House of Lords
Thursday 16 June 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.
Apprenticeship Levy Scheme
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the survey by the British Retail Consortium, published on 17 May, which concluded that the apprenticeship levy scheme was “not fit for purpose”; and what steps they intend to take to modify that scheme.
My Lords, the apprenticeship levy has enabled government to increase apprenticeship funding to £2.7 billion by 2024-25. We are continuing to improve apprenticeships to meet the needs of employers and drive up their quality even further. This includes developing more flexible training models that provide improved pathways for young people to access apprenticeships, while simplifying the transfer of levy funds, which will enable employers to make greater use of their funds and support smaller businesses.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Some of the Government’s so-called improvements were actually announced a year ago, but this report was issued last month, so they are not working. The BRC is not alone: the food industry and manufacturers are all equally critical of the levy in its present form—in fact, it faces opposition from 80% of employers. We all want to create a higher-skilled and more productive workforce, yet entry-level apprenticeships are declining, letting down the very young people who would benefit most, while more levy money is being spent on management and other courses for existing employees. When will the Government put this right and introduce the sensible changes proposed in this and other reports?
I do not accept the noble Lord’s assertion that the changes that the Government have introduced are not working. Clearly, the context of the last 12 months, with the pandemic, has had a major impact on the confidence and ability of employers to recruit more generally. But, in the year to date, apprenticeship starts are up 17.4% and the number of starts among young people under 25 has risen to 55%, up from 50% the previous year.
The creative industries have also found the apprenticeship levy scheme to be not fit and have asked for modifications; I thank the Minister for listening to these concerns. Around £55 million of apprenticeship levy funds raised within the creative industries cannot presently be spent to support the training of their own workforce, so we welcome the flexi-job apprenticeship agency pilot project, launched yesterday, which is looking to address these issues. Will she look into how this can be sustainable and affordable for the sector after the initial investment runs out—in other words, beyond the pilot?
I thank the noble Baroness very much for acknowledging that we absolutely have listened to the sector with the flexi-job apprenticeships. She will be aware that there is enormous flexibility for larger employers to spend up to 25% of their levy funds, potentially, with their supply chain, as might well apply in a case like this.
I congratulate the Government on what they are doing in focusing attention on apprenticeships. Does my noble friend agree with me that one of the things that is very necessary is for young people to see how successful apprenticeships can be? This can be done by promoting them through schools and her department; I know that the Secretary of State is keen on this. How many civil servants in her department have come from an apprenticeship scheme to get to their present status there?
I absolutely agree with my noble friend. We are doing a lot of work to make sure that we can connect young people in schools and colleges with employers and providers much earlier in their final academic year—rather like how they connect with universities—to give them confidence about where they are going. On my noble friend’s specific question, I say that the department has achieved an average of 2.6% of our employees over the four years of the target. We are increasing our apprenticeship starts, and I am delighted to say that one of my excellent private secretaries started in the department as an apprentice.
My Lords, as an officer of the Apprenticeships APPG, I hear two constant concerns from employers about the levy: its lack of flexibility and the difficulties for small employers wishing to offer apprenticeships. I too welcome the concept of flexi-job apprenticeship agencies to smooth the path for SMEs, but there are only 16 of these so far. What are the Government’s actual goals for SME apprenticeships, and how do they plan to achieve them, given that current incentives and support schemes are clearly not working well enough?
The noble Lord is a bit harsh; we are very focused on SMEs, in part because of the productivity potential that apprentices can offer them, but also because of the opportunities that they offer to young people. I am not aware that we have published targets for this, but it is a particular focus in the department.
My Lords, in February this year, IPPR North reported a 72% fall in entry-level apprenticeships since 2014. The London Progression Collaboration has revealed a major decline in entry-level apprenticeships in the capital, while starts in high-level apprenticeships, often taken by older people, have skyrocketed. SMEs report that apprenticeship starts fell by more than 36% following the introduction of the levy in 2017. I acknowledge the successes of the apprenticeship levy but, given the priority to help young people through skills training, including apprenticeships, and the levelling-up agenda, and given the obvious problems, can the Minister explain why the Government have ruled out a formal review of the levy as part of their wider considerations?
I think the noble Baroness would acknowledge that some of the changes that we have introduced, including the levy, to create a sustainable model of funding for apprenticeships, reflect some of the problems of quality identified in the Richard review in 2012. I hope that she would also acknowledge that we have seen an important growth in degree apprenticeships. She is absolutely right that we have seen a drop in intermediate apprenticeships, but that is a principal area of focus for the department going forward.
My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, are the Government continuing to consult the creative sector to assess how well the new flexi-job scheme fits the bill and, importantly, provides the necessary number of apprenticeships, including in the theatre industry, where such a scheme particularly needs to be targeted?
I absolutely reassure the noble Earl that the department is actively engaging with all key sectors, including the creative sector. On the specifics, obviously the apprenticeship model is push and pull. The department is delivering what employers are asking for, but we need employers to respond to that across every sector.
My Lords, what efforts is the department making to get schools to know about apprenticeships and go into them? Currently, schools are measured largely on GCSEs, A-levels and university entrants. When will they be able to celebrate their apprenticeship leavers with the same enthusiasm as they celebrate their university entrants?
As the noble Baroness will be aware from our debate last night, it is not the Government’s plan to micromanage schools in terms of how they celebrate. We are promoting apprenticeships in schools and colleges through our ASK programme—the Apprenticeship Support and Knowledge programme— the Get the Jump programme and the Skills for Life programme. She may have seen some of the materials from Get the Jump recently, which were very engaging.
My Lords, I respect the Minister’s good intentions, but how does she account for the catastrophic fall in the number of entry-level apprenticeships at intermediate level in the past five or so years? It is no good pointing to figures that show that we have done a bit better than we did in the disastrous Covid year. Let us have a look at the long- term position. She says that the department regards this as important, but what conclusions is it drawing and what is it going to do about it?
Our conclusion is that we listen to employers and respond to what they ask for. I shall give the noble Lord one example. Employers have told us that they need young people to be more work-ready. Therefore, we are funding up to 72,000 traineeship places over the next three years.
Prison Officers: Occupational Pension
My Lords, a newly recruited prison officer may draw the full occupational pension on reaching state pension age, which is between 65 and 68, depending on their date of birth, and must have had at least two years’ membership within the scheme to be entitled to receive a pension.
My Lords, I am 65. In my time, I have undertaken military operations overseas and international aid operations overseas, but I am no longer fit or strong enough to do so—nor could I undertake the duties of a prison officer, including exercising control and restraint over prisoners. Does the Minister think it morally right to ask a prison officer to serve until he is 68 years of age?
My Lords, while the Government acknowledge the challenging environment in which prison officers work, we consider that, by comparison with emergency services such as the police or fire brigade, while the environment is a challenging one, it is to an extent controlled, which those other occupations are not. In that context, we consider that 68 is indeed an appropriate age at which to retire.
The Minister referred to challenging conditions in prison. Would he accept that it is a violent environment? Are prison officers who are sick or injured by assault, or who—very importantly—fail the fitness test, entitled to their full retirement pension between the ages of 60 or 68, or is it diminished because they have not reached the retirement age?
My Lords, the noble Lord and I share a background in the criminal justice system, and I am as aware as he is of the potential for violence to be inflicted on prison officers pursuing their duties. When a prison officer is no longer fit to undertake operational duties, and the operational health practitioner confirms that ill-health retirement is appropriate, the officer would be retired due to ill health and may receive in full the pension benefits due to them, calculated up to the last day of service. I acknowledge with gratitude that the noble Lord alerted me to his question in advance, so I was able to seek further background from officials. If there is other material on which he would like me to expand, I can of course speak to him in person, or I can write.
My Lords, prison officers get unfair bad press, and they are undoubtedly badly treated by this Government. There is poor pay and a pension age of 68, as has just been said, all while working in often ultraviolent workplaces. Additionally, the Government cynically exploit those emergency front-line workers by depriving them of the most fundamental employment right of all: the right to strike. Second-rate treatment on pay, pensions and the right to strike is immoral and cannot possibly be justified. Can the Minister explain why prison officers in Scotland, who have the right to strike, are legally allowed to withdraw their labour, while those south of the border are not?
My Lords, in relation to the final matter that the noble Lord raises, in spite of my Scottish background, I regret to say that I am not at this stage able to answer his question directly. However, with his leave I shall look into the divergence between Scotland and England and Wales and revert to him in writing.
Does the Minister agree that one of the reasons why prisons have become so dangerous over the years is that we warehouse people? We do not rehabilitate them: people go in bad and often come out worse. Actually, if we want to quieten the damage and the violence, we need to return to rehabilitation. I speak as someone who was blessed by rehabilitation: it was an essential part of the Prison Service, which it is not now.
My Lords, I beg to differ. The importance of rehabilitation is known. Indeed, as we are on the topic of retirement of prison officers, one of the things that prison officers can do under legacy schemes is retire from the Prison Service, take their pension and go back in at occupational support grades. In that capacity, they can do a number of functions, including working in approved premises, which is the new name for bail hostels. There, their invaluable experience can assist people released into the community under conditions to meet those conditions and attune themselves to a less regulated environment outwith the prison estate. Their service in that regard is valued immensely by the Government and by prison governors.
My Lords, I note that I was a member of the board of visitors at HM Prison Pentonville. Why have the Government not placed UK prison officers in line with front-line emergency workers in the police and the fire brigade who can retire at the age of 60 and claim their full occupational pension, instead of having to reach 68 years of age?
My Lords, I am sure the House will join me in acknowledging my noble friend’s service as a prison visitor. Although it is the case that police and fire service schemes have a lower retirement age of 60, employees in those professions contribute significantly more of their salary to their pensions—12% for police officers and 14% for firefighters —whereas prison officers pay only 5.4% of their income into their pension schemes. That is significant, because it is that level of contribution which allows actuarial assessment of the impact of retirement of officers.
My Lords, the safety and security of prison officers and prisoners is clearly essential if prisons are to be effective, including, as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, pointed out, in terms of rehabilitation. We are losing experienced prison officers, yet the Government’s response, that prison officers work later than many other services, until they are 68, is not the way to address this. I do not think the Minister answered the Question of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, which was very specific: until what age must a newly recruited prison officer stay in post before they are able to claim their full occupational pension? In effect, how many years must a prison officer be in post to receive their full pension? It is quite clear for the fire service and for the police, but we have not had that information for the Prison Service. Can he provide it?
A prison officer can retire at an age between 65 and 68. That is now in line, according to the alpha scheme under which prison pensions are paid. A person on the scheme must have had at least two years’ membership within the scheme to be able to receive a pension.
My Lords, I am sorry to come back to the Minister but I asked him specifically about the full pension and he has answered only for “a pension”. There is a difference between receiving a pension, which will be a reduced pension, and a full pension. Will he tell me, if he has the answer, how long it is for a full pension? If he does not, will he write to me and place a copy of the letter in the Library?
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her clarification of the point, which perhaps was obvious to your Lordships at the outset. As I understand it, it will be a matter of occupational health assessment. I will clarify that position and write to the noble Baroness, as she requests.
My Lords, this change, this diminution of the pension rights of prison officers, was one of the impacts of the Hutton review, which affected all public service employees in different ways—including significant cutbacks. Recently, the Pensions Minister suggested that the Government were seeking to make public service pensions even worse. This may have been freelancing on behalf of the Pensions Minister, and maybe this is outside the noble Lord’s brief, but was this a serious proposition? When will the Government make it plain what their policy is in relation to public service pensions?
Ukraine and Neighbouring Countries: ODA
My Lords, the UK is one of the largest donors to Ukraine and the region. Our ODA grant support now totals around £400 million. This includes £220 million of humanitarian aid, a £74 million fiscal support grant through the World Bank and a £100 million grant to support Ukraine’s energy security. The UK is the largest donor to the UN’s Ukraine Humanitarian Fund. The FCDO’s annual report and accounts will be laid in Parliament before the Summer Recess and will include further detail on ODA spending.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his helpful Answer. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that some 16 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance across Ukraine, particularly in occupied areas and areas that are hard to assist and get to. We have all seen scenes on our television screens from brave and dedicated journalists who are bringing those pictures into our living rooms. He talked about the money; will he say a bit more about the work we are doing in a multiagency way to ensure that those hardest to reach areas are getting the help and support they need, without which more are going to die?
My Lords, in addition to the financial support that I mentioned in my first Answer, the UK has more than 320 staff now working on the response to the crisis in the region, including humanitarian experts in the neighbouring countries of Poland, Romania and Moldova. Our humanitarian field teams in the region are providing logistical support and advice and co-ordinate with Governments and the UN in those neighbouring countries. That is in addition to the £45 million package that the Foreign Secretary announced to support the UN and associated charities, which includes a £10 million grant for humanitarian organisations operating, for example, in Moldova.
My Lords, this appalling, barbaric and evil invasion has led to really serious grain shortages in many parts of the world, including Africa, so as well as looking at the front-line countries for his department’s aid, will the Minister look seriously at working with the World Food Programme to prevent what is possibly going to be a really catastrophic famine in a number of African countries?
My noble friend is absolutely right. The food insecurity that the conflict has caused is, in part, a natural consequence of this kind of conflict, but it is also part strategy on the part of the Russians, who are, as other noble Lords made clear in previous debates, now using famine as a weapon of war. Last month, our Defra Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, Victoria Prentis, represented the UK at the US-led week of action on global food insecurity at the UN. We put forward our six-point action plan, which included ensuring the free flow of food trade and prevention of export restrictions, targeting the £3 billion of humanitarian aid over the next three years to the most vulnerable, in line with the international development strategy, and ensuring the multilateral institutions, including the World Bank, deliver $170 billion of economic support over the next 15 months.
My Lords, what funding from the official development assistance budget has been allocated to neighbouring countries, given our difficult evacuations of those who worked for us in Afghanistan, some of whom have escaped to nearby countries? In particular, what work is going on with women?
It is not possible to give a precise answer because a lot of the funding that we have provided is destined for neighbouring countries but going through, for example, UN agencies. For example, the £25 million we have given to the UN Refugee Agency is designed to support refugees in those neighbouring countries, but I cannot give the noble Baroness an exact breakdown of which country has received which amount of money. As I mentioned in my earlier answer, we also have well over 320 staff working on the ground, helping those countries deal with an escalating refugee crisis.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that among the devastation of whole towns and cities in Ukraine is included the destruction of churches, mosques and synagogues, and the looting of museums? Will Her Majesty’s Government fund technical assistance in the rebuilding of religious centres and aid Ukrainian authorities in the listing of stolen artefacts and antiquities with the Interpol stolen art database?
That is an extremely important point. Our priority at this moment is to do what we can to ensure that Ukraine can defend itself against Russia’s illegal aggression and to help those people who have been immediately caught up in the crisis—refugees but also others. We know that there will be an enormous rebuilding requirement across the board, and the UK is at the heart of the discussions as to what that process will look like, who will fund it and what the UK’s role will be.
My Lords, I will take the noble Lord back to the question asked by his noble friend Lord Bellingham and his helpful reply about the problems of getting grain out of Ukraine to countries that are at risk. Will he confirm the figures given by the UN that in east Africa and the Horn of Africa some 16 million people are already at risk of food insecurity and facing famine, and that by September the number could rise to 20 million? Can he confirm that in Odessa alone there are 45 million tonnes of grain and that the Kremlin continues to pump out a narrative blaming Ukraine and the West for this food now not reaching desperately needy people, and that some of those countries are being enlisted by Putin in his war because they are faced with the moral dilemma of being able to feed their people and siding with the Kremlin? It is hugely important that we contest that narrative and I hope the noble Lord will take the opportunity to do so.
The noble Lord makes a key point and although I cannot guarantee that the figures he cited are correct—I will have to put that on the record after this discussion to be sure that I get it right—I believe those are the figures I was presented with this morning. I think what he said is correct in terms of numbers, but he is certainly correct about the narrative. Russia is the only cause of the food security crisis that has resulted from this conflict. There is no other possible answer. The Russians have targeted food reserves—including yesterday when a very large grain store was destroyed, we believe deliberately —as part of an effort to throw the world, particularly its poorest countries, into turmoil. This is a very clear strategy on the part of President Putin and the noble Lord is absolutely right to call him out on it, as do the UK Government.
My Lords, can I return the Minister to the matter of funding, which was the original Question? How far is the funding going to Ukraine, which I entirely support, being taken from the budget for poorer countries, and how much is it additional to the funds we would normally give? As has been pointed out by a number of questioners, the secondary consequences for poorer countries are catastrophic. Can we have an assurance that the funding to Ukraine is additional, or is it being taken away from others in desperate need?
The financial humanitarian support that is being provided comes from our ODA budget, but I do not believe that we are facing the choice the noble Lord has presented to the House. Effective action on this conflict in Ukraine has massive implications for some of the countries the noble Lord alluded to, which are really on the front line when it comes to dealing with food insecurity and so many other issues. Dealing with this issue effectively has massive humanitarian impacts way beyond the borders of Ukraine.
My Lords, this is a very good report of what we are doing now to support Ukraine in its agony, but I hope, looking further ahead, when it comes to development and the rebuilding of Ukraine, we will make quite sure that those who have done the damage carry the overwhelming burden of paying for it. My one suggestion is that we should pay half the cost for the oil and gas that we, or Europe, still have to buy from Russia and that the rest should go into an escrow account and be used to build up adequate funds for the total recovery and rebuilding of this great country.
It is a very valuable suggestion, but I cannot unilaterally make decisions of the sort that would be needed at the Dispatch Box. I will certainly raise the issue as he has put it to me with colleagues in the Foreign Office, but the principle behind his question is absolutely right and is the position of the UK Government. Our view is that the Russians should be made to bear the brunt of the financial costs when it comes to repairing a country that Russia alone has brought to its knees—or attempted to.
I will follow up on the question asked by my noble friend. I think the Minister said that the overseas assistance budget has not been increased to cater for funding going into Ukraine. A necessary corollary appears to be that poor countries will lose. Am I wrong?
I said earlier that the humanitarian funding comes from the ODA budget, as all humanitarian funding relating to all humanitarian crises always does, whatever the crisis—unfortunately, there are many such crises. That is a big part of what ODA exists to do, so it is right that it should come from that. However, not all the support we are providing to Ukraine, now and going forward, is coming from the ODA budget. For example, as the noble Lord will know, we have UK Export Finance, which has been mandated to provide as much support as possible to Ukraine in relation to its rebuilding, and to bring investment into it. Through the BIP we are also doing what we can to try to stimulate and leverage investment in Ukraine as part of the rebuilding exercise. Some of the guarantees that we have provided through other multilateral institutions are not borne by the ODA budget. It is not all about the ODA budget, but the humanitarian assistance comes from it and I think it is right that it should.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the usage rates by Ukrainian forces of weapons supplied by the United Kingdom aligns with their predictions; and whether they intend to reassess (1) their supply of weapons to that country, and (2) the stockholding required by the UK’s armed forces.
My Lords, we liaise on a daily basis with Ukraine and continue to provide the defensive equipment it needs. The Defence Secretary participated in the Ukraine donor contact group yesterday and met Ukrainian government representatives. I cannot comment on Ukrainian usage rates for the equipment provided. The MoD continually reviews its stocks of weapons and ammunition to ensure that it can meet its commitment to Ukraine while ensuring that UK Armed Forces stocks are maintained.
My Lords, the usage rates by Ukraine are high because in peer-on-peer warfare that is exactly what happens. We have experience of that ourselves, historically. I am delighted that we are providing weapons to Ukraine, and we must keep doing this; indeed, we probably need to provide more. It is in everyone’s interests that that happens. My experience tells me that our stockholdings will be insufficient. There is no doubt about it. They always have been because that is the way you play games with money in the MoD. My question is one I asked on 25 May: have we let contracts with British defence firms, so that we are able to replenish our stockholdings and supply the Ukrainians at the rate that is required? When I asked this question, those contracts had not been let, and we were supplying weapons to Ukraine that had been bought by other countries in Europe because we were not producing any. We must start producing some of these weapons now, almost on a 24/7 basis.
We keep weapon stockpile levels and requirements under constant review, and that informs our response to Ukraine. I reassure the noble Lord that we are fully engaged with industry, allies and partners. We want to ensure that all equipment granted in kind to the Ukrainian armed forces is replaced as expeditiously as possible.
My Lords, the reality is that we dispose of far more complex weapons because they have reached the end of their shelf life than we ever fire in anger. Of course, there are only so many hours you can have a Sidewinder under a jet flying in the air, but we are much more risk averse in this area than almost any of our NATO allies. The challenge seems to be that we simply do not have the data. As we reassess our own stockpiles, can I simply ask my noble friend if she will seek to get that data from our NATO allies, rather than simply spending millions more pounds on weapons when we can get better use out of our own?
I refer my noble friend to recent activity engaged in by the Secretary of State for Defence, not least his presence yesterday, to which I referred in response to the noble Lord, Lord West. As my noble friend will be aware, a joint statement was issued yesterday by the United States Department of Defense, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Defence and our own UK Ministry of Defence, which is all about how we can help Ukraine to defend its citizens. The United States, the United Kingdom and Germany have now committed to provide MLRS, with guided MLRS or—here is another mnemonic—GMLRS, which I think is the guidance system that guides the first thing. Ukraine has specifically requested this capability. Importantly, it will allow the Ukrainian armed forces to engage the invading force with accurate fire at ranges of approximately 70 kilometres.
My Lords, has the Minister been made aware of the Prime Minister’s statement on 6 June, which stated:
“He set out the significant new support the Government is providing, including long-range multiple launch rocket systems to strike Russian artillery positions which are being used to bombard Ukrainian towns”?
Has this promise been fulfilled?
I partially covered my noble friend’s question in my earlier response, because it is these multiple launch rocket systems that we have committed to provide. The training has already begun for these. The objective is that, along with the contribution of the United States and Germany, we will deploy these systems urgently and without delay.
Can I press the Minister on the original Question? It is not a matter of what allies have, or what our stockpiles are and the degree to which they have been run down. What the House needs to be reassured of is whether the MoD is conducting a review of the contractual linkages between the MoD and the defence supply base to ensure that we have the agility to sustain our war-fighting resilience—because it is our war-fighting resilience that has historically been most run down and is potentially the most vulnerable part of our overall national military capability.
I say to the noble and gallant Lord that, as previously indicated, the department is fully engaged with industry, because we want to ensure that all equipment granted in kind to the Ukrainian armed forces is replaced as expeditiously as possible, but also that, by continually managing and reviewing our own UK stock of weapons and munitions, we ensure that while we meet that commitment to Ukraine, our UK Armed Forces’ stocks are sufficiently maintained.
My Lords, I have but modest experience, having worked in the logistics department of the Armed Forces, but I get closer to my noble friend Lord West’s experience that stockpiles were always brought down to the minimum credible level rather than having any serious surpluses. Those stockpiles are being used up, but surely they need to be brought to the pre-war levels. Let us be realistic: the world will be a less safe place at the end of this war. We will almost certainly have an expanded NATO with a Russian border, so, if anything, surely the stockpiles should be expanded. The Government should have made these decisions by now, so will the stockpiles be brought to pre-war levels, and will they indeed be expanded in light of the new threat?
I am unable to provide anything more specific to the noble Lord in addition to what I have previously said. I cannot offer a detailed inventory of what is currently in storage in terms of stockpiles for the UK, or a complete inventory of what is being released to Ukraine. What I can reassure the House about is that the department is constantly engaged in reviewing these stock levels, having regard to both our commitment to support Ukraine and our obligation to make sure we can defend the United Kingdom. As the noble and gallant Lord asked earlier, we are fully engaged with industry.
My Lords, as well as supplying weapons, Royal Air Force Typhoons are flying regular NATO missions over countries adjacent to Ukraine, in addition to their UK QRA and defence of the Falklands tasks. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to increase the size or number of Typhoon squadrons in order to cope with this exceedingly additional commitment?
I can confirm to the noble and gallant Lord that we have been deploying elements of all three armed services. That includes bulking up the presence in Cyprus, because we have four additional Typhoons there. We are doing that within our existing commitments, and we are satisfied that that is a balance we can reconcile not just in terms of crews needing to be rested, recuperated and returned to duty but in terms of meeting both our obligations to our NATO allies on the wider safety of Europe and our own internal obligations.
My Lords, just to be clear, referring back to my noble friend Lord West’s Question, the Minister has said three times that the MoD is “fully engaged”. I am absolutely sure that the MoD is fully engaged; it always is. But the question is: have any contracts been let?
