Tuesday 25 February 2020
Arrangement of Business
Good afternoon. I begin by reminding noble Lords that if there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am delighted to have secured this debate. I grew up in the Pennines, at the heart of livestock production, with spring lambs and suckler cows—both central to the rural economy.
Food habits are currently changing, with a growing trend to vegetarian options and veganism, so farmers rely increasingly on exports to bolster their market. The live trade in animals is small and highly regulated, but important for breeding, showing, racing, in the case of horses, and satisfying an appetite for our excellent produce across the channel—not for horses, of course. This trade helps to keep the price stable. There is no harm in reviewing that trade, but it would be total madness to ban it.
In the brave new post-Brexit world, there will be opportunities for local producers to expand the home market. Shepherds Purse and other cheese producers, Heck sausages and suchlike already enjoy a strong share of the home market, and this could well be developed further. But at the behest of British consumers, UK food producers must meet high standards of production in animal welfare, health and hygiene, as well as high environmental standards.
I remember only too well the unilateral decision to ban sow stalls and tethers in the early 1990s. This had the perverse consequence of pushing consumers into buying cheaper imported pork products, which were not competing fairly nor to the same high standards and put home pig producers out of business. Some 50% of UK pig producers left production.
The genesis of this debate lies in an amendment to the Trade Bill in the last Parliament and the government amendment in name of my noble friend Lady Fairhead, ably supported by the noble Baronesses, Lady Henig, Lady Jones—whom I am delighted to see in her place—and Lady Brown of Cambridge, and me. The amendment clearly stipulated that there should be statutory protection set out in the UK, with a view to
“the protection of human, animal or plant life or health … animal welfare … environmental protection … employment and labour”,
and that these
“UK levels of statutory protection”
will be set out in
“primary legislation … subordinate legislation, or … retained direct EU legislation”.
It is that statutory protection that I seek today.
The NFU, all other farm organisations, green interests and animal welfare groups joined forces in January this year, calling for the Government to ensure that under any future trade deal they might negotiate, the integrity and safety of our standards of production would be maintained, and that imported foodstuffs would meet the high standards of production that our producers meet at home.
Why does this matter? Not just to protect us from chlorinated chicken or hormone-produced beef but to ensure that we do not roll back the years of good husbandry that our farmers have followed across the four nations of the United Kingdom. A vital ingredient to safeguard these will be a trading standards commission that will oversee standards and ensure that any food imports meet our high standards of food safety, animal welfare and hygiene, as well as environmental standards.
There must be a level playing field between UK-based companies and their international trading counterparts. This commission would work closely with the Food Standards Agency and other such bodies. Ideally, it would have been set up by Parliament before the trade negotiations began and would be composed of experts in animal health, animal welfare, public health and safety, as well as representatives of the veterinary profession. Its role would be to certify the accepted standards of production for the purpose of international trade, to ensure that the UK meets the challenges of our climate change commitments based on current science, and to ensure that sustainable modes of production and consumption are met.
I will take this opportunity to counter the argument for cheap food. Food as a percentage of income per household is now at about the lowest level ever. If we import cheap food that does not meet our high standards, we are simply exporting the problem and potentially yet again putting our farmers and food producers out of business. Is this really the Government’s agenda? I cannot imagine for a moment that it is. Their agenda should clearly be to feed the country but to ensure that any food imports do not lower standards, with cheaper production costs leading to less food safety and potentially more food poisoning. We should just look at the incidence of food poisoning in the United States as a comparison.
Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that the Government will press for mutual recognition of sanitary and phytosanitary measures, removing the need for costly and time-consuming export health certification? Will the Government raise this at the next World Trade Organization meeting and in negotiating international trade deals? Will my noble friend take the opportunity today to ensure that we will do our level best to get a deal by 31 December and that World Trade Organization rules will not apply thereafter? A deal needs to be in place with no tariffs. Such tariffs could be up to 60% on lamb production, which I think is the highest level, but their impact would be felt on our livestock production across the board.
Farmers must have full confidence that reciprocal standards are in place and that substandard products will not be accepted into this country. We expect our farmers to go out in all weathers, battling with the elements, to put food on our plates. The least we can do for them and for other food producers is put in place a framework that protects the highest levels of production that we have come to expect from them. Maintaining high standards in the UK is also very important for our food exporters, as UK provenance and quality are prized in markets abroad. I remind noble Lords that the value of the UK’s food and drink exports now exceeds £23 billion and that our products are sold to more than 220 countries.
I turn to the motor industry and car and other vehicle exports. It is essential that a deal is agreed with the EU which guarantees tariff-free trade in automotive products, with a stand-alone rules-of-origin chapter and protocol. The deal must reflect the uniquely integrated nature of UK-EU trade—a warning is apparent now with the drop-off in trade from a third country, China, owing to the ongoing coronavirus emergency.
A new EU-UK framework for regulatory co-operation and dialogue in relation to automotive should be agreed, starting from a position of complete alignment and recognising that the UK and EU currently share the same rules. It should be supported by a robust governance framework, part of which could be provided by the UK trading standards commission that I am arguing for today. The significant cost of additional testing should be avoided by the UK choosing to align with EU technical standards and seeking mutual recognition for its type-approval framework. The UK and EU should agree the most comprehensive and deepest levels of co-operation in relation to customs to minimise delays and disruption on both sides of the border. There should be an agreement on the free movement of staff between sites in the UK and the EU without unnecessary restriction, delay or cost. The UK must ensure preferential trade with third countries, including Turkey, Japan, Mexico, Canada and other preferential automotive partners.
The UK has a long and proud history as a trading nation. Manufacturing, whether of food, cars, lorries, aeroplanes or chemicals, must not be jeopardised as we leave the European Union. These industries provide the jobs and wealth on which this country is based and lie at the heart of unleashing our future economic capability. The Government have an opportunity to provide a gold-standard model for high-standard, high-quality food and other manufacturing production. They must take it and give statutory protection to these industries by establishing a trading standards commission, as I have set out today.
My Lords, I very much support the tone and intention of the Question from the noble Baroness. We must recall that, when the previous Secretary of State for the Environment was in place, he himself supported this suggestion. We would like an indication from the Government today that they will support it as well.
Inevitably, the noble Baroness concentrated largely on the food sector, as will I, but, as she said, this would apply to many other sectors as well. On the day when the European Union is producing its negotiating mandate and we are getting ours, with the Government telling us that in a matter of weeks we will be negotiating also with the United States, we need to be clear on two things. What is the Government’s overall strategy for international trade post Brexit? Domestically, what is their system of accountability to Parliament and civic society?
The problem at the moment is that those who advocated Brexit in one form or another promised different things to different people. They promised consumers cheaper food; they promised environmentalists and animal welfare campaign groups maintained or improved standards; and they promised exporters that their markets would not be closed or subject to punitive tariffs. They have effectively told all of us things that are incompatible with the outcome of renegotiating all our different trade arrangements with the world.
Trade with the United States is not primarily about chlorinated chicken, although the Minister did say the other day that he may be prepared to accept acid-washed chicken. Both those processes relate to very poor hygiene and welfare standards in the poultry farms of the United States. It is worse in some other countries we might make deals with, such as Brazil and other countries in South America. The Government need to be clear that they mean what they say about maintaining the standards that we have reached and operated with the EU over the last few years. They must also ensure that industry, consumers and civil society are involved in any change to those arrangements and that, in principle, we will not opt for trade and cheaper imports on the basis of lower welfare and environmental standards.
If we do the opposite, we will get into some difficulties. If we sign an agreement with the United States that allows in goods produced under poor welfare and low environmental standards, our farmers and producers will say that they need to reduce their standards to compete. We might then find that the EU will close the door to our imports, because we are contaminated by imports from the rest of the world, where they work to lower standards. It is not often mentioned, but it is important to remember that the UK was the leader in establishing EU environmental and welfare standards in the past. Without our presence, some of that consensus in Europe might actually reduce, under pressure from European producers, and so European standards might become lower. It will become a vicious circle throughout the main trading blocs and will lower environmental and welfare standards in developed countries.
The Government can avoid this by being absolutely clear that in no negotiations will they reduce standards, and by talking to the industry about any divergence at all—all of which would be only in an upward direction. Unless we do that, we will cause confusion, con consumers into thinking that they will get better choice and cheaper food, and endanger high-quality production in this country.
That applies to the food sector, and the noble Baroness has already referred to the situation for vehicles. I emphasise that there could be problems in relation to vehicle safety and emissions standards. Even in unrelated areas, such as data protection and the chemical sector, there are similar issues. I ask the Minister to say clearly and unequivocally that we will not, in any circumstances, lower environmental and welfare standards, and that in any consultation we will go back to Michael Gove’s commitment, made not that long ago, to establish a commission.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering for introducing this debate today. I acknowledge the consistent and determined approach she has taken over some time towards the establishment of a trade standards commission. However, I wonder whether linking the establishment of a commission to the opening of negotiations on free trade agreements might not perversely work against the interests of the consumers whom my noble friend seeks to protect. One of the principal advantages of Brexit is to improve diversity in sources of supply, which will be possible once we are freed from the overly bureaucratic and cumbersome EU regulatory framework. As the Conservative Party manifesto stated:
“We want people, both at home and abroad, to be lining up to buy British. And one of the great opportunities of Brexit is the chance to lead the world in the quality of our food, agriculture and land management—driven by science-led, evidence-based policy.”
I draw your Lordships’ attention to the importance of ensuring that our regulations in future must be science-led and evidence-based, and I ask the Minister to give an assurance to that effect. I fear that the EU’s strict adherence to the precautionary principle has to some extent made the UK a less innovation-friendly environment. For example, I do not think that the science supports the EU’s ban on genetically modified food. The president of the Royal Society has argued that, given the need to increase food production by 50% by 2050, we cannot afford to give up on useful technologies, especially to help poorer countries have a reliable and nutritious source of food.
It is surely time to bust the myth about chlorinated chicken. As noble Lords are aware, vegetables and salads sold in supermarkets have all been washed in chlorine, in order to protect the health of consumers. Why does the EU ban chlorine-washed chicken, or, as is increasingly used in the US, lactic acid-washed chicken? As a result, poultry-related illnesses such as salmonella and campylobacter are much more prevalent in the EU than in the US. The effect of the chlorine ban is protectionist, and it is applied not because chlorine is harmful but because the EU believes that it helps to raise farming standards. However, there is inadequate evidence for this. McDonald’s decided to move to free range chickens without legislation in 2015. Furthermore, imagine the outcry from parents if there were a ban on using chlorine to disinfect swimming pools. Surely, chemically washed chicken should be available to consumers here, clearly labelled, so that those who do not wish to buy it would have the freedom to choose to buy another product.
The IEA published a report in June last year which argued that European agricultural production is among the most distorted in the world. Brexit provides an opportunity to adopt a more open and liberal farm policy which should be beneficial for British farmers, producers and consumers. Can the Minister confirm that the Government have already responded to my noble friend’s concerns by establishing the Strategic Trade Advisory Group, chaired by the Minister for Trade Policy and including representatives of all concerned stakeholders, including consumers, industry and trade unions? Does he agree that the establishment of yet another body would be both expensive and unnecessary?
In his Greenwich speech, the Prime Minister said:
“It goes without saying that of course the NHS is not on the table and no, we will not accept any diminution in food hygiene or animal welfare standards.”
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has acknowledged that the EU single market has benefits but also serious costs for Britain’s farming industry. I worry that the establishment of a trade standards commission as proposed would tie the hands of our trade negotiators and would seek to prevent our escape from bureaucratic EU regulations that have kept food prices too high for too long.
Of course, we must and will maintain the highest standards, but regulations are not just two dimensional, high or low. To describe regulations as enforcing high or low standards is subjective. There are many different ways to secure the right balance between consumer protection and encouraging new efficient production methods that will lead to enhanced prosperity for all. It is welcome that, in future, these questions will be decided here in this Parliament.
My Lords, with the permission of the Committee, I will speak from a seated position because I have broken my foot. It was not while skiing.
This debate is incredibly important, because it follows years of debates and votes where your Lordships’ House has made it very clear that the Government must subject themselves to proper scrutiny of our future trade arrangements. It is a delight to have so much common ground with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. Up to now, the Government have failed to set out any sensible proposals on this. Promises to have the best standards in the world are welcome, but they have to translate into legislation.
Over the next five years I am going to constantly remind the Government that they came to power on their manifesto. The words on those pages are now the will of the people, which include the commitment:
“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental … animal welfare and food standards.”
That is great, but they must now deliver on that commitment by putting it into law.
A body such as a trade standards commission could play an important role in this, but without strong powers and the ability to hold the Government to account, we can be sure that the Government will simply ignore it, just as they have ignored and delayed the work of so many important bodies by, for example, squashing the Russia report, delaying the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation’s report, and unlawfully proroguing Parliament itself. The Government have proven time and again that they will not do the right thing unless a court orders them to. For these reasons, any trade standards commission must be given legal powers and authority. It might then scrutinise and even veto provisions in trade agreements that are seen to be detrimental—an important safeguard against a Government desperate to secure trade deals.
Minette Batters, president of the NFU, made an interesting comment today when she warned the Government:
“To sign up to a trade deal which results in opening our ports, shelves and fridges to food which would be illegal to produce here would … be morally bankrupt”.
The Government are risking drawing together components in society such as the NFU, the Greens and Extinction Rebellion on one common platform. They would find that quite difficult to handle. Remember, it is the will of the people that our standards should remain high.
These questions of trade and development must also be co-ordinated with our efforts on the climate and ecological emergency. The Government should use our presidency of COP 26 to build agreement around global trade and investment so that the outsourcing and exporting of environmental destruction is ended, and the world economy can rapidly transition to a world-friendly, planet-friendly and people-friendly economy. The Government will find it very hard to reconcile their stated environmental ambitions with their stated trade ambitions. Trade-offs will inevitably be made, and it is essential that we put the right legislative structures in place to ensure that the long-term environmental and social impacts are rightly valued above the short-term economic and political gains.
In our assessment of trade standards, we should focus on the impact not only at home but on our trade partners. Too much of our environmental, ecological and carbon burden gets outsourced to developing countries, which feel the pain of our addiction to consumer-led growth. Water-stressed and drought-ridden countries, for example, extract their precious water to supply our markets for the manufacture of our imported goods. It seems madness that we are potentially making things worse not only here but in other countries. Any trade standards commission must be given legal powers and authority. I would like to hear from the Minister that this will happen.
I am absolutely delighted that chickens get washed in chlorine in America. If they were not, they would be even more disease-ridden than they are before being washed in chlorine—but no way will the British consumer want to eat them, I can assure you. It is the will of the people that we maintain high standards.
My Lords, it is good to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, with her committed remarks, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for obtaining the debate. In another place, over a considerable number of years, I heard her voice raised always for her own homeland and for those matters that she raised so persuasively in her remarks this afternoon in Grand Committee. I found the epithets with regard to the noble Baroness very persistent and strong. Ministers always found it necessary to hear what she said.
Our Library has told us that an estimated £261 billion of England’s total economy in terms of gross value added came from rural areas, and in 2018 the Welsh Government estimated that 78% of land in Wales was used for agriculture. In support of the experienced views of my noble friend Lord Whitty and the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, I wish to emphasise the need, bearing in mind the challenges, for hill farmers. I have in mind the Borders, the Pennines, Cumbria and, in my own case, Wales.
The hill farmer and the sheepmeat industry must survive and prosper and have more, not less support. The hill farmer and the sheepmeat industry face the challenge of climate and contour. We do not sufficiently value the input of the shepherd—be it he, she or they. The shepherd fights that climate and has to cope with the contours and then has to look at the challenges of welfare, transportation, regulation and competition—and they triumph. They do very well, but the nation may be in danger of overlooking this important sector of the economy and of our population and culture.
I am thinking of the far-flung townships and villages on those hilltops and in the neighbouring valleys. I am thinking of the way of life and of these special challenges —climate, particularly, and contour. They should be given more help from Governments of the day. In the case of my own homeland, there is also the cultural value of the language. It is required of Her Majesty’s Ministers to be able to say that the hill farmer and the sheepmeat industry will get the fair deal that the principal speaker adumbrated
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady McIntosh for securing this debate. It is a timely reminder of the role that standards and the UK’s broader quality infrastructure need to play in future trade negotiations. A trade standards commission, with the full involvement of government and key stakeholders, would be one means of ensuring that the strategic and economic importance of continuing high standards, and their effective implementation and enforcement, are central to all trade negotiations and future trading arrangements. Confidence in the safety and quality of goods and services is an essential element of international trade. That matters now, but it will matter even more so after the end of the year.
