House of Lords
Thursday 2 December 2021
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.
Oaths and Affirmations
Lord Hacking took the oath, following the by-election under Standing Order 9, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Patient Safety Commissioner
My Lords, we are making good progress towards appointing the first patient safety commissioner for England. We expect the appointment of the postholder by spring 2022. We have publicly consulted on the appointment and role of the patient safety commissioner and have agreement that the role will be regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments and subject to pre-appointment scrutiny.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very interesting reply and I thank all those who have been involved in establishing the patient safety commissioner—the first in England and, I am told, the world. But my deep concern is that we are setting up the commissioner to fail, with a term of office too short to establish the role, set up a new organisation and get to grips with a very complex task. Three years is too short. Does my noble friend agree that five years would be preferable? Will she please work with colleagues to lengthen the term of office from three to five years, as is the case with the Children’s Commissioner?
I thank my noble friend for that Question. The postholder will be offered a three-year term of office and may be reappointed for a further three years, subject to ministerial agreement. This is in line with most other public appointments. We believe that three years, with a possible extension of a further three, subject to ministerial agreement, is the right approach. This means that, if reappointed, the postholder could serve up to six years, which is a good amount of time for the role to become well-established within the healthcare system.
My Lords, the independence of the patient safety commissioner is vital. Will that independence be built into the regulations to ensure that the patient community is confident that the commissioner has the authority to do the job and protect the patient?
My Lords, one of the key tasks of the independent patient safety commissioner will be to make recommendations on patient safety issues as they relate to medicines and medical devices. The important question I would like to ask the Minister is: who will be responsible for implementing those recommendations and where will the accountability lie?
Accountability is obviously very important. We are making sure that the patient safety commissioner is complementary to the many bodies already operating in our health service and enhances their work. The commissioner will have the power to request and share information with relevant persons in the NHS or the independent sector in carrying out their core duties, which will facilitate joined-up working. Shared accountability to the Secretary of State for many of these public bodies and the commissioner will also help them to collaborate and co-operate across organisations, with a responsibility to improve patient safety.
Yes, we obviously want to get the patient safety commissioner in position as soon as possible. The consultation ran from 10 June to 5 August. We will shortly arrange for publication of the Government’s response to the consultation and publish the job advert and job description to kick off the appointment process. We will also bring forward the necessary draft regulations, which will be subject to debate in both Houses.
I thank the Minister for her reply to the question of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. However, the Government first said that the patient safety commissioner would be in post by the first quarter of 2022, and it is clear from the timetable that that will now not be achieved. So, can the Minister set out the current thinking on when the patient safety commissioner will actually be in post?
I fear that I cannot really add to what I said to my noble and learned friend. We are going to advertise the role shortly and we have finalised the relevant details. The patient safety commissioner will be a regulated public appointment, which means that the appointment process will follow the requirements of the Governance Code on Public Appointments. The process will be open and transparent, but all of this takes a bit of time. It may still be spring 2022.
My Lords, it is a shame that my noble friend cannot commit to a date. As others have said, this has dragged on. Given that she has given a commitment to do this by spring, can she say what the department is doing to come up with new ideas to ensure there is a genuinely broad and diverse field of candidates, so that patients’ voices really are heard?
I thank my noble friend for that question. As I said, the appointment process will follow the Governance Code on Public Appointments. The process will be open and transparent and the appointment will be made on merit. The process is regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, who will approve a senior independent member of the assessment panel. The appointment will also be subject to pre-appointment scrutiny hearing with the Health and Social Care Select Committee.
My Lords, given all the pressures on the NHS at this difficult time, is it not more necessary than ever to have a patient safety commissioner who could hear and co-ordinate patients’ voices and act on their concerns? Are there some hopeful candidates waiting?
I am sure there are hopeful candidates waiting. I am afraid I have no idea who they are—obviously, that is not within my remit. I agree with the noble Baroness that we need to get on with this. I think the department realises that and is concentrating on moving this forward.
My Lords, I think it is worth reminding ourselves of the problem: we need a patient safety champion because many patients, particularly women, were disregarded and dismissed for many years by those across the whole of our NHS. This was graphically and effectively exposed by the report from the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege. Will the commissioner report to Parliament, and how will we ensure—I say “we” because I think we all have a responsibility in this regard—that their independence is safeguarded and their status protected?
Those are both very important questions. We place enormous emphasis on patient safety, which is central to effective functioning of the NHS. Appointing this commissioner will make sure that we are beginning to go ahead with that. As far as accountability is concerned—the consultation has not been announced yet, so I am probably going to be told that I am going beyond my brief—there is supposedly going to be an annual report. The commissioner will produce an annual report, to be laid in Parliament, setting out activities undertaken during the year. The commissioner may appoint an advisory board whose members will have a broad range of relevant interests, experience and knowledge of the health system.
I think that that will all become obvious when we have set out exactly how this is going to work. The fact that the commissioner has to report to Parliament annually is one way. How patients themselves will get in touch with the commissioner will be laid out in the regulations when that has all been sorted out.
My Lords, the important inquiry of the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, shone a light on the consequences of the dangerous drug, Primodos. Is the Minister aware that within the last 18 months, 19 parents of children severely damaged by Primodos have died, while still worrying that their children would be left financially dependent on the state? They died in despair. What can the Minister do to ensure that others do not also die without hope, knowing that justice has not been served and that the request for redress, recommended in First Do No Harm, the report from the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, has also been refused?
It is upsetting to hear of these deaths, and we offer our deepest sympathy, obviously, to the children and families. Our priority remains improving the future safety of all medicines and devices. This means we will continue to focus our work on direct support for future safety, and on improving how the system listens to patients and supports and monitors safety and clinical practice in respect of medicines and devices. This is very much what the patient safety commissioner will be concentrating on.
Oil and Gas Authority: Remit
My Lords, even though renewable electricity capacity has grown five-fold since 2010, oil and gas are still essential for our energy needs and are vital to the production of many everyday essentials such as medicines, plastics, cosmetics and household appliances. They will remain so in declining amounts, even in a net-zero world. It is therefore essential that we have a managed transition away from fossil fuels, as set out in our landmark North Sea Transition Deal.
My Lords, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere stands at an unprecedented 417 parts per million. At the very least, we have to stop exploration for new fields. The truth is that the UK is the most profitable country in the world for large offshore oil and gas projects thanks to our MER policy. Companies can offset all spending on exploration against tax, as well as receiving millions of pounds in direct grants. What plans do the Government have to phase out such inefficient subsidies, as required by the Glasgow climate pact?
As the noble Baroness knows, we have some of the most ambitious climate targets of any major economy in the western world and we are committed to net zero; indeed, it is a legal obligation. However, we will still need declining amounts of oil and gas, and the choice we face is whether we wish to use that produced domestically or to import it. In every scenario set out by the reductions, we will still have a requirement for petroleum products.
I congratulate the Government on their ambitious climate targets, but can my noble friend tell the House what proportion of the oil that will be extracted from the Cambo development is likely to be exported under current scenarios, as there seems to be little domestic demand for the heavy crude oil that Cambo and other future oilfields will produce? This seems more about exporting than about domestic energy security, and, in that context, some extra taxation on production would anticipate some of the future taxpayer costs that might arise if these oilfields end up being unable to export in a future scenario of other countries having to reduce their oil imports.
No decision has yet been made regarding the proposed Cambo field. The export market for oil and gas produced from Cambo is purely a commercial matter dictated by the market, the quality of oil and the different refinery capabilities. But, as I said, even with continued development, we expect the UK to remain a net importer of both oil and gas throughout the transition period when following the Climate Change Committee’s balanced net-zero pathway.
My Lords, HMRC estimates that decommissioning will cost the taxpayer £18.3 billion over the next few decades. Oil and gas companies can claim tax back on all decommissioning as well as R&D, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, pointed out. We also have one of the lowest tax burdens for oil and gas in the world. Shell paid $1.8 billion in tax to Norway last year, but the UK gave it $99.1 million towards decommissioning costs. What has happened to the polluter pays principle? After all, the oil companies have made a lot of money and trashed our planet, and now we are going to help them continue to make money in order to transition to a better future.
It remains the case that the petroleum sector is a net payer of taxes to the UK Exchequer. I frankly do not understand the argument that we should stop all production in the North Sea and instead import those materials that we will continue to need in every scenario. We would be declining to give ourselves the revenue and spending extra to import those same products.
My Lords, a global poll of energy workers showed that more than half want to leave the fossil fuel industry. What are the Government doing to support these workers in the UK to ensure that there is a fair and just transition both for them and for their communities?
That is a very good question, and this is why we have our world-leading oil and gas sector transition deal, the North Sea Transition Deal. We are committed to it, with the support of all the oil and gas companies, to precisely bring about that happy state of affairs so that workers can transition to working in the clean economy.
My Lords, speaking last month, Tim Eggar, the chairman of the Oil and Gas Authority, was bullish when referencing future offshore licensing rounds in the UK. He said:
“Let’s be clear, there is no current ban on exploration and licensing”—
and, of course, he is right. On the other hand, the International Energy Agency—the global expert on energy stats—is equally unequivocal that the development of any new gas or oil field is incompatible with net zero by 2050. Perhaps the Minister could help us here and confirm what his department’s objectives will be with regard to future licensing. Will it adhere to IEA advice, aim for net zero and end future exploration, or will it go along with the oil industry and keep on drilling?
We will go along with our net-zero commitment. I do not know how many times I have to repeat this for the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, but under all of the climate change scenarios, including that towards net zero, we will remain a net importer of oil and gas during that period. The choice that faces us is whether we wish to import them or produce them domestically and gain the tax revenues from that. I really cannot see why this is such a difficult concept for the Liberal Democrats to grasp.
My Lords, the Minister surely must know that the target of net zero means reduced consumption; whether it is produced in this country or imported, it is still our consumption. How is that compatible with the Oil and Gas Authority’s target of “maximum economic recovery” of oil from the North Sea? Bearing in mind that it takes so long to commission and decommission North Sea oil and gas plants, is it not about time that the Oil and Gas Authority changed its target now to give it time to achieve net-zero carbon when it is due?
My Lords, I declare an interest as set out in the register. Would it not be helpful to explain even more clearly to the public that none of the needed energy decarbonisation or transition is going to happen smoothly without a proper back-up of swing suppliers and fuel sources? Unless there is a prudent level of continued investment in fossil fuel sources, we will see many more of the violent fuel and energy price spikes we have now, which cause considerable stress and hardship for millions of households experiencing this every day and threaten our national security.
I know my noble friend speaks with great authority on this as a former Energy Minister himself, and I agree with him. Of course, the ultimate solution to the problem of high gas prices is to use less of it. Indeed, we are doing that, and we are continuing to develop our renewable sources. We have one of the largest productions of renewable sources in the western world. However, fossil fuel generation, such as unabated gas-fired generation, currently plays an important role in keeping Britain’s electricity system secure and stable. The development of clean energy technologies means that it will be used less frequently in future, but it will still be required.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I think it is the Minister, rather than the Liberal Democrats, who may be failing to grasp the implications of the Government’s own policy. But is the Minister aware that if warming is kept to well below 2 degrees in line with the Paris Agreement, new oilfields such as Cambo will become stranded assets? In the light of that, will the Government ensure that the risks that such stranded assets pose to financial stability are properly reflected in increased capital adequacy requirements for those institutions that continue to finance them?
We have a role in the licensing of future developments, but whether to proceed with them is, of course, a commercial decision for the operators concerned. I am sure they will bear the noble Lord’s comments in mind. I am sure many of the big companies would not wish to end up with stranded assets either.
I am sure the Minister will say that it is right that we await the Oil and Gas Authority’s scrutiny report looking into the proposed Cambo oil and gas field. But surely it never made sense for the Government to consider progressing with the plans, especially in the run-up to COP 26 and now post COP. I reiterate: will the Government listen to the science and, starting with Cambo, help workers and industry wind down production of oil and gas in the North Sea?
The noble Baroness answers her own question—indeed, I would say, “Let’s wait for the decision of OPRED before we make any final observations about this.” But, as I mentioned to her colleague earlier, at the same time we are proceeding with our ground-breaking North Sea Transition Deal to ensure exactly what she asks: to help workers to transition away from these industries in the future.
Homes: Environmental Standards
The Government’s ambition is for as many homes as possible to reach EPC band C by 2035. Our Simple Energy Advice service provides tailored advice and guidance for home owners and landlords on how to improve the energy performance of their homes and has received over 1.7 million users to date. We are also looking to improve the tailoring of recommendations on energy performance certificates to individual properties.
My Lords, it is a mammoth task to bring the many millions of homes in this country up to the standard suggested by the Minister. What are the Government going to do to ensure that we have enough trained workers, apprentices and others to do the work? Surely we need a massive training programme for the skilled workforce that is required to bring our homes up to standard.
I agree with the noble Lord: we need exactly that. We are working both through the Department for Education, with some of its training investments, and with many of the private sector providers which are also introducing new schemes, apprenticeships and training even as we speak. I went up to visit some of them only a few weeks ago, and the way industry is coming to the fore with these advancements is very impressive.
My Lords, we are going to need a massive step change if we are to achieve reductions in emissions. An important element of that will be providing financial incentives for people to adopt the new technologies and get their houses sorted out, such as the money people can make from selling surplus energy from their solar panels. What is Her Majesty’s Government’s assessment of other small, domestic, green energy production methods which might help us offset emissions from the built environment?
The right reverend Prelate is right to draw attention to some of the export guarantee schemes that we already have. I also draw his attention to the boiler upgrade scheme, which we will be introducing from April next year. That is £450 million of straight, upfront grants for people to install heat pumps.
I remind my noble friend that I am president of National Energy Action. Does he agree that much can be achieved through building regulations to make houses more energy efficient and more resilient to flooding? Does he share my disappointment that the review for sustainable drainage systems will not be concluded till autumn next year? Will he use his good offices to ensure that the regulations are brought forward by the middle of next year at the very latest?
I thank my noble friend for her question. She is right that building regulations have an important role to play. From 2025, the future homes standard will ensure that new homes produce at least 75% lower CO2 emissions compared to those built to current standards.
My Lords, will the Minister indicate when the Government will publish a long-term strategy for the sector, so that home owners and landlords seeking to meet new energy-efficient standards do not find in the years to come that they have to undertake further work to meet changed standards?
Does the Minister agree that, given the house price variability in the UK, landlords who operate in the lower-income market see this as an investment that will not be returned, as it is usually the tenant who pays the fuel bill? Does he agree that more incentives might be needed to meet targets in these areas? Can he reassure us that the—dare I say it—failed one-size-fits-all funding systems we have had previously will not be repeated and that local authorities will have more genuine autonomy to meet local needs and overcome their particular local barriers?
The noble Baroness makes a very good point. Local authorities are of course one of our key delivery partners through many of the schemes that we currently subsidise. We are spending billions of pounds on home upgrade grants, the local authority delivery scheme, the social housing decarbonisation fund and so on, and local authorities are our key partner in those projects.
Housing retrofitting is arguably one of the toughest infrastructure challenges the UK has ever seen. Concerted public sector intervention will be required to have any chance of achieving the legally binding and local net-zero targets. I was pleased to hear that the Minister visited Leeds last week to see schemes that are developing on the ground. However, we had to wait months for the Government’s heat and buildings strategy, and it was a massive letdown when it was published in October. Unfortunately, there was no replacement for the ill-fated Green Homes Grant for home owners. Can the Minister simply explain where the long-term retrofit plan is?
The heat and buildings strategy is our long-term retrofit plan. Within that, we announced a number of forthcoming consultations; previous questions have referred to the consultation on the private rented sector. The noble Baroness referenced the visit I made to Leeds last week to look at the local authority installed measures that are going so well. We continue to invest large sums of money in these projects.
The Government propose that private landlords will be required to pay up to £10,000 to ensure that the properties they rent out have an energy performance rating of C or better. Given that NRLA data suggests that the net annual rental income for landlords is under £4,400 a year, what financial support will be available for private landlords to make the energy improvements required of them?
There are a number of financial packages that private landlords letting to low-income tenants can take advantage of; I referred to some of the schemes earlier. Private sector landlords are entitled to take advantage of them, but the noble Lord is right and points to one of the dilemmas in the private rented sector, which is that the investment is made by landlords but the benefit is gained by tenants through lower fuel bills.
I hear the optimism and the claims, but, sadly, these are not carried through into government action and the Government know that full well. The Public Accounts Committee reported yesterday that the Government’s
“Green Homes Grant … Scheme … underperformed badly … and risks damaging … future efforts”
to deliver net zero. It also said that it is “not convinced” that BEIS has
“fully acknowledged the scale of its failures with this scheme.”
If you do not understand how or how badly you have failed, how will you ever deliver this green stuff that you clearly do not understand?
I am sorry the noble Baroness thinks we do not understand this “green stuff”—we have her advice to rely on, constantly, and she tells us all about it. To be serious, she is of course right that the National Audit Office acknowledged that the Green Homes Grant scheme did not deliver at the pace we would have expected. Nevertheless, we did deliver some 80,000 vouchers and spent some £300 million on precisely the kind of measures that I know the noble Baroness would support. We have certainly learned lessons from the Green Homes Grant and are taking those forward in future grant schemes, such as the boiler upgrade scheme to install more heat pumps, which I am sure the noble Baroness will also welcome.
Covid-19: Vaccination in Developing Countries
My Lords, the new variant omicron is showing us yet again that no one is safe until everyone is safe. Global vaccination continues to be vital for our defences against the pandemic and we are committed to making sure that people in the poorest countries get vaccines. We are a leading supporter of COVAX, which has delivered over 483 million vaccines to low and middle-income countries. This will rise to 1.8 billion doses by mid-2022.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I am slightly confused because I am hearing very different stats coming out. Affinity said yesterday that we have in fact delivered to developing countries only 11% of the vaccines we have promised, so I wonder when the remaining 89% might be delivered. Is the Minister aware that the Anglican Communion is working hard with local leaders in grass-roots churches right across Africa and parts of Asia on overcoming vaccine hesitation? Would he and his colleagues be willing to meet some of our team to see how we can roll these programmes out faster?
I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question. I do not recognise those particular stats, but I can give him some others which perhaps may reassure him. As I said earlier, the UK is one of the largest donors to the COVAX advance market commitment, which supports access to Covid-19 vaccines for up to 92 low and middle-income countries, 46 of which are in Africa. Our commitment of £548 million will support the COVAX AMC to deliver up to 1.8 billion doses to those countries in early 2022. We have already delivered 16 million doses through COVAX and directly to recipient countries, of which over 6 million have been delivered to 14 countries in Africa. Some 5.8 million doses are with COVAX and are in the process of being allocated and delivered and a further 9 million will be delivered to COVAX in the coming weeks, direct from AstraZeneca. Countries receiving those doses include Kenya, Nigeria and Mozambique.
I apologise for my long answer but, as the right reverend Prelate mentioned, many factors contribute to the slow vaccine rollout and one of those is vaccine hesitancy. I pay tribute to the Church for the extensive work it does on both Covid and other diseases, in particular in Africa, and of course we would be more than happy to meet and talk about this.
My Lords, this is a real north-south issue. On Monday, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, told me that the UK did not have a stockpile of vaccine doses and the supply chain is managed carefully to ensure that donated vaccines are able to be used by recipient countries. So, can the Minister explain today why hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses reached their expiry date and have been destroyed rather than distributed to countries that need them? Will he also reflect on what Gordon Brown said: is it true that the UK has 33 million vaccine doses that we could immediately deliver to the rest of the world without impacting our own vaccine programme?
I do not know the answer to the noble Lord’s second question. As regards the expiry date issue, decisions on donations are driven by the availability of vaccines from domestic supply. Once the Health Secretary is confident that vaccines are available to donate directly to partners, the Foreign Secretary prioritises how they are shared. Obviously, avoiding vaccine expiry and wastage is a UK core objective, determining when and where we share or deploy doses, and we strive to observe WHO guidelines on that. No vaccines will be shared without an agreement with recipients that there is sufficient time for distribution and deployment before expiry. To expand a little: obviously, it would be much more sensible to manufacture in Africa, and the UK is working with the new Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing to develop its road map for African vaccine manufacturing over the next year.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his position; it is the first time I have been able to do so. But does he not understand that at the very time our Government are asking our health networks to work together for a third jab, the Government’s cuts to health networks in developing countries—40% at a minimum, wiping out programmes across many countries—are inhibiting the distribution of the first and second jabs to those countries? The Independent Commission for Aid Impact said that this was a direct impact on the world’s ability to vaccinate. Can the Government at the very least review and reverse the shameful cuts to the health networks for the very people who need them most at this time?
The noble Lord will appreciate that I cannot commit the Government to all those things, but I can tell him a bit about some of the things we are doing, which I hope will reassure him a little. He will also understand that this is not necessarily my specialist subject so I ask him to bear with me. We have deployed UK emergency medical teams to 11 African countries to provide training and clinical advice. We have also deployed a UK public health rapid support team to provide specialist technical assistance to public health agencies in Nigeria, the Gambia, Tunisia and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. We are continuing to provide technical support to build genomic sequencing and country capability through the UK’s new variant assessment platform, including in African countries. We are doing a lot.
My Lords, when the Government responded last year to our Select Committee’s report on UK relations with sub-Saharan Africa, they stated that
“we are investing up to £20 million in the African Union’s ‘Africa anti-COVID 19 fund’”.
In the light of omicron, can my noble friend update the House on investment in that fund and whether it has been affected in any way by our cuts to overseas development assistance?
I am pleased to be able to give my noble friend a good answer: the £20 million contribution to the African Union’s Covid-19 response fund was not affected by the ODA cuts. The first contribution of £5 million was disbursed in July 2020 when the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the African Union agreed an MoU. The remaining £15 million was disbursed in March 2021, so the money was disbursed in full.
My Lords, the World Health Organization has said that developing countries urgently need not only vaccines but health- care workers to deliver them. Yet developed countries continue to rely on healthcare workers’ migration to deliver their own services. The Nursing and Midwifery Council data shows that the number of nurses coming to work in the UK from overseas has increased significantly. In the last year, the increase has been 225% from Africa, meaning that 3,503 nurses have joined the NMC registry, driven largely by four countries—Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Kenya. These nurses are extremely welcome; however, can the Minister explain the Government’s commitment not only to share vaccines but to ensure that there are healthcare workers to deliver jabs into arms in developing countries? Is investment through overseas aid in training and retaining healthcare workers part of future plans?
