Thursday 25 May 2023
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bell rings and resume after 10 minutes.
Imprisonment for Public Protection Action Plan
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I do not propose to rehearse the history of this sentence, which is well known to most of the participants in the Room. This is an opportunity to look forward rather than back. To summarise the basic facts, there are 2,892 IPP prisoners in prison; 1,498 of them are on remand, 1,394 have never been released and nearly all of them have served their minimum term—in many cases well over it. The difficulty of completing the hurdles required for progression to release, a lengthy 10-year statutory parole period and the ease with which one can be yanked back into the prison system have made this scandal both intractable for the authorities and a continuing mental torture for the prisoners and their families.
Hence the optimism when the Justice Select Committee in another place produced its courageous and morally unarguable report last year, drawing attention to the scandal and the suffering, and recommending some clear ways of cutting this Gordian knot through resentencing. The Government’s rejection of that was perhaps not unexpected by some—it was not unexpected by me, to be perfectly honest—but it has had a devastating effect on the mental health of prisoners and their families alike. One of the most dangerous things here is raising hopes only to see them dashed.
Instead, the Government have offered an action plan by way of response to the committee’s report. I think this is your Lordships’ first opportunity to review and consider that action plan. What can one say about it? First, it is a welcome advance on the previous action plan, which consisted of two sides of paper. This at least is a serious effort and it has a great deal of detail. Secondly, it does have a plan, and a timetable. Both those things are very much to be welcomed. Thirdly, I know from ministerial assurances that its implementation has been entrusted to competent and experienced civil servants. I welcome that and have confidence in them.
However, it is yet to be seen whether the plan is the transformative approach we are looking for that will help to resolve this issue. First, the plan fails to acknowledge the injustice lying at the heart of this problem. The Secretary of State, the Lord Chancellor—the new one—appears to be moving in that direction. In the other place recently in debate on the victims Bill, he referred to the IPP regime as a “stain”, possibly echoing comments previously made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. In a letter I have recently seen he refers to it as an iniquity. These are new terms; this is new language that we have not heard from the Ministry of Justice in the past. It is wholly welcome that the acknowledgement of the injustice is coming from the Secretary of State, but is it properly reflected in the action plan, which, it must be said, was prepared before he came into office, although he signed it off? Does the action plan still read too much like an administrative task, rather than what it should be: a morally based mission?
Secondly, the action plan fails to respond fully to what we know are the challenges faced by prisoners who are out on parole. One cannot overestimate the fragility of a person who has to carry the difficulty of rebuilding their life while on parole for a lengthy 10-year period—set by statute as a minimum, despite our efforts in this House to have it reduced when we considered the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill a year or two ago—constantly under threat of being pulled back into jail for what is, in effect, a life sentence. You would have to be a very strong person indeed to be able to live with that and make your life work well.
Other comments could be made about the action plan, but my final point is that it implicitly assumes that prisoners will engage with the new approach rationally and in good faith. The sad fact of the matter is that prisoners have lost their faith in the system. It requires a great deal more than simply turning up and saying, “It’s all different now, and we’re going to make it work”. One has to understand that these people are very fragile and damaged. The plan does not acknowledge that or coherently think about how to approach and engage with them, or indeed with their families, who are potentially a very important part of helping to resolve this issue.
Before I finish, I will say a few words about mental health. As a result of being involved in this over the last six to eight months, I have got to know psychologists working in the field. Some of them have approached me, and I have got involved. Previously, I did not have those contacts, and it is worth repeating a few of the things that they say.
The first is to emphasise that these prisoners are damaged people. Secondly, as was identified in the Justice Select Committee’s report, they have a tendency to hide that damage because they know that if they admit to mental health problems it makes it more difficult for them to get their parole. Therefore, they tend to hide it rather than look for treatment and support. Many of them are constantly on the verge of suicide and self-harm. I understand that there have been at least three suicides since the Secretary of State rejected the resentencing proposal and that, in general, the rate of suicide among IPP prisoners is double that of the normal prison population.
These things need to be borne in mind as examples of completely understandable suffering. One psychologist commented that these prisoners now think in the same way as somebody who has been sentenced wrongly, for a crime they did not commit. It is important to unpackage that: they all acknowledge that they have been sentenced for a crime they did commit and that they should do time in jail, but the fact that that time never seems to come to an end puts them in the same mental place as prisoners who have been wrongly convicted. That is not a good place to be if you are in prison. It is much better to be there knowing that you did something wrong and acknowledging that you have to pay the penalty but knowing that you will leave in due course when that penalty has been paid. They are in great difficulty.
I would like to see, and hear from my noble and learned friend when he speaks at the end, how the action plan could be improved by, first, a sense of the scandal, urgency and harm that underlie the problem, rather than it being purely administrative. I would like to see a credible plan to remove the obstacles for those in prison to complete the progression steps that they have to in order to qualify for parole and release into the community. I would like to see a radical reduction in the parole period and, most importantly, resources and support given to the parole service. That has always been the Cinderella of this problem and, without proper resources, the parole service will not be maintained.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, on obtaining this short debate, and thank him for the tenacity that he has shown in continuing to harry and expose a situation that we all accept as disastrous. I would also like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, on obtaining the Question this morning. It is important to continue to have a laser-like focus on what is happening to those prisoners who are still experiencing incarceration or the trauma—because it is trauma—of being under the present licensing scheme.
I hope the Minister will appreciate it when I say how much I value that he is always prepared to listen and respond. If he and his opposite number can work with the new Secretary of State, we might just begin to get somewhere. The Secretary of State, who I welcome as the new Lord Chancellor, sent me a very helpful letter recently, in which he described what would happen on the back of the establishment of the progression board and the external stakeholder reference group. This group will consist of a range of interests from outside the Ministry of Justice, including the independent monitoring board. I pay tribute to the unsung, unpaid people who give their time to go into prison, as I experienced in the Easter break when I spent a day in a prison in Yorkshire. They deserve great credit. If this stakeholder reference group is to be of any value, it should meet more than twice a year, which is the current proposition. There should be a very clear line and relationship between the progression board and the work that Chris Jennings—who I also welcome—will lead to make the action plan a reality. The time lags that are built in at the moment are of deep concern.
To save time, I will write separately to the Minister about the Question this morning. Understandably, given my responsibility for some of this, many IPP prisoners are in touch with me. I will communicate with the Minister about David Richardson and Geoffrey Boston; they have found themselves caught up in this terrible spider’s web. It is acknowledged that they are in need of open prison conditions to prepare them for release, but this is being blocked by the Ministry of Justice. Thomas Wallace, who has been in touch with me, is in the erroneous situation of finding even greater restrictions and requirements placed on him now that he is on licence, even though he has been out for a long time and, according to him, has not committed any offence or breach. Difficult as it is for the probation service, with the trauma of the history that we all know about over the last 10 years, part of the action plan will have to look seriously at how it is performing.
The Justice and Home Affairs Select Committee, on which I serve, is undertaking a review of community orders. As part of that, the revelations about the underfunding and real difficulties of the probation service—including the challenge of recruitment now that resource is being put in—have been quite staggering. We need to take seriously how we help the probation service to fulfil its crucial role in carrying through the action plan. The plan will not work unless it does so. As the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, pointed out, it will be crucial that the probation service understands what is happening to those in its care, including those who are on licence and licence conditions.
Yes, we need more resource for the Parole Board, but we need also to determine the line of approach once someone is out of prison and how we can engage the voluntary and community sector. Many have written to us ahead of today, because every time there is a Question for Short Debate or a Question people quite rightly home in on what we are talking about. The evidence base that is now being collected, including from psychologists and forensic psychiatrists, as the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, referred to, is crucial in getting the new Secretary of State to be able to address where we go from here. He said on the Second Reading of the Victims and Prisoners Bill that has already been referred to:
“I am considering carefully what the Justice Committee has to say about it”—
“it” obviously being IPP—
“and I will be saying more about it in due course”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/05/23; col. 592.]
I hope that “more about it” means to help us all to find a solution.
My Lords, it is a privilege as ever to follow the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. There is so much one could say in this debate and so little time to say it. I shall focus solely on the burden of proof. This is far from just a snapping up of unconsidered trifles; it is really important.
We all know that the injustices of the IPP regime have long since reached scandal or crisis levels, but we all know too the political difficulties confronting a Minister newly in post who is facing an election next year where both main parties appear to be vying to be toughest on law and order. I fully support the projected resentencing proposal in the Commons report, but meantime, and altogether less politically problematic, we should recall that over 10 years after Section 128 of LASPO was included precisely for this situation, it remains unused. Surely at the very least a Section 128 ministerial order should now be made, at last reversing the burden of proof as to future dangerousness when the Parole Board considers release.
This would have several benefits. First, it would be easier for the Minister to introduce such an order than having to promote primary legislation. Secondly, it would counteract the Parole Board’s present risk-averse approach, encouraged—indeed, recently required—by Mr Raab’s insistence on supposed “public protection” at the expense of all else. With the burden reversed—a burden repeatedly said by Ken Clarke, Matthew Parris and others to be effectively impossible for the prisoner to discharge—the Parole Board need not be so defensive. If an IPP prisoner were to reoffend after release, the board would simply point out that the evidence of serious future risk relied on by the department was insufficient to justify further detention.
Thirdly, under this proposal there would be no question of sudden multiple releases. The new approach would take effect as and when individual IPP prisoners come up for Parole Board review. This consideration, too, should help the Minister. I urge our new Secretary of State for Justice to go at least this far as soon as possible.
As I have a moment left of my time, I will use it to urge the new Minister, of whom I hear nothing but good, to focus yet further on the immense and still-growing iniquities of the whole IPP scheme. These I believe to be incurable simply by improving yet again earlier versions of the action plan. The Minister must do what Sir Robert Neill and his committee urged last year.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, for his tenacity and for keeping this terrible situation before us. I rise with a certain reluctance because I do not have the expertise that many other noble Lords in this debate have, though like all bishops I have a right to visit the prisons in my diocese, which I do, and I am regularly in touch with people working in the legal and penal systems. My colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, the lead bishop on prisons, has raised this matter on numerous occasions and sadly cannot be here today.
It is now seven months since the House of Commons Justice Select Committee issued its report on IPP sentences. There were some alarming conclusions in it, such as noting:
“The indefinite nature of the sentence has contributed to feelings of hopelessness and despair”,
leading to some suicides within the IPP population. There are reports that perhaps as many as 81 people have taken their own life when serving an IPP sentence. If we could identify in any other area of life that 81 lives had been taken, we would be calling for inquiries and wanting answers. Many of us are concerned to hear of further, more recent suicides.
It seems it is the very nature of these sentences that contributes to the hopelessness—sentences where there is no end in sight and where people are uncertain about the necessary threshold for return to prison. As has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, many are fearful that even speaking about their mental health to a professional—the very person to whom they would be looking to get support and treatment—could be used as further evidence against them towards continued imprisonment.
One of the promises of the new IPP action plan is to introduce further measures to ensure that individualised support is available for each offender. One recommendation from the Justice Select Committee that I would like to draw attention to is the Parole Board’s agreement to review the listings priority framework in the light of IPP prisoners. These prisoners are stuck with incredibly long waiting times and what the committee calls an “ineffective” parole process stemming from chronic underresourcing. Will the Minister be able to update us on this review?
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, so rightly remarked two years ago, IPP sentences are the greatest single stain on the justice system. The suggestion that a person can, at a moment’s notice, be arbitrarily recalled to prison without having committed any further crimes is surely fundamentally opposed to natural justice and can have no place in our legal system. We often talk about our legal system in this country being a beacon; this surely brings that into question. The IPP action plan serves only to prolong an unjust legal mechanism, one that has been widely condemned by campaigners, charities, and psychiatrists and psychologists, and is contributing to self-harm and suicide. It is an affront to our legal values.
The solution recommended by the Justice Select Committee is a resentencing exercise where prisoners can be given a sentence appropriate for their crime. If we cannot do that, I hope that the Minister and his advisers will look closely at the need to find some other mechanism to address this terrible problem as quickly as possible and to give people fair sentences for their crimes but, once they have served them, to allow them to be released back into society.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to participate in this debate and to follow the right reverend Prelate. Like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, for his concern about this issue and congratulate him on securing this short debate. As many noble Lords will know, my background is not in law or the justice system, but I am profoundly concerned by injustice. That IPPs have been described by the Justice Minister in another place, to quote the noble Lord, as a “stain” on our justice system has both caught my interest and provoked me to speak in this debate. I am grateful for all the briefings that I have received from the Prison Reform Trust, the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group, UNGRIPP, the independent monitoring boards and, of course, the House of Lords briefing. I was struck particularly by the bald statement in the House of Commons Justice Committee report, which said:
“Whilst there have been some efforts made in the last 10 years to reduce the IPP prison population … not enough has been done”.
I think that focuses our minds on the urgency with which we now need to address this matter.
The report goes on to identify a number of issues—I shall speak to just three. One is the psychological harm caused by the indefinite nature of the sentence. The Prison Reform Trust reports that
“self-harm amongst IPP prisoners is twice that of those serving a life sentence”
and that nine self-inflicted deaths in 2022 was the highest number in a single year since the sentence was introduced. I began to understand this when I read the numbers, as cited by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan: 46% of the people held have been held for 10 years or more beyond their original tariff—no one can imagine that that is justice.
A second area of concern is the limited availability of appropriate courses for IPP prisoners. This seems to amount to a dereliction of duty. If the Parole Board needs to see evidence of a course to address offending behaviour before considering release on licence but no course is available, that must aggravate the deep-seated hopelessness that many IPP prisoners feel. I therefore ask the Minister specifically in relation to those courses what resource would be needed to facilitate access for all IPP prisoners and how the Government propose to provide that. Frankly, it is hard to see how the IPP plan can be accomplished without the necessary resources.
On a related matter, I have now developed a significant interest in education in prisons in a general sense. Although educational courses are not a necessary precursor to release, as I understand it from the Prison Reform Trust, it is clear that interest in and engagement with education by IPP prisoners are taken into account. Therefore, if they cannot access those courses, or if they are moved as the courses are going on and cannot pick them up, that is clearly a significant issue too.
The issue of resources within the probation service is also significant. The Commons Justice Committee found that a lack of resources leads to an ineffective parole system and described it as a “significant barrier” to release.
I believe that there is significant cross-party support for an action plan if it can be shown to deliver real change, of which the Justice Minister spoke on 26 April this year. Can the Minister say how His Majesty’s Government plan to implement principle 2 of the updated IPP plan, which is that:
“HMPPS ensures that those serving an IPP sentence have a sentence plan specifying the required interventions to reduce risk and has access to them”?
Might the deadline for this be the same as the June 2023 deadline for identifying funding streams for expanded psychology services provision in the community?
In conclusion, I was going to ask the Minister about transfer to open provision, but I understand that there was a Question on that this morning while I was in a committee. I will certainly read Hansard to see what the Minister had to say. I am bound to say that I am advised by the Prison Reform Trust that the change to criteria has had a significantly negative impact on IPP prisoners. If the Minister has time, could he say anything further about the transfer to open prison?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, on securing this debate. The Government’s response and action plan are
“as shoddy a response as I have ever seen to a Select Committee report”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/4/23; col. 444WH.]
