Thursday 3 March 2022
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, Members are encouraged to leave some distance between themselves and others and to wear a face covering when not speaking. If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after up to 10 minutes.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking, if any, to support democracy in Taiwan.
My Lords, I declare my interest as vice-chair of the British-Taiwanese All-Party Parliamentary Group.
Taiwan is the Ukraine of the Far East, and it behoves us to note the threats that it endures daily from its neighbours across the strait and its commitment to the democratic process and its democratic institutions. In the last 15 months, there has been an increase of 150% in military intrusions from the PRC over those recorded in 2020. Both the UK Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, as well as G7 leaders, have emphasised the importance of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region, with specific reference to Taiwan, as set out in the integrated review and in communiqués.
The Minister for Asia, Amanda Milling, answering to a recent debate in the other place, affirmed that
“The UK has a clear interest in ensuring peace and stability in the Taiwan strait. Without it, the prosperity and security interests of both the UK and our like-minded partners would … suffer.”—[Official Report, Commons, 10/2/22; col. 1150.]
These are welcome words, as are the many shared endeavours that the Minister went on to mention, including increased trade, action against climate change, bilingual education, digital health technology and cultural exchanges. However, today I press the Minister further on the Government’s commitments to Taiwan and its flourishing democracy in the face of increased threats and sabotage of its industry and trade relations.
Taiwan is one of the five semiconductor producing countries in the world and supplies over 50% of the world’s high-end chips, used in the aerospace, bioscience and defence industries. It is a world leader in renewable energy and especially in the development of electronic vehicles. It has joined in the international sanctions imposed on Russia. The world also has much to learn from the success that Taiwan enjoyed in stemming the spread of Covid. These are all promising industries and policies that continue to need further investment. The efforts by the PRC to undermine Taiwan’s production capacity, whether this be in tourism, electronics or agriculture, should prompt a more regional approach to such coercion through trade agreements. Furthermore, Taiwan has submitted its application to the CPTPP, which would be to the advantage of this trade bloc, which has high regulatory standards, as we know. Taiwan hopes for the support of the UK after the UK has itself become a member. In this context, I ask the Minister whether the Government will provide this support and when they will sign and begin meaningful discussions on the bilateral investment agreement.
The US Taiwan Relations Act 1979 guarantees the provision of adequate defence equipment, which is extremely important in maintaining Taiwan’s credible self-defence capability. What contributions is the UK making towards this credible capacity in, for example, bolstering Taiwan’s navy and missile defence systems?
Taiwan is developing its technology on an impressive scale, and this supports the idea of some kind of shared technology network with other countries in the region, such as the US, Japan and South Korea. On her appointment, the Foreign Secretary referred to the notion of such a grouping to deal with issues such as climate change and, importantly, protection against cybercrime—has this idea been taken further? The benefit during peacetime is obvious, but so too is the protection that this network might provide in the event of further imminent threats from the People’s Republic of China.
The UK Prime Minister has himself acknowledged the global impact of events in Ukraine, which may be particularly significant for Taiwan. Following the tragic fall of Hong Kong, Taiwan is now the front line in defending democracy against China’s expanding authoritarianism. While Taiwan’s economic resilience may not be enough to deter further intrusions from the PRC, it commits those nations that hold such investments in the country to protect them robustly. How does the FCDO see Taiwan’s future in the face of increased military threats, not only in the strait but in the region more generally? How does the UK see the protection and strengthening of Taiwan economically and militarily as a key instrument in the declared pivot to the Indo-Pacific?
Due to events in Ukraine, we may find soon that words of encouragement and support are simply not enough. If we are serious about deterring such actions, we need to make strong, definite commitments to those countries that face authoritarian expansion in the immediate future.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to speak after the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, who has put the challenge extremely well. I endorse much of what she says.
When I was a junior Minister during the pandemic, extraordinary things happened, and I broke a great many ministerial precedents. However, one thing that I did not manage to do was put a call through to my opposite number in the Taiwanese department for health. Officials were extremely hesitant to make that happen and, despite my best efforts, I never made that telephone call, even though Taiwan had a huge amount to teach the British response to the pandemic. That is a personal example of an outdated, cautious approach to our dealings with Taiwan, one of the world’s most important democracies. That strategic ambiguity and climate of caution around our country’s engagement with Taiwan is suddenly looking out of date and dangerous. In the interests of time, I will not go into the details but we all know what I am talking about.
I echo the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and recommend five of my own easy-to-take measures with which the Government could demonstrate their commitment to Taiwan—commitments that might cause a small amount of discomfort but are essential for demonstrating the strong alliance between our two countries.
First, it is time that a Cabinet Minister went to Taiwan. We have had junior Ministers there since 1994, including the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. I pay tribute to Greg Hands, who has been three times—once by cyberspace—but he is just a junior Minister. The USA has made Cabinet-level visits since 1994—I remember Alex Azar going, and he made a big impact. Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Taipei on Tuesday. I should like to see someone such as Sajid Javid go to Taiwan in the very near future to talk to the Taiwanese about public health; it is the kind of measure from which we could learn a lot and would show our friendship.
Secondly, I pay tribute to the Minister and ministerial colleagues in the FCDO and elsewhere for their support for Taiwan’s membership of international bodies. But they are often blackballed by China and we therefore need to be creative. I recommend to the Minister that we look at the G7, at which Australia, India, South Africa and South Korea are invited guests, and the D10, where Indonesia, Poland and Spain are invited guests. Inviting Taiwan to attend those sessions is not within our gift but the British Government should certainly be pushing actively for that.
Thirdly, on security, the integrated review recognises that coercive economic measures are a real threat. I note the commitment in the recent communiqué with the Australian Government to work together to ensure that when coercive economic measures are put in place, Britain and Australia are linked together to support each other. We should be working equally hard with Taiwan in putting together the protocols to protect each other, particularly for Taiwan, and to bring about a deterrent for anyone thinking of trying it on.
Fourthly, I echo the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, on CPTPP. Further expansion of the existing investment treaty into a bilateral investment treaty would be good. That should, in time, be expanded to a free trade agreement along the lines we have with New Zealand.
Fifthly, and lastly, on defence, the situation in Ukraine has shown that when NATO members such as Germany and Poland are affected, we are all affected. We know that the USA’s Taiwan Relations Act makes for the USA very strong commitments but we are not clear about the consequential commitments for the UK. I do not think we should be shy of thinking through those consequential commitments. In fact, there are very real benefits from having an earnest and documented discussion of that.
These are five tangible steps which are well within the gift of the Government. I would be enormously grateful if the Minister could commit to all five of them by the end of this Parliament, in order that we have a clear programme of activity to show our support to Taiwan.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for this important debate, particularly in these difficult times, when democracy in some parts of the world is challenged by military forces. The United Kingdom has a stable and sound relationship with Taiwan. It is in our interest to ensure the preservation of peace and stability across the strait and that China ends its coercion against Taiwan.
All democratic nations and those countries in and near the South China Sea must be concerned about the building of the base, which could affect peace and stability, and in particular the navigational facilities there. It is also clear that frequent excursions in invading the Taiwanese airspace is unacceptable. I have visited the coastal region and been shocked to see missiles pointing towards Taiwan.
I have visited this beautiful island on a number of occasions, and strongly recommend its national museum as being of particular interest. It has a fully functioning democracy and, having met the present and previous Presidents, I am impressed with the way its Parliament functions. The Liberal Democrats have a special relationship with the Democratic Progressive Party, the DPP; in fact, it is our sister party in power in Taiwan. I was at the inaugural function of President Tsai when she was elected. She knew David Steel, who was leading our delegation. Suffice to say that most of the conversation was about her time at the LSE, when Lord Steel was leading the Liberal Democrats.
I have a request to make of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad. Let me declare my interest. I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty and have visited a number of countries to promote this cause. On my visit during President Ma’s time in office, and then during that of President Tsai, it was clear that Taiwan was working towards abolition of the death penalty. I want to ensure that Taiwan is now at a very advanced stage on this, and the Minister should open discussions towards this aim.
Let me explain why I say this now. It is some years now since Professor Roger Hood, emeritus professor of criminology at Oxford, produced his report on the abolition of the death penalty in Taiwan. We now have a report on the opinion of Taiwanese legislators on the death penalty. These legislators hold a particularly influential position and the study reveals that the majority of them would like to see the death penalty abolished. The risk of wrongful convictions, the abuse of human rights and a recognition that the death penalty has no unique deterrent effect were the main reasons cited by the legislators. These are the same reasons we advocated when abolishing the death penalty in this country. I have no doubt whatever that these are central to the work of the Minister at the Foreign Office.
I do not wish to cite the statistics reflected in this report. Suffice to say that a nudge at the top level would achieve this aim. I should be grateful for the Minister’s support.
My Lords, the House is greatly indebted to my noble friend Lady D’Souza for bringing this Question on Taiwan for debate today. I draw attention to the relevant all-party groups of which I am a member, and also my membership of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China. I commend its work and that of Luke de Pulford on behalf of the people of China and Taiwan.
I draw a careful distinction between my huge admiration for Chinese people and civilisation and the infamies of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, which is responsible for so many depredations, from the mass slaughter of millions to the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen, the subjugation of Tibet, its disfigurement of democracy in Hong Kong, the genocide of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, and the incarceration of journalists, lawyers, religious believers, artists and political dissidents; and which daily threatens the more than 23 million people of Taiwan.
In 2019, in Taiwan, I met Lam Wing-kee and the wife of Lee Ming-che. Lam had been imprisoned in China for selling books—including, I might add, a copy of 1984—and Lee Ching-yu described to me how her husband, a Taiwanese pro-democracy activist, had been arrested in 2017 while on a visit to China. He remains incarcerated to this day.
Is it any wonder that the people of Taiwan—a territory which has never been part of the People’s Republic of China—live in dread of a military invasion by the CCP? That apprehension is underlined by the illegal seizure of a sovereign state, accompanied by war crimes, in Ukraine by Putin, who, as we saw at the genocide Games, is a close ally of Xi Jinping? Of course, the greatest tragedy is that if “two systems, one country” had not been destroyed in Hong Kong, it could have offered enormous hope to Taiwan; instead of which, it demonstrates the deceit of the CCP in upending international treaties.
In a debate in July 2014, I urged the Government to increase our global efforts to strengthen democracy, not least via the BBC World Service, something the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and I have regularly raised with the Minister. I contrasted soft, or smart, power with
“a different kind of power, characterised by visceral hatred and unspeakable violence … a climate in which fragile peace and seedling democracies, from the China Sea to Ukraine, are at daily risk.”—[Official Report, 10/7/14; col. 292.]
Eight years later, in this very Room, I urged the Government to lead other democracies in recognising Taiwan,
“turning the tables on the CCP’s bullying posturing”,—[Official Report, 3/2/22; col. GC 308.]
and warned of the implications for Taiwan and many other seedling democracies if Russia invaded Ukraine.
Have we woken up to these new realities? I particularly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, said about the importance of a Cabinet Minister visiting Taiwan. I hope our Minister, the Minister of State, who is hugely respected, will consider adding Taiwan to the list of the many places he journeys to. When will we press for the inclusion of Taiwan in international organisations and institutions, particularly the World Health Organization? Why are we not making a free trade agreement with Taiwan? We must stand in solidarity with Taiwan, which has a free people in a vibrant democracy. It threatens no one and believes in peaceful coexistence. As my noble friend said, authoritarianism is on the march. By standing with Taiwan, we will be leading other nations in defying the CCP.
My Lords, I respectfully remind everybody of the three-minute speaking limit, because we want to hear from the Minister. I apologise for having to do that, but the first three speakers have overrun.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lady D’Souza on securing this debate at such a defining moment for global affairs. I also declare an interest as the co-chairman of the British-Taiwanese All-Party Parliamentary Group.
I have had the honour of visiting Taiwan on many occasions, for business and as a politician, from 1972 onwards. As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said, it is a wonderful land and the home of countless kind, inspirational and creative people. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index, Taiwan now ranks as a leading democracy in Asia and the 11th worldwide. It also boasts the seventh-largest economy in Asia and the 21st globally. For the post-Brexit United Kingdom, it is a country with which we should be seeking closer ties.
In 1992, shortly after stepping down as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher travelled to Taiwan to celebrate its progress towards democratisation. However, following her death in 2013, and at the insistence of the Chinese Government, the Cabinet Office decided that Taiwan would not be permitted diplomatic representation at her funeral. Just two years later, Chinese President Xi Jinping was honoured with a full state visit to the United Kingdom.
We meet against the backdrop of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Xi has supported Putin’s campaign against allowing Ukraine to join NATO, one of Putin’s prime justifications for his current butchery. President Xi and Putin are increasingly aligned on many issues, and your Lordships can be sure that Beijing is following the horrific events in Ukraine with special interest.
The Chinese air force breached the median line of the Taiwan Strait 950 times in 2021, a 150% increase on the previous year. Taiwanese residents and businesses are subject to countless cyberattacks every day, with the overwhelming number suspected to emanate from China. Similarly, Putin’s Russia has long targeted Ukraine with relatively new forms of warfare, with Ukraine’s electricity grid and communications networks favoured as a means of damaging the country’s ability to function.
This is a short debate, and I will save the Minister the need to remind us that Her Majesty’s Government remain of the view that it is for Taiwan and China to resolve their differences. However, if the United Kingdom truly is the mother of democracies, surely it is our duty to stand strong against the bullying of independent states by aggressive regimes. I am proud of what our country is doing to support Ukraine in its darkest hour, but I say respectfully to the Minister, as the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, stressed most ably, that the United Kingdom should also put much greater effort into deepening co-operation and partnership working with our freedom-loving friends in Taiwan. As a first step, Her Majesty’s Government should grant full diplomatic status to Taiwan and to Mr Kelly Hsieh, the excellent representative of Taiwan in the United Kingdom, giving him equivalence with the Chinese ambassador.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, on securing this important debate. I have listened with great admiration to all the speeches so far. It is important to put on the record Taiwan’s commitment to human rights and democracy, its astonishing economic success and the friendship of its people and Government towards the West generally, and to us in Britain particularly.
During my years in this House, I have spoken often about relations with Taiwan. Until 2016 I was an officer of the British-Taiwanese All-Party Parliamentary Group, latterly as its co-chair. I handed that role over to the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, who I am delighted to follow in this debate, when I was appointed the British Government’s trade envoy to Taiwan. I shall speak briefly about trade today.
The top five products exported from the UK to Taiwan are beverages, medicinal and pharmaceutical products, cars, mechanical power generators, chemicals and scientific instruments. Last October, I supported the Minister for Trade Policy, Penny Mordaunt MP, at the annual trade talks with our Taiwanese counterparts and made great progress on market access in energy and offshore wind power, financial services, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and Scotch whisky. Taiwan was whisky’s third-largest market by value in 2021 and has a particular liking for single malts. Taiwan is also a top-six market for Scottish salmon.
I attended the trade talks in Taipei in 2018, when we signed the agreement that opened up the Taiwanese market for UK pork. Exports of this are likely to be worth £50 million over the five years from the date the market opened to us. We hope to make progress with lamb and organic products later this year.
There are many other sectors I could speak about if I had time. I will just mention one exciting initiative we are supporting: Taiwan’s bilingualism 2030 strategy to make English an official language. With great help from the British Council, a letter of intent between the British Office Taipei and the Taiwanese Ministry of Education has been signed, focusing on English-language education and assessment collaboration. It will create connections, strengthen the relations between British and Taiwanese people and lead to significant growth in UK-Taiwan trade and investment. I am particularly pleased that the English being learned by the Taiwanese is English English, not American English.
Finally, let us remember what was in the latest Freedom in the World report from the US-based Freedom House: out of 210 countries and territories around the world, Taiwan was in equal 17th place, with 38 points out of a maximum 40 for political rights and 56 out of 60 for civil liberties—one point ahead of the United Kingdom. Norway, Sweden and Finland received full marks in both categories. China, by contrast, was tied in 185th place with a score of nine points and rated as “not free”. It is obvious what lessons we draw from that.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for securing this debate. It is even more timely and relevant than we could have realised exactly four weeks ago, when a number of us here today debated in this very Room the threat to democracy from autocrats and kleptocrats. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine inevitably raises concerns about the threat of China to Taiwan, which is also living in the shadow of an overbearing and menacing neighbour. That said, I do not believe that Taiwan will be the next Ukraine, as there are huge geographic, geopolitical, cultural and economic differences.