I thank the noble Baroness for her question, and it is an incredibly important one. Clearly, one of the factors of slow vaccine rollout is a lack of ability to distribute and administer. The UK Government are preparing a cross-departmental support offer to multiple sub-Saharan African countries, including: scientist-to-scientist conversations to provide technical advice to Governments; genomic sequencing and variant assessment support; medical and technical personnel surge response; and in-kind donations of PPE and other medical supplies. I also go back to the answer I gave to the noble Lord earlier about sending emergency medical teams to 11 African countries and the fact that we have deployed a UK public health rapid support team to provide specialist technical assistance.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise the deep sense of anger and betrayal in southern Africa over the rich world’s handling of the omicron variant? Is the response of economy-crippling travel restrictions and doubling down on vaccine boosters, when many in southern Africa have not been able to get even their first shots, not only deeply immoral but utterly counterproductive in encouraging countries to be transparent in the future and preventing new variants emerging, both of which are crucial if we are to get off this Covid treadmill?
My Lords, I think, actually, the first duty of a Government is to protect their own population. I do not regard that as deeply immoral. However, I agree that there is clearly inequity between the rich and the less well-developed parts of the world. With regard to the travel bans, we are putting in place a lot of economic support for Africa, as I have already detailed to some extent. There are other aspects of it as well, such as debt relief, and we will continue with that support. On the travel ban itself, we acted fast, in line with many other western countries.
My Lords, given the global agreement from the scientific community that Covid-19 badly affects older adults and those with obesity and underlying health issues in particular, I found the decision to use millions of doses of vaccines on children under 16—who are not really at risk—here and in Europe and elsewhere most odd. This was not supported by the JCVI or the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. Nevertheless, does my noble friend the Minister agree that to divert future millions of doses for the use of adults across the third world and other countries with a minimal uptake would be a more positive move towards protecting them and addressing the catastrophic effects of this deadly virus?
I thank my noble friend for her question. I think I have already explained and outlined the extensive efforts the UK is making as regards exporting vaccines. I am afraid I am not qualified to comment on the advisability or otherwise of vaccinating particular cohorts of the population. That, as I am sure my noble friend will appreciate, is significantly beyond my brief.
Power Outages: North of England
Private Notice Question
In the face of damage to infrastructure unprecedented in recent years, network engineering staff have been working tirelessly in challenging conditions to make repairs and restore power as quickly as possible. As of this morning, fewer than 20,000 people remain without power, and more than 950,000 have had their electricity restored. The Secretary of State has commissioned his officials to conduct a post-incident review to learn lessons and improve system resilience and customer support.
I am grateful to my noble friend for his Answer. He will be aware that there was simply no way to report a power cut or to receive information as to how the planned power cut might be expected to be terminated. There was no mobile signal and, obviously, there was no access because there was no power to the internet, which are the two main means by which customers are asked to report a power outage. Will my noble friend ensure that the military engineers are sent in to support Northern Powergrid and others responsible for the remaining thousands of customers who are without power, and ensure that a rumour going around that some will be without power until the new year is absolutely untrue? In the long term, will my noble friend ensure that we reduce reliance on overhead power lines and the overhead transmission of power, and seek to put these giant electricity wires underground, as is the case in other parts of the country?
Of course, there are many lessons to be learned from the past week. It has been extremely challenging in the north of the country. I am from there myself and well aware of the issues: many people have contacted me about it. I just say to the noble Baroness that more than 4,000 engineers have been working to repair the damage, 750 generators have been deployed to provide emergency power and vulnerable customers have been prioritised for support. There are clearly issues about being able to contact Northern Powergrid, in particular; it was overwhelmed by the volume of calls. These were exceptionally strong winds of more than 100 miles per hour, and it is the most damage that has been done to the system for 15 years.
My Lords, obviously, the capacity to respond is in question, and I am pleased to hear the Minister say that there will be a review ongoing, but the review is no good to the people who have lost power today. As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, there are rumours—indeed, statements—that this could go on for some people right up to Christmas and the new year. Speaking in the House, the Secretary of State was unable to say whether that was true. He said
“I will do everything in my power to ensure that this does not happen.”—[Official Report, Commons, 1/12/21; col. 924.]
Given the structure of the industry, perhaps the Minister can say what is in the power of the Secretary of State and what practical help he has given to the people who still do not have power.
My colleague, Minister Hands, went up to visit the area yesterday, spoke to many people who had been affected and met many of the engineers who have been working around the clock over the past week to restore power. As the noble Lord said, there are a number of lessons that we need to learn from this. It was fairly unprecedented, but of course that is no compensation to the people affected, concentrated in the north of England and Scotland, who have been suffering greatly—I have heard many of their stories myself. We must give any resources or support that we can to the companies concerned. Restoring power is a complicated, technical exercise. We need to ensure that the people doing it, who are very skilled personnel, are working safely and we will want to support them in every possible way.
My Lords, this was a very bad series of storms in the north-east. I do not think it is unprecedented, because I recall a similar one in the south-east of England in 1987—some older noble Lords will remember that. It sometimes took weeks for the power to be reconnected. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said that the answer is to put more power lines underground. Is there not a conflict between the enormous cost of putting power underground and the fact that we do not like cutting trees down? Trees tend to fall on wires, railway lines and other such things. Is there a solution to this, or have we just got to accept that we love our trees, they will knock the wires down occasionally and we just have to accept that there will be delays and congratulate all the people trying to put it right?
I hope we will not just accept it. Balancing the different factors that the noble Lord mentioned, we need to put as many cables underground as possible, but he is right that that is much more expensive than running overhead lines. We need to do what we can to improve the resilience of the system, but I am sure we would meet many objections if the solution was to cut down more trees near power lines.
My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House how many people are still without power—the figure of 50,000 has been mentioned; whether the Army has been asked to go in to support those people who are cut off in this awful winter weather; and what plans the Government have, given the prospect of climate change, with such storms likely to be increasingly prevalent, to forestall or deal with situations of this nature that arise in future?
My understanding is that there are currently about 20,000 people who are still without power. As I said, 950,000 have had their power restored. I understand the calls for the Army to be deployed, and its abilities are legendary, but it is important to recognise that in work such as this, safety priorities mean that only suitably qualified engineers can work on electricity network infrastructure. The military resource cannot support the restoration of electricity supplies, and network distribution operators have confirmed that military assistance is not necessary in this case.
I do not have that figure to hand. The noble Lord, with his work on infrastructure, will know that the cost of putting power lines underground is much greater than that of overhead lines, and these are difficult balances that have to be struck in any particular circumstance, particularly in rural communities or if the lines are going long-distance across the countryside. To put them all underground would be immensely expensive. If my officials have access to any figures, I will certainly let him have them.
My Lords, in responding to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, the Minister said that “we” need to ensure more resilience, but of course we are talking here about private companies, whose entire focus is on private profits. Will the Government ensure that regulators force those companies to build more resilience into the system?
I feel increasingly frustrated by the lack of appreciation of the fact that many residents in the rural north have felt utterly abandoned by the Government. What have the Government done practically to support people who have had no heating, no water and no hot food? It is not good enough—I am really sorry to say this. The Government knew the extent of the crisis in advance. The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, asked about the Army and the Minister talked about the fact its personnel were not qualified electricians. Surely, however, the Army could have gone to rural areas and brought in gas heaters, hot food, generators—anything to mitigate the impact. It has been appalling for many people.
I know that it has been appalling for many people; I come from the area myself and have spoken to many MPs in those areas. I have been contacted by many residents. There are Members of this House who also live in the north and have suffered. With regard to the noble Baroness’s questions, we are giving all the support we can to the companies responsible for delivering this, with the appropriately trained engineers. In answer to her question about generators, more than 750 have been deployed since the incident began. Almost 1 million customers experienced disruption, but 950,000 have had their power restored. As I said, 20,000 people are still, unfortunately, cut off from electricity supply, but I know that engineers are working at this moment to try to get them restored.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, I should like to say a few words about the sub-judice resolution.
Later today, the House will debate a Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, on the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Noble Lords may be aware that there are active legal proceedings in the High Court between International Military Services Ltd and Iran’s Ministry of Defence. I have exercised the discretion given to me in respect of the resolution on matters sub judice to allow full reference to those proceedings, as they concern issues of national importance.
BBC: Government Support
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I thank the House very much for the opportunity to introduce this debate. It is a privilege to open a discussion on such a subject.
I work for BBC Radio 4 and Sky Arts as a freelancer. I joined the BBC in 1961 as a trainee. My first television posting was to Huw Wheldon, editor and presenter of “Monitor”, the arts programme. Huw was a man full of terse advice, chiefly plucked from his distinguished military career. One example is: “You ignore the obvious at your peril.” He also said that the BBC is the “sum of its programmes”.
I begin by stating obvious things about the BBC. It is regularly sniped at, sliced up, and its parts disparaged. It is blamed for this, that and the other, and every current malaise. It purpose is often punctured. Few of its detractors take on the obvious—the full darts board—and concentrate exclusively on a double top to make a splash. I think that the BBC is unique in the world of broadcasting; so, in my experience, do many world broadcasters. Its strengths are even more valuable now when all around us, at this tipping point in our history, so many other institutions seem to be failing.
No other single broadcasting company in the world is as targeted, comprehensive, Hydra-headed, cross-class, successful on several levels and knitted into the audiences as the BBC. Of course it makes mistakes and stumbles, and is subjected to justifiable criticism, but on the whole, over almost a century, this institution has grown into one of the most reliable staples of our troubled society. It is all the better for being neither propagandist nor fawning on its public. Despite many assaults, it is still independent and arm’s length from a Government who are slow to praise, quick to blame and sometimes eager to interfere.
At a time like this, the BBC deserves to be appreciated for what it really is and not presented as the obstacle to certain factions, corporations and individuals who see it getting in the way of their own broadcasting ambitions. Unfashionable though it is, it seems that, by and large, the BBC’s ambition is now as it was when Lord Reith invented it almost a century ago, which is to reach all of the people some of the time and many of the people all of the time but, most of all, to weave itself into the texture of this country and serve it, which the BBC has always attempted to do. It is called public service. That original vision was to inform, educate and entertain the UK without favour or prejudice. It was a bold and tall order but, on the whole, it has been steadily pursued.
Reliable statistics show that the BBC is still on track. The findings are remarkable. The BBC is used by, on average, 90% of UK adults and 80% of young adults every week. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the BBC extended its role as a broadcaster to bring programmes to audiences safely, while creating new shows and events. Nearly 6 million people watched “Lockdown Learning”, and 45% named the BBC as their number one source for information and news on Covid. The nearest runner-up was 13%. Who else would have done that?
Radio 4 is the UK’s most listened-to speech station. In any year, it broadcasts over 3,200 hours of news and current affairs, 375 hours of documentaries, and new strands of drama and the arts. Its many experts and reporters at flashpoints all around the world keep us up to date. There are news programmes that feature probing, feisty discussions that skilfully dice with impartiality, bias and wokeism on issues of the moment. There are programmes on science, the arts, philosophy and sociology that pick out some of the most relevant intellectual arguments of the day.
At the BBC’s pinnacle are the Reith lectures, which are currently on air, but it is also in the context of quizzes, comedies and quirky niche shows that make many people’s day. I see it as an ingenious, illogical patchwork, inspired by the tastes of its audiences—from “Strictly” to “Panorama” to David Attenborough. Half the output of Radio 3 is live or specially recorded music. Last year alone, 50 new musical works were commissioned. Then there are the magnificent Proms and the BBC orchestras. This directly feeds into the quality, wealth and reach of classical music-making in this country. Without BBC support, that would deflate like a burst balloon.
Another example is BBC Radio 2, the most listened-to of the BBC radio channels, with high production and presenting values in popular culture. Oh dear: some who want the BBC to be exclusive rather disapprove of popular culture. But what is wrong with it? I would like to know. Popular music can be transformational and Radio 2 satisfies millions with its carefully orchestrated shows in a vital aspect of the arts. It is part of the BBC’s broad culture.
BBC television drama, such as “Line of Duty”, “Small Axe”, “Sherlock”, “Doctor Who”, “Call the Midwife”, “I May Destroy You”, “Normal People” and “Killing Eve”, hold their own in world television drama, despite the jumbo bombers coming across the Atlantic, powered by budgets that could buy a small country. Along with the Americans, we mop up the prizes. BBC drama is at the heart of the outstanding and profitable arts, media and entertainment industry in this country. More than 2 million highly and particularly skilled people are employed in the sector. They bring back profits in the billions—more than many of our great industries.
I wonder why the Government do not double the subsidies—or should we call them investments?—in the arts and the BBC. These areas could be at the forefront of an energised British recovery. They have grown unstoppably since 1945. It is not too fanciful to imagine the arts, universities and media—culture—becoming the dominant part of our economy before too long. Why not play to our strengths now? The future is already here. We need to recognise it, back it, celebrate it and hang on for the ride.
We get all of this from the BBC for about 40p a day. By the time one adds together the basic subscriptions just for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Apple TV, that alone is more than double the cost of the licence fee, despite the limited range of their programmes. The BBC can also produce big figures when it has to: 25 million people watched Euro 2020; 25.8 million people watched the last Wimbledon on BBC TV; and over 28 million people come to the BBC every evening for their entertainment on an average day.
The BBC World Service is a triumph. Almost a billion people listen to its voice—our voice—which carries authority around the world. Yet, for incomprehensible reasons, the Government are presiding over cutting its budget and producers are being forced out. At such a crucial moment in our history, it beggars belief. I am tempted to say that if around the world our Government were accorded the same respect as the BBC, we would be home and dry.
In another area, the BBC is being resolute in its determination to nurture diversity on radio and television nationwide. Greg Dyke, a previous director-general of the BBC, called it “hideously white and middle class”. That is being steadily eroded in London and the regions —an underrated part of the BBC.
So why is the BBC so often attacked, and why by the Government? It makes no sense. Over the last decade, the BBC’s income has been cut by 31% in real terms through the freeze in the licence fee from 2010 to 2017. The Government have stopped paying for the World Service and removed the funding for free licenses. In short, the Government have fleeced the licence fee paying public to dig themselves out of a hole in social services.
The multiplication of new channels continues to test the BBC but, on the creative side, it has not buckled. The press, some of which has its own fish to fry, keeps up a relentless offensive against the BBC. Sometimes the criticism is fair, and the BBC has often benefited from competition, such as when ITV came in and challenged the BBC on its news and documentary values. Sometimes it can seem that the BBC is taking on too much. Can it still, as Lord Reith hoped, serve all the people? The answer is in the programmes. The BBC is not letting that down. Many of those programmes stand up with the best on the spectrum wherever one looks.
This Government seem bent on making the BBC weaker at the moment, when every indicator suggests that the opposite course would be the wiser. The Government seem to be ignorant of the BBC’s deeply held strengths and the affection in which it is held in this country for its reliability, talent, fun, originality and the feeling of being part of a nation that it engenders. It belongs to us, the licence fee payers.
Recently, it has sometimes seemed that, sadly, we are becoming a lesser country by the year. I hope that the BBC is not allowed to become part of this surrender to a creeping deterioration. Indeed, I believe it could be one of the forces that leads by example the fight against what is happening and organises us to get out of this mire. It comes down to what sort of country we want this to be. The BBC has earned our respect and repaid our support, in war and peace, over many years. It has built itself in our image. Surely, now that it is so clearly up against it, we cannot let it down.
My Lords, it is a huge honour and privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bragg. I know that this is sometimes a pro forma that people say in these debates, but his has been a reassuring voice throughout my life: informing, educating and entertaining. He is a genuine polymath, as I discovered when I once appeared on his show on the anniversary of the Great Charter. He is one of those people who can take your special subject and argue as though it were also his. His has been a life of public service.
I do not think that anyone of us here would disagree with the strengths he has identified in our national broadcaster. The question is whether, as implied in the Motion for debate, these strengths depend on more government support and subsidy. Very often, government support, which is always well intentioned, ends up having a very different effect. There was a time in this country when it was thought that it was the role of government to install telephones, to manage airlines, to build cars. Those things did not work out very well —for the same reason that some of the rival broadcasters the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, mentioned are outperforming some of the older ones in audience share.
How do we preserve the strengths of our national broadcaster, while allowing it to enter into an age of streaming, Netflix, YouTube and all the other innovations? I do not think that my children are ever going to own a television set—it just is not how young people expect to watch programmes these days. To them, the idea of a poll tax on the population belongs—as it literally does—to a previous century. It made perfect sense when there was only one broadcaster. It is much more difficult to justify today.
There has always been a traditional attack on the BBC from some in my party on the grounds that it is biased, partial and so on. It is a line of reasoning that goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s observation that it is sinful to force a man to furnish money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves. I hope it is still okay to quote the third President, as his statue is taken down in New York City Hall. He had some useful things to say about this, but that is not really my argument today. I do not think it matters nearly as much that the big, flagship news and current affairs programmes have been losing audience share. There is now a multiplicity of broadcasters. Out of the cacophony of differing interpretations, we can usually discern something close to the truth. We have that pluralism that is so necessary for impartiality. The problem is simply that we are trying to defend a 20th-century behemoth as though the technological changes of the last generation had not happened.
The question for the BBC is whether it can retrench and defend what it does well, rather than squandering its resources and capital defending things that are no longer sustainable. For example, do we really need a state broadcaster engaging in local radio? That area was perfectly well served by the private sector before. Do we need all these unbelievably unfunny comedy programmes on BBC2 and Radio 4? Are they a core part of what makes us a nation, shaped and defined by this relationship? Can we not retrench and make the line more defensible? We still have five or six years left of the existing funding system. I hope that figures within the corporation will use these years to think imaginatively about how to go with the changes, rather than being dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world. If there is a future for a state broadcaster, it will have to be more agile, cheaper and apter for the demands of our current age.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for introducing his timely debate in such a comprehensive and authoritative way. Although I do not agree with many of the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, I follow him in saying that no one has done more than my noble friend Lord Bragg successfully to demonstrate the quality of public service broadcasting in this country, through his own very distinguished programmes.
I must declare my own, more modest interests, having been employed by the BBC over many years in various roles, as a producer and reporter. I want to mention that today because the corporation’s record as a good employer is rarely mentioned, and I think it should be. For example, even many decades ago, when I was a very junior producer, there was almost no discernible gender bias in the corporation. Even in the 1970s, women at the BBC were not treated in any way other than as equals. Although it is obvious that we have not yet seen a woman director-general, none the less, there are many women visible at senior levels. My noble friend Lord Bragg has already mentioned diversity. Just last month, the BBC was the only broadcasting organisation ranked as a top employer in this year’s social mobility index. When we talk about the multiplicity of broadcasting organisations, I hope that this will be noted.
In introducing this debate, my noble friend referred to the invaluable role played by the BBC during our ongoing national pandemic crisis, but I want to focus a little on the global role it has played, because that has been possibly even more significant. It is worth remembering that, through its multimedia platforms—and they are multimedia platforms—the international news services now reach record levels, with 450 million adults using them every week. Today, the total worldwide audience is a staggering 489 million and is confidently expected to reach 500 million in 2022. Vast numbers of people have accessed the special programming designed to help populations, particularly those in less well-developed countries, to navigate and understand the dangers of the pandemic. For example, a daily podcast—the coronavirus global update—is coupled with a mini, specialist radio bulletin, with individual separate versions for India, Africa and Latin America. Enormous efforts have been made to tackle the wild rumours and many myths about the virus—and indeed the vaccines—which have spread frighteningly quickly, particularly in vulnerable societies. The Trusted News Initiative is well established, and BBC Africa has set up its own dedicated misinformation hub. In general, the World Service has greatly expanded its work on media literacy to try to undermine the influences of so-called fake news.
Together, as my noble friend has said, all these global services play a major role in enhancing the United Kingdom’s international reputation. In the five- year review of the World Service, published in October, new research showed that
“awareness of the BBC … is strongly linked to … positive perceptions of”
this country. This is soft power at its very best, and the Government should give it their utmost support—the support for which my noble friend calls in today’s Motion.
However, although the Government’s autumn spending review mentioned continuing to invest in the World Service, no specific funding figures have been confirmed beyond next March. This must be immediately addressed. When the Minister replies, perhaps he will be able to give us positive, official information about the next financial grant. I hope that it will be increased, so that the BBC can successfully go on expanding its international role and remain one of this country’s strongest brands.
My Lords, first, I send my good wishes to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool on making his maiden speech. My parents were both born in Old Swan; they gave their allegiance to the cathedral at the other end of Hope Street. Successive bishops of Liverpool have worked hard to eliminate religious intolerance, and Hope Street is well named in housing those two cathedrals.
My first task is to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, for introducing this debate with such authority. His words of wisdom, delivered in that mellifluous Cumbrian accent, always put me in mind of another iconic author and broadcaster: JB Priestley. The noble Lord’s “In Our Time” programmes are not just brilliant radio broadcasts in their own right; they will be repeated as source material for the study of all aspects of our social, scientific and cultural life for decades to come.
In the world of fake news, it is more important than ever to safeguard the impartiality of broadcast news. In its 100-year history, the BBC has been able to rely on cross-party consensus to support and protect our values. It would be a tragedy if that consensus were to break down now. As I have said before, much depends on the courage of those on the Government Benches to defend the BBC from this death by a thousand cuts.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said, one area where this consensus still seems to exist is in the recognition of the soft power and global influence that we receive from the BBC World Service. Today’s Motion
“takes note of the BBC’s value to the United Kingdom and a wider global audience”.
It would be helpful if the Minister could spell out in his reply the ongoing support and financial commitment to the World Service, which achieved its highest-ever global audience, of nearly half a billion people last year. Not only that, but all the research shows that listeners and viewers worldwide believe and trust the BBC. The research also showed that World Service users have positive perceptions of the UK and are more likely to use British goods and services.
Around the world, the BBC is associated with distinctive British values of fairness, integrity and impartiality. The quality of its coverage is underpinned by a two-way flow of experience and expertise between the BBC at home and the World Service. We all know from our own experience that, whenever a crisis hits the headlines, wherever it is in the world, people will switch on the BBC to find out the facts. We also know that to be true because of the way in which authoritarians seek to block BBC broadcasts and expel BBC journalists.
Brand Finance’s respected Global Soft Power Index said in its latest report that:
“The UK ranks 1st globally in the Media & Communications pillar—overtaking the US this year to clinch the top spot”.
It went on to say that the BBC
“is arguably the most respected and well-known media outlet in the world … and acts as one of the nation’s greatest soft power tools.”
That is the asset that this Government and Parliament must defend and nourish. We know the benefits that the BBC brings us, both home and abroad. We know who its enemies are and the damage that they have caused elsewhere to other broadcasting ecologies. Since this is a Labour Party debate, I think I can quote Nye Bevan: “Why look into the crystal ball when you can read the book?”
My Lords, I quote the former Secretary of State for DCMS, who said in November 2020:
“When people around the world think of Britain, they think of the Royal family, and the Premier League. And they think of the BBC. From the moment its first radio transmitter crackled into life a century ago, our oldest broadcaster has been a steadfast national institution, a champion of British values across the globe … The pandemic has illustrated what the BBC does best. It has helped us educate our children, and been a trusted source of information on the virus. And it has provided a national gathering place for millions tuning in to hear government updates or watch the first live Premier League game”.