Those are not my words but those of Sir Bob Neill, the Conservative chair of the Justice Select Committee, which produced the original report.
I was delighted with the JSC’s report. It was thorough, facts-based and bold. To use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, it was moral. It really took care to think about the people it was talking about. As we know, the main recommendation was to conduct a resentencing exercise, informed by an expert panel, to end the mental torment that IPP prisoners face. Sir Bob said that resentencing would
“give certainty to everybody and give hope”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/5/23; col. 605.]
Within the first four weeks since the publication of the Government’s response, three IPP prisoners have already committed suicide. We have heard about the mental fragility from which these people are suffering. I am not saying that the publication of the response caused these deaths directly, but it has certainly done nothing to lift the general feeling of hopelessness. Nothing has been done to stem the increasing self-harm, suicide and deteriorating mental health of this cohort.
Amazingly, there is no acknowledgement throughout the whole government response of the damage being done to these prisoners—the whole system is conspiring to make them less able to achieve release and make a success of their lives, if and when they are eventually released. I am tired of making the same depressing points, both in debates and during the passage of the police Bill. Is it not the truth that there are no votes in making the lives of IPP prisoners possible, or in giving them justice, hope and an end in sight?
My noble friend Lord McNally commented during the police Bill that the progress of IPP prisoners was being foiled by a series of Catch-22s. Catch-22 was read recently on the radio. The main character, Yossarian, is an American World War II fighter pilot. Every time he reaches his target number of missions to be allowed home, the target is increased or the rules are changed. When he feigns insanity, he makes the mistake of saying that he does not want to die. He is declared sane because that is the decision of a sane man.
The Catch-22 for IPP prisoners works like this. We set out a route for IPP prisoners to work towards release and then we block the path. We say that they need to attend various courses, then we ensure that those courses are either rare or not available at all. We do not put the resources in to provide a path to jump through the hoops that we set. We make them wait endlessly for Parole Board hearings and, of course, we do not give the Parole Board the resources to do its job in a timely and effective manner. We give these prisoners a possible route out through open conditions. When, against the odds, the Parole Board recommends them for open conditions, the Secretary of State blocks their path. I asked the Minister earlier why currently fewer than one in six Parole Board recommendations for transfer to open conditions go through. Apparently, the Secretary of State can do what he likes and override the Parole Board, even if it deems a prisoner fit.
The final Catch 22, and arguably the cruellest, is that when we finally release a prisoner, having not prepared them properly, with insufficient resources, we expect them to instantly behave as law-abiding citizens after all they have been through. And, need you ask, we have underfunded the probation service so they cannot properly be supervised, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, mentioned. Any infringement of parole terms, such as loss of accommodation, attracts a recall, so we put them and their families through it all again. It is a bit like a cat playing with a mouse—or, as the JSC calls it, the “recall merry-go-round”. It is not so merry for the victims and their families.
My rant over, I have two questions for the Minister, who I know does care. I expect he will not be able to answer them both. I would love to know, under this excuse for an action plan, how long the Government think it could be before the last IPP prisoner changes their status to release or other circumstances under the current rules. I know the Minister cares but I suspect that his political masters do not. I bet he will also not be able to tell me what additional finite resources will be devoted to enacting this plan, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, asked. Without resources, nothing will change, and the Catch 22 will continue for ever.
My Lords, it is pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. I know that she has spent considerable time campaigning on this issue, and I agree with many of the important points that she made. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, on this Question for Short Debate. To take up the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, needs to be congratulated because this is one of those issues that you hear being debated with people making all sorts of irrational comments. It is important that we have tried to discuss this in a calm and measured way. One hopes that quicker progress can be made through the action plan that the Government have put forward.
To take up my noble friend Lord Blunkett’s comments, and those of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, I see some hope in what seems to be a change of attitude by the Secretary of State. That gives us some expectation that things will change. As the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, pointed out, the use of words such as “stain” and “iniquity” signifies a change of approach, and one hopes that, as a result, some of the concerns laid out by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, will be addressed.
The challenge for the Minister is that the action plan has to be actioned—that is the key point about it—otherwise it is a good action plan that we all agree with, but what difference will it have made? It is the famous “So what?” question. My noble friend Lord Blunkett said that he will write to the Minister and make some points. It would be interesting to see them; if appropriate, perhaps we could see that correspondence and the Minister’s answers.
Countless testimonies and studies have shown the link between serving an IPP sentence and deteriorating mental health, self-harm and suicide. As the right reverend Prelate mentioned, 81 IPP prisoners have taken their own lives while in prison. In 2022 alone, there were nine suicides—the highest number in any year since IPPs were introduced. Does the Minister agree with the Royal College of Psychiatrists that
“Mental Health services in prison are not equipped to manage the complexities of many of those subject to IPP in prison and additional resource and development of expertise is needed”?
Can the Minister outline what action is being taken to deal with these mental health problems?
Alongside that, as the Chief Inspector of Probation outlined, most recalls to prison arise from non-compliance with licence conditions rather than from new crimes. Non-compliance often results from homelessness, a relapse into substance or other misuse, and a lack of continuity of care between pre-release and post-release service provision. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, made the point that, in short, failing services are leading to unsuccessful licences. This means that we are setting up too many IPP prisoners to fail. They return to custody in a system that sets them goals that it does not then allow them to meet. Will the Minister commit to accept recommendations from the forthcoming inspection of recalls that stress the need for proportionality and attention solely to serious risks in making recall decisions?
We have to also recognise—again, other noble Lords have raised these points—that problems lie not just with IPPs. Even if individuals on IPP sentences are eventually released on licence by a Parole Board, to keep us safe we still rely on a functioning probation system to ensure that those individuals comply with their licence conditions and do not lapse back into the behaviours that made them a risk originally. Could the Minister comment on how the action plan will help ensure that the probation system functions in a way that supports IPP prisoners?
The statistics that the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, read out at the beginning were stark and deserve repetition. Some 2,892 people are still subject to the IPP regime; 1,394 have never been released, and 1,498 are on remand. It is no wonder the Secretary of State called this a “stain” on our justice system. Something certainly needs to be done.
Importantly, in reference to the point from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, I note that the discussion about IPPs often takes place with respect to public protection. All of us agree that there is a need to consider public protection; it would be ludicrous to say that it is not an important consideration. However, as my noble friend Lady Blower and other noble Lords mentioned, this country is about justice and a system that works and is consistent with the values of our democracy and country. It is right to say that the public need to be protected in this situation, but individuals, however difficult their crimes are, also deserve justice. As such, there needs to be reform and change quickly.
My Lords, I very much thank my noble friend Lord Moylan for his opening remarks and for securing this debate, and all noble Lords who have spoken. As some of your Lordships know, I have met a number of you already and my friend, the right honourable Damian Hinds, the relevant Minister in the Commons, and I recently met the families and explained the Government’s reasons for proceeding with the action plan.
First, to restate the problem, IPP prisoners who have never been released have all, without exception, come before the Parole Board, which has been unable to say that they are safe to release. That is the essential stumbling block with which the Government and previous Governments have been struggling. The question is what to do about it.
As far as the resentencing exercise is concerned, as I think I have explained on a previous occasion, the Government’s position is that most of the relevant prisoners have already served a sentence, so on what basis exactly can one resentence such a person? What one is really doing is looking to find a way to release, or to improve the prospects of release for, the individuals concerned, and/or—as has been rightly pointed out—to address the problem of recall. Quite a lot of these prisoners have been released but found themselves being recalled for one reason or another.
With the greatest respect to the right reverend Prelate, there is no evidence that these recalls are arbitrary; they are for the breach of licence conditions. It may well be that there are some licence conditions that are difficult to comply with, or that the individuals themselves find it difficult to comply with; that, therefore, is something to be looked at. As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, has just remarked, the Chief Inspector of Probation is about to investigate in detail the processes of recall to see whether this is being done properly and proportionately. That is a very important new element of the situation.
I respectfully suggest that the action plan is a very important step forward and another new element. The essential purpose of the action plan is exactly the purpose that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, referred to, which is to break the Catch-22. How will we go about breaking the Catch-22? This is a shared problem. The Government are not trying to reserve the problem to themselves; it is a problem that every noble Lord and every member of the community can make an important contribution to. That is why, among other things, we have included an external stakeholder group in the arrangements, and why the Government have committed to publishing regularly information on its progress, so that everybody can see the data—data is a pretty important part of this—and the whole process can be put under the spotlight. That is what needs to happen: this issue needs to come up the agenda and be put under the spotlight.
Just for a moment, I shall record some aspects of the action plan, so that they are on the record. First, we have something we have never had before: a senior IPP progression board chaired by Mr Jennings, to whom reference has already been made, who is a most dedicated civil servant. That board is to drive forward measures in this area.
There are four basic principles set out in the plan; we have all read it, so I will not spend time reproducing them. There are success measures. There are six workstreams, two of which—I think workstreams 3 and 4—will in due course try to deal with the futility of the prisoners and the feelings of hopelessness that have been mentioned; to deal with the mental health issues, as there are quite a number of references to psychologists and so forth, and one is aware of the views of the Royal College in that respect; and to make a real, effective, tangible change.
The plan also extends, of course, to the community. Progression panels are being established in the community for each prisoner, in addition to their bespoke sentence plan, to give everybody a reasonable chance of getting through what is a very difficult situation.
As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, rightly said, no responsible Government can ignore the need for public protection. That has to be borne in mind. I have to record—I make no apology for doing so—that this is yet another debate in your Lordships’ Committee where no one has used the word “victim”. Victims and potential victims have to be borne in mind as well, so one is struggling to find a balance in what is an intractable and difficult historical situation.
It is quite difficult at the moment to put flesh on the plan, as I think my noble friend Lord Moylan was asking us to do—has it taken account of this and has it taken account of that? Such points will of course be fed back. As the board takes control and drives this forward, I have every reason to hope and believe that all the points that have been made by your Lordships today will be taken into account. This is a very important advance. It will be driven by competent and experienced civil servants, and I would ask your Lordships to judge us by results. We do not have any results yet because it has only just started, but it is intended to respond to the very special situation where people have possibly lost faith in the system, are fragile and need special attention. I hope that will be delivered.
It is perfectly true that there have been staff shortages in the probation service. We have recruited some 4,000 new probation officers during the last three years—1,500 in the last full year. We have to make sure that the action plan adapts to those resources. There will be a review by the IPP progression panels, which we have directed largely to prisoners in the community.
I take very much to heart the opening comment from my noble friend Lord Moylan that it would be quite wrong to raise hopes only to see them dashed. However, I draw your Lordships’ attention to the fact that the Victims and Prisoners Bill will come before the House, so I anticipate that this is not the last debate that we will have on this subject. I would personally be very open, as I am sure would be the Government, to serious and concrete suggestions for a further look at, or even reform of, the structure that we have at the moment. That is something that any responsible Government should continue to consider. I hope that the forthcoming Bill will be an occasion for further debate. To touch on one point made by my noble friend Lord Moylan, in the Government’s view this is in part a moral issue, and I think the supervisory board will also have that well in mind under the action plan.
I am afraid that I cannot answer the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, as to how long it will be before the last IPP prisoner is released, nor can I say at the moment, or quantify, what kind of additional finance in due course might be devoted to this problem. I can say—as I hope I have tried to illustrate—that the whole issue is very much on the radar. Obviously, from any Government’s point of view, nobody wants to keep anybody in prison unnecessarily—it is going to be expensive; no one wants to recall people unnecessarily. The strain on the probation service of dealing with all this is already pretty heavy, so if we can lighten that strain and reduce the general burden, and find ways in which people can break this Catch-22 and make their way successfully through the system, that is the Government’s objective.
I am conscious that I may have not responded to every point that has been made. I must say to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, that I am afraid I cannot accept that the report is shoddy. Enormous effort has gone into this and will go into this. Your Lordships have my personal assurance that the Secretary of State and relevant Ministers will continue to drive this forward. Let us look forward. I would not say that this is the end of the story, and I am sure there will be opportunities for further reflection and debate when the forthcoming Victims and Prisoners Bill reaches this House.
Forgive me if I have not answered all questions; I shall write to anyone who would like a further answer than I have been able to give today. I thank noble Lords for their attention.
Woodland Cover Protection and Grey Squirrel Control
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I start by thanking noble Lords for taking part in this debate just before recess, when everybody is keen to get away. But the number of speakers, and the short time that each then has to speak, shows that a lot of people take this issue very seriously.
I must declare an interest: I am probably one of the few people left in England who has a population of red squirrels but, unfortunately, the grey squirrels are getting quite close. I am not sure how long we will be able to keep them out for.
I will end my speech with two asks of the Government—I am sure that neither will surprise the Minister—to do with grey squirrel control. But I will start on woodland. On an optimistic note, we have an increasing amount of woodland coverage in the country. However, this growth has been caused by increased plantations, mostly of pine, and the Woodland Trust has raised the issue of the falling biodiversity we have in the country because of the threat to our native plantations and a fall in the amount of native trees. The Government have set out plans to increase the amount of native woodland plantations; however, as we have been discussing on the formation of ELMS and other biodiversity schemes, it is very difficult to replant native woodland because of long-term issues. When the grant scheme runs out, how will we create the financial mechanisms to make sure that land taken away from agricultural purposes is maintained?
There are a number of threats to woodland at the moment. One of the main ones is disease. I know that other noble Lords will discuss this, so I will confine my comments to ash dieback. Through a survey of my woodland and from driving throughout Northumberland, I can see that ash dieback has spread throughout the county and that the ash tree will become extinct in the UK in five to 10 years. It is a pernicious disease, because trees still grow with it but, once they have the disease, it is only a matter of time before they die through stress.
I have started planting sycamore instead of ash, because it is fast-growing. I have never understood why people have views against sycamore, because it carries a great deal of biodiversity, but one problem is that grey squirrels particularly like killing sycamore through its bark.
Secondly, climate change brings about stress, especially in the droughts we are facing. Storm Arwen apparently took out 16 million trees and affected about 8,000 hectares of woodland. It did so much damage because the storm came from the north, but trees have grown root systems that stop westerly winds. I have been cutting up very old trees that survived storms in the past but have no root system to provide for storms from the north. This issue will occur more and more because of climate change.
The third issue is grey squirrels. I have spent a number of years battling grey squirrels and set up the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership. I originally wanted to call it the Grey Squirrel Annihilation League but, for PR reasons, that would apparently be a bad idea. I set up the partnership and managed to achieve a £150,000 grant from Defra. I was encouraged not to use the words “killing squirrels” in the application, so the application was actually for a farm diversification fund with a lot of columns saying, “What’s the output?” The only thing I could put was “dead squirrels”, so it was a rather odd form.
