House of Lords
Thursday 7 September 2017
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.
Oaths and Affirmations
Lord Waldegrave of North Hill took the oath, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Schools: Children in Care
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for this Question, as it is a subject close to my heart. We are very keen to encourage more local authorities to consider boarding for vulnerable children. This summer we launched the Boarding School Partnerships service, very ably chaired by Colin Morrison, the former chair of the Royal National Children’s Foundation, and this service operates jointly with the boarding schools sector and charities to help local authorities collaborate with charities to place vulnerable children in state and independent boarding schools.
Does my noble friend agree that children in care can benefit greatly from a boarding education where they are suited to it? Is it not the case that many local councils once recognised this, with some 10,000 placements being arranged in the late 1960s?
I agree entirely with my noble friend that boarding can have great benefits for the right children, and we want to see more vulnerable children able to access it. My noble friend is quite right that boarding was more common at one time. Boarding school, with its 24/7 level of pastoral care, can be particularly suitable for vulnerable children, and that is why we are encouraging its use more widely and why we have set up the Boarding School Partnerships.
That is a very good question from the noble Baroness. The scheme was launched only a few months ago and we will be concentrating initially on promoting it with local authorities. The department recently had a very successful event with local authorities to launch it with a number of people who had been in care and at boarding school speaking passionately about it. Our first step is to promote it with local authorities, but we will, when appropriate, evaluate it.
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is easy to say that this facility should be for children when it is appropriate for them? But please let us not gloss over what happened in the 1960s. Many children were sent to boarding schools where, frankly, they were out of sight, out of mind and they had some terrible experiences. Let us go for a wide range, but make sure the placement is appropriate to the child’s needs.
My Lords, as the Minister is aware, those who live in tied accommodation as part of their employment or the holding of an office have an unintentional structural disadvantage when it comes to their children’s schooling. This is ameliorated in the case of military families but not in the case of others, such as clergy and their children. Will Her Majesty’s Government now act to address this disadvantage by amending the code?
My Lords, the appropriate word is “appropriate”, and we must do what is right for the individual child in care. It might be that boarding school provision is correct, but would the Minister agree that, where boarding school provision is provided, we must have the most vigorous safeguarding assessment of that provision?
I agree with the noble Lord that that is essential, but we have moved a long way from the 1960s. It may have been, as a reaction to some of the points the noble Lord, Lord Laming, made, that we have moved too far in the other direction and there is a certain overreluctance by some local authorities. We have definitely seen that local authorities are now better informed and visit schools. If noble Lords visit the Boarding School Partnerships website— at boardingschoolpartnerships.org.uk—they will be impressed, as there is a lot of information there to help local authorities on which schools are providing this and how they might assess whether it is appropriate for a particular child.
My noble friend makes a very good point, as local authorities do remain responsible. In holidays there are some facilities that may be able to keep children and we have initiatives to try to extend such arrangements, but it is certainly the case that local authorities continue to be responsible.
My Lords, is it true that this whole programme is being driven by the need to save money, as against placing children in foster care? In so far as we know that only 100 children nationally are now in such placements, surely we should fully evaluate the effect on those children before we proceed further down this route.
It is not driven by money at all; it is driven by a passionate belief by a number of people, including the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and others who have been to boarding school that it can help and that we had lurched into a certain prejudice against boarding schools. We are just inviting local authorities to look more widely at the options and making much more information available to allow them to evaluate those options.
My Lords, while acknowledging the potential benefits of the Boarding School Partnerships, the noble Lord will be aware that most children in care will have experienced some kind of trauma and a high proportion have unmet mental health needs. Extending the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, I think that it is questionable whether boarding schools are equipped to provide the sort of wraparound support that these children may need. Indeed, such a placement does not necessarily address the reasons a child was taken into care in the first place. For many of the children being placed at a state or independent boarding school, that will be outside their local authority. Research by the Children’s Society demonstrates that the further children are placed from home, the more likely they are to go missing from care. Will the Minister give an assurance that, when children in care are placed in boarding schools outside their home local authorities, the placing local authority will share appropriate information with the host authority to ensure that these children are appropriately safeguarded and have their particular needs met?
Pension Schemes: Universities
My Lords, universities are subject to regular assessment of their financial sustainability, management and governance. Government set the legislative framework for pension schemes to operate within. It is for the trustee and employer to agree appropriate plans to ensure schemes are adequately funded. This is overseen by the independent Pensions Regulator. Where the Pensions Regulator believes that a scheme’s position warrants its involvement, it considers intervention options, from education through enablement to enforcement.
I need to declare a few interests. I am visiting professor at King’s College London, I am married to an academic who pays into the scheme and I am the parent of a child who is paying university tuition fees: these may well be used to bail out the scheme, so I submit to the House that I may be relatively neutral in this regard.
I accept that the valuations of the scheme are a matter for the Pensions Regulator, and its discussions with Universities UK will be interesting, but the size of the deficit of the United Kingdom’s largest private pension scheme must be of some interest to the Government. I remind the Minister that, rightly, the Government bailed out the banks. It would appear odd, when the public purse pays £105 billion into universities, that they should say that this is a hands-off matter. We know that there are only three ways to plug the gap: to make students pay for it through higher fees; to cut research and teaching budgets; or for the universities themselves to plug the gap, perhaps through cutting senior salaries and remuneration. Which approach do the Government favour?
The House may not be surprised to hear me say that it does not need reminding about the passage of the Higher Education Act, when there was a strong focus on universities being autonomous institutions responsible for their own finances. While the Government cannot intervene in a higher education institution’s finances, we do set and will continue to set the maximum fee cap.
On pension schemes, the independent Pensions Regulator has powers to protect member benefits under circumstances set out in legislation, and that remains.
I should just point out to my noble friend that the Government are not making statements about how much they should be paid. My honourable friend in the other place, Jo Johnson, made a speech this morning reiterating his point that universities should exercise great restraint in deciding how much to pay vice-chancellors and other staff and has set out a series of guidance. Furthermore, the Office for Students, which has been set up as part of the Act, will also be given greater powers and encouragement to set a remuneration code.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there seems to have been quite a lot of scaremongering about this particular pension scheme? The assets of the scheme have performed well; it is well governed, has already adjusted its benefits in relation to the deficit that opened up in the 2014 valuation, and is now negotiating with universities and unions as to further adjustments that will be required. However, it is important to stress that student fees are set by the Government, and universities have sources of income that go well beyond the fees they receive from students. Much of the problem is caused by the exceptional policies that the Bank of England faces. This is an open scheme with strong cash flow and strong governance.
My noble friend knows more than I do how complex managing pension schemes is. There are lots of variables and issues to consider. She is right that there was a review in 2014. In fact, there is a review of the scheme every three years and a recovery plan is in place. My noble friend is right: the recovery plan, we believe, is robust and will offer a good degree of stability for the next 30 years.
The DWP is publishing a Green Paper in February to build on the ongoing discussions on pension schemes in general. We will publish a response to the consultation in a White Paper this winter.
My Lords, the Question in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, mentioned university schemes, although for the reasons she outlined to us, she only referred to the Universities Superannuation Scheme. In fact, there is a two-tier system in pensions provision for academic staff in universities. An academic retiring after 30 years at Oxford University will have a pension pot with the USS scheme worth around £150,000 less than an academic retiring at the same time from Oxford Brookes University in the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. While the Teachers’ Pension Scheme is in good financial health, despite the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, the Universities Superannuation Scheme is certainly not. The Universities and Colleges Union has real concerns about the manner in which the scheme’s executives carry out valuations and make investment decisions.
Will the Minister ask the Department for Education to challenge university finance directors over the manner in which the scheme is being run—leaving aside the role of the Pensions Regulator—when academic staff, their representatives and others have made suggestions for a change in direction for the scheme which have so far been ignored?
I do not agree with the noble Lord’s assessment of the scheme. It has a deficit, but so have many pension schemes. He will know more than I do about how that operates. It is being closely monitored and Universities UK, which oversees the scheme as a representative of employers, has launched a consultation this month which will run until 29 September on the proposed assumptions for the scheme’s technical provisions. A lot is going on to be sure that we monitor the scheme’s progress. Without getting too technical, interest rates, as the House may know, have played a part. These can change, and suddenly the parameters can change.
My Lords, on Tuesday, the Government made a Statement to the House of Commons on progress made in both the July and August negotiation rounds, which I repeated in this Chamber. The Secretary of State made a clear commitment to give an update to the House of Commons after each round of negotiations. With the leave of this House, it will also be repeated here.
Will my noble friend confirm that when we leave the European Union on 19 March 2019, the jurisdiction of all the bodies throughout Europe that have governing powers will cease, that that is the essence of Brexit, and that the rest of the issues are consequential and could be settled in their own time?
My noble friend has raised questions which I am sure will occupy this House with great interest and elicit investigation over the period until we do leave the European Union. He raises a crucial point that in leaving the European Union, we take back control of our own laws, and this is about how we do that and the pace at which we do it. We have made it clear that, for example, the direct jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union will end as we leave the European Union. But another place is currently discussing the withdrawal Bill, which makes it clear that there would still be some role for the CJEU, for example in pending cases. It is a complex matter and my noble friend is right to raise it.
My Lords, given the timescales, there will be important negotiations during recesses. Our EU Committee asked the Secretary of State to report back during the Summer Recess, and was clear that if he was unable to attend on the particular date it offered, it would be happy to hear from another Minister, the Permanent Secretary or the Permanent Representative. The invitation was declined—not just for that date but until October. Yet the Secretary of State found time to be part of the entertainment at the Edinburgh Festival, as a guest of Alex Salmond. This is a question of priorities, and that shows more respect for the comedy fringe than it does for Parliament. Is it right that Ministers can ignore Parliament in this way throughout any recess, particularly when it is the Government who choose the recess dates?
My Lords, the Government have not ignored Parliament. We made clear at the beginning of the process, when the British public decided they wanted to leave the European Union, that there would be regular reporting to Parliament. Indeed, what we do is far beyond what is available to the European Parliament, in effect, because we make available Statements, debates and Questions in which all parliamentarians may participate. In addition, in just the 15 months since my own department was founded, the Secretary of State appeared before the EU Committee on 11 July and, as the noble Baroness said, of course he plans to attend very shortly. He has also provided evidence to the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union in another place on two occasions, and will appear before that committee when it has been re-established. In those 15 months, there have been a further 14 occasions where my department’s Ministers and officials have given evidence to a wide range of committees. We continue with our commitment to engage fully with Select Committees. There are various ways in which we can do that, and I very much look forward to discussing those matters in detail with individual committees and their chairs.
My Lords, does my noble friend think that there is any prospect that when the Government report on the negotiations to this House and to the other place, we will not see the same speeches made by the same people who are still fighting the referendum campaign and trying to reverse the result brought about by the British people?
My Lords, we are moving from general principle to detail on the negotiations now, and it is the detail that we find extremely difficult. I remember that before we joined the single market, when Mrs Thatcher was negotiating it, a study demonstrated that, actually, the British accepted US regulation in domestic law as a matter of course, because we had to accept international regulation on a whole host of things. We are now discovering about the detail, and if we are leaving the EU both Houses need to be kept informed on the question of which international regulations we accept, and how we proceed, on everything from blood supplies to airline regulation. Many lobbies will be extremely interested, and that is the hard stuff that we need to be kept informed about. Can the Minister give us some reassurance?
The noble Lord is absolutely right about how crucial it is that, as negotiations progress and there is more of a convergence of agreement about what is, as he says, very detailed technical information about the status of regulations after Brexit, we are able to transmit that information. I assure him that that is what we have sought to do throughout the summer. One brief example is provided by the common position paper, published by both the EU Commission and the UK, on our negotiations on the status of citizens. Clearly a wide range of issues, including highly technical ones, are involved, and after the August round we updated the online convergence annexe immediately and made sure the information was in this House. That really shows how we are trying to transmit that detail. But I do not underestimate the complexity or the amount of detail that I know the House will wish to scrutinise.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the issue of periodicity of reporting, which the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, raised, is not the only one at stake? There is also, of course, the content of the reports, which up to now has left something to be desired—and also the ability of this House, when the report is made, to have more than the time that is made available when a ministerial Statement is made. Will the Minister consult the usual channels to see whether, in the case of Brexit, which is a matter of huge interest to all parts of this House, the time allowed for discussion following a ministerial Statement on the progress of the negotiations is a bit longer than is allowed on a normal one?
My Lords, I think there are many views around the House about how noble Lords wish to participate in the scrutiny of these matters. A Statement is, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, just one method. There are indeed occasions when the usual channels can arrange debate, and I thank my noble friend the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms for being so generous as to put time on the Order Paper next Tuesday so that this House can examine the position papers at length. That is a measure of the generosity of the Government; I hope that it will be met in good spirit, and not undermined by others.
My Lords, the behaviour of Bell Pottinger in South Africa has been completely unacceptable. We support the investigations conducted by the Public Relations and Communications Association and Herbert Smith Freehills and the stark conclusions of their report. I want to put it on record that at no stage were Her Majesty’s Government in any way involved in its work in South Africa.
I welcome that Answer but do the Government agree that, after running a pernicious and poisonously racist smear campaign in South Africa for the wealthy Gupta brothers, whom President Zuma has enabled to capture the state and bankroll his family and friends through corruption and cronyism, all Bell Pottinger’s work for British public bodies must be called in and reviewed? Since the respected former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has stated that the Guptas and Zumas have benefited from 6.8 billion rand of money laundering, can the Government investigate whether any British banks are involved and what action can be taken at a European level? Will the Minister agree to meet me about this?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for those questions. There are no contracts between the Government and Bell Pottinger. On the second point about money laundering, I have read the reports that I referred to in my original reply and there is no implication that there has been any money laundering or indeed any criminal activity. The company behaved unprofessionally and unethically. If the noble Lord has any evidence of money laundering, of course that should be investigated. We have some of the toughest money laundering regulations in the world, and earlier this year Deutsche Bank was fined £163 million for breaching those regulations. If there is any evidence of money laundering, of course we should look at it. I would not rule out at all a ministerial meeting with the noble Lord.
This is a private company operating in a foreign country. In this particular case, the chief executive has resigned and a number of officials have been dismissed. I am not sure there is a role for the Government in intervening on a private company in disciplinary matters of this nature.
My Lords, that is not quite the case. When the lobbying Bill was going through the House, we warned the Government that if they did not require a lobbying firm to be a member of a professional body and abide by its code, then their statutory register would be meaningless. We now see that Bell Pottinger, although thrown out of the PRCA because it broke the code, is still a member and remains on the statutory register, able to lobby Ministers and Permanent Secretaries. Could the Minister undertake to discuss with the Office for the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists whether it is appropriate to give to give credence to this company and whether Ministers will still be willing to meet with it?
As I said, the Government have no contracts with Bell Pottinger. I understand that the registrar is in touch with Bell Pottinger to establish whether or not it is still signed up to the codes of either the PRCA or the other professional body. In the light of those inquiries, the register will then clarify whether it is still signed up to those principles. As the legislation stands, you can be removed from the register only if you stop doing public relations business. You cannot be removed from the register for the sort of activities that we have been talking about.
Does not a rather wider consideration arise out of these matters? While Bell Pottinger might have suffered reputationally and financially from its behaviour, the fact that it is a British company, albeit operating in a foreign country, may well have an effect on the extent to which, in the febrile atmosphere of South African politics, diplomatic representations may be disregarded.
I have been in touch with our high commissioner in Pretoria this morning. He has made it clear that this has had a very damaging impact on our country’s reputation in South Africa, which is why I have gone out of my way to make it absolutely clear that neither the Government nor indeed the staff of the high commission in South Africa were in any way involved in this contract. The reputation of Bell Pottinger has been seriously impaired. This is a company that seeks to boost the image of other companies but here it is, having a very severe reputational hit of its own. It could perhaps begin to put that right by donating any profits it has made from the contract to some charity in South Africa.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, made an observation in an earlier reply to the effect that it was not possible, as he understood it, for Bell Pottinger—or any other company—to be removed from the register of those people entitled to lobby Parliament. Might this not be an appropriate moment to review those rules and to consider whether there should be a mechanism for removing such people from the register?
The House, I know, was surprised when I stated the legislative position: you can be removed from the register only if you stop acting as a lobbyist. That is what the law says. There was an attempt last year with a Private Member’s Bill, which started in this House and progressed through it, to take this a step further and have a statutory code of conduct. Although it passed through this House, there was no parliamentary time in another place to take it forward. Discussions are taking place at an official level between those who would like to see the sort of reform that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, has outlined, but at this stage the Government have no plans to legislate.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper and, in doing so, inform the House that it is necessary as a result of the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, being taken seriously ill during the summer. I pay tribute personally to her for her support and encouragement to me since I took up this position. She has been outstanding as chair of the Delegated Powers Committee and as a parliamentarian over many decades. I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing her a full and speedy recovery.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, who has been a remarkable chairman of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, on which I serve. I think all members of the committee will enthusiastically endorse what the noble Lord said. She has been extraordinarily wise, effective, forthright and non-partisan—a real tribute to the way in which chairs of committees in this House operate—and I entirely hope that all Members of your Lordships’ House will endorse what the noble Lord said about her rapid recovery to full health.
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, when opening the debate here on prison reform early last year, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, now our esteemed Lord Speaker, recalled that when in the 1970s the prison population first exceeded 40,000, the Times published a series of articles under the heading “The Prisons Crisis”. Today, there are over 85,000 prisoners and, on present trends, this number is projected to rise in a very few years to over 90,000. Can anyone doubt that today our prisons truly are in crisis—seriously overcrowded, understaffed and volatile—and that the solution cannot be simply to build more, but lies rather in adopting fresh approaches to reducing their population and restoring what is now almost entirely lost: the real prospect of prison sentences actually being used to reform and rehabilitate inmates?
I need spend little time establishing that there are too many people in prison. Numerous statistics bear it out. The percentage of our population serving prison sentences is almost twice that in Germany, let alone Scandinavia, and very substantially higher than in most of the developed world. Our standard sentences are routinely substantially longer than elsewhere. The statistics are yet more striking when it comes to indeterminate sentences: astonishingly, in England and Wales, more people are sentenced to an indeterminate term than in all the other 46 countries of the Council of Europe combined.
Nor, surely, do I need to linger long on the many and acute problems which result from prison overcrowding. Inevitably I must generalise, so let me acknowledge at once the many caring and conscientious prison staff and governors who do their very best to overcome these problems. Their efforts notwithstanding, the consequences of overcrowding are all too evident. Almost one-fifth of prisoners are doubled up in single cells or tripled in cells for two, often sharing an open, unscreened toilet. Many spend up to 23 hours a day in these squalid conditions. Often prisons are without functioning classrooms, workshops, teachers or any of the other services or supports needed to help inmates to deal with problems and prepare them for release and resettlement. In short, warehousing has largely replaced rehabilitation.
Small wonder that prison riots and disturbances are no longer a rarity; prisons are dangerous places. Who can forget the finding by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in July that in not a single YOI is it safe to house a child? Small wonder, too, that in the last year there were more than 26,000 assaults in prison, including more than 7,000 on prison staff, that many prison officers suffer stress-related illnesses, and that there were more than 40,000 incidents of self-harm among inmates and 97 self-inflicted deaths. It is hardly surprising that, as the BMA has briefed, incarceration often leads to deterioration in physical and mental health, with the prisoner’s fragile state of mind all too often having played a part in his original offending. It is unsurprising, too, that the illegal use of drugs and mobile phones and the corruption, addiction, debt and violence that generally go with them represent widespread and persistent problems, such problems unlikely to be eradicated by 300 sniffer dogs and the hand-held mobile detectors promised by the Lord Chancellor in his Evening Standard article last month.
Perhaps least surprising of all is the high rate of recidivism following a prison sentence. In that same newspaper article, the Lord Chancellor expressly recognised that about half of those sent to jail will end up back behind bars. Some years ago, a Home Secretary famously suggested that “prison works”, above all in keeping prolific professional burglars out of our houses. Whether or not that was ever so, it manifestly is not today. Rather, it militates against any chance of effective rehabilitation, and once again we see the crime figures steadily on the rise. So the £1.3 billion now promised to the MoJ should be devoted not to catering for an ever-larger prison population but rather to improving the prison estate and facilities to prepare existing and future inmates for release.
The present continuing upward spiral must end, so let me briefly suggest four basic imperatives as to how—although, alas, with no sufficient time to develop them. First, send fewer people to prison and for shorter terms. Secondly, indefinite sentences, which are now commonplace, should become a rarity. Thirdly, facilitate prison release. Fourthly, drastically cut the number of recalls.
First and foremost, of course, we must end prison sentence inflation—its upward spiral. All too often, we hear of some dreadful fresh offence and, in common doubtless with many others—not just Daily Mail readers—whether it be a case of child cruelty, the torture of some elderly person to extract his savings or the recent spate of moped riders hurling acid into people’s faces, my first reaction is to lock the perpetrators up and throw away the key: avenge the victims or, at the very least, mark society’s outrage by raising the statutory maximum for the offence.
Indeed, that has often been Parliament’s reaction over recent years, but unfortunately—although perhaps occasionally justifiable in the case, say, of terrorist offences—its inevitable consequence has been to ratchet up sentences across the board. Even now, there is under consideration—subject to consultation and apparently gaining widespread public support—a proposal to increase from 14 years to life the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving. Earlier this year, Parliament doubled the maximum sentences available for stalking and harassment offences, variously from five years to 10 and, in aggravated cases, from seven to 14 years. Before that, in 2014, the maximum sentence under the Dangerous Dogs Act was increased from two years to 14 years. In 2015, contrary to the judges’ advice, minimum custodial terms were introduced for carrying knives, both for second possession offences and for first offences where accompanied by threats.
And, of course, by Schedule 21 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the Act which first introduced the ill-starred IPP sentence scheme, the minimum terms to be served by mandatory life prisoners were fixed at substantially higher levels than ever before—through later amendments they have twice since been raised higher still—so they have risen steadily from an average of 12 and a half years in 2003 to, I think, over 21 years now.
The Sentencing Council—a largely judicial body created by statute in 2009—is loyally responsive to these demonstrations of Parliament’s will. As a result, guideline sentences have become progressively longer to maintain some sort of coherence across the entire spectrum of criminal offending. Reducing the length of prison sentences requires, above all, political will, not judicial policy-making. I urge Parliament to amend the council’s statutory remit to include among its aims the overall reduction of the prison population.
If one pauses for a moment and asks in the abstract how long a sentence should be—whether, say, a dangerous driver, a burglar or a historic sex offender should serve 10 or five years, or whatever—what logic dictates that answer? Assuming he does not need to be confined long term for reasons of public safety, but that some immediate custodial disposal is called for, how many weeks, months or years does due punishment—just retribution—require that he be locked up in a squalid cell away from his family and friends, and deprived of most else that makes life worth living? In terms of deterrence, while plainly it is important to catch, prosecute and convict offenders, there is no evidence to suggest that, whatever is fixed as the standard sentence, it is of any consequence in deterring criminal behaviour—least of all crimes of sex and violence. The first imperative, therefore, is fewer and shorter sentences, suspended wherever possible.
Secondly, we should impose infinitely fewer indefinite sentences, of which there are many different kinds, and to which currently over 11,000 prisoners are subject. Inevitably, they suffer uncertainty and hopelessness, unsettling for all those around them, not least their families. As is increasingly widely recognised, the IPP regime is a clear case in point. Despite its abolition in 2012, some 3,300 IPP prisoners are yet to be released, the majority having served for many years—some over 10 years—beyond their tariff terms. Truly, this is preventive detention—in effect, internment. It is a stain on our criminal justice system and it must end.