The Government’s manifesto rightly promised that
“in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
That undertaking was recently reiterated by my right honourable friend the International Trade Secretary when she set out the priorities for future trade deals.
The United Kingdom already has an enviable reputation for high-quality standards in these areas, achieved through the support of successive Governments for a national framework of standards, measurement and accreditation—collectively referred to as the United Kingdom Quality Infrastructure, or UKQI. I should declare an interest, as the chair of the United Kingdom’s national accreditation body, UKAS—the UK Accreditation Service—which is a key component of the UKQI.
To maximise the effectiveness of standards, their implementation needs to be underpinned by robust verification and certification systems. As the national accreditation body, UKAS is firmly established as part of the UK’s regulatory regime in a wide range of areas. These include the sectors that a trade standards commission, and others, would see as priorities, such as animal welfare, environmental management, farm assurance and food safety.
It is also important that standards and accreditation are global activities, and UKAS, as the national accreditation body, and the British Standards Institution, or BSI, as the UK’s national standards body, operate within an international framework. This mutual recognition of standards and accredited conformity assessment between trading partners underpins many international trade arrangements.
Accreditation is also recognised by the WTO’s Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement, and by bilateral trade agreements. That is an important tool that can be utilised to improve competitiveness and facilitate global trade. It ought, therefore, to be an important part of a trade standards commission’s work to look at how accreditation and linked mutual recognition arrangements that underpin standards can be utilised, protected and, where appropriate, enhanced as part of future trade negotiations.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his great experience in this area. I commend, too, the noble Baroness for securing this debate on trade and standards—significantly, the first full debate in this House since Brexit.
In January, at the African investment summit, the Prime Minister said—no doubt to bemused African leaders—that Uganda’s beef cattle,
“will have an honoured place on the tables of post-Brexit Britain … families across Angola will shortly be tucking into delicious wholesome chicken from Northern Ireland”.
It should be noted that Portugal, Belgium, Italy, Spain and France are already more successful meat exporters to Angola than Britain, and that, despite a beef ban because of its inability to control foot and mouth, Uganda’s exports to the UK are worth just $10 million, compared to $132 million to Italy, $115 million to the Netherlands and $95 million to Germany. Brexit has not, as the Prime Minister suggests, been the barrier. Whether the UK is exporting to Angola, Uganda or any other country, standards, we are told, will be a critical component, and our interaction with European standards—Europe being a much bigger market for them—when an African country is exporting to Europe and to us, will be significant.
Can the Minister, therefore, in responding to this debate, also clarify the status of the trade Bill: what will or will not be in it; whether it is still the Government’s intention, as it was previously, that the mechanisms through which trade agreements will be negotiated will be under the procedures of the previous Trade Bill; and the status of the parliamentary lock that the Government earlier indicated that they were committed to? Clearly, they believed that standards were sufficiently important to require a parliamentary lock. If that is no longer the case, why? What will now be the interaction in the trade Bill with Northern Ireland—not just for Northern Ireland chicken but for those trading between Britain and Northern Ireland, and then between Northern Ireland and the European market?
Poultry is a good example of that, and I am glad that the noble Viscount raised it. As we have heard, Michael Gove, when he was Secretary of State, gave a rather glib comparison on TV when he conflated the process of surface-washing salads with chlorine used to mask poor hygiene practices. The EU, with full UK support, has made it clear that good hygiene practice is a prerequisite for the application of hazard-based controls and that they are an essential element of any discussion on market access.
If we are now setting that aside, our discussion on market access has a whole different meaning, and the Americans know it. With the Secretary of State’s equivocation on TV repeated by his successor, it is concerning. These statements should not be made in TV studios. If there is a parliamentary lock that means anything under legislation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said, they should be said in Parliament and we should be given those commitments.
That is important because the US has established a negotiating mandate for both the United Kingdom post Brexit and the European Union for trade agreements. The text is identical for both. Therefore, when the UK says, as David Frost, the Prime Minister’s chief negotiator, said with great confidence in his recent speech, that the whole purpose of the project of Brexit is our ability to move away from the EU rules, how will that interact with the markets that we seek to export to and import from when they have to choose between the European set of standards and the UK’s—or will we ask them to triangulate, because that will be an invidious position for all our industry?
David Frost also said:
“One obvious example I think is the ability to support our own agriculture to promote environmental goods relevant to our own countryside, and to produce crops that reflect our own climate”—
because clearly we have a climate unique in western Europe—
“rather than being forced to work with rules designed for growing conditions in central France”.
This got me scratching my head. Can the Minister outline those rules?
Finally, David Frost also said:
“There are other broader advantages to running your own affairs. One obvious one is that it is much easier to get people involved in taking decisions”.
But we have no mandate set by Parliament, no standards commission, no updated parliamentary approach, no ability to scrutinise when the ink is signed on agreements and no ability to ratify. How exactly will people, and primarily Parliament, be involved?
My Lords, it has been a very good debate, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, on getting her name on the Order Paper early so that we have a good chance, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, to rehearse some of the ground covered in our previous debate on the trade Bill and that is surely to come on the many Bills now stacking up on the post-Brexit situation.
The noble Baroness made a powerful case for a trade commission. It needs more fleshing out around where its powers would start and end, and what position it would occupy, but there is certainly a germ of a good idea there which is worthy of further consideration. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I am sure that the Government will argue, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, that the Strategic Trade Advisory Group takes over that space. That may well be the case, but its advisory nature and lack of engagement with Parliament—points made by other speakers—and our need to ensure a mandate and to have a dialogue with the Government on the progress of trade deals, means that STAG cannot of itself tackle the key questions of maintaining and improving standards in what we make and produce, and supporting UK producers.
Quotes from the NFU president attacking the Government over their current approach to upcoming trade deals on agriculture have already been mentioned. He said:
“To sign up to a trade deal which”
“fridges to food which would be illegal to produce here would … be morally bankrupt”.
We get a sense from that that something is going on, at an important level, around how the Government relate to this question.
The key question from this debate is why the trade Bill amendment asked for by this House and passed with all-party support, as referred to by the noble Baroness, is not taking this trick. The issue is very clear: the question of how you define in law our current standards is one that we addressed in detail in discussions leading up to the amendment being laid. The wording seems to cover
“human, animal or plant life or health; animal welfare; environmental protection; and employment and labour”,
and does so in a way that ties it to the current statutory position—or the statutory position that would apply when any future changes are made. The parliamentary draftsmen have crawled over it and do not seem to have found any fault with it. It was agreed unanimously by this House. It has yet to be looked at by the Commons, but I hope that it will still be in play when the trade Bill is published shortly.
The Government will probably claim that they have said enough on the record in Parliament to avoid any concerns about their bona fides in relation to standards. Indeed, if you read the response given on 5 February by the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, you might be convinced. He said:
“We will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure that any future trade deals uphold the standards that farmers and consumers across the UK expect.”—[Official Report, 5/2/20; col. 1793.]
The trouble is that saying it is not putting it into statute, a point that has already been made. The Government seem hell-bent on avoiding the large number of legislative opportunities that they have—the Environment Bill, the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill and the trade Bill, which is soon to be reintroduced. Why are they not getting out of the impasse by saying, “We’re going to do it. Relax. It’s all in hand. We have the wording, we have the opportunity and we will have the support of the House and the country to do this”?
I suspect that the answer is that modern trade deals, as I think the Government are now beginning to realise, are much more complicated than simply analysing what trade is to take place in goods and products at what tariff levels. You have to consider the wider regulatory structure, as my noble friend Lord Whitty said, as that underpins quality and safety. You also have to engage with services, which are our main trading operation, and the wider public policy and political issues that that raises.
My concern is that this rather shabby approach to a key question—the constant repetition of a mantra that does not get turned into legislation that will work —is code for the fact that the Government have realised that they have to keep open the options that they need for effectively negotiating a US trade deal and an EU trade deal. But they cannot have it both ways. Surely the danger they face is that, in pursuit of these deals, they will start to trade off our high standards and the quality of our goods and services, make difficulties for our producers, and risk our financial services and the other trades that sustain our economy. I hope that the Government have this in mind.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady McIntosh for raising this important and timely short debate. I also thank other noble Lords who have made such informed contributions this afternoon. I will make a few remarks towards the end of my speech on the trade Bill questions raised by the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Stevenson. Those remarks will be fairly short, but I want to answer some of those questions.
Having left the European Union, this Government have ambitious goals for UK trade. We aim to secure free trade agreements with countries across the globe, covering 80% of trade within the next three years. Removing barriers to trade will give the UK the opportunity to increase prosperity in all parts of our country. This will mean more opportunities for business, better jobs, higher wages, more choice and lower prices, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh mentioned in her opening remarks. That is why we will use our voice as a new independent trading nation to champion free trade and lower barriers at every opportunity.
The Government are mindful of the need to show the benefits of free trade and how these will level up prosperity, growth and opportunity across every region and nation of the UK. Ministers have consistently stated that any future trade deals must be balanced and must work for UK consumers and businesses. We remain firmly committed to upholding high environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards now that we are outside the EU. Several noble Lords sought reassurance on that, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. Upholding our country’s interests will be always be central to the UK’s negotiating approach and in all trade talks we will drive a hard bargain for the British people.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, raised the potential risk to food safety standards. At the risk of repeating myself, as I may well do during my speech, I can say that the Government remain fully committed to upholding our high food safety standards and high levels of public, animal and plant health outside the EU. The Government will stand firm in trade negotiations, to ensure that any future trade deals live up to the values of farmers and consumers across the UK.
Our high standards are an important issue in our independent trade policy. It was of course the UK which established the world’s first national standards body, in 1901. The UK’s reputation for quality, safety and performance is well recognised in global markets. Indeed, it is this high reputation for quality products that drives demand for UK goods and, as such, is key to our long-term prosperity, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh alluded to. In 2018, the last full year for which we have figures, the total value of UK food and drink exports was £22 billion, which helped to support over 1 million jobs in agriculture and fishing, food and drinks manufacturing, and wholesaling. British food is world-renowned for its quality and high standards of food safety. The Government recognise that UK success in the global marketplace depends on us maintaining this reputation, competing at the top of the value chain.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about the transport of live animals. She will know what I am about to say, but this reassurance comes from other Ministers too: we have a manifesto commitment to end excessively long journeys for live animals going for slaughter and fattening. This is an opportunity we have gained through leaving the EU. We intend to issue a consultation shortly on how we will deliver on that commitment. At the same time, food imports are tremendously important to the UK. They reached £47 billion in value in 2018, providing variety, helping to meet seasonal demands and balance domestic demand with UK production, and enhancing our food security.
This Government welcome the opportunity to hear from stakeholders, including the private sector and civil society, and actively seek their views on the development of our new independent UK trade policy. That is why we carried out one of the largest consultation exercises, by volume of responses, ever run by the UK Government. Over 600,000 responses were received, giving views on potential future free trade agreement negotiations with the USA, Australia and New Zealand, and on the UK Government considering accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.
As my noble friend Lord Trenchard said, the Department for International Trade is already drawing on expertise from across the UK private sector and civil society, having established the Strategic Trade Advisory Group—or STAG—as a forum for high-level discussions on trade policy matters between government and stakeholders. The group meets quarterly, allowing the Government to understand the key concerns about the impact of new trade deals and to harness advice, insight and evidence from a cross-section of experienced voices already actively involved in trade-related issues, including trade standards. I reassure my noble friend that I agree with him that this must be evidence and science-based.
I want to address directly the points raised by a number of Peers on the proposed idea for a commission, as suggested by my noble friend Lady McIntosh. Defra and DIT Ministers are working with government colleagues to decide whether a trade, food and farming commission should be set up, or whether existing working groups can carry out this function effectively—a point made by my noble friend Lord Trenchard in his eloquent speech. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, alluded correctly to the fact that this is just an idea and needs fleshing out. However, it is fair to say that this short debate has highlighted the issue, and certainly the points raised will be taken back.
In addition, the department has established a range of working-level expert trade advisory groups, or ETAGs. There are currently 17 ETAGs, covering a range of thematic policy areas, including agri-food and customs ETAGs. Some of these groups are led by other Whitehall departments, including Defra and the Treasury. They facilitate expert technical policy exchanges on specific sector and thematic policy areas. We value highly the role already played by organisations such as the NFU—mentioned by my noble friend—and the Food and Drink Federation, and notable private sector businesses such as Diageo, Brake Bros, Tesco, Morrisons and Berry Gardens, as members of our agri-food ETAG.
DIT also engages extensively with the devolved Administrations on all trade policy issues and the formulation of trade negotiation positions. In January, Trade Minister Burns hosted the inaugural meeting of the ministerial forum for trade, which will play an important role in ensuring that the voices of the nations of the UK are considered as negotiations progress. DIT also runs a substantial programme of official-level engagement, including a senior officials’ group and regular policy engagement, to ensure that the devolved Administrations’ views are input at all levels and all stages of the process. I am reminded of a debate that we had during the first stage of the Trade Bill, which I know that various Peers here were involved in, on whether a forum should be a forum. I had to go back to Hansard to check on that; no doubt it will appear again.
In the context of this strong framework for consultation with business, civil society and devolved government, the Government welcome the offer from the NFU and UK food producers more widely to further engage with the development of UK trade policy. I understand that the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—Defra—is keen to work closely with the NFU and other key stakeholders across the food chain to more fully understand their interests in the impact of new trade deals, and is working with ministerial colleagues to decide how best this advice should be fed into government.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh raised the point of the importance of trade policy to UK manufacturing, broadening the initial theme of the debate. I agree that this is an important issue. To support future negotiations, we have held detailed conversations with automotive and other manufacturers to ensure that their requirements on customs and rules of origin are understood. The UK is seeking to be at the cutting edge of global customs policy, and we have made a public commitment to reduce customs frictions and promote the greatest possible trade with the rest of the world.
Of course, the issue of standards in trade policy is not limited to the UK’s programme of new free trade agreements. The UK is already a strong and clear voice advocating high global standards in international bodies. We work to influence international food safety and animal and plant health standards through participation in multilateral organisations such as the World Health Organization, the World Organisation for Animal Health—the OIE—and the International Plant Protection Convention. This enables us to ensure that the interests of UK consumers are taken into account when global standards are set.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, spoke about the impact of UK trade policy on developing countries, and she made an excellent point. We agree that the UK has a moral obligation to support developing countries to take advantage of the opportunities that international trade offers them. I will say a little more about that. Through our role in the WTO’s Standards and Trade Development Facility, the UK contributes to building the capacity of developing countries, including our partners in the Commonwealth, to meet international agricultural standards for trade. This enables them to export more produce and supports their economic development. Trade is a key driver of economic growth that can transform a country’s economy, helping to raise incomes, create jobs and lift people out of poverty. For this reason, the UK is committed to working with other countries to encourage the international co-operation that creates open and competitive markets, and will continue to encourage and empower developing countries to play a role in shaping the global trade system. This will also benefit businesses and households in the UK by generating jobs, improving standards of living and keeping prices low.
I promised to say a bit about the trade Bill before I conclude. I cannot say too much, but I owe several noble Lords an answer. As they will know only too well, following the Queen’s Speech, the Government have confirmed that the trade Bill will be introduced in this parliamentary Session, and the Bill is an important element of the UK’s independent trade policy now that we have left the EU. I will say a little more. In addition, the Government are committed to transparency and the appropriate scrutiny of our trade policy. We will ensure that Parliament and the public are given the opportunity to provide input as we take forward our independent trade policy.
Therefore, prior to the start of negotiations for each new free trade agreement, the Government will publish their approach to negotiations, including their objectives. Once negotiations are under way, the Government will continue to keep the public and Parliament informed via regular updates. We believe that this approach strikes the right balance, as it allows Parliament to effectively scrutinise our trade policy while preserving our constitutional arrangements and ensuring that the Government can negotiate effectively and in the best interests of the country.