As we have heard, Taiwan’s democratic credentials are indeed impressive, moving up to eighth in the world, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, and first in the Asia-Pacific region. A liberal democracy, and world leader in gender equality in government, Taiwan also boasts a dynamic economy, agile industry and entrepreneurial zest. Yet the UK and especially the US must do more to support Taiwan, given the island’s contested status. As we know, the UK does not recognise Taiwan as a country nor maintain diplomatic relations, but we do lobby for its participation in international organisations, as an observer at the very least. Can the Minister inform us whether the UK is planning to step up such lobbying?
I ask this because the need for Taiwan, with its close cultural and economic relations with China, to fully participate in international organisations was demonstrated to devastating effect by the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan. As we now know, China was very slow to admit to person-to-person transmission—in fact, fatally slow—and it was Taiwan that first alerted the WHO on 31 December 2019. Its warning was largely ignored as it was not a member of the WHO, while China was not just a member but—how can I put it?—a highly influential one. The weeks of denial from China and dithering from the WHO in early 2020 tragically contributed to millions of deaths and trillions in the economic damage that ensued.
The need for transparency has never been greater. Russia and China share a brutal coalition of disinformation and we must do our utmost to support states and countries such as Taiwan and Ukraine, which share our respect for the truth and a belief that freedom of speech is a very basic human right.
My Lords, I think a theme is emerging. The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, has secured a very timely debate, as the noble Lord has just said. The Chinese leadership will be watching this current crisis. Putin claims that Ukraine belongs to Russia, while China claims Taiwan—autocracies threatening to swallow up democracies.
We know the dictum that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We are seeing the fruits of that right now in Europe. We recall that Russia took Crimea and there was no prolonged international outcry. It has fought an eight-year war in the Donbass but the world paid little attention. We have seen democratic Hong Kong taken over, if more subtly than is happening in Ukraine. The international community as a whole did not come to the assistance of the people of Hong Kong, so we should take seriously China’s increasing intrusions into Taiwan’s airspace. Are these intimidating measures or do they signal something more?
Few thought that Russia would really aim to take the whole of Ukraine; we cannot be sanguine here. China is assiduous in making sure that no country recognises Taiwan. I note the Government’s position on this, which reflects the concerns at China’s potential reaction—not Taiwan’s interests or those of the wider world.
In China, as in Russia, you have a leader who has supreme power, who wishes to leave a legacy, who feels that their country has been undervalued, who is no doubt more savvy than the brutal Putin and who always applies the lessons from the break-up of the Soviet Union but, nevertheless, is someone who should not be underestimated. We already see that the economic sanctions rightly hurting Russia will also have an effect on us. What happens to Taiwan is also likely to affect us. It is therefore not only right but in our interests that we pay attention.
As others have mentioned, Covid is a stark reminder of how interconnected we all are; not only did a disease travel around the world in weeks and months but fighting that pandemic affected the supply chain so that even the availability of toys at Christmas in the United Kingdom was affected two years later. Taiwan, sitting alongside China, was already acutely aware of that interconnectedness and, in the case of the pandemic, was far better prepared than most other countries, as we have heard. That is another reason why it should be in international groupings. It would benefit from such engagement but so too would we. What are we doing to facilitate that? What progress are we making at the WHO?
Our need for a strong, rules-based international order is overwhelming. Our need to be vigilant is crystal clear. That must include the present and future of Taiwan.
My Lords, there is no turning back. The genie is out of the bottle, with the global community having arrived at a crossroads. Accountable governance is showing itself to be sacrosanct and resilient, with democratic ideals that will be defended in a world that will not stand idle nor allow encroachment. Self-serving government by the few, for the few, is reaching the end of the road. Military dominance alone will never prevail in our interdependent world. Russians will know that they have been taken down a cul-de-sac in a world that can cripple a country without the use of lethal force and weapons. China should be encouraged to reflect carefully before it takes the world to the abyss over Taiwan.
During his closing remarks in the debate on Ukraine the other day, the Minister observed:
“Blessed are the peacekeepers”.—[Official Report, 25/2/22; col. 523.]
In Latin, it is “Beati pacifici”; it is the motto of my family, coincidentally. A bridge must be opened to allow for an exit mechanism—a face-saving bridge, if you will. It is being suggested that China could become the Ukraine peacemaker, with the ability to pull Russia in. Nothing would be more welcome at this terrible hour.
While too much is often expected from the United Nations, the Security Council may in part be the problem. Fundamentally, the United Nations is supposed to keep us safe. It has not worked. Urgent reform is required. It needs change. In a world where shared resources and shared responsibilities must become the norm, no single member should be allowed to manipulate the process for self-serving national purposes, yet in its current form, that is exactly what the UN allows. At the very least, majority decision-making is now an imperative. If that be a challenge too far—remembering that both the United Nations and the League of Nations before it came into existence in response to wars that changed the global status quo—the alternative is to now consider a successor to the United Nations that creates a process fit for tomorrow’s world and places world preservation and co-existence first.
My Lords, this is a very timely debate, for which I thank the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, against the background of increased military activity around Taiwan, as noted by a number of noble Lords. I declare an interest, having visited Taiwan three times, as declared in the register at the time. I have been privileged to meet President Tsai Ing-wen and former President Ma twice. I have nothing but respect for both, and for Taiwan’s entrepreneurial and intelligent people. I also commend Taiwan’s excellent response to the Covid pandemic, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, and others.
As we have heard, Taiwanese-British links in, among other things, wind power, education, cultural exchange and even Scotch whisky, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, are remarkable and growing. Taiwan has a thriving civil society and democracy. Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for the others that have been tried. He also said that to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war. We are witnessing a deplorable, awful tragedy unfolding in Europe, in Ukraine, which once more underlines how conflict should never be resolved by force.
We should never forget that in war, the greatest casualties are always innocent civilians. During the Korean War, in the early 1950s, which I studied a long time ago for my doctoral thesis, 2.5 million Korean civilians died—10% of the entire pre-war population. It was during that war that the US Seventh Fleet moved to protect what was then Formosa and was deployed to the Formosa Strait, as it was then called.
Of course, truth is the first casualty in war. War is not only about military assault but increasingly about disinformation and hybrid warfare. Democracy and freedom of speech are under attack across the globe as never before. Let us work together peacefully to preserve it while we still can.
My Lords, I also declare an interest. I have visited Taiwan on a number of occasions, both through invitations by the Government of Taiwan and, as the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, indicated, through the auspices of the All-Party Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, on securing this timely debate. The context, as my noble friend Lady Northover indicated, is a time of great sensitivity within the region and, indeed, the world.
As my noble friend Lord Dholakia indicated, in the past, my friend and former colleague Lord Steel of Aikwood would have contributed to this debate. I recall the very frequent meetings we had in this Parliament when I worked for him, 25 years ago, about the establishment of the DPP, one of the region’s first proper democratic and liberal parties, which is now the governing party. President Tsai is also a beacon for democracy in the region for upholding liberal democratic principles. In 2015, Lord Steel received the Order of the Brilliant Star with Grand Cordon from the President of Taiwan. My noble friend Lord Foster was there—I think his role was to carry it back for him.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, indicated, relations with Taiwan are deep and should be deeper. Indeed, as has been referenced, Taiwan was a conspicuous leader in the global response to Covid. A very good university friend of mine and his family live in Taiwan and I know at first hand about the immediate response, with the use of technology, proper test and trace, and community action. The noble Lord was very frank, and I commend him for being honest with the Grand Committee, that it was an error that we did not communicate very strongly and share those experiences. I hope the Minister will be able to say that we learned from that experience and that we will not see this repeated.
With my international trade spokesman hat on, I have tried on a number of occasions to have Trade Ministers develop much stronger relations with Taiwan, particularly in the context of what we saw with the Taiwanese delegation to COP in Glasgow, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, said. I commend him on his work as an envoy. We saw the very strong and great opportunities for renewable technology in particular, as two island nations with immense opportunities for tidal and wave power.
As vice-chair of the Scotch Whisky All-Party Parliamentary Group, I sometimes find it difficult to come to terms with scotch leaving our shores, but the Taiwanese are an appreciative and very valuable market— the third-highest for value in the world. As an export, it is also enormously important for UK soft power and our culture, standards and tourism.
As has been referenced in this debate, this is an enormously tense time, and the UK needs to be clear in its public statements, with no ambiguity, that we will stand shoulder to shoulder with those who stand for the values that we stand for in Europe. As my noble friend Lady Northover said, the world and the UK can both benefit from greater co-operation with Taiwan. In many respects, it is itself a brilliant star for democracy in the region, and we should say very loudly that we support it.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for initiating this debate and for her excellent introduction.
Taiwan has become a democratic success story—a beacon for others to follow—but, today of all days, we must recognise that that journey was painful and, at times, slow. In considering how we can best support Taiwan in its development of democracy, I ask the Minister what recognition the UK has given to the role of civil society, a key ingredient for the protection of human rights. In visiting Taiwan, I have personal experience of meeting LGBT groups campaigning for same-sex marriage there—this was a successful campaign that would not, in my opinion, have been successful without the engagement of civil society.
With the CPTPP, the region is a focal point for negotiation and important to the UK’s prosperity. An enhanced trade partnership between the UK and Taiwan would be strong evidence of the UK’s commitment to a values-based trade policy. The current tensions across the Taiwan Strait require all liberal democracies to increase their support for Taiwan. China’s recent military flights towards Taiwan and its attempts to push for Taiwan’s international isolation should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Of course, the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, has argued for a peaceful and constructive dialogue between people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain today what the UK has been doing to facilitate and encourage such dialogue.
As we have heard in this debate, although our current focus is on Ukraine, we should not forget that the pandemic, climate change and food insecurity are global issues that the international community must address collaboratively. As the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, said, the experience and voice of Taiwan’s 24 million people should not be ignored. Although the UK and Taiwan have no formal diplomatic relationships, the ties between us reflect the values that we share. In a week where Taiwan has joined the international effort to sanction Russia, it is clear that there are further areas of co-operation for us to explore.
My Lords, I join others in expressing gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for securing this important debate on this date. I also recognise the important contribution that she has made in her role as vice-chair of the APPG. I of course thank other noble Lords for their very insightful and detailed contributions.
As the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said, we are meeting during a moment in history, where there is a real challenge to the international world order. The organisations that have kept peace, including the United Nations, are under the severest of challenges, not least from Russia, a P5 member. Very shortly in your Lordships’ House, we will again debate the specific issue of sanctions and their impact on Russia.
I share the concern expressed by a number of noble Lords—including the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, who speaks with great insight on these issues—that when there is one aggressor in the world, another watches with great interest what the international community does. I also recognise that, when Crimea was annexed, it was very clear that the response of the international community very quickly assumed a new sense of what was defined as normal. I very much welcome the strong contributions and support for the people of Ukraine from across your Lordships’ House and beyond. We will continue to work in a co-operative manner to ensure that that message is given not just to Russia but to any other aggressor around the world who is watching to see what the international community may do.
The noble Lords, Lord Dholakia and Lord Rogan, are right: Taiwan is an important democratic partner in the world to the United Kingdom. Its journey has been remarkable, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, since its first free and fair election just over 25 years ago. Taiwan has an independent media and an energetic civil society, as the noble Lord reminded us. We of course recognise and welcome its decision on the importance of ensuring equality for all in all elements of society. The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, also reminded us of the strength of democracy and of civil society. We share common ground in many areas, including Indo-Pacific security, which my noble friend Lord Bethell referred to, and prosperity, climate action and global health. Our relations are built on an increasingly wide range of interests, be they economic, scientific or educational, which were rightly emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Truscott.
I have listened carefully to what was said about engagement from the United Kingdom, and I agree with my noble friend Lord Bethell. Our right honourable friend Greg Hands has visited Taiwan often in his capacity as Trade Minister. Equally, noble Lords will be aware that the UK’s unofficial relationship with Taiwan is unique in our standing on the world stage and international relations. We are not represented by an embassy in Taiwan, rather by the British Office Taipei. I assure noble Lords that our team there drives forward our important relationship with Taiwan.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others mentioned engagement at a more senior level, or from Ministers at the FCDO; our position on ministerial engagement remains unchanged. However, that does not limit us to not representing the interests of Taiwan when it comes to the global stage. I will come on to that in a moment.
Before I do that, the noble Baronesses, Lady Northover and Lady D’Souza, in her opening remarks, referred to the question of the current up-front tensions and the increased tensions in the Taiwan Strait. I assure the noble Baronesses and my noble friend Lord Bethell that we are in regular contact with our close partners about the importance of stressing peace and stability in the strait. During our presidency of the G7, the Foreign and Development Ministers’ communiqué in May 2021 underscored
“the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”,
and reiterated that Ministers
“encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”
My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have also made clear that the numerous Chinese military flights that have taken place near Taiwan over recent weeks and months are not conducive to the regional peace and stability that we all desire.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and my noble friend Lord Bethell raised the issue of the CPTPP. As a non-member, we are not commenting on the specifics of other economies’ interests in the agreement. This is of course a group of economies that promote free and fair trade, and members are required to meet high standards. Therefore, that issue is very much for the membership, but I acknowledge that this remains an important area of interest for your Lordships.
Many noble Lords rightly mentioned the importance of trade. I recognise the invaluable role of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, as trade envoy. He has given exemplary service to our country in strengthening ties. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, that we are strengthening our relationship and I was delighted that my dear friend the right honourable Penny Mordaunt, the Minister for Trade, co-chaired the talks held in October 2021. Those talks deepened the UK and Taiwan’s economic and commercial partnerships across a range of areas and saw progression on market access ambitions in a number of sectors which many noble Lords mentioned, including energy, offshore wind power, financial services, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and of course Scotch whisky. As a teetotaller, I must bow to the expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, but I am sure that the quality of whisky is excellent—I will go no further on that point. I assure noble Lords that the Department of International Trade holds annual ministerial talks with Taiwan. As I said, those of last October made real progress on market access in key sectors.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and others rightly mentioned the importance of climate. I assure noble Lords that the UK and Taiwan are partners on climate action, increasingly sharing expertise on floating offshore wind and multi-use port development. We collaborate on skills and workforce planning for the renewable energy sector. UK businesses support Taiwan’s ambition to increase its proportion of renewable energy to 20% by 2025. I hope the noble Baroness recognises the importance of us encouraging these efforts, of which we have seen results, with more than 30 of our offshore wind companies having set up operations in Taiwan.
Last year, the third UK-Taiwan energy dialogue promoted our expertise in decarbonisation and offshore wind. It agreed new areas for co-operation, including Taiwan’s commitment to reach net zero by 2050. The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, our leading innovation centre for offshore wind, wave and tidal energy, also signed an agreement with Taiwan’s top research institute to promote new partnerships. In my role as Minister with responsibility for relations with India, I have seen its capacity; it is a leading element of British technology in offshore wind.
A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Bethell, raised digital and tech. We are keen to build on our flourishing science and technology co-operation with Taiwan. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, rightly talked about learning from each other. Taiwan produces most of the high-performance semiconductors that drive our digital economy. It also plays a critical role in the technology supply chains that underpin global markets and invests heavily in research and innovation, including through MediaTek’s research centres in Cambridge and London.
We have also strengthened co-operation on education. Taiwan has set out plans to become a bilingual society in Mandarin and English by 2030. The issue of soft power has often come up. I am sure noble Lords will join me in recognising and welcoming that, through the important role of the British Council, the UK is a natural partner to help further advance English language education, teaching and assessment.
The noble Lords, Lord Dholakia and Lord Faulkner, and others talked of the importance of human rights; I acknowledge the important role that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has played in this respect on previous visits to Taiwan. We are bolstering co-operation between the British Office and the Taiwanese National Human Rights Commission on democratic principles and values. We will continue to focus on doing more in this respect.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and my noble friend Lord Bethell talked of the integrated review. We are of course very much focused on the growing influence of China in this respect. We will work with all key partners in ensuring the strength of our work and operations on the ground in Taiwan, as well as in the Indo-Pacific region.
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, mentioned the death penalty. This of course remains a focus. We are consistent on this issue and continue to raise it with the Taiwanese at the highest level.
We also encourage Taiwanese engagement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission in England and Wales. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy has developed important partnerships with Taiwanese stakeholders, including those emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins: civil society groups, universities, political parties and think tanks. Through this work, we continue to deepen our engagement and co-operation with Taiwan in support of democracy.
