House of Lords
Thursday 30 June 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Guildford.
Retirement of a Member: Lord Lang of Monkton
My Lords, I should like to notify the House of the retirement, with effect from today, of the noble Lord, Lord Lang of Monkton, pursuant to Section 1 of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. On behalf of the House, I thank the noble Lord for his much-valued service to this House.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the letters from the Chair of the House of Commons Treasury Committee to the Financial Conduct Authority and the National Economic Crime Centre on 15 October 2020, how many banks have been (1) investigated, and (2) prosecuted, for forging customer signatures.
My Lords, the National Economic Crime Centre continues to assess the material submitted to it in relation to alleged signatory fraud by banks, as well as information obtained following preliminary inquiries to clarify matters with certain members of the public who raised the issue. The National Economic Crime Centre is making a thorough assessment to determine whether there are grounds for a criminal investigation.
My Lords, I am not really satisfied with the Minister’s reply. Banks have forged customers’ signatures and fabricated evidence on an industrial scale in order to repossess people’s homes and businesses. More than 700 crime reports and 26 lever-arch files of evidence have been submitted to the NECC over the last three years and there has still been no action, as the Minister said. I ask him if he will, first, appoint an independent inquiry into this obfuscation and, secondly, meet me and a delegation of the victims to hear their concerns.
My Lords, that characterisation of the situation is not entirely fair. The NECC is reviewing the evidence submitted to it by the campaign groups. We cannot comment further at this stage, recognising the NECC’s operational independence. Once it has finished its review, it will communicate its findings. The noble Lord referred to the 26 lever-arch files; these actually contain 10,000 pages of evidence in seven staggered submissions, the last set of which was delivered in March 2021. This was subsequently referred to the various subject-matter experts at the SFO and the FCA. These are complex matters and they take time.
My Lords, in the case of Lynch v Cadwallader & Anor in February 2021, the High Court ruled that Aldermore, a bank, cannot enforce a personal guarantee to cover £1.2 million against a businessman because the signature on the document was not his. The court said that it was signed by a “person at the Bank”. Could the Minister explain why this did not trigger any investigation or prosecutions?
I am afraid that I cannot; I am not familiar with the case. As I said, we maintain that the NECC should have operational independence, so I am afraid that I cannot enlighten the noble Baroness any further. I neglected to answer the noble Lord’s request for a meeting; there have been a number of meetings with Home Office officials, but I would of course be happy to meet him.
My Lords, is it the case that the Government are on the side of fat-cat bankers rather than customers? Would it not be a good idea to give more resources to the police so that they can actually investigate, prosecute and bring to justice these people?
My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord has raised the subject of resources, because we are giving them: the spending review last year allocated a further £400 million to tackle economic crime over the next three years. This includes £100 million earmarked specifically to target fraud, including by establishing a national fraud policing network, including greater fraud investigative capacity in the NCA, meeting a manifesto commitment to create a new national cybercrime force focused on fraud. In addition, new fraud investigation teams have been piloted in four regional organised crime units, which will be expanded and rolled out across all ROCUs. These new capabilities are driven by a new tasking and co-ordination process run by the NECC. Finally, as part of the police uplift, we are prioritising more investigators for the City of London Police, which leads on this.
My Lords, the Minister was quite rightly concerned about operational independence in an earlier answer. In that light, is it really appropriate that Lloyds Bank, one of the suspect banks, has directly funded the City of London Police to the tune of £1.5 million since 2019?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is referring to Action Fraud, which is receiving some funding—but the money is ring-fenced from another source. I cannot find the precise reference to it now, but I will write to her with the details. However, it is not from Lloyds Bank directly.
My Lords, that was a completely different case, of course. But we are doing a number of things, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will be aware. Some of this is legislative and some of it is to do with the various taskforces and strategies that I highlighted to some extent earlier. A Joint Fraud Taskforce was set up in October 2021.
My Lords, lack of prosecution is a theme today. So much crime has moved online; what we have heard about in this Question is an example of how that has happened. Can we increase the resources for the police and prosecution in respect of digital fraud? My own experience of Action Fraud—admittedly some time ago—was that it was absolutely pathetic.
My Lords, my noble friend is right to raise the changing nature of some of these crimes. I am sure that she is partly referring to the UKFI report on fraud, published earlier this week, which showed that some types of fraud are in fact diminishing while others are increasing. A number of actions are being taken: for example, I am sure that noble Lords were surprised to note that the text messages that we used to receive seem to have diminished somewhat, which is partly a response to work done by the telecoms companies. The National Cyber Security Centre has also launched its suspicious email reporting service to remove harmful scams from online. Since April 2020, it has taken down 81,000 scams across 147,000 URLs.
My Lords, there is active concern about not just fraud but money laundering and large-scale bribery—money laundering not only from former socialist states such as Russia but from the Middle East, and bribery also in terms of a number of the Middle East autocracies. This does not seem to be a priority for the Government yet. Is this also where we need a considerable reinforcement of officials who deal with these subjects?
My Lords, I do not think it is just about officials; it is also about legislation. Obviously, we passed one Act earlier this year at speed. The noble Lord will be aware that there is another economic crime and corporate transparency Bill on its way which deals with many of the unresolved issues from those debates and that Act.
My Lords, yesterday’s Times newspaper reported that money lost to scams had risen by more than £160 million in a year, from £420 million to £583 million, which is a huge increase. Can the Minister say when we might expect the financial services and markets Bill to come before Parliament and whether that Bill will be directed to tackling fraud?
My Lords, as one of those who drafted, or helped to draft, the anti-money laundering directives in Brussels—I emphasise that they were directives—I nevertheless have certain concerns about the way in which the Financial Conduct Authority has interpreted them, in particular the parts that offered proportionality in the application of regulation. A lot of small investors have suffered as a result of an overzealousness of the banking institutions sometimes to do things they do not need to do and to inquire in ways they do not need to inquire. Does my noble friend agree that proportionality should be deployed properly by the Financial Conduct Authority?
I agree with my noble friend. We are straying away from the Home Office brief on this subject. Obviously, the Financial Services Act 2012 established the FCA as the conduct of business regulator for financial services. It has a focused set of objectives to promote effective competition in the interests of consumers, to secure an appropriate degree of protection for consumers and to protect and enhance the integrity of the UK financial system, but I absolutely agree that proportionality has to be a part of that.
My Lords, as I am sure the Minister will know, in May 2019 Dame Elizabeth Gloster was appointed to investigate the collapse of London Capital & Finance and published a damning report in November 2021. Blackmore Bond is also about mini-bonds and poor regulation, yet no investigator has been appointed. Can the Minister explain why this is the case?
Mental Health: Advertising and Body Image
The Government acknowledge the possible link between advertising, body image and mental health, including the potential harms that such a link may cause. The Government intend to use the online advertising programme consultation, which closed on 8 June, to develop the evidence base on this issue. Our priority is to ensure that any intervention is evidence-based and makes a real and positive difference. The Government will set out the exact approach having assessed the evidence.
My Lords, with my #liedentity campaign, I have spoken to many young people about their worth not coming from how they look. In the other place, the Prime Minister assured the honourable Member for Bosworth, Dr Luke Evans, that he would look at a body image initiative as part of the mental health plan. Given that Norway has recently introduced a retouched images law, what assessment have the Government made of the potential merits of labelling digitally altered body images used for commercial purposes?
I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate and the campaign in which she has been involved. It is an important issue, and we are still learning a lot. As she rightly said, Norway is about to introduce such a law; France and Israel have introduced it in the past. Sadly, the evidence coming from those studies as to the effectiveness of the measures is limited. There is also a debate about whether those images should be stopped in the first place, rather than allowing altered images and then putting a warning on them. We need to see more evidence about the most effective way.
My Lords, the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report 2021 shows that one in seven girls and one in eight boys is particularly unhappy about their appearance. Young people who are not happy with their lives at 14 are more likely than others to have symptoms of mental health issues by 17, including instances of self-harm and suicide attempts. Despite the Government’s promises of future funding for mental health support for schools and CAMHS, it is clear that young people are not getting that initial front-line support that they need now. How soon will there be mental health counsellors in every secondary school?
When we look at mental health in children and body image, we see that it varies not only among age groups but within age groups. We have identified concerns about poor body image as a risk factor that leads to mental health conditions, but it is not necessarily a mental health condition in itself. We have to look at how much of this was already present in the playground before the age of social media, with people being called nicknames for their appearance. However, that has been amplified by social media. We are working with social media companies and others to find the most effective solution.
My Lords, despite the fact that advertising prescription-only medicines like botulinum toxin to the general public is already illegal, Botox is still widely advertised online by providers of cosmetic procedures. Given the risks of amateur and poor procedures to physical and mental health, what steps will the Government take to improve the enforcement of existing rules so that the online environment is free of these illegal adverts?
A range of issues were looked at in the online advertising programme, including advertising on social media, where people get messages from in the first place, and what the most effective method is. What do we ban? What do we give advice on? What do we give warnings to? It is an incredibly complicated issue, but we are looking through lots of evidence that came in as a result of the consultation.
My noble friend has asked me a very concise question, which will require a less concise answer. Clearly, there is a link between obesity and type 2 diabetes, for example, but one of the difficult things in this area, as with much in healthcare, is getting the right balance. The more emphasis we put on tackling obesity, the more unintended consequences there will be for people with eating disorders. There is now calorie labelling in restaurants and other out-of-home places, but some charities working with people with eating disorders are concerned that this may have a negative impact on them. It is always a difficult balance, but we must try to achieve it.
My Lords, the Minister and other noble Lords have raised the issue of social media. What assessment has he made—or is he aware of—of the influence of social influencers, particularly in cases where they are supported by commercial deals that pay them in part to promote certain kinds of advertising?
The noble Baroness makes a really important point about a contributing factor to people having poor body image. We know that there are influencers who promote certain products, and that they often alter their own image so that it is almost an idealistic image—whatever that means. Young people then feel inadequate when looking at those images. We also must recognise that this issue affects not just young people but a range of people—even older people. For them, it might be as a gentle a thing as a comb-over, but if that makes them feel better, great. We must look at this issue in its entirety, and it has been looked at as part of the online advertising programme.
My Lords, what will the Government do to ban or reduce the use of lightening creams? Among the south Asian and black community, we have an issue around the push for lightening creams, which affects the well-being of a lot of young people who desperately want to fit in.
If I have been accurately briefed, I will begin by wishing my noble friend a very happy birthday.
This is a really important issue concerning ethnic minorities and people of different colours. First, young people want to see people who look like them on TV and in the media as role models, to show that they are part of everyday society. Also—I am sure my noble friend will be aware of this—sadly, there is the issue of colourism, whereby sometimes there is a preference for people of a lighter colour within certain ethnic minority groups. People who are darker are quite often discriminated against; they are not necessarily abused, but there is this preference for lighter colours. This is all being looked at. What my noble friend says shows what an incredibly complicated area this is. It is really important that we look at all these issues: is it size, is it appearance, is it colour?
Advanced early intervention is crucial. Treatment for mental health conditions such as eating disorders has consistently unacceptable waiting times. At the end of last year, a record 2,100 children and young people were waiting for treatment, with demand continuing to rise. Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House when the waiting times will mean timely intervention? What are the Government doing to recruit, retain and train the necessary levels of staff to provide the treatment that is so desperately needed?
I hope the noble Baroness will recognise that before the pandemic, we were meeting the waiting times targets for many younger people. Clearly, as with many things in our health and social care service, the pandemic has had a huge impact—not only delaying the treatment of people who should have been treated before the pandemic, but increasing the number seeking help with mental health issues. As I am sure noble Lords will recognise, for young people those two years were a massive proportion of their lives compared to us. Those are lost years for them, and it has led to many mental health issues. As the noble Baroness will know, we have announced the draft mental health Bill. The NHS long-term plan will have an additional £2.3 billion a year for mental health services by 2023-24, and an extra 2 million people will be able to access support. This will all take time, and we will have to work through that.
Noble Lords have rightly been criticising advertising that promotes unrealistic body images, but the Government themselves are not helping. In April last year, the Women and Equalities Committee published a report on body image. According to it, the Government’s own obesity strategy actually
“contributes to eating disorders, and … mental”
ill-health. The Minister is nodding, so in the interests of brevity I ask him: does he agree with the recommendations of this committee, and what are the Government doing to remedy their approach?
I am sure the noble Baroness will acknowledge that many noble Lords and many people in society want to do something about obesity, through healthy eating, for example. This demonstrates what a complex area this is. With any policy position, we must always be aware of unintended consequences. We must be very careful about the impact on people with eating disorders. Also, do the interventions actually work in the first place, or do they lead to more unintended consequences rather than positive results? One example is calorie labelling on menus, about which, as we know, eating disorder charities have concerns. At the same time, we do not know whether the evidence shows that such measures will help to reduce obesity, and we need to wait for that evidence to come through.
South Africa: Just Energy Transition Partnership
My Lords, South Africa and the International Partners Group—the IPG—chaired by the United Kingdom, have focused on establishing new structures to underpin the long-term partnership. These are now in place, as set out in the recent update to leaders, and work is under way to develop a South Africa-led investment plan ahead of COP 27. The COP president, my right honourable friend Alok Sharma MP, visited South Africa earlier this month to meet Ministers, the head of the Presidential Finance Task Team, the Presidential Climate Commission, Eskom and the groups from the mining community to underline our commitment to delivering this ground-breaking partnership.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that the partnership is not only critical for South Africa’s energy transition but, if successful, it would have huge significance as a model throughout the world—provided, of course, that it provides finance to emerging economies such as South Africa on sufficiently advantageous terms? Does he also agree that UK and South African parliamentarians could play a constructive role in supporting the transition and ensuring that the necessary measures are implemented expeditiously? Would he therefore be willing to meet members of the South Africa APPG to discuss how to take this forward?
My Lords, given that the UK and the other four participants have committed to providing a staggering $8.5 billion, part of which will be used to mobilise the private sector, does the Minister agree with me that it is vital that innovative UK firms play a part in this? What is UK Trade & Investment going to do to assist those firms?
My Lords, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Oates, I agree, and we are very much at one. Perhaps I did a slight injustice in the brevity of my Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Oates: I pay tribute to his excellent work in re-establishing the APPG.
On my noble friend’s question, the United Kingdom has given a specific commitment to the partnership: of the overall initial $8.5 billion of public capital, the United Kingdom is providing $1.8 billion. We will be looking to see how we can leverage further financing in providing the terms needed to make that crucial energy shift from coal to more sustainable sources.
My Lords, of course it is an excellent model and one to be followed, but lessons need to be learned so that it can be applied to other developing countries. Moving from 90% reliance on coal is a huge task, but other countries need to make the same sort of transition. One of the organisations the UK Government commit to is British International Investment—the old CDC. How will the lessons learned from this programme be adopted by British International Investment in terms of the transition programmes it operates?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. I will be open with noble Lords: when you sit down directly with many countries across the developing world, as I did at CHOGM last week, there can be quite challenging discussions at times over the issue of transition, particularly in light of the current global crisis and what we are seeing on energy prices from Ukraine and, indeed, on food prices. That said, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that British International Investment, the UK development financial institution, is very much a part of this £1.8 billion commitment. In terms of lessons learned, I think the speed with which these structures can be set up is a direct learning but, equally, we need to ensure local buy-in. This is not about a country such as the United Kingdom prescribing a solution; it must come from within.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that at a time when South Africa is facing one of the worst energy supply crises, with stage 6 load shedding, initiatives such as this partnership are to be welcomed but that action also needs to be taken to curb corruption and mismanagement at Eskom, the monopoly electricity supplier in the country?
I agree with the noble Lord. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister met President Ramaphosa in the margins of the G7 meeting this week. He mentioned Eskom specifically. Eskom’s ambition is to facilitate and be part of this accelerated decommissioning. We are fully aware of Eskom’s record and the sustainability issues surrounding its existing debt. I assure noble Lords that these are being dealt with in a very practical manner.
My Lords, given the time it takes to set up the enabling projects, et cetera, required to achieve the objectives of this scheme, are the Government talking to partners and other appropriate third-world countries and having early discussions about how such partnerships can be set up as soon as possible, or are they waiting for COP 27?
My Lords, I assure noble Lords that we are doing exactly as the noble Baroness suggests. We are talking to other partners and I pay particular tribute to the current COP president, Alok Sharma, who has championed this issue. In recent weeks, I have also had the opportunity to visit Egypt as part of my portfolio. The discussions with Foreign Minister Shoukry, the president of COP 27, centred around how we can take our learning and experience, including new, innovative structures, to make sure that they can be practically applied in Egypt as well.
My Lords, my pre-parliamentary career was working in developing countries on aid and development programmes and my African friends have driven home to me that the precondition of economic growth in Africa is not aid or trade, welcome as they are—and, still less, patronising advice from the West—but cheap and reliable electricity. Again and again they say that. If they have the opportunity of investing in renewables, and it is cheapest when backed up with other electricity from hydro or fossil fuels to provide reliability when the sun does not shine or the wind does not blow, they will choose it without any advice from us. Is it not hypocritical and damaging of us to cut off finance for them if they want cheaper, fossil-based electricity?
My Lords, again, my noble friend speaks with great insight and expertise, and I agree in the sense that this should not be in any way prescriptive. It should not mean the developed world preaching to the developing parts of the world. As I said earlier, it is about localised buy-in and real management and ownership of this transition by the country we are dealing with. Every transition is difficult, particularly in developing parts of the world. Of course, the ultimate case is to keep the lights on and ensure that the energy required across a given country is provided.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Does the Minister agree that, as part of a just transition, it is really important that, rather than lecturing developing countries, there is the finance and support to wean them off coal in particular? Will he make it a priority for the Government at COP 27 to look at how we can help the decommissioning of existing coal in those countries, especially when in Asia the age of coal mines is around 11 years, whereas their usual lifespan is around three or four times that?
My Lords, again, the noble Baroness raises an important point. I say to her that in this framework the “J” is “just”. That is something we recognise and it should do what it says on the tin. I also agree with the noble Baroness about ensuring that proper structured finance is provided in this transition and that as the transition takes place it is systematic, structured and fully supported. What we have seen is that over time experience lends itself to our learnings on this issue. On a broader issue, I recently travelled through north Africa and there is huge potential there when it comes to self-sufficiency in energy and renewables and in food security. Part of our role when it comes to supporting countries as an enabler, including use of ODA, should not be in terms of a handout but a hand up, in ensuring that countries become self-sufficient in the transition to renewables as well as in terms of food security.
My Lords, I never cease to admire the wide range of topics that the Minister deals with. Would even he not admit that the whole issue of development would be better dealt with if we returned to a separate international development department and a spokesperson for that department in this House?
My Lords, I think I have answered seven or eight questions and I was going to be in the unusual position of leaving your Lordships’ Chamber having said that I agreed with every noble Lord who had spoken to the Question. Unfortunately, I will not be able to say that. I do agree with the noble Lord about the importance of the development budget. I have made it no secret. I think the importance of 0.7% is as an enabler, for the reasons I set out in my answer to the previous question. However, as someone who has been a stand-alone Minister in the FCO, then a double-hatted Minister across DfID and the FCO, I believe—and it is not because I had to walk down Whitehall twice a day, which was actually doing my health a great deal of good—that consolidating the two departments into one allows us to talk with strength on diplomacy and development when we are on the world stage. I would welcome an opportunity to share a cup of tea with the noble Lord to explain why I believe in the merits of the combined department.
My Lords, Ministers have been very clear that the current situation is unacceptable and that passengers must be properly compensated where applicable. We are working closely with industry as it resolves the current issues and today the Transport Security announced a set of 22 measures that this Government are taking to support the aviation industry.
I am grateful to my noble friend. Responsibility for the chaos rests primarily with the airports, which are not providing the necessary support services, and with the airlines, which cannot provide the flights that people have paid for. To improve the industry’s response, a fortnight ago my noble friend set up a strategic risk group to meet weekly. Can she tell the House what fresh solutions that group is working on to minimise disruption to holiday travel; in particular, is it looking at lifting the restrictions on night flights?
My noble friend is absolutely right. The strategic risk group is now well under way. It meets weekly at the highest level. It is a CEO-level meeting with the Aviation Minister. It is working on all of the mitigations to the risks as they become higher up the priority list and therefore more urgent. The 22 measures are some of the things that have resulted from the strategic risk group and, indeed, from other conversations that are happening, particularly on the operational side of matters. On night flights, the Government are well aware that there is always a balance between the aviation travelling public and the communities that live and work near airports. The current rules extend to October 2025 and the Government have no plans to change them.
My Lords, is it not about time that the airlines stopped selling tickets that they cannot deliver? Should they not reduce the number of sales until they are absolutely certain that they, the airports, their colleagues and the immigration centre have enough resources?
That is exactly what the Government have said to the aviation sector. The Government and the CAA wrote to the sector, both the airports and airlines, to set out the expectations for both over the summer period. The first of those is that summer schedules must be reviewed to make sure that they are deliverable. To that end, the Government are changing the regulations with regard to slots, to introduce a slot amnesty for a part of the summer.
My Lords, is it not time that the Government took some action on behalf of the airline passengers? If we take the levelling-up strategy, for example, how can it be right that British Airways charges more than £500 for an economy return fare from Glasgow or Edinburgh if it is booked a week in advance? The travelling public are treated very badly by the airlines. In the past, my noble friend has rejected Written Questions from me suggesting that the Government should intervene, which I am sympathetic to, but this is just simply out of hand. The public are being taken for fools.
I maintain my position on intervening in the price of flights, but we are absolutely intervening in terms of the standards of care that passengers receive from the aviation sector. Again, as I mentioned, in the letter that we have recently written to the industry, one thing that we made very clear was that passengers must be informed promptly of their consumer rights. Obviously, passengers should take those up with the airline itself and then with the CAA if it is not acceptably resolved with the airline.
My Lords, as we know, the recent airport delays are undoubtedly a direct result of opportunistic employers such as BA slashing jobs, pay and conditions during the pandemic. Now, unfortunately, we can all see that the chickens are indeed all coming home to roost, with many airlines too slow to rehire and refusing to restore wages that were stolen from staff under the cover of Covid. However, I am pleased to tell the House that, thanks to my union Unite, members working for CAE cabin crew have now secured an 18% pay rise—yes, 18%—and £1,200 summer bonus. Does the Minister agree that BA should follow suit and reverse its 10% pandemic cut for everyone, not just for management as is currently the case?
My Lords, does my noble friend share my frustration that, on every passenger ticket that is purchased, an airport passenger tax is taken? The number of passengers who are travelling should not come as a bolt from the blue, either to the airports or the airlines. What action is the CAA taking in this regard?
I am not entirely sure that I follow my noble friend’s question. We are taking all sorts of actions, as set out in the 22 measures that the Government announced today. That is from working with the ground handlers, where there is an issue with people getting their suitcases, to working with the airports to ensure they are able to cope with the number of flights arriving, and the airlines to ensure that their service is as good as possible and that they can meet their schedules, not cancel flights at short notice.
My Lords, do the 20-plus measures that the Minister referred to include additional staff for the Border Force, to make sure that it always has the capacity to deal with the additional security requirements that the Minister referred to in her Written Answers to me, which require the staff to take additional measures and time? Will there always be efficiency and sufficiency of staff for the Border Force?
Yes, I can absolutely reassure the noble Baroness that we have established a joint Home Office and DfT ministerial border group to identify and prepare for the high levels of demand at the UK border. Over the course of the half-term, the Border Force deployed extensive plans to ensure that it was able to meet demand, and the e-gates have been upgraded to make them more effective.
My Lords, last time we discussed this issue, I commented on the need for the department to get involved early. In fact, it seems that the department accepted my advice but did not get round to it until mid-June. Intervention in aviation is crucial because of the complex interaction. Can the Minister advise us, first, on how we will get to know about these 22 measures and perhaps write to me, listing them and putting a copy in the House? Can she also explain how a fast-moving industry that traditionally has to plan day by day can really make an impact with a weekly meeting?
Yes, I agree with the noble Lord that it is a very complex ecosystem, not just within our own borders but internationally. Issues outside our borders can have quite a significant knock-on impact. The 22 measures that I have already mentioned today will be published as a WMS today, but if there is not enough detail then I will happily write to him with the full detail on what they are. The noble Lord mentioned the Government not getting involved. When he looks at the 22 measures, he will see that there are things that have been in train for a very long time, so the Government have been working on this over a significant time. The Government do not intend to get involved in the day-to-day operations of the airports; these weekly meetings are very much about taking a medium-term view of emerging risks.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of the increasing use of fast track by airports, which demands a fee to get through the airport in a reasonable time? Does she not agree that the airports have a duty to do that for every passenger, not just for those who pay an extra fee?
I absolutely agree that every passenger should get a good service at an airport and be able to get through security within reasonable time. I know that the airports are beefing up their staffing. The Government have done an enormous amount in this area as well: we have ensured that UK security vetting now has no delays; we have also changed the regulations to ensure that training for these new security staff can start while background checks are ongoing.
My Lords, the chief executive of easyJet has said that one problem it is suffering is that:
“The pool of people is smaller, it’s just maths. We have had to turn down a huge number of EU nationals because of Brexit. Pre-pandemic we would have turned down 2-2.5% because of nationality issues. Now it’s 35-40%.”
