Thursday 7 September 2017
British Overseas Territories: Transport and Infrastructure
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty's Government what additional resources they plan to commit to address the transport and major infrastructure needs of Saint Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha and the Falkland Islands.
My Lords, as we meet today to consider matters about overseas territories in the south Atlantic, we must offer our thoughts, prayers and concerns to the troubled people of other overseas territories, in the Caribbean, following the onslaught of Hurricane Irma.
Transport and infrastructure in these south Atlantic islands are interrelated; both are both hugely relevant to the islands’ economies. Saints are hardworking people. The resident population is just over 4,000. Few people are unemployed but 300 Saints work in the Falkland Islands and 600 on Ascension Island—indeed, they are 70% of its residents. It is not unreasonable for these people to want to return home from time to time. From Easter Sunday this year, the regular Brize Norton-Falklands flight ceased to call at Ascension. There has been no call since, the refuelling stop now being in Cape Verde. Why? We are advised that the heavy RAF planes cannot now land on the crumbling Wideawake Airfield runway. Why no earlier maintenance? Even at this stage, should there not be urgency in attending to the runway, rather than waiting until 2020? One wonders what else on the island is in urgent need of repair. How is it expected that Saints working in the Falklands may return home?
Surely emergency arrangements should have been put in place for the returning Saints, for those who have engaged in important environmental and conservation work and for those interested in holidaying on Ascension, particularly for two-island visits—indeed, to keep Ascension Island going. The economy, which is reliant on visitors, is, like the runway, crumbling. The owners of the only hotel are likely to close their doors for good. Following the seven-month gap, a monthly air link is promised to start on 11 November. This will not assist tourism; how many visitors can spend a month away? Nor will it help anyone with business there who cannot afford a month there. I wonder how helpful a monthly service will be to the working Saints.
Ascension Island has been promoted by this Government as a blue belt of marine protection. Surely this promotion is incompatible with the present totally inadequate transport links. What are the Government’s plans for Ascension’s transport and infrastructure? Indeed, what are the plans for the future of the island?
Turning to St Helena, while awaiting the air link, the RMS “St Helena” struggled on beset by breakdowns, but the air link is now but 37 days away. This weekly service will provide, if every aircraft seat of the 76 available is filled, only 80% of the full capacity of berths on the RMS. That will be the position once the air and ship luxury of this next few months ends with the expected withdrawal of the RMS next February. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that the RMS will serve at least until the completion of Voyage 268 at Cape Town on 11 February 2018. Furthermore, is the Minister aware of whether, at a later stage, the carriage capacity of the aircraft can be increased? Is any resolution in sight on wind shear so that larger aircraft may be used? The air service now on offer will not add to the tourist potential of St Helena and the enrichment of the economy. How can it? The airport was supposed to be the gateway to a tourism-led economy, but the creation of that base in terms of infrastructure has barely started. There is much more to do.
Although the island’s newest hotel in Jamestown, supported by the St Helena Government, is due to open in October, all other hotel developments proposed by private interests are stalled. Why? I believe it is due to a lack of confidence in the sufficiency of transport links and the related confidence of lenders to invest in the absence of any guarantee that these links will be robust.
St Helena also needs to enhance other infrastructure, such as its sewerage arrangements, road network, further work in rockfall abatement and the inadequate broadband connections. There are proposals for a south Atlantic cable, which could have a St Helena link. Are this Government disposed to support that? The cost of internet connection in St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha is very expensive, perhaps the most expensive in the world. For Tristan da Cunha—the remotest settlement on earth, where a cable connection is unlikely —it is still vital for education, health, good governance and economic development that there is good access. How is the Minister able to assist to improve these links?
Resources to improve infrastructure can come from several budget lines. Clearly, DfID has an important role, with its enhanced budget and the requirement to attend as a first call to the overseas territories’ needs. Under the 11th European Development Fund, however, these islands have been granted aid of €21.5 million for the period 2014-20. Are these funds guaranteed in European Union departure times? Will replacements be made in this type of funding? I am aware that some of the NGOs are looking to obtain funding from the UK National Lottery for environmental and heritage work. Does the Minister support that aim?
In the last week of our time here in July, I attended, alongside other noble Lords, a roadshow put on by the Commonwealth Development Corporation, or the CDC as it is known. I picked up and studied its annual report and strategic framework to understand its role in development. I was interested to learn that the organisation engages in Africa and south Asia. Sixty-seven countries are listed as to where they may invest: 49 on the African continent—all of mainland Africa—as well as Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe. The St Helena group are not so listed. Surely they can only be part of the African continent; I cannot see them being in any other. The Central Intelligence Agency has helpfully produced a list of 198 countries in the world, showing their gross domestic product per capita. St Helena’s GDP is $7,800, less than half the world average. Of the 49 African countries that the CDC is prepared to consider supporting, 13 have a greater GDP per capita than the St Helena group of islands. I put it to the Minister that the CDC, with its quadrupled financial resources and considerable expertise, is well-placed to be part of the answer to enhancing the infrastructure of St Helena.
The investment in St Helena Airport was a very important achievement, but it is only part of the solution to translate the economy to one based on sympathetic tourism. The infrastructure investment must follow now. This Government, either directly or through their agencies, have the resources, skill and experience to translate these dependent economies to self-sustaining ones. Will the Minister commit today that the Government have the will to do it?
The correspondence I have received prior to this debate, both from St Helena and the many friends of the islands in the UK—and elsewhere—shows the timeliness of the debate. I thank those who wrote for their knowledge and interest. I also thank all noble Lords for taking part and look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Shutt—I call him my noble friend because although he is in a different party, he is usually on the same side—on securing the debate. I also associate myself with his remarks about the problems facing our overseas territories in the Caribbean and our friends in independent Caribbean countries. The hurricane seems one of the worst they have faced and I hope we will see the Department for International Development and the UK Government doing as much as they can to help. It would be helpful if the Minister could mention that in his reply.
I want to deal with two issues: the sad saga of St Helena and how it has been dealt with by the British Government, and Ascension Island. I do not want to go over the terrible saga of the airport again; I am afraid DfID does not come out of it well. Getting information, with the help of the Minister—I am not blaming the noble Lord, Lord Bates, because he has been helpful—out of DfID has been like drawing hen’s teeth. It has been very difficult. The answers to my parliamentary Questions are like the famous bikini: what they conceal is much more interesting than what they reveal. I do not think it is very clever of civil servants to see how well they cannot answer questions. If I were a civil servant, I would go out of my way to try to help Parliament by answering questions properly.
There needs to be some inquiry into why so much money was spent and wasted in building the airport without proper planning and foresight. We now know that aircraft can go in and out—it is clear that they can. That could have happened from day one if it had been planned properly. There needs to be some inquiry and I hope the Public Accounts Committee in the other place might have a further look at it.
One of the problems is the question of who makes the decisions in relation to St Helena and other overseas territories. It is split between DfID, the FCO, which appoints the governor, the governor herself and the island’s council. I pay tribute to the council: to Lawson Henry and to Derek Thomas, whom I know very well and have sat with on important Commonwealth Parliamentary Association committees. He is a very good man, as is Lawson. They are elected, and yet they are not given a proper place in decision-making in St Helena. The truth is that the man who pays the piper—and usually it is a man; sorry, ladies—calls the tune. In this case, DfID is paying the piper. Some 52% of St Helena’s expenditure comes from a DfID budget. We know that although the fiction is that the governor makes a decision, it is not the governor who ultimately does so but the United Kingdom Government, DfID, in particular.
That is why this plan was devised in the first place: to get away from that and make the island more independent and self-sustaining through tourism, not just from the United Kingdom but from France. A lot of French people want to go to see the reminiscences of Napoleon’s visit to the island. There is great potential there for environmental tourism and a range of other things. That is why the development must go ahead. I hope the Minister will give some indication of what he is doing to support the companies that have already shown an interest and to help the individuals, some of whom have put in their own money and have had no compensation or indication of help. I keep getting a brochure about some scheme; I hope the Minister will not refer to that again because it is not really the kind of help they need. They need more sustained and better help.
I am hearing about problems with the new wharf at Rupert’s. Again, the islanders, who know, suggested that it should be in Jamestown, but DfID, which thinks it knows better, insisted that it should be at Rupert’s Wharf. Now we have problems of potential rockfall. It is about time DfID paid more attention to what the islanders—the people on the ground—say, because they know what is going on. I hope the Minister will give an indication of whether DfID has agreed the funding and business case for the next three years. The islanders need to know that. They need some planning and some foresight. I hope that business case has been agreed.
I must watch my time because I want to come on to Ascension Island. I have some information that I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, for. The airport has been closed—or so we are told—to everyone except the Americans. How is it that the Americans can use this broken runway? Do they have some kind of aircraft that we do not? Do they have special aeroplanes that can land on broken runways? The islanders there have a suspicion that we are heading for another Diego Garcia and that the United Kingdom will hand over Ascension to the Americans. They already run Wideawake Airfield. I have no doubt that they are very keen to take it over for their own purposes. With the current President we do not know we do not know what the hell will happen there. Why is it that the Americans can land there and others cannot?
We have a big interest there, not just cable and wireless. GCHQ has a base there. It has potential for environmental tourism as well. I hope the Minister will spell out—I think my noble friend Lord Shutt covered this—exactly what will happen regarding access for aircraft flying in and out, and how frequently we will have them into St Helena and then perhaps up to Ascension. I hope the Minister will give an absolute assurance that there is no intention to withdraw RMS “St Helena” until it is absolutely clear—100% sure—that there are viable alternatives.
My time is up. In conclusion, there is a feeling abroad, in this Committee and in the Chamber down the road, that the Government are so preoccupied with Brexit, with so much attention put into it, that they are not dealing with some of the other important issues, such as St Helena or Ascension. I hope the Minister will give us some indication that he, at least, is concerned about the kind of issues that my noble friend Lord Shutt, I and others will raise today.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Shutt on tabling this Question for Short Debate, which raises an issue that is in some ways seen as slightly niche. I told somebody this morning that I would be speaking about transport and infrastructure in Ascension, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha. They had lost the will to live before I got as far as saying, “And the Falkland Islands”. There has, perhaps, not been sufficient discussion, debate and oversight of what is going on for our overseas territories.
I am taking us slightly further down into the south Atlantic. We have heard so far predominantly about Ascension and St Helena—not so much about Tristan da Cunha. I will talk a little more about the Falkland Islands, partly because last year, under the auspices of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, I had the opportunity of travelling to the Falkland Islands and therefore stopping in Ascension and coming down. That was quite an efficient although slow route, but it is one that operated twice a week and is clearly important to UK forces. We still have the three services in the Falkland Islands; the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Army are still based in the islands so we need mechanisms to get our service men and women there effectively. That is a question that possibly needs to go back to the MoD, but I have a few other questions I want to raise regarding our service men and women.
There was an established route that worked for the military and for the civilian residents of the Falkland Islands. If they wanted to come to the UK, they could book on to the twice-weekly Voyager flights. That is quite different from the number of services we are seeing at the moment, which might be available going through St Helena or to Ascension using different routes. I seem to recall that when the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, raised this issue in the Chamber during a Question, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, suggested that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, should be sent on the first commercial flight in and out of St Helena. I think the noble Lord might be there for some time because clearly the flights are not frequent.
That may be why he suggested it.
The noble Lord might say that but I could not possibly comment. However, there is a question about the frequency of the flights and their utility for islanders, whether from Ascension, St Helena or the Falkland Islands.
While I was drafting my notes for today’s debate, I wanted to investigate a little further into Ascension. I looked at the island details online and found a web link for “Flights”. I clicked on it and a message stated, “The server is temporarily unable to service your request due to maintenance downtime or capacity problems. Please try again later”. It looks like a dead web page but clearly it also links to the fact that the flights are not functioning either. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has suggested that we are looking at 2020 before the Ascension airfield will be back in service. That is neither a short nor a temporary break in service; it is a very long time. One question I should like to put to the Minister is: what assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the additional costs to HM Armed Forces of the rerouting via Cape Verde?
In answer to a Question for Written Answer tabled on 17 July in the House of Commons, Mark Lancaster stated that it was too early to provide details of the costs related to the rerouting of the South Atlantic Airbridge covering items such as fuel, handling and landing fees, but that they would be tracked and recorded. Is there an answer to that question, because we are looking at at least three years of this rerouting? What is the cost and might it be better to talk to the United States and ask whether the United Kingdom could not assist in the renovation of what is supposed to be called the Wideawake Airfield, although it seems more like fast asleep. As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, pointed out, it seems closed to everyone apart from the Americans, and that in itself raises questions. Perhaps the USAF uses smaller planes than the Voyagers flying on behalf of the RAF, but why is that happening? There are questions about maintenance and the costs of dealing with the airfield in Ascension.
There remains a wider set of questions about the role that the United Kingdom feels it can play in association with the British Overseas Territories. For months and years we have been hearing that in the light of Brexit, we are looking to go global. Surely the first places we should be thinking about are our territories overseas whose links to the European Union will be damaged by Brexit. The islands have benefited from British membership of the European Union, including EDF funding. So far, under the current 2014-2020 EU budget, some €21.5 million has been assigned for the Atlantic territories. Has that all been spent, and if not, will it be part of the divorce budget that the United Kingdom is facing? If it is, should we not be thinking about making sure that it is spent in useful ways?
Finally, I should like to touch on infrastructure in the Falklands. It is not only a question of the runway on Ascension, it is also about the roads in the Falklands, in particular the road between Port Stanley and Mount Pleasant airfield. Who is affected by that? In part it is the resident islanders, but it also affects our service men and women. RAF staff may be sent on six-month deployments. The roads are dreadful. They are not necessarily made, and at the moment they are being upgraded at the rate of, I believe, a mile and a half a year, which is all that can be afforded. Will Her Majesty’s Government look at ways of improving the infrastructure, given that it affects not just the islanders but, crucially, our service men and women, who go on long deployments and would benefit enormously from safer and quicker road transport? It would enable them to get to Stanley and spend some of their time not just at the airport.
There is a whole set of infrastructure questions that could be dealt with. A final one concerns IT. Are there mechanisms for looking at, again, communications? Cheaper and more effective IT infrastructure would be most beneficial not just to islanders but to our service men and women.
My Lords, for people living in remote places, communications are vital. One can only imagine what it must feel like to lose existing air services and links such as Ascension, and anticipated new links such as the airport in St Helena. I have had the pleasure of visiting Ascension to watch the green turtles, before going on to the Falkland Islands, where I have also made a few visits, but I have not yet had the privilege of going to St Helena. I have, however, a long-standing interest and involvement in the overseas territories, going back to the days when they were known as dependent territories. This debate is about helping the overseas territories to remain independent.
The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has given us a wonderful opportunity to focus on the issues affecting these three tiny territories and has provided a very detailed factual background, for which we must all thank him. This is indeed a timely debate. It is very important to raise awareness of the problems and to seek and suggest solutions, and I look forward to hearing from my noble friend Lord Bates on the Government’s thinking and answers to some of the questions raised. Given that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has covered the ground so thoroughly, as indeed have others, I wish only to underline and emphasise certain points.
The airport saga in St Helena has indeed been a saga, but the main assurance needed by the people of St Helena—the Saints—is a guarantee for a transitional period, once the airport finally opens in October, and that the RMS “St Helena” will remain as a back-up service for as long as possible. I understand that the aeroplanes to be used at the new airport have a capacity for some 70 people, which is not very great. RMS “St Helena” can transport some 156 passengers, I believe. Given that the high season for tourism is approaching and hotels and other tourist-related activities need some certainty, it is important that such a guarantee is given urgently. Therefore I hope my noble friend the Minister can give us a positive answer on this subject.
My understanding was that there are no specific issues relating to the Falklands in the Falklands themselves other than issues of access via Ascension, as has been said. As for the issues in Ascension and St Helena, the sooner action is taken the better, since we all know that infrastructure costs always rise with time, and there is the added issue of European Union funding, which will no longer be available in the future. I hope that such resources as are required to meet these issues will not be affected by the current tragedy and needs of those overseas territories in the Caribbean—I would mention Anguilla in particular. I join those who have sent their good wishes to the people who are suffering in those places.
I hope very much that, as a result of this debate, we will get some answers to provide reassurance for the peoples of St Helena, Ascension and the Falklands.
My Lords, I, too, wish to associate myself with the remarks about Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, which is clearly on an unprecedented scale. In my capacity as president of the Caribbean Council, I know that many of the people whom we are associated with will be affected by it. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Shutt on this debate. I know he has a long-standing interest and has had the advantage of going to St Helena, which not all of us have.
My involvement in this goes back about 10 years. I freely admit that it was only in my capacity as chair of the International Development Committee that it was brought to my attention that the future of St Helena was believed to depend on the development of an airport, which at that time was not at all a firm commitment but a consideration. The process of getting to the final commitment was a pretty convoluted and stop/start one, in any case.
What I remember from that time is this fundamental point, which relates to what has been said about Ascension, too: the survivability of these communities depends on having a functioning economy, albeit maybe a subsidised one. There is a clear worry that these territories will become the 21st century’s St Kilda and that the lack of support, investment and infrastructure will be such that it will be declared impossible to support the communities and they will be abandoned. I would like the Minister to assure me that the Government have a real commitment to ensuring that these communities can and should survive. I do not want to be in any way contentious in saying this but, partly because of the conflict, the Falkland Islands have had a lot of attention and a huge amount of investment, whereas these other communities have, frankly, been almost forgotten. It is time that was redressed.
The point made to me when I was being lobbied, apart from that fundamental one that it was important for the viability, economic development and opportunity of the St Helena community, was that the ship—which was, incidentally, built in Aberdeen—was reaching the end of its life. Rather than build another ship, it was therefore said that it would be better to put the money towards an airport, which is the modern means of communication, although I appreciate the worry about having no shipping. I then heard the objections or issues from various sources, the first of which was the cost of developing an airport, the difficult terrain being very remote and there being no heavy lifting equipment on the island. It all had to be brought in and subsequently removed, which is a problem now, and that consideration made it more expensive.
The second concern was about the environment, both the physical impact on the appearance of the island and the disruption to wildlife—I have heard about other consequences—on the grounds that the ecosystem was part of the island’s attraction, and so should not be damaged or destroyed. There were people actually saying, “Let’s not have the airport”, but the argument was won and it was clear that the overwhelming majority of the community wanted it.
