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Lords Chamber

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2024

House of Lords

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Durham.

BBC: Funding


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, given the freeze in the BBC licence fee over the last two years and following their announcement on 7 December 2023 of changes to the licence fee from April 2024, what are their plans for future changes to BBC funding.

His Majesty’s Government are committed to the licence fee until the end of this royal charter period. Decisions on the uplift of the remainder of the settlement period will be made in due course. The review of the BBC’s funding model will ensure that future funding arrangements are fair, sustainable for the long term and supportive of the BBC’s role in our creative industries. Final decisions on a funding model will be considered as part of the charter review.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. A cut of 30% over 10 years plus a two-year freeze, which would probably be equivalent to 12%, are massive cuts. They have led to massive reductions in BBC local, national and international services and news broadcasting. The cuts certainly go much further than could possibly be justified by fat-trimming or a response to changes in demand for television compared to streaming. They add up to death by a thousand cuts and threaten the BBC’s future. Can the Minister say whether the BBC is safe in his hands?

My Lords, the licence fee is receiving an uplift, which seeks to strike a fair deal between the impact it has on the people who pay it, particularly when the cost of living is still a concern for many, and making sure that the BBC has the income it needs to do the brilliant work for which it is rightly admired by this Government and many around the world. As a result, it benefits from more than £3.8 billion per annum in licence fee income, but we are looking at sustainable models for funding it in a world where there is increasing competition and where, sadly, we see a declining number of people paying the licence fee at all.

My Lords, the convention in this House is to shout “Stowell”, but I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Vaizey for his support. The Communications and Digital Committee published a report on BBC future funding 18 months ago, in which we found that the status quo is not an option. Decisions about how to fund the BBC in the future are becoming increasingly urgent. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, for this review to be meaningful, it is important that the BBC itself sets out its proposals for its role in the next 10 to 15 years and how it will change to fulfil that role? What is happening to meet that need as part of the Government’s efforts?

My noble friend and the other members of the committee she chairs do valuable work in scrutinising and adding to the thinking for both the BBC and the Government. The BBC is obviously independent, and it is for it to decide how to take forward the recommendations that the committee makes. However, we would like to understand the BBC’s perspectives and make sure that they are clearly understood and factored into the review and, ultimately, any decisions on the BBC’s funding model. We look forward to working closely with the BBC and my noble friend and her committee as we do that.

My Lords, the BBC’s funding depends on people having confidence in its unimpeachable impartiality. If its highly paid presenter Gary Lineker comments obsessively and one-sidedly about Israel and holds it to standards never applied to other countries—including, this weekend, disgracefully posting a call for it to be banned from international competitions—he is clearly breaking even the BBC’s watered-down guidelines. Is it not about time that he was shown the red card?

My Lords, the BBC social media guidelines say very clearly that:

“Everyone who works for the BBC should ensure their activity on social media platforms does not compromise the perception of or undermine the impartiality and reputation of the BBC”.

Particular parts of the guidelines apply to flagship presenters; it is important that the BBC applies those guidelines to all those whom it employs.

My Lords, we on these Benches have long proposed that the funding process should be taken out of government control and handed to a genuinely independent body. As the noble Lord, Lord Morse, said, does not the Government’s announcement on 7 December, which would deprive the BBC of £400 million over the next four years—and which came, as I understand it, as a surprise to the BBC—make that case?

My Lords, we want to look at the best long-term funding models for the BBC, which ensure that it gets the income it needs. It currently gets more than £3.8 billion a year. However, like many other organisations, it must look at how it spends its money in the current economic climate, mindful of the impact that has on people who pay the licence fee. In addition, as part of our future funding model, we will look at other ways in which it might get the income to continue doing the work for which it is rightly renowned.

My Lords, I may have to change my name to Tina. I declare my interests as set out in the register. I have no opinions to offer on the future of the BBC or its funding. My concern is to stress to the Minister that one of the greatest economic success stories—one of the very few in this country in the last two decades—has been the creative industries, and at the heart of that are all our public service broadcasters: the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Without them we would not have had “Mr Bates vs The Post Office”, “Line of Duty” or “Happy Valley”. I would love to hear some warm words from the Minister about how the future of the creative industries and the important part it plays in sustaining investment in British production, which the BBC is a big part of, will very much be in the Government’s thinking.

I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Lord. The creative industries were growing twice as quickly as the economy overall before the pandemic. That is why, as part of the creative industry sector vision, we are looking to turbocharge that growth and why the creative industries are one of the Chancellor’s five priority areas for our economy. The noble Lord is also right to point to the importance of our public service broadcasters. I watched the third part of “Mr Bates vs The Post Office” last night on ITVX. It is a shining example of how the arts and creative industries can shine light on important issues facing society, and long may that continue.

My Lords, during Monday’s BBC Question, references were made to the threats posed by disinformation and, in particular, the value of the BBC, which is seen as a trusted provider of news both at home and abroad. The Minister said that it was

“a beacon that shines brightly around the world”.—[Official Report, 15/1/24; col. 222.]

With that in mind, does he welcome the recent launch and gradual scaling-up of BBC Verify? Does he agree that the Government could greatly assist this new team by improving their own presentation of political events and official statistics?

That is fitting for a Question begun by the noble Lord, Lord Morse. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is right. So many of the world’s democracies go to the polls this year, and this is an issue which will face broadcasters, but the BBC particularly, both at home and through the World Service, does a brilliant job at making sure that the claims of politicians—wherever they are in the world, whatever party they come from—are rightly scrutinised and that people are informed so that they can make decisions about the societies and countries in which they live.

It is right against the backdrop of an ever-more complex digital universe to review the funding model for the BBC, as the Government intend. However, will one or more of the panel of experts to be appointed to advise the Government be an expert in the evolution of the BBC, with an understanding that its emergence as one of the most renowned institutions in the whole world, noted for its values, its creativity, and its devotion to public purposes, is inextricably bound up in the fact that for 100 years it has been publicly funded?

We will ensure that the expert panel helps to inform our thinking in the round, looking at both the things that have made the BBC so successful over the last century and the challenges ahead. We have also already been consulting the BBC itself as part of the process.

My Lords, there has never been a greater need for the BBC World Service. It is soft power at its best, and it feels very vulnerable in many areas, such as Iran, where it broadcasts vital information. Can the Minister guarantee the future of the World Service when the world is in a more precarious situation than at any time since the end of the last war?

My Lords, I mentioned in answer to Monday’s Question the £20 million uplift which we gave the World Service last March, on top of the £94 million that it receives annually. We will also ensure that any implications from the future funding model which might have a bearing on the World Service are taken into account.

Health: RSV Immunisation


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps are being taken to ensure that appropriate funding is in place to deliver immunisation programmes for respiratory syncytial virus by the 2024/25 winter season, and when an implementation plan will be published.

The Government published a prior information notice on 27 November 2023 outlining the market’s intention to tender against its requirements for infant and adult RSV programmes in 2024. Following the tender and the confirmed potential budget implications, a final decision on programme designs will be taken alongside an implementation plan for autumn 2024.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. For the avoidance of doubt, can he explain to your Lordships’ House what funding has been allocated to the national immunisation programme for the 2024-25 winter season; what proportion of that funding has been allocated for immunisation programmes for adult, infant and neonate RSV; and what conversations have been held with NHS England regarding readiness to implement the RSV immunisation programme, as advised by the JCVI?

First, I thank the noble Baroness. She has been a tireless campaigner on this issue and very good—quite rightly—at holding our feet to the fire. The exciting news is that the new vaccines that are coming along for both mothers and infants, as well as the over-75s, are now cost effective; that was recognised in the JCVI’s analysis. As part of that, we have plans to fund the programme, as mentioned. I would rather not go into the details of the actual budgets, because they depend on the tender and I do not want to give that information out to the market—but I can reassure the noble Baroness that plans are in place.

My Lords, RSV is a leading cause of infant mortality globally. Sadly, as my noble friend the Minister will know, 20 to 30 such deaths occur in the UK. I am pleased to hear about the progress that the Government are making to roll out the programme in the UK, but my noble friend will know that rolling out this programme will significantly reduce costs to the NHS by reducing GP visits, reducing attendance at A&E and reducing the 20,000 hospitalisations of infants aged under one year. Can my noble friend the Minister say, as we move towards autumn 2024 and the rollout of the vaccination programme, what the Government are doing to ensure that mothers and families know about the programme so that they can take up this vaccination when it is available?

As I mentioned, the tender is in place with a view to rolling it out in the autumn. Whether we go for the maternal vaccination or the infant one will depend on the communication plan, but I can assure my noble friend that a communication plan will be part of this ground-breaking rollout. Only one other public health rollout like this has happened in the world—in Galicia, Spain—so I am proud to say that we will be top of the list.

My Lords, during the pandemic, we learned the value of having a clearly identifiable owner of a new vaccination programme. Can the Minister tell us who the owner of the RSV vaccination programme is so that, in a year’s time, we can come back here either to congratulate them on a successful rollout next winter or to hold them accountable if it has not happened?

A DHSE team is working closely with the NHS, because that needs to be rolled out. Again, it depends on whether we go for the maternal option or do it via a different process with infants. The final answer on that will depend on the groups that are chosen; likewise, vaccinating the over-75s will more likely be in a primary care situation. When we finalise all those things, there will be a very clear plan, but there is a team in DHSE that is responsible and accountable for this.

My Lords, over the past decade, we have seen the take-up of immunisation decrease. Particularly worrying is the great disparity between white Britons receiving the flu vaccine, where coverage is 83.6%, and black Britons at just 52.2%. In anticipating the RSV immunisation programme, how do the Government plan to address vaccine hesitancy, particularly in the black community?

The noble Baroness is absolutely correct. This applies to the take-up of a whole range of vaccinations—MMR is another example, as is polio. Inner cities, including London and cities in the West Midlands, seem to be examples where take-up is quite a few percentage points lower, not just because of ethnic minorities but more because those areas have larger migrant populations, who often have not been part of the vaccination programme. Specifically to that aim, we are now publishing information in 15 languages and are trying to reach out to some harder-to-reach groups, such as ethnic minorities, the Traveller community and Orthodox Jews. There is a programme for all this, because it is a challenge. We all know that, during Covid, we talked about an R rate of 1.5. Would you believe that, for MMR, it is 13? That is just to give noble Lords an idea. It is very, very infectious.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising a very important issue. Getting the new RSV immunisation programme up and running correctly will undoubtedly save lives and, to ensure that it happens, it is really important that we learn all that we can from areas of success and failure in recent vaccine rollouts. The latest was the shingles general immunisation programme, which was introduced for all over-70s in September. Can the Minister give some indication of what data capture of rollout, uptake, demand, delivery and efficacy has been instituted and how those learnings can be applied to a future RSV programme?

My noble friend is quite right. If we take the shingles one, we see quite a disparity. The 70 to 75 element of the programme has a 74% take- up while the 65-plus element has only a 41% take-up—so there is a huge difference. We are starting to collect the data so that we can understand those disparities and then, as I mentioned in answer to the previous question, make sure that we have an action plan to address those groups.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Ritchie on her tenacity and declare a selfish interest in that I have had this wretched virus two winters running. I will be able to buy the vaccine later this year if it is not available otherwise, but millions of people, including those supporting infants, will not. That is a disgrace, is it not?

As I say, we are looking to have an infant programme. It is vital in the first few weeks for babies, which is why we are doing this whole plan, thanks to the pressure and the medical evidence. I echo what has been said about the relentless campaign for it all by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. We have got a tender in place. The intention is that we will be rolling it out from the autumn. I repeat that there is only one other public vaccination programme on this so far, in Galicia in Spain, so we really are at the forefront of this programme.

My Lords, as I discussed with the Minister last year, we have already had approval for private use of RSV for over-60s, so anyone who has up to £200 available has been able to get that RSV vaccination. That is for over-60s. We are talking about a public scheme for over-75s. Is data being collected on the effectiveness and overall health impacts on people who are having the vaccine privately, which might inform whether we should have a broader public programme?

The JCVI process is similar to the NICE approach. They look through the quality-adjusted years framework and make sure that it reaches within that. That is how they came up with their calculations. So far it is only the older ones, 75-plus, that they think are enough of an at-risk group in terms of hospitalisations and mortality to justify that. But I will inquire further and get back to the noble Baroness I am sure that they are capturing the data so that we can check on the younger ages.

My Lords, a number of noble Lords referred to the fact that there were disparities between different communities in the take-up of previous vaccines. My noble friend the Minister acknowledged that. Given the experience of previous vaccine rollouts, what specific lessons has his department learned that it will put into practice to make sure that it reaches some of those hard-to-reach communities in the rollout of those vaccines?

You have to have the data and the records so that those who you know have not been vaccinated you have to go and get specifically. In London we have been running an under-fives programme, calling all those who have not been vaccinated to come and get a vaccine. That will be rolled out to under-11s and even up to under-25s, having learned precisely those lessons.

Housing: New Homes Target


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they forecast they will reach their target of 300,000 new homes a year.

My Lords, our ambition of delivering 300,000 homes a year remains. This has always been a stretching ambition, yet there has been strong progress. The four highest rates of annual supply in over 30 years have all been since 2018, including 234,400 homes delivered in 2022-23. Increasing supply further is more difficult due to the economic challenges that we face, and we continue to engage with Homes England, developers and registered providers to understand their delivery charges.

I am grateful to my noble friend, but those figures are based on current housing policy. Over Christmas the Government confirmed a major change in housing policy, with targets for local authorities becoming advisory not mandatory; I believe that decision was a mistake, but it has been taken. Since then, 58 local authorities have scrapped or suspended their local plans, with a view to submitting new plans with lower figures for housing. What action can the Government take to ensure that local authorities do not simply succumb to anti-development pressure and so opt out of their obligation to meet the housing shortage?