How does the 22-step plan that the Government have produced deal with these kinds of staffing shortages?
The 22 measures include a number of interventions that we can make to sort the staffing shortages. Obviously, I have mentioned the changes to the security regulations. We are working alongside the industry—ultimately this is its issue, which it must deal with—but we have been very content to support it in terms of working with the general aviation sector to encourage communication about careers in it. The Aviation Skills Recruitment Platform has already been launched and we are working with students with the Talentview Aviation platform; indeed, we have 21 aviation ambassadors. There are all sorts of things that the Government are doing, but I remind the House that this is an issue that the industry must solve.
Crime, Reoffending and Rehabilitation
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am very pleased that the House has an opportunity to debate the causes of crime and reoffending and the effectiveness of rehabilitation, including the contribution made by the voluntary sector. I am also delighted to welcome the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, to the Front Bench—I believe that he was here yesterday, but this is his first debate. He is very welcome. The whole House will benefit from his expertise and experience, including as a judge for the General Court of the European Union and president of the Competition Appeal Tribunal. Most recently, he gave forthright advice to the Government following his criminal legal aid review. It is a nice touch that his central recommendation of a 15% funding uplift for fee schemes, increasing investment by £135 million a year, was announced by the Ministry of Justice the week he makes his maiden speech. I am sure the whole House is anticipating what he will say as keenly as I am.
I am thankful to all noble Lords who put their names down to speak and look forward to hearing all contributions, particularly that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. His report on the contributors to the riots that began in HMP Strangeways in 1990 and spread to 20 other jails was an indispensable foundation for my own two reviews. These built on one of his 12 recommendations, linking prison safety with family contact. I emphasised the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family ties to prevent reoffending—including, of course, while inside prison, the focus of the Woolf report—and intergenerational crime.
Before I turn to the importance of healthy and supportive relationships in rehabilitation, I want to start with the causes of crime and reoffending. There is not time to do justice to the many criminological theories that try to explain these causes, each of which has its own strengths, weaknesses and gaps and applies only to some types of crime and not others. Simply, some see individuals as rational actors capable of making their own choices, including whether to commit crime, by weighing up likely benefits and disadvantages. Others focus on relative deprivation and suggest crime happens when individuals or groups see themselves as being unfairly disadvantaged compared to others who appear similar. Front-line practitioners describe the high prevalence among criminals of family breakdown, father absence and other adverse childhood experiences, as well as neurodiversities such as dyslexia.
The Prison Service refers to criminogenic needs: the characteristics, traits, problems or issues in an individual’s life that directly relate to their likelihood of reoffending. The “big eight” are accommodation, employability, relationships, lifestyle, drug misuse, alcohol misuse, thinking and behaviour, and attitudes, as well as three others which affect how offenders respond to support—learning disability and challenges, mental health conditions and low maturity levels. However, the idea that there are causes of crime is a relative newcomer. The late Professor Christie Davies pointed out that it was not until the 1890s that the thought processes of the educated and prosperous elite became “causalist”. They looked down, as he put it, at
“a mass of weak people divided into the virtuous and the offending only by chance opportunities and adversities that caused them to act as they did. They were not truly free agents”.
In today’s parlance they would be termed “victims”, in the sense of those who have come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment.
The half century up to 1900 saw a decline in deviance: a drop in crime and social disorder that was directly linked to the influence on popular morality of religious institutions, notably the Sunday schools. These turned out such relatively law-abiding young people that the average age of prisoners rose. The turning point of this decline was the First World War, which started a flattening out, and the late 1950s ended it, just before the dawn of the sexual and social revolutions of the 1960s. That is when we begin to see Davies’s “U-curve of deviance”, based on data, not theory. This U-curve reflects a fall and subsequent rise in crime, drug and alcohol abuse and births outside of marriage. He associated this rise with a decline in “moralism”—knowing the difference between right and wrong—which implies that individuals have autonomy to choose whether they behave with, as he put it,
“virtuous innocence or deliberate guilt”.
This was gradually replaced by an ever-expanding legal corpus. To give an example, when I started in the City in 1963, its famous motto was still, “My word is my bond”. The complete trust in a word and a handshake slowly disintegrated to a recognition that one was bound only by what the law allowed or forbade. Religiously reinforced moralism, with its totemic notion of free will, was replaced by the causalism I described earlier. The loss of commitment to and identification with religion, and country, led in turn to a loss of the idea of service, sacrifice and the moral driver of duty. Perhaps one reason we admire the Queen so is because she embodies these values, which are self-evidently right and needed.
Not for a minute am I saying that the century when deviance fell and flattened was a perfect golden age. However, no one can say the changes that have taken place since the 1960s have produced one either. The House of Commons Library describes the history of crime in the 20th century as being dominated by the sharp rise in offences since the late 1950s. The 1960s were the only decade in the last century when crime doubled. Family breakdown has also soared. Half of all children are born outside an explicitly committed relationship. Hence, one-third of children live in separated families, a million rarely or never see their fathers and 80,000 are in local authority care. So, as we talk about the causes of crime today, we need to hold that concept in tension with Davies’s sense of de-moralisation. Ultimately, the cause is always the freely exercised decision of someone’s will to commit a crime—which may, of course, involve coercing others, against their wills, to be involved. But there is in everyone a contributor, without which they would not have ended up in criminal behaviour.
Turning to what is effective in curbing reoffending, the Ministry of Justice’s own statistics highlight how good relationships with families and significant others can aid rehabilitation. When I wrote my first review in 2017, reoffending rates were running at 43% and over 60% of children of prisoners went on to offend themselves and end up in prison. However, prisoners who receive family visits are 39% less likely to reoffend than those who do not. Intergenerational transmission of crime is, if anything, higher when mothers have been incarcerated, presumably because they are more often primary carers whose absence typically makes life more chaotic. Possibly as few as 5% of children stay in the family home, for example.
Yet the stark truth is that, pre pandemic, around half of prisoners were never visited. Given that around 25% were in local authority care, this is perhaps unsurprising. Looking at very recent reports from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, the level of visits in some prisons has not yet picked back up to its rate in early 2020. The Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service must be congratulated on the swiftness of the implementation of my reviews’ recommendations to make video calls available when prisons locked down at the beginning of the pandemic. However, these should complement and supplement but not replace physical visits.
In some jurisdictions only video “visits” are available, and this is very far from my policy goal. I met prisoners who longed to see their children in the normality of their home environment. One man, who had been in care, and in prison for almost three decades, yearned to see his only remaining relative, his grandmother, who was too old and infirm to visit. I heard about teenagers undertaking exams which precluded a long, possibly overnight journey to prison. A video call can make a huge difference when physical visits are not possible, but a woman I met recently highlighted the value to her daughter of seeing her father in the flesh, saying “When my daughter visited the prison, the school said it was a breath of fresh air for her, they could see how the face-to-face contact brought a massive improvement.”
The quality of physical visits is also another very live issue following the pandemic. I visited eight prisons in late April and late May this year to see how they were faring with their strategies to improve prisoners’ relationships with families and significant others. While so much of the outside world really has returned to normal, many prisons feel far from that, even if it is a long time since an outbreak. High Perspex screens shot up during the pandemic for public health protection, and social distancing was still in force. Gradual changes may have been made since my visits, but normality must be re-imposed everywhere on the estate as quickly as the restrictions were brought into force. It will be very important to clear away all artefacts of the pandemic, so that in 10 years’ time they have not become so entrenched in visits that, for example, no one knows why officers are still behind Perspex screens. Prisons should not be among the large sections of the public sector which seem to have a case of long Covid.
There are many vacancies in the Prison Service, and officers are being lost to Border Force among other places. Can my noble friend the Minister outline what the Government are doing to recruit and retain them? Without adequate staff, rehabilitation is almost impossible.
Other important rehabilitation activity addresses prisoners’ lack of education, employment skills and accommodation, and helps them to get off drugs. I know other noble Lords today will do justice to these issues, but relationships provide essential motivation. One deputy governor I met recently impresses on his staff that, “Without a supportive family to return to he’ll return to crime regardless of the education he takes part in and the accommodation he gets upon release.” We need to ensure that relationships are truly embedded in the reducing reoffending culture. That means that in all national and local strategies, and in every speech from politicians, families and relationships are firmly screwed in as the third leg of the rehabilitation stool, without which it falls over. I see part of my role as ensuring that this happens.
I turn briefly to the voluntary sector, which includes prison chaplaincy. The sector has a vital role to play in weaving that golden thread of relationships through all the processes of prisons. Although prison chaplains can be the overlooked service, they stayed on the front line during covid, as did many family service organisations. They are statutorily required to meet all prisoners upon arrival at a jail. On my recent visit to HMP Durham, a reception prison, I realised that these early days are possibly the most stressful time of a sentence. Indeed, Professor Alison Liebling found that one-third of all prisoner suicides take place in the first week of custody.
The organisation Nepacs runs a dedicated early days in custody programme in HMP Durham, and all the men on the wings know Tracy, who runs it. Her work is rooted in awareness that the huge stress that comes from being in prison, after being on the outside, is compounded by not having your glasses, not having your own underwear, or not having your own false teeth. She sources these, and the messages she passes between prisoners and their family members dampen some of the shock and crises all are experiencing straight after arrest or sentencing.
The voluntary sector often excels at spotting important unmet needs such as these and filling them, but organisations have to go to charitable trusts and dig into their own reserves to do pioneering work. The commissioning process needs to incorporate and act on proven effectiveness of new ways of working. Can the Minister tell me if the Government are convinced that their commissioning process drives continuous improvement and innovation, rather than just preserving the status quo?
I will finish here because I am very keen to hear all noble Lords’ contributions, particularly my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy’s maiden speech. I thank noble Lords for contributing to this vital debate.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for getting the debate today, and for his very thoughtful—and for some, I suppose, somewhat controversial—contribution. He has been very brave and has said some things that need saying and that these days we are not prepared to say. I look forward with interest to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester’s contribution.
The causes of crime are the old fundamentals—the seven sins—such as greed, pride, lust and anger. Anger is one which causes a great deal of problems for families and society, and many people who have uncontrollable anger end up in prison. It is interesting that the Government’s 2018 strategy on anger and violence in society and in prison took it back to looking at what happens with alcohol and drugs, which is an area in which the House knows I have spoken fairly frequently. I will not labour on that today; I anticipate that my good friend the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who was chair of the Commission on Alcohol Harm—of which I was a member, so I declare an interest—will speak at some length on this topic. Alcohol and harm, and the Government’s responsibility in the way they handle alcohol and harm, is a big factor.
I welcome the Minister to his role and, like others, look forward with great interest to his contribution. I hope we will have not just words but that he will be able to pull some levers and we will have some action.
I come at this from a long experience of personal problems with drink and drugs, many years ago. I have also spent much of my time working with people in recovery. I work also with people in recovery from prison, and later I will give noble Lords a message I have had from a friend who I spend a couple of hours every week with, who has been in Brixton prison three times. He comes from a difficult background but is now in recovery, training as a therapist and making very good progress. He has some useful insights into what we might be doing.
I agree basically that the family as a unit is the best one available to us, but let us not deceive ourselves and think that simply because we are in a family and we have that relationship that everything will work fine there—it does not. My experience is that many people come from backgrounds where, prima facie, the family is perfect, yet they end up drinking too much and taking drugs. Why does that happen? We should spend time looking at that. My experience is that it is often a combination of the DNA, the past history of the family, and then of course the environment in which the child is in—and it is mainly at the childhood level that this develops. We have got to be careful about making assumptions that there are simple solutions; there are not. This is a complex topic.
I pay tribute to the Cameron Government here. When David Cameron was in power, he came up with a number of quite notable and distinctive polices in this area, which regrettably were not followed through. For example, they produced a very good alcohol strategy, but it was never implemented; it had fallen by the wayside by 2015. Why have the Government still not got a strategy on alcohol when, at the present time, we have more problems with alcohol then we have had for the past 15 years?
Cameron also encouraged the development of a more participative society; it is interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, cited the Queen and service. When this country is in difficulty, we have found that an extraordinary response comes from the people. When Covid began, 750,000 people volunteered to help the NHS. They were not used properly—what a waste of talent and opportunity. Everywhere we look, when we have a real problem, we get a great response. For example, we have had an outstanding response on Ukraine from people willing to accommodate refugees. When it comes to asking what we can do in prisons, not enough work is done in trying to tap into the good will of the British people and get them involved in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, is involved, and the way that many of the people I know working in AA go into prisons and try to get people into recovery.
I hope the new Minister might start thinking about how we can marshal that great British spirit. To a degree, this is a debate about spirit. We have spent so much time talking about material deficiency when, in fact, we have a great poverty of spirit in this country. However, if we can provide leadership, we can give a lift to people, and they will come forward and work with us. We need to do more because our record in prisons is very poor indeed in comparison with many other countries.
I am running out of time, and I regret that I cannot give your Lordships a quote from my friend who is an ex-prisoner, but I will write to the Minister with it. He gives some very good suggestions on what needs to be done.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, on securing this debate. I welcome the Minister to his new position and look forward to working with him. I worked with his predecessor, who conducted himself with great integrity and conscientiousness, and I very much hope that the positive and constructive relationship we developed will continue.
In six minutes I can cover only a small number of points. The first part of this debate—the causes of crime and reoffending—is a herculean task in itself, but the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, treated us to a fascinating insight into that this morning. So I will focus on two areas of sentencing which frustrate the rehabilitation of offenders. First, we put people, especially women, into prison for short periods of time. I know that steps have been taken regarding sentencing in this area, but if the better development of women’s centres recommended over 14 years ago by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, had been properly implemented, it would have obviated many of the problems we see today.
If you tried to design a system to ensure that people had the worst possible chance of rehabilitation, you would take them out of their home, rob them of their identity, put them in a threatening environment rife with drugs, lock them away for long periods of the day, ensure they got little or no help with addictions, mental illness and re-education, and give them no home and no job on release. Release them on a Friday, when they are unable to get anything organised—money, accommodation, et cetera—and you have a perfect recipe for perpetuating the system. Short-term sentencing shows how amazingly successful you can be at robbing an individual of their self-respect and their former lives in a really short time—and when they reoffend, just give them more of the same: spend more money on what does not work.
At the other end of the sentence spectrum, we have those who do not know how long they are going to be incarcerated for. The duration of life sentences has doubled over the last 40 years from an average of nine years to 18 years, according to the Independent Commission into the Experience of Victims and Long-term Prisoners. Even worse, in my view, is the situation of indeterminate sentence prisoners, who are kept in prison for inordinate periods of time, long after the sentence has been abolished because of its unfairness. I will leave it to the other members of our small and select cross-party group to elucidate further on that.
I am sorry to say that the Minister is inheriting is a broken system, with any rehabilitation services trying to operate on a shoestring. We who have the temerity to point these contradictions out are branded lily-livered liberals. Well, I am a Liberal, for sure, but like many across this House I believe in evidence-based policy. The report of the Independent Commission into the Experience of Victims and Long-term Prisoners concluded that
“sentencing for serious offences has lost its way and is not working for victims, prisoners, or society as a whole.”
The report discusses the five purposes of sentencing, which are supposed to be the punishment of offenders, reduction of crime, reform and rehabilitation of offenders, protection of the public, and making of reparation. We have got the punishment side down really well—but the rest of it, not so much.
If all five purposes of sentencing are to be met—not simply locking people up and throwing away the key—we need more public awareness of what prison is actually for. We need a complete root-and-branch review of sentencing policy, incorporating all the resources at our disposal. We need the voluntary, private and public sectors all working together, throwing away the dog whistle and using evidence-based policy, doing what works, and thus serving the interests of all.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for securing this debate, and I welcome the Minister and his maiden speech. Others have spoken of his great attainments, but what must now be half a century ago, he gained first-hand experience of the real problems that people needing legal advice face in day-to-day life when we worked together at a legal advice centre. I shall return to this in a moment.
I do not want to speak about the causes of crime—that is impossible to get into in a few minutes, although the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, did so eloquently—but will deal instead with what needs doing now, what works and what does not work. First, I want to say a word about IPPs. I could not equal the eloquence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, or the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, in dealing with the sentence, but I think we ought now to appreciate that although there are just over 1,500 people who have not been released, there are nearly 1,400 people who have been recalled. We overlook the importance of rehabilitation. One appellant described to me once that she felt like a puppet on a string when released. We need to address the problems caused by indefinite detention and the possibility of recall. We have to await the report of the Justice Select Committee on other matters, but I very much hope that we can address proper support to those released so we do not find so many coming back.
Secondly, I turn to women offenders because here, again, there is something that works. Obviously, there are some crimes for which we must send women to prison for a significant period of time, but sending a woman to prison for short-term offending is, in my view, almost invariably wrong. When I chaired the Commission on Justice in Wales, we recommended in our report that:
“A commitment should be made, in our view, to establish a number of women’s centres and the supporting interventions. This would overcome the well-documented problems of women’s imprisonment and would enable women to serve their sentences in their home areas. These centres take a holistic approach to reducing offending by women, offering court-ordered support and supervision, access to mental healthcare and treatment for addictions, skills for employment, financial management and debt advice, parenting support and the opportunity to gain and maintain safe housing.”
The Minister has first-hand experience of knowing how vital those issues of safe housing and employment are to dealing with people.
I wish to say how grateful I am to see that the Ministry of Justice, in conjunction with the Welsh Government, will open next year a residential women’s centre in Swansea that will be an alternative to short custodial sentences. This is a very important development, but key to it—I am not sure how well understood this is—is the holistic support that is to be given. The probation service does an excellent job, but in dealing with offenders you need to bring in the whole community, including the voluntary sector. Certainly, it is quite clear from pathfinder projects being undertaken in Wales—there is not time for me to set out the details—that there is success not in criminalising people, to which I shall return in a moment, but in providing holistic support for them in the community, with debt advice, safe housing, employment and dealing with the consequences of abuse: a one-stop shop for rehabilitation.
It has shown in Wales that it works; it is one way of trying to stop reoffending and rehabilitate effectively. I commend the work being done by the Ministry of Justice and the very significant sums being spent by the Welsh Government on subsidising the third sector on a more permanent basis and funding the work being done.
Thirdly, I turn to the other aspect that needs urgent attention. In the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act passed earlier this year, Sections 98 to 121 dealt with cautions. I very much hope that urgent steps are being taken to get the legislation under way, because another cause of reoffending is criminalising at too early a stage. The success of the projects in Wales, particularly those in Dyfed-Powys and north Wales, has shown that if you give people community rehabilitation and do not criminalise them, you can stop them going on to offend. I very much hope that urgent work is being undertaken by the Government to get the statutory instruments that are needed, and the necessary guidance, so that we can properly stop criminalising people and look for an alternative, rehabilitative approach.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for introducing this debate. His work is inspiring; I want to say “yes” to all that he has said and am sorry that I have only six minutes. I too welcome the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, and look forward to his maiden speech. I refer to my interests stated in the register as Anglican Bishop to Prisons and president of the Nelson Trust. Last week, I visited HMP Wakefield. In reflecting with the governor on long sentences, he said that he had asked a group of prisoners whether, if they had known the tariff for their crime, it would have been a deterrent. For all but one, the answer was no. Most crimes are rarely planned in a calculated way.
Earlier this month, the Independent Commission into the Experience of Victims and Long-Term Prisoners published a report with a comprehensive set of recommendations, holding together for the first time the perspectives of the offender and the victim. The report highlighted that the number of people in England and Wales given a prison sentence of more than 10 years has more than doubled in a decade, at an ever greater cost. Where is the evidence that greater severity equates to greater deterrence, or a safer society? We need to curb the unhelpful and inaccurate rhetoric about keeping the public safer through longer, tougher sentencing. What matters more than longer and longer sentences is how people are spending their time while in prison, in terms of not only education and purposeful work but meaningful interventions which prevent reoffending and someone else becoming another victim. Holding together justice and restoration is central to Christian theology; I believe it is vital for us to rediscover how those two dwell side by side.
As has been said, at the opposite end to long sentences are short sentences. These too are often not the answer. From my work with the Nelson Trust and women’s centres, as have been mentioned, I know the value of community sentences, police diversion schemes and other non-custodial interventions. Holistic intervention in the community for women, men and children can often address the root causes of offending, including drug and substance abuse. We know that offenders are often people of multiple disadvantage, and tackling those drivers to offending is key.
We also know that if men and women are to cease from reoffending, they need purposeful work, strong relationships, addiction intervention and a home. A project I have advocated for in the diocese of Gloucester is the prisoners building homes programme. These prisoners are working with a modular housing provider to build low-carbon, modular homes for local communities and vulnerable people across the south-west, hopefully including for prison leavers. The prisoners are acquiring skills for future employment. I would love to see more projects like this, but it will take significant cross-departmental and interdepartmental working and the will to think outside the box when commissioning or securing funding.
A recent IMB report on HMP Bronzefield found that 65% of women face homelessness on release. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to continue to engage on this issue in a meaningful, interdepartmental way and with a gendered approach.
Turning to the voluntary sector, the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, has highlighted the importance of relationship. As a Lord spiritual, this is not a surprise. Restored relationship sits at the heart of Christian belief, and I am glad that the noble Lord has highlighted the importance of chaplaincy, paid and voluntary, in prison and beyond the gate. Relationship sits at the heart of so much of the work of the voluntary sector, supporting the charity sector in a commitment to the flourishing of individuals and communities, not least with prison leavers.
We have many examples in the faith-based sector, such as the Welcome Directory, which signposts prison leavers to worshipping communities of all faiths to find a place of welcome and community. There is also the Prison Advice and Care Trust, PACT, which has volunteers and staff in courts, prisons, probation services and the wider community. There are so many local and national initiatives with stories to tell of transformed lives. People in the charitable and voluntary sector stand ready to be part of the solution, but it needs the Government to intentionally work with them and tap into their considerable experience, wisdom and insights.
Returning to the overall focus of today’s debate, I would argue that sustainably funded community intervention and purposeful rehabilitation in prison and beyond the gate need not carry a high financial increase if we realign the funding, stop a focus on more prison places and address the pervasive issue of more and longer sentences which are failing both victims and prisoners.
I urge noble Lords to join me in pushing for a national debate informed not by the occasional sensational Daily Mail headline but by evidence, so that we can turn the tide for the sake of our overcrowded prisons and for real justice for victims of crime, so that reoffending is tackled effectively once and for all. I invite the Minister to meet with me and those behind the independent commission to reflect further. It is of course easier to file all this in the “too difficult” drawer and continue to focus on lengthening sentences and building more prisons. But I hope for a better way, and I look forward to the rest of today’s debate.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the right reverend Prelate. I tip my hat to the work of the Church of England—indeed, of all faith leaders—to do with prisons. I too draw particular attention to the report chaired by the former Bishop to Prisons, James Jones, who has been a great influence on me and the way in which I try to think about prisons.
I start by declaring an interest. I am a patron of Unlock, a prisoners’ charity, and a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust. I see that my first chairman, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, is in his place; I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
It is interesting—and no surprise—that two former Lord Chief Justices are listed to speak in this debate; one, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, has already spoken, while the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has yet to speak. Once again, I welcome my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy to the Front Bench. I look forward to him gripping this vexed question of what to do with prisons and prisoners with some degree of enthusiasm—even evangelism—because, unless a policymaker in the Government takes charge of this issue and owns it, it will just dribble on uselessly.
My noble friend Lord Farmer is to be congratulated on obtaining this debate. If I could bottle his speech and have it delivered by the crateload to every Whitehall department, I would. I have a suspicion that not every Cabinet Minister will condescend to read the Hansard of today’s debate but they jolly well should because everything that my noble friend said goes straight to the heart of the issues that my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench now faces.
Everything that has been said in this debate has been said time after time, ever since I became interested in this question. I was appointed shadow Prisons Minister by David Cameron in 2006, I think it was, when he became leader of the Opposition. I set about visiting as many prisons, YOIs and secure training centres as I could to see what was going on, in order to produce for my party evidence-based policy. In the end, after two or three years, I produced a paper called Prisons with a Purpose. As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, mentioned, a number of the ideas in that paper were taken up by the coalition Government when they came into office in 2010 but, sadly, so many of them have fallen by the wayside. So we are still here. I am like a cracked record, repeating what I have been saying for the past 15 or 20 years. I dare say that I will go to my grave and wave from the hole in the ground, saying, “Do you remember? Why have you done nothing about this?”
If I may say so, there is not only a moral and justice case for dealing with prisoners in a productive and sensible way but a hard-headed economic case. The cost of housing a male adult prisoner in a long-term secure prison is enormous. If, when that prisoner is in there and is literally a captive audience, we do nothing to prevent him—it usually is a “him”—reoffending, are we not letting ourselves down? Are we not letting our fellow citizens down by fooling them into thinking that a Government with a policy of sending more and more people to prison for longer and longer while doing nothing constructive with them when they are in there are achieving something positive?
