Monday 17 December 2018
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, if there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.
Employment: Terminal Illness
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps, if any, they will take to prevent workers being dismissed from their jobs following diagnosis of a terminal illness.
My Lords, I begin by praising the work of the Government and, in particular, the Minister for Disabled People, Sarah Newton, for their support for the TUC Dying to Work campaign and for encouraging employers through the disability confidence scheme to adopt the TUC voluntary charter. I also wish to mention my good friend and colleague, Pauline Latham MP, who sadly cannot be with us today but has done a lot of work at that end of the Corridor, as has, in a slightly different context, Madeleine Moon on behalf of people suffering from motor neurone disease.
The TUC charter, as many noble Lords will know, has been a great success, with almost a million workers protected and companies such as Rolls-Royce in Derby, Bombardier, Legal & General, Santander, TSB, Lloyds, Weetabix, E.ON and the Royal Mail all signing up to demonstrate their commitment to protect and support their terminally ill workers.
While the Government’s support for the charter is commendable, not every employee is fortunate enough to be employed by such a supportive employer. Jacci Woodcock, the patron of the TUC Dying to Work campaign who I am delighted to say is with us today, faced significant problems after she informed her employer of her diagnosis of terminal breast cancer. Ms Woodcock is not alone, and therefore I believe that there is a need to strengthen the provision that is afforded to terminally ill workers.
Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of protected characteristics in certain areas of life, including employment. Anyone who is diagnosed with a terminal illness will almost definitely be covered by that definition of disability. However, within the Equality Act, employers retain the ability to dismiss a disabled worker on the grounds of capability following a reasonable adjustment. While this is clearly reasonable in standard cases of disability, where the employer has the opportunity to learn new skills and adapt to the adjustments made, I am sure that noble Lords will acknowledge that terminally ill workers find themselves in a fundamentally different situation. First, their condition is necessarily degenerative, so any adjustments made for them which may be reasonable one day are perhaps not reasonable the next. There can also be significant differences and life expectancies between, say, a cancer diagnosis and one of motor neurone disease. Therefore, there is a need for a very different approach.
Secondly, such procedures can be stressful. I am sure that noble Lords would agree that such additional stress and strain is very unwelcome at such a difficult time and, indeed, may exacerbate the health issues being faced.
Finally, when a terminal diagnosis is made, people’s first thoughts are often with the loved ones they will leave behind. People understandably want to make sure that their nearest and dearest are financially secure. Many people currently have death-in-service schemes or life assurance as part of their contracts of employment, and these often pay out significant sums. However, should a terminally ill worker be dismissed in their end-of-life period, they would lose not only their job but their entitlement to these benefits.
Despite the clear need to provide additional protection for terminally ill workers, I can understand the Government’s reluctance to begin amending the Equality Act. However, I think this could be done with a suitable statutory instrument. The TUC has received legal advice that I have been made privy to, and am happy to share with the Minister, which suggests a sensible way forward without the need to amend the Act. The Secretary of State can lay regulations that determine the circumstances in which an employee is incapable of carrying out their duties due to ill health. It would still be reasonable for an employer to retain such a person in their employment, and not to dismiss them, where that employee is disabled by a terminal illness.
In the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992, terminal illness is defined as being where death is expected within six months. This definition could be maintained. However, should the Government wish to pursue this course of action, a protected period of two years might be more appropriate, to ensure that employees are not concerned that their legal protection will imminently expire.
Colleagues across the House may be concerned that such a proposal might put additional strain on small and medium-sized enterprises. However, judging by the way maternity leave has worked in small businesses, I believe that these can be overcome. Regulations made under the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act mean that recovery of benefits is usually made by deducting the relevant amount from PAYE, national insurance and any student loan repayments that the employer is due to make to HMRC. There is, therefore, no immediate need for a cash-flow crisis to hit an employer. Further provision could be made in regulations without the need for any primary legislation.
I would like the Government to look closely at these proposals, of which I have given the Minister details, and seek to lay the necessary statutory instruments, so that in future no other terminally ill workers need have the additional stress or strain of worrying about their job and their family’s financial future.
On a purely personal note, I decided, on my own initiative, to consult my daughter and my daughter-in-law. One is a director of HR for a company in the City; the other is a deputy director of HR for a very large firm of solicitors. I asked them what they knew about how to deal with terminal illness. They basically said that they looked it up in the book. They both have an MSc in human relations. For neither of them was dealing with terminally ill workers part, for even half an hour, of their course. In other words, they qualified with an MSc in HR from different universities, at different times, in different cities and on different courses, without dealing with terminal illness even being referred to.
We need, therefore, to look beyond the terminal illness that we are dealing with here, and to ask the Government and the TUC to support the training of HR workers in how to deal with this problem, which affects a lot of workers. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester for being here, because this is a problem that is often dealt with by people of faith in many different religions. The right reverend Prelate will acknowledge that all faiths have to deal with this matter. It is a great strain, and many people in work faced with a terminal illness need a huge amount of support, love and effort. We owe it to them to train our workforce, and as a Government we owe it to the people of this country to do the best we can—without undue legislative weight—to make this a bearable problem for the many people affected. I thank noble Lords for listening to this opening speech.
My Lords, I greatly welcome this debate, and thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for bring this important matter to our attention. I also welcome the TUC’s support of the courageous work of Jacci Woodcock in highlighting the issue, on the basis of her own experience.
As a trustee of the diocese of Chichester, I share responsibility for employing nearly 100 staff but also for the care of some 400 clergy. These clergy are office-holders, not employees, and many live in accommodation they occupy by virtue of their office. A terminal illness for one of those clergy, as for anybody else, carries the prospect of multiple concerns, but especially for those dependent on them. The loss of income and a home are primary concerns, alongside the personal challenges of failing health and dependence on others—often difficult for those more familiar with caring for others. The potential loss of their home goes right to the heart of the fear of death and the implications for a family—particularly if there are issues such as schooling and the future of children—that a terminal illness brings. When a family is most challenged, networks of social relationships are immensely sensitive.
In the case of office-holders—our clergy—regulations attached to their appointment give a measure of protection, but the wider housing needs of a family are discretionary. Our policy in the diocese of Chichester is to treat each case individually, doing as much as we can to understand a family’s needs, such as schooling, and to support them in making their choices for the future.
In the one or two cases that have occurred while I have been Bishop of Chichester, we believe that the perception of a high level of care for the family, and for the person who has the terminal illness and is enabled to continue in ministry for as long as possible, has had a significant impact on trust and morale for other clergy in the diocese, who are living in a similar condition of dependency for their housing on their occupation of an office.
This is just one example of how the implications of terminal illness can relate to a person’s profession, work and beyond. The Dying to Work campaign invites us to consider another aspect of responding to terminal illness. It is increasingly the case that the death of someone close to us is not experienced until relatively late in our lives. We are not well prepared for the news of that death or how to respond to it emotionally. Our own mortality is given little attention in a culture that has benefited so much from medical science and unprecedented levels of healthcare. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, gave the example of his daughter and daughter-in-law’s experience of being highly qualified HR consultants and practitioners and yet this taboo subject was not part of their training.
We find it easy to express our own grief in social ways—flowers, cards and candles at roadside shrines, for example—but, as clergy, we know from first-hand experience of being alongside the bereaved that grief will isolate you. It is so common to hear a bereaved person describe how many people came to a funeral but say that, a couple of days later, someone would cross the road to avoid a face-to-face encounter, because they did not know how to talk about death and grief.
Working alongside a person who is going to die is a privilege. It teaches us something about ourselves that our social processes today simply do not prepare us for. This is not a matter of Christian faith but simply a fact—the unflinching facing of our mortality. Working with somebody close to us who is going through that process can help break down the barrier of fear and embarrassment that prompts us to avoid not only the dying but, perhaps more significantly, the bereaved.
Finally, those who are handling a terminal illness are often capable of showing us the best of which a human being is able to demonstrate in challenging circumstances. Once again, this is enormously beneficial and inspirational for the atmosphere of a place of work.
Right now, in the diocese of Chichester we have a young priest who has a terminal illness. The institution in which he has been working has found accommodation that will meet his needs, while keeping him in touch with friends and colleagues. His mobility and energy levels had declined markedly when I saw him last, but his generosity of spirit and capacity to find the best in each day and each person he meets are remarkable, profoundly attractive and unforgettable. You cannot set a price on, or pay to, access this kind of inspirational example. It is a gift and a privilege, and it has rightly been drawn to our attention as something that we need to prize more greatly than we do.
My Lords, I too am grateful for the opportunity to support my noble friend Lord Balfe in this important debate. I am also glad to hear the remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester, which went much wider and were very moving in the context of bereavement, terminal illness and degenerative disease.
I want to approach this from a slightly different angle, if the Committee will bear with me, because it may not be obvious to begin with. I have just finished reading a book by Professor Sir Paul Collier, The Future of Capitalism. He is the professor of economics and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford and makes an interesting point which is relevant to this debate, narrow though it may seem in that context. He says that the ethos of a typical company has been changing. I imagine that he is probably now in his 60s or possibly even his 70s, but as a young man he was brought up in Sheffield, where there were lots of steel companies. As he says, at that time everyone was proud of producing wonderful steel. Sheffield was the steel city of the world and, on the whole, workers were treated well, with strong trade unions and strong rights.
My first job was with Rowntree’s, which is well known as a part of the Quaker tradition. It has now been taken over by Nestlé while the other big Quaker confectionery company, Cadbury’s, has been taken over by an American company. Those companies built houses for their workers and had a proper approach to welfare. There was also the Rowntree Trust, which was involved in social policy.
Paul Collier’s book is very interesting, because he relates it to the nature of capitalism and how we deal with workers. His point is that since the 1970s, things have changed slowly. We have steadily introduced the idea of a company producing not the best product it can but shareholder value, which rules the roost. Companies are now expected to adhere to shareholder value in their basic philosophy. The professor has worse examples than that. For example, he mentions that at Goldman Sachs, people were sent out to find suckers to sell their products to. That is the level we have got to in some parts of our financial industries. As a consequence, this is in effect globalisation. Globalisation has been immensely good in many ways. It has lifted millions of people out of poverty in China and India, but it has had a downside. It has meant greater inequality, less care than there perhaps was previously for workers’ rights and, generally, poor quality jobs.
This growing inequality is one of the things that I think led to Brexit, for example, to the rustbelt in America, the protests in France and the problems in the Mezzogiorno of Italy. With that downside there is less care for the workers, as opposed to the overall demand of a company to maximise profits and pursue consumer satisfaction, at the expense of workers’ rights and experience.
The obvious answer is more active government. I was glad that my noble friend made the point that there is a possibility of doing something through a statutory instrument to address this issue. I hope that the Minister has something positive to say about that. Today I understand that Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, is setting out some further examples of how the Government are tackling workplace problems and worker rights and I hope this can be included in that general agenda as well as in the specific question which my noble friend raised.
As Professor Collier states in his book, the truth is that government cannot do everything. I think the right reverend Prelate will agree with this point. We also have responsibilities. Companies have responsibilities and individuals have responsibilities as well as the state. The state simply cannot cover the waterfront and get all this done. It is simply too much to ask, especially when we have this wretched Brexit and the bandwidth of government is totally occupied with other matters. Companies have to reacquire—this is the point that Professor Collier makes in the book—the moral and ethical dimension which many of them once had but which is less prevalent today. My noble friend mentioned some companies which have already adopted this idea of help with degenerative or terminal illness, and I was glad to hear that, but he also mentioned that it was not mentioned in the advice given to his daughter and daughter-in-law who are in the HR field, so clearly there is a real problem about companies not recognising the issue.
My plea is not only for the Government to look at this issue and do something about it but that companies, perhaps through the TUC campaign, get on board. It is wonderful that Jacci Woodcock is here today. I am delighted to see her; we are full of admiration—I certainly am—for all that she has done. It is remarkable and it will be a great tribute to her if we could rack up examples of companies voluntarily doing something about it, not waiting for a statutory instrument to be passed by your Lordships’ House and the House of Commons. That would be a wonderful tribute to the work she has put in.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for this debate and to the Committee for allowing me to speak in the gap. I should declare an interest because when I was chair of the National Council for Palliative Care, which has now merged with Hospice UK, it was an early signatory to the TUC voluntary code of practice and did not hesitate for one second over signing up to it.
It was at that time that I saw Jacci Woodcock. She has spoken very openly and with amazing courage about her situation and her emotional response to what has happened to her. Unfortunately, fewer than 1 million workers, I think, are now covered by the voluntary scheme, even though it is going well. I hoped that it would be something like three-quarters of the UK by now, and I think that reflects some of the problems that have been referred to in HR departments.
In the short time available, I shall look at the problem from the point of view of the person, their spouse and their children and then from that of the rest of the workforce, including HR departments. The person is devastated when they have a diagnosis of a life-limiting illness. They can feel as if they are now on the scrapheap, their life is drawing to a close and then they can find themselves rejected by a place they have worked in and in which they have invested their time and emotional energy. They almost always have distress in four main domains: the physical in relation to the illness; the emotional; the social and the all the problems and worries that come with it; and then the spiritual of why me? Whether you have a faith or not, if you are young and you are dying, you wonder why it is happening to you.
I welcome the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, but I caution that there is always a problem with time limits. Different diseases take different courses, and some may go into remission and be in remission for a phase and then may suddenly accelerate. The principle of somebody faced with a life-threatening illness is one that we have to take on board as a whole and not pretend that if we put some framework round it, that would solve a problem. There are examples of good practice, and fortunately, I think the NHS has done well by its staff.
I have friends and colleagues who have died in service. Indeed, the boy I was brought up with died in service in International Harvesters, which kept him employed on its books for quite a long time because he outlived his prognosis.
What about the family? When someone becomes ill, they still have all their skills, which are often transferable. With a bit of imagination in the workforce, they can be built on to help workers to learn from that person and hand on their skills. The spouse will of course be devastated, but there is also psychological damage for the children of seeing their parents rejected. That is the parent who stayed at work rather than fetch them from school, who was not always there to do things because they were worrying about work, but work has thrown them out. That will destroy their whole concept of society and the value structure.
We must not forget that 90% of children know what is going on when their parent is ill or dying. What kind of a society are we if we give these children the message that their parent is now on the scrapheap and being rejected? That will destroy their work ethic for life.
Lastly, I hope that HR departments will recognise that the evidence is that productivity goes up if you have someone who the rest of the workforce is looking after. Productivity rises because everyone can focus on what is a really big problem, and all those little moans and undermining comments vanish. Those things that demoralise the workforce tend to disappear, so it is also a good financial investment.
My Lords, I share the general commendation for the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for bringing forward this very important issue. When I put my name down to speak in this debate, I asked several business colleagues what they thought: what steps should be taken to prevent workers being dismissed from their jobs following diagnosis of a terminal illness. To a man and woman, they said, “That would not happen”. They could not envisage circumstances in which it would happen.
Clearly, there is a mismatch between where we are in the law and what people think ought to be the case. Obviously, nobody in their right mind would think that anybody should be dismissed, even if they have a terminal illness, if they are capable of carrying on doing their job. Nobody in their right mind would think that anyone should be dismissed because they have been injured or hurt in the course of performing their employment duties.
As always in these cases, the devil is in the detail. The example of Jacci Woodcock exemplifies why. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, described very well his relatives’ position, not that I have ever met them. I come from a corporate law background, and, in that world, there were standard service provisions in employment contracts under which, if anyone was incapable of doing their job through ill health, for a period, they had full pay, then for another period they had half pay. After that period was at an end, they had no pay. I suspect that the reason that his relatives had not dealt with this issue was because they came from a world of service contracts that made all those provisions.
Again, the devil is in the detail. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, has been very creative in suggesting how the situation can be made certain through the use of statutory instruments rather than primary legislation because, as we all know, with the Government’s obsession with Brexit, the chance of getting any primary legislation on the statute book this side of 2080 is pretty remote.
