of the adults at risk policy, with its specific protections for pregnant women, ensures that pregnant women will be detained only in very limited circumstances, for very short periods, and only when such action is justified, taking full account of the likelihood of risk to the woman in question. This strikes the right balance between recognising the inherent vulnerability of pregnant women, particularly in relation to detention, and the need to secure our borders and maintain effective immigration control.
The Home Office has never detained pregnant women in large numbers. Previous Home Office detention policy was clear that pregnant women should be detained only in very exceptional circumstances. Although the Home Office began collating data on the detention of pregnant women only comparatively recently, anecdotally, numbers have always been small. We expect the statutory restrictions introduced in July and the more recent implementation of the adults at risk policy to reduce those numbers still further.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked about the publication of the DSO. It will be published in November, which is some time from next onwards for four weeks. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked about FoIs. We take our responsibility under the FoI Act seriously. FoIs are being dealt with as a matter of priority. On 29 September, we answered an FoI on pregnant women statistics that we had received from Medical Justice.
The noble Baroness also asked about the Family Returns Panel, which has proved so efficient and effective, and how lessons can be learned from that in detaining and removing pregnant women. In addition to the time limit that now applies to the detention of pregnant women, we are putting in place a robust package of safeguards, including: the duty to have regard to the welfare of the woman; detaining only if removal is due to happen shortly or, if there are exceptional circumstances; the adults at risk policy, which I have talked about; and improvements to the caseworking process when managing vulnerable persons. Taken together, those developments will ensure that detention is used sparingly and for the shortest period of time when it becomes absolutely necessary to detain pregnant women who will not leave voluntarily. We do not believe that oversight by the Family Returns Panel would add any further safeguard, although I accept that it has been a very effective process.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, asked why we limited the definition of torture for adults at risk to that set out in the UN Convention against Torture. The Government adopted that definition as it most accurately reflects the need to protect those who are the most likely to be adversely affected by detention, which is those who have been harmed by the state or by an organisation exercising similar control and for whom detention is most likely to be redolent of the harm that they suffered.
The noble Lord also asked why the STHF rules have still not been made. The Home Office undertook a targeted consultation of detention stakeholders on the draft set of short-term holding facility rules earlier in the year, and the responses received were extremely detailed and will take some time to go through. However, that process is almost complete. He asked how many responses there were to the consultation exercise. There were 10.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked at what stage of pregnancy the Home Office considers flying to be inappropriate. A pregnant woman’s fitness to travel by air, and therefore whether it is likely to be possible to remove or deport her, is assessed on a case-by-case basis using guidance from the IATA. The guidance states that for a single uncomplicated pregnancy, travel would be appropriate without a medical certificate up to 37 weeks.
My time has run out by a minute. If I have not answered any questions, and I suspect there might be a couple from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, I will do so in due course. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.
Armed Forces: Foreign Language Speakers
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, “Parlez-vous Brexit?” was the eye-catching headline in last weekend’s i newspaper after suggestions that the designated EU Brexit commissioner, Michel Barnier, might insist that the forthcoming EU/UK Brexit negotiations are conducted in French. Twice I took our EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee to Brussels to interview M. Barnier in his role as financial affairs commissioner, and I took care to address him in French. Speaking to someone in their own language is not only a mark of respect and welcome, manifesting an eagerness to listen and learn, it is also downright common sense. We have lost that art and our self-inflicted defenestration from the European Union will only further impair our ability to make and influence friends, nowhere more so than in our engagement with partners in the defence of the realm, in the armed services, diplomatic corps and intelligence services.
As a recent copy of the Soldier magazine declared:
“Many of our forebears would have been embarrassed to see how little knowledge we arrived with in Iraq and Afghanistan … our great grandfathers … spoke the language and knew the people”.
That was quoted in the Daily Telegraph. It goes on to suggest that the Government will not entertain promotion in the Army above the rank of captain for those without a foreign language. The programme started in 2015 and comes into full play in 2018. Could the Minister confirm that that is the case? What numbers of personnel have embarked on such training? What level of language skill—passing, competent or fluent—is expected? What particular languages and what numbers are envisaged over the next 10 years? Will the Minister further confirm that the method of achieving success in language acquisition will be part of an exchange programme between nations where UK personnel are encouraged to go on exercises to learn languages at the same time that we help to train the receiving country?
Before we can make an effective judgment on Britain’s capacity to defend itself through language competency, we urgently need facts and figures. These have been conspicuously absent despite numerous Written Questions from me. I hope the Minister can provide us with real and verifiable figures. He told me in a Written Answer earlier this year that some 700 armed services personnel hold a language qualification but there is no notion of how that compares with 10 or 20 years ago. Similarly, the category of expert speakers is but 132 out of that 700. How does that compare with 20 years ago? Crucially, does it match our current operational needs? How is it assessed and who by? We are told that the services hold competency in 48 languages but how does that compare with the past? What and where is the distribution of these languages, and where is the flexibility to learn new languages as changes happen? Is that 48 sufficient?
When discussing this topic with my noble friend Lord West, he told me that we need to use the Army and services’ reservists more to build up language competency. Does the Minister agree and does he have plans to do so? Indeed, what assessment and analysis has been made of the Defence Centre for Languages and Culture in terms of its capacity to meet the real language needs of the services? How does this compare with our erstwhile partners in the EU where languages are commonly learned and spoken as compared with the UK, a “proud nation of monoglots”?
HMG have recently replied to the House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power. They are lukewarm to the suggestion that there should be an audit of language skills of civil servants across all departments, as proposed by the committee which,
“would bring sizeable advantages for officials working overseas or with foreign counterparts”.
Can the Minister tell us what the funding is for the FCO’s language centre and what we are going to do about this gaping hole of spoken languages acquisition? Are we increasing the budget to try to fill it? Similarly, are there sufficient funds to enable the Defence Centre for Languages and Culture to fulfil its crucial job? I highlight in particular its Operational Languages Award Scheme to incentivise MoD personnel in language skills. We urgently need more knowledge and transparency about our language holdings. Given that for cultural reasons the British have never revelled in language skills, Britain lacks the home grown linguists which most countries have.
Having said that, what greater efforts might the MoD make to recruit from our indigenous communities found here in Britain, especially from the subcontinent? Similarly, we are told that London is home to some 300 spoken modern languages. How many are mobilised to serve our defence and intelligence services? GCHQ, our largest employer of linguists, insists on recruiting only United Kingdom citizens, but is that wise? Are we not cutting off our nose to spite our face when we enforce that? Indeed, will the Minister tabulate the shortages in GCHQ of certain crucial languages, known to be Mandarin, Russian and Arabic? How much retraining of modern languages graduates does GCHQ do for the scarce languages which have to be used from time to tmie? Again, may we have the numbers, please?
In our universities is it time that we followed the example of UCL in requiring a foreign language GCSE as compulsory for all entrants? When I was at school, entry to Oxbridge required Latin, thereby breeding a generation of brash, bumbling Borises. At grammar school in Oxford I was taught to speak a dead language, Latin, while French was unspoken and confined to reading the texts of Racine and Corneille. Given the many unfortunate policies of successive Governments, must we not concentrate on in-house tuition in the armed and intelligence services while radically remodelling the primary and secondary long-term contribution?
Finally, on the role of the FCO in supporting our defence and armed services, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, tells how when he was Permanent Secretary, some 500 people spoke Arabic, but now the figure is 131. Is that not sheer madness? Embassies are now increasingly geared to promoting trade and business, all needed in the lonely post-Brexit world, but our foreign embassies still need to do their regular job of intelligence gathering for the defence of the realm—a Government’s first duty to the people. On a parliamentary visit to Estonia in April, I met General Wes Clark and General Sir Richard Shirreff, also visiting NATO’s local HQ as well as the Russian border and the college serving the Russian-speaking minority of Estonians. We heard the good news today that the UK is posting 800 personnel to help our Estonian colleagues inhibit a Russian incursion but can the Minister find out for us how many of those 800 are language experts in either Estonian or Russian?
The news this morning that sixth form colleges are axeing French, German and Italian from their core curricula is deeply disappointing, but my task in today’s debate is to suggest that HMG must rely on the defence and intelligence services to plunder home-grown language skills. We must make do and mend because we cannot wait for the schools to do the job. Before I came into this debate I was stopped by one of the Doorkeepers who told me that when he was on pre-deployment in the Army, he learned languages from people with language skills here in the United Kingdom. After that they could go on to the Army language centre. This is an important issue which has not been covered and I am very pleased to begin today’s debate.
