House of Lords
Thursday 28 October 2021
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall say a couple of words of explanation over this morning’s list. The list of speakers for the second Oral Question has been printed under the third Oral Question. The list of speakers to be called for the third Oral Question is printed under the second Oral Question. The Lord Speaker has the correct list and will call colleagues accordingly.
Retirement of a Member: Lord Tyler
My Lords, I should like to notify the House of the retirement with effect from today of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, pursuant to Section 1 of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. On behalf of the House, I thank the noble Lord for his much-valued service to the House.
My Lords, the House is nothing if not flexible. We greatly value the contribution that migration makes to our society. People from every part of the world have chosen and continue to choose the UK as their home and build their lives here. It is an undeniable fact that immigration has enriched and continues to enrich our nation immeasurably.
I thank the Minister for her Answer. I have visited the clearly well-funded, spectacularly housed migration museums in Paris and Hamburg. New York has two migration museums. If the Government want to think about the place of global Britain in the world, the fact is that Britain has contributed huge numbers of emigrants to the rest of the world and immigrants have contributed a great deal to us. The Migration Museum currently exists in temporary headquarters here in London and relies on hand-to-mouth funding. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the Migration Museum, or arrange for another suitable Minister to meet us, to discuss how we might enhance its place and its funding?
My Lords, I am proud of the funding that this Government give to museums. I was grateful to chat with the noble Baroness yesterday, because I was not quite sure where this Question was going. The Migration Museum project received a culture recovery fund grant of £65,000 to support it through the pandemic. It has also received project funding from the Arts Council in previous years, with a £40,000 grant in 2017, £124,000 in 2019, I think, and £24,700 in 2020, which has supported education and outreach as well as other activities. On top of that, we would be hard pressed in this country to find a museum that did not in some way refer to migration as part of our cultural offer. I also find it interesting that an immigrant is asking an immigrant a Question.
My Lords, a recent survey by the Petitions Committee of more than 500 teachers found that they lack confidence when teaching about migration, which they think of as a “difficult subject”. Do the Government agree that the proposed permanent Migration Museum for Britain, which illuminates the central role that migration, both into and out of the country, has always played in our history, as the Minister said, is a really important addition to Britain’s cultural landscape and that its education programme should play a valuable role in supporting teachers in engaging with this very sensitive topic at a time when it could not matter more? Can the Government recommend this to schools?
My Lords, I find it interesting that migration is a “difficult subject” given that, it is true to say, we are nation of immigrants. On the funding of specific museums and organisations, I was lucky to be able to speak to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, yesterday. I will have to go back to my colleagues in DCMS and ask them about the noble Baroness’s question.
My Lords, while I am pleased that this museum exists in the constituency that I used to represent, I point out that the Question is about knowledge and understanding of the contribution of migrants. I hope that the Department for Education and other areas of government that promote information will continue at all times to stress the positive contribution that migrants have made to this country, including both the Minister and me, who hail from outside the UK—or our families do, to be more exact.
I thank my noble friend for that question. As he was talking, I was just thinking how one of the awful moments for the Home Office was the Windrush scandal. One of the huge contributions that was made to this country after the war was by the Windrush generation. It has come to the forefront of people’s minds in the last few years, more than ever before, how people such as those in the Windrush generation helped this country, as did the Irish.
My Lords, do the Government agree that a lack of care workers is adding pressure on to the NHS? During the passage of the immigration Bill, the Government committed to this House to review skill shortages in the adult care sector and to look at visa options and immigration policy to plug the gap. The Government have commissioned a review from the Migration Advisory Committee. Has this review started, when can we expect the results and will there be an interim report?
My Lords, I think that the work has started, but I will correct that if I am wrong. The threshold, as the noble Lord knows, was previously set at degree level jobs. Modelling by the MAC suggests that the new border RQF 3 threshold strikes a much more reasonable balance between controlling immigration and business access to labour, so that will capture some of the cohort that he talks about. On the broader point, as we have seen in a number of sectors, employers will now have to think about paying their workers a more competitive salary to attract people such as care workers to do the valuable work that they do and have been doing throughout the pandemic.
My Lords, the noble Baroness will have guessed the direction of my questions, I think. I hope that she will agree that what matters about immigration is its scale and nature. Does she agree that, despite their public focus on highly skilled immigrants, the Government have thrown open our borders to the semi-skilled from the entire world, with much lower skills requirements, lower salary requirements and no cap on numbers? As a result, about 7 million jobs are now open to worldwide competition and none of them needs to be advertised in advance. How can the noble Baroness defend this total surrender to business interests at the expense of British workers?
I have been fortunate to be able to discuss and debate the question of a cap on numbers with the noble Lord. He is absolutely right to say that our immigration scheme is now a whole-world scheme. It is up to us in time to be able to flex our policies to ensure that the people who live and work here are not being crowded out by others who might, in the words of the public, “take their jobs” and that we have a fair but controlled immigration system.
Being Welsh, we sometimes think that we are the original Britons and I welcome everyone else to our nations. I am pleased that the Minister touched on Windrush. One of the recommendations in the lessons learned was that the Home Office should teach its staff more about celebrating Britain’s long role in welcoming people to these shores. Does she therefore accept that, if we were able to get the Migration Museum going, it could be a great resource for the sort of education that could go on for the Home Office’s staff when they have to deal with these issues?
Nobody is keener than the people who work in the Home Office to learn the lessons of Windrush. I do a number of events with staff from all levels of the Home Office and it is the question that always comes up, because people are very keen to learn the lessons of Windrush. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, museums all over the country have a positive and negative slant on migration. The International Slavery Museum in my area shows the real abuse of some of the people who came to this country, willingly or unwillingly.
My Lords, four years ago we formed the Citizens of the World Choir, which is made up of mainly asylum seekers from 27 countries. Last Saturday, they sang at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, showing that when people are given the opportunity, they can grasp hold of it. Can we send a message to all the voluntary organisations that are doing magnificent work with incomers and say how much we support them and wish them well in all their endeavours?
Climate Change: Trade Policy
My Lords, the UK is committed to using its multilateral and bilateral trade policy to encourage the uptake and spread of clean technologies as a lever to remove market distortions and to help countries to adapt to the challenges and impacts of climate change in pursuit of our Paris Agreement and the 2050 net-zero target.
I welcome the Minister’s fine words, but some trade agreements seem to ignore them. For example, will we continue our membership of the 53-nation Energy Charter Treaty and the interstate dispute settlement protocol, both of which protect fossil fuel companies against measures that damage their profits and have been used to challenge environmental regulations?
My Lords, environmental policies are at the forefront of our minds when we negotiate free trade agreements and in the areas to which the noble Lord refers. But, of course, these agreements are negotiated. We push very hard for the inclusion of all the lines we want but sometimes, necessarily, there has to be a bit of give and take in these agreements.
My Lords, I am sure my noble friend will agree that many of these agreements are asymmetrical in nature—we are giving and other countries are taking. Could we look at the environmental and animal welfare chapters of the recent agreements in principle for trade deals with Australia and New Zealand? In particular, will my noble friend yet again confirm that we will not accept any agricultural or other products into this country which do not meet our high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection? Will he also tell us when flesh will be put on the bones of the environmental and animal welfare chapters of these two agreements?
My noble friend is an assiduous champion of these matters. Our ambitious trade deal with Australia includes the first substantive climate change article that Australia has included in a deal, which affirms both parties’ commitment to the Paris Agreement. Of course, our very recent agreement in principle with New Zealand goes beyond this and breaks new ground on climate change. It will include the most comprehensive environmental goods list of liberalised tariffs in an FTA to date and precedent-setting commitments on coal and fossil fuels. I look forward to debating these matters further with your Lordships’ House when the full texts of these agreements are available.
My Lords, we welcome the fact that the Government have added trade and shipping to the reporting of UK emissions. They represent about 50% of all UK emissions. The Minister will be well aware that the UK is heavily reliant on trans-shipment—that is, shipments that come to the UK primarily via European ports. The European Commission is planning an extension of the Emissions Trading System to include ports and shipping. Does the Minister agree that it makes no sense for the UK to have a wholly separate scheme and that there are mechanisms within the UK-EU TCA to open up discussions for a pan-European trading scheme for emissions for shipping and ports? There is a way—is there a will?
My Lords, the shipping industry is of course very important to the United Kingdom. I am sure noble Lords have noted that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of Exchequer gave some relief to the shipping industry yesterday in terms of tonnage tax. If I may, I will follow up in a letter the particular points the noble Lord has raised this morning.
The Australian Government specifically exclude farmers from any climate change responsibilities and the New Zealand Government have a different system for them, but we are going to ask our farmers to meet very considerable responsibilities on climate change. How on earth can the Government allow goods to come into this country to compete with our farmers and expect our farmers to meet the high standards that we are going to demand?
My Lords, I am happy to repeat again from this Dispatch Box our commitment to maintaining very high standards of animal welfare, and of course food safety, in relation to free trade agreements. I do not fully agree with the points the noble Lord makes. We do seek to secure these points in free trade agreements, as I said earlier, and we are absolutely committed to upholding the UK’s high environmental standards when we negotiate our free trade agreements.
Many countries are moving forward with proposals for carbon border taxes to address the emissions caused by their imports. The Government have said precious little about this. As COP approaches, does the Minister agree that the UK needs to show leadership in these proposals, not least as the UK has the highest rate of imported carbon in the G7? What proposals are the Government bringing forward?
My Lords, as we transition to net zero, of course the UK recognises the importance of addressing the risk of carbon leakage to ensure that our ambitious policy of decarbonisation is not undermined. We have ambitious carbon pricing through our emissions trading schemes, and we have committed to review this to ensure that it is consistent with our net-zero pathway and carbon priceable mechanisms.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that as the UK has decarbonised its domestic economy, we have dramatically increased our trade-embedded emissions from under 12% in 1990 to over 42% today? The Net Zero Review blandly states that a case for conducting a formal call for evidence into a carbon border adjustment mechanism “may emerge”. Do these figures not demonstrate that the case is clear, compelling and should be acted on now?
My Lords, internationally, we believe that the first step is to use climate diplomacy to encourage our trading partners to ambitiously mitigate climate change in co-ordination with each other for this very reason: to reduce the leakage risk across economies. But the noble Lord makes a point, and we will also consider of course the full range of options to address the risk of carbon leakage, including by seeking opportunities at the relevant international level.
Being endlessly flexible and trying to help out the Government, I was prepared to do either Question; I would just like to register that. But on the question of trade, it is clear from yesterday’s climate-unfriendly Budget that this Government have no climate change ambitions for trade. They are absolutely ignorant about what they need to do. Would the Minister agree?
My Lords, I think the noble Baroness is uncharacteristically rather unfair on this matter. I am prepared to repeat again that we are committed to upholding the UK’s high environmental standards. I do not agree with her about the Budget given in the other place by my right honourable friend yesterday. I repeat again: we will continue to pursue the whole range of mechanisms available to us to achieve our ambitions for net zero.
My Lords, I really must return to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and the noble Lord, Lord Deben. As a former Defra Minister, I know that it is quite easy to offend both the agricultural interests and the environmental lobby—but not usually at the same time. The Australia and New Zealand agreements are both adamantly concerned with the future path of trade with those countries. I am more concerned that the process that was promised to this House during the passage of the then Agriculture Bill was not operated during the negotiations of the agreements in principle with Australia and New Zealand—and that, I think, is a dereliction of duty by Ministers.
My Lords, if the noble Lord is referring to the establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission, that commission has now been set up in shadow form. It will fulfil the statutory duties which it would fulfil if it were on a statutory basis. As I have explained to the House previously, it is a technical matter that it is on a non-statutory basis. This is to allow some allowances to be paid to its members, which was not allowed for in the Trade Act. As soon as we are able to put it on to a statutory footing, we will of course do so. In the meantime, as I have said previously from this Dispatch Box, we will engage with that commission to make sure that its views, advice and recommendations feed fully into our trade policy considerations.
My Lords, given the UK trade policy of levelling the playing field to prevent unfair competitive advantages and our climate change ambition to encourage global cooling, thus heralding an outstandingly good ski season in the Alps, can my noble friend the Minister update the House on progress being made during the negotiations between the UK and European Alpine nations to allow the qualifications of UK ski instructors, mountain guides and related professionals to be granted recognition in EU member states—an area in which I know my noble friend the Minister has already done much excellent work?
My Lords, my noble friend is assiduous in raising this important matter with the House. I dare say that, as the weather gets colder, we may hear more from him on this topic. We are in regular touch with the British Association of Snowsport Instructors, British Mountain Guides and GB Snowsport over this. It is a complicated matter. We have now established a recognition arrangements team in BEIS to provide advice, expertise and support to these bodies. My hope is that, with continued negotiation with European counterparts, at some point we will be able to reach a satisfactory solution to this matter.
My Lords, the latest police officer uplift statistics, published yesterday, show that police forces in England and Wales recruited a total of 17,872 officers between April 2020 and September of this year. There are now 139,908 officers in total, of which 11,053 can be attributed to the Government’s police uplift pledge. The most recently published data shows that forces recruited 1,198 police community support officers between April 2020 and March 2021.
I know the Minister will join me in congratulating the police and services across England and Wales on what is a very impressive recruitment programme, taking us back to the figures we had in 2010. However, given the incidents that have occurred recently, including the committal of a serving officer to custody on the accusation of rape yesterday, what guidance is now being given to forces on the vetting of those they are recruiting, the monitoring of those under training and access to social media accounts in order to protect the public from those who should be protecting them in the first place?
The noble Lord is absolutely right to ask that question, which has already been raised this week. New recruits are subject to a rigorous vetting and assessment process to assess suitability for the role of police officer, including testing against core behaviours and values. The College of Policing sets the standard through the vetting statutory code of practice. We utterly recognise some of the anxieties around vetting and have commissioned HMICFRS to carry out an urgent thematic inspection of force vetting arrangements, which will help to identify any areas to address.
My Lords, two weeks ago, Policy Exchange criticised the Metropolitan Police for its “unusual and unjustified strategy” of using stop and search in the face of the spike in knife crime. Compared with other metropolitan forces, such as Merseyside, it had the highest rate of stop and search and the lowest rate for apprehending drug dealers. Crucially, the Met also had the second lowest rate of officers involved in neighbourhood policing. Police community support officers form the backbone of community policing, playing a vital role in building trust and confidence and securing community intelligence, which is vital in fighting knife crime, but since 2010 their numbers have been decimated. What plans do the Government have to recruit more PCSOs, particularly in London? They have mandated recruitment of police officers; why not PCSOs?
In general terms, PCSOs will be recruited according to local need. The noble Lord is absolutely right that they are a very valuable resource for policing. They are very good at community engagement and deliver more than just that visible police presence. Prevention, problem solving and safeguarding the vulnerable remain key and PCSOs are most definitely at the forefront of this.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Blunkett highlighted the fact that this welcome uplift will bring police numbers nearly back to the level they were at before this Government cut them. We all welcome a sinner that repenteth, but is it right to gloat about such a repentance? Could the Minister also acknowledge that, for a police officer to be effective, they need the appropriate support structures and staffing, including not only PCSOs, as has just been mentioned, but forensics and all the other support services? None of that is covered in this uplift. What the Government are doing is recruiting police officers without the support structures they need. Will the Government remedy that?
I agree with the noble Lord on an awful lot, but I disagree with the term “gloat”. I do not think we have been gloating about it at all. This House has talked frequently about the need to increase police numbers. In light of the changing patterns of crime, we have done just that, in line with what the public want.
My Lords, I have good reason to be grateful to Gloucestershire Police, who helped me in January 2000 after the attack in my constituency office in which my assistant Andrew Pennington died. Is the Minister as concerned as I am to note yesterday’s report that Gloucestershire Constabulary has been graded inadequate in five out of 10 key performance indicators in a recent inspection, including safeguarding vulnerable victims? The chief constable says it is now undergoing a massive recruitment drive and the commissioner says he cannot guarantee he will be able to deliver on his election promises. Why have the Government left Gloucestershire with an inadequate number of police personnel?
My Lords, the police uplift programme—I gave the figures in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett—will enable the police to tackle crime in their areas. I understand the noble Lord’s concern over the report, but I am sure an action plan for improvement will be in place, and the numbers of new recruits should certainly help across the country in reducing crime and keeping the public safe.
I come back to the question raised by my noble friend Lord Blunkett. Am I to infer from the answer given that, despite recent abhorrent events and disclosures, no actual changes have yet been made in the vetting and monitoring process for new recruits to the police service? If I am wrong in saying that, could the Minister spell out what changes have already been made to this process?
My Lords, I outlined the scope of the inquiry and the two parts that the Home Secretary has announced. Part one will look at the vetting procedures to see if they are inadequate in light of what happened to Sarah Everard and how her killer managed to do what he did. The inquiry will look at precisely that.
My Lords, I worry that the recent policing scandals to which my noble friends Lord Blunkett and Lord Rosser referred have undermined the recruitment of women police officers and black police officers in particular. Because of that worry, I ask the Minister if her breakdown of the recruitment figures bears that out. Whether it does or not, will the Government now consider legislating for affirmative action to allow the recruitment of more black and female officers in particular, as requested by many chiefs in previous years?
My Lords, there is good news here. As of this September, there were 47,425 female officers in post, accounting for 33.9% of all officers. That is a big increase. On the same date, there were 10,690 officers who identified as belonging to the BME community. This is the highest level on record. I can understand the context of the noble Baroness’s question and why the figures might be different from what she would have expected, but I think this is really good news.
We have provided £5.1 billion to remediate cladding in high-rise residential buildings, targeting funding at buildings we know to be at greatest risk of fire spread.
Despite the Minister trying to blind us again with statistics, the hard fact is that thousands of leaseholders are living in limbo, suffering anxiety and in despair. Some are even being held to ransom; they are being asked to sign a commitment to pay many tens of thousands of pounds for the remediation of building safety defects that are exposed when cladding is removed. No cladding work is done until they sign that bit of paper. Leaseholders are being held to ransom; they cannot move and they cannot get anything done. Surely the Minister will agree with me that this cannot be right. What is he going to do about it?
My Lords, I mentioned only one statistic; I do not think that one statistic or one figure—£5.1 billion—is blinding anybody. I point to the progress: despite a pandemic, the ACM funding of some £600 million has seen around 16,500 homes being fully remediated. That is an increase of 4,700 since the end of last year. The new building safety fund, topped up so that the total remediation amounts to £5 billion, is estimated to cover around 65,000 homes in high-rise blocks. So there are many tens of thousands of leaseholders who are benefiting from government funding.
Can the Minister update the House on the progress of the capped low-interest scheme for buildings with defective cladding under 18 metres? Can he clarify whether a pilot scheme will, as previously hoped, be functional by the end of the year?
My Lords, we have not made any further announcements about the details of the way we want to support leaseholders in medium-rise blocks. The new Secretary of State is looking very closely at how we can best protect leaseholders in these buildings from unaffordable costs. In the vast number of buildings, there is no need for wholesale, expensive remediation, as the recent expert committee, led by Dame Judith Hackitt, pointed out.
My Lords, last week the Minister said that details of the residential property developer tax would be announced yesterday, and that the figure he had given—the receipt of £2 billion over 10 years—was the absolute minimum. Yesterday, the Chancellor announced a rate of tax, but I am unaware that he gave an estimate of how much money would be raised. Could the Minister say what the Government’s current estimate is of the amount that that tax will raise? Secondly, the Chancellor said yesterday that the tax will be used to fund the £5.1 billion of which the Minister is so proud. Is it really the case that this tax will not benefit a single additional leaseholder?
My Lords, we recognise the need to get those who contributed greatly to the crisis that we find ourselves in to make a contribution. This is just one of the ways we are doing this. It was announced that the residential property developer tax would be levied on developers with profits over £25 million, at a rate of 4%. The estimates from the Treasury are that that will bring in at least £2 billion. That is the commitment over 10 years. We also have the gateway 2 levy, which will raise funding as well. This will also contribute towards the situation that leaseholders find themselves in.
The principal difficulty with this cladding issue is cost. Why do the Government not take the most obvious step, and pursue the French company that manufactured the faulty cladding in the first place? It is a company that seems to be burying its head in the sands of Paris.
My Lords, there is no doubt that a number of groups, beyond developers, have contributed to the cladding crisis, not least the construction product manufacturers—the noble Lord mentioned the French manufacturer—and many other professionals who did not build these building to the standard of building regulations at the time. We are looking, with fresh eyes, at how we can hold them to account.
My Lords, I refer to my interest as laid down in the register. We have, on a daily basis, yet more distressing personal experience from the fallout of the cladding scandal—I am sure all of us would agree. We have heard quite a lot about numbers today but, if I could go back, the Government’s announcement of £5.1 billion in yesterday’s Budget to deal with the cladding scandal was simply a re-announcing of policy, as the Minister suggested. An additional £2 billion is estimated to come from the developer tax, but would the Minister agree that this is only a drop in the ocean, given the estimates I have heard that this could cost up to £50 billion? Why are the Government not doing more to insist that innocent leaseholders should not be left with the bill?
The Government are looking carefully at the prevalence of buildings that require substantial remediation of cladding which causes the spread of fire, but the £5.1 billion is not the only measure that the Government are taking. It should be noted that the Building Safety Bill introduces new measures that will legally require building owners to prove that they have tried all routes to cover costs. If this does not happen, leaseholders will be able to challenge these costs in the courts. We are also extending the Defective Premises Act from six years to 15 years retrospectively. These are all measures designed to help protect leaseholders.
Minister, the £5 billion is welcome, to rectify this terrible problem, but the actual bill is £15 billion. I think that, when Ministers announce money, they should announce the full picture. The Minister states that the Building Safety Bill will address the protection of leaseholders from paying costs to make their buildings safe, but the Bill fails to do that—it does not say that that will happen. In the light of the Budget yesterday, is the Minister in favour of another museum in Liverpool for The Beatles, is he in favour of cheaper champagne for all, or is he in favour of safer homes for everybody? I think I know which side of the argument this side of the House sits on.
Conduct Committee Report
Motion to Agree
My Lords, I am moving the fifth report of the Conduct Committee on behalf of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance. I should explain that I am moving the report because the noble and learned Lord could potentially be affected by one of the proposals contained in it, on registration of foreign interests. He similarly recused himself from the committee’s consideration of this issue.
I want to emphasise at the outset that all the members of the committee appreciate that we have asked the House to make many changes to the rules on conduct since we were first appointed. If the relatively modest proposals contained in this report are approved today, we will have dealt with our top priorities.
The main part of the report proposes the first major update to the code of conduct for House of Lords’ Members’ staff since it was introduced in 2014 by a predecessor committee. The access given to such staff brings significant privileges, and it is important for our democracy that their outside interests are transparent for all to see. This report therefore proposes to clarify and broaden the categories of interest that staff must register to cover; for example, directorships or outside paid work, and certain non-financial interests.
The report also seeks to extend to Members’ staff the provisions on paid parliamentary advice and services and on external investigations and imprisonment, which already apply to Members of the House. Finally, it aims to improve the enforcement provisions to make them clearer and more comprehensive.
The second part of the report proposes two changes to the Guide to the Code of Conduct for Members. The first proposed change is very minor. It concerns the new provision on registering work for foreign Governments and government-controlled entities. When I moved the second report implementing the provisions on 20 April, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, raised the question of Members who had started arbitrations before the House first introduced the new rules and who would not complete them by the time the grace period expires on 31 December this year. He said that they could be faced with the choice of having to take leave of absence or withdrawing from the arbitration, potentially causing it to collapse. I promised then that the committee would keep the matter under review, and we have done so.
It is clear to us that a small number of Members—not just lawyers—could face the type of dilemma outlined by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. The report therefore proposes that Members in this position should be able to seek from the registrar case-by-case extensions to the grace period. They would need to satisfy four tightly drawn conditions for such an extension to be granted, which are set out in paragraph 21 of the report, on page 5. This temporary provision does not require a change to the code or guide.
Finally, the report seeks to rectify an anomaly in the existing processes for investigating alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct. We propose that Members under investigation should in future be shown the commissioner’s draft account of the facts and their draft findings at the same time rather than in two stages as at present. This will not in any way reduce a Member’s opportunity to challenge the commissioner’s draft report. Instead, it will benefit all parties, including Members of the House, by simplifying and reducing the length of investigations.
In conclusion, the Conduct Committee has delivered what we believe is a coherent set of rules which will provide clarity for Members of the House while commanding the confidence of the public whom we all serve. We cannot guarantee that changes will not be needed in future; we are all at the mercy of events. However, we will try to ensure that if changes are required, the House considers them once or twice a year to provide as much stability in the rules as possible. I beg to move.
Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 25 October.
“The Government worked at pace to facilitate the largest and most complex evacuation in living memory, assisting the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to help more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan to safety in the United Kingdom. A huge programme of work is now under way across government to ensure Afghans brought to the United Kingdom receive a warm welcome and the vital support they need to build bright futures in our country. That work spans across government, charities, other organisations, local authorities and communities. The aim is to give Afghans arriving here the best possible start to life in the United Kingdom, while also making sure that local services can work effectively to support people.
On 13 September, I made a Statement, and the Home Office published a comprehensive policy statement, confirming that the Government have committed to take around 5,000 people in the first year and a total of up to 20,000 people over the coming years under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. The Statement also set out who would be eligible and who would be prioritised, and how we will work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other organisations to ensure the ACRS provides a safe route for vulnerable people at risk. While we appreciate the need to act quickly, it is also important that we do this properly and ensure that any scheme meets the needs of those it is being set up to support.
