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Prison Officers: Retirement

Volume 829: debated on Thursday 30 March 2023

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what are their reasons for setting a retirement age of 68 for newly recruited prison officers; and what assessment they have made of whether that retirement age is appropriate and in the public interest.

My Lords, after a debate about prison overcrowding initiated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, in September 2017, I decided to take a very close interest in the UK’s prison system, because it is quite clear that there is a lot of room for improvement. One of my first actions was to read the 1991 report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, about the riots at Strangeways prison and elsewhere. No one who has read that report could fail to be struck by the risks that prison officers manage on a day-to-day basis and the extraordinary physical and moral courage exhibited by prison officers during those riots. It is clear to me that a 68 year-old prison officer is far too old to deal with physical challenges of this nature, no matter how good their jailcraft is.

In February 2020, I produced a paper that proposed drastic reform in respect of prolific minor offenders. I ran it as an amendment in your Lordships’ House, and it was well received. However, during my researches, as your Lordships would expect, I detected a number of other problems, such as the “potting” of prison officers by prisoners, which is just one example of why prison officers are special and need to be treated differently. Another problem that came up was Friday release, which is where large numbers of prisoners tend to be released on a Friday, when other agencies are not in a good position to help a newly released prisoner, and when those prisoners are at their most vulnerable. Along with my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, I ran suitable amendments, and I am pleased to say that the Government are supporting a Private Member’s Bill that will address this problem. So we do have good news from time to time, and I am grateful to Ministers.

During my researches into our prison system, my admiration and respect for prison officers went only one way: upwards. We charge them with looking after often the most objectionable members of society that we can possibly find. The source of the current problem—although not the cause—is that, in his 2011 review of public sector pensions, the noble Lord, Lord Hutton of Furness, left prison officers off a list of “uniformed services” that he proposed to protect from the state pension age rise to 68, insisting that, for the Armed Forces, police and firefighters,

“where pension age has historically been lower to reflect the unique nature of their work a pension age of 60 is appropriate”.

I understand that a retirement age of 65 has already been conceded in negotiations, although I think that is already too old for practical reasons. I do not believe that a retirement age of 68 for a prison officer is appropriate or in the public interest. I am honoured to debate this Question with my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy, and I look forward to his answers and having many more debates with him about the prison system.

In my time, I have served for over 40 years in the reserves, I have undertaken international aid operations in the Balkans and Rwanda, and I have undertaken military operations in the Balkans and the Middle East. But I am now 66 and, although my brain seems to work reasonably well, my body cannot do what it used to be able to, even five years ago. It would be absolutely out of the question for me to perform the duties of a prison officer. Can any noble Lord honestly picture me attempting to exercise control and restraint of an 18 year-old prisoner? If I cannot do it, even with my background, why should I expect prison officers to do it when they are even older than I am? That is why it is morally wrong to have a retirement age of 68 for our prison officers.

When the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, answered my Oral Question on this matter last June, he claimed that prison officers worked in a controlled environment compared with firefighters and police officers. Anyone who thinks that prisons are a controlled environment should go away and read the Woolf report. During my investigations in the Prison Service, I quickly lost count of how often the alarms went off and all available prison officers had to pitch in to control an incident. Most prisons and custodial institutions are inherently violent places, but the skill, courage and fortitude of the prison officers are what limit the frequency and severity of incidents.

The other argument that I expect my noble and learned friend the Minister will advance is that prison officers do not make anything like the pension contributions that police officers and firefighters do. That is true, of course, but the reason is that the low pay of a prison officer makes such contributions unaffordable. I understand that the POA would be quite happy to make greater contributions, but only if the pay was increased. Prison officers are prohibited from taking any form of industrial action. That being the case, Ministers need to be very careful to ensure that they are not abusing this restriction and underpaying and underrewarding prison officers—and I think that they are underpaid. There is very good evidence: the retention rate of newly recruited prison officers. Unfortunately, the retention statistics are terrible. There will be a variety of reasons for this, but mostly it will be the terms and conditions of service.