My Lords, I remind the Committee that I still hold a commission in the Reserves, although it is extremely unlikely that I will ever be active again. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating this QSD.
There are many difficulties with engaging local interpreters on an operation. It is hard to be sure that they are reliable and secure. It puts the interpreters in a difficult position when we eventually withdraw, and even when they go home, perhaps at the weekend. Noble Lords have frequently debated the difficulties that we have incurred with regard to honouring our moral obligations to locally employed interpreters from our operations in Afghanistan.
Another difficulty with local interpreters is that the other local party will try to negotiate with the interpreter rather than the British officer. It is of course possible that the discussions that the interpreter and the local party are engaged in are nothing at all to do with what the British officer thought they were supposed to be talking about. Fortunately, I assure the Committee that in my personal experience, pre-deployment training in the British Army includes how to use an interpreter. It is not like what we see in films when an interpreter has a long chat with the other party; in fact, you carefully let them use only one sentence at a time. It is therefore much more difficult for them to start going off-piste.
Being able to speak the local language is a huge advantage. When I was engaged in international work in Rwanda, I will never forget the look of horror on the face of the government official when I turned up without a local interpreter and started speaking French. I expect this was on two counts: first, the lost advantage for him of working through a local interpreter and, secondly, my not particularly good French. On many occasions they suddenly remembered that they could speak English after all. If one does have to use a local interpreter, only a basic working capability in the local language will be needed to ensure that the interpretation is reasonably reliable and not going off-piste.
The short answer to the noble Lord’s question is no. The first reason is that we do not know which local language will be applicable to the next major operation, or whether it will be enduring or just a short intervention. Of course, as the noble Lord indicated, there is a need to have modern European languages, but I am talking particularly about the local language of the operation. It is simply not worth investing in huge amounts of language training that may never be needed. All that I have said is perfectly understandable, and I think the noble Lord agrees.
The second reason is not so good, and it is that we are very poor at putting in place a language capability even for enduring operations. So far as the regular Army is concerned, incentives for service people to acquire a capability in the local language of current operations are available, but I am not convinced they are sufficient to encourage so many to take it up that the need for local interpreters is significantly reduced.
How much overall do we pay service people to maintain the capability to deploy by parachute drop, and how does this compare with how much we pay in incentives to have the capability in the local language of any operations? I asked a Written Question about when we last deployed at company strength by parachute drop. Apparently it was the second most unhelpful Question that the MoD could be asked. The first is something to do with the RAF, although to be fair the answer to that question has a lot more to do with a successful defence policy over many years.
It is not just officers who could benefit from language training. A full corporal in the regular British Army is an extremely capable person but it may be that his trade, or his type of unit, is not required for the current operation. If they are any good, they will be desperate to “go on tour”, as they say. Being an interpreter for, say, a local liaison officer would be a fabulous opportunity for a junior NCO. Only a fairly modest financial incentive would be needed to encourage regular NCOs of any service to acquire a language of a current operation, and, of course, a certain proportion of service people will turn out to be gifted in languages.
I turn to the Army Reserve, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. To be honest, a junior direct entry reserve infantry officer with no previous regular service would find it hard to get the chance to deploy in role on an operation; it really does not happen that much. I will spare the Minister’s blushes by not asking how many such officers we have.
Suppose that in 1993 a junior TA officer, on his own initiative, learned to speak Serbo-Croat at conversational level—possibly achieved by engaging with a local diaspora. In the mid to late-1990s, he or she would have been able to deploy in operations almost as often as desired. The military skills of such an officer would be perfectly adequate for the role of interpreter or local liaison officer, and they could have a very fulfilling tour.
My counsel is that we should have much better financial incentives for regular service people at junior level, both officer and enlisted, who acquire an operational local language as directed. We should also very strongly encourage reservists to acquire the operational local language with the clear expectation that they would be able to deploy. It needs to be managed. If we had this policy in place, we could increase our operational effectiveness and reduce reliance on local interpreters, with all the ensuing problems. Finally, I say to my noble friend the Minister: good luck with the Treasury.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for raising this subject, a very important one indeed. I declare an interest relating to one language at least: Chinese. I am president of the Scotland China Education Network, which, under the energetic leadership of Dr Judith McClure, promotes the teaching of Chinese in Scottish schools.
I do not know how many noble Lords here this afternoon have read a 1950s book by Eric Newby called A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush; there are some who have read it. It is the most wonderful account of a journey to the Hindu Kush, the formidable mountain range between Pakistan and Afghanistan, by a very amateur group that included Eric Newby and one Persian-speaking young diplomat. At the end of their expedition, as they are coming down, they meet, coming up into the mountains, that very great traveller, Wilfred Thesiger. He insists that they should stay and have supper with him. In the exchange, Thesiger says, “Slight problem here. I can’t speak a word of the language. Still, it’s not really necessary”. Then he turns to the cook, who has only just been employed that morning and has never met another Englishman in his life and certainly does not speak English, and says in a loud voice, “Make some green tea, a lot of chicken and rice—three chickens”, and it is done.
I suggest that there are two morals to this story, which is a caricature of that very great traveller, Sir Wilfred Thesiger. He was a real expert. He had twice crossed the Rub al-Khali—the Empty Quarter—in Arabia. He travelled in the country with the Marsh Arabs in Iraq; he travelled extensively in north Africa. He really knew the Arab world. But the second moral is: it is no good if you are outside your area of language comfort, relying on speaking English in a loud voice. It does not do, as has just been said by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee.
As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has said, an interpreter has to be used on some occasions but an interpreter is not enough. It is not simply a question of whether your interpreter is having a different conversation from the one you want him to have; it is that only by knowing a language do you really have an understanding of the culture, the history and the customs of the people you are dealing with. That is key. It seems that in recent conflicts in Iraqi and Afghanistan that sort of expertise and local understanding was badly needed, and surely it is equally true of the highly complex situations in Syria and Libya that we need real expertise and understanding. That is as true for the intelligence services and GCHQ as it is for the military.
Unfortunately, as has just been said, we are increasingly bad at teaching foreign languages in schools, and we seem to have taken it as perfectly normal that we should reduce the amount of effort that goes into learning foreign languages. There are one or two bright spots, thank goodness. I mentioned the Scotland China Education Network. Two weeks ago I went to a meeting of that body at a school in Perthshire, and every person in the entry year was learning Chinese. They did not have to go on doing so but they did have to go on learning at least two languages throughout their time there. It was giving them an introduction to a difficult foreign language and its culture, which is as important as it is to learn the language itself. We need much more than can be taught at school. We need, in our intelligence services and our Armed Forces, experts in the hard languages that are never going to be taught in our schools.
We had a debate earlier this year on the funding of the Foreign Office in which I asked the Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, to give me figures, which he later gave in writing, about the number of people who had studied hard foreign languages in the Foreign Office. The figures he gave were very interesting; they were slightly better than those given by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. For instance, 14 people were studying Mandarin and the Foreign Office had 44 registered speakers of it, while 34 were studying Arabic, with 51 registered speakers. That is encouraging, and with it comes a greater concentration in the Foreign Office on local expertise and taking it seriously. It would be interesting to know whether that is true of the Armed Forces as well.
It would be useful if the Minister could give figures, perhaps afterwards, for some of the key hard languages. The ones I am thinking of that are going to be needed over a considerable period are Afghan Persian, or Dari, and Pashto, the two main languages spoken in Afghanistan, and Arabic. I do not think we can legitimately ask for the figures of those in the intelligence services who speak hard languages, but it would be useful to have an assurance that having a sufficient number of people in command of those key foreign languages in the intelligence services is seen as essential.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on securing this debate. I must declare various interests: I am co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, president of the Speak to the Future campaign and vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.
I want to put on record at the outset, before I go into a more critical tone, my huge admiration for the work being done by both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office language centre and the Defence Centre for Languages and Culture. As the British Academy’s report Lost for Words put it, these two establishments are,
“potential beacons of commitment to language learning across government”.
I hope this debate today will result in that commitment being strengthened even more.
There is a great deal of robust evidence about the need for, and the lack of, language skills in the Armed Forces and defence services. For the purposes of this debate we should include security and diplomacy within our terms of reference. Indeed, Sir Richard Ottaway MP, former chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place, said that the language skills issue had been highlighted in almost every inquiry his Committee had undertaken since 2010. Similarly, in your Lordships’ House, the issue has been raised in a number of important Select Committee inquiries. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, referred to the report on soft power in 2014. Evidence to the EU Committee’s inquiry, The UK and Russia: Before and Beyond the Crisis in Ukraine, on which I had the privilege to serve, included a remark from a former UK ambassador to Russia that UK diplomacy had,
“suffered because of a loss of language skills, particularly in the Foreign Office”.