I managed to achieve the grant. There was a great deal of publicity about it when I got it. One way I managed to make it a popular issue was by pointing out that people eat squirrel, turning it from killing small fluffy animals into a foodie argument. The one thing people in Britain will not argue with is foodies. However, I pointed out in some interviews that if squirrels are to be sold by butchers there must be a sticker saying “May contain nuts”. I did that as a joke, but—
Well, there is a danger of anaphylactic shock from a creature whose main food source is nuts.
We did this work through trapping. I had a fantastic Geordie, Mr Paul Parker, who knew more about grey squirrels than anybody at the end of the period. He was extremely successful. However, trapping is incredibly labour-intensive. We started off with live trapping and then moved to kill traps. You have to check the traps once a day to make sure that squirrels have not been trapped and are still alive. We expanded throughout Northumberland. At one point we had 900 trapping sites and over 200 volunteers, mostly elderly pensioners who would look out of the window and tell us when the traps had gone off.
There was an enormous support for this, and we did clear areas of grey squirrels. We could tell that we had done so because red squirrels recolonised areas that had been colonised by greys. Grey squirrels are larger than red squirrels and push them out of areas, so if you have reds it is a clear indicator that you do not have greys.
The problem we face is that there are about 2.7 million grey squirrels in this country. Trapping could be effective, but it is a landscape issue. You have to work incredibly hard at it. Some squirrels were breeding up to four times a year. We caught pregnant grey squirrels in December and January. The number of squirrels that can repopulate an area if you do not manage to completely clear a population is amazing.
Although trapping is very useful in a localised area, we have to look at other methods in the long term. The problem is that, with 2.7 million squirrels, we are looking at the landscape changing in the long term, because tree cover will change. As the Minister pointed out about planting, certain types of tree will not survive past 20 or 30 years—we will not see those mature trees.
The bright spot is that two new technologies are coming forward. The first is contraception. I know that this has been pushed by a number of organisations that are part of the UK Squirrel Accord. The work on that is excellent. The real value of it is that, unlike trapping, where you have to monitor traps continuously, you could provide the contraceptive over two or three days, three times a year, which would have a massive effect and could crash squirrel numbers. That work is very important. One of my first asks of the Minister is that I hope Defra will come up with some more funding to push this process further, because it looks like the technology works very well. It is now a question of making sure it goes forward and can be distributed.
I am particularly excited about the second technology, which is being pushed by the European Squirrel Initiative, which is gene drive technology. I was told that I had to be very careful about the use of terminology, because it is not gene editing; it is a form of bioengineering whereby the squirrels’ reproductive cycle can be changed so that the squirrels introduced into the population breed only one sex. Therefore, you can change it so that only male squirrels are born. Of course, the lack of females will have an effect on the population. The work we did in Northumberland showed that squirrels are remarkably territorial. Therefore, squirrels that do not breed are far stronger than squirrels that do, and will push squirrels that can breed further out of the best population areas. This is an amazing piece of work that will take about eight to 10 years to perfect and then, of course, probably another eight to 10 years.
What is amazing about this technology is that in theory we could wipe grey squirrels from the country in a humane way without killing any, doing so in a safe way because the editing could have a cut-off point so that, after a number of generations, you would have to reintroduce the control. That would be a fabulous outcome, but it will need quite a lot of research. I know that the Minister has met Professor Bruce Whitelaw from the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh. My second ask is exactly the same as my first. This could be fabulous if the money were available and that is an issue for Defra. However, squirrels are costing us many millions of pounds a year and this would be an excellent return on investment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for initiating this important debate.
If we want to promote and protect our woodlands, we need to get much better at forestry in this country. I have said many times that we are overall pretty bad at it. Most of our woodlands are in poor condition and not managed to the proper standard. Our foresters need much better training, especially for continuous cover, which is something that I have been promoting in this House for over 50 years—I hope that its time has come.
The control of grey squirrels should be grant funded, given their impact on the delivery of key ecosystems and services such as carbon sequestration budgets and biodiversity, as well as the loss of timbers. However, grey squirrels are not the only problem and I want to focus on some of the others.
Forestry is not easy. It is easy to say, “Let’s plant more trees”, but it is a jolly sight more difficult to do that in reality. Besides grey squirrels, there are deer and, of our six species, every single one is destructive. At over 1.5 billion deer, there are far too many in this country. They cause an estimated 74,000 car accidents a year, costing £10 million in car repairs alone. Deer kill about 20 people a year and there has been no decline in human injuries in the last 20 years. The sadness is that any deer involved in a car accident will probably die a long, lingering death well away from the scene of the accident.
Those are not all the problems; there are others. I have a list of at least 25 pests or diseases, either in this country or on our doorstep, attacking every single one of our native trees: oak, ash, birch, chestnut, spruce, pine—the list could go on. In fact, one could get quite depressed about forestry, but one needs to look at it more positively.
I turn to hedgerows. I plead with the Minister to include hedgerows in the ambit of woodland. Hedgerows absorb 30 to 80 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare. The Government need to encourage farmers to have taller and wider hedgerows. The Game, Wildlife and Conservation Trust estimates that, if a farmer planted a tree every 20 metres in half the hedgerows in this country, we would plant another 14 million new trees. Farmers need to be encouraged but also their tenancies need to be looked at, because by and large with tenancies any timber is reserved to the landlord.
Those would be amenity trees but I also have a concern about commercial timber. We have a conflict between the area where commercial timber can be grown and where ground-nesting birds are, particularly species on the red list such as curlew and black grouse. Science has clearly told us that there is an increase of predation for any ground-nesting bird within woodland. It is not only about predation; there is fragmentation of the breeding sites as we plant more and more timber. As I said about chalk streams, it is about a balance in the environment. The Minister has a heck of a job to keep everyone happy, because there will always be at least one NGO that will complain.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register, in particular as chair of the UK Squirrel Accord. I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on his excellent introduction and on getting this debate at an important time in what is going on in the world of trees and squirrels.
On Monday, the Minister said,
“you cannot have net zero without talking about trees”.—[Official Report, 22/5/23; col. 598.]
That was a prescient thing to say in view of the debate that we are having today. Indeed, many sources have concluded what the UK Squirrel Accord knows to be true: the biggest threat to our broadleaf woodlands is the grey squirrel, ring-barking as they do trees aged between 10 and 40 years and effectively killing them.
The UK Squirrel Accord is the coming together of 45 organisations of the United Kingdom to address this unpleasant truth, comprising the four Governments, their nature agencies, the main voluntary sector bodies and the principal private sector players. The accord has not only ensured good communication among the member bodies but allowed scientific research to be commissioned together. Quite a lot has been achieved in laying the groundwork for a major initiative in reducing the number of grey squirrels, in large part through the use of fertility control.
This exciting research is being led at the Animal and Plant Health Agency—APHA—and includes strands on the fertility control substance, the hoppers that contain it and, most important, the rigorous computer modelling that underpins the rollout strategy. The research phase is approaching its fifth and final year, which will give way to the landscape trials phase and then a licensing phase before the rollout. The Minister has ministerial responsibility for APHA. The Defra family and APHA have been very helpful and involved in the accord. Does the Minister agree that this fertility control research represents the outstanding near-term option as a key weapon for grey squirrel control?
The APHA research has been funded in part by the Defra family, but just over £1 million has been raised from private UK individuals and trusts. I thank those people very much. There have been some really generous people and they have brought with them a lot of knowledge and the ability for us to do the large-scale field trials when the time comes. I hope that it is not ungrateful to the Minister, who is such a good supporter of ours, to observe that larger sums of government money are being spent in other areas of disease and invasive alien species. Given the central need to deal with this issue for net-zero reasons alone, I urge the Government to consider upping the resource that they devote to this issue.
There are two areas where the Government can help. The first is the cost of the licensing process that we are about to undergo, for both the hoppers and the substances that will be left behind in them, and the second is increasing the co-ordinating resource that the UK Squirrel Accord has available for the next phases. We have been well resourced in people and in monetary terms up to now, thanks to generosity and the 45 organisations, but there will be a step change in what we need to do going forward and this needs more bodies. It will take a lot of effort to deal with further planning and the engagement and education of everyone up and down the country and there will be many other issues as well. If we have more bodies now, we will make a better job of it. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on that.
My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition, although I am not speaking on its behalf today. I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. I seem to remember that we have debated these issues before and I have always been grateful for his contributions.
There are many reasons why increasing our woodland cover is important. For example, being able to walk in woodlands is associated with mental health, at a time when this is a huge issue for us as a society; it is clearly deeply bedded into the issues of net zero; and it is intimately associated with the need to increase again our biodiversity. It is of inestimable importance.
The threat posed by grey squirrels is therefore an issue that exercises many of us, along with the longing that we might one day be able to reintroduce red squirrels. I have to say that the problem is not just grey squirrels; in North Hertfordshire we have black squirrels. I do not know if the Committee has come across them but they are breeding across both North Hertfordshire and South Cambridgeshire, and are a feature of our local area in my diocese. Sadly, there are now only a few conservation areas for red squirrels left, as we have heard, following the introduction of the grey squirrel in the 18th century and indeed the wider issue of the reduction in woodland.
The damage caused by grey squirrels is huge. According to government statistics, the total cost of grey squirrels and other invasive species to the UK is about £1.8 billion a year. That figure perhaps puts into perspective some of the pleas about whether we may be able to find some modest funding to help with this important work.
Stripping off the bark of broadleaf trees means that we lose much of our woodland. A recent report by the Royal Forestry Society on the damage caused by grey squirrels estimates that they cost about £37 million a year to forestry, and they are identified as the greatest single threat to broadleaf trees in the UK. I have been grateful to hear about the project—others know more about this than I do—by the Animal and Plant Health Agency to develop an oral contraceptive to target the grey squirrel, and about the work that the Government have been doing with the Roslin Institute and the European Squirrel Initiative to breed infertility into the female grey squirrel population. Can Minister give us an update on those projects, particularly what the prospects are for rolling them out more widely and an indication of the timeframe?
The need to increase our woodland cover, in the light of the falls over recent centuries, is clear. There are other reasons too. Increasing biodiversity is really important, and I find that that now overlaps with some other areas that I have worked in. We are trying to deal with some very difficult problems of bat infestations in churches, partly because so many of our farm buildings have been put out of action for bats but also because much of the tree cover where some of them have lived in the past has been lost. That is causing irreparable damage to many of our historic churches and their contents. We need to find a number of solutions, of which increasing woodland cover is a very long-term aim but part of the solution.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale: first, on his initiating the debate; secondly, on a really interesting speech; and, thirdly, on his work, which we have discussed in the past, of controlling grey squirrels—work that is not yet over.
I declare an interest: I have a farm in Leicestershire on which I plant a lot of trees. I really farm for conservation—for conservation subsidy, probably—but the birdlife has improved dramatically through planting trees and hedges and through various other features, including diminishing the magpie population.
I have been interested in squirrels for a very long time. In our family, when my son was little, he used to refer to “squeals”, so that is what we always call them—I think that is rather a nice name for them. The ones that we see are always grey. I found one on the road when I was bicycling home one night, when I was about 15, which I imaginatively called Cyril. It then escaped. I took another one from a dray—I think I imaginatively called him Cyril as well—and took him up to my rooms in my college in Oxford, where he ran up and down the curtains and frightened the people making the beds. He was sweet until he started biting me.
My father used to call squirrels “tree rats”, and I have to say that, notwithstanding having kept two as pets, that is what they are. Back when I was a boy, and I am one of the oldest people here, you used to get a shilling for a tail, as I recall. I do not know when that finished; perhaps the Minister might tell me.
I have eaten squirrel. Actually, it was quite good. I recommend it on salad on brioche, although it is a bit of a pain to skin. The original Brunswick pie was from New Brunswick, where they put squirrel in it, and that is where they come from.
As I have said, I have been planting trees—some 10 acres or so—on the farm. On one two-acre plot alone, the damage done by squirrels has to be seen to be believed. I should think they have killed one in three trees by ring-barking, and they have damaged a lot of others. If anybody wants to see it, you can see the damage they have done—it is just shocking.
Owen Paterson, when he was Secretary of State for Defra, recommended to me something called a Kania 2000 trap. I strongly recommend it. Unfortunately, they are out of production for some reason—I think they came from Canada—but I hope they will start to be produced again, because they really work. To illustrate my point, in that two-acre plot, this year on one tree alone I have caught 14 squirrels. You never see them, so where do they all come from? I think I have thinned them out, but they will of course be back. That was in a six-week period. These are very good traps; I recommend them.
We all agree that squirrels need huge control. I think they need “annihilation”, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. It would be excellent if we managed to clear them out of the whole country, as they are an alien species. We need concerted action; I know the Minister is going to tell us in his speech about the concerted action we are going to have. Whatever campaign he runs, be it poison—I can see the disadvantages of that—or some form of contraceptive or gene-editing, it will be fantastic. However, if we are to have contraception spread widely, what effect will it have if you eat the squirrel? Perhaps the Minister might let me know the answer to that as well. It is not too worrying for me, at my age, but for younger people it might be. The point is that if we do not have a serious campaign to defeat these squirrels, as has been mentioned already, the government ambition to plant many more trees in this country will fail.
My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for initiating this timely debate.
First, I thank the Government for introducing and improving a variety of grant schemes, including funding important maintenance for new woodland over 10 years. However, this funding is constrained by the lack of adequate resources for the processing and approval of planting applications, which delays the rollout ofusb woodland creation. There has been an unfortunate side effect on tree nurseries explicitly encouraged by further government support following the Government’s response to the EFRA 2022 report on tree planting. Nurseries have been restricted in the sale of their products by the slow pace of government approvals of new woodland creation. I am most interested to hear the Minister’s response to the question of the availability of manpower resources in his ministry to process these applications.
My second major concern is the effect of the sale of carbon credits on the type of new woodland planted and its location. In East Anglia, considerable prime farmland has been bought up or rented at substantial premiums by investors outside the agriculture and forestry industries for the sole purpose of enjoying carbon credits. The favoured tree is the fast-growing paulownia, or foxglove tree, normally grown in our gardens for either its flower or huge leaves. There is no traditional commercial market for this wood in the UK and it is unsuitable for biomass. Paulownia scarcely meets the recommendation of the Woodland Trust to plant native trees and shrubs. It also fails to accord with the Government’s environmental improvement plan and efforts to reverse the decline of species and wildlife habitats. From the point of view of the Government and the Forestry Commission meeting targets on woodland expansion, this is an easy win, but in establishing appropriate woodland species on suitable land, it is a disaster. Could the Minister explain why this has been allowed to happen, and what can be done to stop the abuse of a sensible long-term government policy to increase woodland using appropriate species on appropriate land?
Thirdly, I come to the establishment of new woodland and the control of vermin. Others have dealt with the squirrel problem and, to a certain extent, measures to control deer, but in my own woodland I am finding it increasingly difficult to find people to shoot the deer due to the dangers posed by increasing public access. If an incoming Government introduced a right to roam, vermin control would be even more difficult, leaving aside the adverse effects of such a freedom on other wildlife that we wish to encourage.