The third imperative is to facilitate the release of those who have served their minimum terms—indeed, ideally, to release them earlier still. Additional resources should be provided for training, education and suitable courses. Never should release be delayed because the Parole Board is insufficiently resourced to process it speedily. The burden of proving safety for release, which is almost impossible for the prisoner to discharge, should—as the chairman of the Parole Board himself recently suggested—shift on to those seeking his continued detention. Neither should release have to be delayed because of insufficient accommodation in probation hostels for long-sentence prisoners to live in under supervision in the community, the subject of a Times article last month.
The temporary release scheme, whereby prisoners are prepared for release by allowing them out during the day to undertake paid or voluntary work, has been greatly restricted over recent years, most regrettably, despite its previous record of almost 100% success. It should be fully restored. Indeed, I would go further and urge the scheme’s extension to encompass also, whenever possible, those actually serving sentences so that family relationships can be preserved, employment prospects improved and institutionalisation kept at bay.
The fourth and final imperative is that, once a prisoner has finally secured his release, he should not thereafter readily be recalled. The number of those in prison for breach of their licence conditions has grown from 150 in 1995 to over 6,000 today, including over 700 IPP prisoners, whose rate of recall almost matches their rate of release, an issue on which the Howard League is currently engaged. Recall should be used only exceptionally. As it is, the majority are largely for technical reasons: failing to attend a probation officer appointment, spending a night away from a notified address and so forth. The actual numbers of recalls have grown immeasurably. In 2000-01, there were just over 3,000 recalls to custody. In the year ending this March, over 21,000 were recalled, including 8,000 who had served under eight months. Indeed, since the Offender Rehabilitation Act, nearly 15,000 of those serving under a year have been recalled, generally for just 14 or 28 days. In short, the part-privatisation of the probation service and the eligibility for recall of those sentenced to under 12 months are proving just as problematic as many here predicted when these measures were introduced.
I am conscious that I have had time only to sketch in some of the problems and suggest some of the required solutions. I must end. I have not even touched on many of the problems affecting the Prison Service today—for example, those arising from an ever-ageing prison population, including many serving long sentences for historic sex abuse, cases nowadays representing over half the Crown Courts’ workload. Truly, prisons are in crisis. Indeed, the very fact that over 30 noble Lords, most with deep knowledge and experience in this field, are down to speak is some indication of the enormous public concern about the situation in our prisons today. I greatly look forward to their contributions, all too brief, though, alas, they must be.
My Lords, first, I warmly congratulate the noble and learned Lord on initiating a most distinguished and eminent debate, and on a very thoughtful contribution—as one would expect from a former justice of the Supreme Court.
I particularly welcome the current President-elect of the Supreme Court. When I first became involved in criminal justice matters 42 years ago as a very young magistrate, I became chairman of the juvenile court in Lambeth and was absolutely aware that the judiciary was coping with the consequences of poverty, disadvantage, illiteracy and domestic upheaval. In one young judge, Brenda Hale, I found a person who was interested in debating whether or not sentencing made any difference. I used to sit with a stipendiary who said, “In the public interest you must go to a detention centre”. I used to say, “In the public interest we know that if they go to a detention centre, they have an 80% chance of reoffending”—so a more thoughtful, analytical approach to sentencing is evidently part of this situation. The other areas of IPPs, prison release and cutting recalls are also critically important.
But I am afraid the idea that there was ever a mythical day when it all worked beautifully is nonsense. Dr Helen Johnston of the criminology department at the wonderful University of Hull has done a tremendous longitudinal study of prison, going right back to the middle of the 19th century. She states:
“The use of custodial sentences today are just as financially costly and ineffective as they have always been, and they will continue to damage chances of rehabilitation from the outset. For over a hundred years the use of custody has cut away connections and support-networks in the community. Sentenced offenders lose their residences, their jobs, and sometimes also their family-relationships as soon as they go through the doors of the prison”.
Now, people will talk about prison education and prison health. I felt very strongly about ensuring that prison health was part of the National Health Service, not outside it. But I have a different call for action. When Nick Hardwick stepped down as the Chief Inspector of Prisons, he described as “appalling” the sector’s,
“lack of imagination and … failure of empathy”.
What I am calling for, and believe we are beginning to see, is a real presence of imagination and a much more genuine empathy. I used to have debates in another place in the mid-1980s on prisons. Nobody was interested; it was not a subject that would have attracted as many speakers as there are today. The only way we are going to address these issues is by community mobilisation. This is not just the Justice Department but all departments of Government; and it is not just prisons but whole communities.
I argue that the police and crime commissioners, now in their second iteration, are much more appropriate and able to create partnerships. The new community rehabilitation companies are beginning to work well. Above all, the voluntary sector is now coming forward with massively impressive schemes. I have worked closely with Working Chance, which is working with employers to find work for women prisoners. The wonderful KeepOut scheme in Surrey is using prisoners to educate others.
All in all, we have to work together to create a community for change. We need innovation, ingenuity, collaboration and determination—and I believe we really can turn the tide.
My Lords, I welcome this debate and thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for securing it at such a critical time, as this summer of unrest has shown.
We are facing a crisis that shows no sign of ending. Without a reduction in the numbers going to prison, there can be no solution to overcrowding. Together, England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. The prison system as a whole has been overcrowded in every year since 1994. People in prison, both prisoners and staff, are less safe than they have been at any time, with more self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and assaults than ever before.
I have two suggestions to reduce the numbers going to prison. First, we should urgently review the use of short-term sentencing and reverse the sharp decline in community orders. Secondly, we should stop the imprisonment of women for non-violent offences and invest more in women’s centres. The Government should cancel plans for new women’s prisons and spend the resources instead on a network of women’s centres. Imprisoning women for a short time results in loss of employment and housing—and, worst of all, in their children being taken into care, often with devastating consequences.
The number of women in prison has more than doubled since 1993: there are now nearly 2,300 more women in prison today than there were in 1993. On 16 June this year there were 3,994 women in prison in England and Wales, and 8,447 women were sent to prison in the year to December 2016, either on remand or to serve a sentence.
Most women entering prison under sentence have committed a non-violent offence, with theft offences accounting for nearly half of all custodial sentences given to women in 2016. As a result, most women entering prison serve a very short sentence: 70% of sentenced women entering prison in the year to December 2016 were serving six months or less. Short sentences do not allow for a programme of rehabilitation, education and training to take effect or for the health and social needs that many women face on entering custody to be addressed. Many are already damaged, with 53% reporting having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. There were 12 self-inflicted deaths of women in prisons in England and Wales in 2016. My noble friend Lady Corston made important recommendations in her report a decade ago that are still relevant today.
Reducing the use of short prison sentences would ease pressure throughout the prison estate. They are not only wasteful but ineffective, with 60% of people serving sentences of 12 months or less reoffending within one year of release. Now is the time to rethink sentencing and imprisoning women unnecessarily.
My Lords, being called so early gives me the opportunity to be the first to remind the House that it was the Liberal Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, over 100 years ago, who said that the measurement of a society’s civilisation was how it treated its prisoners. There is no doubt, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, demonstrated in his forensic presentation, that the case for prison reform is overwhelming. As preparation for this debate I read the reflections of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on his five and a half years as Prisons Minister—I mean inspector—and over 14 years ago the subtitle of his book, Prisongate, was,
“The shocking state of Britain’s prisons and the need for visionary change”.
Fewer than seven weeks ago, the Chief Inspector of Prisons warned us that the situation was getting worse.
The case is therefore there, so why does nothing happen? One point where I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, is the idea that we would get a more enlightened debate at the other end. I fear that part of the problem of prison reform is that in a way, the whole of our Prison Service is like a paddle steamer driven by two paddles, but they go in different directions. One paddle is egged on by the media, influenced by public opinion and by politicians who, when given the hard choice between backing the difficult decision or playing for the politics of fear, have too often chosen the latter, and by political parties of all kinds, which, when it comes to elections, put out their leaflets telling their would-be voters how crime is rising and how they are going to deal with it. That paddle, pounding away, always makes it difficult to get the case for reform.
We therefore have to understand that the debate today, which will be overwhelmingly in favour of sensible reform, still has to pass that test of how we get a Secretary of State, a Prisons Minister and a Prime Minister who are willing to drive the reforms through. The building blocks are there: the Corston report on women, the Bradley report on mental health, the Harris report on deaths in custody, the Laming report on looked-after children, Dame Sally Coates’s report on education in prisons, and Charlie Taylor’s report on an education-led reform of youth custody. What is required is the political will. I would like to see the Prisons Minister at the Bar. I hope he reads this full debate and takes some courage from what he reads.
My Lords, I salute my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood for tabling this important debate, on an issue that has bedevilled the conduct of imprisonment for far too long. Time allows me to mention only two possible ameliorations, neither of them new, of which I hope the Minister will take note.
Giving evidence to my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf’s masterly inquiry into the riots in Strangeways and other prisons in 1990, the then Director-General of the Prison Service, Mr Train, justifying his contention that:
“for improvement to be solid and service-wide, the canker of overcrowding must be rooted out”,
“the life and work of the Prison Service have, for the last 20 years, been distorted by the problems of overcrowding. That single factor has dominated prisoners’ lives, it has produced often intolerable pressure on the staff, and as a consequence it has soured industrial relations. It has skewed managerial effort and it has diverted it away from positive developments. The removal of over-crowding is … an indispensable pre-condition of sustained and universal improvement in prison conditions”.
My noble and learned friend recommended a new prison rule that no establishment should be allowed to hold more than 3% of its certified level of accommodation for longer than three months without the permission of the Secretary of State, about which he had to inform Parliament. The then Home Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Baker, followed the inquiry with a White Paper containing 12 priorities for the way ahead for the Prison Service, including to end overcrowding. Sadly, none has yet been implemented by any successor Secretary of State, nor has the proposed Prison Rule.
My second point involves cell certification, for which, under the Prison Commission, inspectors were responsible, but which the Home Office brought in-house when it took over the running of prisons in 1963. As Chief Inspector, I felt it quite wrong that the Prison Service should be both judge and jury on how many prisoners might be held in each cell. I agitated that I should be made responsible for advising the Secretary of State on when overcrowding had become so bad in a particular prison that further intakes of prisoners should be forbidden—my request was refused.
Of course, ministerial and parliamentary oversight of the numbers, and cell certification by the inspectorate, will not by themselves root out the canker of over- crowding. But if the Prison Service’s distortion of its role is to be rooted out, Ministers and officials must stop ignoring, and start listening, to the clarion calls of those who, for years, have been drawing their attention to the damage that overcrowding does to a system for which they are responsible and accountable to the public.
My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for bringing this debate. I rather wish that the slight slip of the tongue of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in first referring to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, as a former Minister for Prisons had been true, but there we are.
I recall a visit in my capacity as Bishop to Her Majesty’s Prisons, to one of our prisons and encountering a young man who was visibly distressed and disturbed, sitting against a wall with his hands over his ears, unable to cope with the general noise and hubbub on a prison wing—not least an overcrowded prison wing. I talked to one of the officers on that wing, who was relatively newly recruited and new in post; he was clearly there because of a really positive motivation, wanting to make a difference and with a vocation to work in the Prison Service. However, he was very conscious that because of responsibility to the whole wing, he was unable to give that distressed young prisoner the focused attention that was required.
We have in our prisons many governors, chaplains, staff, volunteers and officers like the one I have just described, who seriously want to make a difference, have a vocation for this work and are committed, and who want to see what is the aspiration of the Prison Service come to fruition, namely to create a rehabilitative culture. Sadly, it is largely a matter of numbers, more particularly, the ratio between numbers and staffing, which frustrates that desire and aspiration in so many ways. So many of the good interventions, programmes and possibilities delivered by staff, volunteers and many others are not able to fulfil their potential in bringing transformation and in turning around people’s lives. If that ratio between staff and prisoner numbers is too stretched, then these programmes cannot be delivered, the relationships are not built and there is no such transformation.
There are two particular things I would like to take this opportunity to address to Her Majesty’s Government. One relates to those, of whom there are far too many in prison, who have serious mental health conditions. Can conversations between the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health be seriously ratcheted up to address that issue, with serious proposals about alternative provision for people for whom prison is not the right place to be because of their mental health conditions? That would have a significant effect on the prison population. Secondly, will Her Majesty’s Government give serious attention to the consultation that is being undertaken by the Scottish Government at the moment, which will bring in a presumption against sentences shorter than 12 months, and to ask whether there are lessons to be learned for the Prison Service on the back of that consultation, and for sentencing policy in England and Wales?
It is crucial, if prison is going to do what we all want it to do, that these issues are addressed, so I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for bringing forward this opportunity for us to hear the wisdom of so many within this House.
My Lords, there are far too many people in prison who ought not to be there at all. I have been concerned for some time about what can best be described as inflation in the length of the sentences being imposed by the courts. In England and Wales, the average length of a custodial sentence in 2007 was 12.4 months. In March 2017, it was 16.6 months—an increase of about one-quarter over the decade. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, pointed out, the tariffs for life sentences have increased too. In 2005, the average tariff in England and Wales was 15.7 years. By 2015, it had increased to 21.2 years. These are shocking increases. Why has this happened and what purpose is it serving? The Sentencing Council should be asked to examine the phenomenon of sentence inflation, to consider whether these increases now serve any useful purpose and to find ways of reversing the increases where they do not.
The effect of overcrowding is that the opportunity for effective rehabilitation is greatly reduced. On the other hand, many more prisoners are being recalled now for breach of licence conditions than ever before. The Transforming for Rehabilitation programme, introduced by the previous Government in February 2015, requires all those sentenced to a custodial term of less than 12 months to be subject to supervision for 12 months on release and to be eligible for recall. Since that date, there have been nearly 15,000 recalls of people serving these short sentences. This means that the number of people in prison on any day for breaching licence conditions has increased from 150 in June 1995 to 6,500 in March 2017—another shocking figure.
After all, the majority of those recalled are being sent back to prison for technical reasons only, such as failing to attend appointments with probation officers. They have not reoffended. They are in prison for a few days only, before being released again. The only purpose of this is to prevent reoffending by further rehabilitation. But what is the point of recalling prisoners for breach of conditions when, due to lack of resources, the rehabilitation element is largely absent?
This, like the IPP problem to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, has drawn attention so frequently, is a policy—no doubt well meaning—that has gone badly wrong. The good intentions that lie behind these measures are not being matched by a commitment to provide the funding necessary to make them work. The Government need to address the reasons for these rises in prison numbers as much as they need to address the physical problems the overcrowding gives rise to.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for facilitating this timely debate and I endorse his comments, particularly with regard to IPP prisoners. The prison system in England and Wales has been characterised for the last 30 years by overcrowding, building programme challenges, disorder and the absence of any reductionist strategy. The number of prisoners incarcerated in England and Wales has risen by 1,200 since May 2017 to over 86,000, despite the fact that fewer cases are coming before the courts. That is not because more criminals are being caught and sent down, but because a higher proportion of offenders are getting prison sentences and those sentences are getting longer, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, mentioned a moment ago.
Projections show that numbers in custody are likely to increase by another 1,600 by 2022. If so, at least one more prison will be needed. Incidentally, our priority in Wales is to secure our first women’s prison. The latest statistics show that not only sexual and violent offenders are getting tougher punishments from the courts. In 2010, less than a quarter of people convicted of theft went to jail, but last year the corresponding figure was almost 30%. Average prison terms as a whole have risen from under 14 months to over 16 months over the last seven years, as has been noted.
Research is needed to clarify whether the courts are hearing more serious cases or seeing more prolific offenders. The reduction by half in the police cautioning rates suggests that in all probability, more less-serious cases are coming before the courts than was the case seven years ago. Since 2010, the proportion of indictable crimes resulting in a community order fell from 25% to 20%. For so-called either-way offences, it fell from 42% to 37% over the same time period. It seems that these options are less attractive to the judiciary.
Violence in prisons is at record levels, including a 20% increase in assaults over the past year. The Howard League reports that 264 men and women have died in the 10 most recently opened prisons since 1997. There have been 8,188 recorded incidents of self-injury and 3,952 recorded assaults.
In a poll published last week, when asked what would be the most effective way of cutting crime, just 7% of respondents said “jail more people”. The majority advocated more police on the streets, better parenting, greater discipline in schools or better rehabilitation, yet successive Governments over the last 30 years have opted for building ever more jails as their solution. We desperately need a new fundamental review of the whole strategy of preventing crime, rehabilitating offenders and building communities at peace with themselves. We need radical new thinking and we need it very soon.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, has highlighted, as have others, the unspeakable toll of suicides and self-harm pointing to the distressing rates of mental disorder in prisons. It is that that I wish, as a psychiatrist, to draw attention to today, since overcrowding is both a cause and a consequence of the negative impact of mental illness. I am not going to plough through the statistics, which are already so well known to those speaking here today, but I concur totally with the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, who said we need a totally new cultural and social approach to address the difficulties of crime and the mental disorder that so often goes with it.
The National Audit Office’s excoriating report on mental health in prisons, published in June this year, paints an alarming picture of what prison is for someone with mental health problems. Admirable intentions are not being delivered on the ground and cannot even be measured. We put money into policies and we have no idea whether they are being delivered, simply because we have no way of measuring and there is nobody who can do the measuring. So policy ambitions are not being addressed. Of course, the prison regime is most likely to lead to depression, anomie and disturbed behaviour. Inside prisons the situation is dire. There are long waiting lists for mental health clinics. Dozens of new prisoners arrive every week and spookily disappear just as quickly as they arrive, either discharged on the constant merry-go-round or moved to other prisons on the great train traffic to somewhere else. That totally curtails the ability of psychiatric and mental health services in prison to address the problems. Since we have Spice these days, which is the new flavour of death in prisons, matters are getting worse.
Preparing for this debate today I asked a colleague who works in the forensic service in Birmingham to tell me about a recent visit to prison to see patients there. He said:
“When we arrived, so-called recovery worker ‘offenders’ outnumbered the exhausted looking prison officers, who encouraged us to wander between wings unescorted. No one recalled asking us to attend and, as we sat waiting, prisoners came to see us, seemingly unnoticed by prison officers, questioning us about psychoactive drugs and so on. Offenders were friendly enough, but it felt like a phase of pre-anarchy as boundaries were breaking down because of the lack of staff available to deal with what appeared to be a very disturbed group of prisoners”.
My time is up, but it is clear that we cannot continue with this shameful position. Yes, we could have more mental health services but, frankly, it will not make any difference unless we solve the problem of how we are pouring people into the criminal justice system.
My Lords, we are all extremely grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, not only for today’s debate and the manner in which he introduced it, but for all he has done over so many years to bring this to the notice of your Lordships’ House.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, reminded us of the Churchill test. We should be collectively ashamed that we have failed it. We should constantly remind ourselves that punishment is sending somebody to prison, and the purpose of prison is rehabilitation. That has been neglected and forgotten for so long. One of the reasons, I fear, is the commercialisation of prisons. I really feel that incarcerating people is the role of the state and I do not believe that private prisons should have any part of it.
Many things can be done to avoid custodial sentences. I saw at first hand in Northern Ireland the very effective community restorative justice scheme. We could do much more on that front. We should set ourselves a target that by 2025 no prisoner should have to share a cell. Every prisoner should have an individual lavatory in his or her cell. No prisoner should ever be locked up for more than 12 hours in 24—and preferably for less than that—and should be given reasonable and challenging things to do while in prison. Every prisoner who remains clean of drugs and mobile phones and does not partake in violence should qualify at a very early stage for remission. Those who do not should have their conduct drawn to their attention by not being eligible.
We have to try to reduce the prison population. If we do not, we will continue to connive at perpetuating a blemish on our society. We are collectively indicting our own civilisation on our civilised values. I hope that the Secretary of State for Justice will heed my call for a target date and will set about achieving it.
My Lords, in this debate, for which I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, I wish to focus on one aspect only—the impact of overcrowding on self-inflicted deaths.
The number of self-inflicted deaths has risen sharply in recent years. In the year to June 2017, for example, there were 97 suicides. This was a slight fall from the previous year’s figure of 107 but a steep rise from the 53 reported in 2012. People in prison are between five and 10 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. This number is far too high. It is also important to note in relation to this the number of incidents of self-harm. There were nearly 40,000 incidents reported last year, up 24% on the previous year.
Overcrowding in prisons and the shortage of prison staff impact on the safety of prisoners, especially the vulnerable, in a number of ways. For example, there are fewer staff available to keep an eye on prisoners and especially to develop enough of a relationship with them to notice when something is seriously amiss. There is less time to observe any change of mood or to interact with them. Prisoners interviewed about the situation said that it was very difficult to speak to their personal officer as they were always far too busy. This is further accentuated by the loss of experienced staff and the advent of new staff without the necessary experience and training to look for signs of distress. Vulnerable prisoners need to be able to trust staff enough to confide in them when they feel suicidal. They can do that only if there is some face-to-face contact.
Overcrowding also means that there are fewer education opportunities, workshops, teachers, healthcare resources or resettlement and support services for the size of the population the prison holds, resulting in prisoners spending up to 23 hours a day in their cells. It means they are unable to go to classes or to engage in other activities to help them cope, including being able to speak on the phone to loved ones. It means that prisoners are more likely to miss their regular health checks because of a lack of prison staff to escort them.
The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s annual report for 2016-17 said that,
“suicide prevention procedures are still badly in need of updating and streamlining, without which I continue to question their fitness for purpose”.
Overcrowding also means that whenever a risk issue arises there will be total lockdown of the prison for 23 hours, increasing the sense of isolation of prisoners.
It is a terrible sadness when someone commits suicide, a tragedy which is felt very grievously by the family and friends of the person concerned. When a person is in prison the state has a particular responsibility to do all it can to ensure that they do not develop a state of mind where suicide is what they are tempted to do. Prison can lead to a sense of isolation, mental fragility and a feeling of hopelessness. For the reasons that I have outlined very briefly, the present overcrowding makes the situation much worse and is totally unacceptable.
My Lords, for many years I was a member of the board of visitors—now known as monitors—at a young offender institution. The 2016-17 report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales should make people who read it realise that improvements must be made. I did not see monitors mentioned once. I ask the Minister: are monitors still involved in trying to highlight needs and improve conditions, as we did? What is their present role? When 78 of the 116 prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded there are many risks.
Things have changed over the years and they are now much more complex. There has always been a problem with alcohol abuse, but prisons are now recording surging levels of violence, self-harm and drug use. It is deeply concerning that the incidence of self-inflicted death and self-harm among women in prison has risen dramatically. Many young adult prisoners spend less than two hours a day out of their cells. It is no wonder that many are depressed. Is this due to shortages of staff, or could the system be more humane? How is the drive to recruit more prison officers proceeding? Are there facilities to train them adequately?
Apart from overcrowding and the shortage of staff, there is the challenge of prisoners with mental and physical health problems and a growing population of elderly prisoners who need extra care. If there was a more comprehensive aftercare system for vulnerable prisoners when discharged, with ongoing rehabilitation and a place to live for those who are homeless, maybe there would not be so much recidivism, which is one reason for prison overcrowding. Discharging vulnerable prisoners on a Friday, with no care plan in place, is asking for trouble. What hope is there for a better system?