This view was echoed last year by the report of the House of Commons spending review of the FCO, saying that,
“the FCO has lacked the expertise, analytical capability and language skills to manage the fallout from the Arab Spring and the crisis in Ukraine”.
Publications from highly respected non-parliamentary and non-governmental sources have reached similar conclusions. The British Academy’s Lost for Words report said:
“It is clear that the lack of language skills among British officials and armed forces is both embarrassing and risks putting the UK at a competitive disadvantage”.
The University of Cambridge’s report earlier this year, The Value of Languages, said that:
“The crucial role of language and cultural understanding in the work of the armed forces was brought home in recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan”.
Our forces’ reliance on locally employed interpreters is well known, including some controversial issues to do with their treatment post-conflict. However, as Lost for Words points out, over-reliance on native translators carries significant risks for patrols as well as, in some cases, the locals themselves. Language needs can be highly specific and exacting. Getting the accent or dialect variation wrong can have significant consequences.
Nevertheless, the Army certainly seems to be ahead of the game compared to the other armed services. The Cambridge report that I quoted from earlier, for example, refers to the fact that the Army has a comprehensive languages policy which includes identifying personnel with language skills including so-called heritage language speakers. The Army is developing an effective examination system for identifying language competences that can then be called on and used at short notice whether for operations or urgent tasks. Languages are valued, literally, with an award scheme that pays out supplements on a scale depending on usage. The Army is now funding 2,500 soldiers a year to acquire a basic language skill, equivalent to the A2 level of the common European framework.
Will this commendable and comprehensive approach from policy to payment be adopted across the other armed services? Will the Minister commend the Army’s example of auditing personnel with language skills as an exercise that should also be conducted comprehensively across the Civil Service? This was one of the British Academy’s recommendations—as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, mentioned. It has always struck me as a no-brainer, and a relatively cheap one at that, if we are serious about needing to find out what language skills we already have at our disposal. Quite apart from the ambit of today’s particular debate, this is a crucial resource to know about in the context of Brexit and post-Brexit negotiations.
Could the Minister also confirm that there will be no reduction in the budget allocated to the FCO for its language centre and that there will be more rigorous attempts to improve on the target level attainment for languages in key regions such as the Middle East and north Africa? The low targets achieved here seem to somewhat undermine the good work being done by the language centre and to fly in the face of the very positive launch given by the then Foreign Secretary—now the noble Lord, Lord Hague—when the centre was reopened in 2013. I also question whether the FCO is drawing in as many civil servants from other departments as originally envisaged, as I understand that the centre was meant to be a resource for the whole of government.
Finally, I would like to say something about the supply chain of language skills in the UK. It is all very well that the FCO and the Defence Academy are doing what they can to plug the immediate gaps that they face—and thank goodness that they are—but we also need to change the whole culture around learning foreign languages in this country and vastly to increase the number of school pupils and university students who are doing so. GCHQ, for example, suffers from the shortfall in our education system, which produces too few people competent in Mandarin, Arabic and Russian. Only six state schools currently teach Arabic on the timetable and only 16 universities out of 130 teach it. Only 1% to 2% of state schools currently offer Russian and only 14 universities offer Russian as a single honours degree, with none at all in either Wales or Northern Ireland and only three in Scotland.
The irony is that in the UK we have over 1 million school pupils who are bilingual, but all too often this is seen as a problem, not as the asset that it really is. Far more of these children should be encouraged to pursue academic qualifications in their other languages. I ask the Minister whether he will work with the Department for Education to look at ways in which the languages considered to be of particular importance to the armed services and defence and security needs more generally can be made more mainstream, so that more children study them to a higher level.
All the major studies that have looked into this issue have concluded that there needs to be government-wide co-operation on language skills. We should build on the existing cross-Whitehall language focus group, which already includes GCHQ, the Defence Centre and the MoD. Such a cross-cutting approach would also meet the call from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, which last week published a checklist for Brexit negotiators, pointing to the language needs of business and research, as well as security, defence and diplomacy.
Language skills and cultural knowledge are now deemed essential not just in military operations but in peacekeeping, post-conflict and conflict prevention. Language skills are everybody’s and every department’s business and it would be doing the UK a great service if the leadership already shown by the Army could be the catalyst for a truly national strategy for all ages and stages of education and learning.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing this debate and for his contribution, which among other things centred on the availability of information. The contribution of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, about local interpreters was very useful. He seemed to conclude that we cannot do more to have our own capability, but I certainly take the view that we should. The noble Lord, Lord Wilson, stressed the importance of real expertise and noted the increasingly bad performance in schools. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for pointing to the light among the gloom, particularly in relation to the Army, and for making the important point that there is an intrinsic skill in our population, an issue to which I shall return.
The protection of the British people is the first priority of government. We, as the Opposition, remain committed to Britain’s NATO membership and to spending 2% of GDP on defence. We will stand up for our Armed Forces and ensure that they have the best support. That means leadership, equipment and training, and it is a particular aspect of training and support on which this debate centres.
War has changed. State-on-state wars ending with unconditional surrender and unresisted occupation, as in the Second World War, are becoming an out-of-date concept. The Cold War kept the ideas alive for some time, but recent wars or, perhaps more correctly, armed conflicts have been messy affairs. Enemies have been unclear. Sometimes they have been of the people; they have frequently been among the people and indistinguishable from the people. Targeted aid and diplomacy—winning hearts and minds—have been at least as important as the ability to deliver lethal force.
A key barrier to success has been communication and language. Therefore, I ask the Minister to what extent he agrees with my analysis and to what extent the Government have conducted a lessons-learned exercise into recent conflicts. In particular, have they been able to determine the extent to which better local language capability might act as a force multiplier in future “boots on the ground” deployments? Further, would such language capability improve performance if extended to DfID operatives and diplomats working in crisis situations?
To flesh that out slightly, we have an Army, what is it there to do? If it is fighting a tank battle in East Sussex, something has gone terribly wrong. Yes, the Army must be capable of offering a credible conventional opposition on NATO’s borders, but the overwhelming probability of the future is that the Army will be deployed in very messy situations—insurrections and potential civil wars—working in a local environment where English is not the language. Consider the difference in performance between a unit arriving with its own local language capability, compared with all the problems of recruiting interpreters, getting to know them and getting to work out whether you can trust them.
I have to admit, somewhat ashamedly, that I have no residual foreign language capability. However, this has not stopped me thinking about language and the role it plays. I believe that it probably has three roles. The first is direct communication—giving orders and warnings, and seeking simple intelligence. The second is understanding the society and culture in which one finds oneself, and the third—this is the bit that eluded me as a young person—is understanding how people think. At one point I was responsible for all British Airways overseas staff. When I visited them, they would constantly explain to me how the fusion of language and culture would influence local people, officials, diplomats and politicians. Does the Minister agree that, as soft power and foreign aid merge, greater language capability will pay back the investment with significantly enhanced effectiveness?
Teaching a foreign language takes many forms. My own, traditional experience led to a marginal O-level in French with barely any conversational capability. On the other hand, peers of mine went on to do modern language degrees. My charming German neighbour learned her English in the age-old way. She was a young lady in war-torn Cologne who met a young Royal Air Force meteorologist, part of the occupying power. Magically, she learned to speak English and he learned to speak German. They were married for 50 years. I give these examples to illustrate the range of different ways of teaching a language and to make the point that careful analysis of what capability is required, particularly verbal—or conversational—capability, and to whom it is being taught, may lead to more efficient training than traditional methods. Are the Government planning to increase language training, and will they make a careful analysis of available techniques?
The United Kingdom, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, noted, enjoys a rich and diverse cultural base. Immigration over centuries has created this. Many recent immigrants whose mother tongues are from areas where problems may arise have themselves struggled to learn a foreign language—English. Most will not have any formal teacher training, but they speak their native language. Particularly, they speak the language of the streets. These may be the streets and fields where our troops and aid workers may need to be deployed in future. Surely, those immigrants and their children should be recruited into any enhanced language training facility. In the longer term, should we not be recruiting individuals with useful mother tongue languages into our Armed Forces, security services and aid agencies? To fully utilise them, the military, in particular, would have to develop a more flexible approach to their deployment, but they would, surely, significantly add capability. The concept of a special reserve corps, where individuals were trained with basic “look-after-themselves” infantry capability and could be deployed in support of overseas deployments, using their native language skills, should surely be looked at as a way of increasing this capability.