Our work to support Afghan citizens has not paused while the resettlement scheme is being developed. The Home Office is continuing to work with partners across government, including in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, given that many of those requiring support are in fact British nationals, to provide permanent housing for the thousands already relocated here. Some of the people evacuated will form the first part of the 5,000 people being resettled.
I am pleased to tell the House that over 200 councils have agreed to house those who have been evacuated. I am extremely grateful for that and, as always, I continue to encourage councils that have not felt able to make offers or those that can perhaps offer more places of housing to do so. This is a national effort. We are all determined to give Afghan people a warm welcomein this country, and I look forward to working with colleagues across the House to achieve this.”
The Government had 18 months to prepare for withdrawal but clearly did not. It is over two months since the Afghan citizens settlement scheme was announced but it has still not been opened, yet the lives of those left behind in Afghanistan are at stake.
The Government’s Statement says that some of the people already evacuated will form the first part of the 5,000 people being resettled under the resettlement scheme. How many of the 5,000 places in the first year have in reality already been filled by people already in this country? What is the exact financial package that councils housing those evacuated will definitely receive, and when?
Finally, the Commons Minister said that approximately 11,000 people were still in bridging hotels and agreed that actions to target them by far-right extremists were unlawful and illegal. How many arrests have been made of those targeting Afghan refugees in bridging hotels?
My Lords, it is fair to say that the Government worked at pace. In particular, there were officials in the Home Office who worked almost day and night to facilitate the largest and most complex evacuation in living memory. They were assisting the Ministry of Defence and the FCDO to help more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan to safety in the UK.
Currently, a huge programme of work is under way across government to ensure that Afghans brought to the United Kingdom receive a warm welcome and the vital support that they need to build brighter futures in our country. That work spans across government, charities, other organisations, local authorities—as the noble Lord pointed out—and communities. The aim is to give Afghans arriving here the best possible start to life in the UK while making sure, as the noble Lord said, that local services can work effectively to support people.
On the local authority effort, we have had over 200 pledges from local authorities and have housed over 1,700 individuals. I can clarify that that is under ARAP.
On local authority funding, councils that support people through the ACRS, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, or the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, or ARAP, will receive £20,520 per person over three years for resettlement and integration costs. Local councils and health partners that resettle families will also receive up to £4,500 per child for education, £850 to cover English language provision for adults requiring this support, and £2,600 to cover healthcare. A further £20 million-worth of flexible funding will be made available to support local authorities that have higher cost bases with any additional costs in the provision of services. In addition, the previously announced Afghan housing costs fund will increase from £5 million to £17 million and will run for two extra years to help local authorities to provide housing and to give certainty that funding will be available in future.
The funding and support will be modelled on the VPRS, or vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which resettled over 20,000 refugees who fled conflict in Syria over a seven-year period from 2014 to this year.
My Lords, there is absolutely no doubt that we owe Afghan interpreters and their families a great debt. Can the Minister estimate how many Afghan interpreters in the UK are still without permanent accommodation, and do we have any intelligence as to the numbers of interpreters still remaining in Afghanistan who are hoping to come to the UK?
As I said, 1,700 individuals, mostly from Operation Pitting, have moved into permanent local authority housing. Two hundred local authorities have pledged to support families, with a further 6,000 places in accommodation pledged. We are also seeing people matched with jobs, with over 200 of the cohort having been offered employment. The other thing I am keen to see, because it is very helpful in promoting integration, is community sponsorship; 120 community sponsorship schemes are already in place, and I would like to see that expanded.
On the specific question of interpreters placed, I will not give the noble Baroness a figure today because I do not have it—or, if I have it, I cannot see it in my notes. However, I will get her that exact figure.
Some contractors are eligible, and many have indeed come under ARAP. We are in the process of updating ARAP guidance now that the evacuation effort is over. Under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which is now the ACRS, without going into the detail of each case, people may well come under that scheme or under general immigration routes if their employment and qualifications allow.
My Lords, none of us will forget the moving and memorable statement of the Secretary of State for Defence during that dreadful period in August when he said, “They will not all get out.” What is the current estimate of those who have not got out—including, of course, the interpreters mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly? This was a shameful incident, and we need to know.
It is very difficult to give a figure for those who have not got out. I have given the figure for those who have got out—15,000—but it is difficult to know how many have not. Anybody contacted—and many people have contacted me—is signposted to GOV.UK to check the latest information on resettlement schemes. It is very difficult. There are people in your Lordships’ House who are desperately worried about family, friends and colleagues.
My Lords, a five year-old boy whose family had fled the Taliban, Mohammed Munib Majeedi, fell to his death from a hotel in Sheffield last year. The Metropolitan hotel in Sheffield had been condemned only a few months earlier by the Home Office as “unsafe and unsuitable” for refugees to stay. Why, therefore, did the Home Office allow this family to stay in such a hotel?
My Lords, the noble Lord highlights a terrible event in Sheffield. We need to ensure, first, that the quality of accommodation is of a standard and we avoid such terrible incidents, and, secondly, that we ensure that we get people into permanent accommodation.
My Lords, do the Government really not know how many interpreters we had in Afghanistan? That seems extraordinary. They must have been paid by the British Government or others on their behalf. Surely the Minister can find out, if she is unable to tell us today, how many we had.
Health Incentives Scheme
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Friday 22 October.
“Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to give a Statement on our mission to help people live healthier lives. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed so many vulnerabilities in our nation’s health and highlighted stark inequalities that we must work hard to put right. As a Government, we want to do everything in our power to tackle these disparities and to help people live in better health for longer.
We know that regular physical activity and a healthy diet are strongly linked to a higher life expectancy and a lower incidence of many chronic conditions. However, two-thirds of adults in England are currently living with excess weight or obesity, and obesity-related illnesses cost the NHS £6 billion a year. Not only this, but obesity is more prevalent among the most deprived areas, so a vital part of our mission to level up across the nation must be to level up the nation’s health and give everyone the tools and support they need to make a positive change to their daily lives.
Earlier this year, we announced £100 million of funding to help those living with obesity move towards a healthier weight, and this month, we have launched our Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, which has a relentless focus on prevention and tackling health disparities across the UK. Obesity policies cannot just be about sticks; we must also reward healthy behaviours. Today, I would like to update the House on the next step in our plans—our new health incentives scheme. The evidence shows that incentives can have an important role in improving rates of physical activity and encouraging healthier eating. For example, in Singapore, its national steps challenge has shown promising results, so we have been looking at what we can do here at home to encourage people to take the little steps that can make a difference and also to pursue a more personalised and data-driven approach to public health.
In England from next year, we will be piloting a new scheme to help people make positive changes to their diet, called Fit Miles. The six-month pilot will see users wearing wrist-worn devices to generate personalised health recommendations, such as boosting their step count, eating more fruit and vegetables, and lowering the size of portions. Users can collect points for making these healthy changes that will unlock rewards, which could include vouchers, discounts and gift cards. We will be making £3 million of government funding available for these rewards, and we will be releasing more information on the location of the pilot and how residents can take part in due course.
The app will be available to all adults within our pilot area but will have a particular focus on those who are not physically active and have poor diets, as well as traditionally underserved groups—for example, those in areas of high deprivation. I would like to reassure honourable Members that the app will have the strongest standards of privacy and security and we will make sure personal information is always kept safe. This ground-breaking new pilot offers a brilliant opportunity to explore how best to inspire people to make positive changes to their daily lives and it is a fantastic example of how government, business and the third sector can work together to make a difference.
I would like to thank HeadUp Systems for providing its international expertise in data science and health technology, and Sir Keith Mills, who has been advising the Government on how we can best make use of these incentives. We have been able to bring to bear his vast experience of working on reward programmes such as Air Miles and Nectar points, and I would like to thank him for his invaluable support.
There is no greater gift than the gift of good health and we are determined to make sure that people across the country can live in better health for longer. If we get this right, it will be good for our NHS, good for our economy and good for our society. This is a mission that the whole House can get behind and today’s important announcement is a great step forward for all of us. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for answering questions on the Statement, which was first made on Friday, before the Government began press releasing new—and some not so new—spending commitments, and eventually published their full Budget yesterday. I must admit to having been somewhat bemused when I read this Statement. It felt like being taken on something of a gentle canter around the issues. To put it mildly, it is more than unusual to see the announcement of an app and wrist-worn devices making the grade for the substance of a parliamentary Statement presented to both Houses.
I make this point because it is important to say that, on any measure, the Government have decimated the budgets necessary to tackle the underlying causes of poor health and the inequalities that arise from and contribute to its incidence and effects. As we know, poor health has many costs—social, economic and personal—and I regret that the Statement is a fig leaf for inaction. Although the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have acknowledged that stark health disparities exist, the Government repeatedly fail to face the target, let alone hit it.
The pandemic has highlighted just how important it is to have a healthy and resilient nation. Preventing and treating disease is vital for reducing further unnecessary deaths from disease and lessening the burden on the NHS as it contends with the enormous backlog in healthcare caused by the pandemic. However, the Budget presented contradictions, as funding will be mostly focused on a curative rather than preventive approach, which would have prevented obesity and non-communicable diseases happening in the first place. Public health experts and practitioners alike agree that investment in the prevention of disease could make the single biggest difference to the nation’s resilience and health, so can the Minister explain the reason for this omission from the Budget? Does he agree that failure to invest in public health will harm the Government’s levelling-up agenda?
Specifically, we were disappointed not to see any further public health funding in the Budget to allow local authorities to deliver key prevention services, such as smoking cessation and weight management. It is well documented that locally provided public health services are highly effective and cost effective. Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House why this was ignored?
We on these Benches have campaigned for many years against this Government’s short-sighted cuts to public health funding. A reduction in spending of a quarter in this area has led to growing obesity in our population, loss of smoking cessation services, a ticking time bomb of poor sexual health, and overburdened drugs and alcohol services. Of course, any savings made by those cuts has been hoovered up by the impact on the rest of the health service.
Obesity is at a crisis level in this country. Two-thirds of adults are above a healthy weight; half are obese. A new IPPR report says that multiple disadvantages were “conspiring” to drive down health outcomes and prevent life expectancy from growing across parts of England. Hundreds of thousands of children in England are growing up overweight or obese because of widening health disparities across the country. Their excess weight means that they will face a higher risk of serious conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease or cancer, later in life. The IPPR analysis found that as many as one in 12 cases could be avoided if health outcomes in the worst parts of England were improved to match the best. This does not make pretty reading.
We are of course not going to argue against measures that attempt to help the public improve their health, but like the obesity strategy that precedes it, the latest pilot announced in the Statement is tinkering around the edges. We need to acknowledge that tackling obesity is about tackling poverty. People in the poorest communities are twice as likely to be obese as those in the best off. This scheme is about encouraging people to make healthy choices, but the cost of living crisis will make that even harder for too many people. How is someone supposed to make healthy choices if they simply cannot afford to?
According to a report by Broken Plate, the poorest fifth of UK households would need to spend 40% of their disposable income on food to meet Eatwell Guide costs, as opposed to just 7% for the richest fifth. Therefore, if poverty limits someone’s food choices, their exercise choices and their time, can the Minister tell the House why this does not feature in the heart of the Government’s plan to tackle this scourge?
Whatever this pilot achieves, and whatever their obesity strategy achieves, it will be completely undermined by the £20 a week cut to universal credit, which, despite yesterday’s announcement, will push millions on to cheaper, less healthy alternatives. Can the Minister tell the House what will happen to the health of adults and our children? Will those who are invited to join this pilot come from the communities that will benefit most? They are the people who have suffered most from the cuts to public health. Will the Minister commit that this scheme and the obesity strategy will be followed by the restoration of moneys cut from the public health grant?
My Lords, from these Benches I thank the Minister for coming to answer questions on the Statement. These Benches welcome anything, including innovation, that targets the poor health and loss of life years that obesity brings. However, this is really the emperor’s new clothes, because it has to be set in the wider context of the detriment of poor health, public health budgets and poverty. Public health budgets have been decimated, so that many issues connected to the determinants of health cannot be dealt with. Low pay has become the norm for so many in our country. School budgets for extra activities, such as physical activity, and timetabling have caused problems, and food and drinks industry standards also have to be addressed. Tackling obesity is about tackling the lack of opportunity and tackling poverty. Innovation with a wristband is like asking somebody to learn the Green Cross Code they have a motorway to get across. It is not going to be successful.
As a country, we have to start early: we have the second-largest child obesity problem in the whole of Europe. So what are the Government doing to ensure that daily sport as an activity is available in every state school, so that every child has some daily activity? What is the Government’s response to the report by the Association for Physical Education with regard to children’s health and, in particular, with regard to swimming?
Diet at home and in school is important. The Jamie Oliver Foundation Bite Back report basically found that healthy options in schools were more expensive. What are the Government doing to ensure that fresh, healthy food is available at an affordable price in every school in the country? How are the pilots being chosen? The correct areas are the areas of deprivation, because that is where the highest incidences of obesity are. What are the criteria? How are they being selected? How are areas being offered the chance to become part of the pilot? This must be seen as a healthy eating and exercise approach, and not a weight-loss problem. There are far too many citizens in our country who suffer with eating disorder issues. So what are the Government doing to ensure that it is this framework of healthy eating and healthy lifestyles, rather than being seen purely as weight loss?
With regard to the wristband and the data, who will have access to the data? Where will it be stored? What precisely will the data be used for? Will any private sector organisation have access to the data and its interpretation, and, if so, what conditions are in place to ensure that we do not have the problem that we had with DeepMind, where it was used for purposes over and above what was anticipated?
Finally, talking of the private sector, HeadUp Systems is noted in the Statement. This is a company that has a £30,000 turnover and made an £11,000 loss last year. So how, and on what criteria, was HeadUp Systems chosen? What role will it have? Which other private sector organisations were asked to provide the support that HeadUp Systems is doing? What Ministers or officials did members of HeadUp Systems approach or have access to? If there is a contract, what is its value and on what basis was it given to HeadUp Systems?
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their questions. This is a good story in terms of how we tackle health in the modern day. The noble Baroness mentioned the IPPR. I am not sure how well the name “Tony Blair” goes down on the Benches opposite these days—
I am pleased to hear that, because the Tony Blair Institute has actually recommended more of these schemes using wearable tech to ensure that we have a healthier population. So this is not politically motivated in any way; it is led by a desire to do the right thing, and to learn lessons from previous schemes about what works and what does not work. One problem, as many noble Lords have said in the past, is that some of these schemes have not worked. We need to make sure that we have evidence, and that anything that we roll out is evidence-based. On that basis, it is absolutely right that we pilot a scheme rather than do a one-size-fits-all scheme, only to find where the errors are.
Also, as Hayek has said, we have limited knowledge. Some people express the conceit of knowledge and think they know everything, and sometimes—in economics and in politics—quite often we become aware of consequences, both intended and unintended. It is important that, when piloting a scheme such as this, we are able to identify potential unintended consequences that would not have been foreseen. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, can already predict the outcome and has infinite knowledge, but what is really important is that we see what works and what does not work, rather than predicting in advance that something will fail—and I acknowledge that the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, was asking a question, as he is entitled to do.
I will try to answer a few of the specific questions. One of the things that we are seeing is that obesity is costing our health service and healthcare system more than £6 billion a year. Clearly, schemes have been attempted in the past, and some have worked and some have not. We looked around the world to see what we could learn from the rest of the world. In particular, we looked at the Singapore health challenge, and also the Amsterdam programme, to see what we could learn. One of the things that I noticed when I worked on projects in the past in one particular area was that, just because they worked in one area, it did not mean that they would necessarily work in another area. We have to understand the local factors that might make a project a success or not.
In addition, it is really important that we do tackle disparities, and I am very pleased that many noble Lords have brought up the issue of disparities. We now have the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities: the clue is in the title. “Disparities” means that we want to identify these disparities—all sorts of disparities: sometimes they are gender disparities; sometimes they are based on ethnic minorities; and sometimes within communities there are different disparities. It is always far more complex than we can predict in advance. One of the best ways of tackling things is to look at pilot schemes.
Let me see if I can now answer some of the specific questions. This is based on understanding what incentives people respond to. Many noble Lords will have read of schemes in the past that simply have not worked. We need to work out what works with certain communities and certain demographics. One of the bits of academic research that has been found to be quite helpful is that, quite often, people from lower-paid communities respond better to price incentives or reward systems, and we are going to put that to the test. We are not saying that this is definitely the case: we are saying that we are going to pilot this to see if what we think is going to happen will happen—and, if it does not happen, why does it not happen and what can we learn from that in the future?
The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, asks what assessment the department has made of the changes in the level of the public health budget. Public Health England has monitored and published data on trends, with a wide range of indicators of public health, set out in the Public Health Outcomes Framework. That function has now transferred to the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, which shows the fact that we want to identify those disparities and see how we can tackle them.
The ring-fenced grant that we have provided to local authorities to spend on public health services comes with a condition that they consider the need to reduce health inequalities in their areas. The grant’s distribution is heavily weighted towards areas facing the greatest population health challenges. Per capita grant funding for the most deprived decile of local authorities is nearly 2.5 times greater than that for the least deprived.
What is the breakdown, as we go over this? The publicly available information will contain the contract value, inclusive of £3 million to be spent on rewards for participants. The budget will be managed through standard contract procedures and there will be provisions in place to prevent overspend.
I shall go over the timescales. There was open procurement for the pilot, which closed on 16 August. The contract was awarded and unsuccessful bidders notified on 27 September. The pilot mobilisation period that we are looking at is 11 October to 31 December. The press release announcing the pilot provider was issued on 22 October. The pilot launches in January 2022 and closes in June 2022 with an evaluation report. That is critical. We want this to be evidence led; it is about time that we pushed for more evidence-led research. Before I came here, I had read reports from think tanks that had analysed government programmes, only to find that the evidence always backed it up. We want to make sure that this process is clearly evidence led and also to be aware of unintended consequences.
In terms of whether people can afford to eat a healthy diet, the Eatwell Guide represents government recommendations on a healthy, balanced diet to promote long-term health at the population level. Analysis by Scarborough et al in 2016—I shall not give a Harvard reference here—of the cost of achieving a diet in line with the Eatwell Guide concluded that in some cases it was 3p cheaper than the current diet.
In terms of audience and location, the pilot will target adults over the age of 18 in a chosen local authority. The approach will be tested to ensure that it combines wide appeal across the adult population with an ability to engage those who could get the most benefit from adopting healthier behaviours for physical activity and diet, such as those not meeting recommended guidelines. The pilot will take place in one local authority in England where there is a high proportion of our target groups. I hope that the information will become available publicly, or I will be able to update the House. We will be releasing further information in due course on the pilot location and on how residents can sign up to take part in the work. The scheme will be for England only but we will continue to work across the devolved nations to learn shared best practice. One of the things that we need to do is to make sure that we learn from what works well and what has not worked so well.
How will we safeguard data and privacy? I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, will have recognised that I come to this post as a bit of civil libertarian, and perhaps civil liberties is one of the few things that we agree on. All data will be collected, stored, shared and used in alignment with all applicable law regarding the processing of personal private data and security standards, including the UK Data Protection Act and the UK General Data Protection Regulation. Full data collection and processing requirements will be shared with potential pilot users as part of the sign-up process. Consent to take part in the pilot is, I stress, voluntary. The Department of Health and Social Care is the data controller for the pilot, with HeadUp Systems as a limited data processor that collects data on the department’s behalf.
The noble Lord asked about the supplier. We contacted HeadUp Systems to deliver the pilot, and it has partnered with a number of organisations to deliver the requirements, including the Behavioural Insights Team. The advice of Sir Keith Mills who successfully launched and ran the Air Miles and Nectar programmes has also been sought. We are therefore trying to work with the best experts out there, including the Behavioural Insights Team, to bring knowledge and expertise on behavioural economics. I am sure that many noble Lords have read many interesting works on behavioural economics over the years. If the pilot does not work, we will work out why and how we can improve the scheme to make sure.
Given that obesity costs this country over £6 billion a year, surely it is worth a little investment, experimentation and discovery to see if we can make sure that we nudge our citizens, wherever they come from, whatever their background, towards healthier living.
My Lords, perhaps I may first apologise to the Opposition Front Bench for my confusing an Urgent Question with an Oral Statement. I thought that we had only 10 minutes for all of us.
My reaction is that this system will be quite easy to game. One cannot measure fruit and vegetables, and size of portions, by wearing a wristwatch; one can only use it to input data. That is the same for step counting, which, on a wrist counter, is well known as being not as accurate as elsewhere. I hope that the Minister and his officials will look carefully at the possibilities for gaming the system. If they are collecting the data remotely, they should be able to tell whether it is being gamed.
As a former president of the British Dietetic Association, I ask the department to look carefully particularly into the obese and overweight category. There is evidence that a BMI of around 26 does no harm to people, and I should like to see more medical evidence produced on that. I invite the Minister to ask the department to look at that.
Finally, will the department look at producing an app for all citizens, not with rewards attached but just an app of good practice that could be made available for free through the App Store so that we can all share in the wisdom of the department?
I thank my noble friend for those important questions, which are exactly those that I would have asked—and, in fact, did ask the briefing team when I was getting more details on this matter.
Of course, one of the most obvious things that we have to ask is: how do people game the system? Often, when one analyses a scheme, sometimes there are unintended consequences whereby people are able to game it. Someone asked me—I think and hope that it was in jest—“If I ate 75 cream cakes and blamed my metabolism, would I be able to get on to the scheme?” We have to make sure that our data is robust. The pilot will include robust anti-fraud measures in relation to users’ activity and access to incentives.
What is interesting about the scheme is that it is voluntary, but it will also make sure that the users input the data. There has been a lot of research around that, because it has seemed to be a potential weakness, if users were inputting the data, regarding whether they can game the system. We have been assured that measures have been put in place to avoid that sort of gaming but, once again, the evidence will tell. That is why the system is not national but is a pilot to test all these questions to the limit.
The noble Lord mentioned weight loss and obesity, which I shall come to. One of the things that we want to make clear is that the health incentives scheme is not a weight-loss programme; it is a programme for healthy living. It uses an innovative approach to rewards and incentives to help participants to adopt healthier behaviours for physical activity and diet. Of course, it will help those who are overweight. I have been on two diets in my life—no, really I have. What is interesting about this is that, when one looks at these issues, it is not just a question of consuming less but about burning off calories. That is why we want to encourage healthy living as opposed to purely tackling obesity. That is very important.
The other day, I met a young lady who was very slim. She said, “Why do you keep going on about obesity and type-2 diabetes? I am slim and I have type-2 diabetes”. So sometimes we have to make sure that we are clear about these connections.
My Lords, I want to ask the Minister a question based on an answer he gave earlier. He said specifically that the Government’s “eatwell plate” was as affordable as any other meal. I would like to challenge that, in my role as a member of the Food Foundation. It points out that, if you are on a low income, eating the “eatwell plate” is going to take about 60% of your disposable income. The reality of the cost of healthy food is this: if you have a pound to spend, you could get three peppers, which add up to 65 calories; six apples, which add up to about 200 calories; or a packet of sweet biscuits, which would give you 1,000 calories. If you are a mother or father struggling on a low income, and you need to feed your kids, you are going to go for the high-calorie option; this is how the food system is worked. If the Minister has data that proves that the “eatwell plate” is affordable, on whatever income you happen to have in this country, I would be very grateful for that knowledge. If he does not have it now, please could he write to me?
I thank the noble Baroness for that important question. When I am being briefed, I test my officials and make sure that I am able to answer as many questions as possible. I am told the “eatwell plate” costs about 3p less per adult per day than the current diet in the UK, but I will write to the noble Baroness with more detail. If the noble Baroness is not happy, she can challenge that.
My Lords, I really think the Minister can afford to be less prickly about all this. No one is disparaging the idea of a pilot; there have been many hundreds of pilots in this space, to my knowledge, and probably many more that I do not know about. The easy thing is piloting it; the hard thing is rolling this stuff out and having an impact. It is just that we are rather underwhelmed with the scale of this pilot, given the scale of the challenge we face. But in the interest of being positive about all this stuff, a Parkrun practice pilot has been taking place in GP surgeries up and down the country—only about 20% of them are actually taking part. Early assessment looks incredibly positive. It does not actually cost anything to implement. I encourage the Minister to try to accelerate the rollout of this initiative and, if he does not already, to take part in his own local Parkrun.
I thank the noble Baroness. I would like to know on what basis she thinks I should take part—I hope I am not looking unhealthy. I also apologise to noble Lords if I have come across as prickly; maybe I just got too excited about this scheme. As someone who been quite critical in the past of schemes that do not work and who has looked at evidence behind such schemes, I am excited that this is a real pilot, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all national system. We can see what works and then roll it out. I also thank the noble Baroness for making me aware of the scheme in GP surgeries. Maybe the noble Baroness could do me a favour and send me some details, so I can look into it in more detail and see how we could roll it out.
My Lords, in giving his answer, the Minister failed to answer one of the questions from my noble friend Lord Scriven on school sport. So perhaps we can give the Minister a second go at responding. When will the Government throw their full weight behind reviving, revitalising and extending school sport?
I have responded to questions, including the noble Lord’s question about sport in schools, which is of course incredibly important—we all benefited from that. One of the things I have to be clear about is which department it falls under. As I understand it, some of this does fall under the Department for Education, so if the noble Lord does not mind, I will write to him.
I want to follow on from the question on sport. Since 2010, the Government have given authorisation for the sale of over 220 school sports fields. Does the Minister see any correlation between the sale of these school sports fields and the rise in health inequalities? I understand the Minister might not be able to answer this and may need to go back, so if we could get a response from the Department for Education, that would be great.