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, on this debate and on his excellent opening speech. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust. In this short time I will raise three issues relating to overcrowding. First, as we have heard, reform is urgently required of indeterminate sentences for public protection. I support an approach recommended by the Prison Reform Trust, based on the three principles of convert, protect and rehabilitate. IPP sentences should be converted from indeterminate to fixed-length sentences, starting with the shortest tariff lengths where the greatest injustice seems to have occurred. The public should be protected with a guaranteed minimum licence period for all cases following release. As to rehabilitation, we should ensure that a proper investment is made in the support of IPP prisoners after release.
Secondly, as we have heard, overcrowding has a dramatic impact on the health and well-being of prisoners. Despite improvements in prison healthcare following the transfer of commissioning to the NHS, overcrowding limits the opportunity for effective treatment, particularly for those with mental health problems, learning disabilities and other complex needs. We know that 26% of women and 16% of men said that they had received treatment for mental health problems in the year before custody and that three in 10 people assessed in prison in 2015-16 reported that they had a learning disability or difficulty. The national rollout of liaison and diversion schemes can therefore make a real contribution to reducing overcrowding. Following my report in 2009, and the support of successive Governments, 75% of the country is now covered by such services, with the ambition for 100% coverage by 2019-20. Such services include: street triage, where the police and health staff work together on our streets to identify and assess people requiring crisis care intervention; and health staff working in police custody suites and the courts to identify and assess people with health needs. This would enable the police to make more informed decisions on charging, proportionate to the offence that has been committed, or consider the option of diverting the person to appropriate health and social care facilities and services. The courts would then receive information about the mental health and other complex needs of the individual at their first appearance, enabling magistrates to make a more timely decision, reducing the use of remand—particularly important for women offenders—and using community sentences with treatment orders instead of custodial sentences.
Thirdly, the current delays in transfer from prison to psychiatric units of prisoners approved for such a move exacerbate the overcrowding problem and are totally unacceptable. I therefore hope that the Minister will support the continued development of liaison and diversion services and see it as part of the solution to the intolerable overcrowding in our prisons.
My Lords, in April it was reported that in the previous 12 months there were 344 deaths in prison, up by 19%, of which 113 were self-inflicted. Self-harm incidents increased by 24%; assault incidents were up 27%; and assaults on staff were up by 38%. All this was described as,
“a relentless decline in safety”.
Prison officers cannot be expected to deal effectively with this crisis when their own numbers have been reduced over the past seven years, from 25,000 to 18,000. Compromised safety, the associated violence and the availability of drugs, especially psychoactive drugs such as spice—even entering prisons by drones—and plummeting morale among staff within an environment are not conducive to reform, rehabilitation or a reduction in reoffending.
Half of 15 to 17 year-olds in young offender institutions have the literacy or numeracy levels expected of a seven to 11 year-old. This pattern repeats itself among prisoners who have no qualifications, about half of whom are functionally illiterate. Victor Hugo was right when he said, “He who opens a school door closes a prison.”
Prisoners whom I met during a visit to Birmingham prison told me that, unless we break the Gordian knot that ties them into a pattern of reoffending and reimprisonment, their lives will become utterly devoid of hope. What is happening to the Government’s proposals for getting prisoners into jobs after release, for ensuring that prisoners learn English and maths and for league tables to evaluate progress on education? Where do education, training, secure schools and young offender institutions fit into the long-term strategy?
I have drawn the Minister’s attention to the 60% of prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months in custody who go on to commit further crimes and to the overall reoffending rate of 45%—one of the highest in Europe—reflecting the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe, with 148 prisoners per 100,000 of the population.
This is not just about a failure to promote reform or to work out how many prisoners can be crammed like sardines into a tin. Consider also the danger of prisons being used by jailed hate preachers acting as self-styled “emirs” to capitalise on gang culture to recruit susceptible inmates. Or consider the consequences of open-ended sentences for non-violent prisoners, who are captives of a system that seems too often to have forgotten them. We then see some of the other dimensions of jails that have become simmering cauldrons of unrest.
As others have said, we need an entirely new culture in our prisons and a different attitude to the way in which we run them—one that passes, as the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord McNally, said earlier, the Churchill test of civilisation. These are just some of the reasons why we should all be grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Brown for laying this Motion for debate before your Lordships today.
My Lords, the facts have all been stated, and the reports are labyrinthine. We understand the heart of the difficult arguments, and now it is time to move towards answers and solutions, to cut the cost to the public purse and to stop the unnecessary incarceration of men and women who do not need to be in prison.
I start with a reflection on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, about empathy. In order to help me think a bit better about this debate and issue, I visited a lifer just three weeks ago in one of Her Majesty’s prisons in Kent. I had an hour and a half with a man who is serving nearly a 20-year sentence and has done nearly 10 years already, and found him sensitive, erudite, thoughtful, persuasive, interesting, challenging, and with deep intellectual pursuits. However, he had been written off at one point by the courts as simply a man to be thrown behind bars with no early point of release. That made me realise that not just that man alone but multitudes of others, both men and women, need to be let out of prison considerably earlier.
When we apply the empathy test to understand that a man or woman has changed and their character has been reformed, instead of pouring £50,000 on average of my tax money into sustaining that man in prison, I would rather invest the money instead in enterprise and employment. I would rather secure him into a way beyond the prison. I would rather let out multitudes of men who have shown the ability to seek character reform and therefore see them productive taxpayers contributing to society—maybe held under some form of a licence and check, in order to secure society’s desire to see punishment done. But I would not wish us to continue to have a system that simply pays into a pot that contains but does nothing to reform and to rebuild.
This Government, along with the previous Government, have spent millions—I think the estimate is in the region of £54 million a year—on character education in schools. That is vital expenditure, and we all agree with it. Why not spend tens of millions on character education and development and supportive networks for offenders and those within prison, and once they have passed the test of responsible citizenship, give them the opportunity for work and responsibility? Why not invest our tax resources instead in their futures, and not in containing people in the despair and hopelessness of prison?
My Lords, our prisons are a national embarrassment. Fifty years ago, I served as trustee of the William House Trust, a home for discharged prisoners in Manchester providing accommodation and employment help. I want to focus my remarks on the need to reduce recidivism by providing training and employment opportunities for offenders.
The retailer Timpson is probably the best example in this regard, with 10% of its workforce ex-offenders and the provision of training opportunities in prisons. Other companies have some sort of involvement: Boots, Greggs, Halfords, McDonald’s, Pret a Manger, Toyota and Whitbread. But they and others could do so much more. There are huge opportunities, particularly in the hospitality sector and within building trades, both of which have severe skills shortages. I have six specific recommendations.
First, prison governors should build bridges with firms in their locality and liaise with local chambers of commerce. National employers should encourage local managers to visit prisons and establish a dialogue.
Secondly, the Ministry of Justice should appoint a senior, perhaps retired, person from the private sector to work full-time on encouraging employers to participate, ideally perhaps a major national figure.
Thirdly, public companies should report their involvement in this whole area in their annual reports.
Fourthly, the Justice Secretary and Ministers should create an award, similar perhaps to the Queen’s Award for Enterprise or Investors in People, and have an annual awards event acknowledging best practice in this area.
Fifthly, employer organisations such as the CBI, the National Federation of Builders and the British Hospitality Association should be pressured by the highest levels of government to assume greater responsibilities for promoting this work.
Finally, many prisoners have particular trades or skills. Those should be utilised, and the prisoners rewarded for passing on their expertise to other inmates wherever possible. Offenders should be used for smaller building and maintenance project work within their own prisons, preparing them for future employment on release.
My Lords, I will focus on one aspect of my noble and learned friend’s Motion. My only real experience, I am glad to say, of prison life comes from the many years I spent as a trustee of the Koestler Trust, which the Minister will know seeks to provide prisoners with access to the arts and the means to participate in the arts: competitions and material, for example, for the visual arts, music and writing.
It is difficult enough to fulfil these noble aims even when prisoners have the space and time to work on those disciplines. But when prisoners are locked up for 22 or 23 of the 24 hours, and barely have the space to humanely cohabit in their cells, the arts tend to be the first thing to go out of the window. If we seek to reduce recidivism and show that there is another path, we simply have to be a more enlightened society. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, rightly reminded your Lordships that the way in which a society treats its prisoners is a test of its civilisation. In the light of the statistics given by my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, I wonder whether the Minister would consider whether we pass or fail this test.
I have seen the quite remarkable transformation that can be achieved by giving an incarcerated person the means to express themselves through acting, music-making, painting and writing. A prisoner wrote to me to say that, had he had the ability to play an instrument when he was a young and wild man, he would not now be serving life for murder. Artistic expression can afford an outlet for turbulence, frustration and pent-up violence, and that release is a vital part of rehabilitation. Without it, more prisoners will turn to drugs, not simply to relieve boredom but as a means of psychological escape.
Overcrowding in prisons is severely hampering the opportunity for rehabilitation and the shining of a light in a dark place to illuminate a more redemptive path.
My Lords, people are in prison because they have offended against the rules of a civilised society—and that society should demonstrate and reinforce its own civilised values and intentions when it denies offenders their liberty, as so many of your Lordships have said. The vivid undercover filming by “Panorama” inside HMP Northumberland recently laid bare our failure to do that. It captured the anarchic reality, the Hogarthian horror, of a typical modern British prison: extensive drug use, fevered volatility, prisoners both threatening and frightened, and staff powerless and stressed—conditions in no way conducive to addressing offending behaviour.
How has this happened? It has been a particularly egregious failure of government. Since 2010 there have been five Secretaries of State and a succession of U-turns. The result, as others have said, has been: like-for-like sentence inflation; 25% of prisoners in overcrowded cells; prison staff reduced by 7,000; the leaving rate for officers in this high-stress occupation an unsurprising 10%; 25% of staff now inexperienced and in their first two years of service; and, in spite of a policy reverse and a fresh recruitment drive, a net increase in the 12 months to 31 March this year of just 75 staff. Yes, recruitment has improved since, but still more slowly than prisoner numbers have increased.
The recent prison riot at HMP The Mount occurred when only 20 officers were available over a weekend to supervise 1,000 prisoners under a severely restricted regime. In round figures, deaths in custody are up 20%, self-harm 25%, and assaults on staff 40%—all in one year. These rates of increase are truly alarming and can only prompt grave concern about the immediate period ahead.
What is needed is not more obfuscatory press releases from the MoJ, with numbers unaccompanied by any convincing narrative at all, but an integrated and convincing five-to-10-year plan that moves us ahead of the curve and contains prudent forecasts of prisoner numbers, with plans to build an estate without any overcrowding and with a plan for officer numbers that will allow our prisons to become controlled, disciplined and civilised. Will the Minister agree today to produce such a plan?
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, is to be thanked for this timely debate. As some noble Lords are aware, the diocese of Southwark contains five major prison establishments: Belmarsh, Brixton, Thameside, Wandsworth and Isis—though I hasten to add that that last name relates to the river goddess. It is my practice to visit them at the invitation of each Church of England chaplain who holds my licence.
The issue that I wish to raise in this debate is the level of staffing. Issues around the number of inmates and physical space also relate to issues of access and staffing, the activities that staff enable and the relationships that are nurtured. While Her Majesty’s Government announced their intention to recruit an additional 2,500 front-line staff late last year, that came in the wake of a reduction of over 6,000 staff, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has attested, which has compounded the consequences of overcrowding and a rising prison population. The fiscal imperative of staff cuts being played out in our prisons is very risky. For anything meaningful on the landing, spur or wing, one needs staff. Staff will best and most confidently carry out their duties if they know and trust that an able colleague has their back. Proper staffing allows for supervision outside cells and in activities that augment skill, self-insight and a capacity for fruitful encounters on release. As in so many professions, the relational element is key to success.
Educational activity and training for work has suffered only marginally from the cuts, but at the expense of everything else. The named-officer scheme is moribund. Within prisons, the availability of officers to inmates has significantly diminished; they are much less available for association periods or to build relationships, discuss and spot problems, offer advice or discreetly receive information relevant to the security of the prison. We need to ensure that more than basic security, administration and escort is being delivered constantly. I am aware that inmates wishing to attend chapel or Bible study are not able to do so because staff are not available to escort them. This is detrimental to the humanitarian standards that we would wish to see in our prisons. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, has drawn attention to the high incidence of suicide in our prisons.
We need to offer our thanks to those who work in our prisons, excellence in which is promoted by the Butler Trust. Prison chaplains minister daily to enable inmates to face life as it is and life as it may be. Their contribution and that of many volunteers has an enormous impact in difficult times. The Lord Chancellor seeks a proper emphasis on rehabilitation in our prisons. It is imperative that we work together to increase hope and ensure that words and aspirations are matched by actions and delivery. There is an urgent need so to do.
My Lords, I have thought for some time that we should look at the differences in practice exemplified by other countries with lower rates of imprisonment to see what can be learned from them. In 2012 the National Audit Office spoke of the potential benefit of conducting more research into prison population trends in other countries, and a report from the Criminal Justice Alliance identified some structural features of European criminal justice systems that appeared to be associated with lower rates of imprisonment. These uncannily anticipate all those advocated by my noble and learned friend Lord Brown in his masterly introduction to this debate. They include the greater use of suspended sentences and greater restraint in the imposition of imprisonment for breaches of a community penalty; lower maximum sentences and going rates for particular offences; much less use of mandatory minimum and indeterminate sentences; and the treatment of problems of mental health and drug dependency much more as matters for health and social care than for the criminal justice system.
All these approaches and more are adopted elsewhere. The numbers in prison are lower and the sky does not fall in. We should look not only at the prosecution and sentencing practice of other countries but at what they do instead with those offenders, particularly categories of offender who are no longer sent to prison.
Another report, entitled “A Presumption Against Imprisonment: Social Order and Social Values”, written by eight leading criminologists and academic lawyers and issued by the British Academy in 2014, came to very similar conclusions. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, referred to the guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council. These are based almost entirely on the symbolic significance of a prison sentence in reflecting the seriousness of the offence, with little or no regard for instrumental objectives such as making it less likely that the offender will re-offend, protecting the public, or making amends, for example through compensation, community service, or apology. With the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, I want to see the council’s guidelines reviewed in the light of the comparative evidence to which I have drawn attention.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 contains provisions that are designed to have an impact on the numbers held on remand if there is little likelihood of a custodial sentence, and a wider range of options for dealing with breaches of community sentences. These have been much less remarked on than the provisions designed to cut the legal aid bill. The Ministry of Justice is about to undertake a post-implementation review of LASPO, and I hope very much that it will give as much attention to the provisions in the Act designed to reduce the numbers in prison as it does to those designed to reduce the numbers receiving legal aid.
My Lords, we are dealing with a problem that successive Governments have failed to solve for over half a century. The cause of that problem is that we send far too many people to prison for far too long: far longer than is necessary for rehabilitation and far longer than is needed to provide an effective deterrent.
How about punishment? That is a legitimate object of imprisonment. The man in the street and, particularly, the victims of crime want to see criminals pay for their wrongdoing, and depriving them of liberty is a legitimate way of satisfying society’s demand for vengeance. But the man in the street is not best placed to decide how long criminals should be kept in prison by way of punishment. That is not a simple task, and ultimately it is Parliament that performs it by laying down a framework of maximum and minimum sentences within which judges exercise relatively limited discretion. In performing that task, Parliament should have regard to the heavy cost to society of keeping people in prison to punish them.
As your Lordships have heard, there has been a phenomenon over the last 40 years of “sentence creep”, brought about largely by well-intentioned but misguided legislative intervention. What is needed is a change in the public attitude to keeping people locked up in prison: a recognition that the cost to society of this form of punishment is prohibitive; that the cost of each year that a man spends in prison simply by way of punishment is depriving us of resources that could otherwise be used to meet urgent social needs, including those that prevent young people turning into criminals. To bring about this change in attitude calls for leadership and courage on the part of Government. The aim should be, for a start, to halve the number of those in prison. IPP prisoners should be released. Old men who no longer pose any threat should not be held in expensive custody. Most importantly, legislation should reverse the trend of requiring ever longer sentences.
This is the ideal time to do that. Current legislation that deals with sentencing extends to over 1,300 pages. The Law Commission has recommended a simplified sentencing code but its recommendations are only procedural. It makes no recommendations in relation to maximum and minimum sentences. These should be reduced, and in some cases removed, to send a signal that the current scale of punishment in this country is unnecessarily severe and beyond our means. Finally, consideration should also be given to a period of prescription for all save the most serious crimes.
My Lords, I am conscious that many, if indeed perhaps the majority, of your Lordships speaking here today have had first-hand experience of the prison system from an executive, supervisory or regulatory perspective. My own experience, by contrast, has been limited to visiting the seven prisons in the county where I reside. These visits have provided me with the experience to have an appreciation of the recent comments of the president of the Prison Governors Association, particularly regarding drugs and Islamist extremist activities.
I have had a number of conversations regarding prison officer numbers, the benefit of new, purpose-built prisons as opposed to outdated buildings, which are inefficient in every sense, and the issues surrounding IPP offenders. However, I have been drawn to three particular aspects of the prison system that seemed so anomalous that I subsequently drew them to the attention of the then Secretary of State for Justice, and I think that it is worth reiterating them now in the context of this debate on prison overcrowding.
If a prison governor is obliged by law to take responsibility for the repair of grade 1 and grade 2 listed buildings, it is quite possible that he cannot afford to make those repairs. In response to health and safety regulations, he may have to close those buildings to prisoner access. If the buildings have provided the location for recreational activities or have been the site of vocational or basic skills training which will facilitate employment for prisoners upon their release, similar to those programmes run by the Clink Charity or Timpson, their closure has a psychological impact as well as a physical one. However, the most obvious consequence is a reduction of utilisable space, which in turn adds to the sense of overcrowding. When choosing which old prisons should be closed, I suggest that this consideration should be factored into the argument.
The second consideration arose from observing the increasing number of prisoners who do not have English as their first language, and indeed in some cases barely speak or understand English at all. The need to have translators in court, the difficulty sometimes of obtaining suitably qualified candidates to translate and the delays incurred thereby have been well documented elsewhere. However, when the same problems are exacerbated in prison, a failure by prison staff through no fault of their own to communicate effectively with inmates, and the inability to comprehend inmates’ various dialects and vernaculars and the issues that are particular to their tribal differences, cause delay in administration, which in turn restricts the execution of the system, which in turn leads to overcrowding. I am aware that there is no speedy resolve to these language problems, other than to hasten repatriation where appropriate.
The third consideration arises from looking at the times of prisoner release. If we are endeavouring to assist offenders to integrate back into society as quickly and smoothly as possible, surely one of the worst things we can do is to release them so late in the working day that the safety net of the probation service is unable to be on hand to help them. Release late on a Friday afternoon, with limited ready funds and no protected environment within which to reside, must surely contribute to a higher possibility of reoffending than might otherwise be the case, with the subsequent prison overcrowding that comes as a consequence.
As a further observation, the closure of some of the prison farms has also had detrimental effects. Notwithstanding the rights and wrongs of the financial debate over whether the sourcing of such food is cost effective, providing offenders with the opportunity to work on the land, away from the immediate confines of prison buildings, has the double benefit of, first, creating less physical overcrowding pressure on these buildings during daylight and working hours, and, secondly, providing the advantage of working outdoors for those whom it temperamentally suits and the possibility thereby of obtaining a training that can have a benefit when they are released.
My Lords, the fact is that overcrowding and staff shortages are significant factors in the current failed system. As the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, and the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, have commented respectively, women and people with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable. Current conditions exacerbate their mental health problems and increase the risk of suicide and sexual assault. Women offenders often have histories of mental illness, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder, and prison is a re-traumatising experience for them. Gender and disability awareness both need to be improved, as does appropriate diversion to mental health services.
There is positive work being carried out in prisons. An important example is work carried out by chaplains, as has been mentioned by some Members. This is especially important during people’s first days in prison, when they are at particular risk of self-harm, bullying and isolation. I would like to share the words of one Catholic prisoner, who said:
“On the very first day I came into prison, my chaplain came to my cell. I was devastated getting into prison, but she encouraged me”.
Prison chaplains are trusted by prisoners. They are able to help counter the negative effects of overcrowding by offering personal and pastoral support to the prisoners in their care. I hope the Government will continue to recognise the vital work done by chaplains. But this work is often hindered by the pressure that our prison system is under. Recent research by the Catholic Church found that a quarter of prisoners reported problems accessing chaplaincy.
Pressures created by overcrowding also threaten to undermine the quality and provision of family contact in prison—something particularly relevant to mothers with dependent children. As the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, stated in a recent review, family ties are as essential to rehabilitation as education and employment. Prisoners who have regular contact with their families are 39% less likely to reoffend. Family contact is often supported by voluntary organisations, such as the Prison Advice and Care Trust. From 2015-16 they supported 96,000 adults and 20,000 children to visit family members in prison, as well as running hundreds of relationship and parenting education programmes for prisoners and their families.
Can the Minister assure this House that neither family contact nor access to chaplaincy will be deprioritised despite the pressures of overcrowding?
My Lords, I apologise for arriving five minutes late for the opening of this debate. Please forgive me. It has nothing to do with a lack of interest in this subject. I am very interested in prisons, because prisons are an enormous social machine for producing something we do not want to produce. They are an emergency response to a crisis that is largely around poverty, a lack of good education and other key things. When we look at the average prisoner, we often find average prisoners have a number of similarities.
I, for example, was an average prisoner. I was put away at the age of 14 for stealing a bike. I find it a bit difficult that most noble Lords who have spoken so far talk as though we have now entered a time when we have become aggressive towards people who are doing wrong. Putting a 14-year-old boy into a short, sharp shock, kicking him all over the place for three months and then bringing him out and expecting him to be a good citizen—that sounds pretty mean to me, let alone giving the same boy a three-to-five-year custodial sentence at the age of 15 for stealing £5. What are we talking about? Are we talking about a different world? Have we moved on and are we only now being really terrible to our prisoners?
I find this difficult. I am sorry to raise the issue because I am sure it is looked upon as an illiberal response, but I would like us to look at history and at the ideas around our present situation. My problem with this debate is that it seems a bit like the NHS debate. The NHS debate is enormous, but it always deals with the NHS as though its problems did not arise from the fact that we do not spend the amount of money we should be spending on preventing people from becoming ill. When you go to the hospital across the road, as I did with a doctor, and you find out that 70% of the people there have done things against their own bodies, or they have not taken the right approach, it becomes clear that we need to move towards prevention.
We have a prison population full of people who have failed at school. I failed at school, as did most of the people I knew in prison. When I go into a prison, I ask a simple question: “How did you do at school?”. Virtually all—80%—of them will say, “I failed at school”.
We have these big engines that drive forward. Until we move on to prevention, until we start to dismantle poverty, we will have overcrowded prisons. I am sorry to say this, because overcrowded prisons are not prisons that work. We can be as clever as we like and come up with all sorts of solutions, but let us stop the churn; let us stop the arrival of people in prisons. That is the big, revolutionary need in terms of our thinking.
My Lords, I join those who have thanked most warmly the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for having made this debate possible. I would also like to say how much I admire the fact that this is not just a debate he has secured; he provides consistent and impressive advocacy on the need for change, not least in the prison system.
It is quite clear from what we have been hearing today that the penal system has failed in its prisons. We see violence, suicides, self-harm, bullying and reoffending. These issues are brought into already dislocated women’s lives and, above all, we have the issue of broken homes. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said, prisons are full of people who should not be there. This is never truer than in the case of prisoners with mental health issues. These prisoners require specific, carefully designed places in which their mental illnesses and difficulties can be tackled constructively.
