Thursday 30 March 2017
Local Arts and Cultural Services
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take to protect and improve local arts and cultural services, including museums, libraries and archaeological services.
My Lords, we have a rich and diverse local arts and cultural life within the UK. I refer to the museums, libraries and archaeological services in the title of the debate because when I first tabled it in May last year, none of these areas had been discussed in this House for some time and they form something of an intimate group. But we could also talk about the visual arts, film, theatre, music, dance, digital arts and many other areas that also make up the arts aspect of the debate. This cultural life is hugely important to us all as individuals, for the good of society, the development of the arts and the protection of our heritage. It is essential that this broad range of work is protected and developed, but it cannot be overemphasised that since 2010, with the onset of austerity, provision for local arts and culture has been steadily and in some cases drastically eroded, mainly through cuts to local authority arts and cultural funding.
This year, councils will spend £10 billion less than they did in 2010-11. According to the Local Government Association, councils will face a gap of £5.8 billion just to fund statutory services, including social care. Local authority investment in arts and culture has declined by £236 million—overall, 17%—since 2010, and in the period 2010-15, Arts Council funding fell by 36%. The Museums Association reports that between 2010-11 and 2015-16, local authority spending on museums and galleries declined by 31% in real terms and that at least 64 museums have closed since 2010—the majority due to local authority cuts—including many much-loved museums such as the Lancashire textiles museums. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals records that in 2014-15, more than 100 libraries closed in the UK, while in the same year 11% of the libraries in Wales were closed. These are fairly shocking figures.
Many authorities are now faced with impossible decisions. I am grateful to the Minister for his concern over the future of the internationally important New Art Gallery Walsall and I am glad that it has been saved. But the same round of cuts in Walsall has led to the decision to close nine of Walsall’s 16 libraries—a library service which this year happens to have been nominated for Library of the Year at the British Book Awards. It is not just a question of outright closures, but of the quality of provision. The Museums Association stated that in 2015, one in five regional museums was at least part closed. There are reduced opening hours for museums and libraries and significant reductions in staff, and the number of qualified librarians employed in libraries has fallen by 25% since 2010. Reductions in outreach programmes are reported by theatres, art galleries, museums and archaeology. There are concerns about the risk of inappropriate deaccessioning, and in 2014 two Northampton museums lost their accreditation status over the sale of the Sekhemka statue. There are increasing difficulties with improving collections, not just because of funding but because often, there is not the expertise to oversee it. Now, we even see the introduction of charges at our once entirely public museums—for instance, the York Art Gallery and Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.
The latest authorities to announce huge cuts include Bath and North-East Somerset Council, Bristol and Birmingham, where the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is now quite extraordinarily under threat. The community organisation Theatre Bath states that cuts will be,
“killing off any hope of a supportive arts infrastructure for emerging or small-scale artists”.
Theatres such as the Playhouse in Liverpool and Newcastle Theatre Royal have become host venues for touring productions rather than producing their own work. We are in danger of destroying the innovative grass roots, including those which supply the West End.
Local authority involvement in archaeology is clearly necessary, not least because 90% of known archaeological sites are undesignated and rely on local planning. It seems clear to me—I am sure that the noble Lords, Lord Renfrew and Lord Redesdale, will clarify this further—that local archaeology cannot be divorced from the work of local authorities, yet as a result of the cuts, since 2006 there has been a 33% decline in crucially important local authority archaeology staff. Unless local authorities can identify concerns, the protection of our archaeology will be neglected.
All who work in the arts and cultural sector are resourceful people; it is part of their nature. I read this week of two artists who have received planning permission to open a skip as a gallery in Hoxton Square in Shoreditch. On the wider scale, resourcefulness will only go so far. If it went further, museums, libraries and arts organisations would not be closing or going to the wall. It is telling that the Library of Birmingham Development Trust, established to attract philanthropic donations, has now been wound up. Philanthropy will most often not work in the places where funding is most needed.
For local arts and culture, local authority involvement in funding is crucial. At its best, it works because local people are the experts on their own region. It works because it is effective and efficient. It is important because it provides geographically comprehensive coverage, yet, in the face of cuts, Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association, has said that,
“there is a danger that whole communities will be left without museums and the rich and diverse stories that they can tell”.
Every locality and every person, irrespective of where they live or who they are, deserves arts and cultural access. This is not in the first place a business, as the Government are trying to turn many of our services into; it is a right and it is a necessity. There should be statutory provision for local arts and culture. This is not about competition between services. Central government should ensure that every local authority has enough funding to do its job properly in every service they cover. It is failing in that duty.
I hope that the Minister will not refer to specific projects as though they are the main narrative—welcome as such initiatives may be individually, they should not be treated as such. The Arts Council continues to make it clear that they are not a substitute for local funding. I say this because of the understandably angry reception given this week by writers to the new £4 million Libraries Opportunities for Everyone Innovation Fund, calling it,
“a smokescreen to hide the cuts”.
The fund is of course a drop in the ocean compared with the £180 million loss to libraries since 2010. Francesca Simon has said with perfect simplicity:
“Libraries first and foremost need to be open, with professional librarians and well-stocked shelves”.
Funding is not now the only problem. The growth of what might be termed a “developer and investor-led culture” and the selling-off of public spaces and buildings—trends rooted in central government policy—mean fewer opportunities for local arts to gain a purchase. A new report, Creative Tensions, by the London Assembly Regeneration Committee, finds that a third of artists in London are expected to lose studios by 2019. There needs to be protection of the arts and cultural sector against soaring rents. It should not be said that, in London, individuals and smaller arts organisations are not suffering a tough time as well. I ask the Minister, too—this is a question about the private sector—whether he will look into the potentially disastrous effect of the new business rates on our high street bookshops, which are important alongside libraries in the fight against illiteracy.
I make no apology for having painted a bleak outlook for the day-to-day running of the arts and cultural services. Unless the Government change their strategy, it will become bleaker. Where this trend has been bucked to an extent, it has been for particular reasons, not least the substantial help that the EU has given over the years, including, for instance, to the Sage Gateshead and the Liverpool Everyman. Indeed, Liverpool has benefited hugely from being European Capital of Culture in 2008, as is Hull now as UK City of Culture. I ask the Minister whether there will be an attempt to maintain these EU funding connections, which are intrinsically bound up with all-important cultural co-operation. A significant purpose of arts and culture at the local level, both for individuals and local areas, is as a vehicle for connection to the wider world, both nationally and beyond. If we leave the single market, it will be disastrous for artists and all those working in the cultural sector, for whom free movement within Europe is essential.
It can rightly be argued that, to encourage access to art and culture for young people, education is crucial. I welcome Nicholas Serota’s announcement on Tuesday of the Durham commission, which I hope will look to a time beyond the EBacc when children in all schools will have a properly rounded education.
My Lords, in his first speech as the new chairman of the Arts Council, Sir Nicholas Serota made clear his priorities:
“I need to voice long-term concerns around public investment, and especially the loss of local authority funding—which is now the most pressing issue, day to day, for many cultural organisations across the country”.
Spending by councils on arts, culture, museums, galleries and libraries declined from £1.42 billion to £1.2 billion between 2010 and 2015, a 16% reduction, because of the squeeze put on local authorities by central government. But local authorities are making an enormous effort to cherish their arts and community policies; they know how valuable they are in economic terms—the creative industries are now worth £84 billion a year to the economy—as well as in human terms.
I shall cite two examples. In 2016, Manchester’s six largest cultural organisations contributed £135.9 million to the local economy. Over the past 20 years, its strategic investment has transformed the cultural reputation of the city—solving its social problems, too, such as loneliness—and its community spirit and well-being, nursed through the emotional and spiritual value of music, theatre, dance and literature. In 2016, Lonely Planet rated Manchester eighth out of the 10 best cities to visit, calling it a cultural dynamo of British culture. Culture has been one of the sectors enjoying double-digit employment growth in Greater Manchester. How much more could have been achieved in wealth and social cohesion without the shackles of ongoing government cuts?
Take another local council with an enlightened view of cultural value—my own borough of Camden, which prioritises culture, primarily by keeping a community festival funding stream that promotes community cohesion through local cultural celebration. I see for myself how this brings neighbours together and promotes literacy, opportunity and well-being. Camden is developing ways of working and seeking new partnerships at all times.
Both Manchester and Camden are vigorous, enlightened Labour councils, fighting in the teeth of government cuts to keep and extend their cultural reach. For whatever reasons—entrepreneurial, social or inspirational—the Government must recommend the Manchester and Camden models and recognise and value the range of inspiration nestling within those rural and urban communities.
My Lords, in three minutes you can hardly say anything, but I thank the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, for including archaeology in the debate. I shall deal with a couple of points raised in the excellent briefings from the Council for British Archaeology and the Society for Museum Archaeology.
Some 90% of archaeological sites at present are protected only by the planning system, which is a problem given that one-third of those employed by local authority planning services in archaeology have lost their jobs since 2006. That is an ongoing problem for archaeology because, like every other arts area, it is within the discretionary spend of local authorities and is therefore probably the only area they can squeeze. But of course, that is leading to major problems. In a recent survey, half of museums did not have an expert in the field of collections, and many museums have stopped taking archaeological artefacts into their collections because they do not have the space or the money to do so. That is going to cause real problems. It has been pushed on to the private sector, and the excellent work of the York Archaeological Trust should be noted. However, given the flooding of Jorvik, the ability to undertake this work on behalf of the local council is severely under threat, which will cause a major problem for the digging up of artefacts in the York area.
There is another problem coming down the line. Because archaeology is not a statutory responsibility—although it could be seen as one in the planning Bill—how long before developers start seeing it as something they have to undertake because they know that councils do not have the expertise or even ability to do anything about it? That question has been asked several times and is probably rhetorical, but I hope the Minister can give an answer.
My Lords, truly successful places that people want to visit and live in are always much more than economic powerhouses. Strong economies are always underpinned by a sense of creative vibrancy and cultural identity. That is as true now for towns and cities in the UK as it was for Florence in the Renaissance and London in the 1850s.
Unlike the noble Earl, I speak with no special expertise in this area, but as a local historian I am a heavy user of the museums, study centres and county archives of Norfolk and have come to appreciate the extraordinary role that local authorities can and do play in investing in our arts. I know that 2015-16 seemed like a bad year, with a sharp decline in educational visits and some predictable reductions in overseas ones, and it can feel extravagant to a local authority to invest in this area. However, new analysis by the Local Government Network showed that, perhaps surprisingly, if we look back over the past two to three years, the picture is not quite as the noble Earl reported. Many local authorities have protected their arts and culture funding and it has not taken disproportionate cuts. It is worth remembering that they have managed to sustain investment when some people here speaking up for social care would say that they have taken even further cuts. So they have managed.
How do we tackle this problem? Joint enterprise has already been mentioned. The Minister will remember last year’s report from the Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which highlighted Norfolk museum service’s hub model of museums and galleries, with collaborations with national institutions such as the British Museum, the Tate and the National History Museum—a mutually creative partnership since 1974 and a very cost-effective way of investing. Norfolk and Suffolk have also combined to create an East Anglia cultural board, which recognises that cultural tourism brings people into the region and encourages people to settle there. Social mobility is fostered by local arts, and social capital is not always allied to intellectual capital. Social creative capital can create social mobility.
I want in my last minute to comment on the crazy imbalance in arts funding between London and the rest of the UK. I know that Arts Council England is uplifting 4% more funding in 2018-22 to the regions, but at present the imbalance is shameful. It is often the provinces that produce artistic capital. It is a great shame that we do not have agreement on how to tackle the shift. We need to agree on a mechanism to get more money into the regions.
My Lords, I invite us to think about this issue from the point of view of the local and that of the consumer. As a poorly-paid clergyman, I have been a consumer of libraries all my life to get books. We are in an age that is moving from discrete organisations such as museums and libraries to what are called cultural hubs, and moving from the static to the dynamic and participative. We have to think about the people who we want to engage with culture and the arts. We are also in a moment where municipal life is dissolving before our eyes. That is partly because of lack of interest in public space and responsibility, so we have to be careful about looking simply to local authorities to bail us out.
Churches have, as your Lordships know, long been cultural hubs with all kinds of activities such as music, worship and learning, and building values between people. Let me give a very quick picture. A phenomenon in the Church of England is called “messy church”. People of all generations come together there for worship, craft making, consuming food and having fun. It is a cultural-bonding, value-creating moment with which people join in. That is where culture is going and where we have to make our pitch to keep the arts and culture alive. In the city of Derby, where I work, we have secular equivalents of our messy church. The museums have come together to form an independent trust. QUAD is an independent trust and charity, which has a cinema with other activities. They are messy cultural and artistic spaces which invite people to join, learn and be developed. They are the models that we have got to go with.
I have four questions for the Minister about the practicalities of how we are going to develop a culture of cultural development. First, VAT relief is available on theatre tickets and production costs but what is the equivalent for non-profit cinemas, for instance? Secondly, business rates have been mentioned but what is the guidance for business rates on emerging cultural hubs? Thirdly, there is a lot of pressure on local government and the national Government are blamed for withdrawing grants. What is the potential for local taxation to invite local people to participate properly? Fourthly, how are our churches, 15,000 of them across the country, going to be able to contribute to culture and art as a local phenomenon that people participate in?
If we are going to be worried about education, health and priorities, only a healthy cultural connectivity in our society will enable people to have the will and the wherewithal to support important things such as health and education.
My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, for this timely question on local arts and cultural services. As my time is so short I will, like the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, restrict my contribution mainly to archaeological problems. I should declare an interest as chair of the Treasure Valuation Committee. The workings of the Treasure Act, like those of the local planning authorities, owe much to the archaeological expertise on the ground: to the finds liaison officers and archaeological officers working in county planning departments. In general the system works well, or at any rate has worked well until now, with the help of finds liaison officers. The relevant planning authorities generally seek the advice of archaeological officers.
As the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, has already emphasised, however, the 33% decline in local authority archaeology staff since 2006 is a matter of great concern. The number working has declined from 400 to 271 staff. They advise on planning consents, conditions and circumstances where rescue excavation is appropriate and, where necessary, they maintain the historic environment record. It is a matter of concern that this attrition has left a number of local authorities without professional archaeological advice. Middlesbrough is one case which is a matter of concern.
Museums are responsible for maintaining archaeological archives, and the archives, which are the result of rescue excavation and other studies, are essential for supporting the historic environment record, which is the basis for granting planning permission or for withholding it where there are archaeological objections. This is a general problem. I am not certain that it is fair to lay the problem at the door of the present Government, nor have members on the other side of the Committee—who are very numerous—done so in particular. But it is a matter for all local authorities to give sufficient priority to the archaeological and cultural resources which we are discussing. Archaeological resources in England are at risk through attribution. We must all do our best to maintain funding on all sides in this area.
My Lords, I refer your Lordships to my registered interests. We are discussing extremely important issues that go to the heart of our communities. I sincerely thank the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, for not only securing this debate but also his brilliant opening submission. I reiterate that we are discussing the steps that the Government intend to take or are taking to protect and improve local arts and cultural services, including museums, libraries and archaeological services. As we have heard, such services are always under threat, especially when local authorities are faced with diminishing budgets, not least from central government and as already outlined by the noble Earl.
Local authorities face very real and difficult choices, for instance when funding the increasing demands for social care services, but I would argue that it must not be one or the other; it should be both. What is the quality of life if it is devoid and deprived of culture, arts, libraries, museums and archaeology—the very things that open our minds and give us reasons to learn and live? Yet this is exactly what some local authorities and funders are having to face: difficult choices, creating a concept of basic services that will be supported and others which will not. I do not accept that concept. Indeed, my own life and life chances were enhanced in my very poor, impoverished community in the East End of London in the late 1950s and 1960s precisely because schools and local authorities believed that lives would be improved by exposure to and familiarity with the arts. I want these chances and experiences to reach beyond my generation and to be accessed by all.
I wish to refer to evidence given by the actors’ union Equity and to concerns expressed among visitor organisations. Equity expressed concern to your Lordships’ Select Committee about cuts in public funding of the arts through Arts Council England and local authorities, as this impacts on theatres that no longer produce their own productions, with a subsequent loss to the local economy and talent pools. It called on the Secretary of State to provide leadership on this and give local authorities direction on how to tackle these difficult funding issues.
Smaller, local authority museums and civic collections are deeply concerned that they are at the mercy of local authority cuts. They say that the decisions by some local authorities to place their collections into independent trusts may work in some circumstances but not all, and that it requires ongoing investment. Finally, a case in point is Birmingham City Council, which placed the stunning Birmingham Museums and its galleries into a trust but will not commit to providing core funding beyond this year. There is a very good argument to make that such collections, along with others, should be re-designated as national collections—like Liverpool’s—and therefore that the DCMS and Arts Council England should become responsible for them. Will the Government adopt such a model nationally?
My Lords, in the brief time allowed I will concentrate my remarks on the future sustainability of local and regional museums. The rapid reduction in local authority budgets has put huge pressure on museums and will inevitably weaken the sector further if we do not think more strategically about how we wish to support them.
I therefore welcome the various public consultations that the Government have initiated, in particular the DCMS’s museums review and the review of Arts Council England and its work. These take place against a backdrop of ever-expanding costs of statutory services, most notably in adult social care. Unsurprisingly, museums in less well-off areas suffer most. I wholeheartedly agree with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy. We must do more to address these regional funding differences while expanding imaginative income-generating schemes—although these are rarely enough to cover lost funding. The oft-suggested introduction of entrance fees is not necessarily a solution either. Brighton & Hove Council and York Museums Trust both introduced charges in 2015; both have since experienced drops in visitor numbers of more than 50%. The looming question of leadership and “What next?” has never been more important. We need to strengthen management capabilities so that directors and curators can meet the challenges of today’s curatorial reality, where expectations have risen but funds have diminished.
My question to the Minister is: why do the Government in effect stand by when we can all see what is happening in the sector? The remarkable success and potential of non-national museums, as well as the public impact of partnerships with national museums, are now at risk due to the significant and swift decline in investment from local authorities. In the wider context of local and central government spending, the amount allocated to these museums is very small. Cutting it will have only a minimal impact of reducing spending, yet the value of what is lost will be considerably greater.
In the winter edition of the Art Fund’s Art Quarterly magazine, its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, stated that he hoped that public consultations would articulate the word “essential” when it comes to museums and galleries. He believes:
“We need to continue to assert the value and importance of museums to us and our communities”.
Yesterday’s formal exit from the EU has made the case only more relevant as we strive to make sense of that tension between nation and internationalism. So while there is inevitably a focus on funding at the moment, it is also vital to recognise how museums continue to play an important part in our public realm, be it in education, engaging in communities or attracting people to live in, work in and visit a place.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Earl for securing this debate. I declare an unpaid interest as chair of a charity called Worcester Live, which is the main provider of the arts in the city. It runs the only theatre; the only concert hall; one of the largest festivals in the county; an outdoor Shakespeare in partnership with the city council; an indoor Shakespeare in partnership with Worcester Cathedral—last year we commemorated the 800th anniversary of the death of King John by staging Shakespeare’s play around his tomb in front of the altar; a ghost walk, which is a tourist attraction; a one-year part-time foundation course for young people wanting to get to theatre school; a number of youth theatres; and much more.
Worcester Live exists for three reasons. First, it receives generous core funding support from Worcester City Council, which, per head of population, probably contributes more to the arts than any other district council. Secondly, it has a small number of wonderful individual benefactors, trusts and patrons. Thirdly, its productions and events are well-supported by local residents.
However, Worcester Live gets not a penny from the Arts Council, and that means that its finances are constantly on a knife edge. In my view, a disproportionate amount of arts money goes to London, and a huge percentage of it goes to classical music in one form or another—orchestras, opera and ballet—and to flagship venues, a point made earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy. I am far from convinced that the balance is entirely right, and I would like the Arts Council to recognise the value to local communities outside the south-east of popular non-elitist organisations such as the one that I am involved with.
I also want to mention another reason why local arts can be vibrant: the role of volunteers. There is in Worcester a splendid historical museum called Tudor House in the medieval heart of the city. It is because of the 60 or so volunteers that Tudor House is able to maintain free admission. At any one time there are about 30 of them working regularly as room stewards or in the coffee shop. Another group supports the education days, another group works as an operations committee and so on. Without volunteers, Tudor House and countless other local history museums would not exist, and they deserve better recognition from all of us. I hope the Minister will agree with me when he replies.
My Lords, how timely that the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, should air this important subject just as we start the process of leaving the EU. When I, a born optimist, asked at Oral Questions on 7 March this year if the Government were concerned by the threat of closure facing many libraries and leisure centres, I was told that I was being pessimistic. Pessimistic? The Government were reminded by several noble Lords on 13 October 2016—and the Minister in today’s debate, I believe, answered—that several hundred libraries have closed since 2010.
While it is true that we all have to cut our cloth according to our means and that the internet has brought access to books and music much closer, nothing can replace the actual live experience: the object, a book, the sound of a bow hitting a string and the social cohesion factor of meeting and listening together or discussing literature in groups. I am sure the Minister will acknowledge that the publishing industry and the creative industries in general are part of the great economic success story of this country. But they need nourishing and investing in for our future prosperity and cultural excellence.
Many music clubs, festivals and orchestras up and down the country depend on visiting artists and chamber ensembles to enrich their programmes. How will Brexit affect them? Will British players be excluded from European orchestras, particularly European youth orchestras, where it will not be a matter of work permits but of actual acceptance into the group? Even for well-known soloists like the cellist Steven Isserlis, who has written to me on this subject and who gives many concerts in the EU, there is the worry of constant visa applications, which could be turned down if Brexit turns sour.