I hope that I have reassured the Committee, in this short time that I have had to address it, that, as we embark on our first free trade negotiations for over 40 years, the Government are working hard to establish a bold and exciting independent trade policy that will realise our vision of a global Britain. The foundations have been laid and the preparations made. As I said just now, shortly we will publish our negotiating objectives for the US, with our other priority partners Japan, Australia and New Zealand following soon afterwards. We will be guided throughout these negotiations not only by the UK’s economic interests but by the values of the British people, to deliver a new generation of world-leading trade deals that deliver for every nation and region of our United Kingdom.
Post Office: Horizon Accounting System
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am pleased to have secured this debate. It comes only a couple of weeks after a very useful Starred Question from the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, who has been working on this campaign for years. Good luck to him. I also pay tribute to the journalist Nick Wallis and Private Eye, who have been keeping this issue going. It is a 10-year campaign for justice by hundreds of sub-postmasters who have been really badly treated by the Post Office.
I will concentrate on how those who have suffered will be compensated and what action, if any, will be taken against the perpetrators. Noble Lords will know that the number of personal tragedies has grown over the years. I will quote just one about Mr Gary Brown from Rawcliffe in Yorkshire, who produced a very long and sad description of what happened. After several years of the Horizon system charging him for what he did not owe, he ended up with a till £32,000 short, which, for a small trader, is appalling. The computer said that he was short, so what did he do? He called the auditors. The Post Office interviewed him and searched his house. In the end, he had to sell his house and he was desolate, all because Royal Mail refused to believe that its Horizon system was faulty.
Luckily, Mr Brown and others suddenly discovered they were not alone. He was among hundreds of sub-postmasters from the 11,000-odd branches who were suffering from these accounting discrepancies. Many complained that they were not to blame and that the Horizon system was at fault. Many were accused of stealing money. That is a really serious accusation for a small business. Some had to pay the Post Office tens of thousands of pounds and many lost their businesses, but they formed this group of 500-odd sub-postmasters to take forward a campaign, which culminated in a judgment last December, which we have talked about before but we need to talk about again.
The judgment is against the Post Office and has some pretty horrible comments about Fujitsu. Mr Justice Fraser saved some of his harshest words for Fujitsu, which runs Horizon. To quote Private Eye, he found that
“‘on too many occasions’ Fujitsu personnel knowingly entered incorrect codes when closing enquiries, blaming ‘user error’ when they had already concluded this wasn’t the case.”
That is a criminal thing to do to these small businesses.
It is worth quoting some of Mr Justice Fraser’s judgment. He said:
“The approach by the Post Office to the evidence of someone such as Mr Latif demonstrates a simple institutional obstinacy or refusal to consider any possible alternatives to their view of Horizon, which was maintained regardless of the weight of factual evidence to the contrary.”
This went on for a year, when the Post Office tried to get Mr Justice Fraser removed because he did not agree with it—it is wonderful to get rid of a judge if you do not like him. He concluded:
“This approach by the Post Office has amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred … It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.”
That is a pretty strong judgment. After many attempts, the Post Office finally had to give up and accept that this was the answer.
So who is to blame, and what next? The Post Office is managed by BEIS, and one has to ask who was on watch over these 10 years. We started off with the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, and then it was Vince Cable, then Sajid Javid and of course there were many junior Ministers—I will not read out a long list of them. But what did they do about their company on our behalf, which was abusing its position and defrauding perhaps 10,000 postmasters of their health and livelihood?
I have not found any serious apologies for this yet. When we discussed this in a Starred Question on 4 February, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, apologised and the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, also mentioned that she had been a Minister. They were genuine, but who was running the Post Office then? It was Adam Crozier from 2003 to 2010. Moya Greene took over and split the Post Office and the Royal Mail and then Paula Vennells was in charge from 2012 to 2019. She was quoted in some of the Government’s public relations papers as the chief executive who took the Post Office from a £120 million loss to breaking even. According to the Daily Mail, she was paid £3.7 million in six years. But, more importantly, she was presiding over a company that tried every means at its disposal to deny, obfuscate and challenge in court any attempt by the sub-postmasters to get an independent inquiry into the failures of the IT system and compensation, which is pretty rich. Of course, as ever, because she then left, she has been promoted to run something in the health service.
The judge found against the Post Office on all counts and awarded the postmasters £58 million, but it was quite clear that most of that will go on legal costs. How can you achieve £58 million in legal costs? Of course you had a Post Office that kept on challenging things. Fujitsu also behaved in a manner that might be seen to be criminal or dishonest—I do not know—but it is a question that needs to be answered. Maybe there should be an independent public inquiry. That is the only answer.
So what will the Government do to provide some proper compensation to the victims of the failure—it may be fraud and greed—of the company that we as taxpayers are supposed to own? It is easier to spin out legal processes for years and avoid blaming anyone in the Post Office, officials, Ministers and so forth, but should there be a public inquiry? Should there be action against Fujitsu over Horizon? I do not know. But the postmasters, who reasonably believed that the Government and their company—our company—would behave in an open, honest and transparent way, have been very badly let down. They deserve urgent and generous compensation.
I welcome the helpful remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, the other day as far as they went, and I hope that our new Minister will be equally helpful and supportive of an urgent resolution. But there is also a need for the Government and Parliament to review how senior people, who clearly failed and brought their companies into disrepute, are moved and promoted, while those whom they destroyed are left to suffer with nowhere to go.
I have one last thought. Ten years ago, the Royal Mail included the Post Office, which now issues stamps with the Queen’s head on them, so one might expect the Queen and other members of the Royal Family to feel some attachment to the Post Office. As noble Lords know, I have had some questions about royal and Duchy finances, but I have never had cause to question their business ethics or employment practices—and I would not. But we can be sure that they would never stoop to such appalling treatment of their lowest paid staff as forcing them into penury or worse as their Government have done. This should have been the approach of Ministers and directors of the Post Office. They failed miserably and we must make amends. The Government must make amends and compensate all those affected.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for tabling this important debate to highlight the long campaign that has gone on and the response to the out-of-court settlement heard on 11 December last year. Following that announcement, I will speak about the dark intervening years since the first legal action in 2015.
It is a settlement, yes, but at what cost? What kind of settlement is it for each of those claimants who previously spoke out, alleging that the Horizon system caused shortfalls in their financial accounting? They were not believed but, on the contrary, given an assurance of the system’s reliability. The inevitable consequently happened, resulting in some postmasters and postmistresses being made bankrupt, while others were prosecuted and even jailed for offences including false accounting, fraud and theft. Let us not forget those sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses who paid back the money that the Post Office claimed they had stolen and were told they would face possible criminal prosecution if they did not.
On a personal level, you can hardly imagine that during those intervening years the postmasters and postmistresses continued to deal over the counter with face-to-face questions from their customers, colleagues and friends. It must have been even harder when they were asked the inevitable question on meeting them in the street. They felt their reputation and integrity was called into question; they felt humiliated.
Postmasters and postmistresses work hard. They are not only valued but the eyes and ears for many in their local community. The settlement allows them to carry on where they left off and perform their excellent services, interacting once more with their customers—as they have done for many years on a trusted contractual basis—and, importantly, offering advice and guidance to customers. They are a lifeline for many, particularly the elderly, who use their valued banking services and other postal facilities. Yes they have had their reputations restored at last—they can walk tall with their heads held high—but at what lingering personal cost? The reality is that only a fraction of the money won—about a third of the £57.8 million settlement—will be awarded.
I will listen to the Minister’s response with interest and I hope he can inform us what further action is being or can be taken. It may now be something of a non-story to some people, but not to those involved. It is real. There are still questions to be answered. With a new regime in place, the question is: can it bring about change?
Finally, I support the Post Office service and, together with some sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, would certainly like to see the services offered expand, with more transactions, so that the Post Office can go forward with a strong future.
My Lords, I have come to this case rather late in the day and defer to those who have been involved for so much longer. I was aware that sub-postmasters in my local area had been involved. I therefore gradually took an interest, researched and read the background briefing. The more I read, the more concerned and appalled I became. That is why I will make a short contribution to this debate; I am so grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for enabling it. This is not something that we should allow to go away.
Obviously, I share the views already expressed. I feel an acute sense of injustice on behalf of the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, many of whom have seen their reputations and lives destroyed by what has happened here. Some have been made bankrupt or imprisoned and many have suffered mental health problems as a result of the anxieties they have faced. Surely none of us can feel comfortable about that. I suspect very few of us feel that the settlement finally reached is sufficient compensation for all they have suffered, particularly when so much of that money will go to lawyers.
There are at least four wider issues—some have already been mentioned—that we need to look at. The first is the way the Government and the Civil Service department managed the relationship with the Post Office during this time. The judge suggested that the Post Office appeared at times to conduct itself as though it was answerable only to itself. It is not, it should not be, and we should better understand why the situation was allowed to happen.
I have run large government agencies and non-departmental bodies in the past. I was always very aware that my parent departments were watching me closely, and sometimes they would robustly challenge what I—what we—were doing. Was there robust challenge during this 20-year period? If not, why not? If there was, what was the consequence? That is the first of the four issues that we need to look at.
The second issue is the culture that exists in the Post Office so far as it concerns sub-postmasters. In the Appeal Court, it was said that it seemed that the Post Office felt entitled to treat sub-postmasters in
“capricious or arbitrary ways which would not be unfamiliar to a mid-Victorian factory owner.”
These are people who provide essential services in communities across the country—essential because many citizens depend on them for their existence. They are people who play an important part beyond that in their community. Whether they are fairly treated and supported is a matter of public interest; it is not an entirely internal matter for the Post Office, and it should not be.
We should be clearer about what the culture of the Post Office is. I note that in the last week or two the new chief executive has said how important it is to deal with this. Well, it starts from a pretty low base, from my observation—and, again, we need to take a close look at how it has got to where it is.
The next issue, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, will I suspect be the subject of further litigation. Like the noble Lord, I have serious misgivings about the way Fujitsu managed the introduction of the Horizon accounting system. I also have serious reservations about how the Post Office and the department managed the contract and held Fujitsu to account. The judge himself commented that he had serious reservations about the conduct of Fujitsu staff during the course of the contract, and even during the court hearing. This is not the first IT problem close to government that has caused a few problems. It really is about time we learned the lessons and asked ourselves why this keeps happening. It is something else we should look at more closely.
The fourth point, which has not yet been mentioned, is that during the proceedings the Post Office said that if the sub-postmasters were right—and they have been proved right—it would represent, according to the Post Office’s own material,
“an existential threat to the Post Office’s ability to continue to carry on its business throughout the UK in the way it … does.”
If that is the case, and it is not just hyperbole, we again need to know how it intends to address that existential threat and ensure that this essential service continues to be delivered effectively.
As I said, these are wide-ranging concerns that go to the heart of how the Post Office behaves and is held accountable. For that reason, unless the Minister can provide sufficient reassurance today, I agree that there is a strong case for seeking a fully independent public inquiry covering the issues of culture, accountability, the role of government and the IT failures. After all, the only inquiry to date, I think, was the one carried out in 2013 on behalf of the Post Office by the accountancy firm Second Sight. That was restricted, I believe, to the Horizon system itself.
As I said in the House the other day when this Question was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, it is sadly all too easy for large corporate organisations such as the Post Office to say that they have made a mistake but will ensure that it is never repeated. Frankly, that will bring little comfort to the sub-postmasters who have been so grievously mistreated. Nor should it be enough to reassure us that the culture will change, that the Government will properly manage the relationship with the Post Office, and that this important public service can deal effectively with the issues it faces. Words and promises are not enough. That is why, if I were a Minister—heaven forbid—I would want someone to have an objective, independent look at what happened, and to be sure that things would change.
I am grateful to noble Lords for allowing me to speak in the gap. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for initiating this debate and for his speech, which was a masterpiece of understatement.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, rightly thanked Nick Wallis and Private Eye. I add to those thanked Computer Weekly, which has been campaigning on this issue for years. I warn the Committee, too, that I have a Question on this topic on Thursday next week. It would be very good if I could persuade noble Lords who have spoken to speak on that, because they will have been able to consider my noble friend’s reply this afternoon.
The Post Office inflicted losses on the sub-postmasters through its defective accounting system. It then blamed the sub-postmasters for those losses and often told them that they were the only ones suffering those problems. It then made them repay money it had already taken from them. Finally, it dragged those poor people through the humiliation of court hearings, criminal convictions, bankruptcies and worse. At my request it set up a mediation scheme, which it then sabotaged. It forced the sub-postmasters to incur an awful risk and the costs of litigation—litigation that the Post Office lost comprehensively, paying the sub-postmasters a derisory proportion of what they had lost.
It is hard to find words strong enough to condemn the people in charge of this catastrophic fiasco. What have the people in charge suffered as a result? One of them, Paula Vennells, has been given a CBE and now sits on government-sponsored boards. None of the rest, as far as I can see, have suffered at all. However, it is not their suffering that we want, but justice and proper compensation for those who have been dragged through this. The litigation settlement simply does not cut it.
In the common issues trial, the court found that sub-postmasters should be compensated for the loss of their office, which was not covered by the settlement agreement. How will the Government facilitate that? The court held that the National Federation of SubPostmasters was not an organisation independent of the Post Office and that its very existence depended on it not giving the Post Office grounds to challenge its activities. Evidence was also put before the court that the NFSP has, in the past, put its own interests and the funding of its future above the interests of its members. Why are the Government continuing to talk to the NFSP as though it were representative of the sub-postmasters when the judge has found that it is not?
As the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, said, it is clear from the judgments that Fujitsu altered the accounts of the sub-postmasters while telling people that it could not and while knowing that the sub-postmasters were being dragged through the courts, prison and bankruptcy, as we have heard. Some of the witnesses from Fujitsu have been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions, but what more is being done to bring Fujitsu to account?
Finally, the accounting officer for the Post Office is the Permanent Secretary of the BEIS department. My noble friend the Minister is answerable for that Permanent Secretary. What responsibility do the Government take for this dreadful story?
My Lords, we thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for bringing this debate today. On 4 February, the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, asked a Question on this subject. It transpired from that that the Post Office had the power to be judge and jury for its own prosecutions. Trusted, honest people suffered at its hands because it refused to believe that the Horizon computer system had glitches that caused discrepancies. This dragged on for years, until last December the directors of the Post Office finally had to admit that they had got it wrong, but not before people had had reputations, finances and lives ruined.
The thrust of this debate is whether the Government intend to take action against the directors of the Post Office, who presided over almost 20 years of mismanagement, incompetence and downright illegal activity. We have heard many instances this afternoon of how the behaviour of the Post Office was, according to Lord Justice Coulson, who judged the Post Office’s appeal, like that of a “Victorian factory owner”, as the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, said.
It is shocking and, even with the benefit of hindsight, it is still hard for me—among many others, I am sure—to understand how things have come to the situation that we find ourselves in. Ten years ago we were talking about reversing the decline in numbers of sub-post offices and giving them a much wider remit. Indeed, they were to be the face of government in the community. We were going to combine sub-post offices with other community services—the local shop, the pub, the library—so that they would be doing more, offering those wider range of services for longer than traditional opening hours and fitting in with normal local shop opening hours. They were not going to be doing less, with much reduced revenue coming in over longer hours, to the extent that a recent survey by the National Federation of SubPostmasters found that three-quarters of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses are earning below the minimum wage.
Of course digitalisation and changes in shopping trends have taken their toll, but sub-postmasters have been prevented from extending their own parcel service by an exclusive contract with the Post Office itself. They are hamstrung from competing in today’s marketplace, so they are left with servicing the needs of those unconfident with buying or seeking services online—the old and the poor. Yet Paula Vennells, the previous CEO, left the Post Office for the NHS last year with a CBE, in part for her services to the Post Office.
The noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, has been a strong campaigner on behalf of the sub-postmasters and I am delighted that he was able to speak in the gap today. He has raised the question of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which is considering the impact of the out-of-court settlement on the 34 Horizon-related cases that it had under review. But, he has asked, what about the rest of the cases? What about the people such as Mrs Shaheen, who was not listened to despite identifying at least 11 errors on the Horizon system? She was sent to prison after accepting a plea bargain to drop the theft charge against her. She and so many others deserve justice. They deserve to have their names cleared and they deserve reparation. An out-of-court settlement of £57.75 million, from which legal expenses have to be paid, leaving only £12 million for sub-postmasters themselves, cannot be the end of the story. That figure of £12 million came from the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank, on 4 February.