I thank the noble Lord for that question. It is an interesting data point to look at to see whether it is correlation, coincidence or there is a link. As the noble Lord acknowledges, I do not have the answer at my fingertips, particularly because some of this will fall under the Department for Education. If the noble Lord will allow me, I will go back and investigate this and write to him.
Land Use Framework
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am very pleased to be able to introduce this important topic today. I do not often win things, but I did win the ballot. I am grateful to all noble Lords who signed up to speak, including the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, whose maiden speech I much look forward to. Alas, some of the usual suspects—the usual contributors to debates and questions on land use issues—cannot be with us today. We are without the noble Lords, Lord Krebs, Lord Cameron of Dillington and Lord Teverson, and the noble Earls, Lord Caithness and Lord Devon, all of whom have sent their support for the debate. Several noble Lords are unable to be here because it is, as we speak, the memorial service for the late Earl of Selborne, who is much missed in this House as a man of huge expertise and commitment to land-based issues. I hope we can honour his memory here in the Chamber through the quality of our debate.
I am delighted the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, will be replying from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I hope he does not mind if I hereafter refer to it as the Department for LUHC, since that is the way the initials pan out. It is refreshing, because we have heard a lot from Defra Ministers during the passage of the Environment Bill about their perspective on land use; it will be good to get the Department for LUHC’s perspective, which I hope will be different.
The UK is a small island—its land is finite—and the pressures on it are increasing. Everybody appears to want more land. In this time of focus on climate change, for example, we need more land to restore peatlands, to plant many more woodlands—I should declare an interest as chair of the Woodland Trust—possibly to grow biofuels and to develop solar and other low-carbon energy generation. We also need to respond to the other half of the climate change-biodiversity twin challenge: biodiversity recovery. The Prime Minister has urged world leaders to pledge 30% of land and seas to be protected by 2030, and says that that will happen in the UK. That would be quite a major shift in land use.
Agriculture currently accounts for 72% of our land use, and we need to feed a growing population; we are going to have 5 million more people in this country by 2040. We may want to decide whether we want to become more self-sufficient in food production and, likewise, in timber production; we currently import the vast majority of the timber we use. Both these questions for agriculture and timber would mean substantial land use changes.
The built environment also needs more land to provide for the Government’s new homes and jobs targets, which is also enhanced by population increase. The ambitious programmes of infrastructure investment that have been promised will need land. A University of Cambridge sustainability initiative study showed that predicted land use pressures mean we will need a third more land than Britain currently has—and we are not making any more. Indeed, with climate change, we may lose some.
The issue is not just growth in needs for land use. We are standing on the brink of some major shifts in policy affecting land use. The tectonic plates are on the move, and a substantial shift in the way we use land is going to happen. These tectonic shifts will increase the tensions that are already being felt by people, communities and government—both local and national—as typified by the result of the Amersham by-election, as competing policies and needs jostled for land. These tensions will be heightened, as pretty well every relevant policy area is on the move. Let me just outline some of those.
Major carbon incentives are driving tree planting and land use for energy generation, including bio crops, and the decarbonisation of agriculture will mean major shifts in land use patterns. Carbon will drive change, as the Climate Change Committee has outlined. A total change to the farming subsidy system is also under way post Brexit, and the national food strategy should change the way that we eat, the way that farmers farm and the use of land.
The Government’s commitments in the 25-year environment plan and the Environment Bill to such policies as net biodiversity gain, the “30x30” announcement by the Prime Minister and nature recovery strategies will mean major changes in the pattern of land use. We also anticipate major planning system reform once the new Secretary of State at the department gets his head around the unpopularity and impracticability of the original proposals. However, I suspect that they will still focus on a major increase in housing, with the unpopular land-take that that represents. The major investments in infrastructure that we have seen announced need to be climate-positive and biodiversity-positive in the way that they use land.
So, the tectonic plates of land-use policy are on the move but for the most part, in the past and right now, these policies are developed and operated in silos with modest or no overview of the whole picture and of how the best decisions can be made to optimise decisions on competing land-use pressures. The biggest flaw is that the rural and urban land-use processes have little connection with each other. The planning system is called the “town and country planning system” but it does not actually do much for the country.
Several of the current policy changes are establishing quasi-alternatives to the formal planning system, and in my view that is quite dangerous. For example, we were told by the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, during the passage of the Environment Bill that nature recovery strategies will map and cover the whole of England, proposing what land uses will be best for nature and where. How will that relate to the planning for land for housing use and development, and indeed to all the other economic uses that the formal planning system covers? Conversely, decisions on agricultural land use will be made by 100,000 individual farmers. How will that fit in with these nature recovery strategies and with the formal planning system?
I can say from personal experience that the whole issue of tree planting right now is like the Wild West out there. I declare my interest as chairman of the Woodland Trust, which is trying hard to create more woods in the interests of biodiversity and climate change. However, major commercial operations are buying up bare land at very silly prices to plant trees and exploit carbon subsidies. The big question arises: would some of that land be better for food production, forestry, housing or solar arrays?
My thesis for today—indeed, for the years that I have banged on about this, which have been many—is that we need two principles. One is integration: an integration of decision-making and processes that sees the big picture of competing pressures and helps to encourage the best land use in the right place. That does not just mean chat between departments about whether they can live with each other’s policies; nor, at the other end of the spectrum, a top-down masterplan; but a set of principles to guide thinking and decision processes at the right scale nationally, locally, at community level and for landowners. The Government’s foresight study on land use, which was published in 2010, called for an integrated approach, and we now need to deliver that.
The second principle that I want to promote is multifunctionality. How do we get our scarce land to work more than once for its living—for example, with wildlife and carbon on agricultural land—and how do we get that integrated in development proposals? That is where the planning system reform proposals particularly jarred with me. Zoning is too broad-brush. What we need in order to accommodate all the pressures is multifunctional land use, not land zoned for one particular purpose.
The time has come for change to achieve an integrated way forward, to relieve the pressures, to reduce the tensions in decision-making—particularly public tensions—and to ensure that land is developed multifunctionally. Otherwise, we will have a collision in land uses, some unhappy communities, some grumpy developers and stressed-out local and national government.
I was amazed to discover that the Community Planning Alliance, which was launched in March this year, already has 525 local community campaign groups across the UK, all concerned about land-use conflicts. That in itself is a stark indicator of the concern about pressures on land. It is a bit like a pressure cooker, frankly, and the lid will blow at some point if it has not already done so.
There are good examples of integrated approaches for us to learn from on both the national and local scale. Wales and Scotland have developed land-use frameworks. Both are very different, as their local land uses and politics determine. Scotland stresses the need for people to have opportunities to participate in debates and decisions about land use that affect their lives and futures. Wales is shaped by its future generations legislation. I discovered from the Chinese Ambassador that even China has a land-use framework, although possibly not a great one since it appears to involve the forcible moving of a quarter of a million people off the land from time to time. That is not the sort of top-down masterplan, integrated approach that I am advocating. Perhaps we should look instead at the southern Ireland version, which is much more sensitive.
At the local level, there are many experiments in the Oxford-Cambridge arc. There is an integrated land use pilot in Devon, supported by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, and I declare an interest as a commissioner for that commission. Various local authorities are trying natural capital approaches. The spatial scale at which such initiatives are appropriate will vary but they all need some sort of strategic framework from government. If areas next door to each other are using different systems and approaches, it will be difficult to get the higher-level spatial scale that is needed for some of these issues to be resolved in a way that is understood by local people.
Many organisations far more reputable than me have called in the past for an integrated and multifunctional approach. I have already mentioned the foresight study in 2010. I was trying to remember last night how long in advance of that study I had been lobbying for one, and it is now probably 20 years since I started banging on about this. But I feel that we are on the way, and I hope many more speakers today will say that too. So, the foresight study was the first formal emanation, in 2010. The Select Committee on the Rural Economy in your Lordships’ House also proposed an integrated and multifunctional approach, as did the Climate Change Committee; I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Deben, is contributing today. The Royal Society’s Living Landscapes programme has long promoted such an approach, as has the commission on food and farming and many others.
In view of the rising pressures and the lack of join-up, what current mechanisms are there for integration across these issues for all land uses? In view of the huge changes in policy that are on the move right across land-use issues, what proposals will the Government make to produce a national framework and a more integrated prioritisation and decision process for all land use? We cannot continue in these silos. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness. As ever, she has set out her stall very wisely, with many facts and elements that we need to take on board. It is clearly madness that we do not have a land framework strategy. It is a bit like trying to build a house without deciding where you might want the kitchen or the bathroom.
My remarks will concentrate on food, as that is the area I probably know best. As the noble Baroness said, land is a scarce resource. We have used it for three purposes: housing, recreation and food production. The latter currently takes up 70% of English land. That is clearly too much if we are going to hit our climate change targets. As the noble Baroness has just said, we need to get multifunctional in the way we use all our land.
The Climate Change Committee has estimated that approximately 21% of agricultural land in England has to change its function to forestry, energy crops, peat land or agroforestry if we are to get to net zero on the timetable we have laid out. However, that does not mean taking land out of agricultural use entirely. It is about the right kind of farming, such as no-till, mob grazing, almost zero application of pesticides, letting hedgerows grow and herbal leys—a whole range of things that can encourage wildlife and carbon sequestration on land that is also producing food. It is about being, as the noble Baroness said, multifunctional.
I am anxious that we go down this route as if we do not and we agree that we cannot grow enough food to feed us, we will end up entering into trade deals with countries far away. That not only means that we outsource our carbon footprint, but that we lose jobs and undercut our own farmers. Indeed, in Questions in the House yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Deben, made this point very strongly in relation to the Australian trade deal.
However, all land is different. Some of the land that could deliver the greatest environmental benefits might not be that good for food growing. The most productive 33% of English land produces around 60% of our total output, while the bottom 33% produces only 15%. Similarly, making farming more environmentally sensitive has many other gains: reducing runoff from just 5% of agricultural land that produces the most water pollution could reduce phosphorus and other sediments in our rivers by 25% and the nitrogen load by 13%.
Food and food growing has dominated our landscape for hundreds of years. Indeed, the phrase “eat the view” is intended to encourage us all to eat more British-grown vegetables, fruit and grains. It was coined some years ago and I think it is a good phrase, but it misses out key elements, such as which bit of land should we be using for this and which bit for that? This is why we need a framework.
I advised a little on Henry Dimbleby’s food strategy. We recommended that by 2022—soon—Defra ought to devise a rural framework. What does this mean? First, Defra should work with local nature recovery networks to prepare basic maps of what is what right now. These maps should include data on how productive the agricultural land is in the network’s area—something we can glean from the agricultural land classification system. There should be an assessment of local priority areas for the environment. For instance, is there peat or ancient woodland? Areas with significant levels of pollution should be identified, together with ideas on what to do. All this needs to be linked in with local tree strategies, the peat action plan and any existing local nature recovery strategy.
Once all this has been collected, Defra then actually has something to work on. This is something it lacks. It will provide a framework for us to decide how we want to use our precious and extremely tiny amount of land. We can tell which land is most appropriate for semi-natural land, low-yield farmland and high-yield farmland, as well as land that is better for housing and economic development such as business parks. At all stages, this report will make clear how this model can help meet the Government’s legal commitments to reach net zero by 2050, while at the same time protecting 30% of land for nature by 2030 —the 30x30 target.
Land change cannot be imposed by central government. Defra should make its national land map freely available to land managers and councils, which can then decide how they will best use it. It should form a guide for how the new environmental land management scheme is delivered and managed. It seems to me that currently, the Government are pinning everything on ELMS in terms of the countryside. I am the first to agree that it is a tremendous advance on the CAP and a step in the right direction. However, a lot of questions remain. ELMS has nothing to say on land management more generally, what happens to land outside of the farm, housing, roads and areas of outstanding natural beauty—or, indeed, on planning decisions. It cannot do all this because it does not have the remit.
For ELMS to truly function in the way that it should, it has to sit alongside an overall land management strategy. There are currently at least eight schemes influencing how we use land—from the England Trees Action Plan through to ELMS itself—and they control funds ranging from £10 million to £2.4 billion. It is a lot of money. We need a framework: it would help shape priorities such as improving areas of outstanding natural beauty. It could help us decide the best place to grow crops and, indeed, which crops, and where to graze cattle.
It could also give us information about where to build new houses. The additional land needed for new housing is relatively small for an issue that attracts so much distress and anger. Just 2.2% of UK land is needed by 2060 to fulfil all current calculated needs. If we had access to a bird’s eye view, we would not need to keep building on flood plains or next to sites of scientific interest like the rewilding project at Knepp, which noble Lords will know I have banged on about. In fact, in a minute I am going to come back to it.
A rural land use framework will outline the most effective way to get to net zero by 2050 and to 30x30 by 2030. We need better data if we are to achieve these goals. If we are to reduce the amount of land we use for farming by a steady 1% a year, while maintaining our food security through healthier and more sustainable farming management, we need a really good plan. We need to know which areas are the best to grow on and which are possibly the best to be rewooded or rewilded.
I want to finish with a story of something that happened in the last few weeks at the recent Tory party conference. Isabella Tree, the environmentalist behind the rewilding project at Knepp, attended the conference to speak on a rewilding panel. As noble Lords know, given how many have spoken on this issue, she and her husband have been fighting a battle against Horsham District Council to prevent it building 3,500 new houses on the border of their land, which would destroy the carefully planned wildlife corridors that connect Knepp and other places like it to the sea and deep inland. The builder is Thakeham, which has given more than £500,000 to the Conservatives in the last three years. Thakeham had the most prominent stand at the conference, sponsored meetings, hosted a drinks party and—which was really shocking to me—had its company name on the lanyards of every single delegate at the four-day event. As Isabella Tree said:
“This isn’t democracy … There is a lot of money … shouting for more housebuilding. Where is the money shouting for nature?”
However, there is a small, good note. Buglife has just discovered a very small snail—the little whirlpool ramshorn snail. It is in the water catchment area underneath the development that Thakeham plans to build. This tiny creature—just 5 millimetres in diameter—is so rare and so in need of protection that the planning has been temporarily halted. Talk about David and Goliath! It shows what a crazy system we live in. Just as it has taken a footballer to get the Government to agree to feed hungry kids in the holidays, so it has taken a miniature snail to get someone to look again at a really ridiculous planning project.
This is an urgent situation. We only have one planet. We have to start now. A rural land framework and a land use strategy is an essential part of our journey forward.
I thank the noble Baroness for bringing forward this debate. If Thursday afternoon debates were a novel, they would certainly not be a bodice-ripper or an edge-of-the-seat thriller, but more a literary heavyweight: challenging, sometimes difficult to get to grips with, but always an opportunity to learn and to explore difficult issues. The noble Baroness’s subject matter today is very much in the latter category, and I have to say that I admire her staying power. I also look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harlech.
As a former elected mayor and a vice-president of the LGA, I will be looking at this issue through the lens of local government and from the planning perspective, while being confident that other noble Lords will be sharing their considerable expertise on the environmental and broader issues.
What has surprised me in my reading for this debate is that there has been a fairly steady and consistent appeal for a land use framework over many years and, indeed, several reports with recommendations to adopt one or something similar. Indeed, such a tool exists in all the devolved Governments. Can the Minister say whether there has yet been any capture of the benefits or otherwise of the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish experiences, each of which appear to have involved slightly different approaches? I believe we should be looking to learn from them.
It was, therefore, surprising to me that the Government are resisting this and, indeed, going further and saying it is not really needed as other policies and plans, in effect, do the job of such a strategy. Hearing the responses of the noble Lords, Lord Gardiner of Kimble and Lord Goldsmith, during consideration of the Environment Bill confirmed my belief. However, to judge by the evidence presented by these various reports and inquiries, it appears it is often not happening at all, and where it is it could be better.
In its recent study, Planning for a Better Future, the Royal Town Planning Institute points out that there are already many spatial instruments and plans in places, but—the “but” is important—they treat the environment in siloes, not connecting issues such as water availability and quality, social quality, flood mitigation, biodiversity and habitats. They are often administered and financed separately, with problems of single-issue streams of finance, and managed on short decision timescales, with notable gaps. They seem distant from and unaccountable to local people. Our current situation calls for something far more radical and potentially game-changing. This proposal will seek to address some fundamental key dilemmas and challenges of land use: will it be possible to grow enough food, restore biodiversity in nature, decarbonise the economy and adapt to climate change, while building all the homes, transport and infrastructure that the Government have promised over the next decade?
While such a framework would, by necessity, be very high level, it is also important to address the concerns of ordinary citizens. When I speak to residents, usually when they are bitterly complaining about development, I ask them, “What percentage of land do you believe is built on?” They always get it massively wrong and are shocked when you say, “Less than 20%, and half of that is parks and gardens”. In tight urban areas, it certainly feels that high city densities, while highly sustainable, are built to protect someone else’s view of a field that once grew food. So a fundamental question to us all is: how is it decided whose quality of life is more important? Is it the person in the tower block or the village dweller? Another question is: is that really the best use of the land? Could it not be used for something better? How could that be determined?
It is now generally accepted that we could never again build to the densities of, say, Milton Keynes or the garden cities, yet there has been no attempt at all to take the public with us on this challenging journey. At his party conference, our Prime Minister recently declared that there should be no need for houses to be built on green-belt land, to cheers from the party faithful living in the leafy shires. But what are the implications for those living in urban settings? Must the ever-growing numbers of tower blocks increase, not only in number but in storeys, to accommodate government targets for housing need? Where is the land-use discussion here? They are popping up now in suburbia and Metroland, not just in the city smoke. Do we need new settlements? Where, what type and when? Perhaps a land-use framework could usefully flush out these difficult issues and contradictions and provide a context for these conversations.
We have a Government determined to build 300,000 homes a year to meet an obvious housing crisis. Surely that aspiration needs some big thinking about land use. The Government’s own figures show that enough brownfield sites are available to build 1 million homes. That sounds like a lot, but it is really only three years’ supply. Even local authorities have to provide a five-year land supply. The Government have their disingenuous housing delivery test—it is disingenuous because it seeks to punish local government for the lack of delivery of homes, over which it has no power, and not over the number of planning applications granted, over which it has power. Perhaps the Government should revisit their own Letwin review.
Add to the pot the fact that we have a public who sometimes seem to have gone from nimbies to BANANAs —build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody—as a glance at any local news media will prove. Yet, when knocking on doors and talking to people, once they have got their, “We don’t need any more flats, and no one can afford these homes anyway” off their chest, their heartfelt concerns are usually around the quality of the environment: “Too many cars. The traffic is a nightmare. Where will I be able to park?”, or “I can’t get my child into the local school” and, “My GP waiting times are far too long because they have so many patients on their books”. These are the soft infrastructure issues yet they are very important to the public, for obvious reasons.
From my local government perspective, the Motion calls for land-use planning to be integrated with other land-use activities. At the moment, we have no regional or sub-regional land-use planning, so there is nothing to integrate anything with. That might seem like a statement of the obvious, but the scaffolding that might support such a proposal has been lost to us over the last decade or longer, to the detriment of wider place shaping and planning across a much larger economic region. In short, we have become too parochial, which can work against changes for the greater good. There are too few opportunities for too few councillors to engage with these bigger and broader issues in their area.
It seems that many of the problems associated with planning have arisen because strategies have not been based on a wide enough area. This is most apparent in two-tier areas, where each council has its own local plan, yet the reality of issues and problems to be addressed can cover three or four, or even a whole county or wider economic region.
I still have the scars from trying, while I was mayor of Watford, to work across borders with several authorities around a wide range of issues, where the provision of new infrastructure needed to be built in one area to serve, as they saw it, the needs of another—I would say of the wider area. The recent emphasis on making efficient use of brownfield sites has pushed the level of housing growth in Watford upwards to the sky, so a new secondary school is needed, which cannot be met within the town’s narrow boundaries. We already have a primary school where there is no play space for the children, except on the roof. But when it is proposed in the neighbouring districts, there is opposition on the grounds that, “It’s Watford’s problem. It’s their children.”
There are ways to resolve this, and sometimes it works better than I have portrayed, which is why I am particularly interested in the outcome of the powers and freedoms given to regional mayors and city regions in this regard. I wonder whether there is any possibility of expansion and further development.
“What about the duty to co-operate with each other?”, you might ask. It is well documented that the duty to co-operate does not operate as effectively as it needs to in practice—or indeed at all. However, there is a pressing need for it to be replaced with a new mechanism to deliver joined-up thinking and action for climate change, transport, infrastructure, housing provision and nature recovery. Does the Minister yet have any idea whether that duty will be changed, strengthened or weakened in the new reforms? Finally, why not have a national spatial framework?
My Lords, it is an honour and a privilege to be speaking in your Lordships’ House for the first time. This is a defining moment for me personally, but I join the House when it is also a defining moment for our country, as we seek to face, head on, the triple challenge of the pandemic, our independence from the EU and climate change. These are serious responsibilities.
Over the past few months, I have taken the advice to listen and observe proceedings, rather than diving straight in. I have been hugely impressed by the contributions in your Lordships’ House in debates such as those on the Environment Bill, the passionate but courteous deliberation in the Assisted Dying Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the heartfelt and moving tributes paid to the late Sir David Amess.
I place on record my thanks for the help given to me by so many: the doorkeepers, special advisers, the clerks and Table Office staff, the librarians, and the catering and security personnel. I am also grateful for the mentorship of my noble friends Lord Borwick, Lady Bloomfield and Lady Sanderson, and for the support from friends in the other place.
The Harlech barony was created in 1876. My forebears were a distinguished lot: MPs, Ministers, soldiers and public servants. I take my duty seriously to follow their example. I will also take inspiration from Lord Elton, a distinguished servant of your Lordships’ House, to whose place I am proud to have succeeded.
My grandfather David, both as MP for North Shropshire and as a Foreign Office Minister, worked hard to bring countries and peoples together. As British ambassador to the United States during the Kennedy Administration, he fostered the personal relationships upon which the special relationship grew, ensuring that British views were given proper consideration during events such as the Cuban missile crisis. Can personal relationships still prove decisive today? I suspect they can.
I had a rural upbringing in Shropshire and Wales, where I would accompany my father on his duties around the estate. We frequently stopped at farm kitchens thick with smoke for non-stop cups of tea. Like his father, he understood the importance of building personal relationships, listening to people, giving them time and always making them feel valued. It is no secret that my father had his afflictions, but he always championed Wales and rural issues, and cared deeply for the countryside and its people.
My mother did an incredible job of raising two children—essentially as a single parent, while forging a successful career as a consultant to some of the pre-eminent designers of her generation in the fashion houses of Europe. Her incredible work ethic, creativity and passion for all the arts greatly influenced the career path I took.
After completing school, I moved to London to study design at Central St Martins. The rich and diverse culture of the city, its music, people and places, had a profound impact on me and shaped my views as much as my rural heritage did. After graduating, I went on to work in medical communication, media production and property management.
On my father’s passing, I returned to north Wales. There, we have invested in organic farming, implementing renewable technology and undertaking the vital restoration of heritage assets. It was on a platform of being a voice for Wales, its people and the rural economy, that I stood in the hustings.
I should also mention that I am an Army reservist. The Army teaches the importance of courage, discipline, teamwork, integrity, respect for others and selfless commitment. These values shape my approach to public office and my duties to this House.
I turn to today’s debate, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. Allow me to state the obvious. As a country, we need to produce more food; grow more trees; better manage our forests; and reverse the decline in biodiversity. They are serious challenges—but, to judge by Tuesday’s debate on the Environment Bill and, indeed, by today’s debate, they are ones about which we are no longer in denial. I sense that, as a country, we are readier than ever to pick up the gauntlet.
I began by saying that this was a defining moment—a time of monumental challenges for Britain, the world and this House. I want to end on an optimistic note. Like so many of my generation, I see monumental opportunity in these challenges, and this is especially true of the challenges facing the British countryside. Treat the countryside with the respect it deserves; listen to it; understand its complexities and possibilities; and decide that you will give it half a chance. Above all, give it the connectivity and digital connectivity it needs, and I guarantee that the rural economy—and, with it, rural community life and culture—will spring into action in ways and to an extent that will surprise you. We can do farming and tourism very well, but that is by no means all we can do or wish to do.
My Lords, I first welcome and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harlech. He is a worthy successor to those ancestors he mentioned. When I first saw his name on the list, I thought that he was the bloke who used to stop me seeing all those films I wanted to see—but, in fact, he brings much wider talents to the House. I welcome his obvious commitment to the subject matter of this debate and to the wider points he raised. It shows that the rather odd system by which all of us get here can throw up an asset to this House. He is very welcome.
I will also mention briefly the reference by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to Lord Selborne, whose memorial service is today. He was a great champion of many of the matters to do with the countryside and beyond that we are addressing today.
Our land—whether urban or rural—is subject to multiple pressures, and our planning system is supposed to be the arbiter. The Town and Country Planning Acts of the 1940s are some of the unsung achievements of that Labour Government. By and large, they protected the English countryside from the more ravenous designs of developers, industry and tourism. For a long time, they also prevented more egregious development in our towns and cities. They significantly limited ribbon development and urban sprawl—particularly through the invention of the green belt. At the same time, that system allowed positive development in those post-war years—massive increases in the building of decent homes, the development of our infrastructure and the facilitating of industrial change. It did so within a context where key decisions were in the hands of elected authorities, which allowed the public to have a direct, clear say.
We would be foolish to dispense with that system, but it would also be foolish to deny that there are considerable pressures and problems both in our cities and countryside with which the planning system is now struggling. I do not mean what is—I fear—the knee-jerk reaction in certain parts of the Conservative Party and the press, encouraged by some property developers and their apologists, that the planning system is run simply by bureaucrats on behalf of axe-grinders and nimbys. That attitude seemed originally to be behind the Government’s intent to bring a planning reform Bill to Parliament. I hope that they are now thinking again.