What about the colleges for whom the lost income from losing students, who might no longer be supported by the EU to come here, might well be a disaster? We have already heard of two orchestras that are decamping to warmer artistic climes. We need to act now to make sure this does not become an exodus and that we are not starved of cultural intercourse with our neighbours.
As I pointed out on 7 March, it is often rural, isolated communities who face bleak opportunities for education and entertainment, and I am sure the Minister would agree that the natural law of economics means that it is precisely those communities who are most likely to be hit hardest in times of economic drought.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, for securing this timely debate. I intend to focus my brief remarks on local museums, and I declare an interest as chair of the advisory board for the Modern Record Centre at the University of Warwick, a wonderful archive of trade union and industry history. I am also a supporter of the People’s History Museum in Manchester.
It is clear that times are bleak for a whole range of arts and cultural services, but in the current climate, it is local museums, those directly managed and funded by local authorities, that are the most vulnerable. Others have charted the recent decline in local authority investment in museums. Arts Council England acknowledges that councils understand that investment in cultural services shapes local identity, promotes tourism, stimulates creative industries, and creates happier and healthier communities. Age UK showed that creative activities such as visiting museums improve well-being in later life.
It is sadly inevitable that, given their shrinking budgets, local authorities see their non-statutory funding of museums as a low priority. The museums review announced in last year’s culture White Paper is due to be published this summer. I hope that its state of the nation report will enable us to understand how museums might need to keep changing to survive and thrive. But museums facing the sudden withdrawal of local authority support are sometimes forced to close before any alternatives are considered. In light of this, can the Minister assure us that the review will contain realistic recommendations to prevent closures and sell-offs? Will the review outline steps better to identify early warning signs, which would allow enough time to develop proposals to transfer museums into trusts or community management schemes, for example?
I read that museums are not meant to become monuments to themselves—they can and should relocate collections or develop new partnerships or new directions if that will attract new or more visitors. In my home town of Bradford, a new £1.8 million gallery opened last week in the newly renamed National Science and Media Museum. Tim Peake’s spacecraft will be on display there. New exhibits—and the new name—reflect the museum’s changing focus on the science behind the magic of photography, film and television. It aims to combat a recent history of falling visitor numbers and to keep the museum fresh and relevant in our fast-changing, high-speed world. This is wonderful stuff, not least for the people of Bradford, who are fortunate that the museum is part of the London-based Science Museum group, which receives about £40 million a year from DCMS.
This brings me to one final point: those of us who live in London—the museum capital of the world—know that we have unrivalled riches on our doorsteps. If we look beyond these to our wonderfully varied and quirky local museums, there is much to discover: other speakers have indicated their favourites. They all help to preserve, protect and promote our nation’s history. We use them or we lose them.
I, too, thank the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, for initiating this debate and I concur with the points made by him and other speakers. I should remind the Committee of my vice-presidency of the Local Government Association. I want to address two issues: first, regional cultural resources that have national and international importance; and secondly, the role of the private sector in supporting culture outside London.
We have heard a little bit about Manchester. I was there recently, visiting Mrs Gaskell’s house and the home of the Pankhursts. Both are wonderful to visit, but both have limited public opening times—three days a week and one-and-a-half days a week respectively. There might be perfectly good reasons for this that I am unaware of, and I pay a huge tribute to those running them for their achievement. It might simply be a lack of finance, but whatever the reason, will the Minister look at this issue to see if everything is being done that can be done to support longer public opening hours for such important international visitor destinations?
Right across the country, similar buildings that are major international resources can be underused and under-visited. In Newcastle, where I live, we have the Mining Institute, where the electric light was first demonstrated and which could become a major public destination in its own right. Does DCMS have a register of such key buildings across England that could be invested in? If there is not one, might one be created?
The Arts Council has a good record in starting to address the regional imbalance that we have heard about, but it needs to keep going. I noted in the recent culture White Paper that, while total DCMS grant in aid from 2009 to 2015 has declined in cash terms, non-public investment has doubled in that period. That is very good to see, but I suspect that corporate giving mostly benefits London, where so many company headquarters lie; yet corporate responsibility should be to invest in culture across the United Kingdom because profits might well derive from outside the immediate area of a company HQ. Will the Minister tell us what data the Government have on the extent of non-public investment for each part of England? Would it be possible to publish those data if they have them, or to secure them if they do not?
My Lords, this has been a fantastic debate. I thank, as have others, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, for his tireless efforts in the arts and cultural world, for his support of it and for his really excellent speech which I could not match—certainly not in three minutes. I am sure that the Minister will want to respond in detail to that, so I will not cover that ground. Instead, I want to use my short time to make two main points.
When the industrial strategy Green Paper was introduced, Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for BEIS, spoke of the importance of recognising the country’s strengths,
“from science to the creative industries”.
The Prime Minister is also on record as saying that special emphasis in the industrial strategy would be placed on helping sectors of the economy such as the creative industries. However, the specific challenges mentioned in the industrial strategy are energy, robotics, satellites and space, leading-edge healthcare, manufacturing and materials, biotechnology and quantum, and transformative digital technologies. It might be possible that the last one includes creative industries, but they are not mentioned. It is an awful gap, so can the Minister confirm that the interests of the DCMS will be represented in the final version of the industrial strategy? It is very important that we see it there and that it is part of the discussions.
Secondly, the Government need to think carefully about research in the creative industries if they are going to see a vibrant sector arrangement. As part of the Autumn Statement, a £4.7 billion announcement was made about an industrial strategy challenge fund. This will be cross-disciplinary and cover a broad range of technologies to be decided by an evidence-based process. As part of that process, a number of consultative workshops have happened and it is evident from those that there is a high level of interest from the cultural and creative industries in bidding for and obtaining money from the fund. We do not know, however, whether that will be possible.
An interesting aspect of our creative industries sector, which is enormous and does a fantastic job for our economy, is that it is largely made up of very small companies—micro-companies and very small SMEs—that rarely have the scale to engage in research. There is a research council—the Arts and Humanities Research Council—and it has a plan to create eight regional hubs, anchored in higher education institutions, that reach out to SMEs in the creative sector. This is a very good idea and I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that the creative industries will get a fair share of this vital research funding.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords, and especially to the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, for securing this incredibly wide-ranging debate. My reply will probably only scratch the surface but I will try to answer as many points as I can. It is clear that this is a subject that noble Lords are very interested in and in which they have their individual specialities. It is a very daunting prospect to face this array of specialised interests—with, admittedly, some help. I will do my best.
The Committee has shown the breadth and depth of its interest in arts and culture. The presence or absence of beautiful buildings, galleries, museums, libraries and treasured archaeological sites has a huge impact on whether somewhere thrives and is a good place to live. These institutions help bind communities together and link current generations to those that came before; they console and inspire individuals. They are remarkably popular: 76% of adults in England engaged in the arts in 2015-16, and in the same period—surprisingly to me—53% of adults visited a museum or gallery.
The whole Government recognise that, and it is why there have been excellent recent funding settlements for DCMS sectors, even at times of economic difficulty. Central government’s main financial support for the arts, culture and museums is delivered via Arts Council England; it plans to invest £1.1 billion of public money in the period 2015-18. These sectors also benefit from public funding through the National Lottery. The Arts Council alone is to spend an estimated £700 million over the same period. Furthermore, the Heritage Lottery Fund spent £434 million in 2016-17; it supports museums and heritage projects, including public libraries. Archaeological-sector projects are supported by Historic England, and museums receive £400 million a year from the DCMS in grant aid. Let us not forget, also, that to assist the sector we have extended the museums and galleries tax relief to permanent exhibitions.
The Government are also investing in flagship projects such as Hull UK City of Culture 2017, which thereby raised over £1 billion of additional investment, and the Great Exhibition of the North in Newcastle and Gateshead in 2018. Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic England have come together to create the Great Place scheme, which will spend £20 million on embedding arts, culture and heritage in local plans and decision-making.
However, the nature of the political system is that much responsibility for locally delivered services is devolved to local authorities. This principle has had the backing of all political parties. I recognise that local authorities have had challenging financial settlements over the past few years as we tackled a very large national deficit. That had to be done for the sake of our children and grandchildren. Nevertheless, many local authorities have acknowledged that not supporting arts and culture is both a serious failing and a false economy, and continue to invest in all those sectors.
One of the most effective ways for local authorities to develop and sustain arts and culture is through collaboration with other organisations. For example, Dig Greater Manchester, supported by the University of Salford and the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, is giving thousands of Manchester residents the opportunity to take part in real excavations. Nearer to here, the Museum of London is receiving £180 million from the City of London Corporation and City Hall for its new premises, which will showcase the best of London’s history and archaeology, including brand new finds from Crossrail and other projects.
The merits of collaboration were recognised in the Government’s Culture White Paper, published last year. It announced a review of culture and digital technology, which is bringing together organisations such as Arts Council England, universities, the BBC, Culture24, and Connecting Cambridgeshire. The Government are therefore offering strategic support in a variety of ways. Together with the Local Government Association, we set up the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce. It published Libraries Deliver, an ambitious strategy containing a range of practical and innovative ideas for how local authorities can maintain and improve library services.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, reminded us that last September the Government launched a museums review led by Neil Mendoza. It recently concluded a series of round tables exploring issues in the sector and is now considering its recommendations. The review is expected to be published in the summer. Of course matters such as opening times could well be included in that. The noble Baroness also mentioned the Bradford Media and Science Museum, which I was due to see last week but was prevented from doing so by the events of last week.
The noble Lords, Lord Redesdale and Lord Renfrew, talked about archaeology. As a result of the issues that they raised, we have asked Historic England to work with representatives from the local government archaeology and development sector to consider how best to respond to the reduction in the number of historic environment specialists employed by local government. This follows a report by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and John Howell MP. This will involve developing professionally recognised standards and guidance, a review of local authority models for charging for archaeological services and research into the impact of heritage service changes in the south-west. It produced an update on progress in February 2017 on its proposed way forward, which it issued in October last year—I cannot go into all the detail now. In addition, Historic England is looking into training and skills retention and developing plans for heritage apprenticeships.
I wanted to say a few words about regional funding, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, and the noble Lords, Lord Shipley, Lord Freyberg and Lord Faulkner, among others. We agree that we want to disperse funding across the country, and Arts Council England continues to do that. It will rebalance funding between London and the regions over the next few years. In the past three years, 70% of the funding was invested outside London, and that will rise to 75% by 2018. National portfolio funding outside London continues to increase and will increase further in the 2018 portfolio. It will have increased by 4% between 2015 and 2018 and another 4% between 2018 and 2022.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, talked about Manchester. The Government have invested heavily in Manchester: £78 million in a new theatre and arts venue called The Factory. The South Asia gallery of the Manchester Museum received £5 million. As the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, said, there is a 4% uplift in national portfolio funding, but furthermore, the 70% of lottery funding outside London increased to 75% over the past three years and 80% to 90% of the Ambition for Excellence scheme to support talent is spent outside London. That is £35 million. The strategic touring fund of another £35 million funds touring of arts productions and focuses heavily on areas of low engagement.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, specifically asked whether the museums review will help to show museums how to avoid closures and sell-offs and identify early warning signs. The review is looking specifically at the sustainability of local museums as a key line of inquiry and will make recommendations this summer. The noble Baroness also mentioned the reopening of the National Science and Media Museum, a national museum. That is another trend—that national museums are having more and more venues outside London.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked about culture and whether that is genuinely included in the industrial strategy. First, of course, the Secretary of State was a member of the committee that put that together. I can say to him that the cultural sector is included in the definition of “creative industries” that is mentioned in the Green Paper in an early sector review, the Bazalgette review. We are certainly looking forward to working with him and all interested colleagues in the coming weeks and months. The review is focused particularly on prosperity across all the creative industries, and we recognise that the cultural sector as part of those is contributing to UK prosperity through its many national and international commercial successes.
I must really speed up now. The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and others made a very valid point about EU funding. Of course it is too early to say where we will do that, but I can say that we are extremely well aware of it. It is not only about the money; it is the partnership and the links with EU organisations that are important here. Of course we will have extra money when we are not a net contributor, but this is all part of the negotiation and we are very well aware of it, as we are cultural people in terms of free movement, which will be part of it. One of our jobs, and one that we are taking very seriously, is ensuring that the Department for Exiting the EU is aware of the concerns of the cultural sector. That is definitely a job that the DCMS has.
The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, mentioned the fact that half of museums do not have collection specialists and that many are no longer accepting archaeological archives from developers. The museums review is specifically looking at the issue of archaeological archives and storage, and will report in the summer.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby asked four questions, one of which I am going to answer; I am afraid the others on tax are pretty well outside my remit. The Government are keen for churches to contribute and play a full part in community life. In December 2016 we announced the English churches and cathedrals sustainability review. That is now in progress and exploring these issues. I might mention that on broadband, for example, the WiSpire initiative is one very good way in which they might contribute.
There were other questions but I apologise that I do not have time to answer them. If I may, I will write. I will conclude by saying that arts and culture are a huge part of what makes the villages, towns, cities and nations that comprise our United Kingdom so special. We want them to be available to everyone, to be cherished and protected and to have the strategic and financial support that they need. This is the central mission of the DCMS, and it is heartening to be reminded that this House shares our determination.
Educational Attainment: Boys
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to improve the educational attainment of boys of all ages at state schools.
My Lords, I remind noble Lords of my education interests in the register, and thank them for taking part in this debate this afternoon.
A retired general known to me was inspecting a school cadet corps, and as he went round, he noticed that, whereas the girls had large numbers of badges on their arms for military pursuits such as shooting, first aid and field-craft, the boys had virtually none. When he addressed the parade he said, “Boys, you must really pull your socks up. You’ve got hardly any badges on your arms”. While he was speaking, a lad in the front row kept putting up his hand, military discipline vying with indignation, and said, “Sir! We’ve got just as many badges as the girls, but the girls won’t sew them on for us!”.
That is a somewhat frivolous introduction to what is actually a very serious subject: boys in our state schools are doing badly compared with girls. I want to pay tribute to the excellent debate on this issue in Westminster Hall last September, secured by my honourable friend Karl MᶜCartney, MP for Lincoln. Many excellent points were made by members across the political spectrum and I shall refer to them from time to time.
There are enough statistics to last the whole afternoon, but here are just a few of them. Last year’s figures show that in state schools girls are 30% more likely to enter university than boys. In Scotland, the figure is 43%. Indeed, the head of UCAS has recently predicted that, if current trends continue, girls born today will be 75% more likely to enter higher education. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a gap of nearly 16% between girls and boys judged to be achieving a good level of development at the end of the early years foundation stage—74.3% for girls and 58.6% for boys. These trends persist: when finishing primary school, some 57% of girls reach the required standards in literacy and numeracy; only 49% of boys do.
When we move to public examinations, last year girls opened up their biggest gap over boys in A to C grades for 14 years—71.3% of female entries were awarded at least a C grade compared with just 62.4% of their male counterparts. Especially in arts subjects, a quarter of girls earn As or A*s, but under 17% of boys do. It is only in mathematics that boys squeak ahead. At university, women are more likely to graduate than their male peers, and typically they get better grades.
Whichever way the data are read, they show that girls outperform boys at all educational stages in most areas of the curriculum. So boys are doing badly compared with girls, with all that that means for society, when surely their attainment ought to be closer to equal. Why is this? No one knows the answer as too little research has been carried out into this important question. Many theories abound and I shall consider some of them.
First, about 15% of teachers in English primary schools are full-time male teachers, and the figure for secondary schools is only 38%. Overall, therefore, three-quarters of all state school teachers are female. This means that the majority of boys, many of whom have no man in the house, never encounter a male role model at home or at school. Please do not get me wrong: I am not knocking our many wonderful women teachers—we obviously could not do without them—but common sense suggests that schools need nearer a 50:50 split, which, by the way, independent schools come closer to.
Does this worrying situation make a difference to boys’ performance? There have been a few studies, based on small samples, which suggest that boys’ attainment is not necessary better when they are taught by male teachers, but in reality no one knows. The decline of boys’ performance has, however, coincided with the drop in the number of male teachers since the 1980s. Could it be that many schools are now not focused enough on supporting boys, understanding what makes them tick and providing a clear disciplinary framework and an environment that does not fail to encourage masculinity? Boys develop more slowly in their teenage years, and many observably have less positive attitudes to schooling. It is very possible that male role models are vital in instilling in them the importance of education.
Whatever the answer, the Government need to address the imbalance of male teachers to female teachers in our schools. Why are men not joining the teaching profession as they used to? Again, there is only anecdotal evidence. Not long ago I talked to a number of newly graduated men at one of our universities. Would they think of teaching as a career? All were emphatic that they would not. Was it the salary? No, they thought that it was fine for someone in their 20s. They unanimously suggested that they could not put up with the disciplinary problems and the chance that there might be unwarranted accusations against them. When I questioned this, they told me that they had been at school only three years before and knew exactly what they were talking about.
It is also perceived wisdom that methods of teaching and examinations have been feminised in the past decades, particularly with the replacement of written examinations with continuous assessment and coursework in many subjects. This is thought to favour girls, who are better capable of the steady, organised work required, whereas boys, it is suggested, do better at putting a towel around their head and revising for all-or-nothing written papers. There has been a trend of late for schools and examining bodies to rely less on coursework and more on end-of-course examinations, but it is too soon to see if this will narrow the gap in performance again, as is suggested.
There is no doubt that the difference in attainment between boys and girls is a complex subject. It is visible across all ethnic groups. The Government have in the past rightly pointed out that most other OECD countries have similar gaps. One would have thought, therefore, that there would be plenty of research in other countries to address this problem, but there is very little of real relevance. Girls are often said to do even better at single-sex schools than at co-educational schools. Do boys do better at boys’ schools than at mixed schools? There seems to be no research available to enable us to take a view. There are some 150 grammar schools in this country, some single sex, some co-educational. Do boys do better in selective education? We cannot tell as there are no useful immediate statistics to help us.
I do not ask the Minister to come up with any answers today to these complicated and vexing questions, but I am sure that we need to hear that the Government will consider a wide-ranging review of the issue. We badly need some high-quality investigative work, and I know that Members on all sides of the House will agree that that research should be free of political correctness and ideology. We need to find out what is putting men off seeking teaching careers so that we can encourage more of them into the profession. We need to know whether the teaching of boys by men really does make a difference to the performance gap. We need to know whether single-sex education is helpful to boys’ attainment or whether there is little difference. We need to know whether boys in selective schools do as well as girls similarly selected. We need to look at comparative studies from other countries—some work has been done in Sweden, the USA and Australia —to see whether there is anything we can learn. Above all, we need to know what can be done for boys without affecting the performance of girls.
Too many boys at present are discouraged by their results and tend to leave education unskilled and poorly qualified for future vocational courses. More young men than young women are not in proper employment or training. Their next steps are too often to be benefits claimants and then, too regularly, they encounter the youth justice system. We need to address these issues, and to do so we badly need far more objective research into them; otherwise, we shall let down further generations of boys with the most serious consequences for our society.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, for raising this question. It is a perennial problem facing our education system. Across all parties and groups there is a wish to solve it but so far there is not a lot of evidence that any of us have succeeded. The more we can focus on it, the better. I am grateful for the opportunity today to contribute.
I used to be an optimist about this. The noble Lord mentioned that boys’ attainment fell away in the 1980s. I remember that period well: it was when I was a secondary school teacher. I think what happened is that girls’ attainment improved while boys’ attainment stood still and that is when the gap started. In a strange way, I have always taken comfort from that fact. When I was Education Minister, we saw the performance of children from ethnic groups improve so that it overtook white children, who got left behind. I had seen that as optimistic, thinking that if we could do it for girls and ethnic groups we could do it for those boys, too. Until fairly recently, I thought that was probably the approach we ought to adopt, with focused targets on boys to try and replicate what happened in raising the attainment of other underachieving groups.
I have begun to change my mind on that, partly because we have a much stronger schools system than we had. We have better school leaders and better-quality teachers, yet we have not made that difference. It has not worked. Sitting around just saying, “Focus on boys and have another load of initiatives”, with £1 million spent here and there will not work. I am much more persuaded now—it is a more complex argument and a greater challenge to achieve—that the whole of the gender difference is wound up in the income difference. I take the phrase from the Social Mobility Commission, which says:
“The income gap is larger than either the ethnicity gap or the gender gap”.
I thought we could overcome that by focusing on boys but do not believe so any longer. The way we must go now to close the gap between girls and boys is to take on that big issue of the income gap. If we do that, we will raise standards everywhere and boys will rise with that.
I do not say that there is no issue with boys. This debate is about underachievement of boys in the state system but there is also underachievement of boys in the independent sector—I am not sure why they have been squeezed out of this debate—and from wealthy backgrounds. However, when you look at the nub of the problem, the hard edge is among poor boys. Whatever we do for poor boys would help other underachieving boys as well.
We could get drowned in statistics—I entirely agree with that—but I offer this set of statistics because they support my argument. Girls who do not get free school meals, so more affluent girls above the measure of poverty, are 107% more likely to gain five good GCSEs than free-school-meal girls. Boys who do not get free school meals are 135% more likely to gain five good GCSEs. So there is an issue about boys and girls. If you look at the difference between free-school-meal boys and girls, it is only 33%. If you get even for poverty, the gender gap is 33%. If you plonk poverty back into the measure through free school meals, the gap is 107% for girls and 135% for boys. There must be a message in there that the gender gap is real but it is accentuated and made worse because, at its core, this is about poverty.