This has been an interesting debate about an important aspect of the United Kingdom’s weakness in language skills. Sadly, there is little sign of the traditional methods meeting that need. It is good to hear that the Army, in particular, is making progress. I hope the Minister will find some merit in the ideas put forward by noble Lords and will be able to persuade colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and other departments that change is necessary.
My Lords, I anticipated a constructive and interesting debate, and I have not been disappointed. I take this opportunity to thank all noble Lords who have taken part for the valuable insight and experience that they have brought to bear on this vital subject.
I shall start by directly addressing the question with which the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, opened this debate—do we have sufficient speakers of foreign languages serving the Armed Forces? The answer to that is: as of today, yes, we do. The totality of defence’s operational and diplomacy requirements are being met. Furthermore, if we take as a starting point the strategic defence and security review of 2010, since then we have significantly improved the way in which we recruit, identify and train the linguists we need to achieve our defence aims. We currently have the capability to train in more than 40 languages. That is not to say that we are in any way resting on our laurels. As my noble friend Lord Attlee pointed out, our requirement for foreign language skills is ever-changing. As with many other aspects of defence, such as the purchase of ships and aeroplanes, we are trying our best to look ahead not just months but years, while retaining the ability to respond at very short notice to events as they occur.
On the one hand, there are languages that will be required no matter where—or, indeed, if—we are conducting operations. Those skilled in the major languages of commerce and diplomacy, such as French, German, Russian and Arabic, will always be required as defence attachés, training teams, exchange officers and members of headquarters and formations, and we will continue to ensure that sufficient such-skilled personnel are available. On the other hand, who would have thought that, prior to the dark events of September 2001, we would within weeks have need of expert speakers of Dari and Pashto, and require such skills in large numbers and for many years?
We now work hard to ensure that we can balance the longer, top-down requirements—those that are mostly foreseeable—with such shorter-term tactical needs that are much harder to envisage. Our systems must be flexible enough to allow for both, and we believe that they are. Also, as the noble Lords, Lord Wilson and Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, pointed out, this is about more than being just a skilled linguist. The Armed Forces recognise that any future operating environment is highly likely to present personnel with a diverse mosaic of audiences, actors, adversaries and enemies, meaning that, in the recent words of President Obama,
“in the 21st century, military strength will be measured not only by the weapons our troops carry, but by the languages they speak and the cultures that they understand”.
The Armed Forces also recognise that the breadth and depth of their understanding of these audiences need to be improved, and that culture and language skills are a key enabler in preparation for these contingencies. It is of note that the emphasis is now on both the language and the culture in which that language is used. As the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said, that is an important ingredient of UK soft power. We recognise that in order to operate effectively in such an environment, defence requires personnel with highly developed intercultural expertise. The ability to understand what is termed the “human terrain” is now rightly seen as essential to successfully operating and achieving our aims in almost all overseas operations.
To deliver those aims, defence has taken a number of strategic steps to strengthen its organisational structures, including setting the pan-defence strategic capability for culture and language. We have a joint influence board with two-star representation from across the armed services. Below that is a steering group reporting to the board, which tasks a working group responsible for staffing, development and delivery functions of the capability programme. The Defence Centre for Languages and Culture is a world-renowned training facility, parented by the Defence Academy. There is a separate authority for capability generation. These interlinked arrangements ensure that the system is capable, responsible and flexible enough to meet defence needs as they arise.
Defence can certainly not be accused of failing to take this matter seriously. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, that in the Army, within the next few years, it will become essential for any officer wishing to make a success of their career to have skills in a foreign language. He asked what we are doing to find out who can speak what language. The Armed Forces are even now running a trawl to identify those already serving who have been hiding their linguistic skills under a bushel, and encouraging them to register these accomplishments so that they may be used not only for the benefit of defence but for themselves—as the noble Lord said, there are substantial financial rewards available for those with the skills we need. The incentives commended by my noble friend Lord Attlee are certainly there; for example, I can tell him that the daily rate of extra pay for a qualified paratrooper is £5.69, but a serviceman on operations with a valuable language skill is paid up to £70.20 per day.
It is quite a significant sum of money. We are employing many methods to ensure not only that we are harnessing existing talent within both Regular and Reserve Forces but that we can attract people into both the regulars and the reserves who already have specific linguistic talents, or who have the potential to learn languages. We will also continue to look at those already within defence to find those suitable to undertake such training.
The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, was—if he will forgive me for saying so—a veritable Gatling gun of questions, and I will need to take many of them away with me and write to him about them. Some of them, such as those relating to GCHQ and our agencies, I may not be able to answer on security grounds. Others, such as detailed questions relating to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which was also the subject of a number of questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, I shall need to seek advice on. However, I assure all noble Lords that I shall study their speeches after this debate and ensure that I address in writing those questions I have not answered but which are capable of being answered.
I turn to a number of those questions now. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, asked about the apparent reduction in language skills in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The FCO, like the Armed Forces, currently has sufficient linguists to achieve its objectives and aims. I will, however, get a readout from the FCO as to how it views its situation and what it is doing to address it. He asked about Army officers and language training—first, what level of skills are required and, secondly, what languages are acceptable. The Army now insists that officers must have a survival level of speaking and listening to a foreign language prior to the appointment of command at the rank of major. The level of skills required ranges from expert to functional. The Armed Forces maintain skills from across the spectrum in more than 30 operational languages. Those languages deemed to have an operational requirement are reviewed by a two-star board and a senior responsible officer on a yearly basis.
Across defence, there is a total of 655 personnel recognised as holding a functional level of qualification. The numbers that I will quote represent those individuals who fall within the examination currency period, which is three years. The actual number of personnel with language skills is almost certainly considerably higher than the figures I will give, as it includes those who have not renewed their qualification and those with a latent skill that has not been declared. I do not have figures relating to 20 years ago, which the noble Lord asked me for, but we have, for example, 108 Arabic speakers at functional, professional or expert level, and 217 French speakers, of whom 48 are expert. Of the specific languages mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, we have 22 speakers of Dari, of whom four are expert; 39 speakers of Farsi, of whom seven are expert; and 29 speakers of Pashto, of whom one is an expert. I emphasise that those figures do not include many others who may have fallen outside that three-year period to which I referred.
The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, asked how flexible defence is in responding to new language demands. I believe that we are more flexible than we were, but that is not to say that we cannot do better. We maintain a pool of linguists who can respond to contingent operational demands. The Defence Centre for Languages and Culture has an agile structure that allows it to use the commercial sector to respond to short-notice language teaching demands and, next year, the DCLC will instruct more than 370 individuals to a level of functional to expert, and a further 550 to a level below this.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, made some important points about the teaching of languages in schools and I undertake to bring them to the attention of my ministerial colleagues in the DfE. She asked whether the measures adopted by the Army will be extended across the other services—the answer is yes. All measures that I have highlighted are common across all defence personnel, both regular and reserve, and the language competency award schemes are in play here. We are, as I say, conducting a 100% audit of all personnel with a latent language skill.
I have exceeded the time allocated to me. I will, as I promised, write to noble Lords on those areas that I have not been able to cover. In the meantime, I repeat my thanks for a series of very constructive and helpful speeches.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I asked for this debate to highlight, again, the urgent need for progress in research into effective treatments for mesothelioma. This is not a new topic for your Lordships’ House, and the fact that we are returning to it again, and that so many of your Lordships signed up for this short debate, indicates its importance.
As your Lordships’ House has heard many times before, mesothelioma is a terrible disease, among the most cruel of all fatal illnesses. It is inflicted too often on those who contracted it through their occupation which exposed them to the asbestos which causes it, and too often through public service, so members of the armed services and teachers as well as factory workers have been disproportionately affected by it. Yet those suffering from it, and their families, were appallingly treated for decades. It took years of struggle to force insurance companies to discharge their obligations to pay compensation, in the end taking legislation by the previous Labour Government—I am delighted to see my noble friend Lord McKenzie on the Front Bench today, as he was the Minister who did so much to make that happen—and the coalition Government to force them to do this.
There have been inexcusable delays in providing adequate resourcing for research into effective treatments for this dreadful illness. More than twice as much is spent on breast cancer research per sufferer, for example, than on mesothelioma. This matters. Although these are projections and, given the long gestation periods for this illness, they could well be underestimates, more than 50,000 people are projected to die in this country alone. There will be many more times that number in the rest of the world. Mesothelioma is a global problem. It affects almost everywhere in the world, including some of the poorest countries in Asia and Africa, countries ill-equipped to develop such research on their own.