The noble Lords, Lord Londesborough and Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lord Bethell raised the important issue of our international support for Taiwan. I assure noble Lords that we are working hard with our partners to support Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organisations, as a member where statehood is not a prerequisite and as an observer or guest where it is. For example, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that in 2021, for the first time, we named Taiwan in the UK’s national speech at the World Health Assembly and made the case, alongside like-minded countries, that Taiwan’s inclusion benefits global health. That includes Taiwan’s meaningful participation in ongoing technical meetings, allowing its experts to access and participate in relevant facilities and virtual formats, as well as information exchange platforms.
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and my noble friend Lord Bethell talked about the importance of learning from the pandemic. We want to learn from Taiwan’s leading example in tackling Covid-19; it rightly won the world’s admiration for its assured response, based on its experience. This is a two-way process. We have facilitated expert-level dialogues between UK health experts and the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control, and will be taking forward plans this year for a UK-Taiwan expert health dialogue.
Finally, the UK’s long-standing position on Taiwan has not changed, and we have a strong and thriving relationship. Enduring peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is a matter not just of UK interest but of global concern. We will continue to work with all international partners to discourage any activity that undermines the status quo. We will also continue to press for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organisations. As we have seen from the debate today, it is not just the UK but the world that will benefit from continued engagement with Taiwan, as a thriving democracy and important economic partner.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the resolution of the House on 31 October 1917 which required that any recommendation for a new peerage sent to the Crown be accompanied by a statement of the reasons for the recommendation, what plans they have to ensure that (1) any person nominated for a peerage has been approved as a proper person by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, or any other appropriate vetting committee, and (2) the assessment of the Commission accompanies the recommendation to the Crown for the grant of the peerage.
My Lords, I am pleased to introduce this short debate. It is a bit of a raffle, is it not? You put in your subject and about four out of 20 get drawn, so I am probably lucky to be drawn.
This comes out of my long-term interest in history, particularly the history of the way Britain has developed. When I first got here, some nine years ago, I was quite fascinated to be told that we were a self-governing House. I think I have discovered over the last nine years that our definition of “self-governing House” is something like that of a self-governing colony. We have no rights other than the right the governor-general wishes to accord to us, and she does not seem to want us to do very much at all.
When I was looking back in the history books, quite by accident I chanced on a debate from 1917, which quite clearly demonstrates that this House has the right to ask the Government to do something. People have said that we cannot ask the Government and can only petition or request, but we can take a decision. That is why the rather obscure reference to 1917 is at the beginning of this Question.
The second thing is that my studies of history have led me to somewhat different conclusions from many people’s about certain aspects of British history. One of them is that George V is probably the most underrated monarch of the last 200 years. He did a huge amount to bring Britain from Victorian England, which was really his father, to an England of George VI, which was his son. His almost 26 turbulent years transformed Britain. Together with probably our greatest Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, he not only probably saved Britain from revolution but put it on the path it is on today as a constitutional democracy.
We are quite unique in that we survived many buffetings without going down very extreme paths. If you look at the resolution of 1917, and one before it from 1914, you find at the base of it a general perception that the House of Lords was in need of some reform and that the Lords had got out of touch with the people. I think that is the case today.
The Earl of Selborne said in 1917 that the way in which the Lords behaved was
“doing grave damage to the prestige of the Crown”.
I do not think that recent events around honours and peerages have done any good for the Crown—let us put it that way. In the same debate, the Marquess of Lansdowne said that in passing the resolution we were going
“a long way towards allaying suspicion, which may be exaggerated, but which is certainly widespread and very deep-seated.” —[Official Report, 31/10/1917; cols. 847-60.]
There is a widespread and deep-seated perception today that there is a class of people in this country to whom the normal rules do not apply, and I am afraid that one of those people is not far from the head of this particular Administration we have. In short, we are in a situation where respect for the Government is far lower than it needs to be. Many people look at what is happening and say, “It’s okay for them; they live in a different world from us”.
What I am trying to do with this resolution is one little part of the procedure—the nominations of peerages: to ask that, when they are sent to the Crown, they be accompanied by the findings of whatever commission looks into peerages. If that commission rejects the peerage and the Prime Minister still wants to send it, he or she should be obliged to include with that the recommendation of the House of Lords commission that has been appointed to do this job. They should not just be able to sweep it under the carpet and say, “Oh well, I’ve looked at that and don’t agree—sorry”. All I am asking is that a document that would already exist, because the commission would have drawn it up, is forwarded to the Crown. I also suggest that that document be laid before each House. It is surprising to me that a parliamentary system that constantly talks of the need for openness does not even lay before its own House the qualifications that its own committee has approved for membership of it. This is not acceptable.
We need to do all that. It would also open up further areas where we need to look at reform. However, that is deliberately not part of this Question. I would be surprised if, when people start looking at the House of Lords, they do not start asking some questions about the business and other interests of some of its Members.
As many noble Lords know, I was sent to this House by David Cameron because he said that he wanted someone to speak for trade unions from the Conservative Benches. There was not a very long list of competitors for me to defeat but I have done what I said I would. Normally, if there is anything to do with the TUs, I pop up. I meet the TUC; I do not always agree with it but, during my time here, I have attempted to remind people that 30% of all trade unionists vote for the Conservative Party and they deserve to be listened to by our party—that is a jolly good thing. I say that, but of course the other thing David Cameron said was, “I want you to be a regular attender and voter in the House.” Then he stopped, and there was a gap before he said, “Preferably voting on our side.”
This House has to be relevant. Frankly, we have to open up the process, particularly on the question of what someone can contribute to the House of Lords. That question should be asked whether people are political nominations or Cross-Bench nominations. There are too many people in this House—this is not aimed at anyone; I am not naming any names—who, in a great flurry, become Lord or Lady So-and-so but you then have to ask the attendants, “Have you got a picture of them because I have never seen them?” This is not acceptable. This must be a working House, and one where most of the people are here most of the time.
When people ask me what my job is, they say, “Oh, you’ve retired.” I say, “No, no, I’m still working away.” They ask what I do, and I say that I work in the House of Lords. I do not say that I am a Member, which I obviously am—I say that I work here, because I do work here. This is where I come to and intervene and, I hope, do a small amount of good for the country.
I believe that this modest proposal to open up at the margin and shed some daylight on the system would be good for the Crown, which is not looking too good itself in the light of recent stories about nominations, and good for this House.
I close by quoting my dear grandmother—the wisest woman I ever knew—who once, when talking about somebody being given a knighthood, and getting it improperly, said, “Well, I don’t know why he did it, because you can’t eat it, can you, lad?”
My Lords, I am very happy to speak in Comrade Balfe’s debate. Now that I know his true provenance, I feel that he has hidden virtues I was unaware of.
I rise to speak wondering why there is a debate about this at all. It seems so self-evident that people who have undergone due process should have what has happened presented transparently in a proper form to the Crown, and if there is a divergence then the alternative case should be put. I cannot really see that anybody could take a position other than being in favour of all that.
I am, of course, completely new to the world of politics. The wiles and Machiavellian goings-on that I have vaguely become aware of over the years will, I am sure, fit me for that final deliberation at the pearly gates, when I wonder whether or not I am going to get in. Granted that I have, relatively speaking, a naivety on these things, I cannot understand how we are where we are. In 2004, when I was admitted to your Lordships’ House, Tony Blair’s Government had a very considerable majority in the Commons. When I came into the House of Lords there were, roughly speaking, 200 Labour Lords and 200 Conservative Lords. I rejoiced at the fact that someone from my background could come into a debating Chamber where cases had to be won, majorities had to be put together and arguments had to be presented that won the approval of those assembled. No Government, simply because it had even a whacking majority, as the Labour Party did then, could simply assume that it would carry the day all the time in the Lords.
Then, of course, we became aware that things were going on that got into the newspapers. We put together a committee, headed by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. Its task was to try to introduce some order as it was sought to bring the numbers in the House of Lords roughly into equivalence with the House of Commons. The formula was simple; it was debated on the Floor of the House and it was agreed, and I thought that we had something that would sort out some of the excesses and wrongdoings of the Chamber as it was.
All these years later, when we look at the figures, we find that there is no longer a rough equivalence between Labour and the Conservatives, but that the Labour Party has, in fact, followed the advice of the Burns committee —one in for two out—that the Liberal Democrats have done the same, but that the Conservatives simply have not. It is not only that: they have grossly inflated the numbers coming in so that instead of a rough equivalence, we now see that there are 258 Peers the Conservatives might expect to count on for their support and 168 Labour Members. I cannot understand how something that was put together out of the deliberations of the House of Lords and which got approval from all sides of the House should end up with us being in a position—self-regulating as we are supposed to be—that leads to an imbalance of this kind.
I know that in our party meetings we can talk about our record in this respect but I must say to Conservative Members, and those taking part in this debate in particular: please tell us that you are as anxious as the rest of us that the things we have agreed in this way are not followed through on. In one case, someone who was rejected by the commission had that rejection overruled by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is under fire for a lot of things at the moment; he should be under the same kind of fire for the way in which this situation has come to pass.
I am new to politics. I hope to find probity and integrity but something like this puts me on the side of the tabloid press, which thinks that we are all a lot of funny people.
My Lords, one of the glories of this House is the wide range and diversity of its Members. If you wished to divide them up into categories, you would find that difficult. There are all sorts of opinions and views, and hurrah for that.
I recall, when I was on the Opposition Front Bench, going through Bills, and however late in the evening it was there would always be a number of Back-Bench Peers on all sides of the House. They had huge knowledge of the matters being discussed and were articulate in expressing their views. They made huge contributions to debates. Frankly, they made my own attempts to call the Government to account as a Front-Bench spokesman seem rather puny. I mention this because a number of those doing such sterling work would have been extremely unlikely to have passed the rigours of a vetting committee. Almost by definition, they had become such experts in their own fields that, on occasions, they might have appeared slightly odd when not discussing their own subject.
In a recent letter to the Times, Paul Dacre, that most eminent and distinguished newspaper editor said—oh, I have lost it.
Maybe he did not say it.
Well, I think he did. He said—the noble Lord will enjoy this:
“To anyone from the private sector, who, God forbid, has convictions, and is thinking of applying for a public appointment, I say the following: the civil service will control (and leak) everything; the process could take a year in which your life will be put on hold; and if you are possessed of an independent mind and are unassociated with the liberal-left, you will have more chance of winning the lottery than getting the job.”
I do not think for a moment that the committee suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, to give approval to anyone nominated for a peerage, would be in the least bit biased or show anything but the most even-handed and scrupulous attitude, and nor would they be likely to take a year. However, members of committees change and the new members may not always show such admirable impartiality.
Even if that was the case, it is inevitable that, as time goes by, the views of committees are reflected in those selected. This House could end up losing its independent thinkers and eccentrics, and those prepared to challenge the fashionable groupthink of the day. As things stand, there may be appointments that raise eyebrows. But rather that and retain the individuality of the Members of this House, and their willingness to call the Government to account, than the dreary sameness which would result over time from these proposals.
My Lords, I welcome the invitation to wash our dirty ermine in public that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, has presented to us. We had a Bill a while ago on the status of the Appointments Commission and why it should be made statutory and so on—I think it was a Private Member’s Bill. I said at that time that one difficulty is that we have no legitimacy; our legitimacy comes from the fact that the Crown nominates us, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.
The Appointments Commission is neither here nor there. It is not statutory; it is there as a respectable front, but it does not matter. What matters is what the Prime Minister recommends to the Crown. That is the only basis of our legitimacy. We are almost like a colony. We have more like dominion status—a little bit further—but we are not self-governing. We may be in our internal affairs, but our appointments are entirely determined outside the House of Lords. That has to be absolutely clear.
Even if we followed the proposition that the noble Lord has assiduously found from reading the history books, it would not be acceptable, nor would it have any constitutional position. His example was of the commission making various recommendations which were completely ignored by the Prime Minister—whoever the Prime Minister, it has been ignored.
In a sense, our problem lies not within us but outside us. The problem of reforming this House is very simple. If the House was reformed, the House of Commons would lose its primacy. The day the House of Lords becomes legitimate would be the death of the primacy of the House of Commons, so the House of Commons has an immense interest in not having us reformed. It is very important for the House of Commons that we be thought of as figures of fun, as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, said.
Whenever the Daily Mail writes about us, it always uses a picture from when Her Majesty comes to open Parliament, because then we are in our ermine. It says, “These are people prancing around in ermines, they do not do any work, they are called Lords, they get lots of money—millions of pounds—and isn’t it ridiculous?”. I am trying to write a book to tell people what we actually do in our daily work, so they realise that we do not just come on one day of the year.
Our difficulties are deeply structural. They are in the constitution of the United Kingdom, and there is no way that the constitution can be amended. It is in the nature of the constitution that the House of Commons derives its power from the fact that, of all the second Chambers in the world, we are the weakest. We are very good at advising, we have a lot of expertise—go and listen to the health and social care debate, where there is fantastic expertise—but we have no legitimacy.
There is not much we can do about that, so I recommend that we adjust our expectations. I would like our names to be changed from Lords to something else, but that will not happen. On a historical note, what has happened is much more than what happened under George V, who was very much praised. The substantial reform of this House has been under the rule of our present monarch. Life Peers were added, women were able to come and we have a sort of Appointments Commission. We are slightly more in touch with the public, and we have had the House of Lords reform undertaken by the Labour Party in Tony Blair’s first Administration.
Nothing more is possible—nor can I speak any more, so I will sit down.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai, much as I disagree with a number of the points that he made. We do not have much time, so let me begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Balfe on obtaining this debate and the manner of his introduction. I endorse entirely what he said about George V. In doing that, I commend to your Lordships the recently published biography of George V by Jane Ridley, which is an extremely well-written, well-documented life and completely underlines the points made by my noble friend Lord Balfe.
I must declare an interest in that I am one of the joint founders and the chairman of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. I set it up in 2000, when I was in the Commons and with 10 years in that House still in front of me, with my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, who is a great constitutional expert. We were concerned about the way in which reform appeared to be going, because we believed very much in an appointed, non-elected House chosen for its varied expertise and not too party political because of the presence of Cross-Benchers making up around 25% of it. We thought that this was something worth preserving, not least because if we had an elected second Chamber there would inevitably be the constant threat of deadlock between the two Houses.
We have had a reasonably successful run over the last 20 years. Out of our deliberations came the Steel Bill, which allowed for retirements, and the Hayman Bill, which allowed for a rather more serious and sad thing: expulsions, if necessary. I am glad that it has not been needed up to now. We were also very much behind the former Lord Speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, setting up the Burns committee. We endorsed its recommendations, as did your Lordships’ House—particularly on numbers. We should not be bigger than the House of Commons, which has 650 Members.
Of course, in effect we are not. Look at the voting figures for this week. Most Divisions had fewer than 400 people vote in them. If we look at those who are active in your Lordships’ House—of whom the noble Lord, Lord Desai, is notably one—we find that there are many who say nothing and just vote. Here we are in the midst of the largest international crisis since the Second World War, and the one Russian-born Peer, ennobled just a few months ago, has not sought to utter a word or make an appearance. This is not a personal attack on the integrity of the noble Lord, Lord Lebedev; rather, it is a regret that he has not used his unique position to come here and talk to his colleagues. He made a maiden speech, but he did not make it here. I am told that he made it on his yacht; I do not know whether that is true, but it was certainly not made in your Lordships’ House. It was remote.
It is important that those who are ennobled come here and play a proper part. A number of the recent appointments by Prime Minister Boris Johnson have barely made an appearance or a contribution. Of course, we have an Appointments Commission. It is not statutory, as the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber has always urged. It is okay that the Prime Minister nominates —that is fine—but the Appointments Commission’s word should be final. If it does not endorse a recommendation, that recommendation should be dropped gently and not with great publicity. We need to get to a House of no more than 650 Peers, and they should be working Peers. That does not mean they should be here every hour of every day; it means they should come at least 20% to 25% of the time, make a contribution and take a real interest in their vocation to public service.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for tabling this Question for Short Debate, as it raises some interesting challenges and thorny dilemmas for all of us, eliciting a range of interesting contributions so far. In its own terms, I rather like the intention of making justifications for appointed peerages more transparent, with all that information published in the public realm. As a believer in sunlight being the best disinfectant, I believe that the more the public can see all the aspects of the inner workings of Parliament the better. However, I will raise several caveats about whether this would really lead to greater public trust in this House.