We must address the wider educational and inequality arguments and issues that face us. The most interesting set of statistics I found in the Library briefing on this—I could have sat for a week looking at all the statistics; they are fascinating and contradictory, which is one of the problems—is where gender gap by local area was looked at. We know that the largest gender gap is in St Helens, South Tyneside and Darlington. The lowest gender gaps are in Richmond upon Thames, Calderdale and North Somerset. I say no more. It is bound in with poverty. On the next page, one sees something interesting. The most deprived local authority in the country is Tower Hamlets, whose gender gap is 15%. That is too large, but it is only a percentage point away from the second-least deprived local authority in England, which is Rutland. My analysis of that is that Tower Hamlets has overall good standards. There has been good, solid school improvement. It is a high-achieving borough, even though it is an area of high deprivation.
Somewhere in that lies the answer. If you get school improvement right—we now know a lot about this, which we did not know years ago—you close those gaps. You close the poverty gap and you close the gender gap. My marker in trying to address this is that first we have to address poverty. That is not beyond the Minister’s brief, because it is not beyond anybody’s brief. If you address poverty, that will solve the gender gap. Secondly—and this is where I share my conclusion with the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield—we need to look at the barriers that are caused by being poor. This is about high expectations, social capital and, predominantly, early years education and language development. It is about having a space to study and role models. This is a big issue and I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss it. We do not have a good track record in tackling it, but I think that we now know enough about school improvement to take us further forward.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Lingfield for raising this important issue. As he and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, it is a complex subject, to which it is hard to do justice in one hour, so I will focus on the lack of male role models, which is a significant factor in boys’ underachievement. To set this in a broader context, UK studies show that only one-fifth of the variability in pupils’ achievement can be attributed to school quality; the remaining four-fifths is attributable to pupil-level factors. The influence of family background accounts for half of that four-fifths. To put it plainly, 40% of variability in pupils’ achievement has absolutely nothing to do with the school or the neighbourhood.
Here I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. Poverty is an inadequate explanation. Attainment among pupils on free school meals from Bangladeshi, black African and Chinese backgrounds has improved by more than 20% over the last 10 years, while poor white pupils do worst in their GCSEs among all the main ethnic groups and have seen no such uplift. Boys do especially badly: less than a quarter of boys on free school meals achieve five good GCSEs, compared with just under a third of girls.
The right honourable Member for Birkenhead, Frank Field, said:
“Raising the aspirations and results of white working-class boys would do more than anything to cut the supply route to Britain’s burgeoning underclass”.
Joseph Rowntree Foundation research shows that raising aspirations requires working with parents, yet a 2011 Ofsted survey of 37 secondary schools found that none of the schools was focusing specifically on drawing in the families of white British students. One high-attaining inner-city secondary school was working effectively with groups such as black Caribbean boys and Somali girls but had not attempted similar work with its lowest-attaining group: white British students eligible for free school meals. It is a fairly small survey, which highlighted only one otherwise successful school, but it is telling none the less.
Over 3 three million children are growing up in lone-parent households, about a million of whom have no meaningful contact with their fathers. Rates of lone parenthood are far higher among poor white and black groups than among Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi populations. Research clearly shows that family breakdown is a risk factor for educational underattainment. Can the Minister explain how we are supporting families to prevent family breakdown? I draw the attention of noble Lords to my entry in the register of interests in quoting from the Centre for Social Justice’s 2013 report, Requires Improvement. In it, Sir Robin Bosher, director of primary education at the Harris Federation of academies, emphasises that 25 years as a head teacher has taught him that,
“society must not underestimate the impact of family breakdown and the colossal effect a parent leaving home has on children”.
John d’Abbro OBE, who heads the outstanding-rated New Rush Hall School, argues that underlying almost all the exclusions that he sees is the issue of family breakdown. Boys are three times more likely to be excluded than girls, and many of the boys whom d’Abbro sees excluded grew up without fathers. A lack of discipline at home means that boys will test boundaries to the limit and beyond at school. US and UK research shows that, even if he is not spending a lot of time doing things with his son, a father’s presence is still a protective factor. We should not underestimate how hard it is for even the most dedicated single mothers to compensate for the psychological impact of a boy’s father not being there to encourage him, pull him up when necessary and show him love and care. The father gives a boy more reason to try harder, push himself and overcome: all vital for doing well at school, as is a father’s modelling of being able to provide for one’s family by linking effort and reward.
There are micro-communities in our country where three-quarters of households with children have no father living in the house. Male teachers are, therefore, even more vital in these local schools, as was highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield. In 2012, however, one in four English primary schools had no full-time qualified male teacher and 80% of state-educated boys were in primary schools with three or fewer full-time qualified male teachers. In one low-income area—Lewisham, in London, which has well over twice the national average of lone-parent families—one-third of primary schools had no qualified full-time male teachers. Can the Minister update us on the number of male teachers today and tell us what is being done to increase their prevalence, especially where lone-parenthood rates are high?
Keeping fathers involved, even if they are separate from mothers, is vital. We have to start early: the last Labour Government passed legislation to ensure that all fathers’ names are on birth certificates in all but the most exceptional circumstances. This part of the Welfare Reform Act 2009 should be brought into force. Will the Minister inform us what is currently being done to improve the rates of active fatherhood?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, who—as we established in a debate here a couple of years ago—is a very distant kinsman of mine. I congratulate him on bringing this debate forward and on the way he did it. It is quite clear that this is a complicated problem and that a cocktail mix has led to this result: there is not just one answer. The more we look at it in that way, the closer we will get to finding some form of solution or a series of solutions to apply to this situation.
I am dyslexic, I am president of the British Dyslexic Association and I have other educational interests. I was first dragged towards this by something that I was told as a youth, which was that dyslexia is four times more common among males than among females. That would fit quite nicely into this debate, apart from the fact that all the work now says that it is not true. Most of the work that has been done states that it is as common. A study by Olson and DeFries at the University of Colorado looked at 400 pairs of twins and discovered that there was absolutely no variation.
A myth has been put to one side, so why do we start to have this change? It is quite clear from all the statistics that boys are being outperformed by girls. It is quite clear that there are variations through the social structure and income levels, so what is happening here? It is clearly some mix between the two. It was put to me that boys tend to have—whenever you make a statement here, there is always a general twist—better spatial awareness and spatial memory. The female of the species tends to be better at naming and locating types of memory. Different types of memory will work differently at acquiring reading.
My background in dyslexia tells me that when you have problems acquiring reading you have problems with the way we work within our school system. When we talk about reading and attainment in the school system, we are talking not about intelligence but about how we apply it. How do we get through that and make it work?
It is also clear that if you come from a background where you are expected to read, you will do it. The average male may not do it quite as naturally as the average female, but he will do it. A cocktail of events has clearly led to where we are now.
Some say that the problem comes from not having a father figure. I come from a broken home and I got to university, as did my brother. Indeed, the late Earl Russell, of great memory, used to point out that he came from a broken home. The fact that his father was Bertrand Russell may have altered the effect on him. There is not one single bullet here, there is not something that excludes you. However, it is clear that when schools have worked on bringing fathers into the system and said, “You will get involved, it is part of your role”, that helps.
Having more male teachers helps a little, but if the male teacher is not a figure who inspires you but is one who you try to avoid because he tries to give you work and makes your life difficult, that may make the situation slightly worse. We do not know how this works. That is the important thing, but we have to start addressing this, because the world of work, and access to it, is becoming increasingly tied into the idea of acquiring the ability to read to get through the education system.
Furthermore, and in contradiction to the way this debate was introduced, will the Minister say what, if any, work has been done on improving the identification of special educational needs within the classroom? Another problem is probably masked in these figures: the underdiagnosis of females with special educational needs. This underdiagnosis is very high, because males in the classroom tend to be more extrovert, their problems are seen and they are more trouble, while the female hides in the middle of the classroom. Those are both normal classroom survival techniques for those having problems. We are missing many of them: can we look at that? The problem may actually be bigger than these facts suggest if we take that into account. What are we doing to find the true facts, so that we can start to look at solutions?
The noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, has started—or rather, given impetus to—an important discussion here. It is incredibly important to identify what is going on: if we do not, we will underutilise our population and make the lives of the group that misses out slightly worse. Surely we should spend a little more time and energy on identifying the problem.
My Lords, this is an important debate, especially now that we have entered into the last few years of our membership of the EU. Creating an excellent education for all—academic or technical—is key to keeping Britain competitive in days to come. Our human capital is one of the greatest assets that commerce can nurture and safeguard, and the current situation for boys is simply not good enough. I am glad of the widespread realisation that the demise of technical education was an error. My tireless noble friend Lord Baker and his university technical colleges have gone some way towards stemming that decline, on which I congratulate him.
I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, for his work in ensuring that many more schools can have greater autonomy. I have always advocated the devolution of spending when it is reasonable to think that funds can be spent more effectively. On average, poor boys start school with a basic literacy level 15 points behind their female counterparts. The gap narrows to 10 points for wealthier households. This figure represents a significant and unnecessary loss of talent. This deficit can dog young men for the rest of their educational careers and have obvious negative impacts on their real careers and prospects.
The solution is not targeted support for boys but a better scheme to bring good educational reforms to parts of the country that have been left behind. Teach First has been an excellent initiative, and bringing more young and highly motivated people into the workforce to become positive role models and great teachers is an excellent idea.
The real change will come from a fairer school funding formula. It is time for funding to shift away from schools with high results and falling percentages of pupils on free school meals. It should move to schools in serious decline and need. London has been a real success story, and higher funding has undoubtedly helped, but London’s schools are now on the whole some of the best performing in the country, while free school meals have dropped by some 10 points. Support has worked, but some schools must be gradually moved off higher funding when there are others that are plainly more deserving. This will be politically painful, as redistribution always is, but it is absolutely necessary to our future.
Real attention must also be shown to former industrial towns, such as Rotherham and Wigan. The former Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central referred to his constituency as a place,
“without a culture of formal education”.
That kind of attitude could be allowed to slide in a town where jobs for life could be found in a local factory, but the decline in manufacturing has been disproportionately hard on young men. There still exists a skills gap, especially in engineering and other technical subjects. The answer is to make technical education an attractive prospect and to remove the stigma attached to it. Primarily, this can come through greater investment in such subjects, across all schools, and not just restricted to specialist schools.
I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lingfield for introducing this important debate and to all noble Lords for allowing me to speak briefly in this gap.
My knowledge of this area comes from five years’ teaching boys and young men basic literacy skills in a young offender institution as part of a voluntary one-to-one teaching scheme. Not many children who leave education without educational attainment, let alone qualifications, will pursue a life leading to a custodial sentence, but it is true that many boys in young offender institutions have little functional literacy or, indeed, numeracy skills. This represents a real cost to society, not to mention untold misery for victims, their families and indeed the boys themselves.
Over five years, I taught a number of boys individually, which is, perhaps, the only way of making real progress in the prison environment. Of course, from my point of view, teaching was made immeasurably easier once issues of crowd control were removed. It was voluntary on both sides. Many had been labelled dyslexic, although I rarely saw any evidence of this and, using synthetic phonics and various online programmes, most made rapid progress. Almost without exception, they wanted to learn—but privately, away from mocking eyes of some of their peers, as though learning were something shameful. Almost universally, their lack of attainment in mainstream school could be attributed to truancy from an early age together with a lack of discipline at home. It is true that many admitted—almost all, in my experience—to having no resident father, and the person to whom the boys afforded the most respect was their nan or grandmother.
We should ponder not only why boys underperform girls but how to encourage boys at the earliest stage in their education that learning is useful, fun and will afford skills that will enable them to lead more fulfilling lives than they would do otherwise. Surely, the most significant factor in that would be the quality of teaching staff and the teaching staff’s training. I know that noble Lords will agree that the quality of teachers and their training has been improved through initiatives such as Teach First.
Even more can be achieved for boys in other ways, perhaps through engagement with sport and the valuable lesson that it gives beyond the skills of the game. I am also aware of various mentoring schemes in London boroughs for boys who lack encouragement at home. Some of these younger mentors have provided valuable role models. One of the most humbling lessons that I learnt in my time behind their bars was how much these supposedly tough young men valued someone—anyone—taking time with them individually, teaching them a skill that they were ashamed not to have mastered already and then showing a real, personal and non-judgmental interest in their progress.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, for initiating this debate and I particularly thank the House of Lords Library, the Sutton Trust and Teach First for sending briefings.
It is clear from all the research carried out that there is a real and continuing problem with the educational attainment of boys at state schools, particularly boys from disadvantaged backgrounds. My noble friend Lord Addington rightly said that there is no one silver bullet that will deal with the problem, but consideration of and action on a series of interventions, policies and practices may help.
Sometimes, we learn from our own experiences. I was head teacher of two primary schools, both in deprived communities. My last school was in Halewood, which was a white working-class community. It was a large primary school of 600 pupils. In a sense, we threw everything at those pupils to get them up to a good level of literacy and numeracy. Thanks to our success, our results in literacy and numeracy were above the national average, and we celebrated that fact, as did the five Ofsted inspections we had while I was there. But it used to always concern me that when my pupils left to go to a whole plethora of secondary schools, their results declined dramatically, and I never understood why.
I was interested in researching for this debate to come across Sutton Trust information which said among the various facts and figures that every year there are high-achieving boys at primary school—pupils scoring in the top 10% nationally in their key stage 2 tests—who five years later receive a set of GCSE results that place them outside the top 25% of pupils. How is that, with all the work carried out at primary level?
I can also tell noble Lords that a third of my staff were male teachers, and two were from ethnic backgrounds.
All that work is carried out at primary school. Two weeks ago I visited a primary school near Preston—I will not name the school—which is in a very deprived community. It is an oasis. It has a children’s centre linked to it and early years provision, all through a school purposely built by the local authority. I was really impressed. Ofsted rated it outstanding. It is an outstanding school in a desperately deprived community. I said to the head, “What happens to the pupils?”, and he reiterated what I just said: “Actually, sadly, they do not do as well in secondary education”.
So what is going on? I do not know the answer. I hear the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, talk about poverty; I hear people talk about the importance of the home—of course, the home and poverty are important; of course, having role models is important. But we cannot sit around and wait for those things to happen; we have to do something now. There is no time to wait around for role models to become available if families are to get immediately out of the poverty trap. We need a plan of action to make sure that we succeed.
Early years provision is of course vital. It should not be about a national childminding service; there need to be trained staff who create stimulating, challenging learning environments and know the importance of learning through play. It is important that we develop those policies and strategies. Here is my starter for 10—I am suddenly conscious that I was rambling at the beginning and lost time. We need to use high-quality information about pupils’ current capabilities to select the best steps for their education and teaching. We need to use high-quality structured interventions to help pupils who are struggling with literacy. We need more highly qualified teachers—I do not think this has been mentioned—to teach in deprived schools. I am again indebted to the Sutton Trust research, which has shown that teachers in advantaged schools are more experienced than those in deprived schools. We should perhaps have our most experienced teachers in deprived schools. The research found that financial incentives and more time for lesson preparation would attract those experienced teachers to teach in deprived schools.
Let us implement targeted attainment improvement programmes. Let us continue to look at using the pupil premium. We must make better use of teaching assistants, who are a valuable resource to primary and secondary schools, and adopt evidence-based interventions to support teaching assistants in their small-group and one-to-one sessions. We need peer tutoring, one-to-one tuition, collaborative learning and effective setting of homework. I am sure that if we have a plan of action, we can turn things round.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, has done us all a favour in opening up this important matter for debate. I listened to him with interest. His concluding remark that we need more objective research on this matter is true. There is a plethora of research and all noble Lords have been given a considerable amount of backing material for this debate, but there are still areas that would benefit from further research.
The debate highlights a real and entrenched sociological conundrum: why do girls consistently outperform boys in educational achievement? I might in passing ask why men nevertheless overtake women in the workplace in both levels of pay and getting the top jobs, but that is a debate for another day.
Boys in England are nearly twice as likely as girls to fall behind in early language and communication. Despite a dramatic improvement in overall results over a period of more than 10 years, the gender gap has hardly changed for five year-olds. Research by Save the Children, which noble Lords will have seen, shows that while there has been a 20% improvement in overall attainment in state schools and an 8% reduction in the poverty gap since 2006, there has been a reduction of just 1% in the gender gap in educational attainment. As recently as 2015, boys accounted for 51% of children who started primary school in the state sector but for 66% of those who were behind in their early language and communication. The pattern is the same across all ethnic groupings.
I am not sure whether the announcement earlier today that the Government are about to end SATs tests for seven year-olds has relevance to this debate, but at key stage 2—that is, 11 year-olds—girls who are eligible for free school meals outperform boys eligible for free school meals by a greater margin than those not eligible for free school meals. I agree with the point made by my noble friend Lady Morris about poverty being a determinate factor—that is undoubtedly the case—and it was interesting that noble Lords each identified a different subject. The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, talked of the lack of role models.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, said there is no one answer, and of course that is right. A number of aspects contribute to this. There is no obvious reason for the general disparity between boys and girls, but a recent study by the University of Bristol showed how big an impact the gender gap in the early years foundation stage has on boys’ primary school attainment. That is not a silver bullet, but it is the area I want to concentrate on. Two-thirds of the total gender gap in reading at key stage 2 can be attributed to the fact that boys begin school with poorer language and attention skills than girls.
That is just one piece of research, but the evidence from a wide range of studies over recent years clearly points to high-quality early childhood education and care provision being the most powerful protection against the risk of falling behind, especially for boys. This is, of course, the case in respect of all children, but especially so with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Government say they want to improve social mobility. I do not doubt their good intentions, particularly as regards apprenticeships, but I have regularly criticised their recently discovered priority of grammar expansion, for which they have managed to find pots of money at a time when comprehensive schools are in a real funding crisis. There is no evidence to show that grammar schools have a positive impact on social mobility. If social mobility is to become a reality, the resources made available to it must be targeted first, second and third at early years provision because that is where it really can have a meaningful and lasting effect.
Yet since 2010 more than 400 of the Sure Start centres championed by the Labour Government have closed. In July 2015, the then Childcare Minister announced that the Government would be launching an open consultation on children’s centres that autumn. It never happened. Does the Department for Education still intend to proceed with that consultation? It is not only overdue but very necessary.
The Government really need to grasp the fact that they must invest in the best early education and childcare provision, particularly in the most deprived areas, led by graduates and supported by skilled staff at all levels. That would be showing a commitment to children who are falling behind by providing them with the chance they deserve of a fulfilling—in all definitions of that word—early years experience, one that supports their development and increases their chances of a full and successful adult life.
A well-qualified early years workforce is vital if young children are to have the support they need to thrive and enjoy success in school and then in later life. The entire workforce is important. Better-qualified early years practitioners deliver higher-quality care, which means better outcomes for children. The Government need to recognise the importance of continual investment in improved professional development for those working in early years, in their status and in the progression routes for staff at all levels. There is also a need to take steps to increase the number of 0-5 early years teachers and those with equivalent graduate qualifications in the workforce. Evidence shows they deliver significant improvements across all aspects of provision and are linked to better Ofsted ratings and higher-quality early years teaching. Studies show that the difference in the quality of provision between nurseries in the most and least deprived areas is almost completely wiped out if a graduate is present, yet the 2015 early years census found that less than half of private, voluntary and independent early years providers that offered free childcare had staff with EYT status working with three and four year-olds. That is not a loophole. It is a gaping hole, and urgent action must be taken to begin to fill it.
I shall finish with a quote from the Save the Children report that I mentioned earlier,
“we cannot wait for disadvantaged children and boys to get to school before they receive the support they need, by which time they may already have fallen behind”,
with negative consequences for their childhoods, school attainment and life chances. We must invest in the best early years provision, led by early years teachers and supported by skilled staff at all levels, particularly in the most deprived areas. Minister, please take note.
My Lords, this has been a short but fascinating debate, and I thank my noble friend Lord Lingfield for raising this important and complex issue. I shall start by setting out what we know about the issues affecting boys’ performance at school and describing the measures that we are putting in place to address many of the problems.
We have known for decades that boys develop at a different rate from girls and that there are certain areas of the curriculum, such as English, in which girls tend to outperform boys, but it is only in recent years that a pervasive gender attainment gap has begun to open up in state schools in England, with girls now outperforming boys at all educational stages and in most curriculum subjects. The gap opens early and persists—indeed widens—through school. Let me give some statistics. Last year, 75.4% of five year-old girls achieved the expected levels for all the early learning goals, compared with 59.7% of boys. As my noble friend Lord Lingfield said, at the end of primary school, 50% of boys—I think that he said 49%—and 57% of girls achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths. By the end of secondary school, girls outperformed boys across all the GCSE headline measures. I could give more statistics that confirm this pattern.
As a result, it is not surprising that boys are less likely to go on to further study at 16 or to apply to university, but let us look at the reasons why. What is clear is that the early years are critical. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, raised the issue of research, which highlights stark differences in early cognitive and social development. Girls start school with more advanced social and behavioural skills and, for example, more well-developed language and attention skills, which have been shown to account for two-thirds of the gender gap in reading observed at age 11. While girls outperform boys across all major ethnic groups, there is considerable variation. Boys from particular ethnic backgrounds, including Chinese and Indian, do much better than others, notably white British and black Caribbean boys.