First, I congratulate my noble friend on once again campaigning on this issue and holding the Government’s feet to the fire. I have heard those figures before, and I reassure my noble friend that the revised NPPF does not allow evasion to build. Local authorities have to make provision for housing and identify sites to deliver homes, and the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act makes it clear that this is a plan-led system. That is exactly why we have recently taken intervention against seven local authorities and will consider using these powers for others that are not making sufficient progress.

My Lords, last week the National Housing Federation published Let’s Fix the Housing Crisis. A key recommendation is increased grant funding to build a new generation of social housing, particularly for those 2 million children currently living in overcrowded, unaffordable or unsuitable homes in England. What plans do the Government have to increase grant funding for social housing provision to meet this urgent housing need?

The noble Baroness raises a very good point, if I may say so. I am sure noble Lords have heard this before, but it is through our affordable homes programme and the £11.5 billion that we seek to deliver tens of thousands of homes. I am pleased to say that of the 700,000 affordable homes built since 2010, 172,000 have been for social rent and 482,000 for rent.

My Lords, I draw attention to my declaration in the register of interests. The noble Lord, Lord Young, is quite right to point out the need to plan for homes but there is also a need to deliver them. I am sure the Minister is aware that the major players in the delivery of category 1 modular homes have failed despite significant government investment in supporting them. With category 2 modular methods of construction, the factories are held largely by the small number of major housebuilders, yet those who build homes—the bricklayers, plumbers and electricians —are increasingly ageing and not being replaced. What will the Government do to support smaller housebuilders, which will soon have no access to the skilled trades to build homes and yet do not have access to factories to use modern methods of construction to deliver them either?

I am very grateful to the noble Lord for raising this. There are a number of points there, and I will not be able to do justice to all of them, but I will write on all of those things. I think it is about a quarter of the affordable homes programme that has to be done through the modern methods of construction. In terms of insufficient workers—I shall write to make that point—the Department for Education is looking at the training routes, but it is also something that the Government are looking at through the significant apprenticeship programme that we have got, and part of that is allocated towards construction workers. In terms of doing more to support SMEs, it is something we will do but I promise I will write to the noble Lord to set out all these things.

My Lords, the Government’s reckless decision to abolish housing targets will have devastating consequences across England, making a safe and secure home an ever more distant prospect for millions. Do the Government recognise that, with social housebuilding numbers plummeting, there is an ever-increasing burden on the taxpayer—now around £35 billion—as benefit payments go to private landlords? How will the Minister work with the Treasury to ensure that public money goes into bricks for social housing, not benefits to line landlords’ pockets?

The noble Baroness is right to talk about the need to build more homes, and that is exactly what we are trying to do. I tried to address the point about social housing earlier. That is why there is the £11.5 billion in affordable homes. With respect, a key part of this is having a plan. We have a long-term plan, but it is not that alone but ensuring that there is funding behind it and that we unlock land, put infrastructure in and try to do all we can to support not just first-time buyers but those who may have lower incomes.

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether, in order to assist affordable housing, some thought should be given to building prefabricated houses?

I am grateful to the noble and learned Baroness for that. I completely understand the point, but I do not have an answer to it with me. It is certainly right that we should explore every option to build a variety of homes. I undertake, with her permission, to write to the noble and learned Baroness on that point.

My Lords, there was never a time when the housing division was not under stress. Does my noble friend agree with me that, if we had 750,000 extra people coming here last year, the stress will be much greater?

My noble friend raises a valid point about the need to tackle migration and its possible impact on housing and other local services. It is obviously right to say that we can be incredibly proud of being a welcoming country, especially over the last few years, but that is why we have to put in steps to tackle both legal and illegal migration, because we know the pressures that high migration has on housing.

My Lords, Section 106 nil grant agreements are one of the primary ways in which affordable housing is currently delivered, and they account for almost half of all the affordable homes delivered every year. These agreements are dependent on planning permission and planning approvals, and they are at a record low. Does the Minister have an estimated figure of the potential shortfall in affordable homes as a result of this situation, and what steps will be taken to tackle it?

I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for raising this point yet again. The key point is to not only have a plan but to continue to invest in unlocking land, particularly around the funding to build affordable homes. It is about infrastructure, investing in skills and helping people get into the property market in the first place.

My Lords, is there a requirement for all new builds to be fitted with electric heat pumps and compliant insulation? If not, why not?

On heat pumps specifically, I am afraid that I do not know. In the revised NPPF, I think that it is looked at for new builds going forward, but I do not want to say something that is not true. I can say that homes being built from 2025 should obviously be zero-carbon ready. Also, on new development, one of the good things we have said is that we will deliver a 10% net gain on biodiversity.

NHS: Drug Shortages


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what is their response to the reported shortages of NHS drugs.

Medicine supply chains are highly regulated and complex. Supply disruption is a common issue that affects countries all around the world. The department has a range of well-established processes and tools to help prevent and mitigate risk to patients. Most supply issues can be managed with minimal disruption to patients. We work closely with industry, the NHS and others to prevent shortages and resolve any issues that may arise.

My Lords, I am sorry to say that I find that Answer very complacent. We are talking about drugs for the treatment of cancer and comments from the pharmaceutical industry that the situation is the worst it has ever been, with cancer patients and others seriously at risk. Surely the Government should do something to ease the anxiety of people who are seriously ill and depend on these drugs for their lives and their safety.

I assure the noble Lord that a specific team, the medical supply team, works to manages this across the piece. It is a complex area, as we have said. There are 1,000 notifications a year about supply shortages—that has been consistent over the last so many years—that the team works to resolve. I am sure that, as this debate progresses, we will talk about some of the issues, including getting the MHRA to expedite regulatory approval, working with alternative suppliers, buying internationally where needed—we did that very well last year on strep A—and, where really necessary, introducing serious shortage protocols. It is an issue that we take very seriously, and we are managing it.

My Lords, “may” is the wrong word; there is a shortage at this point in time, certainly from the inquiries I have made. Is it not time that we had another look at the existing procedures on recompensing drug manufacturing and maybe producing a new version of the PPRS, which worked extremely well in its time?

Actually, we recently reached a new agreement with the drug suppliers on this. I think we were all pleased to do that, and it will ensure we continue to get continuity of supply. I have quizzed the team at length on this and asked it to sit down with the British Generic Manufacturers Association, which produced these figures, specifically to understand where there are differences, because I must be honest: the team does not recognise those numbers. We did not see an increase over the last few years. Where there are specific instances, such as ADHD, which I worked with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, on recently, remedial actions are in place to ensure we can manage through the supply issues.

I am sorry; will the noble Lord please focus on pancreatic cancer and say whether he is satisfied with the performance of the National Health Service and others in respect of research into and finding solutions to what in many respects is apparently becoming a notifiable disease and a sentence of death?

I thank the noble Lord for my proposed promotion. My noble friend Lord Moylan has also raised pancreatic cancer a number of times. To be absolutely honest, this is one of those cases where we are on a journey. I think we have got on top of certain areas, such as prostate cancer, about which we have increased awareness to ensure we get detection early on, but we do not detect pancreatic cancer early enough and, unfortunately, it is then often too late. We are working on something to try to correct that. The noble Lord is quite right to bring it up, and I am happy to write to him to tell him exactly what we are doing.

My Lords, I hope the Minister will revisit his department’s response to the Times today, which comes across as quite dismissive of genuine difficulties that many people across the country have with access to medicines. I encourage the Government to offer a service where people can report their individual experiences of shortages so that they can be aggregated into real-time public reports about what is happening across the country. If he wants an example of what this could look like, he could look at Downdetector, which does something similar for access to internet services.

I quizzed the team on exactly that Times newspaper report today, because like the noble Lord, they were saying that they did not recognise the numbers that the British Generic Manufacturers Association had produced. I wanted to understand why, and asked the team to sit down with them, and understand the differences, because one side or the other must be right. They are absolutely doing that, and will report back; I will be happy to update the House on the results of that.

My Lords, the drug Ozempic has been described as a super-drug for the use of diabetic patients, in order to help them reduce weight. My noble friend the Minister will be aware that diabetes costs the NHS 10% of the budget—approximately £25,000 to £30,000 a minute—with 80% of that money spent on treating diabetic complications. Therefore, can my noble friend the Minister say why Ozempic can be prescribed privately but is not available easily to NHS patients as a result of demand and constraints in manufacturing? How can the Government address this?

My noble friend is correct that this so-called off-label use of these diabetes drugs for weight-loss-type treatments is causing some of the shortages she mentions. That is exactly what we have been tackling, and we have been making sure that the only way you can get the Wegovy weight-loss drug is actually on a very tightly controlled weight management programme normally run through hospitals, and not through normal GPs, exactly to get on top of that issue.

My Lords, there are reports in the media today of pharmacists having to deal with frustrated and worried customers who are faced with shortages of medicines including HRT and the drugs for ADHD, diabetes and cancer. Can the Minister indicate what action is being taken to support and gather feedback from pharmacists who are dealing with such an unsatisfactory situation? What steps are being taken to ensure that, in the future, the supply system is able to cope as soon as demand for medicines increases?

We find that each one is a different case in point. HRT is an example: we actually saw a 50% increase in demand for it over the last year, so suddenly that is quite a dislocation for the market, and you need to gear up very quickly in terms of the supply chain issues. Strep A was the example last year that we will all be familiar with; normally, it does not come until later in the year, but suddenly there was a very early outbreak in October, which caused the demand there. You find that every single drug tends to be a different case in point. There is a range of tools that they work with; it is working with the NHS, MHRA suppliers and pharmacists, and it is case by case. As I say, sometimes it is the MHRA expediting medicines to get new supply in; sometimes it is working on alternative suppliers; sometimes it is buying internationally—that is what we did in the case of strep A—and sometimes you do have to go as far as the serious shortage protocols, finding substitutes or, in extreme cases, changing doses. There is a range of programmes on it, which by and large are managing to tackle it.

My Lords, can I ask the Minister specifically about the continued lack of supply of ADHD medication? The department said that the supply shortages would continue until April, when previously it had indicated that this supply issue would have been resolved by now. Do the Government understand the serious impacts that these shortages have, and the impact that the inability some people are facing to get any medication at all is having on their daily lives?

There are 78 medicines for ADHD, 10 of which are particularly affected. We have put export restrictions in place on that, and we are working it through so that we can hopefully get it resolved by April. It is something we are working very closely on, because we know the importance.

My Lords, I understand the Minister’s department has a cap on total allowed sales of branded medicines to the NHS. I think it will be a 4% cap over the next five years. Is this making the problem worse? Is it exacerbating the problem? Is it something he could look at with his ministerial colleagues?

I think the cap my noble friend is referring to is actually in terms of the price negotiations on the VPAG and how the rebates kick in. It is not my understanding that is something that is at issue here. We are talking about where there are specific ranges. A study was produced by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America looking at supply issues across lots of countries over the 10 years from 2012 to 2021. The UK was consistently in the top three. Yes, there are some issues that we are working through, but by and large we are consistently in the top three of supply.

Northern Ireland: Industrial Action

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of planned industrial action in Northern Ireland, and what plans they have made to release funding for public sector pay awards.

My Lords, the Government will continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which is leading the response to the widespread action. Tomorrow’s strike will be disruptive for people across Northern Ireland, and we know this is an extremely frustrating time for workers. While public sector pay is devolved, His Majesty’s Government have offered a generous package worth more than £3 billion that addresses public sector pay and would be available from day one to a restored Executive.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Thousands of workers across Northern Ireland are striking tomorrow because, despite unprecedented levels of inflation and pay agreements to reduce the impact of inflation on their living standards, they are still waiting for pay increases to be awarded. The Government have accepted that the Northern Ireland budget should be increased to finance these awards, but the Secretary of State claims that they cannot be paid because the Northern Ireland Assembly is not sitting. This is not true. Between December 2022 and December 2023, 30 different decisions in relation to pay were taken by civil servants in Northern Ireland.

The issue is whether the Secretary of State will release the money to enable the payments to be made. He seems to prefer to use workers as pawns to put pressure on my party to accept the Windsor Framework and the Northern Ireland protocol. Our call to release the money is supported by the unions, the head of the Civil Service and all political parties in Northern Ireland. Therefore, will the Minister inform the Secretary of State that he must stop using workers and their well- earned pay increases as pawns in his game of political brinkmanship and realise that bribery and bullying will not force unionists into accepting constitutional arrangements that will destroy the union in the long run by aligning Northern Ireland with the European Union instead of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his many questions. In respect of the cost of living, I remind him that this Government have delivered on their pledge to halve inflation, and from the beginning of this year have cut taxes to ease pressures on household incomes.

The noble Lord will be aware that the Government do not have the powers directly to negotiate public sector pay in Northern Ireland. This is a devolved matter for a Northern Ireland Executive. The package to which I referred a few moments ago remains on the table for an incoming Executive. Of the £3.3 billion, somewhere in the region of £580 million is earmarked for relieving pressures on the public sector. So far as the Windsor Framework is concerned, he will not be surprised to hear that I do not share his characterisation. I believe the Windsor Framework is the right basis for reforming the Executive and having the devolved institutions back up and running in Northern Ireland, delivering for the entire community.