My Lords, I welcome the contribution that the British Government, along with the Americans, have made to support Ukraine in terms of the provision of arms. I understand that the leaders of Italy, France and Germany are currently in Ukraine. Could the Government please ensure that they continue to press those Governments to provide a reasonable level of arms rapidly to the Ukrainians? They appear to be failing to do so, and if Ukraine is weaker, countries such as Poland and Lithuania will rightly fear for their positions.
The UK takes the view that it is all hands to the pump. We welcome the contribution from any nations which think they can assist Ukraine. The visit to Kyiv by the countries to which the noble Lord referred is welcome, and it is a positive step. Whatever they are able to do to augment the support being given to Ukraine to defend itself is to be welcomed.
Marine Protected Areas (Bottom Trawling) Bill [HL]
A Bill to regulate and limit the practice of bottom trawling in marine protected areas, and for connected purposes.
The Bill was introduced by Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (on behalf of Lord Randall of Uxbridge), read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Procedure and Privileges Committee
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker for taking the two Motions standing in his name on the Order Paper separately.
I very much welcome the appointment of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, who is a formidable Member of this House, if only because it will strengthen the Back-Bench representation on the committee.
I have to say to my noble friend that I was very disappointed that his Written Answer to me this week refused to publish the proposed text of the Companion which will be published, after five years, in September, with marked-up changes. It is really important that Back-Bench interests are considered, particularly when changes are being made—often without the prior consent of the House—to the way in which we carry out our procedures. For example, only today, I learned that there is a proposal to have trigger points in Hansard where what Members say may have been considered to have caused offence, and so someone would put something in to that effect. Similarly, with the Companion, changes are being made to the text which have not been discussed by the House. I hope my noble friend might take account of the fact that there is a feeling, certainly among some on the Back Benches, that the Procedure and Privileges Committee does not take account of opinion on these Benches.
My Lords, without prolonging this, I want to give total support to my noble friend in what he said. Far too much is happening in this place without proper consultation. It is five years since we had the last edition of the Companion. If there are to be changes, we should be forewarned as to what they are and there should be a full debate on them. This is something that could affect any and every Member in your Lordships’ House. I strongly support my noble friend and urge the Senior Deputy Speaker to give a suitable reply.
My Lords, I support the noble Lords who have already spoken. Only a few months ago, it was brought to our attention that the way these things were being handled, as regards contributions by Members of your Lordships’ House, was in clear breach of the Bill of Rights and the conventions on freedom of speech for parliamentarians that had stood for several hundred years. I have no idea whether the new Companion will have addressed that issue or not; the only way to find out is to have the relevant sections and changes produced before this House and, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, have a full debate on them.
This is not a peripheral issue. It is the central issue of the role of parliamentarians and their right to speak as they see fit, provided that the Chamber itself is content with it. It cannot be right to have some sort of trigger point system—presumably based on artificial intelligence—setting up an alarm when something is said that is deemed not to be right by others outside this House. It is in clear breach of centuries of convention.
My Lords, the noble Lord raises a point that we might all be concerned about. I think Back-Benchers would like to know about these trigger points. I had not noticed that they were there. Back-Benchers would need to know what the criteria are, because people would always want to avoid them. There needs to be total agreement about the level of offence that would contravene one of the points. Perhaps the House might decide to accept such a trigger point, or perhaps it might not.
My Lords, I am genuinely very grateful to have this opportunity to spend a little time clarifying some matters. Certainly, in the Procedure and Privileges Committee, which it is a great honour to chair, we have looked very thoroughly at the changes. These will be brought forward to your Lordships to seek your Lordships’ consent. I think it is next week, on 22 June, when there will be consideration of the changes to the Companion for the House to agree and, if necessary, debate.
I am not aware that there is a strike on Wednesday 22 June.
My Lords, I will look at this. There are a small number of changes, which I think noble Lords ought to have seen by now. If they have not, I would advise them to go and look at the changes that will need the agreement of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has tabled a Question about the changes to the Companion to the Standing Orders. These are to insert, for the help of the House, elements from, say, Erskine May, and they are all designed to be helpful. I am very happy for the House to see all the very minor changes of style that there may be; I have no problem with that at all.
However, this is the suggestion that I find unusual. The committee and I—there is an open door—will always want to hear what Members of the House are concerned about. One of the purposes of us meeting as one of the House’s committees is to look at the changes to the Companion which are of substance, which will have to come to your Lordships for consent. I can genuinely say that I am very happy to share the small changes that are there to assist the House in understanding the Companion, but I think we have many—I cannot remember how many pages it is.
I know the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has tabled a further Question asking me whether I would deposit a record of the changes in the Library. There is no secret about this. The changes are meant and designed to be helpful to your Lordships. I sometimes worry that some noble Lords think that we are seeking to do things to your Lordships rather than for your Lordships, when the latter is the purpose of the committee.
As for raising trigger points, this has not come before the Procedure Committee, but the committee would look at this with very close scrutiny. It is not something that I have had a formal proposal for. Obviously, we would look at it, and certainly the House would need to consider any changes to our procedures that came forward. All I can say is that I have heard about the trigger points proposal, but it has not been put to me formally and, if it was, I would express concern about it. Let me be very clear: I had heard of this, but there has been no formal request for the Procedure Committee to look at it. I would look with very close scrutiny at any proposal which in any way interfered with your Lordships’ absolute, given rights to express opinions in this Chamber.
Perhaps I can just read my noble friend something on improvements to Hansard online: “Hansard enhancement work is scheduled for the end of this year and includes adding a feature to Lords Hansard and Commons Hansard online that alerts readers to potentially offensive language within the content. This comes from recommendations made by the House of Lords Inclusion and Diversity team.” Would my noble friend undertake to look at this?
I have just been passed a note. Our Services Committee, of which I am not a member, saw this and basically said no. I am very interested in seeing that script. I am absolutely clear about our task on the committee—obviously, I am very much looking forward to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, joining the committee —and adamant that we work for the whole House, including the Back Benches, so that we can have a dynamic contribution to the national discourse. I beg to move that the noble Baroness joins the Procedure and Privileges Committee.
Public Services Committee
Houses of Parliament: Co-location
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, my Motion is not concerned with the practicalities of decanting the Palace of Westminster, nor with the geographical site selected for relocation. My concern is one of constitutional principle. It is one that must be to the fore in considering relocation. The debate about restoration and renewal tends to focus on the physical health of the Palace of Westminster. My Motion is concerned with the health of our parliamentary system of government.
The design of the Palace of Westminster and its use are a means to an end. The end is an effective system of parliamentary government. Parliament exists to respond to the demands of the Crown, for both supply and legislation. Its power lies in its capacity to say no. That power underpins the functions it has developed to scrutinise demands for legislation and money, and for calling government to account. Those are the key functions of Parliament.
Having two Chambers serves a valuable purpose, but they are two parts of one constitutional entity. Each Chamber effectively plays to its strengths: we cannot emulate the House of Commons, but the House of Commons cannot emulate this House. We enjoy distinct legitimacies: the House of Commons, an electoral legitimacy; this House, a functional legitimacy. We complement one another. This is the key point: that complementarity is cemented by the two Houses being collocated in Westminster. We need one another and we need to be together to be effective in fulfilling our functions.
The interconnection of the two Houses derives as much from what we do informally as what we do formally. What happens in formal space, the Chamber and committee rooms, is core to each House fulfilling its functions, but that activity, while necessary, is not sufficient. It is what happens in preparation for formal proceedings that is fundamental to being effective as bodies of scrutiny and in calling government to account.
We need to meet not only Members of our own House, essential in mobilising support to pursue amendments and raise issues of concern, but Members of the other place. We have to liaise when Bills are going through and to interact for the purposes of lobbying and exchanging information. Political history can be affected by a chance encounter between Members of the two Houses. The opportunity for such interaction has always been there but, if anything, has been enhanced by the building of Portcullis House—its creation changing the geopolitics of the Parliamentary Estate, and the relaxing of rules on who can use refreshment and dining facilities.
We need to be collocated, not only for the benefit of both Houses in fulfilling the essential functions of Parliament, but for the convenience of citizens. We are an open institution. Members of the public can make representations to Members of both Houses. We are a highly pluralistic society, with citizens getting together to form charities and a range of other interest groups. The number of such groups has grown markedly in recent decades. Those groups seek to influence Parliament, not only by sending briefings electronically but by coming to Westminster to speak to Members in both Houses.
Moving one Chamber to another part of the country does not bring that Chamber closer to the people; it detaches it from those organisations that seek to put their case. They will most likely remain London-based in order to lobby the House of Commons and government. Arranging to see Members of both Houses will be costly and time-consuming and more likely undertaken by the better-resourced organisations. If the two Houses are not collocated, the opportunity for personal interaction between Members of both Houses is lost.
Separating us physically cannot be substituted by the use of technology or even quick transport links. We need spontaneity and the capacity to move quickly to liaise with one another and with Members of the other place. Meeting virtually, or in hybrid form, makes that difficult, if not impossible. I know some take the view that meeting in hybrid form during lockdown was a success and could be the future of how Parliament operates. Hybrid proceedings were a success technically—and the staff did a fantastic job at short notice—but not a success politically.
Members decanting to different parts of the kingdom during lockdown strengthened the Executive. Members operated as disparate and discrete entities and not as a collective body. We were not able to be agile in engaging with other Members and in challenging Ministers at the Dispatch Box.
As my noble friend Lord True acknowledged on 16 May:
“Those of us who have had experience of a Parliament by Zoom know the importance of personal contact within and across the Houses to the good operation of government and Parliament.”—[Official Report, 16/5/22; col 243.]
Separating the two Chambers empowers government. The suggestion that the House of Lords moves to a different part of the country, with the House of Commons in Westminster, is essentially a power grab by the Executive. I am not making the case against the House of Lords moving; I am making the case against the House of Lords alone moving. If one Chamber moves, the other must as well, and so must the Executive. If Westminster decants, then so too must Whitehall.
There is a perfectly coherent argument that can be made for locating Parliament and the Executive in a purpose-built capital, a Bonn or Brasília, or even an existing city big enough to accommodate such a massive ecosystem. My Motion is silent as to location. The essential point is not where, but who: it has to be Parliament—both Houses—and the Executive.
There are obvious practical problems if the two Houses are miles from one another in meetings of all-party groups and Joint Committees. I suspect others in this debate may address this. Committees can meet virtually but it is not the same as meeting in person. In any event, this is to isolate one feature of intercameral contact. One has to encompass the whole range of interactions between the Members of the two Houses to appreciate the necessity of both Houses being collocated in the same city, and ideally on the same site. Even if we move to the QEII Centre and the Commons to Richmond House, there will be problems—quite significant problems—of communication between Members of both.
Recognising the importance of two Chambers being collocated is not something peculiar to the United Kingdom; it is a global phenomenon. As the briefing by the Library records, of the 81 national bicameral legislatures that exist, all bar three are located in the same city and even one of the exceptions appears to be temporary. All major western democracies with bicameral legislatures have the two Chambers located in the same city. There is a particular value in being located in the same building, or at least on the same estate.
It is crucial that we put on record the need for both Houses to remain collocated and for this to be embraced as a prerequisite for the restoration and renewal programme. We need to ensure that it is confirmed now, given the increasing urgency of both Houses decanting. The decision to move out may be taken out of our hands. The Palace is demonstrably deteriorating before our eyes. We have parts variously closed off or covered by canopies because of falling masonry. We are lucky that no one has been killed or seriously injured and that there has been no major fire. The possibility of a catastrophic failure with an essential utility failing increases year by year. Whenever we move out, be it by design or necessity, we have to move as one entity—that is, Parliament.
Successive Governments have demonstrated limited knowledge of our constitution. They variously advance schemes for change which have been advocated on their individual merits and not within a clear intellectual approach to constitutional change. We need to stop what amount to constitutionally incoherent schemes, made without standing back and understanding where we are going. Ministers need a grasp of core constitutional principles, not least those governing the relationship between the Executive and Parliament. The Government are the creature of the constitution, not the other way round.
I conclude with some questions for my noble friend the Minister. First, a practical question: how much public money has been spent exploring the cost of locating the House of Lords in another city, and who authorised that expenditure? Secondly, what constitutional authorities were consulted by government prior to the Secretary of State’s letter of 13 May? Thirdly, was the Cabinet Office consulted by the levelling-up department before the Secretary of State wrote to the Lord Speaker? Fourthly, what study have the Government undertaken of practice in other nations with bicameral legislatures, and if they have undertaken such a study, what conclusions have they drawn? Finally, does my noble friend accept the constitutional principle that I have enunciated?
This debate is not about some secondary issue; it is about maintaining the health and integrity of our parliamentary system of Government. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend, if I may call him that, because we have known each other since our days as undergraduates at the University of Sheffield. His contribution, as we would expect from someone whose standing on constitutional issues is renowned, has placed the beginning of this debate exactly where it should be in terms of a challenge as to whether those putting forward proposals understand both our constitution and the impact on our democracy. Noble Lords will forgive me for saying just one or two words on the practicalities before I get to the constitutional issues he raised.
It is very easy to dismiss proposals that are thrown up for separating the two Houses and placing the House of Lords in—originally—York, Stoke or somewhere else as being just a piece of mischievous politics, a threat or a piece of intimidation, or the throwing of a bit of red meat to people to say, to coin a phrase from the 1980s, “These are the new enemies within”—literally, within. However, it would be very unwise to take that view. Some of those who have been putting forward the notion of splitting our Parliament have a brain and understand exactly what they are doing but are not mindful of the long-term consequences and the spin-off that would occur in the way our democracy works. Therefore, very briefly, I want to make a contribution that I probably could not have made in the House of Commons because eyes would have glazed over—although, because I never see eyes glazing over, that has never stopped me in the past.
I want just to reflect on the history of the make-up of a functioning democracy, which is relevant today to the debate about asylum seekers or non-admissibles being sent to Rwanda. I touch on that because when a democracy and its representative functions do not operate correctly and effectively, people turn elsewhere within the constitution of a democracy to seek redress. In the case of the Rwandan issue, albeit that the Government have powers from previous legislation to deal with claims outside the country—both in the Nationality and Borders Act on admissibility and in previous legislation—neither House of Parliament has authorised the sending of potential asylum seekers to Rwanda, with all the consequences.
I raise that because, going all the way back to de Tocqueville—my noble friend the mover of this Motion will remember us learning about him all those years ago—he posed the issue of how, when a functioning representative Parliament will not provide redress and is not operating correctly, people will turn elsewhere. That is why Jonathan Sumption, in his profound Reith Lectures, raised the issue again about the way in which we do not push off the rights and the responsibilities of Parliament and the balance between the two parts of Parliament into other parts of our constitutional checks and balances. In particular, we do not push them off into the courts. The courts and the legal system will always take on what Parliament fails to deal with. We saw that with Article 50 and with Prorogation. I do not believe that we want that to become common practice. I do not sign up to the hysteria about the ECHR—the Strasbourg court—but I believe that people should reflect on why we should have to retain the rights that people have built into our constitution through the courts rather than through our Parliament. That brings me to the following.
If our Parliament is split and the two halves are in different locations, and it is not possible, as the noble Lord properly enunciated, for people to make representations, for us to share those representations with the other House, to hear from experts as well as pressure groups, and to draw down on the expertise that exists across our Parliament and within the confines of the hinterland of Parliament, we will not be able to fulfil our functions. I can easily dismiss the splitting of the two Houses: Black Rod leaping on to a train which gets held up at Milton Keynes and taking a bus through to Stoke-on-Trent to knock on a door that has already been opened, the Queen having been held up somewhere on the M6—that is the kind of nonsense we are talking about. Or there are the practicalities of a relocation of 600-odd individuals working directly in this House, not including those who work for Peers. Nobody has thought through the impact on a community in terms of house prices, rents and the knock-on effects —it is a nonsense.
However, the constitutional issue is the centrepiece and the core of why it is nonsense. That is why the noble Lord moving this Motion deserves enormous credit. We need to get it on the record that those who meddle with our constitution and our democracy without understanding—or perhaps sometimes understanding but not caring about—the consequences can throw red meat wherever they like, setting up false dichotomies and Aunt Sallys that can then be knocked down. We can abuse the legal profession, but it will be there for people if we do not do our job properly. That is why this Motion is so important.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for introducing this debate.
We should remind ourselves that the Michael Gove initiative to relocate the House of Lords from London was launched on the weekend of 14 and 15 May for the Sunday papers, 10 days after the local elections. I am not sure whether he planned it as a wedge issue to inflame his opponents and firm up his supporters or whether it was a dead cat strategy to divert attention from the disastrous opinion polls and election results which were threatening the Prime Minister. It is this sort of cavalier and short-term approach to public policy which diminishes politicians and politics, and it is surprising that Gove so diminished his reputation for competence and delivery as a Minister. I cannot see the Governments of Callaghan, Thatcher, John Major or Theresa May behaving in this way. I think even the more publicity conscious Governments of Blair, Brown and Cameron would have been circumspect on such a blatant scam. In any event, it is not the Government’s decision as to where we go; it should be Parliament’s.
I have a couple of specific questions for the Minister in addition to the four he has had from the noble Lord, Lord Norton. First, was he or the Leader of the House consulted before Michael Gove sent the letter? To find out a little more about how this Government operate, did he give advice and make representations on our behalf? Did anybody work out the cost of this initiative and whether it could possibly provide value for money, given the already huge cost of R&R? As a personal issue, perhaps the Minister will tell us whether he has worked out how he will undertake his current duties as a Minister while scampering up the railway lines to Birmingham, Sheffield, York or wherever it is to be, at our behest.
I find it slightly ironic that those who were telling us a few years ago about the huge extravagance and duplication of housing the European Parliament in two places are now very keen for Parliament to meet in two locations. Of course, I buy all the arguments that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, expressed and can only say briefly to him and the House, looking at the week I have had, how important those social connections across both Houses are. In fact, I would argue that. even now, the connections are not as strong as they should be; we are operating in two silos. I have been involved with our parliamentary team in the other House this week; I have attended meetings with our MPs and the Chief Whip. I know that my Back-Benchers and Front-Benchers have been in meetings with Ministers throughout the week, and in the coming weeks, I am sure that lots of meetings on the Schools Bill, for example, will have to be had at a very high level, and not just by the Minister in the House of Lords. These contacts and the APPGs are very important in bringing in public opinion and lobbying us, and it would be weakened by being in two locations.
One lesson that came out of Covid, despite all the arguments of those who want to hold on to some of the reforms that we achieved during Covid—which I do, was that what we missed most was social contact between us. Politics is about social contact; it is about gossip and the conversations that take place in the corridors and dining rooms, in our meetings, Select Committee work and so on, and with our colleagues in the other place through the various Joint Committees —of which there should be more—of the two Houses.
Having said that I agree fundamentally with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and there is no point repeating the arguments made by him, I want to comment on three issues which I think underlie this debate and the proposal that Michael Gove made. On levelling up, gimmicks and PR stunts just do not wash. At the moment, we have a daily publicity stunt from the Government, which I am afraid shows their weakness. Until we have a Secretary of State with the energy, enthusiasm and determination of a Michael Heseltine, the levelling-up strategy will not work. It needs a genuine partnership between central government, business, local government, universities and across all government departments. It needs such a dynamic figure to bring it together.
On R&R, we need to get on with it. If a very long gestation period is required to improve implementation, so be it, but we need to vacate this building. It must not be seen as an initiative simply for our benefit; that is, improving our accommodation. It is to protect our heritage and the safety of the building but, most important, it should be about opening up Parliament and encouraging access and ownership for the public, just like the Germans have done in their parliament in Berlin.
We should stop denigrating this institution of the House of Lords without coming up with genuine plans to reform and improve it, however difficult that will be. I am in favour of reform, obviously, but I must accept that gradual reform seems to be the most likely way forward, and we should increase awareness about that. We have to tackle four issues which I do not think are fundamental but which we have been discussing for years: reducing our size, breaking the link with the honours system, introducing a retirement age and ending the hereditary by-elections. That would be a start, and then we could have a longer-term look at how we make this House more representative of the states and the regions. Sadly, the Michael Gove publicity initiative simply will not do.
My interest is well known.
Seriously, first, I thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on the way he proposed the Motion. I also congratulate him on the way that, over the years, he has fought, week by week for a long time and consistently, for the importance of this House. His contribution has been extraordinarily important.
After the Great Fire in 1834, there was year after year of delay before work seriously began on a new House. One reason for the delay was the shoal of alternative proposals that were continually made. We seem to be going down exactly the same path again, leading to exactly the same destination of indecision and delay. We should perhaps remind ourselves that the original official consideration of the renewal and restoration position was in 2014. There has never been any dispute about the action needed to be taken—the faults, the omissions, the appalling electrics in this place; the dispute has all been about how it is to be done, with every known solution put forward, the latest, of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, said, coming from the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
It is worth pausing on that because his proposal comes in two parts. The first is to change—“veto” is a better word—a proposition made by independent committee after independent committee that, if there is to be a total decant as changes are made, the House of Lords should find temporary accommodation in what is now the Queen Elizabeth II Centre. Years after the proposal was made and repeated in debate after debate, the current Secretary of State says that he is not content and will not allow it. Why? Well, one reason is that he has a commercial interest. That small section of the vast Environment department makes an income from running the building as a kind of convention centre.
It reminds me of one of the first decisions I had to make in the Government of Margaret Thatcher when we found that a nationalised body, the NFC, was running a removals company called Pickfords. We dealt with it, as my noble friend on the Front Bench will remember, but what is a public body doing running what is in essence a private-sector undertaking? It is a question that might be asked but, here, the question is even sharper. There is a limited number of venues where the Lords could take up temporary accommodation. It is not up to one Minister to put his department’s interests in front of what could be a national interest, and certainly a parliamentary interest.
We should think very clearly about what is being proposed here. Having set out on his path, the Minister had no option but to propose an alternative, and it appears to be to go for a permanent solution and move the House of Lords to, probably, Stoke-on-Trent. For 31 years, I was a Midlands Member of Parliament. I have nothing against Stoke as a city, although I must say for constituency reasons that I would favour Birmingham or Nottingham. I can see only one argument for such a system: that I would love to be there when the noble Lord, Lord True, goes up to Stoke to explain the hereditary by-election system to the people there. I am sure that they would listen with great interest.
What is proposed does not add up one bit to a levelling-up agenda. The public are not fools. They would see such a move as an empty public relations measure with a range of practical drawbacks, as has been set out in various papers. How would we organise Joint Committee meetings effectively? How would we organise all-party parliamentary group and party-political group meetings? Of course, I have no interest in such things any more, being on the Cross Benches, but there are all sorts of practical reasons that amount to the life of this Parliament, but which have not been considered one little bit. A vast number of questions require answers.
All kinds of public bodies have given their views on the proposal, and they have predominantly been against it. It is not just us in the House of Lords; it is those outside. The argument I found most convincing was put by an independent voice: Mark D’Arcy, a BBC political correspondent whom I think many of us know to be both independent and an objective observer of the House of Lords. He said that Parliament should not be divided by relocation, and that:
“Those moments in the chamber where a minister faltered and opinion crystallised against them are much more elusive if the minister is on a screen rather than standing at the dispatch box.”
I think we all recognise that as being the truth of the situation. He also said that
“question times with online participants are necessarily more scripted and less searching”,
leading to less effective challenging of Ministers. It all adds up to the fact that the major beneficiary of the change being put forward seems to be the Government—not just one Government but all Governments.
My fear is basically this: far from increasing the influence of the second Chamber with government, it will, by the policy of separation, decrease it. Out of the way, out of sight—that is the danger. It will make it much more difficult to hold Ministers to account and the only people who will be happy with that result are Ministers. Let us be clear: Governments, it is reasonably safe to say, do not like independent voices to cast doubt on their policies or oppose their plans—I hope that it is not too controversial to say that; the noble Lord, Lord True, might even agree with that one —especially plans that might have been forced through in the other place by Whips exercising the power of a big majority.
Current Ministers say that restoration of the Parliament building is of course purely a matter for MPs and Back-Bench Lords. One wonders, then, why Ministers such as Mr Rees-Mogg and Mr Gove are so eager to intervene and put their case on the record—and in one case close policy options. We started this process in 2014. A few days ago, eight years after that date, we had a new document, Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster: A New Mandate. So we start again.
Basically, my view is this: for goodness’ sake, let us stop messing about. We need to keep to one course. What we do not want is to make this a botched project that shows the world—and make no mistake, the world will be watching our progress on this—how difficult it is for this country to make decisions and stick to them. Above all, we should recognise that we are one Parliament, not two.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for securing this debate and bringing to it his distinguished record as a scholar of our constitution and of Parliament. My own contribution to the debate will, I think, chime with much of what we have heard already from noble Lords.