The value of universal service broadcasting, with the BBC at its heart, has been essential over the past two years. The BBC has delivered on its mission to “inform, educate and entertain”.
If you put it in context, in real terms, the licence fee costs less today than it did a decade ago, yet the amount of BBC services has increased in that time. You get 10 TV services, 10 national radio stations, 40 local radio stations, plus everything on iPlayer, BBC Sounds, the BBC website, the World Service, all for just over £3 a week. In many ways, it is phenomenal value for money, which is why more than 90% of people in the UK use the BBC every week.
With fake news abounding around the world, one of the biggest advantages of the BBC is that it is seen as impartial and trusted news and information, which is more important than ever before. It is the best at countering misinformation and fake news, supporting local communities and, of course, providing educational services—particularly during lockdown, when they reached 4.5 million pupils. Of course, providing high-quality entertainment is key, whether that is coverage of the Proms, the FA Cup, the World Cup, the Olympics, the jubilee, Remembrance Sunday, “Line of Duty”, Sir David Attenborough—a national treasure—I could carry on.
The World Service matters a lot to me as someone born in India. My grandfather in Hyderabad listening to the World Service when I was a child is embedded in my memory; I can picture it now while I speak. Ongoing government investment in the World Service—in particular to boost digital, tackle disinformation and reach new audiences in India, Africa and the Middle East—has enabled BBC News to play a critical role in helping people across the globe safely navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. The BBC has strengthened its position in markets of need such as Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where access to trusted impartial news is more important than ever. Its added value is £5 billion of economic output, according to KPMG, which reported that, for every £1 of direct economic activity generated by the BBC, there was £2.63 of economic output; and that, for every job it creates, a further 1.7 jobs are created.
We all know about the challenges that the BBC faces. We all know about the criticisms of it as well. However, at the heart of the BBC’s values are providing impartial news and information, supporting learning, showing the most creative, highest-quality output—the BBC is renowned for that and is a phenomenal example of it—and reflecting the United Kingdom, its culture and values. We are one of the most creative countries in the world. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, for initiating this debate. He is a legend in his own lifetime and an example of Great British expertise.
During the pandemic, 84% of UK adults came to the BBC in a time of need during both lockdowns. Through its international audience, the BBC reaches 489 million people per week. That is almost half a billion people; it is absolutely phenomenal. As other speakers have said, the BBC is one of our strongest elements of soft power. When it comes to its reach, 12 new language services have been launched and—this is one of the most surprising statistics—a Reuters report showed that the BBC is the “most trusted news brand” in the United States, with it coming
“second only to local television news, and ahead of all major US news brands.”
The Soft Power 30 2019 ranking cited the BBC World Service as one of the two British institutions that are key to British soft power. The other tangible benefits are that it encourages people to do business with the UK and inspires people to visit the UK. It inspires international students to study in the UK; as a co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Students and the president of UKCISA, I see this at first hand. Most importantly, the BBC is associated around the world with the amazing respect that Britain and we as a country have for fairness, integrity and impartiality.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to address your Lordships for the first time and on this subject, and for the privilege of following the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for his kind words. I thank all noble Lords for the warmth of the welcome that I have received, and, for the quality of briefing and induction from the officers and staff of your Lordships’ House, which has been exemplary and profoundly helpful.
I speak as one whose first degree was in drama and theatre arts, and who was almost employed by the BBC as a trainee script editor in what was then called “English Regions Drama”, at the Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, in 1975. With whatever wisdom, I chose instead to enter the ordained ministry of the Church, and there have been times when I have felt that I chose the lower calling. Forty-two years of ministry in six different dioceses have culminated in the enormous privilege of my being appointed Bishop of Liverpool in 2014. I have been preferred to your Lordships’ House late in my ministry, but I am very grateful to be here and to receive wisdom for at least a few months.
Among its many dimensions, I want to speak of what the BBC does uniquely in our fragmented public square. To me, the gift and value of public service broadcasting is a matter of form before it is a matter of content: it rests on the decision to assume a tone of voice. The value of the BBC to this nation and our global position is rooted in its decision to be calm, to choose a particular volume and quality of scrutiny and to sustain it, no matter how unpopular it may be.
I have described the public square as fragmented. Increasingly, it is one where to be opinionated is to be rewarded, and where volume and shrillness of tone have become praiseworthy in themselves. In such a world, it is surely the role of a public service communicator to still the waters so that they reflect the truth. Calm scrutiny will cause people with power, whoever and wherever they may be, whatever they may say, however loudly they may speak, one and all, to be uncomfortable. This applies as much to the Bishops of the Church of England as to anyone else.
Calm scrutiny is a gift, but it must also be proclaimed. In the Hebrew scriptures, we are told that
“Wisdom calls out in the street”.
To me, the impartiality of a public service broadcaster rests in impartiality of scrutiny and courage in scrutinising, rather than in attempting the even-handed presentation of increasingly strident points of view. In Liverpool, the work of my distinguished predecessors, Lord Sheppard of Liverpool, and Bishop James Jones KBE, rested on this commending of quiet scrutiny in the face of riot after poverty or institutional defensiveness after tragedy, for example, or any other falling away from coherence, community and the common good.
Your Lordships will know of the recent terrorist incident in Liverpool. It faced us with a mystery. To this day, we do not know why that young man did what he did, and we may never know. In the face of that mystery, the response of the English media was diverse. For some, the journey of the young man concerned provided a fine opportunity for the naivety of people of faith to be exposed, or for the systems by which people seek refuge to be deplored. These words had little purchase in Liverpool, where a number of organs of commercial media have been deeply and permanently distrusted for 40 years.
The BBC, on the other hand, nationally and regionally, genuinely provided the impartial platform of scrutiny which I have described, and it continues to hold the significant trust of people across my community, where few other voices do. In this case, that trust rested on a readiness, particularly on the part of local BBC journalists, to explore on its own terms the self-understanding of communities of faith as places of God’s welcome. In other words, it rested on a platform of religious literacy.
The BBC is not perfect, but it should be treasured and supported. Having said and meant all these nice things about it, I also underline the urgent need for that religious literacy to be intentionally sustained and intentionally deepened, if the BBC is indeed to hold its value for a global audience in a world that remains, predominantly, a world of faith.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate on the occasion of his excellent maiden speech. He describes himself as a late arrival in this House, but we greet him with eagerness and look forward to further contributions. His speech emphasised calm thoughtfulness and scrutiny, and his approach epitomised what he advocated. We have much to look forward to. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on securing this debate. His speech, like his broadcasts, epitomised all that is best in the BBC.
I declare an interest. My father worked for the BBC throughout his life, albeit in a humble capacity, away from the cameras and microphones. However, he instilled in me a reverence for the institution, and I still have a great affection for the BBC, even though that sentiment is not reciprocated. I admire the quality and breadth of its output and I have no desire to end the licence fee, although it may become more vulnerable through technological change, as my noble friend Lord Hannan pointed out.
None the less, the BBC should not be exempt from criticism, as the right reverend Prelate has just said. It is not perfect. Despite its tedious obsession with gender and racial diversity, the BBC suffers from a lack of diversity of opinion and an overwhelming liberal metropolitan bias. That manifests itself less in what is said than what is not said, the voices not heard, the questions not asked, the issues not addressed.
The three areas in which this bias and censorship are most blatant are the EU/Brexit, energy/climate change and immigration/skills. Time permits only brief examples of these. As far as the EU is concerned, last week on “Today”, Nick Robinson, who can be one of the most perceptive and rigorous of interviewers, interviewed the Irish Foreign Minister, who claimed that the EU’s proposals on Northern Ireland were far-reaching and would reduce checks on goods from GB to Northern Ireland by 80%. Nick Robinson could have asked whether the EU was offering to reduce existing checks by 80% or to reduce the demanded additional checks by 80%. Instead, he argued that the EU should not be making any concessions to the UK at all:
“Isn’t the problem with the concessions that the EU have made that they feed a sense in Downing Street that the EU only responds to threats? What those around Boris Johnson believe is that the EU blinks if you’re tough.”
I cannot imagine any other state broadcaster urging the Minister of a foreign country not to make any concessions towards his own country’s position, but that was the approach taken by Nick Robinson, without comment or subsequent apology.
On climate change, anyone who argues that there is a trade-off between the costs to poor people in current generations of achieving net zero and the benefits to future, far richer generations, is labelled a denier—even though the very existence of a trade-off means that you accept the science of global warming—and is banned from Broadcasting House, as I am. By contrast, claims that global warming will lead to the extinction of the human race are never challenged, even though the Government have confirmed that no peer-reviewed studies predict the end of the human race as a result of climate change. Alarmist claims about the supposedly catastrophic impact of climate change, which have no basis in the IPCC report, are never challenged. The IPCC says:
“For most economic sectors, the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impacts of other drivers … Changes in population, age, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, governance, and many other aspects of socioeconomic development will have an impact on the supply and demand of economic goods and services that is large relative to the impact of climate change.”
Could you possibly reach that conclusion from listening to the BBC’s output on the subject?
On migration, the BBC invokes shortages of nurses and doctors as totemic reasons why we need a continued inflow of skilled workers, but it never reports—and it challenged and rebuked me when I said it—that, annually, we turn away over 20,000 British applicants for nursing courses in this country and the majority of the applicants for medical schools. I recently asked a politically literate audience who got most of their information from the BBC whether they were aware of this, and they were astonished to learn that it is true.
These three issues are immensely important to most people outside the metropolitan bubble. If the BBC fails to cover them in an informed and balanced way, if it believes its job is to convince and censor rather than to educate and inform, it will not secure the support that this Motion calls for.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Bragg on initiating this debate. He covers the waterfront so well that I do not need to go over his arguments, but I will focus on some of the challenges that the BBC faces.
I am a very eclectic listener and viewer. I am such an old fogey that I still get a printed copy of the Radio Times, which is a good thing to have because it shows the extent of the competition that the BBC faces. I am puzzled by some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, who said that most children do not own a TV. Well, no, they usually depend on their parents or grandparents, but they still watch the things that they want to. But I agree that one of the challenges the BBC faces is to capture the next generation of both viewers and listeners. Talking to young people about where they get their news from is quite illuminating. Many of them do not read newspapers or books but rely on social media channels such as Reddit. It is not that they do not watch the BBC at all, but this is a challenge that the BBC faces.
Then there is the argument of whether we really need the BBC to do things such as local radio. My answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, is yes, we emphatically do, because it is one of the largest groups bringing on the next generation of journalists—its record on apprenticeships is second to none—and it serves a real audience. Do we need the BBC to provide comedies, et cetera? The answer is yes; look at the standard and quality of what it produces. I always think back to the amazing mission statement of Lord Reith, to inform, educate and entertain. That is part of the challenge to the BBC: can it still entertain an audience in the 21st century?
I am not ashamed to say that I enjoy watching “Strictly”—it is first-class entertainment. Interestingly, this year, it tackled two issues of diversity and inclusion. It included a young woman who is deaf, and a whole new group of people is now thinking about the value of sign language. Even more controversially, in a way —and even I was not sure—two gay men are dancing together; they have been an inspiration and are a contribution against homophobia. Who else would have done that in the middle of an entertainment programme? It is not perfect, as the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, said—and maybe there are times when I agree with some of what he says—but I think there is diversity of opinion on the BBC.
I think also about children’s programmes—the Prime Minister is clearly obsessed with “Peppa Pig”. Of course, it is one in a long line of great BBC achievements. Those of us who are as old as some of us are can go back to the glories of “The Magic Roundabout” and, even further, to “Muffin the Mule”, which was quite an interesting proposition. Children’s television and radio are important things, and I think the BBC still has a wonderful role to play.
I will end on this, because I am conscious of the time. If I have any criticism, it is that I am worried about impartiality and integrity. I forgot to thank the right reverend Prelate for his maiden speech, which I found inspiring, in which he mentioned impartiality. I am glad to see, at long last, the recent decision of the BBC to withdraw from Stonewall—an organisation that I do not believe had a good influence and, in some ways, undermined its ability to demonstrate that it would hear a range of views. I am aware that this is a controversial issue, but I think it is important.
My concern about the future of the BBC is whether it is worth the funding and can still cut the ice in today’s broadcasting circumstances. I believe it can and I wish it well, but it has to think carefully about impartiality and integrity. I thank my noble friend Lord Bragg once again.
My Lords, in my brief time, I will talk about the educational work of the BBC. First, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for his thoughtful contribution. As a Liverpool resident of 40 years, I look forward to hearing other contributions from him.
As we have heard, the first director famously said that the BBC should inform, educate and entertain. As a young teacher, I remember using the BBC’s radio “Music and Movement” programmes for PE, dance and drama lessons, and the BBC’s school programmes were inspiring and invaluable. Who, for example, could ever forget Harry Armstrong? Who? Harry Armstrong brought the world of science alive for young children in the 1970s. The BBC has impressive world firsts in education. In 1924, it launched the first schools radio broadcast; in 1928, it launched the first adult education radio broadcast; in 1957, the BBC schools television service was launched; in 1971, the BBC and Open University partnership began; in 1981, BBC Micro launched, as part of the BBC’s computer literacy project; and, in 1998, BBC Bitesize, the flagship education website, was launched. In 2016, BBC micro:bit, a pocket-sized codable computer, was given free to every year 7 child.
Then Covid came along and lockdown occurred, including the shutdown of all our schools. The BBC sprang into action and, in literally a few weeks, launched Bitesize Daily to support learning for our schoolchildren and students during the Covid-19 pandemic. Bringing together top BBC talent with the best teachers across the UK, Bitesize Daily delivered a fun curriculum linked to lessons focusing on English and maths, as well as covering key curriculum subjects and student well-being. It reached an average of 2.7 million unique visitors every week, with a peak of 5.2 million unique visitors. Bitesize Daily TV shows reached over 6 million viewers on iPlayer and the red button; they explained learning in a fun and exciting way, and children and students loved them. Bitesize was used by 80% of secondary school pupils and 80% of GCSE students, who agreed that it made them feel more prepared for their exams. The Prime Minister called the initiative “fantastic”, and the Culture Secretary said:
“The BBC has helped the nation through some of the toughest moments of the last century, and for the next few weeks it will help our children learn whilst we stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.”
Lord Reith was general manager and managing director of the British Broadcasting Company. He resisted the US commercial model and campaigned for the BBC’s royal charter, and the British Broadcasting Corporation was established. Would education have flourished if he had chosen that American commercial model? I doubt it.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannan, talked about things that the BBC should perhaps not do, and he mentioned local radio. He suggested that the commercial sector could do local radio, but we have local commercial radio stations and guess what? They might be commercially successful but they are no longer local—the programmes come from London and are broadcast to local communities. They have got rid of—sacked—local presenters and local production staff, and even closed down a local studio, I think in Brighton, so they do not seem very local to me. I was delighted to hear the right reverend Prelate talk about the importance of local radio to our community in Liverpool during Covid. Guess what? Radio Merseyside’s audience has increased dramatically.
My Lords, it is a thrill to take part in this debate, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on calling it. I praise the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for his wonderful maiden speech, and I am glad to be the warm-up act for the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, who is one of the best discoveries that I have made since I joined your Lordships’ House.
I love debates about the BBC, mainly because we all suffer from “Strictly” syndrome—all our speeches descend very quickly into the programmes that we like or dislike on the BBC, and from that we extrapolate some grand stratagem about its future, but I want to concentrate a bit more on its structures because I am a critical friend of the BBC. In fact, the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, teed me up quite nicely, because as a Back-Bench MP I actually campaigned against the BBC’s education services and succeeded in closing some of them down. I did this because, as an Oxfordshire MP, I had a lot of publishing companies and education companies coming to me and saying, “We are private companies, and we employ hundreds of people in your constituency. We cannot compete against ‘free’”. That is why we now have the market-access test for the BBC’s new services, because sometimes the BBC, despite the much greater media world that we now live in, ends up stamping on the commercial sector.
I once found myself on the front page of the Sunday Times because I had mused to a journalist—thinking that I was in a seminar and not having an on-the-record drink—that perhaps Radio 1 could be privatised. The point is that we forget that Radio 1 was established in the 1960s to combat pirate radio. We now have Radio 1, Radio 2 and 6 Music, all existing in a highly competitive and commercial popular music environment. It is legitimate to ask these kinds of questions. I always start from the premise that it is important to ask these questions, just as it is important to ask the question about whether Channel 4 should be privatised. I do not know what the right answer is, but we should not shy away from these kinds of questions.
I was the Minister who froze the licence fee when we came into government in 2010. Again, I have always wondered—it sounds like a dinner party one-liner; it is a dinner party one-liner—whether it would be interesting to have a director-general who came into office saying, “My ambition over the next five years is to cut the licence fee by 10% without having to have a fight with the Government.” These are the sorts of questions that I feel we should be asking about the BBC. I share the sentiment of this debate, which is that the BBC is a national treasure that we should support, but we should also ask critical questions of it.
There are three or four points that I want to make as I wrap up. The first is that the BBC never thinks enough about how it can support the wider commercial sector. For example, commercial radio companies complain to me that they do not want to go on BBC Sounds, because it is called “BBC Sounds”. The BBC has created an amazing radio digital platform that the commercial sector cannot work with. If one talks to the commercial sector about how easy it is to work with the BBC, they all say that it is impossible; similarly with the iPlayer. I would love to have the BBC see as one of its aims support for the wider commercial sector.
The absolutely core reason why we should support the BBC is precisely because of what we talk about when we mention companies such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney. The clue, of course, is in their names. These are huge, global, US companies. We need to find a way to preserve—and I make no apology for saying this—UK content for UK audiences, and to have a quality anchor for our broadcasting landscape.
The BBC must support market failure, and this where I part company with my noble friend Lord Hannan’s brilliant speech. BBC local radio is a vital service that we do not talk enough about. I do not think that anyone else apart from the BBC can really provide the local radio that I still believe is vital.
Finally, the BBC should be there—in a complicated media world that is now rife with disinformation—as a trusted source of news. That has never been more important than it is today. Moreover, the BBC should—and I welcome the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay—do the kinds of things that are difficult to do: really push in the area of diversity and people from diverse backgrounds, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Young, when he, like all of us, succumbed to “Strictly” syndrome.
My Lords, it is indeed a pleasure to be part of this debate, brought forward by my noble friend Lord Bragg. I have had the honour, twice on television and once on radio, to be part of programmes that he has put out, and it was a learning experience in its own right. It is almost as much a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, who has made my task infinitely more difficult by his mention of me, gracious as it was, a moment ago. It was also a pleasure to hear the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool—I must call him my noble friend or noble colleague—as he gave us an indication of what we should expect from him in the future.
The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, and I are both members of the Select Committee on Communications and Digital. Just last week the committee interrogated a Government Minister on the subject of online safety. I asked the Minister how the fine principles he was adumbrating might command respect and solidarity in the international community. We were, after all, discussing the worldwide web. The Minister informed us that he had recently attended conferences in various countries beyond our shores. He wanted to impress upon the committee the respect and trust in which we were held by countries abroad. They trust us, he said, and they know that we will keep our word and that we have integrity; they revere our culture. I am sure that we all wish that were true. Indeed, I venture to suggest, as others have in this debate, that if it is true, it owes more to the BBC than to Her Majesty’s Government—especially, perhaps, the present one.
I will limit my brief moment on the stage to the BBC’s radio output. For over 30 years, in a cameo career, I have worked on Radio 4, Radio 2, Radio Wales, the World Service and regional stations of the BBC. For a number of years, in faraway Haiti, run as it was by a dictator, our understanding of what was happening—really happening—in the world at large was provided by the BBC. I know that is as true now as it was then. Indeed, the BBC dominates the radio waves, with a 51% share of total audiences.
In countries where there is political turbulence, threats to the lives of public figures, one natural disaster after another and, nowadays, the onward and outward march of the pandemic, it is likely that the only proper perspective on a maelstrom of events will come to beleaguered and confused people—even with the competing demand for public attention by television and social media—through the informed work of our beloved BBC radio. I know that, in distant and remote places, in underdeveloped and developing countries, radio is available where television is not. Ask not, then, in these troubled post-Brexit times, who can best help to forge the frequently expressed desire for a nation that bestrides the ocean like a colossus. In pole position, we just have to recognise the BBC: Auntie, global Britain hath need of thee.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his excellent maiden speech, and the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on securing this debate, his incredibly forensic speech and his long and distinguished broadcasting career. As he said, the BBC is probably the best and most trusted broadcaster in the world, attracting international admiration. In an era of fake news, as we have heard, it is more important than ever that there are trusted, impartial news sources such as the BBC on which we can rely. But it is not just for news alone, as we heard. The BBC has an unparalleled range of services, from its education offering to its pivotal support for the creative industries. It is, of course, one of the greatest sources of British soft power throughout the world.
Even the BBC’s rivals share this view. Senior figures at Netflix, for example, talk of the BBC’s impact
“in building the profile of the UK creatively”
and their support for
“the long-term sustainability of the BBC”.
Despite significant growth in competition, the BBC continues to hold its own. More people use the BBC than any other media brand. Even when funding restrictions limit what the BBC can screen, it is still the broadcaster of choice. Broadcasting just 2% of sport on TV, it delivers around 40% of TV sports viewing.
So, on these Benches, while acknowledging, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, said, that the BBC should regularly be challenged, we support a strong, well-funded and independent BBC and will oppose attempts to undermine this by seeking to reduce its funding or remit. Yet, sadly, decisions by the Conservative Government have meant the BBC having to take on more obligations with less income: a 31% cut over the past 10 years with a frozen licence fee, having to fund free licences for the over-75s—a social policy which should be funded by the Government—and additional obligations in relation to the World Service, BBC Monitoring, S4C and even broadband rollout.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, it was the Prime Minister’s former advisor Dominic Cummings who called for the
“end of the BBC in its current form”,
advising right-wingers to work towards undermining the credibility of the BBC because it is the “mortal enemy” of the Conservative Party. There have been numerous examples more recently of that undermining. Following evidence that the decriminalisation of licence fee non-payment would cost the BBC dearly, rather than scrap their plans, the Government have said they will keep the matter under review, adding to what the NAO has called the “uncertainty” about the BBC’s financial future. A broadcasting Minister has argued that it will soon be possible to introduce subscription services as an element of funding for the BBC—a move that would undermine the crucial universality of the BBC, at a time when Ofcom has said that
“universality will still be necessary to deliver the benefits of public service broadcasting in future.”