My Lords, the Minister knows Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland people very well, and he must know that Northern Ireland people are not going to be bullied and blackmailed. I am afraid the truth is that the Secretary of State—perhaps not just this one but previous Secretaries of State too—have pushed hard to use this as a weapon against the DUP. Even the trade unions know, despite their views differing on the DUP and whether the Assembly should be back, that this is not about that; it is about blackmailing and bullying. I am very disappointed. I know this is above his pay grade, but the Minister must know that what is happening to the trade unions and people in working positions in Northern Ireland is quite disgraceful. He and the Secretary of State are allowing the people of Northern Ireland to suffer for something that could be solved today.

I thank the noble Baroness. She will not be surprised to hear that I do not share her characterisation of the Government’s approach as one of bullying and blackmail. In fact, as I set out a moment ago, the funding package on the table is extremely generous and would allow an incoming Executive to deal with all these matters and help the transformation of public services. The imperative in Northern Ireland is to get the Executive back up and running and functioning.

This is not intended to be either blackmailing or bullying, but is there not a case for re-examining the pay for MLAs? I know they already receive a reduced amount, but the longer the Assembly is not sitting, surely the stronger the case for further reducing the amount they are paid not to attend.

My noble friend will be aware that MLAs’ pay has already been reduced by 27%. I assure him that this is a matter that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State keeps under constant review.

My Lords, public sector workers in Northern Ireland demand pay parity with their colleagues right across the UK, and are undoubtedly justified in that demand, but they have been penalised because of a lack of local government in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that it is now high time for the DUP to return to Stormont and ensure that the institutions that we all voted for in 1998 are up and running, reflecting the political togetherness of everybody, rather than dancing on the pin of political purism?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, for her question. She is aware, and I have stated this a number of times from this Dispatch Box, that since April 1998 I have always been a strong supporter of the Belfast agreement and the institutions that it established. I entirely agree with her that the right thing to do is to restore the Northern Ireland Executive with immediate effect.

My Lords, it is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This is not the first time that His Majesty’s Government have used this sort of tactic to try to push people who have a mandate in Northern Ireland to do something that it would go against their mandate to do. I am sure that my former colleagues in the DUP will not be bullied into making a decision that they believe is the wrong one. I am sorry to say that I disagree with what my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Swire, had to say on this matter as well. Bullying and blackmail do not work in Northern Ireland, and it is insanity to think they will. I therefore say to the Minister, who I know has Northern Ireland’s place very close to his heart, to please press on the Secretary of State that we need a different way forward for our public sector workers.

I am grateful to my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, for her question. She referred to the mandate of the Democratic Unionist Party. Of course everybody respects every party’s mandate in Northern Ireland. I repeat that bullying and blackmail are not the approach of His Majesty’s Government. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the whole ministerial team have spent a lot of time in recent months engaging with the DUP to try to work through the outstanding issues that are preventing the establishment of an Executive. The substantive negotiations on those issues came to an end in December but, as we have made clear, we are happy to clarify where clarification is needed. I repeat that the imperative in respect of public sector pay and resolving these issues is to get the institutions back.

My Lords, it is an absolutely terrible situation at the moment. We have public sector workers in Northern Ireland being paid less than their counterparts across the rest of the UK. I am sure the Minister will understand the absolute frustration of the people of Northern Ireland, who saw their Assembly meet today and, yet again, be unable to elect a Speaker. The Secretary of State has been clear that he does not intend to directly release money available for public sector pay, but the people who are suffering are the public sector workers and the public they serve. It is not just the weather that is frozen in Northern Ireland at the moment. Given that the Government take that position, what steps do they intend to take next and can the Minister confirm to the House whether the Secretary of State intends to bring forward legislation—even as early as next week—to postpone further Assembly elections?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, who has great experience in these affairs as a former Northern Ireland Office Minister. I put on record my praise for public sector workers in Northern Ireland, who do an outstanding job, often in very difficult circumstances. I understand the frustrations that they face at this time. In respect of the noble Baroness’s point about parity, she will be unsurprised to hear that I am a unionist. I want parity across the United Kingdom for public sector workers, but the answer to this is not for the UK Government directly to intervene; we do not have those powers. It is for the Executive, backed by the very generous funding offer that is on the table, to deal with these challenges. On legislation, this morning my right honourable friend said at Northern Ireland Questions in the other place that he will bring forward legislation next week to deal with some of the issues to which the noble Baroness referred. She will forgive me if I do not pre-empt what he is going to announce next week.

My Lords, the Minister has a good working knowledge of Northern Ireland, and I will be surprised if he does not agree with me that the public sector workers should receive their entitlement, bearing in mind that the money has already been made available. What makes the situation more untenable is the fact that Northern Ireland has been funded below the UK Government’s own definition of need, as set out in the Holtham formula—not just since the beginning of the financial year but since the previous financial year, 2022. I am sure he agrees that this is not acceptable, so maybe he can tell the House again why this is happening.

While I am on my feet, I commend the unions for their responsible approach to all this. They have not fallen into the trap that some of my colleagues in this House have today, in that they blame a political party for it. That is not what they are saying. On this threat of reducing the MLAs’ money, I never heard that said once in the three years that Sinn Féin held everybody to ransom in Northern Ireland.

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I would like to think that, after 35 years of involvement, I have a slightly better than working knowledge of some of these matters. In respect of funding, the noble Lord repeated a point that he has made a number of times before in your Lordships’ House. I remind him that as part of the financial package on the table there is an updated Barnett formula, which is worth an estimated £785 million over five years. On need, he will also be aware that the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council stated in May 2023:

“Based on our updated calculation, the relative level of public spending in NI per head of population … is … broadly in line with … need”.

My Lords, the plight of the public sector workers in Northern Ireland is one of the worst consequences of the dreadful deadlock that has gripped that part of the United Kingdom for some time. It is plain that the Windsor agreement is working perfectly well and not damaging the Irish economy or the union, but the present deadlock will not be resolved because the DUP will never agree to set up a local Administration headed by a Sinn Féin leader. If this deadlock continues after the next Ulster election, will the Government see whether we can tackle the appallingly difficult process of seeing how an Executive can be set up with the other political parties that avoids the DUP’s determination to maintain a permanent veto?

I am grateful to my noble friend. I entirely agree with his first points about the Windsor Framework. From everything I have seen, the framework appears to be working very well. On his second point, I am afraid I part company in that I see no evidence to support the proposition he made. In respect of reform, we have always made it clear that we will look at any sensible reforms to the system that are consistent with the underlying principles of the Belfast agreement.

My Lords, the continued lack of an Assembly and Executive is now reaching crisis point, and the people of Northern Ireland are being badly let down. Clearly, as the parties in Northern Ireland have said, the funds should be released. Further to his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, can the Minister confirm that, in the forthcoming legislation to deal with the situation in Northern Ireland, nothing should be left off the table in terms of reform?

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness. I repeat what I said to my noble friend Lord Clarke of Nottingham; sensible reforms will always be considered so long as they can command widespread consent across the community and are consistent with the principles of the agreement. On the legislation, I am afraid I cannot pre-empt what my right honourable friend is likely to announce next week. All I can do is urge the noble Baroness to contain her excitement for a few days.

Arbitration Bill [HL]

Second Reading and Order of Commitment

(Law Commission Bill) Northern Ireland Legislative Consent sought. Considered in Second Reading Committee on 19 December 2023

Moved by

Bill read a second time.


Moved by

Motion agreed.

Private Crossings (Signs and Barriers) Regulations 2023

Motion to Regret

Moved by

That this House regrets that the Private Crossings (Signs and Barriers) Regulations 2023, while providing improved safety and visibility designs, do not set out the need, timing and costs for private crossing owners to replace existing signs.

Relevant document: 2nd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to move this Motion, which many noble Lords will think is not the most important thing facing the country at this stage. Unfortunately, when the original draft regulations were put down, those of us who have a liking for and an interest in railways, in particular private railways—some of them are steam railways—we found that no consideration was given to the costs, the timing or even the need for putting up new notices every time there was a crossing. I am grateful to Ministers for having upgraded some of the Explanatory Memoranda on this, but it is worth spending a few minutes explaining what the problem is and why I think a little more could be done.

The first thing to say is what the scope of the regulations is not: it is not public roads; it is private roads. It might be a private footpath but, as Regulation 2 says, it can be

“a private road … a private path; or … both”.

Who is the crossing operator? These days, most crossings are operated by Network Rail—there are a few private and other railways that we know about. I am told that Network Rail is happy with this—probably because it did not have much choice—but it is a good thing, and it will probably get some extra funding from the Department for Transport to enable it to change the signs.

In case noble Lords are wondering what it is all about, there are 30 pages in the regulations of pictures of signs that have to be put up on private roads or paths when they cross a railway line. One can debate whether it is time to put some obligation on the users of the crossing—by that, I mean car drivers, cyclists and pedestrians—to take some responsibility for looking before they cross. We are all told in the Highway Code that we must look before we cross the road, but it sometimes seems as if, on the railways, you just cross and if the train is coming, it is the train’s fault. We can debate that. Anyway, these regulations and my Motion do not really cover that, so I shall move on.

I want to talk about heritage railways, which will find it much more difficult to fund all the notices that they will have to put up because they are charities. At the moment, the heritage sector is suffering quite a lot post Covid and from the recession and everything else. My question to the Minister, therefore, is: how often must this really apply to the heritage sector? My noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester—who sadly cannot be here today—has been very strong in his opposition to the way that the regulations have been introduced. I know that he would be keen to contribute significantly to this debate, but he had something else that was equally important.

We are talking about a crossing, be it pedestrian or farm—it is a track; it is not a road owned or maintained by a local authority—of a railway line. There is a requirement to put up a very large number of signs to warn people that a train might be coming and what they have to do. The new Explanatory Memorandum is now helpful: it says that the Government want all the signs to be put up by 2029. That seems a long way away but, when you are running a charity and have problems getting passengers to pay the fares, problems with coal, or all the other things that you have to do, that is not very long. You might be able to do it voluntarily. It is quite clear in paragraph 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum, however, that:

“Heritage railways and tram operators responsible for private level crossings will be expected to fund the roll out of new signs themselves”.

So, my question is: what happens if they do not? Who will enforce it? Will the police or the Office of Rail and Road come along? Who will get fined?

We then see, at paragraph 7.5, that actually it is all voluntary. If you have a sign up already that complies with the regulations in Section 52 of the Transport and Works Act 1992, those signs will remain legal, and so you do not have to do it after all. The question then becomes: who is going to decide this?

My main question to the Minister is this. I understand that the Government are going to be publishing guidance on this, but it would be comforting to charity workers to know that, if they do not put up a new sign because they think the old one is good enough, and then there is an accident, they are not going to be liable; a charity is not a good place to be if you are liable and something goes wrong.

A solution is that the Government could be generous and say that, as this is going to cost only a couple of million pounds over the whole country, why not offer to gift new signs to the heritage sector as a way of making sure that the signs are beautiful and neat and everything else and save the sector a bit of money? I hope the Minister will be able to answer that question.

My final question is inevitable. There are lots of private railways in Wales, and therefore possibly a need to put up all these signs in Welsh, as well as English. If there is a sign there in English already, and therefore it does not have to be replaced because it is in compliance with the Transport and Works Act, but it is not in Welsh, is there a requirement for a new sign to be put up in Welsh, as well as the English one? On that basis, will the Minister commit the Welsh Government to funding that?

These are very small questions and I am not going to detain the House any longer. We have 50 pages of regulation on this issue, which affects only a small number of charities that run chuff-chuff railways, or steam railways. They have quite a lot of problems on their hands, and I suggest that this is not the most urgent problem. If people stop and look, they will see that the trains are not doing 100 mph; they will be lucky to be doing 25 mph. I beg to move.

My Lords, I declare an interest which is not in the register of interests, in that I am a patron of Avon Valley Railway, and the questions being debated this afternoon may well apply in the case of Avon Valley. I want to refer to the points the noble Lord has made and their potential implications elsewhere.

Noble Lords will have seen that I have an Oral Question tabled for 8 February on traffic marshals and the backwards and forwards crossings on this estate. One of my many Written Questions has been about trying to establish what alternatives are available, other than these costly traffic marshals, to mitigate the risk of pedestrians crossing where cars are moving at less than 5 mph. I noted the speeds that the noble Lord referred to and that we are talking here about a much lesser speed. When I queried the cost of the traffic marshals—remember, this is going to run for several years—I was told that the annual cost of a traffic marshal was £65,600 a year. A four-year programme means that we are talking not far short of a quarter of a million pounds. I then asked about the cost of the traffic marshal supervisor and was told that it was £91,700 a year. I have not yet asked what the cost will be of the manager of the traffic marshal supervisor and the like.

I will be very interested to see the costs in relation to these signs. I have been told that there are no alternatives to these traffic marshals, yet, as the noble Lord says, there are 35 pages of guidance. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the options identified in those 35 pages may well be available to use on this estate, and might cost substantially less than the figures I have been given for what we are spending.

I do not necessarily want my noble friend the Minister to answer my observations today, but I am just recording that I have an interest in the costs, which have implications for matters I will be pursuing on another occasion.

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Berkeley in his objective. It seems to me, as I suspect it does to other noble Lords taking part in this debate, that this is a typical example, if I may say so, of departmental overkill. For some reason, the regulations, which cover the national railways separately, are to be paid out of Network Rail’s budget. That will be taken care of, presumably, in the grants made to that organisation. But despite representations being made by the heritage railways sector, the regulations are now to apply to every farm track, crossing and so on across the country, as we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hayward.

These are not matters of minor expense so far as the heritage railway business is concerned. Perhaps I should rephrase that: most of these railways are not businesses, because they are run largely by volunteers. The Department for Transport consulted the HRA and was warned about the total cost of these regulations, but it went ahead anyway. The department’s own estimate of the cost is £1.5 million to £3 million. That is a substantial amount for such organisations, which, as my noble friend Lord Berkeley said, are hardly profitable under the present circumstances. Indeed, the future of some of them is under direct threat.