Previous speakers have focused on the countryside. It is true that 70% of our land is designated for agriculture and only about 10% to 12% is built on. That is not the assumption of most people. In reality, the look of our countryside has developed. It has not been preserved in aspic by the planning system; nor should it have been. It has changed over the past 80 years, but the planning system has limited and directed that change in a way that has benefited our countryside and our ability to enjoy it. The detailed changes have not been determined by the planning system but by, for example, successive agriculture policies through the post-war Ministry of Agriculture, the EU and now the Agriculture Act that we have just passed, which will have significant effects on rural land use, so that the look of our fields and the configuration of our hedgerows will change again.
While past agriculture policies have, through incentives and regulatory structures, largely determined the balance and shifts of agricultural production and the look of our land, they have also been subject to increasing constraints and objectives for environmental and public health reasons. These too have had an effect on our countryside. With the new Agriculture Act, these incentives and regulations will be targeted principally at environmental outcomes. Food and material production will be determined largely by the market and, regrettably, by some unfortunate trade agreements. State intervention will be primarily on behalf of the environment, rather than food. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and others have said, it is true that the ELMS are not broad enough to deliver that prospect, but we know the direction in which we are moving.
There have been problems with the past effects of planning. Sometimes agriculture has been overconstrained in development—for example, on the use of old agricultural buildings and cottages. But in general, it has worked well for agriculture, as well as for those of us who enjoy the countryside.
Of course, the planning system itself is overladen by other interventions—on designating SSSIs, on AONBs and on national park regulations. They have all helped to preserve and enhance our countryside, but they are not always directly compatible with the principles of the planning system. There is renewed attention to biodiversity; all this preservation of the look of the countryside has not preserved the non-human inhabitants of the countryside, plants or animals.
The planning system has also often been overladen with national priorities. We have overarching commitments to road and railway infrastructure that run roughshod over some of the planning and protection of our countryside. In principle, I am in support of the full HS2 project, but I do not think its route should have endangered so much of our woodlands. That was not in the nature of the relationship, and that is why we need a more overarching framework.
We also need to control the quality of our waterways, the effect they have on the countryside and what we put into them from our agriculture processes—fertilisers and pesticides—and from domestic use. We need the regulation of that to fit in with the planning system.
Meanwhile, the other side of the coin is urban areas. Massive changes have taken place with the planning system’s permission, with public involvement and with a relative clarity and consistency of those planning decisions, but that is weakening. I have often complained in this House that we now have a whole sequence, particularly in urban areas, of unnecessary, carbon-emitting demolition and rebuild, when more sophisticated methods would retrofit those buildings to meet current objectives for the environment and public health. In many cases, that has destroyed the ambiance of our cities and towns and the look of our urban areas. You do not have to go very far from here, to the south bank of the Thames, to see what I am talking about.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, said, part of the problem in rural areas is that the planning resources of rural councils amount to a man and a dog, particular in two-tier areas in England. It is also true more generally, in both urban and rural areas, that the relationship between local authorities, developers and large builders has changed dramatically. When Harold Wilson was building 300,000 houses a year, he could deliver it and decide on it because local authorities were in the driving seat. They were dealing with hundreds of small builders; there was competition, and the local authorities were giving out the contracts. Now the balance of power has shifted dramatically. Local authorities, often with minimal planning staff and in most cases—even in rich urban areas—with no housing department, architects’ department or direct labour organisations, are dealing with massively resourced developers and an oligopoly of half a dozen or so housebuilders, all backed by multinational finance. In those circumstances, the balance of power is very substantially with the developer. The planning system as it is can have only a limited effect, although I acknowledge that in some cases it has a key one.
I am not saying that the old system made all the right choices in either town or country. I am saying that it is no longer strong or integrated enough and that it needs a new framework. The developers that have transformed our cities, not always for the better, now have their eyes on agricultural land. A change of use from food production may follow, particularly with the reduction in extensive grazing if, for one reason or another—because of green consumer choice or trade agreements—we eat less British-reared red meat in this country. The outcome for that land that is no longer used for agricultural purposes is unlikely automatically to be rewilding or forestry, as environmental outcomes would require. At least some of it will be taken up by developers, and mostly in inappropriate parts of the country. If we are not careful, that will happen, and in a way that does not take in the local authority, and the local community and its representatives will have no part whatever.
We need to revert to the basic principles of the Town and Country Planning Act, but to put it in a wider context, one that is relevant for a modern age in both our towns and our countryside.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer and landowner as set out in the register. I am absolutely delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, and to hear his excellent and informative maiden speech. He is a shining example of the ability of the much-criticised hereditary election system to introduce young, experienced and highly qualified new Members. I welcome the noble Lord.
Like others, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, for bringing about this debate. It follows her interesting amendment to the Environment Bill, which unfortunately I was unable to support as I thought it might be too prescriptive and therefore have undesirable side effects when it came to farm diversification and other issues. However, I think she is absolutely correct to explore the need for an overarching land use framework. The devil will inevitably be in the detail—hence a broad framework is a sensible aim. I agree with so much of what she said during her excellent speech, together with that of just about every other noble Lord and noble Baroness who has contributed to this debate.
The need for some top-down planning has been identified by a number of people, including Henry Dimbleby in the recent National Food Strategy, although I do not agree with his complicated three-compartment model for land use, which takes no account of the requirement for land on which to build houses, infrastructure and industry. However, top-down planning on its own and on the scale envisaged is not practical. Careful thought needs to be given to how a land use framework will overlap with the local nature recovery strategies that the Environment Bill already introduces, as well as planning and housing White Papers and legislation and much more—and, of course, the Agriculture Act. We do not want to see a conflict or duplication of effort in any of these areas.
The need for a framework is absolutely clear, as we have three broad areas of economic activity pressing for their share of the land cake—an asset, as has been pointed out, that will never increase in area but will increase in value, which is a further complication and consideration.
First—and to my mind probably the most important, in view of our experience in two world wars and more recently with Covid—is the production of our own food, rather than relying on imports maybe at lower costs but almost certainly produced to lower standards and coming from considerable distances, with logistical dangers as serious possibilities in an unstable world. According to a recent NFU survey, 60% self-sufficiency in food seems to be a sensible guideline. In addition, as has been pointed out, agriculture occupies 70% of our land.
Secondly, there are the environmental activities, so important with climate change, which may be complementary to farming but may also be in direct competition. By this, I mean tree planting or solar or wind farms on arable or pasture lands.
Finally, there is the most important requirement of housing, industry and infrastructure, often driven by demographics, technological change and the whole levelling-up agenda. Who can drive up the M1 through Buckinghamshire and not be amazed by the work they can see being done on HS2 or the number of new sheds being built around Milton Keynes?
Inevitably, as a farmer my greatest concern is the maintenance of sufficient land for food production. Currently, as the old basic payment system of support for farmers is phased out, farmers are in a sort of hiatus until the environmental land management scheme is rolled out in 2024. They have insufficient detail on ELMS, particularly on profitability. This was confirmed in the recent report from the National Audit Office and has caused the NFU to call for a delay in the reduction of the basic payments.
The result, not surprisingly, is that most farmers are sitting on their hands. This is greatly encouraged by the current high prices for many commodities that farmers sell, such as wheat, barley, rape and livestock. Why risk uncertainty until details of ELMS are known? Why enter the unknown unnecessarily when you are still making a decent profit, although most would accept that the high prices may not last for ever? There is an old adage in farming that sticking to what you know how to do best is the safest course of action in uncertain times. Farmers, on the whole, are there for the long term, not just for a year or two.
Those looking at stable high returns are likely to be exploring such activities as solar or wind farms or housing, which could remove good agricultural land from production. This is the point: whether we are talking about high-return activities such as housing, solar and wind or lower-return activities such as tree planting, rewilding or carbon storage, all these may be difficult to reverse back into commercial agriculture if a food crisis occurs; hence the importance of protecting productive agricultural land.
Any land use framework should be positive and enabling, allowing land managers to deliver more from their land, whether for the environment, food or other economic activity, rather than negative and restricting the progression of farming and the diversification of farming businesses, let alone other rural businesses. However, a fixed land use framework can never succeed in circumstances where there are going to be changes in technology, climate conditions, consumer demand and business viability, to name just a few considerations. All this could happen in very short order. Hence, a land use framework needs to be flexible, with top-down and bottom-up input.
I believe that the basic presumption in the planning system regarding land use should be that productive agricultural land graded 1 and 2 should stay in food production, while grade 3 should be considered for wider uses. Lower grades should be the favoured areas for non-farming activities, although I am thoroughly aware that some species of trees are likely to thrive better on good land rather than chalky banks. Obviously, small parcels of land, field corners, land adjacent to hedges and existing woods—whatever the grade designation —should be exempt and available for environmental planting, including trees, as envisaged by the Agriculture Act and ELMS.
It is particularly worrying that there have been an increasing number of land sales, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, pointed out, to purchasers with no doubt worthy environmental backgrounds who have converted the land from arable and pasture to rewilding or trees. This certainly may be the correct usage in some cases, but the economic use of land should be dictated not by the whim of the new owner but by the correct classification of the most suitable use of that land. Integrating the planning system with building, agriculture and environment through a framework of land use makes perfect sense.
Very careful thought needs to be given to bring all these competing uses for land together and decide on the criteria of suitability, viability, necessity, strategic considerations and much more. Nothing should be set in stone, as flexibility is essential as circumstances change, but clear guidelines on a land use framework should be set, based on consultations with all stakeholders in these various sectors. I would therefore welcome the setting up of a committee or commission to explore the land use framework issue in greater detail. I would be most interested to hear the Minister’s views on this.
My Lords, I begin by welcoming the comments in the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, on the urgency of the climate emergency. I note that we are seeing a real change in the balance of the Benches opposite as more new and younger Members join them. I hope they will have an influence on the Government, particularly the Treasury.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, for securing this absolutely crucial debate and for her clear, informative and powerful introduction. As she and other speakers have noted, Wales, Scotland and Ireland already have land use strategies. We often hear from the Government that we are “world leading”; here we are obviously trailing, even on these islands.
If we are thinking about a land use framework and, more broadly, regulation and management of our land, there are three sides to this triangle. One is a strategy, approach and plan for how we use land. Another is to encourage good use of the land, something we mostly hear about from the Government—the sustainable farming initiative, the local nature recovery scheme and the landscape recovery scheme, all of which come under the ELMS banner. The reality of these schemes is that they are all voluntary. They are trial schemes in which people can invest, but we do not know how many people and landowners will invest in them.
We hear a great deal less about, and undoubtedly need to hear a great deal more about, how we stop deeply detrimental, disastrous land uses and management. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred to pesticides and nitrogen and phosphate runoff scarring our rivers and oceans. We have seen the impact of this, and a great deal of public concern. We need a strategy. We need to stop doing the things we should not be doing and to encourage the things we should be doing. That should be the Government’s overall approach.
I will pick up on a couple of issues that have been raised. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, who asked a good question: “Why not a national strategy”? However, I disagree with some of her comments about local management and decision-making. We have a national green-belt strategy, and we also have lots of communities who are desperate to defend their green spaces. I have visited quite a few communities who have good cause to question new “executive housing” being built. It is going into a very doubtful market and will not feed into the communities or be part of them. I am thinking in particular of a green-belt site in Sunderland which, at the time of my visit, was the only city in England that was losing population. Yet here was a patch of green land, hugely valued and much used by the public, on which executive homes were to be built for people who would commute on the motorway to work in other cities. I do not believe that that is a good use of valuable land.
It is worth looking at and trying to learn from what has been done elsewhere on these islands. Of course, as a number of noble Lords have referred to, Scotland has had two land use strategies since the Climate Change Act came into force there in 2009. They brought in a vision of sustainable land use, objectives and principles for decision-making. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, made clear, this is not saying, “We are going to allocate every piece of land to be used in a certain way”; it sets out certain principles.
I agree with pretty well every word that the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, said about food production, particularly healthy food production. I will add to that a little by looking at what is happening in Scotland, where the Scottish Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement takes a human rights-based approach to land use. It talks about the relationship between the people and the land. That is something that I do not think any noble Lord has really addressed yet. I am sure the Minister will be delighted to know that, should he be looking towards developing a land use strategy, the Green Party conference held just last weekend considered a draft land use strategy, an entire new chapter for the policy for a sustainable society. I would be delighted to share with the Minister the draft plans there, which set out our vision for land far more than I have time for today.
One thing I really want to focus on is that how we use land needs to address what I might call the other pressing issue. The maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, focused on climate; many other noble Lords have focused on biodiversity and the state of nature. I want to focus on poverty and inequality, and how we need a land use strategy that tackles those. The issue of the right to roam is something else we talked about at the Green Party conference. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, talked in her introduction about how there are multiple pressures. We need about 130% of the land we actually have for all the uses we need it for. One answer to that is very clearly multiple uses: using land to grow food, to store carbon or for nature but also making it available for recreation and public use is one way to double our use of the available land. In that way, the Scottish approach really does look forward.
Looking to Wales, as a number of noble Lords referred to the approach there is driven by its Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act—something that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, has been championing in your Lordships’ House and that we have seen a lot of support for. If we look to that, we can think about managing our land in ways that improve it for the future. We come back to the state of nature, but also, if we are thinking about the human rights approach, to improving the health and well-being of our population. That is where we come not just to issues of recreation and access of land, which we know are so crucial to human health and well-being, but to thinking about what kind of crops we are growing on that land. This is where I take issue, to some degree, with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the idea that what we need to do with arable land is grow the kind of crops that we are growing on it now.
To take just one example, a large amount of some of our very best land is devoted to producing sugar beet, despite the fact that we consume vastly more sugar than we should be eating for public health and well-being. Were we growing fruit and vegetables on that land, perhaps in a mixed system that was managed in ways that were excellent for biodiversity and nature, then we would see a human rights approach, a nature-based approach, and an approach to land use that all fits together.
This comes back to the question of how we think about the ownership of land. Again, I refer back to the Green Party draft strategy. It talks about people in control of land being the stewards of that land. That is an approach that I believe we need to take forward and advance. It needs to be managed for the common good. That means profits can be made, certainly, and returns can be taken off, but we need to see all our land use managed under a strategy that works for the common good.
Finally, I come back to the noble Lord’s suggestion about energy generation. This is one of the great practical debates we are seeing now, particularly the issue of solar farms potentially being put on arable land and issues of biofuel crops. I have great concerns about those issues, but it is worth looking at the history. If we go back about 150 years, about one-third of our arable land was actually used for energy production. It grew hay and oats, producing, very literally, horsepower.
What we need is a land use strategy. We need rules that stop the damaging use of land. We need ELMS to be systems encouraging positive uses of land. It is really quite a challenge for the Government to fit those three sides of the triangle together into something that really works for people and nature, but that is the challenge that we need the land use strategy to cater to.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a small organic farmer, as someone who is involved in sequestration of land and as the chairman of a company that advises quite a few food companies. I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, for what I thought was a remarkable maiden speech. I ticked off all the things I agreed with him on and found no crosses, so I thank him very much indeed.
I wonder if I may say something to the last speaker. We often get more by saying “thank you” for what we have been given and then asking for more than by constantly attacking. That, I must say, I find an unattractive part of the Green Party. The truth is that this Government are doing more than any other Government in the world, and I say that as a man who spends most of his time holding their feet to the fire and pointing out where they get it wrong. I do not think you help your case if you do not accept, first, that we have set targets which others have to reach and, secondly, that we are now doing the next step, which is seen in the net-zero strategy, the heat and buildings strategy, and the absolute decision that there will be no cars sold after 2030 which are not electric or equivalent. All those are extremely important and good things, and having said “thank you” for them, I hope the Minister will accept one or two criticisms about where we could go further.
I think my noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, thinks I am sometimes a little critical of a land use strategy. I always worry about the word “strategy”, because sometimes it becomes enclosing rather than releasing, but she explained very clearly what she means by this and I am therefore entirely on her side. There is no doubt that this Government, like previous Governments, are benighted by their silos; they do not seem to be able to break out of them. This is a serious matter when it comes to land use. If you read the Net Zero Strategy, there is very little about land use, mainly because it was written by BEIS, and Defra appears to have had no influence on it—it could not, because it has not got a policy. The trouble is that there is no Defra policy, just general comments about what will arise. I repeat what the EFRA Select Committee of the House of Commons said: you cannot move from one system of support to an entirely different one in a haphazard manner. That is precisely what we are trying to do at the moment.
As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, asked, how does a farmer make any decisions today? He is told it will all be in the ELMS but we do not know what will be in the ELMS or how it will affect them. We do not even know how it will integrate with private decisions outside. What will be the terms? How do we deal with this? There is none of that in the present circumstance.
I do not blame Defra for finding this difficult; we found that in debating the Environment Bill. My noble friend Lord Goldsmith, who we know is on the side of the angels, found it very difficult to argue the soil issue, because the real answer is that Defra has not got its act together on that and therefore did not want to put it in the Bill. We have to recognise that “siloisation”—if there is such a horrible word—is almost endemic; it is a problem of government generally, not just this Government. There is therefore a need to, somehow or other, bring together the parts of government when that is so essential that we can no longer resist it. It seems to me that that is exactly the point we have reached with land use.
The Climate Change Committee said very clearly that we cannot meet net zero unless we have a significant amount of land use which brings carbon out of the atmosphere. I always want to remind people of the reason we managed without all this before: historically, balance was created. Human beings, animals and plants all have emissions; we do not have zero emissions, which is why the concept of moving to a zero-emission world is nonsense. We are emitting at this moment—I am, particularly, because I am speaking. We need to remember that the world balanced that: for the emissions that came out, there was sequestration taking carbon in. That balance is the issue; a point made in the wonderful book by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. We have to get back to that balance of nature.
Land—the earth and the soil—will play a big part in that. Therefore, I was very disappointed that the amendment fell which would have insisted on setting a date at which the Government would treat soil with the same concern as they claim to have now for air and water. We in the House of Lords have certainly changed the attitude to water—suggesting that we should not contaminate it with sewage—so now let us get to soil, which is so important.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and I am very pleased that she secured this very important debate. If we are going to do this, I would like to see a department of land use. We really need to bring agriculture, the natural environment, forestry and planning together. As the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches said, planning is crucial here. It is important to have a land use strategy—and I would like to go further and have a land use department—because the planning system we have at the moment does not address in any way some of the major issues of land use. There is no connection with the net-zero strategy. This is the crucial issue. Unless the planning Bill which we are told we will have makes clear that the principal issue of planning is to help us meet our obligations under the Paris Agreement and our statutory commitment to deal with climate change and get to net zero by 2050, it will not have done its job properly.
We then come to the arguments which I have heard from others on both sides. It was extremely helpful to have my noble friend Lord Carrington speak first and then the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, second. I like to be in the middle, and I come between the two of them. I have to say to my noble friend that we must have a big change among farmers; it is not a question of just going on as we are. We cannot go on farming in the way we have. We have done great damage to the land, using things we should not use, and we will not be able to do it again. The appearance of flea beetle, black-grass and all the rest of it has shown what we have done and how we have ceased to deal with nature as we should. All of us should take some blame for that.
On the other hand, I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that the idea that somehow or other some great hand would decide what should be grown, how it should be grown, what it should be and all the rest of it seems thoroughly despicable. We really do not need that. We have to create the circumstances, as all Governments should, in which people find it easier to do good and more difficult to do bad. That is a very important mechanism that we have. We do that by having a proper planning Act, by helping farmers to move to responsible and regenerative agriculture, and by moving away from the use of artificial phosphates and the other things we have been doing, particularly poisoning so much. This has made us the worst country among developed countries for biodiversity. That is a terrible statement. I am afraid that part of that has been the fault of agriculture. We have to recover from that point of view.
To finish, I merely say this. If we are going to deal with these things, we have to deal with them holistically, but there is no means of doing so at the moment. I hope we will move to a Government with a ministry of land use, but, until we do, it seems we need a proper framework, within which each department can work, and which will help Defra to stand up and be counted on these issues and be more able to influence the decisions made by the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education, BEIS and the Treasury than it appears now to be. This is important for Defra, and I hope it will take this opportunity.
My Lords, it is somewhat intimidating to follow the noble Lord, Lord Deben, whose comments I agree with. I declare my interests as set out in the register as the unpaid chair of the Community Land Trust Network and a vice-president of the LGA. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, on securing a debate on this important topic and thank her for her extensive and knowledgeable introduction to this extremely vital subject. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, and congratulate him on his excellent maiden speech. I am sure we will hear many more excellent contributions from him in future.
Land and the uses to which it is put should not be a haphazard process but properly thought out and part of an overarching strategy, not confined by zoning. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, has raised these issues on several occasions, especially during the passage of the Agriculture Bill, in which I believe it would have been most usefully included, as agriculture takes up 72% of land. I agree with the majority of the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Carrington.
The House of Lords Rural Economy Committee, chaired by my noble friend Lord Foster of Bath, called for a spatial plan for land use in England back in April 2019. In March 2020, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, called for a special inquiry committee into a land use framework for England. The NFU, Green Alliance, Wildlife and Countryside Link, and the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission are all calling for a land use framework, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and those of us present here today. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, spoke eloquently about infrastructure and the reuse of buildings instead of demolition.
Land is a finite resource and the many claims on it need to be planned in order to make the best use of it. Land swallowed up by private equity and businesses for forestry and carbon subsidies, without any thought to the strategic impact or democratic assessment, is unhelpful. How is the country to reach net zero by 2050 if all the elements of land use are not pulled together in a cohesive land use strategy?
Food production and food security are vital to the country. We have seen in recent weeks the effect on our food supplies of having insufficient lorry drivers to bring produce in from Europe. I have seen notices on supermarkets’ shelves saying how sorry they are that the usual choice of foods is not available for their special offers due to the difficulties of obtaining produce. The public have been used to a secure supply of food and find it unacceptable when this is not available. We must provide more food for ourselves, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said.
The Agriculture Act introduced environmental land management schemes to replace the old CAP system of payment. ELMS reward farmers for increasing biodiversity on their farms, improving the soil and hedgerows and encouraging wildlife back into the field margins—all excellent outcomes. The scheme does not provide financial reward for growing more crops and food but encourages higher yields; this is to come through selling produce in the marketplace. I fully support the return of a more environmentally friendly way of farming at the same time as encouraging food production.
I remember with horror the stories of farmers who had been contracted to produce a crop for a well-known chain of supermarkets only to be told that their crop was not sufficiently uniform in size or that the supermarket had decided that it did not need it. The result was the farmer ploughing their crop back into the ground. We cannot condone this and must attempt to do everything that we can to prevent food waste. A land use strategy that clearly covers the production of food is essential. I note the adverts on the Tube for boxes of vegetables delivered to your door from a company using produce that is too small, too bendy, too many and too ugly. We must use all the produce that farmers and growers provide, not just the shiniest and most uniform in size.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, has long been a champion of forestry and ancient woodlands. Tree planting has moved up the Government’s agenda, but we need to plant the right tree species in the right places where they are likely to thrive and grow. The science behind this is extremely important and should be part of a proper land use strategy.
The provision of timber is likely to become the next big environmental issue as paper replaces plastic bags, but this does not help the country’s carbon footprint, as paper uses more carbon to produce than plastic. However, it does degenerate far more quickly and the waste has less impact on the earth.
Trees are, of course, important for carbon sequestration. However, how many councils set aside areas in their local plans specifically for tree planting and carbon sequestration? Of those councils that have peat moors and peat levels, how many have specific reference in their plans to carbon sequestration? Those with peat levels, such as Somerset, spend time licensing businesses to allow for the abstraction of peat for garden use. It is time that the Government banned the sale of such peat for garden use completely. There are, after all, alternative products to enrich the soil in gardens without the use of peat.
On the upside of this, there are brilliant reclamation schemes in place for extinct or redundant peat workings. I have visited some and seen the return of birds and wildlife to the refilled ponds, rhines and banks surrounding these areas. What was an eyesore is now a pleasant place to walk and relax and for a family to spend time together in the open air.
Planning departments are involved in all the above and have a positive role to play, but it is currently up to each individual planning authority—whether on a district, county, unitary or metropolitan council—to decide to what extent it plans for the whole land use in its area or just housing numbers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, mentioned. It would be remiss of me, given the passage of the PCSC Bill, not to mention the need for all local authorities to include the provision of sites for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in their plans.
The Government make a lot of noise about providing homes, both by private developers and for social housing. However, they do not provide the continuity to give local authorities, housing associations, developers or registered social landlords any indication that they are serious about the subject. I have been the chair of the Community Land Trust Network for six years and come to the end of my term of office next month. During this time, we have seen seven Housing Ministers—a turnover of over one a year. During the six years we have had Brandon Lewis, Gavin Barwell, Alok Sharma, Dominic Raab, Kit Malthouse, Esther McVey and Christopher Pincher. This does not inspire the housing providers with confidence and definitely not continuity.
While the Government are talking about how local authority planning departments are too slow in processing planning applications, there are over a million extant planning applications in the system. I am sure that the Minister is fed up with hearing that statistic, but extant planning applications blight the land. Developers offer landowners an option and, years later, the developer puts in a planning application. During this time, the landowner is unlikely to make any investment in the land. Once an application is submitted, local residents, depending on where the land is, mount a counterattack to preserve their green space—if it is green space. Residents are overruled, planning is granted and then what? Nothing. The land may sit there for years. A drainage ditch may be dug, some posts and markers may be put into the ground, but often not even that happens. No homes are built. Sometimes detailed plans are produced, but still no homes are built. While the country is suffering a housing shortage, this situation is a disgrace, but it could easily be tackled by legislation.