As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, boys are much more likely than girls to be identified as having special educational needs, although he also said that the underdiagnosis of SEN among girls may also be an issue. There is a much higher incidence among boys of social, emotional and mental health needs, speech, language and communications needs and autistic spectrum disorder. Boys are much more likely than girls to be temporarily or permanently excluded from school, yet it is not clear from research evidence whether negative behaviour in school is a cause of poorer academic attainment or one of its consequences. Similarly, there is a lack of good research into how educational outcomes are affected by family structures and, in particular, the absence of a male role model. One recent study found that families with single mothers are associated with greater gender gaps in children’s non-cognitive skills, but it did not look at academic attainment.
My noble friend Lord Farmer asked what was being done to improve the rates of active fatherhood and how we are supporting families to prevent family breakdown. There can be no doubt that parental conflict causes heartache and damages children’s upbringing, potentially harming their opportunities well into the future. We now understand more about the mechanism through which children’s outcomes are affected by parental conflict and that it impacts directly on children’s well-being, as well as getting in the way of good parenting. We must make reducing conflict between parents our priority, regardless of whether they are together or separated. That means making support to reduce parental conflict a part of local provision. To achieve that, we will continue to work with local authorities to help them to embed this work into local services.
We understand the importance of both mothers and fathers to children’s future outcomes, regardless of whether couples are together or separated, but we often hear that services are less likely to identify men as parents and to consider them as having responsibilities to their children. We are ensuring that both mothers and fathers are supported through our parental conflict work and will look at whether more can be done to ensure that services recognise fathers and help them to play a full and active role in their children’s lives.
International studies suggest that boys and girls differ in their behaviour and attitudes towards school and academic study. Girls are more likely to use self-regulation strategies, to do their homework and to respond to school work more positively. Noble Lords may agree that this is a rather obvious conclusion. However, the impact of school factors on the gender attainment gap is not obvious. There is some research that shows no conclusive link between the size of the gap and overall school performance. However, we know that schools with little or no gap have a positive attitude to study, high expectations of all pupils, excellent teaching and classroom management and rigorous tracking of individual pupils’ achievement.
Some common assumptions about boys’ underperformance in school are not supported by evidence. For example, there is no evidence that the emphasis on coursework at GCSE, which has been thought to be a factor favouring girls, has adversely affected boys. Similarly, some people have suggested that boys are held back by a lack of male teachers, particularly in primary schools, but there is no conclusive evidence to back this up.
My noble friend Lord Farmer asked what was being done to increase the number of male teachers, especially in certain hot spots where there might be more of a plethora of lone parents. Current data show that in 2015 there were more than 119,000 male teachers, full-time equivalent, compared to 115,000 in 2011. Men comprise 26% of teachers in state-funded schools in England, a proportion that has remained broadly stable over time. We are aware of concerns around the number of male teachers in our classrooms and we want all schools to be able to recruit high-quality teachers, regardless of their gender, since evidence shows that quality of teaching is the single most important factor in determining how well pupils achieve. Research has not found that the gender of teachers has a differential effect on boys and girls, but we will continue to monitor the composition of the teaching workforce by gender and will consider what if any steps would be appropriate to increase the number of men entering the profession.
Having set out the scale and nature of boys’ underperformance and briefly described its causes, I now turn to how the Government are tackling this issue. We are committed to tackling educational underachievement wherever it exists, not by targeting specific pupil groups but by setting high expectations for all pupils and building a self-improving school system offering world-class education to every pupil. I begin with the early years—which are so important, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said. Every three year-old and four year-old is entitled to 15 hours per week of free early education. Numbers of qualified staff and graduates in the early years workforce are rising, and we have introduced early years teachers, who must meet the same entry qualification requirements as teachers of older children. At primary school, we have introduced a stretching national curriculum with higher standards in English and maths so that all pupils secure the basics in literacy and numeracy by age 11. At secondary school, through the English baccalaureate, we have set a strong expectation that all pupils will receive a rigorous academic education that prepares them for further study and employment.
Beyond the core curriculum, we want to ensure that all pupils can develop essential life skills—qualities such as resilience, perseverance and self-control. We actively encourage schools to develop these qualities in their pupils through activities such as team sports, volunteering, arts, drama and cadet training. I am minded of the anecdote that my noble friend Lord Lingfield mentioned at the beginning of his speech.
Our vision for a self-improving schools system is fast becoming a reality. The growing network of teaching schools and multi-academy trusts ensures that schools can collaborate and be supported to raise standards. We are working hard to create a sustainable pipeline of high-quality head teachers and school leaders, and have put in place reforms to improve teaching quality at all levels. My noble friend Lady Bloomfield highlighted the importance of good teachers and Teach First. I also acknowledge the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, about the need for more experienced teachers in deprived schools. He is, of course, quite right.
However, while there are now nearly 1.8 million more pupils in good or outstanding schools than in 2010, there are still a million pupils in schools which are inadequate or require improvement. A good school place remains out of reach for too many, particularly those from less well-off families. The ban in place since 1998 on opening new selective schools makes it harder to create good school places and limits access to the most stretching academic education to those who can afford to move near to existing grammar schools or pay for independent schooling. That is why we propose to scrap the ban on new grammar schools and allow them to open where parents want them, with strict conditions to make sure they improve standards in local schools and beyond. However, recognising that highly academic routes are not for everyone, we are also reforming technical education, offering training for highly skilled occupational areas such as engineering and manufacturing, health, science, construction and digital. We continue to develop the increasingly popular apprenticeships route, with which noble Lords will be familiar, through a strong partnership between government and industry, equipping young people with the skills that employers need to grow.
I am fast running out of time. A very important point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, on the link with poverty. If I had more time, I would speak about that. I shall write to her and copy in all noble Lords who took part in the debate, because there is a link and some very important messages there which we are aware of and need and seek to address.
To conclude, as my noble friend Lord Lingfield said so eloquently, this is a complex topic. I think that all noble Lords recognised that there are no quick fixes, yet the far-reaching reforms of education set in train by this Government, covering the early years right through to higher education, are equipping schools with the tools to tackle these entrenched issues. I passionately believe in the transformative power of high-quality education, that that is a right for all children—both boys and girls—and that strong leaders in good schools are in a unique position to make it happen. Above all, and as noble Lords said, there is undoubtedly more work to be done to tackle these issues. The focus of the Secretary of State for Education must be and is on the 1 million boys and girls stuck in underperforming schools and how to ensure that each one is able to reach their potential. Only then can her and the Prime Minister’s unerring focus on improved social mobility truly become a reality.
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the future role of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in the light of the continued conflict in the east of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation.
My Lords, I declare at the outset that I have the privilege of leading the UK delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and am a vice-president of that Assembly. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, and 10 other colleagues from the other place are members of the delegation.
In 2012, in Questions for Short Debate about Her Majesty’s Government’s view of the role of the OSCE and, in November 2013, about their hopes and priorities for the Helsinki+40 process, I raised the whole question of the OSCE. I ask this further question as circumstances have changed and because there is, even in Parliament, a lack of awareness of the OSCE, what it does and the complex and varied issues with which it is concerned in some of the most troubled parts of its region.
It is difficult to get attention. I failed abysmally with even our own The House magazine, and in two long debates in your Lordships’ House on the UK’s international relations post-Brexit and our future engagement with the UN and US, I could not find a single reference to the OSCE. I know that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, who as a Minister had the misfortune to reply to my two previous Questions, are well aware of the activities of the OSCE. For the record, though, I would like to state that the OSCE region comprises 57 states stretching from the United States and Canada in the west to Mongolia in the East. The chairmanship rotates among the participating states, currently Austria, and the meetings are chaired by that country’s Foreign Minister. There are also relationships with other Asian and Mediterranean partners not within the organisation itself.
The Permanent Council, comprising the ambassadors of the participating states, meets weekly in Vienna, as does the Forum for Security Co-operation. There are three major institutions: the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the High Commissioner on National Minorities, and the Representative on Freedom of the Media. The annual report of 2015—the 2016 report is not yet available—listed 17 field missions or operations including four in the western Balkans, one in Ukraine with a special monitoring mission alongside the observer mission at Russian checkpoints, and another seven in the Caucasus and Eurasia. All these missions or project offices deal with a wide variety of issues: anti-terrorism, anti-trafficking of people measures, building democratic institutions, training police and judiciary, human rights and much more. Within the secretariat, the conflict prevention centre is the link with the field missions charged with early warning of potential conflicts in any participating state.
At the Dublin ministerial in December 2012, there was much optimism. The then chairman-in-office from Ireland spoke of setting out a clear path from then until 2015 for work that would significantly strengthen the organisation. That enthusiasm was shared by the then UK Foreign Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Hague of Richmond, when he said that a key outcome of the 2012 Ministerial Council was an,
“agreement on a new initiative designed to inject a fresh dynamic into the OSCE as we approach the 40th anniversary”.
In 2015 the OSCE did indeed mark 40 years of the Helsinki accord, which was drawn up to establish a new security order for the region and agreed standards governing not only relations between states but the treatment of states by their own people. Sadly, by then those agreed standards, which had already been weakened by events in Georgia, were shattered by the Russian annexation of Crimea and support for separatist movements in east Ukraine. Moreover, there is no sign that the Russian Federation is going to change its approach to Ukraine despite the sanctions, and the situation is in danger of joining the other frozen conflicts in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Moldova and Transnistria. In all these cases the Russian Federation is an essential part of any solution.
The need for consensus in OSCE severely restricts the organisation’s ability to act. In the very short term it could find four major posts falling vacant. The Secretary-General is retiring, as is the director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. There is no High Commissioner for National Minorities, in that there has been no agreement on either appointment or replacement. The mandate for the Representative on the Freedom of the Media expires this month. There are problems with extending the mandate for the mission in Armenia, and the mandate for the mission in Tajikistan expires in June. Further, there is no budget for 2017. In the light of President Trump’s remarks about “America first” and the funding of the UN, does the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have confirmation that the United States, which is the largest contributor followed by the United Kingdom, is going to continue its support for the organisation? In our new global future outside the European Union, are we prepared to make sure that the OSCE has the resources to operate?
The organisation experiences practical difficulties due to its lack of legal personality. How do Her Majesty’s Government see these issues developing in the situation in Ukraine? Are there further steps that we as the United Kingdom could take, especially given the importance of the City to the Russian Federation? Questions remain unanswered about the extension of the special monitoring mission in Ukraine and the possibility of a much-discussed police mission. Do we acknowledge that our zero-increase policy towards the budget may have to be revised? While we all favour money being spent on the ground and not on administration, the missions in Ukraine alone have created additional needs.
In replying to the debate in 2012, the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, referred to our funding of 48 national secondees and contracted staff. Can the Minister tell us what our present contribution to the organisation is in that area? The western Balkans, a region that the UK has historically backed for a future within the European Union, gives cause for concern. The alleged coup in Montenegro, political instability in other states, and the somewhat ambiguous position taken by Serbia towards Kosovo and its links with Russia are all matters of concern. Our decision to leave the European Union has been a disappointment not only to many of us but to those countries, and while the Prime Minister has assured us that we will continue with our involvement, important and specific work is being done by the OSCE, so an assurance of backing for this work, if necessary with resources, would be welcome.
Lastly, perhaps I may say a word about the Parliamentary Assembly. In January 2012, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said:
“We regret that there is on occasion a degree of rivalry between the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE’s secretariat as such and we would very much like to see the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE secretariat working more closely together”.—[Official Report, 16/1/12; col. 422.]
Since January 2016, when Mr Roberto Montella assumed the office of Secretary-General, there has been a dramatic and welcome change, not only in the relations between the Parliamentary Assembly and the secretariat but between the Assembly and the institutions of OSCE, particularly the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Members from different delegations pay tribute to Mr Montella in helping to bring about this change.
I thank the UK permanent representative, Sian MacLeod, who is also playing an important part not only as the chair of the Human Dimension Committee this year but in bringing members of the Permanent Council and the Parliamentary Assembly together. The Parliamentary Assembly is considering ways in which it can support—not, I emphasise, control—and remained informed about the work of the institutions and field missions, and build a long-term relationship with them, to the advantage of both. Members of the Assembly are committed to playing a role in trying to encourage dialogue and increase understanding. Immediately after the attempted coup, as a gesture of support, current President Muttonen took a small group to Turkey’s elected Government to stress the need to maintain all the democratic norms and rule of law in the face of such provocation.
Members from different delegations have had discussions with representatives of Uzbekistan to encourage them to renew participation in the Assembly and OSCE, which appears to have been successful, at least in regard to the Assembly. The Assembly is meeting in Belarus, which, despite some current problems, will present a further opportunity for contact and dialogue. I hope the Minister will feel able to give encouragement to this parliamentary diplomacy, which many in the Assembly believe is an important part of our role in addition to, not instead of, the important election-monitoring activity. In connection with that, I must pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, although she is not here this afternoon, for her record in undertaking so many of these monitoring missions over so many years.
I look forward to the contributions from other noble Lords and the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on securing this debate and introducing it so ably. It is pity that there seem to be as many chiefs as Indians speaking in it; I seem to be the only speaker who has no direct connection to the organisation. I speak mainly as someone who has worked a lot on Russia and its relationship with Ukraine.
The relationship between Russia and Ukraine is tangled and fraught wherever one looks. Even the Eurovision Song Contest has become embroiled. This year it is to be held in Ukraine. The Russian contestant, Yuliya Samoylova, has been banned from the country because she performed at a concert in Crimea in 2015. Each side is blaming the other and, so far, there is no resolution in sight. Samoylova sings from a wheelchair. One Ukrainian observer declared:
“are using this girl as a live bomb in the propagandistic hybrid war against Ukraine”.
The Russian view, of course, is diametrically opposed, as is their attitude towards Jamala, the Ukrainian singer who won the contest last year, with a song about the deportation of the Tatars from Crimea by the Soviet Government in 1944. Like the OSCE, the song contest, which involves 43 participating states, is based on inclusiveness and consensus.
The OSCE was created during the Cold War but got what seemed like a whole new life with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Paris charter of November 1990 spoke of the coming of,
“a new era of democracy, peace and unity”,
which the OSCE would play a fundamental role in preserving. The ideological backdrop to this was captured by the then-celebrated work of the American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, with his announcement of “the end of history”. History very soon reasserted itself in the failure of West and East to agree a new security architecture for the European continent.
I consider this to be the structural backdrop to the stresses and strains that we see at the moment. A market economy failed to materialise in Russia while democratic reform remains stunted. The OSCE was marginalised while the western states remain locked into NATO, from which Russia was excluded. The common security space that the Russians have advocated never saw the light of day. Its last gasp was the blunt rejection of the Medvedev plan, originally put forward in 2008. I remember asking a Starred Question about it, and the Minister at the time gave a really dismissive reply.
The OSCE became increasingly seen by the Russians as driven by the aim to create regime change, while its civil rights missions were interpreted as attempts to infringe on Russian sovereignty. The Russian leadership also felt betrayed by NATO’s role in Libya, as it went well beyond the stated aims of the UN resolution that Russia had reluctantly, under pressure, endorsed.
The OSCE looked to be going nowhere, but it has been propelled back to the forefront precisely by the Ukraine crisis. The current chair, Austria, has inevitably made defusing that crisis one of its main priorities. Its capabilities to do so are self-evidently limited because of the need for consensus and the lack of legal personality, thus the Minsk 2 agreement—or a version of it—was implemented by members of the Normandy format, the Government in Kiev and representatives of separatist groups plus the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine. The OSCE is part of that latter group and was important in its overall monitoring role. Nevertheless, it is a collaborative organisation in a world seemingly once again becoming disturbingly geopolitical.
There are new challenges for President Putin inside Russia with the recent surge of street demonstrations. The response so far from the authorities has been straightforward repression and the arrest of its most prominent figure, Alexei Navalny. As the noble Lord said, President Trump’s likely policies with regard to NATO are, to put it mildly, still unclear, as is the real meaning of the friendly overtures that he made towards Russia in his campaign. He has virtually no experience of international politics. Russian hackers almost certainly intervened in the American election, and Russia is both cultivating populist leaders in Europe and being cultivated by them. The stand-off between Russia and Ukraine is a frozen conflict that could become very dangerous. This is a period of world history that could become deeply unstable.
In the past, the OSCE has been variously described as a toothless tiger, a sleeping beauty or a wining and dining club for diplomats. However, its role in the current conflict has been crucial, so I have two questions for the Minister. Does she agree that lessons learned from the experience of the special monitoring mission to Ukraine could potentially open up a new role for OSCE in other conflicts? Does she also agree that this is a time when, as a country, we must actively seek to defend and sustain multilateralism? This is, after all, by far the most interdependent world ever.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, who has long experience of the OSCE. I accompanied him during a 2011 IPU visit to Kosovo, where the OSCE still has a major presence. I returned to Kosovo with the IPU a month ago to find that most of the current Balkan gloom is not about Russia, but about Brexit.
We think again of the troubles of Ukraine and Crimea, but the wider context is the humiliation felt by most Russians since the collapse of the Soviet Union. President Putin has been able to conjure up old Russia with all its conservatism and Orthodox Christianity, and we have to remember that both medieval Rus and the industrial heartland of the Donbas were and are firmly set in Ukraine. None of that can excuse the illegal annexations or the outright aggression and dirty tricks performed by Putin’s agents and the military in recent years, but it helps to explain why many Russians feel a little more national pride today, while still putting up with corruption and appalling human rights violations, as Russians always have. It explains why we have to work harder towards dialogue through organisations such as the OSCE.
The OSCE is a superb example of soft power. It is an obscure organisation, but that may not matter unless we have high political ambitions for it, which I think would be a mistake. I know that some used to see it as a might-have-been alternative to NATO. The European Leadership Network advocates better use of its conflict prevention centre, and there have been many attempts at reform, not least those described in the short debate led by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, which was fascinating for facts such as that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, trained Kazakh officials preparing for the OSCE presidency, which I did not know.
In February 2015, 11 months after Crimea was annexed, our EU External Affairs Sub-Committee, of which I was a member, published its report The EU and Russia: Before and Beyond the Crisis in Ukraine. One finding of the report was that neither the EU nor its members had adequate understanding of Russia or the necessary analytical skills to interpret what was happening there. Georgia’s then ambassador, Dr Gachechiladze, said that there was,
“not a good understanding of Russia in the West”,
and our then Europe Minister, David Lidington, said that by 2014,
“there were very few officials in any government department”,
with expertise from the old Soviet era.
Other witnesses confirmed that relations between Russia and the EU had suffered from political neglect.
Yet Russia and Europe, historically and economically, have always had to come to terms. We have only to look at the map of natural gas entering Europe from Russia to realise that there is already a degree of interdependence with several EU states. Meanwhile, the war around Donetsk and Luhansk rages on, almost unreported in this country. Detailed bulletins from the OSCE’s special monitoring mission provide evidence of fighting and breaches of ceasefire on a daily basis.
Could it be that we here are out of touch with the conflict in Ukraine? Despite its historic connections with Poland and Russia, Ukraine remains a vast blank in the minds even of those who know about Eastern Europe. While the loss of Crimea hit most of us, I am not sure how much the daily fighting in Ukraine really matters to British people. I was surprised that last week’s defence debate, which dealt considerably with our Armed Forces’ capability, barely touched on security in Europe or the situation in the Balkans or Ukraine.
Our sub-committee took evidence on the OSCE, especially from Dr Tom Casier of Kent University, who felt that it lacked legitimacy and had been ineffective as a security mechanism. Both he and Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian ambassador to the EU, said that there should be a new security architecture which included Russia and NATO and OSCE members. We recommended,
“a serious dialogue on issues of shared interest”,
building on a range of agreements, cultural exchanges and common spaces between the EU and Russia. The OSCE conference in Rome in March last year called for a much stronger, more strategic EU-OSCE partnership.
In the sub-committee, we recognised that Russian perceptions of NATO as a security threat had to be acknowledged, while also challenged. We have to try harder to understand Russian fears of EU and NATO expansion. EU enlargement may be on hold, post-Trump and post-Brexit, with Brussels talking more of multitrack solution, as already applied to Romania and Bulgaria, but hearts and minds are still being won, and western influence in Ukraine presents a problem for President Putin. NATO ensures that Russian military expansion has been contained although, unsurprisingly, OSCE members have been unable to implement the Minsk 2 agreement, and dirty tricks continue.
In Crimea, all opposition to Russia by Tatar leaders and Ukrainian activists has been cruelly put down. Direct political interference continues all over the Balkans. Serbia’s continuing claim to northern Kosovo is undoubtedly backed by Russia. I could see examples of this on the bridge at Mitrovica and the other business with the train plastered with slogans saying, “Kosovo is Serbian”. How can Serbia be allowed to continue on a path to EU membership if it behaves like this?
My forebear, Samuel Morton Peto, built the first-ever railway in battle from Sebastopol to the front line. Of course, as a European, I do not feel that I am on any front line or have any claims on Crimea, except to wish that its people will gain more freedom from the Russian torments that they have suffered over many years. I hope that, in future, we can hold a much fuller debate on relations with Russia, because discussion of the OSCE undoubtedly raises much wider questions, including our own future post-Brexit foreign policy in the region.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, on having secured this debate, and perhaps even more importantly, on the very positive role that he has taken as leader of the British delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. He and I have discussed on numerous occasions the work of the assembly and the OSCE in the wider sense. There are, of course, a number of issues on which reform is desirable, and I know that the noble Lord is battling hard to achieve those reforms, so I am delighted to be part of his delegation and I salute him on the work that he has been doing.
I have been a member of the parliamentary assembly for several years. Last year, we saw Roberto Montella become the new Secretary-General, which was desirable. We also have a brilliant British ambassador to the OSCE in Vienna, Ambassador Sian MacLeod. We had dinner with her in a restaurant in Vienna and an excellent briefing from her and her staff, and that was very positive and helpful.