As my noble friend indicated, crossings, whether on the mainline railway or the heritage railway, are there to protect not the railway traveller but the motorist from the consequences of their own folly—and sometimes not particularly successfully so. It appears that a minority of motorists is prepared to ignore railway crossing signs. In those circumstances, the road network surely ought to make a proper contribution, rather than it being left to the railway industry the whole time, particularly given that, as I and my noble friend have indicated, the lower speeds of heritage railways, which are restricted to 25 mph, make the likely dangers considerably less than on the mainline railway.

I do not expect a direct reply from the Minister today, but I ask him either to write to me or to set out in the Official Report the duties of the ORR as far as the road network is concerned. It appears to be only too ready to intervene on railway safety; indeed, the last time I met the ORR, it proposed an increase in railway freight rates in a particular area of this country because, it said, the railway industry was charging less than it should. As far as I am aware, it does not intervene in—how does one diplomatically put it?—the rough and tumble of the lower end of the road haulage industry. Why, therefore, should it take such a deep interest in railway matters, which, in many cases, I do not consider it capable of doing? Will the Minister set out the ORR’s duties so far as the road network is concerned, allowing those of us who take an interest in these matters to compare the two and, in the interests of fairness, make future representations about the ORR’s involvement in the railway industry?

As the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, indicated, the extra signs that will be demanded under the regulations will apply to the smallest railway crossings. Again, this is really taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I would like to hear from the Minister how many accidents and fatalities he thinks this provision will impact, including the number of casualties that take place because of road users on little-used roads crossing heritage railway lines. Are we prepared to stand by as 1,500 people per year are killed on our roads? Without taking any great action, thousands more will be seriously injured, yet here we are inflicting these regulations on the heritage railway industry.

While £3 million might not be a lot for the Department for Transport, it could tip many of the smaller heritage railways over into bankruptcy. I hope that it is not too late for the Minister to think again. I plead with him and his department to look again at the activities of the ORR. It appears to be more concerned with intervening in matters in the railway industry, whether heritage or mainline, than with what happens to the road network—indeed, it does not show any concern for that at all.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the South Tynedale Railway. Earlier today, in my capacity as chairman of the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership, I signed off on its response to the Government’s call for evidence on overregulation, which closed at 4 pm. I put it to the Minister that perhaps the best response to the close of consultation might be to withdraw this proposal and to come back with something that is a bit less mean-spirited and a bit more proportionate.

My Lords, I hope that the Minister will not just do that but will recognise that there is already far too much regulation on small railways.

I will refer to the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway, which is a very small railway because it never made any money. Previously, the Member of Parliament for Ipswich invested in it; he went bankrupt and had to resign as a result. He and the railway were foolish enough not to get the wayleave to enable them to link with another railway. Therefore, it went to Ubbeston, a place that is very difficult to find even if you are the Member of Parliament for the constituency—which I was.

I am so excited by the people who work on the railway, repairing and rebuilding engines and coaches. It is a magnificent thing to take one’s grandchildren to. Many an unpleasant afternoon has been lightened for me because we have done that. Just recently, they have managed to buy the land and extend it by some quarter of a mile. That almost doubles the length of the railway. The point I will make is, simply, that the regulations mean that the railway operators must have the same investigation into whether they can run over a quarter of mile as they would if they were running the London to Edinburgh express—that is a nonsense.

I went to the trouble of looking at the regulations, which had so far eluded me, and discovered that they were nonsense. They do not take into account the fascinating and very British thing of maintaining steam railways. I hope that the Minister will not narrow his interest to those that have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley—important though they are, and supportive of them though I am. We are now in a situation in which one of the most attractive things about our British heritage is under threat: the protection of these railways by people who give their lives to doing things that I would be totally incapable of even beginning to do. They turn absolutely destroyed engines into the most beautiful things steaming along, even though it is but half a mile, to be enjoyed by both children and adults—because most of us are like children in this situation.

The Government have an opportunity here to reform what is a necessary thing. My noble friend and I may have different views about Brexit, but I have to say to him that one of the ways of taking back control is perhaps getting rid of some of the controls which we do not need.

My Lords, I take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, on his assiduous scrutiny of the regulations today and on previous occasions. I join those who take great interest in heritage railways by declaring that I am president of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, which is a great honour—it is in fact the most visited facility in North Yorkshire as a whole.

I make a plea to my noble friend. Without adding to his brief, could he be proportionate in the way that his department approaches this? If you take the route that the North Yorkshire Moors Railway follows, obviously it is deeply rural in nature and will have many crossings, and I hesitate and shudder to think what the cost of each signpost will be. I therefore urge my noble friend to commit in his response to taking a measured and proportionate approach to the way that his department will implement these regulations.

My Lords, I am afraid that I will strike a slightly different note from the love-in for heritage railways that has taken place this afternoon. I love travelling on heritage railways but I do not join other noble Lords in objecting to the principle here; I object to some details of this but I do not object to the principle of the need for it.

Greatly to my surprise, I discovered that there is a growing problem with private crossings, far from all of which involve heritage railways—other private crossings are involved. There are about 3,000 of them in the UK. Every year, a couple of people die on them and there are on average 137 near-misses each year. Therefore, there is a case for making them more carefully signed.

Where I do join other noble Lords is in my amazement at the range of diagrams, the variety of signs and the level of detail in those signs, which is so great that, probably, anyone seeking to cross a railway line in a hurry would not be able to read them from a distance and would probably skip the detail and take a risk in certain situations. Therefore, the complexity of the signs being offered is actually self-defeating.

I have other points of concern, moving on from my basic point that there is a real problem to be solved, and one is the delay in implementing the findings of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch investigations which recommended these changes. There were two investigations, one into the Oakwood Farm collision in 2015 and the other into the Frognal Farm collision in 2017. Why has it taken so many—nine—years to produce and test this suite of signs? Other noble Lords talk about the financial constraints for heritage railways but there is nothing more likely to finish the success of a heritage railway than someone being killed or seriously injured, which would lead to a very significant insurance claim against it. Therefore, it is very much in their interest to have the best possible signs.

My second point is that after all these years and all this effort, if I have read this correctly, it appears to apply to newly installed and replaced signs only, so we will still have the variety of the old signs, plus a wide range of new signs—no consistency, as far as I can see. Even then, the Explanatory Memorandum says that a sign is legal if it was in place in November 2023, but operators have until 2029 to start introducing the new signs. That does not sound consistent, and I would be very grateful if the Minister could provide some clarity, because this is the most confusing Explanatory Memorandum I have read in a long time. There is of course no specific penalty for not introducing these signs, so what is the Department for Transport going to do to raise awareness of them, because they will be effective only if they are adopted on a wide basis?

The Minister will not be surprised that I raised my concern at the lack of availability of Welsh translations. The Department for Transport has failed badly on this, because it is a responsibility of the UK Government, where there is a requirement in relation to provision of the language, to ensure that they introduce it in discussion and co-operation with the Welsh Government. So can the Minister confirm to us that the department has been in discussion with the Welsh Government, and can he explain why preparation has not already been made for these Welsh signs? The Minister knows that parity for the Welsh language has been a legal requirement since the days of Margaret Thatcher—I see the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, nodding vigorously behind the Minister—so it should be routine, rather than an afterthought. Why is it that the Explanatory Memorandum tells us that we will have to wait a year for Welsh translations? We could get Welsh translation by next week.

This is about safety, and it therefore acknowledges the importance of standardisation and clarity of message. I make no apologies for adding at the end of my speech that I referred on Monday to a similar issue in relation to the 2016 legislation, which removed the need for standardised warning signs for fords. There have been deaths in recent years of people who have drowned in fords since the standardisation of those signs was removed. These tragic consequences need to be considered, so I ask the Minister to investigate that issue. Was the removal of the need for a standard size and display for ford warnings a one-off issue, or were other safety signs covered by the same policy of non-standardisation? Will he go back to his department, investigate this issue and perhaps write to me to explain what the Government’s policy is going to be, because, if we are going to have safety signs on railways, we need safety signs on fords that are standardised as well?

My Lords, I apologise to the House and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley: I was a little late for the beginning of his opening remarks, although I did hear most of what he had to say.

I just want to say to my noble friend that on my journey to the House each week, I travel through the beautiful New Forest in Hampshire. This is the Weymouth to Waterloo line, so we travel at quite a speed. Across the section that covers the New Forest, there are crossings for pedestrians and for horse riders. As we approach a crossing, at a reasonable distance, the train driver is always required to sound the whistle. Would my noble friend consider whether that could be the answer for heritage railways—that the drivers of trains travelling at a much slower speed than the Weymouth to Waterloo train should sound the whistle? It seems to me that, if this has been satisfactory for so many years on a fast main line with South Western Railway, surely it would be adequate for heritage railways.

My Lords, our Front-Bench team on transport has grown dramatically over the past six months, from one to two. From time to time, my new partner—my noble friend Lord Liddle—and I have agreed on who should take business on a case-by-case basis. I thought that I would do the magnificent thing and offer to take this one. Little did I know how foolish that would turn out to be.

The essence of my noble friend Lord Berkeley’s regret Motion is that he is basically saying, “Here’s all this stuff that defines what this should be, but it’s going to involve costs”. It is not self-evident from the regulations that it will but, as you go into this, it becomes clear that, largely speaking, it will. I managed to knock together some paperwork this morning with the help of my friend Google and I have looked into this. As one who has done thousands of statutory instruments, I know that the first thing to do is not read the regulations, because they are almost impossible to read—so you go to the Explanatory Memorandum. However, in this case the EM came to the knowledge of the splendid Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee; it did a full job on these regulations, including extracting from the department a set of answers to its questions, which created much more information.

One thing that comes out of this is the fact that there is no impact assessment, because it will be below £5 million in any single year, et cetera. When one reads the appendix, one realises that the creation of this document makes doing it mandatory, even though the statutory instrument itself does not say so. I thought, “Well, I’m not going to be able to oppose this instrument”. I mean, no Labour person could stand up and criticise the Government for spending more money on railway safety—and I am sure that, deep down, it makes sense. Sadly, that sense has eluded me. The immediate questions that come up are these: why are we doing this? What is the hazard? What problems are we seeing? Our attention is drawn to two accidents: RAIB report 12/2018 and RAIB report 07/2016.

I fought my way through the labyrinth and found these reports. They were remarkably unconvincing on signage solving all the problems. I then went to the appendix, which has a really interesting table of data. If I am reading it correctly, there has been one fatality in the last five years. I know that one fatality is important but, given the hazards on the railway, this is a very low-risk environment. Having read the document with more care, I see that it is all down to a risk assessment.

Having chaired the Rail Safety and Standards Board for five years, I thought I would look this up and see what it boils down to. Very sensibly, the background to safety sits against a proportionality test—being as safe as it is reasonably practicable to be. When I went into the paperwork, this did not come out very strongly, so I had to go down to the ORR’s documentation. There are two documents, one of which, Internal Guidance on Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) in Support of Safety-Related Investment Decisions from February 2016, very clearly says:

“The purpose of this guide is to assist ORR staff in assessing whether risks on Britain’s railways have been reduced ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’ (SFAIRP). The guide sets out our view on what should and should not be included in a duty holder’s cost-benefit analysis (CBA) for SFAIRP purposes. In this section we explain how to interpret the results of a CBA”.

This concept is reinforced by a statement published on 30 November 2022.

The cost-benefit analysis is about not just the costs but the benefits. The benefits are the avoidance of fatalities, but there is one fatality in five years. Deep in this document—regrettably, as I suppose most people would say—the price or value of an avoided death is offered at £1.64 million. At the moment, the benefits that could be accrued are avoiding that death over five years. If you look at the money involved, the cost to Network Rail is approximately £1.3 million a year. The range offered in the documentation is bizarre, even for somebody who is used to numbers. It is approximately £1.25 million per year for Network Rail and about £0.4 million per year for the heritage sector, et cetera. Superficially, over five years that is about £8 million to save this single life—but, when you think about it, it will not save a single life because there are factors that cause death other than signage.

I find it difficult to see how the Government have come to the conclusion that our wonderful heritage sector should be burdened with the cost of spending this public money. I am sure that the Government are being entirely sensible. The most fundamental problem here is that there is not a proper impact assessment. There is an uneasy feeling that if there were a proper impact assessment, I would suddenly understand how the sums add up—and, if they did not add up, the impact assessment might have said “Don’t do it”.

I look to the Minister to explain, within the ORR’s own rules at the moment, how this could be justified. I hope that he is able to produce an answer, either now or in a further document, on how the department came to these conclusions.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their consideration of the Private Crossings (Signs and Barriers) Regulations 2023 and for the many informed points that were raised, which I will now try to answer. I do not have to declare anything, but I do have a passionate interest in heritage railways: there is nothing quite like a Santa special with the grandchildren.

These regulations are made under the powers conferred by the Transport and Works Act 1992. They address a long-standing concern by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch about the effectiveness of signs at these types of level crossings. The regulations will apply to England, Scotland and Wales. The regulations were subject to the negative procedure and came into force on 18 November 2023.

I will now provide some background information about the legislation. There are two categories of level crossing on Great Britain’s rail network, which are governed by separate legislation: crossings where the railway bisects a public right of way and crossings where the railway bisects a private right of way. These regulations cover the second category and replace the Private Crossings (Signs and Barriers) Regulations 1996. There are around 3,200 private crossings in Great Britain. Around 2,500 of these are on Network Rail’s tracks, around 700 are on heritage rail lines and one is on a tramway. Many of these crossings were created in the Victorian era to maintain access for local landowners, such as farmers. These crossings are the responsibility of the relevant railway operator.