As someone whose appointment here was relatively recent and, to say the least, contentious and elicited widespread media comment and speculation—although I note that conspiratorial misinformation is not just a preserve of trolls on social media but alive and well in the mainstream—I have every interest in a more open system. But as an outsider before I entered this place, I always thought that the opaque way people were offered peerages inevitably fuelled suspicion. It was always far clearer to me why hereditary Peers were here than appointed Peers.
The truth is that none of us is here legitimately in terms of democracy. I appreciate that the main public concern is often the notion of cash for honours. Buying oneself into the legislature is obviously unconscionable, but even this accusation can be a lazy trope in our cynical times. For example, as we speak, plenty of people are saying that my peerage and those of several other recent non-party appointments were paid for by dirty Russian money—because, you know, Brexit was a Putin plot, et cetera. This conspiracy theory nonsense is confined not just to the crackpot fringes but given respectable support by mainstream commentators. I am equally wary of concluding that if someone happens to be wealthy or Russian and ends up in this House they are inevitably dodgy.
In general, I am suspicious when the corruption of democracy is confined narrowly to “follow the money” critiques. Is it any less distorting of the legitimacy of the legislature that many Peers here lost their seats because the electorate rejected them in elections, yet here they are, still making laws?
Will the proposed solutions help clear up this mess? I am certainly not keen on endorsing statutory appointments commissions with enhanced vetting powers. This sounds more like a dystopian bureaucratic HR department. Who would sit on such a commission: unelected Peers or civil servants? I do not see how that is more legitimate than any Prime Minister, who at least notionally is accountable to Parliament and the voters.
I note that one proposal is about establishing a new criteria for individuals to meet: a “copious merit” test—I am definitely sure that I would not pass that. Who decides what is meritorious? Is it a moral purity test? Would it be expertise? In which case, are we advocating a Chamber of philosopher kings, removing even further decision-making from the plebs?
All these proposals skirt round the main problem: that this House stands on shaky, undemocratic foundations, as we cannot be held to account, removed or sacked by the voters. Any appointments system will always be flawed or open to cronyism or patronage accusations when it is removed from the most important scrutineers—the demos. The very basis of any legitimate parliamentarian claim to wield the power of lawmaking should be the electorate, yet the House of Lords stands above it. Until that is resolved, I am afraid every other proposal might end up as PR and spin.
My Lords, I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in the gap. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for bringing this interesting Question before us from 1917, although I do not commend the Question itself because it seems to draw the monarch into vetoing, or not, a proposal put to her.
Unfinished business from 1917 is one thing, but we have unfinished business from 2017 and the Burns report, as the noble Lords, Lord Griffiths and Lord Cormack, pointed out. Despite being a believer in more fundamental reform of the House, I happily took part in the Burns committee to try to find a way forward without legislative change, which we all thought was unlikely. That way forward commanded wide support in the House. It was a scheme for new appointments and retirements that depended on trust between the parties and the Cross-Bench group, and an understanding that each would comply with the broad principles. They would provide the retirements to make the numbers right, except in cases where deaths had taken place, and, in the case of the Government, not put the numbers up in defiance of the principles behind the report.
I am afraid that that trust has not remained. We are in a situation whereby, unlike the previous Prime Minister, Mrs May, the present one does not recognise any need for restraint of that kind. That is changing the whole situation and making the Burns proposals non-operative.
I should add that we also had views about the role of the Appointments Commission in making people realise what was involved in becoming a Member of the House of Lords, and asking them questions as to whether they understood what would be required of them—but of course without any power of veto.
If we stay as we are, the Executive get the best of both worlds. They can put unlimited numbers of people into the House of Lords and then discount the opinions expressed by that House on the grounds that it is an appointed House. How does that serve our democracy? We need an effective second Chamber. Quite a lot of the time, our second Chamber is as effective as the limitation that I have just described allows us to be, but it will not continue to be if it becomes a Chamber in which every Government come along and put in a whole lot of new appointments, not even on the basis of the contribution that they can make to this House.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for raising this issue. Issues of probity, trust and transparency in appointments to your Lordships’ House are not new. Indeed, his Question refers to resolutions of this House from back in 1917. Even further back, these issues were being discussed in the 1890s. I looked at the debate of 1894 in the House of Commons. Sir Wilfrid Lawson MP raised the point that many in your Lordships’ House have raised today, which is basically that although these awards are given in the name of the sovereign, they act on the advice of the Government and Ministers, and those Ministers are responsible to the House and Parliament, which is responsible to the public. He said that
“these titles and honours belonged to the public … If, therefore they were not given for national purpose, they were clearly misapplied.”
That is a good starting point for the debate. He said then that
“in the future it should be made more clear why these titles and honours were bestowed”.—[Official Report, 4/5/1894, Commons, cols. 411-12.]
While I do not agree exactly with the resolution of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, he is on to something regarding more information being made available to the public.
The debate in 1917 said that honours were awarded in two parts, only one of which was mentioned in the Question today. The other was that the reasons why somebody was recommended for the honour that they were awarded should be published. If one thinks about honours, whether it is an OBE, a CBE or a knighthood, a few words about someone are always issued, but for appointments to your Lordships’ House just the name and no other information is published. It would be sensible to make available to the public the information on why people have been awarded such an honour.
The second part of the Motion in 1917 was raised again recently. Ministers—the Government—have to be satisfied that no payments to a political party or fund, directly or indirectly, had been made. Again, it is a question of trust, probity and transparency.
I would go slightly further than the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and want to pick up on comments that other noble Lords have made. I am not going to get into numbers, as my noble friend Lord Griffiths and others did, but there is a further point that we can look at. We have had debates in your Lordships’ House about HOLAC being put on a statutory footing. I was not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Howard, was arguing against any committee at all—he seemed to be arguing against HOLAC. I support its work but think it could be refined and be more transparent. We do not want a House of the great and the good but a House that is a little more representative.
At the heart of all this is that we do not have legitimacy because we are not elected. Therefore, probity in appointments is even more important than ever, because the only way in which to have any confidence in those who serve in this House is for people to have confidence in the appointments process. If that confidence goes, there is no role for this House in many ways. That is clear.
The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, about putting HOLAC on a statutory footing, is coming up. I am not sure whether that is necessarily the way forward. Transparency, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, suggested, is possibly a better way, but the issue relates to the integrity of the House.
If you look at the work of the House, particularly this week, it has to be said that we undertake the heavy lifting of legislation. We sit far longer than they do at the other end. Despite the provocation of the Government sabre-rattling at times because they do not like what we do, we always recognise the primacy of the other place. We look at Bills and legislation in far greater detail and have a much more forensic approach to it. However, again I come back to the fact that, because of the way in which we are appointed, the process has to be beyond question and have integrity.
Noble Lords may have heard the Tortoise Media podcast that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, contributed to, which was published yesterday, I think. I recommend it because one of the issues that it talks about is the transparency of the vetting process, so that members of the public, those making the appointments and, indeed, the monarch can be assured that they can have confidence in that process. One of the reasons that it has become such an issue now is the concern about individual appointments that have been made and about the Prime Minister overruling HOLAC, which has never happened before.
I will put on record four suggestions that I think may be of assistance. I hope that I may have another minute, given that we have a bit of extra time. I thank the Minister. First, along the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, giving the public further information about why someone has been appointed is a modest proposal. Secondly, I come back to the second point in 1917 about having no party-political donations. They should not be a qualification or reason for appointing anyone. Thirdly, I cite the point about the vetting process being open and transparent. Fourthly —this may be a little more controversial—I go back to what was said in the 1890s, so I cannot claim this as an original thought. At that time, the MP proposed that “when a man”—today we would add “or a woman”—has
“enjoyed a title or honour for two or three years he would be taken into Court and examined in order to see whether he was still worthy of it, and whether the man had ennobled the title in the same way that the title had ennobled the man.”—[Official Report, Commons, 4/5/1894; col. 412.]
What about some post-appointment assessment to look at the contribution that those who come into your Lordships’ House have made? We welcome people who are prepared to play a full role in the work that we do—I do not think that any of us, from any party, do not, regardless of party politics or of whether we are independents or Cross-Benchers. This is perhaps a bit more controversial, but can we look at post-appointment assessment?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Balfe for securing this important and very interesting short debate. I was happy to yield the Floor, as they say in the US, to the noble Member from the Labour Party—I cannot precisely remember the phrase from the Senate. Her suggestions were interesting and good to hear but also challenging, because who would carry out this post-appointment scrutiny of performance? It is, of course, a deficit in this House that we are not subject, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, would say, to the ultimate assessment of performance, which is by the electorate. What would the consequence be if a committee said that a person was not doing very well or that it did not like what he or she had said? I am simply saying that those are the kinds of issue that would arise. Who would actually do this assessment?
I am not suggesting for one second that it should be based on what people say; it should be on whether they are able to make a contribution to the work of the House, regardless of what side they are on, how they vote and what views they espouse. We could debate the other issues.
All right. I will stick to the main point of the debate, although there is a serious issue about whether people have to be here day after day, every day, to make a contribution. My noble friend Lord Howard of Rising spoke interestingly on that point. There are people who do not come here often but whose voices we hear and listen to very carefully. We all know them.
This was a fascinating debate, and I agree with what was said about King George V and Jane Ridley’s biography, which is outstanding. Of course, one of the things that he recognised was that Lord Curzon could not become Prime Minister, despite his truly outstanding career of public service, because he had a place in what the noble Lord, Lord Desai, would call a less legitimate Chamber and thus could not, among other things, answer to the new Labour Party arising in the House of Commons. The reality is that there are issues of legitimacy, which I will come back to later in my remarks.
The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, made an interesting speech, as he always does. He complained at one point about the number of Peers appointed by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. As I always point out, his rate of appointment is far lower than that undertaken by Mr Blair in his first term in office. That gets to be forgotten. There was talk about the imbalance of the House. I must say that, sitting in the Chamber last night, with eight defeats, defeat after defeat, it did not seem a very unbalanced House. Here we are, night after night, with your Lordships hammering the Government’s proposals to deal with issues such as illegal immigration and crime, and the very things that the Home Secretary seeks to do being challenged. I do not feel that the alleged imbalance is preventing your Lordships asking the House of Commons to think again rather often.
Someone asked what my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising meant. The phrase I noted down was that the views of committees are often reflected in those selected. I thought that was a profound and true remark. If we look at the reflection of some of those appointed—I do not have time to pursue it—I think that that remark would have something in it. We need individuality in the House, and it was exemplified, I may say, by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. I do not always agree with her, but she certainly makes an individual contribution, and I find it very welcome.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, spoke about numbers, as he often does. He rightly said that what we really need to look at it is the people who played an active part in 2019 to 2021. The average number was 471. He has this idea of a ceiling of 600. Does he propose that we should appoint 130 more Peers to bring the House up to that number? If they were to attend only 20% to 25% of the time, as he suggested, that would be 130 times four: another 600 Peers to get that effective number here. The numbers participating—
My noble friend asked for this intervention. That was a complete distortion of what I said, and I ask my noble friend—which he is—to think of rephrasing his remarks.
I shall read very carefully what my noble friend said in Hansard tomorrow. I believe he said that we should pay attention to the numbers actually participating, and he certainly said that he wanted more Peers who would be here for 20% to 25% the time. If he said neither of those things, I will correct my remarks, write to him and publish it to others.
I would have those removed who were not here for 20% of the time. That was entirely implicit in my remarks.
I welcome that clarification.
The Governments of the previous and current Prime Ministers have made it clear that they did not accept the proposal from the Burns committee, which would place a limit on the size of this House. That certainly remains the Government’s position. I point out that my right honourable friend has exercised more restraint than Mr Blair in his appointments.
The House has a key role in scrutinising the Executive and as a revising Chamber, and one of the highest callings one can receive is to sit in this House—we all agree on that, whatever our differences.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, I will continue. My noble friend Lord Balfe was right to ask how Governments ensure that nominations are properly vetted. As noble Lords will be aware, the Prime Minister, as the sovereign’s principal adviser, has responsibility for recommending to the sovereign those to be appointed to life peerages. The noble Lord, Lord Beith, made a strong and valid constitutional point about a defect in one of the proposals in my noble friend’s Question: one must not put the sovereign in the difficult position of having to make those kinds of decisions.
The Prime Minister asks the House of Lords Appointments Commission to vet life peerage nominations for propriety, including party-political nominees and ministerial appointees. The check on propriety will include checking with relevant government departments and agencies, and other organisations. The Appointments Commission also conducts media and online searches. In my judgment, the House of Lords Appointments Commission carries out its role effectively as it is currently constituted. It will continue to advise on appointments in the same way that it does now.
Although the commission’s role is advisory, the Prime Minister continues to place great weight on its careful and considered advice before making any recommendations to the sovereign. However, as in many areas, elected Ministers may from time to time take a different view to official advice on balancing the competing issues. With regard to my noble friend Lord Balfe’s suggestion that the commission’s advice should accompany any recommendation to the sovereign and be placed in the Libraries of both Houses, as I have said, the Prime Minister places great weight on the commission’s views but it is ultimately for the Prime Minister to recommend, not the commission. I submit that it is reasonable that personal data and free and frank comment relating to an individual who is nominated should be confidential, which would not be the case if documents were laid before Parliament.
In the case of my noble friend Lord Cruddas, who is constantly cited in his absence, as the Prime Minister set out in his letter to the commission, he gave very careful consideration to the points it raised but also weighed these against other factors. This was a clear and rare exception to Prime Ministers considering such opinions from the commission. The Government were fully transparent in taking that different stance by publishing the Prime Minister’s letter to the noble Lord, Lord Bew.
As the commission noted in a letter to PACAC:
“The Commission provides advice but does not have a veto. Ultimately, appointments are a matter for the Prime Minister.”
The noble Lord, Lord Bew, then said:
“We do, however, welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to publish his recent letter, and his indication that he considers this to be an exceptional case.”
Indeed, to ensure the kind of transparency that your Lordships seek, the commission will write to the PACAC chair should a case ever arise again, as on this occasion, where a recommendation is made against the commission’s advice.
So far as the 1917 resolution is concerned, I think time has elapsed a little since 1917. It is true that the House of Lords, as someone put it at the outset, was perhaps a little out of touch at that time—I see on the annunciator that there is another defeat for the Government in the Chamber and rest the case I made in my opening remarks.
On the idea of money and donations, I submit that it is wrong to criticise individuals being ennobled just because they have also chosen to support or donate to a political party. Donations should be transparent, but that is not an excuse to knock people out for broader philanthropic services, enterprise or public service. Volunteering and supporting a political party are part of our civic democracy.
The constitutional position in the country is that the Prime Minister is responsible for advising Her Majesty on appointments to the House of Lords, and receives vetting advice on the propriety of appointments through HOLAC. The Government do not see the case for changing this. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, the Prime Minister is ultimately responsible to Parliament, and the people, for any nominations he makes to this House.
Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland on recent political developments in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, our minds and that of the Foreign Secretary are, inevitably and rightly, focused on Ukraine at present, but we also need to debate other issues that matter greatly, including Northern Ireland and the protocol, which have their own rhythm and timetable—not least, of course, their electoral timetable—so I am delighted that we are debating the protocol this afternoon.
It is an honour to chair the sub-committee on the protocol in your Lordships’ House. It is not all that long ago that the noble Lord, Lord Caine, as a member of that sub-committee, was interrogating the noble Lord, Lord Frost, as the Minister with responsibility for the protocol. I am delighted that they are both taking part in this debate, and I look forward to discovering shortly whether their change of roles has led to a change of views.
I should also be grateful if the Minister could say to the Minister of State at the Foreign Office, James Cleverly, that the sub-committee, and I as its chair, look forward to his involvement with it over the next few weeks and months. The sub-committee on the protocol has in its membership Members of your Lordships’ House who have long-standing experience of and involvement in Northern Ireland and are actively engaged in its politics. I am glad that a number of the sub-committee’s members are taking part in today’s debate.
The sub-committee has tried not to reach a view on the merits of the protocol, on which there are different views, but to consider what the effects of the protocol are so far and what they might be, were it to be implemented in full. Nevertheless, the effect of the protocol on the political scene in Northern Ireland is plain for all to see, hence today’s debate.