For the prevention of deer damage, I also ask the Minister to review the encouragement of using expensive tree guards on ex-farmland—they blow over, take for ever to biodegrade and look like cemeteries—rather than using fencing, which can be less expensive, more effective and easier to manage.
My Lords, I declare my interest, as in the register, as an owner and trustee of woodlands. I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on securing this important debate.
The Government have an ambitious target to promote new woodland planting—all very laudable, albeit currently unrealistic in terms of the numbers forecast—and have made this a keystone of ELMS. What does not seem to attract sufficient government attention, however, is the ongoing maintenance of existing woodland. Rather than having overmature woodland and unmanaged plantations going back and, in so doing, failing to maximise their carbon sequestration potential, the Government should be encouraging much more effective woodland management plans for both thinning and coppicing. A more efficient and vibrant carbon trading market can develop as an additional benefit off the back of this. I have mentioned this to my good friend the Minister in the past and I ask him to look at it again.
I am old enough to remember the issues that farming faced with rabbits before the introduction of that man-manufactured disease myxomatosis. While I do not wish the introduction of a similar disgusting cure to be foisted on the grey squirrel population, the scale of the problem is similar and we need to find a solution that is as radical in its outcome. Both are invasive alien species after all: the rabbit was introduced by the Romans and the grey squirrel by misguided owners of country estates in the 19th century.
Control used to take the form of poisoning, trapping and shooting. The first is now problematic, the second is labour-intensive at a time when labour is in particularly short supply and the third is haphazard. Poking dreys in the spring with aluminium poles also requires a supply of fit men and is no work for the faint-hearted. It is also a filthy occupation if the dreys land on your head.
We need to fall back on another solution, which is now present in the form of oral contraception by means of a fertility control vaccine being researched by the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, to which I am pleased that the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, referred. I take this opportunity to congratulate him on all the work he has been doing in this area. I have contributed to this excellent cause financially, and I urge as many people as are able to—certainly all woodland owners—to contribute too. Combined with traditional means of control, it will provide the opportunity to reduce numbers of grey squirrels to something acceptable.
Why is there a need for this? I have been looking at the damage wrought by grey squirrels on a three year-old chestnut coppice and a beautiful cover of young hornbeam. Last summer’s drought seemed to make the grey squirrel population even more vigorous than usual, and I estimate that, of the damaged and barked shoots on each stool, only 10% are showing any signs of regrowth—a dramatic reduction in both the commercial volume and the value of the crop. Am I becoming increasingly paranoid about grey squirrel vigour, reflecting something referred to earlier? They seem to be getting smaller in size yet are reproducing over a longer time span throughout the year. It is no coincidence that squirrel numbers are increasing alongside decreasing woodland bird numbers, given their liking for birds’ eggs.
With the current level of threat from the grey squirrel population, what choices should be made by woodland owners seeking to plant if the monoculture of softwoods is not on their agenda? Perhaps the Minister could indicate how he thinks the planting of oak and beech can prosper without controlling the squirrel population. Where does this fit within the yet to be updated 2014 grey squirrel action plan? While we are about it, is there a deer action plan waiting in the wings?
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Redesdale on securing this debate and on his detailed introduction to it. I was fascinated by the idea of gene drive technology.
The promotion and protection of our native woodland cover is vital to maintain and improve the country’s biodiversity. In March 2022, the UK’s total woodland cover was estimated at 3.24 million hectares, which is 13% of the total UK land area. During 2021-22, 14,000 hectares of new woodland were created, but although woodland is gradually increasing, woodland wildlife is decreasing. The enthusiasm for planting fast-growing firs and pines as a cash crop has led to silent forests and woodland walkways. The loss of ancient trees has hastened the loss of wildlife that used to inhabit the woods. Existing native woodlands are isolated and in poor ecological condition. Disease is also a significant factor.
Non-native invasive trees and shrubs, such as rhododendron, have grown at a prolific rate, taking over the space that used to be inhabited by our native shrubs. The Minister will know that, as a member of the land use commission, I am in favour of a land use strategy, which would clearly delineate where it was important for native tree species to be protected and new saplings to be planted. We need a lot more tree cover, but it has to be the right trees in the right place.
Trees, however hardy, are under attack not just from disease and cash crops but from the other invasive species: the grey squirrel. Grey squirrels are an extremely successful invasive species, systematically destroying trees that were previously the home of the native red squirrel. Wherever the grey squirrel goes, it eventually reduces the number of red squirrels. There are several reasons for this. The grey is a carrier of squirrel pox, to which it has some immunity—not so the unlucky red squirrel. Squirrel pox is easily passed from the grey to the red, resulting in a reduction in numbers.
The grey squirrel is more successful in adapting to a changing habitat. Sitka spruce plantations are an unfavourable habitat for the red squirrel, which find that the areas where they can exist are diminishing. They are pushed into smaller areas of our countryside.
In 2014, the Government published a grey squirrel action plan, which has been referred to. This is now nearly 10 years old. Under the Countryside Stewardship scheme in this plan, landowners can be provided with financial support for controlling grey squirrels. There is apparently a new grey squirrel action plan, but it has yet to be published. Can the Minister say when this might happen?
On 24 March this year, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at Defra said, in answer to a Written Question, that
“Defra has provided £300,000, to support research and development of fertility control methods to reduce numbers of grey squirrels”.
Can the Minister say whether this is effective? Many noble Lords have asked about this.
The UK Squirrel Accord—a partnership of over 40 organisations—seeks to secure and expand red squirrel populations through the red squirrel action plan. Let us hope that the two plans together will have the desired effect of reducing greys, increasing the number of reds and assisting damaged trees to recover.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for initiating this debate to explore how we can protect and promote woodland cover, as well as control the grey squirrel population—although also now the black squirrel population. I am aware that the noble Lord has been closely associated with these issues for many years. We live in a green and pleasant land—at least, I believe we would all like to—which is why we are here to debate such an important issue for our natural and domestic environment.
The UK has a disappointing record, over generations, in preserving our historic and native woodlands, although that is improving. Only 13% of our great country has forest cover. This compares somewhat unfavourably to a global average of 31%. In France it is 32%, in Germany 33% and in Spain 37%. However, these figures alone do not tell us the full challenge that we face to rebuild our woodlands, because it is not just about the volume of trees that we have but the quality of what has been planted and the effect it is having on our immediate environment. The Woodland Trust has estimated that, since 1999, we have lost nearly 1,000 ancient woodlands and a further thousand are still under threat.
This is compounded by the planting of non-native species, which may be beautiful—at least, I consider them to be—but are doing little to support woodland wildlife. In fact, according to the RSPB, since 1970 the woodland bird index has declined by a quarter and the woodland specialist bird index has fallen by 45%. As noble Lords will be aware, these statistics will reflect similar figures for all woodland wildlife as they are subject to the same environmental impacts.
This is therefore an environmental crisis, and one that is not helped by the presence of so many grey squirrels in our delicate ecosystem, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, so ably highlighted. Grey squirrels have done significant damage to our native woodlands by their bark-stripping activities and are threatening the very survival of some of our most cherished tree species, not least the beech tree.
No one participating in this debate needs convincing that more has to be done to rebuild our natural woodlands and to enhance our domestic forest cover, but we need some clarity from the Minister. Can he assist us by providing responses to the following questions?
In 2021, the Government published the England Trees Action Plan 2021 to 2024. We are now half way through the time allotted by the Government to reach their target of planting 30,000 hectares of woodland per year. Can the Minister outline how much of the £500 million budget has been spent and when the Government expect to reach their goal of 30,000 hectares per year? Can the Minister also provide us with a date for when the much-promised new grey squirrel action plan will be published, and which funding pots will be linked to it to ensure its effective implementation?
Earlier this month, the Government confirmed that a new rare species survival fund would be launched soon and would provide support for red squirrels. Can the Minister inform the Committee what the Government mean by “soon” and when we should expect it?
There are few things more beautiful than the British countryside. Each one of us will have a favourite tree, a favourite walk or a favourite view. The onus is on each and every one of us to protect and enhance what we have, but to do so we need support and clear direction. I hope that the Minister can assist today.
My Lords, I refer the Committee to my entry in the register. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, who has called this debate at a timely moment and speaks from rare and real knowledge of the problem.
This debate is about promoting and protecting our woodland cover but also about controlling grey squirrels—so it is also about saving the red squirrel. Sitting in this Room are three red squirrel heroes of mine. The first is the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, who I have been talking to about this subject for well over a decade. He alluded to the knowledge gained through the red squirrel protection partnership, and I suspect he knows at least as much as the Geordie friend he referred to about how the squirrel behaves and how to control it effectively. My second hero is the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, because of his wonderful stewardship of the UK Squirrel Accord and his involvement in this issue. Both those noble Lords have a gentle way of lobbying, but anyone would be foolish if they took that to be a lack of determination. They are both extremely passionate and determined about this issue, and extremely effective in changing policy and making sure that we are doing the right things. The noble Earl is right: we need more funding in the next spending round, and it is an absolute priority for me to make sure that we get the level of funding we want to roll forward these new ideas, which I shall come on to talk about.
The third of my red squirrel heroes is the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, my predecessor in this role. He sits in an absolutely bipartisan position in our proceedings today, but I know of his passion in this role and he is the voice in my head on many of these issues. I thank him for all the work he has done on this subject—I hope that we have noted the tie he is wearing.
Beyond this Committee are a great many more red squirrel heroes of mine. The scientists at APHA have been referred to. Those carrying out immunocontraception work in York are extraordinary, very passionate and gifted people. I want also to mention the team I have at Defra, who are bringing forward the grey squirrel action plan which will be published soon—this summer, I hope. That will show that there is real ambition to tackle this and to use the new technologies that are coming forward.
The other heroes in this piece are land managers, who are tackling the problem—people who are putting in resources of their own because they love the natural world and respect the natural capital for which they are responsible—and those who work for them, particularly gamekeepers, who are often wrongly attacked but who do much to protect our biodiversity and reverse its decline. They are certainly the people who have the skill, the knowledge and the will to tackle the difficult issue of predation control, as well as pest control.
Your Lordships are aware that our tree-planting ambitions are to have 16.5% of England under tree cover by 2050. That is a target in the Environment Act. We want to increase our tree cover by an area the size of Cheshire. That is 7,000 hectares a year by the end of this Parliament, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson. In answer to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, we want to cut in half the time it takes to put in place the relevant permissions and grants to plant trees. We want to give land managers more understanding about where they will be allowed to plant trees. As my noble friend Lord Caithness said, we do not want to see trees planted on areas where rare waders are nesting, but it is really important to help people make those decisions.
The England Trees Action Plan 2021 to 2024 and the Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 contain this desire to boost tree planting, improve woodland management and support a thriving green economy in our trees and woodlands. All this will be done mainly through our £650 million nature for climate fund. Today, around 42% of our woods are not actively managed, a point made by my noble friend Lord Colgrain. Many of the Government’s actions to plant new woodlands need to be balanced by action to improve existing woodlands, because that is where we are locking up carbon, helping our target to reverse species loss and improving our timber security as we bring those woodlands into production. It is there that we are providing more space for people to be close to nature to heal us, as the right reverend Prelate so eloquently put it, and to enhance our landscapes. We get a spiritual uplift from being in and close to nature.
The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, talked about types of trees. We need to see the right trees planted in the right place. I always slightly chide the Woodland Trust and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, who chairs that wonderful organisation. I am a great fan of it, but it is very blinkered in wanting just native trees. At a time when we are plagued by pests and diseases, and with the threat of climate change, adaptation means that we have to be broader in the species we plant, and we have to be resilient in the species we find to tackle it.
A number of noble Lords talked about deer. This summer we will publish our deer strategy, which will look at this issue from both ends of the telescope. It will not just deal with the problem on the ground from the damage caused but look at where we can create markets. This is a cholesterol-free meat. There are half a million too many deer out there, and if we do not get on top of it the number will be 750,000 before we know it. Wonderful organisations such as the Country Food Trust are looking at creating hubs, with government support, so that we can get deer to a quantity where people who procure for the public and private sectors can get the quality and quantity of deer they want and get it into our prisons, Armed Forces, NHS and other organisations. We are getting a pull factor as well as a push factor to tackle the terrible problem of too many deer in our countryside.
On hedgerows, I say to the noble Earl that I am hugely impressed by what the Crown Estate is doing across its land, which it farms both in-hand and, mainly, with tenants. It is planting precisely the sort of hedgerows that we need. We are about to publish more about our hedgerow standard, and I think the noble Earl will be pleased when he sees that.
However, all this ambition for restoration of nature, increasing timber security and achieving our net-zero ambitions will fail if we do not protect the woodlands we have from pests and diseases. Taxpayers’ money will be wasted, nature will be depleted and we will have a view of abject failure of successive Governments who were not prepared to take the tough choices that needed to be taken to tackle pests and diseases. Those will be our failures if we do not tackle pests such as the grey squirrel.
Recollections about this vary, but I understand that the first grey squirrel was introduced in 1876 by a banker called Thomas U Brocklehurst, at Henbury Hall, near Macclesfield. Further releases happened throughout the Victorian era and into the Edwardian era. In 1905-07, 91 were released in the Regent’s Park. The right reverend Prelate is here, so I will be careful with the words I use, but I hope that there is a hot corner of hell for the eccentrics who visited this gross act of environmental vandalism on us. It is now up to us to see if we can reverse it.
The problem is that one or two land managers can do their bit to control grey squirrels in a landscape but, if they stop or their neighbours do not play their part, the grey squirrels win and nature loses. As has been said, the way to deal with this is across a landscape—a catchment, a range of hills or a peninsula. We need to work with the topography of nature and work out how we are going to do this. The noble Lord who instigated the debate understands this, and we need to use the skills and knowledge of him and others in developing this plan.
The grey squirrel action plan, shortly to be published in its refreshed form, will set out the many incentives for action that we will provide. The countryside stewardship payments include an incentive, on a hectarage basis, to control squirrels. The UK Squirrel Accord will be supported to build on the £1 million it has used to explore innovative methods of control.
Immunocontraception is a game-changer: it fills a gap where there has been either a lack of skill or a lack of will to kill grey squirrels. The APHA has successfully identified an oral contraceptive vaccine, which is being tested. It has designed a feeder that will ensure that only free-living grey squirrels will access the contraceptive. The results of field trials showed that these feeders can deliver this game-changing solution, but there is more work to do. I assure the noble Lord that there will be no reticence among Ministers in making sure that the licensing of all aspects of this solution allow its delivery to be rolled out as quickly and cheaply as possible, and will not impair the ability to deliver what I think will be an absolute game-changer.
Other noble Lords referred to CRISPR gene-editing, which may provide another means to limit the population growth of grey squirrels. This is potentially massive. We are monitoring developments closely with colleagues from the research and woodlands management communities. The Forestry Commission is working with the Roslin Institute, which is part of Edinburgh University, to fund a PhD to understand how a gene drive approach might be used to manage grey squirrel populations in the future. I cannot add to what has been said about this, but it presents the possibility of a real solution.