What I never heard about, not once, was the possibility of wind shear. I heard about it only last year, as I think most of us did, apparently when flying into the airport started to be thought about. I have read that there were test flights and calibration measures. I was told that the islanders could tell just by watching the birds that there was a wind issue. There is a question of whether the process of reorganising the landscape to build the airport had any effect on aggravating the wind shear. I have no idea—it would be interesting to know about that—but what is now clear is that the wind shear exists. It also now appears that there is a partial resolution, which my noble friend Lord Shutt referred to, as it is a problem from one way at the airport but not the other. You can land more safely with a tail wind—I have just seen the video—but the problem is that when you land, you keep on going and at the end, there is the sea. It is therefore unsuitable for heavier planes to do that because the runway is not long enough.
That brings me to the question of what to do now. For example, is there a possibility of an extension to the runway, because it is slightly shorter than was originally envisaged? Would that help? Could any other measures be put in place that might affect the wind shear? Again, I do not have the technical knowledge to know whether that is possible. The point about Ascension then comes into play, because it gives you alternatives. Apart from direct flights from Angola, South Africa or Namibia, it would also perhaps be possible, if the runway in Ascension were in use, to take larger planes into Ascension and then have a more regular link service for smaller planes into St Helena, which might deliver volume if the demand developed.
We should step back and recognise that the hope for this was to create a significant opportunity for the island to sustain and grow its economy as a unique tourist destination. It would obviously not be for the mass market; it would be both expensive and special, but it requires reliability of the service, and the knowledge that you can get on and off the island at reasonable intervals. It would require decent accommodation and facilities to enable people, if they are to be there for a week or 10 days, to benefit from what the island has to offer and have reasonable comfort.
The point being made about the developers and the CDC is to get to find a reasonable solution to guarantee an amount of flying capacity on a regular basis. That should give confidence for developers to provide the tourism facilities that would benefit from this. The CDC should reasonably regard that as within its remit.
When I was chairman of the International Development Committee, people asked why we were spending money in this small community, when there is much greater need in Africa and elsewhere. I understand that argument. As a committee, we decided to leave it alone, because we did not want to be seen to be standing in the way of the needs of the St Helenians. The reality is that it is the Government’s responsibility. It qualifies for ODA, so maybe it should legitimately be DfID’s, but it should be done nevertheless and the Government should have a commitment. There should be an assurance that there is a real future, a solution that can be sustained and the ability to support the economy’s development, in the terms that the local community hoped for when the decision to go ahead with the airport was taken.
My Lords, I also associate myself with the comments regarding Hurricane Irma. No one could not be moved by the remarks on the radio this morning about the devastation. I know the Government have made a Statement in the other place, and it would be helpful if the Minister could give us a brief update on that situation. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for initiating this debate. I cannot believe it is over three years since the first one I was involved in, which he initiated. We had the report about the building of the airport then. It was scheduled for completion in 2016. It was clear that the airport would provide opportunities for growth and jobs but we knew then that, without proper investment, the cost of failure would be high.
Only by developing sustainable enterprise will St Helena be weaned off the budget support of around £25 million to £30 million a year. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, has said the airport business case depended not on rapid development but slow growth over 25 years, going from fewer than 1,000 tourists to 30,000 tourists by 2014. Of course that was based on five flights a week, not the initial weekly flight service that is now planned.
Most noble Lords in the debate have mentioned key infrastructure issues. There is value in cross-learning and development between islands. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, has said that the Joint Ministerial Council is an obvious vehicle for putting that into practice, as is the Overseas Territories Consultative Committee. Can the Minister indicate how that sharing of best practice has been delivered by those committees?
Noble Lords have mentioned the CDC, and I make another plug for it. It is vital for the five-year plan that has just been published that we in Parliament debate the priorities in that plan, and I hope the Minister can tell us that the Government will make time for a proper debate. It is, as noble Lords have said, concerning that DfID did not foresee and address the impact of difficult wind conditions on landing commercial aircraft safely sooner. However, as my noble friend mentioned, I am grateful to the Minister for keeping noble Lords informed of the remedial action taken by the department. In particular, I am grateful that he responded to my questions about the need for clear contingency plans combined with a realistic timetable to remove uncertainty. That includes provision of sea routes while we are assessing the success of the airport.
My noble friend Lord Foulkes also mentioned compensation for residents who have expanded their business, where the uncertainty has affected their investment. The department says that there have not been any claims, but I would appreciate it if the Minister could give us a bit more news on the role of the business support initiative and how it has responded to the needs of those who have invested. We now have confirmation that we will have a scheduled commercial air service. The agreement was signed in July, and I am grateful to the Minister for advising me that regulatory approvals from the South African CAA have been given, that we had a successful proving flight last week and that the service will start on 14 October. That is fantastic news, but it does not alleviate the need for contingency planning, ensuring greater certainty and protecting the investments that have been made.
Another announcement was of a weekly charter service to Ascension, which has now been put into question by the US authorities, who own and are responsible under the Bahamas agreement for managing that airfield, the Wideawake Airfield, which does not seem so wide awake at the moment. Again, I come back to contingency planning. Why was there not more advance notice of this? Why is there not much more effective contingency planning? Why is there so much uncertainty, which is creating stress in those communities’ lives?
I hope that the Minister will respond to the key issue, which is what assistance the Government will provide to residents of St Helena employed in supporting the British military presence in the Falklands. Are we any further forward from the response that the MoD is working to find a solution? We have had three months of that, and it is vital that we hear from the Government today.
The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, said that the response to support people employed in Ascension is for the employing organisations. He acknowledged, however, the considerable logistical challenges created by the current air access issues and said that the Government were “urgently considering” how best they could support those on Ascension with this. That was three months ago, so I should like to hear from the Minister: is he in a position to tell us what support can be given today?
My Lords, I first join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for securing this debate on transport and major infrastructure needs of St Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha and the Falkland Islands. He and several noble Lords began their remarks—correctly—by expressing their thoughts and prayers for all the people in the Caribbean, including those on Anguilla, Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands who are dealing with the effects of Hurricane Irma. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, referenced the Statement made by Sir Alan Duncan in another place earlier. There will be a COBRA meeting starting at 2 pm today; further announcements will be made following that. The Secretary of State, Priti Patel, has announced that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary “Mounts Bay” is already in the Caribbean and should reach the affected territories today. The ship carries Royal Marines and Army engineers and her primary task is the protection of the overseas territories. She is loaded with a range of equipment, vehicles, tents, stores and hydraulic vehicles, specifically intended to respond to disasters such as this. As I say, we are aware that further action will be needed and it will be forthcoming, as an expression of not only our humanitarian concern but, of course, our legal obligation to those territories.
I will deal with as many of the points that have been raised as possible. My approach will probably be one that is fairly positive. It is in my nature—I am afraid that my blood group is B positive and I therefore live in that positive world. I recall that the St Helena air service is indelibly printed upon my ministerial memory at DfID: I was appointed in the morning and, in the afternoon, I faced my first Question on the issue from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. I am grateful that noble Lords have acknowledged that we have tried to work together through this. We have had several meetings, which I have been grateful to noble Lords for attending. We have tried to keep noble Lords informed throughout the very difficult progress and as we wrestled to find a solution for this. We met with a quality assurance panel and with the team and have been sharing that information. I hope very much that the conversation we have been able to have with those who are interested in the future of these overseas territories can continue, even beyond the start of the service.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, has already referred to the commercial air service, by SA Airlink, which is expected to start on 14 October. These are exciting times for St Helena. This service will end centuries of isolation for the island. My noble friend Lady Hooper referred to the fact that communications are vital to these remote communities. This connection will be extremely important. For those who are looking for our commitment to these islands, I think the fact that we spend £285 million of British taxpayers’ money on the airport is a real commitment. One thing that we are absolutely sure of is that we want to ensure that not only the Saints but the British taxpayers see that there is good value for money from that very significant investment in the air service. The service will end centuries of isolation for the island which, until recently, had been accessible only by sea.
Some noble Lords commented on the parity between the existing link with St Helena and the number of places that are available. The air service will have an initial capacity of 76, which will increase to 87 in early 2018. Reference has been made to the capacity on RMS “St Helena”, but it takes five days to get to the island. Airlink will get there in six and a half hours. The costs are less: proposed ticket prices start at £804, making it a real, affordable opportunity for people to take advantage of. The service will be extended every month, providing a much quicker connection to St Helena for Saints on Ascension Island. DfID has supported the St Helena Government throughout the process, from designing and building the airport to the commercial negotiations necessary to have reached this stage. We have also supported a substantial programme of technical work to better understand wind conditions on the island. That work has been key to securing significant interest from commercial airlines to operate the service.
St Helena is a beautiful island. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to the ambition for an increase in tourism over the long term, which justified the initial investment for up to 30,000 visitors. We know that will be a significant ask and that significant investment in infrastructure will be required, but we are confident that once people discover St Helena’s amazing scenery, attractive walks, varied bird and marine life—including whale sharks—and Napoleonic and other historical heritage, those numbers will increase.
Enterprise St Helena, the island’s economic development agency, is working on a number of fronts to enhance the tourism product, including assistance for start-ups and expanding businesses, skills development, and improving standards of accommodation, catering and transport services. With the UK’s investment in the airport and the air services starting, we are working with the St Helena Government and Enterprise St Helena to attract further international private sector investment in tourism infrastructure alongside the growth in the airport.
Will the Minister remind us about the frequency of the air service?
Initially, the frequency of the air service will be once a week. We have said that number. We expect that will increase, but it has to be on the basis of demand. The agreement we have is to support the service and make it viable. That is part of our confidence that once people see the attraction of the island, the service will continue. We are looking at other ways we can talk about the business support operation, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, told me not to mention, but the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked me to mention. I am happy to reference that operation, through which we can offer support to the organisations and business that have had difficulties as a result of the delays.
In addition to investment in the airport, we have provided £16.5 million over three and a half years to improve the island’s infrastructure, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, was keen to know about. That investment has enabled the St Helena Government to make improvements to areas such as social housing, education, health and utilities. The investment has improved the lives of the people of St Helena. For example, the level of healthcare available on the island has increased following the refurbishment of the hospital. There have also been improvements to power generation and water distribution.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and several others, referred to the internet and to the CDC. We had a very interesting discussion at that point and I know those discussions are ongoing. Sometimes it is not necessarily that we do not want to answer questions, but these matters are very complicated. I assure noble Lords that those discussions and ideas are being taken very seriously. We funded the feasibility programme for the submarine internet connection to the islands because we see it as complementary to our tourism ambitions. We have also continued our support to the core budget of the St Helena Government, which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, mentioned as the man paying the piper; in this case, it was Priti Patel, a female, paying the piper. That commitment continues and we have agreed a further project of up to £4.8 million over the next three years to help support tourism and economic development.
We have invested nearly £13 million in Tristan da Cunha’s infrastructure. That has kept the harbour open, allowing access to the island and allowing the lobster catch, which is very important to the island’s economy, to be landed. In addition, the newly built health facility opens its doors in June 2017. This replaced the failing hospital with a facility which offers an improved level of medical care. The UK Government have received positive feedback from the islanders and clinicians.
Turning to Ascension, the rerouting of the South Atlantic Airbridge has clearly had an impact on the lives of people on the island and on operations with the organisations based there. However, the runway remains open should there be a need for medical evacuation and the MoD military flights are still running. I recognise the particular interest which the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has through her Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme experience. Let me just add, on maintenance of the runway, that it is the US Government who own the runway on Ascension and contract and patch repairs. It is they who have asked that, until further notice be given, the RAF should cease from operating the heavier Voyager aircraft, due to the deterioration of the runway that has occurred during that time.
The Minister is reading a speech rather than answering the debate. Will he answer the question as to why the Americans are still able to fly in, as they were before, but we are not?
This is a debate we are having here. I thought it would be helpful for noble Lords to hear what HMG are actually doing in these areas. Discussions with the United States Government are of course ongoing under the terms of the agreement about how this will operate. I am very happy to write to and update noble Lords with the outcome of those.
The majority of those on Ascension are from St Helena. The new once-a-month air service to St Helena, with onward travel to South Africa, will drastically improve travel times, allowing Saints to return home to visit their families and friends, as the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, requested. The Government are clear about the importance of continued access to Ascension before and during the planned runway repairs. My noble friend Lord Ahmad spoke to the Ascension councillors on 7 July to hear their views, and the FCO is in close contact with the Ascension Government, employing organisations and representatives of the people of the island. Ascension continues to have a role in delivering a number of strategic priorities for the UK and our allies. The UK Government are committed to working with the Ascension representatives to find a sustainable operating model that works.
Travel to and from the UK to the Falkland Islands has been maintained by rerouting the South Atlantic Airbridge through Cape Verde, for which Her Majesty’s Government are very grateful. The responsibility for infrastructure investment on the Falkland Islands is a devolved matter to the Falkland Islands’ Government, which I know the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, is interested in.
I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for calling this debate and to all who have contributed. It shows the depth of support in this House for the people of the overseas territories, to whom we have a special responsibility. I hope the House can continue to support the work of the UK Government in discharging this responsibility to some of the most remote and challenging places in the world, and that the investment which we have placed already and the communication which we have already invested within this House can continue into the future for the benefit of the Saints and other organisations elsewhere.
The first debate has now concluded and the Committee will stand adjourned until 2 pm.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to bring regular reports before Parliament on the progress of the negotiations for Brexit.
My Lords, one of the features of my last visit to New York was a snippet of New York traditional humour. I was very impressed that the definition of a real optimist was a 95 year-old man who got married for the eighth time and bought a new house near a school. The Government need even more optimism than that to get through this nightmare of Brexit. The less congenial part of this, for me, is having to sound curmudgeonly to a very distinguished Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. We thank her for coming today and we look forward to her responses, but it is always a problem to deal with someone who has such an excellent reputation as a very hard-working Minister. So I apologise in advance for everything I say if the Minister—unsurprisingly— disagrees a little with it.
The Government do not realise how impossibly complicated this process will be. That is why the reports now need to accelerate and be much stronger and more regular in the light of all those coming to speak in this debate. I believe that the two representatives of the EU Committee are the noble Lords, Lord Jay and Lord Teverson, and I hope they will quite rightly ask the Government to promise that the EU Committee is kept well informed about what goes on. We hope that the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, will soon be back as the chairman.
The Government have lost their original mandate from the decision of 23 June 2016 because of the 8 June election this year. They cannot proceed legitimately—possibly even legally, particularly if we had a written constitution, which of course we do not have. The Bill being debated today in the Commons and on Monday grants those sinister Henry VIII powers on secondary legislation, which will not be accepted by Parliament. A minority Government, which is what they are, dependent on a peculiar DUP grouping of Protestant hard-liners in Belfast, cannot possibly enforce their decisions against the true democratic majority increasingly revolted—as are the public—by this daft plan to leave the European Union. The prospect of leaving is alarming mainly the representatives of UK industry, farming and commerce, and particularly major exporters to the EU. The idea that this will not grow from now on—it will keep coming back to haunt the Government—is daft, if that is what some Ministers still think.
The immigration issues are even more painful. All the way through, it was extraordinary that the Government, unlike other EU member states, for some bizarre reason avoided using the existing powers in the treaty of Rome—now the TFEU—to limit immigration from other EU countries if they wanted to. Guess who was the Home Office Minister in charge at the time: a lady called Theresa May—so it is even more strange.
On 7 March this year I asked the Home Office Minister in the Lords why the powers, mostly under Clause 45, were not invoked, which would have softened the irrational hostility to migrants in this country. She did not answer but said she could not be responsible for what had happened in the past. So much for Tory government continuity on main policy areas. They failed repeatedly to use the treaty three-month rule, and then in a panic reverted to Cameron’s unachievable tens of thousands formula, which, incredibly, is still being repeated by a lady called Theresa May.
I will quickly refer to Article 50 again. In response to Questions in the Lords on 19 December last year, the Minister used the word “instructed”, a word that is illicit or perhaps even illegal—it would be if we had a written constitution—as the referendum was an advisory opinion only. Of course, anti-EU Tories said they would accept the result and act on it. However, the then Government were elected with a net small majority but only by just under a quarter of the qualified voting public, which excluded the youngest voters—hardly a democratic basis in law. In the same exchanges, the peculiar invocation of a red, white and blue Brexit by Mrs May was described as red for the millions of dead in two world wars followed by six decades of peace thanks to the EU; white for the cowardly slide in this country into irrational xenophobia; and blue, representing just the Tory interest, mostly older people—a party which now has a membership base less than one-fifth of that of the main opposition party in the Commons.
The emotional background is even more striking. With Ministers floundering and dreading the growing public revulsion at this monumental disaster looming over this country, we recall the effects of what the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, described as the continuing “cancer” literally threatening to destroy the Tory party in the future. Ministers have ignored the sensible voices and opted to listen only to the dark voices of reaction, prejudice and ignorance, as well as a few genuine believers in a mystical and old-fashioned independence, which no longer exists in reality for any country, even the United States.
For once—and it surprised me at the time—the Prime Minister expressed it with accuracy in her article of 8 January this year in, of all places, the Sunday Telegraph, saying that people,
“did not simply vote to withdraw from the European Union; they voted to change the way our country works … forever”,
and were disgruntled by economic and social setbacks in their lives. Apart from immigration, this is probably the main reason why people did vote—to give the Government a kick, which is what they tend to do in referendums if they are feeling fed up with lots of things, as people are in this country now. That is fair enough but why should the Government take it out on our membership of the most successful trading system in the world?
In the brilliant four-page “Why we are still angry” special in the New European newspaper on 10 to 16 February this year, the second of the four whys reminded us that,
“every one of the reasons given to persuade Leavers to vote for Brexit is a lie”.
Let us note the voices of good old British common sense, of people who are beginning to wake up to what is happening in this country with this daft policy of Brexit, such as John Cole, a citizen from Shipley, West Yorkshire, who stated in the Guardian in January this year that the referendum,
“was only ever advisory. The government had no obligation to act on the outcome, especially when it was so close. Any golf club or musical society requires a super-majority for significant constitutional change … the government has grossly overinterpreted the result”.
He must have been thinking about the fateful utterance of the infamous words after the previous election that “Brexit means Brexit” by an inexperienced and maladroit Prime Minister in the heat of the moment.
There are now very difficult questions facing the Government and they have to be faced up to from now on, with regular reports to Parliament, both the Lords and the Commons. We know that in both places the majority against Brexit is growing. In the Lords I believe the majority against leaving Europe is very large indeed, among all groups and parties.
