House of Lords
Tuesday 17 May 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of London.
Kashmir: Human Rights
My Lords, we recognise that there are human rights concerns in both Indian-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The United Kingdom Government encourage all states to ensure that their domestic laws are in line with international standards. Indeed, any allegation of human rights abuse is deeply concerning and must be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently. I assure the noble Lord that we raise concerns with the Governments of both India and Pakistan.
My Lords, many Kashmiris believe that in the past, fake charges have been brought in the courts against prominent leaders such as Maqbool Bhat and Afzal Guru that resulted in their execution. Now, another very prominent Kashmiri leader, who has a huge following in the UK as well, is on trial this week. Kashmiris suspect that the Indian Government want to get rid of him too; his life is in real danger. Will the Government use their good offices to protect Mr Yasin Malik’s life? His release would be widely welcomed.
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we are monitoring the trial of Mr Yasin Malik very closely. We note that he has been charged under Indian law; as I am sure the noble Lord appreciates, we cannot directly intervene in the independent judicial process of India. However, in all our engagements we urge all countries to always respect and uphold their own international obligations regarding the treatment of any detainees.
My Lords, India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru, famously declared that the care of minorities was not simply a duty but a “sacred trust”. It is a trust that successive Indian Governments have betrayed, first against Sikhs, and then with the present Minister of Home Affairs referring to Muslims as “termites”. Does the Minister agree that our criticism of human rights abuse in Kashmir and elsewhere should not be muted because India is a member of the Commonwealth?
My Lords, perhaps I can declare an interest as someone who is Muslim by faith, has Indian heritage and is the Minister responsible for both human rights and our relationship with India. All those things considered, I assure the noble Lord that, as he will know, I raise directly a wide range of issues, including human rights, in a constructive way with the Government of India. As I said earlier, where we have concerns, we are able to do so in a very candid way because of the nature and strength of our relationship.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, knows, two Sikh traders in Peshawar were murdered last week because of their religion. In 1947, the British created two countries: one to promote people on the basis of their religion and the other to promote people regardless of their religion. You can see the two different countries now. People in Pakistan—Ahmadis, Sikhs, Christians and Hindus—are prosecuted and forcibly converted, and Shia mosques are attacked. This must stop on the other side as well. Who is supplying arms to the terrorists in Kashmir? Who is training them and who is encouraging them to create disruption in a paradise? In Kashmir, people of different faiths lived in harmony until 1947. We must not allow people to devalue fellow Kashmiris on the basis of their religion.
My Lords, I should also declare that the other half of my family comes from Pakistan, including Lady Ahmad of Wimbledon. Certainly, our relationship demonstrates that there can be no conflict—I say that on the record—and you can lead a life and build a life together in a mutually understanding and loving way. That said, on the importance of the issue in Pakistan, again, we have a very important and constructive relationship with the Government of Pakistan. My noble friend raised issues relating to minorities, including Sikhs. Being of the Ahmadi Muslim community myself, I assure the noble Lord that I am acutely aware of the challenges faced by minority communities in Pakistan, and we raise these in a constructive way. It is important, when it comes to issues—including those of Kashmir—for both countries to move forward, mutually and together, and agree that there is a bright future for both countries, which share so much in terms of culture, language and, one hopes, a common, shared future of prosperity for the wider region.
My Lords, one of the Minister’s many responsibilities is the United Nations. Of course, the conflict in Kashmir is one of the longest unresolved conflicts on the agenda of the United Nations. If we are to find a lasting settlement to end this ongoing conflict, that can be achieved only by India and Pakistan working together. Therefore, as Minister for the United Nations, what is he doing to ensure that the UN focuses on bringing the two sides together to seek a long-lasting settlement?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the importance of India and Pakistan talking to resolve all issues. It is a long-standing position of the Governments of both sides. We seek a resolution for all disputes, including that of Kashmir, and the best way to do so is for both countries to find their solutions together.
My Lords, do the Government share the concern of some that, in Indian-administrated Kashmir, the Modi Administration are redistricting in a way that has been turned into gerrymandering, in order to deliberately diminish the opportunity for representation of the Muslim community there? When our Prime Minister met Prime Minister Modi, did he raise any human rights concerns about Indian Kashmir?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first question, of course the Indians, with their own internal processes and programmes, have initiated a programme of economic development within Indian-administered Kashmir. That is something that we look at very closely. I am looking forward to a visit to India in the near future, where we will be having discussions on a wide range of issues, specifically including the issue of human rights, which we always do. Yes, the Prime Minister did engage on the broad range of issues, including those of human rights, during his recent visit.
Food Security: Climate Change and Biodiversity Loss
My Lords, in 2021 Defra published the United Kingdom Food Security Report, which examined the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss. We have received the Climate Change Committee’s latest assessments of climate risks to the UK, which will inform the third national adaptation programme, due in 2023. Improving water security and soil health is crucial to food security and closely linked to the significant action we are taking to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.
I thank the Minister very much for his Answer. While the immediate situation in Ukraine is, as we all know, putting incredible pressure on the world’s food security and this will undoubtedly get more acute, we must not be lulled into thinking that this is the only driving factor. As the Minister said, droughts, fires, floods, desertification and deforestation are the drivers and causes of climate change and biodiversity loss, and indeed of food insecurity. Will the Minister give us a clear assurance from the Dispatch Box that the Government will not use any legislation from this Session to reduce the high environmental standards that have already been set, in the pursuit of getting more cheap food into the system?
The noble Baroness has long experience in this area, and I assure her that the Government take this area of our responsibilities really seriously, not just domestically but internationally, where I believe we are a leader in trying to get the world community to come together to address global food security risks. The Pentagon, in a paper it published, called climate change the “risk escalator”, and it is. It will lead to further pressures on populations right across the world, and it is an absolute priority for this Government to help resolve it.
My Lords, given the escalation in food prices and the difficulty in world food supplies, does my noble friend agree that we should be very careful not to allow policies of rewilding or other environment-related schemes to diminish our ability to produce foodstuffs domestically?
It is our intention that farmers across these islands will continue to be incentivised to produce good-quality food. We have remained remarkably consistent in our food security over the last two decades, and we want to see that continue and improve. Through our farming reforms, we are incentivising farmers to continue to produce good-quality food.
My Lords, I was reassured that the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, mentioned world food security; that is absolutely critical. Can I pursue with the Minister that the Government will not forget that many of the poorer countries in the world can produce only a very limited type of food, upon which their own societies depend?
It is precisely those people who will be the greatest victims of climate change. In the short term we are working with the World Bank to lever the largest ever financial commitment, $170 billion, to support countries faced with economic hardship, both in the short term as a result of insecurity and the war in Ukraine and in the long term, working with international bodies to address these very problems for the most vulnerable people in our society.
My Lords, we are a trading nation and always have been. It is essential to ensure that harmful practices are not offshored, as environmentally degrading practices are making the biodiversity crisis we face worse. In turn, this makes growing crops on much of the planet harder. Can the Minister assure the House that the new trade Bill will not allow the import of goods produced to lower standards than ours? In the long run it would be utterly pointless and self-defeating for us and our allies to do so.
The noble Baroness is absolutely right. We have to make sure that we are not, through our environmental policies, just pushing carbon emissions and biodiversity practices that we do not allow here to other countries. We are part of a global community. Our food supply chains are very complex and we want to manage them with our international relations and make sure that we are protecting our environment at home, continuing to produce good food and playing our part abroad as well.
My Lords, will my noble friend join me in paying tribute to our farmers, not just for putting food on our plates but for creating and protecting biodiversity? Will he ensure that food security is embraced as a public good and that tenant farmers will continue to benefit from farm payments?
We want the entire spectrum of British agriculture to benefit from the changes. We recognise that this is a difficult time for farming; it would be even if we were not going through the changes we are with commodity price spikes and the like. We are working closely with them and the food sector to make sure that we are supporting our British farmers and that they continue to produce food at the highest welfare and environmental standards now and in the future.
Last year’s report from the Committee on Climate Change said:
“Defra still lacks a strategy to ensure the agricultural sector remains productive as the climate changes.”
It went on to say that the focus of the ELMS reforms was on flood risk rather than the broader climate impact. Does the Minister feel that those points have been fully addressed? If so, can he write to noble Lords and put a letter in the Library giving details of that? In particular, can he explain how the new strands of the ELMS programme are now addressing those broader climate change obligations?
I absolutely can commit to a letter that brings noble Lords up to date with our reforms. It is much more than just flood protection. It is about producing sustainable food. It is about soil systems. It is about making sure that farmers are incentivised to protect the environment and reverse the catastrophic decline in species. We are living through one of the riskiest times in terms of biodiversity loss. We want to reverse that but we are trying to do it in a way that supports farming systems. I am very happy to keep noble Lords informed of our progress.
My Lords, my noble friend mentioned that Ukraine has wheat in storage but cannot get it out because its ports are being shelled and blockaded. I am told that the real reason is that no wheat-carrying ships can get into the Bosphorus or the Black Sea because they cannot get insured and therefore cannot carry out such wheat as would be available and is necessary to stop a major crisis and starvation, particularly in Egypt, Lebanon and places like that. Will the Minister consider states, including the United Kingdom, undertaking the insurance that private enterprise will not provide and without which there will be further great starvation because of the blockade?
My noble friend raises an important issue that I will look into and contact him about. While this country imports a very small amount of grain from Ukraine and Russia, we have more in terms of oils. That is one of the reasons we are working with the World Bank: to make sure that countries that depend on imports from Ukraine are supported. I will certainly get back to him on the other point.
My Lords, the insurance of shipping often depends on its protection. Does the Minister believe that the fact that we currently have 12 frigates and will soon have only nine does anything to help protect the global shipping that is so important for our country and many nations?
I am always amazed by and respectful of the noble Lord’s ability to get naval matters into almost any Question. He is right that this is a matter of global security and not just about what Britain does. It is about what we do with our allies to support the free movement of goods around the world. There has been huge investment in the Royal Navy, which I am sure he is really pleased about, but we want to see that continue.
Given that more than 50% of human calories come from just four crops, with a fast-changing global climate, does the Minister agree that increasing the diversity of crops is crucial? What are the Government doing to ensure that we grow a more diverse range of crops in the UK, particularly more vegetables and fruit?
There are enormous opportunities under our new schemes for farmers to operate in a more entrepreneurial way. They are really good at seeing new opportunities. With the new technologies which Defra and the Government are investing in for farmers, particularly in the fruit and vegetable sector, there are new possibilities with vertical farming and other means to make sure that we are disrupting the age-old food supply chains which have been found to be so vulnerable at this time.
My Lords, in view of the Minister’s reference to the international dimension, is his department involved in work towards the COP 15 conference due to be held in China on the convention of biological diversity and in particular discussion of the strategic plan and its implementation? What can the Minister tell the House about the constructive contribution that I hope the UK will make to that conference?
Building on the fact that nature was hard-wired into COP 26, my noble friend Lord Goldsmith is leading on this to make sure that these are embedded in the Kunming COP. We recognise that, as the Dasgupta review said, half the food we eat is totally dependent on biodiversity. Therefore, this COP could not come at a more important time and we have to make sure that we have success at the end of it, as we did with COP 26.
Social Security System: Rising Cost of Living
My Lords, no specific assessment has been made. We are committed to supporting those on low incomes and will spend around £255 billion through the welfare system in 2022-23. We are supporting households with cost-of-living measures worth over £22 billion this year, including changes to universal credit to make work pay, the £9.1 billion energy package to help us with rising energy bills and an additional £500 million to help households with the costs of essentials.
My Lords, it is not enough. The welfare state was created to provide security in retirement and to make sure that life events did not result in destitution. Last month, the state pension went up by 3% for the year, as did benefits for children, disabled people and low-earners. In the real world, we all know that inflation is heading for 10% and energy prices have gone mad. The Governor of the Bank of England has just said that food prices will be rising apocalyptically. Does the Minister accept that growing numbers of both older and younger people literally do not have enough money to buy food and pay their bills? If so, will the Government bring forward benefit increases or find some other way to stop people falling into modern-day destitution?
The Government, of which I am a member, acknowledge that these are very difficult times, particularly for pensioners and young people with families. The uprating of benefits has been done in September; that is how the Secretary of State uses the CPI figure. However, I can confirm that the Government have convened a new cost of living ministerial committee and the PM has urged Ministers to go faster and be as creative as possible in ensuring that the Government are doing everything they can on this important issue. The Chancellor and Prime Minister are working extremely closely on this and will continue to do so because they are cognisant of the very communities that the noble Baroness is representing.
My Lords, the household support fund is an important resource for low-income families and the £500 million increase in the budget is very welcome, but the household support fund is due to run out in September, just when inflation is set to peak and before the winter fuel bills arrive. What consideration has been given to extending the fund beyond September?
The decision to extend the fund rests with my right honourable friend the Chancellor. Global inflationary forces are making life difficult for families. I take the point that my noble friend raises but I am assured from the Chancellor’s Statement today that we stand ready to do more as the situation evolves.
My Lords, one of the best ways of helping poorer pensioners is to increase the take-up of pension credit. What are the Government doing about the suggestions that many of us have made to increase take-up through a new campaign, including perhaps renaming the credit “pension boost” or “pension bonus” so that pensioners realise that it is theirs of right and will apply to get it?
I am always grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for keeping me on my toes with this; he has done an excellent job, along with other colleagues. I can tell him that we have undertaken a range of actions to raise awareness of pension credits and increase take-up. Initial internal management information suggests that new claims for pension credit in the 12 months to December 2021 were around 30% higher compared to the previous 12 months. Earlier this year, we directly targeted over 11 million pensioners with information about pension credit. We will have another awareness day, and the Minister with responsibility for pensions is working with the BBC. I can tell the noble Lord that we are doing everything we can to expand our efforts to increase take-up—but I have failed miserably in getting it rebranded.
My Lords, I am confident that the Minister, like me and many others in this House, does not want to see children suffer as a consequence of soaring food prices. She may have heard the same tales from families that I have heard, of the rising cost of the weekly food shop, with people unable to pay for the quality and quantity of food that their family needs. One of the best ways of dealing with that is to increase child benefit in line with inflation and bring it forward to September. Will the Minister please urge the Government to take that essential step?
I thank the noble Baroness for her contribution. I will reiterate what the Chancellor said:
“We stand ready to do more as the situation evolves.”
Child benefit does not sit with the DWP, but I will find the person it does sit with and pass on the noble Baroness’s message.
My Lords, would my noble friend help me with a problem I have? Could she explain why it was appropriate to increase universal credit by £20 a week during the Covid epidemic but not now, when people are faced with exponential increases in their food and energy bills? Will she tell the Chancellor that we cannot wait—we need the money now? He got enormous credit for what he did during Covid, but the need is greater and the Government need to act.
I assure my noble friend and the whole House that the Chancellor does understand and is working hard on the issue that many noble Lords have raised today. I can tell my noble friend and others who are impatient to get something going—I do not mean that lightly—that the £20 uplift was a success but it was a temporary measure, and I honestly cannot make any promises that it might be reintroduced.
I have no doubt at all that real case studies have been presented—they have certainly been presented to my Secretary of State. I know that everyone is impatient, and I understand that, but the Government stand ready to do what they can once a decision has been made. I understand that talking to real people is the best way to learn. I was in Brighton on Thursday, opening the new job centre. I met a lady there whose life had been absolutely chaotic, and now she has a job with G4S and she is cooking. We understand personal testimony.
My Lords, faced with the biggest fall in the real value of basic benefits for 50 years, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and the terrifying increase in the cost of basics, as my noble friend has said, what are struggling parents who have already cut back to the bone supposed to do when the Government refuse the uplift in benefits called for widely, including on the Government’s own Benches? What would the Minister herself do, if she was in their shoes?
I do not think I can answer on behalf of the people who make the decisions but I understand the point that the noble Baroness is raising. I know that there are families who are struggling. As I have said, a committee has been set up—I am sorry, but noble Lords know how government works. As I said, we stand ready.
My Lords, one quick solution would be to have automatic enrolment in Healthy Start vouchers. Despite the fact that the Government have put these up, we are still running at only about 60% to 65%. This money is there and it is doable—you could do it tonight.
Gambling Industry: Gambling Reforms
My Lords, without speculating on our ongoing review, gambling duties are based on gross gambling yield. Any changes which reduced industry revenue would lower tax receipts. Conversely, changes which reduce harm could cut costs to the Government and some displaced spending would likely go to other sectors that pay tax. We will publish our White Paper in the coming weeks.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I am sure he will be aware that some £5 billion of gambling companies’ annual profits tends to come from people with gambling problems or those who are in danger of having them, costing lives and increasing the cost to the NHS. Reducing gambling harm would reduce NHS costs and, with spending displaced from gambling to more labour-intensive sectors, create up to 30,000 additional jobs and increase the funding going into the Treasury coffers, as demonstrated by the NERA report. Does the Minister accept that it is possible to reduce gambling harm and have a stronger economy by doing so?
The noble Lord is right that tackling problem gambling is good not just for the people affected by it but for the services which treat it. We are also aware that there is a black market in gambling and that problem gamblers may be liable to continue their problem gambling in that area. We are considering both these things as part of our review of the 2005 Act.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that I am not the only one in this House who is heartily sick to death of being force-fed gambling adverts before virtually any sporting event carried on commercial television? If there is a role for punitive taxation, it is surely to reduce this level of intrusive advertising, which hits particularly at young people.