In recent years, the number and diversity of private crossing users have increased. This has been due in part to the increase in the popularity of online shopping, which has led to a large increase in the number of couriers and home delivery drivers using private roads. Van travel has grown substantially over the last 25 years, increasing by 106% to 55.5 billion vehicle miles in 2019, according to the department’s own estimates. Some of these users may be unfamiliar with how to use or operate these crossings safely. In addition, rail traffic along some formerly quiet routes has increased since 1996, increasing the risks to users of private crossings.

The Rail Accident Investigation Branch undertook a comprehensive review of these crossings in 2009. It found that the signs used at these crossings are not always easy to understand and that their design does not always reflect the risk at individual crossings. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch made several recommendations, including one that the requirements for signs at private crossings should be reviewed. The report also found that the 1996 regulations contained a limited range of signs that did not reflect the full range of users of private crossings. For example, there are no symbols in the regulations for tractors, horse riders and farm trailers, all of which often use private crossings; the Rail Accident Investigation Branch reported that this can create confusion.

Since that report, there have been several serious accidents at private crossings, including at Frampton level crossing and Frognal Farm. These prompted the Rail Accident Investigation Branch to recommend that the signs themselves be redesigned; these new regulations do just that.

The department has spent several years working with sign experts to create a suite of signs that address the concerns raised by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch. This involved commissioning research, as well as consulting twice on the revised sign designs. The first consultation in 2022 ran for eight weeks and received 64 responses from rail operators, private residents and other interested parties. We worked with the Office of Rail and Road, Network Rail and the Rail Safety and Standards Board to revise the proposed signs in light of these responses. We then tested them with experts on level crossings, signage and human factors to ensure that they were clear and effective. These signs were then subject to a second consultation, which ran from 5 April to 10 May 2023. We received further responses, which we used to refine the new regulations.

I believe that that perhaps explains the background and need for these signs. I will now address the other areas raised. In answer to the points by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about implementation, I will try to explain how we expect the new regulations to be implemented. I am aware that this has caused concern among some heritage rail operators. All existing signage that complies with the 1996 regulations remains lawfully placed until it needs to be replaced. However, once a sign needs to be replaced, only a new sign may be erected. This is an important point, as it means that there is no legal requirement for operators to replace existing signs. These will remain lawfully placed until the end of their serviceable life. In practice, this could be several decades. Perhaps this will help heritage railways to replace signs over a period of time, reducing the cost.

Nevertheless, we believe it is important that the new signs are introduced as soon as possible. This is particularly important for the mainline railway, where the risks to users are greatest. We have agreed with Network Rail that, on the mainline railway, the older signs will be replaced as soon as possible, and by the end of control period 7, in 2029, at the latest.

The risks are lower at private crossings on heritage railways due to the lower speed and frequency of the trains. The department has no intention of changing the Transport and Works Act to allow the Secretary of State to mandate the early phasing out of these existing signs. None the less, we hope that the heritage rail sector recognises the improvements that the new signs bring and will make all reasonable efforts to adopt the new signage as soon as possible. My officials have written to the Heritage Railway Association and other heritage railway operators to make this point clear.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and other noble Lords raised the cost of installing new signs. We estimate that this will range from £2,000 for a simple installation to £4,000 for a more complex one. These costs include the costs of the signs themselves, staff or contractor costs, and materials. Our estimates are based on Network Rail’s own experience and have been validated by the heritage sector.

Most of the costs will be borne by public sector bodies, particularly Network Rail, which is responsible for around three-quarters of private level crossings on the rail network. We estimate that the cost to Network Rail will be between £800,000 and £1.7 million per year between now and 2029. These costs have been reflected in Network Rail’s funding settlement for 2024 to 2029.

The cost to heritage operators is estimated at between £253,000 and £506,000 per year. However, this assumes that heritage operators adopt a similar rollout of the signs to 2029. In most cases, these costs will not be additional, as the signs would have had to be replaced at the end of their serviceable life.

The share of the costs will vary between operators, depending on the number of private crossings on their estate. Some will carry a larger share, others minimal. As I mentioned previously, we hope that the heritage sector recognises the benefits that these new signs bring and looks to implement them by the end of 2029.

Heritage railways are important stakeholders for the department, and we are keen to ensure that no burdens are placed unduly on them, especially as many have been impacted financially by the pandemic. However, we are keen to see the safety benefits of the new signs across the whole of Great Britain’s rail estate. Ensuring that the messaging on the signs is consistent is essential for safety. We therefore urge the sector to look to erect the new signs as soon as it can, using a risk-based approach. Officials in the department recently wrote to the Heritage Rail Association setting this out.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, raised the question of Explanatory Memoranda. The department continues to work hard to improve the quality of these, and I recognise that they are a vital part of the legislative process. Regular training on secondary legislation is available to all officials, with additional content targeted at those who are developing or drafting SIs and their products.

On other points raised by noble Lords, I understand the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, about the whistle. I am sure that is something that heritage railways can take up. On the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, on ford signs, I will have to have a look at that and write back to her.

The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, raised the issue of the Welsh language. We heard from some respondents that they would like the ability to place signs in the Welsh language in Wales. Although the policy area is not devolved, we believe that this is the right thing to do and are currently working with experts to translate the signs into Welsh. These will be used where risk assessments say they would be of benefit. We expect this work to conclude later this year, but due process must apply.

On enforcement, the Office of Rail and Road will advise if signs are safe, but there will be no enforcement mechanism as such. The noble Lord, Lord Snape, raised an issue regarding the duties of the Office of Rail and Road. Perhaps I could respond to him in due course in writing on that. On his point about future deaths, I cannot project such a thing, but we hope that the new and proper signage will help to prevent deaths. I can say that during the period 2017 to 2022, there were 1,508 near misses at user-worked crossings.

The essence of my point is that, superficially, this burden offends the rule that the railways claim to take through the ORR that safety improvements are not necessary if their cost is grossly disproportionate to the benefit. If it is above £5 million you would have to set that down on a piece of paper. Would the Minister mind setting out on a piece of paper, and sharing it with all who have spoken, how the department came to the conclusion that the benefits are greater than the cost and that the cost is not grossly disproportionate to the benefit? It is a simple idea that saves the railways spending lots and lots of unnecessary money. It is a very sensible idea and it is recorded; eventually you find it in their rules. The sum should have been done.

My Lords, we could discuss this for ever and a day: the cost of a life. To me, one life saved, at whatever cost, is a life saved. That is particularly important.

I am sorry, but safety legislation, in virtually every area, does not take that view. We do not talk about it very much, but the ability to spend money on safety is almost infinite. There has to be a point where you say “Enough is enough”—otherwise, transport and virtually all activity involving risk would grind to a halt. You have to take a sensible, proportionate view, which British safety legislation does. The very sound Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 does not require risk to be eliminated; it requires it to be reduced to as low as reasonably practicable, and a court has ruled that that test includes cost.

I apologise. It seems to me that the basis of this discussion is a significant difference between the statistics used in the Explanatory Memorandum and those used by the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe. The Minister referred to the number of near misses. The EM says there are on average 137 per annum. It also says that there are on average two fatalities a year. That is very different from the figures the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, produced. I hope the Minister will agree to write to us to set out the statistics and clarify that the Explanatory Memorandum is based on accurate information, because it is clearly having an impact on some people’s approach to this debate.

I thank the noble Baroness for that point. I will go back to the department, we will look at those figures, and I will write to those noble Lords concerned about this point.

To conclude, these regulations address recommendations made by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch to improve the quality of the signs to be used at private level crossings. They have been tested in a real-world environment and have been subjected to two consultations, which allowed interested parties to make their views known. As a result, we have now placed into legislation a set of signs that are fit for purpose and a vast improvement on those they replace. They will instruct users on the safe use of the crossings and improve safety outcomes for the many people who rely on them. I am sure noble Lords agree that this is the right thing to do.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the large number of noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. We covered a wide range of level crossings and railways, and many other issues. It is worth reminding ourselves that my Motion related only to heritage lines and to crossings which were not public roads—it included public footpaths and agricultural crossings, and things like that.

Taking that into account, I think we have had some very interesting statistics produced. My noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe has been very helpful to the House in reminding us of the ALARP principle, and the need for ensuring that proportionality, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, mentioned, is related to whatever letter or guidance comes next from the Minister on this subject. Those of us who have been involved with heritage railways are often told about the amount of paperwork that the Office of Rail and Road or other people require to be produced; this will add a bit more paperwork to it. On the other hand, if the Minister accepts many of the comments that have been made and produces guidance which is proportionate to this threat and the risk, then I think we will have made some progress tonight.

I have no regrets about putting down this Motion, and I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

Sir Edward Heath: Operation Conifer

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they will reconsider the case for holding an independent inquiry into the allegations against Sir Edward Heath that remained unresolved at the end of Operation Conifer.

My Lords, this short debate is on a subject that I have raised many times in your Lordships’ House through Oral Questions and earlier debates. A grave injustice was inflicted posthumously on Sir Edward Heath, a man appointed by Her late Majesty to the highest order of chivalry as a Knight of the Garter. Ted Heath was accused of a number of child sex offences in 2015, 10 years after his death. The allegations were the subject of an investigation, known as Operation Conifer, which was carried out by the Wiltshire police force.

The operation was led by Wiltshire’s then chief constable, Mike Veale. Last July, Veale was barred from policing for life because of his gross misconduct in Cleveland, where he served as chief constable, albeit briefly, after losing his job in Wiltshire. Can it be seriously supposed that a man condemned in Cleveland for gross misconduct is likely to have met the standards required of an officer of the highest rank when he was in Wiltshire? The Independent Office for Police Conduct found him guilty of making a dishonest statement about the destruction of his mobile telephone at the end of the operation.

I will not dwell in detail on Operation Conifer. It had some very troubling features. When the investigation was in its latter stages, Veale was quoted in a national newspaper as saying that he was “120 per cent” certain that Ted Heath was guilty. A statement by Wiltshire Police that followed was notable for its careful wording. Bias against Ted Heath was evident from the start. One of Veale’s senior officers, Superintendent Sean Memory, spoke in front of TV cameras outside Heath’s former home in Salisbury. The incident, totally unprecedented in police history, I think, quickly became notorious. This is what the superintendent said:

“This is an appeal for victims: in particular, if you have been the victim of any crime from Sir Ted Heath or any historical sexual offence, or you are a witness or you have any information about this, then please come forward”.

Could there have been a clearer indication that Veale and his team deliberately set out to obtain evidence against Sir Edward? Note the use of the loaded term “victim” instead of “complainant”, which the police were supposed to use.

A very long official report was produced at the end of Operation Conifer. It has never seen the light of day. A highly abridged version was published in October 2017, much of it leaked in advance to the press. In this way, the country discovered that Veale had not cleared up all the allegations laid against Sir Edward as a result of the unprecedented TV appeal. Seven of them were unresolved. The truncated report stated that if the former Prime Minister had been alive, he would have been interviewed under caution about the seven allegations. Was this decision appropriate and right? The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, a former Director of Public Prosecutions who is contributing to this debate, condemned it at the time, saying that the police’s objective was to give

“entirely bogus credibility to their investigation ... The bar for interview is low, in most investigations as low as the police want it to be—and in the case of a dead man, virtually non-existent. They are covering their backs at the expense of a dead man. Shame on them”.”

An independent inquiry led by a retired judge should of course have been set up long ago into this shameful state of affairs, but the Home Office said no. It still says no. It has rejected all the calls that have been made for an independent inquiry, paying no attention whatever to the strong support voiced on all sides in your Lordships’ House, for which I and others seeking justice for Ted Heath are profoundly grateful. The Home Office brings a closed mind to bear on this grave issue. I hoped that a Minister might be appointed to the department who would prise open that closed mind. So far, I have been disappointed. May I ask this afternoon for a clear undertaking that the Hansard report of this debate will be given to the new Home Secretary, accompanied by a request that an independent inquiry should now be held? Perhaps the Home Secretary would circulate a letter with his response to this request to all those taking part in this debate.

The Home Secretary’s predecessors dismissed the calls for an independent inquiry by saying that Operation Conifer was

“subject to considerable external scrutiny”

when the investigation took place. There is truth in that statement. Two official bodies, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and something called Operation Hydrant, were brought in to review Operation Conifer at the time. A third body was set up specially by Veale. It was called an independent scrutiny panel. He chose its four members. One of them was paid £2,000 to provide professional advice about two of the complainants, but she insisted that her independence was not compromised as a result. The review by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary was concerned solely with the use of the financial resources—some £1.5 million—with which the investigation was equipped. The Operation Conifer report of October 2017 states that the inspectorate

“was not asked to comment on the decision to investigate allegations against Sir Edward Heath”.

This review therefore has no bearing on the matters which would be the subject of an independent inquiry.

Operation Hydrant, on the other hand, is relevant. It brought together some of our most senior police officers to co-ordinate

“multiple non-recent child sexual abuse investigations around the country”,

and Veale was known personally to most if not all of them. A leading expert in police misconduct cases observed at first hand the camaraderie that existed between them, noting

“evidence of undue favouritism towards Veale by his police peers”.

Doubt is bound to exist in the public mind when reviewers are not totally independent from those that they review, and that was the position here. So Operation Hydrant cannot be regarded as an adequate substitute for an inquiry.