One of the most useful things that the parliamentary assembly does is election monitoring. That is not because we uncover all sorts of scandals; it is because the countries that are having elections and know that we are coming take care not to do anything that we might pick up as being a breach of proper electoral behaviour. Of course, one occasionally sees administrative inefficiencies—I saw some myself—but we keep the system clean. People ask why the OSCE monitors British and American elections. The answer is that if we monitor elections in Russia and in some other countries that have more dubious democratic credentials, they will say that we cannot monitor just them; we have to monitor here as well. There have been monitoring missions to our elections—of course, we cannot take part in monitoring in our own country; but it is a positive part of the work.
I noticed that some countries attach great importance to the work of the parliamentary assembly. I cannot speak so much for the OSCE, but it is interesting that there was a resolution criticising one of the Stans—I cannot remember which one—and we immediately had the ambassador on our doorstep demanding to see us and demanding that we vote against the resolution. I pointed out to him that the only time we ever saw people from his country was when there was a resolution down for an OSCE plenary. Why did he not show more interest in us at other times? That fell on somewhat deaf ears; I had better not mention him.
It is, however, clear that some countries attach more importance to their delegations to the assembly than perhaps we do, as evidenced by the fact that too many representatives at the parliamentary assembly seem to confine their speeches to government handouts. Perhaps our Government would like that: no, I am sure that they would not. We, in fact, are pretty free-thinking, and although we get briefings from Ministers here before we set out, and the Foreign Office gives us written briefing, we do our own thing as seems right. It is somewhat depressing that some countries feel that their only job there is to make political speeches on behalf of their Government. On one occasion, I said something that was slightly critical of the British Government—I am sure that Ministers would accept that—and somebody came up to me and asked for my speech. I said, “I haven’t got a speech; I have five words on a bit of paper, because that tends to be the way we do things, as opposed to these handouts”.
Having taken the tragic step of leaving the EU, we will need more international links in the future. Whatever criticisms we might therefore make of the OSCE, subject to the reforms which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, will achieve in the near future, it is still clear that we will need those international links. Whatever the weaknesses of the OSCE and the debates there, at the very least it gives us international context, the chance to have debates and, on the fringes of the conference, the chance to have chats with politicians from other countries. That is pretty positive.
A lot of time in the parliamentary assembly has been taken by specific discussions about Ukraine and the Crimea, and Russian action there. The parliamentary assembly has given us some chance to contrast the way in which the Russians went into the Crimea and had a quick referendum, as they called it, without any of the objective context which we, for example, had in Scotland for its referendum or indeed in Northern Ireland. I say to those people: just have a look at Scotland. We had several years of debate and there was an even-handed approach. There had to be even access to the media on both sides. There was no army there telling the people how to vote. At the end of that time, the people of Scotland decided they did not wish to leave the United Kingdom. Contrast that with what happened in the Crimea.
In the excellent Library briefing pack, I see that there is a letter dated 15 March and headed “Statement by the Delegation of the Russian Federation”. It says:
“The multi-ethnic population of Crimea took the corresponding decisions”
—to join Russia—
“by a huge majority in a free and fair expression of its will. The status of the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol as constituent entities of the Russian Federation is not open to reconsideration or discussion. Crimea is and will remain Russian. This is a fact that our partners will have to come to terms with. This position is based on and fully complies with international law”.
Well, we know what we think about that stuff. It seems to be wrong in every respect. I say to the Russians: have a look at the way we decide things in the United Kingdom—for example in Scotland, where an important decision was done fairly and democratically.
Briefly, I am a member of the migration committee of the OSCE, which does some quite useful work in looking at refugees and other issues. I am also a member of the Moldova committee, which is more difficult these days.
There is a disconnect between the OSCE and the parliamentary assembly. I would like that assembly—I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, would like this, too—to get closer to the day-to-day work of the OSCE. When visiting a country, I sometimes suddenly realise that there is an effective OSCE mission there. But the parliamentary assembly is not able, so far, to engage with that as fully as we would like. I know that changes are on the way. A final thought: as far as I know, no country of the 57 in the OSCE still has the death penalty, with two exceptions: the United States and Belarus. Our next plenary will be in Minsk in July and we will have to tell them a thing or two about the death penalty.
My Lords, it was very kind of the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, to remind me of past speeches. I should declare a couple of interests: I am a member of the European Leadership Network and I am very sorry that the note from Ms Shetty came round so late today. Nevertheless, I hope your Lordships find it useful. I was also the British secretary of the British-Soviet Round Table from 1979 to 1989. When it was launched, it was a very difficult process. When I was there from Chatham House to provide the secretariat, we found ourselves talking to hard-nosed Russians who had a different view of what reality was, let alone truth. We were roundly attacked by the Sunday Times and others for being soft on communism but we persevered and found it useful to maintain a dialogue, even under difficult circumstances. It got easier over the years.
The CSCE, as it was then, was also set up to build a dialogue between the Soviet Union and the West, with the great advantage that the younger generation of reformers in the Soviet Union wanted to be recognised and accepted as part of a wider Europe. They were therefore willing to make concessions on things such as human rights in order to be accepted. After the Cold War, the West took its eye off the ball and we found that Russia was not evolving in quite the way that we had recommended. The aggressive enlargement of NATO, first in the late 1990s and then most disastrously with the insistence of the George W Bush Administration that we should offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine in Bucharest in 2008, made matters worse. However, one always has to remember that those countries wanted to join NATO. They applied pressure, because they wanted to get out from under Russian control.
The Russian system of government, meanwhile, has gone backwards towards crony capitalism, a corrupt elite and now the closing down of civil society. We face a Russian regime that has been there for some time and is becoming increasingly hostile to the West, including the European Union. We have the old frozen conflicts: Georgia is the one that I know best, and it has been deeply frustrating over the years. There have been attempts to interfere in the Baltic states, even though they are members of NATO and the EU. There is subversion—as already mentioned—in various states across south-eastern Europe. Russia Today is trying to produce its own versions of reality in our own national debates. We have Russian support—possibly including financial support—for hard-right parties across Europe, and perhaps even interference in American elections.
We have, therefore, a very difficult Russian regime to deal with. There is systemic corruption, continuing killings of journalists and prominent critics of the regime and an underlying weak economy—I learnt this morning that the oil price is expected to go down to $40 or even $30 in the next year or two, which will make the Russian situation even more difficult. In addition, we see cybercrime mixed with cyber interference, military adventurism and defence spending as a distraction from its domestic difficulties—including in the Middle East—and this extraordinary identification of the legitimacy of the Putin regime with tsarism, traditional Russia and orthodoxy, so that in remembering World War 1 they want to commemorate not the Russian revolution but the sacrifice of the honest Russian peasants and the role of the tsar in looking after them. Above all, Russia claims the status of a great power, alongside the USA and superior to the rest of Europe.
The OSCE is the only body we currently have for multilateral dialogue; it is ineffective but necessary. It is hard work—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, feels that it is in many ways deeply unrewarding—but we do need to keep talking and have conversations around the table. The younger generation that you occasionally meet are people through whom one can at least begin to convey messages and do business with for the future.
I hope, therefore, that the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, will say that the British Government will maintain their strongest support for the OSCE and nominate strong candidates for the posts where those in office are stepping down. I stress that we need to know more about the British approach to this. I have read most of our new Foreign Secretary’s speeches. In his November speech at Chatham House, he said that it was the first of a series of strategic speeches on British foreign policy. I have not yet found anything strategic in what he has said on British foreign policy or about Russia, although I recognise that he was due to be in Russia this week and has been unable, for various reasons, to go.
FCO expertise on Russia was run down in the 1990s. Is it being rebuilt, given that we now realise that we again have a very difficult Russian regime with a very uncertain future? There is money laundering by Russians in London; there is a substantial population of Russian oligarchs in London. What response are we making to the extent to which influential Russians close to Putin use London as one of their vacation spots in the West? Lastly, how do the British Government see the need for continuing European co-operation in managing the Russian regime in all its uncertainties and in assisting the states in Russia’s neighbourhood—which is also Europe’s neighbourhood—given that we have now accepted, it seems, that Germany is the leader of the West on this and our future relationship with Germany and our other European partners seems unclear?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, for initiating this important debate. I also congratulate him on his role in the OSCE. The Minister and I have come straight from a debate on the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (Immunities and Privileges) (Amendment) Order 2017, so this makes a refreshing change. I have to make sure that I do not confuse all my notes. There were not too many volunteers for that debate. However, I am glad that we have an opportunity to hold a relatively short debate on this issue. It is important because we do not devote sufficient parliamentary time to this aspect of international relationships.
Other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Dubs, have said that the key role of diplomacy and multilateral dialogue is something that we need to focus on increasingly in the very fragile world that we are living in. A lot has happened since Helsinki, and of course our world view from here is clearly different from the world view in Russia. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for the email I received just before lunch and I have read the documentation, but one element that was missing was something about the world view we have compared with that of Russia. The Russian narrative is one of post-war grievance, fear of encirclement and regime change; that is what underpins its position. The serious point about that world view is not whether it is justified or true, it is the fact of whether the leadership in Russia holds it and whether that governs its reactions. I have no doubt that the view is held and therefore our response has got to take that into account, whatever it is. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I do not for a moment suggest that dialogue means that we do not raise concerns about human rights abuses or about the need for democratic action.
This comes to that point, and I hope that the noble Baroness will respond to the questions about how we can continue our support for the OSCE, in particular in its key working areas of diplomacy, multilateral dialogue and monitoring on the ground. Noble Lords have mentioned that important work and our focus today is of course on Crimea and Ukraine in the context of the work undertaken by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. That monitoring work across the 57 nations is particularly about how we can uphold democratic values. It is key to ensuring that those values are kept at the forefront of our activities.
Something I want to focus on is the reports we have had from Crimea. On Tuesday there were reports from lawyers and human rights activists saying that the Russian authorities in Crimea are increasingly imprisoning human rights activists in psychiatric hospitals. They are no longer denying them in an overt way, rather they are using other means to deny people their human rights. Reports have been made of some 43 Tatar activists having been abducted since the annexation by Russia. What have the Government done in terms of these reports? How are they being taken forward and are we engaging with the Russian authorities and international bodies to address this issue? Of course there have been specific incidents in both Crimea and Ukraine, in particular that involving armed men intervening in the activities of the special monitoring mission and the use of armed force in relation to the use of what I suppose we should call a drone to conduct monitoring. Does the Minister share the view of the chief monitor of the SMM on the firing on unarmed civilian monitors? Have the Government taken account of that and what steps are we taking within the OSCE to ensure that those responsible are held to account?
In the brief time that we have, I conclude by saying a little about what the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said. With those two competing world views, how do we use multilateral organisations—I am not necessarily saying that the OSCE is enough—to take the temperature down? How do we ensure that we manage to avoid incidents that could escalate? Clearly, there is a role for the OSCE in this regard, particularly in terms of an investigative function. That is not only to examine the details of specific incidents but, most importantly—and again the noble Lord introducing this debate referred to this—to enable a learning process whereby incidents can be avoided. We learn from them so that we can better manage them and avoid them in the future. I am particularly keen to hear from the Minister how she sees that might be taken forward in the OSCE’s toolbox for the future.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to today’s debate. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Bowness, who has a distinguished reputation in relation to the OSCE, for raising the important issue of the future role of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. I also welcome the work of my noble friend and other Members of this House in the UK delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
As many have indicated, the OSCE is a pillar of international co-operation. It has both a uniquely comprehensive approach to security and an important geographical spread, with participating states stretching from Canada to central Asia—a fact that my noble friend Lord Bowness rightly highlighted. The autonomous institutions of the OSCE are an essential element of its early warning and conflict prevention apparatus. The strength of these institutions means that, with the will of all the participating states, the organisation can contribute significantly to the promotion of security, stability, democracy and the rule of law across its region. That point was made very powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who eloquently advocated the attributes of the OSCE in these important and vital matters.
The OSCE oversees a body of commitments that include human rights and democracy, conflict prevention and conventional arms control. These commitments bind all 57 participating states at a political level to a set of principles. The OSCE’s institutions hold participating states to account and support them in their efforts to uphold these principles and commitments. The United Kingdom is a long-standing supporter of the OSCE. We fully support, and where necessary defend, the work of the autonomous institutions and their mandates. This includes supporting a senior adviser in the office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the nomination of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, for the role of High Commissioner on National Minorities. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, of the UK’s belief in and commitment to the OSCE.
The OSCE carries out valuable work right across its region. As contributors have indicated, it has maintained a long-standing presence in the western Balkans, South Caucasus and Central Asia, where it provides support and expertise on a range of key issues, from institutional reform to media freedom. Its role in supporting future reform in these areas will continue to be crucial.
Today, nowhere is the importance of the OSCE clearer than in Ukraine, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens. The crisis in the east of the country continues to have a devastating effect on millions of people on both sides of the so-called line of contact. Civilian casualties and ceasefire violations this year have already reached record levels. The sensitivities are widespread and acute, and have been eloquently described by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens. The OSCE has been active throughout Ukraine since the crisis began in 2014. It provides crucial information to the international community and is a platform for dialogue aimed at bringing about a de-escalation of the crisis.
The United Kingdom has strongly supported the special monitoring mission in Ukraine since its establishment in 2014. We are one of the largest contributors to the mission’s budget. We have provided specialist training and support, and we have one of the largest contingents in the mission, second only to the United States. In the face of escalating violence, this civilian mission is bravely monitoring the line of contact. We must pay tribute to that courage and determination as it is not a safe or easy job. The monitors are providing balanced, factual reporting, which is a vital component of what is happening in Ukraine. We are deeply concerned by the continuing violence against monitors, including recent incidents where Russian-backed separatists have aggressively denied them access to certain areas of the country. Quite simply, this violence must end. The mission must have unrestricted access to all parts of Ukraine, including Crimea, as mandated by all 57 participating states.
It is three years since Russia illegally annexed Crimea. The United Kingdom does not recognise this illegal annexation. Russia’s disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity and its continued support for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine are at the root of this crisis. Continued Russian denials of responsibility distort the facts. The United Kingdom believes that to achieve a lasting resolution to the crisis, Russia must end its destabilising activities in the region, comply with its commitments under the Minsk agreements and return Crimea to its rightful place under Ukrainian Government control.
A number of very interesting points were raised, and I will try to address them as best I can. My noble friend Lord Bowness raised the consensus principle. The consensus rule can be a hindrance to progress and delay effective, meaningful decisions, including on areas of work which are a priority for the UK, such as on human rights and fundamental freedoms. However, there is another side to it. The consensus nature is a fundamental characteristic and is key to ensuring the continuing participation of those states with which we have fundamental differences of opinion. Ongoing dialogue is preferable to alienating them by challenging the way business is done in the OSCE.
My noble friend Lord Bowness also raised the position of the United States of America. Our understanding is that the United States continues to be active in the OSCE and we see no evidence of a lessening of interest by the United States. He also asked about UK secondees to the OSCE. That is an important area. I understand that we have 57 secondees in Ukraine and two in organisational activities outside Ukraine, one in Moldova and one in the media freedom office. We are looking to fund more, especially in head of mission posts.
The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, raised the important issue of the special monitoring missions and posed the interesting question of whether this exercise by the OSCE and the SMM in Ukraine demonstrates a role that perhaps could be used elsewhere. That is a good question to ask. Given the unusual and, indeed, unique work of the OSCE, it is a point worth reflecting on. The noble Lord also raised the issue of multilateralism, suggesting that we should be both pursuing and defending multilateralism in these difficult times. Let me be clear that I think that this is a desirable objective. I have not ever been and will never be a unilateralist supporter, but I think that multilateralism is an important objective.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, rightly identified the complex and difficult history of the Balkans, and raised the question of engagement with Russia, which was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. Managing tensions with Russia will be a long-term challenge for the UK and our allies. There will be no return to business as usual while the situation in Ukraine remains unresolved. We will not ignore the fact that Russia-backed and directed separatists have effectively tried to redraw the boundaries of Europe. At the same time, it is important that we continue to engage with Russia; to avoid misunderstandings, we should push for change when we disagree and we should co-operate when it is in the UK’s national interests to do so.
The noble Earl also raised the question of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, to which I referred briefly. I reiterate that we do not and will not recognise the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, whose intervention in eastern Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea is a flagrant violation of a number of its international commitments, including under the United Nations charter, the OSCE Helsinki final act and the 1997 Russia-Ukraine treaty of friendship, co-operation and partnership.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in a characteristically colourful, entertaining—if that is the correct adjective—and certainly well-informed contribution made an important point, praising the precautionary effect of the electoral monitoring. I was very struck by that; there is no doubt about it that if people know that others are coming to look at their activities, they will possibly try to put their house in order before that point arrives. The noble Lord also raised the issue of the Parliamentary Assembly relying on government press hand-outs, to which I have written down in response, “Old habits die hard”. If I may say so, the noble Lord is testament to original speech and original thought. The noble Lord also made an interesting point in relation to the Scottish independence referendum —and I think that this is important. That was a fine example of a free election process; it was a good process and, in my opinion, it was a good result. If I have any regret, it is that certain parties are paying no attention to the result, but that is another aspect of the debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised a number of points which I have tried to cover in my responses to other noble Lords. If I have managed to overlook anything, I shall check Hansard and undertake to write to him. I think that we are both slightly fatigued by our engagement with the southern hemisphere.
It is clear that there will continue to be an important role for the OSCE into the future. We welcome the decision reached at the OSCE ministerial council last December to begin a structured dialogue on the current and future challenges and risks to security in the OSCE area. That could be a useful forum to help to reduce risk and build confidence, trust and security among the participating states. The OSCE’s vision of common security and close co-operation is one that we wholeheartedly support. The crisis in Ukraine not only highlights the continuing threats faced by countries in the OSCE area and the rules-based system, it highlights once again how relevant the OSCE is and reinforces the need for international co-operation more broadly. We must continue to strengthen the OSCE and the international rules-based system. I assure noble Lords that the UK will continue to play a leading role in this vital work.
Local Post Offices
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to guarantee the future of local post offices.
My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests.
The Post Office is under serious threat, with the Crown office network being decimated and sub-post offices closed. Yet, frustratingly, there could be a positive future if only the Government would support the establishment of a post bank.
In the last Parliament, the Tory-Lib Dem Government split the Post Office from the profitable Royal Mail letters business, which today is paying out more £200 million a year in dividends. The split was unprecedented. No other Government have separated the retail arm from the rest of the mail operation. This was done despite the fact that the Post Office was, and always has been, heavily reliant on the Royal Mail letters business for its income; and despite the fact that the Post Office was also dependent on public funding to support the network and would be left exposed to government austerity cuts, as indeed it has been.
At the time of the separation in 2012, concerns were raised both here and in the other place about how the Post Office could survive. The Government’s answer was to transform the Post Office into a,
“genuine front office for government”,
covering everything from benefits and public services to passports and driving licences, and to oversee a significant expansion of its income from financial services. Five years later, neither of these pledges has come even close to being delivered. Indeed, Post Office revenues from government services have fallen by some 40% in six years. The promised expansion of financial services has never materialised. Post Office’s revenues have grown by a paltry 2% in six years, not even keeping up with inflation. Alongside that performance, we have seen a huge reduction in annual government funding. In 2012, the Post Office received a subsidy payment of £210 million to keep open its network of local branches. Next year, this will stand at just a third of that, at £70 million.
The consequence of these three things—the separation of the Post Office from Royal Mail, the failure to grow new revenues and the fall in government subsidy—has all too predictably been a programme of cost-cutting from the board of the Post Office that bears all the hallmarks of a service in a state of managed decline. In the past year alone, the Post Office’s cash handling business, Supply Chain, has ceased all its non-post office work at a loss of 600 jobs. The long-standing defined benefit pension scheme, with 3,000 active members, is due to be closed this very Saturday, 1 April. One hundred-and-thirty customer-facing financial specialist roles, in what was meant to be a growth area, have been made redundant. The Post Office card account is being phased out.
These things are just the tip of the iceberg. The Post Office appears determined to cast off the Crown office network, the largest flagship branches in high street locations. In 2012, there were 373 Crown branches; today, there are around 285 following two closure and franchise programmes in 2014 and 2016. A further 70 are currently earmarked for closure and franchise. But why is this happening? The Crown office network as a whole is in profit; its offices are in prime locations throughout the country—they are the largest branches with the greatest potential to bring in new work, yet they are being closed. The Post Office has only one justification for this: cutting costs. Yet the closure and franchise of Crown offices leave customers worse off on a range of measures including queue times, customer service and disabled access. They mean the loss of good jobs, which are replaced by part-time, minimum wage roles, with a consequent loss of quality. It moves the Post Office from being prominent on the high street into the back of a WHSmith. Is this the stewardship we expect of a valued public service? Is this the sort of business model that the Government are really proud of?
The sub-post office network is also under relentless assault. Postmasters are being pushed on to new lower cost contracts and they face the threat of losing their post office altogether unless they sign up. For too many of them, the sums no longer add up. More than 700 post offices are currently up for sale and more than 700 branches are under what the Post Office terms “temporary closure”, which in many cases is a euphemism for saying that it cannot find anyone to take on a branch, so it has closed. What are the Government doing about the serious concerns being raised by postmasters about the viability of the new business model? Again, when it comes to these new lower cost models, it is post office customers who lose out. As the Federation of Small Businesses has said, the range of services available is more limited in franchised outlets than in traditional branches. In 2015, Citizens Advice called on the Post Office to implement what it called a,
“rigorous and wide-ranging improvement programme”,
to address major failings in the model. Can the Government tell us whether the Post Office has implemented such a programme or that it will now commit to doing so?