I urge that the noble Lord’s suggestion be adopted. As the noble Lord, Lord Horam, said, the remarks of Mr Clark today are very opportune: the Government are looking at what to do to improve and tidy up the whole area of employment. This is a very worthwhile commitment to what he is trying to do.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for his opening remarks and declare an interest as a member and former member of staff of the GMB trade union. I echo the noble Lord’s call for action from the Government. My colleagues and I on the opposition Benches support the proposals outlined and agree that the protections afforded to terminally ill workers need to be strengthened. I take this opportunity to praise the work of Jacci Woodcock—it is lovely to see her here today—the TUC and my union, the GMB, which launched the Dying to Work campaign and have raised significant awareness of this important issue.
However, this is not just a trade union issue. As touched on earlier, this campaign has considerable support from employers across both the public and private sectors. In addition to the support from the business community, the campaign has been endorsed by third-sector organisations that work to support people with terminal illnesses—as we heard earlier from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay—such as Breast Cancer Care, Second Hope, Marie Curie, the National Council for Palliative Care and Hospice UK.
Businesses, trade unions and wider civic society are united in a desire to see the loopholes closed so that vulnerable workers are not living under the constant threat of dismissal during their end-of-life period. This could be done quickly and effectively using secondary legislation. Providing more security to terminally ill workers and their families should not divide us; instead, I am certain this can bring together Members from across the House. This is not an issue of left or right but of right and wrong.
From a new apprentice all the way through to a CEO, a terminal diagnosis can strike anyone at any time. No one trying to cope with a terminal illness should find themselves forced out of work and losing the death-in-service payments that can provide financial security for the family they leave behind.
My fellow Peers will be all too aware of the difficulties surrounding a terminal diagnosis following the powerful and moving speech earlier this year by my friend and colleague the late Baroness Jowell, which received universal acclaim and support from across the House. Tessa commented in her speech that terminally ill people,
“need to know that they have a community around them, supporting and caring, being practical and kind”.
Our society’s values, which demand such care and kindness, do not stop at the door of our workplace, and we should expect and demand the same practical and kind support from every employer of a terminally ill worker. Tessa concluded her speech by saying:
“In the end, what gives a life meaning is not only how it is lived, but how it draws to a close”.—[Official Report, 25/1/18; col. 1170.]
For some people, that will mean maintaining the positive stimulation, normality and dignity of being in work and not being forced out of work by an unscrupulous employer. I believe the proposals made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, will give people the choice about how they spend the final few weeks or months of their lives. Some will decide to leave work, take ill health retirement, bring forward their pension or take any other action that may be in their interest. This proposal does not force people to stay in work but instead gives working people the ability to select the right option for themselves and their families based on their own personal and financial circumstances.
In the Prime Minister’s first speech outside Downing Street, she made a number of pledges to provide support for working people. Sadly, however, we have seen precious few examples of this rhetoric in action. One such pledge made by the Prime Minister to working people was to,
“do everything we can to give you more control over your lives”.
Here is a cost-free opportunity, with support from across this House and the other place, to provide a very vulnerable group of people with control over the last chapter of their lives. This proposal also has overwhelming public support; a recent Survation poll showed that over 79% of people supported these changes.
Clearly, this is not only the right thing to do but it makes good practical sense, and I challenge the Government to grasp this golden opportunity and demonstrate that the Prime Minister meant what she said when she took office. However, this is not just about politics but about people, so I will share a story which appeared in the Nottingham Post on this very day last year, to demonstrate why we must act on this issue:
“Karen Land, 39, had just finished training for her dream job of becoming a firefighter when she was told she had three months to live”.
Karen, who had previously been a stay-at-home mum, a parent of five, had just finished firefighter training when she was diagnosed. She said:
“‘It’s all happened so quickly. Nine weeks ago I was fit and healthy and training for my dream job and now I have three months left. ‘It is almost surreal, I think I am still in shock … This job meant everything to me. It was so hard to get on the training course, and I put so much work into it.’ … Tracy Crump, the service’s head of people and organisational development, said: ‘Our people are our Service, and their health and wellbeing is massively important to us, so I’m really pleased that we have been able to sign this charter to set in stone our commitment to ensuring that any employee with a terminal illness has much needed security, stability and peace of mind’”.
I commend Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue for signing the TUC Dying to Work voluntary charter and making this important commitment to Ms Land and their other employees.
Work was clearly important to Karen, and it is great that her employer has supported her and her family in this way. I hope that many other employers go on to do the same. However, we know that too often, people in Karen’s position can find that they are suddenly forced through stressful HR procedures with the constant threat of losing their job, putting their family’s future financial security at risk. Living with a terminal diagnosis is challenging enough without this additional stress and strain.
Before I conclude, I thank my union, the GMB, for its support, and in particular Richard Oliver.
For all these reasons I support the proposals as set out and hope that my fellow Peers from across the House can continue to work together on this issue. The Government must act to ensure that every terminally ill worker has the protection and support they need during the final few weeks and months of their lives.
My Lords, I echo the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, and other speakers, in offering my congratulations to Jacci Woodcock on all that she has done in this area, because so much of what we are talking about is part of that educative process. I also praise the TUC for its campaign and the work it does in this field. I thank my noble friend Lord Balfe for tabling this Question and for securing such speakers as the right reverend Prelate, with his expertise from the Church, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, whose expertise in this field needs no repeating, and my noble friend Lord Horam, with his experience of Rowntree’s and other employers of that sort.
My noble friend Lord Horam mentioned that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had made a Statement setting out his plans. I can assure my noble friend that the Minister will make a Statement later today but other things will have got in the way, so I am not sure when. I was hoping to repeat that Statement today but it is likely to be tomorrow. In it, we will set out a work plan as a carefully considered and ambitious approach to the Taylor review. I hope that the noble Lord will be there tomorrow, along with others, when that Statement is repeated. I see the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, nodding, so I am sure he will be there.
The period following a diagnosis of terminal illness is an incredibly difficult time. Noble Lords will agree, I am sure, that employees who suffer from a terminal illness should not have any additional burdens placed on them, particularly any worry that they may be unfairly dismissed from their employment due to illness. For that reason, the Government strongly encourage all employers to treat employees with disabilities and related conditions with sensitivity and compassion. My noble friend raised a number of points during the debate, and I will set out just some of the current protections available to employees suffering from disabilities. We have some of the strongest equalities legislation in the world, and we will continue to make sure that these rights are protected. I think we can say in all honesty that we are recognised as a world leader in this field.
The 2010 Act, which has been referred to, provides protections such that disabled workers with chronic diseases or conditions, whether terminal or not, or debilitating illnesses are fully protected from any discriminatory conduct by their employers. Provided that a person meets the definition for having a disability, they will be protected under the legislation and it will be unlawful for an employer to discriminate against them because of their disability. Under employment law, an employee who is unlawfully dismissed or forced to resign from a job because of a terminal illness may bring a claim of unfair dismissal against their employer, and/or a claim of disability discrimination under the 2010 Act.
More generally, it is the Government’s view that, where an employee is unable to attend work due to an illness, dismissal should be a last resort and an employer should consider as many ways as possible to support the employee back to work. This should be informed, where appropriate, by a medical report from the employee’s GP—with permission—or by arranging an occupational health assessment.
Employees who consider that their dismissal was unfair can complain to an employment tribunal, generally subject to a qualifying period of two years’ continuous service. A tribunal will usually expect the employer to have sought advice on how long the employee was likely to remain absent, or whether he or she was likely to be persistently absent in future. Should the tribunal deem the dismissal unfair, the employee would be entitled to a basic award—set at the same level as statutory redundancy pay—and a compensatory award. The latter would be based on the tribunal’s assessment of the employee’s loss of earnings, pension rights and so on.
My noble friend, and other noble Lords, spoke of the TUC’s Dying to Work campaign. That aims to ensure that terminal illness is recognised as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act so that an employee with a terminal illness would enjoy a protected period against dismissal by an employer as a result of illness. We fully support the objective of enabling employees with life-threatening conditions to continue working for as long as possible. We believe that the workplace rights of people with terminal illnesses are already protected by the Act, and I am not convinced that additional protection is required.
If my noble friend were to look at Schedule 1(8) to the Equality Act, it makes it clear that those with progressive conditions are likely to meet the definition of disability and so be protected. Further, under that Act protection from discrimination is already available to those diagnosed as having a chronic, progressive or life-limiting disease. Terminal illnesses fall within this bracket, and the Act and associated guidance make it clear that those with progressive conditions whose effects increase in severity over time should be regarded as meeting the criteria for having a disability before the condition actually has that effect.
My noble friend also made the point that despite the provisions of the Equality Act, it is still possible for an employer to dismiss a worker on grounds of capability. That is true only to the extent that the dismissal does not breach the protections in that Act. For example, a dismissal will be unlawful if it is based on something which arises from the worker’s disability and is not justified as a proportionate way to achieve a legitimate aim. So, the Government are not persuaded of the need to legislate, whether that be by primary legislation, which the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, thought would take some time, or secondary legislation. Furthermore, the Government’s view is that a new characteristic will not stop bad employers flouting the law, while those merely behaving in ignorance of the law are best addressed through education and guidance.
I note also my noble friend’s point regarding reforms to statutory sick pay. We want to see a reformed statutory sick pay system which supports more flexible working, for example, to help support phased returns to work, including spacing out working days during a return to work, while managing a long-term health condition or when recovering from illness. Offering periods of flexible working may help people to manage or recover from a health condition. However, SSP is currently inflexible and creates a financial disincentive for employees to consider some forms of phased return to work. We are taking forward further policy development and will bring forward a consultation on these changes, as well as any other SSP changes that we identify in our wider work, before introducing this reform. The Government will consult on measures to encourage and support all employers to play their part in this vital agenda and improve access to occupational health.
My noble friend also mentioned the duty on employers to provide reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities. This duty is not a once-only action or consideration. It requires review, adaptation and ongoing support as people’s needs change and develop. An employer will need to anticipate their employee’s evolving needs and adapt the adjustments to the reality of their time in the workplace. However, the duty to provide reasonable adjustments is not limitless; the Equality Act contains qualifications to the protections it provides across the protected characteristics. It makes it clear that the adjustments that should be made and the protections provided have to be reasonable in all the circumstances, taking into account a variety of factors, including the resources and circumstances of the business in question. This concept is well understood in law and generally thought to be working well. Disabled people have brought successful claims under these provisions where employers have got the balance wrong on what is reasonable. We believe that to define in legislation what constitutes “reasonable” in a particular circumstance would begin to undermine the nature of the Act and its ability to apply to the circumstances of individual cases, which has been the backbone of disability legislation since it was introduced in 1995.
Although I am naturally concerned by and sympathetic to the plight of anyone who receives such a diagnosis, I do not believe it would be reasonable to expect an employer to retain people on their books indefinitely if they are no longer able to carry out work once all reasonable adjustments have been made. I fear that the unintended consequences of such a change in the law could be significant.
My noble friend Lord Balfe also talked about the need for better training in HR. He cited the experience of his two daughters. I assure him that guidance and practical workshops are available on the ACAS website. ACAS also published specific guidance on potentially life-threatening conditions in September 2016.
I emphasise that the Government are committed to improving the lives of all people with disabilities, terminal illnesses and related conditions, and to making the UK a country where everyone can achieve their full potential. To achieve this, we believe that it is imperative for all employers to be aware of and fulfil their legal obligations towards their employees, including disabled and terminally ill employees. For this reason, we believe that the guidance and practical training available from ACAS and its website should encourage and assist all employees. I end by recommending that all employers make use of those resources.
Homes: Gas Safety
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the current standard of gas safety in homes in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I am delighted to open this short debate on gas safety. I must declare my patronage of CO-Gas Safety and Consumer Safety International. Both organisations and their leaders, Stephanie Trotter and Molly Maher, have done amazing work in raising the issues of carbon monoxide poisoning. which is the main subject of my debate. I am also extremely grateful to gas experts Stephen Hadley and Mr Ross McColgan for their advice.
Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless gas that can be poisonous to humans. When carbon-based fuels do not burn properly, poisonous excess CO is produced. When CO enters the body, it prevents the blood bringing oxygen to cells, tissues and organs. Key dangers to the population from gas in their home come from work being done illegally by a non-registered engineer and people not getting their appliances serviced regularly. The safety situation is worsened by the fact that CO alarms are required only in private rented accommodation and only if a solid-fuel-burning appliance is installed. The reliability of CO alarms is also very varied and Gas Safe Register does not always provide the reassurance required. All this is compounded by a lack of public awareness.
The scale of the problem is not easy to assess. ONS-published data shows that in 2016, 49 deaths occurred from accidental CO poisoning in England and Wales. In contrast, the Cross Government Group on Gas Safety and Carbon Monoxide (CO) Awareness estimates there to be around 30 deaths a year. I believe that both those figures are gross underestimates. CO has to be suspected before it is tested, even in the event of unexplained deaths. It dissipates quickly in live bodies and, without proof of poisoning, doctors often wrongly diagnose other conditions. In the absence of any easily obtained data, the problem of CO is underestimated and, as a result, it is not given the priority that it deserves.
I am convinced that much more needs to be done to raise public awareness. Some progress has been made—we have Gas Safety Week—but we need to do much more. I would like to see the industry contribute through a levy to fund major campaigns. This was recommended years ago by the Health and Safety Commission but little has happened since, and I think that the industry needs to be held to account.
We also have to tackle the need for proper maintenance of gas equipment by gas safety registered engineers. As the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group has said, there are different reasons why people do not get their appliances serviced but the key two are that many people are not aware of the importance of having this done regularly and many cannot afford to get it done because it is expensive to do on an annual basis. It is appropriate that the DWP is responsible for our health and safety. We need better support for low-income households to address this fuel poverty gap.
We also need to look at the anecdotal evidence that some landlords are not meeting their legal obligations and that tenants are either not aware of their rights or are too afraid to challenge their landlords to produce a gas safety certificate. I find it surprising that policy 8.2 from Gas Safe Register means that inspectors from the GSR will test an appliance for a tenant only if the landlord gives permission. Why should the landlord have to give permission when the safety of the tenant is possibly at stake? Can the Minister confirm that the gas emergency service does not carry or use equipment to test gas appliances for CO? If that is the case, will she say why and what is going to be done about it?
I now come to the gas safety register. This contains the official list of engineers who are qualified to work on gas installations. Engineers are issued with a gas safe card to prove qualification status and other details in order to carry out work or repairs to a gas appliance. The back of the card has a list of the types of appliances the engineer can legally work on. Unfortunately, many clients, me included, are unaware that gas engineers have to carry those cards and I am not aware of engineers showing those cards when they visit. It is also difficult to understand and decipher what appliance the engineer is qualified to work on. Ross McColgan has suggested to me the use of a colour scheme to make this much clearer, stating in simple language what the engineer is qualified to do and, more importantly, what they are not entitled to work on. It would be a step forward. I hope the Government will consider this.
I come to CO alarms. They have their use, but they are not a panacea and must be accompanied by annual checks of gas appliances. In 2015, the Government introduced regulations to require private rented sector landlords to have a carbon monoxide alarm in any room wholly or partly used as living accommodation containing a solid-fuel burning combustion appliance. There is currently a review about whether this should be extended. I certainly support expanding the regulations to require a CO alarm to be installed wherever any fuel-burning appliance is installed. Is the Minister aware that respected experts, including Mr Harry Rogers and Mr Stephen Hadley, have raised concerns that the present manufactured CO alarms available in the UK lose their reliability and accuracy as they deteriorate over time? I understand that CO alarms are not required to be calibrated during their lifespan so consumers have no way of knowing whether they are still effective. PROSAFE—the Product Safety Forum of Europe—whose objective is to improve the safety of users of products and services in Europe, highlighted the results of sampling and testing CO detectors. This was discussed at the fifth Carbon Monoxide round table in 2015. Twenty-five products were sampled and tested against a specified checklist. Eighteen of the 25 did not comply with the checklist. Four models failed to meet the requirements in a safe manner and only three products were deemed acceptable. This does not give much confidence in CO alarms. I am absolutely clear that regular testing of gas appliances is much more important than CO alarms, which in many cases clearly cannot be relied upon.