That leaves Veale’s independent scrutiny panel. It produced no report—just a four-paragraph statement tacked on to the end of the October 2017 report. Veale and his team provided the panel with briefings, and panel members offered comments and asked questions. They state that they

“endeavoured as best we could, to contribute to the quality of the process”

of investigation, which their short statement praises. All four members of the panel signed confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements. These silent witnesses can therefore provide no help in settling the grave issues to which Operation Conifer gave rise.

What conclusion should be drawn from all this? It could not be clearer. The Home Office should stop using the limited reviews carried out over six years ago, which lacked complete independence, as an excuse for doing nothing today. The department should face up to the fact that Veale, now a completely discredited figure, could well have left the seven unresolved allegations hanging in the air in order to avoid having to admit that a great deal of public money had been spent—some £1.5 million altogether—and much police time employed without achieving anything at all.

The Conifer report of October 2017 states that

“it is critical to stress that no inference of guilt should be drawn from the fact that Sir Edward Heath would have been interviewed under caution”.

What sort of world do they think we are living in? Of course people were bound to make just such an inference. The unresolved allegations placed a cloud of suspicion over a dead statesman. It must be removed.

Has the Home Office studied the seven allegations? They are summarised in the Conifer report of October 2017. They are a strange miscellany. Four relate to the 1960s, one to the 1970s, none to the 1980s and two to the 1990s. Two concern adults, not children. The Edward Heath Charitable Foundation has scrutinised them, drawing on Heath’s private papers, information in the public domain and the results of freedom of information requests. Its analysis shows that four of the seven alleged incidents could not have occurred.

The Home Office has tried to give the impression that only the Wiltshire police and crime commissioner could initiate an independent inquiry. That is not so; the Government have the power to set one up. Do we not owe it to the memory of a dead statesman, the only First Minister of the Crown ever to be accused of serious criminal offences, to get at the truth of this grave matter? Sir Edward Heath has now passed into history. His career will be analysed in detail by professional historians, and the truth about this terrible matter must be available to them. Ted Heath’s honour must be restored by a judicial inquiry, having been sullied by a chief constable found to be unfit for public office.

The independent inquiry into the infamous Operation Midland showed how the police had abused their trust in the way they investigated allegations against two great public figures, Lord Bramall and Lord Brittan. The disgusting allegations against them came from a fantasist, Carl Beech, now serving a long prison sentence. Beech also said grotesque things about Ted Heath that were passed on to Veale. The mistreatment of a third great public servant, who is the subject of this debate, must also go before an independent inquiry.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for securing this debate and for introducing it with such eloquence and erudition. Operation Conifer was an investigation by Wiltshire Police into the charges of sexual abuse made against Edward Heath. The Wiltshire Police investigation covered 14 police forces and it produced its report in October 2017, after years of investigation. The report’s conclusion was that, if Sir Edward had been alive, he would have been interviewed under caution regarding seven out of 40 cases. The report did not think much of the other cases and even those seven were distilled, for a variety of reasons, from an inquiry into various examples that those 40 cases showed. This does not mean that in those seven cases, he was guilty; it simply means that those seven cases are those where he had a case to answer.

There has been a demand, ever since the report was submitted in 2017, that because the report lives and Sir Edward’s reputation is under a cloud—it does not fully exonerate him—there should be a proper, independent judge-led investigation into this. All kinds of criticisms, some very strong, have been made of the report and I want to mention five or six of them, so as to indicate the gravity of the charges made against Sir Edward. They include: the lack of corroborative evidence; the way that the investigation was launched and publicised; the fact that Heath was dead and could not refute the allegations made against him. There was also the question of the way in which the investigation was carried out and concern about some of the individuals involved in it. All these things have been raised against the report, and therefore the demand is that we should have another independent judge-led inquiry.

I have been thinking about this a great deal. I read the report three or four times, with great care, plus the literature that has grown out of it. I have asked myself: what should be my response? My honest response is simply to look first at the reasons why such an inquiry is needed and then the reasons why it would be unwise. I will leave it to your Lordships to decide what should be the overall balance of evidence.

First, should there be an independent judge-led inquiry? The answer is yes. Why? The reputation of a Prime Minister is concerned. Public confidence in our system on child abuse has to be maintained. It is also important that justice should be lent to the individual, and that truth should surround that. Innuendos and silly gossip should not be carrying on. It is also quite important that shady characters in our society, as in every other, should not be allowed to blackmail or dishonour decent men after they are dead. There are cases in the report where shady individuals said all kind of things. with no kind of responsibility at all. These are the reasons why the report is unacceptable and another independent report is due.

However, there are also reasons why an independent report should not be produced. First, the Conifer investigation, with all its limitations, is reasonable and objective. That has been said by quite a lot of people, including those who were critical early on. They felt that the evidence was collected and examined very carefully, and therefore there is no reason to believe that the report needs to be superseded.

Secondly, to investigate this would take another year or two and our public life would once again be haunted by this issue. We have only just come out of the investigations into Sir Leon Brittan and Lord Bramall and others. Let this not drag on for another long period and give a silly impression about this society. There is also the question of public reaction. When you demand this kind of inquiry, it inevitably becomes the subject of public debate on the importance of the nature of politicians in our society. The whole climate of suspicion of politicians will go on. There is also the feeling that no report will silence the critics and detractors of honourable people. Therefore, there is simply no point in producing this independent report in the hope that it will silence the critics; it will not.

What do we do? One answer is given by the report: a narrowly focused statutory inquiry. That is one answer, but what does “narrowly focused” mean? Does it mean choosing a few cases out of those seven where Sir Edward would have been interviewed under caution? What do we want to do with those cases? Will only those cases be carefully examined, and others will not? If we stop there, we will be subject to the criticism that we selected only those cases where the outcome was what we were expecting. Therefore, we will be open to the same charge that we have been open to so far.

I am a little concerned about this. All I can say is that there are arguments on both sides but on balance I am convinced that an independent judge-led inquiry is not appropriate at this stage.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for enabling some of us who worked with Mr Heath to say a word or two on this subject. I declare my interests in both senses of the word. From 1971 to 1973, I worked in the central policy review staff in the Cabinet Office, headed by the late Lord Rothschild. The unit worked very closely with the Prime Minister and his staff, helping to brief the Prime Minister and Cabinet collectively at 10 Downing Street and Chequers. I spent a good deal of time in both places—usually in the company of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, who I see in his place—preparing for these meetings.

In 1973 I left the Civil Service and joined Douglas Hurd, now the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, as his understudy as political secretary to the Prime Minister because Douglas had been selected to fight a parliamentary seat whenever the election came. In those good old days, to which we would do well to return, the extent of the political staff in No. 10 was two—Douglas and myself. When Douglas went campaigning, it was one. That may not have been enough, but I do not think it was necessary to increase the number exponentially.

When the election came in February 1974, which Mr Heath just lost, and throughout the subsequent period when he was leader of the Opposition, I led his private office. During that time Mr Heath was based principally in Wilton Street, where I would see him throughout the day and often late into the evening. When he lost the leadership election, I resigned my post but remained in fairly regular contact with him, at least until I accepted ministerial office under “that woman” in 1981 and was cast into relatively outer darkness.

I would make this point. I saw Mr Heath very close up indeed, at high and low points in his life. I travelled with him all over the United Kingdom, to the United States, to China to meet Chairman Mao and to France on holiday. I used to take him urgent papers to his racing boats. Incidentally, these were always described as yachts, but in reality, they were highly tuned racing machines on which I was forbidden to set foot in case I displaced some vital mechanism. These were not the yachts imagined in the fantasies of his accusers, who, I think, thought of something you might have a cocktail party on in St Tropez. I had to provide malt whisky at the end of the day, wherever we were, and on at least one occasion to knock on his bathroom door to get him get out of the bath and join the party waiting to leave in the election battle bus.

For that period—at least between 1973 and 1975— I was perhaps among the two or three people in the world who knew Edward Heath more closely and more continuously than anyone else. Yet—this is the first, but in a way lesser, point that I want to make—at no time was I ever questioned seriously about him by any of these so-called police investigations. It is true that, during Operation Conifer, a young contract researcher for the police, not a member of any police force, came to see me at Eton, where I was working. They were not a policeman and, without unkindness, I am afraid that I would have to say that the person in question had not the least idea what to ask me about, how No. 10 or the office of the leader of the Opposition worked, what police close protection was, or what life was like for the Prime Minister or leader of the Opposition. I remember having to explain what a private office was and the most basic facts. It struck me then, and strikes me still, as an example of the extreme amateurishness of the whole exercise that a political secretary at No. 10 and then head of the leader of the Opposition’s office was not at any point questioned by a professional about the circumstances of Heath’s life.

This case matters. I agree with the thoughtful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, that there are arguments on both sides, but it seems to me that the arguments put forward by my noble friend Lord Lexden and by the late Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, one of the greatest public servants of the post-war period, matter. In this post-truth age, we will—indeed, we do—see more of this kind of thing: wild accusations thrown at leading public figures, which are believed by mad conspiracy theorists. If they are not dealt with properly, we will find it even more difficult to tempt good people into public life and into important positions in our democratic life.

The accusations against Sir Edward Heath were, I believe, rubbish; but I do not think that we can just let rubbish lie in, as it were, our public streets in the hope that it does no damage. I believe that the state owes some duty of care to those who undertake the public service on which we all rely. Of course, we should have public inquiries—we are expert at that—to apportion blame and guilt for failure but, I would argue, we should also sometimes deploy state resources to protect those who have served the state from suffering unfair damage. That is why I endorse my noble friend Lord Lexden’s campaign.

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on securing this important debate and on his perseverance in this important matter.

It is worth recalling the context for Operation Conifer. It arose in the depths, and I use that term advisedly, of the Metropolitan Police’s—frankly, weird—fixation with the criminal fantasist, Carl Beech. Noble Lords will remember that this man, now serving a richly deserved 18 years in prison, claimed to have been abused by, or witnessed others being abused by, a former Home Secretary, a former Chief of the Defence Staff, a former director-general of the Security Service, a former chief of the Secret Intelligence Service and a former Prime Minister. What were the odds? How credulous did the police have to be to take these claims seriously, notoriously publicly describing the allegations to be “credible and true”, even before the conclusion of their investigation—indeed, almost at the beginning of their investigation? This was like some macabre version of Cluedo, with distinguished public servants reduced to the status of playing cards, only they were real people with real families and real reputations being steadily shredded in real time.

It was within the midst of this storm of scandal, public outrage and credulity that Operation Conifer opened, disgracefully, with the superintendent of police of the Wiltshire Constabulary standing outside the gates of the former home of the by then dead former Prime Minister in Salisbury’s Cathedral Close, calling for “victims” of Sir Edward Heath’s alleged sex crimes to come forward.

This was a remarkable low in policing endeavour. It smacked of an unworthy attempt by the then chief constable of the Wiltshire constabulary, the since disgraced Mike Veale, to curry favour with the public by demonstrating that Wiltshire Police “got it”—that it was on board with the public outrage and would act swiftly and firmly. This behaviour was reckless; it did not smack of real policing and looked political. Therein may lie the true public scandal: not that Sir Edward Heath was guilty of crimes of sexual abuse, for plainly he was not, but that Wiltshire Police may have allowed a critical aspect of our justice system, the criminal investigation phase, to be hijacked in order that it might impress what it took to be a strong public mood.

Of course, there was never any evidence against Sir Edward. The final insult was that, when this became clear, Wiltshire Police sought to give itself spurious cover for its ill-fated investigation by releasing the completely meaningless statement that, had Sir Edward still been alive, he would have been interviewed under caution. As Veale knew then, and surely still knows now, the bar for an interview under caution is so low that its invocation in these circumstances was no more than a weaselly attempt to evade deserved criticism at someone else’s expense. It looked like a final, cruel undermining of Sir Edward’s reputation in the service of the Wiltshire constabulary retaining, as it must earnestly have hoped, some shred of credibility after this fiasco.

It seems to me that this sequence of events is so worrying and so potentially undermining of public confidence in the probity of police investigations that it demands, as noble Lords have said, a public inquiry into the allegations that Sir Edward faced, so that this matter may finally be put to rest and some measure of justice finally be dispensed.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register, in particular as a past chair of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation. I join the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, in congratulating my noble friend Lord Lexden, not just on securing this debate but, as the noble Lord said, on his sheer doggedness in pursuing justice and on the eloquent and comprehensive nature of his opening speech. So grotesque, galling and manifestly unjust is this situation, however, that there is plenty of fertile ground remaining to be tilled by the rest of us.

I have considerable sympathy for the Minister, who has inherited this awkward and seemingly intractable problem from a series of predecessors. One of the most important responsibilities of any Minister is the necessity, on occasion, of questioning, or even rejecting, the cautionary advice of officials—the predictable advice to stonewall, to dead-bat, to kick the can down the road. Such advice will, no doubt, be supported by dark hints that any willingness to do anything, to take a decision, actively to address an injustice, would set a dangerous precedent or even worse. I respectfully remind my noble friend that this is precisely the point at which political judgment must come into play; the current leader of the Liberal Democrats is learning that to his cost. I ask the Minister to please spare himself and his successors the indignity of being called back here again and again to defend the indefensible.

The idea that Operation Conifer was anything other than an expensive, chaotic and misguided fishing expedition is, frankly, absurd. From the moment that investigating officer appeared outside Ted Heath’s former home in Salisbury, its true nature was plain to see. My noble friend Lord Lexden quoted the exact words and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, has just done so again: the policeman referred to every person being a victim, upending the historic presumption of innocence. Even the two Operation Hydrant reviews of Conifer—classic examples of police rather complacently marking their own homework—listed almost 50 shortcomings in the conduct of the investigation.