The sub-committee on the protocol has six core tasks. The first is document-based scrutiny of EU legislation applying to Northern Ireland under the protocol, and over the past year we have written nearly 100 detailed letters to government departments on nearly 50 EU legislative documents applying to Northern Ireland. The second is scrutiny of the implications of domestic UK legislation and policy for Northern Ireland; we wrote to the Minister concerned at about the time of Second Reading and have recently written on the implications for Northern Ireland of the Subsidy Control Bill, the Nationality and Borders Bill and the Elections Bill. The third is scrutiny of the UK-EU bodies relevant to the protocol, including the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee, which met most recently on 21 February. The fourth is reviewing the impact of the protocol on UK-Irish relations, which has included meetings with the committees of the Oireachtas. The fifth is interparliamentary dialogue, including with the Northern Ireland Assembly; I stress here how much the sub-committee has appreciated and valued our interactions with the Assembly and with the Northern Ireland Executive. Finally, the sixth is monitoring the protocol’s political and socioeconomic impact on Northern Ireland, to which today’s debate is particularly relevant.
The sub-committee agreed an introductory report on the protocol last July, and we have since scrutinised individual aspects of the protocol against the backdrop of the continuing talks between the Government and the European Commission. We have written to Ministers on, among other things, medicines, the rights of individuals and the potential role of the European Court of Justice. We are now completing a report on the importance, in relation to Northern Ireland, of proper parliamentary scrutiny of European legislation. All members of the sub-committee are concerned at the application of European legislation to Northern Ireland without Northern Ireland or Great Britain having the chance to comment effectively before legislation is agreed.
In the course of this work, we have spoken to, among others, commercial interests in Northern Ireland, experts from the pharmaceutical sector in Great Britain, shipping interests, the Equality Commission for the Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and academic experts from a wide spectrum of political views. In a recent seminar, we also spoke to stakeholders from Northern Ireland and Dublin. One inescapable conclusion I have drawn from these contacts is that the protocol is already having an effect. The coming into effect of some aspects of the protocol, particularly on agricultural and veterinary products, has of course been put back but, in other fields, legislation is being passed by the European Union that is having or will have a marked impact on different sectors of life in Northern Ireland.
It is clear, too, that the protocol is affecting economic activity. For example, trade flows between Northern Ireland and Ireland are increasing. To some, this is a sign of the advantages of the protocol and a welcome consequence of Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom’s single market at the same time as remaining a member of the European Union’s single market. To others, it is a matter of serious concern, adversely affecting businesses in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, for whom the extra bureaucratic burden of the protocol is just too great and leading to a diversion of trade that may justify the invocation of Article 16. Views differ, but the impact of the protocol is clear.
So it is not surprising that the protocol will be an important issue in the Northern Ireland elections on 5 May. Personally, I am glad to note from the communiqué of the Joint Committee’s last meeting that discussions between the British Government and the European Commission will continue, at least at a technical level, in the meantime. However, for an agreement to be reached, whether now or in future, clearly there will need to be—I deliberately put this neutrally—movement on both sides. My question for the Minister is simple: does he think that an agreement is achievable? If so, what is his best guess as to timing? I look forward to the debate.
My Lords, this is the first time I have spoken as a Back-Bencher since I stepped down from the Government in December. I am glad to have the opportunity to do so now and offer my support for the approach that the Government and my noble friend Lord Caine have been taking.
As the Motion put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Jay, sets out—and as the work of his sub-committee has made clear, as he said—politics in Northern Ireland have come under ever greater strain since the start of this year. The tension created by the protocol obviously underlies the current difficulties, which stem ultimately from the destruction of the protocol’s moral basis caused by the EU’s attempt to put a vaccine regulatory border on the island of Ireland in January last year.
As has been said, the political situation is now very troubling. We do not have a First Minister or Deputy First Minister in post, and the Executive are effectively inoperative. The courts are looking at fundamental aspects of the protocol. It is by no means clear that a stable Executive can be established after the elections. In short, it is clear that there is political and societal disruption.
This situation plainly cannot be allowed to continue. There needs to be significant change. The protocol could have worked properly only with very delicate handling. It has not had it, so change must come. When it does, it must be in the direction of re-establishing full UK sovereignty and legal normality in Northern Ireland. That has to be the end goal. Reversion to this norm is the best way to provide long-run stability and properly protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
Much the best way forward, of course, would be to renegotiate the protocol, as the Government have proposed, so that it can be supported across all communities in Northern Ireland and so that it respects all three strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I hope that the EU might yet do that in the new spirit of collaboration that currently exists over our common response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. However, if it does not do so, it will be perfectly reasonable for the Government to use the Article 16 safeguard provisions.
Finally, we must also remember that the protocol is explicitly a temporary arrangement. It disappears in 2024 unless the Assembly wishes it to continue. That consent vote is important. It is entirely legitimate for the UK Government to have a view on it, and I personally think that view should be that it is not in the interests of Northern Ireland for this protocol, in this form, to continue beyond that vote. I will certainly support the Government in any action they take to re-establish stability and to secure Northern Ireland’s place in this United Kingdom.
My Lords, I first thank and praise the noble Lord, Lord Jay, for securing this debate. I declare an interest as a member of the protocol sub-committee. Our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Jay, has adequately addressed the main purpose, remit and terms of reference of our sub-committee: the scrutiny of EU legislation and the interrogation of the business and political interests that bear down on the protocol.
For me, the protocol and the political stability of the institutions in Northern Ireland are intertwined. Unfortunately, as a result of Brexit—of which the protocol is either the son or the daughter—we have had much political instability in Northern Ireland. Political negotiations will be the key. There is a need for political negotiations between the British and Irish Governments and the EU. There should be a separate negotiating process between the two Governments, who are the co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement, to find some solutions. The Minister said to me in the previous debate on the Northern Ireland Bill that it was the Government’s intention to hold negotiations in the post-election scenario. I said to him then that it was my fear that we may not have institutions at that juncture on 6 May. It is vital for both Governments to get on with it.
I was opposed to Brexit. The protocol was negotiated by the UK Government and the EU, and I have to say that for a former Minister to decry that protocol, when he was directly involved in the negotiations, is a bit much. All that negativity impacted on our political discourse. As somebody who was directly involved in the politics of Northern Ireland and has talked to the public on the doorstep, I can say that they are just sick, sore and tired of it. They want to see a restoration of their political institutions and politicians dealing with health, education and the economy. They want politicians to work together to provide that vision: the framework that will lead to a healthy economy in this post-pandemic phase. They want people to help heal all our ills. They want to build a shared society and see the reconciliation that is reflected in the three-stranded approach of the Good Friday agreement. I hope that can come to pass. Please stop using an international agreement as a bogey person.
My Lords, I am a member of the sub-committee. We requested some assistance, through opinion polls, as to the current state of play—with all the limitations that we know about opinion polls. The February 2022 survey of Queen’s University, Belfast disclosed that 50% agree to the proposition that the protocol is on balance a good thing for Northern Ireland. The LucidTalk NI tracker poll carried out in January found that 36% thought the protocol was wrong and should be scrapped, 44% support the protocol but believe it should be reformed or adjusted, and 18% support and have no problems with it. The general picture is that the protocol is supported by perhaps two-thirds of the population, although a large section of those think it should be at least revised.
The problem is that the UK Government agreed to a solution for Northern Ireland which has two fundamental flaws. First, they agreed that the European Union could make laws directly affecting Northern Ireland but without a voice for its people. The second flaw is that they gave to the European Court of Justice, on which there is no longer even a UK representative, jurisdiction to pass judgment in infringement proceedings, or JRs, in certain areas which affect Northern Irish businesses and people, under paragraph 4 of Article 12.
The simplistic approach to these problems is to call for the scrapping of the protocol altogether but Article 16 permits unilateral safeguarding measures only if the protocol leads to
“serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist”
or to “diversion of trade”. However, any action taken must be temporary—
“restricted with regard to their scope and duration”—
and limited to involving only the issues explicitly identified. Article 16 is not intended to allow either party to suspend provisions of the protocol permanently or in their entirety. I was surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Frost, suggested that it could be used this afternoon.
Unless we break the terms of the treaty, we have to swallow our pride, acknowledge our mistakes and seek solutions with our EU counterparts. We have to address the democratic deficit and seek a voice in the making of EU legislation, and while allowing the European Court its fiercely protected right to be the sole arbiter of European law, that must be indirect: we should negotiate to use the arbitration mechanisms provided for in Articles 167 to 181 of the withdrawal agreement. The essential thing is that the protocol must be made to work.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jay, on securing this short debate on an issue which, it appears, will continue to dominate Northern Irish politics for some time to come, at least until 5 May. I supported Brexit and maintain that leaving the European Union will serve the best interests of the United Kingdom in the years ahead. However, as a committed unionist, what I most certainly did not vote for was a dilution of our national sovereignty, with Northern Ireland cut off from the rest of the United Kingdom by a sea border signed off by Her Majesty’s Government. We are now forced to live under a different set of rules and regulations than Great Britain and we have no say over them at all.
Speaking in August 2020, Boris Johnson said:
“'There will be no border down the Irish Sea—over my dead body'”.
But he signed up for one in any case and, the last time I checked, the Prime Minister was very much alive and kicking. The question is: what do we do about the protocol? The answer is to engage—to engage, not to walk away.
The DUP’s decision to pull its First Minister out of the Northern Ireland Executive was a sign of political desperation as the Assembly elections edge ever closer. It was also incredibly selfish, foolhardy and damaging to local people’s lives in Northern Ireland. The fact that the DUP chose to collapse the Executive without knowing for certain whether my colleague Robin Swann, the Health Minister, had the power to make legally binding decisions over the future of Covid regulations tells you everything you need to know about that party’s priorities. It also left him with no long-term health budget to help Northern Ireland’s grotesque waiting lists, which are by far the longest in the United Kingdom.
I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Frost, who is in his place—as he says, as a humble Back-Bencher. Following his departure from the Government, I note that his replacement as the United Kingdom’s negotiator, Liz Truss, and her EU counterpart, Maroš Šefčovič, have reported a constructive atmosphere in the talks to resolve the problems the protocol created. Earlier this week my party leader, Doug Beattie, led an Ulster Unionist delegation including my noble friend Lord Empey, Jim Nicholson, a former MEP, and Lauren Kerr to meet Mr Šefčovič in Brussels. Future meetings are planned.
The key to re-establishing momentum in the Northern Ireland political process is more engagement, not grandstanding with walkouts. Most of the problems relating to the protocol are political and will be resolved only with political solutions. I wish Liz Truss well in her endeavours to reach a positive outcome for the betterment of everyone in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jay, for arranging this, and the Government Whips for ensuring that we had time for this very important debate, alongside all that is happening in Ukraine, which is disastrous and devastating for all of us in this Room.
I endorse what my chairman and the other members of the sub-committee have said today—this is how we really feel about the Northern Ireland protocol. What is worrying is that it is not really working alongside the Good Friday agreement in the way that I feel it positively should be. Of course, we know that one of the problems with the Good Friday agreement—this is a lesson to us all—is that no timelines were written into it. That is no one’s fault; these things happen from time to time. Because of Brexit, which has been a difficult decision for Britain, Northern Ireland is just pushed off to the side, I feel—it is part of the United Kingdom, which is not just Britain.
Putting that to one side, the health service in Northern Ireland has long waiting lists and children have to go to Ireland to have operations, as do people who need heart treatment. Some education is also now being taken over by Ireland.
We ought to have change now—I gave the Minister notice of what I will say, but I know that he may not be able to give me a clear answer. We have to have a dedicated Minister who does not have a number of other portfolios; otherwise, we will not get negotiations going properly. This also has to come with a dedicated senior team that works both in Northern Ireland and here. This team should be in the FCDO or the Cabinet Office—my preference would be the latter, because I see that as the machinery of government—and the Minister should report directly to the Cabinet as and when it is necessary. That would ensure that these discussions continue, as they must, regardless of what is going on—especially after the elections, when we will, I hope, have institutions working alongside the new Parliament in Stormont. It is absolutely vital that the talking does not stop, because when we are not talking to each other, all sorts of things happen; it is really important. I refer to my great friend Jonathan Powell, who said this in his books and throughout the very difficult days in Northern Ireland.
That is why I say that the only way forward, besides our sub-committee, which is the only one that is doing full scrutiny now, is to have a dedicated Minister with a dedicated senior team that has an understanding of the issues, as well as perhaps someone from the Irish Government and the European Commission or Parliament. That is the way forward. They should report very regularly—not monthly but perhaps bi-weekly—to the Cabinet Office. The right funding and support should also be in place.
My Lords, this is a short debate but it gives us, particularly those of us who live in Northern Ireland, the opportunity to once again warn of the increasing instability and anger in the pro-union communities there. On numerous occasions, the Government have been warned, here in this House, that the protocol was unsustainable and had to go. We said that it was incompatible with the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and we warned that the institutions were threatened. The resignation of the First Minister was the inevitable consequence of what happens when unionists feel alienated.
The protocol, which was introduced with no consent from anyone in Northern Ireland, has left them feeling significantly disadvantaged, with their rights diminished and their very identity as citizens of the UK being whittled away. When I say “they”, I mean me too. Not a day passes without some new bit of bureaucracy being discovered, stopping a certain type of goods coming into Northern Ireland, or without a business in GB telling me that it cannot deliver now because it is no longer made worth while to send to Northern Ireland. We all know that the border checks are ridiculous: a huge effort of resources and time is put in to check what will be a tiny amount of goods going on to the Republic.
The fundamental and deeply worrying fact is that our union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is being eroded. The Government’s own lawyers in the Belfast High Court said that the protocol impliedly and partially repeals the Act of Union, in so far as that fundamental law ensures unfettered internal UK trade. Of course, the Irish Government love the fact that more people are being forced to buy from the Republic, and diversion of trade patterns is happening. The Irish Government have no qualms about speaking up on behalf of the nationalist communities. As the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Caine, said in this House on 13 September, the EU fundamentally seems to see Northern Ireland through nationalist eyes.
Northern Ireland people, who withstood over 30 years of bombs, shootings and appalling atrocities carried out by the IRA, and who have remained the most staunch supporters of our great country, now see their own Government give in, time after time, to those who wish to destroy Northern Ireland. When Sinn Féin brought down the devolved Government for three years in 2017, I did not see much abuse of Sinn Féin by our Government. They did not even hint at their disapproval of such vandalism, even when the Irish Government made it clear that the Sinn Féin demand of an Irish language Act be met before it would go back in—and now we are going to see that, although other parts of the agreement have not been met.
Just how long does the Minister think these negotiations are going to continue? They are clearly not going to get the EU to change its mind. Just how long are we going to have to put up with this?
Does he really think that the vote on the consent principle in 2024 that one other noble Lord referred to is fair? It is the only part of the Belfast agreement that is going to change the principle of consent to majority will, instead of the principle of co-operation and agreement across community consent.
I warn again that there are now demonstrations every week. There will rallies and campaigns in the lead-up to the election. Northern Ireland is in a fragile position and this Government have to recognise that time is running out, and it is running out now.
I join the tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Jay, for securing this debate and for his broader chairmanship of the Sub-Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, on which I am privileged to serve. I also join the tributes to the efforts of my noble friend Lord Frost in respect of recouping some of the ground lost during his period in office.
I wish to pick up on some of the matters referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, in respect of the impact and tension between the protocol and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will reflect on the conflict between those two and the impact on the ground. To what degree has he witnessed a change in the Commission’s understanding of the problem with the protocol from one centred on operational issues, as experienced by businesses, to one centred on political issues that relate to the compatibility of the protocol as presently designed with the Belfast agreement? The compatibility of the protocol as presently designed with the agreement puts at risk the very aim of the protocol, which is to uphold the agreement in all its parts.
As has been mentioned by many noble Lords and Baronesses, there are three strands to the agreement. We have known for some time that strand 3, which deals with the totality of relationships between these two islands, including between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, was at risk, as was highlighted in the UK Government’s position paper as long ago as August 2017. The risk to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the consequent problems for Northern Ireland consumers in general—for unionists in particular—is to be found in the failings of that strand. However, in consequence of that and the instability caused, we have a failure of strand 1—the devolved internal government of Northern Ireland—and, as a result of the protocol, further difficulties therefore with strand 2 on north-south, cross-border issues. All these of course have to be based on cross-community consent.
All three strands of the Belfast agreement are now in jeopardy because of a protocol supposedly designed to uphold the agreement in all its parts. Even the European Commission in its September 2017 principles—its response to the UK Government’s then position paper—stated as first principle:
“The Good Friday Agreement established interlocking political institutions which reflect the totality of the relationships on the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. The institutions, which provide frameworks for cooperation between both parts of the island and between Ireland and Great Britain, will need to continue to operate effectively.”
This protocol has clearly failed the test set by the UK Government. It has not won the necessary cross-community support in Northern Ireland and it has now failed the test set by the European Commission itself.