I emphasise the importance of what the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, said. There is an urgent need for a review of our whole penal system—of what it is we are really trying to respond to. We are constantly tackling this with a piecemeal approach. I suggest that, whatever comes out of that review, one thing will remain true. Above all, it will be about rehabilitation. If our system is not rehabilitating people, it is a total failure. There needs to be a culture and a professional commitment at all times to rehabilitation. Rehabilitation means recognising that prisoners are individuals. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, spoke very powerfully, as usual, about his experiences in this sphere. It is true that, if we are going to be successful in rehabilitation, we have to see how we work together with individuals to rebuild their lives constructively.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, was also right. We all have a heavy responsibility to resist the cynical populism of the press and too many of our political colleagues when it comes to the challenge of prison reform. What we have now is generating crisis, not overcoming it.
My Lords, I wish to say something about the position in Scotland, which has had its own national prison system since the middle of the 19th century. After steadily increasing over a number of decades, the total prison population in Scotland is showing signs of stabilising. Indeed, the average daily prison population in Scotland has been decreasing. In 2011-12, it was 8,179, whereas five years later it was 7,552. In August of this year, it was under 7,500. Since the number of bed spaces in the 15 prisons in Scotland is currently over 7,900, it is not surprising that there is little evidence of overcrowding in Scotland’s 15 prisons.
The most marked decrease has been in the number of young offenders. This points to the success of a whole-system initiative which has encouraged a number of actions such as early intervention, opportunities for diversion from prosecution and support from the court process. For initiatives such as this the relatively small size of Scotland has assisted in bringing together the responsible agencies, sharing good practice and developing good teamwork.
The adequacy of prison accommodation can be thought of in terms of bed spaces, but that, of course, is not the whole picture because the question is, what accommodation is provided that is adequate and suitable for the various categories of prisoners? One I mention briefly is that of older men of 60 years or more. That category has been increasing in Scotland, perhaps due partly to the increase in the number of prosecutions for historic sexual offences. That makes a demand on a system. The Chief Inspector of Prisons in Scotland recently reported that there is insufficient accommodation available for older prisoners who have problems with mobility and chronic health conditions.
The other category is that of women prisoners. In recent years there has been a doubling of their number. Many were frequent reoffenders and had complex needs to do with their social circumstances, histories of abuse and mental health and addiction problems. A commission under Dame Elish Angiolini, a former Lord Advocate, concluded that Cornton Vale Prison, which housed the majority of women prisoners, should be removed as it was not fit for purpose and should be replaced. Overcrowding had caused problems for the management and staff and inhibited opportunities to rehabilitate women and reduce their reoffending. Their mental health needs were not being addressed adequately and there were high levels of self-harm and a lack of constructive and meaningful activity. I am glad to say that Cornton Vale is now being replaced with a smaller prison for more serious offenders and a number of community systems which will cope with offenders closer to home. I am glad that these steps have been taken.
My Lords, I think we all know the nature of successive reports on prisons from those whose task it is to assess them. These reports tell of a sorry state of affairs. They tell of the dreadful numbers of suicides, of self-harm and violence in custody and of the squalor in which many prisoners have to live. Then there is the matter of the darkest blot on our national escutcheon—the many prisoners held back in jail despite the fact that their tariffs under indeterminate sentences have long run out. This must be dealt with before any long-term reforms can be effective. As for our reoffending figures, we seem to have learnt nothing from other countries whose reoffending rates are less than half of ours. This, too, is something which must be, and can be, improved, but it will not be while the overall size of the prison population is obstinately stuck where it is, or rising.
If any other public service were in the position of our prisons, radical measures would have to be taken, and quickly. In the case of Britain’s prisons, this becomes more and more essential as the years go by, and the clear priority must be for a significant drop in overall numbers. The present numbers ensure that rehabilitation comes way down the priority list.
The staff in prisons undertake a complex and difficult job; that the situation is not even worse is testament to the skills and commitment with which they undertake daunting work on behalf of the rest of us. But too often their focus is on running a decent and safe regime, lacking the resources to cater to the needs and difficulties which many prisoners experience. An ex-governor has suggested that a prison population of 25,000 would be appropriate on the grounds of public protection. With such a number, meaningful rehabilitative work becomes a possibility, yet we continue to fill our prisons to excess, setting all involved up to fail. It must be our responsibility to find out why we persist with a formula which is ineffective.
What we must see is a review of our sentencing regime with a view to reducing the numbers of people we send to prison and the length of sentences. It will need steely resolve by a Government prepared to argue their case with media and public. There are no easy answers, only complexities, contradictions and hard work. Until this review is undertaken and its recommendations put into effect, the miserable state of our prisons will remain unaltered, and the same old cycle will stay to haunt us.
All this is happening while innumerable individuals and charities work nobly to turn the tide. There is a distinct danger that their faith and enthusiasm will fade as they listen again and again to the familiar cries for help. This danger can only increase if we fail to re-examine the sentencing regime which has raised the numbers of prisoners to unsustainable levels.
I know that our Government have much urgent business to complete, but the state of our prisons and the intolerable burden we place on the Prison Service continue to shame us and remain a danger to the stability of our society.
My Lords, we have heard a series of excellent speeches dealing with the problems in prisons. I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, on achieving this debate. I also congratulate those who have already taken part in it on what they said. They have shown a picture which is beyond dispute—our prisons are in a state of crisis. This has happened notwithstanding the fact that excellent work has been done within prisons and excellent reports have been produced from time to time which have shown what is needed in our prison system. We have to decide on an alternative method for preventing the present position continuing. This has given me cause for thought over a long period.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, was good enough to refer to my report, which I think was produced nearly 30 years ago. In it I tried to identify a means of putting a brake on overcrowding. That I was right to do so was made apparent by what we have heard today. However, it is equally clear that the brake I then suggested was, first, not implemented and, secondly, would almost certainly have failed. We have to realise that forces are at work which we need to tackle. I thought at the time it was created that the Sentencing Guidelines Council was an excellent idea. However, instead of helping the situation, and through no fault of its members, its remit had the opposite effect. I say that having been the first chairman of the first incarnation of that body. In our system very powerful forces, coming largely from Parliament, continually drive up sentences and there is no equally powerful force which has the opposite effect of reducing them. That is what we have to focus upon. This is a very relevant time to act, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, pointed out, given the changes which are going to take place in relation to the sentencing code. Therefore, I suggest that we have to give the Sentencing Council a new remit whereby, if sentences are increased, it has to make recommendations under which they can be reduced. Unless we get a balancing factor of that sort, I am afraid that the present problems will continue.
My Lords, it is indeed a great honour to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and to have had an opportunity to hear his wise words. In preparing for this important debate I lifted down from my shelf my much annotated, very tatty and extremely heavy copy of the Woolf Report 1991. I looked through it again and reflected briefly: if the Government of the day had implemented the noble and learned Lord’s recommendations, how different our situation now would be. It is a huge pity that that did not happen. On the same shelf I have the Corston report, the Bradley report, the report on justice reinvestment produced by the Justice Select Committee when the noble Lord, Lord Beith, was its chair, and many others. The proposals are all there on how to reduce our high and wasteful imprisonment rate, while ensuring that crime is dealt with effectively.
I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for initiating this timely debate, and I thank him also for his dogged determination to get justice for the over 3,000 prisoners still serving indeterminate sentences for public protection, which is indeed a blemish on our system.
During my working life I have visited places of imprisonment in 50 or so countries, covering all the regions of the world—countries in wealthy western Europe and countries in desperately poor parts of Africa. I have concluded from these experiences that it is unwise to expect too much from imprisonment. It is best not to dream too much about what prisons can achieve on their own. Many speakers have analysed and highlighted in this debate the damage that imprisonment causes to individuals, social stability, family ties, self-esteem and ability to function in the outside world.
Reducing the use of imprisonment is not, however, impossible. In 2008 there were 3,000-plus young people in custody; in June this year, the figure was 924. This was done without changes to the law on sentencing; it was done by parts of the system working together. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, will know how this was done as he chaired the Youth Justice Board through much of those years. The lessons from Scotland—brought to our attention by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen of Whitekirk—are also well worth studying.
I would make two proposals to the Minister. First, a radical review could be a very practical and sensible way to proceed. Secondly, would she consider inviting the Secretary of State for Justice—who has a very good reputation—to find the time to listen to the views of some of those in your Lordships’ House in whom so much wisdom on this subject resides?
Your Lordships have subjected me to conflicting tensions of great hope and great despair. The great hope arises from the number, the intellectual force, the charity and the authority with which you have spoken on a subject of vital importance. My despair arises because with the exception of about three speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Bird, it has been assumed that the problem that needs to be solved is how you treat criminals. But the problem would be solved with much less expenditure and much greater effect if you focus on how you treat children so that they do not become criminals.
In the three years, 45 years ago, that I was Minister for Prisons, I walked into a similar and, in fact, more intense crisis than the present one. I had a chart on the wall showing that if 12 more people had been given custodial sentences we would have had to trigger executive release—to let people out before the end of their sentences. Willie Whitelaw—the late Viscount Whitelaw—was my boss, so I was a very anxious man, but we avoided it. When I resigned from the Government some years later I founded a charity to keep children out of prison. I discovered that by spending small amounts, mostly through voluntary agencies, to give young people the vent for their enthusiasm, energy and enterprise which they do not get without help, before it drives them into criminality, you can prevent them becoming criminals. Some £50 spent there can save £50,000 later. Can the Government get their collective act together and have the Treasury preside over a review about how to stop this catastrophic nonsense and tackle the problem where it actually begins? I will die a happy man if they do.
My Lords, I too thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for securing this debate. It is a mark of its significance that we have heard from so many distinguished speakers with virtually no dissent from the thrust of the noble and learned Lord’s argument.
The state of our prisons is one of the scandals of our times. They are neither humane nor civilised and they fail as places of rehabilitation and reform. The combination of overcrowding and understaffing is toxic. We have heard the miserable statistics, and the depressing fact is that on present predictions from the Prison Reform Trust, overcrowding looks set to get worse, not better.
The alarming and increasing levels of violence were graphically described by Peter Clarke in his first two annual reports as Chief Inspector of Prisons. In his first he reported that:
“Too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places”.
In his second he reported:
“The situation has not improved—in fact, it has become worse. There have been startling increases in all types of violence”.
He gave the details of 103 self-inflicted deaths in male prisons over the last year, and very large increases in the incidence of self-harm, assaults on staff and assaults by prisoners on other prisoners.
Our prisons have become unsafe, and the psychological effect on individual prisoners is profound. Pack three prisoners in cells designed for two and two prisoners in cells designed for one and the resulting frustration, isolation and unhappiness are obvious. Violence is inevitable, particularly in the context of a volatile prison population.
But we compound the inhumanity of overcrowding with squalid conditions: damp, dilapidated, infested with vermin, with shared cells with unscreened lavatories. We compound it further by providing too few staff to supervise prisoners, to prevent violence or to control the flow of drugs. Just as important—as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, and the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Southwark argued—we stifle attempts to achieve reform when we provide too few staff to escort prisoners away from their cells for work or education and training activities. In many prisons we lack even the staff to enable prisoners to eat together in common areas. The result is that many are locked in their cells for as much as 23 hours a day, dehumanising them as a result.
Many prisoners, men and women, arrive in prison with a whole range of mental health problems and problems of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as learning difficulties. The very fact of being imprisoned, removing prisoners from homes and families, makes those problems worse. The impoverishment of the prison regime makes them unbearable. These issues are inadequately addressed. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, gave us a graphic account of this failure and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, spoke to similar effect. We are breaking people in prison, not rehabilitating them.
Overcrowding also means prisoners being shunted around the prison estate for requirements of space, without regard to their needs. Proximity to homes and families and the availability of courses to help them on release take second place to the need to find places, wherever they may be. The Prison Reform Trust says that transfer requests are the single biggest issue its advice and information service deals with.
There is virtual unanimity, in this House at least, about what needs to be done. Everyone, the Government included, pays lip service to the need to reduce overcrowding, to increase staffing and to put education, training and reform at the heart of the mission of the prison service, to enable them to retrain for employment in the way that my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford described. But successive Governments have failed to do it.
We must send fewer offenders to prison. We are constantly told by Ministers that sentencing is a matter for judges. That is a false excuse. The sentencing framework and guidelines are within the power of Parliament to alter. Parliament can and should ensure that served sentences get shorter and do so in the face of media and public resistance, as my noble friend Lord McNally and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, pointed out. The noble and learned Lords, Lord Brown, Lord Hope and Lord Phillips, made a strong argument for Parliament’s avoiding sentence inflation. We must also see that far fewer short sentences are passed and that more offences are dealt with within the community, including the voluntary sector, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, stressed. We could make more use of tagging and flexible imprisonment, with part-time imprisonment or temporary release permitting prisoners to work, and early release subject to supervision and restrictions, enabling a staged rehabilitation. We must stop the excessive use of prisoner recall.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, said, we must secure the release of IPP prisoners who have served their tariffs—in this debate he has been widely supported across the House on that. Ministers regularly tell us that IPP prisoners are kept in prison until they are no longer a danger to the public. But that is again a false argument. We abolished IPP sentences in 2012 precisely because we believed it unjust that prisoners should be kept in prison after completing their punishment. The continued incarceration of IPP prisoners who have completed their tariffs defies that principle and is an injustice that should be stopped.
For those who must be in prison, we must renew the prison estate to house them in decent, humane and uncrowded conditions. We must ensure adequate staff to look after them properly, to supervise and protect them and to maintain order and discipline. We must provide education, training and work activities which will offer prisoners the chance of rehabilitation into their communities on release.
It is a great shame that the Government have abandoned the prisons part of the Prisons and Courts Bill. Certainly some reform can be achieved without primary legislation. But had that Bill proceeded, we would have pressed for statutory minimum standards applicable throughout the prison estate. A civilised society has a duty to ensure, by law when necessary—and experience has shown that it is—that prison is genuinely only used as a last resort; that prisons must be decent, humane and uncrowded; that sufficient staff must be employed to keep prisoners safe and secure; and that prisoners must be afforded full opportunities for education and work with a view to their rehabilitation. We should legislate to insist on achieving those standards. Only when we achieve them may we say that we have an acceptable penal system.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, on securing the debate and on his masterly review of the crisis in our prisons system.
On 23 February, a Home Office press release announced:
“Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss unveils landmark Prisons and Courts Bill”,
and claimed that the Bill,
“paves the way for the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation”.
In her Second Reading speech on the Bill—which of course subsequently seems to have disappeared—the then Lord Chancellor proclaimed:
“We have held the prison population stable for the last six years”. —[Official Report, Commons, 20/3/17; col. 657.]
Stability can of course take several forms. Certainly prisoner numbers remained stable, but as today’s debate makes clear, stability cannot be claimed for the rising tide of violence, self-harm and drug abuse which grew exponentially in those six years.
For a quarter of a century, under successive Governments, the number of prisoners grew inexorably, until we now have, as we have heard, the highest incarceration rate in western Europe, higher than some of the less advanced countries in eastern Europe. Also, of course, the number of prison officers has fallen substantially, by more than 25%.
The consequences include the highest number of deaths among prisoners on record in the year to March 2017. The chief inspector’s report states that a third of the 344 deaths were self-inflicted, while serious assaults more than doubled in the last three years, and, tellingly, assaults on staff rose by 88% in the last two years. Force is also used by prison staff, and the report discloses that it was found at a high level in two-thirds of prisons, while it expresses,
“concerns about the quality of documentation used to justify the use of force”.
Further, self-harm figures rose from just under 26,000 in 2014-15 to over 40,000 in 2016, a rate of 471 per 1,000 prisoners. The Howard League recently reported a 75% increase in two years of additional days in prison for breaking prison rules, to a total of 290,000 cases.
Having reduced the number of prison staff by 7,500 and saved £900 million by 2015, the Government are now seeking to recruit 2,500 new officers. However, the number of front-line staff increased by only 75 in the last year after allowing for numbers leaving the service. Can the Minister update the figures for those leaving and those joining the service, and can she tell us the average term of service for those who departed? Does she accept that, so far from prison numbers being held at the present level, let alone reduced, the forecast for 2020 is now for the numbers to grow to 90,000? If so, what are the implications for staffing and new prison places?
The chief inspector’s report of 18 July is a veritable litany of failure across the penal system. He highlights the fact that only 14% of prisoners and 4% of young adults were unlocked for at least 10 hours a day, and was shocked to discover that 30% of the latter spent fewer than two hours a day out of their cells. He was confronted by vermin infestation and insanitary toilets and showers. Too many prisoners suffered from learning disability or mental health problems, and he affirmed that it is the,
“job of the Inspectorate to point out where the imbalance between staff and prisoner numbers adversely affects the treatment of and conditions for prisoners”.
It is fair to point out that the inspector found conditions in women’s prisons to be better, but self-harming and suicide reached the highest level in women’s prisons in 12 years. Similar patterns were-reflected in young offender institutions, where the inspector shockingly concluded that,
“there was not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people”.
It is particularly disturbing to learn that:
“In many cases the response to previous recommendations has been unforgivably poor”,
“42% of recommendations on safety”,
not being achieved.
Worryingly, the report records a decline in the condition of secure training centres, stating:
“We have seen regimes where boys take every meal alone in their cell, where they are locked up for excessive amounts of time, where they do not get enough exercise, education or training, and where there do not appear to be any credible plans to break the cycle of violence”.
It is difficult to imagine a more damaging critique of any public service, let alone one concerning young people. Paradoxically, the report notes that large sums of money have been provided for teachers and classrooms that are being paid for but not used, because institutions cannot get boys to education in time or at all.
We are entitled to ask of the Government what notice, if any, they take of the inspectorate’s reports regarding the funding of the service and the penalties imposed for failure, especially in prisons being run for profit by the likes of G4S and Sodexo. Damningly, in his introduction to the report, Mr Clarke points out that, notwithstanding his statement of the previous year,
“too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places. The situation has not improved – in fact, it has become worse”.
What are the Government going to do to rectify this dire and shameful situation? The much vaunted Prisons and Courts Bill was launched in February, claiming to be,
“paving the way for the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation and the delivery of a world-class court system”.
I observe that we already have a world-class system—unfortunately, it is a third-world-class system. We do not know what the Government’s intentions are in respect of legislation. Perhaps the Minister could advise us. What has become of the claim in the Government press release of 23 February that the,
“Historic Prisons and Courts Bill will transform the lives of offenders and put victims at the heart of the justice system, helping to create a safer and better society”,
“new legislation underpins measures outlined in the ground-breaking Prison Safety and Reform White Paper which will transform how our prisons operate”?
Ever helpful, as is my wont, I suggest that the Government begin again and include in any future Bill on the topic—assuming there is parliamentary time in the face of the tidal wave of Brexit legislation which is about to overwhelm us—some basic proposals designed to reduce the prison population to a more manageable, and therefore more effective, level. First, in addition to the suggestions of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, there is a need to deal much more promptly with the scandal of the IPP prisoners, still numbering some 3,000. Secondly, the Government need to reduce significantly the number of prisoners on remand pending trial, a significant proportion of whom will be found not guilty or, if guilty, receive light, often non-custodial sentences. Thirdly, in discussion with the judiciary, they need to review the degree of sentence inflation which has characterised the last couple of decades, which a number of noble Lords have referred to. Fourthly, they need to reconsider their policy of building very large prisons, which in too many cases are very distant from the families and communities to which prisoners will return on their release. Lastly, they need to investigate the disproportionate number of ethnic minority prisoners relative to other offenders committing comparable offences.
We have had a broad and very well informed debate which I hope the Government will take on board. I’m not sure whether the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, has had to reply to a debate on prisons thus far?
I hope her initiation has not proved too painful. I am sure she will address very seriously the issues that noble Lords around the House have raised and will, together with the new Lord Chancellor, make greater progress than seems likely at present. I think the House will be grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, in particular, who has, as ever, brought his masterful experience of the system to the fore and made a very strong case for the change that is needed to make it more effective and humane.
My Lords, I would like to begin by thanking the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for securing this debate. He and other noble—and in some cases noble and learned—Lords have raised some very important points, which I hope to address. I will certainly write to address detailed and specific points, as so many have been raised today, and I am extraordinarily grateful for the quality of this debate.
Our prisons have been overcrowded for well over a decade, with the rate stable at around 25%. Overcrowding has been a long-standing issue for successive Governments. In November last year, to tackle overcrowding and other problems facing the prison system, this Government launched the Prison Safety and Reform White Paper. This programme will transform the prison estate and the experience of prisoners in it. It includes a £1.3 billion investment to make prisons safe and secure—and, in turn, places of rehabilitation. To reduce overcrowding, we must act in two areas. We must reform the prison estate and manage prisoner numbers.
Turning first to the prison estate, we need to make sure that we have the right number of prison places of the right type in modern or modernised buildings. There remain large parts of the prison estate that are old and inefficient, as noted by my noble friend Lord Colgrain. Prisoners are housed in poor physical conditions. Our transformative prison building and redevelopment programme will put this right. We are replacing old, inefficient prison places with 10,000 modern and better-designed places that support prisoner rehabilitation. Reducing overcrowding is a central aim of this estate modernisation, and the new prisons will be designed with this firmly in mind—so I believe that what we are doing is in line with the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown. We are not building significantly more, but we are building better. We are also making sure that places are available now by bringing unused cells back into use.
I turn to the number of prisoners in our prisons. The Government are clear that there will always be enough prison places for offenders committed to custody by the courts, but many of the opportunities for achieving a better outcome for prisoners and the public may result in a reduction in prisoner numbers and will therefore help us tackle overcrowding. First, we must reduce reoffending. Many noble Lords have mentioned reoffending or the factors that lead to it: a lack of education and training, a dearth of employment opportunities, drug or alcohol addiction, poor mental health, and so many more. Reoffending costs the country £13 billion a year and puts a huge strain on our prisons.
The Government are committed through the prison safety and reform programme to improving the education, training and employment opportunities for prisoners, including encouraging prisoners to get qualifications in English and maths, providing access to apprenticeship programmes and teaming up with employment partners such as National Rail, Timpson, Halfords and so many more, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lee. There will be more on these when we launch the education and employment strategy later this year.
The Government are also working to help prisoners beat addiction by ensuring access to trained providers of specialist addiction services. We have also announced measures to crack down on the availability of drugs in prisons. We believe that these actions will reduce reoffending and aid rehabilitation.
IPP prisoners have an impact on prisoner numbers, of course, and were mentioned by many noble Lords. We are committed to helping the remaining IPP prisoners to progress through their sentences towards safe release. IPP sentences, introduced by the previous Labour Government, were imposed a long time ago and were abolished by the coalition Government in 2012. Since then, the Prison Service, the National Probation Service and the Parole Board have taken up a range of work to speed up IPP sentence progression. This has included diverting recall cases away from the Parole Board so that it can focus on reviewing IPP prisoners; enhanced case management, with a view to avoiding IPP cases becoming stuck in the parole system; increasing the provision of places on new progression regimes; and improved access to interventions and programmes. Last year alone, 576 IPP prisoners were released—the highest number of annual releases. The Parole Board gave a release decision to almost half of all IPP prisoners considered, and recommended a move to open conditions for a further quarter.
There are a number of other areas it is worth mentioning with regard to prisoner numbers. The first is our focus on deporting foreign national offenders. Last year we deported 6,171—a record number. Electronic tagging, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, is an effective offender management tool, which can give suspects and offenders a chance to maintain their ties with a community while imposing additional safeguards to protect the public. The work to deliver the new service is complicated and has taken longer than originally anticipated, although lessons have been learned along the way. Our changes will introduce location monitoring and the flexibility to bring in an even greater range of monitoring in the future.