What is the prize if we get this right? The prize is woodlands that survive and, in many cases, thrive. The other day, I was in a woodland of 44 acres, which was planted by my father as a woodland grant scheme, with free public access. There were thousands of oak trees, none of which will get any higher than this Room or support the 2,000 species that exist in the iconic mature oaks that we all love. That is because of squirrel damage. Biodiversity benefits are also a prize. Red squirrel numbers will stabilise and their range will increase. Everyone, not just those who are concerned about timber production, needs to be part of this great endeavour.
“Iconic” is an overused word, but the red squirrel is emblematic of our fight to restore nature across this country—it is on the front of our environmental improvement plan. If we succeed in encouraging red squirrels, we succeed across so much of our threatened natural capital. I hope to live until the day when I can walk through St James’s Park and not grind my teeth because I see a tourist feeding a squirrel; I would be delighted if they were feeding a red squirrel.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, today’s debate is timely because it follows not only His Majesty’s recent Coronation, which saw the gathering of our global British family—something in which I was proud to take part in my capacity as honorary colonel of the Cayman Islands Regiment—but the annual summit of British Overseas Territories that followed, the Joint Ministerial Council, held here in London, which by all accounts has been a great success.
One of the reasons for that success is down to my noble friend the Minister. I have had a close working relationship with and interest in our OTs for many years and, if I am honest, it is not an interest that I have always found shared across government. However, I can genuinely say that, when it comes to this Government’s interest in and support for our OTs, we appear to have turned a corner. That is in no small part down to my noble friend and his team at the FCDO. An obvious recent example of this is the timely and effective delivery of vaccines during Covid, which did much to reinforce the benefits to OTs of their enduring relationship with the UK. Without wishing to embarrass him, I want to highlight the contribution of Mr Adam Pile to that delivery.
A similar debate last week in the House of Commons had as its Motion:
“That this House is committed to upholding the interests of British Overseas Territories and their citizens; recognises the special historical, cultural, and social bonds that bind the United Kingdom and Overseas Territories; and calls upon the Government to ensure that British Overseas Territories citizens’ rights as British citizens are upheld, to defend the sovereignty and borders of Overseas Territories from foreign powers, and to consider the unique circumstances of each Territory when formulating policies which affect them”.
That is a neat summary of where I am sure your Lordships’ House would aspire our relationship with the OTs to be.
While each territory is unique in its relationship with the UK, the one thing that underpins that relationship is that all British OTs enjoy the right to self-determination. The fact that they maintain a constitutional link with the UK is ultimately their choice. I am sure noble Lords will join me in reaffirming our commitment to defending that principle.
Spanning the globe, British OTs are as diverse in their geography as they are in their culture. One size certainly does not fit all and that requires both sensitivity and agility from HMG if they are to support the unique circumstances, constitutions, challenges and opportunities of each territory.
It is that challenge that I turn to first. I have always been slightly perplexed as to why that relationship is held by the FCDO. After all, our OTs are not foreign, are not part of the Commonwealth—other than through UK membership—and only four of the 14 are eligible for development assistance. While the FCDO may manage the relationship, it holds few if any of the levers of power to support OTs when required. Whatever the 2012 White Paper may say, it is my experience that this arrangement leads other government departments into thinking that OTs are not their responsibility.
Take, for example, recent events in the Turks and Caicos Islands, where the double challenge is faced of potentially being overwhelmed by Haitian migrants and a spike in violent crime. Both are areas of responsibility of the Home Office but, as we have discussed before, HMG’s support to TCI when threatened by these challenges left considerable room for improvement. I recently visited TCI with the Chief of the General Staff, yet when I raised my concerns with the Home Office on my return it was clear that its impression was that this was a matter for the FCDO.
While I appreciate that the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister have now written to all government departments reminding them of their responsibilities to OTs, that does not solve the structural problem that we have in the Government. More important, there is no guarantee that their successors will be as committed, which is why I believe we should consider structural change. OTs need direct access to all government departments. I know that my noble friend likens the FCDO’s co-ordination role to air traffic control in relation to OTs’ needs but, from a machinery-of-government perspective, does my noble friend not think the co-ordination of support to the OTs should be the responsibility of the Cabinet Office?
In my remaining time, I simply want to highlight both some successes and challenges that we have with our relationships with the OTs. The first success is one close to my heart and relates to the overseas territory regiments. Last week, I chaired the overseas territory regimental conference in Bermuda and I express my enormous thanks to both the governor and the commanding officer of the Royal Bermuda Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Ben Beasley, for facilitating this.
We now have six OT regiments. The original four—the Royal Montserrat Defence Force, the Falkland Islands Defence Force, the Royal Bermuda Regiment and the Royal Gibraltar Regiment—all date back either in their current form or as antecedent units to the 1890s, while the two new units, the Cayman Islands Regiment and Turks and Caicos Islands Regiment, date back to just 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Following a visit to Montserrat in 2018 post-Hurricane Irma in my capacity as Minister for the Armed Forces, I wrote to all the OT governors without a regiment suggesting that they create an Army Reserve unit within the territory to help to deliver on-island humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capability for immediate post-hurricane support. I promised full support from the Ministry of Defence in their establishment and I am delighted that, despite both being created during Covid, the new regiments have been a success and are capable of delivering food, desalinated water and emergency accommodation as well general assistance to the Government in times of crisis. The purpose of the conference last week was to evolve the units to be able to assist each other in times of crisis in addition to support from the UK. I would be grateful for the Minister’s continued support in their development and perhaps even encouragement for the British Virgin Islands to join the club.
I also draw his attention to two minor issues. One is ensuring equality in medallic recognition for the OT regiments in line with their UK counterparts. With particular reference to the Royal Bermuda Regiment, the other is supporting its campaign to have the battle honours of its two antecedent regiments—the Bermuda Militia Artillery and the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps—transferred to the new regiment. It is a small but emotive and important issue.
The next success regards the environment. The 14 UK OTs collectively contain more than 90% of the biodiversity for which the UK is legally responsible under the Convention on Biological Diversity. To use the Cayman Islands as just one example, the islands are home to more than 3,000 documented native species. Over the past 40 years, successive Cayman Islands Governments have worked to develop a comprehensive framework of legislation and policy aimed at safeguarding the sustainable future of the islands’ natural environment.
The Cayman Islands has led the world in protecting marine habitats. Currently, an impressive 48% of the Cayman Islands nearshore coastal waters are protected through an enhanced marine protected area network. As a testament to the efforts of the Cayman Islands, with the backing of the UK Government, the Little Cayman marine parks and protected areas, which I had the pleasure to visit last September, have been added to the tentative list to become UNESCO world heritage sites for their exceptional importance to marine biodiversity and their incredible natural beauty. I hope that my noble friend will continue to support this application.
I also draw your Lordships’ attention to the role of some OTs in supporting the UK’s imposition of sanctions on Russia. Cayman, for example, established a joint task force, Operation Hektor, which has resulted in Russian frozen assets to 14 April 2023 of $8.88 billion and €298.6 million respectively.
There is also the OTs’ contribution to the Red Ensign Group, the UK flag state, made up of the 13 constituent British maritime administrations of the UK, overseas territories and Crown dependencies. It is one of the leading flag states of the world. It sits on the International Maritime Organization’s council and is acknowledged for its technical leadership. It is an excellent example of the benefits of the UK, OTs and Crown dependencies working together.
I end with three challenges to bring to my noble friend’s attention. The first is student visas. Students with British OT passports require a visa to study in the UK. In order to obtain the necessary visa, students must submit an application to the nearest British high commission located in another jurisdiction, which is often an expensive and lengthy process. The Minister knows that this issue was raised at this year’s Joint Ministerial Council and I would be grateful if he could outline how the Government intend to address it.
The second challenge is Girlguiding. Girlguiding UK’s board of trustees announced that British Girlguiding Overseas, which has around 2,600 members in 36 countries and territories, will no longer be part of Girlguiding UK. These OT branches have been in place for nearly 40 years. Frankly, this seems an incredibly short-sighted step as we seek to foster yet stronger links between our OTs and the UK. Given that Girlguiding UK will continue to support the Crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, I simply ask my noble friend to use his best endeavours to encourage Girlguiding UK to reverse this retrograde step.
The final point I wish to raise with my noble friend is successive Governments’ frozen pension policy for pensioners living overseas, including those in certain British Overseas Territories who are prevented from accessing a full state pension that increases in line with inflation. It has turned the annual state pension uprating into a postcode lottery. Pensioners living in overseas territories that have an existing social security arrangement with the UK, such as Bermuda and Gibraltar, receive their full uprated state pension, while others living in, for instance, the Falklands Islands or St Helena do not. These pensioners are living not in a foreign country but in a British territory, so why is the policy of uprating not applied equally to all the overseas territories?
My Lords, I will return to the issue of values and rights, as introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, in his excellent opening speech. I am afraid that our views will diverge.
People living in the British Overseas Territories deserve nothing short of the same respect for their human rights and fundamental freedoms as that available to those living in the United Kingdom. Indeed, in 2012, the United Kingdom Government recognised that being an overseas territory entails responsibilities, and that territory Governments are expected to meet the same high standards as the UK Government in their respect for human rights. The UK Government also recognised that they have a fundamental responsibility to promote the political, economic, social and educational advancement of the people of the territories to ensure their just treatment and their protection against abuses.
It is in that spirt that, on 6 July 2022, I introduced the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Overseas Territories) Bill to make provision for the marriage of same-sex couples in the six overseas territories that currently do not permit same-sex couples to marry. My Bill sought to make what would now be regarded by most people in the UK, and in the majority of overseas territories that have enabled same-sex marriage, as a positive change to the law to allow same-sex couples to gain full and equal recognition of their loving and committed relationships.
I believe that the ability to marry the person we love is an incontrovertible and fundamental human right. Every person in your Lordships’ House today recognises this, because every person in your Lordships’ House would be horrified if they were told that their current marriage was not recognised by law or, in the future, that they could not marry the person they loved. Denying two adults the right to marry on the basis that they are the same sex is an outrage. This House recognised that outrage and put an end to it in England and Wales when it played a pivotal role in passing the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.
This House must take a lead in respect of those overseas territories that will not address the outrage of marriage inequality themselves. We can and should protect same-sex couples from the abuse of discrimination and legislate to grant them the right to marry. I have heard repeatedly all of the arguments against the UK doing this—that it is a sensitive issue, that we must respect the right of territory Governments to choose for themselves, and that if we do not, we will damage our partnership with the overseas territories. I reject every single argument I have heard against the UK Parliament taking a lead in this area for one simple reason. We are dealing with something so corrosive and destructive of human existence and dignity: excluding people from access to marriage, which is universally recognised as a fundamental right. I believe that we have a moral obligation to act.
I hope, perhaps in vain, that the Government will find time for my Bill to enable us to take a simple step that will transform the lives of same-sex couples in the overseas territories at no cost to anyone. If they will not find time for my Bill, we will return to this issue time and again until it is settled. Justice must, and will, prevail.
Other areas of discrimination are faced by LGBT people in some of the British Overseas Territories and the Government must also address those. Inequality and discrimination diminish every single one of us and undermine the notion of a civilised society.
In conclusion, I want to take this opportunity to thank Professor Paul Johnson OBE, executive dean at the University of Leeds, for working with me to design the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Overseas Territories) Bill. Professor Johnson is known to many noble Lords for his ongoing work in this House and the other place on designing legislation to advance equality for LGBT people, not least in respect of enabling those in the United Kingdom shamefully mistreated because of their sexual orientation to access disregards and pardons—something which, with my noble friend and ally Lord Lexden, we continue to press the Government fully to deliver on.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton, for securing what I believe is an extremely important debate.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and to offer Green support for his Private Member’s Bill and whatever we can do. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton, for securing this debate.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, I will briefly reference frozen pensions, because it is a huge issue for 500,000 pensioners living overseas who cannot access a full state pension that increases in line with inflation. Many of those pensioners live in the overseas territories, and it is, in essence, turning the rest of their life into a postcode lottery. Pensioners living in overseas territories such as Bermuda and Gibraltar receive their fully uprated state pension, while those in the Falkland Islands, the Caymans or Anguilla see their pensions fall in value year on year. Some of them get as little as £20 a week. One example that has been shared with me is of Roger Edwards, a Falklands War veteran. He lives in the Falklands and now receives a state pension of just £106.50 a week compared to the full basic state pension of £156.20 a week, losing £1,800 a year as a result.
If I was going to do a checklist, I would also note in this debate the issue of economic crime. However, given that we will cover that again soon at the Report stage of the economic crime Bill, I will park it on one side.
In the time available, I will focus mostly on an issue that I have pre-warned the Minister about: that of carbon emissions in the Falkland Islands and more broadly, and the climate impacts of what is happening there. I fear that there is considerable confusion among the Government about this situation. I shall cross-reference a couple of Written Questions that I have put to them and responses that do not seem quite to add up.
The first of those Questions is HL6972, which was answered on 3 April. My Question was about the steps the Government were taking to work with the Government of the Falkland Islands to complete an emissions inventory for any potential future fossil fuel development. The Answer I received from the Minister stated:
“As a self-governing Overseas Territory, economic development, including the development and exploitation of hydrocarbons, is a matter for the Falkland Islands Government”.
In essence, that Answer appeared entirely to deny any responsibility here in Westminster. I then asked a further Question on 27 April, HL7503, about
“whether climate change emissions from British Overseas Territories are part of the UK’s total accounting for emissions and included in the Net Zero by 2050 target”.
The Answer I received was that
“emissions from the UK territory are in scope of domestic Carbon Budgets and the Net Zero target, in accordance with Section 89 of the Climate Change Act 2008”.
Those two things do not seem to square up. The Answer further stated:
“The UK’s ratification of the Paris Agreement, including its 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), is being extended to include CDOTS”—
or Crown dependencies and overseas territories.
I have been trying to make sense of how this all fits together. Part of the issue arises from the fact that, on 7 March 2007, the UK notified the UNFCCC that it wished to include Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the Falkland Islands in the UNFCCC. UN documents indicate that, shortly afterwards, the Government of Argentina notified the Secretary-General that they objected to this territorial application.
I am sorry; I have just given a very technical run-through, but I do not think the Government have been very clear about what is happening here. I do not necessarily expect the Minister to answer this rather complicated tangle fully today, but I hope he will commit to write to me afterwards to outline exactly where the Government see emissions for the Falkland Islands.
There is also a much broader issue. I note a very useful briefing from the RSPB, which all noble Lords taking part in this debate will have received, looking at crucial aspects of the British Overseas Territory and the climate emergency. That briefing notes:
“No UK Government Department has clear responsibility for supporting the Territories on climate adaptation, and there is no strategy in place to do so”.
This is a serious issue that really needs to be tackled. The RSPB briefing also notes:
“Many Caribbean Territories also still have very weak or absent development planning frameworks”,
which means that developments are taking place that are destructive to both climate and nature. They simply do not have the resources to deal with this.