However, for all these problems, in the past few months since the last time the House debated the issue, there has been significant progress. The most recent Budget allocated £5 million towards research and the setting up of a national mesothelioma centre. I take this opportunity to thank the Minister who did so much to make that possible and who has always been a stalwart supporter of efforts to improve the situation of those suffering from this disease. There is also now the possibility of matching funds from a charitable donor, thanks in large part to the efforts of my noble friends Lord Giddens and Lord Alton and the British Lung Foundation, and two insurance companies, Aviva and Zurich, have over the past two years, to their credit, donated a combined £1 million to the British Lung Foundation’s mesothelioma research programme. However, all this is only a start. It has been estimated that a national centre for mesothelioma research, on a hub-and-spoke model, will need set-up costs of £15 million to £20 million and projected running costs of £3 million to £5 million annually. So much could be done with this funding. Medical science has made extraordinary progress in the past decades. Once-dread diseases have become manageable through the efforts of brilliant and dedicated researchers, and the combination of developments in genomic science and the dazzling new power to process data digitally promises so much more.
We have the infrastructure in the form of the MesobanK, a biobank unique in Europe and one of only two worldwide, which collects tissue, blood samples and clinical data from mesothelioma patients to help accelerate research across the UK and internationally. Sequencing technology is being used to observe gene mutations in mesothelioma which will support the development of future therapies. Advances are being made in immunotherapy and radiotherapy. Other developments in genetic research could produce advances in treatment if sufficient funding is found to run appropriate clinical trials. So where is the extra money going to come from to build on these developments and make further progress possible?
The Government obviously have it in their power to provide it by increasing the sums of money available for research, and the arguments for doing so are compelling. I shall run through them briefly. Apart from the alleviation of terrible suffering in patients, it would save taxpayers money. Of course, there is no guarantee that any research will produce results, but the experience of research into other cancers suggests that a combination of money and time will produce significant advances in treatment, saving taxpayers some of the huge sums involved in treating mesothelioma sufferers, currently upwards of £75,000 per patient, with total annual costs exceeding £185 million. By 2050, the total is likely to rise above £5 billion. Investing in mesothelioma research can only help to build on our world lead in biomedical research.
Even in these difficult times, £3 million a year would more than treble the amount currently spent and fund a national centre to co-ordinate and develop research. Perhaps a little of all those savings that leading figures in the Government promised us would result from leaving the EU could be made available for research into this terrible disease. I suspect that this will not be the last time the Minister hears that particular argument in the months ahead.
If not from government, where else might funding come from? The insurance industry has historically been implicated in the way mesothelioma sufferers and their families have been failed over generations, but the Mesothelioma Act 2014 offers an opportunity to start a new chapter in that relationship, building on the good examples set by Aviva and Zurich. Surely, the time has come for others in the industry to stand beside them in providing the relatively small sums, in terms of their turnover and profits, to fund research. After all, the more effective treatments can be found, the less they will need to pay out in the long run.
Perhaps the time has come also to look to another business sector that has been heavily involved in these issues over the years. Law firms have received huge sums in fee income from mesothelioma claims over the years. Of course, much of this has been justified, as they fought for justice for sufferers, and no one should ever want to see the victims of this disease denied appropriate legal representation. However, the Mesothelioma Act has streamlined the process for compensation, so perhaps the time has come to look at those fees, with a view either to fixing them, and thereby releasing more funds that could be made available for research, or for the legal industry to step up beside insurers to ensure that research is adequately funded.
Progress is waiting to be made, and there are ways of making it quickly and relatively painlessly, but, if none of these things happen, this campaign will still continue. As we have seen over and over again over the past 10 years, neither your Lordships’ House nor the other place will accept the status quo. I hope that there is action that the Government can and will take, and I hope that the Minister will indicate today that they will at least be prepared to explore one or more of the ways that I have suggested to ensure that the funds so desperately needed for research into this cruel disease will be made available, and soon.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for introducing this very important topic. Unfortunately, at the beginning of this year, someone I know extremely well was diagnosed with mesothelioma. She is a middle-aged woman who does not have any connection to the building industry and has not lived or worked in a building under renovation—and nor has any of her family. As noble Lords can imagine, therefore, it was an incredible shock. Over this year, I have become quite familiar with the disease and its treatments, so this afternoon I am speaking from the point of view of the patient.
What has really struck me is the stark contrast in the drugs you receive if you treated are under the NHS and those you can receive if you are being treated under private healthcare and are wealthy enough to be able to afford the best possible treatment available. Those treatments can extend life expectancy, which on diagnosis if you undergo all the chemotherapy, is on average about 18 months. The NHS provides the chemotherapy and does an absolutely wonderful job. An operation can be undertaken, although it is a very complex one, to remove the multiple tumours associated with mesothelioma. It can involve removing the diaphragm, the pleura around the lungs and the membrane around the heart. Skilled surgeons are required to undertake the operation and some healthcare companies provide cover for it, although the NHS will not. The cover that most healthcare providers offer does not necessarily meet the full costs of the surgeons, who have to be very highly skilled. Undertaking the operation means that you can double the life expectancy of an individual.
At the end of chemotherapy, what are the options? You can continue with a drug called Avastin, which is licensed for breast cancer but not for mesothelioma. It can be taken in conjunction with the rest of the chemotherapy. It costs £5,000 a pop. Some health insurance companies and providers will cover it, but the NHS will not. You take it once every three weeks, so more than £86,000 a year is required to cover the cost. Some patients have been on it for more than two years without recurrence. Its success varies as people vary, but there have been some great successes.
If—or unfortunately more like when—the mesothelioma returns, what are the options? You can try the chemo again, although sadly it is not always effective. The NHS will provide that chemo. What health insurance companies and the NHS do not cover is access to the latest drugs. The one that is most recommended costs a quarter of a million pounds—it is a one-off treatment and it has to be funded. Under the NHS you have access to UK trials, but because this disease is incredibly rare and has multiple sub-types, the trial you would be best suited to is not necessarily taking place in the UK, so if you want to get on a trial you have to fund your own transport and accommodation costs, possibly for several months while you undergo the trial. Life expectancy can and has been proven to be extended in people who have been fortunate enough to be able to afford this.
As the noble Lord, Lord Wills, mentioned earlier, there are many civil suits as people are able to identify the source of asbestos that triggered their mesothelioma. However, a group of people are unable to identify the source and are totally reliant on the Government’s compensation scheme, which goes nowhere near covering the costs that will prolong their lives. I therefore ask the Government to please look at the compensation scheme to see whether the payments can be upped so that everybody, regardless of their own wealth, can have access to these drugs. It involves a relatively small number of people because only about 2,500 a year are diagnosed with mesothelioma, and only a percentage will not have a civil action. It therefore should not cost the Government that much. It seems only right and fair to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to prolong their life as far as possible.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for securing this important debate, and the noble Baroness, Lady Couttie, for outlining the clinical scenarios that people face, often when they are young, as they suddenly realise that they have this devastating disease. More than 2,500 cases are diagnosed each year.
I will focus initially on the iceberg effect; we are seeing just the tip because of asbestos in schools and the worry about that. Some 94% of cases of mesothelioma are effectively preventable because they are associated with chronic exposure to asbestos in one way or another, and we know that three-quarters of our schools have asbestos in place. The number of teachers dying of mesothelioma has been going up from around three a year in the early 1980s to 22 in 2012 alone. That is a marker of developing mesothelioma following chronic exposure.
The Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment has pointed out that we do not know whether children are intrinsically more susceptible to developing mesothelioma following asbestos exposure. However, it seems that the lifetime risk if they are exposed at the age of five is about five times that of someone aged 30 who is exposed to the same amount of asbestos. Therefore it seems that exposing children is storing up problems for the future.
I would like to coin the term “pre-mesothelioma” for the number of people in the population who will probably go on to develop mesothelioma but have no idea about it at all. If we are undertaking research, we have to get to earlier diagnosis, so we have to find ways much earlier on of picking up the markers of transformation to malignancy in the areas where asbestos fibres are stored. At the moment we do not know of any actionable drivers of the disease in order to pick up and identify early markers. There are multicentre trials, as the noble Baroness has just outlined, but the problem is that they are very disparate. That is why there is a desperate need for a single centre in the UK to co-ordinate them. That reminds me of when I was a very junior doctor and the MRC co-ordinated trials into the leukaemias, and it was from those that some advances were made. There needs to be a driver with just about everybody being recruited into a trial if that is at all possible. Currently, patients have to find out about trials and they do not really know where to go. They want to contribute because they do not want the same thing to happen to other people. The other problem is that of course while the MesobanK is in place and the cell lines are coming along, they are not there yet. We need to identify how tumour surface antigens are expressed and detect better markers of early disease.