How do we avoid hard Brexit? As the negotiations have now started at last, some eight weeks later than if there had been no election, the earlier strong fears that Theresa May would be happy to opt for a hard Brexit—a no deal at all kind of outcome—have happily receded somewhat, only because of the gradual evolution of some common sense among some Ministers. I will avoid naming names. It does not apply to all who are involved in this exercise.
As early as 21 February this year, in the debate on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill in the Lords, the highly respected Cross-Bench Peer, the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, said that there was “no question” of just ignoring the referendum. However, he rejected absolutely the concept of the hard exit, or Brexit, which had not been mandated. He added,
“there is no way that I am going to vote for triggering a negotiation designed to achieve a hard Brexit, which is likely to be so damaging for our country”,—[Official Report, 21/2/17; col. 222.]
for reasons he went on to explain in some detail. He also went on to attack the approach as a cavalier disregard of the 48% of voters, then and now a figure that is growing, who are against this daft policy.
On 6 July I argued that the original Brexit mandate had lapsed long since the 8 June outcome. Indeed, the results of that election are striking. Even Sky News in its analysis said that there was a built-in majority against Brexit in the overall result of all the electors voting for the political groups. Of course, we had new younger voters coming in for the first time as well, who signalled a very significant change. The Tories are now down to just above the Member numbers for the Liberal Democrat party with their absurd and childish psychodrama which we have all been locked into. When I met senior officials and MPs in Berlin recently, they asked me one of those psychological questions: “Why are they being so childish?”. I was unable to reply so I said that I would refer the question to Ministers here and ask them. I did so, but I never got an answer from the then Lords Minister about it.
In the Financial Times on 18 July, the writer Gideon Rachman put into chilling context that when people say that the vote which occurred on 23 June must be followed they mean,
“the Leavers’ view of democracy is similar to that of a third-world dictator—‘one man, one vote, one time’”.
Thus it can never be revisited. That of course was not the case in the 1975 referendum, which was reversed by the second in 2016. There is now less than a 50/50 chance of a comprehensive agreement being reached by March 2019. My noble friend Lord Kerr wrote on 26 January this year that, “The UK might withdraw its Article 50 notice, as it legally could”. Meanwhile the rest of the EU is paying close attention to the neurotic antics here which shame the reputation of UK politics. All the 27 sovereign member states, who incidentally are proud of the links between their own national sovereignty and the collective sovereignty afforded by EU membership, see more and more people here beginning to back away from the Brexit disaster movie, filmed in black and white.
If anti-Brexit is thwarting the will of the people, by 2019 some 2 million people from the Brexit electorate will have passed away and have been replaced by a similar number of voters aged 18-plus, on top of the 1 million extra young voters in the election held in June this year. Hence we conclude that staying in the single market and the customs union is a legitimate compromise. The Opposition should repeat this all the time and I do hope that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others will persuade Jeremy Corbyn to sound a little more enthusiastic about matters European, not only to please members of the Labour Party but others in this country, and indeed many trade union members who are increasingly keen on Europe.
The inexorably looming and increasingly obvious solution is to study the sage words of one of our most brilliant authors, Ian McEwan. Early in June this year he said,
“I am a denialist. Almost a year on, I am still shaking my head in disbelief. I know it’s not helpful, but I don’t accept this near mystical, emotionally charged decision”.
That view will be echoed by others as we see what happens from now on. I wait with interest to hear the response of the Minister.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for initiating this debate. I do not think that any of his speech touched on the subject of the debate, which is about information being given to the House. What we are facing, of course, are very different traditions in Brussels and London. When I held office in the European Parliament, I had a good system for getting documents read: stamp “Confidential” on the top of them and they would be read by every office in the European Parliament within a day.
We have to look at the dissemination of information because this is incredibly complex. I want to stick to the subject of the debate. I do not think that there is any central body in Britain that is actually running what I would called a Brexit website. There are such things in Brussels; in fact, Brussels is overflowing with information. Every day I get two briefings from an excellent outfit called Politico, which tells you everything that is going on. It is thorough. It tells you every bit of news that you need to know, including the fact that today is the birthday of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, which I got from that website. Also, at midday I got a thing about Barnier’s statement on Ireland. In other words, the information flow is better co-ordinated, and the Government need to look at how they can co-ordinate ours better.
The Government need to have a contact system for the Lords. When the Minister was at the FCO, she had regular meetings of interested groups. I am always reluctant to put forward solutions that work elsewhere, because generally in this place the reaction is, “British democracy is best and Brussels is rubbish”. I will just mention that the system being used in Brussels, which is working very well, is that the Parliament has a rapporteur—that is aside from M Barnier: it has Guy Verhofstadt. He has what is called a contact group. Every week he meets with a group of parliamentarians representing virtually all of Parliament, although, demonstrating the skill for which it is famous, the Conservative group has managed not to be a member of that particular group—the only group in Parliament that has achieved this. There are two Labour members on it, incidentally. The group meets and Verhofstadt brings it up to date.
The purpose of the contact group, because there are 750 MEPs, is for them to then go away to their political groups and committees and brief them. It is a two-stage process and it happens every week. The second stage is open to anyone who wants to follow what is going on. I would like the Minister to look at that, because making Statements to the House, where you get the usual people jumping up and down with no order and no organisation, is not going to do what we want. We need a structured briefing system for this House. In other words, we need the Minister to look at the system she had when she was a Minister in the FCO, and adapt it to make it work in this way.
My final point is that there is a tendency to rubbish the European Parliament. We should not fall for that. It is following these negotiations very carefully. Ultimately, it has a veto. If it feels that it is not even being considered or taken seriously, it is not going to be as friendly as it might be if it felt that we were fully engaging with it. I have never heard the Minister associated with this negativity, so this is not a criticism, but I ask her to tell her friends in Government to pay proper respect to the elected European Parliament, which contains elected representatives of this country, who, frankly, the Government need to keep on side.
My Lords, as day follows day, I get increasingly astonished that people who I know to be intelligent, grown-up politicians accept the result and narrow majority in an advisory referendum on a flawed franchise, with lies and disinformation on the leave side, as an instruction to Parliament and the Government in a parliamentary democracy. They get up and say it on the radio and on television. Do they really believe it? Are they really serious or are they just part of this “Brexit means Brexit” determination, because it is good from a party-political point of view? Even some people on my own side are saying it, which is even more disappointing.
Looking at what is ahead of us, the withdrawal Bill is starting in the House of Commons only today—it has another day next week—and it is the first Bill we are going to consider. Perhaps in her reply, the Minister can tell us how many other Bills there are going to be. We are told there will be a number of them. Forget about the statutory instruments in the meantime; how many other Bills are we going to consider, all of which we have to get done well before 29 March 2019?
I asked the House of Lords Library to look at how many sittings we had when we passed the Single European Act and Maastricht. I remember it well, as does the noble Lord, Lord Dykes. I was in the House of Commons at the time and on the Opposition Front Bench, opposing it. We had 11 sittings on the Single European Act, six of which went well beyond the time of the House, and on Maastricht we had 41 sittings, 18 of which went well beyond that. I understand that they have not even decided yet in the House of Commons whether to have a timetable Motion, but to think that the Government are going to get the first Bill through by—when is it supposed to be?—early 2018 is really astonishing. Perhaps the Minister can tell us from her wisdom how she thinks that is to be done. I really find it astonishing that we are to face this plethora of legislation and information in such a short time.
I also find deeply disappointing the way in which the House of Lords, and the European Union Select Committee in particular, is being treated. On the day I read that my noble friend Lord Jay had expressed concern that David Davis could not come to report to the European Union Select Committee, that same David Davis was appearing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in a comedy show with Alex Salmond. I am told that when my noble friend raised it in the House earlier today, she did not get a reply. Perhaps the Minister can give us an indication as to why the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is more important to the Secretary of State than the European Union Select Committee, given what he is paid, and supposed, to do.
I see that we have a huge task ahead of us. It will be very difficult, even with the kind of suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe. It really is clutching at straws to think that any such structure can deal with the plethora—the huge volume or flood—of legislation and other matters that we have to consider. There is no way that it will be considered by Parliament, by the European Parliament, by parliaments overseas and finally, in what we are told will be a meaningful vote, by both Houses of this Parliament. That is my only hope. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, I thought that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, was excellent. It was right on the subject. At the end of this process, if we even achieve getting there—I hope that we do not—we may have a meaningful vote. I hope that that vote will give the British people, and I am right behind the Liberal Democrats on this, the opportunity to consider whether they want the deal that comes out of this—if there is one, which I doubt there will be—or whether they would prefer, as I would, to stay and get the benefits of the European Union.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, particularly with that endorsement of the Liberal Democrats, which I have never heard him make previously. I probably never will again.
There is a mixture of former MPs and MEPs here, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said. When I first became a Member of the European Parliament, some time ago now, I was wet behind the ears as a parliamentarian. I remember an instance of the plenary session, which I think was in Brussels, when a commissioner failed to turn up at the beginning of a debate which he had been called to. My Dutch colleague said, “This is utterly outrageous”. He said that in the lower chamber of Parliament in Holland, if ever a Minister did not arrive in time for a debate, it would effectively be a matter of resignation because of the predominance of parliament. In the European Parliament, I never came across that happening again because of the respect that there was for the Parliament and the parliamentary process. Since I have been privileged to be a Member of this House, for 11 years, I have not found that to be the case in Westminster generally. In my four minutes, some of my criticism will be as much of Parliament as of the Government during this process.
The Government have form on listening to Parliament. I still cannot understand why they decided to fight the Article 50 issue through the courts to the Supreme Court. It wasted time. It was obvious that Parliament was not going to stand in the way of Article 50—partly because of where the Labour Party stood at the time—and it made it look as if the Government were trying to take back control from the British Parliament, when the referendum was about so much else. That court case should not have been necessary because Parliament, particularly the House of Commons, should have insisted. It could have voted to resolve that issue but decided not to. That is a weakness in our parliamentary system.
As a member of the EU Committee, I particularly want to raise—I expect that the noble Lord, Lord Jay, will as well—the fact that it was our duty as parliamentarians and as members of the committee, having been appointed by the whole House, to bring the Government to account. That was one of our core roles. Because of that, the committee decided that it would come back during August to hear about the latest round of negotiations from the Secretary of State. I was astounded by the letter that came back from him telling us why he was not doing that. One reason that he gave was because of the parliamentary recess. Yet Parliament—this House, that committee that had been given that responsibility—was willing and eager to come back to keep that dialogue going. The Government are not in recess during August. Ministers do not give up their duties and go on holiday. The process of government does not stop. Yes, Parliament does, but we were prepared to come back and the Government decided not to.
The arrangements that we have in this House and in the Commons are not good enough for what we need for this great change to the constitution of this country. I have said this in EU Committee sittings when the Secretary of State has been there: the more that Government involve Parliament, the more credibility they will have and, I suspect, the more wisdom they will have in their negotiation as they find their way to the end of this process. By keeping things to themselves, by not consulting, by getting into groupthink, the outcome for them, as well as the country, will be far from good.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for initiating this debate and for introducing it so robustly. I am also grateful to the Government for arranging a debate on the implications of Brexit for Ireland, north and south, earlier this week and for scheduling the debate next week on the EU position papers.
As acting chair of your Lordships’ EU Committee, I will speak today about accountability on Brexit to committees of the House. The points that I shall make reflect a letter that I sent yesterday on behalf of the EU Committee to David Davis, with a copy to the Minister. Parliamentary committees, including the EU Committee, are an essential part of parliamentary scrutiny. They meet regularly, they work across party lines, they have experienced support and they build up substantial knowledge of and expertise on their subject matter. Certainly in the Lords, they certainly look at things objectively. If Parliament is to scrutinise effectively something as complex and important as the Brexit negotiations—as it must—committee engagement is essential.
As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, the EU Committee has found the Secretary of State’s response to its requests for reports back after each round of the negotiations to be disappointing and unlikely to lead, if I may say so, to the deep and special relationship that we all want to establish with him. He has offered to appear quarterly, which is helpful as far as it goes, but the negotiations are fast-moving and regular reports back really are needed. We understand that the Secretary of State has a heavily charged schedule—in Edinburgh and elsewhere—and may not be able to attend as often as the committee would like, but the committee finds it hard to understand his apparent reluctance to allow his Ministers to appear before it. From my own experience, that would surely be the natural thing to do. That is why I wrote to Mr Davis yesterday, on behalf of the committee, welcoming his commitment to appear before us at least quarterly and formally inviting the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay—for whom we all have very great respect—to appear before us after the intervening negotiating rounds. I hope that she will be able to respond positively to the committee’s invitation in her reply to today’s debate.
The Brexit negotiations are the most important and complex negotiations that any British Government have carried out since the Second World War. Proper parliamentary accountability for and scrutiny of them is an essential part of our constitutional arrangements—even if unwritten. It really does matter.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for asking the Question and I also thank my noble friend the Minister for being here in person to answer. It is typical of her, in fact, and we should not be surprised at that. From her previous roles, we have come to know her willingness to listen to our concerns. Some Members may think that the Question asked is irrelevant in the light of the Secretary of State for Brexit’s letter to Members of 9 August promising a Statement after each stage of the negotiations.
However, the Question really is wider than post-event Statements. Many of us were concerned that so many position papers were issued when Parliament was not sitting. While the granting of a debate upon those papers is welcome, I suspect it will be just that: a debate. What we should have is the opportunity to question the relevant Ministers on the detail of each paper—proper parliamentary scrutiny. I therefore put to my noble friend that, before further papers are issued, consideration should be given to having a procedure similar to that which takes place after the making of an Oral Statement, when Ministers can be questioned on that particular topic and that topic alone.
We were told that negotiations would be prejudiced if the Government were put in the position of disclosing its hand. But we have position papers from both sides, press conferences, statements from Cabinet Ministers—to say nothing of leaks—and pending legislation on immigration, fishing and other subjects, setting out what we are going to do immediately post our leaving. How does that not disclose our hand? What is there left to negotiate if we have already published to the world where we are going? My noble friend Lord Balfe has told us about the European Parliament arrangements and I think we could all be rather jealous of those. It seems to me, with the greatest respect, that our Parliament is reduced to the status of a spectator—a noisy one perhaps, but a spectator nevertheless.
The position papers have only increased the need for more parliamentary scrutiny. The papers themselves reveal little, except that we want most, if not all, of what we already have as members of the European Union, save that we just do not want to be members. They are short on how we will achieve this desirable state. We are told by Ministers that imaginative solutions are needed from the European Union. Where is our imagination taking us, I wonder.
The scene is changing, I suggest, if for no other reason than the papers have exposed to the public gaze issues that had no or little serious discussion in the disastrous referendum campaign. I refer not only to the less than frank claims by the leave campaign but to the misjudged campaign to remain. We have seen this over the UK-Irish border—when is a border not a border—a virtual border? The rights of EU citizens have become wrapped up in the ideologues’ loathing of the European Court of Justice; likewise, membership of the single market, the customs union and who knows what else—never mind trying to have your cake and eat it. There must be an increasing number of reasonable people who were on the side of leave, as well as those of us who were on the side of remain, who are beginning to wonder if this game we were induced into playing is really worth the candle.
All this leads me to the conclusion that Parliament, and the House of Commons in particular as the elected representatives of the people, must be given the opportunity of a meaningful vote at the end of the process, if not, on some key issues, before the end. The choice cannot be just that this is the cake we have baked and we must eat it—half-baked or soggy it may be—or do without any cake at all.
My Lords, like other Members, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for tabling this Question for Short Debate and for opening it in such a lively and engaging way. It may have been slightly more hyperbolic and with rather more adjectives than some Members would use, but there was a very clear sense of the passion with which he wanted to make his case.
It is commonplace to say that this is a timely debate. In some ways this week feels the least timely time to have this debate, because after months of famine, when we have had no reporting and there has been no opportunity to scrutinise, we have had a Statement from the Secretary of State finally reporting back on rounds two and three of the negotiations—kindly repeated by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay—and a whole set of position papers. All of a sudden there seems to be a little bit of activity and a debate next week on the position papers. But then we have another recess and finally only in October do we begin to get down to the serious business of scrutinising what is going on.
The referendum was in June last year; it will be more than 15 months since the referendum before Parliament can properly scrutinise what the Government are doing. It will be more than six months since the Prime Minister triggered Article 50. She then held an unnecessary general election. When the election was called, I asked the then Minister of State, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, what the Government had done to work out how much time had been lost for parliamentary engagement on Brexit thanks to the election. Needless to say, there was no answer. I suspect that the Prime Minister had not been thinking about that when she triggered the election.
Come October it will be six months since the other place has had any Select Committees. In July the Labour Party nominated members for various committees. The Conservative Party voted only this week. As of last night, the Brexit committee still had not had its membership confirmed. Six months after the triggering of Article 50 there has been no opportunity for the House of Commons to do any proper scrutiny work in committee. Even if the Secretary of State did not have other activities in Edinburgh—perhaps he was going to see Nicola Sturgeon at the same time; maybe he was doing his duty and talking to the devolved Administrations—a key role in Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, pointed out, is that of committees. Clearly, your Lordships’ House’s EU Select Committee is crucial, but the Commons committees matter as well. They had all begun to work on particular reports before the election; all that work is gone.
The Secretary of State has said he wants to report back as soon as possible after the negotiations have happened and yet, so far, he has reported back only once, despite the options to come during the Recess, as we have heard from my noble friend Lord Teverson and the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme. The Government have suggested that they wanted to update Parliament and there will be ample opportunity for both Houses to debate the key issues arising from Brexit.
The White Paper also said Parliament has a “critical role” to play in the process of leaving the European Union. At times it feels that Her Majesty’s Government, and in particular the Prime Minister, do not believe that Parliament should have a critical role at all—critical either in being important or ever challenging anything the Government say. The role of scrutiny, and of Parliament, is surely to hold the Government to account, to ask questions and to raise issues, in order that we can make the right decisions and help the Government make the right decision. Whatever one thinks about the result of last year’s referendum, it is surely part of giving control back to Parliament that Parliament scrutinises the Government. The idea that, somehow, anybody challenging the Government and wanting to amend legislation is going against the will of the people is surely a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy.
My Lords, we heard from my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon and indeed from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and other noble Lords, in Questions this morning and here this afternoon, of dissatisfaction with the Government’s record of reporting back on negotiations. In that light, our Motion on Tuesday will call on the Government to lay before Parliament a Statement of the strategy and principles which underpin the negotiations on withdrawal, transition and future relationships, accompanied by a plan for the full involvement of the devolved Administrations, together with consultation on consumer, employer and trade union organisations.