I wish to make a few simple points. First, we are two Houses but one Parliament, a point that has already been made. Secondly, although Covid has taught us much about the flexibility afforded by current technology, as did universal postage, the telegram, and the telephone in their day, it has also taught us a good deal about the importance of physical proximity. Finally, as has been eloquently pointed out, to separate out what was never meant to be put asunder will mean that the role of this House and its usefulness will diminish, and the capability of Parliament with it.
If I may expand further, the Christian faith is profoundly relational, not transactional. It frames the understanding of God’s relationship with humanity and humanity’s relationship with itself. Both are found in the person of Jesus Christ. However, did we not find in lockdown not only the ingenuity and resilience brought by Zoom, bubbles, essential services and immediate family units, but a profound loss? There is a clue in the word “Parliament”, which bids us to parlay and speak to one another—or, indeed, as our Writ of Summons requires of us,
“a certain Parliament to be holden at Our City of Westminster ... there to treat and have conference with the Prelates, Great Men, Great Women and Peers of Our Realm”.
Further, although we jealously guard our own House, as the Commons do theirs, each Session, we meet together in this Chamber to hear the gracious Speech. Traditionally, messages and Bills travel the Corridor between the Houses. Peers physically watch debates in the other place, and MPs in this. Indeed, I recall the then Prime Minister sitting here on the steps of the Throne during our debate on Article 50.
There is in physical proximity something which one cannot replicate on Zoom or by email. When Charles II sought to gain an advantage by summoning a Parliament to Oxford, he did not send one Chamber off to Harwich, for example, to gain a further advantage, nor would it have occurred to him to do so, and nor would it have been thought consonant with our constitution for him to try.
Our move from the Palace of Westminster, together with the other place, should be organised with the end in view of the understanding and access of this place by the public, and of greater collaboration and understanding between the two Houses in our parliamentary life. That is the opportunity afforded us and we should take it. However, the Government have made it clear, not least in the Written Answer to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, that they would welcome the Lords participating actively in its policy of levelling up by moving out of London. For that reason, they will not make the Queen Elizabeth II Centre available to your Lordships, despite nearly £11 million already having been spent on the proposal. I have no doubt that the Minister will again say that our decant and location is a matter for us, but it is clear that the Government will not co-operate unless we separate from the Commons.
There are options for a decant in London. Following enemy action in 1941, the Commons temporarily located itself in Church House, Westminster, and Churchill had his office above where the bookshop is now. The UN later met there. The Church itself considered relocating the function of Church House in the late 1980s to Sheffield, and in the 2000s rationalised its estate within Church House, including selling No. 1 Millbank to your Lordships.
I have no bias against any of locations which have been suggested by Ministers, who have yet to propose Kigali as an option, but we should insist, as an irreducible minimum, that both Houses go together, wherever we end up. It shows little understanding of how a bicameral legislature works to divide it. We would see Ministers only on high days and holidays, the press not at all or rarely, and MPs only on special day trips organised by Parliament’s education department. Our scrutiny would be disregarded, our debates ignored. Our interaction with the other place would wither into desuetude. We risk not levelling up but shuffling off.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. I hope that he and his colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, will continue to care for the spiritual health of your Lordships as we remain in the capital. I join others in complimenting my noble friend Lord Norton on his choice of subject, his introductory speech, and his tireless campaign to promote the effective working of your Lordships’ House and, in particular, to prevent us being physically separated against our wishes from our partner down the corridor—a no-fault divorce if there ever was one.
The issue of R&R came up at the Members’ forum last week. These are very welcome initiatives and I hope that more will be held. However, it put the issue before us in perspective. Andy Helliwell made it clear that although the issue of where the House of Lords moves to was important, it was not holding up progress on R&R; it was not on the critical path. Therefore, there is time for us to persuade the Government to think again about their proposals.
Although I am complimentary about the Members’ forum, I am less enthusiastic about the Joint Statement from the two commissions, which was published on Tuesday, purporting to set out the next steps on R&R. I read it twice and confess that I was no wiser at the end, and that I was puzzled by the jargon that was used, such as this:
“The Panel recommends that the parameters ‘should be augmented by clear evaluation criteria’ which are designed to support option assessment, and key trade-offs which will need to be made to arrive at a progressively shorter list of possible options for the works. These criteria should take account of longer-term perspectives and link to the programme’s end-state vision and intended outcomes.”
Turning to our future location, in his Written Answer to a Question from me on 30 May asking why the QEII Centre was not suitable, referred to by the right reverend Prelate, my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh offered no reason why it was not suitable, but the first and last sentence of his reply were that:
“Levelling Up is central to the Government’s mission and the Government would welcome the House of Lords playing a leading role in that effort…. For this reason, the Secretary of State cannot support the use of the QEII Conference Centre, a location in the heart of Westminster, as a decant location for the House of Lords.”
I have two questions arising from this. Is that a statement of government policy, carrying collective agreement, including that of the Leader of the House and my noble friend the Minister, or was it just the personal view of the current Secretary of State, which might not have gone through the normal process of Whitehall clearance, and which might well be altered if it did?
Secondly, if the Secretary of State has his way, £10 million of abortive expenditure will have been incurred. Which unhappy accounting officer will be hauled before the NAO and the PAC to explain this? If it comes off the Parliament vote, will it be reimbursed by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities? Has there been a direction from the Secretary of State that feasibility work on moving to the QEII Centre should stop?
I notice that it is not proposed that the other place should join us in this exodus. If relocation of your Lordships’ House elsewhere would have a leading role to play in delivering the levelling-up agenda, as the Secretary of State asserts, would not that impetus be magnified several times over if we were to be joined by the other place? Sauce for the ermined goose is surely sauce for the plebian gander. R&R can proceed only with the agreement of both Houses. As we have discovered over the past eight years, getting that agreement is difficult. It is made more difficult, unnecessarily so, if there is a pre-emptive strike on options by one party to the discomfiture of the other. One lesson from the events of last month is that there should be no more of it.
In considering the proposition that we should move out of London while the other place remains here, I am reminded of the sketch in which Peter Cook is holding auditions for the role of Tarzan in a film and Dudley Moore hops on to the stage, clearly, in the words of Peter Cook, a “unidexter”, for the role conventionally played by a biped. Having complimented Dudley Moore on his residual leg, Peter Cook then says:
“I’ve got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is, neither have you”.
So it would be under the Government’s proposals: the country’s legislative Tarzan—Parliament—would be unable to play its role effectively, shorn of one limb. In the words of Peter Cook, next candidate, please.
My Lords, it is a delight to follow my noble friend, who has so wonderfully ridiculed the nonsense that has brought us to this debate today. Nevertheless, we must take some of the things that the Government are saying seriously, difficult though that might be.
Like others, I congratulate and thank my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I declare my interest as chairman of the group that we founded together at the beginning of this century, the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. We will continue to campaign for common sense and for the two Houses being together, in my case together in Westminster. This is the historic capital of the United Kingdom. I hope that it remains the historic capital of the United Kingdom, despite what certain government Ministers seem to be doing to discomfort those who believe in the United Kingdom.
I believe it is essential, for all the reasons that my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham so hilariously outlined, to keep us together in Westminster. The letter sent on Friday 13 May by Mr Gove is an example of arrogance and, frankly, ignorance that I have not seen equalled in my 52 years in Parliament—an anniversary that I mark on Saturday of this week. Whose business is it where we sit? It is the business of Parliament. Parliament is not the creature of government. Government is the creature of Parliament and the two Houses of Parliament, and that must be remembered. Yet Mr Gove fired off his letter to our Lord Speaker with its estate agent’s blurb at the end about where we could go if we did not like Stoke-on-Trent. He sent a copy the Prime Minister and a copy to the Leader of the House. I would like to know from my noble friend Lord True, who battled manfully with this subject on the Monday after the letter was sent, whether the Prime Minister was consulted. Was the Leader of the House consulted? If they were consulted, did they agree with this extraordinary proposition?
What makes it rather sinister is the answer to which the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham referred, namely the answer given by my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh to my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, which seemed to indicate that it was the policy of the Government that we should be hived off—it is not an issue of levelling up—into geographical obscurity because the Government wanted that to happen as part of their levelling-up agenda. Let us have some coherence and the facts. Is this really a government policy? If it is, it is a sinister policy.
Of course we want Parliament to be close to the people, but the way you do that is the way I have played a part in: you take Select Committees to towns or cities where the specific issues they are considering may be of particular importance, relevance and interest. I had the honour of being chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for a full Parliament. When I took it over, I discovered that in the past it had mainly met at Stormont, and we had some meetings in Stormont, but we went around Northern Ireland to many towns and cities. We even went to Crossmaglen on one occasion because in theory it was a no-go area. I spoke to the chief constable, Sir Hugh Orde, who said, “Of course it’s not. You should go and you will go.” The local reaction was very positive, so that sort of thing can happen. There is no reason at all why virtually all the domestic Select Committees of either House—education, health and all the others—should not have sessions in Stoke-on-Trent, Burnley and all the other places listed on the estate agent’s blurb that Mr Gove attached to his letter.
Parliament is for the capital city. As my noble friend Lord Norton and the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, made plain, Whitehall and Westminster need to be together. The practical difficulties, not to mention the absurdities of doing things on Zoom with people you can see and talk to here, are manifold. It is important that we have a united Parliament to which the Government are answerable, which is not the creature of that Government, meeting here in Westminster and, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, made plain, having that regular interchange between the two Houses. He gave some very good examples of his activities this week in that regard.
We really must say to the Government: you are meddling in things you have no right to meddle in. If this is just a freelance exercise by the temporary landlord of the QEII Centre, it makes it all the more, frankly, despicable. As my noble friend Lord Young said in his speech, some £11 million has already been spent on preparatory work for the QEII Centre. Where has that come from? How will it be compensated for?
There is another thing. Two or three members of the staff of your Lordships’ House came to me after our first exchange to thank me for what I had said and said, “Haven’t they thought of us?” As they said, many of them have children at school and houses that they have struggled to pay for. Do they really want to be decanted to Stoke, fine city as it is, in the county I had the honour to represent for 40 years? We must have consideration for those who work with us and for us, and my stress is on “with us”. Whether they be our admirable doorkeepers, our librarians, our clerks or whoever they are, they expect to be here and we should fulfil the expectations that they legitimately had when they decided they wanted to work here.
Therefore, for every possible reason, this is a not a realistic proposition. I hope my noble friend will be able to confirm that there has not been thorough government consideration and approval of this. I hope he can, but if there has been, there is another battle on our hands. If there has not been, Mr Gove should concentrate on the things for which he is statutorily responsible and should not meddle from constitutional ignorance—because you could make this proposition only from constitutional ignorance—in this great matter of what Parliament is, where it should be and how the two Houses are bound together in a bicameral legislature of which we all are proud and of which we wish to be prouder.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for giving us this chance to debate the importance of the collocation of both Houses of Parliament and for his brilliant opening speech.
My contribution to today’s debate is in two parts: first, an illustration from my diary of parliamentary engagements that demonstrate the interconnectedness of the two Houses; and secondly, a commentary on the Secretary of State for Levelling Up’s suggestion for the relocation of the Lords. I make this second point from my perspective of representing your Lordships’ House on the restoration and renewal sponsor body.
First, this is my personal illustration of the extensive connectedness of the two Houses. This was the subject of a note I sent to the Lord Speaker when thanking him for his response to Secretary of State Michael Gove’s suggestion of a move for the Lords to the Midlands or the north of England. On that day of writing—16 May —I attended the following meetings that involved both Peers and MPs: a lunchtime presentation in the Lords by the International Energy Association’s chief executive —I am president of the Sustainable Energy Association; a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Park Homes chaired by Sir Christopher Chope MP—I piloted the Mobile Homes Act 2013 through your Lordships’ House; the AGM of the adult social care APPG chaired by Damian Green MP, of which I am a vice-chair; and a reception in the Churchill Room for the National Custom and Self Build Association, hosted by Richard Bacon MP and attended by Michael Gove—I piloted the Self-Build and Custom Housebuilding Act through the House of Lords in 2015.
The following day, I attended a breakfast meeting for Peers and MPs of the Industry and Parliament Trust on tackling the housing crisis, then a meeting of the Lords Select Committee on the Built Environment. Although this is a Lords committee, from time to time it requires the presence of government Ministers from the Commons, who clearly need to be close at hand. On this day I also attended the AGMs of both the Land Value Capture APPG and the Fuel Poverty and Energy Efficiency APPG, attended by Peers and MPs. In the evening I hosted an event on the repeal of the Vagrancy Act 1824, attended by Members of both Houses.
Over these two fairly typical days, I was involved in eight meetings that brought together Members of both Houses, plus a session of a Lords Select Committee that periodically needs the attendance of a government Minister from the Commons. I think everyone accepts that holding all these joint meetings online, not in person, would hugely diminish their value, yet obviously this intertwining of face-to-face engagements of Members of both Houses in events, meetings and discussions could not possibly happen if the Lords and Commons were not located in accommodation very close to each other.
Moving to my second contribution in support of the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, perhaps I could offer a more direct commentary on the proposition from the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, on moving the upper House to a city elsewhere. Alongside the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Deighton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, I am a board member of the Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body and I have the responsibility of reporting to your Lordships’ House on behalf of the board as a whole. Any opinions I express today are entirely my own, not those of the board, but there are some points to share on the current position that affect any decant of the Lords to an alternative location outside the Palace of Westminster.
The two House commissions have agreed the principles of a new approach to saving the Palace, which involves taking the sponsorship role in-house and providing a range of different options for restoration and renewal. To interpret the House commissions’ report for the noble Lord, Lord Young, and others, I think the new proposals incorporate the following changes.
The R&R programme, as initially envisaged and as set out in the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019, will not now proceed. In place of a comprehensive programme of major works, the delivery authority is being asked to bring forward a selection of more modest ideas—an incremental approach to the works—which probably means a series of consecutive minor upgrades. This is fundamentally different from the previous strategy.
The proposed presentation of a comprehensive, costed business case for a vote by both Houses, scheduled for the summer of next year, is put back. The plans for decanting both Houses so that extensive works could proceed have not been progressed for several months. I detect no progress in persuading MPs of the necessity to move out to facilitate the mammoth task of upgrading the basement’s frightening tangle of sewerage pipes, electrical cables, et cetera, and I see no prospect for many years of Members of either House or both decanting anywhere voluntarily.
Despite governance performance deemed exemplary, the sponsor body established to oversee the process is to be disbanded as soon as possible. Meanwhile, our excellent chief executive will leave next month, and three other senior employees have already gone.
The changes will require legislation to amend the 2019 Act and the views of both Houses will be sought, perhaps before the Summer Recess. Whatever emerges from those debates, the issue of relocating the House of Lords to another venue, whether near or far, has been delayed indefinitely.
Some see this as a victory for those who were keen to kick the can way down the road and avoid facing the public with a large bill and troubling Members with a requirement to decant. Others see the new arrangements as preventing a train crash next year when the full R&R programme might well have been derailed by the House of Commons refusing to approve the business case for it and the consequent decant. Others see the changes leading to greater disruption, greater cost and a longer timescale for a programme that, in the end, will have to return to the necessity of a full-scale decant.
However matters turn out in the long term—it may now seem that the decant venue issue has receded—I fear that the unanswerable case made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, may still be of urgent interest if the changes now proposed lead to greater risks of a major fire, falling masonry, asbestos poisoning or other serious incident. In concluding, I echo noble colleagues in expressing deep appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I look forward to debating, in the next few weeks, the proposed changes to the R&R legislation.
My Lords, the title of this debate reminded me of Dr Johnson’s remarks at the auction of Thrale’s brewery, when he commented:
“We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich, beyond the dreams of avarice.”
In a similar way, this debate is not about the minutiae, architectural detail and geographical aspects of the location of Parliament. As we have heard from all sides of the House, it is about other things, which we are discussing today. For that reason, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on leading this debate. When discussing constitutional or legal matters, even in a semi-abstract way, there is a danger of emulating the great early Church council’s debates about the Trinity. In many respects they simply missed the wider point, and I want to try to avoid that error.
Unashamedly, I am a disciple—albeit a heterodox one—of the great English 17th-century common lawyers, and a proud, direct patrilineal descendent of one of the heroes of the 17th-century Parliament. Not for me the “Thorough” government of Strafford and his acolytes.
Parliament now is a single entity of two distinct parts, and that cannot be changed without our consent. These two parts are discrete, but they alone together are the source of parliamentary authority. It is my contention that, for this to work properly, they must be juxtaposed, and also juxtaposed with the Administration they hold to account, all of which is set in a framework of law. Propinquity is essential.
I say that because for 10 years I had the privilege of being a Member of the European Parliament, something that may now be a bit unfashionable. I was working in a parliamentary institution that was permanently on the move. It does not work well, and serious business is much harder to conduct—not impossible; much harder. Direct personal contact is important.
The events surrounding Brexit have led to ideas circulating about a revisionist version of our constitutional arrangements which, even if correct, do not alter the fact that much—indeed most—of Parliament’s time and activities deal with matters not defined in referendum questions and electoral manifestos. To use a contemporary word, they require curating. They generally relate not to the big picture—the what—but to the how. These are matters of detail, sometimes of micromanagement, and there is a wide range of all kinds of things that need resolution—and this is ignoring events that take place that change the world we live in. In any event, referenda and general elections are conducted within the framework of law. We do not simply grant the victor universal and arbitrary powers.
Disagreement about these things is our proper business, and it seems to me that government has no business to complain about that, even if on occasions it is sometimes fully entitled to be irritated, if not actually angry. While the Government are entitled to get their own business, there is a considerable proper scope surrounding timescale and detail, and it is our constitutional role to play a full part in that.
As I said, I was a Member of the European Parliament. I think that remainers and Brexiteers can agree that one of the problems with the relationship between MPs and MEPs was the lack of knowing and understanding each other—something that, when we have it, leads to greater personal respect. No Act of Parliament can make one person be in two places at the same time. As a number of Members have said, it is crucial that that is avoided.
I frequently comment that the 100 yards between this Chamber and the other place is the longest 100 yards in the country, and that divide seems to be getting longer. That is because we are at a time when those who are, if I may put it this way, the controllers of the other place seem to be adopting ever more frequently the motto, “We are the masters now.” It does not seem that there is much place in their thinking for checks and balances; rather, there is an urge for de facto or even de jure unicameralism controlled by the Executive.
Echoing the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, I remember that the late Lord Kingsland commented to me on occasion that when Parliament and the House of Commons stop safeguarding citizens’ rights then the courts will step in. You have only to look at the newspapers these days to see that the courts are quite busy.
In any event, as has been said by others, matters of location must be for Parliament, not the Government, who make the rather touching assumption that we will be welcomed with open arms wherever they might decide to send us. Is that actually so? I have wondered about that. It is government policy that the long-term storage of nuclear waste will take place only if the local community endorses it, and perhaps the same principle applies here. Indeed, as other noble Lords have commented, if there is a need for some other part of Parliament to go elsewhere then why not the other place?
I return to the overriding main issue, which is that unless the second Chamber, however it may be composed, is in proximity to the first Chamber, the standards of parliamentary governance that everyone in this country is entitled to expect will be endangered. That is likely to lead towards unicameralism controlled by the Administration, which is inimical to our traditions, the rule of law and our freedoms, which, taken as a whole, are a crucial and central part of Britishness.
My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Norton for initiating this debate. In my nine years in this House, I have attended his group fairly regularly and benefited from his wisdom and that of my noble friend Lord Cormack. Unfortunately, we have not managed to achieve much in these years, although that is not for the want of trying, but one of the things that we seem to have achieved, which my noble friend Lord True is probably not too happy about, is that from time to time we have debates where not a single person supports what the Government want to do.
I must say that I am disappointed that our own Front Bench is not represented here today. I am pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and the Liberal representation, but I am sorry that our own Conservative Front Bench have not been here for any part of this debate.
Yes, but I am talking about our representative in the Cabinet, who I would like to think was out there defending us. I want to hear a statement from someone who supposedly represents us in No. 10 saying what their take is on all this and what they intend to do in order to carry out the wishes of this House.
I spent even longer than my noble friend Lord Inglewood in the European Parliament; I was there for 25 years. For 10 of them, I had a very obscure job that involved me going around Europe to all the member states looking at their administrative arrangements for liaison back to the Parliament. That meant that in the course of those 10 years, on a cycle, every two years I visited every Parliament in the EU, the number of which of course expanded slightly during my 10 years. I noticed that all of them saw the necessity, where they had a second Chamber—and not all of them did—for it to be collocated with the other Chamber, generally in a building where they were connected at some point to each other, not dissimilar to this building. In one case, Germany, there is a clear distinction between the roles of the lower and upper House, but even there they are in the same city.
Another point that always struck me was that the seat of government is exactly that. It is not just the Parliament; it normally contains the seat of the Supreme Court and the seat of most of the major public bodies—just as London has the Local Government Association, for instance. The capital is the place where policy is debated, discussed and made. That is why, in my view, it is important that all parts of the democratic machine are located within that capital complex. That is the common way in which things happen.
As my noble friend Lord Cormack has mentioned, that does not mean that committees cannot travel. To take another European Parliament example, most committees went twice a year to another city somewhere within the EU for a meeting. Part of the job of the rather boring committee that I sat on was to make sure that they did not both end up in the same place, or that you did not get two committees in the same town at the same time, but they did travel around so that is possible.
However, we found in Strasbourg, as my noble friend has already mentioned, that getting people together was extraordinarily difficult because everyone was travelling there. Getting meetings of the Commission, the Parliament and the lobbyists who came down was extremely difficult and it did not function properly, largely because it was not cohesive or in the same city. Indeed, in the early days the European Commission made very little attempt to get there at all, and that was one of the big early rows about the Commission reporting to the European Parliament. I mention that because the essence of a Parliament has to be that all the different constituent parts, not just the Chambers but the other parts of the democratic structure, have to be located largely within the same geographical area.
Turning to some very local matters, some of which have been mentioned, every week within this place we have debates on Bills, and sitting in the Box are the civil servants. Where are they going to be? Are they going to be shipped off to our new home? No, they are going to be working in Whitehall, but then presumably they are going to be asked to travel. The noble Lord, Lord Best, has mentioned a number of all-party parliamentary groups; I doubt that a week goes by without virtually every Member sitting in this House being in an all-party group somewhere or other with Members of the House of Commons. That is part of what makes this place work.
Although “lobbyist” is a dirty word in many voices, that function is also very useful. Instead of talking about lobbyists, I could talk about my useful relations with the TUC, which of course is based in London and can tell me about what is going on in the TU movement, or the various trade unions that I am in contact with and sometimes mention in this House. Most of their head offices are in London and their officers can pop in here for a cup of tea, or I can drop in and see them. I have my reservations about lobbyists, particularly some of them, but one of their jobs is to impart information. A few weeks ago, when I was moving an amendment with the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, on the Health and Care Bill, we both made extensive use of consultation with lobbyists who we could get hold of. They came to see us and, together with senior civil servants who were prepared to come to meetings, we were able to draft a very useful clause.
In conclusion, I have only one question for the Minister. Is money still being spent on looking at the QEII Centre or has that stopped, and was there a contract? Will that contract be published and, if it is, will we see who in Michael Gove’s department initiated it? It appears that the Levelling-Up Secretary has cancelled a contract which his department must have negotiated, and presumably there is some sort of paper trail. I ask the Minister to pass the buck and say “Look: my House of Parliament—the House of Lords—wants to know what the background is to this contract. How did it get let, who has been representing you on it, how much have you spent, is it still running and what are you up to?” I would like that one question to be reflected forward. I join everybody else in roundly condemning Michael Gove’s plan and wondering whether it will have any support at all.
My Lords, I first welcome, as everybody else has done, the opportunity to contribute to this debate, so ably opened by my noble friend Lord Norton. I am speaking on behalf of not only myself but my noble friend Lady Fookes, who has other commitments and therefore cannot be present today.
I intend to keep my comments short, as I do not believe in repetition and many of the points that I would have chosen to make have been made by others earlier in the debate. I particularly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, on what we are watching. This is one proposal, but it can be seen as part of a progress over 20 or 25 years by Governments of all political persuasions—I am not making a political point—towards unicameralism and the dominance of Cabinet. Effectively, it is Cabinet dictatorship—making an announcement without apparently consulting anybody.
In his expert contribution, the noble Lord, Lord Best, really put his finger on it. Although the announcement affects the House of Lords, it was actually made because we cannot get agreement from the House of Commons. It is the Members of Parliament who will not agree to whatever proposal there is. He cited, much more authoritatively than I could ever do, the precise circumstances. We have to recognise, as I say, that we have a combination of the progress of government towards unicameralism—the Executive controlling circumstances—and an inability to get agreement from the House of Commons. Over the years I have been a fan of Michael Gove; I am just somewhat less of a fan than previously because of this announcement.