I want to raise the role of community land trusts in helping to provide housing led by the community in both rural and urban areas. Very rural hamlets and villages are nervous of overdevelopment, but taking charge of providing the housing that they need through a CLT is a brilliant way of achieving a win-win situation. CLTs do not only serve the smaller communities; there are other larger developments operating under the CLT banner.
Kennett CLT is working with East Cambridgeshire District Council to take forward a 500-home garden village which will own the public space and 10% of the homes when completed. The architects who did the master plan commented on how refreshing it was to codesign it with local people who were thinking about the long-term stewardship of their community. Walterton & Elgin Community Homes owns over 600 homes in north Paddington. Two council estates were transferred to its ownership in 1993 and since then it has invested over £37 million to renovate, demolish, replace and build new homes. Additionally, it has a new community centre, nursery and commercial space. It is one of the most highly rated social landlords in the country and is entirely community owned and run. These are brilliant examples of where communities think about the land use in their area and ensure that it delivers for their needs. Why are the Government not doing the same?
Land is scarce and has to be stretched to provide a very wide range of facilities in order for the country to be a leader in biodiversity, carbon sequestration, secure food production, safe and secure homes for its residents and sufficient open spaces for those residents to be able to live healthy lives. Surely now is the time, on the cusp of COP 26, for the Government to take steps to ensure that a land use framework is in place for England as it is for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Can the Minister tell the House why the Government are dragging their feet on this issue and are out of step with the devolved Administrations?
My Lords, I should begin by declaring an interest as a board member of the South Downs National Park, which is the planning authority for that protected landscape.
I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lady Young for tabling this debate today. I must say that when I saw the speakers’ list for this debate, despite the fact that there are some regrettable but understandable absentees, I knew that we would be in safe hands—and this has proved to be the case, because we have heard a number of wise and thoughtful contributions, for which I thank all noble Lords.
I particularly thank and welcome the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, and congratulate him on what I though was a very inspiring speech. He clearly has a great deal to contribute to our rural debates. I hope that his passion for organic farming and renewable technologies will indeed help to shape our policies for the future. I absolutely agreed when he said that we need to treat the countryside with the respect that it truly deserves.
As my noble friend Lady Young said, we debated the issue of land planning at length during the passage of the then Agriculture Bill and again during the passage of the then Environment Bill, and, on each outing, I am pleased to say that she has won more converts to her cause. She has certainly persuaded me along the way.
The fact is that in the UK, and particularly in England, we have an acute shortage of land and the demands and expectations of what the land will deliver are becoming intense. On the one hand, we want to set aside land for habitat renewal, to plant more trees for carbon sequestration, to provide more green spaces for recreation and to become more self-sufficient in food. On the other hand, as we have heard, the pressure for more housing, schools, hospitals and infrastructure competes with our love and respect for those green spaces. Add to that the fact that land is scarce, expensive and its ownership is concentrated in very few hands, and the pressures become insurmountable.
During the passage of the Environment Bill, we debated these pressures at length. My noble friend Lady Young talked about the Bill’s proposals for nature recovery strategies, which are intended to map and provide a nature recovery framework. Local government is intended to be a key partner in this, but we also know—and have heard again today—that it will be conflicted by pressures to build. As my noble friend Lord Whitty, the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and others have said, sadly, the balance of power between the environment and development now lies firmly with the developers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, made a further important point, which is that even when developers get the right to develop, they do not—and it is an even worse use of land when it is just left moribund.
Meanwhile, as we know, in future, through the reforms of the Agriculture Act, landowners and farmers will be incentivised to renature their land. The sustainable farming incentive will replace the basic payments scheme and, we hope, will move away from intensive agriculture and change the face of our landscape. We can all see the sense in this, and it is essential that we use this opportunity to work with the farming community to halt the decline in biodiversity and ensure that it plays its part in achieving our net-zero ambitions.
However, I also agree with my noble friend Lord Whitty and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, that in this model, sadly, there is a danger that food production will be increasingly squeezed, as the strategy is that it should be determined by the market, with the worrying trend for trade deals to undermine the environmental and economic stability of the UK farming community. So food production must be an essential part of our land use going forward.
I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, that we need to look more closely at the types of food produced and the need for more locally sourced fruit and vegetables. I did not see that as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, described it—a big hand coming down on the farmers—but as part of the incentives that we give for different developments in agriculture for the future. We have an incentive-based scheme at the moment.
The Environment Bill also encourages landowners to sign up to long-term conservation covenants: taking land out of agriculture to provide environmental offsets for the damage caused by building elsewhere. The private sector is already establishing institutions that can buy and sell those offsets, and new markets will undoubtedly develop, which many have likened to the wild west, with little strategic oversight of the outcome of that buying and selling; some indeed being done by overseas investors, who do not necessarily have an interest in the use of that land.
In the South Downs, we are already hearing of farmers being approached to provide forgo farming and instead provide carbon offsets for developments taking place along the coast, and the introduction of biodiversity net gain will ramp up those sorts of offers. This is so far happening on a piecemeal basis, outside any strategic plan for the preservation of the protected landscapes. Meanwhile, the National Farmers’ Union has already talked about conservation covenant stacking, where one farmer could be providing offsets for a number of developers, potentially having multiple commitments on the same piece of land. There is clearly money to be made from this—but is it really what we want? These developments seem to be taking place before we have had a hard look at what is the best use of this very scarce resource.
My noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, made a compelling case for a Defra strategic map, underpinned by proper-quality data, which would help determine that land use and the priorities for the future. The case was made that that should not be for just one use; it should be multifunctional. You can have more than one use for a piece of land.
Meanwhile, over in DLUHC—are we allowed to call it “D-Luck”?; I will be interested to hear how the Minister describes it, but I will stick with that for the moment—the Government are seeking reforms to simplify and speed up planning decisions in an effort to increase the number of new homes. As we know, local residents, communities and local councils would be the losers from these reforms and it is fair to say that, as a result, the proposals have not gone down very well.
The Government’s accompanying planning White Paper had virtually nothing to say about how the new planning system would work towards the Government’s goals around net zero. This concern was echoed by the HCLG Select Committee, which urged that any changes to planning should also address climate change and creating sustainable development, as well as dealing with the increased threat of flooding. As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said, the latest net-zero strategy, written by BEIS, also has little reference to land use. He rightly made the point that that is because Defra does not have a policy on it and is therefore missing out on the opportunity to have any influence on it.
Of course, the appointment of Michael Gove to the new department in September has allowed the unpopular reform of planning to be paused. We are all curious to know how much of a rethink is taking place in the department on this matter, so can the Minister confirm that any revamped reforms will place local people at the heart of decision-making? With COP 26 about to start, can he say what urgent steps are being taken to ensure that our planning system is fit for purpose? Does he accept that our planning system needs to go hand in hand with tackling the climate crisis, whether in insulating existing homes, providing sustainable transport links or tackling the amount of carbon in the construction process?
All those issues come back to the impact of development on the environment and how we make the best decisions for land use. It is an issue which interlinks a number of government departments, all of which currently have competing interests and priorities. This is where my noble friend’s land use framework should step in. It would provide an overarching strategy for approaching the planning and investment decisions that impact on our land. It would provide head space to balance out the competing pressures, away from the day-to-day micro decisions that impact on land use—many of which, once taken, are irreversible. It would also help to address the important point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, about the pressures and trends to be too parochial, rather than addressing the greater good.
I hope that the Minister, having heard this debate today, will agree to take my noble friend’s land use framework back to the Secretary of State as something that should underpin any future planning reforms. I hope he has also listened to the persuasive case made by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, for a ministry of land use, and that he can at least agree that we should use this “Gove pause” as a chance for a complete rethink of our approach to land use, and take into account that in future, a strategic framework should be key. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. I did not realise that the first thing I would need to address is how to pronounce the acronym for my department. To my knowledge, it is not known as the department for “LUHC”; we tend to call it “DLUHC”. Some other people have called it the “DLHC”, but I think “DLUHC” is winning the day at the moment.
I thank the noble Lady, Baroness Young of Old Scone, for moving the Motion on this topic. I have listened with great interest to the various points raised and will address them in turn. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her continued scrutiny through her roles in the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, the Woodland Trust, the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee and the Rural Economy Committee. She is certainly keeping herself extremely busy.
I thank the noble Baroness for her valuable work in ensuring that planning is considered alongside other infrastructure, landscape and agricultural land processes. There can be no doubt that these are all important considerations when making decisions on land use. The Government agree that a strategic approach to planning—alongside infrastructure, environmental, landscape and agriculture considerations—is absolutely essential. That is why we have a National Planning Policy Framework, which provides a streamlined, cohesive framework within which locally prepared plans for housing and other development can be produced. It must be taken into account by local authorities in preparing their development plans and it is a material consideration in planning decisions.
The framework supports a flexible approach that can be tailored to the specific nature and extent of the strategic issues facing each local area. It is complemented by a number of other measures right across government that set out planning, infrastructure, landscape and agricultural processes. This includes the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime, which applies to major infrastructure. It ensures that the environmental benefits or disbenefits, and the views of local communities and local authorities that may be affected, are taken fully into account by the Secretary of State, who makes decisions on whether to grant development consent.
I also know how important it is to local communities that new housing development is supported by the provision of infrastructure that benefits both new and existing residents. Contributions from developers play an important part in delivering the infrastructure that new homes and local economies require. My colleagues in Transport have set out a number of important measures to support the delivery of important transport infrastructure. England’s long-term National Bus Strategy, Bus Back Better, sets out a bold vision for bus services across the country, and the transport decarbonisation plan is the biggest piece of work we have ever done to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from transport.
We are confident that our planning system can and will enable multifunctional land use for the benefit of the environment, without needing to completely tear up the rule book and use a framework for all land uses.
I wholeheartedly agree with the statements made by my noble friend Lord Goldsmith when this topic arose in your Lordships’ House in September. It is critical that we take a long view on our natural wealth and ecosystems as part of our strategic approach. I echo his message that the Government are already taking a strategic approach to land use, particularly when it comes to environmental aims.
Again, I thank your Lordships for your contributions today and will now endeavour to respond to the points raised. I start by saying what a tremendous maiden speech my noble friend Lord Harlech gave. He will certainly grace this House for many years to come—far longer than I will, for sure—and will make some powerful contributions. I appreciated his comments about the importance of digital connectivity in rural settings.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, mentioned that today a memorial service for the Earl of Selborne is taking place. I got to know him when I was leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council and I asked him whether he would be able to conduct a commission for me. I know what a champion of the environment he was, in particular pushing the case for sustainable urban drainage as an alternative solution to grey infra- structure. He is a great loss to this House and someone I admired greatly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, spoke about the current mechanisms we have in place to integrate decisions across all land uses. What we are hearing is a call for integration, and we are working with other departments. DLUHC is working with Defra and BEIS to ensure that our environmental goals are achieved in an integrated and efficient way. Trade-offs are being carefully managed and the Government are focused on achieving multifunctional land use.
I say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch—this point was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty—that I simply do not agree that the balance has tipped entirely so that powers are solely in the hands of developers. As someone who spent six years as a council leader looking to grow my borough, I simply do not accept that. We have recently reaffirmed that local authorities remain very much in the driving seat in designating, protecting and enhancing land use and protecting the green belt to prevent urban sprawl and encroachment on to greenfield and around towns and cities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, also raised the question of how local nature recovery strategies relate to the planning system and decisions on agricultural land. Our approach to spatial prioritisation is intended to integrate with the local nature recovery strategies. Doing so will create policy coherence for land managers on the ground, as well as enabling environmental land management schemes’ funding streams from schemes that reward farmers and land managers for producing environmental benefits to dovetail with other funding streams such as biodiversity net gain.
A number of noble Lords—among them, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone, Lady Boycott, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle—called for a new land use framework or a new land use strategy. In fact, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, offered to send over a draft strategy from the recent Green Party conference. I am sure our officials will be happy to take a closer look at that. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Deben called for another ministry, for land use. I am sure we will have to work out the acronym before we create another ministry, but that is a central thing that all the speakers were calling for.
The Government are already doing much to ensure a strategic approach to land use across England. They are also reviewing what more might be needed following the excellent food strategy report led by Henry Dimbleby. We have made a commitment to answer the recommendations within six months, so your Lordships will have to wait a while for a full response.
The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and my noble friend Lord Deben mentioned that ELMS will not be available until 2024, and that we will not know what is in it until then. It is fair to say that part of ELMS will be rolled out before 2024. We have been conducting tests since 2018, which will continue throughout the transition period. We plan to start a phased rollout of the local nature recovery scheme from 2023, so by 2024 we will have fully introduced our three new environmental land management schemes.
My Lords, this does not seem to me to have anything to do with the timetable of farmers. Farmers have to plant and then, when the harvest comes, plant again. This means that they will have no certainty about what to do when one system is phased out and the other is only half in. That is what the EFRA committee said and that is what we are trying to drive home to the Government: it is a question of the harvest, which the Government cannot change—that is the way the world works.
I recognise that, as we phase out the old system and bring in the new, we need to work on proper communication, so that our farmers have that framework. I am sure my colleagues in Defra will continue to ensure that there is a clear direction of travel. I take my noble friend’s point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, raised the need for a guide to how ELMS are being rolled out. We published the agricultural transition plan in November 2020, and a progress update in June 2021, setting out a timeline for how ELMS are being rolled out; we will be publishing more information later this year. I hope that also addresses my noble friend’s overarching point.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, raised the importance of having sufficient land for food. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, raised the question of how food is produced. I know she is an absolute expert on this, as the former chair of the London Food Board when we both served the then mayor in City Hall. The Government agree that there is an urgent need to protect the natural assets that are essential to food production in this country. Under our new environmental land management schemes, farmers, foresters and other land managers will be paid for delivering environmental public goods. ELMS will support farmers to increase productivity and enable the more efficient use of land. The farming investment fund and the farming innovation programme will support investment in equipment, technology and infrastructure.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Thornhill and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, all pressed for a further update on planning reforms. It is clear that our planning system needs modernisation, to be one that embraces digital technology, benefits communities and creates places that we are proud of. I know that some aspects of the proposals have attracted great debate, so it is unsurprising that we are taking some time to review the reforms and listen to voices from across the sector. We will announce the next steps in due course. However, we are clear that the reforms must address the priorities of this Government: levelling up, delivering infrastructure, supporting communities and delivering the homes that we need in the places where we need them.
I point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, that I think you can achieve more homes without necessarily having to build a future battery of high rises. It is quite obvious that we can learn from the Victorians, who used their pattern books and developed high-density homes—particularly mansion blocks, such as the one where I grew up as a child, in Fulham. They often had between 750 and 900 habitable rooms per hectare. They are not that tall but they are dense, and provide decent accommodation for many families. Housing typology does not always mean that you have to revert to the high-rise.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, there have been a number of housing secretaries, but I would point out that the current one, Chris Pincher, has been in office longer than I have. He had been there for a month before I was appointed a Minister in the February reshuffle of 2020, so we have already gone a good 18 months with some continuity. I am sure he will continue to serve for some time to come, so we have continuity in place.
I assure the noble Baroness that the Government already take a strategic approach to land use that covers urban and rural development. However, as the processes that I have outlined today cut right across multiple policy areas, it is only right that they remain separate and that we keep localism at the heart of our approach.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, once again for the topic of the debate. As someone who grew up in a city environment, I have certainly learned a lot about agricultural land-use planning. I thank noble Lords for all their expert contributions, and I look forward to continuing to work with this House on such important matters.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate today for the near unanimity around the Chamber on the need for a joined-up set of principles and a framework. I will come on to talk briefly about my reaction to what the Minister said, but I thank him for his response.
The very personal maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, was quite heart-breaking, really; I felt moved. I am sure that, with his range of backgrounds, he will be an adornment to our House. I particularly liked his identification of the potential for a variety of roles for land managers in future; this is indeed an opportunity for land managers to think about what they can do to deliver some of these pressing national priorities.
I turn to the Minister’s remarks. I feel that to quote the NPPF as the overarching set of principles that guide all of this is probably giving a role to the NPPF that it cannot really bear. There is no doubt that it has to be supplemented with a whole range of other regimes, some of them already existing and others non-existent. The Minister quoted the bus strategy, the transport plan and the nationally significant infrastructure project regimes; all of these are prepared by different parts of government, and I do not believe the NPPF brings those together. It does not bring together the particularly pressing issues of carbon and biodiversity, nor does it do much to try to bring some shape and direction to the changes that are going to happen in land use as a result of the changes in agriculture.
As far as ELMS are concerned, I think we are now piloting the pilots; it has been piloted again and again, and it is getting to a stage where farmers are beginning to despair and are looking for leadership. If we are not careful, we will stumble into a set of solutions for agricultural land, with no national or indeed local oversight, that is driven entirely by the perceptions of 100,000 farmers and what they think ELMS mean. That is quite a dangerous place to be.
Another dangerous place to be is illustrated by that heart-breaking statistic about the number of local groups that are springing up all over the place because they are very unhappy about what is happening with land-use decisions. I personally worry about being cast as a nimby, because I am campaigning in north Bedfordshire where—just to show the lack of valency in the local nature recovery strategy process—the recovery strategy has identified an area in need of protection as being a high-quality area for nature recovery, but it is in the local authority’s planning system as somewhere to put 6,500 new housing units, in an area badly served by transport and other infrastructure. So local nature recovery strategies are not proving to be the answer either.
It was a bit of a giveaway at the very end when the Minister, in his account of the objectives of the new planning system, talked about houses, infrastructure, development and economic benefit but did not once manage to mention climate change or biodiversity. I believe we are seeing a huge divide between the formal planning system and these many quasi-planning systems that are growing up around other bits of government policy, and that is not the way forward.
Still, having campaigned to get greater clarity in this area, I am not going to give up. What I heard around the House was that people agreed that there need to be some overarching principles that are not directive but enabling, and not prescriptive but releasing—they are the words that I heard—because the right outcomes will not happen by chance. So I urge all noble Lords who have been convinced of the value of the debate today to lobby their Liaison Committee representative. On 15 November, the Liaison Committee will make a decision on the next series of ad hoc Select Committees, and a land use Select Committee is on the shortlist. If noble Lords feel that that would be a good idea, I ask them to go and lobby their representative. That is probably against the rules of this House, but what ho.
I thank all involved today. I have now completely forgotten what form of words I am supposed to use, but I have already moved my Motion.
Treasury Green Book
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, when I tabled this Question for Short Debate, I was of course aware that it would be on the day after the Budget and the first ping-pong on the Environment Bill, and on the House’s last Sitting before the commencement of the COP 26 climate talks.
I thought that meant that I would be able to bounce off the Budget announcements, which would take full account of the climate emergency and nature crisis, the former of which the Prime Minister has at least, somewhat grudgingly, acknowledged in his own words. I hoped—perhaps against hope—that we might have seen the Government accept the majority of the 14 carefully considered amendments to the Environment Bill that your Lordships’ House sent to the other place, particularly the crucial amendments on the power and independence of the office for environmental protection and on the acceptance of the need for interim targets, as provided for under the Climate Change Act. I also hoped that they would have accepted my own amendment on soils and the amendment driven by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, which would see the Treasury and the military included under the crucial five environmental principles at the heart of the Act. That would have seen us, as the chair of COP 26, beginning this crucial fortnight for the future of the planet, if not in the place where our nation should be, in at least a moderately prepared state.
Instead, we can feel a palpable sense of shock across the nation at the delivery, yesterday, of a Budget that can only be a reminder of the movie “Back to the Future”, for those old enough to remember it. For the Budget yesterday was one that, almost to the last word, could have been delivered in the year in which that film begins, 1985. The words “climate” and “nature” appear in it an easily measurably number of times: none. The word “growth” appears 14 times. The phrase,
“biggest business tax cut in modern British history”—[Official Report, Commons, 27/10/21; cols. 282-83.]
appears, in a manner wholly redolent of the sixth year of Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership.
The only significant new measure that the Government might call “green”—a chunk of funding for new nuclear power—is also a return to 1985 and the movie where the dangerous vehicle that drives the plot is powered by plutonium. This is a reminder of how nuclear power seemed to be the future then, whereas it is clear now, to most of the world at least, that it is an outdated, astonishingly expensive and inflexible technology that is deeply unreliable in delivery.
However, it was of course in 1985 that the first major international conference on the greenhouse effect, in Villach, Austria, warned that greenhouse gases could, in the last half of the next century,
“cause a rise of global … temperature which is greater than any in man’s history”,
adding the risk of sea-level rises of up to one metre. Some 36 years ago, this was, we now know, an astonishingly accurate warning, yet it seems one that parts of this Government at least, most notably the Chancellor and the Treasury, have still not heard.
Yet we have a Government who also say that they accept the legal duty in the Environment Bill—indeed, they wrote it—that Ministers must have due regard to the environmental principles policy statement when making policy across government. Of course, the Treasury’s Green Book is an important guide to that policy-making. In a Written Answer to Green MP Caroline Lucas in the other place on 16 June, Rebecca Pow confirmed:
“These principles will … be embedded into existing government policy making guidance, including HM Treasury’s Green Book.”
Yet that policy statement still exists only in draft form, on which the Government completed a consultation on 2 June. Noble Lords can read on the government website that the results would be published within 12 weeks, which by my calculation is 26 August. It is now 28 October.
In a Written Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, on Tuesday, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, said for the Government that the result of the consultation would be published “later in the year”. This does not compute, and I hope that the Minister will be able to provide a firmer timetable for the completion of this process, which would seem to be essential for the urgent process of making Her Majesty’s Treasury’s Green Book fit for the age of the climate emergency, which the Green Alliance, among other organisations, called for as a matter of urgency in its submission to that consultation.
The first of the five environmental principles listed in the Environment Bill is the integration principle. It is there on page 11 of the Bill, in its current form, which cites
“the principle that environmental protection should be integrated into the making of policies”.
Yet the Green Book and the Budget are built on an assumption of growth as a desirable and achievable outcome of investment. I go to Professor Jason Hickel of the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, writing in Nature Energy earlier this year:
“Established climate mitigation scenarios assume continued economic growth in all countries, and reconcile this with the Paris targets by betting on speculative technological change. Post-growth approaches may make it easier to achieve rapid mitigation while improving social outcomes.”
Carbon capture and storage, new nuclear and nature- based off-setting—check, check, check—all sound like “speculative technological change”. This is not to mention it not being possible to square these with number 5 of the environmental principles: the precautionary principle.
The Green Book starts with the idea of a project and then counts its effects. If it were truly to meet the environmental principles, it should surely adopt the approach of the “mission-oriented government”, as advocated by Professor Mariana Mazzucato, founder of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL:
“instead of having an industrial strategy that is a list of sectors”
that government is
“going to give subsidies to … the question should be: What are the problems you’re facing (climate change …, for example). And then work backward to figure out how all sectors and actors in the economy … can help deliver solutions.”
That is what a 21st-century Budget and Green Book fit for the age of shocks in which we live, on a planet where humans have stretched right up to, and all too frequently exceeded, the limits and boundaries of what the earth can bear, would look like.
Indeed, in its own review of the Green Book in 2020, the Treasury acknowledged serious faults: a failure to ensure that the strategic relevance of projects was clear from the outset and too heavy a reliance on the benefit-to-cost ratio because of a lack of strategic direction in the appraisal process. It has since attempted to remedy these faults with what is generally accepted as limited success. There are also attempts, through the supplementary guidance, to integrate consideration of well-being in project proposals and guidance for enabling a “natural capital approach”, which the Treasury could of course be drawing on from its own Dasgupta review. But there is still no consideration of our inability to continue GDP growth, an alternative qualitative metric to the benefit-to-cost ratio or an assessment of the overall impact of Treasury spending, rather than a project-by-project approach.
But I do not just want to posit all of this in the abstract; I am a Green, so of course I am ready to set out solutions. One worked-through example of this approach, to which I have already referred in your Lordships’ House, is the New Zealand Living Standards Framework, which is underpinned by four measured forms of capital that, it directs, must be enhanced and protected: natural capital, human capital, social capital, and the combination of financial and physical capital.
If you look at the budget delivered in New Zealand this May, you can start to see what a truly green budget, and a Green Book approach, could look like. It is called a well-being budget, and that is not just spin in the title. It is clear that the strategic direction driving every part of it is improving human and natural well-being. It is not just looking at this year, or the problems of this moment; it has a focus on the well-being of future generations—an approach that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, has been so clear in promoting in your Lordship’s House, which the Welsh Government are already well on the way to promoting, and which the UK Government have yet to even consider.
Underlying this is an ability to think systemically, to truly operate within the framework of the sustainable development goals that the whole world—the UK included—has signed up to. But I am a realist, and it is clear that to suddenly update the Green Book to truly measure and advance, in a balanced and systematic way, natural, human, social, financial and physical capital, would be well beyond the capacity of Her Majesty’s Treasury. So, I am going to offer a simpler solution, one that would enable the Government to expand beyond their one 20th-century, outdated, misleading, measure of GDP, into at least two dimensions. It is something the Green Party has been proposing for many years—that each government spending decision, each project, should have a carbon budget attached, as well as a financial one. Many critics have pointed out the lack of such in the Government’s other recent big announcements—the net-zero review and the heat and buildings strategy. It is not that difficult; it is entirely appropriate licence for the chair of COP. Can the Minister tell me when the Treasury plans to provide at least that modest step towards systems thinking?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for bringing this debate before the House, and I share her consternation at the Budget presented yesterday. It was shocking but, in a sense, unsurprising, given the history of the Treasury on these issues.