Like my noble friend Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, I was interviewed by someone who described themselves as one of the investigating officers. I had the same experience as others: namely, an interview that felt completely futile, because I was concerned only with truth—Ted Heath’s true nature—and was unwilling to fan the flames of the fantasies of others. I dare say there are others here who had a similar experience.

My wife was secretary to Ted Heath at this time and I was vice-chairman of the party, responsible for youth. If anything of this kind had happened in any way, it is quite inconceivable that we would not have known about it. She knew every step of his life during this period. She was interviewed in exactly the same incompetent way, which has been addressed. Frankly, if the Government cannot bring themselves to deal with this matter in an open way, they should be ashamed of themselves.

I am very grateful to my noble friend.

Several obvious witnesses were not contacted at all, including our former colleague and friend in this House, Lord MacGregor, who ran Ted Heath’s private office in the 1960s, and my noble friend Lord Sherbourne, who held the same position a decade later. Diaries held in the Bodleian Library, which would have disproven several of the allegations, were seemingly not properly consulted, if at all. Another of the many extraordinary aspects of Conifer was the chief constable’s decision, seemingly taken unilaterally, that he would relieve the police and crime commissioner of his responsibility for overseeing the investigation. Instead, he appointed a so-called independent panel. Did he act within his powers when he did that? Surely not. This was a case not of marking his own homework but perhaps of hand-picking his own examinations board.

Ministers tell us that the question of an independent inquiry into Conifer is a matter for the local PCC, not for them. Successive PCCs for Swindon and Wiltshire have said that they would support such an inquiry but do not have the money to pay for it. Thus the buck is passed, passed again and passed back once more, seemingly without end.

The Government found the substantial amount required to fund this disgraceful and futile fishing expedition, run by a now discredited chief constable, yet seemingly they cannot find the money to right that injustice or to help prevent this kind of terrible farrago of costly nonsense ever happening again. Where is the accountability in all this?

Several noble Lords have raised before the question of what happened to the logs painstakingly kept by the officers in the police post at Arundells throughout the time Sir Edward Heath lived there. They would certainly not have suited the narrative of the witch hunt, but where are they? It is said that they were destroyed during the course of Operation Conifer.

I end by saying to the Minister that if he wishes to earn and retain the confidence of the House, on occasion he must sense its mood and respond positively to it. An injustice has been done, and it must now be rectified.

My Lords, I echo those who have paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for his persistence and eloquence. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, referred to Robert Armstrong, who was equally persistent and once told me that this slur on Mr Heath and the inability to get it put right was one of the things that most disappointed him about his career in public life.

I did not know Prime Minister Heath; I was much too junior. My only contact with him was when I did some work for him and he went out of his way to thank me for it. Although it was not a particularly good piece of work, he maintained that it was. That is my only credential for taking part in this debate—so I thought I had better read the Operation Conifer report, or at least the published version that is available to us.

It is the most extraordinary document. It is 109 pages long but immensely repetitious. It is a long, self-justificatory description of what the police did, not of what they found—and it seems pretty clear that that is because they found absolutely nothing. They list who they interviewed. Judging by this debate, those interviews must have been very interesting. They interviewed 132 policemen who had carried out protection duties for Sir Edward, 43 private secretaries, 34 crew from his boats, and various household and nursing staff. At the end of each of those sections of the report, there is the sad sentence that “no information relevant to the allegations was found”. All those people were interviewed but no information was found. What deduction might one draw from that?

The report draws no deductions—and the language throughout is prejudicial, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said. All along, it talks of “disclosures by victims”—not allegations but disclosures, as if these were facts. The conclusions are astonishingly prejudicial, including the revelation about seven of the allegations. There were 42 allegations, but it turns out that there were actually only 40 people alleging, because one of the fantasists used three names. So it comes down to 40 allegations, of which seven would have justified an interview under caution.

I am no expert on this, but I am standing in front of a great expert who just explained how meaningless that is—yet that is what will have stuck in the public mind. It is a slur on the reputation of a distinguished Prime Minister who did great work for this country and I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, who said that if these slurs are allowed to stand, it will be more and more difficult to persuade good people to go into public life—so I strongly support the Motion.

I point out that the police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire said five years ago that what is needed now is:

“A sharply-focused statutory inquiry, with powers to question witnesses and scrutinise documents”.

If that was what the police and crime commissioner was asking the Home Office to do—he said he had asked several times—I really do not think it is enough for the Home Office to go on saying that it has been looked at frequently. Yes, it has been looked at by the police, but they have marked their own homework and found that they did a jolly good job. That is irrelevant to the question of whether Mr Heath’s reputation has been wrongly attacked. That should be put right by an inquiry now, exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, proposes.

It a privilege to take part in this debate and I begin by adding my thanks to those of others to my noble friend Lord Lexden. He has been persistent and tenacious, and time and again he has raised this matter on the Floor of your Lordships’ House. Time and again we have had answers from the Minister on duty at the time, including the present Chief Whip when she was Home Office Minister, refusing to have the sort of inquiry that is being called for today by almost everyone who has spoken—but never has a proper, logical and coherent reason been given for that refusal.

I would compare my noble friend Lord Lexden in some way with another parliamentary hero of recent days, my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot. Yesterday, we had a debate on the Post Office scandal, and of course my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot contributed to that debate. I cannot for the life of me understand why, in light of the things that have been revealed about that appalling miscarriage of justice, we still have these stonewalling, negative answers from Ministers. If only Ministers, at the beginning of the Post Office accusations, had looked at the fact that here was a group of people with a collective reputation for probity, and an individual one in their own local villages and side streets, et cetera, and asked how they had suddenly become a nest of criminal vipers. It is absolutely ludicrous, yet Minister after Minister refused to probe. The whole thing is appalling.

Here we have a different case. We have a great statesman—and he was a great statesman. He was also an awkward cuss in many ways. I did not know him anywhere near as well as my noble friends Lord Waldegrave and Lord Hunt, but he stayed in our house on one or two occasions and did dinners for me in my constituency. He could be the life and soul of the party and then could suddenly clam up. However, the fact is that he was a great statesman who served his country and changed its course—would that we could go back, as my noble friend Lord Waldegrave said, but we cannot. But what we can do is restore the reputation of a man who has been traduced by evil people saying evil things.

The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, quoted Carl Beech, that reptilian character who has caused such anguish to people most of us knew, including Lord Brittan, who died with a dark cloud over him, and his widow. There was Lord Bramall, whose wife died before he did and did not fully understand what was going on; and Sir Edward Heath, a great statesman who served his country, as I said. Collectively and individually, we owe him a lot. Above all, we owe him justice, even if it is posthumous.

I understood the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh; it was an eloquent speech and he tried to make it balanced—but he failed, I think, because I honestly believe that my noble friend Lord Lexden’s call for an inquiry must be answered positively if we are going to give justice to the reputation of a great man.

So I beg my noble friend—I have done so before in Question Time, but I do so now in support of my noble friend Lord Lexden and other noble friends and noble Lords from all over your Lordships’ House. We say that the Government does have a duty to do what the Wiltshire police and crime commissioner in 2019 asked for. He said that the Government can do this. They should do this. I would go much further and say that the Government must do this.

As for the precise form it takes—whether it is appointing a High Court judge to investigate—there are various ways they could approach this. There is a very black stain on government and Parliament’s reputation unless we honour the memory of Sir Edward by making sure that this farrago of lies and nonsense is shown to be precisely that. I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is, and we owe it not only to the memory of Sir Edward Heath but to ourselves to do this and to do it quickly. I beg my noble friend to give a positive reply for once when he winds up the debate.

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on his tenacity. I would like to widen the context a little and reflect on what is really at stake here.

Edward Heath was a politician from another era. A scholarship boy, he was the son of a maid and a carpenter. In his 20s, he was precocious, and in the thick of it: in Germany, meeting senior Nazis, opposing appeasement; in Barcelona, opposing Franco. In World War II, he was an artillery officer, in the front line in Europe, awarded for his bravery. Post-war, in a rapidly developing political career, he is best described, I think, as a technocrat: unafraid of intervention, willing to freeze wages and prices to counter inflation, willing to embrace, along with the Labour Party, the then Keynesian consensus—all of which, I fear, came to a somewhat sticky end for both main parties in the 1970s. Many of us here lived through that, with sky-high inflation, a balance of payments crisis, miners’ strikes, a three-day week, and, later still, under Labour, a humiliating bailout by the IMF. As Prime Minister, Edward Heath also had to deal with the Yom Kippur War, the oil price doubling in a day, the Troubles, direct rule and Bloody Sunday, and the sacking of Enoch Powell after the “rivers of blood” speech. We can all agree that Edward Heath presided over important but difficult times.

As a young current affairs producer working in ITV, I encountered Edward Heath many times. Indeed, in my 20s, I made a one-hour documentary about him early in his term of office as Prime Minister, spending a lot of time in his company and interviewing him at length, sailing with him—I was allowed to, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave—on “Morning Cloud”, spending a fair amount of time with his crew, and sitting alone with him on the Isle of Wight, watching the sun set. I have never encountered a politician—then or since—less concerned to charm or less able to engage in small talk.

Walking him on a fair number of occasions from a television reception area to a television studio for him to be interviewed by Peter Jay or Brian Walden was a most challenging experience. I quickly ran out of my questions and small talk. In his retirement, and when I was director-general of the BBC, I was invited with others to Sunday lunch at his Salisbury home. Despite our many previous encounters, he introduced me loudly to his other guests—and I quote—as “a Radio 1 DJ”. That is true, and there are witnesses. Throughout my long professional exposure to Edward Heath, I never doubted for one second his integrity, his complete dedication to the task in hand or his entirely selfless commitment to the good of this nation.

We now know how widespread and undetected paedophilia was in our society. We all agree that allegations must be investigated vigorously. However, we also know—many noble Lords have mentioned this—the hazards of false claimants coming forward. There was a case in the news today. Like others here, I knew Leon Brittan well. It was, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, an absolute tragedy that he died before the shadow of guilt could be lifted from him.

To put it politely, Wiltshire Police’s inquiry was inconclusive. I, together with everybody else, think that we should institute a more comprehensive, wide-ranging and nuanced inquiry; we know from the accounts that we have heard during the course of this excellent discussion that the police manifestly did not do this. We must look at the totality of his behaviours during his long life, for much of which he was under 24-hour scrutiny—whether by the police, civil servants, house- keepers or whoever else—as the noble Lords, Lord Deben and Lord Waldegrave, illuminated for us so convincingly. Many who safeguarded him will not be alive but some are; those who are not will have shared their experience of him with others who are alive. I knew, and have talked to, many people who worked closely with Edward Heath. Although there was speculation about his sexuality, no one ever suggested to me that, whatever his sexuality was, they had ever seen any expression of it whatever.

The Wiltshire Police report cannot be the last word on this important figure in our nation’s history. In justice, Edward Heath is owed, history is owed and we are all owed a much more rounded appraisal of this important man in our national story.

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in the gap and to support my noble friend Lord Lexden in his campaign; perhaps I should call it a crusade, because it has been very noble and persistent.

Why am I speaking? I must declare my interest. I did not particularly care for Ted. I did not particularly care for much of his politics. However, there is not a single shred of evidence to suggest that the allegations against him were true. They were made and he was accused, not because of what he had done but because he was a great public servant. Because of that, he, Ted Heath, was the victim in this incident.

We have heard mention of Lord Bramall and Lord Brittan. I remember the last sight I had of Leon: he was sitting on a bench outside here, with his head in his hands, knowing that he would never be able to resolve in his lifetime the allegations that had been made against him. I must say that I feel a measure of shame that I was not able to go up to him and in some way offer him some comfort.

I must say to my noble friend the Minister—and he is my friend—that I simply do not understand why the Home Office is so reluctant to do what is so blindingly bloody obvious in this: to make sure not only that justice is done but that it is seen to be done. Give us the inquiry. This Government—indeed, any Government—owe it to those in public service to defend them against great injustice.

This is not an isolated case. We are talking here not just about this particular incident. We are talking about Hillsborough, the bad blood scandal, the Chinook crash cover-up and Rochdale. There are so many examples of where the system has simply failed in its duty. And, of course, we are talking about the Post Office.

Conspiracy theorists might argue that of course there is no smoke without fire, but one could also argue that there is no great denial of justice in recent times that has not involved government or some institution of state failing in its duty. Our system of justice has not just faltered; it has failed, time and again. I believe that our public servants deserve better.

My Lords, I am grateful to be allowed to speak briefly in the gap.

Ted Heath was a family friend for a reason that we have not mentioned so far—his passionate love of music. He became a good friend of my father and would come to dinner. I was always struck by his behaviour and his sweetness.

I want to put one thing on the record, because it is very important. Many years later, when she was in her 90s, I interviewed Barbara Hosking on “Private Passions”. Many noble Lords will remember that she was a very distinguished civil servant who looked after Ted for many years. She told me that the principal thing that she managed to do for him was to save him from wearing an appalling cardigan when he was about to conduct the LSO. She said, “What are you going to wear?” He came up with a tattered thing with a hole in it and she said, “You can’t possibly wear that”.

I asked her about these allegations and said, “Would you agree with me? From my experience, Ted was if anything asexual”. She said, “Absolutely”. In all the years that she worked intimately for him, she never saw a hint of anything else. This is important, and I think she would want me to say this, because she is of course now dead. Given that we have to reconsider this man in the light of these appalling, outrageous allegations, it is important to take on evidence like that. She thought that he was probably asexual and certainly that he had nothing to do with behaviour of this sort.