The pension age of 68 sends a signal that the Government, Ministers and, indeed, the public simply do not care about prison officers. If that is the message we are sending, why are we surprised that junior prison officers walk away and take a much easier job—say, in a warehouse? The Prison Service desperately needs experienced prison officers, but Ministers are failing to retain them. Rather, resources are being wasted on training newly recruited prison officers, who quickly leave, while the Treasury quietly calculates the notional savings from full pensions not being paid out—but those savings will of course not arise for decades.

There is another fatal flaw in treating prison officers as mainstream civil servants. Understandably, prison officers have to undergo regular fitness tests. There are two issues with this. The first is that the process results in early retirement for some very experienced prison officers whose jailcraft is so refined that they hardly ever need to resort to control and restraint—an own goal if ever there was one. The second is that it makes it very hard to stay working as a prison officer until 68. In fact, it is almost unachievable. For instance, last year I was very ill and, if I was a prison officer, I would have had to retire. In any case, I would almost certainly fail any reasonable agility test because my joints are giving up due to a misspent youth. However, if I was an ordinary civil servant, and with the nature of my illness, I could have continued working to 68 with only a few minor adjustments. It is much easier for a mainstream civil servant than a prison officer to achieve the retirement age of 68, and that cannot be right. I have heard that Ministers are, in correspondence, comparing prison officers with ratings on Royal Fleet Auxiliaries. I will have to follow that up with my Defence hat on, because 68 is far too old for that role as well.

I have realistic expectations about what the response from my noble and learned friend the Minister will be this afternoon. It would be good if Ministers could go away and privately have a hard think about whether the current policy makes sense. I do not believe that it is morally right, and nor do I think it is correct in practical terms.

My Lords, I do not have extensive experience of the prison estate, so I do not come here with that hat on, but I do have a background in the trade union movement stretching back to when I was 16 years old, and I was for some years the trade union envoy for David Cameron when he was Prime Minister. Our aim at that time was not to convert the trade union movement, because its leaders are not going to suddenly say, “I’d like to support the Conservative Party”. Our job—or my job—was to make clear to them that something like one-third to 40% of serving and active trade unionists voted for the Conservative Party, and that we were not their enemy but wanted a constructive relationship with them. That is what motivates me to be here today.

The current Prime Minister has made it very clear to me—most recently, last Monday night—that he wishes to have a good relationship with the trade union movement. Obviously, we cannot give it everything it wants any more than we can give anyone else everything they want, but we can have a good and civilised relationship with it. As such, I am sure the Minister and many other people would agree that having a pension age of 68 is rather high. Indeed, I see from today’s papers and releases that Mel Stride, the Pensions Minister, is looking again at whether and when we should move to the age of 68. I think that is a jolly good idea.

My noble friend Lord Attlee has made reference to the pension contributions and pay, and he is absolutely right. I served for many years as a trustee, and indeed as a chair, of pension funds. A rate of contribution of 5.4% is, frankly, laughable. In the pension funds that I ran, we were looking at 12%, 13% or 14%. That is not far out of line with the police at 12% and the fire brigade at 14%. However, to achieve those contribution rates, you must have the salary to back it up. Those contribution rates cannot be paid from the current salaries, and the whole system really needs a good look at.

As I often do when I come to debates like this, I looked up on Wikipedia the Minister’s background and saw that he began his career in the Monckton Chambers. Walter Monckton was widely regarded in the TUC as probably the best Minister of Labour since the war. He was the Conservative Minister of Labour from 1951 to 1955, and his approach was based on industrial peace, talking to the unions and trying to reach a common accord within the resources of the state and the demands of the union. So, the Minister comes—as we would say in my horse racing part of the world—from a pretty good stable. I hope that some of the atmosphere of the Monckton Chambers is still within him these many years after.

I realise that a Minister can ask only for a certain amount, and a Minister in the Lords is doubly constrained, to an extent, so I have a very simple but, I believe, acceptable request. Will the Minister ask his responsible ministerial colleague to initiate informal talks with the POA to ascertain whether there is enough common ground to resume official discussions on just the retirement age in the rejected Liz Truss package of December 2016?