We know that Lord Justice Coulson said that he will refer Fujitsu, the providers of the Horizon system, to the Director of Public Prosecutions for possible further action, but what about the people who must admit their own culpability? What is the point of having directors without responsibility? Will those people be referred to the DPP? They must be brought to book.
We have a new chief executive in the Post Office and, we are told, a new regime. On 4 February, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank, mentioned a new national framework that he insisted would ensure that
“the past situation cannot be repeated.”
Can the Minister give us some detail on that and when he estimates that this framework will be in place? The noble Lord, Lord Duncan, also said:
“I cannot comment on the individuals who were in positions of power during that time because I simply do not have the answer.”
Does this Minister have the answer now? The noble Lord said that
“during a significant period in the history of the Post Office, wrongdoing took place.”—[Official Report, 4/2/20, cols 1710-11.]
For the sake of the sub-postmasters who have been wronged, when will they get justice?
My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, to his new position; it makes a bit of a change from Brexit. It is not the nicest of debates to open with, especially following the previous Oral Question. I thank my noble friend Lord Berkeley for securing today’s important debate. The High Court judgment in Bates v Post Office is viewed as the climax to more than 20 years of ordeal riddled with injustice, as we have heard—an ordeal where technology failed the workers and bosses failed their employees.
As my noble friend Lord Berkeley, did, I start by sharing some of the stories beyond that of Alan Bates, whose name is on the case. A number of them have already been covered, so I will not touch on them, but a few are striking. They go to the heart of this case, to issues of fairness and equality, and to how the case affected and still affects the individuals. There was Seema Misra, who ran a post office with her husband in Surrey, but time and again they had to put their hands in their own pockets to pay for the shortfall. It was ultimately found that the shortfall totalled about £80,000, and she was sentenced to 15 months in jail while pregnant with her second child.
We have heard about Rubbina Shaheen. Jo Hamilton was accused of taking £36,000 from the village shop she ran in Hampshire. After pleading guilty to false accounting to avoid a more serious charge, she gave up her shop and found it difficult to get a new job because of her criminal record. My noble friend Lord Berkeley touched on the case of Gary and Maureen Brown, so there is no need to repeat that. There were other cases influenced by Horizon’s problems. Its records were used as evidence against Robin Garbutt, who was accused of stealing money and murdering his wife.
During today’s debate, we must not lose sight of the human impact of these failures. Many are now seeking to overturn their convictions, and rightly so. It would be interesting to hear some words from the Minister about those previous convictions and the Government’s position on them.
I think that we all welcome last December’s High Court judgment and the approval of a £58 million settlement between the Post Office and the 550 claimants. As we have heard from every contributor, it is just a shame that so little of that will go to the individuals themselves.
The judgment confirmed what has long been known: that a number of bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon IT system had caused “discrepancies” in sub-postmasters’ branch accounts. I want to praise Alan Bates, a former sub-postmaster from north Wales, for all his work with investigative journalists and others in seeking justice. Like many noble Lords, I was struck by the vivid language that Justice Fraser used in his judgment—I do not need to repeat some of the statements; there are so many. He stated that the Post Office had shown
“the most dreadful complacency, and total lack of interest in investigating these serious issues”,
which amounted to
“the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.”
The noble Lord, Lord Bichard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, touched on the concluding comment by Justice Coulson, who said that sub-postmasters were treated in
“in capricious or arbitrary ways which would not be unfamiliar to a mid-Victorian factory-owner.”
I have some questions for the Minister. Why did the Post Office make multiple appeals to try to see off the court case rather than deal with the issues and settle? Why did it ask for Judge Peter Fraser to recuse himself from the trial?
While the trial might be over, this shameful period is not. Many questions remain unanswered by the Post Office, by Fujitsu and by the Government. The Post Office’s new CEO is welcome, but the organisation cannot hide behind cosmetic changes. A cultural shift is needed from top to bottom to rebuild trust between sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses and the Post Office. Will the Post Office introduce an independent component when conducting any future prosecutions? How many branches still use the Horizon IT system? Can the Post Office guarantee that all bugs in the system have been fixed?
As we have heard, Fujitsu continually dismissed any claims of problems with its Horizon accounting system, which was being used in 11,500 branches by 2013. Do the Government support any action against Fujitsu and its directors?
We must also consider the Government’s role in this ordeal and their responsibility to help. The CWU’s branch secretary for sub-postmasters has pointed out that a government representative sits on the board of the Post Office and that they presumably took part in those board meetings that made decisions on the litigation, including the attempt to recuse the judge. Would the Minister care to comment on that?
Speaking in this House a couple of weeks ago, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, stated the Post Office had got it badly wrong and confirmed that only £12 million of the £58 million compensation would go to the individuals. He said that this was “not enough”. With that, I could not agree more. Why, then, have the Government said that they will not pay or help towards the sub-postmasters’ legal costs? Do they still hold to this policy? The crux of this is: do the Government support a full public inquiry into Horizon, Fujitsu and all the subsequent issues that arose?
I have about a minute left, so I will touch on a few wider thoughts. There is no escaping how technology will displace workers, reconfigure the labour market and change decisions made by companies and Governments in the future—in fact, it is happening now. The power of tech companies will only grow as technology increasingly dominates our personal and private lives. The fear of bugs similar to the Horizon system’s might well diminish, but human error could increase as machine learning becomes more and more common. No matter how many jobs are replaced by automation, human oversight will always be needed. A big change is coming and we must learn and be ready, but the people affected by Horizon deserve to get the justice and compensation owed to them.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, for his welcome. Dealing with some domestic issues makes a great change from talking endlessly about EU renegotiation and the various withdrawal Bills. I am delighted to be doing this job, tricky though many of the issues are.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. We are reunited in policy content after our time together dealing with transport issues. He has raised an important debate. I have been in post for only 10 days. I was not aware of this issue in detail, but I have of course seen the various press comments and summaries about it. The debate has given me an excellent opportunity to familiarise myself with the issue. I say at the outset that I share much of the horror and concern raised by many noble Lords.
I assure the Committee that the Government fully recognise the vital role postmasters and their post offices play at the very heart of our communities. It is therefore only right that their treatment is of the utmost importance to us so that they can continue to deliver a service so highly valued by many up and down the country. The Government also value the economic and social importance of post offices to people, communities and businesses across the UK. That is why, since 2010, successive Governments have made a commitment to safeguard the Post Office network and ensure its sustainability.
Let us consider the current facts regarding the Post Office. Between 2010 and 2018 the Government provided nearly £2 billion to maintain and invest in a national network of at least 11,500 post offices. We set requirements so that 90% of the UK population are within one mile and 99% are within three miles of their nearest branch. Government investment has enabled the modernisation of more than 7,000 branches, added more than 200,000 opening hours per week and established the Post Office as the largest network trading on Sundays.
Post Office banking services enable 99% of personal and 95% of business banking to be done in any of the 11,500 branches, supporting consumers, businesses and local economies in the face of accelerated bank closures. The financial performance of Post Office Ltd has also improved, with the Post Office making a profit for the third year in a row, thereby reducing government funding from £415 million in 2013-14 to £50 million in 2020-21. All this has been achieved because of the able and hard-working women and men who are proud diligently to serve their respective communities each working day. I say that as background to the appalling circumstances that we address today.
On the Horizon accounting system litigation, postmasters are a significant part of the sustainability and future of the Post Office. In relation to the Horizon accounting system case, Post Office Ltd has accepted that, in the past, it got things badly wrong in its dealings with a number of postmasters, and it is right that it has apologised. As noble Lords are aware, on 11 December, the Post Office and claimants reached a comprehensive resolution to the litigation following several days of respectful, challenging and ultimately successful mediation. The Post Office chair, Tim Parker, said:
“We are grateful to the claimants for taking part in this mediation and agreeing a settlement, bringing the Group Litigation to a close. I am grateful to Nick Read for his important engagement in the mediation process. We accept that, in the past, we got things wrong in our dealings with a number of postmasters and we look forward to moving ahead now, with our new CEO currently leading a major overhaul of our engagement and relationship with postmasters.”
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that this Government do not take for granted the financial and emotional suffering that the impacted postmasters endured in relation to issues with the Horizon system, which is why this Government are pleased that a resolution has been arrived at to settle this long-running litigation.
A number of noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, talked about the Horizon system. That question was central to the subject of the litigation and the second Horizon issues trial when judgment was handed down on 16 December. The judgment made clear that it is a historical analysis of the Horizon system at a specific point in time in the group litigation and not a judgment on the system today. When handing down that judgment, the judge found that the Horizon system as it is today is “relatively robust”.
We are committed to working alongside the new CEO of Post Office Ltd, Nick Read, to implement the necessary cultural and organisational changes highlighted by the litigation. Nick has shown that he is personally committed to learning the lessons and is currently leading a major overhaul of the Post Office’s engagement and relationship with its postmasters. The Government have proactively challenged the Post Office CEO and chairman personally to strengthen its relationship with postmasters and take on board the lessons learned through the litigation. Preparation for this debate offered me the opportunity to speak to Nick Read this morning and we had a productive conversation about all the issues, where he reassured me of the steps that the Post Office is taking on this.
The noble Lords, Lord Bichard and Lord Berkeley, made a number of points about the responsibility of BEIS and the Government for many of these issues. Let me explain that BEIS relied on the Post Office management to investigate the issues with the Horizon system and the Government were assured that the system was robust and the issues raised by the postmasters were being handled appropriately. BEIS pressed management on these issues and was given consistent advice from the company’s experts that appeared to verify those claims at that time. There have been numerous attempts over the years to try to resolve these issues, including an independent investigation in 2013 and a mediation scheme in 2015. Those failed to resolve the issues, leaving the court as the only means of providing the independent review that all sides needed. In hindsight, of course, facts came to light through the litigation that revealed that the advice received over that period was flawed. As such, the Government will monitor closely the progress that the Post Office is delivering on its programme of commitments following the settlement. That relationship will be constantly reviewed.
As I said, I spoke to the CEO, Nick Read, this morning and I was glad to hear that improvements at all levels of the Post Office are well under way, reflecting many of the lessons learned from this difficult experience, which will enable him to take forward a modern Post Office. That means a company fostering a genuine commercial partnership with postmasters, where the necessary support for them to operate branches successfully is available.
Following the agreed settlement, the Post Office is also continuing to directly address past events for affected postmasters. A scheme will be announced in the near future with the aim of addressing historical shortfalls for postmasters who were not part of the group litigation settlement.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked about compensation for those affected. The settlement agreed with the Post Office included all legal and other costs. In those circumstances, the Government cannot accept any further request for payment. While the process was undoubtedly challenging, the Government thank all the claimants for participating in order to finally resolve this matter and enable both parties to move forward.
My noble friend Lord Arbuthnot raised the issue of the remuneration of postmasters for their losses. As I said, following that agreed settlement, the Post Office is continuing to directly address past events for affected postmasters. A scheme will be announced in the near future with the aim of addressing those historical shortfalls for postmasters who were not part of that group litigation.
I was pleased to hear from the CEO of the new personalised support that postmasters are now receiving. This includes newly established area managers able to deliver support on the ground, an improved branch support centre to support teams throughout the UK, an overhaul of postmaster training and, above all, a further increase to postmaster remuneration.
My noble friend Lord Arbuthnot asked about the National Federation of SubPostmasters and its independence from the Post Office. It is fair to say that the Post Office has acknowledged criticisms from the litigation about its dealings with postmasters, and is accelerating its programme of improving how it works with both postmasters and the NFSP. We in government are also engaging with other stakeholders in the postmaster community, including the Communication Workers Union, to understand properly the views of postmasters.
Going forward, government Ministers and officials in both UKGI and BEIS will hold the Post Office to account for these reforms, along with wider cultural and organisational changes, and will seek clear evidence that real positive change is taking place.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked about the actions of Fujitsu and the cases arising from the litigation.
I will come on to that shortly.
I was answering the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about Fujitsu. When handing down the Horizon judgment, the judge raised concerns in relation to the evidence provided by Fujitsu employees. Those cases have been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. It is, of course, a matter for the DPP to consider what action, if any, he would like to take following that referral.
My noble friend Lady Redfern asked about the kind of settlement and referred to it being inadequate, following the comments by my noble friend Lord Duncan. We recognise that it has been, to put it mildly, a difficult period for postmasters who have experienced the issues covered by this litigation. Mediation took place between the parties in confidence and, while I can confirm that the total amount of the settlement was £57.75 million, I am sure the Committee can appreciate the legal sensitivities of the matter. While the financial settlement is a major step towards resolving some of these grievances, there is more for the Post Office to do. It has committed to a major programme of work to overhaul its relationship with postmasters, which we in government are determined to see delivered.
My department has taken steps to strengthen the mechanisms for doing so. This has included expanding the BEIS Post Office policy team that works closely with UKGI in holding the Post Office to account at an official level. It also means strengthening the relationships and responsibilities of the Post Office, BEIS and UKGI through a new framework document that formalises that relationship and the responsibilities of those parties involved. I can announce that this will be published shortly. In addition, BEIS has established, and chairs, a quarterly working group involving the NFSP and the Post Office. The working group is a forum for discussing Post Office and postmaster relations and provides the opportunity for highlighting concerns the postmasters may have. As I said earlier, the Government are also engaging with other stakeholders in the postmaster community, including the Communication Workers Union, to understand the views of postmasters. Progress will also be monitored at the highest levels of the Post Office in quarterly ministerial meetings with its CEO, Nick Read.
I can confirm, too, to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, that we are in the process of establishing the framework document to govern that relationship, and that will be published soon. I will now address her point about holding directors to—
Before the Minister sits down, will he agree, since he is clearly not inclined to accept the need for an independent inquiry, that the independent non-executive director, who I think sits on the BEIS board, might have a role in ensuring that these promises are kept?
Indeed, I would of course be happy to accept that. We believe, however, that additional accountability should be in place, which is why I outlined the further accountability mechanisms that we are putting in place: it will not be just the director on the board—there will also be a series of quarterly meetings between the CEO and Ministers, to make sure that we put in place all the appropriate accountability that is required.
On the issue of the directors responsible, we are pleased that the Post Office’s chairman and its new CEO, as well as the previous CEO, have fully apologised for getting things wrong in the past. The appointment of the new CEO in September last year is an important step for the Post Office in improving how the organisation is run, along with its relationship with its postmasters. However, the Government do not propose to take any further action against current or former directors.
Following the conclusion of the mediation, the Government’s focus is now on ensuring that the Post Office lives up to its commitment and moves forward under the leadership of its new CEO. The judgments in this litigation have provided the independent view of the facts that both parties sought for many years, resulting in firm pledges from the Post Office to reform postmaster relations and ensure the stability and sustainability of the network.
Your Lordships can be sure that the Government will hold the Post Office to account in delivering reform and ensuring that these crucial changes have a tangible and positive impact on postmasters. We will make sure that those hard-working individuals are respected and valued for the fundamental role they play in upholding the post office network and with it, delivering essential services to communities up and down the country.
Finally, I apologise for not having time to respond in detail to a number of points that were raised. I will do so in writing.
India: Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, passed on 11 December 2019, on United Kingdom citizens, and what representations they have made, if any, to the government of India as a result.
My Lords, I am most grateful for this opportunity and look forward to hearing from colleagues who have a close knowledge of the subject, and of course to the Minister.
Britain’s relationship with India started with the embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1615. Much has happened in 400 years, and the UK has had to live down some of the atrocities of colonial rule since then. But today, nearly 73 years into independence, this country and India share many core values and traditions. This continuing—I think I can say “special”—relationship has drawn on our common language and our many human contacts through trade, business, diplomatic, cultural and aid activities. It also reflects the contribution to this country of a large number of Indian immigrant families. Many of our senior scientists, surgeons, judges and politicians have an Indian background. Over 100 candidates in the last election to the House of Commons came originally from the countries that constituted India before 1947. In short, as one who has lived and worked in India at various times, I believe that we in the UK are privileged to be so closely tied to a country with such a long history and character, enriched by so many traditions and religions. But we must not take this relationship for granted; indeed, we should cherish it.