To pick up a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on the operation of the QEII Centre, my understanding is that the centre is still part of government —specifically because this issue of decanting the House of Lords had been identified, and the best solution was to retain the QEII Centre as part of the government estate. We could therefore move seamlessly to that building. I say to Michael Gove: please have sense and lift what seems, to be honest, an ill-considered and expensive decision, as others have identified, attempting to block us from moving across the road.
One issue touched on in passing by a number of noble Lords is the consultation with staff. Attention has been paid in detail throughout to the question of consulting us and consultation in government, but there is actually a legal obligation to consult employees. Where you have set numbers of employees, the process of consultation becomes ever clearer. We have several hundred people employed here yet, as far as I am aware, no aspect of that legal process has been undertaken. My one specific question to the Minister would therefore be: when, whether and how are the staff to be consulted and the Government’s legal obligations to be met?
I will cite just two examples from my experience—other noble Lords have done likewise—in the last few days. First, this Monday I had a meeting with the Minister from the Commons responsible for elections. It worked far better because I was able to go to the government department in Marsham Street and Kemi Badenoch could bring together all the officials concerned. I had that meeting because I have a Private Member’s Bill in the Lords, which will ultimately have to go to the Commons if it gets approval, and the best way of achieving the progress of that legislation was to have a meeting of minds—of Ministers and civil servants with a Member of the Lords.
One of the officials was online; of course, the presupposition is that that is precisely what would happen if we were to be located wherever we are to be located. Unfortunately, the link broke, so the only person who could not participate was one of the most senior officials on election matters because the system had failed. Out of that meeting, however, came an agreement that we needed two more meetings involving different people, including the Electoral Commission, which of course is based in London. What is to happen if I and others are based somewhere else? Are we all to come down or whatever? As I say, two meetings were agreed to and the best way for them to take place is on a face-to-face basis because you can expedite matters so much more quickly, as others have said.
I would like to refer to one other example: the events of today. Earlier today, there was an Urgent Question in the House of Commons on the resignation of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt. Michael Ellis, who was answering in the other place, did not have the letter available to him that was being sent from one place to another. But in a matter of hours, that Urgent Question is to be repeated in this place. How are the communications supposed to take place? Are the civil servants who are briefing at the other end the same civil servants? Would they therefore have to trek up to wherever we are, or is everything to be done virtually again? At the end of parliamentary Sessions, will there be the same exchange of paperwork where we adjourn for a number of hours while amendments are considered in one place? The Urgent Question on the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, this morning is a classic example of how there is a need for everybody to be reasonably proximate to each other.
It is unfortunate that we should be having this debate because it is so unnecessary. It is a reflection of a frame of mind. I conclude with one observation because, like the noble Lord, Lord Norton, I am not against moving to another city, but we have to do it together. In a previous life—I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, left a few minutes ago, as she would have been involved in this process—I was chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association. I was convinced that it was better if we moved around the country to provide the facilities to consult the brewers of Scotland, or the south-west. The people who objected most strongly were the brewers from the regions. If I said that we would meet in Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow, the brewers from Lowestoft, Lewes and Cornwall would say, “How are we supposed to get there?” One of the great failings of this country is that in our communications network everything is centred towards London. We have to recognise that. You cannot do things easily, if you want to be a national operation, in some of the regional centres. I think it is a sad day that we have this debate and I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said at the commencement.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for instituting this debate. I join the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for the work that they do on the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber. There is no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, today made a devastating case as to why the effectiveness of not only this House but Parliament would be greatly damaged if the House of Lords was no longer collocated with the House of Commons.
It is not the first time that I have felt some sympathy for the noble Lord, Lord True, in having to defend the indefensible. I have no doubt that he will do it with his usual skill and good humour, but I feel the discomfort that might have been felt by a citizen of ancient Rome sitting in the Colosseum waiting for a poor Christian to face a lion—or in this case, a pride of Lions. It is an impossible case to make.
However, I do the Government the compliment of believing that they are serious about the levelling-up agenda. So although I share the indignation that many of your Lordships have expressed about the Government’s handling of this issue, we are right to discuss seriously the pros and cons of the suggestion that the House of Lords should be moved outside London and separated from the House of Commons.
I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, that a main fault of our parliamentary system as it works today is that the House of Lords is already too separate from the House of Commons. This would inevitably be made worse by moving the House to a separate location. I have always believed that the basic construct of our Parliament is a good one. The House of Commons is rightly the main battleground between the political parties, but its Members are understandably preoccupied by the need to get re-elected and by looking after the demands of their constituents, which are inevitably increasing these days. The fact is—and we are all aware of this—that the House of Commons does not give sufficient time to the scrutiny of legislation. The House of Lords, consisting of appointed people with a wide range of experience and expertise, is able to fill that gap, as well as being able, through our Select Committees, to provide well-informed and authoritative reports on issues of the day.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that, if our system works perfectly, the two Houses complement each other. It should be a dream partnership, but we all know that, sadly, in practice it does not work that way—although I contend that, beneath the surface, it works more effectively than is often recognised.
The starting point, which I know from long experience in the Civil Service, is that all Governments regard the whole of Parliament as an inconvenient but necessary fact of life. As far as the Executive are concerned, Parliament, like the courts, is an institution which prevents or makes it difficult for Governments to do some of the things that they want to. From the Executive’s point of view, Parliament has to be manoeuvred around, appeased, cajoled, persuaded or just driven. A Government with a good majority, reinforced by their extensive powers of patronage, generally get their measures through the House of Commons, but they cannot count on doing so in the House of Lords, where they have no overall majority. It is true that the Government can use their majority in the Commons to overturn amendments passed here, but, nevertheless, the House of Lords is an irritant to the Executive. On our side, there is also frustration. We in the House of Lords often feel that the Executive in the other place overturn our amendments without sufficient consideration and without much respect for the painstaking debate and discussion which has taken place here.
Yet below the surface, Parliament perhaps works better than even we who are Members of it perceive. It partly does so because of the easy and informal access that Members of this House have to Government Front-Benchers responsible for taking legislation through the House, and to the channels of communication that those Front-Benchers provide to the departments sponsoring legislation. I know from experience that the noble Lord, Lord True, is a good example of that. That is the means, rather than debate in the Chamber, whereby improvements to legislation are very often made. As others have said, we have valuable Joint Committees with the House of Commons and some joint pre-legislative scrutiny, although not as much as many of us would like.
Apart from the practical difficulties that would arise from putting the House of Lords in a different location from the House of Commons—and those have been well described today—the benefits of collocation often unseen by the general public would be lost to our parliamentary system if the House of Lords was moved to a different location.
Of course, our parliamentary system could work better; it needs improvement and some major reform. But I am convinced that the working of Parliament as a whole would be made worse, not better, by moving the Lords to a location different from the House of Commons. That, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, is an important constitutional point. I do not believe that there will be sufficient advantage to the levelling-up agenda to offset that damage to our national life.
My Lords, it is bad enough to be the last speaker from the Back-Benches, but it is much worse to follow the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who normally lays down the law on most things and we have to follow what he says. I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who has given a very clear and convincing case for why both Houses of Parliament should be in the same place.
Since most things have been said, I will make my remarks in three sections. First, we in Parliament have made a mess of the problem of moving and restoring Parliament. I have never been fond of crowded parliamentary Chambers. I do not know why we, as one of the oldest Parliaments in the business, tolerate crowded Parliaments with no room to move around. When you go to the Scottish Parliament or the European Parliament, you see how parliamentarians should be treated, whereas we treat our parliamentarians as deserving to be in overcrowded rooms.
Rather than restoring Westminster, we should basically move out and have another parliamentary building. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, wants this place alone to be Parliament, but I have seen better parliamentary buildings. At least in those I could have the same comfortable seat every day and a desk, et cetera —but we do not believe in that.
Restoration has not been a great success. I remember speaking in a debate in 2018, during which the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, recalled that he had raised this question in the Commons in 2007, so we were already 11 years behind. Of course, in 2018 we were told that moving out by 2025 was urgent because of all sorts of dangers—but it cannot be urgent if you are going to move out in 2025. We did not take seriously the problems involved in repairing the Palace of Westminster, and we are still not. Obviously, the House of Commons does not want to move out, so we are caught in a dilemma.
This has made the issue of where to put Parliament a public football. I remember York being mentioned, as of course Stoke-on-Trent now is. This leads to the question of separating the Parliaments. Michael Gove, who has been much mentioned, is obviously a very clever man. He proposed Stoke-on-Trent, perhaps not knowing that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, lives there; if you go to his town, he will probably get the by-elections Bill passed.
However, the problem is clearly that, of all of the Parliaments in my 31 years here, this one and this Government like the House of Lords the least. There is a serious air of antagonism, with the House of Lords being a troublesome obstacle to a Government who have one of the highest ruling-party majorities. They have strong feelings about how to reshape our constitution and how to change this country into global Britain or whatever. Also, we have had three Conservative Prime Ministers in just the last six years. So things are troublesome over there, and I think that they want one obstacle—the House of Lords—to be removed.
As many Members have said, we discuss legislation in greater detail than the Commons do, and we reject or amend many of their clauses, giving them hard work to do to reject our changes. Therefore, they would rather we were somewhere else, to make their lives simpler. Of course, I quite agree that that is not feasible, but from early on we should have tried to find another location or build one anew. We have had a lot of time. I wrote to someone on the committee just before the pandemic to say that we should start building a new construction for both Parliaments right away, so that we would be able to move in—but that did not happen.
So here we are, strongly disliked by the other place, and we have to firmly say, “We shall not be moved”. I remember the old civil rights song that I used to sing, “We Shall Not Be Moved”. But I point out one thing to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who said that the Houses of Parliament should
“continue to be co-located in the same city”.
Yes, of course they should be in the same city—but he has not said what country. There is a secret plan, which the right reverend Prelate saw through, and it is Kigali. As a devoted Daily Mail reader, I know Kigali is a wonderful place, and the hotels are absolutely marvellous, so if we were transported there, we would be envied by everybody. Of course, Rwanda is a very nice place, and part of the Commonwealth. The prospect is that we should all go to Kigali. Would not that be fun?
My Lords, when you have the job of summing up for your party in a debate like this, you think, “Do I have an original point?” You put one or two up there, and it is like watching ducks go down at a fairground—that has gone, that has gone, that has gone. But the basic point about this is that a bizarre statement was made out of the blue, which none of us was ready for, and all of us think is vaguely ridiculous. So we have a starting point; then we come down to the points behind it. One is the ongoing farce that is restoration and renewal.
Certain people think that, when you make a speech in the House of Commons—and remember that we are talking about the people there, the commons, housed together in one place, with royal authority—if you do not do it in Westminster, somehow, no matter what you say on what subject, it does not count. And it has to be not just in Westminster, but that bit of Westminster, which is, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, said, possibly the longest hundred yards in the world. That is patently absurd. If you say it in a Parliament that works together, it is still valid, but what you say on a subject must be more important.
So, does it really matter if we say it somewhere else? Not really—but then you get into the practical difficulties. As the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, pointed out, it is very difficult to travel anywhere other than London in the United Kingdom, because of the Victorian infrastructure. That is true, so we have to ask whether we can go elsewhere. I have been to Canberra, and it is a nice place. I have not been to Kigali but, as I pointed out when we discussed this before, there is a tradition of suggesting somewhere you like as a new basis for Parliament, and Kigali is a new one. I suggested Norwich because of the number of pubs there. That was inspired by the fact that Michael Gove’s comment was the sort that usually comes up halfway through the third round in a pub, that should be forgotten by the end of the fourth, and certainly not remembered the next morning. We are just putting forward a series of ideas because we are frightened of moving.
I have a small bet with a couple of people—it is actually quite a big bet if you count the number of times I have made it—that we will leave this building only when we are driven out by overflowing sewage or a fire, because somebody will always say, “No, we can’t possibly leave.” It will always be inconvenient. We have the Civil Service here and everything else. So once you have identified somewhere you can go that minimises that inconvenience, you seize on it. Then you are told that it is minorly inconvenient to a bit of government. There is an idea that it is covering up a bit of bad news or something else to discuss. I think that probably only we are really that interested; I think that is something that comes across here.
We have this odd situation where the practical work of Parliament can carry on somewhere else. It has to be close to the Civil Service in Whitehall, and because we are not going to move everybody else, we carry on there. If we move out and go somewhere else, we really should go as a block, because walking distance matters, for all the reasons that have been stated. We have all been on Zoom meetings. When Zoom meetings become real you can suddenly discuss new issues, the nuance comes out and you get what is coming out. There is nodding going on here; I will leave it at that. All the committee meetings we had on Zoom were never as quick or as efficient as when we met face to face. Zoom may be a lot better—or Teams; hey, let us not be brand specific—but it is never going to be as good. It may cover up things and be a way forward, but the final decision generally requires a degree of interaction, especially for a large group. We have to get on and do this.
If we allow ourselves to be used as a football and do not extract a price from those who are doing the kicking of that football, we will get into a ridiculous state of affairs where we get used as an excuse. It has been stated that the House of Commons and the House of Lords have a love/hate relationship: they both love themselves and hate each other. We cannot allow this to go on. The House of Lords’ function is to annoy the Executive at times. Anyone who wants to look at this function should have been on the Schools Bill. Any Whip sitting down there would have looked with a degree of dread on their faces as they saw the Benches, where I think the last three Ministers who had looked after education quietly patted their stilettos as the incumbent tried to defend Henry VIII powers. It was something for the connoisseurs.
We have a situation where the House of Lords has to be here to be effective. We have to be close enough to act, but do we have to sit in these particular Chambers? Probably not, though it would be nice to come back. Let us face it, it is a grade 1 listed building and nobody is in a busting hurry to take it on and do anything else with it. I believe all the museums in London were asked, “Hey, would you like the place?” and all said, “Thanks, no.” It is not exactly built for exhibition galleries, let us face it.
We have arguments here which are covering up the major issue, which is the fact that a few people in Parliament, predominantly in the House of Commons although they have some allies here, do not want to leave, so they say, “Let’s come up with another bizarre idea. Let’s throw it out there.” I do not know, is it a conspiracy? Has somebody bought train ticket options for the future, to make sure the entire place travels more often? Other forms of transport are available. That is the only reason I can think of for why this would work.
When the Minister replies to this debate, I hope he will make it quite clear that everybody in Whitehall knows just how happy we are with this suggestion, and how the tone in which it was done has annoyed us even more. Ultimately, are they aware that if we stick our heels in, we can just say we are not going? If that is something that is being said in the corridors of power—or, at the other end, the green corridors—then we will be okay and we will not have this ridiculous situation, because all the work that is done by the informal structures here, the all-party groups, the outreach, et cetera, will become almost impossible. We will become a little codicil in the background. Government will not have that effective check of us saying, “Wait a minute, listen”, which they need every now and again. I have just given noble Lords one example of a Bill that needed it. They have to take on board the fact that Parliament works better as a whole—or will the House of Commons fundamentally change and do all our work on legislation? I do not know. If they want to make a fundamental set of changes, why do they not make a proposal first?
Unless we get some coherent strategy on this that stops people filling out a news sheet at the drop of a hat, we are going to carry on having this debate. If the price of that is saying, “Yes, we will move”, or, “No, we won’t”—I do not think anyone is brave enough to say the second of those—we are going to carry on with this. I look forward to the Minister’s reply and I hope that we do not have to do this again.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing a topic that has huge constitutional and political implications, as he indicated, but also for uniting your Lordships’ House around a common theme. This has been an interesting debate, with different experiences brought to bear on the constitutional issues before us. It is relevant that taking part in this debate we have six Members who have served in both Houses of Parliament and who want both Houses to work well together, as others do.
The relocation of Parliament is not a new concept; the noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred to this. There is nothing wrong in considering Parliament, or Parliament and government, moving to a different location. The noble Lord referred to when the Economist, in 1962, mooted—partly as a joke, it has to be said—that the whole of Parliament be relocated to what would be a new and exciting city, Brazilia, on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Many years earlier the same proposal was made for a new Yorkshire city named Elizabetha. But none of that came to pass, I suspect largely because of the necessity of keeping much of the business of government and Parliament together to work as a cohesive unit. The logistics and costs of that change would require huge organisational and financial commitments that would dwarf even the most enthusiastic, and highest, estimates of R&R.
What is new is the proposal to divide Parliament. When this was first mentioned and the Prime Minister said he wanted to send the House of Lords to York, it was regarded as a bit of a joke. There is a problem with political jokes. We used to say they get elected; now we say they become policy. It took a while for the penny to drop. The Government were actually serious about this: that part of Parliament be moved out of London. I assume that the plan is that the House of Commons would remain in London, presumably in this building forever, not even decanting for the restoration and renewal project.
Where I depart from the noble Lords who have spoken largely about the R&R project is not in my criticism of how long it has taken. I do not think this is about the restoration and renewal project. I have a vision of the Prime Minister at the Cabinet table in Downing Street. The Leader of the House of Lords goes in and says, “Prime Minister, we’ve just been defeated three times tonight in votes in the House of Lords.” The Prime Minister ruffles his hair, puts his head in his hands and he says, “Who will rid me of this turbulent Chamber?” Thus, the plan was born.
The restoration and renewal programme was an opportunity for the Government to look at this, not the reason for doing so. The justification had to follow that. We have not seen any substantial impact assessment or proper analysis of the constitutional arrangements. We have not seen impact assessments of the financial plans that would be involved. It is just something that has been plucked out of thin air. James Cleverly told us this would be a permanent move to make sure that
“every part of the UK feels properly connected to politics”.
What connects people to politics is not geography; it is what people say and do, and the promises they keep. It is how politicians behave and how they engage. That is where the connection lies.
Michael Gove said that moving the Lords out of London is part of a levelling-up programme. Surely we could do better for those areas that need support than creating a new infrastructure to temporarily support the work of part of the Houses of Parliament.
I think the noble Lords, Lord Norton and Lord Young, made the same powerful point about the ability of citizens to engage with parliamentarians of both Houses. We have also heard a lot about the ability of parliamentarians from both Houses to engage with each other. If we removed that, it would not enhance our democracy in any way; it would actually diminish our democracy and engagement. I have to say, if it looks and sounds like another expensive gimmick, it probably is another expensive gimmick, and we have had quite a few from this Government.
I will pick up on a point about hybrid and remote proceedings. A senior parliamentarian at the other end of the building said to me, “The House of Lords has done so well working remotely, or hybrid, that they can carry on and we can stay in the building”. I think this House did extremely well in remote and hybrid proceedings through necessity, not through choice. I doubt that any of us would go back to that through choice. Those of us who sometimes spent more hours than was good for our physical or mental health in front of screens watching our discussions and debates know that they were a series of comments not connected to somebody who spoke earlier, while somebody else went off and had a cup of tea or their dinner and came back again. It was not a debate or an engagement; it was transactional. Hybrid and remote proceedings are very good for transactional processes, but they are not good for debate. I am quite appalled that anyone would consider that an option.
I have no problem with moving out of this building— I have been advocating for it for some time now—but any change in how Parliament works has to be based on improving and enhancing democracy. It should not be about making life easier for the Government. Alternatively, the Government are trying to cloak this issue in an almost Trojan horse of House of Lords reform, but it is this House that has approached the Government for reform time and again, largely about the size of your Lordships’ House, but all we see is another long list of more Peers sent by the Government. It is the Government who have refused to look at reform with us, saying that we have to do all reforms or none. There are lots of things we could do to reform your Lordships’ House—but in the interests of making our work better and doing our work better.
Parliament works best when the relationship between both Houses is respectful and both understand the roles of each other. I think the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, made the point originally that we do not understand each other enough. Moving us to different parts of the country will make that process even more difficult.
The original speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and enhanced by others, made a powerful case for the constitutional implications of collocation being the best way forward. My noble friend Lord Blunkett entertained us all with examples of how some of the formal proceedings would be quite ridiculous at opposite ends of the country. But aside from those proceedings, what about Joint Committees looking at legislation? What about the work we do discussing policy with our colleagues in the House of Commons? I think half my steps every day are from walking down the Corridor. It may be the longest hundred yards, but there is a lot of engagement in that hundred yards between Members of this House and the other place. There are also the informal arrangements we have, such as all-party groups and policy discussions. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, gave an excellent example of how legislation was working better because of the engagement he was having with Ministers at the other end of the building and with civil servants.
I can find no constitutional parliamentary democracy in the world where two Houses do not collocate. There are examples in the Library briefing, which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, gave: Burundi, the Philippines and the Ivory Coast. In Burundi, this is only temporary while there is a move to a different city to separate the financial and the political—and there might be some highly political reasons for that—but, nevertheless, these countries all have presidential systems. The Prime Minister might have in the back of his mind that he quite likes a presidential system, but it is only countries with presidential systems that do not collocate their Parliaments.
I feel that this debate has been born out of the frustration that this House dares to challenge. We challenge within the parameters of the constitution and the work we do. We do not push it again and again and take it too far, but we reserve the right to ask the House of Commons to think again on an issue. I will be honest: there was never a golden age where Prime Ministers and Cabinets said, “Come on, House of Lords—tell us where we’ve got it wrong”. That just does not happen, but this Government have taken it to a completely different level that we have never seen before in the history of this country. We have seen that with the BBC: after the BBC challenged them, it was in trouble. We all saw Nadine Dorries at the Select Committee where she thought that Channel 4 was publicly funded—and the Government do not like it, so it has to be sold off. We have also seen it with the judiciary. If you oppose the Government, be prepared to be cut off at the knees, because they do not like any challenge at all. This Government fear challenge and loathe scrutiny. I fear it is no longer a Conservative Party but a very populist party that is in government in this country.
Today, we heard very practical, common-sense reasons in the interests of democracy, scrutiny and good government —for any Government—why collocation is the best way to run a bicameral system. The noble Lord, Lord True, has been asked a number of questions today and I look forward to his answers; he gets the sticky wicket quite often, I have to say. If the answers are not satisfactory, the Government have to listen. Nobody in your Lordships’ House has said today, “We must never move. We don’t want to be anywhere else.” All we have said is that if we are serious about the bicameral parliamentary system, there has to be collocation of both Houses in the same town, at least.
My Lords, my father said that the greatest cricket innings he ever saw was played by Sir Jack Hobbs on a sticky wicket. I am afraid I am no Sir Jack Hobbs, but I will try to answer the debate. I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, who opened with a characteristically informed and thoughtful contribution whose spirit has been echoed with unanimity throughout the debate. I always wait for the radical moment with the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Desai. He wanted to build a new central Parliament with more space for everybody and more desks, but even he, in his radicalism, was clear that collocation was desirable.
Let me try to respond. I take up what the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said: it may be the Colosseum—I confess that I am a Christian—but I do not particularly feel in the face of lions. I hope your Lordships will hear that I am a lamb that is ready to lie down with some of the things roared out by the lions today.
I have, as usual, enjoyed the great depth of constitutional understanding and deep knowledge of history demonstrated today. I will start by making a fundamental point on the constitutional position and functioning of the House of Lords, which underpins many of the questions in the debate today. It is a point I have made before at this Dispatch Box and it is this: by the principle of exclusive cognisance, any decision of its location is a matter for this House itself to decide on. The Government—I speak at this Dispatch Box as a government Minister—recognise and respect that position. I have made this point in previous debates, but I welcome the opportunity to put it on record again.
Let me turn to the core topic of the debate: the case for the collocation of both Houses of Parliament. As many noble Lords have stressed, there are important conventions that have governed the collocation of both Houses and, in turn, these conventions have shaped how this Parliament does its business. There are ceremonial practices predicated on collocation—I agree that the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, made a brilliantly amusing speech on this topic—and these are an important aspect of the tradition and inspiration that marks our parliamentary democracy. Her Majesty the Queen opens Parliament and she is not allowed into the House of Commons. She does it from this place but with Members of the House of Commons present at the Bar to hear that statement.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark referred to the action of Charles II taking Parliament to Oxford in 1681. That was to try to frustrate what was probably the second or third Exclusion Bill, to stop his brother acceding to the Crown. It did not work. Removing people from the centre is not necessarily effective, as Charles II found. Per contra, he found that coming and sitting at the fireplace in the House and watching proceedings in person allowed him to exercise more influence, because everything was in the same place at once—but I stray into historical matters.