Returning specifically to the Falklands, it deserves to be noted that the current population is about 3,500, growing at about 3% a year. None the less, it has an area half that of Wales, so it faces some very big issues, particularly with carbon emissions and peat. The Falklands have an amazing ecology; it is a place of no native trees, amphibians or reptiles, interestingly. But tussock grass, the naturally dominant species, when undisturbed can grow up to 10 feet high and is the fastest method of forming peat in the world.
The other relevant factor is that the Falklands are notably dry. The average rainfall, in some areas, ranges from 200 millimetres to 600 millimetres per year. The former end of that is definitely drought territory, even speaking from my Australian origins, and it is getting drier. The peat soil is drying out and blowing away.
There is also the very large issue of oil. The North Basin is thought to hold 580 million recoverable barrels of oil—a very large amount. The Falkland Islands Government are very keen to see the development of that, because of their budget’s huge dependency on fisheries. The UK Government have a real responsibility to work with and help the democratically elected Government of the Falkland Islands on these issues. This is a really big issue, which I do not believe the Government have got to grips with, which I am pushing them to do.
In the interests of full disclosure, earlier this year, I was in the Falkland Islands under the Armed Forces parliamentary scheme. I met members of the Falkland Islands Assembly, local officials and others, which very much informed what I have said today.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Lancaster on having been successful in the ballot and securing this timely debate.
When the late Queen died last September, I had just arrived in Gibraltar with a parliamentary delegation. The next day, the newspaper headlines were “The Queen of Gibraltar has died”. Fortunately, we were able to sign the book of condolences in the Governor’s house and to attend the firing of the 97-gun salute, by the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, from the harbour.
That proves, together with the turnout of premiers and other high-ranking leaders of overseas territories for the King’s Coronation, that the peoples of the overseas territories are without doubt among His Majesty’s most loyal subjects. That is in part because of the Coronation but also because of the joint ministerial council, which took place last week, the UKOTA meetings and the 40th anniversary celebrations, meetings and events that have taken place during the past year. There has been a great deal of activity recently.
In saying this, I thank the CPA—the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—for its ongoing work, which is not always recognised, and, especially, the public accounts committees of some of those territories, which operate successful financial centres. I also acknowledge the current Mr Speaker’s clear championship of these tiny territories and the warm welcome that he always gives at Speaker’s House. Speakers have always been very happy to receive and support the overseas territories, but Sir Lindsay is particularly active and recognised in this respect.
Over the years, I have introduced and participated in numerous debates about the overseas territories, and I am an active member of the British Overseas Territories All-Party Parliamentary Group, as well as most of the bilateral groups. In preparing for this debate, I took a look at one such debate that I introduced in February 1994.
The obvious changes since then are, of course, the name change from dependent territories, as it then was, to overseas territories, and the fact that Hong Kong was then one of their number, adding a large number of people to the statistics. Although Hong Kong is no longer an overseas territory, we still have an ongoing feeling of responsibility for its people and for those who have been disadvantaged by the changes. I stated in that debate that there were 58 people on the Pitcairn Islands, and now, according to the Library’s excellent briefing, it appears that only 50 people are left there.
The common factors that I noted then remain much the same. I said that
“they are virtually all island communities, English-speaking and essentially they have the same legal systems and democratic processes. However, from then on their needs and aspirations are diverse. There can be no blanket answer, I realise, to all their needs, but there are points of similarity and common interest between them”.—[Official Report, 9/2/1994; col. 1574.]
In that sense, nothing much has changed.
I have tabled Motions in recent years to have further debates on the overseas territories but, unfortunately, I have not been as successful as my noble friend in the ballot. My themes then would have been very much on the subjects of climate change, which has been referred to, and humanitarian and hurricane relief. The overseas territories, particularly in the Caribbean, have had great problems with hurricanes and the recent ravages. In this context, I should perhaps mention Montserrat in particular. I hope my noble friend can give us some assurances that the overseas development fund will be managed with the overseas territories very much in mind.
The other issue is biodiversity. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, has already referred to the RSPB’s comprehensive briefing. Given that some 84% of the UK’s biodiversity is found in the various overseas territories, that is clearly a very important issue on which I hope my noble friend will be able to give us some assurances.
Given the time, I will mention quite rapidly the post-Brexit issues, such as the border issues for Gibraltar —it is not only Northern Ireland that has such issues as a result of Brexit—and the problems the Falklands Islands has had with its main export, squid, and with exports and entry to the European Union. I realise that I am running out of time. There is the issue of the European Union funding which went to the overseas territories. To what extent has that now been replaced, as promised by our Government?
Once again, I thank my noble friend for giving us this opportunity. I look forward to the rest of the debate.
My Lords, first, I declare a special interest in relation to the overseas territories: my father and grandfather were Bermudian, so I feel a very special part of that island. The noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, did not mention that we had a strong naval tradition there—certainly that was my father’s and grandfather’s part in that island.
I thank the noble Lord for initiating this important debate. He mentioned last week’s debate in the Commons. My honourable friend Stephen Doughty, the shadow Minister covering the overseas territories, set out five key principles that would guide a future Labour Government’s relationship with them. It is worth spelling out those five key principles again, because they reflect what the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, said.
The first is devolution and democratic autonomy, which is about establishing clear consistency on constitutional principles of partnership and engagement. The second is listening and the principle of “Nothing about you without you”. The third is partnership. A future strong and stable relationship between the United Kingdom and each of the overseas territories must be built on mutual respect and inclusion—indeed, that involves all government departments, not just the FCDO.
The fourth key principle is the fact that rights come with responsibilities, as the 2012 White Paper recognised. In our British family, we share common values, as the noble Baroness mentioned, and legal traditions. We share obligations and principles, such as a robust commitment to democracy, the rule of law and liberty, and the protection of human rights, including those of people living with disabilities, women and girls, and—as my noble friend Lord Cashman raised—LGBT+ people. The cause that my noble friend advanced is absolutely right. We all share in our family the same rights, and we should all be treated in the same way. The fifth principle is the advancement of good governance, ensuring proper democratic accountability and regulation.
As my honourable friend said in the debate in the Commons, Labour has committed that we will defend their security, autonomy and rights, including in the case of the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar. I am pleased to see representatives of the Gibraltar Government here this afternoon.
The UK’s overseas territories are each a cherished and important part of the global UK family, each one with its own nuances that are too often overlooked and ignored. Far too often, the debate around the overseas territories is based on generalisations that fail to consider their uniqueness and the vibrancy of each territory and its history. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, that we must move away from the notion that, when it comes to the overseas territories, one size fits all.
My party believes firmly that the future of the overseas territories must be led first and foremost by the wishes of their people and communities. Labour will always be guided by the concerns and priorities of the people of the overseas territories. It is imperative that the relationships between the United Kingdom and each of those territories are built on mutual respect and trust, not just in the FCDO but across the whole of government, as the noble Lord said in his introduction. We need a very clear, joined-up strategy on the way the UK delivers for the overseas territories and their people. All too often we have seen oversights and bureaucratic issues that present unnecessary and enduring difficulties for those living in the overseas territories.
Naturally, to be part of the British family there are obligations which must be fulfilled pertaining to the values we all share, including the protection of human rights, the advancement of good governance and ensuring proper democratic accountability. These are very important points.
I have some specific questions for the Minister on two issues that I suspect are close to his heart. Primarily, can he tell us how the Government, across all departments, are collaborating with the overseas territories to deliver on sustainable development? How are we working to match the goals set out in the 2030 agenda? The climate crisis poses a unique threat to small islands—as the noble Baroness said, most of our British Overseas Territories are small islands. Can the Minister provide an update on the overseas territories biodiversity strategy, which is so vital to their future?
More generally, under Chapter XI of the UN charter, the UK has a responsibility to represent the overseas territories’ interests in the UN system. How does the UK engage with the democratically elected leaders of the BOTs at the UN? How do we ensure that their voices are heard at every level?
The steps that the Government are taking to ensure proper security collaboration with the UK overseas territories are vital to ensure not only our geopolitical reach but that those policies relating to our defence, security and foreign policy are matched. The noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, mentioned sanctions. I agree with him that our overseas territories have been very strong in implementing those policies, but how are we not just supporting them in adopting sanctions but ensuring that they have the capacity to implement and monitor them properly?
Those are vital issues to ensure the future of our relationships globally. I hope the Minister will reflect on the positive elements we are talking about. Across all parties, we share a genuine commitment to the overseas territories.
I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton for tabling this debate and giving the Committee an opportunity to discuss and celebrate the UK’s relationship with the overseas territories. The OTs are a core part of the British family. The UK has a responsibility to ensure their security, good governance and prosperity. We also have a moral obligation to protect the safety of the inhabitants of the territories, just as we do for inhabitants of the UK. Although we cherish our territories, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, is right to emphasise that our partnership is built on mutual respect, as it must be. I reiterate the same commitment that my predecessors have made: the UK Government will defend the right of the territories to choose their own future.
As Minister for the Overseas Territories, I hosted all their elected leaders earlier this month for the 10th joint ministerial council. This came just a week after the leaders attended the Coronation and gave us the opportunity to celebrate the British family’s shared history together. My noble friend Lady Hooper made the point very well on both the response of the overseas territories to the sad death of Her Majesty the Queen and the celebration of the King and contribution to his Coronation.
We were joined by Ministers and officials from across the Government at the JMC. Our discussions covered top priorities, including migration, economic resilience and essential services. We made joint commitments to tackling urgent shared issues, such as the environment, financial transparency and healthcare access. While I am pleased that we are making progress on a range of important issues, it is also clear that there is much more to do. There are shortcomings that the Government undoubtedly must address, some of which my noble friend Lord Lancaster highlighted.
We have a fundamental duty to protect and support the territories, but the sad truth is that we have, at times, been found wanting. But I am determined and our Prime Minister has been clear that our territories will be prioritised across Government. I take this opportunity to echo the remarks of my noble friend Lord Lancaster about the Foreign Office or FCDO team, some of whom are behind me. I am lucky to work with such a diligent, hard-working, committed team. They go well beyond the call of duty in their support of the overseas territories.
However, it is also necessary for me to say, as has been said by a couple of other speakers, that while the FCDO is the lead department at the centre—I have used the term “air traffic control” before, because it accurately reflects our role with the OTs—we do not control the levers of delivery. They exist elsewhere, in other departments, so it is crucial that other departments step up to fulfil their reserved responsibilities to the overseas territories—whether it is the MoD providing vital logistical capabilities to respond to hurricanes or the Home Office bolstering the border security of territories responding to large levels of irregular migration.
Beyond meeting our reserved responsibilities, departments can contribute to and learn from British communities in these extraordinarily diverse and rich territories. We must do more. I know the Prime Minister shares this view: he has written to all departments, directing them to fulfil their responsibilities and, crucially, to nominate a dedicated Overseas Territories Minister, who will liaise with me. I will convene regular meetings of these OT Ministers to ensure that we are meeting our obligations.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about—but I am not sure he used the term—the OT strategy. He was talking about a government strategy on the OTs and that strategy is under way. The FCDO is leading that work but, again, this effort must go across the whole of government and involve the territories.
I return briefly to the question that my noble friend Lord Lancaster raised about why the FCDO should be the lead department on this within government. It is a difficult question to answer, because there is no obvious right or wrong, but I think it is right that our staff working on the OTs are experienced at working overseas and that our ambassadors and UK missions are joined up to advocate for the OTs internationally and to defend their sovereignty, especially the rights of the Falkland Islanders. A number of our ambassadors have played a crucial role in securing support for the islanders and their right to determine their own future.
I hope my noble friend is reassured that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I are completely committed to ensuring that the Government deliver for the territories. My noble friend Lady Hooper made a point about the Speaker and I simply echo her remarks: the Speaker is a champion for the overseas territories and he has been superb.
Of course, the ambition of all the territories is to be economically self-sufficient but, where this is not possible, we support them with overseas development assistance. The OTs continue to have the first call on our development budget. I am proud to say that, despite pressures across the ODA landscape, the FCDO team behind me was able to increase official development assistance to the eligible territories. This year, we will provide £85 million to the Governments of St Helena, Montserrat, Tristan da Cunha and the Pitcairn Islands. That will account for between 60% and 95% of the territory Governments’ budgets and will provide essential services, including education and healthcare.
In addition, we are investing many more millions in infrastructure in the territories. For example, we are providing £30 million for St Helena, £40 million for Montserrat, £4.5 million for Pitcairn and £2.5 million for Tristan.
Since we are not short of time, many years ago, in opposition, I was privileged to travel to St Helena to make an assessment of whether we would build an airport. After seven days of bobbing on a boat from Cape Town, I think my first decision was that it could definitely have an airport. Could my noble friend give an update on the success of that airport? There were a few troubles to start with.
I thank the noble Lord. I think I am still limited to my 12 minutes —it is crazy; I do not make the rules—so I shall be very brief. The theme of airports cropped up a lot during the JMC. St Helena has its working airport; Ascension’s representatives arrived there on the inaugural flight. There is work going on in Anguilla, Montserrat and other places.
I will move on to the environment because I am going to run out of time and I have quite a few issues to cover. We are investing significantly to protect the ecosystems and biodiversity of the overseas territories, which are of global importance. It has been said already that they harbour over 90% of the UK’s biodiversity. They have numerous endemic species and they really are of global importance. I think the FCDO’s Blue Belt programme is one of the great conservation stories of my lifetime. We have supported it with around £40 million of funding this year. The programme now protects 4.5 million square kilometres of ocean. That does not even include the Cayman project my noble friend mentioned, which is extraordinary—and, yes, of course, I am very supportive of its UNESCO application.
We have invested more than £45 million over the last decade in biodiversity and conservation projects. I am thrilled that Defra has committed a further £10 million each year until 2025, and I hope it will go beyond that too. In response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we have also worked closely to ensure that the voices of our overseas territories are amplified and magnified at UN climate change and biodiversity summits. We did that in Glasgow very effectively and we continue to do it. Indeed, I spoke to the UAE just yesterday and made this point then as well.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised a number of issues. First, based on everything I understand, it is the Falklands Islands’ right to pursue fossil fuel development, and we support its right to develop its natural resources as we support all the overseas territories in that regard. We are working very closely with the Falklands Islands Government to build local capacity so that if and when the development happens, it is properly regulated to the highest possible environmental and safety standards.
The noble Baroness asked about the emissions and where they are calculated; I will write to her on this topic to give a specific answer. However, I would make the point that the OTs contribute very little to emissions. Their contribution to nature, biodiversity and marine ecosystems is vastly disproportionate. It is right that we should focus more on that. We are working with the OTs which want to join the international agreements on emissions. As I say, in the interests of time, I will get back to her with more details on that.
She asked about who in government is in charge of this adaptation. She rightly said that almost all the overseas territories are islands and therefore acutely vulnerable to the changes we know are happening. That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, as well. This came up a lot, as your Lordships can imagine, at the JMC. It is very clear that the OTs have a particular vulnerability. The responsible Minister is Trudy Harrison at Defra. She spoke at the JMC and we had a very wide-ranging conversation. The FCDO also provides funding through the CSSF for environment and climate change work. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, the biodiversity strategy is being consulted on right now—it is happening.