The Green Book exemplifies everything that is wrong with our approach to policymaking. It embraces a myopic Treasury view that has somehow survived through multiple changes of Government, despite the damage it has done to our economy and our society, as well as to our planet. The Green Book claims that it provides objective analysis to support decision-making but, in fact, it represents an approach that elevates a narrow cost-benefit approach over long-term policy objectives.
I take the most recent example of the heat and building strategy introduced last week. Among other things, the strategy introduces a new grant scheme aimed at installing 90,000 air source heat pumps each year. The purpose of introducing heat pumps is presumably to reduce carbon emissions in order to contribute to our net-zero objectives, yet the Treasury has turned this objective on its head. The grant scheme it has approved—or, most likely, imposed on BEIS—has cut the link between the size of the grant and the carbon emissions saved, and has focused instead on maximising the number of heat pumps installed regardless of the impact on emissions. This, in the world of the Green Book, is value for money, presumably based on what it calls its benefit-cost ratio model, and which the rest of us know as a cost-benefit analysis. The Treasury’s language, like its priorities, is back to front. The Treasury’s own review of the Green Book made the point that it was far too reliant on that model.
Meanwhile, in the real world, the approach the Treasury has approved on heat pumps risks a colossal misallocation of finance, significantly inflating the cost for every tonne of carbon saved compared with alternative models. The BEIS Treasury scheme requires individual households to apply for grants to cover the cost of installing an air source heat pump, meaning the installation of these pumps will be on an atomised and inefficient basis, which will make planning for the electricity grid almost impossible and will come with the inevitably high costs of grant administration. The Treasury seems to have lost sight of the real objective, which should be maximising the reduction in carbon emissions, rather than installing the maximum number of heat pumps. The two are not necessarily the same, but Her Majesty’s Treasury does not seem to understand that fact.
Neither BEIS nor the Treasury makes any reference to having looked at comparative models of net cost for different deployment strategies, and it appears that they have not done their own work on the subject either. Can the Minister tell us, for example, what consideration the Treasury gave, if any, to an alternative network solution for heat pumps, installing collective ground arrays on a neighbourhood basis which individual households could then choose to connect to, just as households previously chose whether they wished to connect to the gas or electricity grids or the sewage system? Would that not be a much more cost-effective solution and much more practical for households, rather than each installing their own individual pump? Similarly, what objective analysis did the Green Book model imply for assessing the costs to, and practicalities of, the national electricity grid, for making provision to meet the huge spikes in demand that significant numbers of individual air source heat pumps, haphazardly located around the country, could place on the grid when they have to switch to electric coil mode in cold conditions—the equivalent of a vast number of kettles being switched on at the same time?
The current approach that the Government are taking is as if, at the time we switched to gas in our homes, we had offered an individual grant scheme for any home to install a Calor Gas heating system without any thought as to how the Calor Gas would be distributed or of the huge additional costs to individuals and the economy of such an atomised approach. Thankfully, local and national government back then took a more thoughtful approach, creating first local and then national gas grids, which households could connect to. In those days, of course, the Treasury’s dead hand lay much less heavily on local government than it does today.
Can the Minister tell the House what options the Treasury considered? Did it, for example, consider alternatives such as issuing tenders for the installation of network heat pump arrays on a street-by-street basis? Such a model could ensure that installation was carried out in a planned way in tandem with the national grid; it could also ensure that deployment was prioritised for the coldest areas of the country and areas of greatest need. In turn, this could have driven the Government’s levelling-up agenda. Did the Government consider using a regulated asset-based model, allowing capped connection and standing charges to fund the necessary infrastructure over its lifetime? Did the Treasury use the Green Book approach to assess these various options before rejecting them, or did it just not consider them at all?
I dwell on the issue of heat pumps because it perfectly illustrates the failure of the myopic Green Book approach—the failure to look at the actual policy objectives that one is trying to realise, instead judging everything on a financial cost basis. It is on this basis that the Treasury can rationalise a policy that maximises the number of heat pumps installed while minimising the amount of carbon saved per pound spent and directing the majority of the spending not to those in most need but to the wealthiest areas in the country most likely to apply for the grant. In the weird and wonderful ways of the Treasury, it will most likely call that a success.
Of course, that is not the only area where the Treasury’s myopic approach makes it penny-wise and pound-foolish. There is a litany of examples down the ages in a whole range of areas, but particularly on the green agenda. First, there is the Green Deal, and the Treasury’s lack of vision or understanding of the carbon impact on our planet from a massive leakage of energy from our homes, leading it to insist on rates of interest that doomed the scheme to failure. On renewable energy, Her Majesty’s Treasury’s constant resistance ensured that the industrial benefits of Britain’s hugely successful shift to wind generation were largely enjoyed by competitor nations. The current short-sighted failure to take advantage of our industrial leadership on green hydrogen production makes it likely that, once again, we will hand that advantage to our overseas competitors.
Most recently, there is the monumental debacle of the Green Homes Grant scheme, which failed to deliver the home energy efficiency improvements that it promised, was catastrophically counterproductive in undermining the willingness of the construction industry to develop the skills needed for the green economy of the future, and failed even to provide the short-term stimulus that the Treasury claimed as the scheme’s raison d’être. In fact, the only stimulus that it really provided was to the private sector, in administrative fees of more than £1,000 per home. Such is the cost-effectiveness of Treasury thinking.
It is time for wholesale change to that model of government. It is time to recognise that we cannot keep talking about our net-zero targets while taking actions that completely contradict them; while we put forward a Budget that reduces taxation on the highest-polluting form of travel, at the same time as imposing record rail fare increases on one of the least carbon-intensive forms of travel. The country cannot afford to allow the Treasury to keep steering the ship of government on to the rocks on climate change issues. We need a wholly changed approach.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, on securing this short debate. The speakers’ list may be short, but it is perfectly formed. The Question before us and the guidance it refers to may be highly technical in nature, but it is hugely important. It also follows on nicely from Monday’s Oral Question on the extent to which government departments are adopting National Audit Office guidance on climate-related risk. Before turning my attention to the Green Book, I would like to wish luck to everybody involved in the delivery of COP 26. The Prime Minister has sought to manage expectations in recent days, but it is in all our interests that the summit is a success. Recent Environment Bill debates on topics such as air and water quality do little to instil confidence that the Government are willing to show the type of global leadership that is needed. However, for the next two weeks we must work together to achieve the best possible outcomes for the planet.
The Government’s recent review of the Green Book was triggered by their wish to level up poorer parts of the UK, amid concerns that the previous guidance was preventing investment reaching such communities. The outcome has been to place greater emphasis on the strategic case of a project from the very beginning. Officials are told to present their projects in the context of the Government’s political priorities, in the hope of ensuring that the “right” projects progress to the benefit-cost ratio stage. The impact of projects on carbon emissions will need to be considered as part of the appraisal process, which is welcome. A number of other green strands feature in the Green Book, although contributing to the 2050 net-zero target is not quite the prerequisite one might expect.
The Dasgupta review included consideration of important areas such as how to boost recognition of the value of natural capital. While some metrics have been introduced, that review expressed concern that few business cases were making use of them. Unfortunately, there is little sense that the latest Treasury guidance addresses those issues. Dasgupta is not the only person to voice such concerns. An upcoming report by the UK100 network of mayors and local leaders will argue that government financial decisions fail to give sufficient weight to environmental and health benefits when deciding policy. They also worry that not enough emphasis is put on the potential savings and benefits of decarbonisation.
This intervention is timely as it follows the outcomes of the Treasury’s review of discount rates, which are central to this debate, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s updated valuations of greenhouse gas impacts. Both were published last month. The decision not to update the discount rate for long-term environmental benefits is predicated on the notion that under the revised guidance, initial forecasts of costs and benefits can be improved. One would certainly hope that the accuracy of such assessments will be boosted but it appears a risky strategy. Indeed, in correspondence with the Commons Treasury Committee, the Treasury’s Permanent Secretary conceded that the methodology for assessing environmental impacts of projects
“will always to some extent be ‘work in progress’”.
The Minister may be tempted to say that if the current approach does not work, a new iteration of the Green Book will take that into account. This may be true, but it will not account for the missed opportunities between times.
Another workstream being undertaken by the Treasury is the development of a dedicated means of valuing biodiversity during the benefit-cost ratio stage. Your Lordships’ House has just had a series of major debates on biodiversity as part of the Environment Bill, and the Government have set themselves the target of halting what they call “species abundance” decline by 2030. How does the Minister envisage the Green Book contributing to that target and when are we likely to see the new metrics?
It is hard to achieve absolute perfection in any bidding process. In a sense, we are always playing catch-up as guidance is designed to reflect and promote best practice, rather than adopt experimental approaches. Nevertheless, the outcomes of the Green Book review point to a certain lack of ambition in terms of securing environmental improvement and striding, rather than shuffling, towards the 2050 net-zero target. That same lack of ambition can be found elsewhere in government policy—indeed, in too many areas to list. That would appear to undermine the UK’s presidency of COP 26. For now, we must trust that Ministers have a grand plan, first to secure the commitments needed in Glasgow and then to start delivering on the promises made. If they do not, I am that sure your Lordships’ House will have much to say in the future.
My Lords, I am pleased to respond to this debate at what is a significant moment for efforts to tackle climate change. I also want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for bringing forward this debate at a time when we must ensure that we all work together more than ever to preserve and enhance the world for ourselves and, as she alluded to, for future generations. I applaud the ingenuity of her timing, which I gather is by design. As she said, it is just after the Budget and just before COP 26. Perhaps, before I begin, I should recognise the key role that the United Kingdom is playing this year. At the COP 26 gathering in Glasgow, the UK will seek to boost global climate action and help to deliver a long-term transition to a net-zero, resilient and environmentally sustainable global economy.
I realise that the focus of this debate is on the Green Book, but I should just like to address some points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, on the spending review. I simply do not agree which either of them, particularly the noble Baroness and her pessimistic and negative assessments of the Budget. Let me say why. The spending review confirms our plan to deliver more than £600 billion in gross public sector investment over the Parliament. Our investment plans over the next five years mean that we will deliver the highest sustained levels of public sector net investment as a proportion of GDP since the late 1970s. The UK will lead international efforts to agree co-ordinated action on climate change, and the spending review reconfirms the Government’s commitment to doubling international climate finance from 2021. It also provides a significant increase in R&D funding to help UK researchers and business push the frontiers of knowledge in order to find solutions to major international development challenges, including on climate change. We do not hear this from the noble Baroness, and I wanted to put her right because it is easy to hear the negativity.
COP 26 will be the biggest summit of its kind the UK has ever held, with over 120 world leaders attending. Our ambition at this summit is to ensure that action is actually taken on the ground and across the world to tackle climate change, as it is these actions, not words, that will result in a transition to an environmentally sustainable global economy. The Government’s agenda has been simple: we are urging all countries to submit bold nationally determined contributions—NDCs—transformational long-term strategies and net-zero commitments, and to come forward with new adaptation and finance plans to ensure that this is a decade of ambitious climate action.
Day three of COP 26, the finance day, will include a strong focus on mobilising public and private capital to reach global net zero. The UK is leading the way here—for example, through our new infrastructure bank and the issuance of green gilts. The Treasury’s work, including on the Green Book—which I will come to in a moment—is part of our wider aim to mainstream climate into all decision-making.
The Government are convinced that to do this, international co-operation is key. That is why we have taken our influential work on the Green Book to international fora, such as the Coalition of Finance Ministers for Climate Action and the Paris Collaborative led by the OECD. Sharing our knowledge and expertise, but also the challenges we face when appraising policy, is crucial to making sure that climate change is tackled not just at home but internationally.
The Treasury’s Green Book plays an important role in framing decisions on domestic public spending. The Green Book provides guidance on the appraisal of policies, programmes and projects, and sets out a framework for providing objective advice to decision-makers by public servants. That does not mean that it represents the be-all and end-all of government spending, and we should be wary of giving it undue emphasis. That is because it does not outline the Government’s policy objectives. It simply provides an official framework for ensuring that policy objectives are met, such as our goals at COP 26 and our commitments on net zero, and that the relevant costs, benefits and risks of alternative approaches for meeting those objectives are also considered.
As I said earlier, it is actions that matter—and yes, leadership, which was alluded to in the title of this debate from the noble Baroness. For example, the net-zero strategy confirmed £26 billion of public capital investment since the 10-point plan. The Budget and the spending review confirm that since March 2021 the Government will have committed a total of £30 billion of domestic investment for the green industrial revolution. Taken together, this spending package, along with action on regulation and green finance, will keep the UK on track for its carbon budgets and 2030 nationally determined contribution and establishes the long-term pathway towards net zero by 2050.
I want to address the main focus of this debate. I will highlight the five areas of recent and planned action to comprehensively improve the Green Book on environmental appraisal to best support our policy objectives on net zero. From the tone of her speech, the noble Baroness is wholly unaware of such improvements and I am pleased, if I may, to put the House right and to inform the noble Baroness on this.
First, the 2020 Green Book review specifically focused on ensuring that strategic objectives are central to policy development and judging whether a proposal is value for money. When using the Green Book to appraise policy interventions, officials must start by assessing the strategic case for investment and how their intervention affects government objectives. Your Lordships will know that the Government’s policy objective to achieve net zero is a legal commitment.
In 2019, we amended the Climate Change Act 2008 to commit the UK to achieving net zero by 2050. The previous target was an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. This was the world’s first legally binding national commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to the net-zero target, the Climate Change Act 2008 sets out a system of interim carbon budgets, which are also legally binding, to ensure targets are met.
Secondly, the Green Book is continually updated so that it reflects the latest evidence, particularly for understanding the impacts of policy interventions on the environment, so that decision-makers are presented with robust evidence before making decisions. This work to continuously update the Green Book is led by the Treasury, with support from other departments.
Thirdly, the Treasury has worked with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to update supplementary guidance to the Green Book on carbon values. These are used across government for assessing greenhouse gas impacts in cost-benefit analysis. Only last month, these values were updated to reflect the latest evidence. They are consistent with the UK’s domestic pathway to net zero and meeting the Paris 1.5 degrees climate commitments. Noble Lords will be interested to know that reflecting these updates in appraisals leads to an increase in the cost estimates resulting from higher emissions.
Fourthly, Defra’s supplementary guidance to the Green Book, Enabling a Natural Capital Approach, was updated in August this year to incorporate new values available for environmental appraisal when using the Green Book.
Fifthly, the Treasury has convened a group of experts—including academic economists and scientists, and officials who use the Green Book—to inform and advise decision-makers to produce supplementary guidance on biodiversity valuation for the Green Book. This will lead to new supplementary guidance to the Green Book for valuing biodiversity as part of appraisal.
I would like to go slightly further and raise three further points to address some questions the noble Baroness raised. First, the Green Book mandates the consideration of climate and environmental impacts in appraisal. That applies to appraising spending, including spending review bids from departments. Secondly, the Treasury continues to develop the Green Book and its supplementary guidance alongside its cross-government chief economist appraisal group, which oversees developments, so that it is at the forefront of the latest evidence, including its environmental appraisal. Thirdly, the Treasury is currently working alongside the group of experts. I go further by saying that this is supplementary guidance on the biodiversity valuation.
We have taken significant steps to update the Green Book, but it is also true that improving policy appraisal and evidence in the Green Book is a continuous and cross-government effort that will continue after COP 26. That is particularly true for environmental appraisal.
The noble Lord, Lord Oates, in most of his speech, raised some important points about heat pumps. It may well be that I need to write a letter to him about the specific and technical questions he raised, but I will say this. The approach we are setting out will ensure that the transition is fair and affordable for consumers. These are two important points. It will mean people living in warmer and more efficient homes that are cheaper to heat. We will work with the grain of consumer choice. No one will be required to rip out or scrap their existing boiler and we will ensure that the biggest polluters pay the most for the transition.
We will work with businesses to continue delivering deep cost reductions in low-carbon tech through support for the latest state-of-the-art kit to bring down costs for consumers and deliver benefits for businesses. Our £450 million boiler upgrade scheme will provide £5,000 towards the costs of new air source heat pumps, making green heating more affordable. That is just a short answer, but the noble Lord raised a lot of questions.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, talked about the Dasgupta Review and raised an important point. I think he will know that the Government published their formal response to the review in June. The Government agree with the review’s central conclusion that nature, and the biodiversity that underpins it, ultimately sustain our economies, livelihoods and well-being. Economic and financial decision-making must account for this. Building on the ambitious existing nature agenda, the response sets out the ways in which the Government will go further, framed around two high-level commitments.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, mentioned the discount rate. I think we could probably have a whole debate on that subject. I will say very briefly that, as committed to in the 2020 Green Book review—to bring us back to this subject—the Treasury worked with leading academics to understand whether there is a case for reducing the discount rate for environmental impacts. He will know that the outcome of this was published in September. Following a series of workshops and engagement, the academic consensus was that discount rates should be no different for environmental impacts from other impacts considered in appraisal.
The focus of COP 26 will be on how we continue to take ambitious climate action. As I am sure the House will agree, tackling climate change is a huge undertaking requiring both national and international action. Updates to the Green Book are a small but influential element of that action where we will strive to remain at the forefront of international best practice.
It is fair to say that we cannot be certain of the outcomes of COP 26, but one thing is sure. I want to emphasise to the House today that this Government have worked tirelessly to ensure that climate stays at the very top of the global agenda in the international effort to keep 1.5 degrees within reach.
I conclude simply by again thanking the noble Baroness and the other noble Lords for their insightful and constructive contributions. As David Attenborough said only a few days ago on the news, which I happened to see:
“If we don’t act now, it’ll be too late.”
He is absolutely right.
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it seems very apposite to try to bring together the things that we see at this moment that seem to be causing a lot of anxiety among people with very little—these are people who are on the edge, just about managing and just about coping—around fuel, the cost of heating, and the cutting of the universal credit top-up which, noble Lords will remember, was the cut that Mr Osborne made to the universal credit. The £20, in fact, was only trying to go back to an earlier time and therefore was not a top-up; it was a reintroduction of something that had been cut in the days of austerity. When you look at that and at the end of furlough, you have— and I am sorry to use the cliché that everybody talks about—a “perfect storm”. It is a perfect storm for hundreds of thousands—millions—of people who are caught in this kind of trap where their costs are going up.
I am not really going to dwell on that this afternoon, because I know that the forensic evidence will come from what I would call my “forensic posse”—the other people who are going to talk about this—and they are much, much better informed on that. What I would really like to talk about is why it is that, every now and then, we seem to have these arguments about the very difficult circumstances that many people—the poorest among us—find themselves in. Why is it that, post Covid, we are still in an emergency but are trying to pretend that we are in a recovery?
On Monday of this week, I was on a TV programme that dealt with all of these issues, among other things. It was mainly lots of people complaining to the programme—I was on the panel—about the fact that they were just about managing. In one way, they could pay their rent, but it might mean that they could not feed their children; or they could feed their children but they could not turn on the heating. That was the kind of situation. Anyway, I was on this panel, but I did not particularly like it because it was a very rigid piece of television, and I thought, “Give me ‘Question Time’ any time”—because then you can overtalk and interrupt people and be a big mouth, which I obviously relish the opportunity to be.
I got home at about 11 pm and somebody had sent me a letter. I do not want to upset the House, but it was a “Dear f-off John” letter, if noble Lords will forgive me for using that phrase. It was one of those “John, who the hell are you?” letters. It was a long litany of complaints about the programme and our avoidance of the major issue. The major issue was that if we actually educated people; if we gave education to everybody in Britain from the first moment to the last moment; if we gave it free to everybody; then we could educate people out of poverty; we could raise people out of poverty; we could, in a sense, get rid of the whole idea of people just about managing. Anyway, at the end of the letter, I had to agree, because it is exactly what I believe.
I believe very strongly that we are always going round in a circle, dealing with the problems of people in need. The reason for that is that we never take our social money and spend it wisely. We always spend the social money to just about keep people in a kind of permanent state of emergency, where they are just about managing. We live in a low-wage economy; our banks are frightened of lending to businesses, so that is why our banks lend 80% of their money for the buying and selling of property. They lend only 20% for the creation of new businesses, new opportunities and new investments, which would lift a whole slew of people out of poverty and into opportunity, hope and a better world, where they would not have to keep worrying about whether they can feed their children or turn on the gas or turn on the light.
We live in an underinvested world, and it is about time we woke up to the fact that the only reason that there are people on the edge like this is that we did not invest in their social education; we did not invest in their early education. When we fail 35% of our children in school, where do we find them? We find them down among the lowest paid. You only have to have a £5 benefit change and those people are in great need. Twenty pounds means nothing to me and nothing to anybody else in this House, but it means a shedload if you are on universal credit. If you look at the people who are stuck on universal credit, they will be the people who have not been invested in to get them out of poverty. They have not been given the skills or opportunity; they have not been given the chance to move away from need and poverty. That is why £20 means so much to them.
Returning to the letter, I thought to myself, “The cheeky git, he’s stolen all my lines”—but he inspired me once again to return to the House and say that the real, important thing to me is how we can stop this cycle. How can we stop the fact that, in a year’s time, or two years’ time or five years’ time or 10 years’ time, we are always going to have to address the problems faced by the most impoverished and, often, the most uneducated people? These are the people who did not get the educational chances, the social chances, or the hope given to many people who pass through school and get the chance of moving on.
The problem with Governments—and every Government have done this; I have been at this now for 30 years, from the days of Margaret Thatcher and John Major to the days of Mr Boris and Mr Sunak—is that they all do exactly the same thing. They give you a small amount of money—a token—and say, “This goes towards solving the problem”. Every Minister has said this to me. I say, “What are you doing about that?” and they say, “Well, we’ve got an initiative going—we’ve got this brilliant initiative. We do know that this problem is really deep—but here’s a fraction of the money to solve the problem”.
I said on the television this morning, when I was asked what one of the problems was, “One of the problems is that we have hundreds of thousands of people—500,000 people—who haven’t paid their mortgage or rent and are likely to be the new homeless”. And what do the Government give us? God bless them, they give us £65 million—and it has to pass through local authorities, which probably want to spend it in a different way—to address another problem. The other problem is that there is £650 million of arrears in the country, and it is going up.
I love Governments—they are wonderful human beings who know how to throw a dog a bone. But they do not give the whole meal. It is a bit like arriving at a forest fire and getting out your little fire extinguisher. We need to move beyond that. We need to get Governments to be a bit more honest and stop saying, “I tell you what: we’ll put on some initiative and we’ll be able to say at the end of the debate that we are addressing that problem, even though we’re addressing only 5% of the problem”. That is one of the problems. There are many, many problems.
As I have said in this House before, I think we are very much like we were in 1940 when Winston Churchill had to borrow the future—an enormous amount of the future—to defeat the Nazis. Imagine what it would have been like if in 1940 the Government had said, “We can’t do that; we cannot cause future generations to carry our debts”. Every change that has taken place in the world in the time of our democracy has always been about people borrowing the future. We borrowed the future in 1940 and paid off the last bit in 2007. I was 61 when we stopped paying for a war that I was not in and that ended a year before I was born. And that goes for most of us. It was an enormous amount of money but, if we had not done it, we would have dismantled society and created enormous problems for ourselves. We would have created Nazis over here, with all their racist rubbish. But we decided that we would stand and fight, and with our Russian cousins and our American allies—cousins as well—we took them on and defeated Nazism.
Now we have to defeat poverty. We cannot poodle around with poverty. Poverty is coming our way in a way that is much bigger than it has ever been before. It will not just be the people I have been working for during the last 30 years: the people who have been socially engineered to fail; who had a bad beginning at school; who had poor parenting or, when they went to school, whose parents did not realise it was a great opportunity for them to move away from poverty and who ended up at the end of their school lives and you would not know they had been to school—people like me. The only job they could get was picking up a shovel and digging a hole or laying concrete—and then those jobs disappeared, and a lot of those people who failed in that welfare state experiment became the underclass, the poor, and then passed it on to another generation. That is where you normally get your homeless from.
I work with 17,000 people a year. My organisation is all over the country and the world. It works with hundreds of thousands of people. Very few of them are in homelessness just because they do not have a home; it is largely because all sorts of other things have gone wrong before they got there.
In my opinion, if we do not recognise that we are in a continuing emergency and are not yet in recovery, or are in only a partial recovery, and unless we invest in saving them, people will slip en masse into homelessness over the next year or two, as soon as the courts can process those half a million people who are behind in rent and will possibly be evicted. Perhaps I should not say it, but the Rowntree Trust thinks the number is not half a million but 1.5 million. So I am actually trying to be nice by saying that it is only half a million. I am trying to be nice to the Government and say, “Come on, lads, give us enough money to keep people in their homes, because if they slip into homelessness they will cost you twice or three times the amount of money it would cost to keep them in their homes”. That is the kind of stuff I am talking about.
Looking at these indications that, once again, we are dealing with those people, I would say that, if I were in the Government, the first thing I would do is step back and look at what works, do an audit of it and then step back and work out how we can spend our social intervention money not on keeping people in crisis for the whole of their lives but on getting them out. It cannot be done by simply slinging £64 million at a problem that needs £640 million. We have to get away from that tokenism, because that is one of the most dishonest things that every Government I have known have done. I will not tell your Lordships how many Prime Ministers I have spoken to who have thrown crumbs in the direction of the poor and not delivered.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for instigating this debate and for his very powerful introduction to so many vital issues, poverty being at the heart of it all. I will address my remarks to the affordability of housing. I hope the noble Lord thinks that will help the debate; I will just focus on that part, because it is so wide-reaching. I have long had very considerable concerns about the quality and cost of housing for many families who have come directly to my attention in my roles as a councillor in Kirklees in West Yorkshire and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
The noble Lord, Lord Bird, has focused the attention of this debate on the impact of the reduction in universal credit—which is still a reality for the majority of those who claim benefits, despite the changes announced in the Budget yesterday—the end of the furlough scheme and the rise in fuel prices. He is absolutely right to be very concerned about the impact that that triple combination of issues will have. There are other issues he mentioned only in passing, such as the rise in food prices and, for some folk whose housing is not affordable, the taxation increases through national insurance contributions. All those will make it so much harder for people who have only just enough to pay their housing costs, be that mortgage or rent.