When I became the shadow Minister, the first person I rang up was the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham; he is no longer in his place. I have learned a great deal from him and many others who know an awful lot about this subject. He asked me to think about three things; noble Lords have mentioned them already. The first is what we do with prisoners when they are released. He said that they need a job, a stable place of accommodation and a stable relationship. Those things come through their families and the system, be it the Prison Service, the Parole Board or the voluntary sector, enabling people to leave prison in a condition in which they can get a job.
If you leave prison and you cannot read or write—bear in mind that the average reading age of an adult prisoner in our system is 11—you cannot get even the most basic manual job. So why do we send people to prison for all those years and not teach them to read and write or to add up? Why do we send drug addicts to prison and not effectively treat their addictions? Why do we send mentally ill people to prison and not effectively treat their mental health problems? I guess it is because it is easy just to keep on doing the same thing over and again.
I have been saying the same thing over and again. My six minutes are now up but I urge my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench to launch out on a new path—one of real reform and real positive advance.
My Lords, it is an honour to take part in this debate. My main reason for signing up to it was to listen and learn. Much of the discussion has focused on whether prison works and I want to highlight this issue in relation to older prisoners. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, rightly stressed the importance to prisoners of having a job when they come out of prison but, of course, a small proportion of prisoners are pensioners. Their specific needs must be given greater attention; I ask the Minister to say at least something in his reply about the specific needs of older prisoners, including in terms of their rehabilitation and their re-entry into society.
I have just two specific points to add to that general call. First, the punishment is what is levied by the court, but prisoners lose out in other ways. Prisoners of working age lose their national insurance contributions. There is a whole debate there but inflicting poverty on prisoners when they get to retirement age should not be part of the punishment. I suggest that one reform would be for prisoners who work or are in full-time training to be entitled to national insurance credits so that they can look forward to an adequate pension. That must be part of a policy for rehabilitation and re-entry.
My second, main point relates to the removal of the state pension from those prisoners who are of pensionable age. It is always difficult to engender sympathy for prisoners—it is perhaps even harder to do so for older prisoners given the typical nature of their crimes—but this is an issue not of sympathy but of rights. We have a state pension system based on contributions. In my view, if prisoners have paid their contributions, they should receive their benefits. Often, broadly, the argument is reduced to, “Well, we need to recoup part of the cost”, but we do not do that for prisoners under pension age. Why should we take a pension away from those who are over pension age?
It is notable that prisoners do not lose their occupational pensions. There is a technical point here, to a certain extent. Currently, for many older pensioners, part of their occupational pension is a replacement for the state pension. There is a lottery element: if you get a pension from the state, you lose it in prison, but, if you get an identical pension from an occupational scheme, you do not lose it. Given the national insurance position of a large number of older pensioners, their wives—it typically is wives—lose their pensions as well. That cannot be right.
This is not a new point. In the past, the Prison Reform Trust and Age UK have expressed dismay at this policy, and my main point is that it is directly relevant to prospects for rehabilitation and return to society that we should not inflict additional penalties which move people into greater poverty, with the consequent knock-on effects on their future.
My Lords, I welcome my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy and look forward to his maiden speech. I also thank my noble friend Lord Farmer for this very important debate. It is full of so many key and important issues that matter to me and many of your Lordships here today, and I am grateful to be focusing on the contribution made by the voluntary sector in reducing reoffending and helping to deliver successful rehabilitation outcomes.
Many of us will be aware of the contributions made by the voluntary sector and of its work in delivering early intervention and helping to divert people away from the criminal justice system. Much of this work is increasingly dependent on the work of the voluntary sector and passionate volunteers. However, sadly there are those who end up in custody. The youth and adult secure estate is without doubt a deterrent and a form of punishment. However, it is equally important for us to address and rehabilitate those who want to be helped, while inside and when they leave custody.
We know that people in contact with the criminal justice system face significant health inequalities compared to the general population. The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly added an extra burden to these complexities. The HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Annual Report: 2020 to 2021 highlighted that prisoners spent
“long periods of isolation, in … cells”
sometimes with “no company” and “without purposeful activity”. This “had a profound effect” on their well-being. Purposeful activity is defined as an activity that is likely to benefit the prisoner, such as work, vocational training, education, and programmes to address their offending.
An underutilised and under-resourced intervention is physical activity and sport. This can be one of the best ways to engage prisoners, children and young people, acting as the hook to draw them into the wider valuable support that they need to help their rehabilitation and to tackle health inequalities such as addiction. A Sporting Chance: An Independent Review of Sport in Youth and Adult Prisons, carried out by Professor Rosie Meek in 2018, included some statistics which showed that reoffending data for sports-based initiatives can be as low as 6%. The contribution of the voluntary sector and its focus on the use of physical activity is highly beneficial, and I would like to draw attention to some of its work.
In declaring my interests, I am involved in trying to improve and develop the ability for sport and physical activity to enhance the health and well-being of those involved in, or at risk of entering, the criminal justice system, as co-chair of the APPG on Sport and Physical Activity in the Criminal Justice System, and as chair of the Alliance of Sport’s taskforce on physical activity and sport in the criminal justice system. To be complete, I am also vice-chair of the APPGs on Sport and the APPG on Charities and Volunteering.
We must work to improve and prioritise the health and well-being of children, young people and adults in the secure estate. This can be done through introducing more activities with qualified and appropriate mentors who can support and deliver successful outcomes. Working in partnership with a very busy and specialist prison service in this way can be a huge asset, not a hindrance. A broad range of sport and physical activity-based voluntary organisations are already doing great work across our prisons, an example being the Twinning Project—a football-based programme that connects local clubs with prisons to support prisoners through professional coaching qualifications, refereeing and employability skills. Aston Villa Football Club collaborated with HMP Birmingham to support a cohort of men who were approaching release back into the community. One recipient in 2020 gave it the ultimate testimonial:
“Aston Villa Foundation has saved my life and my mental health.”
A further example is parkrun, which now has 31 events taking place in custody each week. In addition to running or walking 5k, the event allows participants to volunteer as marshals or timekeepers. Participants can also take part in a community parkrun on their release from custody. Therefore, from football to rugby and rowing to running, along with activities including trauma-informed yoga, many organisations are already addressing prisoners’ health and well-being, while supporting them to learn new skills and improve their employment prospects.
However, this provision remains patchy across the secure estate, and how it impacts supporting the continuity of care remains unclear. Without proper funding and co-ordination, potential opportunities for tackling reoffending are being missed. Can the Minister say how he can improve the access to prisons for our voluntary organisations and at the same time support the Prison Service, which in partnership is making greater contributions to delivering better outcomes for those in the secure estate and beyond?
We should not underestimate the impact of voluntary organisations and volunteers who make a difference day-to-day in dealing with the range of pressures across our prisons at present. It is a win-win to look at how these organisations can work better together with prisons. More work should be done to evaluate and deliver greater investment into these partnerships, and to help make an even greater difference to the future of those prisoners who want to turn their lives around and go on to live crime-free lives.
I welcome the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, to his new job. I hope that he does better than all the others ever did. Look at it this way: one thing that we are not embracing is that whatever we are doing is not working. Until you recognise that something is not working, it is like carrying an illness around with you and keep saying, “I’ll go and see the doctor”, but you do not—and then one day you do go and see the doctor, which means you move nearer to the solution than by doing nothing about it. We have a problem over prisons. We have problems with all sorts of things that the Government are expected to respond to but, with prisons, we spend £4 billion largely on warehousing people for a particular period. Then we let them out on the streets and they return to crime.
When I made my maiden speech here six years ago, I was being serious when I said that I got into the House of Lords by lying, cheating and stealing. I did not mean that I had to brown-nose a lot of people and leave a lot of envelopes around. I meant that the class of person I came from—we always like to avoid “class” now, post Thatcher—did not get an education. You got a form of babysitting from the ages of five to 15. I was blessed by the fact that every time I got nicked, I was taught something. In a boys’ prison at the age of 16, I learned to read and write, and even though it took me another 15 years to get out of being a naughty boy and a naughty young man, I had laid the foundation stones of a complete and utter transformation in my life. Why is the illiteracy rate in prisons so high? Why is it that 35% of children who pass through our schools are failed? They join the working poor and the long-term unemployed, and they become 90% of the prison population. I repeat: 35% of our children are failed at school.
I like the idea that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, can find a magic bullet. I am not being rude but we are always looking for a magic bullet. My magic bullet is for us to address that we fail 35% of our schoolchildren and condemn people to poverty. Behind all of this is poverty. That is what it is. How did you do in the poverty argument? When you come into life, you could say, “Where am I in the poverty argument?”. When you leave life at the other end, maybe you should also ask “How did I do in the poverty argument?”. Most of the people who end up in prison did badly in the poverty argument.
It is a class issue, not just one of families. God above, I would not want my family anywhere near children —my mum and dad could not organise a urination in a whatever. They were absolutely useless, because they did not see the importance of education or ballet lessons—which they never paid for. They did not see that, to bring me out of poverty, they had to address the fact that they knew nothing about education or the social opportunities that it can bring.
I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, has raised the issue of families because I agree with him. Is it not terrible that, if a child does not see their parent in prison, the reoffending rate of the prisoner goes through the roof—some 60% of them are likely to reoffend?
We need to address issues that are nothing to do with prisons. Prison is an emergency response to a social crisis. If you have been a bad boy or girl, we are going to lock you up. We then say we are going to do all sorts of things for you but do not do them. Why is it that, when I talked to 150 prison governors in the north of England a couple of years ago and asked them to tell me how much time and money they spent on rehabilitation, it was next to nothing? They put rehabilitation as maybe a fifth or sixth consideration. The first thing was the safety of staff and the second was the safety of prisoners—no one running away and those sorts of things.
The problem is that rehabilitation and education—which can get people out of the sticky stuff and move them on—are not there. We must address the problem that 35% of our children are lost in the education system and become the working poor. They are the ones who cannot handle inflation; they will become long-term unemployed and then become our prison population.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Farmer on securing this debate and making a speech that I thought was one of the most important, courageous, thoughtful and worth re-reading of any speech that I have heard since I have been in this place. Indeed, all the speeches so far have been important contributions and well worth reconsidering. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, with whom I do not always agree, said, as she focused on rehabilitation, that those of us who do so are often accused of being lily-livered liberals. She is a Liberal and my liver is undoubtably “Lilley’s”.
I get most of my original interest in this subject from a great Christian Tory, Samuel Johnson, who, back in the 18th century—and little has changed since, as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, indicated—said that prisons are academies of crime. People go in because they have not been good at their crime, and they are more likely to learn from fellow prisoners than they are to be taught or helped by anybody else to be rehabilitated and leave crime behind them when they leave prison.
My experience of the prison system is far more limited than that of most people contributing to this debate. It is limited to visiting and talking to friends and constituents who have had the misfortune to go there. They confirm the impression that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, brought home forcefully: that though we pay lip service to the importance of rehabilitation and there have been initiatives—my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier endeavoured to emphasise the importance of rehabilitation—it has not had much impact. My impression is that it is incredibly hard, physically and culturally, to change the culture of prisons, which are basically about incarceration.
I suspect that we need to set up an entirely new prison, as a pilot project, focused primarily on rehabilitation. It should be staffed, equipped and designed with architecture to make rehabilitation possible. Such a prison would put great emphasis on literacy. As one of the speakers has pointed out, illiteracy is a major problem in the population of our prisons—and certainly in the experience of my constituents who have found themselves there. The day would be designed around work, to give people work and reinforce the habit of work, so that when they return to the working world they have not lost touch with it. There should be links with employers who are willing to take on former prisons, so that jobs will be available to them. There should be training in skills suited to the individual, so that they can take up work when they leave prison.
Such a prison would tackle drugs more seriously than we do. Something that I learned when visiting a friend in prison on an open day was that most of his fellow inmates were on marijuana. He said that in the drugs wing—where prisoners are not allowed out on visiting day—they were all on heroin. I asked if you only go in there if you are on heroin. He said, “No, you go in there if you are caught taking marijuana, but once inside, you learn that you cannot wash marijuana out of your system for the fortnightly test. If you take 16 litres of water, you can wash heroin out, so they all switch to heroin once they are in the drugs wing.” If that is going on in prisons, and we are encouraging people to move from soft to hard drugs, it shows what little thought is being given to one of the most prevalent and damaging problems that causes and prolongs lives of crime.
We should also build into the system at this pilot model prison aftercare services, so that people have planned accommodation and planned work, and links, I would hope, with the charitable and voluntary sectors so that they have people to call upon for support and help. Hopefully, that would work. We would then have some experience that would then be possible to spread throughout the prison system. If not, the chances of converting existing prisons and changing the priority from incarceration to rehabilitation are, I fear, limited.
My Lords, it is with some hesitation that I rise to my feet to talk. There was a time—the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, has identified that time—when I knew a lot about prisons. However, that time has long passed and I have now got to a stage where, I am afraid, I would have difficulty in identifying the large number of prisons I visited, both in this country and abroad.
However, I am sure that having this debate is of great value, because it gives people who are aware of the current situation an opportunity of explaining the problems that we have. As the people who visit prisons constantly find, the experience is shockingly sad, given the fact that it has resulted in the situation today. Bearing in mind the vast sums of money that are spent on our prisons and the criminal justice system in general, it is extraordinarily sad that we cannot make a bigger impression. I believe that we can, and that the money could be deployed.
I also believe there is a very simple answer: we have to find the resistance to the siren song that comes out from the media asking for longer and longer sentences. The message we need is that we must reduce the need for the length of sentences we already have. What can be achieved by our Prison Service at present could be achieved without extending the length of sentences, if only the culture would change. I hope our new Minister, who I hope will have continuing responsibility for this, realises that we have to change the culture. Nothing less than that will achieve the result we all want.
Of course, there will be opposition. When I retired from being a judge, the department of the courts that looks after public relations sent me a little present. It was one of those shields that you get if you play rugby or some other team sport, and it said in the middle “Hated by the Daily Mail”. I regard that as a considerable honour, and it is the one thing I got that I have treasured ever since, because it told me that I did at least some things right in the office I was privileged to hold.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for his kind remarks on my now ancient report into the prison situation that existed after the prison riots in 1990, in particular in Strangeways prison. At that time, it was remarkable how many worthy people were working hard to try to make the system work, but they unfortunately found that they could not fight against it. If we could get across the message that it is possible to make a change, we could produce improvements. Every now and then, we have marvellous examples of the best possible practice. The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, was talking about another example: they come into existence, prosper for a time and then, I am afraid, disappear from sight—despite everyone’s efforts.
To conclude, every word I have heard in this debate was absolutely right. Noble Lords have identified the nature of the problem and what can be done about it. Somehow or another, we have to change public attitudes, so that politicians feel that this is what they must bring about. I thank the noble Lord for giving us this opportunity. I wish that every word your Lordships have said is heard by the widest possible audience.
My Lords, it is humbling to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. I welcome this important debate, so I have a special thank you for the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and for his thought-provoking speech. There is so much to say on the topic. I am glad that many have referred to IPPs and that the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, will continue to try to do something about this ongoing blight on the criminal justice system. I hope that imprisonment for public protection sentences will, one day, for ever be gone.
Showing such regard for these or any prisoners can grate with the public. Too often, attempts to raise issues of prison reform can be met with an angry rolling of the eyes. “What about the victims of crime?”, people say. At present, I note that this goes far wider than the hard-line trope to lock them up and throw away the key or a repetition of the myth that prisons are cushy holiday camps. It reflects a larger problem of public despair at the state of criminal justice and the crisis of trust in the UK, in particular with policing.
On the one hand, many citizens feel that the criminal justice system is becoming oppressive and inconsistent in the application of laws over policing and penalising what were erstwhile non-criminal activities—whether that is a protest from the one-man foghorn Steve Bray or those at the Sarah Everard vigil, or the seeming obsession of some police forces with trawling through social media and threatening those who tweet offensive or hateful comments, in their opinion, with criminal sanction.
I also look at the squandering of resources spent on investigating tens of thousands of non-crime hate incidents, despite the fact that these NCHIs have never been voted for by Parliament and have even been declared unlawful by the courts in the Harry Miller case. In 2018, Sara Thornton, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, stated that the police should
“solve more burglaries and bear down on violence before we make more records of incidents that are not crimes.”
Yet the investigation of these NCHIs continues, while burglaries and violent crime are neglected, and the public feel that they are being ignored. So many feel underprotected by agencies charged with their safety.
As an example, you need look only at the story in the news this week about the release of the report on the Oldham grooming gangs. It is shocking reading and many still feel it is too evasive and a whitewash. Vulnerable young girls, who no one in authority would listen to, were drugged, raped and sexually abused with seeming impunity, as the police and local authorities looked the other way, refusing to investigate for fear of providing
“an opportunity for far-right racist elements to capitalise politically”.
This politicisation of policing adds to a sense of grievance, especially as similar stories have emerged from Rotherham, Rochdale, Telford and so on. This set of failures of the criminal justice agencies to live up to the public’s expectations can breed a wider cynicism about the importance of focusing on the plight of criminals and rehabilitation initiatives. We must not be deterred, but we cannot ignore that either.
I have some points on how we can improve prison life—a vital tool in deterring reoffending, as many have said. I recently visited the new early days centre at HMP Bronzefield, a Sodexo-managed women’s prison for the MoJ. It made a real impact on me: it is a hugely impressive initiative, enthusiastically backed by management and staff, which allows a smooth settlement into custody. This has been shown to have a positive reduction on self-harm, violence and suicide, as the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, explained that these initiatives do. These early days centres really work to cut down the volatility that new prisoners feel when entering the prison estate, allowing them to reach out for help without fear of repercussion, providing access to practical rules and being taught all the ropes of the prison regime by peer mentors.
I met three peer mentors—or young women residents as they were known then, or prisoners now; I cannot keep up—whose dedication to their role was meticulous. Their attention to detail was so impressive and they were organisationally competent. That not only contributed to their accumulation of skills for their own rehabilitation—I hope they might get a job at the MoJ when they are released—but helped to take some of the time burden from hard-pressed officers.
I make special mention here of Michael Campbell-Brown, who arranged over 160 of these specifically trained peer mentors. There are 15 of these early days centres; a new one opened earlier this week at HMP Addiewell, and HMP Peterborough is launching one in its female prison this week. I hope the Minister will back rolling out these programmes far more widely and look at these kinds of innovative new initiatives.
We now understand that setting the right tone at the start of the prison sentence is important, creating a positive contract between prison and prisoner, ensuring that incarceration is not just an extension of a turbulent, fearful and violent life outside. But this can all be undone by the circumstances of release, which so often set people up to fail. All that good work is ruined when prisoners are just dumped into the outside world. Often, those released are given unachievable tasks by probation officers; many are not given travel warrants or means to attend probation meetings and they end up being recalled to prison.
Often the focus of post-prison rehabilitation is on helping prisoners to gain employment, which is a good thing, but there is less focus on leaving jail without accommodation. Tens of thousands leave prison without anywhere to live. Not everyone has a family home to go to. This is crucial, and we know that there is a clear link—
My Lords, it is a pleasure, as always, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley. I thank my noble friend Lord Farmer for bringing this matter to the Chamber today and for his impressive speech. I echo the welcome to the Front Bench for my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy.
In a former life, I spent most of my time detecting and arresting criminals and putting them before the courts. While I appreciate that there may be those who disagree with me, the reality is that we put the more serious offenders in prison because they need to be punished for their wrongdoing and, more importantly, because victims and the public at large must be protected from further harm. However, that does not mean that we should not make every attempt to engage, and we have a responsibility as a society to rehabilitate the wrongdoer.
I have long been mystified about why the reoffending rate remains so high. The Ministry of Justice estimates that it costs the country somewhere in the region of £18.1 billion—a staggering figure, I am sure your Lordships will agree. We know that people commit crime for a number of reasons. Some do it for drugs and profit. Personal circumstances while growing up can give some individuals a higher propensity for violence. We know that alcohol plays a substantial part in many offences against the person, such as domestic violence. However, for many offences there is also an undeniable link with deprivation and lack of opportunities, a factor I have seen first hand in my policing career here in London over many years. This lack of opportunities captures my interest more than anything else in respect of the rehabilitation process.
Last year Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons reported that those who engage in prison and probation education, training or employment activities are more likely to be employed and less likely to reoffend than those who do not. Around 70,000 prisoners are released from prison each year, and recent figures from the Prison Reform Trust in the Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile: Winter 2021 tell us that some 28% of prisoners had been in employment the year after custody. The same source tells us that 39% of people are less likely to be reconvicted if they secure a job after their release.
It is not all bad news. There is some good news, which brings me neatly on to a fantastic initiative called the New Futures Network, a specialist part of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. It brokers partnerships between prisons and employers in England and Wales. These partnerships help businesses fill skills gaps and prison leavers find employment. More than 400 businesses already work in partnership with prisons to provide work and employment opportunities. Of the employers surveyed, more than 80% positively rated those they employed as reliable and hard-working. As part of this structure, each prison has an employment advisory board, which is a platform to connect employers with prisons. Two weeks ago, I attended the inaugural meeting of one such board at Swansea prison. The enthusiasm and passion to make this work was impressive.
I cannot let the opportunity pass without a mention for the Timpson Foundation, which specialises in the recruitment of marginalised groups within society. It is worth noting that Timpson is one of the largest employers of ex-offenders in the UK.
Among other things, the purpose of these employment advisory boards is to help develop a positive culture of employment within the prison for the long term, to help prisoners get job-ready—with focus on CV building, interview practice, skills training and a knowledge of what opportunities there are for them to apply for—and to encourage local businesses to engage with the prison and offer their resources, connections and knowledge to help those living and working in the prison to prepare for and find work on release.
Opportunities in the building industry, hospitality and road transport are all catered for, and Swansea prison has secured funding for a heavy goods vehicle simulator, which allows prisoners on the scheme to gain driving qualifications. It was interesting, speaking to the governor, to learn that one of the hold-ups in the system was that they had to get £35 to apply for a licence. That seems rather crazy. I am sure that the Ministry of Justice could speak to the DVLA or the Department for Transport on that.
The New Futures Network can help by working with prisons to field appropriate candidates to join a business on day release, which enables serving prisoners who are within two years of release to leave prison to work in the community. It allows individuals to gain valuable experience of the way organisations work and to receive essential training before being permanently released and possibly joining a business. Timpson has a long history of working with the Prison Service to employ ex-offenders. James Timpson, its chief executive, has said that far more people go into its shops because of what it does with ex-offenders and see it as a really positive thing.
A scheme such as this has to be a very positive step forward, and I am bound to say that I was so impressed with it that I very much hope it will expand throughout the UK. As politicians, we should take note of the good and very positive work that is being carried out to assist ex-offenders and do everything that we can to support it.
My Lords, like others, I welcome the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, to his position on the Front Bench. I must declare that I chair the Commission on Alcohol Harm. As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, predicted, I will talk about alcohol as one of the things that leads into the funnel that eventually ends up in prison, an area that so many noble Lords have spoken about today.
Like my noble friend Lord Bird, I think it is particularly important that we focus on some of those antecedents. Last year, more than one-quarter—28%—of homicide suspects were under the influence: 13% with alcohol, 5% with illicit drugs and 10% with both at the time of the homicide. The cost to the country of alcohol-fuelled crime is £11.4 billion a year, and 20% of offenders supervised by the probation service have a known alcohol problem. Last year, Dorset neighbourhood police received more than 8,000 crime reports that were linked to alcohol in the 12 months to September 2021.
As has been said, alcohol is consistently found to be linked to domestic abuse, and 37% of domestic violence is alcohol related. To bring this to life, I shall quote Alexandra, who features in the Commission on Alcohol Harm’s report:
“I stayed in my bedroom, it was like a cage but the safest place possible. I was too scared to leave or to talk to anyone. The solution was to be invisible and quiet, hoping she would not come after me. But she did. She abused me, and my dad, mentally, emotionally, sometimes physically. For years, on a regular basis.”
How does somebody like Alexandra stand much of a chance when she grows up and goes into the world outside having been hidden away for years with that problem?
Knife crime has increased in our society, but for every such offence there are 15 violent crimes in which the victim judges that the perpetrator was under the influence of alcohol. The crime survey indicated that 39% of victims of serious offences believed that alcohol played a factor in the incident. Overall, alcohol-fuelled incidents account for 40% to 60% of violent crime, year in, year out.
The problem is far worse in areas of deprivation. Alcohol-related mortality is 20% higher in the north-east than the English average and alcohol-related violence is 5.5 times more prevalent in low socioeconomic groups. There is an important figure here for the levelling-up agenda, and this debate should feed into it.
The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, when introducing this debate, made an astoundingly important speech and I hope it resonates. It is not only his speech; it reflects his commitment to trying to solve some of these problems over the years.
I will focus on one solution relating to alcohol and driving. Recently I spoke to a magistrate. She said that drink-driving used to be the main offence, but now it is either both drink and drugs or drug-fuelled driving offences. Driving rehabilitation schemes provide a way forward. I will focus in particular on the alcohol abstinence monitoring requirement, which the amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 allowed to be piloted.