We called for evidence on advertising as part of our review of the Act. Many people share the noble Lord’s frustrations. Public Health England’s evidence review did not find evidence that exposure to advertising and marketing was a risk factor for harmful gambling, but we are looking at all these issues as part of our review.
My Lords, under UK legislation the definition of gambling is tightly drawn. It excludes increasingly popular mobile phone apps such as social casino apps, which require money to get players started and, once they are hooked, they are given tokens within the game. Does the Minister agree that extending the definition would also lead to an extension of the gambling tax?
As the noble Viscount knows, we have looked also at the harms associated with online gambling. Indeed, while awaiting the White Paper and the outcome of our review, we have strengthened the rules on how online operators identify and interact with people at risk of harm. We are not delaying in taking action where that is needed.
My Lords, so far as we are concerned the Government continue to drag their feet on reforming gambling regulation, with reports suggesting that the White Paper has been delayed yet again. Gambling firms pay a significant amount in tax and there is a balance to be struck—we all like a flutter. However, with the Exchequer ultimately responsible for the significant costs of problem gambling, it is right that regulatory and fiscal arrangements are reviewed. Does the Minister believe it is right for firms such as bet365 to argue against proposals for a statutory levy while its boss takes home a salary of £250 million a year and £97.5 million in dividend payments?
My Lords, we have sought views from all interested parties as part of our review of the Act, including the industry, which is taking action in some areas. We are happy to engage with people on both sides of the argument. We called for evidence on the best way to recoup the regulatory and societal costs of gambling, which includes looking at a levy, and we will set out our conclusions in the White Paper.
My Lords, as a member of the APPG on racing, can I ask my noble friend how the new framework that he is considering will support our popular UK racing industry? Can he ensure that it competes with the Republic of Ireland and France, where the prize money at the bottom end is much better than in the UK?
We are certainly aware of the close relationship between racing and betting. As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, rightly said, many people enjoy a flutter and do so without risk of harm. The main area of concern we are hearing from the racing industry is about affordability checks. These are important but must also be proportionate, and we are carefully considering the impact of all our proposals as part of the review.
My Lords, the vast majority of people gamble responsibly, and their harmless pastime supports 120,000 jobs in an industry paying £4.5 billion in tax and contributing £7.7 billion to the economy, so of course the Minister has got to consider the impact that new legislation might have on the public finances. While one problem gambler is one too many, should it not also be borne in mind that official Gambling Commission figures show that problem gambling has fallen to just 0.2% of the adult population, half the rate of the previous year?
The noble Lord is right: 40% of people gamble at least once a year, and if you also include people who only play the National Lottery then most people gamble. Most suffer no ill-effects from a pastime that they enjoy and brings benefits to the economy. However, we are also determined to tackle problem gambling and the misery it causes to many lives, and that is the balance we are trying to strike through our review.
My Lords, the majority of the online servers on which British people gamble are located in offshore tax havens. This means that profits from sales in the UK are booked elsewhere and not taxed in the UK at all. Can the Minister provide an estimate of UK corporation tax lost as a result of these arrangements?
I will not hazard such an estimate from the Dispatch Box, but in 2014 we amended the Gambling Act to introduce a point-of-consumption regulatory regime. Since then, every gambling firm which transacts with customers in Great Britain has to have a licence from the Gambling Commission, comply with licence conditions and pay duties on their earnings in this country.
The Minister has given a number of figures to the House, as have other noble Lords, but will he confirm that Public Health England, in its report of last September, put a figure of £1.2 billion on what it estimated to be the financial cost of problem gambling? It also emphasised suicide, mental health and all the other factors that come into play. Will he return to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, about aggressive advertising? What does he think the point of advertising is if it is not to influence people?
The point of advertising is to influence people and sometimes it is from gambling companies encouraging people who are not problem gamblers to gamble with them rather than their competitors, which is a legitimate activity. The noble Lord is right to point to the individual levels at which harms can be committed: one suicide is too many. We want to tackle problem gambling and that is part of the review of the Act.
My Lords, further to the question that has just been asked, would the Minister agree that this issue of advertising is not limited, although it is obviously a problem, to sporting programming? It is all over the place and is particularly evident on the catch-up services, where anyone can use the service—it is not age appropriate in any way. There is no question that the advertising is extremely aggressive and extremely seductive. The evidence that the noble Lord referred to from PHE is frankly quite counter- intuitive. Could the Minister tell us a bit more about what the Government intend to do about this?
Awaiting the outcome of our review, we have updated the gambling advertising code to ban adverts with a strong appeal to children, such as those involving Premier League footballers and other sports stars. We are very alert to the impacts of advertising on different groups, and will not hesitate to take action to rule out harmful practices. By calling for evidence on advertising as part of the review, we can keep abreast of the problem and come forward with appropriate proposals where needed.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, drew attention to the fact that one of the Select Committee’s recommendations was a statutory levy on gambling. How much is that still on the Government’s agenda? When bringing any proposals forward on that, will the Minister remember that the smaller, harmless end of gambling such as seaside entertainments would be hit by a punitive levy? Such a levy should be polluter pays and not on the smaller, more harmless end of gambling. I say this as Lord McNally of Blackpool.
And I reply as Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay. I am very alert to the important role played by slot machines at the seaside. We are looking at this area. We have been clear for a number of years that, if the existing system of taxation and voluntary contributions does not deliver what is needed, we would look at a number of options for reform, including a statutory levy. We will set out our conclusions in the White Paper.
Northern Ireland Protocol
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement delivered in the other place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the Northern Ireland protocol, and to lay out the next steps. Our first priority is to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. That agreement put in place a new arrangement for the governance of Northern Ireland and these islands composed of three interlocking strands: a power-sharing Government at Stormont on the basis of consent and parity of esteem for all communities; intensified north-south co-operation on the island of Ireland; and enhanced arrangements for east-west co-operation.
So much of the progress we have seen in Northern Ireland rests on this agreement, and for the agreement to continue to operate successfully, all three strands must function successfully. These arrangements are the foundation on which the modern, thriving Northern Ireland is built; it commands the support of parties across this House, and we will continue to work with all communities in Northern Ireland to protect it.
As a Government, we want to see a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister in place, and to work with them to make further progress. The basis for successful power-sharing remains strong, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister laid out yesterday. However, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is under strain, and, regrettably, the Northern Ireland Executive have not been fully functioning since early February. This is because the Northern Ireland protocol does not have the support necessary in one part of the community in Northern Ireland. I would also note that all Northern Ireland’s political parties agree on the need for changes to the protocol.
The practical problems are clear to see. As the House will know, the protocol has not yet been implemented in full due to the operation of grace periods and easements. However, EU customs procedures for moving goods within the UK have already meant that companies are facing significant costs and paperwork. Some businesses have stopped this trade altogether. These challenges have been sharpened by the post-Covid economic recovery.
Rules on taxation mean that citizens in Northern Ireland are unable to benefit fully from the same advantages as the rest of the United Kingdom, such as reductions in VAT on solar panels. SPS rules mean that producers face onerous restrictions, including veterinary certification, in order to sell foodstuffs in shops in Northern Ireland. These practical problems have contributed to the sense that the east-west relationship has been undermined.
Without resolving these and other issues, we will not be able to re-establish the Executive and preserve the hard-won progress sustained by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We need to restore the balance in that agreement. Our preference is to reach a negotiated outcome with the EU. We have worked tirelessly to that end and will continue to do so. I have had six months of negotiations with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. This follows a year of discussions by my predecessor.
The UK has proposed what we believe to be a comprehensive and reasonable solution to deliver on the objectives of the protocol. This includes a trusted trader scheme to provide the EU with real-time commercial data, giving it confidence that goods intended for Northern Ireland are not entering the EU single market. We are already sharing over 1 million rows of goods movement data with the EU every week.
Our proposed solution would meet both our and the EU’s original objectives for the protocol. It would address the frictions in east-west trade, while protecting the EU single market and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The challenge is that this solution requires a change to the protocol itself, as its current drafting prevents it from being implemented, but the EU’s mandate does not allow the protocol to be changed. That is why its current proposals are not able to address the fundamental concerns. In fact, it is our assessment that it would take us backward from the situation we have today with the standstill.
As the Prime Minister said, ‘our shared objective’ must be to find a solution that can command the ‘broadest possible cross-community support’ for years to come, and
‘protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions.’
That is why I am announcing our intention to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to make changes to the protocol.
Our preference remains a negotiated solution with the EU. In parallel with the legislation being introduced, we remain open to further talks if we can achieve the same outcome through a negotiated settlement. I have invited Vice-President Šefčovič to a meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee in London to discuss this as soon as possible. However, to respond to the very serious and grave situation in Northern Ireland, we are clear that there is a necessity to act to ensure that the institutions can be restored as soon as possible.
The Government believe that proceeding with the Bill is consistent with our obligations in international law—and in support of our prior obligations to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Before any changes are made, we will continue to consult businesses and people in Northern Ireland as our proposals are put forward.
I want to be clear that this is not about scrapping the protocol. Our aim is to deliver on all the protocol’s objectives. We will cement those provisions which are working, including the common travel area, the single electricity market and north-south co-operation, while fixing those elements which are not—on the movement of goods, goods regulation, VAT, subsidy control, and governance.
The Bill will put in place the necessary measures to lessen the burden on east-west trade and ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are able to access the same benefits as the people of Great Britain. The Bill will ensure that goods moving and staying within the UK are freed of unnecessary bureaucracy through our new ‘green channel’. This respects Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory and protects the UK internal market. At the same time, it ensures that goods destined for the EU undergo the full checks and controls applied under EU law. This will be under- pinned by the data-sharing arrangements I have already set out.
The Bill will allow both east-west trade and the EU single market to be protected, while removing customs paperwork for goods remaining within the United Kingdom. The Bill will remove regulatory barriers to goods made to UK standards being sold in Northern Ireland. Businesses will be able to choose between meeting UK or EU standards in a new dual regulatory regime. The Bill will provide the Government with the ability to decide on tax and spend policies across the whole of the UK. It will address issues related to governance, bringing the protocol in line with international norms. At the same time, it will also take new measures to protect the EU single market by implementing robust penalties for those who seek to abuse the new system. It will continue to ensure that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.
I will publish more detail on these solutions in the coming weeks. Let me be crystal clear that, even as we do so, we will continue to engage with the EU. The Bill will contain an explicit power to give effect to a new, revised protocol if we can reach an accommodation that meets our goal of protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We remain open to a negotiated solution, but the urgency of the situation means that we cannot afford to delay any longer.
The UK has clear responsibilities as the sovereign Government of Northern Ireland to ensure parity of esteem and the protection of economic rights. We are clear that the EU will not be negatively impacted in any way, just as we have ensured the protection of the EU single market since the existence of the protocol. We must restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions as the basis for the restoration of the Executive. We will do so through technical measures designed to achieve the stated objectives of the protocol, tailored to the reality of Northern Ireland. We will do it in a way that fundamentally respects both unions—the United Kingdom and the EU—and we will live up to our commitments to all communities of Northern Ireland. As co-signatory and co-guarantor of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, we will take the necessary decisions to preserve peace and stability. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating this important Statement. That the Government have been preparing legislation relating to the Northern Ireland protocol is no secret. Senior members of the Cabinet have taken every opportunity to issue threats to this effect in recent weeks, but we should be thankful that the tone of the ministerial intervention today has shifted somewhat. We have gone from what felt like the inevitability of unilateral action to this proposed Bill being a mere insurance policy. However, as I will return to, and as many commentators have said in recent times, the Government’s approach to this challenge posed by the protocol has been erratic and at times reckless.
The backdrop of the dispute over the protocol now is, in part, the crucial question of the formation of a new Northern Ireland Executive. The Prime Minister was clear in his Belfast Telegraph article that he believes that Sinn Féin, as the largest party following the Assembly elections, has secured the position of nominating the First Minister. He called for the DUP to nominate a Speaker and First Minister as a matter of urgency, to get the Assembly up and running, and for once we are in full agreement with the Prime Minister. The people of Northern Ireland want their leaders, of all parties, to get on with the job. The cost of living crisis continues to bite, and the Assembly and the Executive will have an important role to play in the coming months. Politicians must, first and foremost, fulfil those duties while negotiations on the protocol—which the majority of newly elected MLAs wish to see fixed, not scrapped—continue.
We on these Benches understand the concerns regarding the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. We have long called on both sides to show the flexibility needed to ensure that the protocol works in a way that enjoys the highest possible public support. The operation of the protocol has revealed tensions which need to be addressed; however, it has also been used by some to stoke tensions, and such behaviour is highly irresponsible. To uphold the principles of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and sustain the peace that it brought us, we need willing from both the EU and the UK Government. Checks must be reduced to the absolute minimum necessary.
There must be an element of common sense as to exactly what trade is subject to which checks. It cannot be right that goods from Great Britain which have no realistic prospect of moving into the EU single market are subject to excessive, costly and burdensome checks that only hamper business, inhibit trade and undermine confidence and consent. We have long called on both sides to show the flexibility needed to resolve this. We need calm heads, responsible leadership and serious diplomacy from both sides, statecraft, diligence and graft. While the process is under way, the people of Northern Ireland need and deserve a functioning Government who reflect the outcome of elections, as well as restoring the institutions created by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
The Government negotiated this deal. They signed it and ran an election campaign all about it. The Prime Minister refused to be upfront about the implications of his agreement, and that is his failure. Yesterday, in an interview with the BBC’s new political editor, the Prime Minister acknowledged that the Northern Ireland protocol was his creation. It is important that he has finally taken responsibility for negotiating an agreement that required, by its very design, some checks in the Irish Sea.
Aspects of what the Government are proposing on the protocol are helpful. However, these must be subject to urgent, detailed and technical negotiations, rather than endless media briefings. Labour has long argued that a veterinary agreement with the EU would eliminate the vast majority of checks on produce going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Although this would not solve every problem—I accept that—it would be a sensible way forward. Crucially, it would act as the starting point for all sides to work with communities and businesses in Northern Ireland to find other creative solutions to minimise these checks.
One thing which is certain in this process is that the breaking of an international treaty will do nothing to improve the current situation. The proposed Bill may have been called an insurance policy but, if it is taken forward, it would amount to a major breach of our international commitments. There is no long-term unilateral solution to the issues with the protocol, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous and will make achieving a negotiated settlement even harder. The EU has already said that it will respond to any breaches of the protocol with all measures at its disposal. We think that that is code for trade friction, which affects the cost of living and which people across this country do not want and cannot possibly afford, given current pressures.
Simon Hoare, chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, has said:
“Respect for the rule of law runs deep in our Tory veins, and I find it extraordinary that a Tory Government needs to be reminded of that.”
I suspect that the Minister will have some sympathy for what his colleague has said today. I hope that he will impress on the Foreign Secretary the need to de-escalate this situation and to take the right and responsible approach that is in the long-term interests of the people of Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole.
My Lords, while political knockabout is tempting in the surreal circumstance to which the Government have brought us in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol, the situation is too serious and dangerous for that. The Foreign Secretary’s claim that the Government’s
“first priority is to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions”
does not stand up to scrutiny. The protocol exists solely because of the nature of Brexit and the hardest of hard versions that the Johnson Government and their DUP allies chose, despite the voters of Northern Ireland not supporting a Brexit of any kind. Brexit was the original sin. The Government’s choice meant that the UK and Ireland were not aligned within the customs union or the single market. The result was the need to manage the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland through special arrangements. It was impossible to have the hard Brexit cake and to eat the no-checks-across-the-Irish-Sea cherry. However, the Prime Minister and his supporters seem never to have accepted the consequences of their choices and the treaties they signed.
The protocol can be changed only by an agreement between the UK and the EU. At the time it was signed, there was still hope that the trade agreement would supersede the protocol and make it unnecessary. Hence, the Government’s impact assessment in October 2019 said:
“The Government intends to conclude a future relationship with the EU that is centred on a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU and the outcome of this will affect the operation of the protocol.”
However, that comprehensive FTA never materialised, so the protocol—imperfect as it undoubtedly is—is still the essential best of a bad job. The Government’s announced action will put the UK in potential breach of international law. Like the noble Baroness, I will quote the Conservative chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Simon Hoare, who quoted Margaret Thatcher as saying:
“The first duty of Government is to uphold the law. If it tries to bob and weave and duck around that duty when it’s inconvenient … then nothing is safe—not home, not liberty, not life itself.”
The Assembly election results show that a clear majority of voters and elected Assembly members not only want to see the political institutions operating immediately but generally support the protocol. This also applies to the vast majority of the business community, who also want a pragmatic, not confrontational, approach.
The dual-market access that Northern Ireland enjoys is an economic asset, but the Government are not listening to these messages. In the strong words of my friend in the other place, Stephen Farry of the Lib Dems’ sister party, Alliance, which did so well in the Assembly elections:
“This proposed action is unwanted and unwarranted. Indeed, it may prove to be counterproductive and destructive. Much of the rationale cited by the Government is disingenuous … Any action or even threat of action that takes Northern Ireland out of the single market, including disapplying the jurisdiction of the ECJ, will undermine our region”—
I repeat, “will undermine our region”—
“as an investment location. It would also lead to even greater political instability.”