I am looking forward to the Minister’s response on Brexit. Regulation 2016/426 on appliances burning gaseous fuels came into force earlier this year. In the event of Brexit, is it the Government’s intention that we will maintain those standards long term? Will she also say what is being done to protect the safety of UK tourists abroad? Have we learned the lessons from the tragic deaths of Christianne and Robert Shepherd from Horbury near Wakefield? They were just seven and six years old when they died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty boiler on a Thomas Cook holiday in Corfu in October 2006. After many years of brave campaigning by the family, an inquest jury concluded that the children had been unlawfully killed and that Thomas Cook had breached its duty of care. What guarantees do we now have that UK tourists travelling abroad will be protected from this kind of incident? Anyone who has met families where CO poisoning has taken place will be aware of the personal tragedies that have befallen them. We owe it to them to do all we can to prevent these tragedies reoccurring. We need stronger regulation, a more effective gas safety register, reassurance on the reliability of CO alarms, and, above all, stronger public awareness campaigns, paid by a levy from industry. I am convinced there is much we can do to improve gas safety and I very much look forward to a positive response from the Minister.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for introducing this short debate and for giving us the opportunity to talk in particular about carbon monoxide poisoning. I declare an interest as an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group.
I think that for the majority of people, gas safety is about ensuring a safe gas distribution network and safe appliances which do not lead to dangerous gas leaks and possible explosions. On the whole, we have a fairly good record of safety in our gas network in the UK. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, in my remarks today I will concentrate on carbon monoxide poisoning and the resulting deaths and life-changing conditions.
I first came across carbon monoxide poisoning when I was the Member of Parliament for Christchurch in the early 1990s, and tragically, it was as the result of the death of one of my constituents. So it was that I became aware of others who had lost family members to carbon monoxide poisoning. I then worked with others, campaigning to raise the profile of this silent killer and to put in place measures to prevent further tragedies. I became a patron of CO-Gas Safety and worked with it for several years. When I was no longer able to continue to do so, I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was able to take up the mantle and work with it. CO-Gas Safety has been run by Stephanie Trotter, and I pay tribute to her unstinting campaigning energy. In the early days, she was assisted by Molly Maher, who also campaigned in particular for safer holidays. Molly had lost her son to carbon monoxide poisoning while on a family break in Tenerife—an incident which also left her daughter disabled and a wheelchair user. Tragically, we still see holidays marred by carbon monoxide poisoning, which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, set out clearly in his opening remarks. Indeed, they were so comprehensive that it is difficult to add to this short debate, so I will just add my support to a few of the important issues still to be resolved.
First, the lack of awareness of carbon monoxide poisoning is still a huge problem. CO-Gas Safety ran a carbon monoxide awareness campaign in primary schools for some years, and I understand that this is now run by the gas distribution network. However, this has a limited coverage and influence, and there should be a national PR campaign to warn of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. I therefore strongly support the recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for a levy on gas supplies to pay for a public awareness campaign, as well as for research. Research is particularly important because, as we have already heard, obtaining reliable data about the number of people affected by carbon monoxide poisoning is difficult. As we have already heard, carbon monoxide can be detected in the body only for a very short time after somebody dies, and no automatic testing is carried out on dead bodies where death is unexplained. Headaches and nausea dissipate when the person concerned leaves the premises where they have been in contact with, and poisoned by, carbon monoxide. General practitioners need to be aware that headaches and nausea can be the result of carbon monoxide poisoning. In my early days of looking into this issue, some research showed that this was not always the case. Does the Minister have any information about whether this has now been highlighted in the training of general practitioners?
The second issue I will highlight and support is the testing of appliances and equipment, which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, also covered. Testing should include the flue gases, not just a simple gas safety check, and tests should be annual and include alarms—although we have heard that alarms are not a panacea, and I totally agree with that. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I would welcome information in the government review about whether carbon monoxide alarms should be fitted in all houses and on appliance testing.
Wearing my hat as an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group, I add my call to those of Barry Sheerman MP and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, for expanded regulations following the recent government review to cover all fuel-burning appliances in all types of housing. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, will speak in the gap and I am sure she will expand on that herself.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, it would also be helpful if the Minister could indicate how Brexit will affect all the regulations on gas safety. Will there be any lessening of safety standards? I also have another question to the Minister about carbon monoxide alarms—reflected in the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. What indication do the Government have about substandard alarms in the supply chain? I ask this wearing another hat as president of the National Home Improvement Council. We have been very concerned about all sorts of products coming on to the market that do not comply with the standards they are supposed to, particularly when people order online.
What comfort can the Minister give to families that they will get help and support to bring to justice those who, through neglect or bad workmanship, cause tragedies where carbon monoxide poisoning strikes at home or abroad? The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, outlined just how difficult this can be.
Although some progress has been made in tackling death from carbon monoxide poisoning, I find it very disappointing that, 20 years on from my early days dealing with this, I am still asking the same questions and looking for more action to prevent death through carbon monoxide poisoning from industry.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for having brought this debate to the House, and to the Committee for allowing me to speak in the gap. I must declare my role as a co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group and the chair of two reports that have come from that group. I also work with the clinical group that has been a spin-off from this. I will address prevention, detection, long-term problems and regulation going forwards.
Nobody should think that prevention is associated only with gas. As has already been said, all fuel appliances—anything that burns carbon—can produce carbon monoxide. The biggest problem now is not gas but other ways of burning. Barbecues that people think are safe to bring into a cold tent, because they look as if they have gone out and are just slightly glowing, are an amazing source of poisonous carbon monoxide. Year on year, there are deaths because people do that. The same thing happens with appliances on boats and in caravans. Somehow, when people are on holiday they seem to be less vigilant.
Nobody should think they are safe because they do not have any carbon-burning appliance in their place. Stacey Rodgers, a constituent of Barry Sheerman MP, lost her son because the carbon monoxide from an adjacent property came through the brickwork into the child’s bedroom and the child was found dead in the morning from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was her only child.
Turning to detection, alarms are great but are no substitute for having appliances properly serviced and being aware. The problem with carbon monoxide is that it is not only linked to carboxyhaemoglobin. It is probably also a mitochondrial poison within cells, which means it kills very quickly, even if there are low levels of carboxyhaemoglobin in the blood. However, in one of the reports, we called for all coroners’ post-mortems to test anyway for carboxyhaemoglobin because, if there is any present at all, that must raise questions. Detection has to be early.
People associate carbon monoxide poisoning with death but severe acute poisoning can result in “sub-death”, with strokes, brain damage, personality changes and so on. About 4,000 people attend A&E every year with the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, but we do not know the long-term effect of low-level chronic exposure in those who run at a sub-clinical level and never present with their symptoms, and we do not know the effect on children. I remind noble Lords that a child’s head is at about the same height as the burners on a gas cooker, so if there are high levels of carbon monoxide in a kitchen, a child will probably inhale higher levels than an adult, whose head will be above that level and might be in the flow of the draught from a window. We need ongoing research into the low-level effects.
My final point relates to properties. It is a scandal that we do not insist that every landlord has a working carbon monoxide alarm. These alarms cost less than £15, which is peanuts. We should also require that whenever someone takes out a mortgage, they declare that they have a working carbon monoxide alarm, and no estate agent should list a property unless they know that the appliances have been properly serviced and that a working detection system is in place. If we did that, we would raise awareness, at least when there was a turnover of residents in a property.
In terms of travelling, we need airlines and Eurostar to run promotions asking “Are you carbon monoxide aware? Do you have your travel alarm?” Such alarms could easily be sold at all outlets at airports and stations. I also think that we need a levy that goes wider than gas suppliers, because appliances such as barbecues and wood-burning stoves are now sources of carbon monoxide.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for securing this very useful debate. As did he, I express my gratitude to Stephanie Trotter for her excellent—and in my case very necessary—full briefing.
Before I go any further, I should declare some interests. First, I am one of quite a number of vice-presidents of the Local Government Association. I am co-president of London Councils, the body that represents all 32 London boroughs and the City of London, and, probably most relevant to this debate, I am a patron of Electrical Safety First, a charity whose name is self-explanatory.
My noble friend Lady Maddock said that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, covered many points in his very comprehensive introduction. Since then, there have been two speakers, who have added to the comprehensive nature of the debate and there is not a great deal that I can add to what they have said. We all look forward to the Minister’s reply to quite a number of important questions that she has been asked.
Throughout the debate thus far, I have reflected on the similarity between gas safety and electrical safety. There are obvious differences between gas and electricity, which I obviously do not need to draw out, but there are also a number of very important similarities, especially with regard to safety and I have been very struck by those during the debate. They include the need to raise public awareness, the relationship between landlord and tenant, and the different responsibilities that each has and so on.
Accidents from either cause, and indeed from any cause, can have devastating and life-changing consequences and are thus serious. I do not want to make comparisons between accidents involving carbon monoxide and those involving electricity—the effects are devastating whatever the cause—but, as they do with gas, the public take electricity for granted. I had not realised until it was pointed out to me that next year will be the 140th anniversary of the invention of the light bulb. That is now one new point that has been made in this debate. We all recognise the importance of that invention to our lives today, but despite this iconic electrical item, which is always to be found wherever we are, we should remember that even light bulbs, let alone white goods, consumer units, cabling and so on, just like gas, are all potentially dangerous when not used properly or properly maintained.
Gas safety is extremely important, but so is electrical safety, and it needs to be treated with the same respect and importance. According to Electrical Safety First, electricity causes more than 20,000 house fires every year—almost half of all accidental house fires. Every year, around 350,000 people in the UK are injured through contact with electricity, and 70 people are killed. The figures for accidents involving carbon monoxide, as has been stated already, are difficult to verify and therefore I will not make a comparison—there is no point in doing so solely on the basis of figures. Both are extremely important and need to be recognised as such.
There are, on average, 56 deaths a year in Great Britain caused by electrical fires, including 18 deaths caused by an electrical distribution fault in the home. Within this subset, the biggest single cause of death is faulty cabling. For example, London Fire Brigade figures indicate that in 2013-14 the consumer unit was the source of ignition in 253 fires; this equates to five fires every week. Recent data from the London Fire Brigade shows that at that point in 2018, fires caused by electricity accounted for 78.5% of all fires. In the last five years, accidental appliance fires attributed to gas were 370 and to electricity 13,155. That is an astonishing disparity. I recognise that there is uncertainty about the data, particularly with regard to the number of fires caused by carbon monoxide, but it indicates that electrical safety is at least as important, and needs to be recognised as such.
That is why I have long joined Electrical Safety First, and others, in campaigning for greater equality between gas and electricity. Your Lordships may recall the Housing and Planning Act and the long-fought campaign to ensure that people in the private rented sector—after Grenfell that should include the social rented sector—receive mandatory electrical safety checks every year. People in the private rented sector must receive a gas check every year—we have talked about the shortcomings of that—but electricity has never been granted even that level of importance.
As a result of a long-fought campaign by Electrical Safety First, the Government agreed to bring forward regulations for mandatory electrical safety checks every five years. During the Second Reading debate of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill on 23 November, I asked when we would see these regulations. In a letter to me and other speakers in that debate, dated 5 December, the Minister said that they would be introduced,
“as soon as parliamentary time allows”.
It may be that since the letter was written, only a couple of weeks ago, there is even more pressure on parliamentary time, so we may well be waiting quite a while yet. Can the Minister reassure me, however, and say what priority the Ministry is giving to getting this parliamentary time?
In the same debate, I asked whether the promised regulations will cover both private and social rented sectors. In his letter of 5 December, the Minister confirmed that the consultation on that closed on 6 November and that,
“the Government’s response will be published in due course”.
That is a well-worn parliamentary expression. Surely the Government must know their response by now, and whether the social rented sector will be included. Can the Minister at least tell us that today?
In the same letter, the Minister said that,
“a full Government response to the consultation will be issued before Christmas”—
a little better than “in due course” but in parliamentary terms, that is now three days away. Indeed, I heard today that a ministerial Statement is expected tomorrow. Will the Minister at least confirm that? As there are not many people here today, perhaps she will give us some taste of what may be in that ministerial Statement, if it comes tomorrow or whenever it comes before Christmas? Electrical Safety First also informed me that it has received no further communication from the Government on the plans, nor been kept up to date on progress. How do we therefore know that electricity and gas will receive the equal attention that they deserve? Who is representing consumers during the working-up of these regulations?
What worries me further is the enforcement of gas and electrical safety in the private rented sector. Councils are responsible for enforcing gas safety and assist with significant electrical hazards in the home. But who will prevent landlords being able to rent a property that is not fit to be rented? I recently raised this too at Second Reading of the Bill to which I have already referred. Will the Minister confirm whether this will be clear from the “full Government response” promised in the next few days?
I have spoken more about electrical safety than gas safety, mainly because I know rather more about it but particularly because the three speakers before me covered things so well. While I echo what they said, I did not want to take time by repeating their points. Both electricity and gas are important and I hope that the Minister will now be able to reassure us on both of them.
My Lords, I welcome this debate, initiated by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. I know that his interest in the matter was sparked when he had ministerial responsibility for it in the DWP. As it happened, I followed him in having ministerial responsibility for these matters in 2007 but not, of course, with the distinction that he brought to the role. The issue of gas safety in homes is serious and has been the subject of increasing yet still incomplete regulation. We have had a light-bulb moment from the noble Lord, Lord Tope, who I know has worked hard in this area. He has expanded the agenda a little and made a valuable contribution to our debate.
As a start, I believe there is an established and shared understanding of the nature of the problem. Carbon monoxide—as has been said, the silent killer—is a poisonous, colourless and odourless gas, which if breathed in enters the bloodstream and mixes with haemoglobin. This makes it progressively more difficult to carry oxygen around the body, potentially causing the body’s cells and tissues to die. My noble friend Lord Hunt referred to the number killed in England and Wales in 2016 as 49, but with many more made unwell. We have had two figures suggested, with one of 200 requiring hospitalisation and the other of 4,000 attending A&E. I am not sure how reconcilable those figures are but perhaps the Minister can help us out. There are concerns about the accuracy of numbers because the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are not always obvious. Exposure to low levels of it can present as food poisoning and flu, while longer-term exposure to low levels of CO can lead to neurological symptoms.
Reference was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, to the APPG’s suggestion that coroners should routinely test for carboxyhaemoglobin levels. I believe she sees that not as the panacea but as an important step that ought to be undertaken. My noble friend Lord Hunt seeks a view from the Minister on this, as does the noble Baroness; similarly, I look forward to the reply. The noble Baroness reminded us that this is about not just gas but other fuels—it is about barbecues, boats and caravans. Raising awareness of the risks associated with carbon monoxide is a vital component in preventing more deaths and injuries.
I agree with noble Lords who have highlighted the role of such campaigning groups as CO-Gas Safety and the Carbon Monoxide Awareness Charity. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, spoke strongly on this, particularly on how she initially got involved. It is encouraging that they are still in the field, with their encouragement and leadership of awareness campaigns, putting pressure on government, local government, safety charities, regulators and parliamentarians. Indeed, I have felt the heat from their campaigning myself. Energy companies must not be let off the hook on this. What are they doing? We have heard that there is no sign of the levy, which has long been campaigned for. We should recognise that the campaigners’ passion and determination is often bred of personal tragedies—a loved one lost to CO poisoning—which they do not want visited on others.
The risks, of course, are not only in the home. Reference has been made by several noble Lords to the tragic deaths of two young children while on holiday in Corfu, and the long wait the family endured to see justice. I recall that at the time, issues were raised about alerts in holiday brochures about the risks of defective provision of cookers, heaters, boilers and of blocked flues and chimneys. An improvement suggestion at the time was at least to carry some reference to these risks on Foreign Office travel alerts. Perhaps the Minister can say what, if anything, is happening on this front. Can she also say what, if any, government funding is available to support awareness campaigns?
Raising awareness of CO risks is part of the approach needed to combat deaths and illness, but robust regulation is also needed to cover what equipment, who should be qualified to install it, who should test it and how often. As we heard from my noble friend, qualifications to work on gas installations were changed some years ago by the replacement of CORGI by the Gas Safe Register via an open competition. The Gas Safe Register should contain the official list of engineers, giving details of the types of appliances individuals can legally work on. My noble friend raised some practical suggestions to improve the operation of the register to help consumers better to understand the level of qualification involved and the assurance that they should be receiving. We look forward to the Minister’s reply on that.