This idea came from South Dakota, where Larry Long, a judge, had recognised that alcohol was the root problem of people repeatedly coming through his courtroom, and that the antecedents to alcohol abuse needed to be addressed. The catalogue of rotating cases, suspended licences, ignition locks, impounding vehicles and prison sentences were all known to fail. But with the abstinence scheme, and what are called sobriety tags, people are required to be sober for up to 120 days. In the pilot, 3,121 offenders were monitored and over 3,000 remained sober during the period. For 97% of the days monitored, they remained sober. Interestingly, afterwards they continued to remain sober, and that becomes really important because it shows the effectiveness of this scheme. As one offender said:
“I was pulled over on a Saturday morning and was devastated to blow over the limit. Like many others, during lockdown a drink at the weekend had turned into maybe a glass of wine … and it made me reflect. I’ve not found wearing the tag hard, but it has given me extra motivation to reduce my intake.”
There are other schemes as well: Checkpoint in Durham is trying to address this.
In relation to drugs, I hope we can learn from Hawaii, where the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement—HOPE—scheme is trying to do the same with substance abuse probationers, who are addicted to drugs.
I would love to continue, in this debate, and talk about other factors, but time does not allow. I will mention simply that in Cardiff, John Shepherd has done a great deal of work with the police to try to decrease crime on the streets, particularly when there are celebrations going on in those city streets. We need to address these antecedents head on, and not be seduced into thinking that somehow a little bit of education will cut down the alcohol abuse that we see.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Farmer for initiating this debate. If noble Lords will indulge me, I propose to spend all of my few minutes talking about the continuing scandal of IPP prisoners.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, have already given some background facts on that, but to summarise very briefly: between 2005 and 2012, when this form of sentence was no longer given, nearly 9,000 people were sentenced to it. Of those, over 1,500 are still in jail, never having been released. As an instance of the egregiousness of that, nearly 200 of those had a tariff of two years when they were sentenced and are still in jail having served 10 years over that tariff.
The figure of 1,500 still in jail does not represent the full tally because in addition, as of March this year, there were 1,400 who were back in jail, having been recalled. Nor is the problem going to get any better: in a Written Answer given by my right honourable friend Kit Malthouse to the Member of Parliament for West Ham in another place in December last year, the Ministry of Justice said that it estimated that the number of people to be released over the next four years, from the IPP prison sentence, was of the order—it is a round number; it is an estimate, I accept that—of 600 prisoners. Asked, at the same time, to estimate how many it expected to be recalled over the same four years, it amounted to 2,600 people currently out on licence. So, to the 3,000 currently in jail, we may confidently look forward to a further 2,000 being added over the next four years.
The situation is moving more quickly, in policy terms, than noble Lords might be aware. The Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor announced in a press statement a few weeks ago that he was arrogating to himself the decision of when prisoners were to be moved from closed to open prisons—not to be released into the community, but when they might be moved from closed to open prisons. The move, of course, is an indispensable step for them ever to be released. The decision is no longer to be taken by the Prison Service, but by the Secretary of State or his delegate. The test for whether they are to be transferred from closed to open prisons has moved from being a balanced assessment of the risks and benefits to being three separate tests, all of them harder and all of them set out for me, very kindly, in a letter in response to a question I asked, by my noble friend Lady Scott of Bybrook, a copy of which is in the Library of the House.
So, things are not moving forward, they are moving backwards, when it comes to addressing this injustice. I would like to take just a few seconds to remind noble Lords—I know they are aware of it—that nearly all these people have families. The families suffer as well from simply not knowing when, if ever, these sentences will be discharged and when they will be able to have their family member back as a normal member of society. Other members of those families suffer from the simple fact that they have seen their relatives successfully commit suicide—not merely attempt it—while serving these sentences, in simple despair at the very thought that they might be able to escape the system.
If it is hard for Ministers, especially in the other place, to do anything for prisoners who are clearly there because they have committed crimes of violence—that was a condition of why they were there in the first place, I fully accept that—let me at least make two propositions that they might take on board to support those who are out on licence and living in the community.
First, as we discussed in debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, they have to be out for 10 years—that is the qualifying period set in statute—before they can discharge the sentence finally. That 10-year period could be cut to five years with no risk to public safety, because they are out already and because if they have been out for five years, the likelihood that they will offend and be recalled in the second five years is minimal.
The second thing that Ministers could do relates to the current IPP action plan that they have said they will revise in the light of the report of the House of Commons Justice Select Committee, which we are all avidly looking forward to. That plan says a great deal, properly, about the Prison Service and the Parole Board, but very little about the probation service. The plan needs greatly strengthening in terms of the probation service and the support that is offered to these poor people as they try to rebuild their lives in the community. If my noble and learned friend the Minister could give assurances to the House that action will be taken on those two things at least, he would allow me not only to welcome him to his place but to give him hearty congratulations in advance on his maiden speech.
My Lords, I apologise to the House for speaking in the gap; I was not quite properly organised enough to get on the list, but I will not make a habit of this.
When it comes to the prison system, most of us here have long memories. I remember working over 30 years ago for the Apex Trust, which tried to deal with the offending cycle by getting people into work. Most of the problems that I bumped into on my first day are still there. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, put his finger squarely on the primary one: that the group you are recruiting from is chaotic and educationally underachieving. Most of them—the scholars among them—have made it to year 9; the rest were out of the education system before that. Secondary education has been patchy at best, and primary education may not have been much better.
The incredibly high percentage with what I would call the hidden disabilities—I remind the House of my interest in dyslexia and related fields—is so overrepresented as to make it ridiculous. These are people of, shall we say, a working-class background—the non-exam-passing classes—where you do not find this. Dyslexics like me who had a tiger parent who expected them to get through identify the problem, but the rest do not. A good reaction to the system is then, “Well, I don’t like school, so I won’t go”. If you are an 11 year-old who is at the bottom of the class, failing everything and unable to handle the situation, that is a perfectly logical thing to do. No one is telling you otherwise; no one is getting into it. The prison system has to deal with these people who have failed.
The special educational needs review will do a better job of giving some more information here, I hope, but it is a big ask. The prison system will have to back up that work by identifying such a person and telling them, “You’re not terminally stupid. You have a problem with learning that is called X”. Just think how much easier that person is to deal with after that. Think of the psychological effect of saying, “You haven’t been written off”.
What can you do to address this lack of confidence? One thing—to which the noble Baroness, Lady Sater, referred—is sport, which is a good thing for this predominantly young and male population. Remember that these people have been out of school, and the normal links to sport and organised activity have been removed from them. Their families probably do not provide this or back it up in other ways. These young people are stuffed in an institution; why not give them some exercise and structure? Professor Meek’s 2018 report—the pandemic means that it is still very current—says that, if you get in there and give a positive role model to people, they will respond well. If you teach a sport, you teach discipline, organisation, control and regard for rules—you cannot succeed without these—and you give a positive role model. This is not surprising. I am sure that the arts can do a similar job for other groups.
When he sums up, could the Minister, whose maiden speech I look forward to—I wish he had a few more friends here—give us an idea about how these types of interventions will be structured in the ongoing situation? One thing that we are agreed on is that what is happening now is not working.
My Lords, this has been a thoughtful debate, and we have been treated to a glitterati of expertise. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for addressing the major issues before us. In welcoming the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, to his seat, I say that we have had to welcome too many Ministers of Justice in recent years. I wish that his response to this debate will give us some hope for the future.
I was drawn to two remarks. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, said that this has all been said before in this House. I am afraid I will be paraphrasing what he said until the end of my life, although I sincerely hope that that is not the case. But it is certainly true that all the points have repeated what we have heard in the past in this Chamber, and it is important to remember that.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester invited us to have a national debate. The source of the issues that it might cover have been laid out today. When the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, opened this debate, he focused on the causes of crime, and it is not often that we would have such a debate right at the heart of these matters. The House has today focused on those causes, whether they be alcohol, drugs, poverty, poor education and background, and so forth. We have also heard about the injustice of IPP sentences. That is something which I think this House will not allow any Minister to forget.
One thing on which the House has been united is its ambition. There is a sense that we all know what problem we are trying to solve. Though there might be a difference in emphasis, the House has shown that it wants to shift the dial back from the punitive to the rehabilitative elements of our justice system. It has recognised the importance of reducing the rate of reoffending, which, in the Government’s own words, is “stubbornly high”. So we give good marks for ambition, but it is in the delivery against those principles or ambitions where nearly all the work remains to be done and where we need to hold the Government to account for their actions.
The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, talked in his report and earlier reports about that “golden thread”, and he has talked today about the link through the prison gate, both before and after, of family life. One thread from this debate has been the need to build a seamless line of support for offenders through the prison gate. That should start from sentencing. Judges and those sentencing can be encouraged to outline the nature of any support required having sat through the case on which a custodial sentence is determined, but of course prison should be not the automatic choice anyway. There is now widespread evidence, as evidenced by my noble friend Lady Burt, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, that short prison sentences do not lead to better outcomes in rehabilitation, and particularly for women they can be irreparably damaging to family links and bonds. The number of women in custody has fallen since 2010, but the statistics predict an increase in the coming few years, especially as the courts backlog is cleared. Custodial sentences for women should be the very last option, as my noble friend Lady Burt and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said.
The challenge for government is to reduce reoffending through routes to employment. Only 8% of people leaving prison are in paid employment six weeks later, and after a year that figure rises to just 17%. England and Wales has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in western Europe, with approximately 80,000 people incarcerated, rising to 100,000 by 2026. Yet prison is not working. Reoffending rates remain stubbornly high; 45% of adults released from prison go on to reoffend within a year. For those who have served a sentence of less than 12 months, this increases to 61%.
Research by Nacro shows that around 1,000 people leave prison homeless every month, leading to an increased risk of reoffending. Even with the extra funding and support available during the pandemic, that was still as high as 650 people a month.
Ambition 1 in the Government’s prisons strategy White Paper is:
“Clarity over who is accountable for improving rehabilitation and resettlement outcomes to reduce reoffending.”
That is their ambition, but, as we have heard today, a plethora of bodies fall into this statement of principle. A few have been mentioned today: prison officers, prison trainers, the probation service, local authorities, the NHS, housing associations, benefit provision offices, employment advisory boards, and a plethora of skilled third-sector organisations.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said, we need to have a holistic approach to bring together all these bodies in a way that makes it work for everyone. The great problem for the excellent third sector bodies—we all know of the Clink example—is that scaling up is a very difficult thing to do across the whole of the country. There is no hope for running all this out of the Ministry of Justice in London. Devolution is welcome, but it has not gone far enough. The Ministry of Justice should be able to set a framework of actions; it must then have the mechanism for it to be delivered locally.
If through-the-gate support is to be meaningful and workable, a consistent and deliverable structure is required. Prison governors will need the ability to influence those providing services not only within the custodial setting but immediately on release as well. Local authorities with housing, social care and a multitude of other required services will need to be adequately funded for the work they undertake. Too often, there has been an expectation that they will carry out the work without additional resource to ensure adequate delivery.
Some people are entitled to the discharge grant, for example, to help them on release. Last year it was raised from £46 to £76—the first increase in 26 years. Inflation has now bitten well into that increase. Thousands of prisoners remain ineligible, including those released on remand, fine defaulters and people serving less than 15 days. So perhaps the Minister could explain how the extra £200 million the Government plan to spend in two years’ time on supporting prison leavers will enable them to access the services they need for help. How will that money be committed? Will it be given to the released prisoners directly, or to training providers, housing associations or the NHS? Who will administer these funds; will it be the probation service acting as a commissioner? These are all critical questions to understand whether the delivery mechanism the Government are proposing will actually work.
Fundamentally, of course, is £200 million enough to meet the need? After all, the savings to the public purse of reducing reoffending is a massive financial bonus to the country—£18.1 billion, as we have been told in today’s debate. So this is a perfect example of how the Government can spend to save money for the people of this country. As my noble friend Lady Burt said, an easy way to get cracking on all this is to end Friday releases. That is an easy first step to improving the co-ordination of all these services, which find that they are not in place on that day of release.
The White Paper refers to several pilot schemes. I would be grateful for further information from the Minister on the Grand Avenue scheme in and around Cardiff. There is a Grand Avenue in Cardiff; I can tell him more about it should he wish to know when it was built and so on. This 10-year project may provide guidance on the way forward in respect of commissioning support services. I hope that we will not have to wait 10 years to learn the lessons, because we need to be getting on with this holistic approach and commissioning now.
In conclusion, there is much to encourage us in the Government’s White Paper, but many questions remain about resourcing, devolving and co-ordinating the vital services to reduce reoffending. The goal is obvious but the solutions have escaped government over these last decades. I hope that this does not become another false dawn whereby ambition is failed by inability to deliver. I look forward to the Minister’s maiden speech and, hopefully, his answers to this fundamental question.
My Lords, I too look forward to the noble and learned Lord the Minister’s maiden speech. He joins us as an expert on legal aid, an illustrious report on which he put his name to last year. I gently point out to him that his three predecessors resigned on principle, and I hope that he does not find himself in a similar position in the months to come.
I would like to open by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for tabling this debate. It has been extremely wide-ranging and a lot of expertise has been demonstrated. I also acknowledge the two reports the noble Lord has written—his 2017 review of reoffending by male prisoners, and his 2019 report on the importance of strengthening offenders’ family relationships and its impact on intergenerational crime. The two reports have been debated a number of times in several debates, and they will have an enduring legacy. For me, the statistic that summarises the conclusion, in a sense, is that 39% of prisoners who receive visits from family members are less likely to reoffend. The noble Lord quoted that statistic in his speech.
I first took an interest in criminal justice matters about 20 years ago, through the voluntary sector. I became a trustee of the Wandsworth Prison visitors’ association, which led to my becoming a magistrate and having a long-standing interest in these matters. Over the last 20 years we have seen a lot of changes to the wider criminal justice system. Some have been driven by funding cuts, others by ideological commitments to particular organisational models—for example, in the probation service. But of course, on top of that there has been a huge increase in the prevalence of drugs in the prison estate and in the mental health issues of people who are sent to prison. All this has added up to a feeling that the wider criminal justice system just is not working. It is not keeping victims safe, rehabilitating offenders or providing staff with long-term rewarding careers during which they can use their expertise to reduce reoffending.
Since this such a wide-ranging debate, I want to concentrate on particular themes and ask the Minister a couple of questions. First, offenders are more likely to come out of prison addicted to drugs than when they went in, making our communities less safe. Drug crimes in prison have leapt by 500% since 2010, while the number of inmates accessing NHS alcohol and drug treatment programmes has fallen by 12%. One-third of adults released from custody go on to reoffend within a year and, as we have heard from other noble Lords, this costs the UK taxpayer £18 billion a year. Part of the problem is that the average prison officer in England and Wales now has only four years’ experience in the job. In 2017, the median time served by a front-line prison officer was 12 years. Surely, this has an impact on the availability of rehabilitation within prison.
In today’s Times newspaper, Charlie Taylor, the current Chief Inspector of Prisons, wrote about the uneven performance of and lack of purposeful activity in the prison system, particularly in category C prisons where offenders are supposed to be prepared to be released into the community; this is simply not happening in a number of those prisons. Current prison conditions mean that inmates are not given the opportunity to engage with meaningful education, substance misuse reduction or rehabilitation programmes. Does the Minister accept that this is a failure of the Government and needs the primary concentration of Ministers to reverse the situation?
Turning to youth justice, the Government have slashed £1 billion from youth services in our communities since 2010, leaving a gaping hole in respect of the clubs and support that used to exist for young people in the community. In 2020-21, 73% of youths in custody were in YOIs, 17% were in STCs and 10% were in secure children’s homes. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons has issued urgent notifications for one YOI and two STCs where there is a significant concern about the treatment of young people in custody.
When I first became a youth magistrate some 13 years ago, about 3,000 young people were in custody; now, there are about 800. That is significant progress, but its inevitable consequence is that those young people who are in custody are more entrenched in their criminal behaviour and need more support to try to stop them reoffending when they come out of prison. Does the Minister agree that this is the situation, and extra support is needed for young people as they come out of custody?
Next, I refer to public confidence in the criminal justice system regarding rape. Some 41% of rape cases now end with the victim withdrawing their support. Does the Minister accept that this is a result of a lack of confidence in the justice system? What does he believe can be done to reduce the 1,081 days between a rape taking place and a verdict being reached by a court?
I return to community sentences. A number of noble Lords spoke about the importance of community sentences. I need to declare an interest here, as a sitting magistrate, in that I occasionally sentence women to short terms of imprisonment—although I think I can say that, in the 15 years that I have been sitting as a magistrate, I have only ever done that when the woman concerned has served multiple community sentences and, for one reason or another, those have failed.
However, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester about the importance of women’s centres. They are a very important element in trying to stop women reoffending. It is worth quoting the Chief Inspector of Probation, who has described the probation service as being “in survival mode” due to staff shortages. Can the Minister say anything about the recruitment activities of the probation service? To make community sentences work as they surely must, we need to reinvigorate community sentences and the probation service.
As I have said, this has been a wide-ranging debate and all the contributions have been extremely worth while. I understand that we are talking about intractable problems that are difficult to deal with. A number of noble Lords have a decades-long interest in these matters, but I just want to reflect on the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. He opened by saying that when one walks into a prison, one walks into a shockingly sad situation. That is true in my experience of going into prisons over the years as well. The noble and learned Lord’s call was for shorter sentences and a reinvigoration of community sentences. Those two elements will do more to improve our situation in the wider criminal justice system than anything else. I urge the noble and learned Lord the Minister to listen to the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf.
My Lords, it is an honour—and, I must say, something of a challenge—to make my maiden speech in response to this particularly powerful debate. First, I thank all those who have made me so welcome in this House and assisted with my introduction, not least my supporters: my noble friend Lady Scott of Bybrook and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich. I also thank noble Lords for their personal kindness and for the courtesy with which they rightly raise the most direct and challenging questions.
To give, briefly, a little personal background, I take my title in respectful tribute to my birthplace, the ancient settlement of Waddesdon in the Vale of Aylesbury, which was rebuilt in the late 19th century as a so-called model village to house the estate workers of the newly constructed and amazing edifice known as Waddesdon Manor, now in the care of the National Trust. My late father, then recently returned from the war, was the local GP in a sprawling, single-handed rural practice. In those days, the 1950s, a family doctor, as well as holding morning and evening surgeries, spent his day largely on the road, in home visits, visiting his patient in the local hospital—it was your duty as a GP to go to see your patient in hospital in those days—and, as often as not, the call would come in the middle of the night, in the mud and the snow, to deliver the baby on some distant farm.
I mention those things because this occasion enables me to salute not only that generation, the founding generation of the NHS, but all those, then and now, who dedicate themselves to front-line public service, often under the most appalling pressures. In the present context, I make special mention of the staff of HMPPS, who are working in most difficult circumstances, as has been pointed out, picking up the pieces of what has already gone seriously wrong at a much earlier stage. As the noble Lord, Lord Bird, pointed out, it is the social crisis that has led to people being in prison in the first place. Many prisoners have already fallen through the cracks: that, essentially, is our challenge. I disclose, as I should, that I have a niece who works for HMPPS in the probation sector and that my sister, also “of Waddesdon”, has spent a lifetime in this sector.
One point I would make, relevant to our debate today, which perhaps resonates with one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, is that the rural society of the 1950s I have just been describing was not, in any sense, a prosperous society. Few possessed a car, a telephone, a fridge, a washing machine, a television or, indeed, a bathroom; but as I recall it, there was in the village and the surrounding area a sense of community, of social cohesion, of family stability. I would argue that there was a social strength despite material poverty. That kind of stability has, I fear, frayed in the meantime under the pressures of modern life; this has perhaps contributed to the causes of crime and the problem of reoffending which preoccupies us in the debate today.
So, to delay the debate and the Government’s response to it no longer, I hope noble Lords will allow me the briefest, telegraphic description of my own career. I spent 22 years at the Bar, from timid beginnings in the London magistrates’ courts—a salutary education in the school of real life—and at the legal advice centre in north London mentioned by my friend, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, all those years ago. Then I became a little more specialised and found myself at one stage as one of the UK judges in Luxembourg. There was the setting up of the Competition Appeal Tribunal, followed, some years later, by a long period on the other side of the profession, working with one of London’s major international law firms, chairing one of the firm’s global practice groups, working all over Europe and in the US, Asia, the Far East and elsewhere—a striking reminder in this last period of the global reach of the common law and the strength of the UK in that sector. However, that is all for another day. Personally speaking, it has been something of a zig-zag career, and whether my present role turns out to be a zig or a zag will be for your Lordships to decide.
On to today’s debate, I first particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and his advisor Dr Callan, not only for his speech today but for his extremely valuable reports of 2017 and 2019, for his ongoing work with the ministry, and his tireless and constructive interest in the matters under discussion. I cannot in the time available deal with all the points made; we have ranged extremely widely. I will do my best on other occasions to follow up those points or deal with them outside the context of the present debate. One of the matters I do not think I can really deal with today, in terms of rehabilitation of prisoners, is sentencing policy. With the House’s permission, I will not deal with the problem of IPP sentences but I have assured the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, that I will come back to him and the cross-party group on this subject, and that we will come to grips once again with that intractable problem.
Many other issues have been raised: I think of older pensioners and alcohol abuse; I think of rape and youth justice. All those things are extremely important but I would like to concentrate today on the main themes of the rehabilitation of prisoners, what the ministry and the Government are trying to do about it, and where we are going. I readily recognise that this is a difficult and intractable subject that many of us have been thinking about and discussing for years and years, but perhaps your Lordships will arrive at the conclusion that, at long last, we are really beginning to come to grips with the detail of the problem. Your Lordships have already heard mention during the debate of some encouraging matters: the new centre in Swansea, the New Futures Network mentioned earlier, the work initiatives mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, and other matters. The Government’s, and my own approach, is as follows.
The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, is entirely right to regard the importance of family life, family connections and the maintenance of family relationships as the golden thread that runs through the whole problem. But a thread by itself needs to be woven into a stronger fabric to form, if you will, the warp and weft of a fabric that can sustain, develop and last into the future in a robust way. I would select today, respectfully, five other threads in the fabric that the Government will seek to strengthen and develop in the coming period.
The first thread, which I would regard as the most important, is the question of education. That has been raised several times before, and rightly. The Government have established—perhaps I should say re-established—a prisoner education service with the specific role of improving literacy, numeracy and technical skills in prison. It is entirely right that a very substantial proportion of the male prison population is dyslexic; it is as simple as that. For that reason, as eloquently explained earlier by noble Lords, many of the prisoners the system is dealing with have simply dropped out of school and fallen through the crack. Those difficulties have not been addressed earlier. This underlines another aspect that has come across so forcefully in this debate: the fact that we are dealing with widespread social problems that just happen to finish up in the prison sector.
The words that cropped up most frequently today included “holistic”, “interdepartmental” and “cross-government”. All those aspects need to have a co-ordinated response from government as a whole. To give one very small example from a Ministry of Justice point of view, I intend to make it one of my personal priorities to focus on the special educational needs tribunals which are responsible, as the House knows, for dealing with the provision of special needs in the school system, working with local authorities and the Department for Education to help address that problem at an earlier stage. But we have to think laterally the whole time when dealing with these types of problems. Better education of the prison population is the first thread, weave or strand in the overall approach to the situation.
The second strand, also mentioned today, is accommodation. Some 12,000 people a year are discharged from prison with no home to go to. The Government are setting up a community accommodation service with the objective that no one should leave prison with nowhere to go. That has been rolled out so far across five regions of the government: that accommodation should be provided for a minimum of 12 weeks, and homelessness protection teams and strategic homing specialists should be fully involved in the accommodation needs of discharged prisoners. That is, at least, another first step. One of the questions I have asked of my department in recent days—I am still quite new to all this—is how you plan in advance a prisoner’s release so that he knows he has accommodation to go to, the family knows what is happening and everything is already set up, as it were, across all the relevant services and departments. I gather that one of the initiatives in train is that a proper discharge packet should be prepared so that the prisoner has an ID, a CV, a certificate that he is fit to work and a home to go to. These are detailed, small steps but they are vital. Accommodation, therefore, is the second thread.
The third is employment. As your Lordships will know, it has always been difficult, to an extent, to overcome employers’ reluctance to employ offenders. I submit that this is perhaps beginning to change. An employment innovation fund of £21 million has been set up to improve work on how to get prisoners back into employment. The intention is to have an employment advisory board in every prison, so that prisons themselves can start equipping their prisoners with the skills they need to enhance their chances of employment.
Those boards will be chaired by a local business executive who knows what the employers are looking for. That will, over time, improve the situation. About half our prisons now have such an advisory board, and it is hoped that the rest will be installed by April of next year. The prisons themselves will have prison employment leads in them to match candidates to jobs. It is hoped that by April of next year, all 91 resettlement prisons will have such a mechanism to again encourage prisoners into employment.
I make particular mention of the New Futures Network, already mentioned by the noble Lord, which is an online resource broking and matching prisoners to available vacancies and jobs. We shall later on introduce legislation to facilitate prisoner apprenticeships, which is being welcomed by employer organisations. In this context I again salute a particular employer that has been mentioned: the Timpson Group, which is particularly active in this area. The proportion of prison leavers employed at six months post-release rose by two thirds between April 2021 and March 2022 and now stands at around 23%. Not high enough, I know, but slow progress upwards.