We continue to support the territories in building their resilience to hurricanes and disaster response. That includes FCDO funding for annual training, equipment and warning systems. We also provide operational support. From next week, HMS “Dauntless” will be there, ready to act if necessary. I pay tribute to the regiments and defence forces in Bermuda, Turks and Caicos, Montserrat and Cayman, which will play a key role as first responders when natural disasters affect the overseas territories.
I will not be able to answer all the questions about regiments and medallic recognition, but I have a good answer for the noble Lord—I shall follow up afterwards, if he does not mind. Likewise, we are working on the Royal Bermuda Regiment’s battle honours. I know that colleagues in the Ministry of Defence are looking closely at that issue now, but I will give him a fuller answer in due course.
On visas, we know that it is vital that students with British overseas citizen passports are able to study in the UK. This is an ongoing issue. I assure the noble Lord and others that I have written in very strong terms to the Home Office Minister on this. We are following up and making ourselves as big a pain in the backside as possible to ensure that we resolve that issue.
The issue of Girlguiding is beyond our control as a Government, but it has been raised by me and by others.
Finally on this, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised the issue of state pensions, which was also raised at the JMC. I committed to follow up with the DWP, which I am on the cusp of doing. I very much hope that we will be able to resolve the issue, but I cannot promise any particular outcome because it is beyond my control, I am afraid.
Briefly on security and borders, which is one of our key priorities for the OTs, we are investing £18 million in security for the Caribbean through our integrated security fund. In the BVI, we are working with the Government to improve governance and increase law enforcement. Irregular migration and serious crime are threatening to overwhelm the Turks and Caicos Islands. The Foreign Office has taken measures, including tendering for a maritime surveillance aircraft, training law enforcement officers and helping fund electronic border infrastructure, but it is crucial for the Home Office to deploy its expertise and resources to prevent the territory becoming overwhelmed, which could happen. We will continue to work very hard on this issue as well, and I will continue to lobby my counterparts in other departments to ensure that every department of government fulfils its responsibilities in full to the overseas territories.
I am likewise very pleased to see representatives from Gibraltar here. I assure noble Lords that we are continuing to work with Gibraltar to conclude a treaty with the EU covering its interests. I will not be able to go into detail now, other than to say that we are steadfast in our support for Gibraltar and will not agree to anything at all that questions or compromises on sovereignty.
I realise that I am over time, but I feel obliged to answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, which was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on equal marriage. I thank him for his work on this issue. As he would expect, I very strongly agree with the points he made, but policy on marriage is an area of devolved responsibility. That is simply a fact. It is the responsibility of the territories to legislate. It is worth acknowledging that a lot of progress has been made. The majority of territories have legal protections for, and recognition of, same-sex relationships and we are working hard to encourage others to do the same. I know that that is not the answer that he was hoping for, but we have to respect the fact that these islands are not subjects of direct rule from Westminster. There is a process that they have to follow.
I can see that I need to bring this to an end. I thank noble Lords for their contributions. The territories really are a massively important part of the UK family. I am deeply committed, as are the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and others, to ensuring that we do everything we need, constitutionally and morally, to support these wonderful overseas territories. We continue to do so.
Assistive Technology: Support for Special Educational Needs
Question for Short Debate
I call the noble Lord, Lord Addington.
My Lords, I want first to thank everybody who has taken the time to get here this late on a Thursday when we have a recess coming up. I should also make a declaration of interests, the most important of which is that I am chairman of Microlink PC. It is one of the bigger companies in this country, if not the biggest, dealing with this issue. There are many fields and many pies here; we have fingers in many of them.
My other interest is that I am president of the British Dyslexia Association and dyslexic. My last interest, which I probably do not have to declare but which is relevant to everything else, is that my life was transformed about 25 years ago when I got working assistive technology. I am a severe dyslexic; the way I communicated a written message was to dictate it. Suddenly, when I got assistive technology, I could do it myself, so if I sound a little messianic on this it is because I am talking from my own experience.
That was happening to somebody who had managed to get through the system due largely to the influence—shall we say?—of a tiger parent. It got me through the system, into the university structure and out the other side, because once you get over the first hurdle, people are generally quite willing towards you. Once you have proved you have some capacity, they are there to invest in you.
Unfortunately, most people do not have that support and help, or it is not given effectively, or they are simply missed. The most common experience for somebody with SENs, particularly with a neurodiverse background, is that you are told to try harder and work harder. We need the capacity to spot those with problems and then go to that wonderful and expanding box of tricks, which can help you get through. It is dependent on you having a working platform for it—normally, it is a computer; a tablet or something might work, but you need something to use it on. Once you have that, many things become possible.
So far, I have been talking about things which are to do with the communication of information. There are those Members—I am looking across the Room at two of them—who will have experience of bits of supportive technology that help with movement and other forms of support. I look forward to hearing about them.
I could mention all the areas where assistive technology is used, but we have only an hour. I could also mention the products if we had a couple of weeks—I reckon that there are about 40,000 of them. It is about making sure that people know what is out there and getting the right thing in front of them. The real point of this Question is what the Government are doing to make sure that happens. What the benefit is to the state is a reasonable question to ask on every occasion.
If you have assistive technology, and you need it, you stand a chance of becoming an independent and, one hopes, positive economic influence in your society. It may not be impossible otherwise, but it is much more difficult. Occasionally, you hear people talk about “the exceptional people who get through”. Any system that is dependent on you being either brilliant or lucky has fundamentally failed, so I hope that we will get a better understanding of what the Government are going to do about utilising this box of tools to allow people to go forward. That is really what I am aiming at today.
Look at our current system. I appreciate that the Government are now starting to look at and take some steps on it. The system we devised has a graduated approach up to the education, health and care plan, which replaced the old statement. I know the Government are working on making this an easier process but, let us face it, if it works it will be a little like the cavalry coming over the hill. It has become a legal process and it has probably done more to benefit specialist legal firms dealing with the education sector than anyone else. The Minister was not on that Bill, but I was, so maybe I should take some of the blame: we did not see it coming.
One of the other things that has happened is that the graduated approach that was supposed to come in behind it has become virtually irrelevant for many. The experience of many people I have spoken to is that you need the support of the plan to access help. Assistive technology is potentially much cheaper, if you have identified it correctly and got through. The problem is identifying who will benefit from it, even including those in the neurodiverse spectrum. I am going to talk about the needs closest to me, simply because I understand them slightly better.
For somebody who is dyslexic, identifying their level of need and the problem early enough means you stand a chance of bringing them assistance. The same is true of dyspraxia, dyscalculia and ADHD. There are a lot of devices here that will help all of them. Indeed, the same devices are often used differently. Trying to get them at the right time is about the identification process.
A lot of people are talking about screening programmes. How are we getting these screening programmes to identify people? With the best will in the world, people will be needed to administer them and, at the moment, the consensus is that people in the education sector are not well trained enough. I am sceptical about whether the new level 3 SENCO is the answer. The Minister will undoubtedly tell me otherwise, but are they going to identify and get people in the right way? Do the teachers know how to administer the screening process to identify that group?
Let us face it: no system is perfect, certainly not in its first phase. What will we do afterwards? The noble Baroness was instrumental in making me have a discussion with those providing alternative provision—AP. The one question that I asked them, which I was worried about, was what they were doing about screening when people get into AP. They said, “We are relying on the rest of the education system”. The noble Baroness said, and everybody agreed—when everybody agrees in politics you know something will go wrong—that most people in AP have a special educational need, almost by definition. Relying on the rest of the education system to spot it cannot be right; you will need another degree of assessment, because presumably somebody has already been missed.
If you can get assistive technology to somebody, they will have something that they can take with them to deal with things in a certain way, or at least to stand a chance. The identification of need tells them another thing: you can succeed; you can take part and join in. That is why I am trying to find out what the Government’s policy is. It is about that degree of training, support and structure: “Here’s a tool; get in there”.
It is also an opportunity to break the cycle of depending on a tiger parent. This is why, for instance, dyslexia was thought of as the middle-class disease—“exam-passing disease” would probably be a better term. Parents who have aspiration and have got through themselves ask, “Why is my child not the same?”
All the conditions that I have spoken about today have similar stories attached to them. There is a very black-humour joke: if you want to be a successful disabled child, choose your parents correctly. That has been true until this point and it is another condemnation of the system we have at the moment; you have had to fight to get through it.
Are we going to train teachers well enough to use this and give it to a person so that they can act on it for themselves for the rest of their lives? We should remember that most of these children are going to grow up. I have concentrated on education here but, hopefully, the workplace is waiting. What are we going to do? Can we make sure that people are prepared to take on this role?
I hope the Minister has some good news for me about the process and access to it, and can tell me that schools understand it and will bring it in. It should give independence, be cheaper and allow that person to have a model of process that is relevant outside the classroom. Traditional types of help, such as 25% extra time, are not going to be a great deal of help for you if you have to fill out a form at work under pressure, or if you have to complete a task on time. We need skills that are transferable. Assistive technology has the capacity to take on at least some of that role.
I hope the Minister and indeed all others here will put pressure on the Government to ensure that we take advantage of this, because if we do not we are missing a trick that can make people’s lives better, save money in the long term and improve the strength of our workforce. This is one occasion when the ha’porth of tar should be put on the boat.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate and I congratulate my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on securing it. I declare my interests in technology as set out in the register and, like the noble Lord and other noble Lords in this debate, as a user of assistive technology. I am looking forward to all the contributions today, not least from my noble friend Lord Shinkwin, who has such expertise and experience to bring to bear in this area.
I have assistive technology in my pocket, on my desk, at home and at work. I could not have done my A-levels, gone to university or got a job, and indeed could not do my work here, without it—it is that significant. If you will, assistive technology is all around me. I ask the Minister: how are the Government ensuring that, for everyone who needs it, assistive technology is around all of us?
I did a report last year on the disabled students’ allowance. I was not asked to or commissioned to. Why did I do it? Because the allowance was not working. I came across many findings around assistive technology from all those who kindly gave of their time—students past and present, those who have experienced DSA and assistive technology and those in positions of responsibility in higher and further education. Do the Government agree with all 20 of the recommendations that I made? Specifically, on assistive technology, is asking for a contribution of £200 towards a laptop from students entitled to assistive technology not a misreading of equalities legislation?
I spoke to an extraordinary student studying architecture. They were told they could not have the laptop required to run the architecture software; they had to have just a more standard laptop. How is that assistive technology? A laptop that could not host the software essential to the course meant that the student had to get a second laptop to do their course on. That may have been technology but it was not assistive. Does my noble friend agree that that is a waste of a precious resource?
As for the time it was taking students to get assistive technology, it was a case of months rather than weeks. I give a shoutout to my old university—I declare an interest in that I was at Cambridge University—which took this service in-house and turned a three-month wait into a three-day delivery. If Cambridge can do it, can it not be done across the system? The services have been tendered since then, so can my noble friend the Minister update the Committee on how that tender is running? What are the early signs from the new processes in place? Similarly, what is happening with the DEAs? What training is in place there? What is happening with the AT teach and learn service? How is that going?
Ultimately, this is about enabling and emancipating talent—be that at school, university, further education or employment. Does my noble friend not agree that it would make sense to have an assistive technology passport which started from the first moment an individual who had a requirement stepped into school and ran throughout their time in education, higher education, further education or employment? Whatever journey or pathway an individual wanted to pursue, the passport would already be in place so that there would not have to be forms, explanations and, worse, justifications at every stage. We found that students who had done incredibly well in education using a particular type of kit were then told for the next step of the journey that it could not be recommended. How can that be right? This surely should be personalised, with the learner and then the worker at the centre, wrapping the services and assistive technology around the individual. That is the approach we take in other areas of policy. Would my noble friend not agree that that is completely the approach that we should and must take in this area?
What are we up against here? Can my noble friend confirm to the Committee what the current disability employment gap and disability pay gap are? I repeat those two questions for those who are blind and visually impaired. What is the Government’s plan to close all those gaps so that we get to something which at least starts to look, feel and be like equality?
Finally, can my noble friend update the Committee on what is happening with the centre for assistive and accessible technology? It is a great initiative. What progress is being made on that?
Ultimately, AT is the right brand—it is a great brand. But may I push my noble friend further on this? Why do she and the department not consider this enabling and emancipating technology, which enables and emancipates talent? Does my noble friend not agree that, for all those people who would benefit from emancipating technology, it is long overdue that ET came home?
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for securing this debate. My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond is a very hard act to attempt to follow, but I will endeavour to do so. His speech was based on such powerful and authoritative personal experience.
I declare an interest as chair of the Institute of Directors’ commission, “The Future of Business: Harnessing Diverse Talent for Success”, and as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology, with Lilian Greenwood in the other place as my co-chair. It was in the latter capacity that I was delighted to co-author the foreword to the excellent APPG report by Geena Vabulas, Talent and Technology: Building Bridges to Employment for Disabled People—because, as my noble friend quite rightly said, this is ultimately about talent.
I appreciate that my noble friend the Minister will have myriad reports to wade through at any one time, and I do not envy her that task. I am not assuming that she will have had a chance to read the APPG’s Talent & Technology report, but I commend it to her. While much of it focuses, as the title would suggest, on employment, four of its 10 findings look at the education end of the bridge to employment. While I am not disputing that education has its own intrinsic worth, I think we would all agree that, without it, the prospect of an individual being able to realise their potential, especially in employment, is inevitably limited. So it is an essential part of a much bigger life chances equation.
The report’s first finding was that current systems of assistive technology, or AT provision, leave disabled people in digital black holes at key transition points that affect their ability to find and secure employment. The APPG would encourage the Government to raise their sights and aim higher to ensure equitable access to digital for disabled people in their efforts to close the disability employment gap—mentioned by my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond—which remains obstinately at around 30%, as the Minister knows. A practical way of doing this would be for the Government to appoint and empower a national assistive technology champion to develop and deliver, in collaboration with disabled people, a framework on disabled people’s life transitions, including between different educational settings and at different stages.
The report’s second finding was particularly worrying: disabled students are still leaving education without knowledge of work-based AT provision, without the skills to use it in the workplace, and without the confidence to navigate these issues when starting a new job—for example, as my noble friend mentioned, when having to justify the use of specific equipment, which could so easily be addressed by having a passport that enabled them to get on with the job from day one.
That is why the APPG also recommends that education providers should ensure that careers education, information, advice and guidance—or CEIAG, which is yet another acronym—and disability support and guidance are joined-up, so that education leavers know how to access AT and support to enable their transition into employment. It also informs the APPG’s recommendation that the DfE should produce and promote guidance and resources for education providers on AT and workplaces and preparing for employment. This should include information about Access to Work and other routes to securing timely access to AT.