I remind noble Lords that 60% of patients diagnosed with mesothelioma are dead within a year; in other words, they are palliative care patients. I am afraid that some clinical commissioning groups are not commissioning specialist palliative care services adequately, not at a level that allows them to be integrated with cancer and chest disease services. That is essential to provide psychosocial support as well as support for the rest of the family, and to deal with the devastating symptoms of the disease. Those groups of specialists also want to research some of the effects of the disease when it is not curable.
Lastly, we need data. I declare an interest as chairman of the National Council for Palliative Care. I was very concerned to discover that Public Health England does not plan to carry on collecting a minimum dataset from specialist palliative care services. Without that data we will not know whether what we are doing is improving services for patients. It would cost only £200,000 to refresh the collection and data management process, which in the greater order of things is nothing. Without good data on the number of patients, the people who transform from what I would call pre-mesothelioma into mesothelioma, and the numbers that need palliative care services, we will have no idea whether we are improving.
My Lords, I had always associated mesothelioma with the construction trade. It came as a complete shock that a dear friend—Sylvia, a retired maths teacher, an energetic walker and a very active grandmother—should be diagnosed with the disease. It may well have been contracted 50 years ago when she worked as a teacher in west Africa. It was even more of a shock to discover that it was a death sentence. Sylvia died a troubled and dreadful death five months later. As her husband Geoff said, “This cancer doesn’t allow for peace. There are more sorts of pain than those that can be, and were, dulled by opiates”.
What shocked me almost as much was the struggle of medical researchers to raise money to find improved treatments for the disease. The British Lung Foundation —BLF—and Mesothelioma UK have campaigned tirelessly for more research but with only limited success. Do funders regard it as a marginal cancer? Perhaps they think it will be reduced over time because products containing asbestos were banned in the UK in 1999. How have we become so complacent? Some 2,500 people in the UK are predicted to die each year of mesothelioma. The incidence is increasing, as has been mentioned, for example among schoolteachers. How have we become so blind to the immense suffering of those who contract the disease and of the families who care for them? Although we can hope that the rate will eventually decrease, no such hope is available in developing countries where asbestos continues to be used and where committed people just like my friend Sylvia will continue to work, as will countless members of the local populations.
Research is key yet the BLF’s figures show that funding is absolutely parlous compared with other cancers that kill a similar number, and even the published figures are thought to be an overestimate. I talked to the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at UCL—I declare an interest as a member of council at UCL. UCL, along with Leicester and Barts, is doing innovative and exciting work with a small amount of funding into genomic damage which might lead to targeted new treatments. Other centres are similarly innovative. How much more could be done if they were better funded?
Companies such as Hugh James, Simpson Millar and Shield Environmental Services have donated. Insurers have helped in the past. Two which have already been mentioned, Aviva and Zurich, have increased their contribution to £1 million over two years, but the final grant is this year. The £5 million grant from the Government this year for a national centre for research is indeed welcome. I hope it will enable increased collaboration with other centres, but it will take £5 million each year to put mesothelioma on a par with other cancers, such as skin cancers, that have the same mortality levels.
A more sustainable model is required. Where is the rest of the insurance industry? Insurers are likely to pay out £11 billion in compensation to people who were exposed to asbestos in the workplace. If only a tiny fraction of this were donated to research, it would be transformational. Saving lives by donating to research could potentially save insurers millions. Will the Minister commit to some strong arm-twisting to persuade the industry to make this a comprehensive and permanent commitment, if necessary on a statutory basis?
I want to make a final point about the carers of those affected. My friend’s husband Geoff said, “Sylvia’s progress wasn’t predictable, no routine could be established, every day involved new challenges”. He was part-retired and had a pension. Supported by the GP and the district nurse, he was able to provide the care that enabled Sylvia to live and die at home as she wanted, where her dignity was preserved in a way she felt it could not have been even in the kindest institution. If he had been on a limited income and had to go out to work, how would that have been managed? Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to make that kind of caring an option for anyone suffering a terminal illness of this kind?
My Lords, I am delighted to be able to support the noble Lord, Lord Wills. It gives me the chance to say how much I have appreciated working with him, the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and other noble Lords in trying to push this issue up the list of political priorities. An indication that the message is bearing fruit was contained in the former Chancellor’s Budget announcement on 16 March that £5 million would be approved for a national mesothelioma centre, which I greatly welcome.
This is also a chance to say that after the Second Reading of my Private Member’s Bill on mesothelioma research the Minister has been unstinting in his efforts to draw together the medical and scientific community, the insurance industry and diverse political interests. It is good to be able to put on record my appreciation of his commitment and engagement. That Private Member’s Bill emerged from a narrowly defeated amendment in your Lordships’ House that would have required the more than 120 insurance companies to contribute to mesothelioma research. The former Minister told the House that he was confident that the four insurance companies that were then voluntarily supporting research would be joined by others. The sad reality, as we have heard, is that the four fell to two, Aviva and Zurich.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, just told us, insurance companies that represent employers whose employees were exposed to fatal asbestos must recognise their moral obligation, but it is also in their own self-interest to help find the causes of and cures for mesothelioma—a public health disaster that should never have happened. I recently heard from a patient support group that is concerned by media reports that Companies House proposes to destroy defunct company files after a period of five years. Perhaps the Minister will either say a word about this or agree to write to me.
The admirable British Lung Foundation says that we are now at a point in mesothelioma research where we can see real potential. For example, Dr Sarah Martin at Barts Cancer Institute has found that 50% of mesotheliomas lose the enzyme ASS1, which makes the amino acid arginine. As these mesotheliomas depend on a steady supply of arginine from the bloodstream and other cells to grow, Dr Martin is exploring the potential of using existing drugs to block the flow of arginine to these cells, in turn starving them.
Resourcing this and innovatory adult stem cell work, which the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and I heard about more than two years ago and which we were told would require £2.5 million to bring to clinical trials, is imperative in a country that has the highest recorded incidence of mesothelioma in the world, with 40,000 recorded deaths already, and, as we have heard, a further 2,500 deaths annually. One in five work-related deaths are attributed to mesothelioma. What is the Government’s current estimate of the cumulative number of British people who will die of mesothelioma over the next 30 years? Perhaps we can also be told how many of the 3,000 cancer nurse specialists specialise in mesothelioma care.
With tens of thousands destined to succumb to this fatal disease, it greatly disturbs me that we have no national programme, plan or timetable for the removal of asbestos from our environment, although, by contrast, we have devised one for the Palace of Westminster. Significant quantities of asbestos remain in our homes, workplaces and public buildings, not least in the schools referred to by my noble friend Lady Finlay, and there is a growing incidence of mesothelioma among schoolteachers. As my noble friend said, we should carefully consider the effects on children.
When the Minister replies, I hope that he will refer to the need for a national strategy and to what he might be able to do to draw cross-departmental Ministers together to consider what it should consist of. I hope too that he will look at properly resourced research in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, described, as well as at an examination within his own department of the significant variations in the levels of care, treatment and support, which have been referred to during this short debate.
My Lords, mesothelioma, if I may put it in this way, has a past and a future. The past has seen a long struggle to get the origins of the disease recognised and then to achieve adequate compensation for those suffering from it. That struggle is well documented in the book by Geoffrey Tweedale, Magic Mineral to Killer Dust. Asbestos was originally a magic mineral. He shows in detail just how much industry resistance there was to accepting the link between asbestos and mesothelioma.
I wish to pay tribute to MPs and noble Lords. If your Lordships will forgive me, I should like to single out—it is like a little boys’ club—the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Wills, with whom I have worked closely, but many have been involved in pressing for proper recognition of the disease and for increased compensation for sufferers. That struggle, of course, continues. The British Lung Foundation has been mentioned, and a range of other, more local groups have had a significant impact. It is good news that former members of the armed services who have contracted mesothelioma will henceforth be entitled to significant compensation. However, on the issues of adequate compensation and giving the disease a higher profile in the public consciousness, plainly a lot more needs to be done. I am afraid that Action Mesothelioma Day, designated as Friday 1 July this year, received only scant coverage in the press.