Today I want to discuss specifically the state of India’s minorities. It is well known that Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to the majority Hindutva tradition. In 2001, he was Chief Minister of Gujarat when hundreds, mainly Muslims, died in a series of incidents. All this was overshadowed at the time by 9/11; nevertheless, in India it was a transformative event, resulting in Mr Modi’s exclusion from visiting the United States. Yet there is no doubt that Hindu nationalism, coinciding with these events and other atrocities since, has brought confidence to the business community and given Mr Modi’s BJP two election victories.
More recently, new legislation has discriminated against Muslims. First came the division of Jammu and Kashmir into two states, and their occupation by the Indian army. Then the Government decided to register everyone in Assam state. Local politicians there had complained of infiltration by millions of Muslims from Bangladesh, but a census of its 33 million people showed that fewer than 2 million had insufficient documentation. Mr Modi now seems determined, via a National Register of Citizens, to register the entire population of India in order to root out illegal immigrants, but he is meeting considerable opposition. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, which passed through the Lok Sabha in December, granted an amnesty to illegal immigrants from three neighbouring countries—Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh—but not to Muslims from those countries. Unsurprisingly, there have been riots and protests in New Delhi, Aligarh and all over the country, and not only from the Muslim community. Five states refuse to implement the law. The UN has criticised it at a high level. Euro MPs have called it the world’s “largest statelessness crisis”, and it is bound to come up during the Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to Brussels.
This is why I am asking Her Majesty’s Government about the impact of the CAA both in India and in this country, especially regarding human rights and security. Human rights, since the days of William Hague and Jack Straw, have become a hallmark of our diplomacy, and in many countries we have established a regular dialogue. However, our relationship with India is so close that to my knowledge there has been no need for such a dialogue; India is not even on the FCO human rights list. But I will argue that there may be a need for one now.
Many years ago, the Indian writer Khushwant Singh wrote about the ancient rivalry between Hindu and Muslim as though it was endemic in Indian society, but he pointed to changing attitudes. The British, for example, favoured Hindus after the 1857 rebellion as assisting law and order under the Raj. But after independence and partition, when two new secular countries were created, the Foreign Office took a more neutral line, as in much of the Middle East, tending to uphold the stability of independent Arab states. However, the new India and Pakistan of Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Patel, like the South Africa of Nelson Mandela later on, were to be democratic, multiracial and respectful of human rights and the rule of law. In India these rights were strongly protected at that time by the Congress Party. It is doubtful that any of those leaders would be satisfied with the situation today.
As we all know, security is of paramount concern throughout the world. In Europe we are witnessing fears of refugees and migrants, and Governments have had to adjust to popular feeling. We have had some violent attacks by terrorists in the UK. In India there is a lot of sensitivity to terrorism, especially coming from Pakistan, and there have been incidents that exacerbate that. Mr Modi may think that his new Act meets fears from all sides of India and that violence justifies stronger measures.
What does the FCO advise today? More than l million UK citizens visit India every year. Visitors are warned against travel to Kashmir, the Pakistan border, Assam and anywhere where there are demonstrations against the CAA. Our shared language and culture also mean that we share these fears of terrorism. The regular migration of families between our two countries suggests that there is more sensitivity to discrimination than ever within our Asian minorities. This hits the Muslim community hardest.
In foreign policy India has always had a distinct profile, namely neutrality. Ever since the Bandung conference of 1955, it has earned an international reputation as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, which began as an alternative to the power blocs of the Cold War. Surprisingly, the NAM still exists and acts as a home for countries of the south, although India has moved on and is now not only a nuclear power but a member of the BRIC group and, of course, a major player in the Commonwealth. Many developing countries respect India’s democratic model and its example of integrity and good governance.
Inequality and discrimination have characterised Hindu society all the way back to the Vedas, but a stronger impression remains with me from my own time in India: an honesty and openness, a true sense of liberty, a fundamental belief in justice, and good humour. I am an admirer of the late cartoonist RK Laxman, who managed to show up the many wrongs, absurdities and anomalies in Indian life.
It would be wrong to see the UK and India as equals, but the two countries have reached a high point of mutual respect and understanding. There are obvious differences in the size of the economies, their balance of trade and world status, but the two countries need each other. Brexit has given the UK a new opportunity to expand its trade with the subcontinent, although in my view too little attention is given to this, especially in the education sector. India has long complained of our immigration policy.
In the context of human rights, the UK can argue that India has a long way to go in reaching the UN’s sustainable development goals. These goals are built around the phrase “leaving no one behind”, and it seems obvious that a stable economy and well-integrated, well-governed society has a greater chance of reaching these goals. Mr Modi’s Government have a range of concerns about security, but must balance those against their responsibility to their own citizens. Even President Trump’s team have made a similar point this week.
Finally, it is not widely known that India is no longer eligible for our international development programmes, but extreme poverty persists in many states. Through NGOs and the churches, the UK has continued to support the very poorest communities, including Dalits, Adivasis and others. Can the Minister confirm that our aid programme will continue to prioritise these and other minorities? This has become a legitimate FCO question as well. Having heard me out, will the Government now urge Mr Modi to carry out a review of the CAA and its effect on Indian society?
I remind noble Lords that the time for this debate is very short. Speeches are limited to six minutes, and noble Lords should keep an eye on the time on the screen.
My Lords, as India celebrated its Republic Day on 26 January, marking the 70th year since the ratification of the Indian constitution in 1950, my noble friend’s compelling speech and welcome debate are extremely well timed. However, a disturbing counterpoint to those celebrations has been in evidence on the streets of that great country —the world’s largest democracy. India’s founding fathers —Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Subhas Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel—who steered their new nation in the direction of democracy to ensure that it was not destroyed by sectarianism, casteism and authoritarianism, would surely be aghast to see people all over India protesting against a draconian law that is communal and unconstitutional in its nature: the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens.
Dr Ambedkar, the father of India’s constitution, warned Indians against
“any competitive loyalty whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all people to be Indians first, Indian last, and nothing else but Indians.”
He wisely said that:
“Constitution is not a mere lawyers document, it is a vehicle of Life, and its spirit is always the spirit of Age.”
Tragically, today’s Government are living by different principles and a different spirit, stoking fear among all quarters of society across the country. There have been reports of numerous arrests, excessive use of force by the police, and deaths as a result of these protests.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act is in itself discriminatory, isolating Muslims, including Rohingya, Ahmadiyya and Shias, and other minorities from participating in nation building. On Sunday 17 February, I was concerned to see a headline in the Sunday Telegraph: “Christians in the Firing Line”. This is an ancient community that dates back to 52 AD. Taken together with the National Register of Citizens, it is abundantly clear that both measures will have far-reaching implications for all sections of the community, right across the nation, in the only place that they can call home.
With the launch of these unreasonable and extreme benchmarks for citizenship, many who do not possess the necessary documents to prove their citizenship risk facing statelessness and immeasurable suffering in detention centres, and an imminent unsettled future. Right across India, this will not only burden millions who are already suffering extreme hardship but will set them aside from the rest of society—as if there are not already too many existing barriers preventing citizens from being
“Indians first, Indian last, and nothing else but Indians.”
The minority population of India comprises approximately 20% of the total, a large percentage of whom are economically poor and socially excluded. With the CAA/NRC policy in place, large swathes of Indian society will become outsiders and more vulnerable than ever.
The preamble to the Constitution of India opens with the words:
“We, the people of India”.
It does not say, in words which could have been crafted by today’s Government, “We, the documented people of India”. Ambedkar’s constitution was never intended to discriminate between Indian citizens on the basis of their religion. This law not only discriminates against Muslims but diminishes a Muslim person’s value in society, inevitably exposing the community to further prejudice.
The promotion of majoritarian communalism, based on anti-minority rhetoric, has been evident since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power. Since 2019, after taking office for a second term, the party’s leadership has thrown caution and wisdom to the wind. This has emboldened others. Attacks have been perpetrated by non-state actors, such as cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The RSS is closely connected to the ruling party, as well as commanding influence over the police in many parts of the country. That endangers public trust in the impartiality, independence and objectivity of the police, which is dangerous for any society. There have been widespread reports of attacks on the freedom of worship, religion or belief; hate speech; mob lynchings; targeted violence against the Dalit and tribal communities; assassinations and attempted assassinations of journalists and human rights defenders; and infringements of freedom of expression against those who raise their voices in dissent against such rank injustice. Anyone who questions the policies of the Government risks being labelled an “anti-national” and being subjected to harassment and brutal attack by nationalistic groups. The unprecedented attack on students at the Nehru University on 5 January by a large mob of unidentified assailants armed with stones and sticks was just one shocking example of the shrinking space for public dissent against such injustice. It gave force to Nehru’s own remark:
“The only alternative to coexistence is codestruction”.
Great Britain’s long-standing relationship with India is hugely significant and does not always reflect well on us, but it is precisely because we must all learn from the past that we should not hold back in our own times when we see human dignity and diversity at risk. Relationships between states must be woven into an explicit understanding that democratic values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, foundational ideals to nation-building, must be preserved, protected and promoted at all costs.
At a time when hate and intolerance are so much in evidence in many parts of the world, often fanned by xenophobic agendas, we must as India’s good friend urge its Government not to abandon the high ideals of its constitution.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for introducing this Question. I must declare an interest: I have a column in the Indian Express every Sunday, and I have written extensively about the matters being discussed, but I shall refer people to find that out for themselves.
The noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, have raised many issues about India. I shall follow the title of the Question before us and confine myself strictly to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. It is said that the Act is unconstitutional, but we do not know that yet because the Supreme Court of India has not yet heard on that issue. As of now, all one can say is that both Houses of the Indian Parliament have passed the legislation; the President has signed it, and it has been notified in the Gazette and is the law of the land.
It does not concern Indian citizens that the title of the legislation is somewhat misleading. After the partition of India, which led to the movement of some 18 million people one way or another—I do not remember who called the partition; I am not going to go into that—the first Citizenship Act was passed in 1955. That related to the status of refugees who had to be given citizenship in India. Although the Act that we are discussing is called the “Citizenship … Act”, it is about refugees who are not citizens and the question is which set of refugees should be given citizenship.
The first Act was in 1955; there was another in the mid-1970s, and now there is this third Act. This Act relates only to refugees who have come from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the three Muslim-majority countries in the neighbourhood of India. The Act states that anybody who came into India as a refugee at any time up to 2014 and was likely to have faced prosecution will be recognised as a citizen. The position taken by the Government is that, because it was Muslim-majority countries from which they came, they will be predominantly non-Muslim—they will be Hindus, Parsis or Sikhs, but not Muslims. It is possible to say that this is not factually true, because there is a lot of persecution of Muslim minorities especially in Pakistan, where the Shias and the Ahmadis have been discriminated against, but the Government of India have chosen not to look at that and to consider only non-Muslim refugees for citizenship.
The fear about this Act, which is quite genuine and has been expressed in a number of demonstrations, arises from what has happened in Assam. It is somewhat complicated to go through it, but the Assamese position is that only people genuinely born in Assam and speaking the Assamese language can be considered Assamese, and that nobody else, Hindu or Muslim, coming from Bengal, Bihar or anywhere else, should be considered a citizen. There were major riots in the 1970s and 1980s, and in 1985 the Assam Accord was signed. As part of that the Government were supposed to consider a national citizenship register, and the Supreme Court commanded the then Government to do that. But they did not do it, and 30 years later it has come up. There was a citizenship register count earlier on, and 30 million Assamese were recognised as citizens while 2 million were thought to have dubious papers and their cases will be reconsidered. It turns out that out of the 2 million, around 1 million are Hindus and the rest are Muslims and other minorities.
This episode, and the question of what will happen to those who do not have the papers, is raising anxiety. People are saying that the CAA has been passed for no other reason than to let the Hindus with dubious papers to go through but not anyone else. This has not yet happened—it is a conjectural fear. I am not saying that it is not true: the conjectural fear exists, but so far neither the citizenship Act nor the national citizenship register have been implemented. It is important for us to have that in mind. Whatever representations Her Majesty’s Government make, they should be based on what has happened so far.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for securing this debate. It gives me an opportunity to clarify some facts about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
India amended its Citizenship Act to allow persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Farsi and Christian faiths who have illegally migrated to India over the years from three neighbouring Islamic countries—Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan—to acquire Indian citizenship. The new Act became necessary because Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Farsi and Christian minorities who had entered India over decades, fleeing persecution, discrimination, physical insecurity or threat of forcible conversion, were living precarious lives, deprived of the many benefits of Indian citizenship. Unfortunately, they did not acquire Indian citizenship.
India is the historical home of Hindus and Sikhs, and it is these minorities who have naturally migrated there. No Muslim country would either accept them or give them citizenship. Back in 1947, minorities in Pakistan—mostly Hindus and Sikhs—constituted about 23% of the population, and are now just over 6%. In 1971, Hindus in Bangladesh constituted 19% of the population, but only 8% in 2016. These figures demonstrate the large-scale exodus of minorities from Muslim-majority countries that neighbour India.
Many migrants to India who have entered illegally, such as Muslims from Bangladesh, have done so for economic reasons and better life opportunities than in their own country. Their case is different, as they can return to their country of origin without fear.
The new Act was passed after an intensive debate in both Houses of the Indian Parliament, when all the issues raised by the opposition, including the perceived anti-secular nature of the amendment, were answered by the Government. The legislation was passed through an open, transparent and fully democratic process.
The Government of India have repeatedly clarified that the CAA is to grant citizenship on a one-time basis to a group of persons with no alternative options and not to take away the citizenship of anyone, much less an Indian Muslim. The CAA has a cut-off date of 31 December 2014, after which no illegal immigrant—whether Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, Christian or Muslim—would be eligible for citizenship under the amendment. In this larger sense, the CAA is by no means anti-Muslim or discriminatory.
India demonstrates by its actions that it does not discriminate against Muslims. Muslims have occupied the highest positions in the country, not least the esteemed head of India, President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. Indeed, the Indian constitution protects the rights of all minorities, including Muslims, giving special rights in the management of their respective religious and educational institutions.
My Lords, the Indian Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, denies citizenship to Muslim refugees from Burma, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, brushing aside the Indian constitutional commitment to secularity and the equal treatment of all religions. But this discrimination against Muslims should not be looked at in isolation.
The VHP, the ideological base of the ruling BJP, was founded in the 1930s by admirers of Hitler and the Nuremberg laws that made it mandatory for German citizens to prove Aryan ancestry. The CAA, instead of segregating people by genetics, makes religion the basis for citizenship.
The VHP was initially an understandable reaction to centuries of oppression of Hindus, by Muslim invaders and then by the British. The aim was to introduce a sense of pride and self-worth, but it soon became rooted in notions of superiority over others. At first, with its members dressed in shorts and armed with sticks, drilling in parks, the VHP was seen as a bit of a joke by most Indians. Today, it is a powerful paramilitary organisation preaching hatred and promoting violence against non-Hindus.
The underlying religious bigotry also affected some in the wider community. Pandit Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, famously declared that the care of minorities is more than a responsibility, it is a sacred trust —but he himself carried out a policy of discrimination against Sikhs. His daughter Indira Gandhi went even further in her 1984 attack on the Golden Temple, killing more than 1,000 innocent pilgrims, followed by a planned massacre of thousands more Sikh men, women and children. The appeal to majority bigotry succeeded and led to a landslide victory in the general election.
Narendra Modi, a lifelong member of the VHP, understands the power of majority bigotry. He was Chief Minister in 2001 and 2002, when the Government and police allowed the massacre of thousands of Muslims, and he was for a time barred from entry to the UK and the USA. Modi has wasted no time in implementing an extremist agenda. As well as the CAA, it includes: a national register of citizens in Assam, stripping nearly 2 million Muslims of citizenship; scrapping Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and putting the Muslim-majority state under virtual military rule; and giving the green light to build a Hindu temple on the site of a demolished centuries old mosque in Ayodhya to the very people responsible for its demolition.
The Government are also set to compile a National Register of Citizens, with people having to prove their citizenship in a country where such documentation is almost impossible to obtain. Another planned measure is to require government permission to change one’s religion, criminalising freedom of belief.