My Lords, debates on the Northern Ireland protocol tend to generate more heat than light. Let us hope that today’s debate will buck that trend; my noble friend, Lord Jay, certainly set us off that way. At the end of this debate, it would be very useful to have a clear picture from the Government of the facts on the ground, the trends of the Northern Ireland economy since the protocol entered into force a little over a year ago, and how those trends compare with the rest of the island of Ireland and the rest of the UK.
However, a few salient political points stand out. First, the supporters of leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum grossly misled the public, particularly when the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, assured all and sundry that leaving the EU would have no adverse or destabilising effect in Northern Ireland. Secondly, the vote in 2016 provided no democratic legitimacy for leaving in Northern Ireland since there was a clear majority for remaining. Thirdly, the solution finally enshrined in the protocol negotiated by the noble Lord, Lord Frost, whom I welcome to the Back Benches, was described by the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, as one that no British Prime Minister could accept. Fourthly, there was never at any point and at any time any basis for the assertion by the current Prime Minister that the protocol would require no checks and controls on trade in goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. No wonder there is so much confusion, disinformation and distrust.
Does that mean that the problems that have arisen over the implementation of the protocol are all the fault of one side ? Certainly not. Nor does it mean that the protocol is without blemish and could not be improved—of course it could. The European Commission has recognised that by coming to the table with detailed proposals for improvements. The sooner after the May elections those negotiations can be concluded the better.
What surely must be avoided is inflicting more damage on the structures of the Good Friday agreement by dragging out the process. That agreement was a massive and painful achievement. It needs to be preserved, not used as a pawn in the political manoeuvring over the protocol.
I have one final point. The fate of the Good Friday agreement is a matter of deep concern to our closest ally, the United States, and its current President. The sooner the problems over implementing the protocol can be sorted out, the sooner what has become a serious irritant in UK-US relations can be put behind us. The converse is also true: if the UK-EU negotiations drag on or, worse still, break down in acrimony, there should be no doubt about the negative consequences for our relationship with the United States.
My Lords, I too join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Jay, on securing this important and timely debate, and in commending him for the way he chairs our sub-committee, of which I have the honour of being a member. I also endorse what he said about the sub-committee looking forward to hearing from James Cleverly or a government Minister, because it is important to our scrutiny work that we have access to Ministers. We will be publishing a report soon on the scrutiny side of our work, which is extremely important, given that no other body in the United Kingdom is giving attention to laws made for Northern Ireland by Europe.
This has been an interesting debate. Predictable views have been expressed, but one thing that has changed since the last time we debated these matters is that the political situation in Northern Ireland has deteriorated. I fear it will deteriorate further unless we finally grapple with the protocol and get a solution to it. The dragging out of time to get that solution is not helpful. Indeed, the Command Paper of July last year said that the conditions for triggering Article 16 had already been met. We were told in early September that there might be a short three-week negotiation. The decision would then be made as to whether the EU was serious and the UK Government would take unilateral action. Unfortunately, not taking any action has resulted in the deterioration I spoke about on the ground in Northern Ireland.
The fact is that the protocol is incompatible with the Belfast agreement because it does not respect strand 3 or strand 1 of it. It has resulted in the resignation of the First Minister. I do not want to engage in intra-unionist petty politicking—there will be another time and place for that—but I remind my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, that the Ulster Unionists walked out of the Executive in 2015, refused to come into it in 2016 and only recently joined it. Everybody has engaged in a little bit of politicking, but we need to be serious about these matters. There are more fundamental issues at stake.
The protocol is incompatible with Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, for the reasons elucidated in the court case that is ongoing and has yet to reach a conclusion. It is incompatible with democracy. It is unconscionable that in the modern world, in the 21st century, laws are being made over far vast swathes of the economy of Northern Ireland by a foreign body in its interest, without any say or vote by any elected representative of Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom anywhere, either at Stormont or here. We can go into the trade and economic issues, which are all extremely pertinent. Remember that the protocol is being implemented in only a light-touch way at the moment. If it were not for the grace periods, which some in this House ridiculed and condemned at the time, we would face a far worse situation. This is fundamentally an issue of democracy, respect for Northern Ireland’s constitutional position and identity, and respect for the Belfast agreement, as amended by the St Andrews agreement. We need to get back to those fundamental principles.
I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Jay, for securing this timely and extremely important debate. I must confess that my thoughts this week—like most people in this Room, I imagine—have been with the people of Ukraine and the bravery of my many Ukrainian friends in Kyiv and beyond. It rather puts things into context.
I appreciate that the Minister is from the Northern Ireland Office and is almost certainly not in a position to answer my question, but it strikes me as nearly impossible for the Foreign Secretary and James Cleverly, the Minister for Europe, who is also dealing with Ukraine, to give the ongoing negotiations with the EU on the protocol the attention that they clearly deserve. Further to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, does the Minister believe that there is currently sufficient resource—in particular, political resource—available for those negotiations in the Government?
Continuing to threaten to trigger Article 16 in the current context does not strike me as particularly grown-up or sensible politics. Can the Minister confirm that, at least for the time being, triggering Article 16 is off the table? In the absence of the Executive, how are the political parties in Northern Ireland being involved in and consulted on the progress of negotiations? Does he agree that, in this pre-election period, it is particularly important that all parties are properly and fully involved in that process?
My noble friend Lord Thomas referred to the recent survey by Queen’s University, which reveals that attitudes to the protocol remain deeply divided, but there are at least distinct indications of a move towards acceptance of it—accompanied, however, by a desire to see it work more effectively in practice. It is fair to say that the protocol is very far from perfect, but does the Minister agree that it is currently the only solution on the table, which is why it is essential to continue to negotiate with partners in Brussels to find ways to make it work?
Northern Ireland currently faces so many challenges—the healthcare system, delivering integrated education and fulfilling its economic potential to name but three. These require a functioning and effective Executive. It is, frankly, tragic that, once again, the people of Northern Ireland find themselves without an Executive at this critical time. Clearly, these are challenging times at all levels, but can the Minister assure us that brokering solutions and finding a way to see a return to a functioning Executive remains a priority at the very highest level of government?
I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Jay, for initiating the debate and the invaluable work his committee does. This deserves a longer debate and more Members taking part. The lack of resolution of this issue has the most profound implications for the future of Northern Ireland. The elections in May will undoubtedly be dominated by it, and the great tragedy is that it could have been avoided.
It seems to me that there are three major factors. The first is that the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union. The second is that there is a profound difference of view among the people of Northern Ireland over the protocol. The third is that the protocol itself came down not from Moses but from the Government. The protocol was negotiated by this Government, nobody else—no other party, none of the Opposition. Together, the Government of the United Kingdom and the European Union negotiated the protocol that we are debating.
That is the problem, of course. Had the institutions in Northern Ireland been up and running, even to the extent of the paralysed version we have today, the parties in Northern Ireland would undoubtedly have been involved the deep and difficult discussions about how to deal with this matter. They were not; as a consequence, we are where we are. The best—or the least offensive—word I can use is that, over the past few years, diplomacy and negotiations have been unhappy. They have not actually resolved anything. Things are a little better now—they are not as bad as they were—but the negotiations have not gone to the heart of this.
If anybody can suggest for one second that it is too difficult to negotiate, how on earth did those of us who were involved in the Good Friday agreement negotiate it a quarter of a century ago? Look at what happened there. The most difficult issues ever, and yet unionists and nationalists got together and negotiated the Good Friday agreement. It has been mentioned a lot in this debate. Yes, it is important—I chaired strands 1 and 3 of those negotiations and talks all those years ago; I understand what they mean—but the basis is that there must be a consensus. I agree with what many unionists and many nationalists are saying: you have to come to a consensus. You cannot have an agreement on something as significant as this unless both sides agree and get together.
My one message to the Minister is this: talk, talk, talk. Involve the Irish Government more with the British Government; they are co-guarantors of the agreement. Talk to the European Union. Above all, talk to the political parties in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, before responding to the debate, as I am the first Northern Ireland Office Minister to be at the Dispatch Box in either House since the tragic death of Christopher Stalford, I formally place on record the Government’s sincerest condolences to Laura, the rest of Christopher’s family and his DUP colleagues.
First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, for tabling this Motion. As he reminded the Committee, before my appointment last November, I had the privilege of serving under his chairmanship as a member of the Northern Ireland protocol sub-committee of the European Affairs Committee. Like colleagues from all parts of the Committee, I benefited immensely from his wise counsel and was hugely impressed by his ability to reach consensus when faced with a range of divergent views—all, of course, in the best traditions of the Diplomatic Service. I take on board the noble Lord’s comments about my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe; I will take them back. Of course, I commend the ongoing work of the sub-committee and wish it well.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising issues that remain of immense importance to Northern Ireland in particular but also, as we should never forget, to the rest of the United Kingdom as a whole. The Motion in his name asks
“Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland on recent political developments in Northern Ireland.”
I will answer that in two parts, if I may: first, by looking at the situation in Northern Ireland today, including reaffirming the Government’s strong commitment to political stability; and, secondly, making a few more general comments about the problems created by the protocol and the Government’s efforts to resolve them.
I turn first to the current situation in Northern Ireland and political stability. One of the Government’s overriding objectives is, of course, the preservation and implementation of the 1998 agreement, along with its successors, and the enormous benefits that have flowed from it. Our commitment, and my personal commitment, to the 1998 agreement, the constitutional principles it enshrines, including the principle of consent, the institutions it establishes and the rights it safeguards for the whole community, remain unshakeable. It is my firm view and that of the Government that it remains the bedrock of all the progress we have seen in Northern Ireland over the last nearly 24 years.
In that context, I warmly welcome back to his place in the House the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, who, as he reminded the Committee, was intimately involved in those negotiations in 1998. I thank him for many of his wise words today.
This Government will never take any risks with the agreement and the relative peace, prosperity and stability it has helped to create. If I might speak personally for a moment, as one who worked in the Northern Ireland Office under Peter Brooke and Patrick Mayhew during a period of direct rule in the early 1990s, while the Troubles were still raging, I need absolutely no convincing of just how important political stability is. It is therefore profoundly regrettable and disappointing, as the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, made clear, that for the second time in recent years we now find ourselves without a properly functioning Executive in Northern Ireland following the resignation of the First Minister on 3 February and the consequential removal from office of the Deputy First Minister.
The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act agreed by Parliament last month will provide some greater resilience and continuity of decision-making, including potentially after the 5 May Assembly election. But, as a number of noble Lords made clear, it is simply not an adequate substitute for a fully functioning Executive working for all the people of Northern Ireland and delivering on their priorities—not least, as my noble friend Lord Rogan mentioned, when it comes to the National Health Service, which in terms of outcomes already lagged behind the rest of the United Kingdom before the pandemic and now does so even more as we emerge from it, I hope. The noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, made a similar reference to the state of the NHS.
Another unfortunate consequence of the current situation is that the Northern Ireland Executive will not now be able to agree and pass a three-year budget this side of the election. That would have given departments such as health greater certainty to enable them to plan ahead and implement necessary reforms. Both in the run-up to and for a period after the Assembly election, Ministers will still be able to take decisions, but nothing that could be regarded as controversial or cross-cutting, which would require executive approval.
I take on board the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. The Government will continue to urge and call for the immediate restoration of a fully functioning Executive and work towards that end: an Executive able to take the necessary steps to reform the delivery of public services; to address structural weaknesses in the Northern Ireland economy, such as skills and productivity; and, of course, to tackle community divisions, which hold back society in Northern Ireland.
However, we are under no illusions that this will be an easy task—as I know from personal experience and as the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, reminded us—either in the run-up to the Assembly election in May or in the period immediately thereafter. That is, unless we can fix the root cause of the current instability in Northern Ireland, and that is of course the other subject of today’s debate: the protocol.
The problems created by the protocol are well documented, including in the Command Paper presented to Parliament by my noble friend Lord Frost last July and, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, mentioned, in the first report of the sub-committee, when I was a member, also last July. Many noble Lords who have contributed this afternoon have highlighted a number of particular issues with the protocol, which I acknowledge. The noble Lord, Lord Jay, set out many of them.
I heard for myself the many challenges that businesses in particular are encountering when I met representative organisations and individual businesses, including a haulage company, in Northern Ireland a few days ago. I anticipate visiting a major port in the near future to look at the situation on the ground. I was left in no doubt by the business community in Northern Ireland about the urgent need to deal with these problems.
In addition, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and my noble friend Lord Dodds of Duncairn made clear, there are important constitutional and political issues involved here, as well as issues of identity. It is clear that, in addition to the impact on business, the protocol strikes at the heart of the identity of the pro-union majority in Northern Ireland, who increasingly see themselves cut off from the very United Kingdom of which, on the basis of consent and in domestic and international law, they are an integral part. I assure my unionist colleagues that I never wish to see that position change.
In summary, the protocol has led to a diversion of trade, placed substantial additional burdens on business, disadvantaged consumers and led to societal issues, such as we witnessed in the run-up to—
I thank the Minister for giving way. Would he, along with ministerial colleagues representing the British Government, work with the Irish Government, to look at the provisions in Article 14(b) of the protocol on the North/South Ministerial Council and the implementation bodies to see whether there are immediate solutions, so that we can get past this interregnum phase and ensure that the institutions are up and running again? It is not solely the Executive that is down but the North/South Ministerial Council.
I of course take on board the noble Baroness’s comments. We are willing to look at any pragmatic solutions to this, although I would caution that negotiations on the protocol are between the United Kingdom Government and the European Commission. The Commission represents Ireland in those negotiations, as was made clear to me by Monsieur Barnier in 2018, when I had the privilege—that is probably the wrong word—of an hour with him.
I was saying that, in summary, diversion of trade and societal problems have disadvantaged consumers and placed burdens on business. Although I accept that opinion within Northern Ireland remains divided, as the contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and the noble Lords, Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Murphy, made clear, a protocol that does not have the support of one part of the community is simply not sustainable and durable, as my noble friend Lord Frost has said on many occasions.
As my noble friend Lord Godson and others highlighted, the blunt truth is that a protocol that was intended to preserve and protect the 1998 agreement in all its parts has now become an instrument for undermining it. Clearly, it does not work for all communities and for business in Northern Ireland, and is having a destabilising effect on politics. That cannot be an acceptable state of affairs.
A number of noble Lords referred to how we got here. If they will forgive me, I wish to focus on the present, but I will pick up on the reference the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, made to my former boss, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers. I hold her in the highest regard but it was never a requirement of being a special adviser that one had to agree with one’s boss on every single issue, if I might put it like that.
It is clear that we need to remedy the problems created by the protocol, in both construction and implementation, as a matter of urgency to ensure the proper flow of goods within our United Kingdom internal market while, of course, respecting the integrity of the EU single market. We need to create the conditions in which the institutions established by the 1998 agreement can, across all three strands of that agreement, as my noble friends Lord Frost and Lord Godson made clear, be restored to their proper place and function effectively. That will of course require pragmatism and proportionality on all sides, but principally from the EU itself. For our part, and to this end, the UK Government set out in a Command Paper last year a range of constructive proposals. Of course, the EU published its four non-papers last year, which are, in the Government’s view, a step forward but fall short of what is required.
A number of noble Lords referred to the current negotiations. I am conscious of time and that I am surrounded by a number of seasoned negotiators, all of whom will, at one stage in their careers, probably have advised Ministers not to give a running commentary on current negotiations. It is not my intention to depart from that particular principle. I am sure noble Lords will understand that, although my department works closely with the FCDO, it is clearly in the lead on the negotiations. I am therefore somewhat limited in what I can say or share. Suffice it to say, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned, that intensive negotiations are continuing between my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and the European Commission at both ministerial and official level. While it is the case that some progress has been made, significant gaps remain.
I will finish shortly. The Government’s clear position is that, while the conditions for triggering the safeguards within the protocol were indeed met some time ago, our strong preference is to resolve our differences through agreement, if possible. In response to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, at the outset, we very much hope that agreement can be reached. Unfortunately, I cannot really give him a timetable but, as I said earlier, we are seized of the importance of fixing this, and fixing it quickly. Failing that, the Government reserve the right to take unilateral action, for which the protocol clearly allows.
As the noble Lord, Lord Jay, reminded us, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, our debate today takes place against a backdrop of the greatest threat to peace and stability in Europe for decades, and our thoughts are with the people of Ukraine at this moment and we stand side by side with them. Notwithstanding the attention and commitment that that crisis is rightly taking up—I hope I can assure noble Lords on this point—the Government will continue to engage tirelessly to fix the problems around the protocol and pursue our objectives to build a Northern Ireland where, to use a phrase I have used many times before, politics works, the economy grows and society is more united.