In continuing the threads, the next one, which I will mention briefly because it is a large topic, is control and improvement of substance misuse. It is no use releasing prisoners if they are still in the grip of substance misuse. As noble Lords know, the Government have appropriated more than £900 million to deal with drug problems generally. A substantial proportion of that goes to the prison community. Important measures have been taken in prisons to reduce drug availability and drug usage, and that is a key element of the programme.
Finally, there is the integrated probation service, which has been reorganised entirely over the last few years. It has had a considerable uplift in resources and is a vital part of the ongoing need to support and encourage prisoners when they are released.
So, those five threads are woven together with the family considerations, which I venture to suggest are now pretty firmly embedded in the culture of the Prison Service. The governors are very alert to and supportive of this. Every prison has to publish its policy on family matters. There are various initiatives, particularly virtual family video calls to maintain family contact; there is the “stories with Dad” or “stories with Mum” type of call. There is always more to be done, of course, but with the encouragement and leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, I think that that is now, as a matter of culture, growing in the Prison Service. Also, there is the Grand Avenue project in Cardiff—it too has been mentioned—which is part of the programme. So, there is a lot being done.
According to my figures, over the past 10 years, the number of reoffenders—that is, the number of people who are released and then reoffend—has halved, roughly speaking, from nearly 800,000 to just under 400,000. However, that is not the end of the story, because those who do reoffend are reoffending more often. Just over 25% of offenders who received a caution or a non-custodial conviction or were released from prison in 2019-20 reoffended within a year. That has fallen by about 5% over the past 10 years. It is not enough but it is at least a decline in the trend. Those are the matters on which we are working.
In conclusion—and I must finish, I am afraid, although I could go on for a long time—we are very conscious of the issue of staffing in prisons, which my noble friend Lord Farmer and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, raised, and the need to increase the number of prison officers. The intention is to increase the number by another 5,000 over the next few years. At the moment it is not easy to recruit people of the necessary calibre, but the Government are conscious of the problem and we are doing our best to resolve it as soon as possible.
I have not got the solutions to the problems raised but I can, I hope, assure noble Lords to some extent that we are on the case and doing our best to improve the situation.
My Lords, on behalf of the whole House, I thank my noble and learned friend the Minister and congratulate him on his excellent maiden speech. It is not easy on entering this House to combine your maiden speech with a ministerial response to a debate, but I can say on behalf of us all that he did an excellent job.
The Minister is roughly the same age as me, I think. When one gets to this age, serving in this House is an optional decision, really. I suggest that it is a service for the common good rather than for one’s personal ambitions. From the Minister’s speech, one can derive that his heart is connected to his head in the role he has taken on here; I am also pleased that we now have a specific Minister for family justice in your Lordships’ House. He has internalised those ideals of service, sacrifice and duty, which we talked about before. When we look at his CV, which he presented to us today, we can see the wisdom and experience that he has garnered over decades, the benefit of which we will now receive. Again, I congratulate him and welcome him to our House. I am sure that I can say on behalf of us all that we wish him the very best. We will give him the best support we can; it may sometimes be quite critical, but we very much welcome him to our House.
I want to keep things short as I am sure everyone is looking forward to lunch. I thank all noble Lords for a rich debate. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said, this debate can be of great value. We have had two and a half hours of discussion on a difficult subject, from many different angles. I hope that it will be taken away by those in government and in the whole of the sector and studied. I also hope that recommendations can be drawn from it.
I thank noble Lords for their rich contributions. I had better close.
Post Office: Horizon Compensation
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my honourable friend Minister Scully in another place:
“With permission, I will make a Statement on the latest steps that the Government are taking to ensure that swift and fair compensation is made available to postmasters impacted by the Horizon IT scandal.
This House is well aware of the terrible impact felt by the many postmasters affected by issues with the Post Office’s Horizon IT system, which began over 20 years ago. These distressing consequences have been widely documented both in the courts, in the 2019 group litigation order judgments, and in the more recent Court of Appeal judgments, as well as in the media. I would like to pay tribute to colleagues on both sides of the House who have supported postmasters in their efforts to expose the truth and see justice done.
Today, I would like to take the opportunity to update the House on the latest steps that the Government are taking to ensure that fair compensation is paid to people impacted by the Horizon IT scandal. As you all know, the members of the GLO performed a great public service by bringing the case in 2019 which exposed the scandal. That is why I was pleased that the Chancellor announced in March this year that further funding is being made available to ensure that they receive similar levels of compensation to that which is available to their non-GLO peers.
Today, I can update the House that the Government intend to make an interim payment of compensation to eligible members of the GLO who are not already covered by other compensation support, totalling £19.5 million. Together with the share of the December 2019 settlement that we understand was distributed to the GLO postmasters, this brings the total of compensation to about £30 million. Postmasters will be contacted in the coming weeks to submit an application, after which we aim to distribute the funds within a few weeks of receiving their application. I hope this will go some way in helping many postmasters who have, and still are, facing hardships.
In parallel, we are continuing to work at pace on delivering the final compensation scheme for the GLO. I can confirm that we will be appointing Freeths to access the data and methodology it developed in relation to the distribution of the 2019 settlement. Freeths represented the GLO claimants and has vital knowledge and expertise based on its involvement in the case. This will allow us to work at pace on the design of a scheme with the JFSA and Freeths to give those in the GLO similar compensation to their non-GLO peers.
As promised in March, we will informally consult with members of the GLO about the proposed scheme’s operations. I am also pleased to announce that members of the GLO group will be able to claim reasonable legal fees as part of participating in the compensation scheme. I hope this will allay any concerns that they might have about meeting the costs of seeking legal advice and support when applying to the scheme.
Turning now to progress on compensation for overturned criminal convictions, I am pleased to report to the House that interim payments are progressing well. As of 27 June, there have been 75 overturned convictions, with the most recent convictions being overturned in recent weeks. The Post Office has received 73 applications for interim payments, including several new applications in recent weeks. Sixty-seven offers have been accepted by claimants, with 66 payments totalling nearly £7 million paid out in compensation so far. This marks significant progress, with nine additional interim payments made to postmasters since I updated the BEIS Select Committee on 11 January 2022.
I am pleased that these interim payments have helped to deliver an early down payment on the compensation due to affected postmasters in advance of full and final compensation packages being agreed. For those postmasters with an overturned conviction who have already submitted quantified claims, I can share that we are working with the Post Office to agree part-payments of agreed elements of claims, such as loss of earnings, wherever possible and will continue to do so with additional claims which are submitted.
Taking this step should enable us to avoid undue delays by awarding partial compensation while outstanding matters are resolved. I acknowledge that one area where it has been challenging to agree compensation is non-pecuniary damages, some of which reflect the wider impact on postmasters’ lives that these wrongful convictions have had. These include compensation for the loss of their liberty or impacts on their mental health. A number of the postmasters have agreed to refer this issue to the process of early neutral evaluation, to be conducted by former Supreme Court judge Lord Dyson. It is hoped that this evaluation will facilitate the resolution of these issues. Government stand ready to support the delivery of the early neutral evaluation process and are keen to ensure that the outcomes of this process enable swift compensation. I urge all postmasters with a Horizon-related conviction to continue to come forward to seek to have these overturned. They are being contacted individually by the CCRC and other relevant bodies to encourage them to do so.
In addition to the progress on compensation for those with overturned criminal convictions, good progress has been made on delivering compensation for those in the historical shortfall scheme. As of 23 June, 65% of eligible claimants have now received an offer, meaning £29 million has now been offered and that 444 further postmasters have been offered compensation since my last update to the House. I would like to thank the independent panels for their diligent work in progressing these cases. As I have said previously, I have set the Post Office the ambition to make 100% of HSS offers by the end of the calendar year, and the Government are working closely with the Post Office to achieve this.
As I have said before, it is important—in addition to providing compensation—that we learn lessons so that something similar can never happen again. That is why the Government have set up the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry and put it on a statutory footing to ensure that it has all the powers it needs to investigate what happened, establish the facts and make recommendations for the future. We are co-operating fully with the inquiry to ensure that the facts of what happened are established and lessons learned.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and in anticipation of answering my questions. He has often been on the right side of this debate, and I thank him for that. The biggest and most frequent criticisms that your Lordships’ House has had are threefold—some have been answered—the time taken to deliver compensation, who gets it, and the levels and amounts. Many of those issues have now been resolved over previous months and with this Statement. March’s announcement that 555 sub-postmasters would receive the compensation that they were entitled to was welcome, as is today’s further announcement confirming a £19.5 million interim compensation package.
However, it is frustrating that it has taken so long to reach this point, when what was needed to be done has been clear and obvious for many years. I am sure that we all agree that the victims of this scandal have been made to endure this stressful uncertainty for far too long.
It is clear that the positive resolution we have now reached is thanks to the tireless work of campaigners both inside and outside this place. That includes, as ever from this place, the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and from the other place, Kevan Jones. Both have done a tremendous job in fighting this injustice. To be fair, the Minister here and Minister Scully have acted where their predecessors have failed to.
We all know the history of this case, so I will not rehearse the arguments. It is well-documented, both here in Parliament and across the media. We all hope that this sad episode will drive lasting change. The shame of this miscarriage will, rightly, be felt across government for many years to come.
I have a few questions for the Minister; he has touched on some already, and I am looking for more details on others. Can he provide a timescale for when all compensation payments will be made? Will the Minister confirm that the compensation will not affect the Post Office’s core funding, its day-to-day operations or its viability in any way, given the vital role that it performs in many, if not all, our communities? The Minister knows that, across this House, we have called for those involved to be held accountable. Can he update the House—he has a little already—on the ongoing investigations, specifically into Fujitsu and others involved in the technology that led to this failure? Has Fujitsu been sanctioned? Have any of its other contracts been re-evaluated, checked or looked at?
It is not just those external to government. The Minister has previously committed to hold those responsible to account—by that, I mean the Post Office board. Can the Government confirm that the inquiry will extend to the directors of the Post Office, including those placed there by the department—those who wrongly sanctioned legal action? While affected postmasters have lost thousands in legal costs, this is far from all they have lost. The Minister touched on the non-pecuniary damages, but I wonder if he could say a little more. The financials have been restored but, as he and the Statement said, many people were affected in many ways other than financial.
Last year’s historical shortfall scheme for non-GLO postmasters included interim payments, which are urgently needed both for those living in poverty and to start bringing closure to this ordeal. I think the Minister said he expects the payments to start within two weeks, but can he confirm that this will be the case, and will they cover all those affected?
To take a step back, in his High Court judgment in the Horizon IT systems case, Justice Fraser stated that the denial by the Post Office
“amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.”
His judgment into this scheme went on to state that the Post Office showed
“the most dreadful complacency, and total lack of interest in investigating these serious issues”.
Will the Post Office now introduce an independent component when conducting prosecutions so that if there are any future prosecutions in other areas, there will be an independent component before taking them to the next stage?
This whole ordeal around the wrongful prosecution of sub-postmasters has caused a huge waste of public funds and time, as well as a huge deal of mental anguish to those wrongfully prosecuted. Can the Government ensure that such a huge level of carelessness and complacency is never repeated so that we can avoid a further waste of public funds, as well as the stress caused by this ordeal?
All sides of this House are rightly united and outraged at what the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses experienced and the injustices they suffered for almost 25 years. Lives have been unjustly destroyed, and jobs lost. Some have been imprisoned and others lost their business, and many had the prospect of having a conviction hanging over them. Saddest of all, some did not live to see justice finally restored.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his commitment on this issue and for his Statement today. As he knows, when I was first involved in this, as a Member of the Welsh Assembly in the early 2000s, even then it was obvious that there was something very seriously wrong. In a crowded room in a pub, with so many people, and their families, who had been regarded as pillars of the community—the sort of people who went to look for pensioners who had not come to collect their pension to check that they were all right—I was being asked by the Post Office to believe that those people had taken its money. That definitely jarred with me at the time.
The big questions are these. How has this been allowed to take so long? How was it covered up for so long? What will happen to those people within the Post Office and Fujitsu who knew that they were covering up problems? I realise that there will have been people who were doing so without realising that they were involved in a cover-up, but there were many who knew. We must also consider the impact on the Post Office as an institution, which had previously been one of the most trusted British institutions.
The Minister has already addressed some of my questions, but I have a few questions on today’s Statement. First, I welcome the interim payments that are announced, but the amount of money sounds relatively modest given the time it has taken to get to this place. They are interim payments, but can the Minister tell us how many people the £19.5 million will be going to, so that we can get some measure of how much they will receive in the interim? The Statement refers to postmasters being contacted in the coming weeks and so on. Can the Minister give us a target date by which he hopes the interim payments will be made? We have had so much delay here. Finally, because I realise that time is short, 75 convictions have been overturned. Are there more in the process at the moment? Does the Minister expect there to be other overturned convictions?
What will the Government do about payments for those who have already died? As this process has taken more than two decades, many of the people involved in this process are now very elderly, and some of those who have died did so as a result of suicide because of the situation in which they were placed. What plans do the Government have to compensate the families of those who died and the families that stumped up large amounts of money to avoid their relatives going bankrupt as a result of misplaced allegations?
I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for their statements and questions. The noble Lord already knows that I totally share his frustration. His statement about stressful uncertainty for the postmasters sums up the issue very well, and I totally agree with him. I am also very happy to join him in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot and Kevan Jones; I know that a number of other parliamentarians, on all sides of the House, have also been involved in this. They are truly a tribute to parliamentarians, who get criticised for a lot of things, but when there are scandals such as this, it shows the role that Members of both Houses can play in bringing the public’s attention, and indeed the Government’s attention, to them.
On the questions the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the overall timescale, the ambition is that all offers will have been made by the end of the year. The GLO interim payments will be made within weeks. The noble Lord asked for an assurance that the core funding of the Post Office is unaffected, and I can give him that assurance. He also raised the issue of the directors of the Post Office: they can be held to account by the inquiry, as indeed can Ministers and officials involved in this. We are determined that there will be no hiding place for those who contributed to this scandal. He also asked about further private prosecutions. Right at the start of this scandal, when I spoke to the chief executive of the Post Office, he assured me that it had no plans to bring any more private prosecutions. I would be very surprised if it went back on that, given the trouble that this has got it into. The noble Lord also referred to Post Office complacency. That may have been the case in the past, but I think the new leadership under Nick Read is really producing a change in the culture and some real improvements in the service the Post Office is offering.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, referred to cover-ups; there probably were, but that is of course a matter for the inquiry to establish. She asked how many people will receive compensation. The £19.5 million in interim payments goes to all members of the GLO scheme, of whom there are about 500. I can also confirm for the noble Baroness that in cases where some of those members have sadly died, we are engaging with their next of kin and their estates on seeking appropriate levels of compensation.
My Lords, again, my noble friend comes before this House with good news, and I am truly grateful for that. We look forward to the day when the compensation scheme can be completed, and we hope it happens early so that sub-postmasters can have truly substantial payments.
As the public inquiry considers the responsibility of Fujitsu, Post Office directors and others, can my noble friend the Minister assure your Lordships that the inevitable delay arising from the public inquiry will not cause to be legally time-barred any redress that might need to be taken in relation to those who are at fault?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and apologise for briefly having left the Chamber while he was making it. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and others for the work they have done in bringing this scandal to public attention. My question arises in the light of the previous one, and it is about the public inquiry. Can the Minister tell the House how long it might take, for the obvious reason that the sooner it is completed, whatever its outcome, the sooner we can be reassured that a scandal of this kind can never happen again?
I cannot give the noble Lord a timescale. Obviously, we want it to conclude as quickly as possible, but it needs to be thorough and to go into all the facts. Of course, it is in the hands of the chairman of the inquiry to determine exactly how long it should take.
My Lords, we are all very grateful to my noble friend the Minister, and to my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot. He and Minister Scully have pursued this with vigour and deserve our thanks. These people, who have gone through hell, are being compensated but no compensation can be truly adequate. An idea has occurred to me which I commend to the Minister: could these people, who have been exonerated and compensated, be issued with a medal for meritorious service to the Post Office?
My Lords, I very much welcome the Minister’s Statement, particularly the announcement of the public inquiry. But however speedy these are intended to be, they have an uncanny knack of going on for several years, so can the Minister confirm that both the Post Office and its sponsoring department have conducted internal inquiries, albeit on an interim basis, the better to learn the lessons now?
Officials and, I am sure, Ministers are keen to learn the lessons, but the inquiry is the best place to fully go into all these matters, which took place over decades, as I said. It will get to the bottom of this and the appropriate individuals will be held responsible.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on the brilliant job he has done on this, but can he help me on the question of Fujitsu? We do not need a public inquiry to tell us that the software was deficient; we have reports of whistleblowers saying that they knew it was. So why is the taxpayer having to pick up the bill for this, and why is Fujitsu not being forced to pay up? If it is not prepared to do so, why on earth are we allowing it to do any work for any Government or anyone else with whom we have influence?
As my noble friend knows, I have considerable sympathy with his points, which, on the face of it, seem obvious. But we need to wait for the inquiry to positively establish the facts and lay them out in stark detail before considering what further steps to take.
My Lords, I had the honour of entering this House at the same time as my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot. We have been friends for many years, and I too congratulate him on his tenacity and effectiveness; it has been outstanding, and many people around the country are grateful to him. I was intrigued by what the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said about the Welsh pub. I have consistently tried to personalise this by mentioning my friend Rita Threlfall on every occasion, because this is about individuals and their families; it is not about the figure of 555, which almost means nothing. I entirely agree that no amount of money can restore their dignity. I also entirely agree that my noble friend and Minister Scully have done their best, but it is not enough. I was going to finish by saying what has just been said: I do not understand why Fujitsu is not paying for this. Can the Minister explain why it is not financially responsible for this and why the taxpayer is paying, as was said?
Again, I have considerable sympathy for the points that my noble friend makes, but, so far, Fujitsu has not been found guilty of any fraud or other crime related to this matter. It is co-operating in full with the inquiry, as we would expect of it. I realise that this is uncomfortable for the House, but we should wait for the results of the inquiry to set out in stark detail exactly where the failings were.
My Lords, I associate myself with the tributes paid to my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot and Paul Scully in the other place, and with the congratulations offered to the Government on bringing forward payments at last, at least in many cases. The Statement talks about reimbursing “reasonable” costs of legal action. I understand that going forward, because we have to guard against egregious costs being imposed, but for those who have already had to take legal action, can my noble friend assure the House that there will be full recompense for all the legal expenses that they have had to go to, in addition to which there will be compensation for the suffering that they have clearly been through?
If my noble friend is talking about the GLO legal action, of course the costs of that were funded and the lawyers were not paid by the litigants; a lot of the compensation went to pay the legal fees, which is part of the problem with the GLO scheme.
I hope the House will allow me the flexibility to take advantage of the fact that we have a few moments left in this exchange. Will the terms of reference of the inquiry—forgive me for not knowing the detail of them—encompass the role of the judiciary, which after all succeeded in sentencing an enormous number of postmasters to prison? Will it be a feature of the inquiry when it is held to investigate how that was possible?
The inquiry can cover all relevant matters. Of course, the role of the judiciary is being examined in the cases proceeding through the courts at the moment and in the convictions being overturned. I am sure that all those members of the judiciary still in their posts will pay close attention to those cases. To be fair, they can adjudge a case only on the evidence that is presented to them, but I am sure that they will want to take careful account of any technical evidence that was given in the various cases and perhaps treat it with a bit more scepticism in future.
I am grateful to my noble friend for his reception of my suggestion. It occurs to me that if we could have a public ceremony in, let us say, Westminster Hall, where these people were publicly recognised and given a medal, it really would do something for their morale.
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I declare a general interest and involvement in this subject over many years, although nothing specific in the register. My purpose in seeking this debate is not merely to reflect on the just finished Heads of Government meeting in Kigali in Rwanda but to share some thoughts on how the Commonwealth network fits into the entirely new contours of the international landscape that we now confront and into our own future prosperity, security and influence.
Kigali seemed to go extremely well. Personally, I welcome the outcome that the change of Secretary-General will be orderly and in two years’ time. This prevents further division and gives a chance to the current Secretary-General, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, to overcome her past difficulties and help lift the evolving Commonwealth to its new level of significance in both economic and security world affairs.
A good deal of quiet work has been going on at the secretariat, especially in the causes of women and girls in the changing Commonwealth, in environmental and marine co-operation and in the struggling smaller island states. However, people now look to Marlborough House to give an altogether stronger lead to the network, especially in the face of the new security threats its members confront, to which I will come a little later.
I also salute the work of my noble friend Lord Marland, who I see is here and I hope will speak, whose business forum meeting in Kigali showed how he has injected fresh vigour into expanding Commonwealth trade and investment. The opportunity is certainly there for that when the Commonwealth today contains several of the fastest-growing and highest-tech economies in the world, as well as many of the poorest, which are most threatened by current events, such as the pandemic, energy costs and increased climate violence.
However, I want to come to the future and how the Commonwealth fits into it. I can do that best by asking some basic questions. First, what is the Commonwealth’s purpose today? I begin to answer this by repeating what the Commonwealth is not: it is not a block, an alliance, a treaty-bound organisation, a relic, or a nostalgic leftover of Empire. Indeed, it is an entirely different network today not just from the imperial past but from the eight-member Commonwealth of Nations set up in the 1949 London declaration. It now has 54 members and is about to increase with two more; several other countries indicate a desire to join. That is hardly a sign of a declining system or a fading association, as ill-informed critics like to keep claiming. Indeed, I find my Japanese friends constantly inquiring about it. In better days than now there was quite a strong interest in the Republic of Ireland’s closer association with it—perhaps that will return when things improve on that front. At one stage, even the Americans were asking about the need for a Commonwealth office in Washington. That struck me as a little odd as they fought a whole war of independence to get away from us.
It is also not the case that Britain is at the centre of some kind of hub-and-spoke arrangement, with member states sometimes depicted as outposts. That belongs entirely to 20th-century thinking; it is completely out of date. Networks have strong links all around, but no centre; all are connected to all. Today, the Commonwealth is such a network—indeed, it is the largest that has ever formed in history. Modern, digitally empowered networks work away, grow at every level and never sleep. We must remember that, although Kigali was for Heads of Government, the Commonwealth is primarily a people’s and grass-roots linked system, given new relevance—almost a sort of blood transfusion—by the technology of connectivity, Zoom and the age of the microchip.
That is why, although some Governments may not see eye to eye and some may blatantly disregard the values embedded in the Commonwealth charter, which is always very regrettable, at the non-governmental level, the level of civil society, business and everyday life and work, a binding and integrating process nevertheless continues apace. This may sometimes be difficult for officials and diplomats to grasp, but it draws together a largely English-speaking nexus, with a vast and growing mesh or latticework of common interests in everything from science and law to health and education of all kinds. This includes, for example, the largest long-distance learning system in the world through the Commonwealth of Learning based in Vancouver and the Association of Commonwealth Universities, with 500 or more universities on its books.
Of course, parliamentarians connect through the lively Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which we all know. However, the linkages go far beyond governance to engineering, all kinds of technology and research, education at every level, health and medicine, magistrates and judges, architects and designers, every aspect of our culture, and, of course, sport, as we shall all be reminded shortly at the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Indeed, the linkages go to all professions: the list of Commonwealth professional bodies, most of them now thriving, goes off the page because it is so long.
Her Majesty the Queen described the Commonwealth a decade ago as, in many ways,
“the face of the future”
and that is exactly what the communications revolution has proved as time has gone by. I must say that her comments showed a good deal more insight and perceptiveness than some of her Ministers or some foreign policy experts or think-tank tyros. So that is the scene, but I have to ask my second question. Why does any of this matter to us here today in the UK, as we still seek to reposition ourselves globally after the Brexit drama and other changes?
First, all this activity covers areas where soft power and influence—ours is considerable and usually underrated —increasingly work best. Secondly, it is true that in the last 50 years our trade and investment links with the Commonwealth countries have declined substantially. But now, as Asia rises and becomes the fastest and biggest growth area of the globe—pulling ahead not just economically, but in advanced technology and the education and skills to drive it—and as two-way direct investment flows open up again on a massive scale, the situation is reversing fast.
These are the markets we need to be in and the official intention to join the rather heavily called Comprehensive and Progressive agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership —CPTPP—underlines the fact. Incidentally, if and when we join, and we have the strong support of Japan in doing so, then more than half the members will be Commonwealth states. Beyond the CPTPP lies the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. We are not members of that at the moment but that will be, and indeed already is, by far the biggest world trading network of all. Elsewhere, the new African Continental Free Trade Area opens out big new areas of economic exchange, on a continent all set for an immense population growth to about 1 billion by 2050.
That is the new picture on the trade side but, aside from all that, there is now a new geopolitical and security priority emerging. I very much wanted to get that into our debate today. Today, China is intruding into every part of the Commonwealth; not just commercially or via unrepayable loans but via military matters, officer training and even policing involvement. China understands what our experts often seem to overlook: small island states, far from being strategically unimportant, are now of immense strategic value in controlling maritime traffic, air traffic, GPS systems and even space. Hence, to take a current example, Chinese interest in establishing naval bases in places such as the Solomon Islands and having a footing, or outright control, in 96 port facilities in 53 countries scattered across the entire world, many of them Commonwealth. This is China’s way of extending its naval reach against ours and pursuing its hegemonic strategy of rejecting what it sees as the Western, and especially American, lop-sided dominance of the globe.