These policies provide a legal route for discrimination against Muslims—and, ultimately, against all non-Hindus. Prominent politicians openly boast of making India a Hindu state. Amit Shah, the Union Home Minister, second only to Modi, has publicly referred to Muslims as termites who should be thrown into the Bay of Bengal. A government office has been set up to rewrite Indian history for teaching in schools.
But it is not all darkness. The very forces of totalitarianism are producing a widespread reaction against the Government’s discriminatory agenda, with nationwide demonstrations, often led by women. Some states have refused to implement the new legislation. I appeal to our own Government to work directly, and through the Commonwealth, to add to this positive momentum for tolerance and respect for all people, in a wonderful country.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl for securing this important debate, and for his wide-ranging and empathetic introduction, balancing India’s astonishing and democratic recent history with its challenges now. It is appalling to hear that further violence has erupted today in India, with at least 11 further deaths. There seems to be no end in sight to the emerging social conflict described by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
Hindus make up 80% of India’s population and Muslims make up almost 15%—around 200 million people. As we have heard, in December last year the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was passed, amending India’s 64 year-old citizenship law. It expedites citizenship by naturalisation for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who entered India before 2015. Their eligibility criteria have been reduced from 11 years of residency to five, or work for the federal Government. Muslims are excluded from the CAA.
It has been suggested that the CAA is associated with India’s National Register of Citizens, the NRC, updated by Prime Minister Modi following his re-election in 2019.The NRC classified as foreigners those residents of Assam, on the Indian border with Bangladesh, who could not prove their residency there before Bangladesh declared independence in 1971. The August 2019 update to the NRC excluded 1.9 million inhabitants of Assam and placed them at risk of statelessness—not citizens of India and not accepted by Bangladesh. The Government are building detention camps in which those not listed on the NRC will be held before deportation. Prime Minister Modi has announced plans to extend the NRC across all of India. Those who are illiterate, or lack documentation, are likely to be disproportionately affected.
A 2016 government survey showed that 40% of Muslim children in India do not have a birth certificate. Only 66% of Indian women are literate, and many women have little documentation. They are also, of course, particularly vulnerable to abuse in detention camps.
Although there is no explicit link between the CAA and the NRC, it has been suggested that the CAA may assist members of the listed religions, who could, for example, claim to have come from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh, and therefore gain Indian citizenship. The reaction in India has been both alarming and, in some sense, encouraging, as the noble Lord, Lord Singh, said. But 30 people died in the first month that the CAA came into operation, more than 1,500 people have been arrested, and a further 4,000 have been detained. There have been reports of forced arrests and torture in custody.
Protesters argue that the amendment violates India’s secular constitution, by in effect turning faith into a condition of citizenship. The Government have apparently justified the exclusion of Muslims from the CAA by identifying Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan as Islamist countries that aim to convert or harass religious minorities. This would be irrelevant if the purpose was simply to admit refugees, given that certain sects are also persecuted, as the noble Lords, Lord Singh and Lord Alton, indicated. The Government have talked of millions of “infiltrators” entering India across the border, even though there was in fact a decline in India’s foreign-born population between 2001 and 2019. There was shock at an election rally in September 2018 when the Home Minister called Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh “termites” and promised to
“find each and every one and send them away.”
International observers have raised concerns. The executive director of Amnesty International India stated that the CAA and the NRC
“stand to create the biggest statelessness crisis of the world, causing immense human suffering.”
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights described the CAA as “fundamentally discriminatory in nature”. Human Rights Watch argues that the CAA
“violates India’s international legal obligations”.
Some respond by saying that India’s actions in regard to citizenship are simply an internal matter. However, we take seriously the UN’s responsibility to protect. That responsibility is a recognition that what happens within borders is not just the affair of the country in question.
I note that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, raised the CAA with his Indian counterpart in December, and that in January the issue was raised with the Indian High Commission. Could the noble Baroness tell us what the response was? What further action will the Government be taking? Have the Government raised this issue within the Commonwealth, given that the UK is the current chair? We should never accept that religious minorities should have fewer rights than others in a country, any more than this should be the case in the United Kingdom. Moreover, it should be clear that discrimination can never be a recipe for community cohesion. The Government have said that “Global Britain” will fight harder than ever before for human rights around the world. I therefore look forward to hearing what the noble Baroness says in this regard and what further actions the Government plan to take.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for securing this debate. The citizenship Act passed by the Indian Parliament in 2019 is a blatant attempt to further undermine persecuted Muslim minority groups, including the Ahmadiyya from Pakistan, the Rohingya from Myanmar, and the Tamils from Sri Lanka. Ultimately, it is for the Indian judiciary to determine whether the Act is constitutional, but it is important to reflect on the domestic reaction in India, as well as international criticism.
Violent demonstrations have led to deaths in Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Mangalore, with protests also in the cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. The protests escalated to such an extent that the FCO has issued travel warnings for people visiting India’s north-east region. Is the Minister able to offer any further information as to whether this travel warning is likely to be maintained, rescinded or extended in the near future?
At an international level, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights suggested that the Act may contravene the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, both of which prohibit discrimination based on racial, ethnic or religious grounds, and both of which India is a party to. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government have made any assessment of whether the Act in question is compliant with international law?
While this Act alone gives reason to question the safeguarding of human rights under the present Administration, regrettably it comes as only a further step in Prime Minister Modi’s questionable attitude to the human rights of the Muslim population, as seen with the implementation of the National Register of Citizens and the brutal crackdown on freedom of assembly and protest. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government have made any representations to the Government of India on the latter issue?
Of course, there is also the response to the situation in Kashmir to consider. The Indian Government’s decision to withdraw Kashmir’s special status served only to increase tensions in the region, while the deployment of tens of thousands of extra troops and paramilitary police has made a peaceful solution an even more distant ambition. In the light of recent calls, does the Minister believe that there is a role for the United Nations or other independent parties to monitor and report on alleged human rights abuses, to ensure that the Kashmiri people are protected?
While the question of the Indian constitution is one for the Indian judiciary, and Kashmir is one for the people of India and Pakistan, the UK must stand firm and insist that the human rights of religious minorities cannot be infringed. It is encouraging that the Government have previously stated that these issues have been raised with the Minister of State for External Affairs, in December 2019, and with India’s High Commission in London in January 2020. But it is not enough for the Government just to whisper a quiet word in private. They must make it clear that the primacy of human rights triumphs above all else, and should the Indian Government continue with their neglect of these principles, the UK must explore further avenues to press Prime Minister Modi’s Government to protect some of the region’s most vulnerable minorities.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for tabling this debate and for his long-standing commitment to humanitarian causes and international development. I am grateful to all the noble Lords who contributed today. As ever, this House is one of the best places to hear about lessons from history.
As the noble Earl said in his opening remarks, in December last year, the Government of India signed into law the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which expedites the path to citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who fled persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan and resided in India since before 2014. It does not extend the same protection to Muslims or minority sects. Ongoing protests against the Act across India leave no doubt that this legislation is divisive. I know that people in this country—including in this House, as has been made clear today—feel strongly about it. For our part, the UK Government have concerns about the impact of the legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, highlighted the diversity of India’s population. Noble Lords will know that India boasts more than 20 official languages, over 1,500 registered dialects and a rich tapestry of religious minorities alongside its sizeable Hindu majority. Most notably, in the context of this debate, it is home to the world’s third-largest Muslim population, of more than 195 million people, and to more mosques than any other country in the world—over 300,000.
India also has a proud history of inclusive government. Many noble Lords have quoted India’s first Prime Minister, Nehru. I will do the same with a quote that has not been used already. He said that
“whatever our religion or creed, we are all one people.”
That is the foundation stone of India, so that all citizens can consider themselves Indians regardless of their religion.
India’s secular constitution, which guarantees equality before the law, has been an exemplar of inclusive democracy. Indians are rightly proud of their constitution, just as we in the UK are proud of our own constitution, diversity and religious pluralism. These shared strengths and values are central to the governance of both our countries and lie at the heart of our partnership. That partnership is further strengthened—as noble Lords have pointed out—by the UK’s 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora and the 1 million visits from the UK to India every year. It is the living bridge between us, as it has been called. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that we are privileged to have this relationship with India.
In common with India’s inclusive tradition, our Government believe that societies are stronger and safer when we embrace our diversity rather than fear it. That is why the UK works closely with international partners and leaders of all faiths and none to promote interfaith respect and understanding. We welcome Prime Minister Modi’s promise following his re-election to maintain India’s tradition of inclusive government under the guiding principle of “Together with all, development for all and trust of all”. I note that earlier this month Prime Minister Modi told India’s Lok Sabha that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act would not affect any Indian citizens. We trust that the Government of India will provide further reassurances to any citizens concerned about the impact of the Act.
Noble Lords will be aware that India continues to face challenges in enforcing its constitutional protections for freedom of religion and belief, despite its strong democratic framework. The situation for religious minorities across India—as was highlighted by many noble Lords—varies according to where they live, their socioeconomic background and how their numbers compare to other communities.
I assure noble Lords that the UK is in no way turning a blind eye to these challenges because we do not want to criticise an important partner. On the contrary, thanks to our close relationship, we are able to discuss difficult issues with the Government of India and make clear our concerns, including about the rights of minorities.
Indeed, as the Minister responsible for both human rights and our relationship with India, my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon raised our concerns about the impact of the CAA, and the public response to the legislation, with India’s Minister of State for External Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs on the very day it was passed. Our former high commissioner in New Delhi, Sir Dominic Asquith, also raised the issue with the Government of India last month, as did Foreign and Commonwealth officials with the Indian High Commission in London. Most recently, on 6 February, the British High Commission in New Delhi raised our concerns about the Act with the state government of Uttar Pradesh.
More broadly, the UK engages with India at all levels, including union and state governments and NGOs, to build capacity and share expertise to tackle those implementation challenges that I mentioned earlier, and to promote human rights for all. For example, our network of deputy high commissioners runs projects promoting minority rights. We work with local NGOs to bring together young people of diverse faiths in social action projects in their local communities and promote a culture of interfaith dialogue.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about the impact the legislation has had on UK citizens. Although this legislation will not apply to them, as I mentioned earlier there is no doubt that this Act has been divisive in this country, too, including among our 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora. We listen to their concerns and value their contributions. Ministers and officials from different departments, including the FCO, regularly meet Indian diaspora groups to discuss a range of issues, including human rights, and will continue to engage with them to understand their concerns.
The noble Earl also requested an update on our international development work with India. While we no longer have a traditional aid relationship, we partner with India to promote prosperity, reduce poverty and create trade, investment and other partnership opportunities for the UK. We share our world-leading expertise and provide investment which directly benefits the still-high number of poor people in India and generates a return for the UK. We also work with India to promote trade and innovation and co-operate internationally with it on big global issues such as climate change. We also work with it on other developing countries which are important to both Britain and India.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and many others highlighted the protests and demonstrations that have been seen, and the reaction to them. The UK has long regarded protest as a key part of a democratic society. Democratic Governments must have the power to enforce law and order when a protest crosses the line into illegality but must in turn act with restraint and proportionality. We encourage all states to ensure that their domestic laws are enforced in line with international standards. Any allegations of human rights abuses are deeply concerning and must be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently.
The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Desai, and many others spoke about the National Register of Citizens. We have not received any confirmation from the Government of India of whether there will be an India-wide NRC, and we await details of how the Government of India will implement the NRC in Assam while protecting the rights of individuals.
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, spoke about detention centres. The state government of Assam have announced that there will be no immediate detention of those left off the NRC, and those excluded have an appeals system through the foreigners tribunal run by the state government. We have not yet received any reports of anyone being detained or arrested or sent to a detention centre, and nor has anybody yet been deprived of their citizenship.
I admit that I have not read the column in the Indian Express written by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, but I will make sure that I do so.
The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Singh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, spoke in some detail about the situation of some religious minorities in India. I mentioned our work in general, but we continue to run projects promoting minority rights. Over the past three years we have worked with local NGOs, bringing together young people on social action projects. Recent project work included Empowering Muslim Youth, which has reached many youths, teachers and educational institutions. We have also enabled training for 900 minority students on faith issues in six universities across north India.
The noble Lord, Lord Singh, spoke about the 1984 massacre, and I am grateful to him for raising this tragedy. It was undoubtedly a tragic series of events the like of which we never wish to see again.
The noble Lord, Lord Singh, also talked about the Ayodhya temple. We note the ruling of the Supreme Court on that. While we appreciate how strongly many Hindus and Muslims feel on this issue, it is a matter for the Indian judicial process.
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, highlighted the protests that we have seen today. Any individual killed in a protest is one too many. We urge restraint on all parties involved and trust that the Indian Government will address the concerns of all religions.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, spoke about our position on Kashmir. It is of course for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to Kashmir, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or act as a mediator, but we consistently encourage channels of dialogue to remain open as a means of resolving differences, and encourage the pace and scope of dialogue between India and Pakistan.
If I have failed to answer any questions, I will follow up in writing. Again, I am grateful to the noble Earl for raising this debate today and to all noble Lords for their contributions.
To conclude, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act has clearly been divisive in India. Its full impact remains unclear. We hope and trust that the Government of India will address the concerns and protect the rights of people of all religions, in keeping with India’s constitution, its democratic values and its inclusive traditions. This Government, our high commission in New Delhi and our network of deputy high commissioners across India will continue to follow and monitor events closely and, where we have concerns, we will of course continue to raise them, as India would expect from a close friend and partner. I will end by quoting my noble friend Lord Ahmad, who is today in Geneva at the Human Rights Council. He said today that in 2020 and beyond, the UK will place the promotion and the protection of human rights at the top of our list of international priorities.
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Communities: Inequalities
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to implement the recommendations of the report by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, published on 5 April 2019.
My Lords, I am gratified by the unusually large number of distinguished speakers and look forward very much to their contributions. I declare several unremunerated interests as set out in the register, including that I am co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma.
This excellent report sets out devastatingly poor outcomes for Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities, as well as the widespread discrimination, hate crime and prejudice they face. It shows that, contrary to stereotype, 74% live in bricks and mortar. I will single out only a few markers: educational attainment is the lowest of any group; life expectancy is 10 to 12 years less than for the rest of the population; one in five mothers can expect a child to die, as opposed to one in 100 for the rest of us; and 14% report bad health. One survey shows that 91% of those surveyed had experienced discrimination and 77% actual hate crime or hate speech. A whole chapter is devoted to problems experienced by more recent Roma immigrants.
Perhaps surprisingly, I do not castigate the Government —I know I am supposed to—for these disturbing outcomes. They are the fault and responsibility of society in general, and previous individual Ministers—such as the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, whose absence from the Front Bench is much missed—have made it clear that they do not connive at what many have admitted is a national scandal. The previous Government, in their response, fully accepted the significantly poorer outcomes for Gypsy, Traveller and Roma people than for other minorities, let alone the rest of the population.
This scandal is the fault of those teachers who do not try to understand diversity, much less welcome it, or to foster the well-being of all the children in their care; the schools that exclude children for responding to bullying with their fists or by dropping out; the doctors who do not allow Gypsies, Travellers and Roma on their lists, especially if they have a caravan site address; and many parts of the criminal justice system, which do not keep statistical records of the number and identity of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma people. It is particularly the fault of local authorities, elected members and officials, who put obstacles in the way of planning applications and instigate eviction from unauthorised sites when there is no alternative accommodation; the voters who press for this discrimination; parliamentarians whose discriminatory language has been the subject of formal complaints; and all of us who walk by on the other side of the road and do not repudiate prejudice and bigotry when we hear it.
The safeguarding of minorities is surely an essential component of democracy, and the capacity to exercise the right to keep to an ethnic culture that does no harm should be one of the jewels of our diverse society. Of course, the Government have a crucial leadership role. The previous Government’s undertaking to set up a cross-government strategy to, in their words, address disparities and “improve outcomes”, is a good beginning. I add that some time ago the Government set up the Department for Education stakeholders’ group, which I have the privilege of chairing, with devoted officials but without much resource to deal with the diversity of educational need and commission research—for instance, into the reasons for so much drop-out at secondary school and bullying. Ofsted’s contribution to the group is particularly welcome. I commend the participation of its Gypsy, Traveller and Roma specialist, Mr Mark Sims, on the stakeholder group. Perhaps it is time for a new Ofsted report.