I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, that he recalls that the BBC was deliberately set up to disrupt the market because the market cannot and will not deliver this universality. We have had Theresa May’s former communications chief trying to block an appointment to the post of BBC News editor and the current Prime Minister’s attempt to the install former Daily Telegraph editor, Charles Moore, as BBC chairman. More recently we saw the Prime Minister desperately seeking, even trying to bend the rules, to appoint ex-Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, as the next chair of Ofcom, the BBC’s regulator, despite his well-known animosity towards the BBC and having earlier been judged by the interview panel as “not appointable”. He could hardly have been a neutral referee on BBC regulation. To cap it all, we have a new Secretary of State who has been so unclear about the sustainability of the BBC that she is not even sure if it will exist in 10 years’ time. The time has come for the Government to cease its attempts to “thwack” the BBC and, as the Motion proposes, start giving it greater support.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on having obtained this debate. I declare an interest, having been a BBC producer for 25 years. I am now a freelance producer working for United Kingdom and United States channels.
I support noble Lords who have spoken in favour of the value of the BBC to this country, but my fear right now is the big cuts taking place in staff in BBC news and current affairs. In BBC studios there are cuts to drama, arts and history, all of which will diminish the broadcasting environment in this country and impoverish viewers.
This afternoon I want to concentrate my comments on one particular area. After all, this debate is about the BBC’s value to a wider global audience. It is a service which is very close to my heart: the BBC Russian service, which faces constant threat of censorship. Every Friday night, the Justice Ministry in Moscow issues a list of journalists and organisations which are designated as foreign agents. From that moment, the designated journalist has to put a disclaimer, “foreign agent”, on all their posts, whether they are news items or on their child’s school’s social media page. Failure to do so three times could earn a prison sentence of up to five years. Not surprisingly, as a result there is great fear among journalists, people refuse to give interviews to them, and their work is tainted.
Independent Russian media outlets such TV Rain and Echo Moskvy have been designated foreign agents. Recently the BBC journalist Andrei Zakharov went on the list. Imagine the pressure on the 144 journalists of the BBC Russian service, many of them working in country, in that environment. Since I first worked in the USSR in 1989, I have known the importance of the Russian service as an independent voice and a projector of British values. At that time, I worked with a journalist from the Russian service who had been allowed to visit the country for the first time in 35 years. Wherever we went, she was greeted as a conquering heroine for keeping the voice of freedom alive through the long years of communism. Since the arrest in January this year of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, repression against independent and opposition voices in Russia has been dramatically ramped up, while this week the head of MI6 warned that Russia poses “an acute threat” to this country.
The BBC Russian service is now more important than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union, reaching 5 million Russian users weekly and seeing a huge rise in young people engaging via social media. In a country where any criticism of the regime or support for the opposition is repressed and rarely heard in the mainstream media, this service has run brave stories. It published an important investigation into Russian mercenaries suspected of war crimes while being paid to fight in Libya, and connected them back to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man they call “Putin’s chef” because of his ability to cook up murky deals for the regime.
Unlike many other outlets, the BBC Russian service has a network of journalists across the country whose reports take the real temperature of what is happening in the country. In the Russian Far East, they covered the firing of a mayor because he dared to be independent from the regime and allowed the voices of his supporters to be heard. In the small town of Dimitrovgrad, the BBC Russian service one was one of the few that reported on an Orthodox priest who was fired and then vilified for saying of the opposition leader Navalny, “I used to criticise him, but now I want to shake his hand”. Last week, when 52 miners were killed in a mining explosion in Siberia, the BBC was one of the few media outlets which carried the voices of the desperate, bereaved families. They said the miners knew the management was ignoring safety protocols and deactivating the methane gas monitors, but poverty and lack of opportunity forced them to continue working in the mine.
The BBC Russian service costs £5.9 million a year, 75% of which is paid from the licence fee. I hope that the Government decide on an inflation-linked settlement. I have no doubt that failure to do so will adversely affect the BBC World Service and its language services. I also hope that the FCDO will very soon confirm its continuing commitment to the additional funding of these services, as laid out in the October spending review but as yet not confirmed beyond March 2022.
I urge the Minister to protect the BBC and ensure that it flourishes. Domestically it is important as a trusted source of news, and internationally, especially in repressive regimes such as Russia’s, it is a lifeline for independent thought and the projection of British values. A strong BBC will maintain our standing in the world, which the Prime Minister says is a central part of this Government’s global Britain policy.
My Lords, the BBC’s value as a beacon of excellence has always rested on the impartiality of its news output, but internationally and certainly domestically, that impartiality is under strain. Ofcom tells us that audiences consistently rate the BBC less favourably than other channels for impartiality, and complaints have trebled over four years. Even the BBC itself has now initiated new impartiality training, as it is worried that its staff do not understand it, which is worrying. Indeed, the BBC head of news, Fran Unsworth, recently had to explain to one staff team that they would have to hear and see ideas and people that they did not personally like. That such “journalism 101” lessons were needed should concern us all.
I will make some remarks as a critical friend—much as the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, commented—and as a contributor, particularly to Radio 4, and a listener for decades. As an educator, I regularly introduced teenagers to the archive of the “In Our Time” programme of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg—that is why I am rather nervous speaking in front of him. By the way, I introduced those programmes against advice from other people at the BBC, who told me that their discussions with academics were a bit too highbrow for teenagers and would alienate urban youth—that was a kind of soft bigotry of low expectations that assumes that only Stormzy and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” will capture young hearts and minds.
But, at the risk of being slightly at odds with the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, I think that criticising the BBC is actually a duty. I appreciate that any criticism of the BBC in 2021 can easily be dismissed as, variously, a Daily Mail plot, a Tory coup against the licence fee and a Rupert Murdoch-driven attempt at stirring up the culture wars—
The noble Lord agrees with me; how brilliant. But, if the BBC is to be of value in the UK, we—its supporters—need to stop being defensive and accept that all grievances are not whipped up by devious political ideologues but arise from perfectly legitimate concerns from the public about impartiality.
Traditionally, a way of judging impartiality was the pride with which impartial broadcasters could boast that no one would know how they voted—their opinions were kept under wraps. But, today, the sense of compromised impartiality is the perception of groupthink at the BBC—not from party politics but from the embrace of values assumed to be incontestable but actually politically partisan and ideologically contentious, such as the BBC’s internalisation of identity politics.
Recently, the BBC’s director of creative diversity, earning a cool £250,000 a year, introduced an allyship training scheme and stated on the BBC website:
“build back better to ensure diversity and inclusion is baked into the ‘new normal’ once the crisis has passed.”
I emphasise the phrases “baked in” and “new normal”. Imagine, then, trying to be staff member in that BBC department who wanted to challenge its decision to spend £100 million on a drive for diversity and inclusion in response to the Black Lives Matter protest. Such an approach does not include but excludes those who disagree—diversity is never diversity of opinion. Try also being a gender-critical feminist working at the BBC—there are many, but they know to keep schtum. I even know people who work at the BBC who voted to leave the European Union, but they could not come out and remain secret Brexiteers to this day. That is how groupthink works: not everyone agrees, but everyone knows the narrative that you are expected to follow.
The embrace of such orthodoxies is rarely spotted as a threat to the impartiality of BBC output, but it is a new and very present danger. Why did no one at the BBC notice the danger to editorial independence when the corporation signed up to a partisan lobbying NGO such as Stonewall? This was so well documented and eventually revealed, despite pressure to drop it, by the Stephen Nolan podcast series—an example of BBC investigative journalism at its finest.
Yet, even now, BBC senior management has announced that it is working with another external organisation—Involve—on trans-inclusive policies, although Maya Forstater, co-founder of Sex Matters, has warned that it might be
“Stonewall in all but name”.
Kate Harris from the LGB Alliance has cautioned:
“For the sake of the BBC, its reputation and its audience, it must be open about the exact nature of the relationship and how it will safeguard its editorial independence.”
On another issue, do not alarm bells sound when we see a corporate logo for Albert pasted at the end of current affairs programmes, such as “Newsnight”? I was intrigued and looked it up, and I found out that the BBC has signed up to an initiative in which media organisations pledge to use their content to help audiences tackle climate change and inform sustainable choices. Tim Davie is quoted on Albert’s website, saying:
“At the BBC we will continue to tell the stories that matter ... or help audiences consider greener choices through our best loved shows like EastEnders”.
Is it any wonder that sections of the public will feel patronised, denied choice, lectured and nudged to embrace one true political outlook? That is not impartiality in my book.
To conclude: like the right reverend Prelate, who I welcome here and who gave an excellent, original and thoughtful contribution to today’s debate, I worry about some of the toxic trends in the public square. However, I worry that it is identity politics that is so tearing apart the public square and that it is the groupthink approach to fashionable political causes that threatens diversity of opinion. I hope the BBC will stop succumbing to both.
My Lords, the whole House owes a debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Bragg for securing today’s debate, whatever one’s views of the BBC are. Having listened to my noble friend on the radio and seen him on television for so many years, I find it a bit hard to believe that I am listening to him in person. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his maiden speech, which was very thoughtful and caring. As someone who made a maiden speech only six weeks ago today, I know how relieved he feels— I trust—at the moment.
My purpose in briefly intervening today is to draw attention to the BBC’s role during the pandemic, which I regard as exemplary, in many ways—it is something that we should not forget. When we look back, a year and a half or more, to when the pandemic was unfolding, we remember that an awful lot of us—all of us, I would imagine—did not know what was to follow. It was a time of great uncertainty, and there is a slight hint of that today, with the new variant. But the fact is that there was a great need for trusted information.
I pay tribute to the BBC for, first, the production of factual information: the graphs showing the numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths, which became a daily or weekly feature of life. Having worked with many scientific organisations, I can tell the House that all of them relied on the accuracy of the statistics produced by the BBC.
Secondly, the BBC held and invented or created a whole lot of new Q&A programmes because millions of members of the public heard the news but also wanted the opportunity to phone in and ask questions about the situation and how it might affect them. The BBC was not the only broadcaster to do this, but it did this very well. Of course, it also carried the press conferences, which brought people together, in a way—they were must-see viewing to keep us in touch with what was happening.
I bring to the attention of the House some of the statistics available. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, audiences for “News at Six” were the highest that they had been for nearly 20 years. There was a great surge of desire to tune into the BBC to find out what was happening. On the days that the lockdowns were introduced—23 March and 31 October 2020—it is estimated that 84% of adults in the UK came to the BBC in a single day. This statistic has perhaps already been mentioned by my noble friend Lady Jay: 45% of people name the BBC as their number one source of information and news on Covid-19.
The right reverend Prelate talked about a fragmented public square, if I remember the phrase correctly. It is true: the noble Lords opposite have both spoken about the range of providers that exist in the modern world. But there are times when people want to come together. Of course, like other noble Lords, I remember the days, years and years ago, when the viewing figures for Morecambe and Wise at Christmas were astronomic—because there was no alternative, really, and they were very popular. But, at a time of crisis, as in the pandemic, the BBC’s role has been very great indeed.
Internationally, I understand that some of the figures here are just as important to reflect upon. The international channels brought the news about the pandemic in 40 languages around the world. Digital audiences for the BBC World Service surged to over 208 million people a week at the beginning of the pandemic.
Noble Lords perhaps know these figures, but they bear on one of the themes of this debate, especially in relation to the pandemic: trust. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey referred to this, and it is very important. We live in a time when there is an anti-science movement in this country, which you see in different ways—I ask those who may have been in the Chamber six weeks ago today, when I referred to this, to forgive me—and the BBC has played a very commendable part in countering that, to the benefit of us all.
My Lords, I part company, slightly and even-handedly, with the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, over the point about bias. When asked to name the source that they trusted the most, news consumers cited the BBC most often: 49% did, which is far ahead of its nearest rival. Sky News and ITV were both on 7% and the Guardian was on 4%, while all other sources combined totalled 23%. If any noble Lord wishes to challenge that, please do so.
However, it is a remarkable fact—this, I suspect, is what irks the Government—that the “what the papers say” consensus, which is faithfully reported every day at 8.10 am on Radio 4, does not reflect the news provider that people trust most, which is the BBC. With regard to the consensus between the Mail, Express, Telegraph and so on, the people out there do not instinctively trust such tabloids; they instinctively trust the BBC. Let us get that out of the way.
I will make a couple of personal points. First, I join noble Lords who have congratulated the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool. I greatly admired his speech, which was what it says on the tin: calm, reflective and analytical. I hope that we will hear a lot more from him.
Secondly, I add my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Bragg. If, at 9 pm or 9.30 pm—I forget which—on a Thursday I fancied hearing a bit more about Aeschylus, or the ideas currently coming out of the community of astronomers, I could get it straight from my noble friend. I said to him once, “You know all this stuff backwards, don’t you?” He replied, “No, no, I forget it all one minute after I’ve finished”. I do not believe that, but we will all have to make our minds up about it. His is a remarkable arrangement, and it is quintessentially BBC.
We have to recognise that there is a difficulty for the commercial market in not having a slight increase in the financial commitment to the BBC. A noble Lord opposite— I think the noble Lord, Lord Hannan—asked only a few minutes ago why, since we had surely got past the stage of running a state motor car company, we should run a state broadcaster. The noble Lord will correct me if I have misquoted him. I query the phrase “state broadcaster”. There is no doubt what that has come to mean: Radio Moscow, Peking radio or whatever. To say that we should criticise the BBC for “allowing” Nick Robinson to say something that the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, clearly strongly disagrees with or believes to be untrue is wrong; it is, surely, the way in which the BBC has to operate.
My Lords, it is a privilege to participate in this debate, which was so ably opened by my noble friend Lord Bragg. He has been a steadfast friend of mine since I joined this House, as a fellow Cumbrian. I have the privilege of representing his home town, Wigton, on Cumbria County Council, and when I go canvassing people say to me, “You’re Melvyn’s friend, aren’t you?” It gets me lots of votes. What he said was a very moving testament to the work of the BBC and a reason why we should support it. I add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool on his very measured and well-argued maiden speech. I also confess to an interest, in that my wife was at one time deputy director-general of the BBC.
My own view of the BBC is that it does what it says on the tin: it informs, educates and entertains. I have held that view of it since my childhood. The Home Service news was the basis for all our family discussions of politics when I was growing up in my Carlisle home, and BBC News remains the essential anchor of political debate in this country. Comment is forthright, yes, but not, in my opinion, biased.
However, the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, about representing the views of the metropolitan elite has to be taken seriously. I qualify that statement in two ways. First, my wife was always telling me that the BBC was never overrun by leftists: many of the senior ranks of broadcasters supported the Conservatives. Secondly, as people such as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, have to remember, it is not just holders of right-wing opinions who feel underrepresented. The hard left hates the BBC because it sees it as the representative of what they call the “mainstream media”. If you want better balance you will have to look in that direction too.
The BBC is wonderful. No organisation in Britain combines local depth and international reach. I support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, about local radio. I recognise the very important role played in Cumbria by Radio Cumbria in emergencies such as floods. The World Service also goes from strength to strength, despite the dangers it faces from brutal civil wars and autocratic regimes that, as the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, described, threaten the independence of its journalists.
The BBC is not perfect; it has to change and competition is good for it. But I believe it is our job as politicians to support the BBC in this essential process of adjusting to change. Our job is not to starve it of resources by freezing the licence fee, or to fiddle with it, as the coalition Government did, or to impose on it the duty to pay for licences for the over-75s. We must not try to weaken the cutting edge of BBC journalism either. I think the BBC represents what is best of Britain, and I honestly believe that those people who are enemies of the BBC are not patriotically standing up for one of the things that is best for our country.
My Lords, I did not expect to have to stand here and take on a patriotic duty, but I will, to an extent. All of us are saying nice things about the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, and so I will pass on one anecdote. I was taking my sister round here—she now lives in the United States—and the thing she always remembers about the trip is not the building, not the great hall, not the nice tea and not my wonderful anecdotes, but the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said hello and waved to me as we went down a corridor. Clearly, his reach goes far beyond the architecture of this building.
When I think of the BBC, I think of an establishment, and of something that has touched all our lives. I also think of it as something that does things others cannot. My noble friend has pointed to the huge work that was done to support our education system during the height of the Covid pandemic—we hope it is on the wane now. Nobody other than a state broadcaster with a degree of freedom could have done that; nobody else could have taken that on and done that work.
For those on the Conservative Benches who are always telling me that the BBC is biased, I have an answer that will stop the BBC looking at you: be out of power for longer periods of time. Come on—the BBC is supposed to be an independent, inquisitive organisation, telling us the news. If you are making the decisions, you are the guys getting looked at. If you do not like it, other people are prepared—quite selflessly—to step into the role. That is the simple answer: if you are in power, you are going to get looked at.
I turn to one other small area in which the BBC has been something of a leader: the growth of elite-level women’s sport. When you arrive in the sporting world, you are covered by the BBC at the right times. The rise of women’s football and women’s rugby, in both codes, has been important and has been taken seriously. It gets coverage, and that has been led by the BBC. If you are out there taking part in sport that is being covered by the main broadcaster, you have arrived and are something to be commented upon. The BBC has found time to fit women’s sport into its schedule and not just into a small slot at the back. Every other broadcaster has for a long time said, “Oh, great, let’s film this nice little girls’ game.” No, this is serious sport, played seriously, at the right time. When your sport is shown on a free-to-air channel such as the BBC, you have arrived. The BBC might have been able to do more, but I think it has done the most. It has also been the most influential when it does this. When something is covered by the BBC, you have arrived.
I would like the Minister to tell me who else could conceivably do that. Who else could reach everybody—not just those who are looking for the coverage but those who discover it is there? I cannot see anybody else who can do it. If you pay for an exclusive service, that keeps it exclusive and you have to pay to get the thing you want. Such a service might advertise something else, but will something that competes with it change your mind and make you move away? Not really. Can the Minister give us some assurance that the Government will make sure that it is a state broadcaster that takes on the public awareness role of showing that elite-level sport is for everybody, or at least for much bigger groups? Elite-level sport inspires people to take up sport; it makes it okay to take it up and encourages people that it is the right way forward. We should be using the BBC to encourage the nations to get fitter in a way that they choose, and in a way that they can take up at their own expense, in their own time, and so saving the NHS money. Surely it is not too much to indulge a broadcaster that will occasionally annoy the Government of the day. Please give the BBC that support.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, for this extremely welcome and timely debate, and incidentally for providing an occasion for the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool to give such a thought-provoking maiden speech.
I will focus on the World Service and the foreign language channels, about which I have more knowledge and experience than its domestic output. That experience was most vividly brought to life during the years when I was Britain’s Permanent Representative to the UN between 1990 and 1995. It was during that pretty tumultuous period that I came to appreciate what an extraordinary asset the BBC World Service was to Britain’s soft power, perhaps summed up best by President Mikhail Gorbachev’s remark at the time of the coup against him in 1991 that it was the BBC that had kept him in touch with what was actually happening in Moscow while he was cut off in the Crimea, under arrest.
Why is it an asset? Not because it broadcasts pro-British propaganda—it does not do that—but because it provides a continuous flow of professional, evidence-based reporting and commentary. I believe that that remains the case; all the more so now, when the airwaves are full of the fake news and disinformation which has proliferated in recent years and shows no sign of abating. The facts about the BBC’s outreach speak for themselves: a worldwide audience of 456 million; an audience of 364 million for the World Service, up by 42% between 2016 and 2020; 43 language services. Can the benefit of that in terms of soft power be quantified precisely? I doubt that very much. But is it reality, in terms of influence? Undoubtedly, I would say.
That, in my view, is why it was a major error when the Cameron Government forced the BBC to finance its overseas work from the licence fee. This set up a disruptive tension within the BBC over the allocation of resources between its domestic and overseas work, which did not occur when the latter was financed directly by the Government. What on earth is the rationale for the poorest in society to pay exactly the same as the richest when it comes to financing that oversees output? I suggest that the sooner the old system is reinstated, the better, and I hope the Minister will address this point when he winds up the debate.
I do not wish to conclude these remarks without mentioning the cruel and disgraceful harassment of the journalists who work for the BBC’s Persian service, and their families, by the regime in Tehran. It may not be much solace to those affected by this harassment but, in a way, if you think about it, it is a tribute to the role they play in bringing to the people of Iran proper, facts-based, professional reporting, something which authoritarian regimes invariably fear and resent. The same is true in the case of Russia and China. We should, I believe, be exceedingly grateful to the BBC for what it does to make this possible.
My Lords, I join the chorus not only of the Cumbrians here but of the whole House in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on securing this debate at a time when, as we all can hear, there is a degree of controversy surrounding certain aspects of the BBC and its activities. I must declare at the start that I am a supporter, albeit a critical friend and, I trust, a candid one. I also recognise that we live in a fallen world, where the best aspirations are not always achieved but must never be forgotten.
I begin from the perspective shared by a number of speakers in the debate that the BBC has become an institution which helps define this country and its own brand of distinctiveness—Britishness. It is very important to very many people in all kinds of ways, but not to everyone, and it is, as we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, probably the greatest instrument of soft power and the promotion of British views and voice that we can hope for.
When, about 100 years ago, the media world—not that it was called that then—went through a revolution with the development of radio and then television, it was recognised that the fourth estate, which is of course an important part of the wider constitution, was changing. The BBC in its current form evolved from that, with its central attributes—and people may accuse me of being a semantic pedant—of being a national broadcaster, not a state or government broadcaster, which has public funding but, at the same time, is independently managed under the rule of law. This includes the rule of impartiality, which, as we all know, is a pretty slippery concept in certain contexts. It is also accountable both to Parliament and to the public. From that British concept, public service broadcasting evolved.
These attributes do not necessarily work smoothly but they do basically work. That is important. Now it seems to me that it is the central datum point around which the rest of the media world in this country relates. It is a touchstone against which other things are judged; some, as we have heard, are better and some less so. I believe that the availability of accurate information is at the core of democracy and voters need to be sure of a modicum of correctness, truth and true understanding properly to play their role, not least because decisions we all take as voters can have as big an impact on our neighbours as on ourselves. The BBC in particular, and public service broadcasting more generally, plays an important part in this. Like the National Health Service, it is always there, even if you do not use it. Furthermore, clearly the public must have confidence—it must be trusted and be impartial. One of the crucial aspects of this in the round, it seems to me, is that the media must never take the Government’s shilling as respects news and current affairs.
I now briefly turn to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, one of its latest initiatives in this context. For more than a decade I chaired a regional media group, principally newspapers, which were very important in the dissemination of local news and information and, as such, performed an important civic function. The well-understood collapse in the classified advertising market led to a collapse in our revenues, which led to fewer journalists which led to less local news, which in turn was a civic failure, I believe. In response to that, the Local Democracy Reporting Service provides money for journalists employed by local newspapers with financial support from the BBC. It then makes their stories more generally available. It is rather like a mini Press Association. The local press still matters in this country and this is an important initiative. I was initially sceptical about it but I am very happy to eat my words and say that it has been a very good example of how the Government and the BBC have responded to collateral damage from the digital revolution. To underline my point, it was only last week that I was metaphorically doorstepped by one of its reporters.