Can the Minister provide some information about levels of compliance with these arrangements and the extent to which individuals are working outside these requirements? Who is responsible for overseeing compliance—we talked about the HSE—and can we have some details on the levels of enforcement notices and prosecutions? When CORGI was replaced by the Gas Safe Register, I recollect that it was planned that any surplus on the winding-up of the former which would accrue to the CORGI Trust would be made available to fund awareness campaigns. Is this correct, and what has happened?
Another vital aspect of regulation covers the requirement to have CO alarms and smoke alarms in certain properties. Since 2015, the private rented sector in England has been required to provide CO alarms in all properties containing a solid fuel-burning appliance. This brought properties built before October 2010 in line with new builds, which since 2010 have been required to have a CO alarm where a solid fuel appliance is installed. The 2015 requirement sits alongside the duty of landlords to equip each storey of the premises they let as living accommodation with a smoke alarm, and for there to be a CO alarm for any room which is used as living accommodation and which contains a solid fuel-burning combustion appliance. There is a whole host of exemptions from inclusion in these requirements, covering not only social landlords but care homes, hostels, refuges, and student halls of residence, to name but a few. How are the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning being dealt with in these situations? They seem to be outside those regulations, if I read them correctly.
As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Tope, it is the duty of the local authority to determine whether remedial action for non-compliance with the 2015 regulations is required and to issue remedial notices where it is. Can the Minister provide any information about local housing authority compliance with this requirement—the number of notices and levels of action subsequently undertaken? What is the Government’s assessment of local authorities’ ability to resource their requirements under the regulations?
Having effective CO alarms is important but, as we have heard, is no substitute for regular and proper maintenance of appliances. Does the Minister have any information about the extent to which the 8 million CO alarms currently provided in rented accommodation are hard wired? My noble friend’s inquiry about the longevity and appropriateness of current provisions of these alarms raises serious questions about what is currently available.
The all-party parliamentary group has noted the increasing numbers of individuals and families living in private rented accommodation, with some 2.7 million at risk from unsafe gas appliances. There is also the uncomfortable correlation between low-income households and risks of carbon monoxide poisoning. So the commitment of the Government to review the regulations is welcome. It is understood that this will be part of a wider consideration of the private rented sector covering building regulations and fire safety.
In conclusion, I again thank my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath for helping us to focus on the threat of CO poisoning, which remains despite substantial efforts by many over a number of years.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for bringing this important debate to the House and to all noble Lords who have spoken with such authority and knowledge. I shall do my best to respond to their numerous questions. I think it is unlikely that I will get them all answered in 12 minutes, but I undertake to write to fill any gaps in my response and to give any points of clarification.
The Government take the risk and consequences of carbon monoxide poisoning very seriously. The UK has a regulatory regime that requires safe design of gas appliances and trained and competent engineers to install and maintain gas appliances, and strongly recommends the use of carbon monoxide alarms. In this way, we greatly reduce the risk in our homes. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked what we do when people do not meet the standard. In 2017-18, there were 75 suspensions involving a failure to demonstrate or apply competence, and an additional 19 partial suspensions for specific work categories. This is out of a total of 259 suspensions, so it is not as though we are not prepared to take action when that needs to happen. There were three removals in the same period, and competence was one of the reasons in each case. The Health and Safety Executive prosecuted three registered engineers in 2017-18 for breaches of gas safety. We are quite prepared to take action when it is needed, but I agree with all noble Lords that prevention is certainly better than cure.
I must deal with the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, sooner rather than later, because I like to manage expectations. A ministerial Statement is due tomorrow—I am not passing the buck; this is true—from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We will provide a written update when we find out what it is planning to do. I hope that it helps.
We take gas and electrical safety very seriously. I assure noble Lords that, as we have said, we will progress these when parliamentary time allows. That is all I can say at the moment.
Gas safety, and more broadly carbon monoxide awareness, is a truly cross- governmental issue. Carbon monoxide poisoning can come from the burning of any carbon-based fuel, such as mains gas, liquefied petroleum gas, oil, coke, coal and wood, which are used in many household appliances, and it comes into the remit of various departments.
For this reason, a cross-government group on gas safety and carbon monoxide awareness was convened to ensure a joined-up approach across departments. I added them up today—I think that there are 13 departments in the group. Other governmental bodies exist to improve gas safety and tackle carbon monoxide risks from all fuels. The group also aims to develop effective government strategies and to promote knowledge and understanding of gas safety and carbon monoxide risks, including how to manage them. Each year the cross-government group publishes its annual report, which provides a summary of the work carried out by its members, including the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales.
The 2006 figures quoted by the noble Lord provide an insight into the safety of homes at that point in time. It is important to recognise that much has been done over the past 12 years to improve gas safety. The report by the cross-government group on gas safety and carbon monoxide awareness uses the same ONS data on deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning, but focuses on accidental carbon monoxide poisoning where carbon monoxide is the main product—excluding the figures for accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from smoke, fire and flames, hence the lower figure.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, made the point that we should do more on gas safety. I can only agree with him: we must keep improving our approach. Even though the trend for carbon monoxide poisoning is downward, we cannot afford to be complacent.
A number of noble Lords raised the issue of carbon monoxide alarms. The Government’s review of carbon monoxide alarm requirements in England will consider new research and update the evidence base to establish whether alarm requirements, currently limited to solid fuel heating in the private rented sector, and in building regulations, should be extended to the installation of oil and gas boilers and to social housing. The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is considering all the updated evidence and research with a view to consulting on any proposed changes early in 2019.
I was asked to comment on the impact of the smoke and carbon monoxide alarm regulations. A recent government consultation showed that there is good awareness of the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) regulations and that this has led to an increase in the number of alarms and safer homes. The response illustrates the lack of carbon monoxide alarms in private rented accommodation prior to the regulations coming into effect.
I was also asked whether I was satisfied that all CO alarms are constructed to a reliable and accurate standard, where the device’s sensor can be tested for its function and accuracy. Consumer products offered in the UK market, including carbon monoxide alarms, must comply with the UK’s strict product safety legislation, which requires products to be safe before they can be sold to consumers. It is the responsibility of manufacturers to ensure that CO alarms meet safety requirements and legislation. Making a misleading claim about compliance with the standard would be an offence under regulations providing consumer protection from unfair trading.
Another question was whether I was aware that respected experts had raised concerns about current alarms losing their reliability and accuracy as they deteriorate over time. The Government take the issue of consumer safety seriously and advise all consumers, when purchasing a domestic carbon monoxide alarm, to check that it is market-compliant with the relevant British or European standard.
There is a strong and appropriate regulatory regime in relation to gas safety and exposure to carbon monoxide. It is supported by additional activities focused on ensuring that gas engineers are properly trained and competent, raising public awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, and improving early diagnosis of the system. The Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998 form the cornerstone of the existing regulatory framework and require engineers to refer to manufacturers’ instructions and appropriate standards when installing, commissioning and maintaining appliances. Where appropriate, or where the manufacturer’s instructions advise it, the engineer should use a flue gas analyser. These regulations have had a significant impact in reducing injuries and fatalities in this area.
I was asked about the recommendations of the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group and I will write to noble Lords about that. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked why the gas emergency services do not carry or use equipment to test gas appliances for CO. The Gas Safety (Management) Regulations require gas emergency service providers to have arrangements for dealing with reported gas escapes and gas incidents, including those involving CO. This is a free emergency service and is not intended to identify the cause. It will be for the homeowner to engage a gas engineer to identify and solve the problem. I will write to the noble Lord about the mandatory label being placed in a visible position.
The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, asked whether the Government would comment on future policy changes. There are no policy changes other than a review of CO alarm requirements. Departments review the effectiveness of, and evidence base for, the current policies and for any proposed changes.
I turn to the important subject of Gas Safe engineers. Key parts of this legislation are the legal requirement that the installation and maintenance of gas appliances should be undertaken only by a suitably qualified and registered engineer, and the establishment of the Gas Safe Register. For engineers to be considered competent and to apply for Gas Safe registration, they must complete an approved industry-recognised training course, followed by an assessment of competence. Gas engineers then have their competence reassessed every five years. I was asked whether I was satisfied with the effectiveness of the training of gas installers. In short, the answer is yes.
In terms of product safety, gas appliances sold in the UK are regulated under the Gas Appliances Regulation. The Government take product safety extremely seriously and are committed to ensuring that only safe products are placed on the UK market. This will not change when the UK leaves the EU. We will ensure that the UK retains an effective product safety regime—that is a priority. On exit, appliances burning gaseous fuels will be able to be sold on the UK market only if they meet the higher level of safety, as they do now.
I turn to the point about Public Health England and national campaigns. Public Health England raises public and professional awareness of the impacts of carbon monoxide pollution by supporting activities that aim to change behaviour, such as the annual Clean Air Day, and it works with national and local stakeholders, public health partners and government departments to develop advice and actions which can be taken to prevent accidental exposure to carbon monoxide in homes.
I think that noble Lords also raised the question of people who, when abroad, suffer as a result of other countries not complying with safety regulations and not doing the things they should do. The Foreign Office provides support to families when things go wrong, but it is up to other countries to make sure that they comply with regulations, and I do not say that glibly. It is tragic when people die as a result of this poisoning, because it is preventable.
I am sorry to say that my time is up, but I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, reminded us of the 140th anniversary of the invention of the light bulb. I understand that Thomas Edison patented it the year after so that he could have two parties. I am not sure whether I have given your Lordships any light-bulb moments but I have tried to respond accurately. If I have missed anything, I undertake to write to all noble Lords.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the current situation in Ukraine.
My Lords, my objective in introducing this short debate is to bring general awareness before the Committee of some of the many complexities that surround Ukraine and to offer the Government an opportunity to outline their thoughts and strategy.
Amid the conflict, it is simple to forget the many domestic challenges, political and economic, that underpin Ukraine’s present situation and its future. On the macro level, growth is forecast to accelerate in 2018 to 4% and the IMF has announced a new tranche in response to its Government’s decision to step up the implementation of some long-delayed energy sector reforms and accelerate tough austerity measures. As the country grapples with its past, with conflicting visions for its future, endemic corruption in Ukraine is felt throughout domestic institutions at both local and state level. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine has been set up, which could improve the rule of law, but its independence is cited as being far from guaranteed due to its inability to secure prosecutions because of the unreliability and bias of the courts. A key ingredient lies in the programme of root-and-branch judicial reform.
Moves within the banking sector, including tighter and wider fiscal reforms and governance, have closed more than 80 underperforming banks in the past three years. A Washington-based organisation, the International Tax and Investment Center, with which I am associated, has held discussions with the tax and customs policy committee about reforming the tax system and working to define a road map to improve and ameliorate, if not reverse, Ukraine’s precarious economic state.
On the economic front, the ongoing trade embargo with the eastern regions has cut off access to all anthracite coal deposits. Ukraine is forced to purchase its needs from South Africa and the USA at a much more expensive rate, with inevitable grave economic effects. Ukraine is highly dependent on grain, iron and steel exports, making the Kerch Strait, the shallow Azov Sea and the bridge critical, while Russia is delaying shipping from entering and exiting fully laden. It is suggested that Ukraine might wish to consider developing alternative export infrastructure as part of a long-term strategy. Ports generally suffer from gross inefficiencies, with accusations of rampant corruption and poor infrastructure capacity. A suggestion doing the rounds is that an effective option might be to assist Ukraine in upgrading railway links and expanding other port facilities that bypass the Azov Sea.
Gas transit fees are a major source of revenue. However, the contested 1,200-kilometre Nord Stream gas pipeline, which will double the amount of natural gas flowing directly to Germany from Russia, is one of several Russian projects that circumvent Ukraine in order to give it access to its biggest markets. This bypass infrastructure is part of Russia’s strategy to weaken Ukraine economically and reduce its strategic importance for the EU. Germany is effectively supporting this strategy. Do the Government express opinions to Germany about this or does the Minister have a view he might wish to share with us? As an aside, I add that commercial opportunities exist for UK interests. For example, the Royal Mint called on me on Friday on unrelated matters, but I was interested to learn that Ukraine is considered to have great potential for that organisation.
On the political front, the reassurances given that martial law in 10 regions will not be used as a lever to postpone presidential elections on 31 March should be welcome. The elections in March will present a choice between the status quo and a move towards a change in direction. However, the expulsion of an Opposition Bloc presidential candidate from the party is likely to fragment the pro-Russian vote at the elections. It should be recorded that a far-right extremist group is gaining traction, though it is currently not well-represented in Parliament. A consequence of martial law is the fear that freedom of speech and assembly will be curtailed in those regions. It should be recorded for the purposes of this debate that opinion polls in Kiev this morning position two-thirds of Ukrainians as favouring a western orientation. Before turning to matters relating directly to the conflict, will the Minister in his response say what steps the Government are taking to support economic and political development in Ukraine, including tackling the bane of corruption, which is essential if long-term investment in Ukraine is to be considered?
With that overview, I move on. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the recent Azov Sea incident and the humanitarian and social consequences of the war in eastern Ukraine, with 10,000 people killed there, require urgent resolution. The downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight changed the dynamic into an international crisis and, as we have seen recently, there is potential for unstoppable escalation. On Saturday, for example, there were reports of major Russian troop build-up along Ukraine’s eastern border.
France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine have attempted to broker a cessation in violence through the Minsk accords. Efforts to reach a resolution have been unsuccessful thus far and show ominous signs of failure. This is to be regretted as good material is contained in the 13-article draft, including a large degree of regional autonomy. However, if Minsk is indeed foundering, where do we go to from here? Ukraine will not become a frozen conflict and should be viewed as a potential regional threat to peace that could envelop the West. No peace operation will succeed without a supportive Ukraine and Russian acquiescence. Two options are worth pursuing, as the US and NATO are unlikely to become directly involved. The first is a clear road map for de-escalation in eastern Ukraine, coupled with recognition that Russia accepts extrication linked to some sanction alleviation.
Peacekeepers monitoring the Ukraine-Russia border, together with a strong police presence and governance reform, would be a major test of Moscow’s good faith. It should be noted that representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions re-affirmed in March a full commitment to a comprehensive, sustainable and unlimited ceasefire. The Government’s decentralisation programme might also be built upon to provide a positive environment, although a further complicating factor has arisen in the split of the Orthodox Churches, with the potential to further inflame nationalism on both sides.
That leaves us with the extraordinarily difficult situation of Crimea. I take it that President Putin was well aware that what occurred was illegal and what the international reaction would be. Why did he do it? Let there be no doubt: this theatre of overt operations is a cauldron. The positioning of aggressive front-line artillery firepower, along with the naval arrests and pending prosecutions, makes for potential unavoidable action. I reference and pay respects to the families of those on flight MH17, and those whose lives have been lost in this conflict to date. The UK, EU, US and others are adamant that Russia must leave Crimea. That appears unlikely thus far and, given that Ukraine will never become a frozen conflict, what do the Government believe should be the course of action if there is a dilution of attitude by key European partners or an impasse? How long will the Government give Minsk to resolve this before looking at alternatives? Should there be more effort to encourage Ukraine and Russia to resolve all matters bilaterally through an accommodation based on shared interests?
Given that a rapprochement between the UK and Russia currently appears remote, is the UK, as a joint custodian of world security at the United Nations, exploring avenues of reconciliation? Is it ever considered by the Government that President Putin would prefer to connect with the West but has no idea how to do it and is then pulled in a different direction by the old guard? Would understanding the origins help with a solution? Did the crisis begin with the decision of Ukraine to reject a deal for greater economic integration following the understanding with Yanukovych and did the EU push too hard, or were sensitivities a factor over the fear of losing the Crimean naval base? Then there is the NATO question: was there a miscalculation in understanding the importance of the Russia-Ukraine relationship, with the West not sending messaging and actions of inclusiveness following the break-up of the Soviet Union?
Russian political experts have over the weekend suggested that the UK is on the ground in Ukraine, managing and—as they view it—aggravating the situation. That question is also of interest to those attempting directly to broker a peace settlement. Will the Minister comment on what assets the UK has on the ground and with what objective, particularly in relation to article 10 in the Minsk draft calling for the withdrawal of all foreign armed groups, weapons and mercenaries from Ukrainian territory?