When I say that mesothelioma has a past but also a future, I mean that it is time to stop it being seen as simply a legacy disease—a hangover from a time when asbestos was widely used. I believe—and I hope that people who work more directly in medicine than me will agree—that we are entering a period of potential breakthroughs on the frontiers of medical research, especially as concerns the diverse forms of cancer. The awesome algorithmic power of supercomputers is making possible advances in genetics that could not have been achieved before. A good example—perhaps the most well known—is the supercomputer Watson, which won the amazing game of “Jeopardy!” on American television. It is an ordinary-language, everyday knowledge game. At one point, no one thought that it would be possible for a computer to win it, as it depends on so much everyday knowledge. In terms of being applied to cancer research, as is now the case, Watson and other supercomputers have massive capacities compared with any human researcher. They may not have the same innovative capacities, but their algorithmic powers are extraordinary. Watson can sift through literally millions of scientific papers and use data-mining to suggest hypotheses to be subject to further tests. One should also mention the supercomputer Beagle at the University of Chicago, which is being used to radically accelerate genome analysis.
For the first time ever—perhaps because of the digital revolution, which is one of the things we are talking about—there is a truly global community of scientists working at the cutting edge of medical issues once thought to be intractable. As a result of such ongoing research, we now know that mesothelioma shares certain components, on a genetic level, with other types of cancer. Cancers are in general now increasingly identified genetically rather than described on a more macro level. This means that research into the nature of mesothelioma is of broader significance than was once thought to be the case, and that advancing knowledge about other forms of cancer can in turn be brought to bear on mesothelioma. For these reasons, like other noble Lords, I very much welcome the £5 million towards establishing a research centre, which the noble Lord, Lord Prior, has played such an important part in. As the noble Lord knows, I would like us to raise further sums, which I believe one can do once this funding exists. I would like the centre to have a global orientation linked to, for example, the Pacific Mesothelioma Center in Los Angeles. We should drive research onwards to look not just for improved treatments but for something that is perhaps no longer completely impossible: some kind of cure.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for securing this debate and giving us an opportunity to discuss this subject once again.
I shall focus my remarks today on how we might improve mesothelioma surgery in the NHS. It is a subject that rarely gets discussed, but one that deserves much more attention than it gets at present. I was delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Couttie, was able today to highlight some of the options available.
When my sister Annabel was diagnosed with mesothelioma a couple of years ago, one of the treatments available to her was radical surgery. This meant removing her pleura, the lining surrounding each of her lungs. Finding a surgeon with the right experience was not a straightforward process and relied entirely upon a Rolodex network of surgeons that her oncologist had built up over many years, often scattered around the country. Eventually, she found someone to evaluate her, but it took a long time to arrange and the procedure proposed was very risky, which was due in part to the fact that her tumour had grown so rapidly since her original diagnosis. On top of that, the surgeon, although very experienced, had not performed the procedure very often and lacked the familiarity of approach that specialisation usually provides. Given its radical nature and the need for complete tumour removal, should not surgical resection be concentrated at one centre of excellence, where patients can receive immediate attention, new techniques can be researched and surgeons can benefit from training and others’ experience? I am sure that patients will be willing to travel as far as needed to be in the hands of super-specialists.
Given the highly specialised procedure of removing pleura, what research is currently being carried out on resection methods? How does the NHS plan to optimise its approach to such surgery? Does it, for example, appear in the National Institutes of Health research plan? If not, why not? Again, there is huge scope for improvement here.
With regard to new drugs, what research is currently taking place on the impact of preoperative non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents, given their success in other forms of cancer surgery? This should be another research priority for the NIHR, especially given the chronic inflammation component of mesothelioma. The synergies are such that we ought to be applying the benefits of such cancer research wherever possible. This is a cheap intervention, given that the drugs are generic.
All these issues point to the need for a specialist surgical registry and surgical outcome transparency in mesothelioma. Even transparency on the basics of annual volume and 30-day mortality by surgeon, centre and surgical approach would allow the supervising oncologists to find experienced surgeons in a timely manner. It will also allow for continuous surgical method improvement and best-practice dissemination. This holds true not only in mesothelioma but in less common and rare cancers requiring radical high-risk surgery. These cancer surgical registries should be a priority for the NIHR and NHS England. We need clarity about which body is responsible for their funding, given that they span both quality control and research. I hope that the Minister will encourage the bodies responsible to outline how they plan to drive and develop surgical registries and associated research in these cancers.
My Lords, I, too, would like to focus on the patients—the 2,500 British people who are expected to die each year of mesothelioma, most of whom have contracted the disease as a result of exposure to asbestos. The use of asbestos in industry and construction, although now banned, was a practice that has had a detrimental effect on many lives, and it is our duty now to offer sufficient aid to those it has affected.
Asbestos lurks in many strange places, including, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, this very building. My husband and I recently demolished an old cottage on our property, and we discovered that there was asbestos in the floor tiles with which my late mother-in-law had been living for 40 years. We had to have them removed by specialists. In the 1970s, when I lived in an old farmhouse, I used an asbestos product to fill the rather irregular holes that I used to drill in the walls to hang pictures and bookshelves, having no idea that there may be a problem with it. Concerns about the dangers of asbestos were first raised early in the 20th century, but its use was not outlawed until 1999. For the thousands of cases now arising 40 or 50 years after first exposure, it is our responsibility to ensure that they are given the compensation and support they require. Unfortunately, the median survival time for pleural mesothelioma, once it has taken hold, is 12 months from diagnosis, but this time, and beyond for the dependents of those affected, must be made as comfortable as possible for those who need help.
Over the years, there have been many shortcomings in the handling of asbestos-related cases across the globe, one such case being the fire at the central ordnance depot in Donnington, Shropshire, in 1983. The blaze which released a huge cloud of asbestos into the air has had a huge repercussion which is still being felt today. Paula Ann Nunn, Ellen Paddock, Susan Maughan, Richard George and Marion Groves are just five local people who contracted mesothelioma and unfortunately passed away as a direct result. Mrs Maughan died only last October. Her daughter told the inquest that it took the local authority five days before they told the community so they were exposed to asbestos for all that time. The ash cloud which spread over an area of 15 square miles attracted many small children who played in it as if it were snow which fell in local gardens for days before people were told it was unsafe. We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, how very harmful that could be to those children. My colleague and noble friend Lady Pinnock has told me about many cases in her area of Kirklees, resulting from working for a brake linings factory, long since closed down.
Mesothelioma is generally resistant to conventional cancer treatment. Long-term survival and cures are extremely difficult, but that does not mean that the mistakes of government and industry alike over the past century should not be paid for by compensation to those affected. The current range of available benefits, both lump sums and long-term allowances, must get to the right people at the right time. The Mesothelioma Act 2014, for which we have to congratulate several noble Lords present today, went a long way to help those who had been unable to access compensation because of the passage of time or a lack of effective record-keeping identifying those responsible. Since 2014, a total of £62.2 million has been awarded. However, of those who were unhappy with the result and requested a review of what they were awarded, 25% had their compensation rate altered—I presume upwards. Given that this illness is still an issue affecting thousands of British people every year and that the nature of mesothelioma’s progress means that time is literally of the essence, it is essential that the correct support is awarded without delay in all cases. Given the significant number of cases reviewed since the launch of the scheme, how do the Government intend to learn from those cases and improve the process so that the right decision is made the first time in as many cases as possible?
Can the Minister also outline the ways in which the Government are promoting the compensation scheme, so that those most in need are fully aware of the support available? Given the vital work done by the charitable organisation, Mesothelioma UK, and its invaluable lung nurse specialists, do the Government intend to follow its lead and introduce more specialist nurses into hospitals to support patients?
Finally, to safeguard against mesothelioma cases slipping under radar given the disease’s lengthy latency, are the Government willing to begin actively seeking out those involved in previous incidents, such as the Donnington fire, so as to promote early identification of their disease and to get immediate support to them?
My Lords, this has been a brief but exceptionally well-informed debate. We have heard from noble Lords whose understanding of mesothelioma has been driven by a family experience, a colleague’s experience or a friend’s experience. We have also heard from the medical fraternity and its expertise. I thank my noble friend Lord Wills for initiating this debate and acknowledge the work which he, together with the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Giddens, and others, have done since our last debate on this topic a year ago. We should remember, as have others, the tireless efforts of Lord Avebury, who campaigned persistently for the sufferers of mesothelioma.