These are serious words for a very serious situation.
The disingenuous nature of the Foreign Secretary’s Statement is illustrated in her assertion that
“all Northern Ireland’s political parties agree on the need for changes to the protocol.”
Of course those parties, including Alliance, which accept the protocol still want to see improvements in its operation, because it is certainly necessary to address a range of issues. However, the way forward lies in partnership and mutual agreement between the UK and EU around legal and sustainable solutions to reduce the nature and level of checks through various mitigations and flexibilities in the operation of the protocol, or via building on the trade and co-operation agreement.
I note that the Foreign Secretary says that our preference is to reach a negotiated settlement with the EU—so please just do it. One extra that the Government should pursue is a veterinary or SPS agreement; there is a clear alternative here to just whingeing about SPS checks. Can the Minister explain properly why this is not being pursued? Yes, the EU should display even more flexibility than it has already—over medicines, for instance—but it also says that the flexibilities it has proposed have not been fully explored by the UK Government, and it cannot be expected to do more when the Government display belligerence instead of co-operation and undermine trust, especially as some of the solutions involve the EU subcontracting functions to UK authorities.
To risk a trade war with the EU at a time when there is a military war in Europe and when the UK economy is weak and vulnerable is deeply irresponsible. No wonder the Cabinet is split. I hope that the necessary negotiations will be taken forward.
My Lords, I first thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Ludford, for their contributions and broad support—certainly from the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman—for the importance of moving forward in a collaborative and collective way and ensuring that the importance of upholding the principles, nature, context and content of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is at the heart of this. I know that this point was also shared by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and it has really been the basis of why the Government have chosen the particular pathway that I articulated in repeating the Statement.
The formation of a new Executive and a functioning Assembly—which the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, alluded to—are, of course, the primary objectives of the United Kingdom Government. I state again that this is not about scrapping the protocol, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, acknowledged; it is about fixing those elements of it which frankly are not working. They are not working for the political parties, for communities and, importantly, for businesses operating and seeking to strengthen their work across both Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, talked about Brexit and referred to Northern Ireland voting in a particular way, not for Brexit. The whole essence of the vote on Brexit was exactly what we are standing up for today: the unity of the United Kingdom. This was a UK-wide vote. It was a democratic vote—one person, one vote—the result stands and we really need now to move forward.
I also challenge the premise that, because of Brexit, our relationship with the European Union has suffered across a range of priorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, referred to Ukraine. As someone who has been involved at the heart of our response, collaboration and collective working on Mr Putin’s aggression and war on Ukraine, I assure her that our work with the European Union and our partners in Europe is in a very strong place, particularly in an area that I oversee and work on with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary: that of sanctions. I assure the noble Baroness that our relationship is very strong both bilaterally with countries across Europe and in the European Union context. I was pleased, as were many noble Lords, I am sure, when I heard the votes of the Eurovision Song Contest and heard Paris award the United Kingdom douze points. That reflects the strength across all cultural ties as well as what we are doing across important areas of our collaborative work.
On the issue of working with the European Union, Mr Šefčovič and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary have been engaged in regular meetings, both calls and direct. Indeed, in the Statement today, my right honourable friend again outlined the importance of meetings. As I articulated in repeating the Statement, in introducing the Bill, we are working in tandem to ensure that ultimately our objective is to find a strengthened partnership with the European Union based on negotiated amendments to the protocol—it is very clear that it is not working.
I look forward to working with the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, along with my noble friend Lord Caine and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, among others, on how we move forward with the legislation. I assure all noble Lords that, in taking forward this Bill, I am someone who has at the heart of his responsibilities the importance of the international rule of law—it is something I have personally defended—and this is very much consistent with our obligations to international law. We will put forward a Statement on the Government’s legal position in due course.
On all the technical points within the protocol—the areas which are not working— we will continue to engage not just with the political parties and the EU but, importantly, with businesses to ensure that we can find the most practical and pragmatic solutions. Ultimately, the Government are making this Statement today and the proposals they have to ensure a functioning Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland. As we have articulated —it is a point emphasised by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister—we need to act and move forward but do so always with the hand of co-operation and collaboration with the EU, and the door remains very much open for future discussions.
My Lords, will the Statement which my noble friend has promised on the Government’s legal position make it clear why they have come to the conclusion that these proposals are consistent with our international legal obligations, in contrast with the clauses in the internal market Bill?
My Lords, trust, dialogue and confidence are urgently required in Northern Ireland. Not setting up an Executive and an Assembly post an election is deeply unacceptable and undemocratic. In that vein, will the Minister outline what technical meetings have taken place between the UK Government and the EU Commission in the past six months on issues to do with the protocol? I am talking about not ministerial meetings but technical working meetings. Further, what meetings will take place and when with business leaders, taking on board that the European Commission through Maroš Šefčovič has already had such meetings for more than a year?
My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness’s contribution; she speaks on issues in Northern Ireland with great insight. I assure her that yesterday my right honourable friend met the chairman of Marks & Spencer, and we meet business leaders regularly. Indeed, part of our approach has been underpinned by what businesses themselves are saying. The Road Haulage Association has said that the protocol has caused an increase in the cost of moving goods to Northern Ireland of between 34% and 35%. The Federation of Small Businesses has said that the current arrangements have
“created new bureaucracy, increased costs and impacted supply chains.”
I assure the noble Baroness that, as I indicated through my right honourable friend’s meeting yesterday, we meet businesses regularly—as does the EU, as the noble Baroness acknowledged. Specific official-level meetings have been regular and consistent. For every meeting that takes place at the ministerial level, there are official meetings both in the preamble and as post-outcome meetings. Looking at my list here, there have been 10 meetings since December led directly by the Foreign Secretary. As I said, the pre and post meetings certainly indicate our commitment to finding a practical resolution.
My Lords, although I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s Statement, there is no doubt that resolute action to deal with this deeply offensive protocol must be taken. Firm and welcome words alone will not satisfy the community that certainly I come from. My colleagues and I await the proposed legislation and will honourably judge the same in accordance with the mandate we received in the recent election. However, does the Minister accept that devolution in Northern Ireland will not be restored until the protocol issue is resolved? A fudge will not satisfy.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord’s contribution. Again, I assure noble Lords that I and my noble friends on the Front Bench will continue to engage with your Lordships’ House on the practical proposals as they come forward, to ensure that we work through the details of the proposed Bill. I agree with him on the importance of having a functioning Executive and Assembly. It is very much part and parcel of the solution in ensuring that we do not just find practical resolutions to the protocol issue and its continuing challenges but avail ourselves of the opportunities for all people across Northern Ireland.
My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the collateral effects of other EU-UK matters that are under discussion and dispatch? This was strongly evidenced by the letter I received from Commissioner Gabriel on 29 April in response to my letter about the UK’s lack of accession to Horizon Europe. Commissioner Gabriel cited the present serious difficulties in the implementation of the withdrawal agreement. Is not the Northern Ireland protocol spilling over a lot into the wider relationship and causing other problems?
My Lords, in negotiating any new agreement such as the withdrawal agreement, and in our new working with our colleagues across the European Union, there will of course still be issues that we need to focus on and resolve. However, I spoke earlier about my own practical experience of and insight on my dealings with colleagues across the EU, such as the Foreign Ministers whom I and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary meet regularly. There is certainly a raft of areas on which we see not only strong collaboration but strong partnership. That is perhaps best brought together in the current response we have seen to the war in Ukraine.
My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister accept that the problems with the Northern Ireland protocol affect not simply trade but the human rights issue, which has been identified as the democratic deficit? Northern Ireland is the only part of Europe in which people are subject to laws that are changed in a foreign parliament and adjudicated by a foreign court, and where tax rates must be approved by a foreign power. Unless the solution the Government come up with removes those jurisdictions, it will not be a sustainable one.
My Lords, my noble friend articulates the current challenges. That is exactly why the Government are acting: as the sovereign power responsible for Northern Ireland and its people, we have a responsibility to ensure that the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its structures is kept at the forefront of our thinking and discussions on how Northern Ireland moves forward. My noble friend mentioned human rights. We must ensure that people in Northern Ireland have the same benefits, laws and courts as everyone else across the United Kingdom.
My Lords, can the Minister make it clear that the blame for the present tensions and problems is not to be found in the unionist community, as implied by too many commentators and even by some here today? I do not always agree with the DUP, but on this I do—solidarity. Also, can I urge the Minister to commit to making it clear that the protocol is not just a practical or technical problem in terms of the movement of goods, VAT and so on? The Statement was overtechnical. Would it in fact be better for the Government to stress that what is at stake here is the principle of sovereignty? It is that principle that has to be fought for and defended; and the protocol cannot do that.
I am glad that a Statement such as this has brought the kind of unity the noble Baroness has referred to. Equally, I agree with her that it is important that at the forefront of this is the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Many Members of your Lordships’ House were involved with the hard, technical negotiations which brought that forward, and it is also important that we not only sustain it but continue to strengthen it. Ultimately, yes, it is about sovereignty and unity and ensuring that the people of Northern Ireland, who are an integral part of the United Kingdom, enjoy the same benefits.
My Lords, in the autumn of 2019, Mr Johnson on many occasions asserted that the Northern Ireland protocol would not create a trade barrier between Northern Ireland and the remainder of the United Kingdom. That is not the case. That was never the case. Why did he say that? Was it because he did not understand what he had agreed, or was it because he did not want the true facts to be known to the electorate? We need an explanation, and we need one before this House is asked to consider further legislation.
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister articulated the importance of the principles of the protocol. We wanted to ensure that there were no differences between the opportunities afforded to businesses and people in Northern Ireland and those in the rest of Great Britain. That has not been the case. We have continued to negotiate on finding solutions with our colleagues across the EU in practical and collaborative ways. As I have said already, and I articulate again to my noble friend, that door is very much open for discussions. It is important that we look to address those very issues, which are not just being highlighted by the UK Government; these issues are being highlighted in practice by the communities of Northern Ireland. As the Statement said, every political party in Northern Ireland believes that the protocol needs to be amended. Also, importantly, businesses are making the case very strongly. It is important, as a responsible Government, that we act accordingly.
My Lords, does the Minister not recall that we discussed this issue over and again when we were talking about the impact that Brexit would have on the Northern Ireland agreement? We did so in this House; I recall very clearly my noble friend Lord Hain making exactly this point. The problem we have now was inevitable. The problem with the protocol that we are now discussing undermines, fundamentally, the painfully reached Good Friday agreement, where we were helped by Senator Mitchell of the United States, and what we now have is an almost irreconcilable problem by having thought we could have our cake and eat it.
My Lords, one thing I have learned in diplomacy is that you can reconcile everything. It is about having the vision and also the commitment to find an agreement. That is certainly the intention of the United Kingdom Government. We will continue to work with our colleagues and friends across the European Union to find solutions to the issues of the protocol. We do not have a functioning Executive; people are taxed differently from everyone else in the UK; you cannot access the same financial benefits; and laws and courts in Northern Ireland are different from elsewhere in the UK. These are practical problems. They must be addressed. We will continue to work with the EU in good faith. But from a personal perspective: where there is a will, you can find a way, and one hopes we can do exactly that.
My Lords, as the former Solicitor-General Sir Robert Buckland said in another place, the very first article of the protocol says:
“This Protocol is without prejudice to the provisions of the 1998 Agreement”.
So the Belfast/Good Friday agreement take precedence over the protocol. The UK, as guarantor of the Belfast agreement, has not just a right but a duty to ensure that elements of the protocol that threaten the Good Friday agreement are changed, as envisaged in Article 13 of the protocol. If the EU resists this—I hope it will not—it will be acting against both the letter and the spirit of the protocol.
My Lords, my noble friend has detailed what my right honourable friend Robert Buckland said, and I totally agree. As I said, the position the Government are taking is about not scrapping the protocol but addressing the very issues that are not consistent with the important agreement that was reached by all in Northern Ireland: the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We need to ensure that it is upheld.
We are just a wee bit fed up when those people who were responsible for it and got peerages as a result of supporting that campaign now get up and criticise what they advocated, and when the former Minister, sitting on the Back Benches over there, who pushed this on us leaves the front line and snipes from the sidelines, leaving the poor noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, to come and explain it to us. He does it very well but it is not his responsibility. We should blame those whose responsibility it really is.
My Lords, first of all, I have worked closely with my noble friend Lord Frost and continue to have a strong friendship with him and to hold him in the highest regard. I pay tribute to the important work he did in our discussions on this important agreement with those across the European Union. I do not regard myself as “poor”, because I am often enriched by contributions and knowledge shared by your Lordships.
Equally, I assure noble Lords that being part of this Government is about collective responsibility. As a Minister, I believe we are ensuring that we fulfil our obligations as a custodian of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement when it comes to upholding the rights and obligations of those in Northern Ireland. At the same time, we continue to work with our colleagues across the EU to say that, yes, we are introducing these provisions but we have not closed the door. As I said in the Statement and as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary repeated during her discourse in the other place, ultimately we want a negotiation with the European Union; that would be the best outcome.
My Lords, noble Lords would expect me, as a horticulturalist, to address the House in the week before the Chelsea Flower Show. This country has a thriving horticultural industry, but trade between Northern Ireland and the mainland has been crippled by the Northern Ireland protocol. I hope it is possible that the horticultural industries can be fully taken into account in the negotiations the Government have entered into, because trade in horticultural goods is an important part of our inter- community economy.
My Lords, my noble friend raises the important issue of the horticultural industry. On a personal note, during his time as Chief Whip and a Minister I often benefited from the precious gifts he provides around Christmastime to many of us across your Lordships’ House. Flowers bloom in your Lordships’ House courtesy of my noble friend. I think the noble Lord, Lord Collins, is feeling left out, and I say to my noble friend that perhaps that can be extended to him.
Of course, my noble friend is absolutely right. The horticultural industry, as well as all others, is very much part and parcel of our consultations to ensure that businesses operating across the United Kingdom continue to benefit from their own perspective and, importantly, that citizens across the United Kingdom benefit from businesses as well.
My Lords, in the other place, the Secretary of State referred to unintended consequences. I have to say that all the consequences were foreseeable—and indeed were foreseen. The Foreign Secretary said,
“I want to be clear … that this is not about scrapping the protocol”,
and my noble friend Lord Moylan hit the nail on the head. Does this mean that, in perpetuity, laws will be made on behalf of Northern Ireland by a foreign power over which we have neither input nor say?
My Lords, my noble friend brings great insight and experience, and I pay tribute to his work in Northern Ireland. The Government’s position is very clear: we are acting and will continue to act in good faith. Practical issues have arisen from the imposition of the protocol which are simply not working—they are not working for Northern Ireland or for businesses, and they go against the actual agreement that we all want to uphold. As my noble friend Lord Lilley articulated very well, we all want to see the essence of the Good Friday agreement sustained as part and parcel of our discussions going forward. We will continue to work to ensure that all people across Northern Ireland have the opportunities and rights that are protected in that agreement, and where the protocol does not do that, it needs to change.
My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said, we have been negotiating with the European Union for 18 months, and my right honourable friend has been leading on this for the last six months. I have seen how serious and focused she has been in finding practical solutions; that door is very much open. Mr Šefčovič has been invited to have further discussions, and one hopes that the European Union will respond constructively.
My Lords, as a former chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place, I ask my noble friend to take particular note of the very wise words of the current chair, who, after all, leads a committee of several parties and has got to know Northern Ireland very well. I hope that he will be present at key negotiations.
My Lords, I certainly regard all contributions as wise words, whether they are in the other place or in your Lordships’ House. I reiterate the point—I know I speak for others on our Front Bench—that there are many people who have direct insight and experience on this important issue. As we work through the proposals that the Government bring forward we will be well placed to leverage, utilise and make sure that that experience feeds into what one hopes will be a practical outcome to the issues around the protocol that we currently face.
Shireen Abu Aqla
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 16 May.
“The United Kingdom Government were shocked to hear of the very sad death of the respected and renowned journalist Shireen Abu Aqla while working in the West Bank. On 11 May, the Foreign Secretary and UK Ministers made clear our concern, and we have called for a thorough investigation into the events. On 13 May, in company with the other members of the United Nations Security Council, we strongly condemned the killing and stressed the importance of an immediate, thorough, transparent, fair and impartial investigation. We also stressed the need to ensure accountability.
The work of journalists across the globe is vital and they must be protected to carry out their work and defend media freedom. We were also deeply distressed by the scenes at the funeral of Shireen Abu Aqla on Friday. Her death was a tragedy and those mourning must be treated with respect and dignity. The situation on the ground makes clear the need to make progress towards a peaceful two-state solution, and the UK stands ready to support.”
My Lords, the killing of Shireen Abu Aqla was not only an outrageous act but an attack on the freedom of the media and the independence of journalists working around the world. Her killing was rightly condemned by world leaders, the UN and civil society. The recent violence at Shireen’s funeral was similarly indefensible. While I note that Vicky Ford in the other place yesterday confirmed support for the international investigation, she did not indicate whether representations had been made to her counterparts in the Israeli Government to encourage them to support such an inquiry. Can the Minister answer this, and say whether further representations have been made to the Israeli Government on the subsequent violence following the funeral?