I mention that it should be timely because the final recommendation relating to the DfE, as well as to DWP, concerns Access to Work. At the moment, the scheme does not put in place AT fast enough for disabled students on short-term work placements, and education professionals can be unaware of this DWP-sponsored support. This makes collaboration between the two departments essential to ensure that disabled people on work placements, traineeships or apprenticeships are able to use AT from day one of their placements. I do not think this need involve a lot of work and money. The support could be developed as an enhanced Access to Work offer, jointly sponsored by DfE and DWP, or as a fund available to education providers, or a combination of both elements.
I would be really grateful if my noble friend the Minister could address the report’s recommendations in writing and detail not only what the Government have done but what they plan to do in response and, crucially, when.
Statistics make it clear that AT is not a niche subject. Indeed, only last year a survey found that nearly a third of higher education students reported using captions or transcriptions. I could go on, but what is equally clear is that the onus should not be— as, unfortunately, it too often can be—on the individual student to self-advocate. The Government need to accept their responsibility as the facilitator of appropriate, effective and timely provision.
My Lords, I am very pleased to support my noble friend Lord Addington in this debate. It is a topic where he has great expertise and enthusiasm. I can share the enthusiasm but, sadly, not the expertise.
Close to home, one of my grandsons has terrible handwriting. He has had more lessons than I can say, since he was very little, poor little thing—well, not “little”, because he is enormous now—but his enthusiasm for writing is outweighed only by the perplexity of anyone trying to read it. He was given permission to do both GCSEs and A-levels with a computer, gained excellent grades and is about to graduate in singing from Southampton University. Obviously, his inability to write legibly should have been a special educational need, although it was never classified as such. The family knew that he was very bright, but we were all extremely grateful that technology stepped in and saved the day, because there is no way that the examiners would have trawled through his scrawly scripts.
We are grateful to RNIB and Guide Dogs for their briefings. Very many years ago, when I was at college, there was a blind student in my class. I well remember a lecture where we took out pencils and paper to take notes. This was long before the days of technology, and this student had a tape recorder to be able to revise later. The lecturer was furious and told him he was not to be recorded. He was not a great lecturer, so perhaps that is why he did not want to be recorded, but his subject was one we needed to know, so we were all sitting there poised. We were left wondering how we could help our blind colleague if he was to be denied the only mechanism that he had for revising the lecture, given that taking notes was not possible for him.
More recently, I was on a committee with the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond. I greatly admired the way he used an impressive bit of kit. He seemed to absorb all the pages of script which the rest of us could skim-read but he, presumably, could not. My other memory of that committee is of my feet every now and again feeling very warm, and realising that his beautiful dog had decided to go to sleep on them—a friendly Peer and a friendly dog. The noble Lord asked some highly relevant questions, which I trust the Minister will answer.
We have two other blind Peers, of course: the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Low, who are great contributors to debate. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has an impressive record, both in government and out. He, like others, has a great memory for voices and greets people when he recognises a voice. From our Benches, I can see the noble Lord, Lord Low, typing away at his machine. I much regret that we have not seen him since he had a really bad fall down the stairs here some weeks ago. I am sure we all send our very best wishes for his speedy recovery and hope that he will soon be back in his place on the Cross Benches, with the valuable contribution he has been making for very many years. All three noble Lords are evidence that sight loss does not mean loss of value to the community, and their dexterity with assistive technology is extremely inspirational.
When I worked for City & Guilds on vocational qualifications, we always had advice from the deaf community on letters, words or phrases which would be misunderstood or muddled with others. It can be difficult for those of us who do not suffer from disabilities to appreciate where danger may lie. Confusing “b” and “p” was one elephant trap, and there were certain abstract phrases which caused confusion that they always asked to be rewritten. We would rewrite questions and tests to ensure that no one hard of hearing was disadvantaged. The technology for deaf people has improved hugely in recent years too.
My noble friend, as he said, is much involved with dyslexia. As expected, the British Dyslexia Association sent a very useful brief. As others have indicated, it is truly important that children should be diagnosed early, as with any special educational need, so that remedies can be applied as soon as possible. It is not acceptable for children to miss out on schooling because no one has spotted or diagnosed why they are failing.
These days, we have the wherewithal to diagnose early. Years ago, when I was at school, there was a girl branded stupid who was actually very intelligent, and she went on to be a highly successful entrepreneur and fundraiser. She was diagnosed very late as dyslexic, a syndrome we had not heard of in my young day. She would have had a much happier school life if her “stupidity” had been recognised for what it was and measures put in place to help her, instead of constantly seating her at the back of the class and assuming that she would not be able to answer any questions. We call for all teacher training to include the common disabilities teachers are likely to find among children they teach and for teachers to learn tolerance if children are having difficulties—as well as patience, which of course all teachers need in spades.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to hear the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, who is a powerful advocate and evidence of courage and determination overcoming physical disability. His contributions to debates are always thoughtful and well worthy of being taken forward.
Can the Minister say what provision is made in teacher training to ensure that special educational needs are identified and treated appropriately? There is so much these days to ensure that anyone suffering a physical or learning disability can flourish. Alongside that, I hope that all children are taught kindness and compassion. How can government ensure that accessibility is part of the conversation in all areas of policy, regulation and service delivery?
This debate has thrown up some fascinating issues. Once again, I thank my noble friend for introducing it.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for putting forward a debate on such an important issue and for his personal insight into the current and potential use of assistive technology to support those with special educational needs. It was of particular interest to hear how assistive technology has transformed his life and could transform the lives of others. It is clear that a considerable range of products is available to do this.
Those points were echoed in the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, who made clear how reliant he is on assistive technology and how all those who need it should have assistive technology, as he put it, all around them. I understood his clear frustration at the findings underlying his report, that students were not able to access appropriate assistive technology, and the damage this could do to their ability to undertake their courses effectively.
Like others speaking in this debate, I have family members with dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism, and understand to a small extent how hard it can be for the 1.5 million children with SEND in the UK, and for their parents and carers. It is important to focus on the scale of the issues during a debate of this nature. We know, for example, that the number of children on an education, health and care plan has gone up by 50% since 2016. We know that this is an equalities issue. Those eligible for free school meals, black pupils and children in care are disproportionately likely to be assessed as having special educational needs. We also know, as has been pointed out, that children in alternative provision are far more likely to have a special educational need. This makes it all the more important that provision of appropriate assistive technology is not left to parental income or chance but becomes part of the provision by default.
We know that the current support for many children with SEND is insufficient. As the Children’s Commissioner has said, current provision is leaving them in a “vicious cycle” of poor outcomes. Families often have to battle their way through the system for a diagnosis, for support following that diagnosis, and for every stage of their child’s education. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said, early diagnosis is vital, but even when diagnosed, and despite huge family efforts, only one in three children receive the correct level of support.
We know that that lack of support, and the battle that parents and carers face, has real consequences. Seven out of 10 parents told the Disabled Children’s Partnership in a recent survey that their disabled child’s health had deteriorated because of a lack of the correct types and levels of support. Despite that, much of the Government’s SEND and alternative provision plan does not come into effect until 2025-26.
It is really important that we do not assume that assistive technology will solve all problems but, used correctly and with the right support, it can make a life-changing and life-chance-changing difference. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, highlighted that it should be the right tool at the right time.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for forwarding me information from the National Deaf Children’s Society that makes it clear that a significant minority of children have reasonable requests for hearing or listening devices fail, and that 15% of families told the Deaf Children Today survey that they had been turned down for a hearing or listening device. The society has also found that assistive listening devices are not always used properly in schools, which can lead to children stopping using them. That really is not acceptable.
Because of the breadth of the category that SEND covers—the range of conditions and issues that fall within the remit of that categorisation—the provision in relation to assistive technology has to be condition-specific but also child-specific. I support the suggestion made by the National Deaf Children’s Society that, when the department develops new national standards, it should create deaf-specific national standards, and that it should do so for specific standards appropriate to a range of disabilities and needs.
The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, highlighted the need for appropriate teaching within the teacher-training programme so that teachers can identify signs that a child might require assistance, and how to deal with that. Can the Minister confirm whether that will be the case in relation to the new national standards?
There is no doubt that assistive technology in schools can be useful in improving the welfare of students and their achievements by boosting confidence, increasing independence and helping them to build skills that are key to continuing education and entering the workforce. The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, focused on the potential use of a passport so that people do not have to argue their case at every stage, a point echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin.
In 2020, as we have heard, a DfE literature review found that
“AT is an under-utilised intervention”.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, in his description of the potential digital black hole that people can find themselves in, and on the need for education and assistive technology to provide a bridge to employment. The DfE assistive technology stakeholder reports also make that clear.
Knowing what we do, and knowing that people with disabilities are less likely to achieve further education or higher education qualifications and less likely to be in work, there is simply no excuse for the slow pace of the rollout of resources in schools. It is therefore bizarre, frankly, that, after an initial assistive-technology training trial resulted in good outcomes last year, the Government are rolling it out to just 150 further schools in the first instance. For those children who can now access these valuable tools, that is a good thing—I am not saying otherwise—but it pushes back any potential national rollout at a time when SEND pupils desperately need help now. It is vital that the Government make every effort to increase investment and training, and focus on providing pupils with the support that they need. No child can afford to lose the opportunities they should have within the school system, but children with SEND will be failed if this issue is not addressed.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for his tireless work in this area and for tabling this important debate. People talk about your Lordships’ House and the expertise that resides within it, and this debate was an example of very deep experience and insight.
As we heard, many of your Lordships have personally benefited from assistive technology or know people who have. Such technology can help reduce barriers to learning for students with special educational needs and disabilities. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, reminded us of how things were—not in a good way—with the episode of her fellow student and the tape recorder. We all hope that such episodes are behind children and students in classrooms today.
As your Lordships noted, we published a rapid literature review of assistive technology in 2020. That found that assistive technology is underused in education, and it identified strong and exceedingly clear evidence of the benefits of specific types of assistive technology, such as alternative and augmented communication devices.
My noble friend Lord Holmes challenged me to assure the Committee that all students who need access to devices will get it. As he knows better than anyone, the question is more complicated than that. It is about getting not just the devices but the support to make sure they are used effectively. I hope my noble friend will join me in recognising that the Government made a huge investment for all children during the pandemic, of over £0.5 billion—£520 million—to provide just under 2 million devices for learning and training, including on the effective use of assistive technology. The technology sector has also invested heavily in developing built-in accessibility features. That means that schools and colleges, now more than ever, have greater access to mainstream assistive technology.
The specialist assistive technology market is also growing at pace, with products such as alternative and augmentative communication devices becoming cheaper, smaller and easier to maintain. However, we want to develop a more robust understanding of the potential benefits of using built-in assistive technology features to seamlessly support SEND learners, as well as their peers—including, for example, those for whom English is an additional language.
We also know that, for a long time, teachers have found assistive technology difficult to use. In our 2021 edtech landscape survey, 57% of teachers said that software was only sometimes or rarely supporting their SEND pupils. That is why, last year, we went ahead and piloted training to increase school staff confidence and capability in using assistive technology. We initially trained staff at 79 mainstream schools in England and conducted an independent evaluation, which gave us promising results, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross. Some 75% of participants said the training had contributed or would contribute to improvements in the support for pupils with SEND to a great or moderate extent. Three-quarters of participants also thought it would remove barriers to learning for children with SEND.
Following those promising results, we are running a second training programme over a longer period, with about 150 schools. The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, challenged why this was a smaller increment. There will also be a more in-depth evaluation. The difference in the second study is in exploring the longer-term impact of assistive technology training on schools, staff and learners, so that we have the fullest possible picture of how we can support wider SEND CPD before potentially rolling it out further. There is clearly an option, once we have all the evidence and understand what the evaluation is telling us. One option is to build this kind of training into SEND CPD or wider staff training, and we will also consider how to apply it within FE colleges and special schools.
We learned a great deal about the use of technology in education during the pandemic. We learned that education requires more than a device and an app. We are clear that the use of technology in a classroom should be pedagogically driven and informed by best practice. We are working with leaders, researchers and industry to build the strongest possible evidence base for the effective use of technology and to make sure, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, that we give students the right tools, at the right time.
We also need and appreciate the work that the edtech industry does with us to make sure that the evidence base is as robust as possible. That includes thinking hard about what data we collect and at what level of granularity.
Of course, effective assistive technology use also requires strong SEND provision at every level. That is why our SEND and alternative provision improvement plan sets out the work we will do to ensure that all children receive the support they need early in their educational journey and, crucially, that the support stays with them for as long as they need it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, emphasised the importance of early identification, and we agree with them absolutely. We believe and hope that our national standards will create a system which allows for earlier, more accurate and more consistent identification of need so that support can be targeted most effectively.
As for the issues around employment, my noble friend Lord Shinkwin raised some powerful examples in his speech. I would be delighted to write to him in response to his question about the APPG’s report. I also very much welcome his emphasis on careers and on the co-creation of materials with people who have special educational needs and disabilities.
A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Holmes, raised the issue of an adjustment passport. I think noble Lords will be aware that we have been working with the Department for Work and Pensions to pilot such a passport to smooth the transition into employment and to support people when they are changing jobs, including people with special educational needs and disabilities. That passport will capture an individual’s in-work support needs, including their assistive technology requirements, and empower them to have more confident discussions with employers.
I know that the Department for Work and Pensions has also been working in partnership with colleagues at Microsoft to train work coaches on accessibility features such as Immersive Reader and Magnifier, using technology to create accessible experiences for jobseekers with special educational needs and disabilities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, talked about the importance of staff training and referred to the new SENCO NPQ. We believe that this will play an important role in achieving the goals we and the Committee have to improve outcomes for children and young people with SEND by ensuring that SENCOs receive consistent, high-quality, evidence-based and practical training. We are working with the Education Endowment Foundation, and we have a SEND expert in the role of lead drafter in the drafting and preparation of the qualification.
My noble friend Lord Holmes asked about work in relation to DSA; I thank him again for his report. As my noble friend knows, students have told the Student Loans Company that the current process is extremely long and complicated. We heard examples of that in the Committee this afternoon. Students have had to contact multiple companies to get the equipment they need. We really believe that the new service will be much more streamlined, and that the experience for students will be very much improved, including in relation to the delivery of assistive technology, familiarisation and training in its use, and ongoing support afterwards.
In relation to my noble friend’s question about the disability pay gap, the data I have about the median pay of disabled and non-disabled employees is that the gap in 2019 was 14.1%. It fell slightly to 13.8% in 2021.
My noble friend Lord Holmes also asked about the centre for assistive technology. We have a commitment in the National Disability Strategy, but it is currently paused due to the High Court ruling because of the consultation not complying with the rules. I am happy to write to him with more detail on that.
I close by thanking all noble Lords for sharing their experiences and for their questions. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, talked about pressure needing to be applied to His Majesty’s Government to focus on this issue. I stress that no pressure is needed: this is very much in our sights, and we share the aspiration of the noble Lord and of my noble friends Lord Holmes and Lord Shinkwin that this is a way we can unleash the talent of people with special educational needs and disabilities and free them to achieve their potential. We will work tirelessly to do that.
Committee adjourned at 4.51 pm.