The noble Lord, Lord Bird, gave us some assessment of the numbers of people already in rent arrears and under threat of becoming homeless as a result. This is a result of deep-seated problems that have been enhanced by the economic effects of the pandemic. This afternoon, I will draw the attention of the House to the challenges of affordability that exist now and existed before the pandemic.
The Government are very keen on promoting so-called “affordable housing”. In the Budget announcement yesterday, the Chancellor allocated £11.5 billion to provide affordable housing. In broad terms, affordable housing means housing that is provided at around 80% of the market level. But for many renters this remains unaffordable, even for those on middle incomes, let alone those on low incomes, as the Affordable Housing Commission reported last year.
The phrase “affordable housing”, as currently defined, is completely misleading and should be challenged—as I do at every opportunity. Worse still, so-called affordable homes are affordable only once. The Government could, and in my view should, require affordable housing to be affordable in perpetuity. Will the Minister agree to investigate that suggestion and let me know the outcome of any ideas that come forward?
The rented sector is so unaffordable that the Government expend considerable sums on housing benefit—the forecast is that £30.3 billion will be spent this year. The House of Commons report states that 25% of this will be for tenants in local authority housing, 38% for housing association tenants, and 37% for private sector tenants. According to a report by Shelter last year, there are 1.4 million tenants in the private rented sector who rely on housing benefit or have it as part of their universal credit.
As many Members will know, the rate of benefit is calculated according to the local housing allowance, which is referenced to local market rents. During the pandemic, the LHA level was reset at the 30th percentile. This is the maximum that can be claimed. In theory, it is enough to ensure that housing benefit covers the cost of renting a typical house large enough to meet the needs of the household. If all the rent is to be covered by housing benefit, this means that the only houses available in the private rented sector are those falling at 30%, or below, of local market rents. If there are more families and individuals requiring a property within that first 30% than there are rented properties available, then people reliant on housing benefit to help with their rent find that they have to pay above that rate in order to get somewhere to live.
I will illustrate this with examples from my own hometown, of Cleckheaton. Here, the local housing allowance for a two-bed property is £103.56 per week. I know that will be a surprise to many people who live in London, but that is what it is in my part of West Yorkshire. This is the maximum a family can receive in housing benefit. Yesterday, I did a search to find potential properties. I failed to find any at or below £103.56. There was a two-bed Victorian terrace in a row of back-to-backs—literally two up, two down—at £106 a week, the lowest rent I could find; this house was in a terrace, with no garden or frontage, giving straight on to the street. There were other two-bed Victorian terraced properties at £114 and £137 a week. The result is that families who are desperate for somewhere to live, and whose income means that they depend on housing benefit, end up renting a property costing more than the local housing allowance. The extra that has to be found—even if it is £3 a week, let alone £11 or £24—comes at the expense of their other living costs, such as food, heating and travel. It is one of the reasons why so many families have had to turn to food banks and why, as we heard, so many are in arrears and in danger of losing their homes.
The problem I have described is of course magnified in cities such as London, where housing costs are many times those in the example I have given. Here, the difference in the rate of local housing allowance and the rent that has to be paid is so high that families are in very difficult financial circumstances.
All that I have described predates the additional financial strain on household finances as a result of Covid. Earlier this year, housing charities called on the Government to tackle rising rent arrears. A report by Crisis, Shelter and, I think, Citizens Advice estimated that at least half a million households had rent arrears so large that they were in danger of being made homeless. Of these, 300,000 households have dependent children. If they are made homeless, the local authority has a duty to find accommodation.
The challenge for local authorities in rehousing those who have become homeless is an almost impossible one, as the stock of housing in the public sector has seriously diminished. In the Kirklees Council district, so-called council housing is around half of what it was 20 years ago; it has fallen from 46,000 houses to about 23,000, the last time I looked. Rents in that sector—social rents—are significantly lower, at an average of about £70 a week. These rent levels are covered in total by housing benefit where needed, at a significantly lower cost to the public purse. The question for the Government is this: why are they failing to fund the construction of significantly more houses at social rent? This would not only meet the needs of the million or more people currently on council house waiting lists but could be achieved at a much more reduced level of public funding —public subsidy for housing benefit and construction—than any other way. I just despair, really.
I have focused my remarks so far on those who rent their home, but there is a growing challenge for young people who want to buy a house, as for many it is totally unaffordable. The solution is not simply setting numbers of houses to be built as targets, as developers simply build the houses that give them the biggest profit. The Government need to move away from setting targets of numbers of units built and turn their attention to the type of unit and location, to enable young people to get on the housing ladder. There is a great challenge here for policymakers, in providing homes to rent that are genuinely within the means of renters who depend on housing benefit—or the universal credit part of that—and in enabling the construction of large numbers of homes that are within the financial means of first-time buyers.
I have asked a lot of questions, which I hope the Minister will respond to. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for this debate, which has enabled us to raise issues of housing affordability and poverty. We do not talk enough about these issues. With those remarks, I look forward to the rest of the debate and to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I too welcome this debate, so forcefully introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, whose work to help the homeless in the 30 years that I have known him I commend, in particular his work to help those sleeping rough to rebuild their lives. He referred to those speaking in this debate as his “posse”. A posse, I think, is a body of men—they are nearly always are men—summoned to enforce the law by the sheriff. I would be the first to pin the appropriate badge on the noble Lord, following his introduction to the debate this afternoon.
I confess that I am one of the Ministers who had a dialogue with the noble Lord, Lord Bird—I think some 30 years ago—and allocated what he described as “crumbs” to help the Big Issue. He may have thought they were crumbs, but they were quite difficult for a spending Minister to extract from the Government’s coffers. We now celebrate, I think, the 30th year of the Big Issue, and I commend all the work that it has done to help those sleeping rough.
I want to focus on the aspect of the noble Lord’s Motion that refers to people’s ability to stay in their homes. I agree that we should do all we can to avoid the disruption and trauma of people having to leave their home against their will. The Motion identifies three factors that are highly relevant, referred to by the noble Baroness, but I want to refer to others that have an equally important role to play in preventing homelessness.
In 1991, the year the Big Issue was founded, 75,500 home owners had their homes repossessed because they could not keep up with their repayments. In 2019, the figure was 4,580. The difference is principally accounted for by the historically low interest rates that we have enjoyed for some time, which have kept home ownership affordable and reduced repossessions and homelessness. That is why the section of the Budget yesterday which emphasised responsibility with public finances and the commitment to low and stable inflation was important, and highly relevant to our debate this afternoon. As the Chancellor said yesterday, higher borrowing today is just higher interest rates and even higher taxes tomorrow. This will help reduce homelessness if, as we hope, the Budget succeeds in the ambition of keeping interest rates low.
It is not just home owners who will benefit. The growing number of families renting from landlords who have bought to let have an interest in seeing low interest rates too, to avoid any upward pressure on rents. With low interest rates, registered social landlords are able to build more affordable homes at lower rents, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, thus enabling that movement to make a greater contribution to meeting housing needs. So, although it might not seem directly relevant, fiscal responsibility can take pressure off housing budgets and homelessness.
Moving from the macro to the micro, I am concerned, like both of the previous speakers, about the 7% of private renters, some 78,000, who are now in arrears, the majority of whom had no rent arrears before the pandemic began. We have had the six-month stay of eviction and extended notice periods and, while many landlords have done all they can to help their tenants, landlords themselves, many of them private, cannot provide such support indefinitely.
I understand the concern about the ending of the UC uplift, which one hopes will be softened by the taper reduction yesterday, but I wonder if more could be done to help those now in difficulty with their rent. Government figures show that more than 190,000 renters who are receiving universal credit are at least two or more months behind on their rent, a rise of 70% in six months. That figure includes social tenants. Should there not be wider publicity about the help available to those facing potential homelessness and, if possible, an assurance that the Government will consider topping up the funds if they prove inadequate?
There are a number of sources of help—possibly too many. We have the funding announced yesterday of £65 million for councils to support vulnerable tenants in arrears, and then there is the £310 million already available through the homelessness prevention grant—and then there are the household support fund and discretionary housing payments, as well as the welcome £640 million a year announced yesterday to address rough sleeping and homelessness. Is there a case for rationalising and simplifying these sources of funds and possibly trying to standardise them, rather than leaving them to the postcode lottery of local discretion, as well as publicising them all far more effectively and making them more accessible to those threatened with eviction, so they know help is available? As I have said, if necessary, might the Government also consider topping up the funds if local authorities are under pressure? There is a precedent for this, as the discretionary housing payments were topped up six years ago, after the bedroom tax, or spare room subsidy policy, came in.
I turn briefly to rough sleeping. The Everyone In scheme meant that by January 2021 a reported 37,000 people had been supported out of rough sleeping, or situations such as sofa surfing or staying in shelters, into emergency accommodation with their own room and facilities. In addition, thanks to the work of local authorities and voluntary organisations, 26,000 people helped by Everyone In have now moved into “move-on” accommodation, providing a step forward out of homelessness for good. But there still remain far too many at risk of going back on to the streets.
I hope the funds announced yesterday can expand the Housing First programme. Analysis by Crisis shows that the 9,400 people who were supported through Everyone In face multiple challenges, such as mental ill-health, alcohol or drug dependency. They are at high risk of returning to the streets if the only support available to them is spending time in hostels or other forms of temporary accommodation. Housing First meets the challenge posed by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, when he asked what works; it has proven to be successful in helping homeless people facing multiple challenges, as the Government’s pilot schemes have shown, and it now needs a boost from the funds announced yesterday, instead of facing a cliff edge next year.
More broadly, and finally, can my noble friend say when the Government will bring forward their White Paper on rental reform, saying how they will bring an end to no-fault evictions, including putting protections in place for renters in arrears due to delays in benefit payments? The Government are also committed to what are called open-ended tenancies, instead of the standard six-month assured tenancy agreement, with all the uncertainty that goes with that. So-called open tenancies will give people moving on from homelessness more control not just of their future housing but other aspects of their lives, making it easier to seek and retain work, plan for childcare and schooling, and end the cost of frequent unwanted moves.
I share much of the concern that has been expressed about homelessness in this debate and, while welcoming the steps the Government have already taken, I believe more can be done along the lines I have suggested, so I look forward to my noble friend’s reply.
My Lords, in May, I was privileged, as chairman of the CBI, to chair the B7 before the G7 in June. I remember very clearly one of our speakers, Dr Gita Gopinath, chief economist of the IMF, saying that Britain was one of the countries around the world that would have a V-shaped recovery, because we had invested huge amounts. The Government had invested £400 billion in saving the economy, saving jobs and saving businesses, which in absolute terms or per capita terms was one of the highest in the world. Also, we had an excellent vaccination programme that, even by May, was progressing at speed. That was in May. What has happened since then?
We have had labour shortages. We all hear about lorry drivers, something that I mentioned in a speech over here in June; we have had shortages of butchers, something I mentioned in a speech for the CBI to the Employers Federation in June. In hospitality, in financial services, across the board, in just about every sector, we have had shortages.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for introducing this debate. We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world. We are still the sixth largest economy in the world, yet you see poverty in your face in this country. I was born and brought up in India, and I have seen things there, but to see it here, in a country that is so wealthy, is unacceptable. We have food banks in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. We have homeless people in one of the wealthiest countries in the world—and, of course, what the noble Lord, Lord Bird, has done with the Big Issue is an inspiration to the whole world.
We have had the fuel crisis. We have had queues at petrol pumps. I remember driving back from Birmingham at midnight, seeing these queues and saying, “Is this real?” I pinched myself: “Is this really happening, in this country, today?” We have had the energy crisis. We nearly run out of CO2. Thankfully, the Government stepped in and got one of the manufacturers to start again. With my own business, Cobra Beer, without CO2 we cannot make our product, and there are many others like us.
We have had inflation now across the board. I remember asking the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in a meeting that I was hosting for the CBI in March, which he spoke at, whether he was worried about inflation. Now we see that inflation went up to 3.3%, then down to 3.2% but is predicted to go to 4%. Many are saying it will go even higher and wage inflation is much higher than that—almost double it or more.
I said to the Chancellor in March: “Follow the example of India”. At the Indian Budget in February, they did not increase taxes because, as they said clearly to me in a meeting which I held with the chief civil servant in charge of that Budget, “We didn’t increase taxes because businesses have suffered enough in this pandemic and we don’t want to endanger or stifle the recovery”. I said to our Indian-origin Chancellor “Listen to India”; well, he listened to an extent, but he announced that corporation tax would be going up from 19% to 25% in two years’ time. He announced the freezing of allowances, but he also announced the super-deduction—a fantastic measure with a 130% deduction to encourage investment by businesses.
Then we fast forward: we have had the announcement of national insurance going up by not 1.25% but 1.25% multiplied by two, because it covers employers as well as employees. Our country now has a tax burden that is at its highest in 70 years. We have had £400 billion of spending for the pandemic and we now have the highest level of spending since the 1970s. High spending and high taxes is not a good place to be.
On top of this we have had the £20 uplift in universal credit, which has now stopped. There were 5.8 million people on that credit. To put it in context, before the pandemic and the lockdown in March 2020 there were 3 million, so almost 3 million more people were having to use this help.
Interest rates are now at their lowest since the Bank of England was founded in 1694, at 0.1%. If that interest rate goes up, just 1% extra in interest rates adds £26 billion to the Government’s bills, because 25% of government debt is linked to interest rates. That will hit mortgages, consumers and businesses.
Going back to March last year, we had just been hit from nowhere by the pandemic. Nobody predicted that a global pandemic would happen. We had the ambiguity and uncertainty staring us in the face. I was then the vice-president of the CBI. I remember that we had a board meeting where I was asked, “Karan, you have been through some tough times in your business. What do you think we will need to do now?” I had nearly lost my business three times and I said “If we go into lockdown, businesses will shut. There will be many businesses that cannot operate if their sales dry up. If your sales dry up, then your cash dries up. You need cash, but if you go to the bank it will not lend any money to you because of the uncertainty in the environment”. The banks were going to have to have a guarantee from the Government to lend. I said, “If they guarantee 80% or 85%, that is not going to work. The banks will not be willing to take that risk of 15% to 20% exposure”.
The Government did not listen initially and the bank lending did not flow through. The CBILS loans started and I kept saying “You’ve got to guarantee the loans 100%”. We used the examples of Switzerland and Germany, which had started to guarantee 100% loans and the money was flowing through. Eventually, the Government listened and we had the bounce-back loans. Over 1 million businesses have received those loans. I give full credit to the British Business Bank; it had an £8 billion loan book before the pandemic but it has an £80 billion loan book today, and a big chunk of that is bounce-back loans.
Yesterday, I was in Teesside and I met its dynamic young mayor, Ben Houchen, who has plans to energise and bring investment into his region. I went from there to visit the oldest warship afloat in the world, except for the USS “Constitution”, which I do not count as it has been 99% rebuilt. It is HMS “Trincomalee”, built 200 years ago in Bombay by the Wadias, who were Zoroastrian Parsees like me. My great-aunt Sheru was a Wadia, so I was proud to go on board this ship that was built barely 20 years after the Battle of Trafalgar.
From there I went on to Crathorne Hall—the ancestral home of the noble Lord, Lord Crathorne—and spoke to the CBI north-east. At the end of my speech, the organiser came up to me and said, “The sound engineers would just like to have a word with you”, because I spoke about bounce-back loans in my speech. They were almost in tears, and they said, “We just want to thank you. Our business was shut for 18 months. We took a bounce-back loan, and that’s what saved us. Now we’ve got our business back, so thank you”. I could give your Lordships example after example of how these loans have helped.
One of the biggest restaurant caterers in the country and a customer of Cobra Beer, Madhu’s, shut for 18 months as there were no weddings or events. Three million people did not receive any help during the pandemic; they call themselves the “excluded”. Then we had this fantastic job retention scheme from our brilliant young Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. The JR scheme was meant to end in May last year—remember that? We said that it could not end and asked for it to be extended it to June. We said, “Are we going to have rolling cliff edges? Are we going to have a more flexible job retention scheme?” The Chancellor and the Government listened, and the CBI, the TUC, and all the other business organisations worked with the Government. When did the job retention scheme end? It was in September this year. It was fantastic: almost 12 million jobs, employed and self-employed, were saved—at a huge cost, there is no running away from that, but they were saved.
The Government gave support to retail and hospitality with rates relief. However, many did not get rates relief, including manufacturers and airports, which suffered so much during the pandemic. The rates bill of Heathrow Airport is over £100 million a year. Eventually they got some relief, but nowhere near enough. Aviation came to a standstill; it was down by 98% at one stage.
Business associations did their best. We at the CBI put out a free hub and not just for our members. We put out free webinars to everybody. We gave out free membership, with no obligation to join. We tried, and other organisations did similar things to help. The Government gave rent protection, saying that tenants could not be booted out if they could not pay their landlords. The Government tried their best.
Then we had that glimmer of sunshine when the economy opened up last summer. The Government listened and reduced social distancing from two metres to one metre. The difference was not twice as many people but four times as many—the difference between a business being viable and not viable. VAT was reduced from 20% to 5%; the Government listened on that. Then there was the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. Cobra Beer sales in August this year could not match our sales last year because that scheme was so successful in helping consumers go to restaurants, helping the restaurants and helping everybody.
The Government would not listen initially on lateral flow tests. Eventually they listened, and now any business or citizen can have lateral flow tests delivered for free. Those tests have been shown by Oxford, UCL and Havard to be very effective if you test regularly. Mass testing is better than mass isolation. I would go so far as to say that if we had applied those tests properly we might have even been able to avoid the second and third lockdowns.
The noble Lord, Lord Bird, mentioned debt from World War II. Debt to GDP after World War II went up to 250%, and it took until the early 1960s— 15 years later—to go down from 250% to 100%. We are now at just under 100%. This is a time of crisis. This is a time when we needed to do this.
When it comes to looking ahead, in 1942—in the midst of the crisis of World War II, when people did not know when it was going to end—Beveridge came up with a plan. When the war did eventually end in 1945, the Government implemented the Beveridge report and established the National Health Service and the welfare state. Similarly, the CBI has just produced, in the midst of the pandemic, our Seize the Moment strategy, looking ahead for 10 years. We think that there is an opportunity of £700 billion for this economy if we do certain things, looking at areas such as decarbonisation, skills, diversity and innovation, education, regional levelling up, health, well-being and global trade. All these things have to be put in place.
The Government have done so much to help us. The analogy I would use is that they have taken a big swing and they have hit the tennis ball, but if they stop at that stage and do not follow through, the ball will go into the net, not over it. Now is the time for the Government to follow through. We have suggested that the Government should set up a COBRA-style task force, with business and government working together. They have listened to an extent: there is the supply chain task force and the hospitality task force. We believe they should go further. We should have a joint task force dealing with the crisis now.
With the virus, we have a settlement that we suggest for the Government. Vaccinations and boosters should carry on. Hats off to the Prime Minister for empowering Kate Bingham to do what she did. Hats off to Nadhim Zahawi; what a fabulous vaccination programme he implemented. Today, 68% of the total population and 80% of over-12s have been double vaccinated.
Now, we just need to focus on innovation. We invest 1.7% of GDP but we need to invest 2.7% or 2.8%, like Germany or America, let alone Israel, at 4%. To do that would require £20 billion more a year—just imagine how that would power our productivity. We want high wages, but you cannot have high wages without high innovation, high skills and high productivity. So what we need now is growth. We need to encourage investment and growth. We do not need cuts and we do not need high taxes. We need growth, because it will generate the jobs that will generate the taxes that will pay down the debt.
On skills and apprenticeships, there was great news in the Budget about skills bootcamps, apprenticeships being much more flexible, and the Kickstart scheme. This is all fantastic stuff.
Business rates reform needs to happen desperately. Our business rates are four times higher than those in Germany and three times higher than the OECD average.
Next week, we have COP 26. The road to net zero is not a zero-sum game. Growth is now predicted to be 6.5%. There is good news and optimism. As Tony Danker, commenting on our Budget, said:
“the Chancellor has shown a genuine willingness to listen to business with measures that will get firms innovating and help the economy to grow … but … This Budget alone won’t seize the moment and transform the UK economy for a post-Brexit post-Covid world. Businesses remain in a high tax, low productivity economy with concerns about inflation. But the Budget will have a positive impact across the economy and makes several changes that will be welcomed by UK businesses.”
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for proposing this subject. We are having a discussion on the economy before we have a real discussion on the Budget next week, and that is always a good thing.
In a strange way, the economy is both the economy of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Bird. On the one hand, the Chancellor told us yesterday that we have fantastic growth of 6.4%—we have not seen 6.4% growth for a long time—because of the V-shaped recovery from the pandemic, and we are in the up phase of the V. But a lot of things have not been fixed. That 6.4% figure is a blip and very soon it will go back to 1.3%, our normal rate of growth.
Of course we have borrowed—we have borrowed like there is no tomorrow—but we always borrow for the better-off, never for the poor. In 2008, when the markets collapsed, banks were queuing up for money, and we generously gave it to them. We bought banks, including bankrupt banks; they got into a lot of trouble and we spent money on them like there was no tomorrow. It is when it comes to spending for the poor that suddenly the Budget constraints bind.
I shall give your Lordships an interesting example. Yesterday, the Chancellor did something that was hailed as a progressive measure: he cut the universal credit taper from 63% to 55%. What is the taper? The taper means that if you are on universal credit and you get a part-time job, for every pound you earn, 63p is taken back. Suppose that income tax were 63% at the margin—you would hear howls of protest. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said that high taxes are back, but the highest taxes in this country are paid by the poor. They are not called taxes though; they are called nice things like tapers. So the taper has gone from 63% to 55% and we have to be grateful.
Now, there is all this money. Yesterday, everybody said that the Chancellor was spending money like there was no tomorrow, but he did not find money to restore the £20 which was taken away from universal credit holders. It would not cost very much—it would cost a fraction of the £37 billion that test and trace wasted, for which, so far, nobody has been fined and no money has been taken away from anybody. So we have £37 billion to be wasted on test and trace but we do not have any money for people on universal credit, who were given the £20 that had been suspended in George Osborne’s day. Even now, after many years, they gave it back for one year and the next year they took it away. Of course there is money—the Chancellor told us yesterday how much money there was. These are choices. It is not that we do not have money; we make choices about who gets the money. Decisions have been made. In every crisis that we have been through, regardless of whether it was a global or a local crisis—in 2008 or the pandemic—you can predict, without any analysis, who will suffer: women, the elderly, the homeless and children. It is not rocket science. That is the way we are.
It is very good of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, to focus on many of the crises, especially the housing crisis. I arrived here in 1965, having come from America, and I was renting. Everybody told me that renting was complete nonsense and that I should buy. Why? Because buying was subsidised; there was a tax concession for buying. So I bought, of course, and I benefited from that—I am not complaining. Mrs Thatcher sold the council estates, which is not a bad thing, because lots of poor people got property for the first time. But we stopped building new council houses and we have never restored that public building activity, which was a solid basis of post-war recovery. To the extent that the post-war welfare state was a success, it was because of not just the National Health Service and full employment but this solid base of building houses.
The Labour Party has not built houses throughout all the years of its existence—nobody has. People say that they want to build affordable houses, but why would anybody build unaffordable houses? Every house is affordable, depending on who is buying it. “Affordable housing” is a misnomer, because you know that nobody will be able to buy it.
The same thing applies to housing benefit, and the noble Baroness gave us a nice example of what is happening in her area. But housing benefit fixes the level about which all rents will be determined; not a single house will be rented at or below the level of housing benefit. There is an old law of economics: put in rent control and rented property disappears.
We have to say that, every year, we will build so many houses. The Government have said that they want to invest 3% of GDP every year, or whatever it is, which is a very nice thing. Yes, we want to have innovation, and research and development, but let us also have something in the social sector. Let us invest new money in housing, health or education, so that we make up for the rising demand, year after year. We do it now and then, but we do not do it with the sincerity with which we need to do it and given the demand.
I can tell your Lordships one thing: on tax levels, it is always economical to cut corporation tax. Why? Because we know who it benefits. But it is never beneficial to raise universal credit; it is a small amount of money. These are choices that we make. Whatever gloss we put on it, some of the problems are permanent.
The strange thing that happened during the pandemic —and I credit what the noble Baroness said—was that the whole economy suffered and got impoverished, which very rarely happens, through nobody’s fault. So the Government threw money at the whole economy through the furlough scheme, for example. The furlough scheme was for people who had good jobs; they were surprised to have no job and not used to being on universal credit, so they were told, “Don’t worry, we will cover you”. There was neither supply nor demand, so the Government had to spend money for both of them. It was very nicely done—but as soon as the pandemic has slowed down we are now back to the original stuff. We will again have homelessness and the distress of universal credit.
Think of the extra burden on national insurance, at 1.25%; it is not very much, but it is 25% above what it was. It is a 25% increase in the tax burden, but people do not put it like that. People do not say that a 63% taper rate is outrageous. We have tolerated a 67% or whatever taper rate all these years, despite people saying that universal credit aims to encourage people to work. How do you encourage people to work? With giving a 63% tax on every pound they make by getting employed. It is a strange world. It is a world for the top 10%, not for the bottom 10%. It has always been like that, and there is nothing we can do about it. I could go on like this for ever, but I think I have said enough.