My Lords, I am sure that I speak for everyone, irrespective of where they are on the issues in the Middle East and the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, when I express my shock at the killing of a very renowned journalist, Shireen Abu Aqla. She worked over many years with great diligence and great conviction, and— speaking as someone who leads on the importance of media freedom around the world, which I know is close to the noble Lord’s heart as well—she did exactly what we know many journalists do in conflict zones: operated in reporting news with great courage and conviction. She has tragically paid the ultimate price of her life. The subsequent scenes we saw during the funeral shocked many of us. Witnessing that unfolding on television screens was clearly something that everyone found extremely shocking. I can confirm that of course we are engaged. Our ambassador has engaged directly with the Israeli authorities, as has our consul general in Jerusalem. We have continued to press for a thorough investigation into the events that took place.
With regards to the funeral, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, of the Roman Catholic Church, was reported as saying this:
“The Israel Police’s invasion and disproportionate use of force—attacking mourners, striking them with batons, using smoke grenades, shooting rubber bullets, frightening the hospital patients—is a severe violation of international norms and regulations, including the fundamental human right of freedom of religion.”
The Vatican has said that the 1993 agreement on the protection of the fundamental human right of freedom of religion and belief has been brutally violated. The Minister is well regarded on this subject, and he has spoken very regularly in this House on the importance of UK leadership on the protection of the fundamental human right of freedom of religion and belief. What direct representations have Ministers from the UK Government made to their counterparts in the Israeli Government?
My Lords, the noble Lord is right that freedom of religion or belief is a key priority for the United Kingdom Government. We look forward to hosting the important ministerial event in July this year. I assure the noble Lord that, as the Human Rights Minister, I put out a specific statement in respect of the events that unfolded at the time of the funeral. As the noble Lord has said, the response is being investigated—and it is right that those actions are fully investigated. What unfolded on our screens was, irrespective of where you stand on the issues that divide people in the Holy Land, something that no one deserved. The sanctity of life is important, and the funeral of someone who has tragically been killed—or any funeral—has to be respected for the dignity of the deceased. We will continue, as we have done, to call on the Israeli authorities to open an investigation. I know that, equally, the Palestinian Authority is looking at an investigation. We believe that it needs to be impartial so that it can establish the facts on the ground, and we will continue to work constructively with both sides.
My Lords, the bravery and courage of journalists reporting from war zones and caught up in the crossfire knows no bounds, and my sympathy and prayers are with the family of Shireen Abu Aqla. However, does my noble friend the Minister share my sympathies and prayers for the families of Oren Ben Yiftah, father of six; Yonatan Havakuk, father of five; and Boaz Gol, father of six? They were all hacked to death with axes and knives by Palestinian terrorists on 5 May.
My Lords, in joining my noble friend in prayers for the family of Shireen Abu Aqla, I am sure that I speak for all Members of your Lordships’ House, irrespective of what our positions are or where the Government or anyone else may stand, when I say that while we ultimately seek and hope for peace and security for all, I condemn any shocking or tragic death and express our solidarity with those who suffer the tragedy of such actions. This underlines the importance of achieving a resolution to the conflict. It is important that we strive to find peace in the Holy Land.
My Lords, it is sad but not surprising that the general opinion piles in to find that Israel is guilty before any investigation is carried out. Will the Minister encourage the Palestinians to hand over the relevant evidence—I believe it is a bullet, and we hope that it will be the right one—for investigation? Will he also encourage the Palestinians to stop their “pay for slay” policy whereby the families of assassins who are in prison are given salaries? That would be one way to cut down the amount of tragic bloodshed in that area.
My Lords, on the tragic killing of Shireen Abu Aqla, it is important that we have made the UK’s position clear. Indeed, on 13 May, with other members of the UN Security Council, we not only condemned the killing but stressed the importance of an
“immediate, thorough, transparent, fair and impartial investigation”
and the need to ensure accountability. In this respect, anyone who has evidence in support of such an investigation needs to bring that forward. It is also important to say that no one who commits these acts achieves any goal towards the important path of peace. What we need at this time is reflection on the tragedy that continues to engulf all communities across Israel and the Palestinian territories but, equally, to ensure that the structures and justice systems act to bring justice for those who suffer as a consequence of these tragic acts.
My Lords, the scenes at the funeral were terrible but it is completely wrong for people to attribute all the blame to Israel for this tragedy, when it occurred during a gun battle launched by terrorists trying to prevent the arrest of people responsible for the sort of attacks we have just heard about, and when one of those gunmen was heard saying that he had shot a soldier when in fact no soldiers were hit. This might explain why the Palestinian Authority has refused to allow the bullet that we just heard about to be examined and has refused to hold a joint investigation.
My Lords, that is why we have been very clear in saying that the investigation has to take place. It needs to be impartial and to ensure that all evidence is included. As I have said—I say it time and again as someone who has visited Israel, not just officially but with my family, and who has also visited the Palestinian territories—there is much that those communities find in common. It is important that we now find minds that can bring this conflict to a resolution. Ultimately, for every life lost there is a family, whether Israeli or Palestinian, that has to endure the loss. This tragedy has to come to an end.
My Lords, the Minister did not quite answer the question of whether he thought it feasible and valuable to have a joint investigation. The bullet is clearly an essential piece of evidence. He talks about an impartial investigation; does he believe it should be a joint one?
My Lords, that has certainly been put forward, and the Israeli side has called for a joint investigation. As I have said, one hopes that both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli authorities can come to an agreement to ensure that the evidence necessary to any investigation is fully provided, so that we have that impartial investigation. One hopes that that bridge can be crossed, so that there can be agreement on the investigation.
With the indulgence of the House, I will also take the second question as the Whip indicated.
I am grateful to my noble friend. Shireen was an American Palestinian Catholic member of the press. We have seen just from the interventions in this House that opinion is divided as to how she was murdered. In those circumstances, does my noble friend agree that the only way to make sure that we get to the bottom of who killed—assassinated —Shireen is to have an independent investigation, independent of those accused of being involved?
My Lords, of course, as I have said already, the United Kingdom Government have been very clear that what is needed is an investigation that is
“immediate, thorough, transparent, fair and impartial”.
It is important for all involved in that investigation to come together. Ultimately, we want to see those who were responsible for the killing of Shireen to be brought to justice.
Debate (5th Day)
Moved on Tuesday 10 May by
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:
“Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which was addressed to both Houses of Parliament”.
My Lords, on behalf of all noble Lords, I thank Her Majesty for her gracious Speech. I am grateful for the privilege of opening today’s debate on the Motion for an humble Address. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Her Majesty for the outstanding service and dedication to our country over these last 70 years. Her Majesty is deservedly held in the highest regard and deepest affection across the country and around the world, and it is an honour to serve in her Government.
Today, I will outline the Government’s plans regarding education, welfare, health and public services. These are at the heart of our mission to level up: to spread opportunity right across the country so that no matter where someone lives, where they were born or who their parents are, no matter what their background, health condition or circumstance, they can access excellent public services to improve their quality of life and realise their potential.
To deliver this levelling-up agenda, our public services and the Civil Service need to be set up in the right way so that we can deliver in an efficient and timely way for all parts of the UK, while we also focus on delivering front-line reforms that will improve lives: such as the Schools Bill that will level up standards in schools so they deliver for every child; by strengthening the academy trust system and supporting more schools to become academies; reforming attendance measures; and delivering the long-standing commitment of a direct national funding formula. Alongside this, it will improve the protection of children across a range of educational settings, making sure that the most vulnerable are not falling through the cracks.
The Government will also introduce a Bill to ensure our post-18 education system promotes real social mobility, is financially sustainable and will support young people to get the skills they need to meet their career aspirations and help grow the economy. In addition, the Government are fulfilling our 2019 manifesto commitment by taking steps to strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities in England. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will strengthen existing freedom of speech duties and directly address gaps within the existing law, including the lack of a clear enforcement mechanism. This will help ensure that, as a country, we have the skills our economy and employers need for the future while providing young people with the very best start in life, so they can pave a solid path towards their future. Developing the right skills is key to unlocking greater prospects and prosperity for young people and adults alike. That is why the Prime Minister introduced the lifetime skills guarantee, so adults have the opportunity to gain new qualifications for free to help them to gain in-demand skills and secure great jobs.
We understand that there are some people in this country who, for a variety of reasons, cannot work and we are committed to providing the support these people need. That is why we are spending £242 billion overall on welfare and £64 billion on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions in Great Britain this year. Understanding people’s personal circumstances is an integral part of the universal credit system. Each claimant signs a claimant commitment, which is a mutually agreed contract between the claimant and the department. Sanctions are at very low levels and will be administered only when a claimant fails to comply with a requirement in the commitment, which is tailored to each claimant’s circumstances.
We know, however, that for those who are able to, work is the best and most sustainable route to raising living standards and lifting people out of poverty, and we want as many people as possible to take advantage of this and stand on their own two feet. The evidence shows that working-age adults in a job are around six times less likely to be in absolute poverty after housing costs than those not working. The latest data from 2019-20 shows there were 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty before housing costs compared to 2010, with nearly 1 million fewer workless households and almost 540,000 fewer children living in workless households than in 2010. During this time, we have placed a sustained focus on making work pay—for example, through universal credit, and we entered the pandemic with the highest levels of employment this country has ever seen.
Since then, our plan for jobs, together with the great work of our jobcentre work coaches across the country, has been hugely successful in supporting, creating and protecting jobs and helping people get the skills and experience they need to move into, or back into, work. For example, sector-based work academies have supported people to move from struggling to surging sectors such as social care and engineering. Our job entry targeted support programme, which we have extended to September, supports the recently unemployed with specialist advice on how people can move into growing sectors, as well as with CV and interview coaching. Restart is providing intensive support for claimants unemployed for more than nine months and we aim to help 1 million people by June 2024. Kickstart has enabled over 162,000 jobs to be started by young people. Unemployment is now back to low levels, as we saw before Covid. In fact, today’s labour market stats show that the unemployment rate fell to 3.7% in the first three months of the year, which is the lowest since 1974.
In 2017, the Government set a goal to see 1 million more disabled people in employment between 2017 and 2027. The latest figures show that between this quarter and the same quarter in 2017 the number of disabled people in employment increased by 1.3 million, meaning that the goal has been met in half the time set and demonstrating just how much progress has been made. Through our disability and health White Paper, which we will publish later this year, we will set out our plans to help even more disabled people to start, stay and succeed in work where possible, and to live independently through a more effective health and disability benefits system.
We are committed to improving the nation’s mental health by modernising the Mental Health Act and will shortly publish a draft mental health Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. It will contain draft measures that will allow for greater patient choice and autonomy, help us address racial disparities that currently exist within the Act and make it easier for people with learning disabilities or autism to be discharged from hospital.
We also need to focus on education. The special educational needs and disabilities—SEND—Green Paper, for example, aims to deliver a more inclusive education system with excellent local mainstream provision providing targeted support at the right time for those with special educational needs.
Through the Conversion Therapy Bill, we will continue our commitment to ensuring the safety of individuals by bringing forward a ban that protects everyone from attempts to change their sexual orientation. Recognising the complexity of issues, we will progress work to consider the issue of transgender conversion therapy further. Our actions to protect people from conversion therapy extend beyond legislating. We will deliver a support service for victims via a contracted helpline and website, which will provide initial pastoral support and signpost to services such as counselling and advice about emergency housing. This support service will be open to everyone who has been through, or is going through, conversion therapy, regardless of their background or identity.
Although it is a huge achievement to have the lowest unemployment since 1974, after the last two years we have been through, we know that many people up and down the country face huge pressures at the moment with the rising cost of living. We are keeping measures under review and doing all we can to help people, while maintaining a responsible fiscal position to ensure that we can continue to provide support in the longer term.
As we heard from the Bank of England, there is absolutely no room for complacency about unemployment and the wider economy. Alongside this, we are taking action to cushion the impact of price rises on people’s pockets, providing £22 billion of support. The Chancellor’s £9 billion energy package provides a £150 discount on council tax for those living in properties in bands A to D and the £144 million discretionary fund is available through local councils. The £200 rebate on energy bills this year will help spread the costs of the expected increase over the next few years. We have also extended the household support fund, providing a further £500 million to help households most in need with the cost of essentials: £421 million is being made available to households in England, as well as £79 million for the devolved authorities.
With more than a million vacancies available in the labour market right now, filling these posts means fulfilling potential and providing help with a pay packet. That is why the DWP is pulling out all the stops to get more people, including disabled people, moving into jobs and, importantly, progressing in them so that they can boost their pay, prospects and prosperity. For example, through our Way to Work scheme, we are getting people into jobs more quickly, with the aim to get 500,000 claimants into work by June. Way to Work is helping people move into any job now, to get a better job tomorrow and build a longer-term career.
To help people progress at work when they land a job, we are rolling out a new national in-work progression offer to provide extra support for claimants to build the skills, confidence and contacts they need to get on at work and move up the career ladder. This is underpinned by the stronger work incentives we have introduced as a result of lowering the universal credit taper rate from 63% to 55% and increasing the work allowance by £500 a year, which means people can keep more of what they earn.
As well helping people progress in the labour market, DWP also helps some of the most vulnerable people in society. That important work is about helping improve people’s quality of life, including those going through the most challenging of times. To improve their lives, we need to continually look at how we can improve the system.
The Social Security (Special Rules for End of Life) Bill will ensure that thousands more people nearing the end of life can access benefits sooner, without needing a face-to-face assessment or waiting period. The Bill extends eligibility so that those expected to live for 12 months or less, rather than six, will get fast-tracked access to three disability benefits: personal independence payment, attendance allowance and disability living allowance. It builds on changes we have already made to universal credit and employment support allowance. It will ensure a consistent end-of-life definition across the NHS, and health and welfare services more broadly, and introduces easily understood criteria which support implementation. The changes will ensure that we have a system that works—a system that gives those affected the support they need when they need it, and one that clinicians and charities can engage in with confidence. Above all, it is the right thing to do to help those facing the end of their lives with earlier and faster access to financial support.
At the heart of policies, processes and procedures are people. If we are to deliver on levelling up and break down the barriers people face, we must make sure that the government services on which people rely meet their needs.
That is why I am proud of the landmark British Sign Language Act. It legally recognises British Sign Language and requires the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to report regularly on what each relevant government department has done to promote or facilitate the use of British Sign Language in its communications with the public. This will give us a much better understanding of how British Sign Language is being used across the Government, and how we can continue to improve communication for British Sign Language users.
More widely, the Government are bringing forward Bills to improve the way services are delivered and accessed by the public. The pandemic has shown how important it is that people are able to access government services online. Noble Lords will remember that, as a modern, digital and dynamic system, universal credit successfully stood up at the start of the pandemic when it faced a case load that almost doubled in the first year. Through the OneLogin programme, we will make it easier for more people to use a range of government services online. This will provide a single account for any member of the public in the UK to log in, prove their identity and access all central government services.
Through the procurement reform Bill, we will replace the bureaucratic EU regime for contracting services with a simpler, more flexible commercial system that is better and meets the needs of our country, while also complying with our international obligations.
That is in conjunction with various government initiatives to improve IT systems, such as the modernisation of the Child Maintenance Service. This feeds into the overall reform Bill and underlines the Government’s commitment to continually improve how they operate.
A key part of that is addressing the regional imbalance in where public sector roles are and where government operates from. Through our network of jobcentres, DWP has long forged deep and wide connections to communities across the country. Since the pandemic, we have increased our presence in even more towns and high streets, having opened 194 new jobcentre sites, 160 youth hubs and recruited 13,500 new work coaches. This is helping us to help more people in all corners of the country. Across government, we know we need to do more. That is why we are committed to moving 15,000 civil servants who design and make decisions about public services out of Greater London by 2025 and rooting them in more of the local communities they serve across the country.
Her Majesty’s gracious Speech reflects this Government’s commitment to levelling up across the United Kingdom, underpinned by our focus on changing the way public services are designed and delivered—looking beyond London to all parts of the UK. The reforms to education will spread opportunities and level up standards, ensuring that everyone can get the best from, and out of, school and higher education so that people can thrive in work and have the talent and skills our economy needs for the future.
Together with DWP’s expert support and focus on improving people’s quality of life, we want every person and every community to have hope, pride, opportunities and the satisfaction and dignity of knowing they achieved their potential and are not forgotten. My noble friend Lady Barran and I look forward to hearing all noble Lords’ valuable reflections on the measures I have outlined.
My Lords, today’s debate covers some of the most important issues to a well-functioning society. I am delighted to be speaking to them on behalf of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.
Arguably, education, welfare, health and social care and public services are critical and central to the Government’s latest populist phrase, levelling up. That is why it is so regrettable that the measures announced in the Queen’s Speech do precious little to make a real difference—if any—in these areas.
Schools and universities across the UK have been profoundly impacted by the pandemic. It is well documented that there is a disparity in this impact between schools in deprived areas and in the most affluent, yet despite the scale of the challenges schools are facing—indeed, the Sutton Trust found that one in three headteachers are using pupil premium funds to plug general budget gaps—this Government’s response is a desperately sparse Schools Bill.
It is a gaping hole of a Bill and consists mostly of one-size-fits-all academisation—we do not have it in Wales, that is why I cannot say it—on which the data is lacking or mixed at best, and formal naming and shaming of truant children through imposing compulsory attendance registers for schools. It is narrow in scope with little ambition and sparse policy, with 32 clauses on the governance of academies and 15 clauses on funding arrangements. It gives it an ideological approach rather than looking at the evidence.