My Lords, I agree with all those who have said how regrettable it is that anyone should have their name dragged through the mud, particularly when they are not here to defend themselves. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and other colleagues, for their tenacity and resolve in pursuing this matter. While Sir Edward Heath has not been proven guilty of anything at all, his life’s work and his memory are tainted by these lingering allegations. Clearly, that is very unsatisfactory.

I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, that we owe our public servants a duty of care. However, the case for a further inquiry is not predicated on the fact that Sir Edward is a former Prime Minister. If there had been a proper and robust investigation with a clear outcome, there would be no need now for raking further over the coals. But it is undeniable that very serious mistakes were made in Operation Conifer, particularly in the manner in which it was launched. It is also very clear that previous external reviews of the investigation are not seen as properly independent.

That is why, on balance, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is right is his calls for a further, final attempt to bring closure to this matter through an independent inquiry. In bringing one about, we must avoid the mistakes made by police in the past. Any inquiry must be effectively managed and properly resourced, and must work to a strict timetable. Additionally, it must not just be independent but must be seen to be independent. Its terms of reference should be made crystal clear at the outset and I suggest that it should be agreed on a cross-party basis involving interested Back-Benchers such as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, as well as Front- Benchers.

In addition to looking again at the individual allegations, there are some systemic matters to address, including how investigations of high-profile figures more generally are carried out, how complainants can be given the confidence that they will be fairly treated in cases such as these and how to reinforce the presumption of innocence.

Conversely, any fresh inquiry into the Heath allegations must be mindful of the findings of the recent Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Its report cites past

“institutional complacency and indifference to the plight of child victims”.

IICSA found that political parties and police had “turned a blind eye” to allegations of child sexual abuse connected to Westminster, had ignored victims and showed excessive “deference” to MPs fighting to clear their names. Processes such as these should never give special pleading or special treatment to high-profile figures: it is a fundamental principle of British justice that we are all equal before the law. Allegations of sexual abuse must always be taken seriously, without exception, and all complainants must be treated with the sensitivity and respect that should be afforded them as a matter of course.

To leave the Heath allegations hanging in the air does not just affect a former Prime Minister’s reputation. More importantly, it puts the credibility and seriousness of investigations of child abuse more generally at risk—and that is surely the worst injustice of all. I too hope the Minister responds constructively to this debate. Just saying “We intend to do nothing further” will not help anyone: in my view it is the Government’s duty to put things right for all involved.

My Lords, I will start by saying what a privilege it is to take part in this short debate. I will also say, as a proud Labour politician and Front-Bencher, that this debate goes to the heart of our politics. No matter which party anybody belongs too, they deserve respect and justice—that is the important point that should be made.

We started with a brilliant speech from the noble Lord, Lord Lexden—really stunning. It is a privilege to be in Parliament sometimes when speeches like that are made that challenge the state—and challenge all of us to see whether we have got it right. Before I lose it in some of the other points I want to make, I want to go to the heart of what the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said when he called for a public inquiry. He made a direct request that the new Home Secretary should be given a copy of the Hansard report of this debate and should consider the request for a public inquiry that was made by him and supported by other noble Lords who spoke. Most importantly, he asked the Minister to respond and reply to that request, with reasons that lay out why the Government think a public inquiry is necessary or why they have concluded that it is not. That is at the heart of the request. All the contributions made here by many noble Lords were moving and important.

I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave. I was a very young Labour politician in 1970; I did all I could to stop Ted Heath being elected, and failed. The important point the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, made is that we must do something about wild accusations being made against public figures, often without any basis at all. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, referred to this. Have we not woken up—as a system—to the fact that we have to have Ministers who challenge the advice they get, who say to people “This is what we are being told numerous times by Members of Parliament, Peers and members of the public who are coming to us and bringing forward real questions about what the state is doing and what it has got wrong and asking why it can’t respond”? How many more times, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, do we have to have a Post Office? How many more times, as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said, do we have to have another Hillsborough, or a Bloody Sunday, or many of the other scandals that we have seen? It takes decades, request after request and demand after demand before the state wakes up and answers the questions that are posed to it.

Why does it take so long? If the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is wrong, why not expose that information and evidence, and have it out in public so that we can see it and come to a determination? Surely a former Prime Minister of this country deserves the justice that would be brought about by looking at all the evidence to determine how it is.

We simply cannot have the situation in the report— I was reading it again as the debate went on and looked through it, and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, pointed it out to us. I do not know the world everyone lives in but, to me certainly, as soon as you say you will interview someone under caution, then, in the court of public opinion, the person has something to answer. That is the reality of it: the aspersions cast on the reputation of a man.

Of course, the police say, “This doesn’t mean they are guilty; it doesn’t mean anything”, but the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, as a former Director of Public Prosecutions, was absolutely right to point out that, as soon as that is said, people say, “No smoke without fire”, “Nothing to see here—oh, really?”, et cetera. A former Prime Minister of this country—in fact, anybody, from somebody living on an estate somewhere to someone holding the highest office—deserves better than that. It is simply not good enough, and something needs to be done.

What are we depending on? I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is in his place. He made a very important point in the Question that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, had towards the end of October— I will be corrected if I get this wrong. He pointed out that the case rests on a fantasist who is now in jail. A former Prime Minister of our country is suffering this slur to his reputation on the basis, originally, as I understand it, of a man who is now in jail for perverting the course of justice. Is that really what we want to base this on? The second leg of it is a former chief constable who was moved to Cleveland, then made to leave because of misconduct. A disgraced former chief constable and somebody now in jail for perverting the course of justice are the two major pillars upon which this is based. Is that really satisfactory to all of us?

Wiltshire Police investigated itself. How can that be seen to be right? I cannot remember which noble Lord pointed out that justice not only has to be done but be seen to be done. I suggest that, having one disgraced person in jail and one disgraced former chief constable as the main pillars of that, a police force which is investigating itself, whatever the rights and wrongs of a public inquiry, surely brings us all to the point where we question how the state has operated with respect to a former Prime Minister.

I finish by repeating the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden: let us see the Minister take this debate to the new Home Secretary, ask him to reconsider and come back to this Chamber with his decision. Surely a former Prime Minister deserves at least that.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lexden for securing this debate. I recognise that this is an issue of long-standing interest for him and all other noble Lords who have contributed. I thank them particularly for their many personal experiences of Sir Edward Heath, the great statesman, especially those reminiscences from my noble friend Lord Waldegrave, and the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Birt. While I commend my noble friend Lord Lexden for his tenacity, I am afraid that my response will not differ greatly from that which I have given in the past. Nevertheless, I will again set out for the House the Government’s position.

The first point to make is that it is unfortunate that Operation Conifer was not able to resolve conclusively the position in respect of all the allegations made against Sir Edward. I appreciate the strength of feeling from Sir Edward’s friends and former colleagues that this traduces his memory, but I must, once again, make very clear the point that it does not. The Operation Conifer summary closure report emphasised that no inference of guilt should be drawn from the fact that Sir Edward would have been interviewed under caution had he been alive.

I think we can all agree that it is deeply unfortunate for all concerned that these allegations did not come to light until after Sir Edward’s death. We can certainly agree that the manner in which the then chief constable of Wiltshire Police, Mike Veale, chose to publicise those allegations deserves the censure it has rightly received. Indeed, Mr Veale has admitted that his actions in that respect were inappropriate. As the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, pointed out, and I agree, it was, in fact, a new low.

However, we must separate the understandable opprobrium for Mr Veale’s mistakes from a clear-sighted, objective and fair assessment of the investigation and its outcomes. Of course emotions run high in this case—indeed, it is laudable that noble Lords show their loyalty and long-term commitment to the cause of their friend and, as my noble friend Lord Cormack noted, a great statesman—but the Government cannot and should not be guided by emotion, nor by the status of individuals. It is certainly not a unique situation that a deceased individual has allegations made against them to which they are unable to respond, and there can be no justification for treating that individual differently because he or she was a former Prime Minister. There are important principles at stake. It is a fundamental tenet of our legal system that anyone accused of a crime is innocent until they are proven guilty. To maintain that Sir Edward’s reputation is besmirched by the fact that unproven allegations have been made about him is to undermine that precept.

Another critically important principle is at stake, however uncomfortable, and it certainly is in this instance: we must continue to uphold the right of the individual to challenge the holders of power in this country, be they institutions or those occupying high office. I can do no better than echo the words of the 2017 Guardian editorial referenced in the briefing note on Operation Conifer, which was published last Friday by the House’s Library. It said:

“Yet there is a good defence of the decision to investigate, and it must be heard. It rests on the Human Rights Act, which exists to protect individuals in their dealings with official power. The supreme court is due to rule whether the police are always obliged to investigate allegations of serious crime, after the appeal court upheld the argument that the greater the power of the agency of the state, the stronger the duty to investigate allegations made against it. So the police investigation into allegations against Edward Heath was not a futile attempt to bring a dead man to justice, but an important exercise in upholding the right of the citizen. This may be scant comfort to Heath’s friends. But it is an important principle”.

That was written in 2017, of course, but it remains pertinent. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, that upholding the rights of the citizen is paramount. Indeed, even this week we have seen many instances of the consequences of the failure to do that.

Of course, it was subsequently proved that the allegations were those of a deranged fantasist, and he is rightfully serving a very long sentence for his crimes, but we also must acknowledge—and not one speaker has mentioned this—that significant political cover was afforded to that individual by some senior politicians, including Members of your Lordships’ House. That is also regrettable and deserves to be on the record.

We cannot lose sight of our duty to uphold the rights of the citizen, whatever our personal views about the merits of the citizen’s case. In line with that principle, I reiterate that the Government have given this matter careful consideration and concluded that there are still no grounds to justify a review or intervention by the Government. The Government do not have plans to commission a review of either the conduct of the investigation into allegations made against Sir Edward or the findings of that investigation.

I know this will disappoint noble Lords, but I must underline again that the investigation has already been subject to considerable external scrutiny by an independent scrutiny panel, two reviews by Operation Hydrant in September 2016 and May 2017, and a review in January 2017 by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, as it was then. These reviews concluded that the investigation was legitimate and proportionate. Furthermore, questions about the national guidance that the force was following in conducting the investigation have already been picked up by the College of Policing.

I have explained in considerable detail at various other outings on this subject the scrutiny that the original investigation has been subjected to, so I will not repeat all that, but some noble Lords have proposed a more limited review of the allegations in respect of which Wiltshire Police has said that it would have interviewed Sir Edward had he been alive. Such a review, it is proposed, might consider whether any of those allegations would have justified a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute, but the ability of a review to do this would, of course, depend on the evidence itself. But it is not for the Government to commission reviews of evidence in respect of individuals. This would be a matter for the local force if it considered it to be appropriate.

I have to a large degree retraced—

My Lords, may I just contest the point the Minister has just made? This is not a local issue; it is a national issue. That has been made perfectly clear by the points that have been made. While I am on my feet, I will just say that when I came to this debate, my view was—and it followed a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh—that there were pros and cons for an inquiry but that the case against one was that we were just reviving charges against Sir Edward Heath that nobody now believes and that that served no purpose. I want to say, having heard the debate tonight, that I have changed my mind.

I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I did not say that it was a local matter; I said that it was for the local force to decide whether they considered that to be appropriate. I think that is an important distinction. I accept that—

Will my noble friend, at the very least, do as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, requested and give the Home Secretary a copy of this debate, and underline how unanimous the general sentiment in this House was? Will he do one other thing? Will he ask the Home Secretary to receive a deputation of Members of your Lordships’ House who have taken part in this debate?

I say to my noble friend that I am coming to that in a second.

I have to a large degree retraced a lot of old ground, which is perhaps only to be expected when considering a question that we have already discussed many times. I am reconciled to the fact that this will obviously annoy and disappoint my noble friend Lord Lexden—

Given that the reputation of the former Prime Minister has been tarnished, and my noble friend the Minister has set out the reasons why there should be no further inquiry, does he regard it as satisfactory that that reputation remains tarnished?

My Lords, I will also come to that.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lexden for securing this debate, as I said earlier, and to other noble Lords for their contributions. As regards the question that was asked of me by my noble friend Lord Lexden, which has just been reiterated by my noble friend Lord Cormack and asked also by the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Coaker, I absolutely will take this back to the current Home Secretary and make sure that he is aware of this debate and the strength of feeling, and indeed all the preceding debates we have had on this subject.

Of course, I am genuinely sorry to have to disappoint the House, but I hope that I have provided some clarity and reassurance around the current position. I stress that this is unlikely to alter without a material change to the situation, but I commit quite happily to take this back to the Home Secretary.

Will my noble friend also say to the Home Secretary that we will go on demanding this inquiry until we get it and that it would be much easier to give way now?

I am happy to provide my noble friend with that reassurance.

As regards whether I regret that Sir Edward’s memory and legacy have been in some way tarnished, of course I do. I think it is incredibly regrettable, and it is incredibly regrettable that the deranged fantasist was encouraged in the way that he was. However, he is paying the price.

As I have set out, Operation Conifer has been subject to external scrutiny, whether your Lordships agree with that scrutiny or not, and it is the Government’s assessment that there are not currently any grounds for further intervention.

My Lords, I do not think it is normal for a debate of this kind to have any final words from the person who introduced it, but I think there is perhaps an expectation that I should do so. It is important that the new Home Secretary studies this most carefully, reading the Hansard, and I hope that we will have a full and considered reply from him. This debate has not only touched on very difficult events and actions but has contained very considerable scrutiny and critique of the grounds on which the Government have previously rejected an inquiry. We need to bring this matter to a conclusion. We must have an inquiry.

House adjourned at 6.30 pm.