All of this points to a service in trouble. In January, a group litigation order hearing in the High Court gave the green light to a group claim against the Post Office for postmasters claiming losses arising from the Horizon computer system. This could see the Post Office facing compensation claims worth tens of millions of pounds, and in court the Post Office conceded something that it has long denied—namely, that the records on the Horizon computer system could be changed by a third party. Given that the Criminal Cases Review Commission is reviewing some 20 convictions that have relied solely on Horizon records under prosecutions brought by the Post Office, that is deeply concerning. Will the Government now finally recognise the need for a full, independent inquiry into this issue? Do the Government stand by the way the Post Office board has handled these cases?
If the Post Office is to survive and remain relevant to people today, it must surely innovate and deliver new services. Cost-cutting can take it only so far. It is neither new nor novel, yet the obvious answer is the establishment of a post bank. In 2006, the French Government set up La Banque Postale through its post office network, which in 2015 made a profit of €1 billion. Italy and New Zealand provide further examples of countries establishing post banks in recent years, which have quickly become the linchpin of their postal operators. There is no reason why the UK should not do this rather than set out to make our Post Office a world leader in decline. Part of the key to La Banque Postale’s success seems to be the size of its network, with almost 12,000 outlets. That gives it a presence in communities across the country. Moreover, there is a level of trust in a bank based in the post office, which customers already have a relationship with, along with its reputation for socially beneficial activities, such as tackling financial exclusion, providing micro credit loans and lending to social housing projects. With its own 11,000 outlets, this is exactly the sort of model that a post bank in the United Kingdom should adopt.
Villages have long lost their banks along with their pubs, their shops and now their post offices. Local council front offices have closed under the pressure of government cuts. Public service access directly with the public is disappearing. Thousands of bank branches in towns throughout the United Kingdom are being remorselessly closed. Glastonbury in Somerset, with its population of 9,000 and many more in nearby villages, now has no high street banks at all. The worst hit are elderly customers who do not drive or go online. The massive decline in high street banks surely is an opportunity for the Post Office to step in and provide a local banking presence in communities throughout the United Kingdom, if only the Government would back the proposal. The Post Office’s current offering in this area is frankly abysmal. The partnership with the Bank of Ireland is not driving the revenue growth we were promised. It does not even provide core products like a business bank account or a children’s account. Some four and a half years into a pilot scheme, it still has no nationally available current account. These are surely core products that any serious challenger bank should be offering as a minimum.
Last year, the Government launched a public consultation on the future of the Post Office; it received tens of thousands of postcards collected by the Communication Workers Union calling for it to set up a post bank through its network. If France can do that successfully, why not Britain? Despite huge technology and lifestyle changes in our society, the need for a high street outlet remains, and only the Post Office can still fill that need for both local residents and small businesses. Local post offices could be the new-age front offices for a whole range of national and local government services and financial services across the country. Why are the Government not supporting this exciting new vision, instead of putting the very survival of the Post Office at risk?
My Lords, I hope not to take up all of the luxurious 10 minutes which we have been allotted. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hain—in view of our happy working relationship in a former life, I hope that I may call him my noble friend—for providing this opportunity. I shall not follow his comprehensive, powerful and compelling speech, with most of which I thoroughly agree, because I want to concentrate on those parts of the country which are most marginal in terms of not only post office provision but other services.
I take as my example the County of Herefordshire, where I live. I should declare that I am a deputy-lieutenant of the county and Chief Steward of the City of Hereford—although I am glad to say that in modern times that post is almost entirely ceremonial—and that my wife is about to become high sheriff of the county. Herefordshire has one of the lowest population densities in England. Two-thirds of the county are among the 25% most deprived areas in England, measured by geographical barriers to services. Average income is below both regional and national averages. In addition, Herefordshire’s population is older than the national profile, with one in five people aged 65 or above, as opposed to one in six nationally.
The criteria set out in the Post Office’s consultation, which closed at the end of last year, were that 99% of the population should live within three miles of a post office and 90% should live within one mile. The village in which I live is small—the entire parish has a population of 70—but it is five miles from the nearest permanent post office, and one would have to travel five miles further away again before getting to an alternative permanent post office. I must acknowledge that there is a mobile post office in the pub in the next village, but it is open for only two hours on only two days a week.
It is welcome that the Post Office and the Government have affirmed that the post office network will not fall below 11,500 offices, but of course, this is against the background of the savage reductions of 2008, in which some 1,500 post offices were lost, and the overall loss over the decade 2000-10 of about 4,500 post offices—reductions which bore disproportionately on the most rural areas. It used to be said—the noble Lord, Lord Hain, touched on this in his speech—that you could tell a viable village community by the eight Ps test: parish church, pub, policeman, provisions—that is, a village shop—primary school, petrol, phone and post office. In the age of mobiles, the phone is probably no longer relevant, but it is depressing to see how many village communities no longer meet many of those criteria. In our case, we used to meet all of them, apart from having a policeman five miles away, but we now meet only one: we still have a parish church. One of those we lost was a post office.
Post offices cannot be seen in isolation. They are—especially, perhaps when operated from a village shop—crucial to community and communication. Without such community hubs, the life will go out of a village. The elderly and the less mobile—perhaps people who cannot afford a car—will move away, as will others, economic activity will reduce and the village will become yet another statistic in the spiral of deprivation which constantly threatens rural communities.
If the Government’s thinking is to be truly joined up, as I am sure the Minister will acknowledge, they need to recognise that relatively small expenditure of public money in sustaining rural communities and stabilising their populations can save many millions in social care and housing which result from moves towards urban centres, to say nothing of savings in the environmental costs of transport. So, for example, the suggestion by the Association of Convenience Stores of improving remuneration for those taking on a post office business should receive serious consideration, as should increased investment in mobile post offices, which act as a sort of force multiplier.
I end with one particular form of development that may address two problems. Here I should make a second declaration: my wife is a Church of England priest and chairman of our diocesan board of finance, and I am a churchwarden. My distinguished friend and neighbour in Herefordshire, Sir Roy Strong, has a great love for and understanding of parish churches. At the same time, he has also been an extremely effective and imaginative advocate for increasing their use for secular purposes while safeguarding their use for worship. I will give your Lordships one outstanding example that could serve as a model for many others. Yarpole, just on the Herefordshire side of the border with Shropshire, lost its village shop 10 years ago. The parish church now houses in its nave the community shop and, crucially, the post office, with a cafe in the gallery above. The footfall is constant and significant, with car journeys greatly reduced. There are five part-time paid staff, including the postmaster, and 60 volunteers. The now ecclesiastically housed post office plays a key part in a vibrant rural community.
I would be very grateful if Ministers could focus their minds on how such enterprises might be encouraged and how villages and parochial church councils who want to move in this direction might access the relatively modest sums needed to make a church suitable for this sort of additional use. The conventional sources such as lottery funds have too many other calls upon them and, in any event, their focus is not on the most rural areas or small populations, which is just where the need is greatest.
I would entirely understand it if the Minister were not able to respond in detail today but I would appreciate the opportunity of meeting with her at a later stage. I suggest that the prize of sustaining marginal rural communities and their post offices, and at the same time breathing new life into our great heritage of parish churches, is a win-win, and one that I heartily commend.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for raising this vital issue. It is clearly quality not quantity participating in the debate this afternoon. I declare an interest as a former joint general-secretary of the Communication Workers Union.
I hope that whatever views the Government express this afternoon, they share the one that the post office is a vital part of all our communities. Despite all the activity online with email, e-banking and internet shopping, the local post office still has a role to play in rural and urban communities—as the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, exemplified to us. I had not heard of the eight Ps formula before but will endeavour to remember it. The point he made about post offices being community hubs is absolutely true. It occurred to me as he and my noble friend spoke to ask whether there has been an impact from the increase in business rates—I do not expect that the Minister has the facts before her now. I hear the good news that she has that information; I do not know if the information itself is good news, but I hope so.
I will touch on some of the points made by my noble friend Lord Hain, both because they are worthy of repetition and because I may come at some from a slightly different angle. Even the House of Lords Financial Exclusion Committee pointed out the importance of the local post office, and it is absolutely right. We still have a situation where 95% of the population say that they use the post office within the year. Every week, 17 million visits to a post office take place. So the Post Office is still thriving but is under a great deal of pressure.
Some 97% of post offices are run by small retail businesses on an agency basis, typically alongside convenience retail. I share my noble friend’s concern about ensuring that the quality of the service they offer is what they are contractually obliged to do. I think it is in many cases but not in every case, and I would welcome a response from the Government about how they are going to ensure that the quality of service is being contractually honoured.
The point that my noble friend raised about a Post Office bank is important. We have heard that there was an agreement recently about banking services—I have forgotten the precise name of it—being available in local post offices so that in theory they are offering a range of banking services. Although there is already access to day-to-day banking for the majority of customers of UK banks, that is what they are going to provide access to under a new industry-wide agreement; 99% of UK personal bank customers and 75% of business customers should be able to carry out day-to-day banking at any post office branch. However, the public awareness of the service is not great, so again I would welcome a response from the Minister about what the Government are doing to ensure that the public are aware of the service.
That in no way gainsays the point that my noble friend made about a Post Office bank. There is a certain irony in the fact that the Government are encouraging competition in banking, yet here is something that we know has the necessary reach. Although there is more competition in banking, it tends to be cherry-picked into the main urban centres. If we are serious about it, here is a great opportunity for the Government to support the Post Office in this manner. Again, I look forward to the Minister’s response.
As my noble friend has said, huge changes are taking place because of the number of branches that have disappeared, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane. It is vital that we ensure that we retain those branches that currently exist, and we know that some of them are in difficulty. The subsidy has been reduced significantly, as my noble friend illustrated; there might be a slight difference on the figure but we are agreed that it has come down from £210 million in 2012 to—this is the figure I have—£80 million in 2016-17, a very significant reduction, yet the process of modernising branches continues. Do the Government see a continuing role for a subsidy to assist in that modernisation programme? If we do not get that right, we are going to see more closures and the loss of more of the community hubs described by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane.
I hope that the Government are seized of the importance of the issue. Post Office staff are naturally concerned about their future. I stress that this is from their perspective but they see it as a business in decline. Surely we should be aiming for a business that responds to the needs of local communities, not just rural but urban communities. There are 3,000 branches that are literally the last shop in their village. There is an investment fund to support those branches, but will it continue? That is another question on which I would welcome a response from the Government.
If we look at the social value of post offices, independent research shows that the Post Office Ltd continues to deliver more than £4 billion in social value each year to people and businesses throughout the UK. We know its vital role as a part of local communities, as the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, said.
I also want to raise the future of the Post Office card account. I am told that there are currently 3 million users of the card account. They are people who cannot get a bank account or who are not used to dealing with a formal bank account and so value the services of a Post Office card account. I will be disappointed if the Government cannot say that they are not going to phase out the Post Office card account. With 3 million users, it is obvious that there is a requirement for it, and it will continue. A significant number of people still see it as a key way to manage their finances.
At this stage in the afternoon, I do not want to repeat all the arguments that were put so well by my noble friend, who dealt with them more than adequately. I look forward to a response to the questions I have raised.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, for bringing this debate to the Committee today. Time is on our side, so I shall be able to reply as fully as possible to all three noble Lords who have spoken today. I hope they will forgive me if I am repetitive, but I think I have the luxury of time and I want to be able to reassure noble Lords as much as possible. The speech I have before me is in stark contrast to that of the noble Lord, Lord Hain. I believe that we have a really good story to tell. The story I have in my head relates very much to the village where I live—Goring-on-Thames. It has an incredibly vibrant post office. It has most of the Ps to which the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, referred. I think it is only missing the phone and the petrol. The reality is that the post office is still a critical part of the community and the infrastructure. I think of it as the bush telegraph, alongside the local grocery store.
I shall begin by setting out the Government’s story on this and will then respond, in a perhaps slightly repetitive fashion. The Government recognise the important role that post offices play in communities across the country. We have said so time and again, and we mean it. Local post offices are an important option for customers, particularly more vulnerable and remote customers, and small businesses to access a range of mails, financial and government services. That is why the Government committed to securing the future of 3,000 rural post offices in our manifesto, typically those branches that are the last shop in a community.
Between 2010 and 2018, the Government will have provided nearly £2 billion to maintain, modernise and protect a network of at least 11,500 branches across the country. The Government set the strategic direction for Post Office Limited, which means that we ask it to maintain a national network of post offices that is accessible to all and to do so more sustainably with less need for taxpayer subsidy. Post Office Limited delivers this strategy as an independent business. The Government do not interfere in its day-to-day operations, such as the provision and location of branches.
Today, there are more than 11,600 Post Office branches in the UK, and the network across the UK is at its most stable for decades. This is because Post Office Limited is transforming and modernising its network, thanks to the investment that the Government have made. Government support has enabled more than 7,000 branches to be modernised, more than 4,200 branches to be open on Sundays—I wish we could say that of banks—more than 200,000 weekly opening hours to be added to the network, losses to be reduced from more than £120 million to £24 million—in financial terms, that is real progress—and subsidy to be reduced by more than 60% from its peak in 2012-13. We have the most stable network in more than a generation and customer satisfaction has rightly remained high, at more than 95%, to which the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, referred.
The best future for the Post Office network is a sustainable future, and that is what the Government are making possible through significant investment and reducing the network’s reliance on taxpayer support. We want to create certainty for all who work in the Post Office and for customers. In short, the business is offering more for customers, doing so more efficiently for the taxpayer and ensuring that Post Office services remain on our high streets throughout the country.
There has been a lot of assertion and suggestion that the Post Office is in crisis. Indeed, those were the opening words used by the noble Lord, Lord Hain. Far from being in crisis, however, the Post Office is following a successful course to commercial sustainability under the leadership of its management team. The Government disagree with the unions’ view that the Post Office is failing, as it is reducing its losses, reducing its need for subsidy and continuing to offer a high-quality service to customers with longer and more convenient opening hours. This is not the sign of a Post Office lacking a strategy, but a clear signal that the Post Office management has a goal of a secure network and increased financial sustainability. The Post Office is working hard to achieve this. The business already engages with its stakeholders, such as the National Federation of SubPostmasters and its unions, and I encourage them to continue their dialogue with the Post Office. While significant challenges remain to completing the goal of securing its future, the Government believe that the business is on the right path.
On the question of creating a post bank, as was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, this was considered in 2010, but it was decided that the government investment then available would be better used to modernise the network. The success of this approach has seen more than 7,000 modernised branches, opening hours extended during the week and at the weekend, and a network at its most stable for decades. While the Post Office did not create its own bank, it has built a successful financial services business, offering loans, mortgages, savings and foreign currency. These are delivered through its partnership with the Bank of Ireland and offer all the key benefits of a post bank. The Post Office has also developed its insurance offer by building its in-house capability. These services are available across the Post Office’s nationwide network and online, offering reach that no other bank in the UK can match.
Moreover, the Post Office has been working with the banks and the British Banking Association to create a standardised framework for access to third-party banking services. The framework was launched in January and offers simplified access to those holding accounts with other banks across the UK. This means that more than 99% of personal account holders and more than 75% of small business can access basic banking services early in the morning, late at night and throughout the weekend; and, as I said earlier, in terms of timing and access, the banks simply cannot begin to compete.
This is surely both a fantastic opportunity for the business and for the communities it serves, many of which have been badly affected, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said, by bank closures. Indeed, that has happened in my village: we are about to lose our last bank. The post office network, therefore, not only already provides a breadth of financial services that rivals the high street banks: with the newly launched banking framework it can also offer customers of other banks access to important basic banking services. It is therefore hard to see what a post bank offers to customers which is not already offered.
On the changes to the Crown network, the Post Office’s proposals for franchising and hosting some of its Crown branches are part of its plans to ensure that the network is sustainable and profitable in the long term. Again, that is all about offering certainty and assurance, particularly to those who work in the Post Office for the long term. This is not about closing branches, it is about moving a branch to a lower-cost model and a better location for customers, securing and improving delivery of post office services in a given area. I have a classic example; admittedly, it is not in a rural area but in Islington. There was a merger of an old branch, unsuitable for disabled access or conversion, and a “temporary” branch had been in place for more than 10 years. The new single branch, which has replaced the two, is bright, welcoming, better located at the centre of the high street and has disabled access. The same goes for Beckenham. Its post office was relocated from an awkward end of the high street, which was difficult to access due to traffic and roads, and is now right in the middle of the high street in WH Smith. So we are thinking not only about access but about convenience for the customer. That is critical, because post offices have to remain competitive, attractive and accessible.
These ongoing plans have to date meant that Post Office Crown branches have moved from a £46 million annual loss in 2012 to breaking even today. The change from a Crown to a franchise or host branch has been undertaken previously in many locations across the UK and is a successful way of sustaining post office services, as a post office can share staff and property costs with a successful retailer. However, as always, more work needs to be done. There continue to be Crown branches which are loss-making, which is why these changes are important. By making all branches more sustainable, including the Crowns, we will help to keep post office services on our high streets throughout the country while reducing the funding burden on the taxpayer. It is worth remembering that 97% of the Post Office’s branch network is already franchised, being run by independent sub-postmasters.
The current funding agreement for the Post Office expires in March 2018. The Government have said publicly that they consider that the Post Office is likely to continue to require some funding to sustain the nationwide network and to meet our manifesto commitment to secure 3,000 rural branches. Funding discussions with the Post Office have opened and continue.
The Government conducted a consultation exercise on the post office network before the end of last year. The aim of the consultation was to help us to understand what the public and businesses expect from the Post Office and to make sure that where the Government are required to comply with any obligations, such as to the European Union, they are able to do so. I stress that this consultation did not propose any changes to the network but sought views on how to make it stronger, sustainable and better for its customers. The Government expect the Post Office to require funding over the coming years. The feedback we received will help test how that funding may best support the network. The Government will publish their response to the consultation in due course.
The Post Office is the largest provider of counter-based government services in the UK—this was another concern raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hain—and has key contracts with the DVLA and the Passport Office for a number of transactions. Its extensive geographic reach and key role in the heart of communities mean that it is well placed to bid for and win important contracts. The Post Office continues to work with both local and national government to look at opportunities for delivering more government services through the network, but it is important to remember that the Government cannot simply award contracts to the Post Office. It is right that services must be procured competitively to ensure value for taxpayers’ money. Furthermore, government has an important role to play in ensuring that people can access government services in ways that best suit their needs. I have to admit that I am using online more and more to access such services.
Increasingly, many of us prefer to access government services online, which can be more convenient—as I have just said. While this has an unfortunate impact on the Post Office, we cannot ignore people’s desire to transact with government digitally from the convenience of their own homes. It is for that reason that the Post Office continues to develop its online presence. For example, it is one of the largest providers of identity verification through the Government’s Verify service.
In terms of restructuring at its headquarters, as part of the Post Office’s ongoing transformation to make it more commercially sustainable, there will be a 20% reduction in the 1,100 people at its headquarters function. They are largely based at Finsbury Dials in central London. A more efficient and lean central support team will mean greater scope to share benefits from contracts that the Post Office wins with the agents who run the branch network. This will make the 50,000 jobs in the agency network more secure. There will be no reduction in the service that the public will see.
As we know all too well, it is a difficult time for the high street. Some key presences such as BHS have gone and others are having to make tough decisions to survive. We recognise that the Post Office is a key presence on British high streets and a key part of local communities. That is why we have supported it in transforming to keep post offices at the heart of their communities, which has involved significant change. Many stand-alone post offices have moved into other retailers where the Post Office and the retailer can operate better together, sharing staff and property costs, as I have said, and where Post Office business is a big driver of increased footfall for the host retailer. I appreciate that changes such as these are not easy, especially where it involves staff leaving the business, but it is essential that the business gets a grip on its costs to ensure that it can meet the challenges it faces now, and those it will face as the way we shop and access services continues to change.
Before concluding, I want to reference some of the questions that were raised. I hope I will be forgiven if I find myself being repetitive. First, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, referred to the separation from Royal Mail. Of course the Post Office and Royal Mail are now very different companies and since separation in 2012 the Post Office, as a separate company with its own board, has had the commercial independence to focus on what is best for the business and to adapt and change to best meet the challenges it faces. There is a long-term commercial agreement in place between the two parties and they have worked together successfully since separation. The Post Office has become increasingly sustainable since separation, with its transformation programme delivering more than 200,000 extra opening hours a week across the country. More than 4,200 branches are open on Sundays, directly benefiting customers.
The changes to the Post Office cash supply chain mean that the business can now deliver the same service to its branches for less overall cost. The Post Office cannot realistically compete for external business against competitors which have lower pay and more flexible working conditions. It is also difficult to make a case to invest in what is a declining market for cash, with the rise of electronic payments such as contactless. The Post Office believes it will be able to deliver the expected savings only by adopting a clear and consistent policy of completely exiting the external market and focusing on delivering cash to its own network.
Moving on, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, also referred to Horizon. I understand that civil proceedings have been issued against the Post Office on the matter of the Horizon IT system. This is of course a matter for the courts and I am unable to comment further. I understand that a number of individuals have raised cases with the Criminal Cases Review Commission—the CCRC. This process is independent of government, so unfortunately I cannot comment further. We do not feel the need for a full independent inquiry, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, suggested, but feel that the court is the best place to deal with this difficult situation.