I am told that, of the three elements in that package, the retirement age was rather dominated by the pay increase issue. If we could manage to sort that out and set it aside, there may be some room for moving forward. To quote one of my early heroes, Harold Wilson, I am sure that “talks about talks” could be quite useful in this regard. I hope that the Minister, given the new atmosphere that is coming from No. 10 and our desire to have a good relationship with the trade union movement, will find himself able to agree to my modest request.

My Lords, I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, in his suggestion that there should be fresh talks about this issue. That is a sensible suggestion and I hope the Minister will take it up.

My father was a policeman. He retired in his mid-50s with the rank of chief superintendent, after 30 years’ service, on full pension. He told me that throughout his police career he had drawn his baton only once: in 1933, when called upon to charge a crowd of miners on strike at Bersham Colliery, near Wrexham. The only person hurt was a reporter from the Wrexham Leader, who had foolishly stuck his head over the hedge to see what was going on and was clacked, as we say, as the PCs passed. Apropos of nothing, the pit was later the film set for “The Corn is Green”, starring Katharine Hepburn in 1979.

I mention this because in the prison inspectorate’s May 2022 report on Berwyn Prison, only two or three miles away from Bersham, it is recorded in paragraph 3.20 that

“During the previous 12 months, batons had been drawn seven times”

to control prisoners, that an

“incapacitant spray … had been drawn and used once”,

and that this was an improvement on the position in 2019, when batons had been drawn 26 times.

I have referred to Berwyn Prison on a number of occasions in this House because it is close to my home. Opened in 2017, it remains the largest prison in the UK, and is the second largest in Europe, with a capacity of over 2,000 places—although I have to say that it has always been underoccupied and understaffed. It suffers from a drug problem, to the despair of the Crown Court judges in north Wales.

Last May’s report says that, at the prison,

“The rate of violence was falling, although it remained comparatively high when set against comparator prisons.”

It continues:

“Among the key challenges facing the prison was the need to recruit and retain staff … There was some evidence … that staffing pressures were undermining local morale, but crucially, the shortage was impacting the quality of staff-prisoner relationships and the pace of regime recovery.”

There was some improvement on figures dating from 2019, which I have previously referred to in the House. At that time, 90% of the staff were less than two years in post. In this report, it is noted that there was

“a severe shortage of band 3 officers, probation and health care staff”,


“affected the delivery of some services.”

I have discussed this situation with a very experienced prison officer from Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight. He told me that a lack of experienced prison officers at Berwyn prison was to be expected. He told me, “We watch each other’s backs as prison officers, and you will not get experienced officers into a prison staffed by rookies.”

There you have the background to this debate. Violence, or the threat of violence, is always there, yet the Ministry of Justice requires a prison officer to serve into his late 60s in a job which is probably beyond his physical capabilities. Of course, if he fails his annual physical test, the prison officer is allowed to retire but does not get his full pension. That saves the MoJ money—the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has already covered that point—but it leads to poor recruitment and retention. It is said that the pool of labour to man Berwyn prison in north Wales has been exhausted, and the Prison Service has to look elsewhere, outside of Wales. I should include women, since there have been 18 instances of improper sexual conduct between female staff and prisoners, some of which have attracted heavy prison sentences on the women.

The Ministry of Justice refuses to equate prison officers with policemen or firefighters. It says that officers in those uniformed services make a higher contribution to pensions—again, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has referred to this; it is 15% as opposed to 5%—but of course they are paid significantly more than prison officers. I am sure that prison officers would welcome the same pay and conditions for the risks to personal safety which they constantly run. They are in the same position as police officers and are not allowed to withdraw their labour. Consequently, their bargaining position is open to exploitation by the Lord Chancellor, and that is what has happened.

Why was the Ministry of Justice the first to accept cuts to its funding and why does it remain incapable of persuading the Treasury to fund services for which it is responsible? As I recall, it was a grand gesture by the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, who wanted to be the first in Cameron’s Government to clutch austerity to his bosom. The consequence is that we have a justice system which is starved of funds, collapsing courts and barristers on strike. The backlog of cases is a disgrace which denies victims justice. On the other side of the coin are its responsibilities. The Prison Service is failing in safety, in combatting drugs and, most importantly, in providing adequate rehabilitation, all through the lack of trained and competent staff. It is easy for Dominic Raab to say that he will not address the question of the pension age when prison officers cannot strike. His legacy, I am afraid, will be failure.