There is also the use of release on temporary licence as part of rehabilitation, where we will maintain improvements recently made to ROTL and allow governors greater discretion to help prisoners get the skills and training that they need. We will, however, continue to use recall where appropriate for breaches of conditions, particularly where there is a risk to the public—but we are taking action to ensure that more is done to help offenders complete their licence period successfully without reaching the point where recall becomes necessary.
Noble Lords referred to other issues that may ultimately make it less likely that a prisoner will be rehabilitated and go on to become a successful returning citizen. I have mentioned that we are taking steps to tackle drug addiction and reduce the availability of drugs. These are important to improve prisoner rehabilitation and reduce violence and instability in our prisons. We want prisons to be places of hard work, rigorous education and high ambition, with incentives for prisoners to learn and for prison staff to prioritise education and work. We need to put the tools to drive change into the hands of those in the front line, who know best what works. Progress is being made on a number of recommendations, including giving governors the budget and flexibility to spend their resources appropriately in order, for example, to help prisoners keep up important family ties—which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins.
To support prisoners and enable each to reach his or her new potential, the new offender management model included as part of the prison safety and reform programme ensures that each prisoner has a key worker with time to engage one to one, act as a mentor and support changes in attitudes and behaviour. Each prison officer will have no more than around six cases. That will ensure that prisoners have the means to develop a programme of support that meets their needs: from access to education to getting ready to leave prison, from getting treatment for poor mental health to enrolling on a training programme.
Many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Rochester and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, mentioned the problems of suicide, self-harm and poor mental health. On suicide and self-harm, we have put in place a range of measures to support prisoners who are at risk of self-harm or suicide, especially in the first 24 hours, when they are at their most vulnerable. We are rolling out new training that will help staff identify the risks and triggers of suicide and self-harm and understand what they can do to support prisoners at risk. We have put in place specialist roles, including regional safer-custody leads in every region to provide advice to prisoners and spread good practice. We are using experts, including providing extra funding to the Samaritans, to provide support for prison staff and prisoners directly.
On mental health more broadly, we need a more systematic, nationally consistent approach that provides quicker and more certain access to mental health treatment. We are working with the Department of Health and NHS England to develop a new health and justice protocol so that courts are able to increase their use of mental health treatment requirements, alcohol treatment requirements and drug rehabilitation requirements as part of a community sentence. This will mean that we can intervene earlier to deal with mental health and substance misuse issues. We are also working with the judiciary and the Health Secretary to make sure that courts have better access to psychologists and registered mental health practitioners. These liaison and diversion services—for which we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, for his work—are being trialled at police stations and courts across nearly 70% of the country. NHS England is leading a cross-government programme to expand these services to the whole of England by 2020-21.
Finally, prison must be safe. The level of violence in our prisons is unacceptable. We are fully committed to making prisons safer and addressing the significant increase in violence and assaults by increasing staffing levels and improving ways of working. In all of this, the work of prison staff is supported by close working relationships with a range of partners. Prison chaplains of many faiths, for example—mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark—are critical in providing pastoral and spiritual care to those in our care. They offer valuable support to governors in delivering decent and humane regimes. We recognise and welcome the valuable pastoral care that our chaplaincies provide to staff and inmates across the prison estate.
There is much more to be done—much new thinking to be had and innovation to be found. That was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Bottomley and the noble Lords, Lord Wigley, Lord Alton and Lord Bird. I hope that we can continue these discussions going forward.
In order to achieve our goals and provide prisoners with the support that they need, we need to back the hard-working prison workforce already in place and bolster its numbers over the next 18 months. That is why we are investing £100 million a year to recruit an extra 2,500 prison officers by the end of next year. The most recent figures show that the number of prison officers has increased by 868 compared with the previous quarter. Prison officer recruitment numbers are at their highest level since records began. We believe that these new prison officers will meet the forecast needs of the prison system.
Targeted recruitment activities, such as higher starting pay and additional allowances of up to £5,000 a year, support the process in those establishments that have the most difficulty with recruitment. These new recruits will join thousands of dedicated prison officers who undertake such important work day in and day out to keep our prisons and the public safe. We will need their experience, which is why we are rolling out retention programmes across the estate and providing financial incentives to reduce attrition.
It should be noted that the role of the prison officer is developing. It is changing and on training, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, we are making improvements. We have increased our prison officer training capacity to be able to deal with the significant boost in numbers. Existing staff are undertaking key worker training. We are providing tailored support to governors and their teams to introduce this model and train staff, beginning with 10 pathfinder prisons. This investment in additional prison staff, plus more effective training and the greater autonomy we have given to governors—
I apologise that I was not able to be here for most of the debate because of other business, but can the Minister tell us what would be the ratio, once these additional prison staff are recruited, of prison staff to prisoners compared with, say, eight years ago?
Unfortunately, I do not have those data to hand, but I go back to the comments I made earlier about each prison officer having a maximum of six cases in their workload, which is certainly manageable going forward. If I receive any further information I will of course write to the noble Lord.
I thank the noble Lord for his comments.
This investment in additional prison staff, plus more effective training, the greater autonomy we have given to governors and the implementation of our commitment to have one key worker for every six prisoners will enable more time directly to supervise offenders, provide essential one-to-one mentoring and support and help reduce the unacceptable levels of assault, self-harm and suicide.
My noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, mentioned private prisons. There are 13 privately managed prisons in England and the Government remain fully committed to a mixed market for public services, drawing on the best of public, private and voluntary providers to improve quality and secure value for money for the taxpayer. We have robust processes in place to closely monitor and manage private contractors and will not hesitate to take action when standards fall short. Using private prisons allows for different financing models, stimulates continuous improvement and encourages the sort of innovation to which the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, referred. It brings commercial rigour into the system, which we feel is essential.
I believe that the reforms and actions I have set out show how we are effectively managing the prison population, now and for the future. In an estate parts of which date back to Victorian times, there are of course significant challenges, but we know where those challenges lie and what is needed to rise to them. With our recruitment of record numbers of prison officers, with our unprecedented prison modernising programme and our focus on rehabilitation and reducing offending rates, we are getting on with that important work to build a prison system that is safe and secure and transforms offenders’ lives.
I am sure the House will welcome the constructive tone that the Minister has adopted. I note with pleasure her educational pedigree—she has an MBA from a leading business school—so she will be familiar with the notion of a long-term integrated business plan. Will she undertake to bring together all the many measures she has discussed with some hard numbers and forecasts to reassure us that the outcomes she desires will actually be funded and achieved?
My Lords, I am truly grateful to all those who have taken part in this debate, not least the Minister. She will, I hope, allow me to congratulate her on this, her maiden response to a debate, and suggest that she played some of the points with a straight bat that will be the envy of some of those likely to be dismissed at the other Lord’s venue today. Given, however, the weight and expertise of the others who have contributed to this debate and the strength and urgency of their various calls to action, I would urge her to copy this debate widely and send a record of it to the Lord Chancellor, to the Prisons Minister, indeed to all those in government who have interests beyond merely Brexit in advancing civilised values and the quality of life in this country. There is time to say no more than that now. I repeat my thanks and beg to move.
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, the last time I secured a debate in your Lordships’ Chamber, it was to mark the 25th anniversary of the world wide web. We marvelled at having Bach and da Vinci at our fingertips and celebrated 94 year-olds on social media. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, called the internet,
“the greatest transformative force in history bar none”.—[Official Report, 16/1/14; col. 403.]
However, even on that day we were cautious. I said that,
“we are sleepwalking into assuming that the platform underpinning so much of our daily life is not changing”.—[Official Report, 16/1/14; col. 396.]
I am sad to report that nearly all of us, including me, have spent too much of the past three years continuing to sleepwalk. If that debate was a birthday party, today’s must be a mid-life crisis.
We are in the midst of some major geopolitical shifts. The planet is hotter than it has been in 115,000 years. Populism has seen a worrying resurgence, both at home and abroad. Stagnating wages mean that young people are earning thousands less than generations before them. Alongside these, we are living through the staggering transformation brought by the internet. Technology is changing our world at a speed we have never seen before, a speed that I believe will now never be reversed. That is a challenge, but if we allow ourselves to awaken we can make it a source of tremendous opportunity: if we seize them, if we own them, we can harness the power of these technologies to address the other great challenges we face. I am calling today for digital understanding to be improved everywhere because I believe it is central to our ability to create better outcomes for people in the next century.
For as long as we have had the internet, we have had the internet’s promise. The internet promised us energised democracies and a world where all could speak to one another. In a way, it has fulfilled that promise: we can register to vote, petition the Government and support candidates who match our values with just a few keystrokes. But in addition to that, we have emotionally manipulative advertisements that target us based on our gender, our faith, and even our sexual preferences. The Vote Leave campaign last year spent 98% of its budget on digital adverts and boasted that the advantage of doing so was that it was so poorly scrutinised by the political media. Just this morning, as many noble Lords will have heard, Facebook revealed that many thousands of dollars of political ads were bought by Russian trolls during the US election, and I am sure there will be more revelations to come.
The internet promised us flexible, creative work that could be done anywhere. Again, it delivered: today we have the biggest tech industry in Europe, with 1.5 million people employed and £7 billion invested last year alone. However, alongside that we also have Amazon delivery drivers receiving as little as £3 an hour with no breaks, while CEO Jeff Bezos’s personal wealth surpasses $92 billion. Not a day goes by without headlines wrestling with the nature of artificial intelligence and how it will affect the world of work. Enormous and extraordinary leaps in quantum computing and machine learning somehow feel dislocated from the people who will inevitably be affected by the ways these innovations are deployed.
The internet promised us free access to the world’s information. We now live in a world where every single piece of art at the Tate has its own web page, but also one where fake news is an art form, slickly produced by anyone who wants to profit from our confusion. The internet promised access to new ways of learning and creativity for our children and in many ways, again, this has been true: learning has become democratised and more accessible, with everything from Khan Academy to the amazing BBC resources. But who in the early days of the web would have imagined the creation of Instagram and foreseen its damaging effects on young people’s self-esteem?
For a dotcom dinosaur like me, one of the most surprising developments is the domination of our experience of the internet by a handful of companies. Twenty years ago the rise of these so-called platform businesses was not anticipated. Now the flows of money, power and usage are controlled in a way far removed from the open, distributed, fragmented early years. We can point to these tech giants, the monopoly platforms, the wily political strategists who have shaped these phenomena, and try to blame them for all this, but the truth is that they only created some of the hollow vessels. We are the users.
Every time we use the internet, we leave a data trail of valuable information to be transformed into personalised and targeted advertising. That may be a tantalising holiday home in Europe for some of us, but for the poor and vulnerable it is likely to be a high-interest loan or a bad insurance deal. Every time we share some outrageous piece of invective or agitation, we encourage the creation of even more content which erodes the factual base of our public conversation. Every time we tap our phone to choose the convenience of a short ride home, we buy into the idea that it is okay for a driver to have no job security or holiday pay. To paraphrase John Lanchester recently in the London Review of Books, “We are the product”.
Now we are seeing the outcomes of these contributions. Expertise has been devalued and emotion reigns supreme. Take a look at the climate crisis. The internet has helped to drive the exponential increase in information, but the public’s ability to accept it has slid. YouTube videos with titles such as “What They Haven’t Told You About Climate Change” and “The Great Climate Change Hoax” have driven millions of views. Is it any wonder that in the UK, Australia, Germany, Canada and the US the average partisan divide over the climate crisis is now 40 points?
We have let these things come upon us, but it is not too late to wake up. If we want to change this dynamic and shape the future we need to recapture some of the internet’s original promise and more of its positive transformative power. That means we need to understand—at all levels of society—what our digital world really is. We need to address the challenges that already exist and pre-empt the ones we do not know about.
We live our digital lives this way because we have the skills to do so. Some 91% of us in the UK have the ability to use the internet. This is a remarkable achievement. It is important to continue the work to close the remaining gap and include those who do not have the skills or access. But we also need to move beyond skills to understanding. Nearly all UK internet users have the digital skills to use a search engine but only half know how to distinguish between search results and adverts. Around two-thirds of our digitally skilled population can shop and bank online but a third of those do not make any checks before entering their personal or financial information. More than 1.4 million of us work in tech-related jobs but, as the recent WannaCry attack showed us, hardly anyone is investing the time, resources or expertise to keep our systems safe. This list could go on for ever.
Becoming a nation of people with digital understanding will be different and more complicated than becoming one with digital skills. For starters, skills are tangible and teachable—can you download this app, programme this device or complete this transaction? They also reinforce the notion that digital is something we do. It is time-bound and transactional. But in a world where we spend more time online than we do asleep and where everything from televisions to kettles can connect to the internet, digital is something we are. Understanding is not a race to be run. It is a lifelong process of learning unique to each of us.
We in this House have a particular responsibility as we have the privilege of playing a role in public life. We must ask ourselves whether we have the digital understanding to provide the leadership needed in this time of technological change. I cannot stress how vital it is that we—parliamentarians, policymakers and politicians—absorb and engage with the realities of how digital technologies work. We must see where our country can make the most of them and be alert to the potential dangers.
In recent months I have heard frankly anodyne comments such as “enough is enough” or “we must scrap end-to-end encryption”—the very system that keeps our personal information safe. This is alarmist and a disservice to the people we serve. Just as it would not be acceptable for a Minister not to understand how her departmental budget works, it is not acceptable for her not to understand how technology affects her brief. It is not an insurmountable task. We live in 2017, not 1817, and we have form to follow.
I had the pleasure of working at the beginning of the Government Digital Service. It has shown how digital understanding can be applied to the world of government, from scrapping paper car tax discs to simplifying the appointment of power of attorney. It has also shown us how not to do it. It saved us £4.1 billion by not creating expensive and complicated apps and by salvaging doomed projects such as universal credit. But the good work being done to help the Government modernise and to make it work for people who live their lives digitally is being dismantled. Departmental silos are creeping back, replicating cost and inefficiency. GDS is celebrated and copied around the world. Last year we were ranked top for digital government by the UN. How ironic if we fail to recognise and nurture this great asset because of a lack of digital understanding.
There are other pioneers making digital understanding a reality. The Open University—in which I declare my interest as chancellor—makes digital literacy integral to its students’ experience. OU students graduate able to manage their digital identities, separate fact from fiction and make sense of what they find online. It is sharing its experience with other institutions. Citizens Advice—a reassuring hand on our high streets since the war—now has a digital dashboard showing what advice people are searching for and is helping millions of its users navigate the new challenges in their lives, from Facebook scams to online identity theft. London has just appointed its first chief digital officer, making our capital a role model for making the city digital. This is not about shiny new gadgets. It is about using technology so we can recycle better and have fewer potholes and more effective parking.
I call on the Government to support and amplify the good things happening and to bring these people together in a more structured way. How about we create a formal network of public organisations that can tangibly build our nation’s digital understanding? Much of their work is admirable but it is co-ordination and focus that will embed digital understanding in the fabric of our lives. Perhaps too this network could have a more formal role as a resource for elected and public officials needing support. But while we do this at a granular level, we need to do it with a purpose and a destination. We need to know what kind of digital world we are trying to shape. For this reason, I welcome the Government’s role in developing a digital charter. It presents an opportunity for us to argue and articulate what we want and to design a moral compass for our digital age.
We know that the digital landscape is currently monopolised by a few American-based platforms—although I would watch out for the Asian digital tigers which may soon join them—which are steeped in the world-view of Silicon Valley with its love of the First Amendment and libertarianism. We can build a charter of our own—an articulation of the nation we want to be and then perhaps we can globally find our commonalities and create the basis of a Geneva Convention for the web. I believe we must come together and attempt to put some of these universal principles in place for the next phase of our digital world.
No matter how we move forward, we must do so in modern ways. We do not need a Select Committee on digital understanding beavering away in a closed-off room. We need smart people working in creative and agile ways to get to the bottom of what is really going on. Difficult or not, this work must be done and done now. It is an issue not just of technology but of fairness. It is simply not fair that only a few people understand technology and are taking advantage of the billions who do not. None of this means that we can rest in the mission to bring basic digital skills to everyone or roll out high-quality broadband to the rest of the country. It just means we need to expand our goal. It is not an either/or but a both.
If there is anyone still struggling to comprehend the universality of tech in our lives, I recommend taking a look at today’s list of speakers. We have a composer, a neuroscientist, the Astronomer Royal, a filmmaker, businesswomen and a Bishop—not to mention the man who brought us Amstrad. I am heartened by the fact that, as this Chamber debates digital understanding for everyone in the UK, we are not simply hearing from those whose careers, like mine, have been built around technology. Members from all over the House will speak and, if a 700-year-old institution can see the value of digital understanding, I have no doubt the rest of the British public can too.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on an excellent speech and for promoting this debate. It is really excellent. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has published a strategy for the data and digital world. It is a good document and well promoted by its Minister, Matthew Hancock, but it is like a signpost pointing the way, and I am not sure we are going down the road that it is pointing to at all clearly.
The whole strategy will be undermined by the fact that we have now a deficiency of 750,000 digital technicians in our country. How is that gap possibly going to be filled? It will not be by the education policy imposed by Michael Gove in 2010, when almost on a whim he made all our students follow a very narrow academic curriculum at 16 comprising five subjects: English, maths, science, history or geography and a foreign language. It is the exact curriculum announced in 1904 by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education. Computing is virtually squeezed out. No computing at 16.
Does the Minister know that, in the GSCEs that have just finished, 7,000 fewer students took computing exams at 16? That should worry his department. I do not know if he has seen these figures: GCSE computing science, which is a tough exam, increased by 4,000 and IT fell by 11,000. It is extraordinary that that is happening in this digital age. It shows that there is no joined-up work in Government. Does he know that in the last year the Government have asked all primary schools to introduce coding? Does he know how many have done so? I would be interested in that figure, but I think it is very few. Last week, I visited a school in Turkey for four to 14 year-olds, with 600 students going on to 900. Two teachers were teaching coding to six and seven year-old Turkish children. That does not happen in our schools at all.
In the colleges that I have been promoting we are very digitally aware. For example, the sixth-formers at the UTC in Scarborough are working in a cybersecurity suite sponsored by GCHQ. GCHQ has come out of the closet and does not worry at all about publicity now, because it cannot recruit from normal schools the youngsters that it wants to employ. Another UTC, next to City Airport, is doing advanced computing. If you go there, you will see 20 16 year-old sixth-form students with helmets on their heads creating virtual reality. There is no other school in the country doing that.
The Ministers in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have got to take an interest in these issues. There is no joined-up government between what the Government are doing educationally and what they hope for in their policy.
If the Minister has any spare time, he might go and visit Estonia. It is the most digitally successful country in Europe, so much so that its former Prime Minister has now been appointed by the European Commission to develop its digital strategy. Coding has been in Estonian schools for years and, as a result, they produce an enormous number of computer scientists and export them. We are in the extraordinary position of trying to catch up with Estonia.
The Minister cannot just look on this strategy as a signpost. He has to engage in the voyage.
My Lords, this is another debate on digital led by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and yet another long list of speakers. Her leadership in this area is obvious. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Baker. There is plenty I want to say in response to his speech, but that will have to wait until next Thursday’s debate in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott.
As the past chair and now patron of the Good Things Foundation, there is also much I would like to say relating to the need to narrow the divide in digital skills and understanding between the majority and the more than 10 million Britons without the skills and confidence to take advantage of the digital world. These are most likely to be older, poorer and disabled: the most vulnerable in our society.
I also remind your Lordships of my interests in the register, in particular my work with TES. In the analogue world, this was the Times Educational Supplement, but in its digital incarnation it minimises the number of characters used and is simply TES. That work has hugely helped my understanding of the power of digital to help the recruitment, training and resourcing of teachers.
I have also co-founded a business, xRapid, which uses the ability of a smartphone to recognise patterns through its camera lens, attached to a microscope, to diagnose malaria and count asbestos fibres. These machines are then able to learn from each other and thereby keep increasing the accuracy of the diagnosis.
Of course, these exciting forms of artificial intelligence need fuelling and their precious fuel is data, so that is what I will focus my remarks upon. This House will shortly be considering the data protection Bill. As the noble Baroness said, it is vital that enough of us have sufficient digital understanding to properly scrutinise and improve that legislation. In doing so, we need to pay special attention to those least able to understand and advocate for themselves.
My attention therefore turns to children: there is no demographic that has a greater need for improved digital understanding. Most parents struggle to advise their children on online safety, but they are also highly concerned to know that their child’s personal data are safe. We currently have little time in the school curriculum, which the noble Lord has just described, to teach children about data. We need to fix that, so that children know what information, images and videos are collected that are personal to them, why, by whom and for what use. What plans does DCMS have to engage children on this agenda?
Will the Minister talk to the DfE about this, and include a warning about the national pupil database? The NPD routinely collects highly sensitive data about all the nation’s children and shares them across government departments, with academics and with private companies. There is little transparency as to why it collects what it does, it is a workload pressure on teachers and I hope that the Minister can help them quickly address concerns about this data collection.
Our digital future is uncertain. With transparency, inclusion and understanding, we can progress with consent and confidence.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for this debate. This area is not a natural strength of mine, but I have always taken the view that the best way to learn is to jump in at the deep end.
The internet is a relatively new phenomenon, compared to the time it took to develop our brains as the basic human apparatus devoted to learning. There are huge opportunities associated with digital technologies, but there are equally big risks. Our lives have been transformed by the internet.
Schools do not equip people to adapt to change or to be questioning and critical about the internet. As a country, our basic and advanced skills in IT have increased year by year. Yes, there are regional, gender, age and socioeconomic differences, but progress and development have been amazing. Schools need to be at the forefront of developing digital understanding, but to do that they need qualified, enthusiastic and inspiring teachers and a school curriculum—and an EBacc—fit for purpose. All too often, Governments perceive a need to develop a subject, decree from on high how it will happen, but do not provide the resources and expertise needed.
I want young people to have the skills, but I also want them to understand the internet. For example, I want children at a young age to know that anyone who uses the internet creates and leaves a series of footprints: lasting impressions of all of an individual’s online activity which can be visible to others, particularly through social media. I want them to understand about data protection and cybersecurity. Understanding is about opportunities, but it is also about threats.
Finally, the biggest gap in digital skills, never mind understanding, is between socioeconomic groups. If you live in a deprived community, you cannot afford a PC, let alone an iPad or a smartphone: you do not have access to the technologies. Perhaps your local library, which might have had a bank of computers, has closed down or has been cut back. You can have all the understanding in the world, but it is for nought.
The internet is, undeniably, an important part of our lives and has transformed them for good. In her stunning speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, asked what type of digital world we want to create. To my mind, that would be the most important building block in our digital understanding.
My Lords, I will use the time available to make two brief points. First, we often equate digital understanding with digital skills, and I believe that is an error which will hold us back. Secondly, I suggest that digital understanding must include a willingness to impose our values on the digital environment as well as to understand it on the terms that it currently presents itself.
With regard to the first point, I draw noble Lords’ attention to a report, “Digital Skills for Life and Work”, that will be published on 17 September by the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. I declare my interest as a named contributor to this, as well my interests on the register. The report gathers some of the best research available from around the world, including from the big tech companies and concludes, in its chapter on skills, that many of the things explicitly labelled as 21st century digital skills are not actually skills but are a combination of knowledge, work habits, character traits and attitudes. The label “skills” encompasses abilities that cover a range of different technical, cognitive, social and ethical domains.
The report underlines that not all of these competencies involve direct use of digital technology. Many of them require awareness, critical understanding and non-technical expertise. In particular, it points out that digital interactions include not only what an individual does but what is done to an individual—and, increasingly, what is done to an individual when they are not consciously or deliberately engaging with the digital environment. In that case, it firmly attaches the idea of safety and security to a knowledge of and an implementation of rights.