Regarding the post office network consultation, it was an important step in determining support for the network in the future, once the Government’s existing funding agreement with Post Office Ltd comes to an end in 2018. No changes to the network were proposed through this consultation; we were seeking to re-affirm views with stakeholders. The consultation ran for six weeks and we received more than 30,000 responses from members of the public, businesses and stakeholders. As I have already said, we will respond to that consultation in due course.
The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, focused on rural areas and asked about accessing criteria. We have run the national consultation to consider exactly the questions he referred to and we will report on its findings in due course. We can say, however, that 98.7% of people in rural areas are within three miles of a post office. Noble Lords will recognise that tightening the access criteria further would mean additional costs to the taxpayer, and that has to be balanced with other pressures on the public purse.
The noble Lord referenced Sir Roy Strong, whom I have heard speak on the issue of how one could make the local church more—I do not know whether I dare use the word “useful”—to secular opportunities. Community centres also present so many more opportunities, whereby you can have the doctor, the dentist and other community services all near the church. This is something that more and more villages are thinking about—or even, when they are very small, sharing them with neighbouring villages. The village in which the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, lives is extremely small, so to try to do all this on its own would be extremely difficult. However, I understand the particular need for us to protect what we have in our rural areas and, if possible, improve on it.
Outreaches are not post offices, and a few hours a week from the back of a van or in the village hall are no substitute for a bricks and mortar office—although that could be a church offering a full range of services. Outreaches are a way for the post office to maintain a service when a branch closes and a replacement postmaster cannot be found. Usually, this is because the branch was not commercially sustainable, and providing an outreach is part of POL’s social purpose, for which it is likely always to need a subsidy.
The noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, referenced a number of issues. I say straightaway that there are absolutely no plans to phase out the card used by 3 million people. On the question of business rates, the Government are committed to backing small and medium-sized enterprises, which include post office branches. The next business rates revaluation takes effect from 1 April and will update rateable values. This will ensure that business rate bills more closely reflect the property market. Nearly three-quarters of businesses will see no change or a fall in their bills from April thanks to the business rate revaluation, with 600,000 businesses set to pay no business rates at all. A £3.6 billion transitional relief scheme will provide support for the minority who face an increase.
The 2016 Budget announced the biggest ever cut in business rates, worth more than £6.7 billion across the next five years. Small businesses will benefit from the doubling of small business rate relief thresholds, and properties with a rateable value of £12,000 and below will receive 100% small business rate relief from April. The Government are also doubling rural rate relief to 100% from 1 April 2017, which will benefit many eligible post offices in designated rural areas.
Quality was an important point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Young. The Post Office is committed to ensuring that all branches across its network offer excellent customer service, and has a strong history of working with its many franchise partners and agents to achieve that. Independent research shows that customers are happy, with satisfaction levels consistently high, but it places a lot of emphasis on the need to retain quality.
I confirm that the Post Office is committed to ensuring that all its staff, including postmasters, receive the necessary training to successfully and effectively deliver all its products and services. Of course, the success of the business depends on that. However, any service that the Post Office offers must provide a realistic and viable commercial rate of return for the business.
I shall make a quick reference to awareness. Awareness of the services provided by the Post Office is very important. A House of Lords report published on 25 March, Tackling Financial Exclusion: A Country that Works for Everyone?, references the importance of awareness. On the point about publicity, it says that the Post Office is in a difficult position because quite a number of the banks that it provides a service for do not want the Post Office to proactively make customers aware of the services because that serves to pull footfall away from bank branches that are already struggling, thereby exacerbating the problem of bank branch closures. So there is a difficult balance to strike here.
My Lords, that is a bit of a disappointing answer. In the situation of which we have given many examples, there are no banks around. If the Post Office is offering the services, it should not be a problem because the banks have withdrawn their services. I thought that was one of the primary reasons for the Post Office offering the basic standard services for other banks. What was the purpose of the standardised framework agreement if it was not for that? Surely it is more important, especially in rural environments where there are no banks available, that the public are aware of this service, otherwise it defeats the objective of the framework agreement.
I accept what the noble Lord is saying. In fact, I was going to go on to say that there may be a balance to strike between the banks and post offices, but our focus is on the strength of the post offices and on meeting customer requirements. The report makes a number of recommendations, including around whether the Post Office can better publicise what it offers. The Post Office, in response to this, will be working with its partners to explore what it can do to implement the recommendations. That is the point I was going to come on to; we are not just taking the report, sitting down and saying, “Well, that’s a problem. Leave them to work it out”. Awareness of what the Post Office can do and can deliver—and it is growing in that sense—is really important. I add that the Post Office card account contract has been extended to at least 2021.
In conclusion, a more efficient Post Office is better able—
My Lords, before the Minister finishes, could the Government study La Banque Postale’s success in France, and would the Minister—or Margot James, the Minister primarily responsible—write to me explaining in what way the British situation could match that? Do the Government really think it is doing so with their current policy? I do not think it is.
I spend quite a lot of time in France and I have to say that my experience of post offices in France does not match those that I enjoy in my local village. However, I will of course talk to my colleague in the other place, Margot James, about this, and see if we have been looking at the French model as the noble Lord suggests.
And will she write to me?
And then of course we will write to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and copy all other noble Lords.
I am so sorry to keep the Minister from her peroration for a moment or two longer, but I wonder if I might take her back to the question of tendering for partner organisations. As she will know, it is perfectly normal practice in any tender to weight the criteria. I think we would be grateful for an assurance that in the case she quoted, the synergies that can be made for the benefit of local communities are appropriately weighted in the tender process.
I absolutely understand where the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, is coming from. Again, I will talk about that issue and that point with my colleague in another place, Margot James. Thank you for raising it.
The government investment—
On a further point of clarification, I am grateful for what the Minister said about the Post Office card account being sustained until 2021, but what happens after that? What does the noble Baroness envisage—will there be a review and consultation process? If she does not have the answer perhaps she could write.
That would be up to the Department for Work and Pensions. We have to see how things are going. Hopefully the response will be positive, but we do not know—it is too far down the line for us to comment now. It will, however, be a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions.
In conclusion, since 2010 the Government’s investment has, along with the hard work of post office employees and postmasters, delivered real improvements. It has enabled the business to offer more to customers and to do so more efficiently, thereby ensuring that post office services remain on our high streets.
I encourage noble Lords to look objectively at the results achieved by the business in recent years: the most stable network for decades, £100 million reduction in annual losses, 7,000 branches modernised and transformed, more than 1 million additional opening hours per month and more than 4,000 branches open on Sunday. While significant challenges remain in completing the goal of securing the future of the Post Office, the Government believe that the business is on the right path: one that will protect local post offices for the long term.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their most recent estimate of the cost of alcohol abuse to the National Health Service; and what steps they are taking to reduce those costs.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Chief Whip for finding a slot for this debate, even though it is the last business. I am grateful that I have so many speakers—I am surprised—and equally surprised by the number of people who have written to me in advance of the debate, which seems to indicate that we should look for a longer debate at some later stage.
After welfare, the cost of health is the biggest charge the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to deal with, yet if one examines Budget speeches one sees that it rarely gets a mention. In fairness to Philip Hammond, it did this year, because of the crisis in care, which is of course directly linked to health. Health costs continue to grow at around 4%, but the economy is down around 2%. With an ageing population, the health service, as one ex-Health Minister in the Lords recently said to me, is a car crash waiting to happen. So every action must be taken or at least explored to avoid further injury to or collapse of the health service.
Like the Queen, the NHS is one of the few remaining pieces of glue that keeps us together as a United Kingdom. People everywhere are increasingly fearful of what the future holds but, happily for the UK, at least for the moment, people do not have the fear that illness brings to many people overseas—the fear of how to pay for their treatment. That burden is lifted by the NHS, and it helps faster recovery, but it is at even greater risk if politicians are reluctant or unprepared to engage in an open and honest debate about the problems we have funding the health service. That is at the heart of my debate today—seeking changes that will reduce the burgeoning public health costs but also changes that lead to healthier, happier and longer lives. As part of that, the Government must confront the stark challenge that alcohol abuse presents for the NHS in terms of the financial costs, resources and the impact on staff time and welfare.
Alcohol is estimated to cost the NHS around £3.5 billion per year, which amounts to £120 for every taxpayer. If I have got the figure wrong, I am sure that the Minister will correct me. Even though drinking has declined marginally in recent years, there is a growing burden of alcohol-related admission problems for the health service. As our NHS tries to deal with these difficulties, there is the difference between costs rising at 4% per annum and growth in the economy at only 2%. The consequences of harmful drinking are a factor that we must address—and that is not surprising, given that Public Health England has recently reported that alcohol is the leading cause of death among 15 to 49 year-olds. There are now more than 1 million alcohol-related hospital admissions a year. Alcohol has caused more years of life lost to the workforce than have the 10 most serious cancers, and in England more than 10 million people are drinking at levels that increase the risk of harming their health. There are 23,000 alcohol-related deaths in England each year, which means that alcohol accounts for 10% of the UK burden of diseases and death, and is one of the three biggest avoidable risk factors.
Evidence indicates that ease of access and persistently cheap alcohol perpetuates these problems, with deprivation and health inequalities particularly prevalent among men from the lower socio-economic groups. Alcohol is 60% more affordable than it was in 1980, and affordability is one of the key drivers of consumption and harm. Cheaper alcohol invariably leads to high rates of death and disease. David Cameron and the coalition Government recognised this back in 2012 when they produced what I would describe as a progressive alcohol strategy. In its foreword, he talked about,
“a real effort to get to grips with the root cause of the problem. And that means coming down hard on cheap alcohol”.
Regrettably, that just has not happened. Other aspects of the strategy have disappeared, too. There seems to be a vacuum with no discernible sense of direction. I hope that today’s debate might start to move us towards a more positive approach than we have had for the past two or three years.
I will not spend much time on minimum unit pricing. I am sure the Minister’s reply will be quite predictable: we are awaiting the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Scotch Whisky Association appeal. If we did have that, I am sure the Minister would argue that we need to see whether minimum unit pricing is working in Scotland before taking any decision to bring it south of the border. If I am wrong on that, I would be very grateful if he could correct me.
What I would like to hear is whether the Secretary of State is willing to initiate talks with the Chancellor about revamping VAT and excise duties on alcohol so that low-alcohol drinks would not contribute anything, or very little indeed, in the future but we would start to tax at a much higher rate the stronger alcohol, which is particularly damaging to people’s health and which at present does not attract particularly high taxes. I am looking to see whether the Government are prepared to investigate a more differential approach to taxing alcohol.
Wine consumption has increased, particularly in recent years, and, as many people know, wine has got stronger and stronger. At one time it was 11% or 11.5%. Now it is in the order of 13%, 14% or even 14.5%. This is especially true of the red wines from the New World.
Happily, one of the positive sides of Brexit—this freedom we have—is that it will provide greater freedom for adjusting taxation. Such a change could not only raise income for the Exchequer; higher taxes on stronger alcohol could be an inducement for people to drink lower-strength alcohol, which would be better for them.
Is the Minister aware that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has recently done some research on this? Indeed, in February it produced a report which indicates that moving towards the differential taxes I have been describing could meet half the cost of the welfare bill, which of course is a major account the Exchequer has to deal with annually. Whether or not that is a starter remains to be seen, but I would be grateful if the Minister had a look at that report and let the Committee know whether he thinks the idea is worth pursuing, as well as raising the issue with his Secretary of State.
This week I have been to two parliamentary health meetings, one on gout. “Gout is not a laughing matter” was the title of the gathering. It was interesting to learn that one in 40 people in the UK now has gout, and its prevalence is rising. It rocketed between 1997 and 2012 by an astonishing 64%. Again, much of this is linked to the increased consumption of stronger red wines, and to obesity.
Alcohol is a major contributor to obesity, although many people are not aware of this. The drinks industry has managed to evade the usual labelling requirements for calories and sugar content in products. The Government have failed to effect changes here because they have prayed in aid existing EU regulations on labelling, which they say have prevented them moving in this direction. Showing calories and sugar content in alcohol is not required in Europe. There was an attempt to introduce such a requirement in Europe but it was overturned, so we must stick by existing EU regulations. Again, Brexit means we will have a freedom here we did not have previously. I have been campaigning for a long time to have calories shown on alcohol labels. People should know what they are consuming, just as they do with most other products. Why is it not happening?
In fairness, some producers, such as Sainsbury’s, which has its own brands, have shown calories. Sainsbury’s did that because research indicated that drinkers wanted to know about what they were drinking. Why should it not apply elsewhere? I would like to know what the Government are doing on this, given that they now have a strategy on obesity.
Alcohol also contributes to type 2 diabetes, which is reaching epidemic proportions. There is a direct link there. About 10% of alcohol contributes to diabetes and we need to get some movement on that.
This week I also went to a meeting of the All-Party Group on Liver Health—I declare my interest as patron of the British Liver Trust. Liver disease is now costing £2.1 billion a year, up 400% since 1970, and the upward curve continues in the UK while in Europe the cost is declining. There must be a reason for this, and we should be looking at what it is. This is a great problem for A&E departments, as mentioned in previous exchanges with the Minister. Alcohol is a contributory factor in 70% of A&E cases at the weekends, and I would like to know what the Government intend to do about that.
We need to start examining a whole range of other options, particularly given that this week, the Government are taking steps to withdraw certain free prescriptions. We need to look at the 9 million people with hypertension who are getting NHS medication for it. We need to look at the millions of people—and the number is increasing—who are on tablets for depression. Will the Minister say whether people who are on medication for depression should not be drinking alcohol, and whether it is permissible? If in fact, as I know, many people are taking tablets but still drinking, is it not time to look at that in the context of developments this week? People should have a choice: either they take the tablets for depression and stop drinking; or, if they want to continue drinking, they should pay for their tablets over the counter.
I saw the figures in a recent Written Answer from the Minister on how much is being spent on medication—it has rocketed since 2010. We have to start looking for a different approach. We need the Government to accept responsibility for the policy areas they can control. We need the industry to accept greater responsibility—I will not go on about the industry in great detail today; I will leave that for a separate debate—and we need people to take more individual responsibility, given this new world in which the NHS is under great financial pressure. I hope I will get a positive response on many of these points from the Minister, and maybe we can look forward to a wider debate on drawing up a real strategy in the future.
My Lords, this is an important debate, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, for initiating it.
A recent study in the south-west showed that one in three adults exceeds the permitted government guidelines and that 83% of at-risk drinkers see themselves as moderate or light drinkers, whereas 69% are not concerned about how much they drink. There appears to be a common assumption that the benchmark for too much alcohol is when control is lost on the occasional bender, reliance on alcohol is required to get through the day or a bad hangover is experienced. Few understand the risk to their health, their family or the wider community. High blood pressure, mental health, accidental injury, violence and liver disease are just a few health issues directly linked to alcohol. As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, mentioned, liver disease is arguably one of the biggest health issues facing the NHS along with deep-seated serious health problems, and the harm is being done to a large extent in the privacy of people’s homes.
Alcohol admissions and related injuries put A&E departments under huge pressure. Estimates have suggested that three in every 10 patients attending A&E are there because of alcohol. People are calling ambulances like cabs to ferry them to hospital when they become incapacitated. Those who are not injured often just need to sleep it off in a place of safety, but they arrive in A&E by ambulance or cab or are taken there by friends. Those who have sustained injuries can be aggressive towards staff, leading to staff being vulnerable and of course adding to the difficulty of treating the injury.
Alcohol harm knows no boundaries. Its tentacles can affect anyone in a community—rich, poor, young, old, the well-educated and those who are not. What can be done? There is no easy solution. Perhaps the following could help towards people being more responsible about their drinking as well as cutting the cost to the NHS. A combination of price control and taxation would successfully target those who drink more of the cheapest and strongest alcohol products.
A comprehensive cultural change is required to educate young people towards activities that do not revolve around drinking. Is an advertising campaign the way forward to educate parents and families about the dangers? Parents play the biggest role in educating their children about the dangers of alcohol abuse. Parents should know who their children are hanging around with and make an effort to get to know the parents of their children’s friends. When parents are involved, they are more likely to be able to pick up the signs of any problems. Of course, that is the perfect scenario and, as we know, many children come from homes where good parenting is not the norm, so educators have a role to play.
Effective approaches include teaching students how to resist peer influences and improve life skills, involve families and provide students with the opportunities to get involved with positive experiences. There is no point in just lecturing on the dangers. That tends to cause most teenagers just to switch off. What programmes are available in schools? Is health and well-being part of the curriculum, particularly in primary schools where recent reports suggest that one child per week is being excluded for heavy drinking. Perhaps the alcohol industry should be asked to contribute towards the cost of these classes. What training are GPs and psychiatrists being given to recognise the signs of alcohol misuse?
The Nelson Trust, a drug and alcohol treatment centre in Gloucestershire, is talking with the local CCG to consider placing workers in A&E to target frequent visitors whose admissions are alcohol related. A senior nurse told the charity that local hospitals are doing 30 in-patient detoxes a month on individuals who have come into hospitals because of a fall or a gastro problem, for example, and who are found to be alcohol dependent. They require a 10-day in-patient stay only to go out and repeat the process. We are fortunate in this country to have experienced, successful charities involved in addiction. Let us have a joined-up approach and use their expertise in medical settings and educational facilities.
We all have a responsibility to ensure that alcohol is drunk in a responsible way. As an A&E consultant pointed out, it appears that people do not make plans at the end of an evening to get home safely or look after their friends. A whole department can be disrupted from just one drunk patient. The Government’s role is to address the problems caused by alcohol and to support people to stay healthy without unfairly affecting responsible drinkers and businesses.
My Lords, I am pleased to be associated with the short debate this afternoon in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, as it enables me to make a few comments relating to my personal expertise and draw the attention of noble Lords to the effects that alcohol and excess alcohol have on the mouth, larynx, pharynx and oesophagus and the consequential costs to the NHS. I declare my interest as a retired dental surgeon and a member and fellow of the British Dental Association. I am a vice-president of the British Fluoridation Society and a life vice-president of the Society for the Advancement of Anaesthesia in Dentistry.
Alcohol and lifestyles closely associated with alcohol can have detrimental effects on dentition—dental erosion, dental caries and periodontal disease being the most common. The new dental contract reflects the aims of the UK Government to focus the attention of dental healthcare professionals on quality, treatment outcomes and how well their patients are looked after. There is now more emphasis on health promotion. Since alcohol misuse affects patients’ general health, tackling that abuse is therefore important for primary care dental professionals from a purely dental perspective. Addressing this in primary care settings also enables dental professionals to meet wider health promotion responsibilities.
As we have already heard, alcohol causes at least seven different types of cancer, and oral cancers are among those most closely linked to drinking. About 70% of people diagnosed with oral cancer are heavy drinkers. There are almost 7,000 diagnoses a year. This means that almost 5,000 heavy drinkers will be struck by mouth cancer every year. The risk is even greater for those who tend to drink and smoke at the same time. It is estimated that heavy drinkers and smokers have 38 times the risk of developing oral cancer than those who abstain from both products.
This particularly debilitating disease, which kills thousands and leaves many of the survivors with disfigured faces and difficulty in eating and speaking, is, worryingly, one of the fastest-increasing types of cancer, with cases up by almost 40% in the past decade. It now kills more people in the UK than cervical and testicular cancer combined. Yet awareness of it and of the role that drinking and smoking play in causing it remains stubbornly low.
Dental professionals are on the front line in the fight against cancer. Dentists are uniquely placed to diagnose oral cancer very early on before the patient notices any symptoms and seeks help. This is crucial, as mouth cancer patients have a 90% chance of survival if the condition is detected early, but this plummets to just 50% if the diagnosis is delayed. As dental teams are the only health professionals who see healthy patients on a regular basis, they are also in a unique position to provide brief advice and support to their patients who drink above the lower risk levels, warning them not just of the increased risk of oral cancer but also of the possible periodontal disease and tooth erosion that is associated with drinking some types of alcohol. Where appropriate, dental professionals can signpost higher-risk patients to their GP or local alcohol services, with such early intervention helping to save the NHS money further down the line.
Screening and primary dental care would involve similar strategies to those used by primary medical practitioners, using the same valid and reliable questionnaires and motivational interventions developed in psychology. These have been found to be effective and cost-beneficial in some dental settings. Although suitable screening tools and treatment interventions are available, it is unclear which of them are most effective and precisely how and when they should be deployed in primary dental care. It is clear, however, that the dental team can contribute and that this contribution fits well with its responsibilities and interests.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for his persistence in keeping the matter of alcohol abuse on the parliamentary and government agenda.
Evidence and reports abound on this matter. Public Health England did a thorough evidence review in 2016, the Government’s alcohol strategy was issued in 2012 and there are numerous reports detailing the cost to the NHS, which has been outlined as £3.5 billion a year. Last year there was an excellent report by the APPG on Alcohol Harm called The Frontline Battle about the huge burden on the emergency services caused by alcohol misuse. However, there is precious little mention in these reports—or, therefore, praise or policy from Her Majesty’s Government in this regard—of how alcohol and its use varies in religious and ethnic minority communities, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report in July 2010, Ethnicity and Alcohol: A Review of the UK Literature, being a notable exception.
What is known is that in many ethnic minority communities the rates of abstinence are higher. According to the Public Health England evidence review that I have mentioned, 15% of white women, 38% of black women and 74% of British Asian women abstain completely. There are many reasons for this, including the physiological. According to the Berkeley university well-being project, it is very common in people from Chinese, Japanese and Korean backgrounds to have difficulty digesting alcohol because of a genetic variant that impairs the production of an enzyme that helps to metabolise alcohol in the liver. Within religious communities such as the Latter-day Saints, Muslims, the Salvation Army and Methodists, and for many within the black Pentecostal churches, refraining from alcohol is advocated, which may explain the lower levels of alcohol consumption in the British black and black Caribbean communities.