It is most welcome that the Government accept the problems inherent in the present state of home education and the need for schools to engage with Gypsy, Traveller and Roma parents and understand their culture. Have they decided on a Bill compelling registration yet? The recent Timpson report did not include race discrimination, but I hope the Minister will accept its recommendation that schools should retain their responsibility for off-rolled children.
Why has so little been done? This is really the crux of the matter. One obstacle is the ignorant idea that policies to foster equality must treat everyone the same. William Blake said:
“One law for the lion and the ox is oppression.”
Another problem is that these shocking facts are hidden because of lack of data. I have engaged with many social researchers to ask them why they do not include Gypsies, Travellers and Roma in their BAME or other datasets, and the answer is always that the absolute numbers are too small. But of course within those numbers, the proportion of, say, secondary-age pupils being educated at home or Traveller boys excluded from school, is extraordinarily high. Different research tools need to be employed.
A more intractable problem is that communities seem to need someone to hate. Scapegoating is an age-old problem—I could quote the Bible here—but some societies manage to make sure that the outstanding members of their community who happen to be from despised minorities get their fair share of recognition. How often do we hear in this country of those Gypsies who were decorated in the two World Wars, or who, more recently, led the tributes to the Muslim victims of the New Zealand atrocity, or who set up food banks and aid for homeless people in their communities? It is a continuing reproach to our media that they ignore such examples.
But there are now more community leaders, who are articulate and effective, and more go to university, though they still face barriers. The Government should seize this opportunity and engage with the communities to make a proper start on putting right these ancient and disgraceful wrongs. They should build on the slender beginnings of the constructive action I have mentioned and implement the most welcome undertaking, included in their response to the report, to get accurate and wide-ranging data on the scale of disadvantage. I ask the Minister: when will these initiatives begin and when will they report?
The Government should also initiate specific targeted action to increase the presence of Gypsies, Travellers and Roma people in the public services, such as midwives, health visitors, dentists and teachers.
The issue of sites is perhaps the largest single injustice, although it affects only a small minority of the small minority of Gypsies and Travellers in our midst. Political leadership on behalf of fair treatment is vital. I am reminded of an Answer to a Question I asked some time ago of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks—another missed Minister—about the Welsh Government’s obligation on local authorities to provide sites. He said:
“The application of the law in relation to human rights should of course be common across England and Wales.” —[Official Report, 18/11/15; col. 132.]
Indeed, it should. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, Gypsy, Roma and Travelling communities face a great deal of marginalisation, which is why I am so grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker—a redoubtable and feisty campaigner in this area—who keeps bringing this before us. I thank her for that. I am glad that we are raising this issue yet again in your Lordships’ House. She has quoted some of the many stats; I can add a few more and I guess that we will all add a few as we go along.
We know that 90% of Traveller children face racial abuse. The Government’s race audit showed that GRT pupils
“had the lowest attainment of all ethnic groups”.
The 2011 census showed that bad health among Gypsy and Traveller communities is twice as high as in other communities in our country. GRT people also have the lowest rate of economic activity of any ethnic group.
It would be simplistic to suggest that there are just one or two causes of this. It is complex—there will be a number of reasons for some of those facts—but what is absolutely clear is that it cannot be right if any of it is based on any sort of discrimination based on ethnicity. As a Christian country rooted in the Judeo-Christian doctrine of humanity—that we are all made in the image and likeness of God—this must surely be at the forefront of our thinking.
The reality is that many parts of our society are tainted with varying degrees of prejudice. Last year, we had a debate in the General Synod of the Church of England. It was sad to hear examples of where, even within the Church, there had been discrimination. It certainly raised with clarity an issue that, for many of us, needs to be faced. That debate urged the Church to fight against racism and hate crime directed at GRT communities, and to urge the media to stop denigrating and victimising these communities.
There is another, good side to this as well, so let us celebrate that. My own diocese has been supporting Roma Christians over recent years by providing a chaplain to the Roma community in Luton, and a variety of Christian denominations have offered hospitality and a place for worship. The Luton Roma Trust, set up in 2015 and supported by various charities, including the Church of England, is making a significant difference. It runs the Roma Community Centre, and the project is managed by Crina Morteanu, a Romanian Roma woman who has a law degree in human rights, with a number of other staff. There are now 1,350 people on its database, and it offers advice on employment, welfare, accommodation, health, schooling for children and finance. It runs a children’s music project and English classes. There are many good things happening, and we need to celebrate the moves that are going on.
This does, however, need to be matched by some action from the Government. I share the confusion of Maria Miller MP, former chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, as to why some recommendations from her committee were dropped by the Government. The Church is one of the largest providers of education in this country, behind the state. Will the Minister explain why the education-specific recommendations were dropped?
I am also concerned by the problems around where people can live, and particularly the actions of eight local authorities to appeal a High Court ruling which overturned their decision to prevent GRT people staying on public land; that is a potential breach of both the European Convention on Human Rights and the Equality Act. The Minister cannot comment on the specific case, but can I tempt her to comment on the general principles in such situations?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, for bringing forward this debate. I am so glad we have the chance to discuss this once again. I want to speak briefly about the problems facing the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in respect of accommodation. In many parts of the country, as we know, they are still having to resort to unauthorised encampments or developments, with no security of tenancy. Caravans are not recognised as a legitimate home, which leads to difficulty for Travellers in getting the required planning permission.
There is a requirement for local authorities to identify suitable and permanent sites, both public and private. In reality, this is taking place in only a small number of areas and, as there is no penalty given to those local authorities that do not comply, there is no incentive for them to find sites. When permission is granted for a site, it is often only for one year, so at the end of a year the whole application has to start again. This leads to insecurity and uncertainty about what the future holds. It makes it difficult to become part of the wider community, along with the difficulty of accessing suitable healthcare, educational requirements and employment opportunities, leading to many of the problems faced by this group of often vulnerable women and children. This in turn leads to poor health, poor maternity care, poor education and poor job opportunities, as well as discrimination and bullying. Why are local authorities not making more of an effort during that first year to find permanent sites? Perhaps if a penalty was imposed, more effort would be made.
We must recognise that it is important for Gypsies, Roma people and Travellers to live in caravan and site dwellings; it is at the heart of their history and what they believe to be their way of life. In 2019, a new national strategy was set up to tackle inequalities for Roma and Travellers. Will my noble friend the Minister tell me how this is progressing? I believe that 22 projects were going to be set up across the country. Has this happened and is the strategy going ahead as planned?
What can be done? There needs to be a joined-up approach across government departments such as the Race Disparity Unit, the Home Office, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Department for Education. Importantly, there needs to be comprehensive statistical data collection so that all the departments mentioned know what they are dealing with.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, mentioned, we know that girls are often removed from school well before the legal age, with the excuse that they are being home-schooled. Little or no checking is carried out by the authorities to see if they are getting a proper education equal to that being given to the boys, who are usually allowed by their parents to stay in school. As the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, mentioned, there are problems with boys being excluded due to bad behaviour, et cetera.
We know that there is a lack of awareness about healthy relationships, which can lead to abuse in the young Gypsy community. Girls and boys should have access to education that can teach them about relationships. Girls need the knowledge to be able to challenge outdated behaviours towards women, as well as having a recognised body to turn to for help if necessary.
In conclusion, if we can deal with the accommodation problems faced by this group, we can go some way towards beginning to make sure that the appropriate services are there to give assistance with the issues that the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities face.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Whitaker most warmly for giving us the opportunity to look at this issue again. She consistently does a great deal of work in this area. I must also say how good it is to see the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, in our midst. There was great respect for him across the Floor in his ministerial days, as well as a feeling that he really was engaging with the issues that so often came before us. To see him continuing that interest in this debate is significantly encouraging.
I declare an interest: I am president of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights, and I see this as fundamentally a human rights issue. I will repeat part of what my noble friend Lady Whitaker said, because none of us can escape these basic statistics. As the Commons committee pointed out, contrary to general opinion, 74% of the GRT communities live in bricks and mortar. Educational attainment is the lowest of any group. Life expectancy is 10 to 12 years lower than for the rest of the population. One in five mothers can expect a child to die, as opposed to one in 100 for the rest of us. Some 14% report bad health. One survey showed that 91% of those surveyed had experienced discrimination, and 77% had experienced actual hate crime or hate speech.
We cannot sweep this under the carpet. As my noble friend said, we cannot drive by on the other side; we all have responsibilities. She pointed out some of the areas where there are specific responsibilities, such as in schools. I am sure that she would agree that we have to be careful in not seeming to indicate that it is the teachers’ fault. It is not: very often, teachers in the most deprived parts of the country are hard pressed beyond imagination and desperately trying to cope with educating with limited means and resources. It is a matter of making sure that the resources are there to give teachers space to take their responsibilities seriously and do adventurous things in response.
The same point could be made with doctors: so often—I would not say always—the doctors who seem to be unresponsive are again working under incredible pressure in deprived areas. It is very difficult to find the space. Again, there is an issue of resources. If we will the ends, we must argue for the resources to be allocated as they should be.
What has happened about a work stream within the Race Disparity Unit to eliminate inequalities faced by Gypsies and Travellers? What has happened about an analysis of the scale of issues faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, including those of school age who may be missing from local authority registers or facing challenges in accessing the right educational provision? What has happened about providing and ensuring proper support for children educated at home? The challenges are great. We must respond.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness on bringing this important report to the attention of our House. It is perhaps not insignificant that my family name is as it is, and I should declare my own membership of the all-party group. Given my family background in horticulture in the Vale of Evesham—although we moved from there—I have some experience in those activities of employing Gypsies and Travellers, though they no longer form part of my farming activities or my declared interests.
In a debate such as this, one has to be extremely selective. I do not intend to talk today about hate crime. Although it is an important topic, it sometimes functions as a kind of displacement activity for what should be our concern about continuing systemic exclusion and low standards. A second area on which we should not perhaps spend time is sites, except to say that the committee makes a telling point about the health implications of low-standard sites.
One issue that particularly concerns me is the need to maintain a proper balance between the needs of Gypsy and Traveller families, individuals and children and their adjustment to an official world that is increasingly dependent on postcodes—places you live—and digital access. Although the committee rightly points out that some three-quarters of such families are no longer nomadic, and there are legacy issues about standards of education and suspicion of officialdom, in no sense should we allow these to trick us into trying to commit social engineering by default or by administrative incompetence.
As a former Education Minister, I sometimes raised a few eyebrows—alongside my late wife, who shared these passions—by emphasising the importance of further education, continuing education and, above all, adult literacy. Alongside the business of securing reliable attendance at school, these must be the building blocks in countering disadvantage—though I would now add a digital element to that, too. They are the magic keys for future empowerment of Gypsy and Traveller families.
However, the Commons report is right in calling for a single focus across government to drive this agenda forward in all areas of access to services. We need known officials in overall charge and with sufficient influence across the delivery departments. If they have that, they can act as a focus for representations from the Gypsy and Traveller community relating to shared problems.
Perhaps there is no villain in this argument other than inertia. Successive inquiries and successive government responses have shown good will towards moving in the right direction, but, this time, we have to grasp the nettle. We need to resolve collectively to effect radical and sustained improvement.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Boswell’s compelling and personal speech. I declare my interest as president of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma—an interest that I am very proud of. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, on tabling the debate and thank her for being a continuing inspiration who has respect across the whole House for the way that she has kept at this issue over many years. We are at a pivotal moment.
The Women and Equalities Committee, chaired very ably by Maria Miller, castigated this and indeed successive Governments quite correctly for inertia—my noble friend Lord Boswell used exactly the right word, because that is what it is. There is no lack of intention: there is in fact a unity of purpose. The committee rightly honed in on some of the problems that we had and made strong recommendations. The Government accepted them. In the dying days of when I was still a Minister, I remember a cross-departmental meeting to take forward this strategy. I came out of that meeting and what amazed me was the unity of purpose. People across different wings of the party, with different backgrounds, all said that something had to be done. There was a unity of purpose in different departments. Justice was represented there, as were health, education, the Home Office and HCLG, and I came out of that meeting thinking that we had a real opportunity to do something, and we must.
We have all referred to some of the incredibly worrying statistics on health, education and abuse and the need to involve more people from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in public life. To have examples with whom people can identify is of crucial importance in moving this forward. I was particularly pleased to see a young member of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, Samson Rattigan, receive an honour in the last honours list. That was great news. These are our communities. One of my proudest moments as a Minister was laying a wreath on the grave of a Gypsy VC in Scunthorpe, Jack Cunningham. Nothing could illustrate better that this is all of us, and for too long we have acted against and not helped the other.
One person has been pivotal to progress. I had a couple of meetings with him, one at the Appleby Horse Fair, which noble Lords will know is central to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller life—and a great festival it is—and one when I met him individually. Billy Welch is the head Gypsy, and someone who really needs to be involved in any strategy to help drive it forward. He is a man of great energy and ability and we would be extremely unwise not to harness his skills and ability to bring people together.
There are some positive signs. We fund things such as GATE Herts, which works with victims of hatred against the GRT community. Sherrie Smith does great work there. Friends, Families and Travellers, with Sarah Mann and Abbie Kirkby does great work and I would like to mention it on the record. I was also very proud that the Government were represented at the 75th commemoration of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Holocaust at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was no longer a Minister when that came round, but so committed was I to the event that I went out as an individual under my own steam, because it was an extremely important moment. Civil servants were there and the Government recognised the importance of it.
Central to all of this is the Race Disparity Unit, which is one of the great things that the last Government introduced, driven by the then Prime Minister, Theresa May. But it is no good having that data if we do nothing with it. I put down a Question last week to ask what was happening to it and the response was, “We are still collecting the data”—I paraphrase slightly. We need to do something with the data, for goodness sake, and move the dial. We have a real opportunity in this Parliament to do just that and make a real difference. I am pleased that this debate was tabled. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, again.
I join all noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, for securing this debate and for her excellent introduction to it. I am also pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, in focusing on some positives, because it is important. Sometimes in these kinds of debates we focus on all the problems and difficulties. One of the things I want to do in my brief contribution is to focus on some positives.
However, to begin: the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, was right to focus on scapegoating. That is a real issue, and we as British society need to acknowledge collectively that we have a problem with racism. Some of the most extreme racism is directed at the Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities. That is a fact, and it is here in this report. We are, however, grouping together three large and very diverse groups here, and as a resident of Sheffield I will focus on one particular community: the largely very recently-arrived Slovak Roma community in Sheffield.
I direct the Minister’s attention to a couple of reports that she may not be aware of, because they are important, positive and constructive contributions to this debate. One is titled Roma in Sheffield: Mapping services and local priorities. We are debating in this House of Lords at the centre of privilege, but we have to start by saying—as this report does: “listen to Roma priorities” to engage and hear what this community in Sheffield, and other communities that we are discussing, have to say. The report finds that there are significant gaps in the knowledge of many staff working with the Roma in Sheffield. The Government can and should be doing more on that, as indeed this report highlights.
We need to stress, and it is worth saying, that we are debating a report that was ordered to be printed on 29 March 2019. The third thing that the report says is that services need to react quickly to changes. In the world we are in now with Brexit, and with many people having come to Britain very recently, there are some real issues here; we have to be more nimble.
The other study carried out in Sheffield is called Nurturing Slovak Roma Children at Secondary School. The title refers to the fact that the first language of many of the schoolchildren is Romany, which is not necessarily a formalised, single language but a group of languages. Their second language is Slovak and their third is English. I point in particular to an article in a Slovak weekly called .týžden that profiles one young man, Andre, who came here as an 11 year-old, speaking no English. He is now a first-year psychology student. He does regular translation work and goes into schools, interpreting between Slovak, English and Romany, but he can also translate from Hungarian and French when required.
I have just come from the APPG on small and microbusinesses. There was a lot of discussion about the problems of Britain—of productivity and skills shortages. Perhaps we should be thinking about this in another kind of way: these communities have an enormous range of skills and can make huge contributions. Perhaps we do not focus on that enough. We know from everything this report tells us that we are not opening up and allowing those skills to flourish.
My final point is that like many of these communities the Roma have moved into some of the most disadvantaged areas of Sheffield, where they are living side by side with people suffering great disadvantage, racism and discrimination. We need to think about how we help communities to live together.