How many more times are the Government going to rearrange the classroom desks, hoping for a better outcome? Where is the wide-ranging, substantiated plan to support children’s pandemic recovery? Where are the proposals to improve teaching standards or tackle the absolute exodus of burnt-out school staff? Where is the vision to equip our students with the skills they will need in the industries of the future, in an ever more globalised and technologically advanced economy?
In stark contrast, Labour is ambitious for every single child and every single precious teacher. Our children’s recovery plan would train up to 6,500 new teachers and give them ongoing professional development. We should not settle for less than world-class standards of teaching. We would introduce breakfast clubs, as we have in Wales, so every child starts the day with a proper meal. We would have afterschool activities, so every child gets to learn and experience art, music, drama and sport, as enjoyed by pupils in the private sector on Wednesday afternoons. We would introduce mental health support in our schools, because every report tells us that children’s development has fallen behind in the pandemic.
There would be targeted and funded continued professional development for teachers, which is absolutely vital for the workforce. There would be extra investment, right from early years through to further education, to support those children at risk of falling behind, because attainment gaps open up early and they need tackling early. Gains made in the early part of this century imploded during the savage cuts to public services imposed by this Government over 12 long years. In order to address this appalling deficit, we would go further to lock in the gains of a recovery programme for the long term. To ensure that education readies pupils for a rapidly advancing world of work, we would provide professional careers advice and work experience for all.
In the Government’s plans, higher education fares no better than schools. Instead of introducing measures to alleviate universities’ challenging financial contexts or reduce the record high number of student complaints in 2021 about their courses to the OIA, the Government have seen fit to give struggling universities two baffling, and in places troubling, Bills.
The higher education Bill will consider minimum qualification requirements for student finance and a cap on student numbers. Both are vehemently opposed by universities. As well as its huge adverse impact on social mobility, which expert bodies such as the IFS have pointed to, it is coupled with a worse still carryover—the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. Your Lordships may remember that my party in the other place voted against this Bill at Second Reading, such was our concern about its enabling of hate speech and the potential financial implications for universities. Culture-warmongering and wedge-issue politics, again unsupported by any evidence, simply do not deserve a place in any Queen’s Speech—not when so many real problems for higher education remain.
The Government’s approach on social care goes alongside their failure on childcare. It is not fair and is unworkable, because the least able will pay the most. If your house is worth £150,000, you will lose almost everything while the wealthiest in society are protected. As for social care, on which the Government have not planned for any new legislation, I can assume only that they think the measures contained in the recent Health and Care Act are sufficient to deal with soaring care costs and a staggering staffing crisis. There is no mention of dentists, so critical to people’s quality of life, who are leaving the NHS in droves. This week is the Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Action Week, and the focus is on the theme of diagnosis. An acute diagnosis is the current state of our social care. Do the Government even mention the forgotten and undervalued millions of unpaid carers?
When it comes to welfare, Labour is on the side of working people. That is why we have set out our plans to reduce the taper rate when we replace universal credit, to allow those on low incomes to keep more of what they earn.
I regret having to give such a pessimistic speech, but I am afraid I have little positive to say about the Speech’s health Bills or, I should say, its solitary Bill. We do, however, welcome the long-overdue overhaul of the Mental Health Act.
After 12 years of Conservative underfunding, the NHS went into the pandemic with record waiting lists, 100,000 staff vacancies and 6 million people waiting for treatment. For any of this to work, the commitments are dependent on a sustainable workforce—our fantastic front-line staff, of whom there are simply too few right now. My dear late mother suffered greatly with mental health issues and we were entirely dependent on the wonderful NHS service we had available to us to support her in-patient and out-patient recovery; I dread to think what would be available to us now. Crucially, Labour wants to guarantee mental health treatment within a month for all who need it, and to place specialist mental health support in every school, resulting in over 1 million more people receiving support each year.
There is also the lack of a women’s health strategy, which was promised by the Government at the end of last year but has yet to appear. This is coupled with the latest announcement of the Government’s delay to restricting advertising on foods high in fat, salt or sugar. The department’s own impact assessment shows that these promotions result in additional spending for an average household—in an acute cost of living crisis.
I hope I have begun to shine a light on where the Government are falling far short on our public services. I must point out that, if their party had the last Labour Government’s record on the growth of the economy, there would be £40 billion more to spend on them, without having to resort to punishing tax rises.
In conclusion, I have spent my life as a public servant—as a teacher, a councillor and the leader of a council. I genuinely despair of the Government’s legislative plans for health and social care, education, welfare and public services. They are lacking in ambition and vision, and I would have hoped that, out of a total of nearly 40 Bills, we might have seen one Bill of true substance in at least one of these critical areas that are so crucial to a well-functioning society. As it is, it will fall to us parliamentarians to probe and push and negotiate our way to legislation that delivers real outcomes and some hope for the public. If that means sitting here in this House until the early hours of the morning to defend the indefensible, so be it. After too many years of a Conservative Government, it is our duty, and we will willingly fight for what is right and proper for the people of Britain. We will continue to seek Labour’s vision that this is the best place in which to grow up and to grow old.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as a vice-chair on the All-Party Group on Adult Social Care. I start by echoing the Minister’s tribute to Her Majesty the Queen and will add how good it was to see her using her Oyster card today on the new Elizabeth line.
A Queen’s Speech is obviously about legislation, the economy and finances, and the priorities of a Government. But it is also an indicator of the attitude and approach of a Government to how they are going to govern. The last five years have meant that they have had to face some extreme challenges; some of this Government’s own making—Brexit—and some external ones—Covid and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—to which our Government have had to respond. The cost of living crisis, energy costs, food costs: millions of people are struggling to pay their bills, and with inflation currently at 7%, a 30-year high, this is likely to increase. Public services become even more critical when individuals and families are struggling, and they, too, are finding it difficult.
The Minister referred to the managed migration to universal credit, which has caused real problems for claimants. The Government’s own documents say that of the 2.6 million households still on legacy benefits,
“we estimate around 1.4 million (55%) would have a higher entitlement on UC, 300,000 would see no change and approximately 900,000 households (35%) would have a lower entitlement.”
But the poorest in our society already face impossible pressures on their costs, and for nearly 1 million households to face a lower entitlement because of a migration to a new benefit is a disgrace.
The Government say they understand the problem, but unfortunately there is no real offer of help for the people who are already having to choose between heating and eating, and who are not in a position to take on extra work, as one MP suggested yesterday, or to cook better. Instead, this Government will raise an additional £13.8 billion through personal taxes this year. That is why from the Liberal Democrat Benches we say that VAT should be reduced immediately, saving the average family £600 a year, and there should be an emergency Budget: these families need action right now.
The Social Security (Special Rules for End of Life) Bill, extending the period of terminal illness from six to 12 months to be eligible for special provisions, is also very welcome, but I hope that Ministers will also guarantee a speedy decision within a few days of notification, rather than using the extra time to delay implementation.
I am looking forward to my noble friend Lord Storey’s contribution on the Schools Bill, but I want to make a brief point on Part 3, to do with the register of children out of school. While it is absolutely vital that there is a record of where school-age children are, the Secretary of State announcing the naming and shaming of children not in school and their parents, as well as increasing the criminal penalties for parents, is very worrying, including for those parents who wish to home school.
Criminalising parents and naming and shaming children is completely inappropriate when a child, for example, has been so severely bullied that they are traumatised and waiting for a CAMHS appointment to start therapy, which currently can take 18 months to two years. It is also completely inappropriate that children who are immunocompromised, for example on chemotherapy, are currently forced to go into school without special measures and ventilation, even though their consultants say that these children cannot live with Covid. Parents of some of these children are currently being taken to court and fined.
Any register must record why a child is absent, and specialist advice, such as that of a hospital consultant, should be followed. This means alternative provision online may be needed and should be both provided and fully funded. Covid has also laid bare the inadequacies of too many school buildings, whether in terms of ventilation, appropriate space to learn in, or safety features, so we need an urgent investment in our school estate.
I have talked already about the increase in living costs, but many disabled people need much more heating than most families, and there are some who need to run life-saving equipment, such as ventilators and heart monitors, overnight. I have had family experience of this with my granddaughter. People in this particular group are very easy to help, because they are registered with their local energy supplier for emergency help in the event of a sustained power cut—so why cannot these disabled people be given grants to cover the extra costs that they face through no fault of their own?
More generally, disabled children cannot access the healthcare and other services that they have a right to. Forty-three per cent of families with disabled children have waited more than a year to get respite care, and more than four in 10 disabled children have waited more than a year for an operation.
The lack of funding available in local councils means that more parents of disabled children have had to take their local authority to tribunal to get the support they are entitled to. Lest you do not believe me, in 96% of hearings, the tribunal supports the parents. These children deserve that support, and frankly our local authorities deserve the funding that they need to deliver it.
Disabled people still face problems with transport and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, who in his speech last week reminded us that when the Disability Discrimination Bill of 1995 was in Committee, the Minister said that
“taxis newly licensed must, as a condition of licence, be accessible to all disabled people, including those who use wheelchairs.”—[Official Report, 15/6/1995; col. 2035.]
In addition to that, we heard only two days ago of BBC correspondent Frank Gardner being stuck yet again on a plane because Heathrow’s disabled service had failed. There are many other problems. Nearly three decades after the Disability Discrimination Bill was passed, our taxi service can still opt out of carrying wheelchair users, and people can still just sit and wait on aeroplanes.
I turn now to working disabled people. NHS England has just reported that, even in the NHS, disabled staff are nearly twice as likely to face formal capability questions about whether they can do their job properly. NHS England is now asking trusts to look at whether they are doing that unfairly.
From these Benches, we have concerns about the Bill of Rights. We believe that it will further take away the rights of those with protected characteristics, including disabled people, who can currently rely on the positive obligations placed on public authorities by the European Convention on Human Rights. The Bill of Rights will cut those positive obligations and severely weaken people’s ability to access their rights under the convention.
Banning conversion therapy is absolutely the right thing to do. However, it is not right to exclude trans and non-binary people from the ban, thereby allowing conversion abuse to continue to take place against two groups of people with protected characteristics.
I am pleased that the mental health reform Bill is coming into the process this year. It is a very important Bill and the Minister was right to say that. People definitely need a stronger say in their treatment. However, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Local Government Association and many other stakeholders make the vital point that mental health reform must also include fully resourced funding for mental health services on the front line, training mental health professionals, workforce planning and community services. It is also vital that those with learning disabilities are not kept in secure accommodation. This is a scandal of which we should all be ashamed and which I hope will be ended by the Bill.
Mental health is part of a wider health crisis. This is undoubtedly partly as a result of Covid, but many of the current problems are long-standing and point to a lack of investment over the last 10 years and an unwillingness in Ministers to tackle them honestly. The NHS is undoubtedly in crisis and doing the best that it can, as it always does, while its staff is exhausted, understaffed and demoralised. The most visible points are the ambulance crisis leading to an A&E crisis, the lack of clinical staff and the cuts in capital spend, resulting in too many NHS trusts delivering services in poor buildings.
Today, a paramedic noted that her first patient of the day in her ambulance was now in a queue at the local A&E department. She commented that if today was like her last shift, she would spend the entire shift with this one patient in this one car park. This is not a one-off; it is happening all over the country every day. A&E departments are stuck because beds cannot be freed up, since patients cannot be sent from other wards into residential or nursing care—or even to their own homes—if there are no carers to look after them. The social care sector continues to see staff leaving for better paid jobs, including in the NHS, without being in a position to charge more for their services. Instead of real help, Ministers and the press continue to attack the NHS and the care sector. They attack the NHS for having too many managers, but the NHS’s 2% compares well to the German and French healthcare systems, which have more than double that figure.
From these Benches, we hoped to see more about tackling the inequalities in our health system. Whether they are based on deprivation, ethnicity or disability, we need to address the social determinants of health. Instead of cutting public health budgets, as happened to the UKHSA last month, we should be investing in food reformulation, tobacco bans and social prescribing. Until this happens, the focus will be on those already ill, rather than preventing them becoming ill.
Above all, everyone involved in the health and social care sector is looking to the Government to plan and invest in the workforce. The NHS staff survey published as recently as March found that 52% of staff said that they cannot do their jobs properly because of staff shortages. Vacancies across the NHS are now back to their pre-pandemic levels, with over 110,000 full-time-equivalent empty posts. Some 48% of advertised consultant posts are unfilled; this needs to be addressed urgently.
Finally, I ask the Minister why unpaid carers’ leave is once again not in the Queen’s Speech, despite it being a Conservative Party manifesto commitment. Over half of working carers say that they needed unpaid carers’ leave to help them juggle work and care. Despite commitments to help carers at the end of the passage of the Health and Care Bill, the Government have once again let carers down. Ministers talk of levelling up, but I fear that the Government are not listening to the evidence of how the current cost-of-living crisis and the cuts to our public services are affecting the most vulnerable in our country.
My Lords, I declare an interest as an unpaid ambassador for UNAIDS. I would like to concentrate upon health, particularly public health.
I remember intervening on a Question on HIV/AIDS three or four years ago. As I sat down, the Member next to me on those Benches said, “Of course, no one dies from AIDS any more”. The campaign of the 1980s was a distant memory, and AIDS no longer dominated the headlines—but, of course, his statement was not true then, and it is not true today. AIDS has been a deadly scourge, which has lasted for at least 40 years. Over 33 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic. Even today, 700,000 people a year die from AIDS—men, women and children, particularly young girls. It is an appalling toll, and one which this country must make every available effort to reduce and eliminate. We are now relatively fortunate in the UK but, even so, there are still well over 100,000 people living with HIV and all the problems that it brings: ill health, isolation and, above all, discrimination.
Other countries have not been so fortunate. If you take Ukraine—which I visited a few years ago to study its position—before the Russian invasion, it faced one of the worst and most serious HIV problems of any country in Europe, mainly from injecting drugs. Russia itself was much worse. However, in the last years the position in Ukraine had improved—thanks to the work of local and international organisations, including some from this country—but is now dramatically under challenge. The conflict has put the improvement at risk. Ukraine now faces formidable difficulties, including the dangers involved in getting drugs through and the risk to life that this entails, and the plight of those who are displaced and have become refugees.
The basic point I wish to make in this very short contribution is that although public attention may have drained away from HIV and AIDS, they still pose an enormous challenge to this country and the world—one that can increase because of new events such as war. In these circumstances, the question is: what can Britain do to help in this challenge?
Prejudice is a very serious issue. Perhaps we should say that although there have been Acts of Parliament that do away with the outright persecution of people such as Alan Turing—they are behind us—that does not deal with the whole problem. Changing law does not mean that all attitudes have changed, and individual examples become more important. At this point, may I say that I think the footballer Jake Daniels of Blackpool, who has taken a lead by coming out as gay only a day or so ago, is a magnificent example to this country?
However, we as a country need to be generous not only inside but outside. I remind the House again of my interest in the UN. In my view, our record over the past few years has been deficient. Frankly, it was a hell of a time to cut back on overseas aid. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary published a new strategy. One part of that will be to make aid delivered more directly—we assume, by the Foreign Office—and a large slice will be taken away from organisations such as the United Nations and, I assume, UNAIDS that have undoubted experience, expertise and commitment. “Aid for trade” may make a convenient political slogan, but it is not, I suspect, a banner under which the small army of volunteers that we have in this country march. Let us be absolutely clear: if it was not for that contribution, this country would be in serious difficulties.
I am sceptical about what the Foreign Secretary is announcing. The banner that young people would march under would be one concerned with saving lives and preventing illness rather than some connection with trade. I say to the Government that I need to be convinced that the strategy set out by the Foreign Secretary at this stage is the right one to take this country forward.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in the debate on the Motion for the humble Address. I declare my interests as outlined in the register. There is much in Her Majesty’s gracious Speech to commend it to your Lordships’ House. However, it is unfortunate that it did not include any detailed remarks on the relationship between health disparities and the levelling-up agenda. While there was a valid emphasis on restoring the strength of the economy, it was a shame to hear so little detail on the circumstances that will enable us to economically bounce back: namely, our health.
Thankfully, the actual levelling-up report highlighted health as one of its mission areas, stating:
“By 2030, the gap in Healthy Life Expectancy … between local areas where it is highest and lowest will have narrowed”,
and that, by 2035, healthy life expectancy will rise by five years. The measurement of these missions, along with an independent body to ensure that they are seen through, will be vital to their success and essential in the wider context of health inequalities which we are facing post pandemic. Without these metrics and this accountability, we may well miss the goal of levelling up entirely.
The Health Foundation’s analysis shows that it will take 200 years to meet the goals named in the levelling-up White Paper, meaning that we are at least two generations away from a more equitable society. This is if we maintain what we are currently doing—and we are not. We are losing our healthcare workforce faster than we are replacing it. With a falling number of GPs, dentists and nurses and increasing pressure on the NHS, we are overlooking prevention of ill health and, by not investing sufficiently now in health coverage, we are storing up increased expenditure in the NHS in future. We need a comprehensive and integrated approach to restoring our collective well-being. To achieve the ambitious and worthwhile health missions of the levelling-up White Paper, we must be direct, pragmatic and specifically work them into legislation.