I issue a general word of caution. The international alliance should counsel Ukraine against any actions for political expediency that would draw the West directly into the conflict, but balance that with General Powell’s practical messaging when he said that you cannot control developments from the outside. Ukraine’s development is not just for Ukraine but for Russia. Russia needs a good example of how things can be done and so, ideally, would in some way be involved. It should be noted what Russia has achieved when implementing the rules; the World Bank’s Doing Business ratings for 2018 have it placed 31st, up from 170th in 2012. That is why it is important.
My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords thank the noble Viscount for securing this short debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss Ukraine, and that other noble Lords participating in it have spent much more time in Ukraine than I have. My experience of the country is limited to a visit in 2007 to Kiev, which I remember well for its wonderful collection of golden-domed churches and the splendid idea of pedestrianizing the main street for shopping on a Sunday.
However, as a member and a vice-president of the OSCE parliamentary assembly, I am aware of the situation in Ukraine, especially since the commencement of the illegal separatist movement in 2014. The actions of the Russian Federation have been regularly and roundly condemned in debate and by resolutions of that parliamentary assembly, which is not constrained by the consensus rule of the OSCE itself. The Ukrainian case has been robustly put by the leader of its delegation, Artur Gerasimov, in the face of bare-faced denials and aggressive responses from representatives of the Russian Federation. I believe that we should recognise the important role of the OSCE but it seems to be regularly ignored. I could not find a reference to it in all the many column inches of the report of last Friday’s debate on reconciliation in your Lordships’ House. The OSCE special monitoring mission has an important role. It was deployed in March 2014. It is unarmed and present in all regions of Ukraine, and its main tasks are to observe and report impartially and to facilitate dialogue between the different parties to the crisis.
In September 2015, the first forward patrol bases in eastern Ukraine were established. These bases increase the presence in eastern Ukraine and enable the monitoring of the Minsk agreements. However, plans to work close to the unsecured border cannot be effectively operated until security guarantees for the mission are provided by the separatists or the Russian Federation. Already, one monitor has been killed and two others injured by the explosion of an anti-tank mine in Luhansk. An important objective must be to get the Ukrainian authorities back in control of their border with the Russian Federation. Any devolution envisaged under the Minsk agreements cannot realistically take place until the authority of the Ukrainians is established. Illegal elections only exacerbate the situation and make resolution more difficult.
It is therefore worrying that the Russian Federation originally blocked the extension of the mission’s mandate, although subsequently an extension to 31 March 2019 was achieved. What diplomatic efforts are the UK Government making to ensure the mandate is extended, as further Russian incursions may take place without the evidence that monitors can provide? Is the UK acknowledging the special circumstances of the situation in Ukraine and willing to meet additional costs which the OSCE incurs in this vital work?
One of the most powerful weapons against the success of the secessionists will be that Ukraine succeeds in prospering as a modern state, enjoying economic growth with good relations with the West, including through the association agreement with the European Union. Will my noble friend the Minister say whether we have spent the £35 million promised to support political reform? What programmes have been initiated and are ongoing? Do the Government support any of the initiatives of UkraineInvest, proposed by a joint Lithuanian-Ukrainian team some 12 months ago? I understand that they were discussed in various government departments.
In the light of the open aggression by the Russian Federation in the Kerch Strait, the Telegraph reported that the Ministry of Defence was going to deploy troops and a Royal Navy ship to Ukraine. Has that deployment taken place and how many troops are involved? What precisely is their role and what are their terms of engagement? I acknowledge what the UK has done to date but given the importance of supporting Ukraine’s aspirations and ensuring that the Russian Federation’s attempts to destabilise an independent nation are not allowed to succeed, since the UK apparently has its own aspirations to exercise global influence, is it not time for us to have a comprehensive plan to assist Ukraine and not merely react on an ad hoc basis?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount on his initiative on Ukraine, which regretfully has largely slipped from our headlines because of Brexit. I have three points.
First, however hard Ukraine strives to be a proud, sovereign and independent country, secure within its borders, that yearning is thwarted by the Russian Government. Russia annexed Crimea after a series of lies and salami tactics in 2014 and has since maltreated Crimean Tatars. In May, Russia illegally built a bridge from Crimea to its territory, preventing large vessels reaching Ukraine’s industrial ports on the Sea of Azov. On 25 November Russia fired on and took control of three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crews. It appears Russia is attempting to throttle the economy of Ukraine. In the Donbass, occupied by so-called Russian volunteers, they held fake elections last November.
These actions may be seen in the context of other aggressive acts, such as the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the continued occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The West did nothing, and a frozen conflict has emerged. Other actions include Russia’s role in Syria, the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, the poisoning by GRU agents in Salisbury, cyberwarfare and the attempt to destabilise western democracies by interfering in elections.
How do we respond? Condemnation and calls for restraint are not enough and a military response is clearly out of the question, but Russia must pay a price. Sanctions are in place but are a blunt instrument, although they do have some effect on the Russian economy. Some call for the suspension of work on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, one of whose objects is to bypass Ukraine.
I concede that it is easier to impose sanctions than to withdraw them. There is a serious danger of current sanctions unravelling. I note recent remarks by Salvini, the Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, who in October vowed in Russia to do his best to bring an end to sanctions. The Hungarian Foreign Minister spoke in September to the Russia Today broadcaster against automatically prolonging sanctions. Even Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democratic former Foreign Minister of Germany, last month suggested lifting economic sanctions if a ceasefire holds in Ukraine. President Trump personally is very wobbly on the issue. In short, there appears little prospect of intensifying sanctions as business interests prevail, particularly if our weight is no longer felt in the EU after Brexit. How seriously do the Government view the danger of giving Putin a victory by withdrawing or reducing sanctions?
Secondly, is there any evidence that Russia is seeking a compromise over Ukraine? Some will argue with great reluctance that, realistically, Ukraine may ultimately have to accept the loss of Crimea and that all we in the West can do is to continue raising human rights concerns. Is there any positive movement in sight over the Donbass, where Russia has no historical claims? Neither side is honouring the February 2015 Minsk 2 accord. Any deal must involve local elections and a degree of local autonomy, with the consequent danger of continued Russian interference. In September 2017, President Putin expressed a willingness in principle to discuss UN involvement in the Donbass. Is this possibility still live, in the Government’s view?
Thirdly, how should we respond to the needs and aspirations of Ukraine? Even if full membership of the EU and NATO is out of the question, surely ways to increase its association should be found. I welcome the range of UK policies in place on strengthening government, including helping to combat corruption, and improving military capabilities. Do the Government envisage increasing resources to Ukraine?
Overall, step by step, Russia is increasing pressure to test the will of the West. It is right that we have given increased assurances to the Baltic states, which feel vulnerable. Our clear message to Russia is: you will pay a price economically and politically for your policies of aggression and destabilisation in Ukraine. Hitherto thou shalt come, and no further.
My Lords, I am no more of a great expert on Ukraine than the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, although I have been there on a number of occasions. Indeed, I recall an extraordinary conference when Ukraine had been independent for three weeks, and I was part of a western delegation to try to explain how an independent state had a foreign policy. I discovered only many years later that my noble friend Lord Oxford and Asquith had also been at the conference in a professional capacity but had not introduced himself to me. I have taken his advice in preparing my thoughts for this debate, and he apologises that he is not able to be here today, as he has to be abroad.
I think that we all understand the Russian strategy towards its neighbours. Russian leaders regard Ukraine in the same way as English Tories used to regard Ireland: it is not a real country and it ought to be governed from Moscow or London. I believe that there might even be some English Conservatives today who hold that view towards Ireland. Some years ago, I deeply upset someone I had worked with in Moscow by making that remark in a Moscow meeting.
Ukraine’s independence is key to our future relationship with Russia. For us, Russia will have to accept that Ukraine is a normal state if it successfully retains its independence. However, Russia’s efforts to disturb all the weaker countries behind it—I know more about Georgia and Armenia, where very similar attitudes are held, than I do about Ukraine—demonstrates that it wants to retain its sphere of influence, and it does that partly by making sure that those countries remain weak, dependent, corrupt and Russian-influenced.
The situation in Ukraine is difficult. I am told that in eastern Ukraine the combination of deep corruption and a failed economy is such that, as Ministers will know, a number of leaders have been assassinated, and the cost to the Russian economy of keeping Donetsk and Luhansk going is high. It does not yet stop the Russians wanting to hold on to it but it is a real drag on Russia. As the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said, in Crimea the persecution of minorities—in particular, the Tatars—is real, and the image of success in Crimea and having the base in Sebastopol, from which Russia hopes to dominate the Black Sea, is important to it, but there are still tremendous negatives from the Russian point of view. In Ukraine, there are still corrupt politics and a weak economy, and we need to do a great deal more to try to help the country stabilise itself both politically and economically.
Our biggest worry in the current situation is the potential for accidental escalation. We have already heard about Russian troops being stationed closer to the borders with Ukraine than they were a year ago. That suggests the possibility of local conflict bursting out into a general conflagration. Of course, in the Sea of Azov further clashes between naval ships and merchant vessels are also possible. Therefore, it is not a stable situation.
What is our response? Clearly, we need western solidarity within NATO and in the EU. The role of the EU has become more important because the role of the United States under President Trump, particularly in policies towards Russia, is much more equivocal. Therefore, for the next three months at least we should work with our EU colleagues. What we do after 29 March is another matter, on which I am sure the Government have a clear strategy and policy. However, let us hope that we will hear from the Minister that the British Government are determined to play an active part. After all, over the last few years the British Government have stepped back on this. In 2014, when the Ukraine crisis broke out over Crimea, the Foreign Office discovered that expertise on both Ukraine and Russia had been run down very badly in previous years and action had to be taken to rebuild it. Earlier than that, the Minsk process had been given to France and Germany, with the British stepping back from that and the associated Normandy process. I hope, therefore, that we will hear from the Minister that the British Government are determined to play an active part in stabilising Ukraine and supporting it in these difficult relationships with Russia.
Mention has been made of a strengthened naval presence in the Black Sea. It is clear that the West—NATO as a whole—ought to have a more visible naval presence in the Black Sea. I would be interested to hear what the British contribution to that might be, what the conversations within NATO are, and about the expanded British assistance to Ukraine—there is useful assistance but clearly it needs to be maintained. Above all—I finish where I started—the independence of Ukraine is key to the future relationship between Europe and Russia.
My Lords, I warmly thank the noble Viscount for introducing this debate.
For a number of years I have been chairman of the British Ukrainian Society, so I have been to the country many times. It has had, at times, an extremely difficult history. I will share what recently happened here in London to commemorate one of the most grotesque happenings in European history, the Holodomor—the famine induced by Stalin that caused the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. We had a very moving ceremony outside Westminster Abbey, with hundreds of Ukrainians present. I was delighted that just two weeks ago our Foreign Secretary came to the Palace of Westminster to open a photographic exhibition showing the horrors of the Holodomor and all that it has meant, ingrained as it is in the collective memory of the people of Ukraine. In 1991, Ukraine became independent. The orange revolution drew extraordinary attention to the country, but there were the invasions of the eastern part of Ukraine and Crimea in 2014.
As far as the reality of Crimea is concerned, I had a young Tartar working for me. The fabric of life in Crimea has been utterly turned upside down, with human rights violations on a grand scale and the abolition of the Tartar people’s parliament. In eastern Ukraine, in the Donbass, which has effectively been dominated by Russian and pro-Russian mercenaries, there has been death and destruction, the shooting down of a passenger plane and cyberactivity in disinformation on a massive scale, all costing the Ukrainian economy hugely.
I will read a little note from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly report on human rights, which says,
“governance in rebel-occupied territories continues to disregard human rights and liberties. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights notes ‘cases of summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment’”,
of individuals and attacks on those following the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It is appalling.
I will dwell in particular on the recent events in the Sea of Azov, which have happened despite the agreements about that area between Russia and Ukraine. The truth is that the Kerch Bridge linking Russia and Crimea was in practice constructed to impede larger vessels trying to reach the port of Mariupol, a hugely important commercial centre for Ukraine. Preposterously, President Putin accused President Poroshenko of Ukraine of manufacturing these events. Such is the disbelief, it is hard to imagine such nonsense. Russia’s navy intercepted the Ukrainian vessels and arrested the Ukrainian crew, 24 of whom were detained for illegally crossing a so-called maritime border that had been agreed before. Vessels en route to Mariupol today are being deliberately held back, with all the consequences. At the end of August, I was in Odessa. I saw the highly provocative activity of Russian vessels in the Black Sea. I would be grateful to the Minister if he could comment on the current role of Royal Navy vessels that have been operating in the Black Sea.
All this begs the question of how we react. I know that Britain has admirably led the discussions within NATO about putting more troops, beyond advisers, into Romania and Bulgaria. The positioning of British troops in Estonia under the umbrella of NATO acted as a massive source of protection for that country. This is now being considered. I would be grateful to my noble friend if he could comment on this. We agree that if that were done, it may have some effect in sending out a clear message.
As a country, we have been very robust on the sanctions policy, but clearly European countries are divided about to what extent they should be extended further to Russia, given the latest abuses. Nord Stream 2 is a great challenge to the Ukrainian economy.
While Ukraine has introduced laws to increase transparency in public and commercial life, it has not succeeded in banishing corruption and there is still much to do. We have an excellent bilateral relationship with Ukraine. Our support for the country is multi- dimensional. No European country should have to endure the annexation and occupation of its territory and now its seas. Ukraine has not been brought to its knees by such aggression and violent action, and it must never be. It is totally unacceptable.
My Lords, like other Members speaking today, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and congratulate him on obtaining this debate and speaking so passionately. He got far more into his 10 minutes that we would normally assume you can get into 10 minutes. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Risby, and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, I am not an expert on Ukraine. I speak on European issues for the Liberal Democrats and, like the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, I have been to Ukraine on only one occasion. That was in 2000 when I was running the European programme at Chatham House, for an event that was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The aim of the event was to have a trilateral, bringing together representatives from the United Kingdom, Poland and Ukraine. The idea was to strengthen Polish-Ukrainian relations at a time when Poland was aspiring to join the European Union and Ukraine’s relationship with the West was still somewhat in flux—something undecided and perhaps slightly inchoate.
That has been one of the issues facing Ukraine that so many other countries emerging after the Cold War did not face. For countries in central and eastern Europe, there was a clear direction. They were looking west and to join all the western institutions: the EU, NATO and, as the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, mentioned, the OSCE. Ukraine was always caught somewhere between east and west. I have not visited Kiev. I went to Lviv, where politicians were looking to the West and its institutions, whereas the view in Kiev always looked much more to the east. Ukraine as a country was, and in many ways remains, divided. Its European destiny was not clear.
For many years, the European Commission viewed its enlargement policy as its most effective tool of foreign policy. It felt that by offering membership to a set of countries in central and eastern Europe, it could effect change and cause states that were perhaps uncertain about their future to commit to stable liberal democracy, economic reform, human rights and the rule of law. They would move on from corruption by ensuring they had non-corrupt politicians and a non-corrupt judiciary. In 2018, one might question how effective the European Commission has been in moving states such as Poland and Hungary to liberal democracy, but at the time there was a clear sense that many states were moving westwards.
However, when from time to time Ukraine looked west and thought about EU membership, the response to it from Joschka Fischer, then German Foreign Minister, was that perhaps the EU needed to think about another sort of relationship for Ukraine and, in brackets, Turkey. It would be not membership but some associate status, because they should never think of themselves as potential members of the European Union. At one level, Joschka Fischer’s thinking in 2000 might have been far-sighted. When NATO began to think about expansion a few years ago we saw that the Russian reaction was, “Why is NATO looking into our backyard?” Joschka Fischer managed to create a situation in which Ukraine was told, “You’re never going to be a European Union member state, even if you want to be”. In many ways there was a dialogue of the deaf, and Ukraine never reformed in the way that central European countries which joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007 were able to. Ukraine has therefore been unable to move on. The domestic situation of economic and political difficulty, so eloquently outlined by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, has not changed as it was able to in western Europe. Ukraine has not had the support of the European Union or NATO in the way that other countries might have expected. It has remained vulnerable to Russia, and in many ways we have not found collective solutions to deal with the Ukrainian border.