Let me come to the practical day-to-day arrangements. I further agree with what so many have said that proper accountability and scrutiny requires that Ministers are close to Parliament. Many noble Lords have made the very pertinent point that close engagement and regular interaction with the other place facilitates better working relationships. In fact, as we have heard from many in today’s debate, one of the clear lessons of the pandemic was that although virtual working is possible, there is real value in having personal, face-to-face engagement. I have greatly benefitted, both as a Minister and as a Member of the House, from being physically present in the House, and, as a Minister, from hearing the views of noble Lords in the margins of proper debates, in the kind of daily engagement that takes place. My worst experience since I have had the honour of being a Member of your Lordships’ House was sitting at my kitchen table during the lockdown, trying to answer questions from your Lordships, with somebody screaming in my ear that there was too much light coming in from the right. I pay tribute to the work done to make the hybrid and remote House work, but a Minister’s first duty is to be here at this Dispatch Box.
Furthermore, if we consider elements of the legislative process, particularly perhaps when there is disagreement between the Houses in ping-pong, it facilitates effective working and communication if the two Houses are in close proximity. I well remember when I was private secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, in the days of the Labour Governments of Mr Blair and Mr Brown, that when there was a difference, Cabinet Ministers, including the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, would come in person and talk to colleagues in the Opposition about difficult issues between the two Houses. I cannot speak for the quality of the language that was always used, but the physically present conversations helped progress business.
In summary, this House is part of a legislature, and in any consideration of its future, the exigencies of parliamentary practice and procedure will always have to be considered. Those are the points that your Lordships have made and I agree with all of them.
A number of noble Lords referred to restoration and renewal, opened by my noble friend Lord Fowler. Obviously, this is really a matter for Parliament and not for a government Minister to respond to, but let me address some of the points made. As noble Lords will be aware, the joint commission has now published its report and it is currently planned—and this is a matter for your Lordships—to seek a revised mandate from both Houses before the Summer Recess. Parliament is now reflecting on the future of the R&R programme. As noble Lords have noted, the question of decant will now have to be reviewed, but such broader questions are for consideration at a later date and are not part of the decisions of the joint commission that will be put to the House before recess. My noble friend Lord Hayward asked whether staff in this House would be consulted. The joint commission recognises the need for staff consultation, and its report sets out its intention to consult staff on the next stages of the R&R programme.
My noble friend Lord Balfe asked specific questions relating to the QEII Centre contract. I will come back to the question about consultation on this, but in relation to the contract I recommend that the noble Lord raises this with the House authorities, as they would be more properly able to answer it. The £11 million mentioned in the Times is from the R&R budget, which is managed by Parliament.
Both commissions on R&R were concerned, as my noble friend Lord Fowler and the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to, by the proposals brought forward by the sponsor body, which deviated substantially from the initial estimates relating to cost and schedule. The independent assurance panel made it clear that the current model is unlikely to be viable.
On bringing the scheme in-house, the commission’s proposals are intended to ensure that necessary work can be started sooner and better meet the needs of the parliamentary community. There is the prospect of bringing certain projects forward more quickly than current projections. My right honourable friend the former leader of the House, when on the Commons commission, helped encourage the House authorities to conduct more work in the House ahead of timetable, including the northern estates project.
On restoration and renewal, let me be clear and repeat that this is a parliamentary programme and decisions on how to proceed are for Parliament. However, I hope we can agree that it is in the interests of the Palace of Westminster and the British taxpayer if both government and Parliament work together.
Behind the debate has been the question of Parliament moving outside London. I am not advocating that Parliament should move outside London; I have responded on the importance of collocation. My noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Balfe both referred to the fact that the Companion to the Standing Orders allows for Select Committees to be given the power to
“adjourn from place to place.”
Certainly, we wish the proceedings and activities of Parliament to be more open to people around the country. However, it is already possible for a Select Committee which ordinarily meets in Westminster to sit and hear evidence outside the precincts of the House, and this happens. When I had the privilege to chair a Select Committee of your Lordships we met in what will soon be, I am pleased to say, the city of Doncaster, and we were very well informed by that. Arrangements are possible, though practical arrangements and questions of benefit and economic cost have to be weighed. These are considerations for your Lordships to weigh. These are decisions for the House.
Reference has of course been made to the letter which was written by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. Having read it, I understand that he said that he would welcome the House of Lords playing a role in the levelling-up agenda and suggested a number of cities as illustrative options. I have said how in one respect, through Select Committees, the House of Lords and the other place can be more open to other parts of the country, and we are already. As the debate today has shown—I welcomed the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, on this—your Lordships’ House is carefully considering in this context the Government’s priority of levelling up, and balancing that with other priorities, which must include how best to further an effective and efficient Parliament, holding the Government to account, and the interests of the Palace of Westminster. I repeat that the questions of decant and location are decisions for a sovereign Parliament.
I asked my noble friend specifically, as did other noble Lords, whether the letter of Friday 13 May was consulted on with the Prime Minister and the Leader of this House, and also whether, following the answers of my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh, it is government policy that we ought to move. My noble friend is giving an excellent reply that seems to indicate a lot of sympathy with what has been said across this House today, but it would be helpful to have on the record what consultation there was before that letter was sent and before those answers were given.
My Lords, I am coming on to consultation, as I indicated I would. I will make every effort to get to that and I will get there, because I acknowledge that I was asked that.
I was asked about York specifically. As your Lordships will be aware, there are already civil servants based there through the Places for Growth programme. This is part of levelling up. The Cabinet Office continues to support the relocation of civil servants, including senior grades, out of London, which includes to York—indeed, I have been there on ministerial visits. In this context, the Government had previously engaged with the York Central partnership and, as part of that, explored whether the space would allow for parliamentary activity should it be required, but this is not a current activity.
On consultation, my noble friend Lord Cormack again asked directly, in relation to the letter that was published, whether I, as responsible Minister in the Cabinet Office or otherwise, was consulted. The answer is that I was not. The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, is considering all options for levelling up, which is a key government policy. I have the utmost respect for this House. I recognise the strength of feeling on this matter; I will refer that feeling to the appropriate quarter. I am committed to keeping your Lordships updated on this, and I know that the Leader of the House will play a full and important role here. Let me reassure my noble friends and others that if I can be of any further service to your Lordships on this question, I will be happy to do so.
I have not asked the Leader of the House personally, but if the noble Lord looks at the record, he will find that it is not my habit either to brief newspapers or, frankly, to read them. I sound a bit like the judge who did not know who the Beatles were, but I have slightly better things to do. The day after this report appeared, I was before your Lordships’ House and I think I made the position very clear for the Government. I have made the position clear again for the Government—the whole Government. Who said what to whom at any time I cannot answer but, as the responsible Minister, I have given the House a very clear response.
I am sure Hansard will record that intervention.
The commercial organisation of the QEII Centre is, as my noble friends Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Cormack referred to, a matter for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but the question of where the Lords should decant to if and when it decants is a matter for your Lordships’ House. I note the questions that your Lordships asked about potential wasted expenditure on the QEII Centre, but of course no final decisions on decant and location have as yet been taken by this House in relation to R&R. I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Best: the question of decant has indeed receded and the programme itself is being reshaped. Again, it is for your Lordships’ House to manage spending relating to this House and to consider factors to ensure value for money for the taxpayer. On the other hand, the Department for Levelling Up considers the commercial value of the QEII Centre and the benefits of its revenue to the Exchequer. Any decision by any authority should take into account the interests of the taxpayer.
I conclude by once more setting out very clearly the Government’s position on the questions raised on collocation. The Government recognise that the House of Lords has a key role in scrutinising the Executive and as a revising Chamber. One of the most valued aspects of the House is the expertise and experience that Members are able to bring to the role of scrutinising and reviewing legislation, and the question of where your Lordships’ House is based is important, as noble Lords have said today, in the way it impacts on how we can do our job. We have heard a number of considerations to weigh in the balance, and this is a central consideration in maintaining the effectiveness of Parliament. Indeed, the interests of the Government in this question are the same as those of so many of your Lordships who have spoken: that any approaches to the location or operational changes to the House should not impact on its capacity to undertake its work as a scrutinising Parliament and hold Her Majesty’s Government to account and, further, that any decisions carefully weigh the best interests of the taxpayer, the economic interests of the country and, of course, the demands of the renewal of the Palace.
When your Lordships come to take a decision on restoration and renewal—as I say, it is not an executive decision—and any potential decision on decant, I know that they will carefully weigh and balance a number of priorities such as I have described. The Government stand ready to support your Lordships’ decision-making and will always welcome constructive discussion. I have heard the points made by your Lordships in today’s debate very clearly. As a proud parliamentarian, I understand the significance of easy access between the two Houses. I am at the service of your Lordships’ House to answer any further questions that noble Lords may have on this issue in future.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to everyone who spoke in the debate. It has been an extremely powerful and extraordinarily important occasion. We have heard some excellent speeches, given added weight by the authority of those making them.
At a time when Parliament is getting a really bad press, we need to be looking at ways of strengthening the institution, not weakening it. I was particularly struck by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, that we should be looking at ways in which we can further strengthen the connections between the two Houses. There is a lot we can do. We are stronger together. There are a lot of institutional ways in which we can do this. I am a great advocate of pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny. We can make great advances there with a combination of the two Chambers together.
As I say, we are stronger together. We are clearly weaker when we are separate; that has been a clear message in this debate. In that respect, I know that my noble friend Lord True will be a strong advocate in reporting that back to the Government. Throughout the debate, there has been a clear message. My noble friend has come as close as he can to saying, “I’m on your side”. I know that he will be faithful in reporting what has been a uniform voice in this House.
Part of the problem, however, is that he cannot report back to a member of the Cabinet with a distinct responsibility for constitutional issues. When I put down a Question asking
“which Cabinet minister has overall responsibility for constitutional issues”,
my noble friend replied:
“The Prime Minister has overall responsibility”.
The Prime Minister has a range of responsibilities that occupy his time and is not renowned for being a constitutional theorist. Ministers need a grasp of the principles that underpin our constitution, not least those that govern the relationship between Parliament and the Executive. My noble friend Lord True clearly has that grasp but he is the one Minister to have some responsibility for the constitution; there is nobody senior with that designated task, which is one of the limitations that we face. In speaking on behalf of the House, my noble friend may have an uphill struggle, but he will have the support of the whole House in getting that message over.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am very pleased to open this important debate on the pressures facing the nursing workforce, who play a critical role in our overall healthcare system. Throughout the Covid pandemic, nurses constantly went the extra mile, and more, often at great personal cost. Indeed, I want to pay tribute to all health and social care workers who toiled through the pandemic with great self-sacrifice. We should never forget their heroic and unstinting labours. I refer to my declared interests in the register, particularly as a non-executive board member of the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust.
Last week, the Royal College of Nursing published Nursing Under Unsustainable Pressures: Staffing for Safe and Effective Care in the UK. It reported on the results of the RCN’s March survey, which asked staff about their last shift—that is, the last time that they were at work—and compared the results with earlier surveys from 2017 and 2020. It makes for salutary reading. The report states that recent events, including the UK’s exit from the EU and the pandemic, have highlighted and worsened long-term problems with workforce supply in health and social care. The findings highlight starkly the impact of growing staff shortages and rising demand on the ability to deliver safe and effective care.
To give a brief flavour of the report’s findings, only 25% of respondents said that their last shift had had the full number of planned registered nurses; 75% of respondents reported a shortfall of at least one registered nurse on their shift; and four in five respondents felt that patient care was compromised by not having enough registered nurses on the shift—these figures had all gone up since the previous survey. Also, only around one in five respondents agreed that they had enough time to provide the level of care which they would like.
There is a lot more besides, but these findings give us cause for real concern, in terms of morale and staff retention and in the impact on patients and their safety. Frequently, nurses felt that the quality of care that they were providing was compromised, ranging from basic personal care, such as helping patients going to the toilet, through to severely ill patients getting treatment late and, sometimes, medicines not being given at all.
It is also worth looking at the key figures from the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s annual registration report. It is clearly good news that the number of nurses, midwives and nursing associates on the register has grown to more than 758,000 given the pressures of the last two years. Almost half of newly hired nurses were recruited from abroad. Of course, international nurses and other professionals make a welcome and vital contribution to the NHS, but it raises ethical and sustainability issues when so many are coming from poorer countries that often are experiencing staff shortages in their own healthcare systems. Alarmingly, however, over 27,000 nurses left the register, a sharp rise on the previous year.
When asked in the NMC’s leavers’ survey why they left, many said that their main reasons included too much pressure and poor workplace culture. More than a third of respondents said that Covid and feelings of burnout influenced their decision to leave. Some said that they were worried about their own health, while others struggled with increased workloads and a lack of staff, reinforcing the findings by the Royal College of Nursing.
What needs to happen? As the Minister will no doubt remind us, the Conservative Party pledged in its 2019 manifesto to deliver 50,000 more nurses, and progress is being made against that target, which I welcome. However, as the Chief Nursing Officer for England, Ruth May, said recently, while the pledge was welcome, it falls short of what is needed. Analysis from the King’s Fund also supports the view that the target will simply not be enough, saying that at a national level
“recruitment is having no clear impact on actual vacancy numbers or on the shortfall of nurses in the NHS”.
It went on to explain that the underlying cause of nursing shortages was that demand for nurses was increasing more quickly than supply, for reasons that it described as “complex, longstanding and varied”. However, it cited the pandemic and new targets to increase diagnostic and elective activity, which have created new demands and exacerbated workforce shortages that long pre-date Covid-19. The King’s Fund recommended a regular assessment of demand for and supply of nurses in the NHS over the next five to 10 years as the only way of tackling the backlog of care and dealing with these shortages and with rising patient demand, now and into the future.
Workforce planning is clearly crucial, and we need to see an emphasis on university nurse training programmes and the very welcome degree apprenticeship scheme, but so is a strong focus on retention, with so many nurses experiencing burnout and significant numbers intending to leave. Unfilled vacancies increase the workload pressure on staff, and it quickly becomes a vicious cycle leading to high levels of stress, absenteeism and turnover. As we know, reliance on bank and agency staff as short-term stopgaps has huge and unsustainable costs.
What is needed for nurses to make them want to stay? Clearly, pay is critical, but my view is that the NHS must focus on becoming a more attractive employer. This means tackling head on concerns expressed about bullying and discrimination, offering more opportunities for flexible working, and strengthening more people-focused and inclusive leadership. It must also include more black and minority-ethnic nurses in senior positions. In short, it requires a fundamental change in the culture to create an environment in which staff want to work and make their careers.
In talking to front-line nurses during the pandemic and more recently, I have been struck by a simple message of “We just need to get the basics in place”. While well-being support and initiatives are welcomed, the nurses I spoke to said they just wanted to know that there would be somewhere they could sit and recover at the end of a long shift, that hot food and drinks would be available during the night when many catering services are closed, that there would be someone to speak to in a non-judgmental way after dealing with difficult cases, that leave could be taken, that there would be flexibility around rotas to help with family responsibilities and support with childcare, and that they would not have to pay an extortionate amount for car parking. I think we all agree with that.
Are these things too much to ask for the nurses who look after us and our families when we are most vulnerable? In short, it means working with nurses on what really matters to them. The nurses I spoke to said that nursing can be a great job and a highly rewarding profession, but we must get the basics right so that they feel they are valued and properly supported.
Finally, I want to turn briefly to wider workforce planning issues. Like many other noble Lords, I was bitterly disappointed when calls, supported by many inside and outside Parliament, for independent, long-term workforce projection data to be routinely published went unheeded in our lengthy debates on the Health and Care Bill earlier in the year. Like many others, I believe this modelling is key to putting the workforce back on a sustainable footing, ensuring safe staffing levels and supporting more strategic spending decisions. Given this glaring gap in the Health and Care Act, it is ever more critical that workforce planning is properly addressed in the forthcoming long-term NHS strategy.
The Secretary of State for Health recently told the Health and Social Care Select Committee that while the strategy is expected to include data on workforce requirements by speciality and to provide a gap analysis to inform training plans, he could guarantee only that the conclusions would be published. He said the plan may not be published in full, including the workforce projection data. He also told the committee that the number of people waiting for NHS care stands at 6.7 million. Surely we need to know whether the NHS will have sufficient staff to meet growing demand and how many more professional staff will be trained, along- side plans to create new roles and use technology to work in different ways. Is the Minister able to explain why it may not be possible to publish the workforce plans in full, and can he confirm the dates for the publication of Health Education England’s updated Framework 15 document, looking at long-term strategic trends and drivers in healthcare, the update to the 2019 NHS Long Term Plan and the 15-year workforce strategy setting out the number of staff the NHS will need?
As we all know, the NHS faces many acute pressures and challenges such as GP recruitment, which is well off track against the target, ambulance waiting times—we heard the appalling case in the news this morning of a 94 year-old gentleman who waited five hours after a bad fall and it tragically proved fatal—building new hospitals, unacceptable A&E and cancer treatment waiting times, delays in discharging patients due to lack of social care, and the list goes on. Having the right highly skilled, dedicated and motivated workforce, both clinical and managerial, lies at the root of them all. I very much look forward to hearing contributions to this debate from other noble Lords and the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, on this debate and agree with a great deal of what she had to say by way of introduction. This report gives serious grounds for concern. Clearly, Covid has played a major part in the pressures that nurses feel, and they deserve our sympathy as well as our gratitude. I agree with many of the suggestions of a comparatively straightforward nature that she made, which might be able to alleviate some of these strains.
I will focus on an issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, raised: recruitment. She mentioned that we recruit more than half our additional nurses from abroad, and that the Royal College of Nursing said there was a problem as a result of Brexit. I looked at the Royal College of Nursing labour force survey, which shows that there is the same number of nurses from the EEA now as 10 years ago, so that has not been a problem—but we have recruited many more from other countries.
What I find particularly alarming is the recent news that more than 4,000 of those nurses we have recruited from other countries come from poor countries that themselves have a great shortage of nurses. That strikes me as immoral and wrong. I am not alone in saying that; people on both sides of the House have said it.
What puzzles me is why we do not go on to ask, “What is the alternative?” Surely the alternative is to train more of our own nurses. No one ever focuses on the fact that in the last year for which I could find figures in the Royal College of Nursing labour survey, we turned away 26,000 British applicants from nursing courses—a far higher proportion than are turned away from almost any other area of training or qualifications.
It used to be because we rationed the number of places by bursaries, which came from the NHS budget. I remember discussing with Jeremy Hunt why we had not increased that. He said he had reached the conclusion that his predecessors thought, “If I spend more money on bursaries and train more nurses, those nurses won’t be available until four or five years from now when I won’t be Health Secretary”. Of course, that was not the case with Jeremy Hunt and he was instrumental, along with George Osborne, in changing the rules so that thereafter nurses were trained out of student loans.
We thought that would end rationing, but it has not. I understand from those I speak to in the health service that there is de facto rationing because of the supernumerary rules and so on mentioned in the report. Training nurses is an encumbrance as far as the hospitals are concerned—they do not count as part of the workforce but subtract from it. I do not understand that. What I really do not understand is that those who clearly know far more about the NHS than I do never focus on it. They never use their great expertise and information to identify what is going wrong. Why are we rationing places in our universities and turning away people who want to be nurses and who we need as nurses, blighting their prospective careers and making them do something else instead? It is a scandal.
Of course, we know why. People say, “If you’re advocating British people being trained as nurses, that must mean you’re against immigration.” I am in favour of having the most highly qualified labour force we can and giving the maximum opportunities to people in this country who want to be nurses and do other worthwhile professions, rather than saying that we ought simply to make ourselves open to every form of immigration from the world.
I noticed one puzzling thing about this report. It contains a whole series of harrowing comments from nurses, and more than half of them come from nurses in Scotland. I could not see why. I claim Scottish ancestry and was brought up to believe that this made me racially superior, until I learnt that that was racism; now I just claim to be equal to everybody else. I have a natural love of Scotland, and I cannot believe that Scottish nurses are in any way different. I looked at all the answers, when they are broken down by whether they are in Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland, and in almost every case the situation is more negative in Scotland, despite the fact that Scotland gets 25% more per head to spend on health than the rest of the United Kingdom. That makes me think that this is not simply a question of money; it is a question of morale, leadership and the whole ethos of the NHS.
Both in Scotland and in the rest of the United Kingdom, we ought to look at the sort of measures that the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, has put forward to improve the lot and the work satisfaction of nurses, and at the same time see what we can do to recruit more British people into our universities to become nurses and stop us stealing nurses from poor countries that need those nurses much more than we do.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, for securing this timely debate. This issue is close to my heart. I draw noble Lords’ attention to my interests as set out in the register, specifically as a former government Chief Nursing Officer for England.
In my role as chair of a health inequalities action group, and as a Bishop with oversight of a diocese that includes some of the best hospitals in the world, I have had the privilege over the last few months of listening to a wide range of nurses. They have talked about their continued passion for high-quality nursing care, the wonderful teams of which they are a part, the innovations that are happening and their pride in their work.
However, they also speak about what lies behind the figures set out in the Royal College of Nursing report: about the impact of the last two and a half years of being tired and having gone into work day after day despite the fears for their own health and that of their families, and about how they had to innovate on their feet and go beyond what they had ever expected to do. They undertook roles that they had never imagined they would. They coped with staffing levels that were well below what was required and worked longer hours than they should have done. They did what was required, and we are grateful.
They went on to speak about the continuing pressures from increased patient dependency as a result of the pandemic; about the challenge of people presenting much later with progressive disease because of late diagnosis, so patients are sicker in our hospital beds; about the increased level of vacancies; about nurses who had gone home to other countries during the pandemic and not returned; and about nurses retiring early because of the pressure that they had been under. They spoke about how they would do what they have always done: make do, and do what is required.
We have heard some figures from the report. A couple that came to my sight are that, first, only 28% of respondents said the skill mix was appropriate to meet the needs and dependency of patient safety and, secondly, as noble Lords have heard, four in five respondents felt that care was being compromised while one in five said they were unable to raise their concerns. This all has a cost, not just to the quality of patient care, which we have heard about, or the deferred cost to the NHS. Nurses are paying the cost with their mental, physical and spiritual well-being.
As a Christian, I believe that each of us is precious and made in the image of God, with a sacred dignity and value that should be respected. Individuals are to be cherished, not just used and exploited. As a former government Chief Nursing Officer, I recognise the challenge of ensuring that the number and skills of those providing healthcare meet the needs of the population. I am sure the Minister will tell us how many more nurses are in the system, but that does not ensure that the workforce meets patients’ needs, particularly in light of the fact that patient acuity is growing. As someone who was given the objective of finding 60,000 nurses, I understand how this requires a whole-system approach, which is why I believe the Government should do what is required of them.
The Health and Care Bill gave the Secretary of State a duty to report on workforce systems and publish a report, at least once every five years, which describes the systems in place for assessing and meeting the workforce needs of the health service in England. NHS England and Health Education England must assist in the preparation of this report, if requested to do so by the Secretary of State. Will the Minister say when the Secretary of State will publish their report? Five years from now will be too late.
We heard during the passage of the Health and Care Bill that this accountability fell short of what many of us felt was essential, and the outcome of this shortcoming is seen in the royal college’s report. It is unfortunate that the Government did not take the opportunity in that Bill to embed accountability for workforce planning and supply with the Secretary of State. I believe this is the only way we could ensure that severe staff shortages and patient safety issues are resolved and addressed in a sustainable way, right across the healthcare system.
As we have heard, the Government need to ensure adequate funding for increasing the number of nurses whom we train and, as the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, says, this will take time. The truth is that one of the limiting factors is that our wards are not properly staffed today. It is hard to support and train nurses when the level of patient dependency is higher than the skill mix provided, and it is right that nurses are concerned about this. Will the Minister reassure the House that any overseas recruitment, to make up for lost time in training new nurses, is ethical?
As we have heard, we also need to retain nurses. That is where the most critical action is required at this point. The Government could consider a number of easy changes, which we have already heard about, to promote retention. There are some simple ones: for example, raising the payment per mile travelled in the course of a nurse undertaking their work. The Government could ensure that the pay rises given are realistic and that there are adequate funds for continual professional development and clinical supervision. I also hope that they could put in place clear mechanisms for staff to raise their concerns when staffing levels are not good enough. No nurse wants to work an understaffed shift: there is a cost to them and to their mental health and spiritual well-being. If a nurse is unable to raise that concern, they are even more conflicted.
We have asked much of our nurses over the last two and a half years, and they have done what is required. I hope that the Government will now do what is required of them.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London who, together with the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield—whom I thank for securing this debate on the report—have covered clearly the huge issues that it raises. I want us to take a broader, global view and then look at some of the structural issues behind the immediate reality in that report.