Last year, I launched a Health Inequalities Action Group, bringing together parliamentarians, interfaith leaders, health specialists and civil society leaders to explore how we can improve health outcomes across London and the social circumstances that surround them. In 2022, we hosted a series of community consultations to capture the different experiences. Through this work, we have found that faith groups, if sustainably supported, can continue to improve the work of statutory and civil society organisations to action complex health and social interventions. The action group is drawing out case studies of public health interventions that are modelled on relationships, trust and the mobilisation of resources.
One case study was the visionary community health worker pilot initiated by Westminster City Council. These public health professionals are trusted, permanent and regular visitors who are integrated in the community and connected to the local primary care teams and other relevant bodies necessary for community flourishing. This pilot was modelled after the Brazilian family health strategy, which began in 1994 and is now the primary care system in Brazil.
Brazil shares many of our disparities; research in this area by British GPs who have worked in Brazil laid out a rationale for why we should use this system in the UK. A national study in Brazil, featured in the British Medical Journal, showed that residents in areas with a long-standing coverage of community healthcare workers had a 34% lower cardiovascular disease mortality rate compared to areas without them. The benefits of such an approach to community care, and arguably the entire levelling-up programme, are clear.
I have said before that the vision we should be striving for is one of mutual flourishing, generosity and abundance. This is also known as the Jewish and biblical concept of shalom, which can be summarised as experiencing wholeness or a state of being without gaps. Together with those working for a more whole and healthy society, I would like this Government to act in line with the NHS long-term plan, which focuses on prevention and early intervention to reduce healthcare costs and the burden of disease. I would like this Government to adopt models and practices that embody efforts to design a more holistic health service—this is in effect aimed at achieving shalom—not just the absence of disease. It is an approach that needs to happen if we are to take the levelling-up agenda seriously.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about health again in this debate.
One of the many things that transpired from the Covid epidemic was the many acts of kindness, thoughtfulness and active help that the people of this country gave to each other. Lonely people were sadly deprived of company, but they received from kindly neighbours food and encouragement within the restrictive social distancing measures.
The country is now facing a number of huge crises, including the obesity epidemic, inflation and huge increases in the cost of heating our homes. More than ever, huge swathes of the public need help, encouragement, compassion and love. What is needed is an even greater increase in the already many acts of kindness and love shown to those who need it most. We cannot expect central and local government to supply all the answers, but we know that the vast majority of people in this country are willing to help one another in this great time of need.
There are so many practical ways in which help can be delivered, such as visiting lonely people, helping them with their food shopping, generally befriending and comforting them, and being cheerful friends. There are other activities, such as babysitting, childminding and transporting people to and fro, especially to GP surgeries and hospitals. Then there is encouraging families in wise shopping and cooking at home, and helping them to discover cheap sources of food that are more nutritious and healthier than a lot of the junk food presently on the market. My friend the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, reminds us of the Zulu exhortation, “Vuk’uzenzele”. In case any of your Lordships are not familiar with the Zulu language, it means, “Just get on and do it”.
One of the impacts of these crises is that some people are having to skip one meal every day. This may be all right for some of us, but it is a very difficult situation to be in when it is forced on hard-working people with few resources. We really need to work together to show compassion and practical help for the many who need it.
We need to avoid blaming one another for these disasters and problems. Being angry and blaming other people does not harm those so attacked, but it does a great deal of damage to those who indulge in the blame game, the anger game, the paying-off-old-scores game and revenge. These emotions tend to wreck the immune system and lead to more illness, more hospitalisations and greater strains on an already stressed health service.
We have a long tradition of Christian service and the service given by many of different faiths or no faith. The Church has a very important role in setting an example in these areas. After all, it is from our Christian foundations that this country’s hospitals and schools were set up in the first place and its welfare system developed. It is to be hoped that the bishops will support a unified vision to encourage us all. Of course, this may require putting aside personal party politics for the sake of being of one in spirit and of one mind.
When a politician was being badly treated and repeatedly interrupted on a television programme, he said, “Excuse me, sir. When you entered this BBC building at Langham Place, did you notice the advice inscribed in stone on the wall of the entrance?” The interviewer shook his head; he had not seen the exhortation, which had been there since 1922. It reads, from the New Testament,
“that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.”
What the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, said in Zulu bears repetition: “Vuk’uzenzele”—just get on and do it.
My Lords, I draw attention to my entries in the register—in this case especially as master of Fitzwilliam College and a trustee of the Education Policy Institute, because I will talk briefly about the Government’s priorities in education in the Queen’s Speech.
Many noble Lords all around this House have served in government, as Ministers or in No. 10. I suspect that many of us have the same view: that in government, the overwhelming priority should be to work to meet the needs of the whole country and not to govern with the party in power’s electoral interests as the paramount concern. I suspect that, at least privately, many share my real anxiety, and indeed distress, for the functioning of our democracy that that approach seems to be no longer functioning. Instead we have a sort of permanent campaign, dividing lines, political games and token gestures to appeal to elements of the electorate or the media, not serious programmes of government.
I am not naive—I was in No. 10 for eight years—but I maintain that for many Members across this House, of whatever party or none, the broad approach to government, if not necessarily the policies, is the same. But that priority—that governing principle, if you like —does not now seem to be paramount. By the way, that is not to say that individual Ministers do not work in that way, but everyone knows that the overall direction, priorities, purpose and principles come from the top.
We are told that the flagship policy is the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, and it sounds utterly laudable and much needed to improve productivity, boost economic growth, encourage innovation, create good jobs and enhance educational attainment. What is not to like? Unfortunately, the devil is in the detail: a combination of inadequate, small measures and a few political pieces of gesture politics.
Other days will have covered the vote on verandas, so let me talk about education. First, early years education: where is it? We have known for the past several decades that high-quality early years provision is essential. It is why many of our competitors are flying educationally. Sustained quality investment gives a strong grounding for school and beyond. We also know that the gap widened during Covid and is likely to get worse as a result of the cost-of-living crisis. So far as I can see, the only conversation at the moment confuses early years education with childcare and the only measure relates to the cost of childcare provision per child.
If you look at schools, we all know what the problem is. We all understand that there is a widening gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils. There is the effect of Covid, low aspiration, poor results, and poorer teaching and leadership in the poorest parts of the country. We all know that. What has to be done is not rocket science—we saw it in London Challenge and in other areas: a very clear dedicated team, sustained delivery, a focus on performance and leadership, and tackling teachers to make sure that we get the best to the poorest schools.
I agree with new governance where it is helpful—and I was certainly involved in city academies—but not for the sake of it. It should genuinely bring new skills and energy, a mixture of carrot and stick. We know that that leads to better outcomes, so we know that there is a blueprint. The Government’s response in the Queen’s Speech, frankly, is pretty pathetic. There is no proper recovery plan. There is no coherent levelling-up agenda; bits of little measures are scattered around the place but there is no real long-term interest or investment to make change happen. There are just little initiatives such as joining a MAT by 2030. That is about structures, not quality. We have got to have sustained progress, not headlines.
To be clear, I never excuse failure and poor outcomes but the deal has to be proper, practical support, sustained policy and investment. Frankly, for many years there has been a level of consensus across the parties about the priorities, and that is now being or has been broken.
On HE—that potential engine of economic growth and levelling up, a massive route to push productivity and improve skill levels, regionally and sub-regionally—at the moment, we have the leftover Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. I will not go there because I know we will spend time on that on other occasions. I look forward to the promised HE Bill that the Government have still to bring through. I hope they are serious about promoting practical policies.
Finally, I wait with real interest to see what advice will now be given to the Office for Students after the Secretary of State’s interview in the Times. Are we really saying that investment does not matter? Are we really saying that we are going to stop encouraging poorer applicants? I do not doubt the need for a sophisticated approach to admissions to good universities. That, frankly, would be very welcome. But a simplistic exams grade only approach will not be fair, will break well-established focuses on realising potential and especially will not encourage disadvantaged students, those with huge ambition and potential, and will not be good for the UK economy. Please let us together stop the campaigning and talk about governing.
My Lords, I declare that I receive disability living allowance. I shall make just one point, but it is an important one for disabled people and must be looked at in the light of the cost-of-living crisis. It is the unacceptable delay in the waiting time for PIP—the personal independence payment—which helps people with long-term conditions manage their day-to-day living costs and get around. The delay I am talking about in the whole application process is now about six months and is particularly tough with the cost of living rising so fast.
PIP is a most welcome benefit as it is not means-tested and not taxed. It is an in-work as well as out-of-work benefit. Put simply, it helps to enable thousands of disabled people to keep going. To apply for PIP, either by phone or online, an extensive form must be filled in. An assessment is then undertaken by one of the DWP’s outsourced companies, usually either face to face or by phone. A DWP decision-maker then reviews the claim and either awards the benefit for a certain time or turns it down. At the height of the pandemic, there were understandable delays in this whole process, but it is not acceptable that the delays seem to be getting worse rather than better.
Making an assessment is not always straightforward, and this is especially true for those with fluctuating conditions, who must be affected more than 50% of the time to qualify for the benefit. At this point, I welcome the new Bill, which extends the right of those at the end of life to apply for disability benefits in a fast-track procedure. But for those who have a progressive long-term condition, such as a muscle-wasting disease, this is not a fluctuating condition but one that will progressively get worse. However, even those with progressive conditions are having to wait a very long time to receive an award.
Being disabled is very expensive. As well as perhaps needing extra heating or special food, many disabled people have appliances such as a hoist, an electric bed, a stairlift or a through-floor lift, all of which need power. As for help getting around, a Motability vehicle would be available if a claimant received the enhanced rate mobility element of PIP. Yet thousands of PIP claimants are waiting six months for a decision and cannot lease a Motability vehicle until the award is given.
I urge the Government to take immediate action to address the delays in the system. Why is it getting worse? Has the DWP recruited enough staff to deal with PIP assessments? Are there any plans to deploy DWP staff instead of using outsourced companies? We know that the population is getting older, so more people are likely to need disability benefits in the future. But we need to be sure that the whole process is working properly, which it clearly is not at the moment. I look forward to the Minister’s reply or a letter if that is more appropriate.
My Lords, I declare my interests as chair of the National Society and co-chair of the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households.
A key question for evaluating the legislative agenda laid out in the gracious Speech is: are we, as a nation, prioritising the holistic well-being of all our children? I welcome the forthcoming Schools Bill. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State’s approach in constructively working with us to enable churches to have confidence in moving towards a system where all schools can be in a strong academy trust, maintaining their own ethos. The whole system must provide an education not solely pursuing the ends of maths and literacy but enabling children to be the best people they can be and to contribute to transforming the schools in which we live.
Small, rural schools pose a particular challenge. The Church of England provides around 65% of rural primary schools in England. The key to their flourishing is not simply the means for academic achievement; it also requires investment in rural economies so the whole community flourishes. I echo the emphases made to that effect in an earlier day of this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. For us, strong trusts are those where the vision, character and ethos promote an education that is, as our national Vision for Education explains,
“Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good”,
where the vision for every child is that they have
“life in all its fullness”,
which is rooted in wisdom and not simply knowledge.
There are currently 1,250 Church of England academies, but moving to a system where all 4,700 schools are in strong trusts will require significant structural capacity and proper investment in teachers and leaders. Sustaining a culture of teacher excellence is transformative for pupils’ outcomes from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, so I hope that the Minister’s department will be sufficiently resourced for this through a budget which shows commitment to children’s holistic well-being through education.
Speaking of children’s well-being leads me to note the lack of action in the gracious Speech to alleviate the cost of living crisis. Those worst affected are families with children. In the north-east, almost half of families with children under five are in poverty. This is unconscionable. There are also significant concerns about inflation. The complexity in finding solutions requires openness to different routes on all sides to what is, I hope, a shared goal. It is vital that the voices of those who are the most vulnerable are heard and heeded.
My opposition to the two-child limit remains. I am disappointed that the Government have disregarded the overwhelming evidence documenting families being pushed into poverty. Sadly, often direct questions asked in this House regarding its justification have not been answered. It is crucial that we have an opportunity to focus on this, and for that reason I have tabled a Private Member’s Bill to abolish the two-child limit.
Every child is of great value and, as education is prioritised, we must recognise children as whole people whose welfare needs are inextricably linked to their education. I add my voice to the many who have raised their concerns about the progression of the managed migration to universal credit plan and the many unanswered questions regarding the uncompleted pilot, support for claimants and the consequences of failing to navigate the process. Concerns continue about the impact of the five-week wait, up-front childcare costs and accessibility issues. Concerns continue too about the treatment of some child refugees and asylum seekers.
Our children’s flourishing cannot be achieved in a one-dimensional way or only for some. We must ensure that children in larger families, in poverty, in families with no recourse to public funds, victims of trafficking and refugees can flourish at home, at school, in their neighbourhoods and online. I will engage with legislation this year with children’s holistic well-being in mind.
My Lords, I refer your Lordships to my registered interests as chairman of the Chartered Institution for Further Education, the English Schools’ Orchestra, and several other charities and bodies connected to education.
I welcome greatly the emphasis in the Queen’s Speech on school education and particularly want to mention two potential measures: first, the promise to allocate funding fairly and consistently to all schools; and secondly, the determination to remove the current barriers for some schools to become academies.
First, many of us have had the experience of leaving the school gate, driving up the road for a mile or two, crossing a county border and coming to an almost exactly similar school serving a similar population of young people and discovering that, for almost forgotten historical reasons, the funding of the second school differs from the first by possibly hundreds of thousands of pounds—with all the knock-on effects that this has on the standards of education on offer. That is why a direct funding formula is required and I am very pleased to see that the further development of it is a priority.
This is to continue work begun in the early 1990s by the former Funding Agency for Schools, of which I was vice-chairman. Per capita funding allocated using the same criteria for wherever a child lives in the country is vital and fair. Wholly transparent exceptional adjustments should be made only when it is clear that they are deserved and necessary. Of course, a move to a nationwide formula for resources has to be carried out over a considerable period and with great sensitivity, as there will clearly be winners and losers as a funding increase in one area might lead to a decrease in real terms in others.
On my second concern, I have had meetings with governing bodies of some first-class and well-established schools that would like, in principle, to become academies. They tend to be church schools, voluntary aided or controlled, and selective schools, many of them with long histories that pre-date the introduction of state education. Some date from the 18th and early 19th centuries. They usually have a distinctive ethos; for some, this is a particular faith. The schools are usually owned by boards of trustees and not by the state or local authorities and will have a trust deed. The foundation governors are legally appointed for the purpose of ensuring that the school is preserved and developed in accordance with the trust deed. Their governors, while often attracted in principle to academy status, have expressed to me two major anxieties that often prevent them taking their interest further.
First, the present regulations for converter academies are too restrictive and often require the appointment of governors by outside bodies, unwelcome to a particular school, or the alteration of governance traditions that are centuries old. There should be much more accommodation in the current arrangements to take this into account. The Government should look back at the conversion regulations for grant-maintained schools—these were the precursors of academies. They were allowed to convert largely “as is”, or rather “as was”, as far as their governance arrangements were concerned. So, the current, often inflexible rules should be changed if more voluntary schools are to become academies.
Secondly, these schools have often been used to a special kind of independence within the system and would not wish to be thrust by law, as the recent White Paper seems to imply, into a multi-academy trust with other schools, although they often welcome loose federations with others in their localities. Some governing bodies greatly fear the loss of their autonomy to the bosses of multi-academy trusts and, in my view, with some good reason. Often, these voluntary schools are among the country’s best performing schools and there should be as few impediments as possible to them becoming stand-alone academies. They certainly should not be required to change historical governance traditions in order to accommodate a one-size-fits-all approach.
I look forward to the Second Reading of the new Schools Bill next week and the opportunity of further debate on these important subjects.
My Lords, I want to address the role of higher education in the Government’s levelling-up agenda. I also want to mention housing issues raised in the Queen’s Speech, and I hope the Minister will be willing to pass on the points I make to her ministerial colleagues.
There is a university in every part of the country, and they are well placed to play a hugely important role in the levelling-up agenda. The role of these institutions in their local communities is often overlooked. In fact, universities are central to the local, regional and national growth effort. They are vital partners to local authorities and have huge networks including schools, big business, SMEs, charities and community groups. Quite rightly, the Government want universities to do ever more, recognising the role they could have in the levelling-up and the skills agendas, but they need adequate funding to do all this. Tuition fees are now frozen until 2024-25; they have reduced in value each year and are now worth in cash terms only two-thirds what they were 10 years ago. It is reasonable for the Government to expect efficiencies from universities, but they are reaching a point where they will have to consider reducing many of these very activities rather than enhancing them, or, where they have the choice, potentially recruiting more international and fewer domestic students, which seems a perverse outcome for bodies that could contribute so much to our national renaissance. I hope the Minister can reassure me that the Government will recognise the need to support the social and economic benefits that universities provide to the country. As the levelling-up directors are appointed, will she confirm that the Government will encourage them to speak to their local higher education institutions and utilise the expertise they will find there?
I now turn to housing. I declare an interest as the chair of the National Housing Federation, the trade body for England’s housing associations, and as the chair of the Property Ombudsman for the private rented sector. I welcome the introduction of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill last week. It is crucial that, through this important legislation, the Government ensure that affordable homes are available throughout the country for those who need them.