Not a week goes by without news of China extending its distinctly military activities into new islands in the South Seas, to the utter dismay of our Australian ally, which takes these things very seriously, or the Caribbean states, or the coastal states of Africa. I am not one of those dogmatic Sinophobes who thinks we have to break all links with China and regard it as a deadly enemy. In some key areas, such as energy and climate, we have to work with it closely and perhaps rather more cleverly than some of the American approaches in recent times. But if we let our Commonwealth network —our best means of transmitting our soft power—crumble or be nibbled away, then that undoubtedly will be a major foreign policy failure.
Meanwhile, China, the Commonwealth and the Ukraine horror weave together. President Biden says that the world is united against Russian brutality. The West may be, but the developing world—so-called—is not. Too many Commonwealth members are reluctant to condemn the unprovoked Russian attack on a smaller nation. Their immediate reasons may be understandable but their preference for a sort of neutrality on Chinese lines, when such actions undermine the entire international order, is deeply concerning. There can be no neutrality between inhuman butchery, unprovoked aggression and ordered governance. No nation is safe from that kind of lawlessness.
Via the belt and road initiative, double taxation and investment agreements and so on, the Chinese influence is creeping onwards. China now has BRI memorandums of understanding with 141 countries, including 38 of the Commonwealth’s total of 54—about to be 56. That indeed is networking, but the wrong sort of networking from our point of view. What should be our chain of liberty against the autocrats, and the best containment of rising Chinese power in Asia and elsewhere, could well be turned on its head, becoming instead a spearhead of Chinese influence across the planet.
My final question is: what should we do now, beyond all the initiatives that we have undoubtedly taken during our chairmanship? I was very glad to see that, at the G7 in Bavaria the other day, the idea of counterinfluence to the tentacles of the belt and road initiative was resurrected and developed. Of course, the Commonwealth is central to this. Using private enterprise in harmony with government policy, we certainly ought to be able to check the global march of the Chinese state and its corporate henchmen across the globe. While not matching all Chinese inducements, we should certainly be containing Chinese ambition.
Further tests of which side one should be on may come up shortly, if and when China impatiently uses force against Taiwan. Are we ensuring that the Commonwealth will choose diplomacy and understanding against brutal aggression on that issue? Have we talked to them? Have we lined up the support of India on this one, in contrast to its wobblier stance on Russia? How does Pakistan fit in with its strong Chinese links, or Sri Lanka as it wallows in debt, or Malaysia or the African leaderships?
We have been told repeatedly over the decades that we lack a role and a vision. To me, the role is now quite clear and has been for some time. At a time of enormous international instability, with old types of primitive warfare and new types of threat multiplying everywhere, our role is to uphold freedom under the law and to stand shoulder to shoulder with like-minded nations, large and small, in fruitful two-way partnerships and coalitions. In doing so, the Commonwealth is the key element of that mission. It is changing all the time and may well evolve into something different—that is possible. If so, we should be at the heart of it, creatively, constructively and imaginatively.
Are we up to it? We should be straining every muscle of diplomacy to ensure that we work as closely as possible with the Commonwealth family. But this family needs to move from being seen sometimes by British officialdom as marginal and a slightly tiresome legacy to being a central component of our strategy, direction, role fulfilment and future security. That is the assurance we need from Ministers: that they understand what is happening and where we are going. As to the vision and presentation of our story in this new world we have entered, I admit that that needs some brushing up, but the time for doing that is now—before it is too late. I hope that this debate will assist in that respect. I beg to move.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, and congratulate him on introducing this debate. We know his interest in the Commonwealth; he has spoken about this on several occasions in this House in the past. He will forgive me if I give a slightly different view and raise questions that have not been raised before about the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth is basically a legacy of the British Empire—of course, not entirely so, because it includes states that were not part of the British Empire, such as Rwanda and Mozambique, and it excludes states that were once part of the British Empire, such as Ireland and even the United States. Nevertheless, it remains the fact that it is primarily a legacy of the British Empire. Given this, we cannot understand it unless we understand the British Empire. What was the character of the British Empire? What was it about? What did it do to those 54 or 56 colonies out of which the Commonwealth came to be constituted?
The British Empire was very different from the other great European empires, such as the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French, the Dutch, the Belgian and many others. That is the first thing to note about the British Empire. However, the second and most important thing about the British Empire is that it was never a cosy affair. Empires involve brutality, genocide, a great deal of violence, and humiliation of the ex-colonies and subjects of the empire. The memories of this brutality and genocide may be forgotten and forgiven by the imperial power, but they are never forgotten by the victims, by those who suffered them; they continue to remember them, with the result that we are often surprised that they do not seem to show sufficient gratitude. For example, many ex-colonies—six in the West Indies—do not wish to be members of the Commonwealth and want to be republics, and we are surprised. They raise questions about slavery during the British Empire and we are surprised. We are constantly surprised by many of the awkward but realistic questions they raise. The question to ask, therefore, is whether our view of the Commonwealth is based on adequate recognition and acknowledgement of what actually went on in the name of the British Empire.
To think of ourselves as a kind and generous people who went thousands of miles to other countries to civilise the natives and came back having done our job, sometimes angry that they were not sufficiently grateful, is not really a proper understanding of what we actually did. So, before we talk about the Commonwealth as a viable force, we ought to understand what the British Empire was about. In the three minutes I have left, or even less than three minutes, I want to set out a very brief agenda in the hope that, in the future, we might be able to take it up.
The first thing I suggest is that there has to be a broadly agreed Commonwealth view of the British Empire. Britain has one view of the British Empire; India has a very different view—partly good, partly not so good; South Africa and other countries have a totally different view. I think the time has come for historians and others from different Commonwealth countries to get together, debate and form a just estimate of what the British Empire really did. That is very important: unless the truth is faced, we are in danger of allowing the Commonwealth to become an irrelevance or a pointless and ornamental appendage.
The second thing it is important to recognise is that, if it is going to be a Commonwealth and not the British Commonwealth, it should not be seen as a property or an extension of British foreign policy. We cannot expect Commonwealth countries to do what we would like to do, in Ukraine or anywhere else. We see the Commonwealth through our eyes; have we tried to look at ourselves through Commonwealth eyes and asked ourselves how we look from that perspective? I therefore suggest that the Queen or her successor should not automatically be the Head of the Commonwealth. As for the modus operandi we should operate, that is something that can be sorted out later.
The third important thing we need to do is to build up an institutional infrastructure, to which the noble Lord, Lord Howell, rightly referred, so we can have co-operative institutions and practices at the level of journalism, sport, education, and so on.
Fourthly and finally, the Commonwealth consists of transcontinental countries. It is the only association I know, other than the United Nations, whose members come from every continent, so it is very important that it should be a pressure group for important global issues such as climate change and others.
My simple conclusion is that, as Britain stretches out to explore its relations with other countries in the context of implementing the Brexit policy, it is very important that it should face the truth, recognise its past and come to terms with it; otherwise, we are in danger of talking about a wonderful picture of the Commonwealth which matches no reality.
My lords, the Commonwealth is very important to people such as me who would not have been here without it. It was membership of the Commonwealth that opened the doors for the people of its member countries to work and settle in the United Kingdom, to rebuild the country after the Second World War. I commend the British people, who welcomed our families with open arms, and in the same breath I acknowledge the adult education service that helped people such as me to work and learn at the same time, to compete in the labour market with the provision of equal opportunity.
The United Kingdom, being the head of the Commonwealth, has a huge amount of respect and influence in the development of its member countries. Under the banner of the Commonwealth all member countries commit to the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all its peoples. In 2018 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, the theme was “Towards a Common Future”. Following the meeting, the leaders adopted a communiqué, which set out a series of political commitments and practical actions that had been agreed. These commitments included strengthening democratic institutions and building peace.
The Commonwealth has a combined population of 2.5 billion people, and approximately 1.5 billion of them live in two member countries: India and Pakistan. A quick glance at the economic condition of these two countries paints a very gloomy picture. According to the recent report of the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, in India 97 million people are living in extreme poverty. According to its classification, “extreme poverty” means individuals who are without income, home, health, or food twice a day. Additionally, people who are bedridden, those who have no facilities to make and eat food, and those who have debts due to health ailments come under this category.
According to UNICEF, less than 50 per cent of the population of India has access to safely managed drinking water. In Pakistan, according to the World Bank, in 2018 46.5 million people—21.9% of the population—lived under the national poverty line. According to WaterAid Pakistan, 21.7 million people do not have clean water; that is one in 10 people. This is only the tip of the iceberg. If you look at other strands of poverty, including health, education, the environment and other areas in these two countries, the situation is alarming.
Yet India’s defence budget for 2022-23 has increased by 9.8% to $70.6 billion, while Pakistan has announced a defence budget of $7.5 billion, a 12% increase on last year. These massive disparities between the levels of poverty facing such a large number of the population of these two countries and their incredible defence spending shows the sense of insecurity and the fragile peace between these nuclear neighbours, who have been at war with each other at least three times, with continued sporadic border skirmishes. Any accident or mistake could trigger an all-out war, with devastating consequences not only for the region but for the world at large.
The main dispute between India and Pakistan is the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, a region that is divided between India and Pakistan and which is waiting for the implementation of the UN resolutions of 1948, 1949 and many subsequent ones to decide its future.
The development of these two countries is held hostage by the continued violence and warlike situation between the two countries over Kashmir. If this was resolved, it would bring an end to the continued suffering not only of the Kashmiri people but of the 1.5 billion people of India and Pakistan. The extravagant amount of money spent on defence could be better utilised for the benefit of the poor people of these countries.
Over the years, many rounds of bilateral talks between India and Pakistan have failed to resolve this issue, and it is unlikely that they will succeed without third-party mediation. Since Commonwealth member states are committed to the development of “free and democratic societies” and the
“promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all the people of the Commonwealth”,
I am mindful that the Commonwealth has a role to bring peace in the Indian subcontinent. Britain, as the head of the Commonwealth, is best placed to help in the mediation for a long-lasting peace that would benefit the 1.5 billion people of India and Pakistan and resolve one of the oldest disputes in the history of the United Nations.
With that background, I ask the Minister: what steps are Her Majesty’s Government prepared to take to bring India and Pakistan to a negotiating table and help to resolve the Kashmir issue in a way that is acceptable to India, Pakistan and the people of Jammu and Kashmir?
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on stewarding—on behalf of two Prime Ministers—the duties of chair-in-office of the Commonwealth, culminating in a smooth handover to Rwanda. It is a rare achievement for a Foreign Office Minister to participate at successive CHOGMs, and unprecedented for a Minister to be present at two such meetings when they are over four years apart. My remarks focus on three things: identity, agenda and the realms.
First, at last week’s CHOGM, the Commonwealth admitted its 55th and 56th member states: Gabon and Togo. I have the impression that the news excited more interest in Paris and Brussels than in London. Continental observers appreciated that two new members, both part of la Francophonie, were proof of the vibrancy of the Commonwealth. New members necessarily flex to the club they are joining, their presence enriching but not fundamentally altering the organisation, so French-speaking new members must not change the Commonwealth as an exclusively English-speaking organisation. Its meetings are productive because everyone speaks the same language, unhindered by the barrier of interpretation. Enlargement must not change that.
Secondly, in recent years, the Commonwealth’s agenda has expanded, even effloresced. The final communiqué at Kigali ran to 117 paragraphs over 22 closely typed pages. I remind your Lordships that history suggests that the impact of a summit communiqué is in inverse proportion to its length. In the run-up to CHOGM in Samoa, I urge the Minister to help the Commonwealth Secretariat to prioritise.
Thirdly, and perhaps most urgent, is the future of the 14 overseas realms within the Commonwealth. Last week in Kigali, the Prince of Wales said,
“each member’s Constitutional arrangement, as Republic or Monarchy, is purely a matter for each member country to decide”—
clear, selfless, and as much as he could say. This leaves the Royal Family in an invidious position. Having said repeatedly that they will serve for as long as their service is welcome, a change in constitutional arrangements might look like a rejection of the Royal Family. Yet they cannot express understanding, still less support, for a change without looking reluctant to serve.
Her Majesty’s Government can help. First, the Government can explicitly acknowledge the case for change; constitutional arrangements which were agreed in the rush of decolonisation are now out of kilter with the times. It is impossible for us Britons to argue with the sentiment of an Australian republican campaign poster which said, “We want a Head Of State who is entitled to an Australian passport”. Increasingly, the realms want a Head of State who lives among them, and who is able to represent them and only them on the international stage. They want one of their own to occupy the pinnacle position in their country. Secondly, Her Majesty’s Government can state explicitly that a change in constitutional arrangements would have no negative impact on the bilateral relationship of the United Kingdom with any realm that becomes a republic.
Thirdly, the Government can make the Commonwealth the framework for future relations with realms that change their status. India was the forerunner. In 1950, India became a republic and remained a member of the Commonwealth. In many ways, that transition was the founding act of the modern Commonwealth. As the Prince of Wales also said in Kigali:
“arrangements such as these can change, calmly and without rancour.”
Since Her Majesty became Queen, 18 realms have become republics, the latest being Barbados last year. Debate is hotting up in the remaining realms. Logically, the accession of a new monarch would be a moment for them to take stock. On the first day of this month, Matt Thistlethwaite was sworn in as Assistant Minister for the Republic in Australia. The direction of travel is clear.
It is vital that any change be consensual and harmonious. It would be monstrously unfair for change in multiple realms to be presented as a stampede for the exit or a personal rebuke to the new monarch. In many ways, change is overdue. The unique arrangement of having a Head of State residing thousands of miles away in a separate sovereign country persists primarily out of respect and affection for the Queen. I conclude that Her Majesty’s Government can de-dramatise the impending and, I would say, inevitable change by joining the conversation already begun and stressing the importance of the Commonwealth as the vibrant, indeed irreplaceable, framework for the future.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for securing this timely debate. There is a tension throughout the history of the Commonwealth in its structure between cohesion and comprehension; between the fullest capacity to relate, and demands of function and utility. When the Imperial Conference of 1926 adopted the London declaration that the United Kingdom and dominions were
“autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs”—
comments which I think still resonate in terms of the last speech—the competing argument of imperial federation was in terminal retreat.
Since then, despite the closest bonds in war, despite the Ottawa agreements on trade, and despite the sterling area, the pressure in the Commonwealth has remained relentlessly centrifugal: legislative independence under the Statute of Westminster, the arrangement of the London declaration in 1949, the readmission of republics and the strategic decision of the UK to align itself with both the European Community and the United States. A vigorous UK foreign policy in the 1980s conflicted with much of the rest of the Commonwealth and tested the partnership to its limits. Yet, and notwithstanding the very significant questions about the legacy of Empire asked by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, the Commonwealth endures and flourishes. Why should this be?
One feature, I believe, is Her Majesty the Queen, who now in the 71st year of her reign is still holding true to the pledge she made on her 21st birthday in Cape Town in 1947. One part of the speech tends to be quoted, but in another the Princess Elizabeth assured us:
“If we all go forward together with an unwavering faith, a high courage, and a quiet heart, we shall be able to make of this ancient commonwealth, which we all love so dearly, an even grander thing—more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world—than it has been in the greatest days of our forefathers.”
She said this on the cusp of momentous change, both in her own life, and in the life of this country and the Commonwealth itself. None the less, as Head of the Commonwealth, the Queen has lived out what she commended to us. All of us, I suspect, have coins about us, and those coins bear one of the royal titles: “F.D.”—Defender of the Faith.
Increasingly, commentators down the years have noted the Queen’s personal commitment to the Christian faith. It is also true that she has never lost faith in the Commonwealth and never wavered in her outward support or active engagement, even when the subject became controversial. Indeed, her steadfast belief has been key to the survival and development of the partnership. What others have identified as a key weakness—its absence of a power structure and capacity to project influence—allows it to focus on relationships, providing a non-threatening forum for smaller states to engage with larger ones on an equal footing. Hence its expanding number, with applications from beyond the former territories of the British Empire. What is inconceivable to the authors of journal articles on international relations and practitioners of realpolitik is seemingly all too evident to the leaders of Mozambique, Cameroon, Rwanda, Gabon and Togo.
There are two causes for optimism going forward. One is the flexible nature of the Commonwealth, which allows it to survive without threatening its members, especially the smaller ones. This is particularly valuable in the arena of co-operation necessary to meet global and individual state targets to tackle global warming. Such flexibility will enable the Commonwealth to develop rather than atrophy. Secondly, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales will bring his own particular quality of commitment and service to succeed that of the Queen when he, in due course, becomes Head of the Commonwealth—a decision agreed at the 2018 London Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting; it was not automatic.
Two further things are necessary. One is to nourish the Commonwealth organisations that facilitate relationships and outcomes at an entirely different level, from the Commonwealth Association of Tax Administrators to the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association. Secondly, we should increase rather than decrease our support through the Foreign Office and Diplomatic Service for our international relations at this time. The threat of cuts to the Civil Service will, I hope, be prevented in the Foreign Office.
I hope that, going forward, Her Majesty’s Government will give powerful and tangible evidence of their engagement with member states of the Commonwealth, and that the depth of our commitment will match the warmth of our words.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Howell on securing this debate and on his wise, perceptive remarks. He has personally made a distinguished contribution to the Commonwealth in various capacities. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Marland’s work for the Commonwealth Business Council, whose activities have burgeoned under his leadership; I look forward to his speech. It is a great privilege to follow the wise words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark.
The Government’s recent UK Commonwealth Chair-In-Office Report tells an impressive story and is a comprehensive rebuttal of the case of those who say that the Commonwealth is an amorphous anachronism doomed to atrophy. The British Government’s role in supporting Commonwealth work in global health security, most recently during the pandemic, has been vital—especially in delivering vaccine doses, where there is still much more work to be done. In addition to allocating core funding for the secretariat, the Commonwealth Youth Programme, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth of Learning, the Government have supported 32 other projects, from good governance and parliamentary accountability to countering violent extremism. Some may say that future government support for the secretariat should be accompanied by even more persuasive advice in the future than there has been in the past; I could not possibly comment.
Important progress has been made in many areas. Commitment to human rights and the rule of law was marked by the delivery of the first Commonwealth statement in the United Nations Human Rights Council. Trade barriers have continued to be lowered, an area where further progress can and should be made. The Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub gives vital support to some of the most climatically vulnerable countries in the world, again with essential British financial support.
The examples of British government support are legion but, as my noble friend Lord Howell rightly pointed out in the debate in your Lordships’ House last July, the binding ties of a voluntary non-treaty global organisation such as the Commonwealth rely less on Governments than on links between businesses, non-governmental organisations, the professions, educational and scientific institutions and in sport, culture and the arts. That remains the reality.
The Commonwealth’s priorities—economic development, global health, security, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, an international rules-based system, climate change and protection of the environment, and a more secure world—will all continue to need the contribution of Governments, including our own, and non-government participants. The Commonwealth is well endowed with all such participants and has demonstrated clearly the collective will to drive those priorities forward. It has much to be proud of. It also has formidable challenges ahead. I hope and believe that we shall meet those challenges.
I look forward to hearing from my noble and learned friend the Minister, to whom the Commonwealth is greatly indebted, as the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, has said, for his work over the last few years, as indeed is your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2022 was postponed and postponed, and finally took place in Kigali, Rwanda, from 20 June to 25 June. The Commonwealth is a free association of sovereign states. It is a development of free and democratic societies, a promoter of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all people in the Commonwealth. There are now 56 countries in the Commonwealth; it has a population of 2.5 billion, of which India, one country, makes up 1.4 billion. More than 60% of the combined populations of the member states are 29 or under, so it is a young Commonwealth.
Its combined GDP is $13 trillion, estimated to rise to almost $20 trillion by 2027. Her Majesty the Queen is Head of the Commonwealth. Even if all the remaining countries became republics, I would have no concerns whatever. They would continue to be members of the Commonwealth, just as India has.
The theme of the 2018 CHOGM was “Towards a Common Future”. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who has been a great champion of the Commonwealth. In a debate on UK Commonwealth trade, he summed it up beautifully, saying that
“in the age of networking and digital connectivity, the binding ties of a voluntary”—
“voluntary” being the key word—
“non-treaty, global organisation such as the Commonwealth are sealed as much by enterprise and trade, civil society concerns and common everyday life and work interests as through government channels”.
He talked about its vibrancy and brought it alive as never before, as
“the nexus of non-governmental organisations, professions, business interests, education at all levels, science, law and hundreds of informal links, not to mention sports connections and the enormous and expanding range of arts and cultural links of every kind, that are increasingly at the core of the Commonwealth.”—[Official Report, 8/7/21; cols. 1456-57.]
It was absolutely brilliant.
Talking of sport, I am the proud chancellor of the University of Birmingham. We are hosting the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July and August this year, and the university will play a role like never before. At the heart of the Games, the athletes’ village is on our campus, as are squash and hockey. We sponsored the baton relay that went around 76 countries and territories of the Commonwealth, and a non-Commonwealth country; it went to Dubai in the UAE, where I was present for the opening of our new campus—the first Russell group university to open in Dubai. Birmingham is, of course, a vibrant, relatively young city. It will bring out the best of global Britain and showcase the region’s strengths, and I am really looking forward to a fantastic Games.
Her Majesty’s role is championing the Commonwealth and its people. It has been agreed that His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales will continue this role in the future. This year is special for the Commonwealth Games because they happen in the year of Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee. What a great celebration we have had.
Global health and security have been at the heart of the Commonwealth, particularly at this time. What better example of cross-border collaboration in the Commonwealth is there than the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, developed by Oxford and AstraZeneca headquartered in Cambridge, in conjunction with the Serum Institute of India—the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world, even before the pandemic—based in India? That is a Commonwealth project. Two billion doses have been produced by the Serum Institute of India.
We have British International Investment, BII, previously known as CDC, mobilising up to £8 billion. The UK is increasingly the headquarters of green finance for the world. Once again, the Commonwealth is at the heart of it. Also, the more digital we get as a world, the more vulnerable we get, and we have agreed to the Commonwealth Cyber Declaration.
CHOGM 2022 was about delivering a common future: connecting, innovating, transforming, protecting natural resources and increasing trade. Sir Partha Dasgupta’s report, The Economics of Biodiversity, from the University of Cambridge, is a must-read, applying to the whole world as well as to the Commonwealth. It describes nature as our most precious asset.
How wonderful it is that the position of one of our own, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth has been renewed for a second term.
Right in the middle of this period, a free trade agreement is being negotiated with India. I request an update from the Minister on how well it is progressing. As a former president of the CBI, I have been at the heart of these negotiations. There is huge potential with that free trade agreement. I took an active part in the Australia and New Zealand free trade agreements with the UK, and I believe the India one should be as comprehensive as possible, as well as hopefully being completed by the end of this year.
The reality is that in total the Commonwealth accounts for only 9% of the UK’s trade. Trade with five Commonwealth countries—Australia, Canada, India, Singapore and South Africa—accounts for over 70% of this. So the potential to increase trade between Commonwealth countries is absolutely phenomenal. We are just scratching the surface and we need to continue to press for increased trade between Commonwealth countries. It is an open goal. With 20 of the global emerging cities in the Commonwealth, next month we will publish the Oxford healthy cities commission, of which I am a commissioner. Again, that can help in a big way. I am a great fan of the Commonwealth, which has huge untapped potential.
My Lords, this summer sees the coming together of three significant international gatherings, following the restrictions of the pandemic years. One of them was the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda last week—some of the background to this debate. Another is the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief next week in London. A third is the Lambeth Conference, bringing together bishops from all but three of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion, which starts in late July. In each case, the leadership of these significant meetings is being provided from within these shores.
There are many parallels between the Commonwealth and the Anglican Communion, which is unsurprising, given our shared history. Both draw together autonomous units of nations and provinces. Both are held together by what the Prime Minister described last week as the
“invisible thread of shared values, history and friendship”
and what the Anglican Communion describes as our “bonds of affection”. Both have inevitable stresses and strains. Both need to work hard at developing a sense of mutual interdependence, not least because of the complexities of this nation’s imperialistic past—so graphically portrayed by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh—and the huge financial disparities between the members of each body. In particular, we in the UK need to recognise that although western secular values have a great deal to commend them, other nations can look on in horror on occasions at our individualism, materialism and religious indifference, and the breakdown of our family and community life.
One of those western secular values to which I am sure everyone in this House is committed is the theme of the meeting next week and will play a major part in the Lambeth Conference too. That is the human right not to be discriminated against, let alone persecuted, on the grounds of religion or belief. I have a particular interest in this subject, both historically and in the present, not least because we in the diocese of Guildford are twinned with Anglican dioceses in Pakistan and Nigeria—Commonwealth countries that come seventh and eighth respectively in an annual register of the nations in which it is most dangerous to be a Christian.