The report states that skills, both basic and advanced, are just one small component of a broader set of literacies required for digital competency. It lays out those competencies in some detail, but I urge the Minister and the Government to embrace this notion of digital competency. I recommend the report to the many Ministers who have work in this area and will put a copy in the Library for colleagues after publication.
My second point is that technology is neutral but its culture is not, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, so carefully set out. There is an awkward tension in having a technology that is able to help us to confront our societal needs—an ageing population, health outcomes, education, transport, climate change and so on—and a corporate culture that aggressively balks at the responsibilities implicit in sharing its tax burden or long-term societal responsibilities in the nation states in which they operate. They are the richest companies in the world, with a vast turnover of products which depend on their novelty and expire quickly. They reside nowhere and answer to no one because their presence and their business are considered virtual, even if the products and services they deliver are not.
Any discussion about digital understanding does not begin and end with teaching digital skills or competencies, how to protect the vulnerable online, automation or even questions of security and encryption but rather starts with the question of how we yoke the incredible power and potential of digital technology to our societal values. This in turn requires us to be somewhat clearer about what those values are, and what institutions and arrangements—national and international—are required to implement and protect those values.
The Government have announced an array of interventions in the digital environment. We await a Green Paper and a digital charter. To my knowledge, there is work going on in the Home Office, the Department of Health, the Department for Education, DCMS and the Ministry of Justice. I am looking for a clear core, a clear articulation of our values and a commitment to making our children, businesses and institutions—and our Parliament—digitally competent.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for tabling today’s debate. As well as the powerful economic reasons for improving digital understanding, there are also some very important social reasons why we need to look at this key area. As our lives move increasingly online, we risk leaving those at the margins and without digital understanding even further behind.
I will talk very briefly about the digital inclusion and access required for improved understanding to occur. The charity Scope has pointed out that 70% of disabled people have internet access compared with 94% of non-disabled people. According to Age UK, more than 1 million older people report going more than a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. Digital inclusion is a vital and important way to combat loneliness and strengthen social links. Online connections provide lifelines for those who struggle to leave their homes, sometimes because of illness, and to keep in touch with family and friends. Efforts to improve digital understanding should not overlook the profound difference that helping people to connect online can make.
However, for people to be digitally included, they have to have digital access. The Government’s commitment to a broadband universal service obligation is a good start, guaranteeing that all have a legal right to request a broadband connection capable of a minimum speed of 10 megabytes per second. Nevertheless, there is no point in having this right if people are not able to exercise it. The Government must be proactive in working with community groups to stimulate demand for broadband and assist people who need help to get online.
Creative community solutions can make a difference, not least, for example, in remote rural areas. The Church of England is very involved in the wiSpire project, using church spires to provide high-speed internet to remote rural communities where fibre connections may not be cost effective. This benefits both the rural economy and those living in less accessible areas.
Where people have the skills, confidence and ability to get online, individuals and communities can flourish socially as well as economically. We simply cannot afford to let people miss out on this important development.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for introducing this debate today. I may stray a little from the general thrust of what she wanted to talk about, but it is very rare that we have the opportunity to discuss IT matters in this House.
I have been in the technology industry for over 50 years and I have obviously witnessed the massive growth of the internet. It did not exist 25 years ago and when it started, it came as a bit of a cultural shock to a lot of people. We did not trust it; we did not want to buy things online. Well, that is history. We have seen large companies such as Amazon, eBay and Google emerge in an industry that never before existed. Regrettably, all this is at the expense of a diminishing high street where independent retailers can no longer compete with online services. Looking ahead another 20 years, I simply wonder what the retail arena will look like—large or small.
Some of the public are aware that each and every time they engage in a transaction with the likes of Amazon or Google, they have been marked digitally. It is quite likely that the next time they go online, they will receive unsolicited messages relating to things they may have enquired about in the past. This is effectively what we might call the “big brother” syndrome—someone is overlooking your data and knows all about you. You have a profile somewhere in the cloud. Let me tell your Lordships, it is not going to go away. All we can do is be very careful and wary of what we do online. I am afraid that any discussion today about trying to stop this will be wasted. What I would say is very simple: “Get over it. It has happened”. Can we stop it? The answer is no: we are digitally marked and that is the end of it.
The internet is a wonderful tool, but it can also be used for dangerous purposes—terrorism, paedophilia, and so on. Internet search engine providers have a responsibility to assist the crime and security services in seeking out people who use the internet for the wrong reasons. Of course, if I were to ask the CEO of any of these companies, they would tell me that for sure they co-operate wholeheartedly with the security services. The reality is that they are commercial organisations. Their technical resources are used to find new ways to make money. The Government should insist, and have some form of auditing commitment to ensure that serious technical resource is allocated to seeking out the use of the internet for criminal or terrorism purposes. I suggest that GCHQ should be the auditing party and the Government should have the right to include an audit clause in the licences that allow providers to operate in our country. This will ensure that they are genuinely doing something about it.
I have seven grandchildren and on the very odd occasion that I am blessed with their coming to my home to have dinner, they sit around the table with their faces buried in their smartphones, to such an extent that I have banned the devices from the dining room. I deduce from this that something cannot be right. There is something wrong with young people in society today. I urge parents to take a stance to prevent their children spending too much time gazing into these devices. The internet is a wonderful thing, but it can also be a very dangerous tool.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for initiating this debate and for her brilliant speech.
Connected health or technology-enabled care—TEC, as it is commonly known—is a collective term for telecare, telehealth, telemedicine, m-health, e-health and digital health, which is increasingly seen as an integral and rapidly evolving part of healthcare delivery and of care. For example, the number of health apps on iOS and Android devices alone now exceeds 100,000. By 2018, Europe will be the largest m-health market outside the USA, worth over £8 billion to £10 billion a year. The advantages of digital health to health providers and patients include freeing up time for more direct patient contact and reducing readmissions, A&E attendance and hospital bed usage, which will help reduce the cost of health and social care and will provide better outcomes, especially for patients with long-term conditions because they will be more able to manage their own care themselves. But to deliver this, we will need health delivery systems geared up for it and health professionals trained in digital skills and able to understand and use them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, in a report to the National Information Board in December 2015, made four key recommendations to achieve this, including free wi-fi in every hospital, building the basic digital skills of the NHS workforce, and a target of 10% of patients registered with GP practices using digital services by 2017. This would include patients in most need of health and social care. Can the Minister say what progress has been made in implementing these recommendations, which would go a long way to making healthcare in the NHS digitally skilled?
Does the Minister also agree that to achieve this, we need all training institutions—from schools and universities to medical schools, nursing schools and those providing continuous education in healthcare—to provide the necessary skills and understanding for the workforce? Does he also agree that when NICE produces guidance, it must have a component of m-health and e-health within it, which it rarely ever has? I understand of course that he may not be able to answer these questions because they might not come under his department, but would he mind passing them on to the appropriate department and maybe writing to us?
My Lords, the noble Baroness’s Motion is excellent for those who receive adequate broadband speed. For those who do not, it is meaningless. In answer to my recent Written Question on poor broadband speeds, the Minister said that in this Parliament, the universal service obligation would give “everyone” a “legal right” to request 10 megabits per second. He also said:
“All homes and businesses can now gain access to broadband speeds of 2 Megabits”.
That is just not true. In spite of me and my fellow parishioners constantly asking BT and Openreach for better speeds, nothing ever happens. Our speeds are woefully poor to non-existent, as my noble friend Lord Ashton found out when he stayed with me in Norfolk this summer. He tested our speed and found it was a mere 0.3 megabits per second, which was nowhere near the promised 2 megabits he assured us we had in his written reply.
So where do the Government get their information, which is quite clearly so inaccurate, from? Could it be from Ofcom, which acknowledges that,
“many homes and small businesses still are unable to receive broadband speeds that are adequate to reliably perform a range of common online activities. Almost a quarter of a million UK premises … cannot get a download speed of more than 2Mbit/s.”?
A quarter of a million premises might just about be right for rural Norfolk—I bet the figure is far higher for the whole country. So where has Ofcom got its figures from? It certainly has not visited my home, as my noble friend did, or it too might have discovered a speed of only 0.3 megabits, which is worse than many third world countries.
Since my Written Question and my noble friend’s visit, has his department met Ofcom to enquire why progress in rural areas is so slow? If not, why not? Has his department met BT or Openreach regarding expected progress? Again, if not, why not? Or is getting acceptable speeds to rural areas just too difficult or too expensive?
The Government have just announced another £400 million to boost high-speed broadband, when many parts of the country still do not have the promised 2 megabits Would his money not be better spent providing the basic service that has long been promised the country? Those still languishing in broadband poverty would no doubt welcome the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, if only they had adequate broadband speeds, so they could rise to the challenge.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on her excellent opening speech and her extraordinary career so far. Apropos of what the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, said, I note that quite a few noble Lords were looking at their devices while he was speaking, and he has so far looked at his device three times since he finished speaking.
Do we need improved digital understanding at all levels of our society? You bet we do. I completely buy the distinction made by the noble Baroness between digital skills and digital understanding, and digital understanding is absolutely central to the next few years in our society and in the world at large. The digital revolution is a huge wave of change breaking across the world and transforming our largest institutions but also intimate aspects of our personal lives. The digital revolution is not the internet; the digital revolution is not robotics; the digital revolution is not awesome algorithmic or supercomputing power. It is all three of these, producing a pace of change unknown previously. The pace of change today far outstrips the industrial revolution and it is far more immediately global. It is a whole new world, which we are being plunged into at almost the speed of light. As other noble Lords have said, it is a vast mixture of opportunities and threats. The opportunities are very large. Consider, for example, the overlap between supercomputing power and genetics. Genetics is simply information, and as supercomputers deal in the awesome power of information, there will be fantastic advances in medicine, but the threats are just as large and are everywhere.
I have three quick points. First, the huge digital corporations must be held to account in relation to democratic processes and concerns, and this must happen quickly. Our lives have been invaded. Data are kept, in enormous amounts, on all of us. We cannot simply accept this as it stands. Secondly, as citizens, we cannot just sit back and accept a situation where human beings are programmed out of key technologies. Smart machines can be designed either to replace us or to enhance and extend our capabilities. When it comes to the distinction between AI and what has been called IA—intelligence augmentation—we should push for the second of these. This is a very serious issue. Thirdly, direct human contact should be preserved and sometimes reintroduced. “Back to the future” is a good way of handling advanced technologies. Let us reintroduce human contact wherever we can where at the moment we have robotic automated voices. Let us contain and humanise the robots.
My Lords, I am happy to concur, as always, with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, has said. His remarks are well worth careful study. I want to draw colleagues’ attention to something that those who work with the Parliamentary Digital Service will already know—that tomorrow is the last day for our retiring director, Mr Rob Greig. As a former chair of the Information Committee I shall take this opportunity to wish him well in his career and thank him for the leadership—which is worth mentioning in dispatches—that he gave to the response to the recent cyberattack. Without his leadership that would have had a much worse impact on our institution. He has done two and a half years, and he has made a difference. We wish him well, and thank him for his work.
I was particularly interested in the reference by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, to the way in which we run Parliament. Listening to the debate, I realise that with her, with the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and others, we have an enormous amount of talent among the membership of your Lordships’ House. I am also pleased that the Senior Deputy Speaker has taken enough of an interest in this debate to be present today, because he has a key role in trying to make sure that we do business in a way that is fit for purpose in a digital age.
I agree with some of the speeches made earlier. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, made a powerful speech, and he has done great work in dealing with training needs. He says that we need to catch up with Estonia, and he is correct. That is how bad things are. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans made a powerful speech about fairness. Obviously, I would subscribe to that, because if we in this House are passing laws relying on “digital by default”, it is not right if we do not know what we are asking our clients—applicants for universal credit—to know and understand, because we need a better grounding. We need not only a grounding but an understanding—that is a good word; it is not just digital skills that we need, but an understanding of what a modern Parliament needs.
My plea, following on from the important speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, is that, working with the Lord Speaker—I know that he has a genuine interest—and the new interim director of the PDS, we should be operating with a much closer interest by Members to try to make Parliament much more effectively digital. If we do not do that, we will be left behind. The institution, qua institution, will become more and more irrelevant to the needs, political and otherwise, of the day. I suggest starting some kind of interest group—it could be online, virtual, or anything we like—to bring together some of the collective massive talent we have, and try to encourage other Members who are perhaps less familiar with technology, and do not feel as comfortable with it, to engage in a conversation, so that we can all not only improve our own individual contributions to the work of this important institution, but produce a better result for the British public. That is an important priority for the Government.
My Lords, as we have heard, digital technology has transformed our lives, with the same import as the invention of the wheel. My noble friend Lady Lane-Fox of Soho has reminded me of the important strictures of one of my composition teachers—that you will only ever get out of any venture rewards in direct correlation with what you put in. That lies at the heart of this timely debate.
For example, I can press a button and digital technology will play me a piece of music—but by exploring that technology further, by investing time and creativity in it, I can do so much more. I can write music directly on electronic manuscript paper, or I can play it on a keyboard and the technology will notate it and play it back. Is that not absolutely extraordinary? Just imagine if Bach or Mozart had had that technology. Their improvisations would have been preserved for posterity, and instead of their laboriously writing out by quill all the individual parts for violins, violas, woodwind and brass, and sending them by horse to musicians desperate to rehearse, the technology would extricate the parts, which could then be sent instantly all over the world, where they could be printed—or even, as now happens, be performed by reading from an electronic tablet, just as I am referring to my notes now. Mozart would surely have had time to finish his own Requiem, and so much more besides.
Let us follow the example of composers, scientists and artists of this stature who seized technological advances in their own time, and by understanding them were able to transform knowledge and to write sublime masterpieces for instruments that were still in their infancy. Mozart’s clarinet concerto, and his quintet, are perfect examples of not merely using advances in technology but understanding their potential. Look at how David Hockney has used digital technology in his iPad pictures and his multicamera moving landscapes. Every theatrical event we attend is now lit by pre-programmed computer technology. Many films and television programmes manage magically to combine realism with technological fantasy to transport us to an extraordinary and brave new world—and indeed, to worlds beyond our own.
We must concentrate on the young and the underprivileged in our efforts to educate, and to spread the digital word. Opportunity to learn is such a gift. With it we will transform the lives of so many, allowing them to share in the magical cornucopia of experience that digital technology and the internet offer. The next generation will transport us in ways that are unimaginable as we sit here today. Why, we might meet in virtual reality, thus solving our current problems of housing during repairs and rebuilding.
I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on introducing this debate. She has already forced somebody with few digital skills into a little bit of digital understanding, and I thank her very much for that. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. He put this issue into the context of music and I shall put it into the context of policing. It was a delight that the noble Baroness mentioned climate change, but I am going to avoid that topic today and talk about policing.
A high level of digital understanding is obviously important for the police. It will be essential in fighting crime. The problem is that the rapid pace of technological advancement leaves many unknown unknowns—for example, the policing issues that might arise with driverless cars or quantum computers. As new crimes come forward, such as cyberbullying and phishing, the police need technology skills and support to face these 21st-century crimes. At the same time as we navigate these challenges, we also have to maintain a constant focus on protecting civil liberties while encouraging and facilitating innovation.
Digital crime differs greatly from traditional crimes, because most digital crime can be committed from the comfort of the perpetrator’s own home, and the actions of a computer-savvy criminal can rapidly affect thousands of people. The ransomware attack on the NHS in May showed the devastating effect that cybercrime can have on core public services. To meet these challenges, all police officers and police staff need the knowledge and skills to use digital technology and be aware of emerging trends. Police leaders must have a deep understanding of the developing issues, and have the vision for a new strategy to seize the initiative on these new crimes.
I want to talk about big data, which the police use a lot. That means drawing huge amounts of data from diverse sources, assessing their accuracy and reliability, and then making critical analyses—and sometimes difficult decisions based on what has been learned. This is an important issue, as it has wide-ranging implications for civil liberties and discrimination within society. It offers opportunities for the police to add data-driven insights to their traditional policing expertise. Complex algorithms can make useful predictions from a range of data as diverse as historical crime data, location of cashpoints, census data, football results, weather patterns and temperature changes.
The opportunity is that big data models can give deeper insight into the trends that affect crime and allow police to direct scarce resources better. Often this can make policing easier but sometimes IT goes badly wrong, and I shall give your Lordships an example of that. Last month, London’s Met police used what is actually a controversial, inaccurate and largely unregulated automated facial recognition technology to spot troublemakers at the Notting Hill Carnival. This is the second year running that it has trialled it, and once again it did more harm than good. Last year it actually proved useless, so that was okay, but this year it proved worse than useless, with 35 false matches and one wrongful arrest of someone erroneously tagged as being wanted on warrant for a rioting offence. Silkie Carlo, the technology policy officer for civil rights group Liberty, saw the technology in action and, in a blog post, described the system as showing,
“all the hallmarks of the very basic pitfalls technologists have warned of for years—policing led by low-quality data and low-quality algorithms”.
Yet, in spite of its lack of success, the Met’s project leads viewed the weekend not as a failure but as a resounding success. It had come up with one solitary successful match, and even that was skewered by sloppy record-keeping that got an individual wrongly arrested. The automated facial recognition was accurate but the person had already been processed by the justice system and was erroneously included on a suspect database. It so often comes back to basic record-keeping, not to technology that can make things easier.
I see two particular problems for the police force: understanding what there is in terms of digital products, and having the judgment to know what is appropriate to use.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox. This is a really important topic, and it is right to have this debate before we get anywhere near the Bill that seeks to reform the data protection system.
Who could be opposed to improving digital literacy? Like financial, political or emotional literacy, it is surely of great practical and human importance. No doubt one of the shortcomings of our present situation is that all too many of us are not sufficiently digitally literate. Many of us are part of a generation of digital autodidacts, and both our understanding and our know-how are too often patchy.
However, there are great obstacles to improvement in digital literacy while the underlying rules and conventions of the digital world are so obscure. I do not mean merely that the technical protocols of the digital world are unclear, although few are likely to understand them. I mean that the basic legal, regulatory and cultural standards of the online world remain obscure. Perhaps an analogy with the world of print in its early days will show this. In its early days, printing was initially a deeply disruptive new technology. Today our ability to assess the printed word is supported by a framework of laws and conventions; we can distinguish between authors, printers and publishers; publishers must be identifiable and are subject to laws that bear on defamation or breaches of copyright; and there are sanctions for plagiarism and passing off. There is a huge list of further laws and regulations that bear on the printed word. We can secure good standards of written communication only because we have reasonably clear legal, regulatory and cultural frameworks in place—there are common standards. At present, matters are not comparable in the online world. Digital literacy is therefore not enough to offer adequate protection or empowerment even to those who make an effort to become more digitally literate. It would be naive to expect individual digital literacy to offer adequate certainty or protection to those using digital technologies.
There are still cyber romantics to be found who believe that no legislation or regulation should restrain the online world. However, I think that picture is remote from daily life. Of course we need to preserve freedom of expression online, as offline—but online, as offline, the aim has to be qualified by measures that secure other rights of the person. Freedom of expression, online as offline, is a qualified right. The real problem is not that standards are not needed but that extraterritoriality is an everyday reality of the digital world, and all standards will need to be established by co-operation between the powers of that world and those of the world of states. They cannot be secured by state legislation alone, and this will not be easy. Agreement on the technical standards is one matter, but the wider systemic standards needed for a digital civilisation cannot be secured while there are vast rewards for breaching them.
To cast the burden of improvement entirely on individuals by requiring them to improve their digital literacy would be to overlook where the deeper need for change lies. I suggest that Parliament needs to start to address the deeper issues of securing legislation that supports standards in the digital world. That will not be done by some tweaks in the data protection laws; indeed, I suspect that revising that failing approach to the digital world will not lead us very far.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for tabling this debate. I declare my interest as a trustee of the digital charity Doteveryone, which the noble Baroness chairs so ably. She and I have campaigned for a long time about basic digital skills, and a number of noble Lords here today have spoken very eloquently about that. So I want to park the issue of basic digital skills; they are so essential that a lot has already been said about them today. I hope the Minister will update us on what the Government are doing to deliver on their commitments to spend money on and support universal basic digital literacy.
Instead, I shall focus my comments on the importance of digital understanding more broadly. Basic digital skills and digital infrastructure are essential to be able to start to understand the digital world, and that is really what this debate is all about: broad digital understanding. People are afraid of the things they do not understand. They are particularly afraid of the things they do not understand that threaten their way of life, and we should have no illusions that the digital world is going to do that to a large number of people. There will be good change and bad change. I firmly believe that the good will outweigh the bad, but it is unlikely to happen simultaneously and symmetrically so that individuals are not left stranded unless we do something about it.
I shall talk briefly about one example: cars. If you take a taxi ride in London today and mention the word “Uber”, your conversation is pretty much guaranteed for the rest of the journey. The danger is that those taxi drivers are actually fighting yesterday’s battle. Come driverless cars, it is not going to be a question of regulating the drivers of Uber taxis; we need to think about how we prepare a huge swathe of society to build different skills in order to have different jobs in the new world. We also need to think about how we regulate those driverless cars. I think it was in 1930 or 1931 that the Highway Code was first drafted. One thing that has remained consistent in that code is the exhortation to drivers to drive with care and consideration of others. We are going to need to work out what the Highway Code for driverless cars is that ingrains that in the machine learning and the algorithms. We cannot abdicate that responsibility to either our children or grandchildren in the way that our grandparents did in working the VCR, nor can we abdicate that responsibility to the brilliant software engineers. I honestly think they are the last people who should be working out the new Highway Code and the moral and ethical regulatory debates that that will bring.
To create the right regulatory framework—I have picked one tiny innovation that the digital world is bringing—all of us need a general understanding of that technology to be able to engage in the debate with those brilliant software engineers, rather than to run away from them. That is why this debate is so important and why it is so fantastic, for me as someone who has worked in the tech sector for a long time, to see so many people in the Chamber today bringing such varied perspectives to this subject.
I ask the Minister what he and his department are doing to drive further digital understanding in Whitehall, in Westminster and beyond. Some very important work needs to happen now. I think we already see the signs of fear of change in our society. I would not suggest that technology is the only reason why we have a very fractured and unhappy political discourse today but it is undoubtedly one of the underlying reasons, and that is only going to increase. I hope that in future we will be discussing the real ethical and regulatory issues, rather than the need to discuss them one day.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on this debate; on her visionary, inspiring and rather daunting speech; and indeed on all her work to promote digital understanding and effective usage of digital technology. I was planning to speak mainly on some rather specific aspects of digital skills, based on my experience as a member of the House’s Digital Skills Committee, but, listening to the noble Baroness’s speech and the debate so far, I feel that some of the points I had planned to make fall rather below the threshold of quality that other speakers have achieved. I am going to try to rescue one or two points from my speech, with apologies if I get totally lost as a result, and congratulations to the other speakers.
My first point is about the role of government, which the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, has just raised. The Digital Skills Committee—rightly, in my view—has suggested that the Government have a role as the conductor of the orchestra. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, could have made something of this, but I will merely endorse that role: giving a lead, ensuring co-ordination and harmony between the different groups involved, achieving an overall balance and engaging all the different audiences that need to be reached.
My second point is the importance of building young people’s digital understanding right from the moment they start school, or even before, both in and outside the classroom. Like the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, my grandchildren spend most of their time looking at iPads or iPhones; however, one of the things they looked at was a wonderful kit based on the extraordinary Raspberry Pi computer. My nine year-old grandson, within around an hour of unwrapping that at Christmas, was doing some very basic programming. We could usefully learn from and encourage techniques like that.