There is a lot of discussion, debate and rumour about where the BBC goes from here. What it seems to me must not happen is that the Government may feel tempted to eye up the BBC rather as Henry VIII eyed up the monasteries. It should remain at the heart of public service broadcasting and at the heart of this country’s media landscape. It is not a cash cow and should be run by Lord Reith rather than Lord Haw-Haw.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Bragg, who has done us a real favour by introducing this debate. I also add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool. He lit a candle in his speech and, on the seventh night of Hanukkah, I am all in favour of more candles being lit.
We have a limited number of exceptional implements in our soft diplomacy toolbox. My noble friend Lady Jay and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, a few moments ago, made essentially this point. We look for things that are practical and that speak to our values. They are easy to identify, partly because there are not that many of them—the Chevening Commonwealth Marshall Scholarships, Wilton Park, the British Council and, rightly, the BBC World Service, and I share all the anxieties expressed a moment ago by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about its funding.
The independence and quality of the BBC World Service is based on a broad judgment that people around the world have of the BBC itself. It fulfils many functions as an institution, as the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said in his opening comments, but I want to focus on its independence as a news broadcaster, as an investigative powerhouse and as an entity that is not directed by the UK Government and is globally and internationally understood to have that level of independence.
I get the point that it is sometimes muddled on matters of balance. I think it has been in its climate coverage, for example, but occasional muddles are massively outweighed by the huge quality and independence. In short, the output is based on the BBC’s own processes, not on government processes or anything else. That characterisation of the BBC is, of course, not widely accepted everywhere in the world. The World Service was blocked by China over the years that I was in the Foreign Office. Diplomatic discussions with China were interesting. It alleged that we would not allow China to broadcast unimpeded to us. My view was, “Bring it on. Broadcast absolutely anything you want and let us broadcast to you”. I have no anxiety whatever about the standing of the United Kingdom in that kind of debate.
I want to quickly draw attention to one other area where the FCO, as it was in those days, advised the World Service. It was only a matter of advice, which was to refocus at that time—2005—from east and central European outlets to Farsi TV and radio output. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, it was argued, had become media-rich and diverse in their own rights; exactly the opposite was true in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 in Iran. As we have learned graphically from Anne Applebaum’s remarkable book on the death of democracy, Poland and Hungary have joined countries such as Belarus as thorough dystopias. Their media have lost any distinction between their Government’s view of the truth or the fictions useful to those regimes.
I ask the Minister: will Her Majesty’s Government advise, and it will be only advice, the World Service to focus again—perhaps through enhanced shortwave broadcasting but there are, I think, a number of methods—on the central and eastern European states that I have mentioned? This is not a time for financial cuts in reaching out to broadcast to those countries. We need to understand the threat of dystopian regimes in our own near neighbourhood and recognise the extent to which destabilisation in central and eastern Europe threatens our security absolutely and directly in this country. We are seeing the reinvention in a virulent form of nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in those countries and the World Service is probably one of the best antidotes that we have available.
The qualities of the BBC may be among our best, most honest, best proven, most well-tested attributes in the circumstances I have described. As my noble friend Lord Bragg said in introducing the debate, unprejudiced public service is what the BBC provides us with. It is not designed to be an implement of foreign policy but its impact abroad is very significant, and possibly as significant as any impact it has in our domestic circumstances.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, for bringing this timely debate to the House. I note particularly his comments in relation to the cuts to the BBC World Service. Perhaps I should declare an interest in that I was rejected by the BBC for its 1982 graduate training scheme. In spite of that, I would like to focus briefly on the subject of wider global audiences, as I believe that it is here that the greatest opportunity lies for the BBC, while raising fundamental questions about the business model of a public service broadcaster. I speak from my own experience as both a journalist and a publisher, having worked as a foreign correspondent in Latin America and the Middle East and, more recently, in setting up and running an online information provider underpinned by paid subscriptions.
In my experience, the BBC’s brand as a trusted, impartial broadcaster is considerably stronger outside the UK than within it. I apply this statement to almost all regions of the world, with the possible exception of Europe. As my noble friends have highlighted, the BBC brand is especially valued in emerging markets that do not benefit from their own world-class impartial broadcasters. I have witnessed this in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, the UAE, Vietnam and Malaysia, to name a few. The receptive audiences in all these markets are not limited to expatriates but include growing sections of national populations that are hungry for objective information on the world around them.
With this in mind, it is no surprise to me that the BBC achieved its highest ever global audience in 2020: an impressive 486 million people per week, as we have heard. That has been achieved in spite of an increasingly crowded market, with streaming services joined by fast-developing social media platforms, which, rather disturbingly, are becoming the first—and, in many cases, the only—source of news for the under-30s. Dig deeper into the data and we can see that BBC News, including of course the World Service, accounts for 438 million of that reach—some 90% of the BBC’s global audience.
As we have heard, this global reach represents an invaluable asset in terms of the UK’s soft power and influence, all the more so as we embark on becoming global Britain. It is hugely helpful to government relations but also, although this is perhaps less known, to UK multinationals and SME exporters, as I discovered in my days as a publisher. Yet this international reach does not translate into significant income. Licence fees account for £3.75 billion of the BBC’s £4 billion in income and reportedly only £200 million in net income is derived from the BBC’s global content.
The BBC does provide value, especially to the wider overseas audience, but with its current restrictions as state broadcaster, it is unable to commercially harness this huge global opportunity. I am arguing not for privatisation but for changes to the business model, particularly in the areas of tiered subscriptions and content licensing for overseas markets.
For the consumer here, the current licence fee of £157 per household is terrific value for money, as the real subscription value of BBC content is probably nearer £400 per annum, as highlighted in the BBC Value for Audiences report. However, the BBC should not remain so reliant on licence fees when BBC News, which I believe merits increased investment rather than cuts, has the potential to generate billions in income and, in time, contribute the greatest share of revenue to the corporation. That could and should be done, without resorting to advertising and sponsorship, which, in my view, would threaten the very thing the BBC is most valued for outside these shores: trusted information.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, for securing this debate and introducing it so beautifully, even if, when I hear his mellifluous tones, I cannot help thinking we are about to venture off into the life of the astronomer Caroline Herschel or, as in a recent favourite episode of “In Our Time”, the evolution of crocodiles.
The noble Lord set out very clearly two of the gigantic threats faced by the BBC, which, although many might like to grumble about this piece of output or that, is, as an institution, a public service hugely valued by the public. Apparently, if you read the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, it is also valued by the Government for its place in international soft power, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, referred.
The first threat is the squeezing of funding. As the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said, it seems that the Government are bent on making the BBC weaker. The second threat is what the noble Lord again so clearly explained as the “jumbo bombers coming across the Atlantic”. The great parasite Amazon, Netflix and other global monoliths are clearly something we need an institution to stand against.
The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, outlined some of the many ways in which the BBC has been cut away at. Unlike him, I am not going to celebrate the loss of free educational resources; nor, I suggest, should the Government, given their often-avowed attachment to lifelong learning.
Like others, the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, spoke about our “broadcasting landscape”. The word “ecosystem” has also been used. The BBC is still a big part of that landscape, but is not, as some with certain ideological attachments often like to claim, a part that squeezes out the small, new and innovative. Rather, the BBC is a crucial part of nurturing talent and innovation from such sources.
The BBC is a bulwark. Think of it perhaps as a giant sequoia tree that stands against the threat of not many but a few giants; namely, a handful of multimedia tycoons and giant multinational companies—you might think of them as wildfire and raging flood, as they are certainly equally destructive. As the Media Reform Coalition, working in co-operation with the Center for Media, Data and Society, again highlights in its 2021 report on media ownership, concentration is endemic. Three firms control 90% of the national media newspaper market, up from 83% in 2019—a seven percentage point increase. Three local publishers each control one-fifth of the local press market. Facebook controls three of the top five social media services used to access online news. Two companies own 70% of the 279 local commercial radio stations—a 20% increase since 2018. That is not a healthy ecosystem. If the size of the BBC is reduced, the fat cats of the oligopoly only get fatter.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, on something: the licence fee is a poll tax and should be replaced by a hypothecated share of progressive income tax—far more progressive than it is now—with a level of funding at least restored to 2010 levels in real terms. Changing technological demands will require that.
I also agree very strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Storey, about the importance of local channels and stations at the BBC and—in another failure of regulation, of which we see so many—the total failure of regulators to ensure that what are supposed to be local commercial radio stations actually serve those audiences. I should perhaps declare that, a long time ago and in another country, I spent some time working as a producer on a local ABC radio station. That feeds my great respect for the local teams that continue to produce brilliant local content for the BBC under extremely straitened funding conditions.
I think of a young woman who covered the roles of reporter, camerawoman, soundwoman and social media outputter when she interviewed me in North Yorkshire. She was so slick, she was practically juggling the multiple digital tools of those various trades as she deployed them in the hasty 10 minutes she had with me before travelling on to her next job. We are getting very good value for money from that young woman and many like her. Communities value and rely on that output.
My Lords, I start by congratulating my noble friend on the manner in which he introduced the BBC debate today; I think it was important. I would take issue, however, with some aspects of the debate, particularly the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Addington. He and I agree on one thing, in that we both support the same sport, but I had to watch the internationals on Amazon Prime—I had to have a smart television to do it—rather than on the BBC.
I will concentrate my remarks entirely on the licence fee, because it funds 70% to 75%—depending on what you read—of the BBC’s content costs, and the BBC depends on it to continue. The licence fee was initially introduced in 1924 to cover one radio in a house. TV was then included in the licence fee in 1946, and it covered one television broadcasting the BBC. Since then, it has continued to progress, but it is the same fee for everybody, whether they have one, two, three, four or more devices in their house. Therefore, a poor person with only one TV—a colour TV, maybe—pays the same licence fee as somebody who has two, three, four or five TVs, as we do in our four-bedroom house in Hamilton, in Scotland. We have three televisions, more than one radio and many things we can watch TV on, so we have four or five things that the licence fee does not take account of.
I think everybody should pay the licence fee and I am a supporter of the BBC, but I believe that its funding is wrong in that it ought to, somehow or other, be reflective of the way in which our society has changed and the technology has changed. We should think about the licence fee but, more than that, we should make sure it reflects what has happened in our society. I am prepared to pay more, whether directly, through providers or in whatever way I pay my licence fee. However, somehow or other, I think we have to reflect—and I am prepared to pay more to get more—that the licence fee as we know it is probably the most regressive tax, and it is a tax, even though it is purely to fund the BBC. The ONS has also said that.
I am well aware of the time I am taking up, so I end by saying that I am prepared to pay more for my licence fee.
My Lords, I also declare the fact that I worked for the BBC. In fact, I think I may have been rejected for the BBC traineeship scheme in the same year as the noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, but I went on to have a very good and enjoyable career there. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bragg. I think in a previous debate I referred to him as a creative industry in himself, and I would repeat that now. I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for a wonderful maiden speech. He comes from a city which is surely one of our most creative.
Last week was a good one for the creative industries. They got recognition, via “Peppa Pig”, from the Prime Minister for the wealth they generate for the UK economy. That is excellent—but, just to put the record straight, “Peppa Pig” was never rejected by the BBC, and though born in the UK, it is now the property of an American company. But the BBC has funded, created and distributed global gold such as “Doctor Who”, “Blue Planet” and “Mastermind”, and BBC Studios has supported the creation of the favourite programme of the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, “Strictly Come Dancing”, and mine, “Small Axe”. The BBC is the world’s leading television distributor outside the US.
The point about our creative industries—the fastest growing sector of our economy—is that they involve an interwoven set of relationships and support systems very much nurtured by our PSBs, and the BBC is the cornerstone of all of this. Pivotal in supporting them through innovation, investment, skills and training, the effect of initial BBC spending is multiplied as it ripples through the economy from region to region and sector to sector.
As my noble friend Lord Foster said, the BBC is emphatically not just about news and current affairs, as so many politicians seem to think. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, that it is not just about comedy programmes either. As well as showcasing British culture and creativity, the BBC functions as a catalyst for the creative industries as a whole. It invests over £1.4 billion in TV content production in the UK and generates for the UK economy the equivalent of £2 of economic value for every £1 of licence fee it receives. In other words, it doubles its money.
The investment and R&D the BBC put into iPlayer, for instance, was a trail-blazer for the global streamers. I have a quote for your Lordships:
“I think the impact the BBC has had over the last few decades in building the profile of the UK creatively, in nurturing talent, in its investment in production and so forth, is one of the key reasons we have chosen to make our home here and why we are such strong supporters of what they do and want to see them continue doing that.”
Those are not the words of BBC DG Tim Davie or BBC chair Richard Sharp, but those of Benjamin King from Netflix. The streamers want to be here because of the BBC—they do not want to annihilate it. This is not politics; it is creativity.
Contrary to what some have said today, the BBC is far from London-centric. BBC investment over decades has helped to develop significant local creative hubs across the UK, with major production centres in Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast, Salford, Bristol and Birmingham, not to mention a network of local radio and TV which ensures a spotlight is shone on important regional issues and, of course, supplies local news.
That brings me back to BBC chair Richard Sharp and a speech he made the other day in which he said:
“I believe that the case for a well-funded, modern and efficient national broadcaster has not diminished over the past decade”—
reflecting what the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said—and he added that it has “grown”. His powerfully put argument was largely predicated on what he referred to as
“today’s global news and information landscape”.
We need the BBC, not just for its contribution to our economic well-being and social cohesion but because, so far as the dissemination of true, factual, unbiased news and information, the times we live in are quite frankly scary.
The BBC remains the most trusted broadcaster in the world, as the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria, Lord Vaizey and Lord Bragg, mentioned. In this era of fake news, it is more important than ever as an impartial and reliable news source. Its universal availability and independent, well-informed and neutral approach have been particularly essential during the pandemic, when untruths and conspiracy theories have been rife. Does the Minister agree that we need news that can distance itself from the partisan and that this is provided by the BBC and, of course, our other great PSB outlets?
In my view, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool spoke most eloquently on the question of impartiality. To pick up on what the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said, when I worked in the BBC, the noble Lord, Lord Grade, was director of programmes; he now sits on the Conservative Benches. Jeremy Paxman was the “Newsnight” rottweiler; he declared himself a Tory when he left the BBC. The bête noire of the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, Nick Robinson, was once president of the Oxford University Conservative Association; and Sir Robbie Gibb was head of BBC Westminster, in overall charge of BBC political programmes for years. I rest my case—although, of course, the BBC did employ the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and me.
Internationally, the BBC is one of the greatest sources of British soft power, as mentioned by so many across this House—my noble friend Lord McNally, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, of course, and many others. When he was Foreign Secretary, our Prime Minister described the BBC as
“the single greatest and most effective ambassador for our culture and our values”
and a crucial contributor to Britain’s role as a “soft power superpower.” As Prime Minister, he launched his vision for a post-Brexit global Britain in a document presented to Parliament which is redolent with praise for the BBC. We on these Benches agree. As well as playing a hugely important role in promoting the UK, it is the only British media brand with truly global recognition.
Turning to funding, I mentioned earlier that the licence fee doubles its money so far as investment in the creative economy goes. I accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said—that we have to look to the future—but we believe that for the moment, it continues to ensure that the BBC is an independent universal broadcaster committed to serving everyone. That universality, as my noble friend Lord Foster mentioned, is an essential part of public service broadcasting which cannot survive paywalls and subscriptions; everyone pays less in our present system and everyone has access to the content. Actually, as the noble Lord, Lord Grade, said last year, there is a direct relationship between your source of finance and the kind of programmes you make; it is as simple as that.
However, the setting of the licence fee has to be free from political interference, so it is worrying to hear the Secretary of State say:
“The perspective from the BBC is that they will get a settlement fee and then we’ll talk about how they’re going to change. But my perspective is, tell me how you’re going to change and then you get a settlement.”
That is the wrong way round. Will the Government commit to setting up an independent BBC licence fee commission? I think I know the answer to that.
Alongside the issue of global Britain, which, in the Prime Minister’s own words, needs a strong, thriving BBC, is the part the corporation plays in levelling up. It feeds directly into this, supplying training and making programmes across the country, boosting local economies and utilising local skills. The BBC has held us together through the pandemic, providing news the people can trust and essential support for home schooling, as my noble friend Lord Storey mentioned. So, can the Minister explain why this Government are seeking to slash the funds of the BBC?
What the BBC needs, alongside the other PSBs, is prominence on all EPGs extended to all digital TV platforms. It needs secure and adequate funding. The Prime Minister in his CBI speech on global Britain called for support for the cultural and creative sectors; in which case, include the BBC. Global Britain needs it; a levelled-up Britain needs it; so, support it, do not unravel it. The BBC is precious; it is unique. As the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said, it is ingenious and illogical, but once lost, it is never coming back.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Bragg for giving your Lordships’ House the opportunity to consider the value of the BBC to audiences in the UK and across the world; and, of course, for underpinning the debate with his renowned experience, insight and wisdom. From these Benches I offer the warmest of welcomes to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool and congratulate him on his maiden speech. I can only observe that the BBC’s loss was the gain of both the Church and this House.
It is so important to recognise, as we have done today, the place of the BBC and the need to protect its independence, as emphasised by my noble friend Lord Triesman. As a far-reaching media platform, the BBC commissions production and acts as a stimulus in many different ways and in many media formats. If it is not nurtured, the impact goes way beyond the BBC itself and undermines the whole of the media ecosystem, with a poorer end result. One only has to look at countries that have weak public service broadcasting to understand the downward effect.
As has been said, while the BBC may not be perfect—and it would not be reasonable to expect it to be so—it is a national treasure and internationally recognised as a much-valued broadcaster. As my noble friend Lord Griffiths observed, often, radio is the only means of broadcast available in the developing world.
While there will always be debates about the nature of the licence fee, as raised by my noble friend Lord Maxton, and the correct level of public subsidy for the BBC’s output, there is no doubt that viewers are offered tremendous value for money. The BBC supports our creative industries, engages in international collaborations, runs its own training and graduate schemes and helps to equip future generations with a variety of creative skills. It not only generates an estimated £4.9 billion of economic output but spreads its value across the length and breadth of the country, having been a key player in the evolution of Salford’s MediaCity, for example, while maintaining a presence in the nations and regions. When I was a constituency MP in Lincoln, I knew only too well the importance of local radio, TV and newspapers, because all those were far more influential and trusted than any amount of national coverage I might possibly secure.
Across the world, the global news service carries the flag for the UK’s international brand and reputation, as explained so eloquently by my noble friend Lady Jay. It reaches 438 million people across the world every single week, broadcasting in 43 languages, with correspondents in 75 news bureaux. As the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, said, the BBC gives a voice to those who do not have one.
Like so many of our public services, the BBC has had to respond nimbly to the unprecedented circumstances presented by nearly two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. During this time, it has been a trusted source of news and facts, globally and at home; it has stepped up to provide educational resources to children throughout the national lockdowns; and it has responded to numerous challenges such as those posed by the rapid growth of online streaming services. My noble friend Lord Stansgate was absolutely right to speak about the increased thirst for facts and information at a time of crisis.
In some senses, the BBC has become a victim of its own success. People have high expectations, and whether it is original programming or sports coverage, they expect the very best—and expect it to be done their way, as my noble friend Lord Liddle said.
Therefore, although one Conservative MP recently berated “Doctor Who” for casting a female lead, which supposedly robbed young boys of a role model, many more argued that it promoted inclusivity. As my noble friend Lord Young said, it ensures that people from all walks of life are able to see characters on screen who reflect their own backgrounds and life experiences.
The recent Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games were screened primarily on the Discovery network, restricting the BBC’s coverage and, therefore, disappointing many who had become used to the corporation’s comprehensive sports offering. The listed events regime means that public service broadcasters can afford to bid for the biggest sporting events and ensures that everyone can access them, regardless of ability to pay. This is in urgent need of reform. Very soon, we will see the marketing of the rights to the next four Olympic and Paralympic Games. With both summer Games—Los Angeles in 2028 and Brisbane in 2032—happening overnight for those of us on UK time, digital on-demand services will be critical to delivering this content. Do the Government have any plans to review both the contents of the list of events and the technicalities associated with it? If the Minister seeks to modernise this regime to ensure that digital rights are included—as I hope he will—how will these necessary changes be taken forward?
As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, referenced, the BBC has played a huge role in popularising women’s sport. Even though the Government looked at adding the women’s equivalents to the men’s events to this list back in 2019, this has not yet happened. Can the Minister update the House on progress? I urge him to act to rectify this disparity as soon as possible, particularly in the light of the inspiration provided by the recent Olympics and Paralympics. It is important to create a legacy by harnessing that interest in order to inspire women and girls to take part in exercise and sport at whatever level they choose. There is an opportunity here to promote good health and well-being and to close the gap between those who can and those who cannot access it. I urge the Minister to take this on board.
There will, of course, always be questions asked of the BBC, as we have heard in the debate today. I do not believe that there is any great appetite to see it undermined—whether that be through funding restrictions or other, potentially more back-door, means. With this in mind, if we expect the BBC to continue to do everything we value, the Government need to ensure that it is properly resourced. However, if the Government are determined—for whatever reason—to weaken the BBC, they must be honest with the public about what they would be doing, and why. They must give the public a choice on whether that would be acceptable. I suspect that the answer would come through loud and clear, as has the feeling in your Lordships’ House today.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, for securing and for opening this enjoyable and important debate. There are many in your Lordships’ House who have experience of the BBC—either because they or members of their family have worked there. There is no one who can hold a candle to the noble Lord’s wealth and breadth of experience at the corporation. As he said, that began 60 years ago this year when he joined as a graduate trainee. I can only agree with the noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, that that was a very good hire indeed on the part of the BBC.
I also join those noble Lords who welcomed the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool and congratulated him on his excellent maiden speech. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, when she said that the BBC’s loss is a gain for the Church of England and for your Lordships’ House. I was struck by what the right reverend Prelate said about the need for calm scrutiny and careful consideration of not just what we say but how we say it. This is an important lesson for this place as well as for public discourse in many arenas.
The BBC is a great national institution of which we should all be proud. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has said, the BBC is a “beacon” for news reporting and the arts around the globe. It is a first-rate broadcaster, a cultural cornerstone and a producer of some of the best television and radio in the world. It holds a unique place in our cultural heritage. In its near 100-year existence so far, it has contributed enormously to the British sense of self, as it has both evolved and endured during the last century.