The Levelling Up White Paper rightly emphasised the central role that housing must play in closing the stark gaps in regional equality. For many, social housing would be the only suitable and affordable type of home for their families. That is why it is also vital that any changes to the planning system introduced through the Bill are designed to increase the number of homes for social rent in communities up and down the country. Can the Minister give me assurances on this matter?
I also warmly welcome the Government’s aim to improve the quality and regulation of social housing and strengthen tenants’ rights through the social housing regulation Bill. Since 2017, the National Housing Federation has been working with social housing residents on the Together with Tenants initiative to establish a new set of standards for housing associations, including a four-point plan for change and a new charter that sets out what residents can and should expect from their landlord. This work has already begun to deliver the new paths of accountability and influence for residents mapped out in the Social Housing White Paper.
The energy Bill should enable us to deliver the manifold benefits of decarbonising Britain’s homes. It will enable us to tackle fuel poverty and the climate emergency together, boost the economy and create jobs, as well as creating healthier, warmer homes and healthier, cleaner air. It is vital that we insulate and retrofit homes throughout the UK. I welcome the Government’s Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, to which housing associations can directly apply for funding, but if we are to be truly transformational in our approach to tackling the climate crisis, we need a longer view. I ask the Minister whether the Government have plans to provide funding for making social homes more energy efficient beyond 2025.
Currently, Ofgem energy price caps apply only to individuals and not organisations. Many housing associations manage energy bills for housing schemes through heat networks. Residents who receive their energy this way will be the hardest hit by rising costs. I urge the Government to take action to ensure that emergency support is put in place for customers on heat networks.
Finally, I welcome the commitment to introduce a renters reform Bill and the establishment of a landlord ombudsman to allow tenants to seek redress and resolve disputes against their landlords. As chair of the Property Ombudsman, I know that our inquiries team takes time to talk to tenants on a daily basis, providing advice, guidance and signposting where we are unable to investigate a complaint. While there are many forms of dispute resolution, this is a service that only ombudsmen provide. Will the Minister confirm that the intention is for the landlord ombudsman not only to deal with complaints that fall within its remit but to provide an accessible advice, guidance and signposting service to help both tenants and landlords understand better their rights and responsibilities?
My Lords, if we are not able to rely on Ministers and other parliamentarians to tell the truth, then reliable and acceptable government is impossible. The recent police notices to those who had previously denied breaking the pandemic control laws lead millions of people to question the truth on matters of greater importance like, perhaps, the crises in Ukraine or Afghanistan—those that are matters of life and death.
We all know of broken promises. Putin was adamant: “We are not going to invade Ukraine”—we remember that—in spite of a procession of tanks stretching 40 miles, the distance from Chester to Colwyn Bay. Ukraine is in the midst of being invaded in spite of Putin’s denial, creating a hell for millions of children, men, and women. Putin’s assurances are as meaningless as denying being at gatherings that broke Covid laws. Government and the safeguarding of democracy cannot continue if those who lead cannot be trusted or believed. Mr Rees-Mogg tweeted over the Easter weekend, “Christ is risen, Alleluia”, a greeting of hope, while at the same time supporting deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda—a destruction of hope.
The consequences of these lies are the distancing of millions of ordinary people from government. If you cannot believe a word they say, there is no use voting for any of them. Turnout at general elections has fallen from 83% in the 1950s to less than 67% in 2019. We have grown increasingly apathetic about the democratic process, and nature abhors a vacuum.
The Government must change in order to show the British people that the Government can be believed and are engaged in the democratic process. Failing to do so will only increase apathy and sow distrust—something which, because of the unbelievability of the present time, continues to do immense harm. The United Kingdom can serve as an example to others, but not by refusing parliamentary scrutiny—for example, of the deal with Rwanda regarding asylum seekers or the continued lying about parties in gardens during the pandemic. We undermine democracy itself.
At the Liberal Party conference I used to sing the “Land Song”, which goes:
“Why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hand?”
“God gave the land to the people!”
Now we have to restore this trust. We must restore the value of ordinary people and their worth and influence in what is a democratic society.
Finally, Paddy Ashdown said:
“The one thing that unfailingly gives me satisfaction in politics is to watch those who have been taught they are the subject of others’ power, rise to meet the challenge of power in their own hands—and then be unbelieving at what they are able to do. To believe in this and make it happen is, for me, the great passion of politics.”
My Lords, the gracious Speech had some very welcome announcements in it relating to the levelling-up agenda that will have a profound impact on health and care. Previously, I have expressed concern in this Chamber that levelling up is little more than a glib slogan. However, there are now some positive reforms on the agenda that could have tangible and important outcomes.
I declare my interest as set out in the register as patron of ARCO, the association representing retirement community operators. This model of housing, often referred to as “assisted living” or “housing with care”, allows people to live independent, healthy lives while living in a housing complex where care and support are provided if needed. Allowing people to live independently in this way reduces pressure on both the health and social care systems, and is greatly needed.
To date, fewer older people have moved into housing with care complexes in the UK compared with other countries. This is for two reasons. The first is a greater reluctance in this country to leave the family home, and the second is that it is costly and very slow to build this style of housing, in large part due to the current planning regulations. The announcement in the gracious Speech that the planning system would be reformed as part of the levelling-up agenda is a huge opportunity to remove these barriers. The government task force looking into housing for older people can help feed into this.
In countries such as New Zealand, where integrated retirement communities have become rather popular, there is specific legislation making it easier for developers to meet growing demand. This policy area is relevant to both health and social care, and indeed to planning, so having specific legislation could be a useful way to address this. I hope the Government might consider it. I was also delighted to learn recently from the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will be working with the Department of Health and Social Care to provide capital funding for older people to incentivise supply. Can the Government provide more information about this initiative—specifically, how the funding will be used to incentivise supply?
One of the biggest challenges we face as a society is a population that increasingly is living longer in very poor health. It was with great sadness last month that the charity Care and Repair, of which I and the noble Baronesses, Lady Andrews and Lady Eaton, were patrons, had to close due to lack of funding. The charity focused on home repairs and adaptations for older people living with disabilities. We can no longer rely on the charity sector to see that older people and others living with disabilities are living in suitable homes. Instead, the Government’s levelling-up agenda, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Social Care, will really need to turn their attention to this. I would be grateful if the Government could outline any plans that they have to address this.
I was pleased to hear that the Skills and Post-16 Education Act had received Royal Assent. This is a good start, but there is still a lot to do to see that we have a lifelong education system that will meet the needs of the 21st century. I declare my interest as chief executive of the International Longevity Centre, which recently projected that the UK economy could see a shortfall of 2.6 million workers by 2030. Investment in education across the life course will be one important way to address this. I hope the Government will respond positively to this important challenge.
Finally, I draw attention to recent comments by the Prime Minister, who expressed the view that 90,000 civil servant jobs should be cut. Civil servants play an essential role in helping government deliver in areas such as levelling up. I hope the Government will think carefully before making any more major changes to Civil Service numbers, because the Civil Service is so important to all of us.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment in the gracious Speech to bring forward a draft mental health Bill. I hope that the consultation, ending in June, will be followed by early legislation. I particularly hope that the provisions of the Bill will address dementia, which is the fastest-growing health condition in the UK and, apart from the suffering and distress it causes, is set to be the most expensive condition by 2030.
Almost 1 million people in the country are currently living with dementia, costing the economy £25 billion a year. Among the leading causes of death, dementia is the fastest-rising health condition, with the number of sufferers expected to increase to more than 1.6 million by 2050. Despite this, no new treatments have been approved in the UK to prevent, slow down or cure the diseases that cause dementia in nearly a decade. I hope that the Government will deliver on the manifesto commitment to the dementia moonshot, to double funding for dementia research and speed up clinical trials, as soon as possible. We should establish a dementia medicines task force to drive dementia research and clinical trials, as has been done in other fields—most recently Covid.
I also welcome the Government’s commitment to publish and implement a women’s health strategy, which would be closely integrated with the promised forthcoming dementia strategy. Dementia has been the leading cause of death for women for more than a decade. In 2020, around 46,000 women died from dementia, compared with 33,000 from Covid-19. Women are at greater risk of dementia than men, although dementia was the third most common cause of death in men in 2020, after Covid-19 and heart disease. Nearly two-thirds of dementia sufferers are women. The lifetime risk of developing dementia for women is one in five, compared with one in 10 for men. Nobody yet knows why this should be.
I welcome also the Government’s commitment to invest £2.3 billion to increase diagnostic activity and to establish 160 community diagnostic centres. Dementia is seriously underdiagnosed and should be specifically included—I hope in the legislation—in the scope of the community diagnostic centres. In the long term, the Government should in my view provide the resources, infrastructure and clinical workforce to build adequate diagnostic capacity. Dementia is a condition directly or indirectly affecting nearly every family in the land. I hope that the Government will now give priority to research into its causes, diagnosis and treatment.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak today on the part of the Queen’s Speech debate that addresses public services. Quite frankly, it is probably the most important area because, without success here, none of the other areas of government and activity within the community can thrive and succeed. This is about giving people skills, and about giving them both support and opportunity; it is also about setting the values against which our society ought to operate. These are key debates.
On higher education, briefly, I may find myself out of step with my own party on the freedom of speech Bill; I shall see. I look forward to seeing the details. I will have to consider whether the Government’s suggestions are the way to solve it, but I take the view that there is a problem to be solved and that it is not acceptable that many academics have found themselves hounded because they have spoken their view. I worry about the context of the other higher education proposals. There is a worrying trend at the moment to say that we have too many young people going to university. That is not true—we want more, not fewer—but yes, we want good standard courses and good routes to employment as well. I read in the proposals a bit of that format of, “Hang on, we’ve gone too far. Quite frankly, too many kids ought not to have gone to university. They used to do apprenticeships; they ought to go and do them again.” That would mean closing down the doors that have taken so long to operate.
As I said, I look forward to thinking about that piece of legislation, but the Schools Bill is what I mainly want to address. Gosh—there is not much there, just as there was not in the White Paper. It is the first schools Bill since 2016. If you said to any teacher or anyone else who knows about education, “Come on, it’s been six years without legislation. What’s on your list?”, it would be things like teacher recruitment and retention, and changes to the curriculum to meet the changing demands of society. Lots of smashing thinking about new forms of assessment is going on among schools, and lots of people have done good work on the new accountability structure. None of that is in this Bill, yet those are the things that need to be addressed. The reason it matters, as I know from my own experience, is that when a Bill is being implemented, the whole energy and resource of the Department for Education and its Ministers is about implementing the Bill. Other things get swept off the agenda—and that measure goes down to the schools. We already have teachers beginning to worry about whether they will have to become an academy this year, next year or in 2030. That is not a good message to give.
What is the Bill about? What is there? Quite simply, it is the same as the 2016 Bill. It has the same measures trying to do the same things. The difference is that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, wanted to do it by 2022 while this Government now want to do it by 2030. Let us be clear about this. The Bill is about trying to remedy the effects of the 2010 Bill created by the coalition when it came into power. The result of that has been terrible fragmentation of the school system, underperforming academies with no measures to deal with it, and lack of accountability of the academies through the funding agreements.
Every single one of those problems was predictable; go back through the debates in 2010. It is clear that both the Liberal Democrats and the Tories have to take responsibility for this. They were predictable consequences of a policy that deliberately went out to favour only academies but did not have the courage to make all schools academies, so it settled on 10 years of incentivising. A bit—in fact, a lot—of me wishes that the Bill from the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, had gone through. I am going to look carefully at this new Bill because the way things are now with this fragmented system is not good; it is not helpful position for us to have been put in. However, I make my position clear: I have never been against academies. How can you be against a good school just because it is an academy, or because it is a local authority school or a church school? It is not about the structure or the governance. It is about the quality of teaching, the leadership and all that—none of which is in this Bill.
I cannot find one thing in the Queen’s Speech that will help raise the quality of teaching and the standard of school leadership. The energy of the department will all be away from that and all about implementing something, and we have eight years of uncertainty before we actually reach the objectives. I would very much like the Minister to explain why 2030 has been chosen. The only other vehicle on the road at the moment as regards schools is the catch-up programme; I do not have time to talk about that. However, if this empty Bill and a fairly discredited catch-up programme are how we are trying to take forward our joint wish to raise standards and do well for the children, then I am worried. I very much look forward to the debate.
My Lords, it is always a challenge and a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. Following up on one point, I would say that she is absolutely right: I do not think many people care whether their school has the label of “academy”, “maintained”, or “run by the small green men from outer Mars”—as long as the damn thing works. If you get the children through with the grades, the incentives and what they need for the next stage—and enjoying the process, I hope, or at least some of it—everybody is reasonably happy. I hope that this will be acknowledged when we get down to the joyful little slugfest that will be that Bill.
The main thrust of what I want to say is to ask the Minister for a little context about how the work that we are doing to review special educational needs will fit into this Bill. The first clause of the Bill suggests that the Secretary of State will do lots of things and set standards. I remind the House of my interests, particularly that I am dyslexic and president of the British Dyslexia Association. Special educational needs include a huge range of subjects, all requiring slightly different approaches to get the best out of the people who fall into these categories. Usually, they are not by themselves; usually, there is another factor behind the real, serious problems.
The weirdest thing about the system we have is that very severe problems stand a better chance of getting through because they are spotted. The students concerned may have greater problems in life et cetera but, if you have something obvious, you will normally get help. There will be many dyslexics but they are not just dyslexic; you can add in dyscalculia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder and high-functioning autism. These are people who will be within the normal classroom; how are possibly five such students in every classroom to be accommodated? Two or three children may have all these conditions combined; it is not that uncommon. How do we make sure that there is enough flexibility in our teaching approaches to ensure these children will get through?
Am I overreacting about this? Well, systematic synthetic phonics—if I have the term right; I often manage to get it wrong when talking to people—is supposed to be the way you teach people English. That is great, but it does not work for dyslexics because it puts too much pressure on one of the areas of short-term memory that we are bad at. So we have a fundamental problem; we need to use something else, another way to get through. How are we to institute that?
If we have a system where the Secretary of State says, “This is the way we’ll do it”, will we ensure that he is advised so that we get enough information and flexibility, and enough training into the normal classroom—I emphasise “the normal classroom”—to allow these people who are there in considerable numbers, reckoned to be 20% of the school population, to function?
What use are we going to make of technology? I know that the noble Baroness is doing some work on this, and I appreciate that, but it should be written into the Bill that you will need, for instance, flexible choices to get the best out of technology. I have yet to see somebody who would object to me word-processing by speaking to a computer—as is my day-to-day existence—as opposed to tapping a keyboard. Nobody cares. You are still communicating using the written language, so who cares? That is just one example of how you could use technology. Are we going to take that on board and build the flexibility in?
I hope that, over the next few months, we will get a system where, whatever comes out of this, we will have instituted the fact that one size does not fit all, even if fits most. We have a bit of change and a little give will be in the system. We will help ourselves and have more people getting through. Whether that will be enough to hit our 90% target, I know not—and I suspect not —but we may do better than we are at the moment.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Addington, because he always says something of real interest; today was no exception, and I congratulate him on that. I declare my interests, which are in the Lords’ register.
I will be brief. I want to focus on one issue that is related to our healthcare system. As we know, the NHS is under great pressure, with a workforce crisis, the impact of Covid and a huge backlog of patients awaiting treatment. Yet we also know that the NHS is capable of great things: it saves and improves lives, and it enables us to live our lives, day in, day out. But sometimes things go wrong, and I do not mean isolated incidents. I am referring to avoidable harm on a sustained and widespread scale. That is what my team and I discovered when we undertook the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review.
Thousands of women’s and children’s lives have been turned upside down by two medicines and a medical device. Warnings and patients’ concerns were ignored. The system seemed unwilling or unable to listen, let alone respond. It was unwilling or unable to stop the harm. The harm these women and their families have suffered is irreversible and lifelong: children with physical and cognitive damage from the anti-epilepsy drug sodium valproate; women in agony due to the cavalier attitude on inserting pelvic mesh; and women who took the hormone pregnancy test Primodos, and miscarried or had children who were physically damaged.
Things do go wrong, and when they go wrong on this scale lessons really have to be learned. We have to learn to prevent similar tragedies in the future, but that is not all. We must also accept that in any decent society we have a moral and ethical duty to provide help to people whose lives have been ruined and who suffer constant emotional turmoil through no fault of their own. They did nothing wrong. The system failed them and we have a duty to help them. We must not turn our backs on them.
This principle of providing redress is not new and has been applied in this country—for example, in the case of Thalidomide and in variant CJD, where a fund of over £67 million was allocated by the Government for victims of the disease. There was no need to go to court or to prove negligence or liability. This is not compensation. Going to court is costly and stressful, and it has not helped the families affected by sodium valproate, Primodos and pelvic mesh. They need redress schemes. Just like Thalidomide victims or those diagnosed with variant CJD, they need and deserve our support—not just financially but with practical, non-financial help as well. Other Governments are acting—in France, for example—and it should happen here. We should ensure that redress schemes are established.
Even now, two years after we finished our review, I am regularly contacted by affected individuals who tell me of their suffering and what they need. I know their lives would be improved immeasurably by the support that such a redress scheme would offer them—a new wheelchair, a respite break or additional help at home, for example. They cannot currently access these things from existing state providers.