It must be clear to everyone who reads the papers that Parliament, business and wider society do not feel they are being listened to. We saw the CBI’s statement this week and the London Chamber of Commerce warning that,
“business confidence has been hugely impacted by uncertainty”.
The telecoms industry is dismayed at being classified as a “low priority” for the negotiations. Those sorts of concerns from outside Parliament are legitimate for us to raise with the Government. Beyond us, there is almost anger from the Welsh Government for their exclusion. There is an absence of any forum for consumer representatives to voice their concerns. All of this points, as the noble Baroness has just said, to a Government who seem unwilling to level with the very people whose futures depend on the specifics of the outcome of the talks.
Indeed, as well as wanting engagement with consumer bodies, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute is concerned that the Government’s hierarchy of priorities may fail to pick up detailed areas where maintaining legislative arrangements in day one of Brexit will not deal with the co-operation between agencies and across networks that currently keeps consumers safe and treated fairly. To raise those sorts of questions is not to question the outcome of the referendum; it is to challenge how the Government are proposing to move us out of the European Union. So it is time for the Government’s “no questions please” approach to stop. Indeed, if I could make one recommendation to the Minister it would be to listen to her noble friend Lord Balfe, because some of his proposals for that dialogue would benefit the whole House.
I also feel that the Government have to stop giving more information to the press than they seem willing to give to us. The leak of the immigration paper may simply be a leak. Harold Wilson said, “You leak, I brief”; it may have been a briefing rather than a leak. Aside from that, we heard from Sky News and the Guardian that Cabinet Ministers, speaking directly to them, seem to accept that the EU will not be able to say in October that sufficient progress has been made in phase one to open talks on the substantive issue of Britain’s future relationship. That may not even happen until Christmas. If that is the case, why not tell Parliament, rather than Sky News and the Guardian, and spell out what this means for a transitional period, as well as for the final agreement, rather than pretend that all is going swimmingly well, in the wonderful definition of optimism?
My plea, to add to that of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for regular reporting to Parliament, is for meaningful reporting to Parliament. There will be the meaningful vote at the end, though just as I think the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said—sorry it may have been the noble Lord, Lord Teverson—if you treat the European Parliament correctly, then it is more likely that it will respect what goes to it. That goes for our Parliament too. We need to be treated with respect so that our meaningful vote at the end is based on the results of good dialogue.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for securing this debate. His exposition of the last year and why he regrets the decision of the British people dominated his speech, but that shows his passion. We understand that. What I want to do, as my respect to Parliament, is to base most of my remarks on the core issue of the Question on the Order Paper. But I will, in doing so, seek to cover many of the issues rightly raised today.
One of those, of course, was from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, who joined in the reminiscing of what might have been if there had not been the result in the referendum. He asked a question specifically about legislation. The Queen’s Speech gave an outline of that. Since then, we have been giving greater detail about which Bills are published, and they are now beginning to be debated not only in the House of Commons, but in this House. I waited for 13 years in Opposition for the Labour Government to tell us what Bills were about to come: answer came there none. We have given more of an answer about how these Bills will develop. It is important—the noble Lord was not asking an improper question—because as we set out White Papers, as we have said we shall, on immigration and trade, those will be a core part of the discussion in this Parliament about how we proceed after we have left the European Union.
Therefore, Parliament will have a scrutiny role and there will be, I am sure, from my colleagues across departments opportunities to participate in meetings, as I shall do, not only when the withdrawal Bill reaches the House, but in advance. For example, next Tuesday I am having a drop-in meeting for all Peers, not only to hear a brief introduction from me about the Bill, but to be able to hear directly from the Bill team. I felt it was essential for this House to hear shortly after the finalisation of Second Reading on Monday evening. That is really core to the way I like to operate and I shall continue to do so. I shall return to some of those very helpful comments made by my noble friend Lord Balfe later.
We have heard today the lively, informed, rightful interest in this House on the progress of the negotiations. We are reminded by many that the clock is ticking. It ticks for both sides. As it goes faster, it is faster for both sides. It is important for the European Union also to recognise that they need to be more “flexible and imaginative”. Those are words from the European Council, not made up by us. David Davis is simply reminding our colleagues across Europe what our joint enterprise is. We have always undertaken that we would wish to provide for the greatest possible transparency that is consistent with maintaining our ability to negotiate successfully. In that, we are guided by the Motion that was agreed by the House of Commons that the process should be undertaken in a way that does not undermine the negotiating position of the Government, but there is still much that we can do. We are doing that and we can learn from the debate today, and others, about how we can do more.
In looking at the issues today, I try to set out what we have done so far to report to Parliament, our plans to continue to update Parliament in the wake of future negotiating rounds, including, of course, our support for invaluable scrutiny by Select Committees. and our written publications. In reporting to Parliament, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has committed to update the House after each round of negotiations. Naturally, I will do so in this House, with the leave of the House, as I did earlier this week. Of course, as noble Lords have pointed out, the dates of the negotiation rounds do not always align well with parliamentary sittings. That is a matter for the House to determine but it is a matter of practical fact and I recognise the difficulties it can raise. Of course, it will occur again as the September round takes place, but we have sought to ensure that Parliament was kept properly informed over the summer. That is why the Secretary of State wrote to all colleagues to give details on the progress made during the second round of negotiations. Noble Lords can be assured that they will have an opportunity to scrutinise the Government on the next round of negotiations when we return in October.
Of course, Statements to Parliament are a powerful method of reporting. I appreciate that they are not the only method, although I note in parenthesis, thinking back to the question asked this morning by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that when we had the Statement on Tuesday, I was astonished that Back-Bench time was not taken up. There was time at least for two, if not three, further questions at the end. That was a little disappointing.
In the European Parliament the position is different. Of course, there is a constitutional relationship with the Commission; it is a unicameral Parliament. As a result, it has a different way of operating. Therefore, when Monsieur Barnier appears before the European Parliament, as he has just twice, he takes no questions. He appears, speaks and goes. Guy Verhofstadt has been nominated the Brexit co-ordinator there. He does report back and has a role in that respect. It is a different hub: Barnier and Verhofstadt. There is the Brexit steering group, which is more or less a self-appointed group and does not represent all the parties there. That is the group to which Monsieur Barnier goes and has some discussions with on a confidential basis and therefore nobody knows what goes on.
Everybody knows what’s going on.
I have to say, I listened with belief to what my noble friend said on that. I am glad that he said it, not me. We are going to maintain our undertaking to serve Parliament as well as we humanly can.
My noble friend Lord Balfe made a point about the problem with information. Everyone wants it but there is a huge amount of it and how do we get it, particularly in the recesses? I do have an answer. My own department arranges that there is information on its website. It is the go-to place for everything that we do on Brexit. I do not want to put my noble friend off but at GOV.UK/dexeu there are 133 announcements, seven position papers, five future partnership papers and two White Papers. Of course, the European Commission site updates its papers.
The advantage of our website is that after each negotiating round we update the papers. As I mentioned on the Floor of the House this week with regard to the citizenship paper, it means that the joint EU-UK position paper—the annexe that has been published, which shows the red/amber/green system—actually shows how that has been advanced at the latest negotiating stage, not only the further agreement that has been reached but where each of the negotiating groups has agreed that it needs to do more. It is not just us, it is the Commission as well, but we are more forward-leaning. For example, on citizens, after the August round a further 20 lines of detail were added. More than half of those are where we are making more of an offer than the European Commission is.
We all accept on this side—and, I think, on all sides—that the people who can best deal with the detail are those on the European Union Select Committee. They have all the background, they are working on it week in, week out. The Minister has still not explained why David Davis refused to appear before our Select Committee when we offered to meet—as we know, Select Committees can meet even when Parliament is not sitting. Why did he refuse to meet us?
My next page turns to Select Committee appearances. The key to explaining the Secretary of State’s position is in the letter he wrote on 9 August to the noble Lord, Lord Jay. I am delighted he has been able to participate here. I want to address his very careful points in a moment, but first I will refer briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, because I do not want to run out of time and the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, was crucial.
In that letter from 9 August, my right honourable friend said that,
“I want to emphasise that I fully recognise the critical role the Committee plays in scrutinising our withdrawal from the European Union. It is for that reason I am clear that, as the Secretary of State who represents the UK in Brussels, I should personally update the Committee on the progress of negotiations.”
He goes on to talk about how. At the meeting of the committee in July, he made it clear that he would consider how best he could do that and balance that duty against the range of other committees. I would say, very carefully of course, that since my department was created, just 15 months ago, Ministers from my department have given evidence to Select Committees, covering a range of EU exit-related inquiries, on no less than 16 occasions. We will not step back.
I address the noble Lord, Lord Jay, because I feel it is vital to do so in my last two minutes. I thank him for the letter he wrote to the Secretary of State, which he kindly copied to me. I have made it clear that my department and I fully support the work of committees in both Houses in fulfilling their scrutiny responsibilities and that we will continue to value the work of the noble Lord’s committee as it conducts its Brexit-related inquiries.
The Secretary of State has given his commitments to update us after each round and will do so with a Statement, as he said. It is no small commitment to update the House after each negotiation round and, no less importantly, to take questions from Members. I want to give all Members of the House the opportunity to scrutinise progress in the negotiations and the Secretary of State has made it clear that he is happy to give evidence to the committee in the autumn.
I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Jay, will appreciate that the complexity of the negotiations—he was head of the Foreign Office so knows about the difficulties of the issue—demands a level of flexibility to ensure that they are conducted successfully, and that rigid committee appearances at fixed intervals may run counter to that. I appreciate there has been some joshing about what my right honourable friend may or may not do. What he does do is properly respect Parliament and scrutiny. I look forward to seeing the noble Lord, Lord Jay, later today when I am sure I will have the opportunity to explain in more detail why the Government are taking that approach.
Before the noble Baroness finishes that part of her speech, can she confirm that she will be prepared to accept the invitation of the Select Committee to come before it for meetings when the Secretary of State is otherwise engaged?
Although I am out of time, I crave the indulgence of the Committee. I would like to discuss the matter further. I have set out the Government’s position and, because of the interventions from noble Lords, I have not been able to cover the issue of papers. I hope that I have at least given the way in which noble Lords can access those papers and that information. It is disappointing not to be able to conclude in a fuller way but I can certainly say that we will have plenty of further opportunities to discuss these matters.
Local Government Elections
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of whether the law relating to local government elections is in need of improvement or clarification.
My Lords, I want to concentrate on the offence of treating, which is a corrupt practice under Section 114 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. Subsection (2) says:
“A person shall be guilty of treating if he corruptly, by himself or by any other person, either before, during or after an election, directly or indirectly gives or provides, or pays wholly or in part the expense of giving or providing, any meat, drink, entertainment or provision to or for any person—(a) for the purpose of corruptly influencing that person or any other person to vote or refrain from voting; or (b) on account of that person or any other person having voted or refrained from voting, or being about to vote or refrain from voting”.
Subsection (3) extends the offence to:
“Every elector or his proxy who corruptly accepts or takes any such meat, drink, entertainment or provision”.
This wording has been passed down from the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883. The last case law appears to be more than 100 years old. My reason for raising this is to suggest that this 19th century law as it stands is antiquated, uncertain and not fit for purpose in the 21st century.
Over half a century ago, when I learned the trade of running election campaigns, treating was taken very seriously. Candidates and agents were firmly instructed to make sure that any food or refreshments—in committee rooms, for example—were strictly for bona fide party workers and a small contribution should be asked for. Candidates were told to be careful about buying rounds in the pub during the campaign. But the practice has now grown of providing free food, including hot dinners, both in walk-in committee rooms and at public meetings addressed by candidates and their supporters before and during elections, notably in places with large numbers of electors of south Asian heritage. My immediate interest comes from activities carried out by two Conservative candidates in Pendle in the county council elections in May this year.
In brief, the events concerned were that four public meetings were held before the formal four-week election period started but after the candidates had been announced in press releases and the local press, on social media and in leaflets distributed in the area. At these meetings speeches were made by the candidates and other persons in support, including councillors and the local MP, urging people to vote for them. A hot dinner was then provided to the people present, free of charge, including curry and rice and soft drinks. In total, at least 1,000 people attended these meetings, most of them electors in the two divisions. Other than a small number of party officials and councillors, all the people present were Asian men. We estimate that the cost of providing the accommodation and meals and associated publicity, including leaflets, would not have been less than £3,000, and possibly rather more.
I made a complaint under Section 114 and provided a dossier of evidence, which the Lancashire police investigated, and I have no complaints about the work they put into that. I quote the conclusion from a letter that the investigating officer kindly sent to me:
“Unfortunately the decision has been taken that the matter will not be prosecuted due to a lack of evidence. It was deemed that the evidential threshold required to present the case to the Crown Prosecution Service for them to consider charges had not been met”.
He goes on to say:
“As I think we alluded to when we first met, this particular offence presents some unusual hurdles in terms of prosecuting”—
noble Lords will probably realise that I knew more about it than the police did at the time—
“and I found myself hitting these hurdles at regular intervals when looking at the matter through evidential eyes. I agree with your initial observation some three months ago, that perhaps this is an area of law that requires some modernisation”.
The Law Commission agrees. In its report Electoral Law: An Interim Report, published in February 2016 and produced together with its Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts, it proposes in Recommendation 11.3:
“The electoral offence of treating should be abolished and the behaviour that it captures should where appropriate be prosecuted as bribery”.
This follows a discussion about a similar situation which was considered by commissioner Richard Mawrey QC in the Tower Hamlets petition. It challenged the election in May 2014 of Lutfur Rahman as mayor of Tower Hamlets. Similar difficulties arose at that time over the offence of treating, described by commissioner Mawrey as,
“surely an obsolescent if not obsolete concept in the modern world”.
The treating part was then dropped. The Electoral Commission in its response to the whole report said:
“We very much welcome these proposals and believe that they will address many of the difficulties with the current law. It is important that the UK and Scottish Governments now agree that the Law Commissions can begin preparing draft legislation to implement these changes”.
Yet the problem remains, and I am not in any way suggesting that it is a problem for just one party. From inquiries I have made around the country in recent years, it is clear that putting on quite large amounts of free food at public events is a common practice across the parties in areas with large numbers of Asian voters. Of course, outside elections this is not unlawful. It is when it is done in connection with the promotion of candidates that it is at the least questionable. They are practices which have been imported into this country from abroad. The fact that it is happening will raise eyebrows in those other parts of the country where such practices would be regarded with horror. Imagine a candidate hiring a village hall and inviting the entire population of the village to a free dinner on the condition that the villagers listen to speeches telling them why they should vote for him or her. They would, I suggest, soon be up before the beak.
The Electoral Commission in its candidates guide states that,
“treating requires a corrupt intent—it does not apply to ordinary hospitality”.
What is meant by ordinary hospitality? Presumably if a neighbour calls on a candidate at home, it is okay to provide a cup of tea or even a full tea if they are friends who ordinarily do that, but not to invite the whole street for the first time three days before polling day. So is a hot curry dinner for a few hundred people “ordinary hospitality”? Among much ambiguity in this law, the interpretation of the undefined words “corrupt” and “corrupt intent” appear to cause problems. They imply an intention to affect the outcome of the election, but this is far from the clarity that good law requires.
Returning to the hot curry dinners targeted at Asian electors, the College of Policing authorised professional practice manual, Policing Elections—Investigating Electoral Malpractice includes the following:
“Cultural factors can affect this offence in that among many cultures the provision of refreshments is considered to be socially acceptable, and it would be perceived as an insult should refreshments not be provided”.
This seems very close to suggesting that electoral law is different according to the composition of the local community. If you live in a mainly indigenous village or a mainly white town such as Colne, where I live, and you put on free meals for voters, you will be locked up. If you live in a strongly Asian area and provide those meals for Asian electors, or even just for Asian men, as in Pendle, MPs and councillors will turn up and you will get away with it. I wonder whether this advice from the College of Policing has government support and should perhaps now be reviewed.
The law on treating is not fit for purpose. It is antique and it is not clear what it means. It is not clear that a law that was designed to prevent candidates providing food, drink, entertainment and provisions—whatever that means—to voters in the days of Mr Gladstone is able to deal with modern phenomena such as piles of chapattis in committee rooms open to the public to walk in and eat, and hot curry dinners open to anyone who walks in. Above all, candidates and agents in all kinds of areas need to know clearly where they stand with the law. I am not an election agent at the moment but I declare an interest, as I usually am every year. With tongue in cheek, I say that if the provision of hot dinners to voters on a large scale is now acceptable in electoral law, the nature of elections in this country might change quite a lot. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Greaves knows a great deal about elections and how they are fought and won. We have campaigned together in a number of them for almost exactly 40 years, since he came on behalf of what was then the Association of Liberal Councillors to assist in a couple of council by-elections in Liverpool in October 1977. Around that time, I read all my noble friend’s many booklets about fighting local elections and learned a great deal from them, but I learned nothing about the practices which he has just described. He has raised serious issues about electoral law and what he calls treating, which in plain English we know to be better described as bribing the voters. He rightly says that breaches of the spirit, if not the letter, of the law may occur in any party.
Many years ago, I heard of a branch of the Liberal Party that refused to undertake any of the accepted electioneering methods of canvassing and polling day organisation. Instead, it laid on a huge tea with free refreshments in the village hall on polling day, and it was customary for people to visit it after voting. Whether this affected the results, I do not know, but it should not happen. Electoral law should be more explicit about the provision of refreshment to voters and there should be proper policing action to prevent what appear to be major abuses of the law, as just outlined by my noble friend. Perhaps the Minister could share with us the latest thinking about how the Government may now attempt to implement some of the recommendations outlined in the recent review of election laws by the former chair of the Conservative Party, Sir Eric Pickles, since it first responded last December.
In relation to the overall question, I hope that the Minister will agree that there is not a massive amount of cheating in local elections, or in any form of election, in this country. For my part, I accept that we can act to reduce its prevalence, even if it is small, and that fraud would possibly be more common if it were more widely known how easy it can be. It is also important, however, that any action to prevent or deter electoral fraud is proportionate. We must recognise that any measure which might restrict the capacity of people to vote legitimately must be considered very carefully and be balanced by measures which make it more likely that people who are properly entitled to vote are enabled to do so.