The UK Government have the strongest possible interest in protecting peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and, through our unwavering support for the 1998 agreement and our efforts to fix the protocol, that is what we will strive to achieve.
Older Workers: Job Market Opportunities
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that older workers can secure new opportunities in the jobs market.
My Lords, I first thank the House of Lords Library staff for their excellent help with the background statistics for this debate. I also thank the Centre for Ageing Better for its helpful briefings. I declare my interest as a board adviser to the not-for profit community interest company Bravestarts, which is already helping many older people to find ways to return to work in later life. I am also an adviser to the International Longevity Centre. I also thank all noble Lords who have attended this short debate today.
For many decades now, average life expectancy has been rising and people have had longer periods in retirement. Recognising the dangers that this would pose to future public finances and growth in a rapidly ageing population, Governments have pursued policies of increasing state pension ages, abolishing mandatory retirement ages and encouraging longer working lives. Indeed, this House is a live example of the value added by the experience, maturity and energy of older people who are still working. Older workers bring valuable talent, skill sets, patience and wisdom, which are often lost when recruitment focuses only on the young.
The ideal scenario for many, as they enter their 60s and even 70s, may be to reduce working hours from full-time to part-time, which is why the trends towards more flexible employment are most welcome. They will allow people to build extra income both now and in the future, as well as boosting their pensions and overall economic growth.
The employment rate for over-50s and over-60s, especially women, had been steadily increasing, boosting the economy. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research showed that people retiring just one year later than previously can add one percentage point to economic growth each year. However, if more older people pull out of employment altogether, this source of economic growth disappears, the economic activity will remain permanently lower and the pension savings of those who are no longer working will be unable to last as long.
This is why there is a concern that, since the pandemic started—since December 2019—the indications are that the employment rate for those aged between 50 and 64 fell from 72.7% to just 70.9%, reversing a well-established long-term trend. Indeed, I argue that the jobs statistics released recently suggest that perhaps the single biggest challenge in the labour market at the moment is how we help older people to stay in or return to work. Despite record numbers of job vacancies—1.3 million—and with labour supply currently lagging behind demand, 600,000 fewer people are in work now than two years ago, and economic inactivity has risen in the past months, largely driven by the over-50 age group, particularly women.
The largest proportion of the economically inactive are the older women who are less likely to have private pensions or have much less private pension. That indicates that the pandemic may be having more worrying knock-on impacts than perhaps have yet been factored into economic forecasts, if it has reduced the ability and perhaps desire of people over 50 to stay in work and may have increased health inequalities in the population, which were already stark, with a 20-year differential in healthy life expectancy across the country. The employment gap for older workers relative to the average in the population and the disability employment gap have both widened. Once again, those trends of concern are reversing the positive gains seen up to 2020. It will be important to see whether those trends will reverse after Covid. I certainly hope so.
I commend the Government on their October 2020 Plan for Jobs programmes offering financial incentives for employers who are considering hiring new staff. I welcome the Restart scheme and the October 2021 expansion of support packages, with the lifetime skills guarantee, the national skills fund, skills bootcamps for adults and the over-50s champions in jobcentres.
We are seeing a potential that needs to be carefully observed by the Government. In our ageing population, commitments to encouraging longer working lives are important for long-term economic growth as well as individual well-being. The coalition Government asked me to be their older workers’ business champion. The plight and needs of the over-50s in employment or wishing to return to work were made clear in my report, A New Vision for Older Workers, with recommendations based around helping employers and individuals with what I called the three Rs: retain, retrain and recruit, which are all the essential ingredients of a successful strategy for increasing jobs, labour force participation and opportunities for the over-50s in the labour market.
Indeed, as work becomes physically less demanding, having the opportunity for people to enjoy working in later life is important. I know that it is also important to my noble friend the Minister and her department. I ask her to take back to her department the need for published evaluation and evidence on the effectiveness of schemes that have commendably been introduced and specifically designed to help the over-50s back into work. What works best? Is her department working on any detailed research projects, perhaps in collaboration with a university or the excellent departmental officials, to understand the interventions that can best assist in retraining, retaining and recruiting older staff who might otherwise be at risk of leaving the workforce?
Might the Government consider incentives for employers to create specific programmes to ensure that older people are seriously considered rather than overlooked when it comes to in-work training? Many older people are willing to accept lower pay in order to participate in training programmes or programmes to help them change career but find that they are not widely available for older applicants. With a number of employers, I organised schemes for older apprenticeships, but older people often did not seem to believe that they should apply because “apprenticeship” relates, in their minds, to younger people. Might the Government consider the same kind of principle but maybe calling such schemes “career changer” incentives or “new career” programmes, to ensure that employers are encouraged to offer opportunities for training to new recruits at older ages? Individuals may be more likely to apply.
I also hope that my noble friend will consider whether companies might be required to report on what they are doing to ensure they are providing an age-friendly environment at work, one that offers the flexibility for part-time, but also includes in retraining those of all ages and career stages, fairer consideration of older applicants when recruiting and proper age audits as part of their diversity, training and recruitment strategies.
Making older workers feel valued is really important for all our futures. In the context of pensions, I have concerns about people pulling out of the labour market early. Are they just using their private pensions to bridge themselves from age 55 to 65, until their state pension starts, but have nothing left later? Will my noble friend encourage the Treasury to monitor and conduct research into what is happening when people are taking money out of their pensions? Making workers feel valued is important. Benefiting from the wisdom that comes with age and being part of a successful workforce can help with our Covid rebuilding programme.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for the opportunity to discuss this important issue. I agree that the central issue here is what we can do to enable older people to choose to stay in work or to return to work.
Over all this discussion, we have the pandemic and what we hope is a move away from it. It has had impacts across our whole social and economic life, not least in its effect on patterns of work for older people. Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen a steep reversal of trends in employment. There had been a consistent increase in employment rates among older workers since the mid-1990s and a fall in inactivity rates, but between 2019 and 2021, the department’s figures for employment show that the rates for 50 to 64 year-olds fell by 2.8 percentage points for men and 3 percentage points for women.
The Institute for Employment Studies has calculated that if pre-Covid-19 trends had continued, there would be almost half a million more older workers in the workforce than we have today. This reversal of the earlier trend clearly comes at a cost for those involved: to individuals who cannot afford to lose either the income or social structure that work provides and to society as a whole, with reduced output of goods and services.
To the extent that this reflects older people choosing of their own wishes to enjoy more leisure, as against income, it can be welcomed but there is little evidence that this is the main or significant driver. The truth is that most of those who have given up employment did not have a choice but were forced out of the labour market through lack of work opportunities, ill-health or family responsibilities. The question, therefore, is what we and the Government can do about it.
In suggesting some policies, I base my remarks in large part on the excellent and timely report from the TUC, published on 23 February, Older Workers after the Pandemic: Creating an Inclusive Labour Market. I urge the Minister to read it, if she has not already done so. The TUC’s report makes it clear that increasing older workers’ participation in the labour market will require major changes in the workplace to ensure that older workers have the skills they need and that jobs and workplaces meet the needs of an ageing workforce. This goes alongside the need to ensure that those who are unable to continue working into their mid-60s are not penalised as a result, which will require an overhaul of working and pension-age benefits.
As pointed out by the TUC, there are class and ethnic dimensions to the challenge we face in offering older people the opportunity to keep working. People in low-paid and manually intensive jobs are at far greater risk of being forced out of the labour market early. Those working with heavy machinery and in elementary occupations such as cleaning or security are particularly vulnerable, closely followed by people in caring and other service occupations, retail and customer service. Together, these occupations account for just three in 10 jobs in the labour market, but almost six in 10 people who leave the labour market come from these sectors. Plans to tackle labour shortages by helping more older people stay in work must tackle the structural discrimination that means workers on lower pay are more likely to be pushed out.
At the same time, while black and other ethnic-minority workers are less likely to retire early than their white counterparts, those who leave the labour market early are significantly more likely to do so because of poor health and more than twice as likely to do so because of caring responsibilities. From an analysis of the Labour Force Survey, the TUC found that just 17% of black and minority-ethnic people between the ages of 50 and 65 who are economically inactive have retired compared with 40% of economically inactive white people, reflecting the wide ethnicity gap in average pension wealth.
So what can we do? First, particularly as we emerge from the pandemic phase of Covid, workplaces must be made safer for all workers through improved health and safety guidance and stronger enforcement. The Government should work with unions and employers to ensure that we address workers and skills shortages and deliver the Government’s stated ambition of a high-wage, high-productivity economy.
Secondly, we need to ensure that older workers have the skills needed to thrive in the labour market by giving them the right to a mid-life career and skills review and to access funded retraining and by providing tailored support for older workers at risk of long-term unemployment or of falling out of the labour market.
Thirdly, we should help older workers to manage disabilities and health conditions by ensuring that employers put in place reasonable adjustments for disabled workers and tackle workplace discrimination and by strengthening flexible working rights to allow older workers to manage workloads.
Finally, we have to look at reforms of the benefits system so that people of all ages who are unable to work can maintain a decent standard of living. We must pay attention in that area, which affects older workers most acutely.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Altmann, with whom I find myself sharing an office as of this week. I refer to my interests relating to land-based and tourism businesses in north Norfolk, as recorded in the register.
One of the things I am learning as a new boy in this House is that, prior to speaking, it is a good idea to see who you are up against in the debate. The answer, as a quick whip through Wikipedia led me to discover, is Peers with knowledge and experience on this subject far deeper and greater than mine. I will therefore limit my contribution to my experiences as an employer in land-based and tourism businesses, which I hope will illustrate the benefits that businesses derive from employing older workers and, of course, the benefits that older workers receive from continuing to work into their later years. Both these factors feed into greater benefits for the economy as a whole.
I was concerned that, as a young man of 56, I might not be able to speak authoritatively on older workers. However, I have learned that the Government class older workers as those aged 50 and above. Living longer and in better health, and with the removal of the statutory retirement age, we can expect to continue to see high levels of employment in this group. According to the Centre for Ageing Better’s report The State of Ageing in 2020, one in three workers was 50 or over.
This is borne out in our statistics at Holkham, where I live and work. Some 35% of the staff employed are aged 50 and over; 27% are 55 and over; 16% are 60 and over; 10%, or 27 people out of a workforce of 274 employees as of four days ago, are 65 and over; and 4%, or 11 people—I am rightly proud of this—are 70 and over. The gender split is evenly balanced across the age bands. This trend in our companies towards employing older workers has increased slightly in the last decade.
In the 55-and-over group, staff are employed across a broad variety of positions, including room stewards and guides, car park attendants, visitor services, retail, housekeeping, houseman, tractor and trailer drivers, a gamekeeper, academics and in administration and cafés. I have to admit that the vast majority are in lower-paid positions, but at the real living wage of £9.90 or the next rate, £10.50 an hour. Staff in this age group enjoy the flexible, part-time and/or seasonal nature of the positions, although I have to add that a good number are full-time. They enjoy interaction with people, and are good at it, and being able to make use of their skills and knowledge. While most report needing some form of income, often additional to their pension, they are often more motivated to provide an excellent service in what they do and, frankly, to keep themselves busy and the grey matter working.
Grouping people together from the age of 50 to 70 and over to highlight the pros and cons of employing this age group is done with the caveat that not all are the same, but we believe that the key benefits and advantages are as follows. I am pleased to report that the list of benefits is longer than that of disbenefits. Older workers are dependable, reliable, punctual and trustworthy. They are respectful and recognise that they are here to work and do a good job. They bring a wealth of broad-ranging experience, from ex-police officers to teachers, former senior directors, marketing specialists and, of course, skilled ex-manual workers. Their experience benefits less-experienced, often younger people. It provides excellent insight and ideas into improving work processes and practices. It also leads to us very quickly giving this group of staff accountability. They have the experience and confidence to be trusted to get on with it. Typically, they have excellent customer service skills. They go above and beyond in their knowledge and care. They do not have dependent children and are therefore less likely to have emergency issues, and are more willing to work weekends or bank holidays.
There are disadvantages. Conversely to the above, they might have elder care responsibilities. A lack of compulsory retirement age can lead to the requirement for a performance management process if someone is no longer performing or their health capability impacts on their ability to fulfil the position. This has not been an issue for us yet, but I suspect that it may be in the future. They are also typically less likely to be IT savvy, particular in terms of new functionality or shortcuts with systems. They are probably unlikely to be the people in the organisation who innovate or streamline, as their previous experience and technical knowledge can be somewhat outdated.
I have an observation on interviewing older job applicants. Quite often, candidates will say things like, “I’m really old, so you probably don’t want me”. That is a sad reflection of a lack of confidence or a poor experience when applying for other positions. Having had recent experience of working with DWP work coaches on the Kickstart team, my team is concerned that the DWP needs to ensure that adequate resources are in place to support the further expansion to 50-plus support. Work coaches need to work more collaboratively with local organisations.
I take slight issue with the assertion by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, that most people have been forced out of work. My experience is that they have generally retired voluntarily. It may have a geographical influence inasmuch as they might have retired to sunny north Norfolk, but I can think of only one person for whom this was the first job he had had in five years. I hope that this has been a useful illustration for the debate.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for securing this important debate. The Office for National Statistics published data in November 2021 showing that, since the end of the Government’s furlough scheme during the pandemic, many over-50s have fallen out of the workforce. The figures showed that, in September 2021, 362,000 over-50s were unemployed and 3.5 million people aged between 50 and 64 were economically inactive.
As we know, one of the key challenges we face in this area is discrimination and some outdated ideas about age and work. Since the Equality Act was passed in 2010, it has been illegal to discriminate against someone based on their age; this includes age discrimination at work. To be clear, this age discrimination is not just against older workers. It also includes young adults, who often face considerable challenges due to discrimination.
Why am I talking about young workers in a debate about older workers? Since I ran Age Concern England for many years, people believe that my passion and area of knowledge is solely ageing. In fact, much of my earlier career and later voluntary work was in supporting young people. From 2006 to 2012, I had the privilege of being an equality and human rights commissioner. In truth, human rights have always been my main area of interest, rather than ageing or focusing only on a particular stage of life. My work in advocating for older people has always been focused on ensuring that people’s human rights are protected and not changed or diminished after a certain number of birthdays; that is pure discrimination.
Despite being illegal, age discrimination is still rife. One of the key reasons for this is unconscious bias against older people in work—and, in fact, in society generally. This is often reinforced by structural bias, whereby organisations continue to work within structures and policies that assume that the human life course is much the same as it was a century ago. The human life course has changed and continues to change; as we know, it depends on change. A baby born in 2022 will not live the same life as someone born in the 20th century. The idea that we go to school until we are 18, get a qualification so that we can get a job, work until we hit our 60s and then retire is totally out of date. In 2022, someone who is 50 could easily spend another 25 to 30 years in the workforce, yet people in their 50s are too often dismissed as “older” when in fact they may live and work for many more years, often with life experience and talent.
My Lords, the bells are not ringing for some reason but there is a Division going on in the House. I move that the Grand Committee adjourn briefly. Officially we are meant to do so for 10 minutes, but I suggest that we resume once all noble Lords participating have indicated to me that they have voted successfully.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, too often, even people meaning to do the right thing inadvertently reinforce age discrimination. An example is the campaign by various ageing organisations in the UK and internationally to create a separate UN convention for older persons’ rights. There are two problems with that. First, it is not clear who we count as old. As we know, people age at different rates and the ageing process affects people quite differently. If we are saying that people over 50 are older, when life expectancy in the UK is currently 81 years and an increasing number of people are living to 100, that is, frankly, ridiculous. Worse, it says that when someone is older, having had a certain number of birthdays, their human rights are different and covered by a separate UN convention. Separate conventions may do good work to protect the rights of disabled people, where we can clearly define what is a disability, but with ageing it is much vaguer.
Worse, our understanding of ageing is generally built on a lack of understanding and an unconscious or, at least at times, conscious diminishing of older people’s contributions to society. We do not need a separate UN convention; we do not need to treat people differently. Instead, we need to treat a 73 year-old worker not as an older worker but as a worker, with the same human rights as everyone else. If a 73 year-old worker develops a disability, we should support this worker in the same way as we support a 53 or 33 year-old with a disability. Instead, we label older people pensioners, defining people over a certain age by their eligibility to receive state income and dismissing their potential contribution to society.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we abolish the state pension, and I believe it was an important part of developing our welfare state in the 20th century, but in 2022, we need to understand that not only do many workers work well beyond the state pension age but it is often good for a person’s health and quality of life to do so. One of the biggest challenges we face is isolation and loneliness, something often experienced by people who have retired or are no longer economically active. This can lead to depression and is a contributing factor towards people developing dementia.