The other Commonwealth nation that appears in the top 10 is India, which reminds us that even functioning democracies can move in a sharply negative direction over a short period if religious intolerance, combined with a strongly nationalistic agenda, is really given its head. In India especially, that intolerance extends to Muslims and those of other faith traditions, although statistically it is Christians who bear considerably the greatest weight of religious intolerance around the globe.
The three regimes, of course, are very different. In Pakistan, a beautiful country I was privileged to visit in 2019, there is systemic discrimination against Christians and other minorities when it comes to further education and the availability of quality jobs, as well as a periodic misuse of the blasphemy laws and the all-too-regular shooting or lynching of Christians and others, especially those accused of converting from Islam. In Nigeria, where I am travelling in November, there are almost daily attacks by Fulani tribesmen on Christians in the middle belt—which sometimes, it should be acknowledged, provoke a measure of retaliation—along with the continuing problems with Boko Haram in the north, which are clearly religiously motivated, despite protestations to the contrary. The president of the Nigerian national humanist society has also just been given a 24-year prison sentence, off the back of alleged slurs against Islam.
In India, which I visited in 2017, both Christians and Muslims are suffering from incendiary rhetoric from some members of the ruling BJP, resulting in often violent and well-targeted attacks on Christians and other minorities and a plethora of anti-conversion laws, which ostensibly prohibit forced conversions but can all too easily be abused.
Here is where the Prime Minister and the British Government possibly missed a trick when it came to the first of those conferences. They rightly highlighted shared concerns, such as global warming and educational discrimination against women and girls—as we will also do at the Lambeth Conference—and addressed issues of food security in the wake of the war in Ukraine, but the issue of freedom of religion and belief seems hardly to have featured in those conversations, despite its terrifying and growing prevalence in the three Commonwealth nations with the largest populations of them all.
Persecution is persecution, whatever its cause, but with the sheer numbers involved there is no question but that persecution on the grounds of religion or belief is uniquely widespread and deadly. While I am delighted that we will be hosting the global conference on that theme next week, and I applaud the seriousness with which this is treated in this House and the other place, I also believe we need a joined-up approach that brings this to the fore in all our discussions with our Commonwealth and trading partners, so as to create a better and fairer world for all.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Howell for his kind and generous remarks, as I am to my noble friend Lord Goodlad. I agree with every single word my noble friend Lord Howell said, with one exception: Kigali was not about Heads of Government; it was about a business forum, which I was privileged to chair, a youth forum and a women’s forum. They were very vibrant events.
The business forum is an extraordinary event. Where else, apart perhaps from Davos, can you attract 1,700 businesses from 60 countries, 20 Heads of State, the president of the World Bank, the president of FIFA even and the secretary-general of the World Health Organization? It was an incredibly vibrant event, probably because there was pent-up tension after four years of us sitting with Covid and not meeting each other face to face, but also because it was in Africa. The Commonwealth had not been to an event like this in Africa for well over 10 years and it was a terrific credit to our hosts, the Rwandan Government, that it was such a resounding success.
Rwanda has proven to be a country of formidable leadership. It was safe, secure and clean and has a fast-growing economy lifting its people out of poverty. The statistics for trade in the Commonwealth and business are well known. It is 20% more competitive doing intra-Commonwealth trade because of common law, a common language and common trade agreements, and therefore the British Government should be well set to take benefit from it, but I am afraid to say that they have been asleep on their watch. They have inevitably been encumbered by the post-Brexit situation and subsequently Covid, but they have not taken full advantage of their last four years as chair in office.
That manifested itself in the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the extension of the Secretary-General’s contract where the UK led a campaign to change the Secretary-General, but it failed. The task ahead for the UK Government is to repair those bridges and play catch up. There are signs—I thank the Minister, who has been a stalwart supporter, and the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, who kept us afloat while we needed it by sending provisions down, and I am very grateful to them both—but the opportunity has been missed and we must now turbocharge the relationship.
We must ensure that the Commonwealth takes advantage of the showcases that are available. One of them, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, is the Commonwealth Games. Where I say there are signs of it happening, I am co-chairing with the Department for International Trade a business forum at that event which will involve the noble Lord’s university.
It is important that the UK now starts to prioritise the Commonwealth. It is not an alternative to the European Union, but it is a vast and available market. There are other problems ahead for the Commonwealth because Samoa is the chair in office designate. It will be a difficult place for people to visit—it is a long way from anywhere—but it that in itself is an opportunity. With the Chinese invasion of the Pacific, raised by my noble friend Lord Howell, Samoa could be a pivotal place for the UK and other Commonwealth countries to establish the power of democracy.
The second opportunity that presents itself is Sri Lanka, a country which is now on its knees with financial difficulties. It has sought succour from China for its investment. It gives western democratic countries, led by the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, an opportunity to support it and help it reinvigorate its economy.
Finally, there has never been any mention of empire, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, suggested—there was not for the three or five days in Kigali, I am happy to say. I am happy to say that His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales arrived in triumph and left in triumph. That is one of the great advantages this country has, as well as the Minister who has carried out an excellent job on behalf of the Commonwealth for all these years.
My Lords, the Commonwealth and its various associated organisations may sometimes be perceived as belonging to a colonial era. Its work goes largely unnoticed until CHOGM comes round every two years—then we have the usual debate about its relevance and effectiveness. The large umbrella of the Commonwealth Secretariat, with all its internal and external politics, tends to overshadow the work done by myriad Commonwealth network organisations. I have had close associations with many of them throughout my career: Commonwealth associations of lawyers and media practitioners, Speakers associations and, most of all, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. The constant theme of these groups, so evident at their meetings, is friendship, understanding and an eagerness to share good practice and uphold government accountability.
I do not think that any of us should minimise the value of getting together and sharing views. We live in a world where, increasingly, electronic communication is king, but sitting around a table with our Commonwealth colleagues or together in working groups as well as the grander occasions of major conferences, with all the opportunities for bilateral exchange, is invaluable. For example, while a member state may have publicly expressed anger about a particular instance, such as the showing of a TV programme in the UK which has offended that state, subsequent meetings between parliamentarians continue as before, often without even mentioning the so-called offensive incident. The Commonwealth in all its dealing emphasises that there are official views and personal links, and that these do not necessarily have to coincide. This is a vital component of soft power.
As we all know, there are global and pressing issues at the moment that require a concerted approach. These now include food availability and distribution, economic recession, climate change, security and slavery. An organisation of 56 member states is a good place to begin the dialogue that will provide the basis for global agreements and action.
Despite the potential and actual advantages of the Commonwealth network, it is itself under severe strain, both economic and political. Like all mulitilateral bodies, it faces change and renewal. In which direction should it go, where can it be most effective and what kind of changes might be undertaken in the immediate future? By way of answer, I would like to refer to the work undertaken by the CPA.
A gradual change of emphasis championed by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association towards more practical workshops, the prioritisation of women parliamentarians at all levels and modern slavery has resulted in tangible changes. I have participated in small workshops examining government accountability through the CPA programme on Public Accounts Committees. Almost all Commonwealth countries have such committees, but their effectiveness varies. What has become abundantly clear is how much our colleagues welcome such practical sessions where there can be learning from and between many different systems. The CPA has now produced an online course fashioned from lessons learned during these workshops. Similarly, the mechanisms to protect and promote women whether against violence, online abuse and/or slavery, and towards parliamentary involvement, are widely welcomed.
It is these smaller, less highly publicised networks that constantly meet and deliberate on how better to implement the Commonwealth charter on the democratic process, that should be fostered. The funds needed for these programmes are minimal in comparison to those of the umbrella Secretariat and the outcomes are impressive. Perhaps the essential changes should lie in the direction of increasing the work of these networks with the attendant opportunities for exchange, fostering friendships, sharing practical methodology, monitoring elections and providing guidelines for government policy and action. Inevitably, there is internal wrangling within each member state and sometimes between states, but the undercurrent of fellowship between members of the Commonwealth is sustained by the work of the networks as a whole, and this quietly provides the continuity that is the essence of the Commonwealth.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Howell for bringing this debate forward, and for his lifelong dedication to the work of the Commonwealth. Before going to Kigali, the Prime Minister set out, in an article for the Telegraph, how the invisible thread of shared values, history, institutions, and language that binds the Commonwealth creates a trading advantage. As a network of countries and of civil society built around the shared values of the Commonwealth charter—democracy, human rights, tolerance and the rule of law among them—the Commonwealth also has the potential to be one of our greatest tools in facing the key challenges of the 21st century.
As last year’s integrated review recognised, we are in an age of systemic competition. Authoritarian states seek to extend their influence and to challenge the international rules and norms that underpin our security and prosperity. The Commonwealth can be a bulwark against this. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s vision of the Commonwealth as a counterweight to authoritarian regimes but, as our values come under greater pressure, we cannot be complacent.
My noble friend Lord Howell rightly pointed out that the influence from China extends through the Commonwealth. Many Commonwealth members are part of China’s belt and road initiative. Beijing has even gone as far as cultivating ties with Commonwealth country’s armed forces. Can my noble friend tell the House what discussions he and other members of the UK delegation had in Kigali about countering this influence from China, and what practical steps the Commonwealth can take to limit this?
Winning a systemic competition requires us to prove that our system is better. We need to show what we know to be true: democracy, human rights and the rule of law give us a competitive advantage. In order to show this, we need to be faithful to those values. The Kigali communiqué states:
“Heads renewed their commitment to the Commonwealth’s fundamental … values of democracy … They further reiterated their commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
But, in too many countries, human rights are being rolled back. In Freedom House’s annual ranking, 23 Commonwealth members were found to be not free or only partially free.
The Commonwealth’s largest member is often billed as the largest democracy in the world, but I fear it is increasingly at risk of losing that title. It is deeply concerning that Prime Minister Modi’s India is becoming less tolerant, more autocratic and less safe for millions of its own population, including minorities—Christians, Muslims, et cetera. NGOs have faced restrictions. Human rights advocates, such as Aakar Patel, the chair of Amnesty International’s India board, have been subject to travel bans. The Editors Guild of India is calling for the immediate release of Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of a fact-checking site who has been at the forefront of countering fake news and disinformation, and who was arrested earlier this week. He joins other journalists and human rights defenders, including Khurram Parvez, the chair of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances and a leading campaigner against human rights violations in Kashmir.
The communiqué from Rwanda tells us that
“Heads stressed the importance of … freedom of expression”—
yet they stand by as the free press faces attack in the Commonwealth’s largest member. I know that my noble friend the Minister takes this issue seriously and that the British high commission in India is supporting interfaith work, but can he confirm whether the Prime Minister discussed freedom of religion and human rights with Mr Modi in India in April or in Kigali last week?
For many in the United Kingdom, CHOGM was unfortunately overshadowed by the Government’s new refugee offshoring policy. Rwanda is a good example of the grey areas of foreign policy: it is at once a symbol of huge achievement, recovering from genocide, but also a country with an alarming human rights record of political repression, kidnappings and assassinations. Debating the provisions for refugees in Rwanda under the offshoring scheme is a distraction from the more fundamental point: shipping asylum seekers elsewhere fundamentally neglects our responsibilities and duties, which we signed up to and which were not imposed on us.
There is substantial evidence to suggest that the offshoring scheme will be expensive, inefficient and ineffective. It breaches our international legal obligations. The UN Refugee Agency has stated that the Rwanda plan is
“inconsistent with global solidarity and responsibility-sharing”
“does not meet the requirements necessary to be considered a lawful and appropriate … arrangement.”
Shared burdens and respect for international law are surely the epitome of Commonwealth values—yet, with the Rwanda plan, we have somehow set them aside.
Sometimes, we seem to think that we can urge others to improve their record on the rule of law, human rights and democracy without respecting and protecting these values ourselves. Underpinning warm words about shared values are real rights and freedoms, which intimately affect the lives of the Commonwealth’s 2.5 billion people. If we are serious about the Commonwealth as a bulwark against authoritarianism and a promoter of human rights, democracy and the rule of law—the values that make it successful—we need to strengthen those rights at home and strongly argue for them abroad.
My Lords, I hope that your Lordships have noticed how much of the Commonwealth is represented in your Lordships’ House today. It shows that we are interested in knowing what is happening to the Commonwealth, as much as we want to share.
One of the things which I feel were done incorrectly was line-drawing on a map. People were not consulted on whether they would like to be with each other, and some of the countries have had problems as a result, not to mention India and Pakistan. In India, we did not have the line of separation until a month before it came into force. We were very close to the line, so my family was very anxious, because they wanted to know where they were going to live. In the end, we were refugees in Delhi. We were not against an old building but we were still refugees, because my father left everything he owned behind.
My main feeling about the Commonwealth is that its members have not learned to understand one another, because until you do that, you do not do things together. When I first went to one of its meetings some years ago, the French-speaking and the English-speaking members had very few ways of communicating with one another. I hope that that has gone, but it is an example of how things can go wrong without meaning to go wrong. If there are two tribes who do not like each other, you do not want to put them in one country. I do not think that any research of that kind was done before the lines were drawn on the map. It is one of the weaknesses of the Commonwealth that I am not sure that everybody likes everybody else who lives next door to them.
As for India and Pakistan, first of all, it was going to be Muslim countries together and Hindus separate. Kashmir is a Muslim region, and it should definitely have gone to Pakistan; it has no business to be given to India, but it was not given to India either—it does not belong to anybody except itself. There is no end of problems with it, and they will not be resolved unless some definite action is taken. The UN said that we could have a plebiscite. We should have one. That would resolve the question of who it wants to be with. That is not for me to resolve, because I have no power to do anything. If I did, I would say, “Have a plebiscite.” The other thing we could do is try to increase the trade links, which we do not—we have a lot of army links, but no trade links, and that is not very good either. It is a big mess and I do not know whether it can be resolved. People have pretended to try to resolve it, but they have not been able to. Maybe the new generation, such as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, will have something to do with it and resolve something that is terrible.
A very senior Pakistani general said to me, “There’ll be no more war between India and Pakistan—a proper war—because we know we can’t win.” That is true—we are so much bigger than them—but imagine making a Pakistan whose main part was in one place and another little part, Bangladesh, was 1,500 miles away. How can a country work like that? It cannot work as a country if you have two very definite, separate bits, and it did not, so they attacked Bangladesh, which did not go down too well with India.
Anyway, here we are. That is what we are left with, so we have got to make the best of it.
My Lords, the House of Lords would not be the House of Lords without a debate on the Commonwealth, and perhaps vice versa: the Commonwealth seems to need people like us to restate and support its aims and objectives. It is not a very visible organisation; it does not set out to proclaim its importance. In fact, the media are not kind to it: I had high hopes of reading a report in the FT, but I still cannot find one. My noble friend Lord McDonald has explained why the communiqué has taken so long. However, this debate has more than compensated for that.
Having heard and learned from the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on various occasions, I do not personally need any more convincing of the value of the Commonwealth. He rightly refers to connectivity and informality, and I understand the arguments put forward by my noble friend Lady D’Souza about soft power and quiet diplomacy, but surely the Commonwealth could sharpen up its act a little and explain to the world what it is about?
We have heard a lot about the Commonwealth’s successes, but the principal success story is quite clear: the contribution of Her Majesty the Queen. Her role has been properly recognised through the Jubilee and, above all, from her own remarkable performance as an individual as well as a monarch. Where would the Commonwealth be without her? I therefore personally expect, and indeed look forward to, a more piano contribution from the UK in future. It was an enterprise started by this country—as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, reminded us—but I see no reason why the UK should not retire a little more from the stage and encourage others to come forward. I am sure that the reappointment of the secretary-general will assist in that process. Prince Charles himself set the tone when a new Head of State replaced the Queen in Barbados last November; he said it was “a new beginning” and acknowledged the appalling atrocity of slavery. Anti-racism and decolonisation are rightly going to be continuing themes.
I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, that we must see more effort from the Commonwealth on human rights and governance. This is the Minister’s proper area of responsibility, so could we do more about this? Will quiet bilateral diplomacy or a new trade agreement ever be enough, for example, to change Prime Minister Modi’s discrimination against minorities and the media in India? The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford has spoken on Pakistan in this respect.
Human Rights and Democracy, the FCDO report published in July 2020, contains some powerful statements of hope, some by the Minister himself in his foreword, which I recently reread. There is a comprehensive list of priority countries, including, I am glad to say, the two Sudans, where the FCDO remains active. I asked the Minister earlier this week whether any African member states were backtracking on issues such as abortion and gay rights, and he replied that
“one important thing about networks such as the Commonwealth is that they allow us to look at a broad range of human rights issues in a progressive and productive way.”—[Official Report, 28/6/22; col. 577.]
Fair enough—not a direct answer, but a very positive one.
Climate change and oceans are issues already pursued by the Commonwealth, but smaller member countries and islands need to take up climate change more aggressively. This is not so much for themselves, since their carbon footprint is in most cases minimal; but for some, climate change is an urgent question, and they need to persuade we larger gas-guzzling nations to take more action in prevention and mitigation. We will have to help pay for this. Australia’s new Prime Minister, as my friend the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, knows better than any of us, will be bound to help in that operation.
Under Paul Kagame, Rwanda has made great strides since the terrible 1994 massacres, but few are under the illusion that his Government are now squeaky clean; opposition leaders are imprisoned and branded as terrorists. The most prominent case is that of Paul Rusesabagina, who was sentenced to 25 years. Can the Minister say whether the Commonwealth or the FCDO have done anything for him or for human rights in Rwanda? He will already know that 24 human rights agencies have written to Commonwealth leaders asking them to speak up on this issue.
I end with a quotation from a friend who attended CHOGM, who said, “It was wonderful to see African countries taking the lead in Kigali, not least Rwanda but also the new members of Gabon and Togo. The success of the Commonwealth in moving beyond its roots in former colonies depends on the secretariat and its most powerful member counties carefully listening to all members, big and small, and allowing its newer and smaller members to take the lead in equal partnership, not on driving the interests of a few.”
My Lords, let me concentrate on the problems and not the virtues of the Commonwealth because I have only five minutes. First, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, and others, there was a great constitutional change when India became part of the Commonwealth, as a republic could continue to be part of the Commonwealth which, after all, is an association of the former colonies of the United Kingdom. That was very welcome. Now, any country which was formerly a part of the British Empire could become a republic and still be a member of the Commonwealth. That is very straightforward.
Secondly, the fact that CHOGM took place in Kigali gives notice that there are non-British Empire countries that want to join the Commonwealth. That is a very welcome sign and a very good thing, because the Commonwealth is one of the few associations, apart from the United Nations, which straddles all five continents. But, at the same time, there is a difficulty: whether the traditions of the British Commonwealth, which have been talked about quite a lot this afternoon, will continue to be adopted by people who are not formerly from the British Commonwealth. We shall see.
Her Majesty the Queen, as many people have said, has been a very strong influence in maintaining the Commonwealth. Her reign of 70 years has more or less corresponded with the new Commonwealth. The problem is—and we have not actually talked about it—that the decision made in 2018, at her request, that Prince Charles continue to be the Head of the Commonwealth after she has gone was a mistake. I am sorry, but I have to say that that restricts the future of the Commonwealth. It would have been better had the Commonwealth decided to rotate its headship among other countries besides Britain. That would have been more democratic and more egalitarian. We should not always assume that the Commonwealth has to be led by the British Head of State. Of course, people will not protest too much but when tensions grow—especially because some countries will have problems with that, or there may be differences—that will be a major point of disagreement. Why should Britain always be the head of the Commonwealth? The Commonwealth should be a truly democratic association of countries which want to be members together.
Looking at the Commonwealth, it is a miracle that it has survived for so long. It is quite astonishing that countries which were not part of the British Empire have chosen to join it. That is very interesting and I continue to contrast the Commonwealth with, say, the UN, which is a very badly organised body. It is run by an oligarchy of five permanent members, which can plead that they are totally above international law, as they have done with a veto, for example. The Commonwealth does not have that defect and has been able to expel members that violated the Harare Declaration. From that point of view, the Commonwealth has some advantages. The question is going to be, how can the Commonwealth go on maintaining that advantage? A little bit more equality among members and making the role of Britain more ordinary, like other members, rather than special and always at the top, would be a very welcome change. I do not think it will happen, but it would be good if it did.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for introducing this topical debate following the CHOGM in Kigali last week. The noble Lord has played a pivotal role in promoting the role of the Commonwealth as well as the challenges that it faces. As my noble friend Lord Bilimoria mentioned, the Commonwealth represents 2.5 billion people, of whom 60% are under the age of 29.
At the outset, I congratulate the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, on her re-election as Commonwealth Secretary-General and express my regret that our Government chose to oppose her re-election. In her manifesto for her second term, she highlighted the need to deliver a smart, connected, digital Commonwealth that can unleash the talents of the population as well as close the Commonwealth digital gap in health, education and trade, building the digital infrastructure to boost connectivity between Commonwealth countries. It is to this that I want to devote my remarks in my short time, as well as the need to promote more education on the impact of climate change within the Commonwealth and what its members can do to mitigate it.
As technology continues to build our digital economies and value continues to move into the development of digital systems, promoting technological standardisation and regulatory harmonisation that fit the digital world is essential in enabling a collective and productive global economy, particularly among Commonwealth members. We must look at the innovators who are looking at architecting both financial systems and decentralised systems of co-ordination to unlock new value networks and optimise the very fabric of society and common nations. We are witnessing a new renaissance in how we organise people, societies, systems of government, supply chains and systems of value creation and distribution.
Compliance data networks can facilitate greater national security, reduce the cost of cross-border co-ordination and system co-ordination, and provide a platform for the Commonwealth to unite its members and citizens. I have for many years advocated and promoted digital ID, which helps vulnerable populations in the developing world to gain access to global services and provides aid and resources to assist with education and technology capabilities.
To fight crime, reduce corruption and enable more privacy, we must look to how the Commonwealth can build universal policies and digital regulations to streamline economic co-operation and growth globally. Embracing new technologies such as blockchain can assist in creating more transparency and accountability, as well as enforcement. In this regard, I warmly support the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda to boost the digitisation of economies and potentially achieve the $2 trillion target in intra-Commonwealth trade by 2030. I join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Marland, on his able chairmanship of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, as well as the business forum.
Finally, though much was achieved last year at COP 26, much more needs to be done now to follow up on the initiatives and resolutions. As the Commonwealth represents one-third of the population of the world, I hope that more initiatives can be taken to educate the youth on the impact of climate change and what can be done to mitigate it. We are sadly seeing an increasing frequency of climate change catastrophes which are invariably impacting on the poorest people in the world. Apart from education, what can be done to incentivise financial tools such as green bonds? Time precludes me from elaborating on this subject. Long live the Commonwealth. I look forward to the answers of the Minister.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, with the great experience on these issues, particularly in Africa, which he brings to bear in the House. I join him in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on bringing this debate. This is not the first debate on the Commonwealth he has brought to this Chamber and I hope very much it will not be the last. It has been of interest to me that the debate has been a realistic one, not on the history alone but also, if the Commonwealth is to remain relevant, the characteristics that it will need to display to do so.
I also pay tribute to the Minister for the Commonwealth who I had the pleasure of being with in Kigali last week, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Marland, and his very able private office. The Minister is remarkable for looking fresh after having programmes outside this country which have been so hectic. I pay tribute to the hosts, Rwanda, and the amazing army of young people who were so helpful and supportive of the hosts. I will return to some elements of our relationship with Rwanda in a moment.
I am a supporter of a Commonwealth which the nations choose to be part of and where they should be equal. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that while equality on paper is impressive, the reality is sometimes different, even in the visuals, when we look at the choreography of the pictures of those heads of state and government there. The real strength of CHOGM, as the noble Lord, Lord Marland, indicated, was the preceding fora—the business fora that he led so ably and that I was a delegate to, the women’s forum, the youth forum and the people’s forum—and the ability to allow debate about civil society with representatives from across the various family networks and a level of open discussion and debate of some of the realities, that, for example the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, who I regret to see is not in his place for the winding speeches, indicated.
When I chaired the commission for the All-Party Group on Trade out of Poverty, working with the Nigerian Trade Minister on inter-Commonwealth trade, a witness said something that has always stuck in my memory. She said that the Commonwealth has two major strengths. The first is that China is not a member and the second is that the USA is not a member. I think the ability for a network of consensus, seeing the value of a non rule-making but consensual body, shows its strength.
Of course, there are others: the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, talked about La Francophonie and interaction between the two. I do not see the Commonwealth as an English-speaking network; I see it as a network where language and other elements are a common and binding factor. It is of interest to me that very close allies of the UK, such as the UAE and Qatar, are associate members of La Francophonie, not of the Commonwealth. Ukraine has had observer status to La Francophonie since 2006. So there are multiple networks around the world, of which the Commonwealth is a very strong one but not unique in some areas.
Where, perhaps, the Commonwealth is unique is that it can bring together the most innovative places in the world, but also those with the greatest developmental challenges. It has some of the most open societies, as well as some where being gay is still a crime, capital punishment can be used arbitrarily and opposition political parties are often either banned or restricted. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, in this regard: we have to see our relationships with our friends, but not through rose-tinted glasses.