My experience of suspecting personation was when I believed that the Liverpool Militants were undertaking the practice when I organised elections there in the 1980s. I was suspicious because of the way in which I noted that Militant supporters would call at doors and, if anyone said they were not voting, they left immediately without argument—the Militant people tended to be rather argumentative. In contrast, other party workers would plead with such people to turn out and vote. But in those Liverpool elections, turnouts were perhaps high because of the approach of the Militant supporters, as they identified names of people who would not be going to the polling station themselves, who may then have had votes cast on their behalf.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, then a Liverpool Liberal MP, told me how he saw people going into polling stations apparently with names and addresses written on their wrists. Some years later, the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, told me that her investigation into the Labour Party in Liverpool when she was her party’s national organiser confirmed that personation was indeed the tactic of the Militants.
It seems to me, therefore, that a greater police presence at polling stations would have helped, together with a greater number of staff at the polling stations to ask the questions allowed for by law about whether or not people have voted already or are who they say they are. When I attempted in the Liverpool Walton by-election in 1991 to get presiding officers to ask the statutory questions of people turning up to vote who had died or said that they would not be voting, I was told by the returning officer that he simply did not have the staff to do what was legally required of him when I arranged for our agent to make the formal request for him to do so.
However, I do not believe that these tactics are common. Last year the Electoral Commission identified 19 allegations of personation in the EU referendum, some of which proved not to be personation at all, out of more than 33 million votes cast. This is in line with statistics from other national elections and does not in itself suggest that there is a widespread problem with personation requiring measures which may deter people from voting when they are entitled to do so. Voter identification is required in Northern Ireland in order to deal with problems of personation, and it is said not to have reduced turnout, but political passions run strongly there and such measures are perhaps less likely to deter voters in the Province than in Great Britain.
There should be greater awareness of the penalties for personation, greater police presence at polling stations where it may be suspected, and more resources for presiding officers to ensure that the statutory questions can be put. In this age, it should not be difficult to provide presiding officers with details of people who are known to have died, and if a mistake has been made and a supposedly dead voter turns up, they can be provided with a tendered ballot paper, as happens when a second person tries to claims the same vote as one cast earlier.
If any form of ID is ever required, a suitable form of it must be provided free of charge. If poll cards were sent in unmarked envelopes, they should suffice, because it would be hard to steal such a poll card and then impersonate someone. Lost or stolen poll cards could be reported and anyone seeking to vote on the basis of one could be questioned at the polling station. However, there is a danger that the proverbial sledgehammer is provided for the nut, and I could not consider supporting any measures requiring evidence of ID at polling stations without us also addressing the much bigger issue of the many millions of people missing from the electoral registers.
The Government’s position appears to be that people should have to opt in to the right to vote, despite the fact that Parliament has specifically preserved the principle that failing to co-operate with the electoral registration process can be subject to a fine or civil penalty. You do not have to opt in to the right to benefit from the emergency services, nor from many other things approved by law and provided by government, so you should not have to opt in to being able to vote. If you have the right to vote, the process should be automatic and making it so would be a great improvement to our democracy.
Finally, I raise the issue of postal voting. It seems legitimate to question whether a reason should be provided for voting by post rather than going to a polling station. Some years ago, I was responsible for a change in postal vote regulations requiring that the signature of the voter accompanying the postal vote matched the signature on the form applying for the postal vote. I hope the Minister might look rather more carefully than the Government have so far at seeking to amend the declaration to be signed by the voter.
In my view, the declaration should state that: the ballot paper has been completed only by the person entitled to complete it; that that has been done, together with the sealing of the ballot paper in the envelope provided, in conditions of privacy; that the envelope is being returned directly by that person to a post box, the electoral registration officer or returning officer, or a polling station on polling day; that exceptions to those principles should be made only for people who require assistance from someone such as a carer or as is necessary on grounds of disability; and that, in any event, no candidate or representative of a candidate should be involved in the process of returning ballot papers.
My Lords, my intentions in taking part in the debate are dual. First, I want to endorse and support the concerns expressed by my noble friends Lord Greaves and Lord Rennard. But secondly, as always, I look forward to the Minister’s contribution with great interest; that is my principal reason for being here. I plead with him to adopt his now-usual practice of going off-piste. I do not know whether that expression was used in last night’s debate on the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill, but I was told that the Minister was particularly helpful to the House when he left his script. At one point, he said:
“I return to my script”.—[Official Report, 6/9/17; col. 2050.]
After that, things became less interesting, so I hope that he will adopt his previous attitude this afternoon.
I am reminded by my colleagues’ contributions of my own campaigning experience. It is important to recognise that no parties have found it easy to get the clear guidance they require on the issue of treating. I recall one of my first campaigns in Cornwall; I am not sure whether it was the successful or less successful of my early attempts to get elected to the House of Commons. On arrival at a small village on one of those wonderful Cornish hills where one went in at the first floor, the committee room seemed very quiet. There was nothing much going on and one rather sleepy person ticking some things off. I said to my wife, “It doesn’t look very busy here”, to which the sleepy individual replied, “You wait ‘til you see what’s going on downstairs.” Downstairs, seven or eight people were busily producing pasties and putting clotted cream on saffron cake. The significance of it was that they were not treating the electorate, because the two essential credentials for anybody applying for refreshment were that they had already voted and would help with knocking up voters later. Treating helpers is still a rather vague issue. I have not been so well-fed on the campaign trail since then, and indeed have never had to succumb to so many cups of teas—but in Cornwall in those days, one had to. One was always offered a cup of tea but not always the rather necessary forward motions that were required thereafter.
There is a very serious issue which I know the Minister understands: the coming together of a number of concerns about the electoral process, electoral law and the reputation of the whole of our democracy. I know the Minister shares our views on that because we have had many such discussions. The issue that my noble friend Lord Greaves referred to may be a comparatively small part of the overall picture, but at a time when Parliament and the body politic are having a reputational crisis following the referendum—and with the current state of interest taken by the public, particularly young voters, in how they are represented and, frankly, how for the past 10 years the media have approached the whole process in which we are engaged—there is a crisis. It is not good enough to say, “Well, we’ll get round to this one day.”
I refer to the answer that the Minister gave to my question yesterday. I asked, rather naively, whether the Law Commission report would result in a response from the Government,
“soon, shortly or in due course”.
In his inimitable way, the Minister said:
“It is more likely to be in due course”.—[Official Report, 6/9/17; col. 1951.]
It is now quite a long time since the Law Commission made important recommendations, to some of which my noble friend Lord Greaves referred. It was in February 2016. At the time, there was a specific recommendation that we needed a single electoral law. That is particularly appropriate given the recent experience of the Conservative Party with the differing treatment of national and local campaign expenditure. The Conservative Party itself expressed considerable concern back in June at the way in which two quite different statutes were involved in the process, and the lack of clarity and difficulty that all involved had with that.
The Minister, who I suspect is on our side on this, must somehow persuade his colleagues not just in the Cabinet Office but in No. 10 that, despite all the pressures from Brexit—indeed, perhaps because of them—Parliament must be given an opportunity to look holistically at bringing the electoral law up to date. The example that my noble friend gave is but one of many that cause media, public and local concern. The Minister is an adroit political manipulator and influencer in our curiously cumbersome political system and I beg him to do everything he can. He has been so effective in the past in getting people to take issues of this sort more seriously and give them greater priority. Yes, of course Parliament will have a full agenda but that does not mean that we cannot do anything else. The result of the efforts on Brexit and the extent to which the public are prepared to accept it may depend on the reputation of our political system, local and national. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some comfort that these issues are not being swept under the carpet but will be addressed with the priority that they require and deserve.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for tabling this Question for Short Debate today. He raises an important issue, and the short answer to his Question is of course yes, on both counts: the law on local government elections needs improving and clarifying in many areas.
I agree with almost everything said in the three previous contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Greaves, Lord Rennard and Lord Tyler. They are experts in elections and we should listen to what they say carefully. In his remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, concentrated on the offence of treating. These are serious matters and I agree that the provisions need urgent updating. As he explained to the Committee, the matter that he referred to has been through the due process and the evidential threshold has been determined not to have been met. But that does not mean that important points have not been raised, and action should be taken on the whole issue of treating and whether the law is adequate. Some disturbing comments were made about curries, and other things, which were not at all good.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made important points about difficulties and problems in various elections. The Labour Party got itself into terrible difficulties in Birmingham over postal vote fraud, and the individuals there were properly prosecuted. That was a shameful episode and people were properly dealt with there.
I was appointed to my first job in the Labour Party in 1989 by my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton. She then promoted me in 1990 and sent me to Coventry to deal with Militant. I remember her telling me in her office: “Just go and get them, Roy”. Off I went, and I hope that I dealt with them quite effectively. When I came into this House seven years ago, my two sponsors were my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton—my first boss in the Labour Party—and my noble friend Lady McDonagh, who was my boss many years later. I very much enjoyed working with both of them.
Many years later, as a senior official of the party, I authorised the prosecution of the Conservative Party candidate who had stood for a council election in Slough. When I first got the phone call from the Labour agent there, I was a bit sceptical. The Labour Party had lost the safest Labour ward in Slough to the Conservative Party and that guy wanted to come and see me. I agreed and he came in with a pile of papers to show me all the applications to register to vote. Then he showed me the houses, and most of them were derelict; nobody lived there at all. Of course we had all the ballot papers checked. It ended up in the courts and we were able to show that it was completely fraudulent activity and the people were sent to prison—quite rightly there, too. Again, we were able to show that it was not right. Picking the safest Labour seat in a borough was probably the daftest thing they did.
Going on to more general remarks, yesterday the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, asked a Question about the Electoral Commission in terms of the Welsh language. I asked the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, what the Government were going to do in respect of the Law Commission and the work they are doing looking at the law. I am very much of the opinion, as other noble Lords are, that our law in the round needs improving, clarifying, redrafting and consolidating for elections. The Government really must find some parliamentary time in the next couple of years for this.
In many areas, our electoral law is not fit for purpose. We have to deal with that; our democracy is at stake here. The law is spread over various Acts, statutes and codes. It has been bolted together over many years and is in a complete mess. All the parties in this Room have been in government in recent years and we have all contributed to that. We are all to blame in some measure for where we find ourselves today, and it is not a good place. I have other general remarks to make but, as I said, the Government must find some parliamentary time for that. We need consolidated legislation that covers elections, referendums, donations, registration of parties and electoral registration, all in one place so that we all know exactly what is going on. I have no idea how many Acts or parts of Acts are still in force over elections. Perhaps the Minister does. I expect that it is a great many.
If we look at our experience in recent years and at changes in technology and campaigning, we can see that the law is in need of extensive updating and, ideally, future-proofing. I accept that that is much harder to do that than to say. For example, we need to look at the use and manipulation of data in campaigning, which is a huge issue. More should be done to clarify what returning officers should and should not be doing. The Electoral Commission needs looking at again and reforming. It needs more teeth in some areas. It should focus on clearly defined issues and doing things. It should probably do a bit less commenting and voicing opinions, and take a bit more action in certain areas. We need a much tougher focus on getting the electoral registration process right and on having the powers to make sure that the service provided is fit for purpose everywhere and that the EROs and the commission are using the powers they have.
Electoral registration and the desire to get people on the register needs reinforcing. The Government have not always seemed as enthusiastic about doing so as they should. It could be suggested that they have been quite partisan in the recent past. We may hear from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, that they listened to the advice and guidance of the Electoral Commission, which is very good, but they do not always do so. They certainly did not when they removed a number of voters from the electoral register a couple of years ago in looking at the boundary review. Having mentioned the boundary review, perhaps the Minister can update us on that because all the gossip down the other end of the building is that it is dead in the water. Members of all parties down the corridor are all telling me that the Government are desperately trying to find a way to end this review. It may be that that needs legislation. If it does, let us get on with it because it is a complete waste of public money if in fact the Government intend in some way to end the review and go back to having 650 seats.
I have a few other little comments to make before I finish. The nomination process needs clarifying. There are all sorts of issues there. We have to deal with sham nominations. We may have dealt with the Liberal Democrat problem we had a few years ago but there are still issues with sham nominations. When I was an electoral commissioner, I was one of the first political commissioners. We had an issue with a disgruntled Tory candidate attempting to use the old Tory torch logo. We said, “No, it is not your logo”, and got into a discussion. In the end, we stopped him but he believed he could just walk off with a logo that belonged to the Conservative Party and stand as some sort of independent Conservative. That sort of thing goes on all the time and it was good we did that work there. The sham candidates and imposters need to be dealt with. The rule itself is clearly not quite there.
The polling day process is still not what it should be. We need some clear guidance and a single set of polling rules to apply across all elections. There is also the issue of assisting voters to the polls and actually voting. Very elderly people need to have their vote protected, in being able to get to the poll and vote. Equally, they may need assistance. That is a very hard thing to do properly but it also needs dealing with. I would also like to see some standardised rules in respect of counts. It is not always the case in some of the counts we see across the country. I know that we have electronic counting in London and in the Scottish local elections, but it always amazes me that you can normally go to a count for a council or Parliament and they sit there with pens and paper, and get a result really quickly. In the GLA they were sitting there days later. I do not know how you can deal with it, but counting should be looked at.
I just had those few comments to make. I know that the Minister probably cannot respond to all the points raised here today but I am sure he agrees with many of them. I look forward to his comments and if he cannot respond now, maybe he could do so in writing afterwards.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on securing this debate. We have all enjoyed the reminiscences of noble Lords as they wandered around the country, seeking to secure votes for themselves and their parties. The last time I stood in a local election was 46 years ago, so my experience is not quite as up to date as that of other noble Lords. I certainly do not recall, as I wandered around the streets of Brixton and Lambeth, getting the sort of extensive hospitality that many candidates appear to have received in other parts of the country. I welcome the opportunity to address the important issues that the noble Lord and others have raised today. I will try not to go off-piste; this particular one is a black run anyway, so I will not take any further risks by straying off it.
We are committed to ensuring that the law that governs our elections is clear and operates effectively. I agree with many of the points that have been made: there are areas where we need to make progress, and I will touch in those in a moment. We want to ensure that electors have the opportunity to engage fully and express their views on issues that concern them at a local level.
We take the security of our electoral system very seriously. One point that has not been made is there are now more elections at local level than there used to be, because we now have mayors and police and crime commissioners. It is now even more important that local elections are conducted properly and that we maintain their integrity. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that by any international standards the integrity of the electoral system in this country is good, but that does not mean that we cannot make progress.
We are currently working to strengthen the integrity of our elections, including the piloting of voter ID in polling stations at local elections next year. I will say a little more about that in a moment. As background, I reassure noble Lords that we consider policy for and issues arising in elections at both the local and national levels on an ongoing basis. That is not an issue that has been parked and will be forgotten about; it is something that we are actively engaged in. We are working with the Electoral Commission and other interested bodies, including Solace and the Association of Electoral Administrators, to consider the development and improvement of existing processes.
We are also working with the Law Commission on its proposals for changes to electoral law but, as I listened to this debate, it seemed that the task was even bigger than I thought. A number of issues have been raised, such as nomination, registration, imposters, assisting voters, polling day arrangements and validation of signatures on postal vote application forms. On imposters, someone in Ealing, Acton, changed their name to George Young before one of the parliamentary elections, which caused some confusion. I survived. Of course, there was a time when our parties did not appear on the ballot paper. You stood as yourself. That added to the confusion. Anyway, we survived that particular challenge.
The Government’s view is that electoral fraud is unacceptable at any level. It is vital for our democracy that voters are able to cast their vote safely and securely, and that the outcome of any poll has the confidence of the public. It is important that the law ensures that measures and safeguards are in place to uphold the integrity of the electoral process, and that those who seek to undermine the voting process are identified and dealt with appropriately.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, mentioned the report of Sir Eric Pickles, who conducted a review of electoral fraud last year. His final report, Securing the Ballot, was published last August and set out a number of recommendations covering various aspects of the electoral system. We welcome the report, and I was asked what progress has been made. We published our response, which outlined our intention to work with stakeholders to improve public confidence in the integrity of our elections. A number of those recommendations have already been addressed through guidance issued by the Electoral Commission. We intend to bring forward further measures that will protect anyone who is at risk of being bullied, undermined or tricked out of their vote and democratic right. We committed in our manifesto, in order to ensure that voters have confidence in our democracy, that we will legislate to ensure that a form of identification should be presented before voting. I will say a word about that in a moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, focused his remarks on treating. He is quite right to remind us that under the 1983 Act it is an offence for a person to treat a voter through providing food, drink and entertainment, and there is a similar offence in relation to the bribing of voters. The Pickles report acknowledges that treating,
“is a serious issue and a potential risk of corruption”,
so there is an element of agreement on that point. That report also referred to the Law Commission’s recommendation that the offence of treating be abolished and that of bribery be clarified and strengthened. We continue to work with the Law Commission and others on how best to implement the recommendations of its review of electoral law. I take on board the points that the noble Lord made about bribery. He was good enough to mention that this was not a problem confined to one party, and I will ensure that the particular incidences that he and others have referred to are taken on board in the ongoing discussions between the Government, the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders. On any particular case, if anyone believes that an offence has been committed, then they should of course report that to the police. Again, I take on board the point made by the noble Lord about the response of the police to the particular allegations that he made, and I will ensure that that is also fed into the process.
The Electoral Commission has issued guidance to candidates on spending and donations. That makes it clear that if a candidate does not comply with the legal or regulatory requirements, they may be subject to criminal sanctions. We are considering a way forward on the other recommendations made by Sir Eric Pickles, and will continue to see how we can improve the integrity of electoral processes more generally.
On voter identification, we agree with Sir Eric that the options for asking voters to present identification should be explored through a number of pilot schemes. As many noble Lords will know, that is to be tested at the May 2018 elections. That will shed some light on the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, on the potential disincentive to vote if you have to produce some ID. The whole purpose of the pilots is to test the impact on all aspects of elections in Great Britain of asking voters to present some form of identification at polling stations before collecting their ballot papers, and to identify the best way to take that new requirement forward. The prospectus on ID pilots, published in March this year, has set out in detail our plans for delivering and evaluating pilot schemes, so that they may meet the objectives of reducing the opportunities for fraud and enhanced public confidence in the security of elections in this country. The Cabinet Office is currently working on the details on how the pilots will be run, and is continuing to work with local authorities which are preparing to pilot voter ID in May 2018. We are also in discussion with local authorities who are still considering participation in the scheme for next year, but are not yet fully committed. We will make an announcement later in the year on the planned pilot schemes, once we have confirmed which local authorities are participating.