My third point, which is another essential in this area, is to improve the careers advice and guidance offer. I have said before in this House that I am a great fan of the work that the Careers & Enterprise Company is doing to help schools improve in this area, both for skills and for understanding. The CEC’s “passport for life” is a promising initiative to provide a standardised and verified digital record of achievement that young people can share with employers.
I had also intended to endorse the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, that one of the key audiences whose digital understanding might usefully be improved is Parliament. I was very interested in a study that Doteveryone did last year, mentoring four MPs. I am sure that there are lessons to be learned from that study and that we should be looking at how we can extend that sort of learning to improve our ability to address these issues. This is a huge challenge, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister that the Government have fully studied the score and are ready to step onto the podium.
My Lords, you will note that I have basically torn up my speech. If you are number 17 on the list, most of what you want to say has already been said. First, I would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, both for her speech and for introducing this debate. Her speech was very good, if slightly depressing. I have already used the intranet and the internet at least twice today: I used the intranet to book a table in the dining room and I drew money out of a cash machine, which uses the internet, as we all know.
I have three political points to make. I am a politician and delighted to be called one, but I do not think that politics is keeping up with the change that is taking place in our society at the present time. In education, in the health service, in shopping, in whatever else it may be, the internet is becoming more and more important. Education was my field before I became an MP. I read education debates, and neither the word “computer” nor the internet is ever mentioned. Why? Surely we ought to be involved in that discussion. The computer and the internet ought to be transforming our education policy. I listened to the First Minister of Scotland, and she never mentioned it. It was never part of her policy.
We want to spend more money on the health service. Good, but on what? What is our health policy? Should we be connecting everything together by computer and by the internet? In the area of genetics, for instance, you can move forward only by connecting all the various computers together and making them all work on the same policy and issues. Why are we not doing that?
The internet is transforming our society and the way we work, yet our political parties—despite what the Liberals might say, and I will come to that in a moment—are not keeping up with the transformation that is taking place. They are not moving with the times. In part, this is due to the fact that our democratic process is a five-year process, whereas the process of planning for the internet, science and technology looks forward 20 years. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, raised that issue.
I will finish with one last point, which comes back to ensuring that everybody has access and which will make the Liberal party wake up. The only way you can ensure that everybody has access to the internet and the skills needed is by introducing a smartcard or an ID card—whatever you like to call it.
I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for the opportunity to contribute to this timely debate. As a neuroscientist, I urge that digital understanding should go further still and include a deeper awareness of the impact of screen technologies on the physical brain and how it is changing our actual thought processes and consciousness.
Humans possess the superlative ability to adapt to the environment. The human brain becomes highly personalised after birth by the development of unique configurations of connections between brain cells. This, I suggest, constitutes an individual “mind”. These neuronal connections are constantly being modified by input from the outside world—a world now increasingly mediated by screens. Our highly impressionable brains, our minds, will be adapting in an unprecedented fashion.
While the internet can be a source of high-quality entertainment and education and of socialising in new ways, such benefits, especially for the young, should be weighed against some very basic considerations. Young children, who are still developing the ability to regulate their emotions and cope with frustration and boredom, need to develop self-calming skills that do not rely on the palliative of the screen. No matter how high-quality the content of what is flashed up, time spent in a screen-based world displaces time spent learning, playing and socialising in the real world. Real-world toys, activities and human-to-human interactions foster the imagination, creativity and social skills of a child in ways that screen technologies typically cannot. Computer gaming has been shown to bring benefits such as improved dexterity, but the content and context of these activities should not be ignored. Put bluntly, is it not worth pondering the relative merits of 10,000 hours spent playing “World of Warcraft” online versus 10,000 hours developing skills on the guitar or piano in the sociable company of other musicians?
The temptation to immerse oneself obsessively in the screen world is well-nigh universal. Over 2,000 peer-reviewed articles relating to internet addiction offer increasingly strong evidence that it is a real phenomenon. What exactly is an internet addict addicted to? We have always found pleasure in finding new information, whether through intentional searching or happenstance, but the preference to engage with the screen world could be because it offers a qualitatively different experience from that encountered in the three-dimensional, less-compliant real world. Whatever you do in the screen world will elicit an instant response, unlike real life. This instant feedback is not merely reassuring, but so compelling for some that it becomes a prerequisite for their well-being. A recent Harvard study found that, rather than sit alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes, many people chose to give themselves painful electric shocks. That was in Science in 2014.
Screen culture, characterised by its never-ending traffic of input and output, appears symptomatic of a new type of existential challenge: to sustain and enjoy a rewarding personal, inner world that is independent of external stimulation. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, should be applauded for founding a think tank highlighting a key area: examining the internet’s effect on how we live, care, consume, love, learn, work and die. Surely central to such examination should be careful consideration of its unprecedented effects on the brain itself.
My Lords, like others, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox. She has been a role model for us all. She has created a successful digital business; she helped the Government to get ahead on technology when we served together on the coalition’s Efficiency Board; and now she is beating the drum for digital skills, awareness and understanding.
I know that she feels that public policy on this matter has developed rather too slowly. I share that sentiment, but it is rarely in the nature of government to be quick. Nevertheless, as a nation we benefit from very strong technology and creative industries. So some things are going well, and we benefit from the support of groups such as techUK, which briefed us for this debate.
When I came to Parliament, I used to wax lyrical on the awfulness of internet and mobile coverage, as well as the problems of exclusion, described again today by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and my noble friend Lord Cathcart. This made me very unpopular with Ed Vaizey, who, to do him justice, worked hard to extend coverage with less help from industry than he deserved. Only last week he was on the “Today” programme, still cheering us up on this very subject. We made money available for digital infrastructure when I was at the Treasury, and it is clear to me that a combination of wi-fi and 4G and 5G mobile providing digital access right across the UK is essential to our success now that digital affects most—indeed, perhaps all—of our endeavours.
Today, I want to make two further points. First, the noble Baroness is right to worry about digital understanding, as well as about skills. I was cheered by the figures in the Library note showing that, according to Lloyds Bank, only 11.5 million people lack digital skills and, according to the ONS, only 9% have never used the internet. If you look back only 10 years, that is an extraordinary improvement and a tribute to free-market transformation. My noble friend Lord Baker will be glad to know that my granddaughter learned coding in her first year at primary school in Wandsworth.
However, as with everything in life, there are drawbacks to internet penetration. It poses a major challenge to government and society. There are worrying externalities to balance the wonderful convenience, pleasure and efficiency that digital brings. I am referring to scams, especially the millions of financial scams every week, with data and identities constantly at risk from cyberattacks. Which? has produced very good reports on this scourge. I am also referring to access to the compulsive dangers of gambling and drugs, and to bullying online, child abuse, pornography and Islamist extremism. There is also biased, unregulated and annoying advertising, putting the offline advertisers at a commercial disadvantage and undermining the print media. Close to my heart, there is also the theft of intellectual property, affecting books and other networks. In addition, there is fake news online and its huge impact on society, public sentiment and elections.
Finally, regarding Brexit, as the Minister responsible for the digital single market, I spent many hours with other member states, including Estonia, debating the right way forward—how to open up the opportunities for the flow of digital content, fintech, commerce and so on. In finishing, I should very much like to ask the Minister to share his thinking on the positives and negatives for our digital policy, the digital economy and digital understanding of a post-Brexit world, because equivalent challenges and opportunities will still exist post Brexit.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for introducing this debate. Before I start, I should draw the House’s attention to some of my interests listed in the register.
There have been two very brief mentions of disability in this debate—by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Knight—in the context of groups of disabled people not getting access to the internet. However, we have not addressed the fact that there is another problem for these people. Many groups can use adaptations to allow them a degree of access to the net—but, unless companies do to their websites what something like 80% of major firms have done, that technology will be non-accessible. This is the equivalent of insisting, in the built environment, that you have steps in front of everything—it means that some people cannot get in. Currently, there is no understanding of the need for accessibility when these systems are devised, or of how this might be done.
With the expansion of this area, effectively we have totally forgotten something that we have talked about and implemented over many decades in the built and non-digital environment. The problem is that some people cannot access certain functions. From what I have been led to understand, those with visual impairments are probably the worst affected. Dyslexics also have a problem—for them it presents an absolute barrier. I have been studying a group called AchieveAbility and the problems relating to employment for those in the neurodiverse community—dyslexics, dyspraxics, those with autism and dyscalculics. The biggest problem that this group experiences with recruitment is through the big agencies. They insist that you go online—but you cannot fill out the form. The rest of society should be made aware of something this basic. At the moment, nobody knows about it and most of these sins are committed in ignorance. Let us start to look at this issue. If we do not, we will be excluding something like 20% of the population from the benefits of the internet.
My Lords, I, too, welcome this important debate introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox. Without question, the future is digital.
I speak as a professor of civil engineering at Cambridge University and also from my 25 years’ experience of industry as a practising engineer. In March, the Institution of Civil Engineers published its report State of the Nation 2017: Digital Transformation. Its principal message was that digital transformation should be at the heart of the infrastructure pillar in the Government’s industrial strategy.
Our infrastructure, which I will use as an example, is vital for our economy and our society. More importantly, we need smart infrastructure. By this, we mean combining physical infrastructure with digital infrastructure. Bridges can have sensors measuring all kinds of parameters, as can our tunnels and buildings—indeed, any type of infrastructure. We will be able to know when a bridge or a tunnel is overstressed, requires attention or is reaching the end of its useful life. Sensors on our infrastructure are part of the “internet of things”—myriad smart devices that collect and transmit data.
Here, I should declare an interest. In the engineering department at Cambridge, I lead the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction. Innovative sensors—fibre optics and wireless devices—have recently been installed at more than 100 sites, providing important and unique new data. However, to be of any use, the data from sensors on infrastructure will require understanding, interpretation and management—crucial digital skills. Vast amounts of data themselves are of little use. We need to turn data into knowledge. All data must be critically interpreted and managed, and the implications properly understood. The limitations and implications of unreliable data need to be fully appreciated by the users of the data. Full digital understanding is needed for this.
These skills relate principally to our engineers and scientists, and to our technologies and industrial strategy. They are in the category of the digital worker and the digital maker, as defined by the Digital Skills Taskforce. These required skills are significantly beyond those of the ordinary digital citizen, who may be reasonably confident with day-to-day activities such as communicating, finding information and purchasing goods or services. We need to convert many more digital citizens into digital workers.
The Government’s Green Paper Building Our Industrial Strategy highlights the importance of enhancing digital skills at all levels of society. In responding to the Green Paper, the Royal Academy of Engineering reported that the engineering community would like to see a general computing GCSE introduced, as well as increased and sustained support for computer science. Also, computing should be designated a core subject in schools.
My final point relates to primary schools. I fully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Baker, that more emphasis in primary schools on STEM subjects, including digital skills, will surely lead to improved digital understanding at all levels in our society.
My Lords, I would like to add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for her influential work and for introducing this important debate.
I begin by stating that I am a technological optimist. Advances in information and communications technologies have brought great benefits to humanity, with potential for many more to follow. Much of the utility of the super-computers that now surround us has been provided to us by companies whose programming skills have made them household names. As their usefulness has grown, so too has the value of these companies, to the point now where they are the mostly highly capitalised companies on the planet, replacing oil companies. The companies with the highest market valuation are the particular breed through which vast amounts of data pass—data generated by users, which means all of us.
These platform service providers often do not charge for the services they provide, yet their incomes are vast, derived mainly from advertising—and specifically from highly targeted and efficient advertising, the likes of which older forms of broadcast and print media could never deliver. As we go about our digital lives, we leave behind us valuable digital information that can be processed en masse by super-computers, helping to profile us into ever more detailed market segments, defined not just by who we are or what we do, but by how we think and feel.
A mass communications revolution is under way and there will inevitably be negative consequences. We need to ask how these can be minimised. Internet platform providers are not classed as broadcasters since they do not generate original content. This has led to controversies around abuses of copyright and stretched the boundaries between freedom of expression and the rules seeking to govern defamation, incitement to hate and other forms of illegal communication.
As interconnectedness has grown in a concentrated number of platforms, information volumes have also increased. This has led to more curation of the flow of information to improve user experiences. But who decides what improves a user experience? Often, it means keeping content in line with already known preferences. Our natural confirmation biases are being strengthened as our news feeds are curated to show more of what we agree with and less of what we do not. With no requirement to maintain political neutrality, platforms can serve up content which is the equivalent of the entire panel of “Question Time” being populated only by Nigel Farages every week.
In this polarised environment, deliberate misinformation or fake news can spread like wildfire. It can spread naturally if the “click bait” is compelling enough. However, why leave it to chance? It is possible to guarantee a higher circulation of stories—whether real or not—using fake personalities controlled by computers to “like” or “favourite” stories thousands of times so they are picked up by listing algorithms and circulated more broadly.
Algorithms control what we see. Has the line between companies such as Facebook being platforms and publishers been crossed? Are publishers not editors of content? Even if it is an algorithm doing the editing, these algorithms originate somewhere and they express a set of beliefs that shape what we see. They should be open to scrutiny. Transparency is a precursor to understanding.
Increased digital understanding will be necessary before we draw up and maintain a rule book so the benefits of digitalisation are felt by everyone and the incidents of abuse and misuse are minimised. As a group of lawmakers, we have a particular responsibility to educate ourselves. That is why I am delighted that we have created an ad hoc committee to consider artificial intelligence, which, I am sure, under the expert chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, will produce excellent results. I also look forward to the Government’s digital charter and data protection Bill, which will allow this rich debate to continue. There are so many aspects of this debate that we could have covered today, but time is short. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, once again for introducing this debate and I hope it will not be the last of its kind.
My Lords, I join other speakers in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on this debate. Our lives have been hugely enriched by consumer electronics and by web-based services that are free or very cheap. Indeed, during a decade where many people’s real wages have fallen, the main reason why they may enjoy greater subjective well-being is the consumer surplus offered by the ever more pervasive digital world. However, it is not an unalloyed piece of good news that young people spend so much time online, and there are other concerns. What about, for instance, the burgeoning information about us on the net—about health records, google searches, where we have travelled and what we buy?
When we are at home, Amazon’s home robot is recording what we say. Even the humble robotic vacuum cleaner can record the floorplans of our rooms. All this information has commercial value to the companies that dominate the sector. Criminal hackers can steal our identity. As the internet of things becomes more pervasive, they will be able to sabotage our house and our car as well. When on the phone or online, it is increasingly hard to tell whether you are dealing with a real person or with a computer. Bots can engage in increasingly sophisticated dialogue—but it is important that we should be able to recognise them for what they are. Would we be happy if a stranger who sat near us on a train could access facial recognition software, identify us and then search our online presence?
AI will enable machines to control traffic flows, the electric grid and such like. They will do such jobs better than humans and that is an unambiguous benefit, but when machines decide the fate of individuals, one is ambivalent. If individuals are denied a request, they should be entitled to be told the reason. One genuine dilemma is that machine learning leads to algorithms that seem reliable, but no human understands how they come to their decisions.
When so much business, including our interaction with Government, is done via websites, we should worry about, for instance, an elderly or disabled person living alone who is expected to access the benefits system online. Think of the anxiety and frustration when something goes wrong. Such people will have peace of mind only if there are enough adequately trained human beings in the system to ensure that they can get help and are not disadvantaged.
This leads to a more general point. The digital revolution generates huge wealth for an elite, but preserving a healthy society will require massive redistribution of wealth and, of course, redeployment of labour to ensure that everyone still has worthwhile employment. To do this we should surely hugely expand the numbers of public service jobs where the human element is crucial and where demand is huge, and now hugely unsatisfied, especially carers for young and old, and in particular, enough computer-savvy carers to help the old and the bewildered.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on securing this very relevant debate. It is difficult to overestimate her role in promoting digital government.
In 2010, my noble friend Lord Maude commissioned the noble Baroness to carry out a review of government digital capability. Unlike most government reviews, which take months if not years, the Martha Lane-Fox report was produced in two weeks. Her recommendations were admirably straightforward: government should be digital by default with assisted digital for those not yet online, and there should be a new government digital organisation headed by the best person possible—the outstanding Mike Bracken took this role.
The results of what became the Government Digital Service, or GDS, speak for themselves. In 2010, the UK was a byword for car-crash government IT programmes. In contrast, as we have heard, in 2016 the UK was top of the UN rankings. We saved over £4 billion from the IT bill in just four years, Government became an attractive employer for a generation of digital talent, and start-ups and SMEs won government business, ending the domination of a few international companies. The award-winning GOV.UK became one of the most visited sites in the UK. GDS was hailed as Europe’s best start-up, with the Washington Post calling it the “gold standard” for digital government.
When the Australian Government set up their Digital Transformation Office, Malcolm Turnbull, now the Australian Prime Minister, emailed my noble friend Lord Maude to say that if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he should consider himself very flattered. Many other countries, including the US, copied the model, often with the help of former GDS staffers.
These remarkable results were not accidental. Reform, especially in the Civil Service, needs leadership, stamina and political courage. The success of GDS depended on strong authority and leadership at the centre of government. The mantra was, “the strategy is delivery”. Yet the new GDS mandate—to support, enable and assure departments—seems to place the needs of departments over the needs of users. The battle over the use of shared platforms is worrying. Cross-government platforms such as Verify are designed for the user so that digital government is consistent and easy to deal with. Their use by departments is set to save billions of pounds, yet they are resisting their use.
One of the great myths of government is that while central control may be needed to drive initial reform, there comes a point where the reforms are said to be embedded and controls can be eased off. My experience is that reforms embedded in departments are precisely that. They are usually embedded six feet under so that departments can regain autonomy and go right back to their old ways without further interference. We should not risk our digital leadership position to maintain a pointless power battle in Whitehall.
The Government have published a powerful digital transformation strategy and GDS is vital to its delivery. I hope the Minister can reassure us that GDS must be empowered to do so. I wonder whether now is a timely moment for the noble Baroness to review progress after five years, which could address her other concerns.
My Lords, I live in rural Norfolk so if my remarks sound rather like those of the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, I am sure that noble Lords will understand.
It would be so nice to follow the call of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for digital understanding, but for those of us who do not have access to the digital world through an effective broadband internet, that understanding is a bit of a chimera. The Government have a totally inadequate strategy to achieve universal coverage of the internet broadband service in rural areas. Where I live in the parish of Brockdish and Thorpe Abbotts in the Waveney valley along the border between Norfolk and Suffolk, it took from 1926 to 1955 to get electrification and it looks as if it is going to take as long to get broadband. I discovered two months ago that there is a cable laid by a Dutch company that runs all the way down from Lowestoft to London and is laid 300 yards from my door. However, the Government processes of putting in rural broadband around Norfolk are constrained by not only all the money being given away to BT, which has wasted it in ways I will outline in a minute, but also by the fact that nobody can get access to this cable except through voluntary organisations that have now bought into it. It looks as if I will have to dig the cable myself.
Is that satisfactory? I do not think so. I am supporting a group of very angry local residents who feel we have been totally abandoned. It has been a scandal. Hundreds of millions of pounds have poured into BT and Openreach and their vans are all over place. They are putting in cabinets that connect to copper wire, through which we can get an effective signal about 30 yards from the cabinet. So those of us who live in the outlying villages will never get broadband. There are little red dots on the BT maps that say “you’re never gonna get it”.
It is making a huge difference to educational and economic prospects: our farmers tear their hair out, I cannot even buy things online from my favourite shops and as for downloading things, it is not enough. What I want to know is: how are we going to get an adequate strategy that enables us to get a realistic deliverable timetable? To me this is as important as electricity and a clean water supply. Can the Minister, say something to cheer up us unconnected village folk of Brockdish and Thorpe Abbotts, and the thousands round our county and all the other rural counties who have exactly the same problem? We are never going to catch up unless you give some real government support for local communities to get it in.
My Lords, I join the deserved chorus of congratulation for the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on securing this debate. I want briefly to address two issues: first the impact on young people, who in many ways personify the dilemma of digital understanding. On the one hand, digital opens up for them a world of opportunity. On the other hand, the fast-moving world of social media presents great danger in terms of isolation, bullying—particularly homophobic bullying—and depression. Schools have a very fine balancing act. I am a governor of Brentwood School in Essex—I declare an interest accordingly—which is one of those showing the way in this area. It harnesses the power of digital to enhance and enrich learning by ensuring that every child in the school has their own iPad. At the same time it strives to keep children safe by keeping control of the technology by banning mobile phone use during the school day, encouraging pupils to use technology in a family space and advocating social time without the distraction of any devices. I am sure that that will be music to the ears of the noble Lord, Lord Sugar. That seems to me to be a good way of squaring the circle of empowerment and safety. It is a challenge all schools must face up to.
In my own world of the media—I declare an interest as executive director of the Telegraph Media Group—the digital revolution has allowed us to reach out to huge new audiences. Today 39 million people in the UK digitally access news on the industry’s websites, and many hundreds of millions worldwide. Last year, content on those websites drove 1 billion social media interactions. That is a phenomenal success story, but it has come at a price. As all noble Lords know, the digital revolution has destroyed the business model which sustains the news publishing industry as advertising revenue has shifted online. For many in the business it is a race against time to adapt and to find new revenues. I am confident it is a challenge that can be met, provided the industry is free to adapt unburdened by excessive and punitive legislation including, of course, the odious Section 40.
One area of great concern is fake news, which is central to this area. Fake news has been with us ever since the printing press was invented, and always will be. What has changed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, said, is the impact of social media, where algorithms connect users to news by second guessing what the user might like rather than assessing its quality. As it thrives, it attracts advertising from reputable brands and Government. Fake news causes real social harm by reinforcing so-called “filter bubbles” that warp people’s understanding of the world and insulating them from opposing views.
There is no easy answer to that, but one thing we need to do is ensure the sustainability of the real, verified, regulated news which appears in UK news brands. Like many others, I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to establishing a digital charter which will go a long way towards dealing with some of these issues. I also believe that while fake news is an important issue in its own right, it is actually part of a much wider problem of the sustainability of the news industry, and the structural changes in the advertising market from the establishment of a duopoly of news aggregators. That is an issue to which we shall have to return.
My Lords, in 2007 the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, appointed me as the Minister for Digital Inclusion. It was as bizarre an appointment to me as it was to my friends, but one of the most significant actions I took when I did that job was to recommend the appointment of the noble Lady, Baroness Lane-Fox, as the digital champion for our country. She did a wonderful job, and has done a brilliant job this afternoon in introducing this extremely important debate. She talked about the difference between skills and understanding. I think when I was Minister I had some skills, but I did not have much understanding. I hope this is better now.
What certainly is better is that 10 years ago there were about 17 million people in our country who had no digital skills at all. That figure has now gone down to about 11 or 12 million so there has definitely been an improvement. But there are of course still parts of our society where an awful lot more work has to be done: among older people, who can benefit enormously from digital skills, whether by shopping or by talking to their relatives abroad, or whatever it might be—that has got better; among younger people from different socioeconomic groups and from poorer groups in society, who will not get jobs unless they are digitally literate; and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans told the House, among disabled people, whose lives can be greatly enhanced if they are linked up to the internet.
However, there is another divide, too, which is between the different parts of the United Kingdom. In England, in Humberside, Yorkshire and the West Midlands, there is a deficit, and there is certainly a deficit in Wales, where I come from, and in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Therefore my plea to the Minister today—this has not been mentioned yet, so I hope that he can reply to me on this—is for him to say how he will bring together the different parts of our country on the issue of digital improvement.