On the global view, the World Health Organization tells us that there is a shortage of 5.9 million nurses around the world; that is nearly a quarter of the current global workforce of almost 28 million. The biggest shortfalls are in low and middle-income countries, notably in Africa, Latin America, south-east Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, that we in the UK should not be taking people from other countries, particularly ones with a nursing shortage. We should be training in the UK more nurses than we need. As a wealthy country, that should be our responsibility.
The International Council of Nurses says that behind this shortfall are many structural problems, including low pay, poor conditions and—remembering we are talking about the global scale—inadequate training availability. I note that McKinsey & Company did a study which found that, in five of six nations surveyed—the US, the UK, Singapore, Japan and France—one-third of nurses said that they were likely to quit in the next year. This is not a problem simply contained within the UK.
Of course, Covid is a huge factor here; the WHO estimates that about 180,000 healthcare workers died from Covid, many of them no doubt occupationally exposed between January 2020 and May 2021. Many others would have been harmed by long Covid, burnout and mental ill-health from the difficult conditions they were facing. Looking back to 2021, a long-term study by JAMA, a US research network, found that female nurses were twice as likely as women in the general population to commit suicide. That is a very disturbing statistic.
The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, set out very clearly that we have a problem in the UK; the Government have stepped up recruitment, but it is not even keeping us at the levels of staffing we have now. There are aspects of this job that are enormously, immensely difficult. There will always be people needing care at all hours and on weekends. It is not possible ever to make this a nine-to-five job for many people.
Nurses and midwives have to deal with tremendously difficult situations. I think of a student midwife testifying about being on a work placement in a delivery room which had just had a stillbirth. She was left, as a student, comforting the mother while other professionals in the room looked after the medical needs that needed to be cared for. Think about the fact that that student midwife is now paying to be in that situation. To study as a student midwife, that is what you do: you pay.
My thesis, which I want to explore a little today, is that the underlying structural issue is that nursing and midwifery as professions are profoundly undervalued. That is why we find ourselves in this long-term global situation. I am drawing on another Royal College of Nursing report from last year, titled Gender and Nursing as a Profession: Valuing Nurses and Paying Them Their Worth. I note that in the UK—I think this is broadly reflected around the world—this is one of the most gender-segregated professions; only about 10% of nurses are male. As this report notes:
“Nursing suffers from a historical construction as a vocation”.
Individuals, usually women, were seen to enter it because they had a calling, and the salary was almost incidental; it enabled them to keep pursuing that calling as it was just enough. We know that many nurses feel this and that, through the pandemic and at all times, they display huge amounts of good will, working far beyond their paid hours and in very difficult conditions, often without financial reward.
We have to go further even than thinking about the gendered construction of nursing. The question here is the gendered construction of care. As the RCN report I am citing says, care is seen as
“a naturally feminine skill or characteristic”
that sits opposed to professional skills and qualifications. But being able to care for anyone in even the most difficult situation is an emotional labour. This should not be taken for granted. It should be properly recognised and remunerated.
In the UK we are in a position to provide potentially global leadership. The Government should like this, as I will say that we were historically world-leading in the nursing profession, with Mary Seacole, Florence Nightingale and many other names I could cite. We helped establish the global pattern for nursing as a profession. Of course, the NHS as a large single employer has the potential to turn this situation around and truly acknowledge the contribution nurses and midwives make.
Yet over recent years we have seen austerity suppress wages. Our heavily suppressing the ability of trade unions to act in the UK has also had a huge impact on wages. It is interesting that, as the RCN report notes, there is very
“little variation in earnings across the nursing workforce”—
among registered nurses—
“despite the wide range of roles and responsibility”.
There is a huge undervaluing of all levels, but particularly the highest levels.
I am out of time. I wanted to comment on how, although only about 10% of the profession are men, they occupy 20% of the highest-paid roles, but I will leave the exploration of that for another day. I finish with a little thought experiment for your Lordships’ House. Bankers are paid an awful lot more than nurses. Why?
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Tyler on securing this important and timely debate and her excellent introduction to it. Its content is perhaps no surprise to many of us who have spoken so far. Our nursing workforce continues to face unbelievable pressures in their day-to-day roles. Supported by many other clinical and non-clinical NHS staff, nurses say that the NHS must staff for safety and for effective care.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London spoke movingly from her own experience and deep knowledge of the issues that nurses face. I pay tribute to all of our NHS staff, who face the most severe difficulties at the moment. The Government seem to have glossed over these in their post-pandemic policy of, “Let’s just move on”. I hope that the Minister will respond to the questions raised by other noble Lords.
The RCN report rightly looks at the impact on its members, and it makes harrowing and concerning reading, especially on the lack of enough staff on duty on a regular basis, as well as the personal comments of those who have left through burnout. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine’s Beds in the NHS report shows that the NHS needs 13,000 extra staffed beds—the emphasis on “staffed” is important.
The pandemic was an emergency, but long before 2020 we were well below the OECD average for staffed hospital beds, and some of us have been raising concerns about staffing and beds for well over a decade. The current OECD data, which covers 2017-20, shows that the UK has 2.4 beds per 1,000 inhabitants; France has 5.8 and Germany has 7.8, while Korea and Japan have over 12. To repeat, the UK has 2.4—we have lost 25,000 hospital beds since 2010. Of course, in referring to hospital beds, we mean staff as well.
The pandemic has shown us the consequences of having bed occupancy at 95% early in 2020, but the underlying problems remain. The front line of this crisis in hospitals is the ambulance services and A&E departments, but we delude ourselves if we look at only the data. The workforce is absolutely critical, and many noble Lords have spoken about how important it is to plan properly for our nursing workforce. They have mentioned the Health and Care Act and the Government’s apology for workforce planning, including their assertions that they may not publish the workforce plans in full. I echo the questions seeking to understand why that is the case.
Nurses’ role has changed greatly over the last 40 years, and their high level of education and training means that the skills they offer can help to take the burdens off doctors and other clinicians, who bore them alone in the past. Specialist nurse practitioners have transformed the lives of many with long-term conditions—I include myself in that. Community nurse roles have also changed, but their current workload means that their real benefit of having time to talk to, listen to and understand the needs of their patients at home, and then to be able to signpost extra help or resolution, is under real pressure.
So it is good that the Government have increased the number of nurse training places, but it is less good that it is still not enough, given the number of retirements and staff leaving through burnout. The King’s Fund report on the NHS workforce makes this point very strongly, noting how much the UK will have to rely on international nurses. The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, made some interesting points on international recruitment. He has specific concerns about 4,000 nurses coming from poor countries, and he is absolutely not alone in that. But there are some more ethical overseas arrangements: my local trust, West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, had an arrangement with hospitals in the Philippines whereby newly qualified nurses would come for a period, usually of five years, to gain some extra qualifications and then return home highly qualified. Even so, while they are away, their country does not have the skills for which it trained them.
Have the Government achieved their targets, set out in their elective recovery plan, which pledged to recruit 10,000 international nurses by April 2022, and are they encouraging the type of partnership that I just described? As my noble friend Lady Tyler said, retention is absolutely vital too. What plans do the Government have to tackle retention? This is about pay, the work environment, bullying, discrimination, more leadership and support for ethnic-minority staff facing discrimination and bias, all of which we have had reports on in recent months.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, made an important point about the gender construction of nursing and, indeed, care. She is right that we undervalue and underpay those in caring nursing roles. That too needs to be re-evaluated, not just by government but by society. We should not have health staff caring for people’s personal needs while on the minimum wage. There is also pressure on nurses with a lack of doctors, so we need to note that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has acknowledged that the manifesto pledge to have 6,000 more GPs in England by 2024-25 is not on track. Similarly, the NHS target to fund 26,000 additional roles to ease the pressure on general practice is unlikely to be achieved by that same date. That pressure causes further pressure on our nurses.
Cancer targets are still being missed every month, and waiting times remain sky high. The NHS does not think that it can get them down in the next year, despite the Government promising performance returning to pre-pandemic levels by spring 2023.
Finally—news hot off the press—today there is monthly data for May on trusts achieving the target of waiting four hours or less in A&E. The average for achieving four hours or less is now 60%. The worst three are my own local hospital, West Herts; Barking, Havering and Redbridge; and Torbay and south Devon, which achieved between only 31% and 37%. Those figures alone are shocking, but what sits behind them is a shortage of nurses, doctors and other healthcare staff writ large. I hope that the Minister can respond to these concerns and ensures that we will have a nursing profession that is fully staffed, fully trained and fully supported, as they do their absolutely vital job in our NHS.
My Lords, I start by thanking our nursing workforce and, indeed, the whole health and social care team. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, on securing this important and very timely debate, and thank her for the way in which she set out the issues. It is important that we are considering them today, given this report. I also thank the Royal College of Nursing for this comprehensive report, which I believe shines a real light on the realities that are being experienced by the nursing team and patients. It produces a very loud red flag for the future, which I am sure the Minister will address. The Nursing and Midwifery Council also helpfully shared its annual registration data, cited in the report. I shall refer to that later.
The key message coming through from this debate, as has come through so many times, is the question of whether the Government have it right on workforce. I am sorry to say that, on this occasion as on previous occasions, the answer is no. This is about having the workforce to do the job. It has been debated numerous times in your Lordships’ House and in the other place. Your Lordships’ House made its view known very clearly that any organisation worth its salt—that certainly includes our National Health Service—would undoubtedly have in place a workforce plan for now and for planning ahead, looking at retention, recruitment and training, and all the many complexities involved. Yet within the Health and Care Act we did not have that commitment.
I will refer to the survey findings, which come in the context of record waiting lists and 50,000 registered nurse vacancies. The report refers to the fact that the UK’s exit from the EU and the Covid-19 pandemic have both highlighted and worsened long-term problems with workforce supply in health and social care. However, the report also says that this is nothing new. For many years, nursing staff have been shouting about the impact of growing staff shortages and the rising demand on their ability to deliver care that is safe and effective. The report argues that the impact of these pressures is now “beyond concerning”, with patient safety, care outcomes, staff retention and staff well-being affected.
On this point, I was glad to hear from the right reverend Prelate, who spoke of her experiences of talking to nurses and rightly reminded us of the positive side: nurses’ passion for improvement and service, and their commitment to delivering for patients. The right reverend Prelate also rightly spoke about the pressure on nurses. I wonder whether the kind of commitment shown to us by nursing teams means that their situation is constantly overlooked. I believe that there is a great tendency for them to be taken for granted because, as the right reverend Prelate said, they will always deliver.
From the report, we know that
“staffing levels are compromising care”
“that there are not enough registered nurses on shift”.
There is also a greater intensity of nursing care required by patients. This highlights that we have a worsening situation, not one that is static. This once again makes the case for proper workforce planning that can move with the times. I anticipate that the Minister will refer to the pandemic as being one of the greatest pressures. While that it is true, the report also said:
“Going into the … pandemic … 73% of nursing staff surveyed … said that staffing levels on their last shift were not sufficient to meet all the needs of the patients safely and effectively. In 2022, this has risen to 83%.”
This is not a new problem; it has been exacerbated but it would not be right to refer solely to the impact of the pandemic.
We have heard a number of the key findings, but the one that really strikes me is this:
“Only 25% of shifts had the full number of planned registered nurses on shift.”
Linked to that, 81% of those surveyed
“felt that patient care being compromised was due to not having enough registered nurses on the shift”,
and yet one in five said
“they felt unable to raise their concerns.”
This is a very dangerous cocktail to which I hope the Minister will have a response.
The report makes a number of recommendations, and we have had a number of proposals in the debate today. I am interested to hear the Minister’s response to the recommendations of the report and the points raised within this debate.
As we know, the Government have announced an increase in the number of nurses, and that can be tracked back to a 2019 manifesto pledge. In addition to providing us with an update on this situation, it is worth reiterating the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, on the comments of the Chief Nursing Officer for England, Ruth May, who said that while she welcomed the pledge, it fell short of what was actually needed. This will be the case because recruitment on its own is not the point; it is also about the vacancy numbers, the shortfall and the numbers of nurses that are leaving.
On that point, I refer to the information from the Nursing and Midwifery Council. When asked why people had left, they said the main reasons were too much pressure, poor workplace culture, struggles with increased workloads and a lack of staff. Could the Minister give us more information on when he will be able to share the 15-year plan for the workforce? When will it materialise, and how will it take all of these matters into account?
The report calls for a “credible, costed long-term” health and care workforce strategy. A nursing team is at the heart of this. I hope that the Minister will hear the points made in today’s debate, but also the previous calls for a proper workforce plan, which will be the only way we can meet the demands upon us.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, for securing this important debate on the report published by the Royal College of Nursing on 6 June, regarding nurses’ experiences and thoughts about staffing levels. I also thank the noble Lords who contributed to the debate. I know that all noble Lords agree that nurses perform essential duties within our healthcare system and are an integral part of the NHS workforce. I think we all want to put on record our thanks for their considerable dedication and commitment to the NHS, particularly during the pandemic when they faced challenges never seen before. I would also like to thank nursing staff for sharing their personal experiences, and the RCN for its hard work and thorough approach in compiling this report. As my noble friend Lord Lilley said, nurses deserve our gratitude and our sympathy.
The Government have read closely the points raised in the report, and although there are some that we accept and are working hard to address, there may be other areas that we question. Overall, we welcome the publication of the RCN’s findings and the spirit in which the report was conducted. There is much common ground between the Government and the RCN, including our shared aim to have a well-supported nursing workforce.
Let me begin by addressing some of the concerns raised in the report. The report was critical of the levels of safe staffing in hospitals in England. There is no single ratio or formula that can calculate the answer as to what represents safe staffing. It will differ within an organisation, and reaching the right mix requires the use of evidence-based tools, the exercising of professional judgment and a multi-professional approach. In England, the responsibility for staffing levels sits with clinical and other leaders at a local level. Providers should ensure that there are sufficient numbers of suitably qualified, competent, skilled and experienced staff to meet the needs of the people using the service at all times. Staff should also receive the support, training, professional development, supervision and appraisals that are necessary for them to carry out their roles and responsibilities.
On domestic nursing recruitment, this Government are committed to increasing our nursing workforce, and one of our highest priorities is ensuring that we have a strong and steady supply of new nurses. As many noble Lords acknowledged, we have made the commitment to increase nursing numbers by 50,000 over the duration of the Parliament. We are well on our way to achieving this, with nursing figures now 30,000 higher than in 2019. This is a major level of growth in the nursing population, and to achieve it we need to look at every route that we can: domestic supply, international supply and improved retention. We have invested heavily in the domestic routes to nursing, broadening and diversifying the available routes, including apprenticeships, to offer opportunities to those who may not be able to go to university. This is in addition to the traditional university undergraduate and postgraduate routes into healthcare. We saw around 43,000 applicants to nursery and midwifery courses at the January application deadline, which is an increase of 25% compared to two years ago. This is supported by the introduction of a training grant of at least £5,000, given to nursing, midwifery and allied health professional students.
We have to acknowledge, as many noble Lords have said, that demand is outstripping supply. If we look at the bigger picture, we see that there are a number of reasons for this. We are living longer, and we are more aware of issues such as Alzheimer’s and dementias in those who live longer. We are also far more aware of mental health and its diversity. For example, when I was taking part in a debate on neurological conditions and I asked my policy team to list all the conditions, they said there were over 600. We were never aware of that before, to that level of detail, and it shows that supply will always struggle to keep up with demand.
To support long-term planning, the department commissioned Health Education England to work with partners and to review and renew the long-term strategic framework for the health and regulated social care workforce to ensure that we have the right skills, values and behaviours to deliver world-leading services and continue high standards of care. I mentioned this a number of times in the debates on the then Health and Care Bill. The work is nearing its final stages and will be published before the Summer Recess. Building on this, we have commissioned NHS England to develop a long-term workforce plan for the next 15 years, including long-term supply and demand projections, and we will share the key conclusions of this work. I am afraid that I am not able to give a date for that at the moment, but we will do it in due course.
On well-being and the retention of existing nurses, we must acknowledge that the last few years have been some of the most difficult that health and care staff have ever faced, and they have risen to the challenge admirably. Through the NHS people plan and people promise, we are taking action to improve staff experience and retention. This includes investing in staff health and well-being support, promoting flexible working opportunities to allow nurses to balance their working life, and strengthening leadership and organisational culture across the NHS. The NHS planning guidelines for both last year and this year emphasise the importance of supporting existing staff. Boards, leaders and managers across the NHS are being supported to adopt a compassionate, inclusive approach and to consider the health and well-being of all staff as a priority, so that is a consideration in every decision in the organisation.
I will turn now to some of the specific points raised. A number of noble Lords spoke about international recruitment. We should remind ourselves that immigrants from the Commonwealth, and across the world, who came here after the war, saved public services in this country. We should acknowledge that. Such people play a vital role in this country, but I understand concerns about international recruitment and whether it is ethical. We published a revised code of practice for international recruitment on 25 February 2021 in line with the latest advice from the World Health Organization. Through this code of practice, we are ensuring the fundamental principles of transparency, fairness and promotion.
Most of our recruitment internationally comes from countries which train more nurses than they have places for. They do this deliberately as a way of getting foreign earnings and remittances and having better qualified staff. For example, the Philippines, Kenya and states in India do this. It is really important to acknowledge that, so I should correct noble Lords who say that we are depriving these countries of their people. They also have the opportunity to develop their care in a world-class system. In addition, we have worked with the WHO on the red-list countries but, if an individual from one of those countries applies, we are not able to discriminate against them in the way that noble Lords want us to. We do not go out and recruit staff from countries on the red list, but individuals from them will apply.
People talk about a brain drain, but I will tell your Lordships a story about a friend of mine. I will not say which African country he is from, but he said to me, “You white people in the West talk about the brain drain and patronise us but, if I stay and try to work in my country, there are very limited opportunities for me—so my brain will be left in a drain. I want the best for my family, and that’s why I want to move to another country.” Further, if a person’s politics are different from that of the leadership of their country, it might sometimes hinder their promotion. While we adopt ethical guidelines in our explicit recruitment, we have to be aware that we cannot block individuals from countries on the red list from applying. That would simply be discrimination; we should be quite clear about that.
On top of that, I am concerned about a slight inconsistency. I hear people saying that we have lost people from the EU because we left it, but at the same time they complain about international recruitment. What is it about mostly white Europeans that they do not object to? Why do they then raise concerns about non-white non-Europeans from other countries? Therefore, we have to make sure that we are not inadvertently coming across as discriminatory against people who are not from white Europe. We have to make sure that we have a global view, not a little white European mentality.
It is also important that we retain existing staff, and a number of noble Lords spoke about that quite movingly. The NHS has a retention programme, and it is continuously seeking to understand why staff leave. There is an NHS health and well-being framework that helps NHS organisations to create a sustainable well-being culture. We are also looking at ideas, and “We work flexibly” is one element of the people promise. In February 2022, NHS England and NHS Improvement published a flexible working definition to help people balance all those various demands on life. Becoming a more flexible, modern employer will help us to recruit and retain people more effectively, and we see this as important.
My noble friend Lord Lilley asked about rationing university places. As with all degree subjects, unfortunately not every applicant is of the required standard to become a nurse and this means that there is sometimes a gap between applications and those accepted on to programmes. However, we had a record number of acceptances in 2021—a 28% increase versus 2019—achieved through offering non-repayable grants and investing £55 million in expanding capacity.
The right reverend Prelate raised the issue of staff raising concerns. The Government support the right of staff working in the NHS to speak up and raise concerns, and we take it very seriously. We have the National Guardian and the Speak Up direct helpline and website, and there are positive signs. The Freedom to Speak Up Index, the key measure of speaking up in the NHS, has improved every year since 2016 and the Government have enhanced the legal protections available to prohibit discrimination against job applicants.
I am afraid that I am running out of time, but I will try to answer as many points as possible. I will also go through Hansard and I commit to write to noble Lords.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned staff morale. There is a comprehensive emotional and psychological support package which includes a health and care staff support service, including access to 40 mental health hubs around the country, which provide outreach and assessment services to help front-line staff. However, we know that a number of measures will be required—flexible working, mental health support and others—and it is really important that we look at this in its completeness when we look at these issues.
On the workforce, as I said, we have a number of different plans, including the Health Education England 15-year plan. On top of that, rather than a top-down system from Whitehall, sometimes you have to look at local services. ICBs, trusts and others will all have their own workforce goals and ambitions. We must make sure that it is not all top-down in a sort of Soviet way. We have to look at local discretion and the way we address this.
I hope I have answered many of the points raised but, on those I have not, I will write to noble Lords in the usual way. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, for raising this debate. She is a fellow alumnus as we went to the same school, but at different times, as she likes to remind me. This is a hugely important area. I will close by reiterating the Government’s commitment to our workforce and to ensuring that staff feel well supported in their professions. I look forward to future debates on this subject and continuing to ensure that we have an NHS workforce that is fit for the future—and that is diverse. It is shocking, when you think about the contribution of many people who have come to this country from outside Europe and who are not white, that if you look at the top layers of NHS management you will see a distinct lack of diversity. That needs to be addressed, as well as all the other issues we have discussed today.
Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests
Commons Urgent Question
My Lords, with permission, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Her Majesty’s Paymaster-General. The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, I would like to start by thanking Lord Geidt for his work as Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests and, indeed, for his years of public service before he took up this role. I hold him in the highest regard. He has been honoured multiple times and he is an example, of course, of excellence and service in public life. I thank all Members of this House for their work in regard to this matter, but I think all the Members of this House will recognise that Lord Geidt has demonstrated diligence and thoughtfulness in the way he has discharged the role over the past year. We have benefited hugely from this service.
The Prime Minister will be issuing a letter in relation to Lord Geidt’s announcement. Both Lord Geidt’s letter and the Prime Minister’s reply will be deposited in the House shortly. As soon as I have those letters, or my office has them, they will be placed in the Library.
The Government are of course particularly disappointed that Lord Geidt has taken this decision, because only very recently—as the House knows from the debate last week—significant changes were made to the role and status of Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. As I set out to the House last week, these changes represent the most substantial strengthening of the role, office and remit of independent adviser since the post was created in 2006.
Let me set out briefly the reforms to the role that the Prime Minister has introduced. First, the independent adviser has a new ability, which Lord Geidt and his predecessors did not previously have, to initiate investigations in relation to allegations where there has been a breach of the Ministerial Code. This is a significant change. Previously, as the House knows, as an adviser, he and his predecessors were not permitted to do this. The adviser will still need the consent of the Prime Minister of the day to start an investigation but, as I made very clear last week, this consent will normally be given.
The Ministerial Code now includes new detail on proportionate sanctions for a breach of the code. Previously, there was no proportionality in those sanctions, and even the smallest of technical breaches by a Minister in place might have resulted in an enforced resignation. Now there is a proportionate range of options, and that was exactly as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
In future, the independent adviser will be consulted about the revisions to the code, as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Ministerial Code now includes more specific references to the role of the independent adviser and more specific references to the duty on Ministers to provide the independent adviser with all information reasonably necessary for the discharge of the role.
In conclusion, as Lord Geidt himself has made clear, the new arrangements are workable and he noted the increased transparency that they bring. The Government will of course now move to make new arrangements and we look forward to working within the strengthened system that I have described.”
My Lords, of course, since that Statement was made in the other place, the letters concerned have been published and laid in your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. He is right: the letters have now been published, but is there not a sense of déjà vu here? The resignation letter to the Prime Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, is just excoriating in its criticism. The loss of another—yet another—ethics adviser, is further evidence, if it were required, of Mr Johnson’s approach to office. The rules are for other people, not for him. They are there as a personal whim.
May I ask questions on two areas? The press briefings today indicate that the Prime Minister is in no hurry to appoint a new adviser and is even considering abolishing the role. I hope the Minister can kick that into touch and assure us that is not the case under any circumstances. Further, can he say something about how any inquiries—we know that there are inquiries—currently in play will be taken forward as a matter of urgency?
Can the Minister also say something on what Michael Ellis said in the other place, about the new arrangements in place to strengthen the code? The comment of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, that these are not workable, is hardly a ringing endorsement.
There seems to remain a major flaw in this: the Prime Minister, who has a rather careless approach to rules, remains the final arbiter. One point made today was that it is important that, while the adviser can initiate investigations, they still need the consent of the Prime Minister. Does anybody really trust the Prime Minister with that consent?
My Lords, on the ongoing investigations, I understand that appropriate steps will be taken to ensure that any work being undertaken by the independent adviser continues and is completed. Obviously, one regrets the resignation of anybody who has given such distinguished public service as the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, but I do not agree with the noble Baroness’s interpretation of it.
On her question about what will happen now, the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, raised a number of issues about the role of the independent adviser, as indeed did PACAC in its session earlier this week. As was said this morning, it is right to consider those carefully and take time to reflect on them before moving forward. However, this role has been important in public life.