On registration, the Government have actually done quite a lot to encourage people to register. There have been particular initiatives focused on those groups who are under-registered. The introduction of online registration has made it much easier to register to vote. You can do it in a few minutes, and in fact it is now the preferred form of registration. I hope that that will help to drive up registration. Those of us who were in the debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill have heard about experiments by some universities to drive up registration, and those initiatives are being taken forward. So we are working hard to reach groups that historically have not registered.
I was asked about the boundary commissions. I read the Times, whenever it was. Noble Lords will know that the legal position is quite clear: the Electoral Commission is on a route to complete its report and present it to Ministers and then to Parliament by September next year, and it would require primary legislation to stop that. It would also require primary legislation, having stopped it, to reboot it with a different target of, say, 650. The Government have no plans to change that; our legislation is in the open air. Any initiative would have to take place quite soon if the whole process were to be completed by 2022. Of course, if we do not go forward with revised boundary commissions there is a real risk that the next election will be fought on boundaries drawn up in the year 2000, which I am not sure would be in the interests of democracy. I am not sure I can add to the body of knowledge that people have on the boundary commissions, but the legal position at the moment is quite clear.
Sir Eric made a number of recommendations to strengthen the integrity of postal voting, a point raised by some noble Lords, including limiting the period for which a person may have a long-term postal vote to three years. I will also consider some of the points raised today.
On the Law Commission, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is quite right, as always, in identifying the date when the Law Commission published its interim report in February last year. I do not think anyone has any difficulty with the key recommendation that the current laws governing elections should be rationalised into a single legislative framework, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, described, that is applicable across elections, subject to differentiation due to some justifiable principle or policy. We consider that that would make elections easier to administer and therefore more resilient to errors or fraud.
I cannot add to what I said in earlier exchanges about the timetable but I reassure noble Lords that I have listened very carefully to this debate. I do not know whether this is off-piste, but I detect some impatience in your Lordships’ House to get on with these important initiatives in order to make progress with enhancing the integrity of our electoral system.
This part is in the script. This has been a very interesting debate and I am grateful to noble Lords for the contributions that they have made. We will continue to work to eliminate fraud and tackle improper practices to ensure the integrity of our electoral system and that our democracy is secure and works for all voters.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they plan to invite the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review the evidence supporting the rescheduling of cannabis to Schedule 2 or 4.
My Lords, chronically sick patients with constant severe pain and other symptoms have suffered for far too long, reliant on prescribed medications that are sometimes ineffective and with intolerable side-effects for many people.
I remind noble Lords, if they will forgive me, of the case of Faye, whose experience was so brilliantly articulated in the Daily Mail on 2 May. At the age of 27, Faye was diagnosed with crippling rheumatoid arthritis. She describes the side-effects of conventional drugs as,
“more disruptive to daily life than the disease itself”,
which is saying something with rheumatoid arthritis. Faye recognised that prescribed drugs are fine for some people, but not for her. Having never used an illegal drug, and rather fearful, she found cannabis, and very slowly came off her prescribed medications. What was the result? She stopped feeling sick all the time—imagine a life of feeling sick all of the time. Now, two and a half years later, taking only cannabis, Faye says that her quality of life is now 98% of what it was before the diagnosis. She works full-time. Not only is this absolutely wonderful for Faye but it is saving the NHS thousands of pounds a year in medications, consultant appointments, GP appointments and so forth.
Under our drug schedules, as all noble Lords in this Room know, cannabis is listed as a dangerous drug with no medicinal value. In reality, of course, cannabis is safer than many prescribed medications and there is growing evidence of its medicinal value for a remarkable list of conditions. Our schedule is simply wrong and should not remain as it is. We need to inject some urgency into the situation. It is unnecessary and in my view cruel for these patients to suffer another two, three or even more years of agonising, sleepless nights and pain-stricken days or risk arrest to get hold of cannabis, which they tell us is the only effective medication with minimal or no side-effects.
For the first time, the UN is on our side and on the side of our Government should they wish to undertake some reform. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime—the UNODC—at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drug Policy in April last year, made it clear that evidence-based public health policy is here to stay, and that treatment without stigma should be the driver of drug policy. This was a most important statement from the UN body at the centre of international drug policy. After 60 years of drug policy dominated by the notion of a “war on drugs” and the ludicrous aim of creating a drug-free world, the UN is at last asking member states to consider a pragmatic, realistic approach. From now on, countries need clear objectives—how remarkable: let us have some objectives—such as reducing addiction and harm in the consumer countries, and reducing violence and corruption in the producer and transit countries.
If the world is to follow the UNODC lead, countries need to evaluate policies and introduce those for which there is an evidence base. This brings us directly back to medicinal cannabis. We have sufficient evidence worldwide to know that cannabis has very significant medical properties. As I have said, we can no longer justify its Schedule 1 status. At its last meeting, the World Health Organization’s expert group agreed that the widespread acceptance of medicinal cannabis means that the WHO’s insistence on its having no medicinal value appears incongruent, particularly as it relies on 80 year-old data. I believe that is actually progress.
Our own Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the MHRA, determined last October that products containing cannabidiol—CBD, a derivative of cannabis—are indeed medicines and can be prescribed. How can we say under Schedule 1 that cannabis has no medicinal value when, according to our regulatory body, a part of it does? We cannot. We are fortunate to have Ministers in the Home Office who understand the evidence. A blog by the Home Office Minister Sarah Newton in April stated that the Government’s view is that cannabis should be subject to “the same regulatory framework” as other potential medicines, subject to approval from the MHRA.
The big question—this is very important—is whether the MHRA can accept a special status for cannabis, an inexpensive weed with such valuable medical properties. If cannabis is put through five or 10 years of double-blind random controlled trials, it will finish up so expensive that it will be ruled out from the NHS by NICE. Sativex is a good example. My fear is that Epidiolex, for children with specific strains of severe epilepsy, may also be priced out of the NHS market in another three years’ time when the lengthy trials finally come to an end. It is impossible to overestimate the urgency of treatment for these epileptic children, who suffer severe brain damage with hundreds of seizures every single day. Their brains are being destroyed and that damage will not be reversed.
Another tragedy that we really need to think about in relation to Epidiolex is, I understand, that GW Pharmaceuticals, which has spent £20 million on these trials, now realises that another cannabinoid would be more effective for these children with severe epilepsy than the cannabinoid upon which those £20 million-worth of trials were based. It cannot repeat them all, so a suboptimal medicine will be put to the MHRA for approval. There is something terribly wrong here and I would be grateful if the Minister would meet me to talk about the need to consider a safe—it must be safe—but less costly process of trials for cannabis medicines than is required at present.
Columbia Care, a well-respected company providing reliable, dosable cannabis, may provide an answer. Its products are superior to those accepted in the Netherlands and Germany and may provide a model of trials acceptable to the MHRA. There are other reputable companies providing good-quality cannabis products to Israel and elsewhere. Already 28 US states, 11 European countries and the whole of Latin America recognise that cannabis is a medicine. More states and countries join that list every year. The illegal status of cannabis has undoubtedly discouraged research into its medicinal properties. Oxford University, however, will be funded to the tune of £10 million by Kingsley Capital Partners to investigate our own endocannabinoid system. It is our own system that explains the extraordinary powers of cannabis. I will not go into this but in the meantime Professor Mike Barnes’s report, commissioned by our APPG for Drug Policy Reform, has reviewed all the international data and showed beyond doubt that cannabis is indeed an effective medicine for a number of conditions.
In conclusion, I appeal to the Minister to request the ACMD, under the leadership of its excellent chair, Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, to review the evidence for the Schedule 1 status of cannabis and to make recommendations as soon as possible. The UK will then be prepared to respond quickly to the WHO review. I hope that the ACMD will consider the regulations we would need to support a revision of the cannabis schedule. Obviously, a good set of regulations would be extremely important. Again, I hope the Minister will respond to the urgency of the need for reform for these patients.
My Lords, in a civilised society, one of the ways by which we are judged is how we look after those who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own: the young, the old, the infirm and the weak. Among them are those who have a particular condition or disability that cannot easily be remedied by orthodox medical care or modern drugs. But if we cannot help them conventionally, nor should we prohibit them from accessing less mainstream treatments if they believe that those treatments can alleviate some of their discomfort or pain. We all know why cannabis is illegal, and whether or not we agree with its prohibition—your Lordships will know that I never have—we can recognise the good motives of those who introduced that legislation and prohibited its use almost half a century ago. That happened some years after the proposal to ban heroin and cocaine was dropped by the Home Office. The Minister responsible agreed, after meetings with doctors’ representatives, to permit those drugs to be categorised as controlled rather than prohibited drugs so that even though they were recognised as dangerous and addictive, they could be prescribed by doctors because of their unique therapeutic value. I know a little about that because my own father was the Minister responsible for doing that in the post that my noble friend holds in the Home Office today.
At that time, no such therapeutic benefit was attributed to cannabis, which is why it was banned. Now we know differently. We live in an age of evidence-based policy, as the noble Baroness said. However, while there is scientific research that demonstrates the value of cannabis, such as that undertaken by Professor Raphael Mechoulam at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, perhaps more importantly there is overwhelming anecdotal evidence from many individuals, some of whom I too have met personally, that their symptoms can be alleviated by cannabis. We would be negligent and, as the noble Baroness said, cruel to ignore that evidence.
I hope my noble friend will not seek to resist the proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, by advocating a long and complex process of drug trials. This is unnecessary. In November 2015, scientists in the United States announced the discovery of a drug that cures, without any side effects, hepatitis C—until then, incurable, untreatable and usually terminal. Some 300,000 people in Britain have it today. In less than three years, without any extensive trials, thousands of patients throughout the world, who until then faced an uncertain future, has been completely cured of hepatitis C because of the use of this drug. I have a slight interest in it because I am one of those who has been cured within the last six months, and I am immensely grateful to NICE for the decision it made to allow the prescription of this drug without any of the requirements to go through the usual years of testing required by the MHRA. So it can be done and it has been done.
Whatever regime Parliament puts in place will inevitably be circumvented by those who want to do so. Alcohol, tobacco and opiates are all controlled in different ways by the law but they are all abused in a way that the law does not permit. One cannot stop that. Arguably, the drugs that are most abused and cause the most harm are those that are routinely and quite legally prescribed by thousands of doctors, who should know better. So the argument that cannabis is uniquely dangerous and capable of being abused is not credible and appears simply obstructive for the sake of it. Let us therefore have no humbug today. Rather than looking for excuses to do nothing by citing spurious reasons from a bygone age, and thus needlessly prolonging the suffering of patients whose lives could be immeasurably improved, I hope my noble friend will use this debate and opportunity to make this tiny, reasonable and unique move—at no disadvantage to the taxpayer—and show the world that we are the civilised nation that we aspire to be.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has laid out the case admirably and I support her appeal to the Minister. I will simply tell the Committee about the experience of one person which illustrates how lamentable are the consequences of the present confusion in government policy and the Government’s refusal to remove obstacles to making cannabis-based medication available on prescription in this country beyond the extremely limited basis that now applies.
The person I shall refer to as TW got in touch with me to tell me about her situation. She suffers from advanced degeneration of the lumbar and cervical spine and she experiences chronic neuropathic back and leg pain. It is tough, not just for her but for her husband and children. Over the last 15 years, she has been prescribed some 35 different medications: anti-nausea, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory and antidepressant medications. At one point she was on the equivalent of 180 milligrams of morphine a day. She has had caudal and facet joint injections. In 2015, she underwent major surgery, which most unfortunately has left her in yet greater pain and disability.
However, TW has been able to come off these high-dose morphine-based medicines and all her other medications, with their horrible side effects, because she has been prescribed, privately, Bedrocan. The active ingredient in Bedrocan is dronabinol, derived from cannabis. Bedrocan is not licensed in this country, though it is in Holland, Finland, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. TW has a letter from Her Majesty’s Customs informing her that she is legally permitted to bring Bedrocan, as prescribed for her personal use, into Britain from Holland. If Sativex, also derived from cannabis, were suitable for her she could, on the other hand, legally collect it on prescription from her local pharmacy. She was previously prescribed morphine, an opioid in same class as heroin and far more dangerous than cannabis, and then Fentanyl, of terrifying power, as we see in the crisis of opioid addiction in the United States of America. Both were on NHS prescription, and she was able to collect those prescriptions from her pharmacy. Yet, as a patient for whom no other medication is effective to relieve her chronic pain without unbearable side effects, TW has to endure an arduous, painful, exhausting and costly journey in her wheelchair, four times a year, to collect her prescription of Bedrocan from a Dutch pharmacy. She very reasonably asks how this can be reasonable.
Cannabis, absurdly, is in Schedule 1, the schedule for controlled drugs deemed to be of no medicinal value. Bedrocan, cannabis-based, is in Schedule 2, the same schedule as morphine, diamorphine—which is heroin—and Fentanyl. Sativex is in Schedule 4. The scheduling is a mess. For the Home Office and the Department of Health between them to force TW and others like her to go to Holland to obtain the only medication that is truly effective for them is to taunt them in their suffering. We should do better, and I look forward to the Minister explaining how the Government will do so.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on this debate and the all-party group on its work and the excellent report that was published on this subject. I need to warn my noble colleague next to me, the noble Lord, Lord Low, that I am going to be very short in my contribution. I put my name down for this debate because I did a little bit of background research again, and the thing that really came over me was the Government’s own 2017 drug strategy. It is an excellent document, which states:
“In 2015-16, around 2.7 million ... 16-59 year olds”—
so on the whole, as Members of the House of Lords, we are not included in this—
“in England and Wales reported using a drug in the last year”.
It is estimated that just over 2 million of those were cannabis users. Of course, included in that are a number of people who had to use cannabis as a medicinal aid for their suffering.
I was also interested to look up the information—asked for by my former right honourable friend, Nick Clegg—that only about 2,000 people are actually arrested over cannabis. The message that this put over to me was that those people who need cannabis as a medicine to help their suffering have to go down an illegal route so that they can either be healed or get help with their suffering. But this is something that the majority of recreational users do not even have to worry about, because the chances of their being arrested or prosecuted are very low indeed. Yet—for all the illogical reasons already given around how other drugs are treated—we demand that the people requiring this degree of assistance from this particular drug have to commit criminal acts themselves to alleviate their suffering. It is crazy and I hope this debate will be a part of stopping the very illogical and cruel situation that we put those users in.
My Lords, I echo the congratulations offered by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on securing this debate and for all her tireless work to secure a more rational policy on the regulation of drugs, from founding the all-party group, whose reports we have been reading, to her work and representations at the United Nations and around the world. The noble Baroness, in encouraging me to speak this afternoon, said that it need only be a very short speech. With the time limits, I think we have no option but to make a very short speech.
I declare an interest: I am a member of the aforementioned all-party group, but I was not involved in the inquiry into the medicinal use of cannabis. Cannabis, as we have heard, is classified with dangerous drugs with no medicinal value, yet it is clear that it does have medicinal value. It was perceived to provide great relief by 86% of those responding to an online survey commissioned by the all-party group. More than 90% reported no or only mild side-effects, whereas—as we just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Howarth—respondents using prescription medicines can experience considerable side-effects. The evidence is nuanced as to the precise scope of the medicinal value, but the Barnes review undertaken for the all-party group concluded that there is good evidence for the efficacy of cannabis in the management of chronic pain and the side-effects of chemotherapy.
At the very least, therefore, cannabis-based treatment can provide significant benefit for a group of patients of at least 10,000—and, in some estimations, very many more—suffering from chronic pain where other treatments have failed. This would be reason enough to reclassify cannabis. Schedules 2 and 3 include drugs that may be illegal for recreational use but can be made available on prescription. If cannabis were to be placed in Schedule 2, it would be in the same class as heroin, which is no less addictive—indeed, it is considerably more so, as we know—and there is no evidence of significant diversion of heroin from medical supplies to the illicit recreational market. Moreover, as we again heard from the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, Sativex, which is a proprietary product derived from cannabis, is classified in Schedule 4. In these circumstances, retaining cannabis in Schedule 1 is illogical and perverse.
The overriding reason for moving cannabis to one of the other schedules—this is my main point, really—is that it follows of regulation rather than prohibition. In the reading that I did in preparation for this debate, I counted that this has at least six consequential advantages, but I have time to mention only a couple of them. First, since the use of cannabis would now be lawful, patients could take it under medical guidance and supervision. When that guidance and supervision is not available, when people are forced to acquire their cannabis outside the law, the product that they obtain off the street is often much more harmful. How much better to be using it when it provides its benefits under proper medical supervision.
Secondly, the current regime places a stranglehold on research. Carrying out research into cannabis in the UK has been described as a costly obstacle course. It involves a minimum outlay of £5,000 to cover licensing and security, and licence applications can take as long as a year. It has been calculated that research involving Schedule 1 drugs takes significantly longer and costs about 10 times as much as research into other drugs.
In view of all the considerations that have been spoken to in the debate, I hope very much that the Minister will agree that the matter should be referred to the advisory council. Referring the matter for the opinion of an independent expert body, which of course does not commit the Government, is not exactly selling the pass.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on raising this issue and on the way in which she has done it. The Question asks whether the Government “plan to invite” a review of the evidence. It is asking not whether the Government will reschedule cannabis but whether they plan to review the evidence, or at least to have the evidence reviewed. That is the crucial point.
It is six and a half years since I tabled a QSD in which I asked what consideration the Government had given,
“to establishing a royal commission on the law governing drug use and possession”.
I argued the case for evidence-based policy. My starting point was that there was a demonstrable problem and that we needed to address it. I was not advocating that the policy should be adopted but making the case for reviewing existing policy. In reply, the Minister said that there was considerable disagreement on the issue—well, not in that debate; every Peer who spoke, bar the Minister, agreed with me.
In this debate the focus is on the rescheduling of cannabis. As we have heard, there is a particularly powerful case for reviewing the use of cannabis under certain conditions for medicinal use. The MS Society has changed its position on the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes in the light of reviewing the evidence, and its stance is a measured one.
The arguments that have been deployed against change by the Home Office do not stack up, especially under a Conservative Government. If a law is not working and change is resisted on the grounds of sending the wrong signals, then Ministers have little grasp of the Conservative view of law.
I repeat what I said in 2011:
“My case is that we need to explore whether the present law is necessary and sufficient, whether it is necessary but not sufficient, or whether it is neither necessary nor sufficient”.—[Official Report, 9/3/11; col. 1675.]