My Lords, I open by agreeing with the three previous speakers. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, closed by asking for a “hard think” about this situation. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, asked for informal talks to start with the POA, and that request was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas.

I thank the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for securing this debate. He has shown dogged determination to secure justice and dignity for prison officers. I know that the POA union is extremely grateful for everything he does in this place for its members, who, let us face it, have one of the toughest and most dangerous jobs that we ask public servants to do.

We have heard some of the statistics, but I shall go over them again. Violence in prisons, especially against people working in them, has increased in recent years. The latest ONS safety in custody statistics, published January, show that there were 20,872 assault incidents in the 12 months to September 2022, up 11% from the 12 months to September 2021. In the most recent quarter, assaults were up 5% to 5,590 incidents.

It was recently reported that civil servants at the probation service’s HQ are being redeployed to work in prisons because of the staffing crisis there. An HMPPS spokesman said:

“We are temporarily moving around 90 qualified staff from desk-based roles to help frontline colleagues in prisons and probation.”

My first question for the Minister is: what action will the Government be taking immediately to address insufficient staffing in our prisons?

As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said in introducing this debate, newly recruited prison officers cannot draw their full occupational pension until they are getting on for 68 years old, depending on their date of birth. As he said, the POA has argued that this increased pension age is one reason why many younger officers are leaving the occupation. In recent evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee, Mark Fairhurst, the national chair of the Prison Officers’ Association, said:

“If I join now as an 18-year-old recruit, I have to work for 50 years on the frontline before I can access my full pension, because our retirement time is now 68; it is related to the state pension. We must be the only uniformed frontline service in the entire country that expects staff to work in what I class as the most volatile, hostile workplace environment … That is not practical, and it puts off a lot of people.”

As we heard from the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, a 2011 report by the noble Lord, Lord Hutton of Furness, proposed that some uniformed services—namely the police, firefighters and the Armed Forces—should be exempt from the rise in the retirement age to 68. The decision excluded prison officers from the uniformed services that were spared the retirement age rise. This omission has never been explained or justified; it is a cause of anger and resentment among prison officers. This omission was then enshrined in law with the Public Service Pensions Act 2013 despite its apparent conflict with the Prison Act 1952, which grants prison officers

“all the powers, authority, protection and privileges”

of the police.

In 2016, as part of a prospective deal negotiated by the then Secretary of State for Justice, Liz Truss, the retirement age for prison officers would have been reduced by up to three years from 68 to 65. This was voted on by the POA’s members but was rejected by 65% of those polled. Since then—this is another point made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee; in fact, by all the speakers in this debate—Conservative Ministers have argued that any lowering of the pension age for prison officers would

“mean that their pension contributions would have to increase.”

Of course, prison officers would be quite happy to make a greater contribution if their salaries were comparable to those of the other uniformed services.

Another point, which has not been made, is that reports by the Prison Service Pay Review Body have continued to raise the pension age as a concern, arguing that it is

“far too old to cope with the physical and mental demands of being an operational frontline Prison Officer.”

I quote again the POA’s national chair, Mark Fairhurst, who told the Justice Committee this last month:

“Lord Hutton neglected to include us as a frontline uniformed service. He classed us as civil servants who are deskbound. We are not. We are unique. We face violence every single shift. The police do not. They might go through the entire week dealing with pleasant people, and of a weekend they have to deal with a bit of violence when the pubs spill out. We deal with violent people every single shift, and we are expected to do that in our late 60s.”

In concluding, my question for the Minister is this: do the Government recognise that it is more difficult for men and women in their late 60s to control and restrain people who may be only a third of their age? Can the Minister show any evidence that prison officers at this age are able to do this work?