Like other noble Lords, I ask the Minister what role he envisages for the United Kingdom post Brexit—assuming that we are leaving—in supporting Ukraine but also to keep it talking with the EU 27. This would ensure that our responses are not just individual British but collective European ones. Britain might have a role to play in assisting Ukraine, but collectively we can do so much more.
I, too, thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for initiating this highly topical debate. I fear that either my speech or the Minister’s speech will be interrupted by a Division, but I shall plough ahead.
As the noble Lord, Lord Risby, reminded us, we must not forget that 10,000 people have died in the Ukraine conflict in recent times, and as my noble friend Lord Anderson mentioned, we must also remember that Ukraine has been seeking action from the international community on the Sea of Azov since 2014. The issue is not a new one; it has been festering and, as we have heard, Ukraine’s economy is being strangled by the blockade. I hope that the Minister will respond to the question asked by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and will explain what steps the United Kingdom is taking to assist Ukraine and its economy in overcoming the blockade.
The opening of the Kerch Bridge was a flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the search and seizure of Ukrainian vessels in the Sea of Azov is a flagrant breach of international law but, as the noble Lord, Lord Risby, also said, the recent seizures are not isolated incidents. Since May 2018, Russia has conducted more than 200 stop-and-search boarding operations of civilian vessels transiting to or from the Ukrainian industrial ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk. These latest incidents show once again the urgency of coming to a decision on whether we can achieve a viable UN peacekeeping mission that could be launched to protect the Minsk agreements and provide a lasting resolution to this conflict. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, there has to be concern about an accidental escalation, and we need both sides to show restraint and to de-escalate, adhering to international law, with Russia allowing unhindered access to Ukraine’s ports on the Sea of Azov.
The Ukrainian Government’s imposition of martial law has been presented as a limited move, both in duration and location, and I welcome the Ukrainian President’s announcement that elections on 31 March will be unaffected. However, does the Minister share my opinion that this initial response must not be a precursor to a wider and longer-lasting extension of martial law?
As the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said, we have been giving support to Ukraine. In his response to the recent Urgent Question, Alistair Burt said that the UK is providing some £30 million a year to Ukraine to support a range of areas, including governance reform, accountability, communications and human rights. We are also providing £14 million in relation to conflict, security and stability projects, as mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, to bolster Ukrainian defence reform. We have provided up to £3 million of new funding this year for developing independent media and countering Russian disinformation, alongside the £2 million already provided through existing projects. As the noble Viscount and others have said, endemic corruption affects institutions at local and state level. The national anti-corruption bureau’s effectiveness is hindered by the unreliability and bias of the courts. What assessment have the Government made of their support so far, and have recent incidents made them step up their consideration of bolstering further developing democratic practices and the rule of law? Will we provide further support?
Noble Lords have also mentioned the dynamics of United States policy. President Trump’s initial reaction to the seizure of the Ukrainian vessels was to return to the theme that US commitment to NATO operations was somehow conditional on NATO countries increasing their financial contributions. Will the Minister update us on the talks that the Defence Secretary had with his US counterpart after his visit to Ukraine last month?
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for initiating this timely debate. I also thank all noble Lords for their insightful and expert contributions.
I am sure we all agree that the starting point for our consideration of Ukraine is our unwavering support for its sovereignty, a point made by all noble Lords. Let me assure the Committee that we stand strongly with Ukraine on its independence and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders. Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea was a grave violation of international law and, as we all know, Russian-backed separatists continue to wage a conflict in eastern Ukraine that has claimed more than 10,000 lives and injured a further 25,000 people. According to the United Nations, that conflict has displaced around 1.5 million Ukrainians.
The toll in human suffering is enormous, which is why the UK is delivering £8.7 million of humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable people affected by the conflict. More than 2.3 million people are in need of assistance within government-controlled and non-government-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine. DfID is providing direct assistance through grants and other training, to ensure that economic opportunities can be leveraged fully in the interests of the citizens of Ukraine. We are also providing indirect assistance as the largest contributor within the international community to the Red Cross appeal for Ukraine.
Several noble Lords raised the issue of Europe working together with Europe. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, spoke from his great insight on this, as did my noble friend Lord Risby and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I draw the Committee’s attention to the Statement made by the Prime Minister today on the European Council. She said that during the Council’s discussions:
“First, we expressed our utmost concern over the escalation we have seen at the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov, and over Russia’s continued violations of international law. We agreed to roll over economic sanctions against Russia, and we stand ready further to strengthen our support, in particular for the affected areas of Ukraine. Secondly, we … agreed to work together on tackling the spread of deliberate, large-scale and systematic disinformation”—
my noble friend Lord Risby mentioned that—
“including as part of hybrid warfare”.
Let me therefore again assure noble Lords that, not just through our membership of the European Union, when it comes to sanctions and collaboration on common areas of interest—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, the latest wave of Russian aggression and provocation against Ukraine, which many noble Lords mentioned, saw Ukrainian vessels and their crew fired on, rammed and forcibly seized as they sought to enter the Sea of Azov on 25 November. This was the first time the Russian military had avowedly fired on Ukrainian forces. It underscored Russia’s willingness to escalate tensions in and around the Black Sea with no regard for its obligations under UNCLOS or Ukraine’s rights under the 2003 bilateral agreement with Russia.
My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary condemned in the strongest terms Russia’s actions, which were also met with a robust chorus of disapproval through the UN Security Council, NATO, the EU—as the Prime Minister said in her Statement—and the OSCE. The G7 also came together to issue a statement calling out Russia for its action against the Ukrainian vessels and crewmen.
The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Wallace, and my noble friends Lord Bowness and Lord Risby, among others, raised the issue of the Black Sea naval incident. We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of detained Ukrainian soldiers. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to Foreign Minister Klimkin on 29 November and reaffirmed the UK’s solidarity and support. I can confirm that the Ministry of Defence is stepping up military assistance to Ukraine through the Operation ORBITAL training mission. My right honourable friend the Defence Secretary will visit Ukraine in the near future. As he has already announced, we are also deploying HMS “Echo” to the Black Sea. The date of that deployment will be announced shortly.
Responsibility lies with Russia to de-escalate the situation by releasing the 24 Ukrainian servicemen and three vessels it has detained and by respecting free passage for all vessels through the Kerch Strait. We are discussing concrete measures, including sanctions, with our international partners, so that we can collectively demonstrate to the Russian regime that its illegal actions will have a cost. The European Council last week also made clear that the EU stands by its measures to strengthen its support for Ukraine.
My noble friend Lord Risby and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, also asked about Nord Stream 2. We do not believe Nord Stream 2 is necessary and are concerned that its construction is harmful to European interests and to Ukraine. British officials regularly discuss this with the German Government and other stakeholders, including to highlight UK concerns at the impact of the project on gas transit through Ukraine. We continue to support initiatives that strengthen and diversify European gas supply.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly raised the issue of martial law, and I agree with him. Concerns have been expressed about the decision by President Poroshenko to implement martial law following the Black Sea incident. We must all remember which country has created this crisis. Russia has put extreme pressure on Ukraine, not only forcibly violating its sovereignty but subjecting its people to attacks—including cyberattacks, as my noble friend Lord Risby stated. I assure the Committee that we continue to work with the Ukrainian Government and while martial law is now being implemented across the country, we have been reassured that its application has been time-limited to 30 days. We also welcome the President’s assurances that martial law will not affect presidential and parliamentary elections planned for next year, which was a question the noble Lord raised.
The sad reality is that incidents such as the confrontation in the Black Sea demonstrate how Russia continues to work to undermine Ukraine’s stability rather than to support it. It is important that the international community continues to work together with resolve and unity in its purpose, and we must call out these flagrant violations of international rules and norms. That is precisely what Her Majesty’s Government are doing. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, raised the Minsk agreements and asked how long it will be before the Government look at alternatives and whether Russia and Ukraine should resolve matters bilaterally. Our view is that the Minsk process is not making progress because Russia has shown no interest in de-escalation with or without a clear road map. As the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Wallace, said, the only viable path towards peace is for all parties to meet their obligations under the agreement and work urgently to achieve a full and sustained ceasefire across the line of contact. Ukraine took a difficult political step in October to renew the law on special status for the Donbass as required by the Minsk agreements. In contrast, Russia continues to frustrate the process, including by supporting illegitimate elections on 11 November which undermine the agreements.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, raised sanctions linked to Russian transgressions. They are one of the clearest signals that the international community can send to Russia to change course. I assure the noble Lord that that is why we have been clear to Russia that sanctions relief can come only when the Minsk agreements are fully implemented. Until then, the sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s actions remain in place. We have no indication that Russia is serious about UN involvement in the Donbass. Russia has not engaged further on the suggestion of UN peacekeepers. Indeed, as I said, its recent action supporting illegitimate elections in the Donbass in November was a serious violation.
Is there a prospect of the sanctions being intensified or will they inevitably unravel when they come to a potential rollover?
My Lords, at the start of my contribution I mentioned the Statement that the Prime Minister made that the sanctions would be rolled over and strengthened, particularly with the continued collaboration of our European partners.
Several questions were asked about UK assistance and I will seek to cover some of them in the time that remains. I assure noble Lords that more progress has been made in the past four years than in the previous 23 years combined, notably in reforming the energy and banking sectors. Crucially, progress has been achieved in tackling corruption through the procurement of electronic systems, building anti-corruption institutions and launching an electronic income declaration system for officials. The UK Government hosted the Ukraine reform conference in July 2017. Indeed, it was one of my first acts when I joined the Foreign Office. I recall visiting Ukraine in 2014 as a Communities and Local Government Minister to help it on local governance methods.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the impact on the economy of east Ukraine. The consequences of recent Russian actions have been quite severe, particularly on trade through the Kerch Strait. Cities situated on the Sea of Azov have seen the economic throughput in their ports reduced in the past nine months, Mariupol by 43% and Berdyansk by 30%.
My noble friend Lord Bowness, among others, raised the £35 million of UK assistance to Ukraine. This continues, including £8.7 million in DfID humanitarian funding and £40 million through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, acknowledged. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that our wide-ranging programmes include technical assistance and have had a positive impact on the business climate. Headline achievements include the establishment of an intellectual property rights court, more professional management of public finances and support for small and medium-sized enterprises, a point I know will resonate with all noble Lords. I will highlight two projects that have made a real difference to people in the conflict-affected communities: a mine clearance project, and our support for valuable work to raise awareness and improve the response to sexual and gender-based violence in Ukraine.
My noble friend Lord Bowness also asked about the role of the OSCE special monitoring mission. The UK makes one of the largest personnel contributions to the mission, and I assure him that we will continue to support the continuation of its vital mission in discussions at the OSCE. My noble friend Lord Risby asked about sending NATO troops to Romania and Bulgaria. In the interests of time, I will write to him on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, raised the issue of stepping back from the Normandy process. France and Germany are of course leading this process, as he knows, but I assure him that we continue to support their efforts to make progress on the Minsk agreements.
In conclusion, in terms of souls lost and lives fractured, potential thwarted and hope dimmed, Ukraine continues to pay a heavy price for daring to exercise its sovereign rights to look to the West. The Ukrainian people are suffering an illegal, immoral and unjust punishment meted out by a neighbour that uses external force to mask geopolitical and economic insecurities, and to unite its own population. Russia’s illegal and aggressive strategy not only threatens Ukraine but is a clear challenge to the rules-based international system and to the will of the international community. In thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for initiating this debate, I assure all noble Lords that the UK Government remain committed and will continue to work collaboratively and collectively to ensure that the resolve of the international community remains undiminished, and that we will continue to work bilaterally with the Ukrainian Government for a better future for all Ukrainians.
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, does he think it worthy of note to agree that it could take up to 10 years to clear the mines in eastern Ukraine—which should give some indication of the true gravity of the situation?
I have noted the noble Viscount’s comment, but the mine clearance project is one of the successes that we have seen through the investments made.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the Commission on Religious Education Religion and Worldviews: the way forward, published in September; and whether they intend to publish any response.
My Lords, during much of 2016 and 2017, I spent time conducting a review for my colleagues in the Liberal Democrats on the challenge of the inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities in politics and, indeed, in the party. One thing that became very clear to me was that it was a problem of culture much more than of regulations or institutional arrangements. In other words, when people came to the UK from other places with other sets of views, there was a challenge for them as they became part of this community but also for the community to engage and involve people with other perspectives.
During that work, I was helped by one of my colleagues, Kishan Devani, who pointed out to me that an important piece of work was ongoing on religion and worldviews. When that was launched here in Parliament on 12 September, I went along to hear what was being said. I then read the report, and I was struck by how the fundamental principles behind that report were exactly what I had had to work on in my report for the Liberal Democrats.
The report is a thoughtful piece of work. In fact, arguably, it is the most substantial piece of work on the issue of religious education in our country since the 1970s. There was of course legislation in the 1980s, but that came from the process of digesting work done in the previous decade. I think that much the same will happen with this report because it addresses some fundamentally important issues. If it has a problem in how it presents itself, it is that goes into such detail that it is not difficult to find specific things that people might disagree with because it has been exhaustive in producing a set of propositions.
I should like to draw back from that and look at the fundamental principles behind the report and its intentions because they are of enormous importance. When I tabled this Question for Short Debate, the Government had not responded. The Secretary of State, Damian Hinds, responded last week. Sadly, it is a very negative and disappointing response because in many ways it fails to take up some of the most important issues identified in the report.
First, let me say a bit about what it seems to me that the report addresses. If we think about the question of what religious education is about, it is not the old view of religious instruction. We have clearly got beyond the point—this has been legally established by the courts—where it is simply education in one religious perspective. In our country, it is absolutely clear that we must take a wider perspective into consideration.
A man who is rather a hero of mine, an Irish theologian, dead many years ago, described religion in the following way. He said that religion is the most ultimate, real and compelling form in which we can see the social or universal relationships and obligations of our lives. In the case of those who may be called non-religious, it is necessary only to invert the form of the sentence: the most ultimate, real and compelling form in which they can see their social or universal relationships and obligations is their true religion.
In other words, religion is about how we understand and engage with meaning and that which transcends any particular subject or element of our lives, nation or state. It is how we understand our whole way of being in the world. That does not depend on being a member of any particular religious family. What is crucial in education is the drawing together, the giving to young people, of opportunity, encouragement and education to understand meaning, purpose and their engagement with the universe in which we live.
To deny that to young people, not to provide it adequately to them, is to leave them with an education which is a little bit of this, little bit of that and a little bit of another thing without any sense that it can be drawn together in a meaningful way. Whether that is in something that we would traditionally have regarded as religion or what we would regard as a non-religious viewpoint, it is, nevertheless, one that helps young people to develop a worldview, a way of thinking about and engaging with the world. It is not just something that they think about but their whole way of being in the world that they have. When the Minister responds by saying that it is about their getting knowledge of the values and traditions of Britain and other countries and therefore fostering mutual respect and tolerance, that is, for me, the expression of a generation for whom religious education was a failure, so that at the highest levels of the country, people fundamentally do not understand what religion is about and its role in the human condition.
That is not surprising, because we now find that in 2016 a large percentage of schools—33%—offered no RE at all at key stage 4, up from 22% the year before. Those schools are in breach of the law, yet the Government seem to show no interest or concern about it. Why should it be that in what is a law-abiding country, teachers—those who set down the boundaries, rules and ways of understanding and behaving for our children—should be so happy, at the level of the individual teacher, the school or the board of governors, to disregard what is absolutely clear in the law?
The answer is because they do not believe in it. It is not because there is not enough money, so when the Minister says , “We will put in a bit of money this way and that way”, it does not address the fundamental problem. The problem is that people do not say, “I believe that. That is important to me. I want to convey this sense of understanding to the next generation”. Why is that? I think it is because many people have gone beyond the traditional religious ways of looking at things, not to have no worldview but to have a different perspective with which many of the organised structures of religion have not kept up.