Implicitly the Government took, and take, the first of those positions. There was and is no critical reflection. Yesterday my noble friend Lady Williams reiterated that she supported evidence-based policy. Now is the time to consider the evidence. Will my noble friend commit to that?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for initiating this debate. I just want to say something about the case of a little boy. I think that some of us have heard from his grandmother but I shall explain the case briefly.
He has a very rare condition—which I think is called non-inherited genetic mutation in the PCDH19 gene—for which so far only a steroid treatment is effective. This is not suitable for long-term use because of the serious health consequences. It is very likely that whole-plant medical cannabis will work and will be without particular side-effects. To get such medical cannabis, the family of the six-year-old boy would have to travel to a country where it is legal for doctors to prescribe medical cannabis. There is a product under test called Epidiolex. It is a cannabis-based product but is not yet available and is subject to a long testing regime, which may be too long for this little boy. There is a need to move quickly to permit medical cannabis to be given to this little boy under medical management.
I now turn to the wider issue of cannabis for people with MS. I should declare an interest in that a member of my family has MS. We have had an excellent briefing from the MS Society, which says that 22% of people with MS have tried cannabis. I only know that a consultant thinks that every one of his patients has tried cannabis, not 22% of them, and I put that to the MS Society.
There is a product called Sativex that might do the business but which is not available to NHS patients, although it should be in Wales. The problem is that there is a dangerous version of cannabis known as skunk. People who are buying it on the illegal market are liable to get skunk, which I understand is not desirable, whereas ordinary cannabis is okay. By making the whole thing illegal, we are encouraging people to go to dealers, who are liable to give them the dangerous stuff rather than the helpful stuff.
Some doctors say that there is no evidence that cannabis is helpful to people with MS. I have a simple answer to that. If a person suffering from a medical condition like MS feels that cannabis is helpful, surely that is enough evidence. I am not anti-scientific and I understand the noble Lord’s comments, but if a patient feels that it is helpful, then by definition it must be. That is the case for me.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for getting us this debate and for the work that she has done for the APPG, which has produced a compelling evidence base for policy change. She spoke of the striking evidence of dramatic improvement to their health that some cannabis users have experienced. That, combined with the failure of prescription medicines to relieve their symptoms, has caused patients to try herbal cannabis even though access to it is not lawful. Estimates as to the use of medicinal cannabis suggest that 30,000 patients in this country are using it, most of it coming from illegal street sources. Also striking is the evidence that a majority of users have discussed using a cannabis treatment with their GP or consultant. Whether or not cannabis is legalised, the gain from having a regulated system that does not put both patients and their medical advisers in an intolerable position and vulnerable to the dangers of using street supplies of drugs is compelling.
The background to this debate is HM Government’s 2017 drug strategy, which was published in July. That strategy, which apparently is to be delivered by a board chaired by the Home Secretary, is about abuse and harm. There is no mention of medicinal cannabis. The ACMG has a central role in this. The council, emphasising the health significance of the use of cannabis, has made recommendations for further research. The Motion asks that that research should be extended, but because the evidence produced by the APPG shows clearly that the Schedule 1 listing makes research into the use of cannabis-related drugs and drug trials difficult and expensive, there is a problem ahead. Ministers claim that a clear regime is in place to enable drugs that contain cannabis to be developed and licensed, but they can cite only one example, that of Sativex. Because of the difficulties and costs of applying for a licence, no application has been made in respect of herbal cannabis.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulation Agency has stated that products containing cannabis are medicines. Surely that conclusion and the legalisation of medicinal cannabis in so many countries combined with much evidence that it has not caused an increase in crime, abuse and harm in those countries—probably the reverse is true—provides powerful reasons for the Government to reconsider their policy and look at possible models for regulation. This is a health issue and I really wonder whether the Department of Health should not play a larger role in policy-making, which in my view is too dominated by the Home Office.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. I want briefly to look at the body of evidence from overseas which clearly demonstrates that a more sensitive and targeted approach to the use of cannabinoids can bring positive results. In the USA, those states which have medical marijuana laws see lower rates of opiate overdose.
A recent study indicates a much lower use of opiates by pain sufferers using cannabis as treatment. This year a study has shown a reduced incidence of opioid-related hospitalisations in those states and according to the world health rankings the current drug-related death rate, mainly caused by opiate use, for the UK is 3.83 per 100,000. This compares to the Netherlands, which has the most-established scheme for medicinal cannabis in Europe, of 0.63. This means that the UK has a rate for drug-related deaths more than six times higher than that of the Netherlands. Does the Minister have any comment on these figures, or on the letter, published in the Lancet this June, from Dr David Nutt of Imperial? He notes that in his view the UK Government, on the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, made two problematic changes to the UK drug control regulations of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. First, they put into effect new very wide-ranging bans against a whole range of synthetic cannabinoids and, secondly, they rejected an appeal by senior UK scientists to remove THCV from Schedule 1, the highest level of control in the Act. Both decisions have substantial impacts on the UK’s research communities.
To make these drugs illegal and prevent others replacing them, the ACMD recommended that the whole chemical series be banned. However, many of this now illegal series are contained in current medicines and to get around this problem the Home Office exempted these and seven other medicines that would otherwise have become illegal. This exemption-based approach has, unfortunately, a fatal flaw: most, if not all, these drugs were derived from a chemical series that contain precursors from which other medicines might be developed. Now these are illegal, and anyone caught supplying them is liable to up to 14 years in prison. These potential penalties will have a chilling, possibly fatal impact on pharmaceutical drug discovery in the UK, because complying with the regulations adds a vast cost burden to the pharmacology industry and to academic researchers. Dr Nutt found it concerning that the pharmaceutical experts on the ACMD did not appear to foresee this problem. Worse, it appears that the new regulations were not subject to proper consultation with the academic research community and the pharmaceutical industry.
History suggests that earlier bans on synthetic cannabinoids had little effect on their use. I fear it is likely that this new law could fail in its primary objective and badly damage UK research.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on securing this debate and I apologise for not having applied to speak originally—I was not expecting to be able to be present. I echo everything that has been said in this debate and I do so as a diagnosed MS sufferer. I have been confronted by the diagnosis; as it happens, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, I have not taken cannabis at any point, but I agree with his overall analysis that on most estimates the figures are gross underestimates of the number of people who have taken cannabis as a treatment for my illness and, I believe, for many others as well. So I support everything that has been said around the Room this afternoon.
My Lords, I strongly support the campaign of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, to make medicinal cannabis available legally for patients who can be helped by it and I congratulate her once again on her persistence. While the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is very welcome in her place today, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, that we should be seeing a health Minister responding to a debate of this nature—so does she, I think. The lack of availability of this medicine for thousands of people in pain is just one of the terrible consequences of a failure over the years by the Government to see that their policies are not working. Their stubborn persistence with a set of policies that are manifestly failing is extraordinary. If any other policy were as much of a failure as the Government’s drugs policy, they would drop it like a hot potato.
The current classification of drugs is meant to avoid their misuse but fails completely to do so. On top of that, it penalises people for whom cannabis can be a lifesaver. They and their clinicians are forced to resort to powerful drugs such as morphine to alleviate pain because cannabis has become caught up in the debate on recreational drugs.
Let us take the case of five year-old Alfie Dingley, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. Alfie has life-threatening seizures. The drugs being used to treat him at the moment are frequent, intravenous steroids which could shorten his life, cause him to develop cancer, damage major organs or even induce psychosis. All other treatments have failed and his parents and grandparents live in constant fear of his next, possibly fatal seizure. Yet in Holland, where the law on cannabis is more rational and compassionate, doctors are able to treat children such as Alfie successfully.
In the Republic of Ireland, a named practitioner can be licensed to prescribe cannabis for medicinal purposes to a named patient. A number of other countries do something similar, so why can we not do that here? Can we not have a trial in this country to look at how children such as Alfie can be helped under proper medical supervision? Given that Alfie, along with many of the other patients we have heard about, has been given many other powerful drugs, some of which are not licensed for children as young as him, surely the risks of allowing him legal access to cannabis are considerably less? Yet to obtain cannabis legally, as we have heard is the case with other patients, Alfie’s parents would have to travel abroad at their own expense. Ironically, Alfie’s UK consultant would be willing to prescribe cannabis but is not allowed to do so. Rescheduling cannabis, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has suggested, would allow that to happen.
I and my colleagues heard from many patients in the noble Baroness’s commission when considering the matter. The evidence was very compelling. Today, your Lordships have called on the Government to base their policy on evidence, not misguided prejudice. The Government should hear the voices of the thousands of generally law-abiding patients who are forced to break the law or go to enormous trouble and expense to travel abroad to get the medicine that they know works for them. Those people do not want to have to do that, and there are thousands more who could benefit but are not prepared to take the risk. Why are we putting good people in this invidious situation? It is cruel, it is illogical and it is time that the Government did something about it.
My Lords, I first apologise for being late for the beginning of the debate. If I had a credible excuse, I would offer it. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on securing the debate, which has attracted a lot of interest—as reflected by the number of speakers.
As has been said, there is a regime in place, administered by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency—MHRA—to enable medicines, including those containing controlled drugs such as cannabis, to be developed, licensed and made available for medicinal use to patients in the UK. However, as has been said, and as I understand it, only one product containing cannabis extracts—Sativex—has been licensed as a medicinal product by the MHRA. Equally, as I understand it, the MHRA has recently decided that CBD-only products—cannabidiol is one of the main compounds of cannabis—which are used to treat various symptoms, should be considered as medicines.
The question we are debating is whether the Government plan to invite the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review the evidence supporting the rescheduling of cannabis to Schedule 2 or Schedule 4. Cannabis is controlled as a class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. In its raw form, it currently has no recognised medicinal benefits in the UK and is therefore listed as a Schedule 1 drug under the misuse of drugs regulations. This explicitly forbids doctors from prescribing cannabis and inhibits research.
If cannabis were rescheduled, it would enable patients with a wide range of conditions to obtain cannabis medicines to alleviate their symptoms, and doctors could prescribe it on a named patient basis, taking responsibility for patient safety, until licensed cannabis medications became available.
In their 2017 drugs strategy, the Government said that they were committed to grounding their approach in the latest available evidence. They stated:
“The advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs … is fundamental to informing our approach and we will continue to seek their valuable input and advice”.
Have the advisory council expressed any view to the Government that it now thinks it appropriate to undertake a review into either the classification or the rescheduling of cannabis—and, if so, what has been the Government’s response? If significant new evidence is now available that was not available previously and which might well influence the view of the advisory council—which appears to be the position—there is a case for inviting it to consider it, particularly in the light of the Government’s position that the advice of the council is fundamental to forming their approach.
We have heard in the debate about the case of Alfie, who is nearly six. As I understand it, some children with his condition have responded well to whole-plant medical cannabis with no side-effects. Indeed, as I understand it, Alfie’s consultant at his children’s hospital supports trying medical cannabis but cannot do so because it would be illegal for him to prescribe it at present. As has already been pointed out, in several other countries, including Ireland, a named consultant can prescribe whole-plant medical cannabis to a named patient. The future does not look good for Alfie at present. I ask the Minister to look at Alfie’s case to see what help can be given to get medical cannabis under the management of his consultant here—either now or, if he has to go abroad for such treatment, once it has been shown that it helps him.
My Lords, first, I also declare an interest in MS. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, knows, I worked with MS patients for many years before I got involved in politics—I do not know quite how I made the transition, but that was the case. Some of the noble Lord’s anecdotes from patients chime with things that I heard. I know that there is significant feeling in the House on this issue. It is also clear from noble Lords’ remarks that they are keen that government policy on this issue should be led by evidence—as my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth said, I confirmed that yesterday—but also should not prevent patients from obtaining relief from symptoms using effective medicines.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence has committed to reviewing the scheduling of cannabis under the UN’s 1961 convention. The review will consider therapeutic use as well as dependence, and the abuse potential of several constituent parts of cannabis, including the cannabis plant itself and cannabis resin, cannabidiol, or CBD, THC, isomers of THC and, extracts and tinctures of cannabis. The review is due to conclude by early 2019 and I, like most people here today, am very interested in its outcome and look forward to future opportunities to debate this issue—as I know we will—as and when the WHO concludes its work. I must add that the recognition of CBD as having medicinal application necessarily means that the other constituent parts will do so as well. Each compound ought to be assessed on its merits.
As noble Lords have said, cannabis in its raw herbal form continues to be listed in Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 as a substance with no recognised benefits in the UK, but I must underline that this is in its raw form. The system of scheduling does not preclude medicines based on cannabis from being developed. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 regime, along with the associated regulations, enables the availability of controlled drugs which have recognised medicinal uses in UK healthcare—of which there are many.
We are already able to rely on a process, administered by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, MHRA, in parallel with the Home Office’s licensing system, to enable medicines, including those containing controlled drugs such as cannabis, to be developed, licensed and made available for medicinal use to patients in the UK. In the case of a Schedule 1 drug such as cannabis, the Home Office is willing to consider applications for research licences to facilitate the development of new medicines, as long as the appropriate ethical approvals have been given, as we have done in the past. I am very happy to meet again with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, as we do regularly, to discuss this issue.
In the case of the cannabis-based drug Sativex, the Government have, as noble Lords have said, placed the product in Schedule 4 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations to allow it to be legally supplied on prescription. Sativex was granted a marketing authorisation by the MHRA and was rigorously tested for its safety and efficacy before receiving approval for this application. This rigour should equally be applied to future medicinal products containing cannabis.
As has also been pointed out today, the MHRA has offered an opinion that products containing CBD, when used for a medical purpose, should be regulated as medicinal products. A CBD or cannabidiol product in its pure form is not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, so where it can be extracted and isolated from the controlled substances in cannabis it would not require a licence from the Home Office. However, a CBD product that contains any trace of psychoactive compounds that are found in cannabis, such as THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, is considered to be a controlled substance under the 1971 Act and therefore unlawful to possess and supply unless it fits the criteria for an exempt product under the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. The MHRA is working with individual companies and trade bodies to make sure that products containing CBD used for a medical purpose which can be classified as medicines satisfy the requirements of the Human Medicines Regulations 2012.
We continue to facilitate forward-looking research involving cannabis and cannabinoids. There were 19 cannabinoid clinical trial authorisations granted between 2005 and 2015. These trials cover MS, dental applications, psychotic disorders, addiction to cannabis, type 2 diabetes, epilepsy, interaction with other medicines and brain diseases. Research in this area is ongoing.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, asked about research into synthetic cannabinoid changes. I know that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has commissioned the ACMD to look into whether there are barriers to research into Schedule 1 drugs as a result of changes to synthetic cannabinoid generic legislation. The Home Secretary has asked the council to provide its advice before the end of this year.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked about Epidiolex. Our position on it is that, as for any other medicine and as we did with Sativex, it must be put through the same stringent process to ensure its safety and efficacy, for the benefit of patients.
My noble friend Lord Crickhowell suggested that the Department of Health and not the Home Office should be responsible for this. I quietly nodded there. Like the previous strategy, the 2017 drug strategy takes a cross-government approach that reflects the need for co-ordinated action to tackle the problem in all its dimensions. Given the strong link between drug use and offending, the Home Office has and will continue to provide the governance and accountability essential to the effective delivery of this cross-departmental approach. The Department of Health leads on the building recovery strand of the strategy and, together with the Home Office, leads on the reducing demand strategy, along with Public Health England. To ensure that we are doing all we can—and following my meeting with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher—I have recently written to my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy, who is the Minister for Health in your Lordships’ House, to consider how the Government can facilitate the development and availability of cannabis-based medicines such as Sativex.
We are open to the development of new products based on cannabis and look forward to the review from the WHO’s expert committee. I am sure that the ACMD will follow its conclusions with great interest.
The Minister has not made any mention of Bedrocan in her response to the debate. Does she think it reasonable that TW, in the circumstances I described, has to make these visits to Holland to collect her medication, which has been prescribed for her in Britain but which she is not permitted to obtain from her local pharmacy? Is that a reasonable state of affairs and if the Minister thinks it is, why? If she thinks it is not, what will the Government do?
I noted the noble Lord’s mention of Bedrocan. I had not heard of it and I am very willing to look into that specific drug. There are of course many drugs available in other parts of the world that are not necessarily available here and vice versa. I will write to him on that point. I will also take up the point about Alfie separately.
May I thank everybody who has spoken so effectively in this debate? So many powerful points were made and we have managed to avoid duplication, amazingly. It just shows how many points one needs to make in relation to this—
My Lords, there is no right of reply in this debate.
Care: Older People
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the deferred payment scheme for funding older people's care.
My Lords, it is hard to recall the shock at the time, but it is only a few weeks ago that the Conservative Party decided that it would not have a large overall majority after all. The form this took, you will remember, was a pledge in the manifesto that everyone would have to spend themselves down to £100,000 before they got help with care costs. I think I knew what they were doing when they did it because I happened that afternoon to be on a platform for the dementia society’s conference with the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. He made a short reference to this proposal and I was asked what I thought of it. I said, in the words of Sir Humphrey, “Very brave, Minister”. I may have misdetected it but I thought he went a little bit pale.
Why do I start with that story which has absolutely nothing to do with deferred payment? It is very difficult to see why they did this. It could have been an accident. It could have been an outburst of honesty with the British people, which was laudable if not successful. I have another theory: that this Government have learned from long experience that you can do anything you want on care and nobody much notices—perhaps there would be more people here tonight if that were not the case. The case of deferred payments seems to me to be an extremely strong example on which the Government now need to focus and come clean with people on what they are going to do and put it into place.
Let me tell you a story—I am starting off down nostalgia lane. In 1999—I have the right decade, I think—I was sitting on the Royal Commission on Long Term Care. In parenthesis, one of my colleagues was Lord Joffe, whose death was recently announced, and who was one of the truly great and lovely men that I have had the pleasure to meet in my life. The majority of the commission—it beggars belief when you hear it now—wanted all social care to be free. That was their recommendation. I cannot really within a 10-minute speech spell out the number of noughts on the end of the cost of that proposal. It was bonkers for two other reasons. First, nearly all the extra money was going to the better-off, not the worse-off. Secondly, and to Joel and I more importantly, it did not provide an extra penny to care services. It simply made it easier for people to pay for care. Well that is very nice and desirable if you have the money, but it is very different from providing the care services that our country desperately needs. So we did not go along with this and signed a note of dissent, as it was called.
I comfort myself that history shows that it is only minority reports or commissions that have any effect, looking back to Webb and the Poor Laws. There was one on the fire brigade, where the main dissident report was written by the chairman. Only minority reports have any effect, and that was true in one sense in this case. We never got free care and I am very glad that we did not.