Beyond our shores, the BBC carries British values and identities to a worldwide audience which has more than doubled in the last decade, and reaches hundreds of millions of people every day. The BBC is the single biggest investor in original British content, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, noted. In 2019 alone, the corporation spent more than £1.4 billion on original UK television content. Some 54% of its commissions went to independent productions, of which 57% were from outside London. The BBC’s focus on British TV production also attracts investment from others. In 2019, more than £1.2 billion of third-party production spend was directly attributable to the BBC’s grass-roots investments. As noble Lords have pointed out, it acts as a catalyst.
The BBC’s UK-wide investments are reflected in its output. As noble Lords have rightly said, this has been a lifeline for many people during the pandemic—whether through the trusted information highlighted by the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, or through Bitesize, which helped those who were home-schooling, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, mentioned. The invented escapism of new programmes, such as Michael Sheen’s and David Tennant’s “Staged” brought a smile to many faces of people stuck at home.
As my noble friend Lord Vaizey of Didcot said, we all have our preferences and partialities about the BBC. Perhaps we even have our rituals. I wake up to the “Today” programme every morning. I fall asleep to “Today in Parliament”—not, I hasten to add because of the content of the speeches therein.
The BBC is a leader in British programming. Despite increasing competition in the entertainment sector, it is a conduit through which outstanding homegrown talent arrives on our screens, in our speakers and, increasingly, on our smartphones. The BBC’s approach to funding talent will be crucial to our creative industries and the many world-class creative professionals working within them, as the sector recovers from the effects of the pandemic and continues to grow at a brilliant speed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, noted. The Government also welcome the BBC’s pledge to move two-thirds of its staff outside London. This will ensure even more diverse programming and create a BBC that better represents every Briton.
The BBC’s reach and influence extend far beyond our shores. This debate rightly has a global focus too. The BBC World Service is the world’s largest international broadcaster. It provides accurate and impartial news, analysis and discussion in more than 40 languages. The BBC recently confirmed that the World Service audience is now 364 million people—its highest ever global figure. In an era of fake news and viral misinformation, the value of a free press has never been so important. The BBC World Service is, therefore, an essential vehicle for information across the world. Founded in the early 1930s, it continues to be just as relevant today—perhaps increasingly so.
Following government investment of £291 million, the BBC World Service has expanded and enhanced its services as part of the World 2020 programme. Today, it broadcasts in dozens of languages—from Indonesian to Igbo and from Punjabi to Portuguese. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, stressed the importance of the BBC’s Russian output. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, rightly spoke of the bravery of the staff of the World Service in their work. Its comprehensiveness and inclusivity are unparalleled.
A number of noble Lords asked about the funding of the World Service. The framework agreement guarantees that the budget for the World Service must be at least £254 million until April 2022. The Government are engaging with the BBC on the future of World Service funding as part of the discussions about the licence fee settlement. While details of the grant-in-aid settlement are still to be finalised, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is also committed to providing grant-in-aid funding for the BBC World Service through to 2025.
The Government support the BBC’s mission to bring high-quality and impartial news to international audiences. It is a crucial asset to Britain’s soft power and influence across the world, and its reporting is a precious resource to many who view it. The Government also support the BBC’s continued focus on global commercial opportunities, of which noble Lords spoke, working in conjunction with ITV and other partners. By continuing that work, the BBC is increasingly able to export great British content and values around the globe.
However, the Government have been clear that there are areas where the BBC can and should improve. It is perhaps pertinent that the BBC is still often known affectionately as “Auntie”, and, like all families, people can speak with both love and frustration about the corporation, with sincere thoughts about how it can improve and continue to flourish. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, who says that we have almost a duty to criticise. I hope that we can do that, in the spirit of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool, in a calmly critical way and provide the calm scrutiny which is needed.
The BBC knows this too. The Dyson report and subsequent Serota review identified that significant changes should be made in order to provide assurance to Parliament and the public, and restore the BBC’s reputation. While much has changed since Martin Bashir’s interview with the late Diana, Princess of Wales, there is still scope for improvements to be made. The Serota review’s recommendations include an overhaul of the BBC’s approach to impartiality and transparency, and tackling what staff have called a “culture of defensiveness”.
The review also identified the risks of groupthink at the BBC, something that a number of noble Lords alighted on today. Like all big and long-established institutions, there is a risk, as with so many others, of succumbing to a “we know best” attitude that can be detached both from the criticism and the values of all parts of the nation that it serves. The BBC must continue to commit to improving diversity of opinion and perspectives at all levels in defending the pluralism of which my noble friend Lord Hannan of Kingsclere spoke. The BBC should also enhance opportunities for underrepresented groups of people, particularly those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, to access and enjoy and have careers at the BBC. It is right that the BBC reflects all communities across the UK, both on and off the screen.
The Government support the BBC. We want to see it rectify the institutional failings that led to the events in the Dyson report. A renewed focus on editorial standards, impartiality and accountability is essential in rebuilding trust. In that context, we welcome the BBC’s 10-point Impartiality and Editorial Standards action plan, and the commitment to implement the recommendations of the Serota review in full. But the proof, as ever, will be in the pudding. As Ofcom outlined in its annual report on the BBC last week, while the action plan is a good start, it needs to be delivered. The BBC must move forward with its plan as quickly as possible and should do so with appropriate transparency. This is necessary to show to the public the BBC’s real commitment to reform.
The Government also agree with findings in Ofcom’s recent report that the BBC
“must keep evolving to be relevant to all audiences”.
That is not a partisan point. Indeed, it was clearly articulated earlier in the week by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who cannot take part in our debate today. I would not presume to paraphrase the noble Lord, who speaks with great care and consideration, but I will quote from the article that he wrote. He explained that he would be unable to be part in this debate as he is chairing another meeting, but that
“if I could, I’d be loud in my praises of the Corporation. But I’d also have some stern criticism. Radio 4 has become so determined to address multicultural diversity, gender issues and identity politics that it forgets about all-embracing inclusion. People who live outside a narrow class of well-off professionals with rigidly right-on opinions, almost all of them in London, no longer feel included by the station.”
While not everyone will agree with every word of what the noble Lord said, it is clear that there are groups across the country who do not feel represented by the BBC, and it needs to do better in engaging those audiences across the UK, so that criticism like that can be met and need not be levelled.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, about the soft but important power of programmes such as “Strictly Come Dancing” in telling stories and increasing the representation of gay and deaf people, for instance. But there are so many other stories that need to be told too—points made by my noble friend Lord Lilley, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, in his well-made point about elite-level sport and the diversity that we need there.
On that point, and the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, on listed events for sporting endeavours, we are considering the proposals made by Ofcom on the listed events framework but, at this stage, think that the current regime strikes an appropriate balance in ensuring that significant sporting events are available to as wide an audience as possible, with the ability of sporting organisations to generate revenues to invest in their sports. But we will of course continue to keep that issue under review, with the Olympics and other big sporting events coming up.
The Government will shortly begin work on the mid- term charter review, which will examine the governance and regulation of the corporation. This will consider whether the current arrangements are working effectively or if further reform is required. We have also committed to examining the licence fee funding model ahead of the next charter review. The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, knows the answer to that question: work on this will begin well in advance of the end of the current charter period.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, raised the question of gender equality at the BBC. I do not know whether other noble Lords enjoy watching former general election night programmes as much as I do or have seen the broadcast of the 1970 general election, when my noble friend Lady Fookes was first elected to another place. It went viral, as is said nowadays, when her interview with Sir Robin Day, moments after her election to the House of Commons, was replayed. The way he spoke to her as a new female Member of Parliament was shocking to modern ears, and deserves to be. I am glad to say that much progress has been made in the intervening years.
As a public service broadcaster funded by licence fee payers, the BBC has a responsibility to set an example for others and lead the way in promoting equality in the workplace. The Government are disappointed to learn that the median gender pay gap at BBC Studios actually increased to 11.2% from 9% in the previous financial year. It is for the BBC to determine how to close its gender pay gap, and we expect to see improvement in next year’s disclosure. As in so many areas of national life, transparency is vital in this area, and the BBC’s pay disclosure shows that it still has work to do. It is vital that we continue to see these figures in future years, so that licence fee payers can monitor progress.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Vaizey, rather than my noble friend Lord Hannan, on the importance of local radio stations and local BBC work. Local and regional news coverage provide a vital service, providing information about local public affairs, holding local decision-makers to account and providing a forum for community decisions, as well as important information in relation to floods, as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle pointed out, or storms, such as Storm Arwen, which we discussed before this debate.
The Government ensured that, in its royal charter, the BBC has a duty to consider its market impact and to ensure that it seeks to avoid adverse impacts on competition. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, also pointed to the welcome and important work of the Local Democracy Reporting Service. Under the new regulatory system introduced by the Government in 2017, the BBC board must ensure that the BBC complies with its charter duties. Ofcom was established as the BBC regulator to ensure that the BBC is robustly held to account.
The BBC is a beacon for reporting and the arts around the world. It provides distinctive British programming, supports our creative industries at a domestic level, and delivers quality output and news on an international scale. It is a priceless national institution of which we should all be proud, and we are. It is because the Government support the BBC that we are focused on encouraging it to improve and reform. We want the BBC to continue to succeed, to meet the challenges of a fast-changing media environment and to continue the mission set by the late Lord Reith to inform, educate and entertain for many more generations to come.
I thank everyone who took part in the debate. There were a lot of interesting speeches. It shows that I am a bit taken by surprise when I use the word “interesting”, because it is an easy and ordinary word. It was fascinating to hear the level of support for the BBC; I had not quite expected it to be so warm and deep. It was equally intriguing to hear people criticise the BBC in such a well-informed way. The BBC, like any institution, does not like to take on critics, even friendly fire as it may be. But there are things wrong with the BBC, as I said once or twice, and things that could be improved. With great respect, I started to get worried when the Minister said that the BBC should do this, would do that and needed such and such—if it is going to be prescribed from the top in that way, especially when these things are coming up in the next two or three years, we will all have real worries again.
When the debate finished, I thought, “Well, we’re in quite a settled state”, but if the Government are going to say, “We’re going to take this opportunity to do this, that and the other, and look at this, that and the other”, there will be worries. The BBC is taking care of itself pretty well. Its critics around the place have been listened to—I hope that more of them will be listened to after this debate because their criticisms were so good—but it also has the support of so many people for the right reasons. It can go in the right direction if it is given that support and that support increases.
I thank noble Lords for their speeches and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for such a fine entrance. I am delighted that we have had this debate.
Adult Social Care
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 1 December.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on our plans for adult social care.
Today we are publishing our ambitious 10-year vision for adult social care—our White Paper: People at the Heart of Care. It is a product of years of work, not only by every level of government, but by many involved in the sector, including people who give care, people who draw on care, and their families. I wish once again to underline my appreciation and admiration for everyone who works to deliver this most vital of public services, especially through this challenging pandemic.
Those working in social care—both paid and unpaid—deserve our deepest respect, yet they also deserve a system that works for them, and it is fair to say that that has not always been the case. Time and again, we in this House have heard about the challenges: the high turnover in the workforce; the lottery of how people pay for care; unsustainable local markets; the varying quality and safety of care; the low uptake of technology; those carers who are not just unpaid, but under-appreciated; and the complexity of the system for everyone involved. I am sure honourable Members will have their own challenges to add to that list. Make no mistake, these are complex issues—so complex, of course, that successive Governments, over decades, have decided to duck rather than deal with them. This Government, however, are determined to get it right. After all, we cannot be serious about levelling up unless we are also serious about social care.
In September we took a vital first step on the road to fixing this generational problem when the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State announced our new health and care levy. The focus on how we must pay for it is absolutely right, but we were clear then, and we are clear now, that there is much else we need to do. The White Paper contains more detail on what we plan to do over the next three years to transform the sector over the next decade. It is underpinned by three core principles: first, that everybody has choice, control and support to live independent lives; secondly, that everyone can access outstanding personalised care and support; and thirdly, that adult social care is fair and accessible for everyone who needs it.
The principles we hold are important, but we know we will ultimately be judged on our actions. I will therefore set out some of those actions before the House. First, giving everyone the choice, control and support to live independent lives requires both physical and digital infrastructure. We are investing £300 million in housing. That investment will support local authorities to increase the range of new supported housing options, because it is vital that people live in homes that meet their needs and give them the independence they require. Moreover, we are setting up a new practical support service to help people with minor repairs and changes, which will help them to live independently for longer. That is in addition to increasing the upper limit of the disabled facilities grant for home adaptations, which includes things such as stairlifts, wet rooms and home technology.
The digital infrastructure we put in place can be equally transformational, because we know that digital tools and technology can support independent living and improve the quality of care. We are therefore putting in at least £150 million of funding to drive the greater adoption of such technology, with the ambition to achieve widespread digitisation across social care. We are setting up a new national website, which will explain all the upcoming changes, and we are piloting innovative new ways to help people understand and access the care and support they need.
Our second principle is to ensure outstanding personalised care and support, and at the heart of that is looking after the people who work in care. We are spending at least half a billion pounds on the social care workforce over the next three years. Some of those funds will help us to deliver new qualifications and better career routes in care, which we know is crucial for holding on to our caring and compassionate workforce. We are also directing funds into stronger mental health and well-being support for care staff, because colleagues cannot care for people unless we care for colleagues. We are putting funds behind a change in the services we provide to support unpaid carers, and we will find and test what works best for those who are caring under challenging circumstances. Regardless of whether that solution is old or new, if it works, we want to do it. We are also considering funding local areas to support their efforts to innovate around the care they provide, so that they can provide more options that suit people’s individual needs. Those new models of care, including housing with care, have the potential to play a pivotal role in delivering care that promotes prevention, is more personalised, and enables people to live independently.
Our third principle is care that is fair and accessible for everyone. We are introducing a cap on care costs so that no one will have to pay more than £86,000 over their lifetime. That cap will be there for everybody, regardless of any conditions they have, how old they are or how much they earn. It is a universal cap. Importantly, it will provide everyone with the peace of mind of knowing that the days of unlimited and unpredictable costs are coming to an end. The reforms will also make the existing means test far more generous, compared with both the current system and with previous abandoned proposals. Crucially, the £100,000 upper capital limit will be available to those in home care, and we expect many more people to be in home care. Let me be clear: no one will be worse off compared with the current system, and many, many people will be better off. All the ambitious plans that we are setting out today must be underpinned by a sustainable care market. The £3.6 billion we are giving to reform the social care charging system will help all local authorities to pay a fairer rate for care and put back into the system the fairness we all want.
Before I conclude, Mr Speaker, allow me to put on record once again my thanks to everybody who has played their part in developing this important White Paper. The reform of social care in this country has been ducked for far too long, but we will do whatever it takes to take on this tough challenge, and we will get it right. Today’s White Paper is an important step on our journey to giving more people the dignified care that we want for our loved ones, setting out important changes that will last for generations and stand the test of time. As a Government we are determined to get this right—I am determined to get this right—so that we can build the healthier, fairer and more caring country that we all deserve. I commend this Statement to the House.”
I thank the Government for the Statement, which has been a long time coming.
First, we are told that we have a health and social care Bill to deal with integration across the NHS and social care. Instead, we get a giant Bill that is largely about NHS reorganisation to undo the structures set up by this Government in 2012. We are also told that there is a plan to fix social care, but we now have a government levy that has working-class families paying for extra funding that could in any event result in the NHS swallowing up most of the money to deal with the ever-growing waiting lists for vital treatment, with little left for social care. Finally, we have the grand announcement of the care cap, for which there was strong cross-party support when it was first proposed by Andrew Dilnot in 2011 and legislated for in 2014. However, it is now due to be delayed for yet another two years and introduced at half the level recommended by Dilnot, with the terrible and deadly sting in the tail of the last-minute amendment to the NHS Bill that was forced through the Commons last week and means that state-funded care costs will not be counted towards the care cap at all.
I remind the House that we have waited for this social care White Paper for four years, with unexplained delay after delay against a backdrop of expectation that, when it finally came, the NHS and care Bill would embrace NHS and social care integration. The proposals for this and other measures in the White Paper should have been an integral part of the Bill, which we will begin to debate next week. Can the Minister tell the House how the integrated care system under the Bill will be integrated for social care? Will there be another piece of legislation? If so, what will it seek to do?
Of course, Labour has called for and supports a number of the measures in the White Paper, such as improving the housing options available to older and disabled people and the potential for technology to improve standards of care. However, there are two central flaws in the Government’s latest approach. First, Ministers have utterly failed to deal with the immediate pressures facing social care as we head into one of the most difficult winters on record. Secondly, they have failed to set out the long-term vision and reforms that we need to deliver a care system fit for the future.
Last week, we learned that a staggering 400,000 older and disabled people are now on council waiting lists for care, with 40,000 of them waiting more than a year. There are more than 100,000 staff vacancies and turnover rates are soaring. Because of these shortages, 1.5 million hours of home care could not be delivered between August and October alone, and half of all councils report care homes going bust or home providers handing back contracts. Hundreds of thousands of older and disabled people are being left without the vital support they need, piling even more pressure on their families and the NHS at the worst possible time.
Does the Minister recognise the figure, reported this week, that 42,000 care staff have left their jobs since April? How will this White Paper ensure that care homes facing huge staff shortages can stay open and recruit and retain staff? Absolutely nothing new has been announced to deal with these crucial issues. Where is the plan to end waiting lists for care? Unless people get support when and where they need it, they will end up needing more expensive residential or hospital care, which is worse for them and for the taxpayer. We know that improving access is the first step in delivering a much more fundamental shift in the focus of support towards prevention and early intervention so that people can continue to live independently in their own homes for as long as possible. Without enough staff with the right training working in the right teams, this will never be achieved.
Where is the long-term strategy to transform the pay, training and terms and conditions of care workers, and to deliver at least 500,000 additional care workers by 2030, just to meet the growing demand? Why do the Government persist in having separate workforce strategies for the NHS and social care when the two are inextricably linked? Where is the joined-up strategy for the whole health and social care workforce?
The proposals in the White Paper for England’s 11 million family carers, who provide the vast majority of care in this country, are, quite frankly, pitiful. Unpaid carers have been pushed to the limit by trying to look after the people they love. Almost half said that they had not had a break for five years, even before the pandemic struck, and 80% of them are now providing more care than ever before. However, the funding announced amounts to just £1.60 more for each unpaid carer per year. Does the Minister not agree that families deserve so much better?
What was needed today was a long-term vision that finally puts social care where it belongs: on an equal footing with the NHS at the heart of a modernised welfare state. Can the Minister explain how this White Paper does that and delivers the resources needed to bring it about? At its best, social care is about far more than just helping people to get up, wash, dress and get fed, vital though this is. It is about ensuring that all older and disabled people can live the life they choose in the place they call home, with the people they love and doing the things that matter to them most. This should have been the guiding mission of the White Paper, with clear proposals to make users genuine partners in their care by transforming the use of direct payments and personal budgets, and ensuring that the views of users and families drive change in every part of the system, from how services are commissioned to how they are regulated and delivered.
The Government’s proposals fall woefully short of the mark and the reality of their so-called reforms is now clear: it is a tax hike on working people that will not deal with the problems in social care now. It will not even stop them having to sell their homes to pay for care, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly promised. The simple fact is that, under the Government’s proposals, if you own a home worth £1 million more than 90% of your assets will be protected, but if your home is worth £100,000 you could end up losing it all. Millions of working people are paying more tax, not to improve their family’s care or stop their own life savings being wiped out but to protect the homes of the wealthiest. This is not fixing the crisis in social care, let alone real social care reform. It is unfair and just wrong.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. It is no exaggeration to say that we on these Benches, along with many other noble Lords, have been repeatedly pushing Ministers to publish this White Paper for years. It is now two and a half years since the Prime Minister announced from the steps of 10 Downing Street:
“My job is to protect you or your parents or grandparents from the fear of having to sell your home to pay for the costs of care. And so I am announcing now—on the steps of Downing Street—that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve … that is the work that begins immediately behind that black door.”
We were pushing because it was evident even then that adult social care was already in crisis. High levels of staffing vacancies, and cuts to local government meant that fewer people who had been entitled to state support would receive it, as the criteria for eligibility were repeatedly tightened. Even then, it was common knowledge that private patients were having to subsidise those funded by the state, as the amount given to local authorities did not match the actual costs of that care.
Even allowing for the inevitable delays caused by the pandemic, this Government have insisted on continuing with their structural reforms, rushing through the Health and Care Bill—which NHS leaders are now asking to be delayed because of the continuation of coronavirus and its pressure on all NHS services—as well as the health and social care levy, rushed through your Lordships’ House in one day, six weeks ago, which now requires amendment in the Health and Care Bill, which will mean that house owners outside the greater south-east will end up paying a higher percentage of their assets than those in the greater south-east. So much for protecting them from the fear of having to sell your home to pay for the costs of care—yet another broken promise from this Prime Minister.
In setting the scene, we and others have pushed for the publication of the White Paper prior to the Bill starting its journey in the Lords, because we cannot understand how any Government could restructure integrated care services between the NHS and the care sector without knowing what plans they have for the future of the adult social care sector. Yesterday’s paper was deeply disappointing—but I think the Government know that, which is why Ministers announced yet another White Paper next year on integration. But hang on: was that not why this White Paper was due to be published? If there is to be another White Paper, the timing is important. Can the Minister say when this new White Paper will be published? This one certainly is not the answer.
Allocating some money to developing the workforce in five years’ time will not even start to address the current crisis in social care: with well over 100,000 vacancies; with social care providers still having to pay for expensive PPE that is provided free to the NHS; and with providers handing back state-funded payments to their local authorities because they cannot provide a safe service for those patients. It does not address the current practice, caused by lack of funding, of domiciliary care workers not being paid as they travel between clients. It does nothing to change the experience of unpaid carers. There are lots of great ideas about following best practice and getting people to talk together, but there is no real offer of funding for regular respite care or other benefits and support.
Reading the full White Paper, the truth about the promises in the Statement begin to be revealed. The Minister knows that, from these Benches, we have repeatedly emphasised the importance of housing in relation to care and support for adults of all ages. It was, therefore, perhaps encouraging to read the recurring phrase
“Making every decision about care a decision about housing”,
but closer examination of the funding for disabled facilities grants increases shows that there will be £570 million a year in 2022–23, 2023-24 and 2024–25. The current budget for this year is already £537 million. Although continued funding is welcome news, this is only a £33 million—or 6%—increase, which, given rising costs of labour and materials, will barely keep up with inflation. It is not the transformative grant that the Statement trumpets. On the funding for
“a new service to make minor repairs and changes in peoples’ homes, to help people remain independent and safe”,
for which most authorities are able to offer only £1,000 to £2,000 per person before they have to look at their assets, no cash amount is specified, but it is hoped that this will give a boost to handyperson services that are so highly valued by older people and provide such a great return on investment.