I thank noble Lords for finding time for me to contribute to this debate. I, too, thank my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, for bringing us together to have this important debate. I declare an interest as chair of the advisory group for the Race Disparity Unit and as a board member of the Open Society’s Roma Initiatives Office.
I begin by congratulating the newest heavyweight boxing champion of the world: Tyson Fury. Let us not forget that he is to global Gypsies, Roma and Travellers what Muhammad Ali has been to the African diaspora: a role model. He is a role model who wears his culture —his identity—on his sleeve: a supreme role model.
As one of the individuals who have helped inspire the Race Disparity Audit, I am proud of what the Government have achieved with it. As the chair of the Race Disparity Audit, I can say that we have been driving this agenda. We clearly recognise that there are monstrous gaps in the data, and it should be the Government’s priority to fill those gaps. Along with that, as the advisory group we need to be empowered to challenge all the government departments with the mantra, “Explain these disparities, or change”. If we do so—when we do so—we will close these persistent inequality gaps.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, on securing this important debate and on setting out the issues so clearly. I agree with everything that she and other speakers have said. The inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are dear to my heart. Not long after I was first elected to Somerset County Council in 1993, I chaired a working group looking into exactly this issue in Somerset. The report of the Women and Equalities Committee of March 2019 struck many chords with me, and it is deeply depressing to find that there has been little progress in the intervening years.
GRT communities still face discrimination, abuse and poor access to services. During my time investigating the issues, we visited communities with a Gypsy liaison officer who supported the group. Some of these visits were encouraging, but others were overwhelmingly hostile and aggressive. I personally cannot understand why some communities appear to be frightened of groups that are different from them. Nevertheless, Somerset did set up both permanent and transit sites for Gypsies and Travellers.
It was the case that access to services, both educational and health, were down to individual committed people. I was disappointed to note in the House of Commons report that this is still the case. Services in some areas are reliant on the dedication of individuals, and when these people move on, the services falter and in some cases become non-existent. It is the right of every child, whatever their ethnicity or background, to have access to education; schools and teachers must ensure that this happens. It is also their right to have access to healthcare and to be safe from abuse.
For the 25% of GRT communities who still travel and are based in caravans, the lack of a permanent address is a significant barrier to gaining access to healthcare, banking facilities and education. For those of us in the settled community, getting a GP appointment can be a major undertaking. For those on the move, it is an impossibility—hence their reliance on A&E departments. This may well suffice for accidents, but it is certainly not a satisfactory route for pregnant mothers or young children.
I was disappointed in the government response to the very impressive report by the committee, but I was not surprised. The Government appear not to want to own this subject—although I know some noble Lords do not agree with me. There have been lots of fine words but no real action. As for thinking that £200,000 provided by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for six projects will help solve the problem, that is laughable. Where is the commitment to evaluate these projects and roll them out nationwide, with plans and timescales, so that learning can be shared and embedded? Why has this not happened?
In paragraph 23 of the report, the government response says that homes and communities should work with grass-roots organisations to formulate a wide-ranging campaign. This should be a legal requirement, otherwise nothing will happen.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said, there is no commitment to piloting pupil passport schemes, with rapid evaluation. There is nothing to enable schools to apply for the pupil premium for children who arrive once term has started. The life chances of boys and girls coming from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities is not equal: it never has been and, from what we read in the government response, is not likely to be in the near future. This is totally unacceptable, and I ask the noble Baroness to do something about it.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Whitaker on securing this debate today and pay tribute to her and the work she does in supporting the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. I also welcome the report by the Women and Equalities Committee of the House of Commons. It has produced an excellent report and I was pleased to see that this time the Government made a response relatively promptly. The report sets out the very real challenges that the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities face and that they have the worst outcomes of any ethnic group in various areas, including education, health, employment, criminal justice and many others.
It is also true that local authorities and other providers of public services have failed these communities, in many cases by not understanding their specific needs as a distinct ethnic group, and that policymakers, both at a local and national level, have not helped in the way they should have to help address the needs of this community and produce better outcomes for them. I was struck that the report drew out the failure to deal with matters on a strategic basis as probably the biggest failure, and everything else flows from that.
My noble friend Lady Whitaker set out some of the prejudice and bigotry that this community suffers, such as not being able to register with a GP and problems in schools. These are really shocking failures and it is wrong that this community has suffered prejudice for many years and through many generations. It would be good if the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, could set out what specific actions she thinks the Government have to take to try to combat this very deep-seated discrimination, prejudice and racism.
There is a lack of trust and there is a stop-start approach to projects and initiatives. The report talked about how good work is funded, but it is very stop-start in nature; people move on and the good work falls back. I think people in these communities have the right to expect better support and better protection from the law—laws which apply to everyone in the UK—and their children deserve support as well to ensure that they get a proper education. That is their legal right. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans highlighted, there is good practice and we should celebrate where there is good practice and acknowledge good work takes place. The noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm of Owlpen, challenged local authorities to do more—and I endorse her call. But let us be clear: the racism and bigotry that this community suffers clearly impinge on the behavioural response of some local authorities. There is no question about that whatever, and that is not good.
I agree with the comments made by my noble friend Lord Judd, and I am also delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, taking part in this debate. His contributions today were, as always, very thoughtful and useful. I miss our debates across the Dispatch Box, but we are now in the same corridor, so we see each other on most days anyway. I also join with the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, in congratulating Tyson Fury. The noble Lord was absolutely right in his analogy with Muhammad Ali after Fury won the World Boxing Council belt and became world champion at the weekend.
The report raises many challenges for Government at a national but also a local government level. It will be good to hear from the noble Baroness, when she responds to the debate, what plans the Government have to address the very serious issues that have been outlined here. It was good to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, about where government is beginning to work on cutting across these, because the only way to get these things right is to get other departments to address these very serious issues. I look forward to the response from the noble Baroness.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, for bringing this Question to the Committee. I commend her on her long and active involvement with these communities and her thoughtful and thought-provoking speech. She is right to be gratified by the number of speakers.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, rightly drew attention to the excellent work the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, undertook in this area and I am very conscious that I have very large boots to fill here. Last year, the Government welcomed the Women and Equalities Select Committee’s report. We commend the committee’s findings and agree that health and education inequalities for these communities must be tackled. The poor-quality accommodation that the report highlighted must be a concern to us all, and all violence against women and girls is unacceptable.
The Government’s recent race disparity audit highlights further evidence that demonstrates the serious disparities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. On almost every measure, as many have pointed out, they are significantly worse off than the general population, but the Government have been working hard across a broad policy front to improve outcomes for these communities. However, there is still more to do.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is therefore leading efforts to develop a co-ordinated cross-government strategy to improve outcomes for these communities. Government departments including the Department for Education, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Home Office and the Race Disparity Unit in the Cabinet Office will work together. The work must be rooted in people’s experiences and challenges; therefore, the Government, through the work of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, are committed to seeking the involvement and input of the communities as they consider how to tackle these issues.
Some steps have already been taken to engage a diverse range of voices within Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government sustains ongoing engagement through its core Gypsy, Roma and Traveller liaison group. It has regular contact and discussions with other community representatives and public sector delivery agencies, both front-line services and charities. In parallel, the Government have funded pilot projects to support these communities. These projects are currently being evaluated to identify key outcomes and transferrable lessons.
As the Women and Equalities Select Committee report notes, the Government do not yet collect comprehensive, reliable and consistent data across policy and service areas. The full extent of the challenges faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in England cannot be known until that is rectified. Without robust data, the Government cannot measure improvements for these communities with changes in policy and the development of a strategy. That is why the Government are taking several steps.
The census White Paper recommended the inclusion of a tick box to improve the identification of people from the Roma community specifically, in addition to the existing Gypsy or Irish Traveller tick box. The Race Disparity Unit and the Office for National Statistics are now engaging with departments and agencies. This is to ensure that, once the census order is approved, those responsible for administrative systems that record ethnicity set out their commitment to use the 2021 census classification. The Office for National Statistics will work with the Roma population, assisting Roma organisations to provide reassurance and support for local communities and raising awareness of the Roma response option.
The Race Disparity Unit is also developing a quality improvement plan, which will be published this year. This plan will outline actions that the Race Disparity Unit will take, in collaboration with other departments, to address issues related to the quality of ethnicity data. The plan will also set out actions to improve data for all ethnic groups, including the harmonisation and quality of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller data.
In addition to this welcome and positive change to the national census, other work is planned to improve health data collection. NHS England and NHS Improvement, along with the Department of Health and Social Care and other stakeholders, are conducting a scoping exercise. This will identify the equality monitoring data gathered from across major National Health Service datasets and propose the equality data that should be gathered and how. Roma are the largest ethnic minority group in Europe, yet information on the Roma population size and location in the United Kingdom is sparse.
I will move on to the safety of accommodation. Having a safe place to live is a right for everyone, whether you are in bricks and mortar, a mobile home or a caravan. As the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government develops the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller strategy, it recognises the need to consider these issues. In parallel, the Government have made clear their commitment to tackling unauthorised encampments. The Government will consider the outcome of the current consultation to progress this.
On site provision, it is the responsibility of local authorities to assess the need for Gypsy and Traveller sites in their area. It is then their responsibility to plan to meet that need, as they are required to do for all forms of housing. The Government have committed to consider making information on permanent and transit sites in planning plans freely available in open data format. This will improve data held on site provision and provide a clear source of data on the availability of such sites. This will also help determine which authorities have in place an up-to-date plan for Travellers.
Local authorities can bid for funding for permanent Traveller sites through the 2016-21 shared ownership and affordable homes programme, along with other forms of affordable housing. The new homes bonus will match-fund the additional council tax raised for new homes. This will include Traveller pitches.
Education was another important area that concerned most speakers this evening. Clearly, education is the key for the future health, prosperity and traditions of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. When children miss school time, it can have only a negative effect on their life chances. The Government have already taken significant steps to support local authorities in meeting their duties in relation to children missing education.
In September 2016, the education regulations 2006 were amended to improve the education and welfare of pupils. This is done through better information sharing between schools and local authorities where pupils are removed from and added to the school admission register. It will enable local authorities to comply better with their duty to make arrangements to identify children of compulsory school age who are not registered at school and are not receiving suitable education elsewhere.
In some cases, home education can be the best choice for that child. Unfortunately, in some cases, it can lead to a poorer quality of education. That is why the Government published revised guidance in April 2019 to help local authorities ensure that home-educated children receive a suitable education. The guidance sets out how effective use of existing powers can ensure that home education is suitable and, if it is not, what action can be taken to secure school attendance.
One reason for elective home education can be that a child is being bullied at school. As the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, brought attention to this and to Ofsted, perhaps I should clarify that schools have the freedom to develop their own anti-bullying strategies appropriate to their environment and are then held to account by Ofsted. All schools are required by law to have a behaviour policy that outlines measures to encourage good behaviour and prevent all forms of bullying among pupils. I again reassure the noble Baroness that we do not shy away from the findings of the Timpson report.
The Department for Education is continuing to support schools to create disciplined and safe environments. In November 2018, the department published Respectful School Communities. This was a self-review and signposting tool to support schools to develop a whole-school approach promoting respect and discipline to all their communities. This can combat bullying, harassment and prejudice of any kind. As well as this guidance and these regulations, the Department for Education is demonstrating its commitment to reducing bullying by providing over £2.8 million of funding to four anti-bullying organisations between September 2016 and March 2020. The funding will support schools across the country to tackle this important issue.
A school education is not just about academic issues. From September 2020, relationships education will be compulsory for all primary-age pupils. Relationships and sex education will be compulsory for all secondary-age pupils, and health education will be compulsory for pupils of all ages in all state-funded schools. These subjects are designed to equip children with knowledge to make informed decisions about wellbeing, health and relationships. The subjects will also prepare them for a successful adult life in modern Britain. Young people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities who attend these wellbeing-related lessons will learn how to empower themselves and ultimately reach their potential without difficult relationships or gender roles standing in their way.
I move on to health. The 2011 census for England and Wales revealed that 14% of Gypsies or Travellers described their health as bad or very bad. This was more than twice as high as the white British group. However, I am pleased to report that the Government are already making headway in this area. The new three-year contract for the Care Quality Commission’s Experts by Experience programme includes representation for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities through the national charity, Friends, Families and Travellers.
Alongside this programme, the existing health inequalities funding adjustment is being reviewed by the independent expert group that advises National Health Service England on resource allocations. The group will consider a range of issues, including how the adjustment is used to meet a range of objectives, including the issues raised by noble Lords this evening in relation to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. This work will report in 2021.
During 2019-20, National Health Service England already focused on a range of work programmes with the aim of addressing and reducing health inequalities. It worked with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller partners through the Health and Wellbeing Alliance and commissioned areas of work on improving their health needs. It also worked with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller partners to develop health inequalities learning resources which support the primary care networks to address health inequalities for all inclusion health groups.
However, it is recognised that these communities have a complex relationship with accessing services from a long history of discrimination by authorities. A lack of trust and low health expectations mean that some members of these communities do not engage with preventive health services and find it difficult to access other services. This particularly impacts women and mothers. That is why National Health Service England will implement an enhanced and targeted continuity of care model to help improve outcomes for the most vulnerable mothers and babies. Women will receive continuity of care from their midwife throughout pregnancy, labour and the postnatal period. National Health Service England has also developed a new primary care access card. This will replace the current leaflet supporting and empowering inclusion health groups to register with general practice services without facing discrimination of access to timely healthcare services.
Discrimination is experienced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people not just in relation to housing, education and healthcare access. These communities also experience hate crime, which permeates all aspects of their lives. Tackling racially motivated hate crime remains a priority for the Government. We know that 76% of reported hate crime is racially motivated. Knowing this, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is supporting a range of projects to tackle racism. As my noble friend Lord Bourne mentioned, this includes working with GATE in Hertfordshire. GATE is a community-led organisation that works with victims of hate crime within Gypsy and Traveller communities. The organisation helps to increase awareness, build confidence to report, and improve accessibility to reporting mechanisms and support. This is in line with the objectives of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government hate crime action plan, which seeks to increase reporting and improve support for victims. It also seeks to build understanding of hate crime to ensure that government, public bodies and partners can respond to it and prevent it in future.
On Roma groups specifically, which the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned so powerfully, it is important to flag that the Government want European Union citizens to stay in this country. Therefore, the Government have made it free and easy for European citizens to get UK immigration status. Ultimately, those who fail to make an application will not have lawful status in the UK. Yet the Government have always been clear that where European Union citizens have reasonable grounds for missing the deadline, an applicant will be given a further opportunity to apply. The Government’s compassionate and flexible approach will ensure that individuals who miss the deadline through no fault of their own can still get lawful status in the United Kingdom. The Home Office has funded a number of Roma organisations to cater for this hard-to-reach group and offer support in the application process, and as part of a children’s strategy, the Home Office has worked specifically with support organisations who work with Roma children and families to ensure that the barriers facing this community are prioritised.
As I emphasised at the start of this debate, the Government have committed to developing policy and a cross-government strategy to tackle inequalities. We recognise the need for this to take account of the important issues that noble Lords have highlighted. I am grateful to many noble Lords, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for focusing on the positive moves in Sheffield and the work with Roma children in schools to address language issues, and the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for reminding us of the immense achievement of Tyson Fury. I am grateful to noble Lords for bringing these important issues to Grand Committee, shining a spotlight on aspects to ensure that they get the attention that is merited. Let us hope that we can lift the inertia and take these issues forward, as my noble friend Lord Bourne suggested, with a unity of purpose.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans asked what was the Government’s view on civil injunctions on Travellers parking on land. That is a matter for the courts to rule in the individual circumstances relating to local authorities. My noble friend Lady Chisholm asked about the national GRT strategy in the 22 projects that were announced in the summer. The 22 projects are those mentioned in the government and Ofsted response to the Women and Equalities Committee report.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, asked what had happened about the analysis of the scale of students who may be missing from school. The Government have already taken significant steps to support local authorities in meeting their needs in relation to children missing education, which I covered in the main body of my speech. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked about access to healthcare, particularly to GPs, without a permanent address. NHS England and NHS Improvement have continued to deliver improvements in prevention and access to primary care medical services, which I covered most of in my speech. If I have been unable to answer anyone tonight, I will gladly respond to their questions in writing.
Committee adjourned at 7.29 pm.