I was a member of a small delegation from the All-Party Group for Africa visiting Kigali last week. We met an opposition member who is banned from meeting members of her own political party in public discourse in Rwanda. After our meeting with her, where we stayed there were individuals who did not identify themselves but asked for reports on our activities as British parliamentarians. We have to understand that even though we received a very warm welcome from Rwanda, Rwanda does not meet the norms that we in this country would consider to be those of a free and fair and open society.
On visits that I have made to friendly Commonwealth nations, one of which was through the aegis of the All-Party Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty, I was told by the leaders of the Anglican community in that country that they welcomed my visit to campaign against the death penalty, but on condition that I did not campaign for LGBT rights. We have to be open and aware that the communiqué issued from CHOGM was weak in this regard. It condemned discrimination in all forms but was not able to single out where there have been the most egregious abuses.
The communiqué was also of interest to me as there was no mention of any condemnation of Russia—that was symbolic in its absence—but it is also useful to say what was in it. On a positive, women’s empowerment and gender equality, as well as moving on trafficking and forced labour, youth development and tackling some of the climate challenges are all, I think, joint priorities, and the communiqué was strong and forward-looking in those areas. I commend the Minister and the UK envoy Jo Lomas for the work that they have done in preparing that.
Our All-Party Group for Africa, with Jack Patterson so ably supporting us in that role, was able to participate in the forums, and we were able to work and discuss as equals with others from around the Commonwealth development issues, climate, trade and the common future. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marland: it was appropriate that many of these discussions were taking place in Africa. That continent is now seeing, for the first time in a decade, the potential for famine—famine in a near-neighbour of a Commonwealth country. The climate challenges for that continent in particular are going to be immense, and the future that will be sapped away from its young people should be our focus.
However, on trade I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Marland: I think that the UK’s time as chair-in-office has been a missed opportunity. We had the opportunity to turbo-charge intra-Commonwealth trade and reduce trade barriers, systematically removing them. Although the communiqué has indicated that we want to see greater interconnectedness in trade agreements, it has been a frustration to me that in the agreements that the UK has negotiated and signed with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and the EPAs, there has been no mention of intra-Commonwealth trade facilitation.
My final point is linked with the visit to Rwanda, and I will close with some reflections. It is not directly related to CHOGM, but it is my first opportunity to report to the House on a visit that I made to the Hope Guesthouse. The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, mentioned the MoU with Rwanda; I visited the centre where those individuals would have been sent. The MoU, which is not a treaty, has no legal underpinning. I visited a centre which is a private limited company, on a one-year rolling contract; has facilities which, under my examination, had no areas for those suffering trauma or for those potentially on suicide watch; is on an agreement which has not been disclosed; and where there is no limit as to who else may be put in the Hope hostels, other than those who will be coming from the UK scheme. This obviously was an area of debate and discussion among the civil society groups that were there.
I believe that this policy is a stain on the UK. That is not a criticism of Rwanda; it is a criticism of the UK Government. There are, I am afraid, so many areas, such as the UK’s slashing of overseas assistance and the immigration agreement, where, apart from ministerial diplomacy, the UK is letting down its position in the world.
Finally, if the Commonwealth is to reinvent itself and be relevant for the future, it needs to embrace more of the fora that are there, invest in our youth, and have joint and equal consensus on many of those challenges. An Indian delegate at the people’s forum said that while we share a common history, we also have common pain—but we need to find common solutions to the common problems that exist.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for his excellent introduction to this debate. The noble Lord is a constant factor in debates on the Commonwealth—joined, of course, by the Minister, whose record of being able to stay in office for so long is incredible. Do not get me wrong: I wish for that to continue.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, reminded us, this CHOGM had been postponed since June 2020. I am pleased that the 26th meeting finally took place, with the fitting theme:
“Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming.”
The fact that it was hosted in Kigali by Rwanda, the latest addition to the Commonwealth, which joined in 2009 without historic links to the UK, was a reminder that the summit is about diversity. That is what makes the Commonwealth what it is. It is the difference that unites us; that is very important.
CHOGMs present an opportunity for members to work together on shared ambitions and to consider what has been delivered since the last summit. At the London CHOGM in 2018, the UK Government announced a series of projects in support of the outcomes, later itemised in a Ministerial Statement by the Minister in January 2019. I will return to a number of those specific projects later. I suppose I am old-fashioned in this regard, but I think it is important to understand what we set out to achieve at the last meeting, and then consider what was achieved. We seem to constantly reinvent the wheel when it comes to CHOGMs. So, I hope the Minister can tell us how many of the projects announced in 2018 were implemented. Is there a reason why we did not get an update on the 2019 Ministerial Statement at the end of our period as chair-in-office?
As we have heard, the 56 nations which constitute the Commonwealth cover a population of 2.5 billion but, both within and between the constituent parts, we see massive inequality, as highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain. I am therefore pleased that the communiqué noted the 2030 agenda for sustainable development—sadly, a theme that could have been better reflected in this debate—as well as the opportunity to accelerate progress, but it was disappointing that the agreement did not state explicitly any concrete steps to realise those opportunities. Nevertheless, the discussions showed that leaders are engaging on the subject, but I hope the Minister can elaborate on what exactly was discussed on the sustainable development goals, and whether there was any serious analysis of the progress in meeting them.
Unfortunately, the Commonwealth is still off track in meeting the goals, with progress still stalling as a result of the pandemic. The 2022 Commonwealth SDG tracker shows that the countries which make up the group are lagging most with SDG 9, industry, innovation and infrastructure, and SDG 10, reduced inequalities. On the latter goal, I hope the Minister can update the house on the SheTrades Commonwealth programme, announced following CHOGM in London.
However, there is room for optimism. More progress has been made on SDG 12, responsible consumption and production. I hope the noble Lord can tell us whether the Government have made any assessment of the reason for this. Can the Minister update the House on progress on climate change and implementing the ocean protection agreements, again made at the London summit?
Overall, the tracker shows that collective progress on the SDGs slowed significantly for Commonwealth countries over the past year. Can the noble Lord give us a better indication of what steps the FCDO is taking to ensure greater progress, especially considering that the Prime Minister did not mention the SDGs or sustainability in his opening remarks at CHOGM?
I would like to move on to the question of equality and human rights, raised by many noble Lords today. The communiqué’s focus on human rights was largely intertwined with the concept of the rule of law, with the main action encouraging
“the establishment and strengthening of … Human Rights Institutions”.
It is slightly disappointing that, as part of this, there was only a brief mention of civil society, although we have heard a lot about it in today’s debate. We have heard about the events prior to the meeting—the Commonwealth Youth Forum; the Commonwealth Business Forum, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Marland; the Commonwealth Women’s Forum; and of course the Commonwealth People’s Forum. As is the case with all summits and international institutions, we should be cautious that the involvement of civil society is not merely a tick-box exercise. The fact that these forums were held is good, but let us see what was heard from those forums and how they were engaged.
In response to my Oral Question on Tuesday, the Minister said that
“one of the areas … pursued during”
“time in chair-in-office was to strengthen the voice of civil society within … the Commonwealth.”
He said that “over 10 Foreign Ministers” engaged “quite directly” with civil society at the CHOGM meeting. Perhaps he can tell us a bit more in his response what form this took. The noble Lord also asserted that the UK continued
“to fund human rights priorities, including those of LGBT rights. They were featured very prominently in the civil society discussions”.—[Official Report, 28/6/22; col.539.]
Can the noble Lord therefore tell us exactly how much of that funding has reduced between the London CHOGM and this CHOGM? I am concerned that the very groups that we have been trying to support have had their support substantially cut. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, mentioned LGBT rights in particular, and his visit.
I was really concerned to read that, in support of the New Plan for Immigration that will fix our broken immigration system, someone who sought refuge in this country because he was gay was last night put on a plane and sent back to Nigeria, where the penalty for being homosexual is up to 14 years in jail. This individual, outed in Nigerian newspapers, has also had several death threats. It is not uncommon for lesbian and gay people to be subject to those horrific sorts of abuses.
I hope that the Minister will take my comments on board because we cannot say one thing to people then do the complete opposite. We have to be consistent, as the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, said, in support of our obligations to protect people. I hope that the Minister will take that back to his ministerial colleagues.
One thing we have heard earlier this week was the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, which she raised in her Oral Question on the Commonwealth. Her particular concern was that since Rwanda hosted this CHOGM, it was in a host country that has failed to take further the opportunities for women and girls. Again, I hope that that will be a priority.
I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said in relation to the reappointment of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland. It is absolutely right to provide that continuity and that there should be a successful, sensible handover of power and responsibility. However, I cannot fail to express our disappointment that the UK Government sought to undermine her position and seek her removal. I hope that we can overcome that and work together. I heard the Minister’s assurances earlier this week about how we will continue to work with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, to ensure that the Commonwealth can focus properly on the 2030 agenda.
My Lords, first, I join noble Lords in genuinely and sincerely thanking—I say this from the bottom of my heart—my dear noble friend Lord Howell, who has been an incredible champion of the Commonwealth and remains so. I thank him for tabling this debate in such a timely fashion as we return from Kigali. I also thank him for his dedication to the Commonwealth, including as a Minister, as the honorary president of the APPG and through the various other Commonwealth organisations that he has led with great leadership and aplomb.
From the outset, let me say that I very much welcome this important debate. I recognise the important and valuable work of all the noble Lords who contributed, strengthening not just what the Commonwealth stands for but, through this debate, its importance to a progressive, forward-looking, open United Kingdom as we strengthen our relationships across the world.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about the 2018 CHOGM. I put on record my deep thanks to the many noble Lords who mentioned my old role and longevity in office; whenever that is mentioned, I wonder—because our debates are followed—who is listening, and where and when. As a Minister, one should always practise one important attribute: keep your bags packed. That is perhaps for another moment but I am really grateful for their kind words. Equally, in expressing those words, I understand noble Lords’ dedication and devotion to the Commonwealth in this respect.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned each deliverable. After 2018, a specific spreadsheet on every single line of the communiqué was set up. It was included in the annexes and addenda; if the noble Lord will allow me, I will share and circulate them again. This was intended exactly so that we did not lose sight of them. I also worked directly with the Rwandans over our extended period of office to ensure the very continuity mentioned by the noble Lord and others, such as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, from one CHOGM to the next. Yes, we had a slightly extended stay as chair-in-office, but we used that time to strengthen the deliverables for Rwanda, including on some of the Covid protocols at a time when the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting had to be postponed.
I will come on to the issue of leadership and the Secretary-General but I assure noble Lords that, during that time, notwithstanding the different perspectives that prevailed, I always took a view based on practicalities. We worked closely with the Secretary-General and the secretariat on the delivery and handover of the chair-in-office role.
I come to a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, whom I thank for talking of me as part of the new generation. When you reach a certain age, that is a quite welcome remark. I have said before that the issues and history of India and Pakistan, and the wider subcontinent, are defined in my very being. As someone who has heritage and strong connections to both sides, I feel it is important that we look towards the future. In recognising the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, I say to him that ultimately it must be for those countries to decide on, as we say in the Commonwealth, “a common future” which brings people together. There is so much between not only India and Pakistan but the 56 countries across the Commonwealth that ties us together. The issue of the English language, raised by the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, and others, remains central. I quote the Secretary-General, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, on the importance of the English language in defining where the Commonwealth is and how it will remain.
At CHOGM in 2018 the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, mentioned the British Empire, the role of the Queen and history. I greatly respect the noble Lord and say to him that I have been Minister of State for the Commonwealth for five years. It has been a matter of great pride and honour to serve in that capacity, as well as in other areas, because the Commonwealth is about the here and now and the future. The fact that Rwanda, a country that does not have the history of the old empire, and other countries that have no history with what was the British Empire, wish to join, including one of the new members, is a sign of the vibrancy of the Commonwealth network of states.
At the start of CHOGM 2022, President Kagame said:
“The fact of holding this meeting in Rwanda, a new member with no historical connection to the British Empire, expresses our choice to continue re-imagining the Commonwealth, for a changing world.”
That underlines the perspective of many a Commonwealth country. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for qualifying that the decision for the Prince of Wales to succeed Her Majesty the Queen was not that of one country, Britain, but came from the consensus of all members of the Commonwealth. I was there at CHOGM when these discussions took place, and it is right that the Commonwealth is defined by the important issue of consensus.
I have mentioned the Secretary-General, the secretariat and the member states. Equally I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for her incredible work within the Commonwealth network. She mentioned the CPA. It was lovely seeing Stephen Twigg there, though we did not get a chance to sit down. There were a few respective taps on the shoulder as we rushed from one meeting to the next, but I recognise fully the important role that the CPA and the CPA UK play in strengthening inclusive and accountable democracy across the Commonwealth. Other networks play an equally important role. The youth and women’s forums, the business forums and civil society forums were mentioned by noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and my noble friend Lord Marland. Yes, they did feed back directly. I will come on to the important role of civil society, which is central.
We were represented in Kigali by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, and the Prime Minister, as well as by me and the COP president, Alok Sharma. Returning, we reflected and talked of the four years but, more importantly, it was an opportunity to look to the future and foster a renewed sense of unity and purpose for the Commonwealth at a time of great change.
I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord St John, mentioned the importance of digital. I will come on to some of the points that we discussed but, equally, in our report as chair-in-office, we focused on initiatives such as cybersecurity, to demonstrate the importance of the Commonwealth. What is the Commonwealth? If you are a small island developing state such as Vanuatu, you will not have the capacity and technical expertise to deliver. That is what the Commonwealth delivers, in bringing people together.
It is about the future. It is not a legacy of the British Empire of old. The vibrancy of discussions demonstrates that, as well as the issues that we discussed. Climate change is becoming increasingly important for small and less-developed states. Of course, Covid-19 remains very much alive and part of us in terms of its impact on us all. Therefore, even notwithstanding the Covid lockdowns, the Commonwealth family acted together on these important issues, including in a statement. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, highlighted, from academia to private sector engagement and manufacturing, it saw us and India come forward with an important and lasting partnership, tied together by the fact of the Commonwealth’s advantage. There was the ability of companies within those two different countries to be tied together by the common contractual nature of green contracts and common languages. That has also resulted in benefit not just to India’s manufacturing but to inward investment in the United Kingdom and a lasting partnership.
The Commonwealth family makes up a third of the world’s population and 30% of the votes of the United Nations. The United Kingdom over the past four years has had a role in strengthening the voice of the Commonwealth within the context of the United Nations. Perhaps I may share a personal note, since the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, was mentioned. Prior to the closed session, where the Secretary-General issue was taken, the United Kingdom did not hold back. During an earlier session when I attended the last meeting of CMAG, the governing council, I made specific announcements on the United Kingdom’s continued support for the Commonwealth Small States Office in Geneva, which is carrying out important work on human rights issues. I therefore hope that I have given a practical perspective; while different perspectives or differences may arise, in terms of practicality, the United Kingdom has always sought to, and will continue to, engage directly and constructively with the secretariat on all aspects of the Commonwealth institutions.
The CHOGM 2022 programme was also varied. My noble friend Lord Howell rightly highlighted the importance of our global soft power, as the Commonwealth network was very much in play. As Minister for the Commonwealth, I had direct bilateral meetings. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned human rights issues but it is not always a question of collective discussions. The Commonwealth is also defined by opportunities for world leaders, Ministers and others to come together sometimes to discuss some of the more sensitive issues around human rights—at times candidly, constructively but also privately. The Commonwealth network also provides for such discussions to be undertaken.
I personally represented the United Kingdom in a number of ministerial meetings, negotiating on key issues. A point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, about the language on Russia and Ukraine, as well as on climate. I assure the noble Lord that I sat through the Foreign Ministers’ meeting and while there were differences of views and opinion, the Commonwealth is defined by consensus. The agreement in the communiqué that the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, rightly highlighted, ran to several pages. While it was perhaps not reflective of what was achieved under his stewardship as PUS at the Foreign Office during our time, it was important that there was a leaders’ statement summarising some of the key issues. That reflects a learning and constructive carry-forward by Rwanda of something that we started in London back in 2018.
I also had the pleasure of being invited to the business forum, which was a grand affair; prior to that, I went to the exhibition of businesses. It was profound and on one of the biggest challenges, as my noble friend Lord Marland said. I pay tribute to his stewardship. We talk about longevity; he is another example of someone who has banged the drum of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council—and rightly so. It was an incredible event but I was taken by the businesses there, which were providing practical solutions to food security and climate issues. I say to the noble Lord, Lord St John, that many companies there, including British ones, were showing expertise in digital.
I also took part in the intergenerational dialogue about sport in the Commonwealth. I met the England goalkeeper David Seaman, among others, and the FIFA chairman. These events, as highlighted by my noble friend Lord Marland, brought together businesspeople, youth and sport. We look forward to the hospitality of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, when we all go to Birmingham for the Games. Indeed, I am going there on Saturday; I will be attending meetings of the OSCE that are taking place there. I am very much looking forward to Birmingham hospitality.
On the leaders’ statement, the UK Government believe that the Commonwealth gets stronger as it grows. It is about encouraging other countries—
I still have about seven minutes on the clock and will certainly get to that. Human rights are an important agenda item.
The interests of countries across the Commonwealth were also reflected, including—it literally says this in my notes—on freedom of religion or belief. These were discussed bilaterally. I assure my noble friend Lady Helic that human rights were discussed; I will come on to issues around the communiqué and the statements and commitments made in a moment.
There was a selection process for the secretary-general. There were two very capable candidates. Kamina Johnson Smith, the Foreign Minister of Jamaica, was very close in the ballot that took place. Nevertheless, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and all noble Lords, as the Prime Minister said, that we will work very constructively with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, as we have done before. I have always said, even given the differing perspectives we have—I note the comments of all noble Lords—that her advocacy of the Commonwealth, what it stands for and its values, is well respected by many across it.
On announcements and delivery, I thank my noble friend Lord Goodlad for his touching remarks about my time as Minister. He also knows Australia well. The noble Lord, Lord McDonald, mentioned an Australian Minister for the Republic asking whether there would be a time when the monarch of the United Kingdom holds an Australian passport. I have to give full disclosure as Minister of State for the Commonwealth: Lady Ahmad of Wimbledon actually holds an Australian passport, having grown up in Australia. That reflects the vibrancy of the Commonwealth.
The United Kingdom made a series of announcements on five new virtual centres of expertise. I will provide the details to the noble Lord, Lord St John. They reflect digital and our platinum partnerships initiative in support of economic growth. We also announced the launch of the UK’s developing countries trading scheme, with simpler and more generous trading arrangements, including for 18 Commonwealth members.
The noble Lord, Lord McDonald, talked about the identity agenda and realms, some of which I have already touched on. As far as the realms are concerned, we have addressed Barbados and Jamaica, and this is important. I pay tribute to Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for the leadership they have shown and the full warmth they have demonstrated in our engagement with those countries, as they seek to show change in their overall progress towards becoming republics. As India has notably shown, this does not change the warmth, affection and strength of the Commonwealth family.
On trade, we showcased investment with Commonwealth partners. As my noble friend Lord Marland reminded us, the Commonwealth advantage knocks 21% off the cost of trade. UK trade with the Commonwealth was worth over £120 billion last year alone and we have made progress: we have signed free trade economic partnerships with many Commonwealth countries and secured free trade agreements with 33 Commonwealth countries, including EPAs covering 27 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. This is notwithstanding the challenges we faced with Covid and the limitations that imposed on us.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, mentioned the FTA. The second round of negotiations concluded on 17 March and the third round will begin shortly. During his visit to India, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Modi set a recognised challenge to everyone to achieve this by Diwali.
There was also a British International Investment announcement at CHOGM 2022. Through BII, we will provide £162 million of capital investment to the hydropower sector in Africa, to note one example. A number of other announcements were also made on that front.
My noble friends Lord Howell and Lady Helic talked about Chinese influence on the Commonwealth. The UK has invested £30 billion in FDI and bilateral ODA in Commonwealth countries and we are working with key partners across the Commonwealth to provide a structured and managed alternative to the reliance on China.
Turning, in response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford, to the important issue of human rights, the communiqué noted that freedom of religion or belief is a cornerstone of democratic society. Indeed, the human rights language in the communiqué from CHOGM 2022 further reiterated the Commonwealth’s commitment to human rights enshrined in international instruments, underscored the vital role of a vibrant civil society, including human rights defenders, in protecting democracy and urged good co-operation between member countries and their respective national human rights institutions; and there is more specific to that.
LGBT rights were raised by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins. Since 2018, the United Kingdom has invested more than £11 million in programmes to support the promotion and protection of LGBT rights across the Commonwealth. We continue to work with Commonwealth Governments and civil society partners. There are challenges. Some countries have moved forward, some have stayed still and some have moved backwards: that is a candid assessment of where we are. At CHOGM my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced a further package of investment worth more than £2.7 million to continue to promote and protect the rights of LGBT+ people across the Commonwealth. I will share full details of our human rights perspectives with all noble Lords.
Progress has been made on human rights, and I hope my noble friend Lady Helic, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, recognise this. We are building on progress together, as a constructive partner and friend to Rwanda, during our term in office. There are girls’ education programmes worth more than £200 million. I have mentioned the LGBT communication, and we working with India, for example, on a new joint UK-India diplomatic training programme for Commonwealth members.
In the limited time I have had, I hope I have been able to give noble Lords a flavour of what has been achieved, what was discussed and what continues to be delivered, and of our continued commitment to the incredible institution—the network of families—that is the Commonwealth. There are undoubtedly differences on issues between member states, but the Commonwealth provides an opportunity to come together, for civil society to talk directly to Ministers, for specific feedback to be given and for interactions to take place. We are truly delighted to be hosting the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next month. We look forward to welcoming our Commonwealth friends and family to the UK.
As we reflect on our four years in office, it is not customary, but I think I should do this. I pay tribute to the incredible team we have had at the FCO/FCDO leading on this: Philip Parham, who was the Commonwealth envoy, and Jo Lomas, who is sitting over there in the Box, together with Sarah Lingard. What can I say? They were incredible officials and a great source of support during the Commonwealth meeting, along with Harriet Mathews, our director-general, and Laura Hickey, who did amazing work on various aspects of the communiqué. Popping his head over the Box is my ever-resilient, ever-working private secretary Alex Fanshawe, together with Nick Catsaras, who is the Foreign Secretary’s private secretary. They are unsung heroes. Too often I get the credit for the work they do, and it is about time that they are also named for the record—
So I hope noble Lords will excuse me for doing so. It is great to hear the longest, loudest “hear, hear” from the former PUS at the FCO, who did incredible work in strengthening our time as chair-in-office.
To all noble Lords in all parts of your Lordships’ House, and to the right reverend Prelates who bring into focus the moral compass of the responsibility we have—I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Southwark and the Bishop of Guildford, who have taken part today, for their direct accountability —I say that it is right that the Government are held to account. We look forward to your contribution to the four events later this week. I assure the House that we remain committed to the Commonwealth and wish to play our part as a partner in the Commonwealth.
Finally, the Commonwealth is about the here and now, but it is also, importantly, about the future and how we continue to strengthen economic resilience and security; to step up action on climate change; to become a force for good in standing up for human rights for all and for freedom of religion for those who are oppressed; and for the LGBT community, women’s rights, girls’ education and the Commonwealth family. There are differing perspectives and different periods of travel, and different pathways may be taken; but most importantly, as a network, it allows us, as a Commonwealth family of 56 countries, to come together for that common vision and common future.
My Lords, I give the Minister more credit for his excellent summing up and for all the work he does to promote and develop Commonwealth links of every kind. I thank everyone who has spoken in this debate for, on the whole, a very positive tone. This is a very difficult time; the world is changing fundamentally. Obviously, I see the Commonwealth structure itself evolving, as it has evolved. We have to think very hard about how we can both benefit from that as a country—why not?—and shape and benefit the Commonwealth and the whole geopolitical situation.
I say to the Minister: we have to follow through on what the Chinese are really up to. I notice that, over the weekend, they have been having their BRICS meeting for 3 billion people. It must be a rather odd meeting with India and China there when they have recently been at war with each other. I do not really know what went on, but we have to watch the Chinese. They are trying to rebalance the world in ways that are not good for freedom and democracy at all. We look to Marlborough House to be more vital now that the Secretary-General issue is solved.
The noble Lord, Lord McDonald, raised the issue of the realms versus republics and other kingdoms and sultanates. That will sort itself out. It is really a media muddle, because they do not understand the difference between the Queen as Head of State and the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth—the answer is that there is not much difference at all, but the media get very muddled.
Finally, we all have to think in terms of constant new initiatives to develop further. As the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, says, there is much more work to be done. Some of us are planning to raise the idea of a brand-new Commonwealth centre at the end of the Elizabeth Line. We have our eye on the Woolwich Barracks that are now vacant. It is a vast area, a little bit of which, as an exhibition centre, would make a magnificent place representing the whole Commonwealth. The Minister will, I am afraid, hear more about that.
Generally, the world is changing so fast. The digital relationship is altering international relations so greatly that we can now confidently look at the model of the voluntary non-treaty Commonwealth, in all its diversity, as something that will shape the international future rather than just be part of the international past. I thank all my friends and colleagues and your Lordships for applying their minds to that prospect this afternoon.
House adjourned at 5.12 pm.