That is not a reason to dismiss religious education, throw it aside, allow it to fall into disrepair or disuse or to deny our children the encouragement to understand the way that, historically and in different parts of the world, we have struggled to understand what our life, our lives and society are about. It is not to deny that chance to say, “Here are a whole lot of ways people have tried to do it and it is really important that you study it so that you understand that where history, geography, physics and maths all fit together into some kind of perspective that has meaning for us and helps to guide us when we begin to make important decisions, personally and socially in our lives”. When we come to the ministerial response, there is no sense of that at all. It is, “We’ll put a little bit more money into it”, “Actually we do not have time”, or “What I really need to do is to reduce the workload of overburdened teachers”.
We should be asking why people have lost a sense of passion about this. Teachers do not go into the profession to make a load of money or for an easy life. They go into it because they have a passionate belief in conveying to the next generation those things which are important to them and our wider community.
When it comes to the idea that religion is about conveying the culture of our country, the whole point of the Christian faith that I hold is that it is not nationalistic, it goes beyond that and says, “No, it is not just about this country”. My goodness, the person at the beginning of it was nothing to do with this country and was pretty sceptical about the nationalism of his own. To say such things tells me that there is a failure of religious education not just in this generation but for the past two or three generations—a failure which means that people at the highest level do not really understand what it is about.
Why is that important? It is because when we deal with other people in other places or with people in our society for whom this is very important, leading, thoughtful, decision-making people do not understand what they are dealing with. They make the wrong decisions when it comes to dealing with fundamentalism, terrorism and the politics of other countries, because, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a debate on Friday, a majority of people in this country may not have religious perspectives, but if you look globally, it is quite the opposite and is a growing phenomenon in the world. We must therefore understand that we must take it seriously.
We have just come from voting in a Division—successfully, I understand, for those of us who voted for the amendment—about our concern about the way that the Government are handling relations with the Muslim community. Parliament is sufficiently concerned about that to ask for a review of Prevent. That is because there is not proper and sufficient understanding. When it comes to young people and their mental health, it is not about them being religious, it is about them being encouraged to have a coherent view of what makes meaning in their lives.
The report gives an opportunity not for the Government to say yes or no about legislation but, rather, to say, “This is a really worthwhile attempt to address the question. We will sit down and discuss with you your concerns and ours about how we make it better for the next generation”, not, “I am sorry, we are too busy, we do not have the time, we do not want to overburden teachers. Here is a little bit of money. Please go away”. It is far too important for that. If the Government do not deal with it and instead pay attention to a small number of stakeholders, some of whom are fundamentalist in their known perspectives, I guarantee the Minister, the department and the Government that this issue will not go away and those who are determined to promote it will not go away. There will be a substantial campaign by people who say, “These are important issues for our generation and the next, and we will continue to press them”.
I hope that the Minister will take that message back to his colleagues, particularly the Secretary of State. This is important and it is not going to go away.
My Lords, the experience and wisdom of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, in this matter is immense and inspiring, and I thank him.
I am pleased that this report recommends that children should experience and learn to link the spiritual and the secular and be helped to broaden their world view. My secular schooling, in Cardiff, was traumatic and upsetting. I was asked to leave school at the age of 16 thinking that I was stupid. My Jewish evening classes, which I attended after school, were so narrow and strict, concentrating on ritual and practice, that I was made to think that I could not be spiritual.
Later, with help, I found first that I was not stupid but dyslexic, and that the different brain structure can sometimes be an advantage, particularly in retailing and entrepreneurialism. Secondly, I was helped to know that I have within me “spirit”, as we all do. I will mention five experts who are rectifying this lack of compassion and mutual respect between the secular and the spiritual in education and who demonstrate it with evidence-based practices and methodologies.
The consultant paediatrician Sebastian Yuen has helped to create a system of teaching called Genius School. It has been tested in places as variable as Ecuador, Las Vegas, Indonesia, Thailand and New Zealand, and he is now bringing it to British schools. It helps children to develop insights and skills needed for their future on this planet. It begins with a personality-type assessment so that children learn their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Next, they are helped to find their passion and purpose, aligned with the UN sustainable development goals, and then they are introduced to skills to help them to start and complete projects. Finally, there is an introduction to experiences that help them develop resilience through mind/body activities such as music and movement, mindfulness, meditation and yoga.
Then there is Rabbi David Geffen, who saw that teachers were not trained to introduce into their schools concepts of compassion, empathy, equality, respect and love, and he has created a wonderful system of training teachers to teach these values. I have placed a copy of his practical illustrated book, Loving Classroom, in the Library. He says, as suggested in this report, that genuine universal religious education is the study of unity and oneness. Loving Classroom is now used in schools with Jewish, Muslim, Christian and secular curriculums in Israel, South Africa and the UK.
People might not know that in Judaism the written word for God, which cannot be spoken, consists of four letters, which, if pronounced, could sound like “jeho” and “vah”. I must not say it all together—it must not be pronounced. It is referred to in prayer only as “the Lord” or “the Name”. In fact, it is not a word; it is the root of the verb “to be”. The past, present and future tenses of “to be” are was, is and will be. This is the energy that unites, permeates and gives life to all beings for all time. Moses, as depicted in this room, said exactly that when he came down from the mountain. Without this oneness, we each have an evolutionary survival image of ourselves which creates the illusion that we are all completely separate and in competition with each other. “Spirit”, as found in all religions, is an energy that moves humanity to work together to experience the unity of existence and thereby resonate with universal oneness. In secular mindfulness practice, this is also the ultimate pleasure of higher consciousness—a journey built on cultivating truth in one’s head, peace in one’s heart and justice in one’s hands. If children of all faiths and none were helped to experience this, it would help them to progress in whatever activity they find themselves undertaking in life.
I am also delighted that Jeffrey Leader, director of Pikuach, the government-accredited inspection service for Jewish schools, is set on ensuring that all Jewish schools in this country, whatever their strand of Judaism, teach not just the confining rules and regulations, history and scriptures but, as Rabbi Geffen suggests, the values of unity, spirituality and oneness that it advocates.
David Lorimer, programme director of the Scientific and Medical Network, is a founder of a programme in schools in Scotland called Inspiring Purpose. Its aim and vision is to give young people the opportunity to think about their values, character and strengths, while also reflecting on who or what inspires them and their aspirations and goals for the future. Its mission is to help young people set goals, demonstrate future-mindedness and develop a sense of purpose. It aims to help these young minds of the future find opportunities and causes that they care about, and to get young people to become involved with and take action on issues that matter to them.
Finally, I mention Dadi Janki, the spiritual leader of the Brahma Kumaris, based on Mount Abu in Rajasthan, who, 20 years ago, when I was in my 50s and she was in her 80s—she is now 103—began showing me, through her love and compassion, that I, like everyone else, had spirit within me. When we act from that connection, it is good for each of us and for all of us. The vision that Dadi shares has inspired values-based educational programmes around the world in schools, with young leaders, and in the Brahma Kumaris institution.
I ask the Minister to engage with the experts I have mentioned—they all have evidence bases for their methodologies—to see how they might be involved with the plans for implementing the recommendations of this report to create a system to teach not only heads, but hearts and hands.
My Lords, political elites frequently wring their hands and complain that all our problems would be solved if only religious adherents shared their own world view that God does not exist and nor should religions. GK Chesterton mocked this, remarking:
“When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything”.
Notwithstanding the crimes perpetrated in the name of religion, the Committee should remember that the great mass murderers of the 20th century—Hitler, Stalin and Mao—were united in their world view in hating and persecuting religion and, according to Rudolph Rummel, were responsible for at least 100 million deaths.
Unpalatable as it may be to some, around 84% of the world’s population has religious beliefs. There are 2.4 billion Christians, around 30% of the global population, and as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, told us earlier, that number has been increasing. Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s courageous foreign affairs correspondent, was right to say that if you want to understand the world you have to understand religion. The ultimate paradox would be to counter a decline in religious literacy by teaching less religion. RE is not about enforcing a belief in God: it is about respecting and taking seriously those who do. This cannot be elided into social sciences, reduced to a purely human or theoretical phenomenon, or a methodologically agnostic, neutral approach to religion.
Lesslie Newbigin described Christian faith as public truth, confident that its message is true—based on evidence—and offering hope to humanity. As well as understanding religious faith as transcendent belief by which millions of people live, it is also about understanding religion as a human right, as defined by Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to believe, not to believe, or to change your belief.
Religious literacy and understanding of faith and no faith, the honouring of difference, the determination to understand one another and to reconsider bigotry, prejudice and caricatures, must surely be at the heart of how we form tomorrow’s citizens. This will not be achieved by forcing the dilution of religious education—quite the reverse. Damian Hinds, was, therefore, right to tell the admirable chair of the commission, Dr John Hall, that he had heard “concerns” that making statutory the inclusion of world views risked diluting the teaching of RE. The future flourishing of RE will best be achieved by strengthening and adequately resourcing the existing legal arrangements for the Agreed Syllabus Conference, and by supporting the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education.
As an instinctive opponent of one-size-fits-all, centralised command and control, I much prefer the use of a syllabus agreed locally between faith communities, teachers and local authorities. This is about ensuring that children will be taught religious knowledge in terms of how religions understand themselves, not as how the non-religious would wish them to understand themselves. The report’s proposed abolition of the LAS would mean that the guaranteed contribution to and ownership of local RE by local faith leaders would end. A place at the table, with proper accountability, is a far better approach than telling faith communities that they are no longer welcome. For many, religion is not just about learning a subject, it is about a framework by which to live. Excluding faith communities from the proposed new national body, and with no requirement for the new overseers to be conversant with particular religions or faith communities, is quite unacceptable, and could be deeply divisive.
Government could, however, iron out some glaring inconsistencies by ensuring, for instance, that the legal obligations set out in the 1988 Education Act are actually met—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice.
While recognising the important contribution that faith makes to our shared values, we disincentivise the teaching of high-quality RE by not including it in the English Baccalaureate. I am sorry the department has no plans to review this, but I at least hope to hear more positive news about the provision of extra teacher training.
Here are three responses to the report that we should hear this evening with some concern. The Board of Deputies of British Jews calls it “fundamentally flawed”, saying that it,
“might be seen as an attempt by those hostile to faith to push their agenda of undermining rigour in religious education at a time when faith literacy could not be more important”.
The Board of Deputies says that recommendations 1 to 4 are profoundly contentious and dismantle an important part of the Church-state settlement from 1944, 1988 and 1996.
The Catholic Education Service agrees and argues that the quality of religious education is not enhanced or improved by teaching less religion. It says,
“the scope of the subject”,
will become “so wide” and potentially “nondescript” that it would,
“lose all academic value and integrity”,
and potentially depress religious literacy and understanding at a time when persecution of religious freedom has increased globally.
The Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education also expresses disappointment. It says,
“the report paints an overwhelmingly negative picture of the current state of RE”.
It insists that RE in the UK is,
“the envy of the rest of Europe, if not the world”,
and suggests some very good ways of improving even further the teaching of RE, which I have sent to the Minister.
In his letter to Dr Hall, the Secretary of State, Damian Hinds, says:
“I have … concluded that now is not the time to begin these reforms”.
I agree with him, but I also hope he will come forward with positive proposals for strengthening the existing framework.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for securing this debate and for placing our understanding of how to be in the world as the foundation for this report, Religion and Worldviews: the way forward. A national plan for RE. The report has been widely welcomed by many who are committed to the best possible teaching of RE, including the Church of England’s education office. We are grateful to the very reverend John Hall for leading the commission that has produced the report.
There may be many causes for the decline in the delivery of good-quality teaching in RE, but one of them will undoubtedly be the exclusion of the subject from the EBacc and a consequent decline in the number of qualified RE teachers in schools. This might well be an unintended consequence, but it is worth noting that for the same reason there is also a serious concern about the lack of music teachers and teaching posts. The EBacc is seen as a disincentive. On both subjects, I believe that the quality of the education we give to pupils in our state-funded schools is seriously diminished. I join others in welcoming the recent comments by Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman, who in a recent speech at the SCHOOLS NorthEast summit in Newcastle, asserted the importance of quality education in the broadest terms,
“encouraging the take-up of core EBacc subjects such as the humanities and languages at GCSE, alongside the arts and creative subjects”.
I hope the Minister presses the point with Ofsted so that a school could not be judged outstanding if it were not able to demonstrate excellence in religion and worldviews—RE, if you wish to call it that—and the arts, especially music.
It is the Church of England’s hope that this CRE report will contribute to a significant improvement in the delivery of an education in which the skills of religious literacy are a natural and valued element. The urgent need for this has been well stated by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales’s chief executive, Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, when he observes:
“More than ever, as our society becomes multicultural and religious extremism dominates the news agenda, we need young people to be religiously literate”.
In the 11 recommendations of the report, the language of national entitlement underlines the seriousness of the matter. I believe this is something that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has also touched on as a right. The entitlement is outlined in pages 12 and 13 of the report. The recruitment and training of teachers in this subject is a vital element in the delivery of excellence in this important area. The call for teachers of secure subject knowledge and for promoting the value of scholarship is greatly welcome.
In today’s pluralist society, we need teachers who will challenge cultural and religious stereotypes from a position of understanding and respect. In the case of religions that have an inherited and shared cultic practice, an identifiable canon of foundational texts and an organised pattern of leadership, it will be important to ensure that secure subject knowledge also includes the ability to explore a faith system’s world view through the practices that define and sustain it. In this respect, I hope that any national body that is responsible for developing coherent programmes of study would be required to consult religious and cultural organisations, particularly those whose practice, texts and organisation are the material for study in our schools.
Finally, recommendation 11 opens some serious questions about the withdrawal of pupils from this vital area of education. What plans does the Department for Education have to provide additional legal advice to governors and teachers about what should constitute legitimate grounds for the right to withdraw a pupil from the best that can be offered in the study of religion and world views? How will the Department for Education protect teachers from complaint and prosecution on the basis of ideological or racist views about this subject?
The Secretary of State has stated in his response to the report that his priority is to provide stability to schools, yet I fear that without action to support and incentivise the teaching of humanities, arts and RE by well-trained teachers the inevitable outcome will be not stability but narrowness and decline.
My Lords, I welcome this report because it seems right that our approach should be that of a Weltanschauung. I speak as a humanist and atheist. I do not believe in divine revelation or miracles such as the resurrection, but religion plays an important part in our society—often for good, although not always. It is important that we should know about the historic contribution that Christianity has made to our history and culture in Britain, and about the important role of Islam in the Middle East and Asia and, indeed, in today’s Europe. I wish I had learned more about Islam and other religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, at school.
I went to a Church of England boarding school. Its approach was not a million miles away from that recommended in this report. Every day started with chapel, but actually chapel was not a very religious experience. We wondered which boy—there were no girls then—would read the lesson, commented on how well or badly it was read, hoped there was a good stirring hymn and took bets on the length of the sermons on Sundays. Generally speaking, religion was not thrust down our throats at school. Indeed some masters positively encouraged independent, and even dissident, views about politics as well as religion, but that is not true of many faith schools.
Teaching should teach us about beliefs—to understand them and be tolerant towards other beliefs, when they too preach tolerance—but in my view schools should not teach beliefs. They should teach children to think and question and if that leads them to adopt a religion or confirm their parents’ religious views, as they mostly do, that is well and good. But it should not treat children as Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Jewish any more than we would treat them as Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat children. That would narrow their Weltanschauung. Children should have a chance to choose their beliefs for themselves. Religion should be taught in the context of science.
One of the great moments of history and civilisation, as Isaiah Berlin observed, was the Enlightenment. It dethroned authority, especially theocracy, as the arbiter of truth. Evidence, not dogma, was now the test for truth in the natural world. It undermined superstition, prejudice and autocracy because it taught that there was uncertainty and doubt. Some truths about nature are now established as facts, no longer as heavenly portents. Evolution, for example, is overwhelmingly supported by evidence and can be regarded as a fact—except in the United States—as is the fact that night follows day and the earth is round. But however well-established they are today, some theories about how evolution evolves—for example, Darwin’s theory of natural selection—may one day, like all theories, be succeeded by a better one. There are always uncertainties.
“Nature, and Nature’s laws lay hid in night.