What steps can the Government take to support older workers to secure new opportunities in the jobs market? Our first step is to challenge unconscious bias and outdated ideas about ageing and work. We must do more to enforce anti-age discrimination measures in the Equality Act. This starts with education and challenging those outdated ideas. Crucially, it is also about challenging the idea that older people are to be treated differently, including by those wishing to help them. Instead, we need a strong economy that provides good jobs for all adults, whatever their age, who are willing and want to work, and makes it possible for them to do so.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to take part in this debate on a subject to which I first had to pay attention in the run-up to the millennium, when the organisation for which I was quite a young worker at the time, Age Concern, held a “debate of the age”, looking strategically at big questions to do with an ageing society. One of the advisers to that was the then Ros Altmann, and the driving force and inspiration behind it was the then Sally Greengross. It is a delight, 20 years on, that they are still taking the fight on this subject.
I am glad that we had the very informative briefings from the Library and the Centre for Ageing Better. I found a paper that I think crystallised the issues and speaks in many ways to what the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, said. The Age Smart Employer network in New York produced a paper that came up with a number of lessons for employers in recruiting and retaining older workers. One is that older people have skills and experiences that cannot be readily taught, such as critical thinking. They retain business knowledge, knowledge about networks and the historical memory of the organisations for which they work. It is absolutely true that they tend to have, on average, more technology gaps, but those can be filled and taught. To take Zoom and the House of Lords three years ago as an example, we have moved light years in a short space of time. You can learn that.
But this paper really goes to the heart of what the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, was saying: the best teams are different. They do not have groupthink; they have different skills, and sometimes that comes from different generations. One thing that older people have is an insight into customers, which is particularly important. I have in fact been to Holkham Hall, as a paying customer, and I can testify to the teamwork and atmosphere that the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, talked about.
Perhaps I was having a particularly bad bout of insomnia, because, during Covid-19, I came across one of the most informative programmes, “Farming Today”—skip the “Today” programme and go straight to that. Long before anybody else was talking about shortages of HGV drivers, “Farming Today” was talking about problems with getting milk from farms and so on.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies, is right: Covid has brought to the surface a whole load of things that many people have known about but that we have never approached in any kind of coherent fashion. There is a case for looking at sectors of work and the age profiles of people in them—and for not being afraid to take on and address some of the prejudices and what people might be shying away from in looking at that strategically.
This is a subject where we have broadly known for a long time what the causal factors are. Different Governments have brought to the table different initiatives, none of them very coherent or long term. There is a real problem, in that different Governments approach this issue differently: is it a matter of mitigating potential draws on the welfare benefits budget, is it about developing a future plan for work, is it about skills deficits or is it about the fact that we have never really—not for want of trying—got to the very heart of how we get apprenticeships to work, in terms not just of specific skills for specific jobs but of equipping young people for working life, which is something to which older people have quite a lot to contribute?
So I will go back to where I started, which was 20 years ago with the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, trying to take an informed and strategic view of this, listening to academics and doing foresight work with government, as far as was possible, to look at the changes in technology and medical science that were going to affect the health of the population. If we were to do that in the way that the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, suggested—not as a knee-jerk reaction but really looking at what has come to the surface post Covid and at the future of work over the next 20 years, when we will not have the influxes of short-term and seasonal labour that we have had in the past—we should have a thoroughgoing look into the demographics of ageing. Apart from anything else, the big tech companies and the people behind them will have something to say on this, because they have begun to look at this area of work because they appreciate that the market of young people, which they have traditionally relied on, is perhaps now changing, and they need to look at that in a different way.
So I very much welcome the contributions in this debate, and I hope that, with the enlightened Minister that we are lucky to have in this House on this subject, we might perhaps take a step towards a new strategy for multigenerational workforces.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for bringing the debate into this forum. I hope that we can move forward together in such an important area. I also thank the staff and all the people who have sent us briefing notes on this important issue, and I particularly thank everyone who has contributed today—the wealth of experience is quite something, and we should really celebrate that and make sure that we pull together.
Perhaps I may add my own humble experience. I had the role of social policy manager for the Yorkshire and Humber Assembly, back in the day when we had such glorious bodies. I remember well the debate of the age, and I helped pull together a document. Moving on through my role in local government—I should declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA—UNICEF encouraged local authorities to move towards child-friendly cities. That was its big thing. As a consequence, cities—Leeds, in my case, but also many other communities—have moved on to declare themselves as age-friendly towns and cities. It is an interesting development. In reflecting on the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, they have moved on to intergenerational work, which is fascinating. They give all the elements and sections of communities a voice.
I should like to bring to the debate a recognition that no one department or policy area can solve the problems that we are talking about. It is depressing that we are still grappling with issues that were highlighted decades ago when the demographic impact of an ageing population became apparent. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what is working well as a result of the Plan for Jobs programme, what more is being proposed and how new proposals will be successfully implemented, especially in the light—as we have heard, particularly from my noble friend Lord Davies—of recent evidence highlighting the impact of the pandemic on older people. It was a cruel virus that particularly exposed structural weaknesses to a terrible degree for many people.
Linked with that is the rising imperative of dealing with skills shortages and employment needs across all sectors nationwide. We have learned that pre-pandemic, we were already starting to see a drop off in economic activity in the over-50s to the extent that by state pension age, half were not working. That represents a loss to the economy but, importantly for many, as we have heard, a huge loss to them of the financial and social benefits of working. There is poverty for some in old age, and the whole issue of loneliness is a pandemic in its own right.
I echo the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, on the importance to economy. Almost a third of the UK workforce is aged 50 and over, which is reflected in key workers—and how dependent were we on key workers during the pandemic? What does it mean for us as a society that 3.4 million key workers are over 50? What are the most common causes of people leaving the workforce before they are ready to do so? They are ill health, caring responsibilities and disability at an early age. We need to consider carefully all those areas— in particular the socioeconomic factors that highlight chronic inequality. Consider that there is a 20-year gap in disability-free life expectancy between the richest and poorest areas for women and an 18-year gap for men. That all points to the need for a real assessment of the support needs for people with health conditions to enable them to stay in employment. A key factor surely in the levelling-up agenda, which we have not talked about today, has to be how we address those issues. Are we joining up policy areas to achieve an integrated approach to dealing with the problems mentioned?
It is obvious that in the workplace today there is a critical need for retraining and supporting employment opportunities for older women. Skills shortages are being identified across a range of sectors as one of the major obstacles for businesses in planning the future viability of services, as well as the economy. Recognition of the transferability of skills and experience is a sensitive issue and needs to be part of a bespoke, locally based skills programme. Devolving resources and responsibility to local areas will be key to achieving success in these programmes.
We need to recognise upfront that previous back-to-work schemes have not worked, particularly for older people. The outcomes for the over-50s are much lower than for other age groups. A fresh approach is overdue and urgently required. Organisations such as the Centre for Aging Better have undertaken research, as I am sure we have all seen, and highlighted very sensible and practical ways to achieve success in 50-plus employment support programmes. We know is that target-driven approaches do not work. We need to have a real and honest debate, as we have discussed, on real and perceived discrimination against all people and, particularly in this scenario, against older people.
We have had a lot of statistics today and I do not want to repeat them. However, I want to ask about those who have fallen out of the labour market for good, and not through choice. How exactly does this fit with the Government’s stated ambition to extend working lives, increase productivity and level up the UK? I would also look at some of the evidence of the terrible experiences that the WASPI women had.
I have a lot of questions and the Minister will be very pleased to hear that I have run out of time to ask them all. In finishing, can we have confidence that the Government will produce bespoke, evidence-based schemes specifically for the 50-plus cohort? Will they also commit to funding public campaigns, which can be delivered at a local level, highlighting the importance of older workers? With those comments, I look forward to further debate on the matter as we move forward.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. They have saved the best debate until the end of the day. It has been one of quality and challenge, which is a good thing.
I congratulate my noble friend Lady Altmann on securing this debate. She has been a tireless champion for older people, before and after entering this House, and speaks with great knowledge on the area of older workers, resulting in positive action. Her work as Pensions Minister is well known, but before taking up that post, she had already set the agenda for older workers as their first business champion. Her report A New Vision for Older Workers: Retain, Retrain, Recruit laid the groundwork for the Department of Work and Pensions’ 2017 strategy Fuller Working Lives, which we are still delivering through the 50Plus Choices team. I am delighted to respond to her question today and to provide details of the new and continuing work which the Government are undertaking on behalf of this incredibly important group.
To quote the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, I will run out of time. I am sure she will be happy at that point but, where I have not answered a question, I undertake to write to all noble Lords and place a copy in the Library.
As noble Lords have said, older workers are vital to our economy. The proportion of the population aged 50 and over is projected to increase from 42% in 2010 to nearly 50% by 2035, or 29 million people, so it is essential that the Government and employers make every effort to help and encourage this group with enthusiasm, experience and expertise to enter, stay in and return to work.
Firms with fewer older workers are missing out on the improved productivity, which all noble Lords have talked about, generated by social mixing and a transfer of knowledge between generations. When I ran my charity, I was always delighted when we had more mature members of the workforce with experience because when the younger ones were finding their feet and having those junior moments, rather than senior moments, it was great to be able to get the experienced ones to mentor them. I remember so well that some of them got into pretty deep water and the people with life experience helped them out of it. It kept them in the workforce, so I do understand that.
Dismissing older workers as being past it and allowing them to underestimate themselves is not just damaging to the individuals who are denied access to opportunities to grow, develop and earn. These attitudes are also damaging to individual businesses and to our economy—that was a very important point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake. We know that age diversity in the workforce is not just the right thing to do but that it can bring benefits to business, and many employers value the experience and loyalty that older workers can bring, as well as broader advantages such as fresh perspectives, knowledge-sharing and improved problem solving. I remember so many times when we had difficulties—which I am sure will resonate with some noble Lords—and someone would pipe up to explain what was done 10 years ago, which was really helpful.
I know that the pandemic caused catastrophe to some people’s employment but it has created particular challenges for the over-50s. Older workers took longer to come off furlough than their younger counterparts, and some of those who left have not returned to the labour market at all. Even before the pandemic, job-seeking presented particular challenges for older people. Evidence shows that those in this age group who lose their jobs are at greater risk of becoming long-term unemployed, and once they return to work, they are likely to earn substantially less than in their previous job. Data suggests that people aged over 50 who lose their jobs are twice as likely as other age groups to be unemployed for at least two years, which can mean that older workers are forced into early retirement that they may not want or are unable to afford. That comes to the point that my noble friend Lady Altmann made about people using their pensions to get them through that period.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, that I will find that TUC report. We will read it and see what we can learn from it.
The Government’s older workers agenda, which, as I have mentioned, was influenced and informed by my noble friend Lady Altmann, had been making steady progress in addressing these issues. Pre-pandemic employment levels for older workers were at a record high of 10.7 million and the employment gap between over-50s and the 35 to 49 age group was narrower than ever before. However, the pandemic has sadly reversed this positive momentum and we have seen encouraging trends slip into reverse. The Government are watching the data carefully and are determined not to allow this setback to become a backward slide.
Labour market support and demand is there. We have huge numbers of vacancies and I am sure that, around the country, among our more mature population, there are people who could ably fill them. We must help them to believe that and apply for those jobs. That is why I am delighted that the Chancellor announced a £500 million boost for the Plan for Jobs to ensure that more people of all ages, including those aged 50 and over, get tailored Jobcentre Plus support to help them find work and build the skills they need to get into work.
As part of this, the new Way to Work programme will ensure a laser focus on securing work for every customer. It requires us to use every interaction, every employer relationship and all the work provision we have available to help people achieve their potential by finding a job, and in doing so support our country’s recovery.
I know that there was concern that we were going to use that as a sanctions bonanza. Nothing is further from the truth. All the jobcentres that I have visited have welcomed this programme as a real opportunity to provide tailored support to all ages. I can assure noble Lords that nobody is rubbing their hands together saying, “How many sanctions can I do today?” They are saying, “How many people can we get into work today?” The package will provide more intensive, tailored support for older jobseekers in the first nine months of their UC claim. This extra time will allow work coaches to spend longer with customers, developing strategies to overcome any barriers to work that they might be facing.
My noble friend Lord Leicester mentioned employer engagement, which was of course identified in my noble friend’s report in 2015. If we are to help people enter or re-enter the labour market, our relationship with employers is absolutely critical. They are the ones who create jobs and know the skills they want, and we have to be really good at matching them up and supporting people not just to get a job but to stay in it. I always found that getting someone into work was good, but keeping them there was the best.
The Government send this message out loudly and clearly to employers, including through the current business champion for ageing society and older workers—I am sure that we can come up with a better title than that; I do not know what kind of brand that gives us—Andy Briggs, CEO of the Phoenix Group. The business champion does incredible work in promoting suitable employment practices and measures to support those with disabilities or health conditions to stay in, progress in or remain close to the labour market.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Blake, both raised cross-government co-ordination. I am delighted to say that the DWP works closely with other government departments to bring together and advance the full range of projects that could promote better employment outcomes for older people. We collaborate closely on the mid-life MOT—I know that my noble friend Lady Altmann will be pleased about this—with the Money and Pensions Service, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities and the National Careers Service. This helps people plan ahead to prevent health, skills and pension challenges for a fulfilling later working life, with information on pensions, skills and health. We work with the Department for Education to highlight the interests of older people in relation to the Government’s lifetime skills guarantee, which provides free courses for jobs and £375 million of funding for new skills boot camps, made available through the national skills fund.
I will answer as many of the questions as I can, but I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not address them all. My noble friend Lady Altmann asked whether the Government would consider incentives for employers to create programmes. On that, I say: please do not just sit in this House if you have a good idea—let us have it. We will write to my noble friend with any other information we have on that.
My noble friend also asked whether the Government would consider ensuring that ageism in the recruitment process is not tacitly accepted, as appears to be the case now. When our work coaches work with over-50s, they sometimes take them to interviews—they do not let them go on their own sometimes—and do the sales pitch. So we are doing everything we can to make sure that age does not prevent people getting where they need to.
My noble friend asked whether the Government would consider a career-changer scheme. If noble Lords have any suggestions on that, we would love to hear them. I cannot answer all the questions on that. I know that my noble friend has encouraged me to ask the Treasury to do some research about taking money out of pensions. This is in my portfolio as the Minister responsible for research, so I will go back and talk to the team about that to see what we can do.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies, talked about the number of people who have left work: 41% of the people aged 50 to 65 who have come out of the workforce since the pandemic were using a private pension, savings or investments to fund their retirement, but they decided that retirement was now for them. Some of that is really sad.
My noble friend Lord Leicester, who is a very successful businessman, made the point that older workers are reliable and have a broad range of experience and maturity. As I have said, they also have a good influence on the younger workforce. I am in the bottom class for IT—my Private Secretary will endorse that—but I have found that more mature people are pretty good at it, to be honest. We should not make too many judgments that they are not. They can help young people.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies, talked about the mid-life MOT. It is a forward-planning exercise that is helpful to the people we are trying to help.
On the Plan for Jobs 50-plus programme, the offer, which my noble friend Lord Leicester raised, will ensure that older jobseekers receive more intensive tailored support, as I said. They will get the support from the work coach that they need in a flexible way. I know that Kickstart was raised in terms of putting more resources into it. I should be happy to have a meeting with my noble friend to learn more about that because we want to learn how it could be enhanced. We have that many programmes that we want to make sure that they have the best resource possible.
I will mention the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, who is a noble friend to us all. What an outstanding career she has had in supporting older people. She has made the House richer for her membership and participation. I agree that we should treat everybody and not put them in little silos. I will now get a message saying that I have overrun. Do not worry. We have a national employer team who I meet on a monthly basis. The focus of our next meeting will be older workers. I will try and get back to noble Lords to tell you what the team is doing. There is no place for age discrimination. I just say to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that apprenticeships for older people are working well. I am pleased about that.
I finish by saying that the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, absolutely summed it up. Getting people into work is better for the economy and their health, and we must make sure that people are talking about their destiny in the workforce, not what perhaps might have happened. With that, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions.
Committee adjourned at 5.12 pm.