Obtaining justice for sufferers of mesothelioma has been a long and tortuous journey. I think that it is fair to say that, until recent times, efforts have been concentrated on seeking to ensure that sufferers and their families have received material support—money—to help them cope with the traumatic effects of this invariably fatal and excruciatingly painful condition. This journey has encompassed access to the industrial injuries disablement benefit; the 1979 compensation Act for work-related mesothelioma where the employer no longer exists or their liability policy cannot be traced; efforts to improve retracement policies; the 2008 diffuse mesothelioma scheme, where there is no nexus; and then the diffuse mesothelioma payment scheme, which is funded by insurance companies. Each of these in its own way has made access to support more secure, however inadequate. We have praised before the work of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, in delivering the 2014 payment scheme and condemned the historic reluctance of insurers to meet their moral obligations. We note that the payment scheme was able to raise payment levels to 100% of average civil claims in 2015. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that this has been maintained. It is understood that it is driven by the benefits of better tracing of employer liability insurance policies. Again, perhaps the Minister could confirm that.
Last year, the Minister acknowledged that it was wrong to look at mesothelioma as a legacy issue. The projections are that it may have peaked, but it will be with us for a very long time. Moreover, the causes of mesothelioma—exposure to asbestos—are still too prevalent in our environment, especially, as we have heard today, in schools. We may be more aware about how it should be managed—the HSE gives advice on it—but we know that practice is not always followed and people will cut corners. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, spoke about the effects of this on children. Seeking a cure remains the imperative. When we discussed the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, there was some disagreement about precisely how much research had been undertaken previously—how much might be generic and how much was specifically focused. The Minister argued that the problem was not lack of funding but a lack of quality research proposals—I think that this was the position asserted by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in the previous debate on that Bill. Can the Minister now bring some clarity to this issue? What has been the outcome of the strategy to stimulate more research projects?
The Government should be congratulated on their allocation of £5 million of LIBOR fines to establish a national mesothelioma centre. The announcement, of course, made specific reference to service veterans, but this centre is to be a collaboration, it is understood, between four leading institutions which will form a hub—I presume that it will be a virtual hub. It would be good to hear from the Minister, as a practical matter, how the funding of this is to be organised and how it is to go about undertaking and supporting research. It is to be welcomed, but this is still not on equal footing with the rest of cancer research. Nevertheless, “progress is waiting to be made” was the expression, but not without continuing pressure from a range of noble Lords and Members of the other place, those noble Lords who have participated in this debate and, of course, the continuing suffering of those who endure this terrible condition.
My Lords, this has been another really excellent debate on this subject. I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for raising it again—it is really important to keep it in the public eye. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Giddens and Lord Alton, for collaring me on this subject many times over the last year. It is one of the privileges of being in this House that one is able to take an interest in these issues and try to do something about them—otherwise, what is the point of being here? The point is to make a difference. What this has demonstrated is that if there is persistence—real, dogged persistence, often in the face of all kinds of tribulations—you can make progress. It has been a long and tortuous journey, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, said, but there are signs of progress.
I shall pick up a few points before I get into my speech. First, I cannot answer the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Couttie, in detail today, but the level of compensation is certainly something I shall look at in view of her comments about the cost of these new drugs. This is probably an issue more for NICE and NHS England than the compensation scheme. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked whether we are learning from the reviews of these cases, in view of the importance of time. I will certainly look at both those issues. They are, in a sense, related to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, about the huge benefits of specialisation. I have the guidance from NHS England on the treatment of mesothelioma here. I shall not read it out today, because there is not time, but the noble Lord’s point about having a centre of excellence and looking at the improved outcomes from people doing these things repetitively, many times, rather than spreading very complex surgery over many different sites, is absolutely true. Having proper data in registries which can be made transparent is also a hugely important driver of change.
The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, raised the issue of data. Data are hugely important. In a way, if one looks at all the advances that are coming along in cell therapy, gene therapy and the like, in health analytics and big data, the artificial intelligence and machine learning that come from these offer huge potential for improving healthcare in this country. I should also mention that it is clear that many people here have been touched, directly or indirectly, by this devastating disease. That adds not just poignancy but urgency to our discussions. It is interesting how often a patient’s story can bring data to life—data on their own are not enough. It is when you hear about individuals who have suffered and whose lives have been changed or who, indeed, have died, that it is brought home to all of us just how important it is.
We expect the rates of mesothelioma to increase in coming years, due to high exposure to asbestos in the 1960s and 1970s. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, raised the issue of schools. It is the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive, as she will know. The advice is often to leave it where it is and not disturb it—it is not dangerous to children if it is left dormant. If anyone has any evidence that the HSE is not doing the rounds or that there are local authorities in the country where schools are in need of repair, they should bring it to my attention and I will ensure that the HSE follows that up.
Rates of mesothelioma have increased by nearly five times in Great Britain since the late 1970s. In 2014, there were 2,343 registrations of mesothelioma in England: 1,954 men and 389 women. The incidence is expected to peak in the 2020s but, as has been mentioned, it will remain a significant health problem into the 2050s. It is not a legacy disease. It is going to kill many people over the next 30 or 40 years. In 2014, 2,236 deaths were caused by mesothelioma in England, and the latest survival figures suggest that 46% of men survive for one year, compared with 51% for women. Five-year survival is much worse: only 5% for men and 11% for women. It is a death sentence—there is no getting away from that. Others have mentioned that this is a worldwide issue. One research group estimates that, on average, 14,200 cases are diagnosed worldwide every year, and that will be going up, not down.
On the research aspect, there is some better news. On 16 March, the Chancellor announced an award of £5 million to establish a national centre for mesothelioma research. A number of noble Lords have said how important it is that this is co-ordinated—that various universities and research centres around the country do not all have a crack at it, but there should be a national centre for research. This announcement was in response to an application from Imperial College to urgently address the anticipated imminent high mortality rate among Royal Navy veterans and dockyard workers. The award is one of a series funded by the LIBOR fines that have been made since October 2012.
It is envisaged that the national centre will be a collaboration between four leading institutions which have a major interest in the treatment of mesothelioma: the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College, the Royal Brompton Hospital, the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden Hospital. It is pretty impressive standing here naming four institutions that are absolutely world class. This is an extraordinary country when it comes to research. The Marsden, the Brompton and all these institutions are fantastic. They bring together expertise in the genetics of cancer susceptibility and in targets for treatment. Of course, the work being done in genomics will have a huge impact on this in years to come—not quite yet but soon, I hope.
The Department of Health has been in discussion with the British Lung Foundation to work together to bring about the establishment of the research network. The plans are not yet finalised, but the aim, which the department supports, is to attract further donations, to be channelled by the British Lung Foundation so that it can continue its role as the body through which voluntary donations for mesothelioma research are being channelled competitively to the best science centres across the UK. As the organisation which currently administers mesothelioma research grants funded from insurance industry donations, the BLF is well placed to do this. I add my thanks to Aviva and Zurich, the only two insurance companies which have lived up, I think, to a very important moral obligation. We should not give up in our talks with the insurance industry to persuade it. It owes a moral duty but, as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, it is not just a moral duty; there is also some enlightened self-interest in this. Maybe the lawyers would like to chip in as well; that would be good.
We understand that on 1 November—next week—the BLF, alongside the Association of British Insurers, will be hosting a seminar in this House on the future of mesothelioma research. The seminar will focus on the previous research which the insurance industry has funded across the UK, how it can be built on, and how to ensure that mesothelioma projects across the country tie into the work of the new national centre. Together, the MRC and the NIHR spend more than £1 billion annually. In 2015-16, they spent more than £3 million on mesothelioma research. I will be sending a copy of this debate to Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, and Chris Whitty, the Chief Scientific Adviser, to ensure that they pick up all the important arguments that have been made today.
Last month the Government announced £816 million over the next five years for the biomedical research centres across the UK. These centres host the development of ground-breaking new treatments, diagnostics, prevention, and care for patients in a wide range of diseases. Around £118 million of the funding will be for cancer research and we would expect some of that to support mesothelioma research. The fact that we have this £5 million ought to attract more money from the more conventional cancer research programmes.
In March 2016 the National Cancer Research Institute co-ordinated a meeting with the British Lung Foundation, the MRC, Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health to discuss research opportunities in mesothelioma. This was followed up with a community workshop at the International Mesothelioma Interest Group meeting in Birmingham in May this year and has led to the formulation of a draft research priorities document. This will be further developed at a second workshop currently scheduled to take place in February 2017.
There is room for hope that some progress is being made here. We have to keep the momentum going and the profile high. I think we all accept that some cancers seem to have caught the public imagination to a greater extent than this one, which in a sense puts a greater obligation on us to keep it in the public eye. I have been delighted to do what I can and will continue to do so. Again, I thank all noble Lords for continuing to raise this very important topic.
Committee adjourned at 5.56 pm.