I think all noble Lords have asked for talks to be reopened. This is a difficult issue; it will not go away, and I will listen to the Minister’s answer with interest.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for tabling this Question and all noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon. I will try to explain the Government’s position but, before I do so, it is right for me to highlight and pay tribute to the vital role that prison officers play in keeping the public safe and rehabilitating offenders. Prison officers and probation staff are vital key workers; many go above and beyond the call of duty to keep safe the public, their colleagues and those committed to their care. One is hugely impressed by the commitment of prison staff, who work in the most challenging of circumstances.

I will first make a clarification regarding a phrase used in the Question and at times this afternoon: the “retirement age” of 68. This is the age at which the state pension is fully payable, so we are not talking about a retirement age; we are talking about the age at which a full pension is payable. Nothing prevents anyone retiring before 68; many in the prison service retire before that age and very often return part-time or do other jobs. We are talking about the state pension age and the fact that, in line with the rest of the Civil Service, prison officers at the moment qualify for the full pension at that age.

I should say to noble Lords, although I am not fully apprised of the details, that I think there is a Statement today about the fact that the Government are considering the point at which to introduce the age of 68. There is talk of deferring the introduction until after the next general election in 2026, having regard to changes in life expectancy following the pandemic and other factors. However, this afternoon, let us continue with the hypothesis that we are talking about a difference between the state pension age which applies to all prison officers and the whole of the Civil Service, as compared to the lower pension age that applies to police officers and firefighters. I think I can leave out of account the armed services because we are probably in general agreement that that is a different case, for fairly obvious reasons.

It is also worth recording that, as I understand it, as of today, about half the prison service in bands three to five, who joined before 1 April 2015, are on legacy pension arrangements of one kind or another. In those cases, their retirement age may well be 60 or 65, depending on the legacy arrangement in question. It is perfectly correct that the full pension age refers to recruits joining after 1 April 2015, and it is likely to be between 65 and 68, depending on the precise date of birth of the individual in question. As noble Lords have observed, that results from the reforms proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, in the Hutton report in 2011, subsequently enacted in the Public Service Pensions Act 2013.

The answer to the first part of the Question as tabled is that 68 is the full pension age because this is the age which applies to the Civil Service generally, which comprises hundreds of thousands of people, and reflects the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Hutton. It is quite true that his recommendation 14 proposed an exception for the uniformed services, but he defined uniformed services as the Armed Forces, police and firefighters. He suggested in those cases that the normal pension age should be 60, which was in fact an increase from 55. But he did not, as has been pointed out, include prison officers.

In effect, the thrust of this Question is whether prison officers’ retirement age should be reduced from that which applies across the public sector now to that of police and firefighters. For various reasons, the Government’s position is that such a reduction is not appropriate in the present circumstances—or, to put it another way, the Government are not yet persuaded that such a reduction is appropriate. I deliberately put it in that slightly softer way because I entirely accept the comments that have been made that the Government would wish to have a constructive relationship with the trade unions and, particularly, with the Prison Service. I will come back to the questions that have been asked in that regard.

The short answer to the Question that has been posed is that despite the very persuasive points that have been made by noble Lords today, the Government do not currently consider that the job of a prison officer, very demanding though it is, is sufficiently comparable with that of a firefighter or a policeman to justify a downward reduction in the qualifying age for full pension.

Firefighters have exceptional fitness requirements much more stringent than those for prison officers. They do life-threatening work. Similarly, the work of police officers, generally speaking, involves a higher degree of risk of fatality or serious injury. Since the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, did not include prison officers, it would not, in the Government’s view, be appropriate to reopen that issue.

Certain general points arise in this respect. The first is that in most western societies such as this one, the general trend is to raise the pension age. We know that that is happening as a result of longer life expectancy, ageing populations and falling birth rates. Looking at it for a moment in a global view, any responsible Government concerned with controlling public expenditure in the future would have to think very hard before reversing the trend—actually lowering a pension age. We have seen the opposite problem in France, where they are trying to raise a pension age. Fortunately, we have not had the same problem in this country. But, in current circumstances, to reduce the pension age would be going against the grain of wider economic trends and demands. That is a first point.