Follow that. It really is a pleasure to contribute to this debate, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Bird—the noble Sheriff Bird. I am a real admirer of his. His sense of compassion and commitment is legendary, and we saw that today. I agree with so much of what has been said. I could just say “#MeToo, I agree” and sit down—but I am a politician and, as a former elected mayor and a vice-president of the LGA, I want to make my contribution about the role that local authorities have played during the Covid crisis and their contribution towards the most vulnerable in our society.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bird, said, as we go about our daily lives it is probably quite difficult for us to imagine what a loss of £20 a week might mean to us—I suspect very little. After all, it is less than what I spend on a blow dry, or what we spend on our weekly coffees or a few drinks in the pub. Do we feel fearful when we hear that energy prices are to rise? Annoyed, maybe, but we will not have to make that oft-quoted choice between heating and eating. I was shocked to learn that more than 4 million people are on pre-paid meters. That means they unfairly have to pay the highest cost per unit for energy up front, before consumption, when those of us on our direct debits in effect get the cheapest rates in arrears. It is just wrong.
I learned the value of money from my bus driver father, who brought us up. Every Friday he would take from his back pocket his brown wage packet and physically count out the money for each of our household commitments. It was money for the mortgage—he was very proud that we were buying our little terraced house—and for gas, food et cetera. It would then go into a tin with slots for the appropriate payment. There were no slots for coffees, hairdos and the pub, nor for clothes or insurance—things that we would now call necessities. We managed but, looking back, I suspect it was only just. Our whole neighbourhood was like us, and many were worse. The local gossip was often about those at number such-and-such who had done a moonlight flit the night before because they were in rent arrears. The point is that it was a very real, constant weekly worry—a harsh reality of life on low wages.
Life is still like that for millions of people, and many of them are in work—insecure work and, as we have learned during the pandemic, often essential work. We know that life is precarious for many and the threat of homelessness is never far away for some. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic. We have had excellent briefings from Crisis, Shelter, Generation Rent and others, and the facts are crystal clear. The perfect storm—I am sorry to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for using the cliché—of all the points in the title of our Motion today will tip many into arrears and those already in arrears into homelessness and the route of temporary accommodation, and the insecurity that that brings with it. You try living with the family in a Premier Inn hotel room. There are currently more than 95,000 households in temporary housing. The Government’s own figures show that the proportion of tenants in rent arrears has tripled and, now that the eviction ban has ended, it can only get worse.
The debt charity StepChange released some telling research last month which illustrated, among other things, that there were more than half a million universal credit claimants in Covid-related rent arrears who say that, with the cost of living increases and cuts to universal credit, they will struggle to pay off their rent debt within 12 months. More pertinently, 225,000 private renters say that they expect to lose their home as a result of unpayable rent arrears. That is more than the size of the population of Luton—our rival town—Swindon, Rochdale or Portsmouth. One in 10 in-work tenants expects to be evicted from their homes as a result of their arrears. That is a lot of people, and a huge amount of misery.
People’s first port of call will be their local council. The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated that councils can move quickly to build effective services that deliver better outcomes for residents, if given the powers and resources to do so. During the pandemic, councils responded rapidly to support people experiencing street homelessness through the Everyone In initiative. Figures from the Department for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities show that councils supported more than 37,000 individuals through that initiative, with more than 26,000 now moved on to longer term accommodation. I will credit the Government for that. Together, we did it: it worked.
My main point and underlying message today is about money and funding—no surprise there, Minister. My first plea is for consistency of funding. Please can the Government move away from a pattern of piecemeal and fragmented funding streams, as already mentioned? One of the key issues for councils is the need for longer term funding to aid the recruitment and retention of high-calibre staff and support long-term strategic planning around the issue of rough sleeping and homelessness. Councils have long called for more certainty when planning and commissioning local services. The administrative burden associated with multiple grant-funding applications sometimes appears disproportionate, with small operational teams needing to divert resources away from the front line to write multiple bids, with no guarantee of success. It is also known that multiple and unaligned pots of funding are generally inefficient, with the lead time necessary for effective recruitment not fitting well with truncated funding cycles.
Everyone working in this area knows that prevention is best. They are desperate to get upstream. Eventually, when a client gets a tenancy, they know that they need help to stay in their home. Those two things book end, but often, the funding is focused on what is in the middle—you could say, the meat of the sandwich, but try having a sandwich without the bread. I say that from my heartfelt experience with a charity I am involved in, New Hope, Watford, which is in precisely that situation year on year. It does amazing work, but with funding certainty, it could be so much better—if staff were not worrying about a round of job cuts and service cuts if their bid is unsuccessful.
I also bring to your Lordships’ attention the number of non-EU nationals who form part of the core of homeless people. The 2020 rough-sleeping count showed that 23% of rough sleepers had no recourse to public funds and fell outside councils’ existing statutory responsibilities. Government quite rightly asked councils to support these individuals and, quite rightly, they did—but with no additional funding to recognise this group or any change to the legislative powers and duties that remove access to benefits or council services. This, along with the additional call on councils to house the recently relocated and resettled arrivals from Afghanistan demonstrates the fluidity and unpredictability of this service and the need for long-term, joined-up solutions in housing.
This leads to my third area of concern, mentioned forcefully by my noble friend Lady Pinnock: the lamentable decline in homes for social rent. Social housing is a major tool used by councils to mitigate homelessness—yet, in real terms, provision has decreased over decades. The picture is often clouded by the use of terms such as “affordable rent” or “intermediate rent”, which is now the more usual tenancy. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, eloquently amplified, they are often unaffordable. But, if a tenancy is to survive for an individual or family coming from homelessness to a stable home, that survival may well depend on social rented accommodation, which is becoming less available.
The number of council and housing association homes being let at social rent fell by 210,000 between 2012 and 2020. Added to their woes is the fact that councils cannot keep all the money from their right to buy sales—is there any movement on that issue, Minister? There is a time limit within which they have to spend the money, which is not always possible when you are trying to build social housing. Perhaps it is time to review that—or, better still, not have a limit at all, to allow the one-for-one replacement that was always promised.
I have some final thoughts. As several noble Lords have asked, is it not time to raise the local housing allowance to cover median local rents, to prevent the shortfalls that my noble friend mentioned in rents occurring and debts building up—or to scrap the household benefit cap to ensure that families are able to access the higher local housing allowance rates? Is there any sign, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, asked, of ending unfair evictions, as was pledged in April 2019?
I am certain that the Minister will tell us of the money that the Government are already providing and have promised to provide, but I am sure that he will expect the usual retort from me: “It is not enough”. It never is. The last thing any of us wants for those who are struggling to get out of debt is for them to resort to the services of loan sharks—another harsh reality from my past. They are still in business—and that in itself is a tragedy.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on securing this important and wide-ranging debate. That is the sort of formal thank-you that we normally have, but I think I join most noble Lords who heard his introduction in noting his powerful and emotional opening speech. I will return to the idea of the importance of emotion in decision-making.
The title of this debate is an indictment of the Government’s handling of our economy. It may be growing, but the nature of that growth is delivering increasing inequality, forcing more and more people into crippling, life-changing poverty. Yesterday, the Chancellor sought to paint an optimistic picture of the UK economy. That is his prerogative, but, for many, it has been a tough couple of years, and it is likely to be an even tougher winter.
While bankers and companies such as Amazon are handed new tax breaks, families face rising costs, high inflation and empty supermarket shelves. People are feeling the pinch and, despite their claims, the Government are not in their corner. We will have other opportunities to debate the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget, but there are a few key facts that are worth citing in the context of this discussion. GDP growth may have been revised upwards this year, but it has been downgraded for 2022, 2024 and 2025. Inflation is expected to peak at 4%, or a little more, over the next year, with this persisting for some time. The legacy of austerity is such that, despite increases in departmental budgets, around half will remain worse off than in 2010.
If growth is weak, inflation is high and public services are not properly funded, people will suffer. That is true in normal times, but even more so when one factors in the impacts of the three strands of the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bird. Yesterday’s Autumn Budget was an opportunity to give those in need, in the words of the noble Lord’s publication, “a hand up”. Unfortunately, that opportunity was missed.
We welcome the announcement of certain initiatives, as well as the cut in the universal credit taper rate, which I will return to later, but they do not go nearly far enough. Millions of Britons are facing a lengthy cost of living crisis, and too many face the prospect of losing their home. This has been backed up today by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which warned that low-income households will feel real pain in the months ahead.
Noble Lords may wonder why all this matters. We often discuss poverty as a concept, trading definitions and stats. Policy wonks compare relative and absolute poverty, while Ministers instruct officials to tweak the formulae. For those living in poverty, though, it is not an abstract concept; it is a hard slog, a cruel and daily reality.
Earlier this week, Channel 4’s “Dispatches” highlighted the plight of several families living in poverty and in poor-quality, overcrowded housing. It was hard hitting and made one wonder whether this is why Ministers are so desperate to privatise the broadcaster. The programme was a timely reminder of problems that have gone unresolved for too long: the sheer number of people trapped in emergency accommodation or on council house waiting lists, and the lack of quality and affordable properties in parts of the private rented sector.
We know these problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic, prompting the Government to step in with a range of Covid-19 economic support schemes. Many came with shortcomings, but at least they kept people in their homes. Now, the withdrawal of those schemes, as well as the removal of the £20 universal credit uplift, has come at the wrong time and is starting to bite.
But, again, I worry that we are falling into old habits and approaching this from the wrong angle. I want to read into the record the stories of two boys who featured in the Channel 4 broadcast earlier this week, to highlight the daily fear that young children are experiencing. Nine year-old Qasim lives in temporary accommodation with his dad and siblings. He is worried that his father does not have enough money when they go shopping and that if the family is made homeless, they will have to sleep in the car. Qasim struggles to sleep and fell behind with his schoolwork during lockdown. He is now attending catch-up classes but is worried about his future: “If I don’t learn, I may not be able to get a good job, and I might end up poor”.
Eight-year-old Kai doesn’t care that his mother, a care co-ordinator who has her income topped up by universal credit, has never been able to take him on holiday or to a restaurant to have macaroni cheese. He loves her dearly because she’s “trying to do her best” to provide for him.” He said, “I worry about my mum having less money because you can’t pay rent. It wouldn’t be fun living on the streets because you have to beg people for food, and they’ll say no”. These children are not asking to live a life of luxury. They just want the basic sense of security that so many of us take for granted, so they have room to grow as people and begin to get some enjoyment from life.
I was particularly struck by a tweet from Save the Children’s Kirsty McNeill, who said:
“Kids shouldn’t know where the family is on a housing waiting list, when pay day is, how much their school supplies cost. They should be dreaming about how they can cure cancer and be in the Olympics at the same time”.
The reality faced by Qasim and Kai, and many more besides, is the result of choices made by this Government. The Chancellor essentially confirmed this yesterday, when he said:
“do we want to live in a country where the response to every question is ‘What are the Government going to do about it?’, where every time prices rise, every time a company gets in trouble, every time some new challenge emerges, the answer is always that the taxpayer must pay? Or do we choose to recognise that Government has limits?”—[Official Report, Commons, 27/10/21; col. 286.]
Of course the Government do and should have limits. However, they also have duties, and I fear those duties are not being upheld. Too many people face a winter of great uncertainty. The Government are not wholly to blame, but their decisions have had, and will continue to have, a very real impact.
The decision to increase the national minimum wage to £9.50 an hour is welcome, as is the end of the public sector pay freeze. However, the IFS also warns that high inflation will cancel out much of the immediate benefit, meaning that millions will be worse off in the short term.
We also welcome the reduction in the universal credit taper rate, although it will not benefit all claimants, particularly the poorest, and its impact will very much depend on individual circumstances. Other fundamental issues remain with universal credit, and we hope that these will finally be addressed, sooner rather than later.
I am sure that the Minister will cite a variety of schemes and statistics in his response. However, I urge him and his ministerial colleagues to acknowledge the scale of the problem and the long-lasting impacts that poverty and homelessness—potential or actual—have on people across the country. The Government talk of improving life chances for all but, sadly, their record to date speaks for itself.
There is a fundamental problem about the issues that we are talking about. The problem to some extent is us. As the noble Lord, Lord Bird, said, the loss of £20 would be unnoticed in his life, and it would certainly be unnoticed in mine. We debate homelessness —this debate is about homelessness—but we think of it in terms of fears and as having to do with “them” or as so many per cent. As human beings, we often avoid thinking about unpleasant things.
Curiously, I have always been terrified of not having a roof, despite the fact that it has never been a real threat. I came from a poor household, but a poor household in the 1940s and 1950s was, in an important way, much richer: we were richer because we lived in a council house, with a secure tenancy and affordable rent. Despite being lowly paid, my father worked for the National Health Service as a porter and had a secure income. Throughout my life, I have always had a roof over my head and confidence; despite being fired a couple of times, even then I had sufficient reserves for it not to be a problem.
I invite people to think about how they would feel—I do not know why I think about this—if tonight was to be their first night on the streets; that they had done their best not to get into this situation, but somehow all their options have run out. Would it help to be told that it was their own fault? Somehow, we have this concept of the undeserving poor. When you are on the streets—it does not matter how you got there—it is an almost impossible position to climb back from.
Would it help being told that losing £20 a week would help, despite the cost of living shooting upwards, as though somehow making you poorer means you are more likely to get a job? I find that very difficult to believe. I draw no conclusions from this because I accept that this is complex, but we surely have to somehow feel the terror of homelessness and, as best we can, try to imagine what poverty is like to give this the weight it should have in our discussions.
It is crucial to recognise that these people exist. They may not vote, but they are citizens, and somehow, they cope—or do they? Google told me today, in my last dive into this area, that homeless men typically die aged 45. In the general population, the age for men is just over 79. So, these people do not cope, really, but they do cope night by night. I am not sure I could cope for a single night.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for bringing this debate. I know that tackling the causes of poverty and homelessness has been his life’s work and we should all acknowledge his great impact. I also thank noble Lords who have spoken today; each has made their case with great conviction. For my part, I welcome the opportunity to speak out on behalf of the Government on this important subject, ensuring people have a secure home and a steady income is a matter of the utmost importance to us.
The action we have taken to shield people from the full economic force of coronavirus over the last 18 months is evidence of this. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, feels that the Government have been tinkering with problems, but I would respectfully disagree. Decisions taken by the Government mean that direct support for the economy has totalled around £400 billion over the last year. Much of this has protected the productive capacity of our economy, which in turn provides the ability to support the most vulnerable in our society.
It is perhaps important to remind the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, that we have handled this differently from the way India has. We have been one of the most generous countries in the world in our interventions. We have spent some £69 billion protecting nearly 12 million jobs across the UK through the furlough scheme. The self-employment income support scheme benefited 2.9 million people with assistance worth over £27 billion. We have safeguarded businesses, thanks to loan schemes worth £79 billion, in addition to cash grants, VAT cuts and business rate reliefs. Those most affected by the coronavirus economic shock have been supported by a temporary uplift to welfare payments.
These measures have been effective. Increasingly, the evidence shows that our economic recovery is under way. Our gross domestic product has bounced back to near pre-crisis levels. Forecasts have revised upwards their expectations for growth this year. In its latest forecast, the OBR expects growth of 6.5%, up from 4% in its previous forecast. That is a 50% increase compared with only a few months ago. GDP is expected to return to its pre-crisis level by the turn of the year.
Unemployment has fallen for eight consecutive months. It is now expected to peak at less than half the levels predicted at the start of the crisis, meaning over 2 million fewer people out of work than we originally feared. The number of employees on payrolls has risen to above pre-pandemic levels, while job vacancies are at a historic high. This increasingly positive economic picture shows we were right to counteract an unprecedented crisis with unprecedented intervention.
However, this has meant that in the last year our borrowing costs have risen to a peacetime high. Clearly, to continue to borrow on this level would not be sustainable. Now that the economy has reopened, we must shift our focus to supporting people into work. I will cover this in greater depth a little later.
While this change in approach means winding down the pandemic emergency support, it does not mean we are turning our back on those most in need of help—far from it. To reassure the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, we are spending more than £4.2 billion a year in targeted support to help households manage the cost of living.
I turn to housing, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, is concerned, and I will address some of the measures that we have in process. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, and the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Bird, spoke of the need to help people stay in their homes and for the stock of affordable housing to improve and increase. We agree. That is why this year we are maintaining the increase to the local housing allowance rates for private renters on universal credit and housing benefit. The support provided by this measure is substantial. Last year, more than 1.5 million households received extra sums averaging £600.
We will continue to provide discretionary housing payments to the most vulnerable households through £300 million of funding during the next three years. These payments assist individuals in a range of situations, including those experiencing shortfalls between welfare payments and their rent, and tenants who need deposits to secure a home in which to live. This is part of a wider package, including the household support fund, which provides £500 million to help vulnerable families with essentials such as food, energy and water costs. It can also be used for rent arrears at a local authority’s discretion. Some £100 million is also available for discretionary housing payments and uplift to local housing benefits.
We have announced £65 million in additional funding to support low-income renters at risk of eviction due to the impact of Covid. Some 70,000 vulnerable households will be supported. This measure follows our ban on evictions and the introduction of extended notice periods to protect renters during the pandemic.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, and the noble Lord, Lord Desai, raised the issue of affordable housing. Yesterday, we committed to an £11.5 billion investment for 180,000 new homes, of which 50% will be under shared ownership schemes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised the question of the overall housing stock. Of course, new housing stock has to reflect the needs of society, but the overall number of new houses is important, too. In the year preceding the pandemic, more than 240,000 new housing units were built, compared with around 129,000 in 2009-10.
My noble friend Lord Young asked about the White Paper on renting. The Government are consulting stakeholders at the moment and a timetable will be announced shortly.
More broadly, we are continuing to invest in homelessness prevention activities through the homelessness prevention grant. We are providing support to those who find themselves homeless through multiple programmes such as the rough-sleeping initiative, which invests in locally led interventions. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and my noble friend Lord Young expressed interest in this. Our £28 million Housing First pilots have supported more than 1,000 of the most vulnerable rough sleepers across 23 councils. We have committed £1.9 billion in resource funding to homelessness and rough sleeping in the spending review, and £109 million in capital investment.
I turn to wider cost of living support. Beyond the assistance I have outlined, we are helping low-income households manage the cost of living with other support. To that end, we have given local authorities £670 million of additional grant funding this year to help those struggling with council tax bills. We are helping disadvantaged families with the higher food costs they may face outside school terms through the £200 million holiday activities and food programme. We have increased the value of Healthy Start vouchers, available to help pregnant women and parents with children under four with food costs.
On top of this, at the Budget the Government took action to make work pay for those on the lowest incomes. By 1 December, in just over four weeks’ time, we are reducing the universal credit taper rate from 63% to 55% and increasing universal credit work allowances by £500 a year. While the noble Lord, Lord Desai, may feel that this does not go far enough, it represents an effective tax cut worth £2.2 billion in 2022-23 and means that nearly 2 million households will keep, on average, an extra £1,000 a year. In April next year the minimum wage is rising by 6.6% to £9.50 an hour, which is more than £1,000 a year for a full-time employee. Since its introduction in 2016, the national living wage has increased the pre-tax earnings of a full-time worker by more than £5,000 a year.
The noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Bird, and other Peers mentioned that £20 is a significant sum for these vulnerable people. I completely understand and accept that, but this figure alone shows that we have enabled some of the most vulnerable to see income earnings of around £100 a week. My noble friend Lord Young raises the point that these schemes are rather fragmented and he is probably right, but the Government’s overriding ambition is to get more people into decently paid work. The reduction of the universal credit taper announced yesterday is a major part of that. I will also address some of our training schemes in a moment.
I turn to energy. The Government recognise that the impact of rising energy costs is a significant issue for vulnerable households. The energy price cap has saved 15 million customers on default tariffs up to £100 a year on their bills since it was introduced in 2019. We continue to ensure that the most vulnerable receive help with their energy bills through a range of other measures, including extending the warm home discount to an extra 780,000 households and providing seasonal cold weather payments to eligible welfare recipients. State pensioners can benefit from the winter fuel payment worth up to £300. Since last year, we have invested £1.5 billion in helping low-income households to improve energy efficiency and cut their bills. We are expanding the energy company obligation scheme that focuses on tackling fuel poverty and carbon emissions. I also remind the House that in recognition of the fact that petrol and diesel is a major cost for households and businesses, we have frozen fuel duty for the 12th year in a row.
I turn to jobs. While government support is important, we believe that work is the best way of preventing poverty and improving living standards. Over a year ago we launched the plan for jobs to protect, support and create employment opportunities for people across the country. I am delighted to say that the plan is working. As the Government enter the next stage of our plan for jobs, we are committing a total of more than £6 billion to DWP over the next three years. This will help give everyone a chance to have a fresh start and develop the skills they need for the modern workforce. The Kickstart scheme is one example. It is creating and fully funding hundreds of thousands of jobs for young people at risk of long-term unemployment. Nearly 95,000 young people have started a Kickstart job so far. They encompass a wide range of opportunities, providing foundations for careers in such areas as IT, media and engineering.
The long-term unemployed will receive intensive, tailored support and be helped to find work through the three-year restart scheme. Last year, the Government doubled the number of work coaches to 27,000 in just over eight months. We have committed to an additional 170 job centres, of which around 100 are already open. We are continuing to invest more than £900 million for each year of this SR on work coaches to ensure that universal credit claimants receive the best support to find employment.
Getting people into jobs is one thing, but improving skills is equally important. We have heard today of the importance of skills, and we agree. The single most effective way to increase living standards is to enable wages to rise through gains in productivity, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, correctly pointed out. That is why we are giving people the opportunity to gain a level 3 qualification for free if they do not hold one already, through our lifetime skills guarantee. Adults who want to retrain in in-demand sectors such as digital, cybersecurity, construction and engineering can benefit from flexible skills bootcamps that last up to 16 weeks. We are tripling the number of traineeships for 16 to 24 year-olds and awarding employers £3,000 for every apprentice of any age they hire. These steps are all designed to address the key issue of productivity. Indeed, early data emanating from the skills bootcamp shows that around 50% of participants are going on to higher-paid jobs.
Yesterday, the Chancellor announced a new scheme to assist particularly with numeracy, which is a major problem among older people. Around 6 million adults in this country have a numeracy age of under 10 and it is holding back their earning capacity. We have announced a scheme to address this over the next three years. These measures are proof that this Government do not shy away from their responsibilities. We will continue to fight poverty, combat homelessness and focus on the most vulnerable. We are committed to giving people in every part of the country the right opportunities to build a better, more prosperous future for themselves and their families.
I thank the Minister for his response. He makes me feel a bit like the young woman who I encountered in Trafalgar Square recently. She asked me for some money and I opened my wallet and handed her a tenner. She saw I had another tenner and she took both of them and ran down the road. I did not manage to catch her. The Minister is making me feel very much like that today and I am sorry that I have to assume that posture.
I have just realised that all we really need to do is to invent a new ministry. I propose that I become the Minister. We will call it the ministry for those who fall through the safety net. If we had a ministry that addressed those people who fall through the safety net then we could see that whatever the Government do, however clever and astute they are with their money, an enormous amount of people fall through the safety net.
At the end of this year or when a suitable time comes, I really would like it if people pointed to me and said: “John Bird, you are an idiot because you cried wolf and you didn’t have to. The Government were going doing everything and everything was going to fall into place and Lord Bilimoria’s wonderful new Great Britain or—whatever we call ourselves now—the UK, was going to happen.” I would love that, but the indications are that the £64 million that the Government have given to support people in arrears has been given to local authorities. Local authorities will spend some of that on existing housing and on people who are having problems with housing. The £360 million—or in that area—which is going to be spent is once more going to be spent on people who are already homeless.
The problem we have is that we have two kinds of homelessness. We now have the carefully social-engineered homelessness—people living on the streets and in desperate need. The Government have shown, in the same way as the Administration that the noble Lord, Lord Young, was a member of did 30 years ago did, that they are beginning to seriously address that. I think there is evidence of that.
I am not talking about the people who have been socially engineered, like me, to fall homeless at some time in their life. I am saying: what do we do with the half a million who are behind with their mortgages and their rent? They are going to be presenting themselves at local authorities at some stage because they will have been through the courts, which will evict them because there is no impediment to them being made homeless even though they were made homeless by Covid-19. I will end there.
I should like to conclude on one point. You could accuse me of being a little snidey here, or a bit of a simpleton. In 2009, I was asked by Mr Cameron, by a circuitous route, to stand for the Mayor of London. I debated that: did I have to join the Conservative Party, because I have always been a Cross-Bencher? No—I decided I would not. When I did so, a particular gentleman who now runs the Cabinet and is the premier member of the Government, a Mr Boris Johnson, jumped in the air because I was the last person between him and becoming the Mayor of London—and you know that if it was not for him becoming the Mayor of London, he would not be in the position he is in now. We know that. When I saw Mr Johnson immediately after he was elected, he came and put his arms around me in the green room—unfortunately there were no witnesses—and said, “Thank you, John, for the job”.
You were responsible!
It is my fault. Sorry about that. What did I say? I said, “Do me a favour then”. He said, “What’s that?”. I said, “Remember the homeless”. Now I want Mr Boris Johnson to remember the homeless —but not just those who have already manifested themselves on the streets and in the hostels already, who are suffering and having a horrible life, but the 300,000 children who are going to come down the road. That is what I want him to address. He owes me, and I am calling it in.
House adjourned at 5.06 pm.