It is impossible to transform way our social care provision works, keeping people in their homes, unless this White Paper demonstrates the practical support that the Government can give to make that happen. The real difficulty we face is that staff in the sector, providers, the NHS and, above all, the users and their families are severely let down by the White Paper. The word “dignity” is used repeatedly in the Statement. The reality is the opposite: no vision, no real reform and, worst of all, no attempt to deal with the current crisis.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses for the points they raise. But let us be clear that for many years—not just five, 10, 15 or 20 years; some noble Lords have said that we knew this issue was coming after the war, in the 1950s—the demographics of the country meant that we were going to have an ageing population, and successive Governments of all colours have not grasped the nettle. They have commissioned a report, it has gathered dust on the shelf and another report has come along. Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Lilley and others, have written papers for various think tanks, but those also gathered dust and nothing has been done. When I have spoken to friends of all political colours, they have said that, frankly, it was too difficult and there were other priorities. So the Government should be given some credit for finally grasping the nettle.
We have set out a vision. Before you set out a strategy, you have to set out a vision, and we have done so. This is a 10-year vision, and we have committed to the first three years. Throughout the White Paper, we have said that we will continue to consult the sector—experts, carers, both paid and unpaid, local authorities and nursing or care home providers—to make sure that we get the right balance and understand the issues. As technology develops—medical technology, information technology and other technology that enables people to live in their own homes—we will see how the vision might adapt, rather than laying out everything from day one. We have laid out the vision and the spending for the first three years, but we will continue to consult to ensure that we are adapting to the changing technology and circumstances.
Compared to the current system, more people will be supported with their social care costs and have greater certainty over what they pay and receive higher-quality care. We think the plans announced represent the best value proposals. As many noble Lords will appreciate, that means balancing many issues: how many people are supported; how much they are supported; and the cost to taxpayers of offering that support. We believe that the plan sets out an appropriate level for the cap and balances that with people’s personal responsibility for planning for their later years. A number of experts have written recently asking why financial advisers advise people to build up ever-larger sums of money but they then leave it to their children at the end of their lives, rather than depleting their assets as they get older to look after themselves. We were clear that the £86,000 would be the amount individuals will need to pay towards the cost of their care, and the amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill reflects the changes. We believe the new system is necessary, fair and responsible.
We admit that the Care Act 2014 was landmark legislation informed by a range of partners, and we want to build on those strong foundations, rather than reinvent the wheel. Many of the provisions in that Bill act as a platform for better, even more joined-up health and social care in future. We are the first Government to announce that we are going to integrate health and social care, and that we will have a system of healthcare all the way through—not social care as a bolt-on afterwards—from your birth all the way through your life.
The Health and Social Care Bill contains several provisions built on the Care Act 2014. We have looked at assurance, with a new duty on the Care Quality Commission, and we have looked at data, to make sure we have the appropriate data on adult social care. People should pass from hospital to social care with no delay and as seamlessly as possible. We have looked at provider payments and the better care fund. The Bill also proposes to put integrated care systems on a statutory footing, which will make sure that, in each area, working with local authorities, account is taken of the needs of social care, joined up with the other parts of the healthcare system.
On 3 November, we published the adult social care winter plan, because we recognise that this is a long-term plan, but we have constantly been listening to stakeholders and have drawn up recommendations with a number of people, including Sir David Pearson, who reviewed last year’s adult social care plan, advisers from SAGE and UKHSA. So we have listened carefully to make sure that we meet some of the short-term issues that we are facing. We have looked at how we can increase spending, where relevant, to make sure that we tackle some of those issues.
Across the House, noble Lords will want to pay tribute to social care workers, both paid and unpaid. We have a track record of responding to workforce pressures—for example, the £162.5 million workforce recruitment and retention fund and the £388 infection control and testing fund. We will continue to keep this situation under control. We are also increasing the rate of the national living wage, which means that many of the lowest-paid care workers will benefit from pay rises. We are also investing at least £0.5 billion in the way we support the development and well-being of our social care workforce—an investment in knowledge, skills, health and well-being, and how we drive the retention of existing staff and boost recruitment. This will set the conditions for professionalisation over a longer period, giving carers recognition. When we look at the social care workforce and how much they are valued, one of the great issues has to be recognition of their skills and giving them a professional development pathway.
In the longer term, as set out in the White Paper, we remain interested in working with commissioners and providers to make that sure care workers have the best terms and conditions possible, including being paid for all the hours possible. This is already set out in our existing market-shaping and commissioning guidance. We will also explore how we can champion best practice and support local authorities, including through the new CQC assurance framework. We acknowledge the prevalence of zero-hours contracts in the social care sector and we are interested in working with commissioners, providers and care workers to understand how those contracts impact this sector.
Chapter 6 of the White Paper sets out three key aims for the workforce strategy over the next three years, backed up by £500 million of investment. We want to create a workforce that is well-trained and well-developed, healthy and supported, sustainable and recognised. We want to make sure that social care is seen as a rewarding career—that it is not only heart- warming but has professional recognition. I should stop there and take some more questions at this point.
The Government are in conversation with local authorities at the moment to look at the short-term issues. That is why we have announced increases in funding, particularly as part of the winter plan. The White Paper we are talking about today looks at the longer term, but we have also recognised the short-term issues, which is why we have announced these increases in spending.
My Lords, we have been waiting for four years—sometimes I think I have been waiting 40 years—for a White Paper that contained a vision for social care that would, once and for all, rescue it from its Cinderella role in public services. I did not get that, but I am a glass-half-full person and am relieved by how many times unpaid carers are mentioned and how many warm words there are about identifying, recognising and involving carers. I thank the Government for that.
But family carers are at breaking point now. As my noble friend said, most have not had a single break since the start of the pandemic. They need immediate help, so will the Minister tell the House how the proposals in the White Paper will help stressed carers now? My second question is about integration between health and social care services, which is the only hope for real reform. It is frequently referred to in the White Paper, but there is no vision for how it will be delivered. We understand that another White Paper about integration is being prepared; I wonder why that is necessary when it could have been tackled in this one. Could the Minister update the House on progress and assure me that carers will be consulted as that paper on integration is written?
First, I pay tribute to the work that the noble Baroness has done for carers over many years. She has personally raised with me issues with carers, both paid and unpaid, as well. The White Paper clearly raises issues of professionalising, training and recognising carers to help make this a rewarding career for many. At the same time, it looks at unpaid carers and understands that, for a number of reasons, they are not all similar. Sometimes they are school-age children. We have looked at young carers and at elderly carers—for example my mother, who, in her 70s, looks after an 80 year-old sister who suffers from dementia. They have different needs.
We are first trying to look at how we can help make their task easier, for example through technology freeing up time. We are also looking at respite and how we can make sure they have breaks. We hope that those conversations will be had at the local level, between ICSs and health professionals having meetings directly with the individuals concerned to make sure that unpaid carers have the appropriate support.
My Lords, I feel torn on this. On the one hand, it is irritating that the White Paper has come out but everybody wants to bash it, when I am relieved that somebody has suggested something. On the other hand, it is not satisfactory. To ask some immediate questions, the crisis of care staff has already been referred to, but I am concerned that the White Paper is being used to avoid talking about the real crisis now. There are genuine problems in care homes in the aftermath of Covid. It is not just about staff, but the fact that relatives are still being denied face-to-face visits. There is still a climate of risk aversion and fear from some managements, with lots of people with dementia being locked in their rooms. All sorts of terrible things are happening and people do not know what to do. I do not want this White Paper to be used to bat things away.
That was the first thing. Secondly, in the longer term, can the White Paper create that vision and be used as a platform? To be honest, I think it is visionless and technocratic. We need to get talking and involve the nation in developing the vision we need. Everybody has an investment in improving this.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, makes a valid point: we have to look at not only the long-term vision but the short-term issues raised. This is why, on 3 November, we announced the adult social care winter plan for 2021-22. This was developed in conjunction with the NHS and social care stakeholders. We drew on the recommendations of the review of last year’s adult social care winter plan and listened to a number of different stakeholders in setting out the short-term issues.
As the noble Baroness acknowledges, we are the first Government to set out a long-term vision, not just from one electoral cycle to another but for 10 years. We have set out a vision with three years of commitment to specific spending, some of which is a discovery process, because we still have to know what will and will not work, and how to use and integrate technology. By doing that, we have laid down the gauntlet to whatever Government come after us, of whatever political colour, for them to continue to fulfil this vision. It is a vision against which this and future Governments will be measured.
Other politicians from other parties have known about this for many years. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, mentioned waiting for 40 years and others have known about our post-war demographic challenge. We have finally grasped the nettle. We are not going to get everything right, which is why we have not laid out a detailed, prescriptive plan for 10 years. We have laid out a vision of integration, making sure that we use the best technology to support people in their own homes, as much as possible. At the same time, we have committed for the next three years. After that, the challenge is for us to work with all stakeholders to deliver that vision.
My Lords, I am particularly delighted to see this White Paper and congratulate the Government on publishing it in this timeframe. However, we need to look closely at workforce needs, at the same time as we look at workforce needs for the Health and Care Bill, because there is a real mismatch between the vision we now have and the staffing for that vision. I welcome this opportunity to hear how the Government think we can tackle that and give young unemployed people good opportunities to come into a proper caring profession.
I thank the noble Baroness for the conversations that we have had about this, and a number of other issues, as I got to grips with my brief. She makes a very important point. We have to make sure that social care is seen as an attractive career path and not just something unskilled; we know that there are skills involved, such as empathy. There will also be an increased need for digital skills, and people management skills will be handy in other areas. For far too long, social care has been seen as the poor relation of other parts of the health system. By bringing health and social care together, we are sending a signal that our vision is to put them on an equal footing. We are also explaining how we intend to spend over the next three years. We challenge everyone—stakeholders, local authorities, everyone—to come forward and help us develop that vision for the long term, and to hold future Governments to account against that vision.
I wish the Minister good luck with his nettle grasping—I think he is going to need it. He will know that the right housing is key to enabling people to remain safely and happily in their home, yet only £300 million, a very small amount, is being promised in the White Paper to integrate housing into health and care strategies. Take, as an example, the so-called extra care units, where people can live in a flat with appropriate on-site support; that will mean only about 3,000 such units across England. Can the Minister say over what period that money is being offered? Is it three years or a different period? How many units of supported housing can be provided for that amount of money?
I thank the noble Baroness for raising this issue. We want to ensure that people can live in their own home for longer. We have committed a sum of money and been quite clear that practical changes can be made, such as installing stairlifts, level-access showers, wet rooms, sensors, et cetera. New technology is constantly being developed to meet people’s needs in their own home. To this end, we have committed a further £573 million per year to the disabled facilities grant, from 2022-23 to 2024-25. We are also talking to local authorities and others, looking at whether we need to increase the subsidy amount per adaptation and reconsider funding allocation to better align with local needs, as well as funding a new service to enable minor repairs and changes to people’s homes. We need to know what needs to be done, and local authorities and others can come back to us on the adaptations that they need and the best way to achieve them. We must look at best practice to make sure that, as technology develops, people can stay in their own home for longer.
My Lords, I declare an interest; my daughter-in-law is a full-time unpaid carer. First, the report says that unpaid carers’ money will go up to £69.70 a week. That is fine if you also have a job, but quite a few unpaid carers have given up their jobs to be unpaid carers, so that is all that they have got, other than the benefit that the person they are caring for may get. That is a pretty tough situation. Secondly, unpaid carers get very few breaks—some get no breaks at all. We must devise a way of looking after the 10 million or 11 million people who keep everything going. Although there are aspirations in this document, I would like to see them translated into something absolutely practical, so that I can go to an unpaid carer and say, “You’re full time, and something will happen to help you and take off the pressure.” It is a lonely business working full time, on virtually no money, looking after somebody. If the paid carers who come in the mornings or evenings do not turn up, it is the unpaid carers who keep things going. I hope that the Minister will pay attention to that. There is a whole agenda there which many of us will be pushing very hard on.
I know that the noble Lord has been a champion in this area. We have been quite clear that, as we go forward, a number of issues have to be understood. For example, you cannot say that all unpaid carers are the same. They all have different needs: some can work and some cannot work; some can spend a couple of hours working and share their care duties with others; there are sole carers; some are elderly and some are younger. We want all the different partners to come together to discuss individual needs—including respite for carers, to rest and recharge—and to look at their financial situations. We have laid out that those who are not working may be eligible for other benefits on top of the care allowance that they get. We are exploring this. It is a process of discovery and we want to ensure that it works. We have therefore set out the vision and the three-year commitment.
My Lords, I would like to pursue the points that were raised a minute ago by the noble Baronesses, Lady Fox and Lady Watkins. Despite the welcome long-term aspirations in the White Paper, the reality is that the chronic workforce shortages in social care are getting worse, with uncompetitive pay being the main culprit. If Covid surges this winter because of the new variant, these workforce problems will be magnified, with potentially disastrous consequences. There are similar concerns with unpaid carers, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has just said. With no new resources from the new levy coming on stream until October 2023, and all the fragilities that I have just described, what are the Government going to do to address the pay and retention issues now, over this winter?
The Government have been listening to the workforce and understand its pressures. We recognise that this is the vision, and that we need to look also at the short-term issues. We announced £162.5 million for the workforce recruitment retention fund, and the new Made with Care scheme to recruit social workers and to send a message that social work can be a rewarding career. We are talking to different bodies, including the Department for Education, about how we increase professionalisation. We have also increased the national living wage, meaning that many of the lowest-paid workers will be paid more. We are investing at least half a billion pounds in supporting the development and well-being of the social care workforce, including an investment in knowledge, skills, and well-being. We will work with partners to set the conditions for the professionalisation over a longer period. We cannot do this immediately; we want to consult the education sector and care and social care experts, to give recognition. That will be a precursor to making progress on pay.
Does my noble friend agree that the primary obligation of a Government is to provide decent care for those who cannot finance their own care, and that the lowest priority is to provide taxpayers’ funds to enable those who own valuable assets to pass them on to their offspring? If it is possible to enable people to insure against the risk of having to use the value of their home to pay for their own social care, possibly through a state-aided scheme, would that not be desirable? Is he not astonished that the Labour Party, normally the champion of public sector provision and the enemy of channelling public money to the rich, should advocate channelling money to the rich and not a state-funded insurance scheme?
I thank my noble friend for his question and pay tribute to him as one of the authors of a paper on funding social care, which had a number of interesting ideas. I am also very grateful to noble Lords across the House who have approached me with different ideas, including from the Labour Benches, these Benches and the Cross Benches. The Government have looked at a number of plans and have decided on this, but we are in conversation with the private insurance industry, including the ABI and others, to discuss what financial products it can offer in response to the changes. Some people are quite happy to take out insurance policies, but it depends on individual wealth levels and circumstances, and a number of different matters. We hope that there will be a development of the private market, and we are in conversations with the insurance industry. It has told this and successive Governments that, at the moment, there is no private sector solution for social care insurance. I regret that and wish that there was. My noble friend’s idea of the state underwriting it is interesting, but many reports have been written. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, will writhe in pain at this, but we have drafted that letter. Whatever we do, we will be criticised for it, but we will do this. We have set the vision for the first three years and have set the challenge for all of us to come together to provide the best possible social care for the future.
My Lords, I want to reinforce something that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said: the distinction between unpaid and paid care workers is very unfair because people who have to care do not have a choice whether to do so—they just do not get paid. The noble Lord mentioned his mother looking after her sister—there is no choice in that matter. Something ought to be done to redefine the category of unpaid social worker, perhaps by making such people part of universal credit so that they will get a statutory payment as of right—because they are relieving the state of some expenditure on care and, of course, performing a very useful social function.
The noble Lord makes the very important point that unpaid carers save the state billions of pounds a year with all the work that they do and the love and attention that they give. Sometimes, they do have a choice, but they choose to be carers because they are worried about putting their relative into a home and are not quite sure about that—I understand that. But the fact is that, if they are unpaid, we are looking at how we can support them better. Unpaid carers are very different, and you cannot lump them all into one group: they have different needs and are at different stages of their lives. I emphasise the importance of making sure that we understand how we can personalise that journey for everyone—the cared- for person and the carer. But, if you have given up work, a range of other benefits may be available, and we want to make sure that unpaid carers are equally valued and not penalised for looking after a loved one.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I appreciate the opportunity to bring up the Afghanistan question, largely because, earlier this autumn, I had the privilege of speaking to three Afghan ladies who were trying to raise awareness of the dire situation developing there. When I met them, they were sitting outside the Palace of Westminster, taking part in a hunger strike to demonstrate their disdain for the new Taliban regime. Since our initial meeting, I have begun to understand more deeply the feelings held by those in Afghanistan, and our conversations have raised many questions, including how much global support is still needed to prevent a crisis and how vulnerable people can be protected from this repressive regime.
The ladies told me that Afghan people are scared and, contrary to some of the headlines that we have seen recently, they do not support the backward and fundamentalist Taliban Government. Inside their homes, people are continuing to educate their daughters, read books that are now banned, and give and receive special medical care. These risks are taken to prevent the backsliding on progress. My Afghan guests told me that when the Taliban took over, 20 years of progress were washed away overnight.
The United Nations is reporting that 22.8 million people are currently food insecure in Afghanistan, with 3 million children suffering from acute malnutrition. Dozens of news reports describe the crisis developing, as the country enters winter. Fuel prices are up 75%, hundreds of thousands of people are without homes and vulnerable minorities are being targeted by the Taliban.
We need this Government to take further action to prevent a historic humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. More aid is desperately needed, but the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which was announced in August, has still not been opened. Today is not too soon; this scheme needs to open now, and I call upon this Government to fulfil this promise and help to protect some of the most vulnerable people in a country on the brink of disaster.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for introducing this urgent issue today. I declare my interest: I founded and run the Afghan Women’s Support Forum.
The situation in Afghanistan is an unnecessary tragedy. It is a takeover by the brutal Taliban, causing a breakdown in the banking systems and institutions. Although the Taliban say that they have formed a Government, they actually have no experience of governing. The scenes in the autumn were harrowing, with people desperate to be evacuated. I think we all remember that awful sight of a boy clinging to an aeroplane and falling. Now, there are terrible reports of the Taliban hunting people down and of summary executions and reprisals—a return to cutting off limbs for stealing, while the Taliban go into people’s compounds and take their cars, valuables and whatever else they want.
In spite of journalists now being pushed back and restricted, recent news has been chilling, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, has told us. Children are dying of hunger and families are selling their daughters to get money to feed the rest of the family. There are reports of crop failures and, with winter approaching, many remote areas will soon become unreachable. People there are starving, and the Taliban do not appear to be helping at all. Therefore, surely, we in the West cannot stand by and just let this happen. We must send help— and send it quickly.
We must ensure that aid really reaches down into the grass roots. Can we work through organisations that the Taliban have allowed to continue, such as the Red Cross, the Halo Trust, the Aga Khan Development Network and others that are already connected with the communities? Of course, there is UN World Food Programme—but can my noble friend reassure me that this does not take a large percentage, like some of the other UN agencies?
How do we reach the most vulnerable: those fearful and in hiding, and widows, now that they can no longer go out on their own? Others are also frightened to go out: young men are fearful of being seized to be recruited into the Taliban, and young girls are fearful of being snatched to become brides for the fighters.
We in the UK now have the 16 days of activism to stop violence against women and girls, but in Afghanistan, after 20 years of helping to build up the voices and role of women in Afghan society, women’s rights are once again being rolled back and their voices suppressed. Can my noble friend the Minister please tell us what the UK Government are doing to help them?
While I congratulate the Government, our military and officials who worked tirelessly to evacuate people in the autumn, we must not forget those people who are still threatened and desperate to leave Afghanistan—or those who managed to get out but are stuck in third countries that will not allow them to stay and may send them back. After 20 years, surely we have a responsibility to the Afghan people, and we must continue to help.
I thank the noble Lord. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Roberts for bringing this most important debate, which is not only timely but absolutely vital. The only concern is that we have only an hour. We could talk for so many hours, but perhaps it is right that we have only three minutes each because, actually, the time for the Government to act is now.
The Minister who will be replying on behalf of the Government has development as part of his portfolio. What message can he send to the mothers who are in anguish in hospitals in Afghanistan? According to the BBC, one mother, on the point of giving birth, asked the obstetrician to kill her—not because she was ill in terms of a cancer or a fatal illness, but because she herself was starving and said, “I don’t know how I can live myself. How can I give life to another human being?” The very real point is that many mothers in Afghanistan might give birth, but they cannot give life to those children because, if you are starving, you do not produce the milk to feed the children.
What assessment have the Government made about starvation in Afghanistan, about what aid we are giving or not giving, and about what work can be done to ensure that, while we are not giving money to the Taliban, we are ensuring that mothers are not looking at their dying children? We owe it to Afghanistan; we were there for 20 years; we brought about change in that country, but when the US insisted on leaving earlier this year, we left chaos, carnage and starvation behind.
We also left behind people who were eligible to come here under the ARAP scheme, so what assessment have the Government made of how many people who are eligible for ARAP under category 2, and who were told they could come, are still in the country? What provisions are there for those British Council staff who should be eligible under category 4? Will the Minister say whether the British Council paperwork is sufficient for ARAP 4 and, if not, what additional paperwork is required? When will the Home Office deign to give us the information about the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, because, frankly, we have all waited for far too long?
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, on securing this important debate this afternoon although, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has said, it is a shame that we have only an hour to touch on these subjects.
Of course, the real shame is that we are having this debate at all. We cannot roll the clock back, but the unilateral decision of the United States, started by former President Trump and continued by President Biden, which led to the precipitate withdrawal of international forces in the summer, has led directly—and there is no getting away from it—to the poverty and hunger that 23 million people in Afghanistan are suffering at the moment.
If we just pause for a moment to think about what we were doing in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, we were actually there to give those people the chance of a better life. At a stroke, that better life was taken away; so what should the response now be from the West? We do not like the Taliban regime, but is that actually a good enough reason to stand on those issues and not give the humanitarian support that the Afghan people really need? I do not believe that it is. There is a saying that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, and in these limited circumstances for a period of time, although we do not like the Taliban and what it is doing, a higher cause is to appeal to our own sensitivity and look after the 23 million people who are suffering in Afghanistan at the moment. Why should we leave it to the NGOs and the charitable sector to pick up these things? That is not right.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, referred quite rightly to a number of charities that are working there. I draw attention to Street Child—I declare my interest as a patron of that charity, started by my son in 2008 —which had plans at the start of this year to educate 65,000 children, in southern Afghanistan in the main. It is continuing with those plans and providing food for that community in southern Afghanistan. We should not leave it to the charitable sector to be picking up these things. Governments should actually make a decision that the time has come to bury our difference with the Taliban for the time being, support the people whom we tried to help for the last 20 years and sort out the other issues in slow time.