My Lords, the Prime Minister will find it very difficult to recruit an independent adviser unless he agrees to at least three conditions. First, the independent adviser should have a wholly unfettered right to instigate investigations. Secondly, the report should be laid before Parliament in an unredacted form unless the independent adviser has previously agreed otherwise. Lastly, if the independent adviser recommends, the matter should be debated on the Floor of the House.
My Lords, my noble friend makes interesting suggestions, as he always does. The recent changes have potentially very much strengthened the role of the independent adviser. On the role of the Prime Minister, it was made very clear again this morning by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and, as I said, in the House previously, that normally the Prime Minister would accede. The exception referred to in the House is national security, which would be in certain cases a reasonable exception.
My Lords, at a time when public trust in the integrity of the Government and public life is being deeply damaged, would it not make sense for the successor of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, to be appointed by an independent body rather than by the Prime Minister?
My Lords, the role has a particular relationship to the Prime Minister in the conduct of a unique constitutional responsibility, which is the appointment of Ministers. I agree with the right reverend Prelate that standards in public life are essential—that is always my undertaking. As the Prime Minister set out in his letter to the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, only a few weeks ago, the seven principles of public life continue to be, as the Prime Minister put it,
“the bedrock of standards in our country and in”
My Lords, I join noble Lords in paying tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, and I welcome the changes that my noble friend referred to in his answer to my question last week. Reverting to the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and my noble friend Lord Hailsham, can my noble friend confirm that the only reason the Prime Minister would exercise a veto on a forthcoming investigation would be reasons of national security and no other reason?
My Lords, I cannot be drawn on that. I gave an example. I also stated—the Government have stated it repeatedly—that the normal expectation would be the course that the noble Lord favours. This role has been strengthened very recently and those changes were discussed with the noble Lord, Lord Geidt. They have been agreed and found to be workable and, as I said, in the light of the events and the PACAC meeting, further careful consideration of how best to proceed will be undertaken.
My Lords, this is straying into a political remark, but the Prime Minister has given clear leadership to this country, and he was elected to be Prime Minister of this country—in view of the way he was pointing the country—by one of the largest mandates ever given to a Prime Minister.
My Lords, I came running along the Corridor but I did not quite get into the Chamber before the noble Lord, Lord True, stood up, so perhaps I may be forgiven for asking this question.
Normally speaking, it is not a good idea for any individual to be judge in his own cause, whether because as a matter of fact it is a bad idea, or because of the public perception that it is, or may be, or may lead to an inappropriate result. Why is the situation of the Prime Minister different?
My Lords, first, the Prime Minister has set out the reasons in the specific case to which the noble and learned Lord may be alluding: the fixed-term penalty notice and why he did not think that was a breach of the Ministerial Code. That has perhaps been the focus of most of the criticism. The fundamental position is that the constitutional position in this country is that the Prime Minister is responsible for the appointment of Ministers and the holding of office, and that is where accountability of the Prime Minister lies: first, to Parliament and secondly to the people. There is accountability, my Lords.
We read in the press today that it was indeed a trade issue that finally pushed the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, over the edge rather than partygate. Indeed, it was said at one point this morning that it was to do with commercially sensitive measures that would lead to a
“purposeful breach of the Ministerial Code”.
Is the Minister able to cast any light on this?
The letter from the Prime Minister alluded to this. Noble Lords will see from the details in the letters themselves that they allude to commercially sensitive matters, so, clearly, I cannot get into further detail beyond what is set out in the letters: you have the Prime Minister’s words. But I draw your Lordships’ attention to the fact that the Prime Minister was seeking guidance on the Ministerial Code in this particular instance.
Can the Minister tell me why the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, as an ethics adviser, was asked to give advice on compliance with international law over steel tariffs, but Sir James Eadie, First Treasury Counsel, was not asked about the legality of plans for the Northern Ireland protocol?
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to have been given the opportunity to bring before your Lordships once again the state of the pig farming industry in the UK. In January this year, I asked a Question about the terrible situation pig farmers were facing in my county of North Yorkshire. I now know that my concerns apply countrywide, and still nothing has changed.
Let us start with a few statistics. The National Pig Association, to which I am indebted for its excellent briefings, both written and verbal, tells me that the UK pig industry is worth £1.6 billion at the farm gate, £5 billion at retail, and around £14 billion in external sales and export values. I understand that the UK is the world’s 11th biggest pig producer, which is amazing, considering the small size of our country.
In 2020, more than 400,000 tonnes of British pork were exported around the globe to over 40 export markets, in a trade worth £655 million, so pig production, from farm to plate, is a very big and very important part of our national export market. We also rear our pigs to some of the highest welfare standards in the world, so it is no surprise that British pork is in demand across the globe.
However, the industry is suffering an unprecedented crisis. A perfect storm of labour shortages, Covid, Brexit and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has seen pig farmers lose £500 million since October 2020. Many have been losing more than £50 per pig, some have had to cull and dispose of healthy animals, and others have gone out of business altogether. A recent survey undertaken by the NPA revealed that four out of five farmers will not survive another 12 months unless their finances improve.
When the Government finally intervened in October last year, they introduced temporary measures that benefited processors, not farmers. These farmers, through no fault of their own, have borne the brunt of this crisis. It is high time that the Government gave them the direct support they desperately need.
To add insult to injury, the Government are again delaying border checks on goods moving from the EU to the UK. British producers have been subject to quite significant non-tariff costs since January 2021 because of the requirement for export health certificates and lots of other bureaucratic hurdles that British businesses have had to deal with as a direct result of our leaving the EU. This has cost them tens of millions of pounds and left them at a disadvantage. Products from the EU are still allowed to move the other way without checks, though, thus making its pork products cheaper than ours.
This “open border” approach must be an absolute gift to unscrupulous businesses that can see a way to avoid customs duties and taxes, let alone the extremely serious biosecurity problems that could well arise if we inadvertently allow African swine fever, which is now sweeping across Europe, to get here because of our lax practices and lack of checks at borders. That is a terrible prospect because, if this disease reaches our shores, animal movement will immediately be restricted and enormous culls will have to take place. This would have the same devastating effect on pig production as it did on cattle during the awful foot and mouth outbreak some 20 years ago.
Pork is a staple for many UK households. Such an outbreak would be catastrophic for an industry already reeling from labour shortages, specifically in the processing sector. Those have been brought about because of Brexit, when thousands of EU workers in the abattoirs simply went home, believing that they had no future here. They were skilled workers—skilled butchers—whose training takes around 18 months. You simply cannot fill these highly skilled jobs from the domestic workforce overnight or give them to unskilled labour. This issue should have been foreseen a few years ago when we left the EU but, sadly, nothing has been done about it—or, if it has, it is too little too late.
The Government’s temporary pork butcher visas, which were intended to bring in 800 workers, were largely ineffective. They were given only a grudging six-month visa, so very few were taken up. Can the Minister tell me how many of these ungenerous visas were taken up? Can he also tell me why the Government continue to omit skilled butchers from the shortage occupation list, ignoring the advice of the Home Office’s Migration Advisory Committee? There are still an estimated 100,000 vacancies in the industry, so what is being done now, today, to mitigate this looming disaster? Or does the Minister believe that it will be all right because we will import more low-quality, sometimes illegally traded, meat from areas where the African swine fever virus is prevalent? Where are the safety checks at our borders?
Will the Government undertake to follow the example of Scotland, where the authorities use sniffer dogs at ports of entry to detect products of animal origin? This would be a very sensible protection for all of us. The complacency with which this whole industry has been treated is breathtaking. How did we reach a point where farmers had to cull over 60,000 healthy pigs? How can farmers be expected to survive if they are losing more than £50 a pig? How many more farms must go out of business before the Government act?
We know that we must become more self-sufficient in our food production now, following the catastrophic war in Ukraine and its effect on grain prices worldwide, so this is not the way to go about reaching that goal. It might help if the Government revised how they present their annual “Total Income From Farming” statistics, taking out those parts, such as subsidies and other irrelevant income statistics, which they use to puff out their policies.
All pig farmers ask is that they be treated fairly. They continue to have a backlog of around 100,000 pigs on farms across the country and still around 200,000 pigs a week are being produced, mainly for sale to our supermarkets, so it is easy to see the problem. Like any supply chain, if there is a weak link—in this case, an inability to get pigs slaughtered in a timely way—then the remaining pigs must still be fed and cared for, and the bigger they are when they get to slaughter, the more the abattoirs want to be paid for slaughtering and butchering them because, ironically, they say that their contract with the farmer was for a certain weight of animal. It is a perfect storm indeed.
Is there a solution? Well, the producers of pigmeat want the supermarkets to pay a fair price for homegrown pork. Some have already put up their prices a little, and the industry is very grateful to them for that, but others, including some of our largest supermarkets, have done very little, despite having made massive profits during the pandemic. It is time for them to step up and help our pork industry.
Finally, the Government must play their part. The Government Food Strategy, published just this week, states that
“successful domestic production is what gives us national resilience in an uncertain world.”
It is time to see action to match these words. The entire pork supply chain, from supply to retail, needs investigating urgently so that we never see this situation arise again. We need a commitment to improve visa schemes for skilled butchers while rapidly recruiting and training people from here into the profession. Action is needed by Defra and the Home Office because nothing has changed since I asked my Question back in January.
I hope that the Minister can assure me that help is on the way so that we can continue to enjoy fantastic British pork into the future.
My Lords, I declare my interest as set out in the register, as the president of the Rural Coalition, and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for securing this important debate. I come from a farming family, so I have little time for many of the urban myths about the agricultural industry, or for the complacency behind the lack of concern about food security for us as a nation.
We have already heard allusions to grain shortages worldwide because of the war between Russia and Ukraine. It is not having a huge impact on us, as we are fairly self-sufficient, but, fortunate as our position is, the serious shortage is causing huge problems in the developing world. That illustrates how quickly matters of life and death can come about when food shortages occur. The vast majority of countries ensure that they support the production of food to give them security whenever there is a war, a pandemic or exceptional weather conditions.
When it comes to the pig industry, we are facing a crisis and the evidence has already been set out before your Lordships. Just last Sunday, I was up in far end of my diocese in north-east Hertfordshire in the little hamlet of Meesden. As we stood outside in the sun having a glass of something after the service, one of the local farmers who farmed all the land around came to talk to me about farming. When I mentioned that this debate was coming up, his comment was, “We got out of pigs years ago. There is absolutely no money in it for your average farmer.”
Perhaps more than other farming specialisation, pig producers have borne the brunt of the past two years with our departure from the EU and the Covid-19 pandemic. Pig producers’ production costs are now outstripping revenue. Farmers are reportedly making a loss of £58 per pig. In fact, collectively pig farmers have lost £500 million since October 2020. This is not sustainable. Something has to change if we are still going to have a viable pig farming industry.
One of the oddities of my life is that I have to balance all sorts of different things. This morning, I was flicking through what I have to preach on on Sunday morning at my next church, and the reading is about the Gadarene swine—2,000 pigs plunging into the sea and dying. We are looking at the destruction of healthy animals because we have problems with the supply chain. This is devastating for our world-class farmers who are doing their best to produce at very high standards good-quality pork for us.
I know it is an obvious point, but I think some people do not grasp the realities of this. When it comes to securing our future as a nation, we can put in store various pieces of manufacturing and production equipment and so on, but you cannot do that with livestock. We cannot put livestock into storage and get it out in five or 10 years’ time when there is an emergency. Once we have lost production capacity, the facilities and the skills and even the experience of the local vets and so on, it take years to rebuild the industry and get it back to where it was.
The immediate task is to sort out the backlog at abattoirs and meat processing places. There is an urgent need to recruit workers. Like many noble Lords, in the past I have paid visits to meat production plants and have been into abattoirs. Interestingly, in the last abattoir I went into, every sign was in Polish—I can see some noble Lords nodding—because the workforce was entirely from abroad. Very often they are the only people who are prepared to do these quite demanding and sometimes not very pleasant jobs. We need to offer work visas, at least in the short term, while the Government devise a strategy to balance the importation of workers with the training of the domestic workforce to fill these roles. However, the reality is that, with 1.3 million job vacancies in the UK as of April this year, the Government will have to be honest with the public and admit that sectors such as agriculture, and pig farming in particular, require economic migration simply to survive, certainly in the short and medium term and possibly in the long term.
If the predictions of the National Pig Association are correct, 80% of pig producers will not survive another 12 months. Unless the financial situation improves, direct government action will be needed, whether in the form of direct temporary financial support or the organisation of a round table for the major food retailers to ensure they support the domestic industry. But we want more than that. I know the Minister will have read the recent report from the NFU, Growing our Agri-food Exports to 2030 and Beyond. Surely this ought to become an even more major part of our exporting to the wider world.
It is incumbent on Her Majesty’s Government to steer the pig farming industry through this immediate inflationary crisis. Will Defra conduct a thorough investigation of the entire pork supply chain, from farm to retail, so that sensible short, medium and long-term policies can be devised to mitigate against the multitude of factors arrayed against this strategically important sector?
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the right reverend Prelate, whom I thank, together with the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, my neighbour in North Yorkshire, for calling this debate. I am delighted to sit on what I think is now called the Rural Interest Group of the Church of England General Synod with the right reverend Prelate.
I hope that my noble friend the Minister, whom I welcome to his place today, is listening carefully to the tenor of this debate, because the state of the pig industry is parlous and perilous. We have heard about the loss of workers and abattoirs and post-Brexit skilled labour shortages. There is a lack of butchers and vets; I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Trees, will spell out why vets are needed in this process.
Against that background, we hear of rising costs: the large increases in the cost of fuel and wheat, and feedstuffs—a major part of a pig’s diet—going up from £150 a tonne to more than £300. There is mounting concern both for the welfare of pigs, which the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, referred to, being kept on the farm for much longer—for too long—and for pig farmers, who are losing money every single week.
In preparing for today, I received a number of briefings for which I am extremely grateful, particularly from Karro, Cranswick, Pilgrim’s and the National Pig Association and its indefatigable chief executive, Dr Zoe Davies. For me, the starting point of the debate today is clearly the excellent report earlier this year from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on such food and labour shortages. I want to pay tribute to its work and in passing, on a sad note, to recognise the role of the then chairman, Neil Parish, who succeeded me as chair of the committee. Its conclusion 15 is absolutely damning:
“The evidence we have taken leaves us in no doubt about the seriousness of the issues facing the food and farming sector caused by labour shortages. These include food security, animal welfare and the mental health of those working in the sector. In contrast, the Government has not demonstrated a strong understanding of these issues, and even on occasion sought to pass the blame onto the sector on the basis of incorrect information about its own immigration system.”
It ends with a plea:
“The Government must radically shift its attitude and work together with the sector to devise solutions that speedily help address the problems it faces.”
I support the conclusions and recommendations it reached.
It is true—and I am sure my noble friend will reiterate it again today—that Defra has provided a package of measures to support the pig industry, such as temporary work visas for pork butchers, private storage aid and a slaughter incentive payment scheme, which helped to increase the number of pigs going through abattoirs, but I argue that these measures are simply not enough and do not address the problem adequately.
As my noble friend the Minister stated in the debate on Monday, repeating the Statement on the national food strategy, the food sector
“is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK—bigger than automotive and aerospace combined.”—[Official Report, 13/6/22; col. 1423.]
I argue that the pig sector is still a very large part of the food and farming sector. It has been of particular significance in North and east Yorkshire in contributing to the rural economy and employment. Sadly, that is less so since the foot and mouth outbreak of 2000 and 2001.
Prior to that, the pig sector was also dramatically affected by the decision in the late 1990s unilaterally to ban sow stalls and tethers, which meant that 50% of pig producers went out of business. More recently, there is great concern that UK standards of production may be further compromised if imports from third countries are permitted that are produced to lower standards than our own.
I reiterate the problems of the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushing up the cost of feed and energy, but I pay tribute to the potential for exports to China, which for the moment have, sadly, been temporarily shut down. I recognise and pay tribute to the earlier work of the now Foreign Secretary, the right honourable Liz Truss, who, when she was Defra Secretary of State, opened up the Chinese market to UK exports and for the first time placed an agricultural attaché in the British embassy in Beijing. Finally, it seemed that we were learning from other countries, such as Denmark, that are brilliant at marketing their produce, not least their pig produce.
At the time, I represented the Malton bacon factory, now called Karro, in the Thirsk and Malton constituency, which contains Filey. This export contract to China massively increased the exports that it was able to provide of pig parts. I kid you not: trotters and such, while British consumers do not deem them very edible, are deemed to be a delicacy and are eaten in huge numbers in China. So I put it to my noble friend that the temporary loss of that trade is keenly felt by the pig sector at this time.
I take this opportunity to ask my noble friend to consider a few urgent measures that the Government could introduce. In particular, I will look at the situation in China. That is compounded by the fact that political conflict in areas where human rights and trade disputes are foremost has resulted in plants being delisted, and we are unable to have them reapproved for export to the Chinese market. All this is massively impacting the ability of processors to pay the price that our farmers require.
Due to the red tape around exporting pig meat to Europe, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, alluded, and the lack of checks and regulation into the UK, the processing industry is facing an unfair situation into Europe, causing cheap European meat to enter the market here and further suppress the price paid for UK pigs. I hope that my noble friend will take the opportunity to look at that.
Cranswick and Pilgrim’s have also opined on this theme, saying:
“The inability to export pigs to China is having a direct impact on the number of pigs that can be processed, and therefore contributes to the remaining backlog”,
to which the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, referred. This is because carcasses exported to China require less skilled butchery, thus allowing for greater numbers to be processed through the sites even with fewer butchers available. They would also like to see the licences to China replaced, but they are very concerned that more than 100 US meat and poultry plants have been granted export licences, demonstrating that approvals are being issued elsewhere but simply not in this country. Perhaps my noble friend could explain why that is the case.
I shall end with the food strategy that was announced on Monday, about which my noble friend stated, when repeating the Statement from the House next door, that
“we are clear that we want people at home and abroad to be lining up to buy British. Our food strategy sets out our intention to consult on ensuring that the public sector sources at least 50% of food locally or produced to higher standards.”—[Official Report, 13/6/22; col. 1424.]
I agree, but how can my noble friend ensure that those contracts for tender will happen? We are banned by the GPA, saying that any public contract of over $130,000 has to be put out to tender. I hope my noble friend will take the opportunity to square that circle and put in place the other measures that others have alluded to, such as better border controls, better communication and a renewed government focus on pig farming.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for securing this debate, which I am sure is going to be very interesting and rich. I begin by expressing sympathy to the pig farmers in the UK, who have done what the supermarkets demanded of them and what decades of government policy has directed and guided. They have set up a business on a model that sees 10 million pigs in the UK raised overwhelmingly in intensive systems and fed on grains and legumes. The pig farmers have invested money and effort, they have employed and trained staff and put themselves into building up a business.
Now, however, the combination of Brexit, the labour crisis and the situation arising from the Russian attack on Ukraine, which has produced a global food security crisis with rising input prices—what is generally called agflation—sees that model suddenly and crunchingly hit the buffers. As other noble Lords have said, fully 80% of British pig farmers say they will not be able to survive the next 12 months with this current model, unless the gap between the cost of production and pig prices is significantly addressed.
It may not surprise Members of your Lordships’ House that I am going to approach this debate from a broader and more structural angle than we have yet done. Although those events are all immediate, the overall model—of intensive systems feeding animals on grains and legumes that could feed people—is facing overwhelming demands for change. There is overwhelming demand for change driven by animal welfare concerns. I agree that significant improvements have been made in the UK that have not in other places, but we are still talking about the factory farming of intelligent, sentient animals that are often compared to dogs. There are some real issues to raise if we think about how we treat our dogs and our pigs.
This change is also being driven by environmental concerns, just one factor being that about 10% of pig feed in the UK is currently imported soya, much of it linked to deforestation in South America and to human rights abuses. Here, I have to make reference to the tragic news confirming the murders of the British journalist Dom Phillips and the indigenous activist Bruno Pereira. It is also worth noting the disgraceful comments of President Bolsonaro around that. However, that framework helps to feed British pigs right now.
There is also change driven by concern about air pollution, something in the forefront of my mind as I come to the Chamber fresh from the launch this morning of my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb’s clean air Bill, which will have its Second Reading next month. Change is being driven by the public health and environmental needs to reduce meat consumption: by 30%, said the much-lauded National Food Strategy, although of course that was not followed by the much criticised government food strategy.
This debate comes a day after the release of the Sustainable Food Trust report Feeding Britain from the Ground Up. That sets out a model for at least keeping self-sufficiency at current levels, although I would say we need to go further. In this insecure, shock-ridden world we need to look at ensuring that everything we can produce ourselves, we should. The report’s model would involve the ending of intensive, grain-fed livestock production, with a 75% decline in pork and chicken production. However, I know that many Members of your Lordships’ House will be pleased to know it concludes that grass-fed beef and lamb should be the meat consumed by most consumers. Grazing cattle and sheep would be part of a mixed farming system, in which they would rotate with crops to rebuild soil fertility. Under the model proposed by the trust, production of vegetables and fruit would double and grain production would halve. The production of UK-grown pulses would double, from 0.9 million hectares to 1.9 million hectares. This would all produce a diet that is great for the nation’s health. It would protect nature, combat climate change and create opportunities for many more small, independent businesses, farmers and growers, and deliver surely one of the most important roles of government policy: food security.
The model presented by this report would see woodland cover increase by 28% to nearly 1 million hectares. A lot of that would be agroforestry, hedges and sheltered trees, but there would also be woodland patches that would be great for pigs. As the Soil Association’s advice on organic pig farming, which, of course, does not allow for any intensive production, notes:
“A pig’s natural habitat is deciduous woodland providing them with shade and nutrients from the forest floor.”
Here we are talking about a system of sharing land, using it for both the environment and food production—pork production. This model involves freeing up significant amounts of land for wild spaces, recreational spaces and carbon storage.
I suspect many noble Lords, including the Minister, would respond, “But what about the cost of living crisis?” We undoubtedly have a huge issue of food security in terms of costs. Nearly one-quarter of adults have reported that it is very difficult or difficult to pay their usual household bills. We have a society that is really struggling to put food on the table. Getting foods from farms to supermarkets pays less than ever to the farmers, yet Tesco has just announced a trebling of profits to more than £2 billion.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, that imported pigmeat presents huge issues. We have covered a number of these, so I will add only to one: antibiotic usage. UK pig producers, even under our current intensive system, have made great progress on this, with antibiotic use in the pig sector reducing by 62% from 2015, according to the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance. We do not want to import pork because of animal welfare, food security and environmental considerations. We need to grow pork here but under a different model.
As Dr Nick Palmer, the head of Compassion in World Farming, has said, transition to a new model should be managed, rather than a crash in the industry. The retailers collecting profits hand over fist at the moment should have a significant role in contributing to this. The Soil Association has produced an outline route map for a just transition for the poultry sector. It could be replicated for the pig sector, rooted in active dialogue with key stakeholders.
I will finish with a personal reflection. I do not know how many Members of your Lordships’ House have worked on the floor of an intensive pig farm, but I have. I worked at the sharp end, mucking out, picking up dead piglets and herding frightened, angry animals on to the slaughter truck. I did that in Australia 30 years ago. I acknowledge that, even now, Australia’s standards are much lower than the UK’s, which is why pigmeat was explicitly excluded from the free trade agreement. I picked up piglets that had been cannibalised by their mothers in farrowing stalls. I saw and heard the sights and sounds, and I do not believe we should be keeping pigs in any system like that.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer and landowner, as set out in the register. I welcome this very timely debate, as many of the issues relating to the problems of the pig industry are the same as those in other farming sectors. It is also timely due to the publication of the White Paper on the national food strategy.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Harris and Lady McIntosh, and the right reverend Prelate have gone through a lot of depressing statistics. I will not repeat them, other than to underline that the average loss in the first quarter of this year per pig was £58, which compares to a loss of £39 in the last quarter of 2021. The last time pig farmers had positive figures was in the third quarter of 2020. There is currently a firming of the price as production falls. It is expected to fall by another 5% in this quarter, which is also depressing. At the same time, input costs continue to rise.
Against that background, pig producers currently face multiple issues, but perhaps the most important, in terms of the ability to alleviate these problems, are as follows. The first is the lack of skilled labour, particularly butchers and others in the processing industry. The second is supply chain fairness, in that the increasing move towards integrated supply chains has put more in the hands of the processers than the independent producers. The third is the decline of local abattoirs. Fourthly, the often gold-plated regulatory base has certainly motivated the decline of small producers. Fifthly, the currently limited number of options open to farmers under the sustainable farming incentive limits other income options for pig farmers and others, as BPS is withdrawn. Finally, there is a lack of indexing against inflation on government support under the Agriculture Act, despite the length of the transition period.