However, Joel and I, when writing our dissenting report, were aware that people were suffering considerable distress as a result of the means-tested system. In particular, it caused people to sell their houses to pay for care. So without conceding the free care principle, we felt that something should be done about that.
I quote paragraph 57 on page 123 of the Note of Dissent: “We therefore propose that the state offers a virtual guarantee that no person will have to sell their home against their will. This will be put in practice by a state-sponsored loan against the value of the home of any older person in need of care who does not want to sell”. I think that that was right in principle because going into a home is for many people a dreadful thing to have to do. It is made worse if you know that your house is going straight on to the market with no chance of ever getting it back.
However, let us face it, there was a lot of politics in that. We wanted to fend off free care for all and in order to do that we thought it right to do something that would make redundant the headlines which the Daily Mail used to specialise in: “Homes sold to pay for care”. There was a general acceptance of that. The Labour Government legislated in due course. They did so ineffectively and left it to local authorities to put the schemes in place. Many local authorities did not get around to it, so it did not work. The Conservative Government seemed not even to have noticed that that had been done. David Cameron, who some will remember was then the Prime Minister, went around saying that the Government would legislate so that,
“no one will have to sell their home to pay for care”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/5/13; col. 25.]
The 2014 Act was brought forward and it did indeed establish a national scheme for deferring payment for care, except that it did not apply to people with more than £23,250 in non-housing assets. That is a terrific limitation and it destroyed what the scheme was meant to do. You would be absolutely mad, if you possess a large house, to let your other assets run down to £23,250 so that the income on that sum would have to pay for all the other little things in life you might like. It made the proposal completely defunct. That point was hammered home in this place. I remember making a speech about it at Third Reading with strong support being expressed across the House. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, gave the impression, although I may have been naive, that this would be dealt with and they would up the £23,250 limit. In the light of that, I withdrew my amendment. They did not; they stuck to it and the figure did not change. Of all people’s word to break, they broke the word of the noble Earl, Lord Howe.
I did not have to do much research to know what would happen. What has happened is that we now have a totally failed system. The Government estimated that the new scheme would bring the uptake of deferred care up from 4,000 in 2012 to 12,300, but it has not. In fact the uptake figure hovers at around 3,600; that is, even less take-up than before. The research to show that was carried out by the think tank Reform, which is not unsympathetic to the Government. That number is simply those who are eligible but who choose not to claim it—one third of the number that the Government said would. There are also all those people who are completely excluded from it by the arbitrary rules that the Government have set. Those were Cameron’s words backed by his party and both Houses of Parliament but they have been completely overruled and ignored.
I believe that Parliament was misled and that the time has come to do something about it. I believe—I hope the Minister will confirm this—that the Government are reviewing the deferred payments scheme and its impact. On the facts as we have them, I do not think there can be any doubt about what the conclusion of such a review should be. Of course, this is all part of the broader picture on social care. I, for one, welcome the review that has been carried out in the Cabinet Office, and the fact that we did not dash into that manifesto pledge and that proper, serious consideration is being given to this issue by proper, serious people on the basis of proper, serious research.
I beg the Government to look at this again, because you can make a case for the scheme or you can say that people should have to sell their houses to pay for care, but I say in all seriousness that I think it is unforgivable to mislead older people. They find this system extraordinarily complicated and extremely hard to get their heads round in any case. To leave them in the state of confusion that now exists as to whether or not they can get deferred care payments seems to me—I hesitate to use this phrase—an act of cruelty. The Government can put this right. It does not cost anything, because this is merely money that is lent to them being paid back. They should produce a clear, workable scheme so that those who do not want to sell their houses to pay for care will not have to, as David Cameron said.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, very much because this is a very important issue. I think I have been involved in it for longer than anybody else. I have tried to get the issues around social care, care homes and how to pay for care right. This is a persistent, complex and very difficult subject, and we have to do something about it. If we started again, I think we would have a unified system but, let us face it, the majority of people who have to go into care homes are very old and have some form of cognitive dysfunction or dementia. They are shuffled between healthcare and social care. We are once again talking about how these people are going to be funded. It is very important that eventually we get this right. All these terribly frail people cannot go on waiting year after year while David and I meet regularly at events. Those events are not perhaps as important as being here, but they are occasions where people try to deal with this subject.
It is very hard to know what the prevalence of deferred payment agreements is because the data collection is now mandatory but the 2015-16 data collection was voluntary. Data collected by Care England, Age UK and NHS Digital found that out of 55 local authorities in England, just 1,300 DPAs were written in 2015-16, the first financial year in which the mandatory scheme was in force.
If we assume that this sample is representative of the 152 local authorities offering adult social services in this country, these data suggest that only 3,600 DPAs were issued in 2015-16. That is less than a third of the Government’s original estimate and lower than the figure in 2012. Meanwhile, Reform suggests that a higher figure of about 6,000 DPAs were issued in 2015-16 compared with the Government’s projection of 12,300. But whatever figure we use, the uptake and availability of deferred payment agreements has been very much lower than expected.
Reform concluded that tighter than expected eligibility is the principal reason why the Government overstated the number of people who would take up a DPA. These outcomes are despite councils having a statutory duty to offer DPAs under the Care Act. However, there is no government target for the number of DPAs issued by local authorities. To redress this imbalance, Reform argues for the DPA means-test threshold to be increased from £23,250 to £100,000, which would raise the percentage of self-funders who are eligible for support from 45% to 62.6%. One major challenge, however, is the lack of public awareness. Different councils develop different approaches and the pause in the Care Act is also something to be contended with.
All this has led to a huge amount of confusion. First, people do not understand the difference—they never have—between healthcare and social care. I have spent years saying that somebody who has a terminal disease, such as one of 100 different types of dementia, needs only social care, according to the rules, whereas somebody with a chronic illness such as back pain is given health service care. It is all very odd, really.
There is huge confusion in people’s minds, particularly about deferred payments. Neither is it transparent to the people who provide care or to people admitted to homes under a DPA, who would otherwise have been self-funders paying the home directly. DPAs also work by placing some people under a council contract, at council fee rates, and the home does not know their true status, which might mean that they have enough money to pay for it. So, as much as I deplore the fact that we have different criteria for healthcare and social care—as we always have had—it works both ways. Some people who really have enough money are not paying, because we know that councils pay very much less, which is one reason why so many care homes are going out of business.
So the use of DPAs is not transparent to the provider and, as an example of the rather covert nature of this landscape in which DPAs operate, the Department of Health recently completed an internal review of them in order to inform policy making, but it has chosen not to make the findings public. Perhaps the Minister can say why. It would be useful to know. There has not been a detailed analysis of the deferred payments scheme since 2013, when an impact assessment was published alongside the Care Act. At the time, the analysis suggested a highly patchy take-up of the scheme. There was a lot of regional variation, ranging from 1% to 40%. A new analysis to see how much take-up has changed is very much overdue, in my humble opinion.
Expectations from citizens, however, have risen. We know that they experience social care and healthcare as a continuum. The current financial challenges make the delivery of such expectations completely untenable. Taxpayers really are not getting value for money, so I endorse Care England’s view that, for DPAs to become a constructive part of a secure funding environment, a long-term vision with strong central leadership is required to take duplication and unnecessary administrative burdens out of the system. At the national level, much more clarity is needed about the partnership between the state and the individual in terms of funding. Locally, commissioners and providers need to agree the suitability of an individual’s care package, rather than this being seen as part of an arbitrary standard price.
DPAs are only part of the solution to funding social care fees, and the promised consultation on funding is a key opportunity to think about what sort of society we want to live in. Therefore, key questions on this issue are: when will the consultation be published and what form will it take, and in the meantime what short-term provision will the Government be recommending to tackle the current levels of unmet need? I hope that the noble Lord will be able to answer at least some of those points.
My Lords, this has been a short but very interesting debate, and I am grateful to my noble friend and to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for the way in which they have addressed the dilemma that undoubtedly faces us, not just in relation to deferred payments but more generally in relation to funding appropriate social care.
It was interesting that my noble friend Lord Lipsey took us back to the royal commission. Over nearly 20 years we have seen a continuing debate, any number of reports and some measures on the statute book, yet we still seem no nearer to solving the conundrum of how to fund social or long-term care. I have to agree with my noble friend: there are those who argue that social care should be free at the point of use but I regard that as a fantasy. It is very unlikely that over the next 20 years any Government will in reality be able to afford it.
The problem is that, even though Governments have accepted some proposals in principle, when those proposals are costed, in reality they step back from them, and we are left in a hiatus of a completely arbitrary and unfair system. The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, referred to this problem, which is, if you like, a boundary dispute between such care being free at the point of use in the NHS and means-tested personal social care. Understandably, tensions often arise within NHS hospitals as families try to resist an individual who is receiving care which is free at the point of use in the NHS ending up in the care system, where a means test takes place. I do not think that anyone can say that we have a fair system. In my view, it is equally unfair that self-funders in care homes effectively subsidise local authority-funded residents. Speaking from where I am, I suppose you could regard that as a kind of regressive taxation. It is so arbitrary and so unfair that I believe it is very difficult to justify.
It seems to me that either we try to solve this problem or millions of people over the next 30 years will carry on living in what is sometimes abject misery, uncertainty and fear about their financial future and about their families, to whom they would like to pass on some income where they are in a position to do so. If one were putting odds on it, one would say that at the moment one sees very little likelihood of anyone coming forward with a cohesive package of things which can be funded, which is thought to be fair and which would get public support, although clearly that is what we seek to do.
The deferred payment arrangement is very disappointing. Clearly, David Cameron’s pledge was widely welcomed and was seen to be progressive. My noble friend talked about the increased estimate that the department gave, going from £4,000 to £12,300, but in any case £12,300 seems a pathetic amount. We seem to have a complete failure in the marketplace. There is no easy way for people to translate a housing asset into care home support while retaining the ability to leave some of their resources to their loved ones when they die.
A number of organisations have commented on what has happened to the deferred payment scheme. Clearly, bringing in such a tight means test undermined what we thought Mr Cameron had been offering. The point was well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, that we need, at the very least, to see how the scheme is working. I know that the Minister, in an answer to my noble friend in March, said that the department is continuing to monitor the success of this scheme and that an update of these deferred payment schemes across all local authorities will be available later in the year. I hope that he may be about to give us a progress report on that.
I have had evidence from Royal London and some of the charities. Royal London, for example, looked at the inconsistency between local authorities. It said that despite access to deferred payment agreement being a legal right—I am not sure that that is quite how I read the Act, but we know what it is getting at, because it is in the Act—10 local authorities told Royal London they had not entered into a single agreement since the scheme was introduced in April 2015. That is a pretty poor show. I ask the Minister: in light of the work that we hope will be published later in the year, what are we going to do about local authorities which simply refuse to operate the scheme at all?
My final point comes back to the Government’s manifesto proposal, their retreat and the intention set out in the Queen’s Speech to consult on how we improve the social care system. I refer the Minister to the Care Act 2014, a marvellous piece of work. It was consensual, it came from Dilnot and we spent weeks in your Lordships’ House in a consensual approach, yet it is dead and gone. There are some bits in it that are good, still, and which I very much applaud. It is a puzzle that the Government have never explicitly said whether they regard the whole thing as dead and gone and that is why they put the new proposals in their manifesto.
What is the consultation going to be about? Will it be about making the scheme that the Government put in their manifesto slightly more generous—raise the level, reduce the floor—or are they prepared to actually look again at Dilnot, which everyone said was a sensible approach, even if the figures may not be the right figures? Of course, the Government’s rate was much less generous than the original Dilnot proposal, but at the end of the day, whatever information the Minister can give us about the consultation, which we hope can be comprehensive, would be very welcome.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for bringing forward this debate. I know that he has been a tenacious proponent of deferred payments and of reform of the care system. I pay credit to him for that—it is very rare that we have a debate where I can thank everyone individually, so I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to know Lord Joffe, but I know how much the House has mourned his passing and have noted the contribution he made. I want to acknowledge that as we talk about this issue.
We have had a bit of a trip down memory lane today, although others might call it Groundhog Day. We seem to be going over this issue repeatedly without properly resolving it. Of course it is not easy; the ageing population is probably the greatest social challenge, at least the greatest domestic social challenge, that we face. It is not one that we have grappled well with in the past, and that is true of Governments of all hues. That is for a number of reasons, including obviously the money and the changing nature of society, particularly working patterns. What has been highlighted by all noble Lords is the interplay between the taxpayer funded, free at the point of use National Health Service and a social care system that works on a different basis. It means that any attempt, whether it is a Labour-proposed national health and care service or through integration at STP level, is made very hard, particularly as things move. So I do not underplay the importance of this issue, and, of course, as we think about the narrower issue of DPAs, it has to be set in a context of what is happening elsewhere.
In the short run, more money is going into local authorities to try to provide the social care that is required. It is particularly focused on delayed transfers of care. That has some interplay with this issue precisely because of the concerns about moving from one part of the health system into another, something mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. It is about the difference between continuing healthcare and social care and the quite radical consequences of the different funding situations for families that are necessarily trying to navigate through it at a time of stress. It is a challenge, but we are trying to address it through this additional funding.
In the long run, as noble Lords have pointed out, the intention is to bring forward proposals on social care reform for consultation. The objective in the consultation—I am glad the noble Lord mentioned the care Act—is to achieve the widest possible consensus. It should not be a completely open-ended “what shall we do” process, but it should try to put forward some proposals that, inevitably in the process of consultation, will change but will try to achieve some kind of consensus. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, specifically asked about Dilnot. There was a lot of agreement around Dilnot, but I still come across people who think that Dilnot was the worst thing that could ever have happened. There is a more nuanced picture. If anything, that just underlines the importance of taking care as we try to build a consensus.
Moving forward to the specific issue of the debate, which is deferred payment agreements, as has been outlined, they are a means by which individuals can access equity in their home to pay for care without having to sell it, meaning that they do not have to sell their home in their lifetimes. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, pointed out, DPAs have been in existence for a number of years and the issue was addressed in the care Act precisely to attempt to create a more thoroughgoing national system to replace what had obviously been quite a patchy one. Even though some elements of the care Act have not been taken forward, in particular the social care reform agenda, as has been pointed out, the Government took the decision to move ahead with the implementation of DPAs in order to fulfil the pledge of the previous Prime Minister—to whom both he and my noble friend Lady Sugg owe their position in this House—that people should not have to sell their homes in order to go into care during their lifetime.
In terms of the actual performance of the scheme, we had a year of voluntary data collecting for 2015-16, although it is now compulsory. A helpful note tells me that the next iteration of the data is 2016-17, and NHS Digital should be publishing them towards the end of October. We will then have a really thorough look at what is happening. The previous year showed that about one-third of local authorities responded, so it was only a partial picture. Nevertheless, it was disappointing that fewer DPAs were agreed than had been anticipated. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, pointed this out as likely to be the case in the debate on the regulations. I will come to what we can do about it, but these are of course a means to an end in themselves. This is why I am not convinced that having a target is appropriate because it is about enabling a choice and adding to the choices that are available for people by providing a means of deferring payment until after death. There are many reasons why people may not choose a DPA, and of course the private market is evolving all the time. But we need to understand why there were fewer DPAs than anticipated and to ensure that those who are eligible for them can access one. If there are local authorities where not one has been signed, that suggests that something is going wrong at the local level in terms of communication between the local authority, individuals and the social care sector. So we need to know why that happens.
In the noble Lord’s very helpful response, he referred to the private market. He mentioned that not everyone thought Dilnot was the right answer, because one of Dilnot’s aims was, by capping costs, for the insurance market to come in when they have been reluctant to. I wondered whether part of the consultation would seek to answer the conundrum of what could make the insurance market come into this area more enthusiastically. Clearly, that would be one way that we could solve some of the problems.
The noble Lord makes a good point. I do not know if that will be laid out explicitly. We have talked a little about the manifesto and how it was a movable feast over the course of a weekend. We ended up with a floor and a cap. At the point at which you have a cap, in theory, you have an insurable product. It depends whether it is insured by the private market or the state, but that was clearly at the core of the Dilnot design. There was lots of disagreement about how you could take forward that principle, but I think it useful so that, in keeping with the nature of the market, you have a mixed economy of funding.
We have been talking to local authorities to understand why people may not be accessing DPAs. There are a number of barriers, such as lack of awareness, interest charges and administrative fees. We are considering what actions can be taken locally and nationally to raise awareness and understanding of the scheme. One example of that is that is the wide variation in administrative fees charged by local authorities. Clearly, it is important that those fees are not set at a prohibitive rate, nor that local authorities are or seem to be profiting from the fees. They are meant to be covering costs. However, I think interest rates provide quite a positive picture, because the interest rate is around a third of that offered by the standard equity release scheme on the market. With wider awareness, that would prove more attractive than it has done.
Regarding the eligibility criteria, £100,000 is a magic fee in this social care debate—even more so after the election. That was the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, made about the reform proposal and widening eligibility. There are two points I would like to make on this. First, the Government’s aim in establishing the scheme was particularly to ensure that people did not have to sell their homes, rather than run down other capital. I know that that is more limited than noble Lords might like, but that was nevertheless the aim of the scheme.
The second point is that, in expanding the criteria, a local authority should in theory be able to recoup its costs, but there may be some costs in taking on a wider group of qualifying people. There is always a balance to be struck, particularly in cash flow terms, between helping a group who are by definition better-off people, and fairness to local taxpayers. That is one issue that needs to be considered.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, asked in particular about the deep dive that happened. She will be disappointed to hear that departmental protocol is that these are for internal use only, so I am afraid I am not in a position to share that information with her. It sounds like she has the detail on what happened anyway, so I am not sure that that would necessarily reveal anything that she does not know.
To conclude, it remains a departmental priority to make the scheme accessible to all those who are eligible and would benefit from it. We will continue to monitor the scheme and, once the data are published, may look at some of the ideas suggested by noble Lords on how to give this scheme more momentum. Clearly, the intention of it is not to be de minimis, but to reach the original target and more people beyond that. We are open to ideas on how that can be achieved.
Finally, any DPA scheme must in the long run fit into the wider context of social care funding and provision. That point has been well made in this debate. As the proposals come out for consultation, considering the interplay of DPAs and the overall funding environment will be critical in whether reforms are successful. I conclude by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, again for tabling this debate and other noble Lords for their contributions. I look forward to working with them on getting consensus on real reform in the sector.
Committee adjourned at 5.38 pm.