Frankly, wringing our hands and saying, “It’s awful” is not good enough. The time for action is now. Winter is coming; people are hungry; people are dying; babies cannot be fed. It is not good enough: we have to do more and we have to do it soon.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for introducing this debate and apologise profusely to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, who made a powerful speech. I am sorry that I had the wrong speaking order in front of me. I think I also had the wrong time: I thought we were down to two minutes, so I offer my apologies for that as well.
I intend to focus briefly on the role that Qatar is playing in assisting this country, and indeed the world, settling many Afghan refugees who have come out of Afghanistan and routed through Doha. In so doing, I declare my interest as a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Qatar, until recently so ably led by the late Sir David Amess.
Two months ago, with Sir David, I saw at first hand the outstanding work being undertaken by the Government of Qatar and the international agencies and charities that are seeking to deliver the best outcomes for many desperate families who had to leave Afghanistan suddenly. On my return, I asked what steps our Government planned to take in response to the unaccompanied minors with family links to the UK who had been evacuated from Afghanistan and were in temporary accommodation in Doha. The Home Office was, I am told, working closely with Qatar and UNICEF.
I fully appreciate that our priority is to ensure that these vulnerable children will be safe and well cared-for here in the UK, enjoying a better life than was first given to them through the generosity and friendship shown by the Government of Qatar and the charities that are providing a welcoming, close-knit supporting community. Will the Minister update the House on progress made in helping the unaccompanied children who are heading to the UK: how many are still in Doha, and what action is being taken by our Government and local authorities?
We should follow the world-leading example of the Government of Qatar. To them, engagement on refugees and the famine in Afghanistan does not require recognition. Qatar is undergoing change at a far faster rate than many countries in the Gulf. It is the only country which has invited the International Labour Organization to open an office and work alongside its Government. It deserves the strong support of this country’s Government. It is, after all, doing more than any other Government to provide a gateway for flights and to enable the operation of Kabul airport, where desolate and desperate Afghan refugees can be cared for and passed on. For that we should all be grateful.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, for securing this debate. I declare an interest as co-founder of the school in Kabul.
Afghanistan has been a heavily aid-dependent country for many decades. The withholding of multilateral aid and assistance funds affects not only the vulnerable groups in Afghanistan but a sizeable percentage of the entire population. The urgent need is for bulk food aid and efficient distribution mechanisms. Neither of these can be guaranteed, but given that there are still small independent NGOs working, often at village level, can the Government spell out what plans they have to recruit organisations such as Afghanaid to assist in the delivery of food to rural areas? The major food tonnage will, I guess, come from the World Food Programme, but has the UK any official presence in Afghanistan to ensure that the remaining longstanding and reliable NGOs are part of the delivery teams, given that they have a good knowledge of where the urgent need is?
Meanwhile, it has to be acknowledged that the massive inputs of aid and humanitarian assistance since 2001, and earlier, have not had a significant impact on poverty reduction. There is growing awareness that humanitarian assistance alone will not support the Afghan people immediately or in the near future. Now might, therefore, be an opportune time to see what lessons can truly be learned and what kind of coherent strategy might be devised to make development assistance work. Thankfully, a new initiative, the UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub, has been set up to adapt and innovate in aid delivery. Its focus will be on working with Afghan people and other experts to provide evidence-based insights and ideas on appropriate aid provision for Afghans.
Given that G20 leaders from around the world have agreed to limited co-operation with the Taliban on aid delivery, it is in the interest of the UK and the international community to strive to get it right this time. I ask the Minister to support these kinds of initiatives by allocating funds, facilitating access and, above all, adopting the results of this collaborative approach.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for tabling this vital debate. There was UN agreement to go into Afghanistan, and we did so. There are, of course, questions about how strategic and integrated that engagement was, but there is no doubt that for a younger generation of Afghans, particularly women and girls, that intervention enhanced their life opportunities, as we have heard. We either mattered little to the Americans when they unilaterally decided to pull out, or we failed to pick up their warnings. That withdrawal has been disastrous, as we have heard. We owe so much to those who worked with us and inched the country forward. They trusted us.
Given the time available, my focus will be on those who wish to leave. I appreciated the Minister’s efforts in those desperate days as the Taliban took control of the country and the allies beat a very hasty retreat. He sought to help the individuals who were in extreme danger. There was much media coverage at the time, and in the heat of that, the Government created the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. As the media shifts its focus, the Home Office has failed to open that scheme, even though it was designed and promoted as one to assist those at extreme immediate risk. It is beyond astonishing that this scheme is not yet open.
The FCDO and the Minister’s office used to be at the forefront in trying to assist those in danger. Now, I am afraid that they block the door, even in cases I have been dealing with of the most obviously deserving candidates: parliamentarians at extreme risk. In an Answer to a Written Question that I tabled, I was told by the Home Office:
“The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme is not yet open and remains under development.”
It also makes it clear that it is pulling up the drawbridge. Those who are already here will be counted into this scheme, even though it was promoted for those still stranded in the country. I want the Minister to tell me honestly: does he expect this scheme ever to be opened? If it is, will it simply count those who are already here, so that those who have not made it here, but, as he knows, most certainly qualify, will never stand a chance of being included? I look forward to his full response.
My Lords, I shall briefly anticipate the next debate and urge the Minister to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, because the Government need to prove that global Britain means something.
I thank my noble friend Lord Roberts for this debate, timely as it is. As the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said, the crisis in Afghanistan is substantially of our—NATO and the West’s—making. What the US call the “never-ending war” actually ended several years ago in terms of NATO engagement. Thanks to NATO mentoring and air cover, the resistance to insurgency was carried on by the Afghan forces, who took heavy casualties. The announced and dated referenced withdrawal of NATO support left the Afghan forces demoralised and no longer able to resist the Taliban.
The Taliban took over the country facing minimal resistance, yet it does not have the capacity to govern a country radically different from the one it left 20 years ago. However corrupt and dysfunctional the country was under Karzai and Ghani, basic services existed and the economy functioned enough to feed and support most people, even if poorly. With no money, no administrative experience and the departure or going into hiding of many of the people who kept the country functioning, the Taliban is presiding over disintegration into chaos, hunger and deprivation, with unpredictable but potentially disastrous consequences.
As a matter of urgency, the UK should take a lead in convening the international community—including Afghan’s neighbouring countries, which are especially vulnerable—at a crisis humanitarian meeting. So, having failed to persuade the US to stop the abandonment of Afghanistan to the mercies of the Taliban, will the UK Government seek engagement with NATO allies to secure the means of getting humanitarian relief to the beleaguered people of Afghanistan whom we so shamefully abandoned?
There is no need to recognise the Taliban Government, but there is a need to engage to ensure that essentials get through; the Taliban know this, and failure will lead to its displacement by a variety of uglier and even more destabilising alternatives. Otherwise, the country will become ungovernable and an agent for all the hostile and radical forces that threaten the stability of the region and the wider world. The irony is that the cost of retrieving the situation caused by the irresponsible disengagement is likely to be many times greater in money, lives and security than if we had maintained our presence. The reality is that neighbouring countries feel threatened, the region is in chaos and we are responsible, so we must act. Will the UK Government step up and take a lead?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for securing this important debate today. In humanitarian emergencies, fast and pragmatic action is required if the response is to be effective. There is a real concern that when it comes to our obligations in Afghanistan, speed and pragmatism are in short supply.
When we speak about working at pace to open a resettlement scheme that was promised three months ago, or about our leading role in international aid and our generosity to genuine refugees, for whose benefit is that? It sometimes seems that our aim is to reassure the domestic audience that, on the one hand, we are doing the right thing, while on the other hand we will not allow overgenerous aid commitments to detract from domestic priorities and we will do all we can to keep out illegal migrants. The international audience may be harder to convince that we are doing the right thing to address the plight of Afghans. The real worry from a humanitarian standpoint is that it is not realistic to reconcile these competing goals in the way the Government seem determined to do. Putting domestic considerations first will continue to mean too little, too late.
It was clear back in August that food production and supply chains in Afghanistan would face catastrophic disruption, with predictably calamitous consequences for Afghan families, including women and girls, who were left behind. Our obligations to Afghans who associated with us were equally clear, yet the resettlement scheme announced three months ago, in full knowledge of the obstacles, remains but a promise. The matter is urgent, even more so now with winter approaching and the uncertain window of opportunity for Afghans to leave at risk of closing soon. Will the Minister provide not only reassurance but clarity on what outcomes can be expected and when?
My Lords, like many noble Lords taking part in this debate, I have been receiving a continual flow of desperate emails from people in Afghanistan begging for help. I have been forwarding them to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to the address we have been supplied, and I thank the Minister for responding to one of those emails at 2.19 pm this afternoon. It concerned the case of a female journalist, who I will not name for obvious reasons. The response says, basically, “Here is the government website” and it lists the schemes, which I suspect is what others who are nodding at me have also received. My question for the Minister is, will a female journalist—someone in that category; I am not asking about the specific case—receive help from the British Government under any of those schemes? This journalist is in contact; the department has her email address and her details; will she receive help?
I turn to the broader issue of the many millions of people who will of course continue to be in Afghanistan. I recently spoke at a meeting held by the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, known as SYMAAG. Two Afghan women living in the UK also spoke at that event, and I want to bring their perspectives to your Lordships’ House. They illustrate what I acknowledge is an enormously difficult situation for the Government in trying to weigh up the problem.
This was expressed by Sahraa Karimi, an Afghan film director, who said that the Taliban is terrorising and murdering—the “only thing they know”. She pleaded that we do not do anything that would support the Taliban regime, for reasons we understand. We also heard from Dr Weeda Mehran, a senior lecturer at Exeter University, who said, as have noble Lords, that there is the most desperate humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and that we cannot allow people to be left to freeze or starve.
This is an enormously difficult situation. All I can really hope to hear from the Minister is a real grasp of its delicacy and balance, in thinking about our foreign policy. Like others here, I have just come from an event with the APPG on Drones and Modern Conflict, which talked about the damage that our actions have done around the world. We have to operate on a “first do no harm” principle. That is where our foreign policy should start, but we should also acknowledge that there is a situation in which we have to act. I hope to hear from the Minister something that reflects an understanding of that situation.
My Lords, I also very warmly commend my noble friend Lord Roberts for securing this very important debate. I commend his essential humanity in what he brings to this Chamber and how he does so.
I have been struck over recent months by the stark contrast between the urgency of the withdrawal and the lack of urgency in the humanitarian response. That has been the thread running through the contributions in this debate. I commend my noble friends Lady Smith, Lady Northover and Lord Bruce for their very powerful contributions.
My noble friend Lady Northover asked very specific and deliberate questions on the settlement scheme; I hope the Minister has a very clear answer that those who are currently in the UK will not be counted towards that. When I chaired a round table last week with charities and NGOs that have staff in Afghanistan, they aired their frustration about the Home Office’s work at the moment. My noble friend Lady Northover is absolutely right. The lack of a senior official co-ordinating the cross-departmental work is obvious.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, indicated that the humanitarian challenges already existed and that we knew that, with Covid and drought, there would be humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan before the withdrawal. But what has happened since has been heart-rending.
My noble friend Lady Smith and the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, indicated the particular impact on women. There are 700,000 pregnant women in Afghanistan at the moment. Almost all of them will now have to give birth in dangerous conditions and all of them are likely to bring up children who will have acute malnutrition. Of the 23 million people who now face insecurity, those in rural areas are particularly affected. All 34 provinces now have food insecurity alerts.
Charities and NGOs have a particular, urgent challenge at the moment. There is no agreement among the P5 or the UN on the release of finance and banking support to allow our charities to do their work. The Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation has provided guidance and advice, but there is still no clarity as to how British charities and international organisations can work with the de facto regime. That challenge was shown in stark reality when one charity told me that it is currently spending more on lawyers to work through how it can be on the right side of the sanctions regime than it is on releasing finance to those Afghans who need it.
My noble friend Lord Bruce indicated that, if global Britain means anything, it is convening power. Will the Minister please ensure that there is clarity at the United Nations on the sanctions situation so that we can release support and allow our charities and NGOs to do the good work that is so desperately needed?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for initiating this debate. I also thank the Minister for all his help with Members of both Houses to get their constituents, families and other people out of Afghanistan. He worked tirelessly and we owe him a tribute for that. We also owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for the work, not just of the past few months but of the past 20 years, of our servicepeople, who gave Afghan women and girls a level of freedom and empowerment that they would never have previously imagined.
As we have heard in the debate, from all noble Lords, the humanitarian situation is dire. I welcome the £286 million pledge for 2021 and acknowledge the £30 million for Afghanistan’s neighbours to ensure regional stability and support for refugees. As the noble Lord has rightly said before, aid will be delivered through international organisations such as the UN, rather than directly through Taliban authorities. That is absolutely right. However, as noble Lords raised in this debate, we need to know the steps the Government are taking to ensure that these agencies can get to the parts of the country that are in most need.
I met the Governor of Punjab at the beginning of the week. He also made it clear that conditions must be placed on the Taliban, including protection for women and girls. How do we hold the Taliban to its promises? Recent evidence from human rights organisations suggests that it is not holding to them.
A real focus of this debate has been the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme and why it is not open for applications. I think everyone in this Chamber heard the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, say last Thursday that the Government were “still working” on the scheme
“at pace to try to get it up and running.”—[Official Report, 25/11/21; col. 1013.]
But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, people’s lives are at stake. It is a matter of urgency. We cannot wait months and months and we need action as soon as possible. What is the cause of the delay? Victoria Atkins said that
“we are very much in the hands of our international partners”
“safe and legal routes through Afghanistan”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/11/21; col. 12.]
I hope the Minister can explain just what discussions we are having with our partners and allies in progressing this most important humanitarian support.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their insightful and valuable contributions. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for tabling this important and timely debate. We are, of course, focusing on a very sensitive but equally very important and key issue for the global community, in particular the humanitarian situation currently prevailing in Afghanistan, as well as the Afghan citizens settlement scheme.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt—who indeed has direct experience of this—in recognising and valuing, as we all do, the incredible sacrifice, bravery and service of all those from the military and the voluntary sector who have worked tirelessly over many years in Afghanistan. Those like me who had an opportunity to visit during those 20 years before the Taliban takeover will have seen what has been delivered, particularly by our servicemen and, of course, to the women of Afghanistan. Several noble Lords mentioned the women.
I assure noble Lords that in our planning, policy and programming, I certainly, for one, have not relented in my focus on the importance of Afghanistan. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, rightly drew attention to the perilous plight of people within Afghanistan—a mother to a child. I have not just seen those images; I have heard direct testimonies. Irrespective of what responsibility one holds, I assure all noble Lords that I waste no time. I seek to make no excuses. We need to help and we need to help now. The situation is acute.
It is a matter of deep regret; here I join the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, knows from our experience of working together, as does the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about those desperate times when, basically, NATO left. If up to £9 billion is being pumped into a country which is reliant on development support and assistance and that tap is suddenly switched off, of course there is going to be an impact.
I hope that with some of my words—but, more importantly, with the actions I demonstrate—I will be able to address some of the concerns, particularly the key concerns that my noble friend Lady Hodgson raised. I pay tribute to her work, particularly with Afghan women. My noble friend works directly with incredible women such as Fawzia Koofi, Hasina Saifi and Fatima Gailani. I have met them directly to continue to ensure that we retain a direct focus on the women and girls of Afghanistan.
The Government fully share the concerns expressed by noble Lords but, more than that, we fully recognise the suffering of the Afghan people. The latest figures from the World Food Programme—I recently spoke directly to David Beasley of the WFP—and the Food and Agriculture Organization suggest that over 18 million Afghans, or 42% of the population, are today suffering “crisis” or “emergency” levels of acute malnutrition. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, also drew attention to this very issue. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, reminded us in his opening remarks, and as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, as winter sets in, projections point towards 23 million Afghans being in similar peril by the first quarter of next year. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, reminded us, the situation for children is especially alarming. Half of all children under five—around 3.2 million—are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition by the end of this year.
In short, I do not hide behind any words or pull any punches: Afghanistan is in a crisis, and we need to act. There are many drivers of this crisis; one can cite conflict, chronic poverty, Covid and drought. Most recently, there are two other key factors at play. First, there has been a sharp contraction in the Afghan economy after the Taliban takeover, with less work available, which leads to rising food prices and a lack of essential items. Secondly, there has been a reduction in the provision of very basic services, including basic sanitation and healthcare.
First, in diplomatic terms, the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to address this. We are using our presidency of the G7 to mobilise and co-ordinate donors, as several noble Lords noted. The next step in our continued diplomacy is a special session on Afghanistan, led by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, when foreign and development Ministers meet in Liverpool on 10 and 12 December. This is a specific item on the agenda.
During the last few months, I have engaged extensively with key UN partners and continue to do so—including, last week, with Deborah Lyons, among others. Over the last few weeks and months, I have been in regular contact with Amina Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN; Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Henrietta Fore at UNICEF; David Beasley at the World Food Programme; Peter Maurer at the ICRC; and Achim Steiner, director of the UNDP. This is to ensure that we are directly informed about what the barriers and issues are and how we can ensure that humanitarian support reaches Afghanistan.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, rightly pointed to the importance of cash flow. I am talking to the near neighbours of Afghanistan—particularly Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan—and each and every one highlights the issue of cash flow. As the noble Lord may be aware, we were instrumental in persuading the World Bank’s board to agree on 30 November to release $280 million from the Afghanistan reconstruction fund to support basic health services and the humanitarian response.
But we cannot just sit on that. I am currently engaging—and I hope to engage directly tomorrow with our UN ambassador, Dame Barbara Woodward, to get an update—on what further efforts can be made to unlock some of the issues, particularly the point the noble Lord raised about sanctions and the UN. There are workarounds, as we have seen in previous crises and humanitarian responses. We are encouraging the World Bank and its shareholders to repurpose the remaining $1.2 billion in the fund as soon as possible.
Nationally, the Prime Minister has committed to double our assistance for Afghanistan to £286 million for this financial year. On 31 October, he allocated £50 million for immediate humanitarian needs, and I can tell noble Lords that this has been disbursed. I have worked through this—not just on the specifics of announcements of a million here or a million there, but on where this is going, where it has got to, whether it has left our accounts, and whether it has reached the people we need to reach.
I assure the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, that, through the engagement I am having, we are working on identifying the local agencies that are still operational and continue to provide support unhindered so that we can support their activities. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Hodgson mentioned the Aga Khan Development Network; it is one such agency that we are engaging with directly. This is in addition to the £30 million mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for our work with neighbouring countries as an immediate response to the challenge that they face on their borders.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, that we are dealing with this with the urgency required in terms of both engagement and the parameters and challenges that exist, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, suggested. Most recently, in terms of additional support, we have disbursed £70 million of aid to Afghanistan in total, with £10 million for Afghans in the region. Specifically, we included £18 million for the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund and £20 million for the World Food Programme. I am pleased to be able to say that the UN is now able to get larger sums of cash, notwithstanding the restrictions, into the country despite the lack of liquidity in the banking system. I assure noble Lords that funds are reaching Afghans in need and we are working intrinsically and closely with key partners on the ground. I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in paying tribute to the humanitarian aid workers who are committed to saving lives in Afghanistan in such difficult circumstances.
In addition to our aid, the Government are encouraging the region to step up its vital role in influencing the Taliban—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. I assure him that we are doing just that. Sir Simon Gass is engaging directly; I met him today and hope to talk to him in detail again tomorrow. We are also talking to the likes of India, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which my noble friend Lord Moynihan mentioned specifically. In that regard, I have met the excellent Minister responsible for the resettlement, and we continue to work closely with regional partners including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
We have been addressing the humanitarian situation closely. This has been a key part of our engagement at an operational level with the Taliban, including through the key provisions of the Security Council resolution on unhindered access, respecting human rights and, of course, providing for those Afghans who wish to leave. The Taliban has assured us but the proof will be in the pudding and the action that we demonstrably see; of course, at times, we get alarming reports of a regression in human rights. As I have said before, in my view, the Taliban has not changed. It is a regressive organisation that does not believe in human rights as any of us, or any person of faith, sees them. However, we are working with the situation that we currently face.
On the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, to be clear, there are two schemes. The ACRS is in addition to our ARAP scheme—or, to give it its full title, the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, talked specifically about the British Council; as she knows, I am live to those issues. I assure noble Lords, on the cases that come across my desk, that when a specific and general answer is given, it does register it. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that I will directly follow up. Yes, there are female journalists who have already arrived in the UK, but we continue to work with them and there is more to be done in that sphere.
I will not go through what the Home Office has already said in terms of what has been published—noble Lords are fully aware of that—but I know that the Home Office is working closely with the UNHCR to finalise the scheme. As my noble friend Lady Williams, the Minister of State at the Home Office, said only last week, we are looking to announce the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis—and, indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, in her customary manner—asked me to be honest. I always am. Do I think that the scheme will be announced? Yes, I do.
The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the numbers. Of the 15,000 Afghans we have evacuated, 500 were particularly vulnerable, including Chevening scholars, journalists, human rights defenders and campaigners for women. Some of those people will form part of the first 5,000 who we will settle under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme but I look forward to working directly with noble Lords alongside my colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that all routes are fully explained and that we continue to work to relieve the pressure on vulnerable Afghans within Afghanistan, as well as support those who have already arrived. I can assure noble Lords that we are working across government to ensure that those priorities are fully realised and actioned.
This is an ongoing chapter. We cannot be in any way immune from what we saw in August. Yes, headlines move on but if our commitment over the past 20 years is to mean anything to Afghanistan, it means that we will remain vigilant and focused. I assure noble Lords that, as the Minister responsible for the Afghanistan brief, I continue to engage directly to ensure that, first, the humanitarian support urgently reaches the people it needs to and, secondly, that more support will continue to be released. I will share with noble Lords the details, as I have done today, in further briefings that I will be giving on specific support that we are giving within country. I, like other noble Lords, fully hope that the ACRS scheme is up and running so that we can continue to provide the support needed, both through the ARAP scheme and the ACRS to the vulnerable Afghans who wish to leave.
Finally, I should say, as is often said—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his kind words in my direction—that my thanks go to all noble Lords because their continued vigilance, action, lobbying and bringing these cases forward makes sure that the Government also remain accountable to the commitments that they have given.
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, for five and a half years, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held in Iran, often in isolation and separated from her baby daughter, robbing her of motherhood and Gabriella of her childhood. Like many noble Lords, I visited Richard Ratcliffe, her husband, outside the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office during his recent hunger strike. No one can fail to admire his determination and incredible resolve in his campaign to seek the release of his wife.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be at the Magnitsky awards in Westminster Central Hall when I saw that same resolve in a young person. All those present witnessed the deeply moving part of the ceremony when Nazanin’s daughter Gabriella accepted the award for Courage Under Fire on behalf of her mother. Gabriella was just 22 months old when her mother, a project co-ordinator for the Thomson Reuters Foundation was arrested in April 2016 at Tehran Airport, just as they were travelling back to t