Characteristically, the pig price moves according to supply and demand rather than input costs, so the industry, just like the potato industry, has always been prone to feast and famine, and we are now firmly in the latter territory. As with other farming sectors, there is no expectation of a return to subsidies. The industry needs to look to three main players for the easing of their problems: the Government, consumers and supermarkets.
I will not repeat what the Government have already done to address some of the problems, but I note the Minister’s Answer to a Written Question on 25 May, which stated that increasing costs
“are creating short term pressures on cash flow”
for farmers. I would be fascinated to hear his definition of “short term” and on what his delightful optimism is based. There is an old saying that a long-term investment is a short-term investment gone wrong. Let us hope that the Minister is correct.
The issues that still need to be addressed properly are those of labour in the abattoirs, the supply contracts and red tape. The visa scheme for butchers, introduced at the end of last year, was simply ineffective, owing to the short-term conditions. I note that, in the food strategy, an additional 10,000 visas will be issued under the seasonal worker visa route, but this does not address the abattoir problem. Please could the Minister confirm that this issue will be reviewed by the Migration Advisory Committee when it studies the shortage occupation list, or by the independent review that has been announced on the quantity and quality of the food sector workforce?
The options for encouraging consumers are more limited, although efforts to publicise the predicament of pig farmers are most valuable—I am delighted that “The Archers” is following this particular storyline. A campaign to advertise the product, particularly with the summer barbecue season under way, would be a valuable involvement by major retailers. I welcome the Government’s efforts to increase exports, with the appointment of specific trade representatives overseas, but this will take time to have an effect.
I also welcome the Government’s plan to regulate more effectively the commercial relationship between producers and processors. This has been implemented in the dairy industry, and consultation is about to happen for the pig sector, but it needs to happen in very short order to prevent this heavily pressurised sector seeing more growers going out of business.
It is worth mentioning the dreadful situation at the recent British Pig & Poultry Farming Fair at Stoneleigh, where 10 major retailers were invited by the British Free Range Egg Producers Association to a crisis summit. None turned up and few replied. Happily, in the pig sector, the major retailers have been more accommodating, but there is still a need to go further.
I note that the Groceries Code Adjudicator has said that the pressure from rising prices had impaired relationships, with more than one in four suppliers experiencing a refusal by a retailer to consider paying more for their goods or experiencing unreasonable delay in considering this request. The adjudicator himself was quoted in the Times last week giving his concern that these pressures had impaired relationships and created wider problems. Could the Minister comment on the role of the GCA when placed between the devil and the deep blue sea? How can it strengthen things from the producer point of view?
I welcome the Government’s national food strategy and their recognition of the importance of domestic food production, as well as the features of highest food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards, but we are faced with a huge dichotomy. Despite everything that is said, the overwhelming majority of consumers buy on price, not because it is British and produced to the highest standards. They might wish to, but they cannot afford to. Accordingly, the Government need to focus on removing all surplus costs and unnecessary red tape, which has often pushed the small family farm, running a few pigs or hens or whatever, out of business, resulting in more and more concentration in every farming sector. Each of these sectors is now subject to boom and bust. A small family farm is often more resilient than the big, concentrated unit with high overheads and bank borrowings. Their market is the farm gate and farm shops, where price is not the issue, as it is with the supermarkets. Failure to address these cost issues will undoubtedly lead to greater imports at lower standards.
Finally, whether the current crisis is short or long term, could the Government expedite the agriculture transition plan? There is still far too little detail for growers to make informed decisions. The full scope of the environmental land management schemes is unclear when it comes to a farmer planning a sustainable and resilient food business. Farmers have largely accepted the changes initiated by the Agriculture Act and in particular are aware that they can no longer rely on BPS cash as it is steadily phased out, but this makes it imperative that they be given the full picture on what replaces BPS. Bringing forward the current payment is welcome but, as the pot gets smaller, short-term measures like this will become less supportive, and not just pig farmers will be in trouble.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for securing this debate, and draw attention to my interests in the register.
The pig industry is not only a substantial economic part of our food industry, worth over £14 billion pounds per year, exporting over 400,000 tonnes of pork to over 40 export markets; it is also an important pillar of our food security. Currently, we are 66% self- sufficient in pigmeat. However, as we all know, various substantial challenges face the industry, which are neither caused by our pig farmers nor ones that they alone can easily surmount. They include labour for processing, low prices in the supply chain, increased costs of feed and grain, and lower-cost imports.
With respect to labour, I acknowledge Her Majesty’s Government’s relaxation of the visa requirements for butchers, which has been referred to. On prices, while it is important to keep food affordable, it is a fact that, on average, food has never been more affordable in our history. The national average expenditure on food is around 11% of disposable household income. In the UK, 50 or 60 years ago, that figure was nearer 30%. In developing countries, it is still 50%, 60% or more. I recognise that food poverty is a genuine problem, but I suggest that this relates to a fraction of our population with very low incomes. Therefore, it is a matter of financial inequality and low incomes, rather than expensive food. Our pork is not expensive: the other day, I purchased a nicely formed gammon joint for £3 in a supermarket. It was not a special offer; this was nearly a kilogram of lovely meat for £3 which provided beautiful nutritious food for five or six servings or more. Was that a fair price? In fact, the current cost of production is £2.40 per kilogram, but the standard pig price paid to producers is only £1.80 per kilogram.
If we are serious about the sustainability of UK food security and ensuring high environmental and animal welfare standards in the rearing of the animals we eat, we need to ensure that farmers are paid a fair price to cover at least the cost of production. There seems to be an irony that, while there is laudable public awareness of Fairtrade regarding food products we import from developing countries, there is not an equivalent concern to ensure fair conditions for our UK farmers. We need to value our food more. Perhaps our failure to appreciate the quality and value of our food contributes to the appalling amount of food waste. In the UK, in total, we waste around 17%—9.5 million tonnes—of food production post farm gate in households, hospitality, retail and food manufacturing. This has a value of £19 billion and is associated with 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
This issue of food cost and food waste brings me to the cost of pig feed, which, to a large extent, depends on grain—the price of which, as we all know, has risen dramatically as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I put this to the Minister: is this the time for us to revisit the issue of swill feeding? We have massive food waste with an associated high environmental cost; we have pigs, which are omnivores, yet we feed them grain, which humans could eat and which is becoming excessively expensive. As a vet, I fully understand the risks of swill feeding, and how essential it is to heat treat swill to prevent the transmission of epidemic animal diseases, such as foot and mouth. However, the heat treatment of swill is something we can control, and maybe the feeding of swill is a risk we should re-evaluate in the current situation.
This brings me to a major disease risk we are not controlling: recently, for the fourth time, the Government have delayed imposing checks on imported animal products from the EU. This has two main consequences. First, it reduces the cost of imports, which creates unfair competition for our farmers, whose exports face added costs due to checks still required. Incidentally, the absence of import checks and associated charges is estimated to have resulted in a loss to our Exchequer of £1.4 billion so far.
Secondly, and most importantly, the failure to check imported EU animal products is creating a major risk to the biosecurity of our pig population with specific regard to African swine fever—as has been mentioned by other noble Lords. African swine fever, or ASF, is a real and present danger in plain sight. It is a highly infectious disease of pigs with a high mortality rate, for which there is no treatment and, as yet, no commercial vaccine—indeed, vaccination is prohibited. Recently, Vietnam announced in collaboration with US scientists that it has developed a vaccine, but it is not yet known when that might be commercially available. Importantly, ASF also infects wild boar, which then provide a wild animal reservoir for infection to pigs.
So far in the six months of this year alone, there have been cases in Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Moldova, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Russia and Ukraine. Recently, the infection has jumped nearly 500 kilometres in Germany to close to the French border. This virus can survive for 30 days in salami and for a lot longer in Parma ham and cured products. I remember three or four years ago travelling in south-eastern France and stopping in a lay-by which was clearly a favourite picnic spot. I was somewhat intrigued and surprised to see a notice warning people not to discard their uneaten sandwiches because of the risk of infecting wild boar with ASF.
In contrast, given the number of people living and working in Britain with origins and family in Europe, there appears to be a dearth of warnings about the dangers of carrying pork products into the UK. Are Her Majesty’s Government satisfied that sufficient public information about the risks of ASF is provided to passengers coming into and out of the UK, especially for high-risk countries? Your Lordships will be aware that we have wild boar populations in the UK. Not only would the infection be catastrophic for our pigs should it reach here, but it would also be extremely difficult to eradicate due to that wild animal reservoir—just think about badgers and TB.
Failure to conduct checks on imports not only creates an unfair economic playing field for our producers but is gambling with our biosecurity. Maybe it reduces the costs of imported goods in the short term, but an epidemic of ASF in our pig population will have huge financial impacts and long-term effects on our food security which will far outweigh the marginal additional costs of proper inspections. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider urgently restoring appropriate sanitary checks on animal products from the EU?
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Harris of Richmond on securing this very important debate and on her excellent and detailed speech. I also thank the National Pig Association and the House of Lords Library for their very helpful briefings.
Farming is not a profession or way of life for the faint-hearted, or those looking for an easy life. It is gruelling, has unsocial hours and is conducted mainly outside in all weathers. The beef and milk farmer knows when calves are to be born and that this will be an annual event. Similarly, the shepherd knows that in the spring, during the lambing season, there will be little sleep. Not so the pig farmer, who has no specific season, with sows producing more than one litter of pigs a year. The supply of pigs for slaughter is pretty constant throughout the year, so when there are severe shortages of staff at abattoirs it is not possible to “turn the tap off”.
Many years ago, when my children were small, we lived in a village and had an allotment on a pig farm, which was kindly provided by a friend. We grew amazing vegetables there and were able to see at first hand just what is involved in being a pig farmer. My goodness me, it was hard. The margins were small and often piglets were taken by foxes. At that time, the market was overrun with imports of Danish pork and bacon. The outbreak of foot and mouth in 2000 and 2001 added further stress. The countryside surrounding outbreaks was shut down, with minimal movement of animals. The banks were unrelenting in their approach to debts which farmers had incurred in efforts to keep their businesses going. We should not forget that farming is a business. Along with animal husbandry skills, it requires capital investment and a significant, secure cash flow. This was the last straw for our friend; he and many other pig farmers gave up under the sheer weight of the impossibility of making a living. I believe many were earning so little from their farms that they would have qualified for social security benefits had they chosen to claim.
Here we are again, some 20 years later, in a similar situation, with the pig production industry once again on its knees through no fault of the farmer. The reasons for how this has occurred are different this time. The unwarranted attack by Russia on Ukraine and the ensuing devastating war has led to a doubling in the cost of energy, fuel and feed prices—the noble Lord, Lord Trees, raised important issues about heat-treated swill feed—and there have been unprecedented labour shortages for over 18 months. Covid disruption in processing plants has led to backlogs of 100,000 pigs on farms, leading to tens of thousands of healthy pigs being culled and therefore unable to enter the food chain. Those pigs that were kept on the farm are now over their contract weight and size, meaning that the supermarkets and abattoirs are refusing to take them.
The NPA has requested supermarkets to pay a fair price for pork; most have offered support, but not enough. Waitrose and the Co-op have increased their payments to £16 million and £19 million respectively. However, Tesco—the largest supermarket chain in the country—has offered only an additional £6.6 million by August 2022.
My noble friend Lady Harris and the noble Lord, Lord Trees, have given detailed figures on the value of the pig industry both here and abroad, so I will not repeat them. Our sows are not confined in farrowing pens, and our animal welfare is second to none, making our pork sought after across the world. The average cost of pig production reached 240p per kilo in May, which was up 10p per kilo from April. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board estimates the cost of feed, energy and fuel prices in April to be 107p per kilogram, with prices increasing significantly since then. There is a widening gap between the cost of getting a pig to the contract size and weight for the market and what is being paid for the carcass. As we have heard, there is currently a £58 loss on each pig for the farmer.
There are half a million vacancies across the sector, and labour shortages are not being addressed. Other noble Lords have referred to this. There is a lack of skilled butchers in pork processing plants, with an average vacancy rate of 10% to 15%. During the protracted period of preparing for Brexit, opposition Members of this House expressed concern at the loss of skilled butchers and vets from EU countries. The uncertainty in employment prospects resulted in many returning home, leaving a significant gap in the workforce; the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has referred to the Polish workforce. British vets are trained to preserve animal life and are reluctant to oversee the humane killing of healthy animals to enter the food chain. Vets from EU countries are needed in order to carry out this work.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, referred to the damning report on labour shortages in the food and farming sector. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has noted that, while the whole industry has suffered, the impact on the pig sector has been “particularly severe”, with 35,000 pigs being culled due to a lack of butchers to process them. However, the report stresses that a reliance on overseas labour must be reduced in preference for a long-term labour strategy that grows and develops homegrown talent, combining attractive education and vocational training packages with the deployment of new technology. We would agree with this long-term strategy, but urgent action is needed now. Can the Minister now press the Secretary of State and the Home Secretary to add these vital roles to the list of those protected professions which can gain visas in order to work in the UK? Without them, the pig industry will be further disadvantaged. The level of fluency in the English language needed has also been a barrier. Surely abattoir workers do not need to have the same level of fluency as a GP or nurse might need.
The same committee in the other place estimated in January this year that 27,500 sows have gone out of production, which is around 7% of the UK female breeding herd. This is extremely worrying. At the same time, we are seeing illegal imports of pigmeat from countries where African swine fever is prevalent and spreading at an alarming rate through the wild boar population, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Trees. Can the Minister say what the Government are doing about border checks to prevent this happening?
What is needed without delay are a whole range of measures to support the pig industry. The Minister will be aware of these if he has had consultations with the NPA. The Food Resilience Industry Forum should meet at least monthly throughout 2022 and 2023, with a senior Home Office official in attendance. Powers under the Agriculture Act 2020 should be implemented to provide support for pig farmers rather than pork processors, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. Without a supply of pigs, there will be no pork processing industry. The Government’s review of fairness in the pig supply chain should be dealt with immediately, with the final report published before the end of July this year.
As referred to above, the level of English language fluency requirement should be lowered immediately to a basic user level for those skilled worker visa roles in the food and farming sector. The Government must urgently consult with the sector to establish what additional costs businesses face when applying for visas for vital overseas labour and develop an action plan to minimise bureaucratic barriers and process costs. The Government should immediately add the food and farming roles contained in the MAC’s September 2020 recommendations to the shortage occupation list.
Finally, the Government must produce a long-term strategy setting out how technology and labour will together meet the evolving needs. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, referred to the short-term measures which the Government have already introduced. What about the long-term picture? Will these measures be renewed?
The pig industry is a vital part of our rural and agricultural community. It is highly valued by consumers in this and other countries. This is the second time the industry has been on the verge of annihilation. Surely now is the time for the Government to take positive, urgent steps to support the industry through the current crisis. I look forward to the Minister’s—hopefully—positive response.
My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, as set out in the register. I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for securing this debate. As she said in her introduction, the pig industry has faced an unprecedented crisis over the last 18 months due to a combination of labour shortages and Covid disruption in processing plants. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, clearly spelt out in her introduction the challenging environment for pig farmers in good times, let alone the times we have been facing recently.
We have heard that pigs have ended up being on the farm for many more weeks than normal. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, talked about the impact of this on animal welfare and the fact that this has meant that many farmers have run out of space. We then saw the terrible situation in which over 60,000 healthy pigs ended up being culled.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans pointed out that pig farmers have really borne the brunt of the financial impacts of leaving the EU, Covid and now the war in Ukraine, which, as we have heard, has contributed to an increase in cereal prices, used in feed, of over 50%, leading to prices going through the roof. That is combined with the increased costs of fertiliser and energy. We have also heard that many pig producers will not survive unless the financial situation improves. That is why government support is so desperately needed.
The debate has also raised concerns about border checks on goods moving from the EU to the British mainland and the fact that these have been delayed yet again. This brings a disadvantage to British food producers, who are in direct competition with European farmers, so I am sure everyone who has taken part in this debate will be interested in the Minister’s response on what the Government are going to do to change this situation.
A number of noble Lords have raised concerns about biosecurity. In particular, the noble Lord, Lord Trees, went into much detail on this, and the possibility of African swine fever arriving in the UK because of the current lax approach. We have heard how it is starting to spread rapidly across Europe through wild boar populations, but also—I think more concerning for the UK—through contaminated meat products that could make their way through our security if we are not careful.
If we consider the broad thrust of the debate: what does the industry need? The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, addressed in particular the lack of labour. This is critical, so may I ask the Minister how the Government intend to address this, in both the short and long term?
Looking at the issues with feed, the RBST and the British Pig Association have put together a series of supportive initiatives, including providing guidance on alternative feeds. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, talked about the importance of less intensive farming models—more traditional models—but the RBST and the British Pig Association are also looking at what can be done to improve bulk buying and distribution, and the importance of promoting native pork. This is something that could be done more, through the recently published food strategy. Will the Government will look at supporting, promoting and communicating these alternatives to farmers, while the traditional feed with grain is so expensive?
We know that UK farming is going through major changes as we leave the EU, and the Government are rightly providing investment to help the sector through the transition. I recognise that this is happening, but the noble Lord, Lord Trees, also talked about the importance, in this context, of food security and sustainability in the sector, and how we support farmers with this. Again, it would be good to hear from the Minister on that.
I would now like to talk briefly about abattoirs. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, both talked about abattoirs. We believe the abattoir network is just as much in need of support as farmers. It needs short-term capital investment to get itself match fit for a new, more market-facing world, in which consumers expect high welfare and environmental standards.
One of our concerns is that too many smaller abattoirs have gone. The Government maintain that there is sufficient capacity in the system but it is not just about capacity. It is also about transport costs, animal welfare issues and how small producers can access the services they need. I would appreciate a response from the Minister on this and on whether the Government will consider how they can bring smaller abattoirs back into the system.
Another thing to come out of this debate is the need for improved and increased border controls for imports, and better communications to emphasise the risk of bringing in meat products that are not being properly checked. Everything must also be done to stop illegal meat imports. We are too vulnerable at the moment to importing disease that could have catastrophic outcomes. Could the Minister outline what steps the Government are taking to stop illegal meat imports and, more broadly, to give us better biosecurity? It is important that there is a renewed focus on animal health and food safety in general.
Financial support is clearly critical as we move forward. It is good that a number of supermarkets and other retailers have stepped up, as noble Lords have talked about, announcing investment in the pig price to support producers. Will the Government encourage those who have yet to step up, to do so and support our pig producers in their pockets? The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, mentioned the importance of government support for the industry.
The other thing is the common agricultural policy. Obviously, the CAP is going but pigs were not supported directly under it. We believe that they should be supported under ELMS. First, they are a part of our native fauna, in just the same way as their wild counterparts. This point is acknowledged in the biodiversity convention and in the sustainable development goals.
Secondly, pigs have their own unique environmental impacts. They will willingly graze, browse and consume berries and fungi, and have been known to take invertebrates, all of which helps create and maintain a mosaic of bare ground, rich herb pasture and shrub layers. These behavioural characteristics and their resulting impact are almost impossible to replicate using other forms of management. Anyone who has been to Knepp Castle Estate and seen the Tamworths there will recognise the value of this. Pigs’ rooting behaviour can clear dense ground vegetation such as bracken, which can become a real nuisance, reduce the need for weed control and create seed beds for natural regeneration. Rare breeds in particular can make a strong contribution to this and should be supported. We do not want to lose this aspect of conservation. Does the Minister agree that the Government could use their powers under Section 1 of the Agriculture Act to support native pig breeds and encourage conservation in this way?
Finally, in a nutshell—perhaps I should say a pignut—the Government need to do all they can to ensure a sustainable future for British farmers. This has been an excellent debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I refer your Lordships to my entry in the register.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for securing this debate and welcome the opportunity to respond on the state of the pig farming industry in England. I am very grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions to this very good debate.
Recently I was at the National Pig Awards and I was bowled over by some of the innovations, entrepreneurial activities and the animal welfare measures that pig farmers are bringing in. Many are from Yorkshire, as the proposer of this debate mentioned. It is amazing to think that a pig now produces roughly twice the amount from the same amount of inputs we had on the pig farm I grew up on. That is a recognition of the huge contribution that the pig farming industry has made at the same time as improving welfare standards. It is something to be enormously proud of. I do not diminish the problems the farmers face and I will come on to talk about that.
There are about 4.1 million pigs in England. Pig farming and pork production play an extremely important role in our domestic food supply chain. A rise in international consumer demand for high-quality pork means that there are huge opportunities for growth in British pork exports. The UK’s pig industry exported £567 million of pigmeat products in 2021.
Our pig industry has faced several challenges over the last year, including those arising from the pandemic, such as the loss of exports to the Chinese market for certain pig processors, disruption to CO2 supplies, and a temporary shortage of labour in the processing sector, all of which were well articulated by a number of speakers. This was accompanied by a 9% increase in the size of the pig herd between December 2020 and December 2021, the biggest increase in more than 20 years. We recognise that the industry is also now experiencing further difficulties following the increase in input costs, notably feed, fuel and energy, which has further impacted on farmer margins.
The combination of these initial challenges led to a significant backlog of pigs on farms, which in turn led to financial and emotional impacts on the individual farmers concerned and posed serious risks to animal welfare. I have huge sympathy for all those affected by this.
I am confused by those who say that at this time, we should be delaying the tapering of the basic payment scheme. Doing so would reward arable farmers, some of whom will see their gross margins double because of the current wheat price, whereas the pig and poultry sectors really need our help. Those who are saying, for whatever reason, that this is not the time to continue to change our farming system are missing the point.
The Government provided a package of measures in October 2021 to help address these unique circumstances. I refute those who say we did not act at speed: we acted as quickly as possible to help in these unique circumstances, including through a temporary visa scheme for butchers, private storage aid and the slaughter incentive payment scheme to facilitate an increase in the throughput of pigs through abattoirs. The PSA scheme allows processors to place pork products in frozen storage, enabling them to be safely stored and released on to the market later, while the SIP scheme encourages slaughterhouse throughput by providing a payment for any pigs slaughtered outside normal working hours. More than 740 tonnes of pigmeat has entered the PSA scheme, and close to 30,000 pigs have now been slaughtered under the SIP scheme.
Together with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and other government departments, we continue to work on expanding our existing export markets and identifying new ones for pork. In March this year, we announced the opening of a new export market to Chile worth £20 million over the first five years of trade. This follows our successfully gaining market access to Mexico for fresh pig meat in September 2021, with support from the UK Export Certification Partnership and pork-producing establishments.
Working with our British Embassy in Beijing, FCDO and DIT, we continue to press the Chinese authorities to re-list and allow exports of pork from those processors who voluntarily delisted themselves at the request of the Chinese authorities due to the Covid-19 outbreaks in the workforce back in 2020 and early 2021.
Over the past year Defra has worked closely with the pork industry to support it in clearing the backlog. My honourable friend the farming Minister, Victoria Prentis, has chaired three roundtables: two, on 10 February and 3 March, with pig industry representatives from across the UK, and one on 3 April with representatives of the wholesale and hospitality sectors, to discuss the challenges the sector is facing. As a result, processors made commitments to slaughter an extra 40,000 pigs during the period of March to May. As has been said, several retailers also committed to provide further support to the sector. Last month, Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and the Co-op made public commitments to increase both their financial support to the sector and the volume of British pork products they sell.
My colleague Victoria Prentis also met representatives of the agricultural banking sector to discuss the situation in the pig sector. The banks confirmed that they are working closely with impacted pig farmers during this exceptionally challenging period and remain keen to be supportive. Furthermore, we are launching a UK-wide review—this reflects the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington—of supply chain fairness in the sector. We are also engaging with industry and expect a consultation to launch shortly. We want to hear from the industry about improvements to fairness and transparency that could be made to ensure a profitable and productive future. That is addressing the medium to long-term as well as the short-term difficulties. We also continue to work with the industry to support its efforts on the recruitment and retention of domestic workers.
The combination of these measures, together with an increase in slaughter numbers in processors, means that the backlog of pigs has now been almost completely removed, with only small pockets of producers still experiencing backlogs. That is the up-to-date information, and I hope it addresses some of the concerns that have been raised today. This is good news for the sector and demonstrates our commitment to it.
There remain, however, many challenges to pig producers, not least those arising from the conflict in Ukraine and the increase in input costs. The supply chain disruption seen across the agricultural industry, particularly in the pig sector, in recent months, driven significantly by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has created challenges across this sector and the wider food and farming industry. Farmers are facing increased input costs, including for fertiliser, feed and fuel, which we recognise are creating short-term pressures on cash flow.
We are working closely wit