While the main government messaging needs to remain around drinking sensibly as this is the majority activity, the lack of commendation by the NHS and government Ministers of religious and ethnic minority communities, particularly Muslims, who refrain is remiss. Having taken part in the parliamentary police service scheme and been out on a Friday night on Shaftesbury Avenue, it is not people in obvious religious attire such as Muslim women or Salvation Army leaders that you see literally in the gutters and then appearing at A&E—a fact that is just not mentioned. These religious and ethnic minority communities are indeed ahead of the curve as they are in tune with the rising number of young adults, the millennials, who drink in moderation or do not drink at all.
Studies have shown that where there are young adults in a college setting with a significant number from a black or minority ethnic community, overall the young people in that group drink less. It has an effect of good peer pressure within the group. Yet the lack of evidence is serious as without it there are none of the bespoke policies needed to help those in these communities who drink. There is evidence that when such people drink they do so at higher levels, hidden away and facing barriers to accessing the help they need from the NHS. Also, if you drink without the enzyme to break down alcohol there are greater health risks and a higher incidence of hypertension. I have not seen any awareness of this within the NHS.
A national piece of work, looking at the evidence and policies in Yorkshire mill towns, city centres such as Birmingham, Chinatown and boroughs such as Lambeth is well overdue. It would show how much ethnic minorities save the National Health Service but also any deficiencies so that people could then access services they need. Perhaps religious leaders could also help bring down the barriers for communities when they need to access other professional services.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, for raising this Question for Short Debate today. I recently had the honour of serving with him on the Licensing Act Select Committee and am therefore aware of his concerns about the damaging effects of excessive alcohol consumption. I very much respect his long-term commitment to raising awareness of this matter. It is appropriate that I declare my interests as set out in the register, in particular my role as CEO of the Association of Conservative Clubs, a private members’ club group with some 850 members’ clubs located throughout the UK.
I believe that the vast majority of the population enjoys alcohol with no problems at all. In moderation, alcohol plays an important and beneficial role in the nation’s life. A society that socialises together is a stronger one. For many people, drinking provides and has always provided social cohesion. I made many points in my maiden speech about when, if used in moderation and linked with socialising, alcohol can play an important role in alleviating some life-limiting lifestyles. It is a recognised fact that people who enjoy an active social life avoid loneliness and the devastating effects that isolation can have on a person’s health. Pubs, clubs, restaurants and bars provide a significant part of most people’s social lives. Whether it is meeting family or friends, watching sport or celebrating a special occasion, the common denominator for many is having an alcoholic drink. By and large, this is enjoyed responsibly and without repercussions.
Of course, I recognise that for others alcohol can become a poison and a prison. It is undoubtable that alcohol puts an enormous strain on front-line services, not least the NHS. Would my noble friend the Minister consider updating the direct cost to the NHS that was put at £3.9 billion back in 2014? Then we would have an up-to-date figure of exactly where we stand. We know that per capita alcohol consumption has fallen by more than 17% during the last 10 years. Alcohol-related crime is down and the number of young people consuming alcohol is down by 38% since 2004. Alcohol-related hospital admissions for those under 40 has declined by 11% since 2010 and alcohol-related deaths have fallen by 10% according to the Office for National Statistics. The UK today drinks less alcohol than 16 other European countries, according to the World Health Organization.
However, I would be the first to say that there is still much more to do to prevent people who are sensible consumers of alcohol becoming the irresponsible minority who deliberately drink to destruction, to deter existing nuisance drinkers who pre-load on cheap alcohol and cause trouble in our villages and towns, and to help those who are sadly addicted to alcohol, harm themselves and their families, and greatly risk promoting the cycle of self-abuse and alcoholism on to their children and the next generation. Does the Minister feel that enough is being done to treat people who are addicted to alcohol in the UK? Does he feel that these treatments are proving effective?
There is an increasing trend of stay-at-home consumption, with large quantities of alcohol being purchased—often very cheaply—from supermarkets and off-licences. I have concerns that some of the deals on offer for beers and lager can cut down the cost to as little as 63 pence per pint. I am also concerned that recent statistics show that as much as 40% of all alcohol purchased in the UK is bought by only 10% of the adult population. Does the Minister think that more could be done to restrict offers and implement safety mechanisms within the off trade on a par with those that exist in the on trade?
Local alcohol partnerships are playing an important role in creating healthier, safer high streets. Organisations such as the Portman Group, Best Bar None, National Pubwatch and Purple Flag are working with the alcohol industry and local authorities to tackle crime, disorder and underage sales. Importantly, they are also working to improve responsible alcohol marketing and to provide education and information about the damaging effects of excessive consumption. I hope the Minister will agree with me that education on matters such as smoking has vastly improved, and the same could be achieved on excessive consumption of alcohol.
Finally, I offer a further point for consideration. Every time the police issue a fine for drunk or disorderly conduct, those funds could be shared with the ambulance service. The police do an excellent job, but so does the ambulance service, and it is rare that the two are not in partnership with each other on these regrettable occasions. We have a responsibility not to limit the freedoms and activities of people, while also providing safeguards and information for those who are vulnerable. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the debate today.
I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, on securing this important debate. Last January, I chaired a seminar run by the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group on developing a long-term strategy to reduce the harm from alcohol consumption. We heard from several eminent contributors whom I shall mention as I go along. We started with Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, who described the burden of alcohol harm. He told us that, statistically, alcohol is the number one risk factor for premature death in the UK today. The BMA tells us that 60 different medical conditions are caused by alcohol abuse, and are therefore preventable. Sir Ian Gilmore said that 70% of presentations at A&E on a Friday or Saturday night, and about 20% of all hospital admissions, are related to alcohol. Interestingly, mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol use account for almost 20% of those admissions, so we know that we are talking about mental, as well as physical, diseases. We know what the diseases are; several noble Lords have referred to them today. In addition to those physiological diseases, of course, accidents are caused by alcohol use, and there are a lot of hospital admissions because of those, as well.
Sir Ian was followed by Dr Mirza, an emergency medicine consult from West Middlesex University Hospital. He began by shocking us all with four real-life but typical situations that had taken place in his department over the past month. They included drunken patients attacking staff or police officers, running rampant and breaking thousands of pounds- worth of hospital equipment, requiring to be restrained and taking up hours of time of the staff, meaning that other sick patients were not treated for hours. The disruptive effect on the department was enormous, he said, and added additional strain to an already overstretched A&E department.
What does all this cost the nation? The Government themselves estimate that it costs £3.5 billion a year to the NHS, £11 billion a year on criminal justice and £7.3 billion in lost production, a total of £21 billion a year. What could the NHS and social care do with that money?
In addition to these costs and the burden of disease, there are costs for children and families. My daughter-in-law is currently writing a PhD thesis about the scale of domestic violence following excess alcohol consumption after major sporting events. Dr Mirza pointed out that there are many children living with one or more parents with an alcohol-related problem, resulting in mental and emotional strain and poor academic attainment for the child.
What are the options for reducing these harms? First of all, we have to ensure that young people are educated in their PSHE lessons about the harm that alcohol can do. We heard from Professor Yvonne Kelly, Professor of Lifecourse Epidemiology at University College London, that, of those adults who drink, 80% to 90% of them start in the second decade of life. Pleasingly, as someone has said, there has been a fall in the number of underage drinkers in the past 25 years, and I put that down to education. However, she told us that the amount being drunk by each underage drinker shows no sign of falling, so these are the people we need to target. A number of options were suggested to us, including those affecting price, labelling, marketing, advertising, availability, low-alcohol options, help with behaviours, et cetera. Many of these have excellent evidence of effectiveness, according to the academics.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. Has he done an impact assessment of the reduction in alcohol abuse services following the cuts to public health budgets? Is he aware that this money is well spent? For every £1 spent on alcohol treatment, £5 of public money can be saved. We know that a five-minute chat from a health professional can have a major effect on a person’s drinking habits, yet GPs do not have time to do this in a 10-minute appointment. Will the Minister publish imminently the Government’s new alcohol strategy, and will he consider including in it minimum unit pricing to tackle products such as white cider, which I was staggered to discover costs only 15p per unit of alcohol and is used mainly by very problematic drinkers? Will he ask the Chancellor to increase the general cost of alcoholic drinks? Given what the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, what can he do to reduce the comparative cost of low or zero-alcohol products? Will he issue guidance to local authorities which authorise licences to ensure that health is a factor in licensing decisions, so that they understand the effect of long opening hours and high density of premises selling alcohol? Alcohol action areas have already proved the effectiveness of reducing density and hours.
Will the Minister also look at what can be learned from the policies on tobacco? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, about labelling. Labelling of tobacco products showing the health damage they can do could easily be replicated with alcohol. Alcoholic products should not only show the calories and units of alcohol they contain but also have a reminder of the Chief Medical Officer’s advice about maximum weekly consumption and alcohol free days. Perhaps we can do that after Brexit.
There is evidence that increased exposure to alcohol increases the chances of children drinking, so will the Minister also include in the policy a ban on advertising of alcoholic products before the watershed? Will he also consider banning alcohol sponsorship of sports events for the same reason? The health and economic benefits of all these actions would be immense.
My Lords, I welcome the debate. My noble friend made a very powerful statement about the major challenge that we face over alcohol abuse and the knock-on impact on the National Health Service. He opened by asking for an honest debate about funding. The report of the Select Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, will be issued on Wednesday, and I hope that it will lead to an open debate. However, no one can be in any doubt about the seriousness of this situation for the NHS. This morning, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation said that there now has to be a trade-off between, for instance, fast, efficient emergency care and non-elective surgery. That shows the state that we have got to. Clearly, the impact of alcohol abuse on the NHS is significant.
My noble friend’s speech was particularly persuasive in relation to low prices. Public Health England produced a very good report on the public health burden of alcohol and the cost-effectiveness of alcohol control policies. That report had a lot of good things to say. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has already referred to the £20 billion a year cost to our society in relation to criminal justice, the economy and the health service. In addition, there is the fact that we now have over 1 million alcohol-related hospital admissions per year, and the kind of pressure it puts on the health service and the emergency services, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, referred to. PHE points out that the average age at death of those who die from alcohol-specific causes is 54.3 years, compared to 77.6 years for death from all causes. The other very striking statistic is that more working years of life were lost in England as a result of alcohol-related deaths than from cancers of the lung, bronchus, trachea, colon, rectum, brain, pancreas, skin, ovary, kidney, stomach, bladder and prostate combined. Therefore, the scale of this disease, as we need to call it, is very striking indeed.
My noble friend obviously did not dwell much on taxation and price regulation, because he covered a much wider canvas. However, the analysis by Public Health England said:
“Implementing a minimum unit price is a highly targeted measure which ensures any resulting price increases are passed on to the consumer, improving the health of the heaviest drinkers”,
is surely right. As PHE points out:
“The MUP measure has a negligible impact on moderate drinkers”—
who we do not want to undermine—
“and the on-trade”.
I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about where the Government are on the MUP.
I pick up the point raised by my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on labelling. Post Brexit what the Government do about labelling will be entirely in their hands. As the Minister is responsible for the Department of Health’s response to Brexit, can he say what work is now being done by either his department or Public Health England to look at what the Government are going to do when they have control over labelling? Potentially, we could be much more effective than current EU regulations allow us to be.
Finally, I acknowledge a very good briefing that I had from the British Medical Association on this issue. It has set out a number of requests—principally, that the Government should:
“Publish a new updated alcohol strategy”.
Will the Minister agree to do that? It mentions minimum unit pricing and reducing,
“the affordability of alcohol through taxation measures”.
It makes an important point about ensuring that health,
“is a key factor in licensing decisions”.
I know that we will receive a Select Committee report on the implications of the big change in licensing 10 or 12 years ago. However, this obviously needs to be considered very carefully. The BMA also goes on to ask for an implementation of,
“evidence-based measures to reduce drink driving levels”,
“a range of measures to reduce and better manage pregnancies affected by alcohol”,
and makes a number of other requests. At heart, there is a request to the Government to take stock of the pressures that we face, update the current alcohol strategy and take some courage in their hands and be prepared to move on from the rather insipid voluntary approach that we have to a tougher approach, in which they must look at taxation and a minimum unit pricing policy.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, on securing this important debate and on his obvious tenacity in pursuing this issue. I am sure that this will be the first of many occasions we will have to discuss this matter. I also thank all noble Lords for a wide-ranging, well-informed and informative debate.
I think all noble Lords accept that the vast majority of people who consume alcohol—whether in my noble friend Lord Smith’s clubs or elsewhere—do so as a pleasurable and indeed even positive part of their social lives. However, we also know there are very serious harms and health costs associated with alcohol misuse, which is estimated, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and other noble Lords have pointed out, to cost the NHS around £3.5 billion a year. The recent Public Health England evidence review tells us that alcohol is now the leading risk factor for ill-health, early mortality and disability among 15 to 49 year-olds in England, causing 169,000 years of working life lost. That is more than the 10 most frequent cancer types combined—a truly alarming figure. As the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, pointed out, that is having an effect in specific areas such as increases in oral cancers.
Alcohol misuse is also a significant contributor to some 60 health conditions, including circulatory and digestive diseases, liver disease, a number of cancers, as has been said, and depression. Alcohol-related deaths have increased in recent history, particularly deaths due to liver disease, which saw a 400% increase between 1970 and 2008. As several noble Lords have pointed out, that is in contrast to trends seen across much of western Europe and, as my noble friend Lady Berridge pointed out, it is also in contrast to outcomes in many minorities in the UK. It is not so much a British problem as a problem of certain communities within Britain.
In the UK, there are currently more than 10 million people drinking at levels that increase risk to their health. Those health risks, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, pointed out, are both mental and physical. They lead to more than 1 million hospital admissions annually, half of which occur in the most deprived communities, so this is also an issue of social justice. My noble friend Lord Smith was right to point out the work that the police, the ambulance service and other public services do to deal with—mopping up, sometimes physically as well as figuratively—the results of alcohol misuse. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to their work; they often have to deal with both physical and verbal violence in doing so.
We also know the tragedies that can occur from mothers drinking alcohol during pregnancy, leading to problems after birth. This is not just a UK but a global issue. To address the challenges of the prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome disorders, the WHO is starting a global prevalence study. We will consider lessons from this for further work in the UK.
It is also important to recognise the devastating impact that addiction has on individuals and their families. It is unacceptable that children have to bear the brunt of their parents’ conditions. I was shocked to learn that, according to Alcohol Concern, 93,500 babies under the age of one, which I make to be about a sixth or seventh of the cohort, live in a family where a parent is a problem drinker. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, pointed out, there is a link to domestic violence which affects not just children but also partners. My colleague, the Minister for Public Health and Innovation, recently met with members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children of Alcoholics to set out our plans to work with MPs, health professionals and those affected to reduce the harms of addiction and support those who need it. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that that is an important mission.
However, I am glad to say that we can also observe some promising trends regarding alcohol. As my noble friend Lord Smith pointed out, the figures for alcohol crimes and deaths are down, although there are other problems which we have talked about. People aged under 18 are drinking less, which stands in stark contrast to the data for the over-65s who are drinking more—I am not looking at anyone here—and there has been a huge increase in the number of hospital admissions for the over 65s in recent years of more than 130%. Nevertheless, there has also been a steady reduction in alcohol-related road traffic accidents.
We also have social action campaigns, such as Alcohol Concern’s dry January, in which I have taken part over the past few years, as I am sure other noble Lords have too, which are starting to change attitudes. The point that my noble friend Lady Berridge made about minority and religious groups leading the way was incredibly important. I accept her point about the need for appropriate analysis of how to communicate with those communities. We were unable to get the information, admittedly at short order, that she wanted, but I shall certainly write to her and put a copy of the letter in the Library for noble Lords. She makes an important point and she may have highlighted a weakness in the current strategy.
We have also seen real progress through working in partnership with industry: 1.3 billion units of alcohol have been removed from the market by improving the choice of lower alcohol products; nearly 80% of bottles and cans now display unit content and pregnancy warnings on their labels; and we have published guidance on updating the health information contained on labels better to reflect the latest advice on alcohol published by the UK Chief Medical Officer.
Several noble Lords asked about calories and labelling. This is an area where the European Commission is looking at legislation. It is not always the fastest moving institution in the world, and we have of course just signalled our intention to leave the European Union, but we will certainly look at that legislation as it comes through. It is fair to say—although I am not in a position to make a commitment at this point—that the UK has been a leader in this kind of area, not just on drink but on smoking as well, and I hope that, looking ahead, we would continue that leadership position.
An essential part of our strategy to tackle alcohol harms is the provision of high-quality, evidence-based treatment services. Local government now has the responsibility to improve people’s health, in particular on the public health side. This includes tackling problem drinking and commissioning appropriate prevention and treatment services for the local population’s needs. Several noble Lords asked about addiction and spending on cessation services, which increased from 2014-15 to 2015-16, even within the context of challenging budgets for public health. I see this as a positive move, but it is something to be kept under review.
The NHS remains critical to preventing alcohol harms. There is a new scheme to incentivise investment in alcohol interventions. The national Commissioning for Quality and Innovation indicator has been developed, and in the way beloved of the NHS, it has been given the acronym CQUIN. It links a proportion of service providers’ income to the achievement of national and local quality improvement goals. The practical effect of that is that every in-patient in community, mental health and from 2018-19 to acute hospitals, will be asked about their alcohol consumption and, where appropriate, will receive an evidence-based brief intervention or a referral to specialist services. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, pointed out that the evidence shows that people who receive a brief intervention are twice as likely to have moderated their drinking six to 12 months after the intervention when compared to drinkers receiving no intervention, so it is obviously a low-cost but highly effective action.
In addition, as my noble friend Lady Chisholm mentioned, by 2018, around 60,000 doctors will have been trained to recognise, assess and understand the management of alcohol use and its associated problems. My noble friend Lord Colwyn pointed out that dentists have a vital role in prevention and spotting early problems. The new dental contract means that there has been an increasing number of patient episodes, and Public Health England has developed an alcohol training resource for dental teams. I would be interested, as a follow-up, to find out if that has been successfully adopted within the profession that he represents.
Furthermore, the inclusion of alcohol assessment and advice in the NHS health check, which is offered to all adults in England aged 40 to 74, means that GPs and other healthcare professionals can offer advice to promote a healthier lifestyle. Since we mandated the alcohol assessment and advice component, nearly 5 million people have had a check. Referral to alcohol services following an NHS health check is around three times higher than among those receiving standard care, which is yet another example of how a small nudge in the right direction can make a great impact.
Several noble Lords talked about providing people with the right information so that they can make informed choices. Last year, Public Health England launched the One You campaign to help motivate people to improve their health through action on the main risk factors. This includes a drinks tracker app to help drinkers identify risky behaviour and lower their alcohol consumption and a new “days off” app to encourage people not to drink alcohol for a number of days a week, in line with the CMO’s recommendations.
My noble friend Lady Chisholm and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked about education. PSHE is obviously a critical part of making sure that young people are informed about their choices. There has been a review of the PSHE curriculum—we have seen a strengthening of PSHE in recent announcements by the Secretary of State for Education. There must be, at least in part I think, some impact on the positive trends that we are seeing among young people in lower drinking, although it is of course hard to isolate what exactly causes that. We know, however, from the smoking environment that constant public health campaigns do have that impact, particularly for younger people. It is also notable that while the incidence of mental illness has unfortunately and sadly increased among young people, there has not been the same increase in drinking. That is an interesting inverse correlation that is worthy of further investigation.
Several noble Lords asked about the affordability of alcohol. In this context you think of Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” and “Beer Street”, and the important role that taxation has historically played in changing drinking habits. The UK currently has the fourth highest duty on spirits among EU member states, and higher-strength beer and cider are already taxed more than equivalent lower-strength products. In relation to a move in the direction that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, pointed to, noble Lords may know that it was announced in the Budget that duty rates on beer, cider, wine and spirits will increase by RPI inflation. In addition, a consultation is currently seeking views on the introduction of a new band to target cheap, high-strength white ciders which are a particular problem among young people. It is also seeking views on the impact of a new lower-strength still wine band to encourage production and consumption of lower-strength wine—another point talked about by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. It is worth touching briefly on minimum pricing. I am afraid that my answers are entirely predictable on this issue. We await the conclusion of the court case. I will, however, look at the IFS report that was mentioned and we will keep a close eye on that issue going forward.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked about advertising, as, I believe, did the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. The Advertising Standards Authority has a vigorous approach to preventing advertising to children and young people, but I am assured that it is kept under review to make sure that it is having an impact. Again, it is worth investigating whether that has had an impact on the lower instances of drinking among young people.
It would be wrong for Ministers to restrict the treatments offered to young people. That is a clinical decision, although I know that clinicians are increasingly trying to change the behaviours of smokers and drinkers before providing significant treatments. There is also a link between drinking and depression, as the noble Lord rightly pointed out.
I close by again congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, on securing this debate on such an important subject. Alcohol misuse has a significant impact on people’s health, the NHS, the wider care system and society in general. I also believe, however, that progress is being made. The Government remain deeply committed to ensuring that people are given the information and support—and if necessary the treatment—that they need to reduce harms from alcohol. I look forward to working with the noble Lord and all noble Lords to reduce alcohol misuse in the years ahead.
Committee adjourned at 5.58 pm.