A second point, if I may make it—and I would be interested to know whether noble Lords agree—is that we are, as a society, moving away from the idea of a job for life, or that you start a career and continue in that career, like the distinguished examples given by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, of his father and by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, from his long career in the trade union movement: starting at 16 and remaining typically in that same occupation for many years. These days, people move around a great deal. The expectation that today someone of 18 would think of remaining with the Prison Service until he is 68 would be open to question, frankly, because modern youth, certainly the ones that one knows of anecdotally in one’s immediate circle, do not really think in those terms.

So the Government are cautious about acting on the basis that someone at the age of 20, deciding whether to join the Prison Service, is at all focused on whether their full pension would be payable in 2071, 2068 or 2063. In the Government’s view, that is not the kind of thing that affects recruitment or retention. So that is a further general point in relation to the impact—which is probably contestable—that this pension age has on the decision of a recruit to either join, or stay in, the Prison Service. These are rather detached points, and the cause and effect that has been raised is not entirely persuasive in the Government’s view, to put it as softly as that.

Thirdly, the issue of the contributions was raised. Under the standard Civil Service pension scheme, the employee rate is about 4.6%, and there is an employer contribution of 27%, which is pretty generous, compared to police and firefighter schemes, where the rate is between 12% and 14%. It is possibly the case that there is link between pay and pensions, and one has to look at them as package, as it were. In 2017, and on an earlier occasion in 2013, the Government considered, and negotiated with the prison officers, a package that would have involved a lower pension age but also had various points about pay and conditions. The POA voted on the package, and it was rejected.

So it is not as if the Government have not done anything in this respect; they have addressed questions of pay and pensions. The 2017 negotiations—they might be the Liz Truss negotiations to which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, referred—did not reach agreement. The Government would say that that was not for lack of trying on the Government’s part, because a package was sufficiently agreed by the parties to be put to a ballot, but the ballot did not work. My noble friend Lord Attlee said that a retirement age of 65 had been “conceded” in the negotiations but, if I am correct, that would have been in the context of the wider package. I do not think that anything, as such, has been conceded separately as an appropriate retiring age for prison officers.

I will pick up the remaining points. I entirely accept my noble friend Lord Balfe’s suggestion that the Government desire a constructive relationship with the Prison Service. I am not in a position to commit the Prisons Minister to discuss this with the Prison Officers’ Association as a separate point, but the Minister is in constant touch with it, and I am sure that this, among other issues, will come up.

On this particular issue, there is a slight complication at the moment as a result of the McCloud judgment, which has thrown in some doubt the 2015 pension reforms as regards the younger members of the various pension schemes. There is a question about whether there is an age discrimination issue in those reforms. That is currently under consideration by the Cabinet Office, and, as I understand it, a remedy will be duly developed across the Civil Service to deal with that judgment. That may change the landscape a bit, but I think a detailed discussion of pensions should probably take place when that remedy is clear—or is announced or agreed, whatever the situation is—and would probably need to take place in relation to discussions about pay as well.

In relation to pay, the Minister for Prisons, my colleague Minister Hinds, has only today been giving evidence to the Prison Service Pay Review Body. Prison officers received a pay award last year, which has been welcomed. There are some signs of improved recruitment and retention. We have an extra 4,000 officers compared with 2017. Retention is still an issue in some prisons, but not in all prisons; some parts of the country have no trouble at all in recruiting and retaining prison officers. In general, the retention rate on average—I mean the rate of those not retained—is around 15% annually. Across both the public and private sectors, the national average is about 14% and in the Civil Service it is about 12.5%, so it is not completely out of line. But that is an average, and there is not a problem everywhere; it is only a problem in some cases. There are very focused efforts on trying to improve that situation, but the Government are not persuaded that there is a real link between the ultimate pension age at which the full pension is payable and the problems of retention and staffing in prisons. I think that they are due primarily to other factors and not the pension issue, although I accept that the pension issue has some symbolic value.

However, this is a difficult issue, and the Government would not wish to indicate that the position is for ever closed. It depends on what the remedy is that comes out of McCloud and further discussions. I would not presume for a moment to be able to replicate or follow the magnificent example of Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, who was mentioned earlier as a very fine Minister of Labour in the 1950s Conservative Government, but I hope that we find a way to move forward constructively with all parties on this question.

Committee adjourned at 4.47 pm.