The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare—who is of course himself a Welshman—talked about the orchestra and the conductor. The fact is that in the United Kingdom there is more than one orchestra. There is the English orchestra, but also the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish ones. How will the Minister and the Government co-ordinate the work of all the different Governments in the United Kingdom and to share experience and best practice? There is one way of doing it, which is to ensure that they look at the various institutions which allow them to do just that. There is the British- Irish Council, which brings together Ministers and Governments from these islands, and the Joint Ministerial Committee. It seems that there is a great job of work to be done there to ensure that we approach digital inclusion, digital skills and a better digital understanding right across the United Kingdom. I look forward to the Minister’s response on those issues.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for this debate and I declare my interests as laid out in the register, particularly as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
The potential for public services to use information technology to provide opportunities to improve lives and empower people is great but the reality is that, here in the UK, this is grinding to a halt. We started well but now we have moved into the slow lane. There is now a focus on measurement, cost efficiency and the model of new public service management—on digitising the back office and self-service—and not on how to improve lives and deal with long-held social ills and lack of opportunities for people to reach their potential.
A Deloitte report in 2015 might shed light as to why. It is clear that those leading in the public sector do not really understand the digital world—they see it as a way of doing what we do now but just via a different platform. Some 89% of leaders in the public sector say that they see digital as a way of cost-cutting and not transformation, and 25% said they do not even have the skills to execute the limited plans now being undertaken.
IT is here for the public sector to take advantage of, yet the lack of a design-led and innovation culture, knowledge, governance rules, legislation and digital leadership for doing so is now sadly missing for the next step of a digitally led facilitating and networking public service. For our public sector to transform, we need to address the following. We need leadership at both political and managerial level, building a network of people with the skills, knowledge and understanding to guide the new world, not a governance model of regulation that is concrete and suited to Victorian ideas of government built on siloed pillars. But we also need to build a network for citizens who can support each other and empower each other to understand the risks and the opportunities that technology brings, not a top-down paternal approach that is so yesterday. Data should be seen as for the citizen and by the citizen. Look at Estonia, which is changing the power between state and citizen. The reason why a lot of people do not understand is because citizens are seen as passive and not holding power, but they could be empowered. A new HR strategy is needed to look at leaders who are design-led—networkers and co-producers, not technical experts—and who know the offers of IT transformation that are real, as well as the ones to be avoided. For this to happen we need a clear path—a direction to go forward with. That is vital if we are to transform people’s lives.
I also thank my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox for introducing this very topical debate. I declare an interest as patron of Citizens Online, a national charity set up to tackle issues of digital exclusion. Its focus has been supporting the public, many of whom are elderly, to develop digital skills, while helping partners to improve service delivery.
I noted in the brief of techUK that, while businesses are increasing their digital awareness, 38% of SMEs still lack basic digital skills. It is also alarming that one in 10 adults in this country has never used the internet, and many more are missing out on the opportunities the digital world offers, whether through lack of connectivity—we have heard a lot about that today—digital skills or motivation. Although the digital world has been inexorably marching forward over the last 20 years, providing ever more efficient services to businesses and the public through the internet, only now is there a new revolution about to occur. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, that just as the Industrial Revolution transformed the nature of manual work, artificial intelligence—AI—is set to dramatically change the nature of white-collar work and the service industry. I am talking about chatbots replacing call centres, credit decision officers being replaced—even accountants, lawyers and truck drivers. A confluence of change means that AI has reached the flashover point—computer power, availability of huge volumes of data and the fact that digital channels for interacting with businesses and citizens are now preferable.
Time precludes me from speaking about data privacy; we shall have plenty of time to do that on the data protection Bill. The AI revolution will happen in years, not decades. Time is of the essence. The very global nature of business and the internet means there is scope for any country to become specialist and dominant in this sphere, with all the associated export benefits, as well as maintaining its own interests, both economically and from a security point of view. The United Kingdom cannot afford to be complacent in believing that its superior education system will be enough to provide a front-row seat. A proactive campaign is essential to raise digital understanding and for the United Kingdom to lead from the front. This is necessary at all levels, enabling business to leverage the opportunity and become more competitive on a global playing field. Just as Estonia is a world leader in digital skills, we need to ensure that the United Kingdom is at the forefront of the AI revolution, as it was in the Industrial Revolution.
My Lords, I also commend my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox for securing this debate but, beyond that, for continuing to champion the digital and tech agenda as she does with such alacrity and passion. We have heard many fascinating speeches and insights this afternoon, so I will keep my comments brief and to two areas. The first is digital’s contribution to our economy and our global competitiveness. To coin a once popular phrase, if we are to win the global race, delivering the pipeline of digital skills and digital understanding is a necessary condition of success.
There are lots of positive signs. Tech City UK’s recent Tech Nation report found that in 2016 UK digital tech investment reached £6.8 billion—higher than any other European country. However, we need to do more if we want to reap the benefits of moving to a fully digital, tech-savvy economy. For example, according to research from O2, 745,000 additional workers with digital skills are needed to meet rising demand from employers over the period 2013-17. I am interested to hear from the Minister whether we are on track.
What more needs to be done in policy, particularly, as my noble friend Lord Baker mentioned, on education? One example is coding and software development. Coadec—the Coalition for a Digital Economy—has identified key areas. One concern is mathematics and a lack of students taking further maths qualifications—a necessary precursor for developer training. Indeed, data show that for the proportion of students studying any maths after 16 years old, England is in the 0% to 10% category, yet countries as diverse as Taiwan, Russia and Japan are in the 95% to 100% category.
The second area that I want to consider is something that the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, has spoken about—that this challenge does not merely concern new and exciting digital factors but is also about whether our entire population can participate in the life of the nation. We need digital skills to participate, but we also need the understanding to equip us to deal with the rapidly changing technological landscape. I am delighted to be participating in the House of Lords Artificial Intelligence Committee. As my noble friend Lord St John mentioned, this area is evolving rapidly, enhancing diverse areas from healthcare to finance. But AI is also making us subject to decisions made by algorithms without fully understanding how they work and how AI may affect humanity.
Coadec suggests making access to digital education free for all adults just as we have done with adult literacy, with good results. I could not agree more. We must capitalise on all opportunities for global Britain, particularly in the light of Brexit, but we must also realise that improving digital understanding at all levels is an opportunity to increase participation in our national life. Winning the global race means ensuring that everyone can take part.
My Lords, I may be the 30th speaker to congratulate my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox on introducing this debate with a fantastic speech. It is no less heartfelt for being the 30th, but I will be brief. I welcome the debate for three reasons. First, the emphasis on digital understanding is very refreshing. We have had debates about digital skills before, but the need to look at the some of the wider issues we face is brought out by this whole concept of digital understanding.
Secondly, I believe that this House is well placed to explore some of the wider issues. As this debate is demonstrating, Members of this House can bring the whole range of expertise to bear, illuminating the constitutional, ethical and social consequences of the digital revolution. My third reason for welcoming this debate is that it offers a chance, at least briefly, to commend the Government for their digital strategy, which was published last March.
I make three comments arising from the strategy. The first is the obvious one relating to the issue of digital understanding before us in this debate. The Government’s digital strategy is rightly focused on areas where practical progress can be made—for example, in infrastructure skills training or start-up growth opportunities. These are obviously crucial, but do the Government see the need to give a lead in the examination of the wider issues that have come out in this debate? Will they, for example, lead the debate on some of the public policy and regulatory issues ahead, on questions of privacy around big data, on concerns about censorship and freedom of expression around the internet, or on the profound ethical issues raised by AI and the social issues around digital exclusion?
My second question about the digital strategy is more specific—about digital skills—and is one I have raised before in this House. The one certainty about digital technology is continuing change, and the digital skills required are not something to be left to be learned at school. They require access to lifelong learning opportunities for everyone. We all need opportunities to reskill and retool throughout our working lives. Are the Government giving sufficient priority to lifelong learning?
My final point is that the digital revolution is obviously a global megatrend. It has the capacity to offer major opportunities to change lives for the better, to generate economic growth and to improve national well-being, but as this debate demonstrates, there are many wider policy issues which require examination and discussion. Given the many other huge policy challenges the Government are grappling with, can the Minister assure us that our digital future is being given the priority it so clearly deserves?
My Lords, may I be the 31st speaker to congratulate, quite justifiably, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, on initiating this debate and on the way she introduced it? This has been a really important debate and of course it has stimulated terrific contributions from all sides of the House. I declare the interests in the register in relation to ombudsman services, Queen Mary University of London, the AI Select Committee and the all-party AI group, all of which seem to have coalesced in this debate, which is a very strange experience.
There have been some very powerful and well informed speeches today on skills, on infrastructure and on inclusion. I am not going to go over that ground: it was extremely knowledgeable and I agree with a huge amount of what has been said, particularly on the state of our infrastructure. I recommend that the Minister take his holidays in Estonia in future, rather than with the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart: that might be a sensible solution.
I was going to deal with the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, later, but if he talks to the Government Digital Service about blockchain technologies, he might find that the technology in the Verify software will move into blockchain and therefore there will be no need for identity cards. I am very happy to give him a little instruction later.
I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, that we need to look at the broader issues relating to digital understanding. Indeed, doteveryone has a very interesting agenda, bringing to our attention that we cannot simply compartmentalise some of these issues—that is why we have had such an interesting debate today. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, reminded us about the pace of change and the fact that we are in a new world, with digital technologies opening up new opportunities around prediction, machine learning, the internet of things and the use of algorithms. We need to take action, as the noble Baroness urged, on digital understanding. It impacts on our lives and affects the choices we make as citizens, and the decisions that are made about us and for us by businesses and government bodies, particularly in ways that affect us financially.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, made an extremely important point about the impact of immersion in the screen world. We need to understand the impact that is having on us.
Of course, there are also very strong positives, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, reminded us, as did the noble Lord, Lord Patel, in terms of healthcare. We must ensure as we experience the “fourth industrial revolution” that we know who has power over us and what values are in play when that power is exercised, including in terms of social media and fake news, as the noble Lord, Lord Black, reminded us. Of course, that includes us as parliamentarians and public servants, as my noble friends Lord Kirkwood and Lord Scriven reminded us. It is vital for the proper functioning of our society and, as the Government declare in the context of their statement of intent on the new data protection Bill, for the maintenance of public trust.
The Government’s digital strategy touches somewhat on the issue of digital capability but we need to go much further. There are three crucial elements I will briefly highlight in this context. The first is the need to understand the power of big data and what is known as data capitalism. I think the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, would refer to it as “Big Brother syndrome”. What is being collected, when, what is it being used for—as the noble Lord, Lord Mair, said—how reliable is it and who is it being shared with? How long is it retained and when can it be expunged? What is the impact on those who are not of an age of majority? Many of us, having worked on the Digital Economy Bill and about to work on the new data protection Bill, will not have a readily available answer. I am sure the Minister will enlighten us.
We need to be able to look beneath the outer layer of the tech giants, as many noble Lords today have reminded us, to see what the consequences are of signing up to their standard terms. What redress do we have for misuse or breach of cybersecurity or identity theft? What data are they collecting and sharing? I believe very firmly, as my party does, in the need for a digital Bill of Rights so that people’s power over their own information is protected.
Secondly, we need to understand the impact—sometimes beneficial but also sometimes prejudicial—of AI, machine learning and the algorithms employed on the big data that are collected. The noble Lord, Lord Rees, reminded us about chatbots, a growing feature of our lives: semi-autonomous interactive computer programs that mimic conversation with people using artificial intelligence.
On algorithms, I recommend Cathy O’Neil’s recent book Weapons of Math Destruction as autumn reading. The potential for bias in algorithms, for instance, is a great concern. How do we know in future when a mortgage, grant or insurance policy is refused that there is no bias in the system? I have argued on a number of occasions for ethics advisory boards when those algorithms are employed in the corporate sector. There must be readily understood standards of accountability, and with these go explainability and transparency, remediability, responsibility and verifiability. A whole raft of different areas needs addressing. The concept of accountability, and with it responsibility and remediability, in particular, means that our complaints and dispute resolution systems must be fit for purpose. That means being readily accessible and understood. If ombudsman schemes are to continue to be effective in improving business practice and in tackling consumer detriment, their role and capabilities must change. These schemes must understand and engage with fairness in an emerging digital world.
Finally, there is the need for young people starting in higher and further education to have the tools to understand the challenges of the future and the skills they will need. We have had very important contributions on the secondary sector. What skills will be in demand in the future? The Royal Society in its Machine Learning report makes a strong case for cross-disciplinary skills. Other skills include cross-cultural competency, novel and adaptive thinking and social intelligence. We need new, active programmes to develop these skills. To be able to make career choices, young people need to have much better information, at the start of their working lives, about the growth prospects for different sectors. We are going to need skills in creativity, data usage and innovation, but we may well not need quite so much in the way of analytical skills in the future because that may be done for us. In the face of this, young people need to be able to make informed choices about the type of jobs which will be available. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, made that point.
It is vital that we treat AI as a tool, not as a technology that controls us, and the greatest priority of all is the need to ensure public understanding. Public awareness of AI and machine learning is extremely low, even if what it delivers is well recognised. We then have to go through the question of what kind of values we want to instil in our new technology. The noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Lady O’Neill, raised this point. We cannot be cyber romantics—an extremely good phrase in the circumstances; we need to establish what the noble Baroness aptly called a “digital civilisation”. We do not yet have consensus on that, but I hope that as we work on, develop and debate the Government’s digital charter we will be groping our way towards some kind of understanding of what the future world should look like.
My Lords, in her excellent speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, called herself a “dotcom dinosaur”. I beg to differ. I think she was suggesting that her time had passed and that she was a fading force in the scene. That is simply not true: she is a star. We all value the contributions she has made and continues to make in this area and long may she continue. In particular, her willingness to acknowledge the dark side of the digital world, such as poor employment conditions, cybercrime, cyberbullying, fake news and identity theft—I welcome the fact that that was also picked up by the former Minister—was very refreshing and gave a very good start to this important debate. If digital is now something we are, not something we do, she is right to suggest that we parliamentarians have a duty, as the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, said, to understand this better and to do something about the problems that we perceive.
The theme which has come through most strongly this afternoon is that digitalisation has brought us both good and bad. As the noble Lord, Lord Rees, said, we have got information, convenience and entertainment but we also have sources of crime and loss of privacy. The price we pay for what is often called a “free” service—though it is certainly not that—is that we let companies, the Government and others learn all there is to learn about us. We have no control over who owns the data about us, no idea where they are kept and how they are used but, on the other hand, this flow of personal data leads to products and services that respond more quickly and precisely to our needs and can help give better value and improve productivity. That is why the noble Baroness may be right: as we live more of our lives online there is no doubt that we simply must improve our digital understanding.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and other noble Lords were right to warn us of the category error of confusing digital skills with digital understanding. However, it would be wrong if the Minister does not pick up in his response the problem of the need for basic skills to be properly funded and introduced across the country. The importance of infrastructure was so wonderfully explained by the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, and the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy. I was going to deal with some issues to do with technical training and skills, but time has cut into that.
Two points have not had enough attention. The first is the need to make the UK a safe and secure digital economy. Ensuring safety and security is a role for government and it is important that we understand how this happens and what will work. The UK needs to aim to make itself the safest place for people to go online. Young people must be supported to develop digital resilience to navigate the online world safely. As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, there is a huge amount of catching up to do in this area under the Department for Education. There is good practice, but it is not nearly sufficiently well bedded.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, talked about data ethics and the noble Lord, Lord Mair, touched on this in relation to the data—which underpin all parts of the UK’s ever-digitising economy—that need to be looked at much more carefully in order to get the most out of this revolution. There is another side to this, which has also been raised. A data-driven economy and its licence to innovate will work only if there is public confidence in which data are used and the ethical decision-making employed in using them. As has been noted, that is something which we will return to when we get on to the data protection Bill.
This has been an extremely good debate; one of the best that I have witnessed and been involved in in your Lordships’ House. It will serve as a taster for the Bill as it comes forward. I hope the Minister will be able to explain where we are on that and when we are likely to see a draft, because it would be quite interesting to see what it contains.
It has been said, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, was right to remind us, that we still have many issues around some of the points that are coming up here. We need to look at the powers which the Bill may contain to give people the right to ask for material on the net to be deleted; the power it may explicitly give to hold or withhold consent to our data being used; the power to protect our online identity by extending definitions of personal data and our right to contest decisions that are made about us by algorithms—a point that came up in some of the later contributions.
This has been a very interesting debate. I take from it that improved digital understanding will help us to benefit more from the good and make us less of a victim of the bad. At the end of her remarks, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, suggested—and others have picked up on this—that a digital charter might help with the process of improving digital understanding. As we sit here, around us are the effigies—or perhaps I should say the avatars—of those barons who were involved in the original Magna Carta. They wish us well.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness and everyone who has contributed to the debate. I have 10 minutes and about 50 minutes’ worth of material, so I will speak fast and hope I will be able to answer some questions.
This is obviously an extremely important subject, as demonstrated by the contributions around the House. I have certainly enjoyed the debate. As everyone has said, there are good things and bad things about our digital world, but the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. The noble Lord, Lord Sugar, expressed it more succinctly: “Get over it”, he said. We will have to cope and I will try to explain how we will.
We have three overarching goals for digital technology. First, we want the country to continue to be what it is today—a world-leading digital economy and the best place in the world to innovate with technology and to start and grow a digital business. Secondly, we want all the benefits of digital to be enjoyed by everyone, rather than be the exclusive preserve of tech professionals. Thirdly, we are committed to making the UK the safest place in the world for users to be online. I will come to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, is right to highlight the importance of awareness and understanding in accomplishing these goals, but we need the skills to be in that position. I do not have time to outline them, but we are making enormous efforts to develop and enhance these digital skills. If I have time, I will come to some of the educational areas that we are looking at. If not, I will certainly write to everyone who has asked a question which I have not managed to get to.
Thanks to these efforts, we are in a position of relative strength on digital skills internationally. However, that is just one part of the story. Increasingly, people need digital skills in every aspect of their lives: shopping, doing their taxes and getting the best healthcare. So we are taking action on every category of digital skills: basic skills, the general skills needed in most jobs, and advanced skills for specialist roles such as cybersecurity. I will not go through those now, because it is important to focus on what the noble Baroness outlined in her very good opening speech.
The technology promises bountiful opportunities and rewards, but it comes with challenges and threats. These threats are to our security, privacy, emotional well-being, mental health and safety—especially the safety of children. Society’s norms, rules and institutions must all evolve so that technological progress delivers a better world for everyone. That is the underlying thinking behind the digital charter that the UK Government will introduce. It will set out a framework for how businesses—including the huge digital corporations mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens—individuals and wider society should act in the digital world. This is absolutely not just a task for the Government. Over the coming months we will work with businesses, academics, charities and the wider public to build consensus around what this framework should be.
An important part of that work will be the publication of the internet safety strategy Green Paper. This will ask for views on a range of options to counter internet harms. We talked a lot about that in the progress of the Digital Economy Bill last year. Through the strategy, we want to agree the balance of responsibilities shared by technology companies, teachers, parents and the Government in keeping people safe online.
I turn to the difficult issue of social media. The Digital Economy Act requires the establishment of a code of practice, to be issued and reviewed if necessary by the Secretary of State. This will offer guidance to providers of social media platforms on action it may be appropriate to take against users of the platform who engage in intimidating or insulting behaviour. We expect online industries to ensure that they have relevant safeguards and robust processes in place and to act promptly when abuse is reported. The data protection Bill will give individuals more control over their data. We are working also towards an international consensus, which is so important in this area.
I return to the concept of digital understanding. The Government have put forward the idea of establishing a data use and ethics body, which will I believe address some of the examples given by the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin. This will establish a sound ethical framework for understanding how data can and should be used. It will address both the needs of the present and the challenges emerging on the horizon as data use becomes ever more sophisticated. Importantly, it will ensure that the public have confidence that their data are being handled properly, that businesses have the assurance that they are handling data with integrity, and that regulators and Parliament are equipped to identify and guard against abuse. We will be very interested in people’s views, and the body will consult widely. Since we mentioned it in a debate in this House in July, we have been working with stakeholders such as the Nuffield Foundation, the Royal Society and the British Academy to identify the roles and functions. So the Government are working with the public, tech companies, education and training providers, and charities such as that of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, Doteveryone, on this vital agenda.
I will quickly come to as many of the questions as I can. The noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, asked if digital was a priority of this Government. I confirm that it is a priority—which is reflected in the fact that my department has now been renamed the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The noble Baronesses, Lady Lane-Fox, Lady O’Neill and Lady Kidron, asked whether we would make a clear articulation of values online. We absolutely agree with the importance of articulating those, which of course is why we are going to introduce a new digital charter and set out a framework, as I mentioned. Our starting point is that the delicate and careful limits that we have honed over generations for life offline should apply online, too.
It is true that I went to inspect my noble friend Lord Cathcart’s broadband, which I would describe as slow but sure. However, being serious, this is difficult. We are on track to reach 95% superfast broadband. For the 5%, there are problems, but I assure my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, that, in her words, there has been real government support for this. More than £24 million of central government funding has been allocated to better broadband for Norfolk. That has been matched by local council funding, which means that more than 173,000 additional homes and businesses are able to access superfast broadband in Norfolk. I accept that, for people who do not have it, this is a real problem—I have experienced it myself. But I also commend what the right reverend Prelate said about WiSpire fixed wireless providers. They would be particularly appropriate in Norfolk—which, as we know, is very flat.
I realise there are trees in Norfolk. I would have mentioned to my noble friend Lord Cathcart the work we have done on bringing forward 5G, but as he does not have a mobile telephone, there is no point.
The noble Lords, Lord Maxton and Lord Baker, talked about joined-up government activities on education. I cannot go into all the details now—I would be happy to write to the noble Lord—but the DfE is working closely with the DCMS in improving communication and coherence in digital skills. As an example of that, we have DfE officials in the Box today. We were the first country to mandate computing sciences in both primary and secondary schools. As I have said, I will write further to the noble Lord on our whole education provision.
The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, will remember that in the Digital Economy Act we took some time to talk about data in government departments and how they could be used, subject to relevant safeguards. We are making progress with that, but it is very difficult and we have to be careful with the safeguards. None the less, we have made a lot of progress. ID cards are a separate subject, which is probably out of date: it is much easier to microchip the noble Lord than to give him an ID card.
I am coming to the end of my time; I am sorry that I did not have the full amount of time. Lastly, I must add that we are giving attention to lifelong learning, which we take very seriously. As announced in the 2017 Budget, we are spending £40 million to deal with it. My time is now up. I will of course reply to all noble Lords who I did not even begin to answer. I wish I had had more time. These are vital issues, and the Government are working hard to address them, but we need to do so in partnership with academia, business, charities and other stakeholders. I also look forward to many more contributions from your Lordships on this vital subject.
My Lords, you would have thought that, as a director of Twitter, I would be expert in reducing complicated content to just 140 characters—but even I am flummoxed by how to concertina such an erudite and interesting debate into the few short seconds that I have left. I feel as if I had opened a huge dam—or perhaps that is not the right expression. Anyway, a huge amount has come out and a huge amount of emotion has been expressed. I hope we can continue the conversation. We need to have it, and more importantly, the country needs us to have it. I hope that Sir Alan—or rather, the noble Lord, Lord Sugar—will forgive me: I was on my device, but I was making notes, because I too have learned a lot this afternoon. I thank noble Lords for their contributions.
House adjourned at 4.33 pm.