God said, Let Newton be! And all was light”,
to which one later wit added:
“It did not last: the Devil howling ‘Ho!
Let Einstein be!’ restored the status quo”.
There is always some room for doubt, and science is not to be confused with scientism—as science’s opponents often do—which believes that science has an answer for everything. Of course it does not. Scientism has no room for doubt and was one of the flaws in certain aspects of Marxism, which certainly allowed no doubt.
It may be unrealistic to suggest that teaching about the Enlightenment should be part of the curriculum in all schools, but the new Weltanschauung should place religion in a wider context to avoid dogma. Perhaps one key quotation should be Locke’s plea for tolerance, which I regard as basic to the defeat of autocracy and the promotion of democracy:
“For where is the man who has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns; or who can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own, or other men’s opinions?”
My Lords, this is a splendid report, and the Government’s response is feeble. The report commands our admiration for its range and thoroughness. It took two years and heard a lot of submissions. It is extremely good: broad-based, understanding and tolerant. The Secretary of State said that religious education is useful because it teaches respect and tolerance. Religion is far more important than that. It is a global crisis. It is the basis of many of our wars and the cause of a great deal of persecution, as the churchmen here will know.
We need to enlighten children about the nature of thinking, purpose and their world view. For 10 years, I did a BBC programme called “Belief”, in which I interviewed a variety of people: everyone from Richard Dawkins to Timothy Radcliffe, who was the leader of the Dominicans. There were Sikhs, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, atheists—all sorts of people, and every one had a world view. As a humanist, my view is that every individual holds within him a world view and a sense of morality. Unless we bring that out in children, the world is doomed.
I went to Northern Ireland to report on children’s religious education. I talked to Catholic children, who said that the Protestants were wrong and should be killed, and I talked to Protestant children, who said that the Catholics were wrong. I talked at a school which was attempting to bring them together, and the children were saying, “I’ve got a friend who’s a Catholic, and she’s perfectly all right!”. They surprised each other by the breadth of their understanding.
I believe that this report needs more attention and acknowledgement, and that it can be an important gesture towards the future peace and enlightenment of the world. Do not go to Pakistan if you are a Christian—you will be persecuted. Do not go to Saudi Arabia if you want to celebrate Christmas. There are countries across the world which persecute people for holding a world view that differs from their own. We need to eradicate that intolerance, and that applies to every one of us and to every religious and non-belief enterprise—I speak as a humanist.
My Lords, this is a very interesting report. As I started to go through it, I was very impressed by how it designs a method for improving the training of teachers and broadening the information they have.
To start with the practicalities—I will come to my philosophical point in a moment—the report has the right approach: make sure that the people who teach the subject have a good understanding of it; otherwise, you will be trying to push water uphill from a very early point. The fact that we have got into a system where we do not take this subject seriously is probably at the heart of it—it has lost status. The noble Lord will be familiar with the criticism of EBacc. It has downgraded many subjects and religious education has merely joined a list. I am normally in a room supported by people who talk about the creative subjects—things that we make money on. Avoiding conflict and stress in society might be a very good way of saving money but we actually make money from them. However, those subjects are downgraded by the EBacc. The road to hell is undoubtedly paved with good intentions, and, trust me, you are on the road to purgatory when you insist on downgrading useful subjects. I am afraid that the EBacc misses the mark.
I turn to the philosophical point. It is probably presumptuous for a dyslexic—I join the noble Lord, Lord Stone, in the mafia of the mis-spellers; we would take over the world but we forget exactly who we are and where we jotted it down—to point out that the “s” on the end of the term “world views” is where this report scores. The first step towards a more civil and co-operative society is knowing what other people think and how they think. It is deciding that another person is well intentioned or it is thinking that they are wrong most of the time as opposed to evil, whether because of religion, politics or anything else. When we reach out from inside ourselves, politics works well. Those are good things to do, and this report says that we should do them and prepare other people to do them. The methodology is very similar to that devised by—back to the mafia of the mis-spellers—the British Dyslexia Association for training people in schools to deal with those in neurodiverse communities. It is important that there is expertise and support in this area.
If I were an Education Minister, I would instinctively go for two strategies. One would be to hide under the biggest desk in the room; the other would be to punt it down the road. We are talking about making a structural shift. My noble friend Lord Alderdice hinted at one or two of these things, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggested that the current system would be okay if only we would put a bit more effort into it. I think that the system is broken. It is out of date and reflects the old times. Politicians tend to be reactive—they say, “That was the problem yesterday. Let’s fix it today”—and we have a system that fixes the problems of some time ago. We have to try to address this situation in a new way, and this document gives us the platform to start thinking about that.
We do not need to reinforce faith. Jedi got on to the census. To the English, religion is a movable feast that does not go down certain tram-lines. It does not even go on branch lines; it is hiking across hills somewhere. Then we have groups that want to acquire an identity. Those of Islamic faith seem to defend themselves and their identity by hanging on to aspects of religion. We have to try to make these people see each other as the norm and not as alien. If you are alien, we can disagree with you and persecute you because you are not us. We are right and, if you are not us, you must be wrong.
This approach is a good one; if the Minister can give us some idea about how the Government are starting to address some of the ideas, I would be very grateful. However, the point of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice—throwing a few more pounds at the problem, training three or four more teachers and saying everything will be fine and quoting a couple of statistics about a pass rate at, say, GCSE—does not begin to touch this. The important bit will be in primary schools to get the base of understanding.
If the noble Lord can give us some idea, I will be very surprised—it is a difficult question and this may be the opening shot—but primary is where we must put the emphasis on. Understanding will probably lead to great rewards in the future.
My Lords, this is a welcome debate on an important subject, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, on securing it. Of course, the sands have shifted considerably since he did so; as we know, the Secretary of State has set out the Government’s position in a letter to the commission’s chair, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall. That letter amounted to little more than platitudes, followed by a blunt dismissal of the report’s recommendations and a firm refusal by the Secretary of State to address the current state of the delivery of religious education in our schools. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was being kind when he described it as negative and disappointing.
Religious education is a vital academic subject, providing important knowledge as well as the tools to develop critical thinking and ask informed questions. It is important for pupils to have the opportunity to learn about all faiths and beliefs and to understand the way that these impact on how people view the world.
The commission’s report is the result of two years of consultation and has been widely welcomed, most notably by the Church of England, the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, the National Association of Head Teachers and Humanists UK. We share the view of the National Education Union that it should form the start of a much-needed conversation about the place of religious education in our schools. The report confirmed that the pressures on schools to focus on limited, tested subjects and the shortage of teachers with the appropriate subject knowledge make it difficult to focus on religious education.
The commission’s headline recommendation is that the subject of religious education should be renamed religion and world views, which we endorse. That would allow the subject to be fully inclusive of humanism, reflecting the facts—uncomfortable for some, no doubt—that more than a quarter of people have humanist beliefs and values, and that more people self-identify as non-religious and humanist than the total number of adherents of all non-Christian religions in this country.
I note from their responses to the report that the Catholic Education Service and the Board of Deputies of British Jews—bodies that I respect—oppose the addition of humanism and other non-religious perspectives to religious education. Both organisations suggest that the incorporation of world views into the syllabus would somehow diminish religious education. In his response to the report, the Secretary of State said that he had received similar representations. I contend that, with the number of pupils taking religious studies at A-level having fallen by 22% since 2017, and with 70% of people aged 18 to 24 identifying as having no religion, the inclusion of a diverse range of world views would make religious education better equipped to remain relevant to young people growing up in 21st-century Britain, both those with religion and those without.
Currently, legislation and funding agreements require all state-funded schools to deliver religious education. Yet it is clearly not a subject that the Government hold as being of much importance, having been further sidelined by the introduction of the EBacc. Further evidence was provided earlier this year when the Schools Minister, Mr Gibb, stated in a reply to a Written Question:
“Ofsted does not routinely compliance check whether schools, Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education … or Agreed Syllabus Conferences … are meeting all of their statutory requirements”.
Why would that not be a matter of routine importance to Ofsted? As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester said, if the requirements relating to the teaching of religious education are statutory, then by definition they must be complied with. That echoes the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that 33% of schools do not offer religious education at key stage 4.
Will the Government begin ensuring that the current law is upheld by schools in terms of religious education, or are they planning to rescind that part of the statute? Which is it? The Government cannot continue conniving in the law being effectively ignored in such a manner. This laissez-faire approach adds weight to the commission’s recommendation that a national entitlement to the subject should be introduced in place of existing legal requirements. With the Government apparently unable or unwilling to ensure that religious education meets their statutory requirements, having a nationwide entitlement would ensure that parents knew what they could demand of their child’s school and have clear recourse were it not to be met. This should become statutory for all publicly funded schools and, for maintained schools, should replace the requirement to follow the locally agreed syllabus.
The commission also recommends that for faith schools, a requirement should be introduced to provide religion and world views within the national entitlement. This would be provided in addition to any faith-based education and, again, is not supported by either the Catholic Education Service or the Board of Deputies of British Jews—I think I can understand why. Labour is minded to support that recommendation but, before doing so, we intend to meet both those organisations and those representing other faiths to understand why they believe that by teaching pupils at their schools about world views, they would undermine the teaching that they currently offer. Surely, those religions are more than robust enough to withstand their adherents receiving a broader understanding of the philosophy that underpins the beliefs of others. No matter; the law is quite clear that humanism should be included on an equal basis to the major religions—indeed, this was the conclusion of a 2015 judicial review of the matter.
This is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggested, about telling faith communities that they are no longer welcome. That is a mischaracterisation of those who advocate broadening and deepening the curriculum through critical thought and reasoning. In its response to the Secretary of State’s letter, the Religious Education Council said that it was disappointed by his reaction to the report which,
“fails to grasp the urgent need for reform of Religious Education to better prepare young people for life in modern Britain”.
That is a view with which we concur. The Government should think again.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for securing this debate. I am grateful for this opportunity to set out the Government’s position on religious education and our response to the Commission on Religious Education’s report. During this debate, noble Lords have argued strongly for the importance of religious education and a commitment to its continuation and improvement. The Government share that commitment.
We have decided that now is not the time to implement the commission’s ambitious recommendations radically to reform religious education. However, the Government agree that good-quality religious education can develop children’s knowledge of the values and traditions of Britain and other countries. It can foster understanding among different faiths and cultures. It is an essential part of a school’s legal duty to promote young people’s spiritual, moral and cultural development. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, when he said that we have to help children to understand their way of being in the world.
Schools and colleges have a duty actively to promote fundamental British values as part of the duty to prevent people becoming drawn into terrorism. These shared values—democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect and tolerance for those of other faiths and beliefs—unite us and underpin our society. The religious landscape of this country forms part of those principles, and the noble Lord, Lord Stone, referred to the value of unity and oneness. Understanding our British values is a vital part of that. I perhaps have more faith in the power of the teaching of British values than other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, and it is of course still an evolving part of the responsibility of schools, having been introduced only recently.
According to the school workforce statistics, 3.3% of all teaching hours in state-funded secondary schools in 2017 were spent teaching religious education. This compares with a figure of 3.2% in 2010, so it has remained broadly stable over that period. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, worries that we do not have enough time in the curriculum for the teaching of religious education. However, we do not specify that equal time needs to be spent by each year group on the subject, only that it must be taught throughout a pupil’s school life. For example, there is no reason why schools could not dedicate more time at key stage 3 than at key stage 4, when pupils are generally not studying for GCSE. The key stage 3 national curriculum is designed as a three-year programme of study to prepare children to start GCSEs in year 10.
The noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Alderdice, worry that there is not enough time at key stage 4. Having said that, the EBacc was designed to be limited in size to allow pupils to continue to study additional subjects and reflect their individual interests and strengths. This allows not only for schools to teach RE, as we would expect, at key stage 4, but for religious studies to be a feasible GCSE option.
However, one of the commission’s most concerning statements was that it had found a number of maintained schools and academies either no longer teaching RE or no longer teaching it as a dedicated subject. On that point, I would like to be very clear: RE is not optional. Schools not teaching it are acting unlawfully or are in breach of their academy funding agreements. We will take action if this is found to be the case.
I assure the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Alderdice, that where we are made aware of a school not meeting its duty to provide religious education, my department will investigate, as long as the school’s complaint procedures have been followed. In the last two years, the department has received only one formal complaint about a school not complying with its area’s agreed syllabus for religious education. Following the department’s intervention, the school has revised its curriculum to meet requirements.
One of the commission’s key recommendations is to change legislation so that all state-funded schools have to deliver the national entitlement on religion and world views. Reworded legislation would therefore be extended to encompass non-religious world views. Many teachers already cover aspects of world views in their RE lessons. Both GCSE and A-level content specifications include reference to non-religious views. But the potential scope of what could be considered a world view is very wide. Agreeing precisely what should be taught as part of a national entitlement would be fraught with difficulty.
The commission’s report suggests that existentialism and Confucianism are examples of suitable non-religious world views as they each make ontological and epistemological claims. This illustrates how defining world views and then deciding those worthy of study is complex. There is a risk that religious education is diluted in an attempt to embrace many other strands of thinking. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raises the responses of the Catholic Education Service and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Both have publicly expressed their concern about this. They are unlikely to be alone. This would make it difficult to agree a consensus.
An important focus of the commission report was the need to recruit, train and retain specialist teachers of religious education. This is key to maintaining the integrity of the subject and the quality of teaching. In recognition of this, we made two announcements in September. First, we increased bursaries so that RE trainees with a First, 2.1, 2.2, PhD or Master’s will now receive £9,000. Secondly, we allocated new funding for religious education subject knowledge enhancement courses of up to eight weeks. These offer graduates the chance to refresh their subject knowledge either before or during initial teacher training.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester raises the importance of Ofsted assessments of religious education, and I agree with him that this is an important part of an inspection of a school. I will take back his suggestion that to achieve an outstanding grade, schools should provide good-quality religious education.
The noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Watson, worry about the decline in teaching of religious education in schools. Actually, the picture is not quite as bleak as one might think. There was a 21% increase in the number of pupils entered for the full-course RE GCSE between 2010 and 2018, from 176,000 to 213,000 pupils. There has also been an increase in the percentage of the total key stage 4 cohort entered for this examination, from 28% in 2010 to 37% in 2018. This is important.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He talks about key stage 4, but as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said and I repeated, a third of key stage 4 students do not get religious education, so cannot sit exams in it. If the Minister wants to increase the figures, as I think we all do, surely he should be getting those 33% of schools to make sure they do what they should be doing under the law and teach religious education at key stage 4.
Referring to my earlier point, we will always investigate any serious allegation about the non-teaching of religious education, and this report certainly highlights examples of that. If they are referred to us, we will certainly investigate. To reassure the noble Lord, Lord Watson, we are committed to ensuring that religious education remains a key part of a child’s education.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned Article 18—freedom of religion—and violations of it. The Government are concerned about the severity of violations of the freedom of religious belief in many parts of the world. Defending and promoting human rights is an essential aim of the foreign policy of global Britain, and derives from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The report mentions that the right to withdraw from religious education has existed in our education system since 1870 and was reconfirmed in legislation in the 1944 and 1988 education Acts. The commission found that many schools are not clear on the scope of this right and how to handle applications for withdrawal. The report recommended that the DfE provide clearer guidance. Since then the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Association of Teachers of RE have produced guidance for schools on this issue. The Government are comfortable with this guidance; my department will help to raise awareness of it.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised a concern about the locally agreed syllabus for RE. For many schools the current requirement is that they follow a locally agreed syllabus monitored by the standing advisory councils for religious education. The department’s guidance is clear: that at local level, representatives of religious and other interests can serve as formal or co-opted members on both SACREs and in groups of this conference to review the locally-agreed syllabus. These are important principles which should not be lost without more careful consideration.
I thank the Commission on Religious Education for its well-considered report. Although it offers radical options for reform which at the moment we cannot consider implementing, we welcome the debate that it generates. The Secretary of State for Education has been clear that reducing teacher workload is one of his top priorities, and as part of that he committed in March not to make further changes to the curriculum. In this context we must decline to take forward the commission’s vision for the future of RE in England.
Committee adjourned at 7.35 pm.