There is widespread cross-party support for this in this House and the other place. The patient groups support us, of course, and the Sunday Times is calling for it. The Government have so far refused to help, saying that their focus is on preventing future harm. This should not be a choice between reducing the risk of future harm on the one hand and helping those who have already suffered on the other. We should do both. We must do both.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. Many patients past, present and future have reason to be extremely grateful for her work.
I was listening with half an ear to the opening debate on the gracious Speech in the other place, when I thought I heard the Prime Minister say that the Government were giving confidence to people so that they knew they would be looked after in old age by fixing social care. I did a bit of a double take and thought, “I can’t possibly have heard that right—he can’t have said that”. So the next day, I got the Hansard of the debate and, sure enough, there it was in black and white: the Government are “fixing social care”. Well, you could have fooled me.
Most people in employment, including of course many of those actually providing social care, will have noticed the effects of the health and social care levy on their pay last month—their contribution to the £12 billion that is set to improve health and social care. Most of those of us who worked in the social care field for years were always pretty cynical that any of the £12 billion would reach the front line, as it was always going to be used first to clear NHS waiting lists. Social care is, after all, used to being the tail-end Charlie in these matters.
Given that waiting lists now stand at 6.5 million, the highest figure since records began, and seem to be growing exponentially—perhaps reaching 14 million by 2024—I do not hold out much hope of any of the money reaching social care. Yet why are people waiting so long for a knee replacement? Why are they waiting more than 12 hours for admission via A&E? Why are paramedics stuck in queues for a whole day, as we have heard, instead of answering emergency calls? The answer is so obvious that it beggars belief it does not drive the policy.
The answer is that patients are not being discharged at the other end of the process. And why not? Because there is inadequate social care to receive the discharged patients and care for them so that they are not readmitted to hospital, thus starting the whole sorry process all over again. Is it any wonder that the usual suspects who speak in your Lordships’ House on social care are weary, disillusioned and angry?
When it comes to social care, I always remind your Lordships that the main providers of this care are not public services but the millions of unpaid carers who do most of the heavy lifting. With regard to carers the Queen’s Speech was a bitter disappointment, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, reminded us. In 2019, the Conservative Party manifesto committed to introducing a right to one week’s unpaid leave—I repeat: one week, unpaid—to help with caring responsibility. We expected an employment Bill to contain this provision but it was notable by its absence. That the promised employment Bill has been excluded from the Government’s commitments for the next year is a severe blow to unpaid carers and a huge missed opportunity.
The Government had been very keen to stress the introduction of a right to carer’s leave, as support for unpaid carers, as an important part of their delivery of social care reform, hospital discharge and staying in work. It is essential, given the pressures on families as the cost of living crisis deepens. Are the Government now back-tracking on their manifesto promises to carers? This is such a missed opportunity to value carers and to ensure they have the support to continue to juggle work and care.
With severe social care shortages and pressures on the NHS, families simply cannot do it all. Many are at breaking point. This is precisely the time when the Government should be investing in carers and their families, as well as employers, by bringing in the right to one week’s unpaid carers leave, and a right from day one to request flexible working. It is a modest enough request, surely. Five days unpaid leave might just stop you having to use all your holiday leave to take the person you care for to their endless hospital appointments and would be a small step towards helping employed carers stay in employment as long as possible. Why do we want them to do that? To help them stay solvent while they are caring, and to stop them building up poverty for the future by losing access to pensions from employment.
As I have been so disappointed in the gracious Speech, I must pin my hopes on a Private Member’s Bill. Three times over the last few years we have had success for carers through this route, and if any Member of the other place wishes to take up the issue—I hope at least some of them are listening—I earnestly hope that the Government will commit to support it.
My Lords, my heart sank somewhat when I saw that the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, was ahead of my on the list, because I knew full well what she would talk about. My speech is all about carers as well, but we are coming at it from a completely different tack.
I looked at the Queen’s Speech and tried to work out what was missing. The subject of carers was completely missing—just not there. So, let us look at some hard facts. We know that many carers look after friends and family, juggling work and caring. One in eight adults considers themselves a carer; that is around 6.5 million people. Every day another 6,000 people take on a caring responsibility, which amounts to an increase of about 2 million people each year. Figures from the ONS suggest that just under 250,000 people under 19 are carers, and about 23,000 are under nine years old.
The Government say that schools have a key role in supporting young carers. I am happy with that, but who leads on determining this support, DfE or the NHS? I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify what this might look like. Over a million people care for more than one person. Carers save the economy £132 billion a year, which is just under £20,000 per carer. Five million people in the UK are juggling caring responsibilities with work; that is one in seven of the workforce. However, the significant demands of caring mean that 600 people give up work every day to care for an older or disabled relative. Carer’s allowance is the main carers benefit and is £67.60 for a minimum of 35 hours—the lowest benefit of its kind. This surely should be reviewed.
People providing high levels of care are twice as likely themselves to be permanently sick or disabled. Some 72% of carers responding to Carers UK’s State of Caring 2018 survey said that they had suffered mental ill-health as a result of caring; 61% said that they had suffered physical ill-health. Eight in 10 people who cared for loved ones said that they felt lonely or socially isolated. Can the Minister tell the House where carers can look for support and advice in these sorts of situations?
At present, people with a learning disability and/or autism can be admitted to an NHS in-patient unit under the Act, even if they do not have a mental health condition. Learning disabilities and autism are not mental health conditions, and the removal of this definition from the Act should go some way to reducing the number of people who are unnecessarily detained in in-patient units. Many noble Lords will remember the scandal exposed by an undercover BBC “Panorama” journalist at Winterbourne View Hospital. What happened there was criminal—and I do not mean that as a figure of speech; it was criminal. Six former members of Winterbourne View staff were jailed for the terrible crimes they committed against their patients, but the serious case review showed that there was a wider failure across the whole system.
There are still more than 2,000 people with a learning disability or autism trapped in in-patient settings, and the average time spent there is over five and a half years. People with either a learning disability or autism or both should be able to live with the support they need, where they want it, and be closer to family and friends. However, if the Government are truly committed to “transforming care” they must go further by getting the care right and ensuring that everyone with a learning disability or autism has their support needs met and can live where and how they want to.
My Lords, this gracious Speech was interesting in part for what it did not contain, despite containing a large number of Bills. The noble Baronesses, Lady Jolly and Lady Pitkeathley, have focused comprehensively on social care. I will address issues for the workforce in health, including the impact of the war in Ukraine, preparation for adulthood of children and young people with learning difficulties or autism, and the importance of kinship care and our need for an alcohol strategy.
The Government have stated an intention to build 14 new hospitals by 2030 and upgrade another 70, including by providing new beds, equipment and technology, and they plan to set tight targets for elective recovery. We have just passed the Health and Care Act, and each statutory instrument for its 160 delegated powers will need to be debated. But the Government rejected legislated workforce planning, despite the deficits in staff at every level, including in social care.
Our intensive care bed capacity must expand, with highly trained staff to manage complex elective surgery and recovery from life-threatening illness, as well as increasing organ donation by those who have lost their lives in catastrophic circumstances, usually accidents. Our high-quality ethical transplant programme is hampered by a shortage of facilities. Here I should declare my interest as chair of the Commonwealth Tribute to Life UK committee, which has produced a memorandum of understanding for shared learning as a legacy from the Commonwealth Games.
My Lords, the war in Ukraine has resulted in many UK students returning to this country. Some 600 of these are medical students who had been unable to secure places in British medical schools originally and therefore went to study medicine, taught in English, in Ukraine. Most planned to return to practice medicine here, having secured GMC registration. Yet we have a fixed number of places in our medical schools and the current thinking is that these students will have to go back to the beginning and reapply through UCAS if they cannot continue their courses in Ukraine. Surely the Government can find a negotiated agreement between the General Medical Council and our universities’ medical schools to assess the learning needs of these students, who are at different stages of the course, and find a way to integrate many of them. We need new medical graduates; these are motivated students whose life experience from the war will have undoubtedly broadened their vision.
Just as the gracious Speech was silent on workforce planning, so it was also silent on tackling the problems that alcohol is causing in our society. I declare that I chair the Commission on Alcohol Harm. Alcohol is linked to 27 types of cancer, suicide, abuse and obesity. The Government have ducked developing a comprehensive alcohol strategy to tackle harm by addressing the affordability, promotion and inappropriate availability of alcohol. Alcohol causes more working days of life to be lost then the 10 most common cancers combined, yet where is the strategy on alcohol? Without tackling alcohol, the Government’s strategy on mental health, on crime, on obesity and on increased pressures on the NHS are, I fear, doomed to fail.
Drugs and alcohol are frequent antecedents to crises and trauma in children who enter care long term. There is good evidence that kinship care has better outcomes overall for those 180,000 children who would otherwise enter the care system and be cared for by strangers, but over half these children have additional educational needs or disabilities. Kinship care needs to be defined in legislation so that carers are properly recognised and can access the support needed, particularly in education for all ages and support for legal costs. This could result in far better outcomes for these children.
I turn briefly to the draft Mental Health Act reform Bill, in which much remains to be worked through and debated. The detention of those with learning disabilities and autism in mental health institutions has not supported people to live their lives as well as possible and has denied them opportunities, particularly as they transition from teenage years to adulthood. I had the honour of chairing the National Mental Capacity Forum until recently and I welcome the Government’s recognition that people need support to empower them to make decisions for themselves and avoid the inappropriate detention of those with unaddressed needs.
We recently had the shocking Ockenden report into maternity services, and the Government’s recognition of an urgent need for maternal mental health services is welcome, but I return to the important question of the workforce and where these teams will be drawn from.
My Lords, I will focus on mental health and I declare an interest as the independent chair of a panel advising the Department of Health and Social Care on the use of long-term segregation for detained patients with learning disabilities and/or autism. I welcome the main elements of the draft Mental Health Act reform Bill, including the intention to amend the definition of mental disorder, so that people will no longer be detained solely because they have a learning disability or because they are autistic.
Long-stay hospitalisation and warehousing of people whose needs are poorly understood was intended to end when the long-stay asylums were closed—the last one for people with learning disabilities closed in 2009—but a failure to develop adequate community support, including adult social care and meaningful life chances, has simply led to the creation of new psychiatric hospitals, often in the private sector. The lack of an adult social care Bill in the gracious Speech is concerning. The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, mentioned the number of people being detained for unacceptably long periods, but around 100 of these are cared for in long-term segregation. Commissioners lack the skills, knowledge and foresight to stop this happening, and this has to change.
The proposals have a laudable aim: to ensure that fewer people are detained involuntarily and that more people get better care, closer to home. But legislation is not enough; we need a significant culture shift across the whole health and care system. The medical model works well for cancer or infectious diseases, with its emphasis on treating symptoms. Serious mental illness is different; a focus on the social construct of recovery is key.
Everybody wants to live a meaningful life in their own home and to belong in their community, and the public discourse in recognising the dangers of loneliness is getting ahead of the legislative framework. In some hospitals today, there are still examples of the dehumanising culture that we associate with the past. My own research with social anthropologist, the late Dr Jane Hubert, evidenced some of this in a mental handicap hospital in the 1990s. Even though government policy demands personalised care, it is little understood. There have been too many recent high-profile cases where in-patient care has failed people and their families, and the Covid backlog has worsened already unacceptable barriers in access to health and social care for people of all ages who live with learning disabilities and/or autism.
Research by the Disabled Children’s Partnership identified a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on families with disabled children. In a May 2020 survey, 76% of families with disabled children said that the vital care and support they relied on had stopped altogether, leaving parents and young siblings taking on all care responsibilities around the clock, and in June 2021, the majority of disabled children were still unable to access pre-pandemic levels of therapies and health services. The SEND Green Paper has the tagline “Right support, right place, right time”. Practically, this means addressing everyday social and relational issues and developing meaningful community-based mental health support. Mental health support is needed in all schools. A distressed child cannot learn and there is much to be distressed about.
The Mental Health Act was last updated in 2007, but in many ways it still maintains its roots in the original Act of 1959. Since its last update in 2007, other legislation also impacts on the treatment of those with severe mental illness, people with learning disabilities and autistic people, including the Mental Capacity Act 2005, the Autism Act 2009, the Equality Act 2010, the Care Act 2014 and now the Health and Care Act 2022 and the Down Syndrome Act. I am hopeful about the impact of the commitments in the Health and Care Act to introduce a learning disability and autism lead for each integrated care board, and the requirement to make training mandatory for all health and social care staff on autism and learning disabilities. This reform of the Mental Health Act will also need to work hand in hand with the NHS long-term plan, and with the eagerly awaited “building the right support” action plan.
The reform of the Mental Health Act is an important opportunity for modernisation towards least restrictive practice that prioritises dignity and respect, while facilitating access to personalised mental health care in the community and, if admission is needed, ensuring that it has a clear therapeutic aim. The reforms announced in the gracious Speech have important implications for the freedoms and care of people with learning disabilities and autistic people, as well as people with serious mental illness.
My Lords, the noble Baroness has asked some searching questions. I too want to focus on health. I have had the privilege of being married to a medical practitioner for some 60 years, during most—in fact all—of her working life. She started her medical practice in Biggleswade and grew that into one of the largest practices in Bedfordshire, so I have been immersed in the medical world.
Additionally, it is right to point out to the House that I had the privilege of managing, as chairman, two public companies listed on the Stock Exchange. I mention that because, to me, one of the key issues that the health service faces is management. I am ashamed, quite frankly—and this is not party political—that our NHS, on the most common outcomes, and in contrast to Europe, comes 17th out of 18 countries. I am ashamed of that. But there is some good news, I think and hope, in the appointment of Sir Gordon Messenger to review the whole leadership of the NHS. My goodness, it needs it. It brings back immediately to me the 1984 Griffiths report. Noble friends will remember that that was the report that, in essence, removed clinicians from senior management and installed non-medical management. I suggest to your Lordships that that ought now to be reversed.
Issue number two has to be patients. Look at the original basis of the National Health Service: that it should be free at the point of need and the patient was to come first. Our objective, I suggest, must be the patient and not the system. That brings me back to GPs. Up to the point when Prime Minister Blair brought in his changes, your average GP worked for four full days—morning, afternoon, evening and a share of night calls—and every other Saturday. They worked pretty hard. Today, almost all that has gone. Today, many practices have perhaps one or two full-time GPs and perhaps five or six part-time GPs, and every day, we read in the papers about the challenges the patient finds in getting to their GP. Something is not working.
The third issue is medical school intakes; I have banged on about this a number of times. Ten years ago, there were 42,000 medical students—18,800 men and 23,365 ladies. Today, there are nearly 55,000 medical students, of which 21,000 are men and 33,500 are females. In my judgment, the policy should be roughly 50:50. While the vast majority of the men work full time, over half the women work part time. It is no good when you multiply it; there are not enough full-time equivalent GPs in the NHS. I suggest to Her Majesty’s Government something I have already raised several times: we should look long and hard at the Singapore scheme, whereby every medical student has to sign up for five years and promise to work in its national health service—in whatever discipline within in—and, if they do not, they pay back to society the cost of their medical education. I have given the details of that to the current Secretary of State.
The fourth issue is why the NHS has got itself into the situation of having the lowest numbers of diagnostic equipment. I suspect that the final issue is as crucial for others as it is for me: care homes and their improvement. On 21 April 2020, I asked HMG
“what has been the COVID-19 testing policy for hospital patients that have been discharged to nursing and care homes over the last four weeks”.
I received quite a long Answer from the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, who basically said that all patients who moved from the National Health Service to social care would be discharged in line with current policy—et cetera—and that they would be tested before being discharged from hospital to a care home. We have seen the seismic judgment from the High Court that those 25,000 patients who were discharged from hospitals to care homes in March and April 2020 were not tested. The answer to that question is: if you set a policy, you should check the results of that policy.
My Lords, this year, even more than most years, we expected and deserved a better Queen’s Speech than the one we got. Today’s debate does include some welcome Bills, including the mental health Bill, but the Speech falls far short of what we should have expected in meeting the risks and challenges that our public services face. In today’s debate, we have an opportunity to identify some of those risks and to raise some questions: what value do we put on public services, and what do we have the right to expect from them?
In the short term, some of the risks were totally predicable: the impact of Brexit on health, care and construction skills. Some were of course much less predictable: the impact of the war and of the pandemic on living costs. Nevertheless, these come after years of underfunding. It is not surprising, therefore, that people are beginning to falter in their conviction that public services are fit for purpose. An exemplar of this is the meltdown we saw in the Passport Office. What is really painful about this is missing the opportunity that the pandemic created to revalue and rebuild our public services, and to recognise the vital role that the care sector and care economy play in supporting the entire economic life of the nation. In fact, what this Queen’s Speech does, as many noble Lords have said, is to flag up the absence of policies which are capable of addressing the long-term infrastructure problems in education, health and social services, and the continuing and grave failure to plan for the skills of the future so that we can manage the existential problems destabilising the whole of our society and economy: an ageing society, artificial intelligence and climate change.
Many noble Lords—notably my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley—have spoken powerfully about the crisis in adult social care and the doubling of the number of people waiting for an assessment or a review for care to begin. The number has grown to 500,000 this year. A bounceback in the service has not happened because those people feel that they are not valued. Some 170,000 hours of care were lost last year and there is now unrelenting pressure on families and unpaid carers, who themselves could contribute so much more if they were seen as skilled workers and as key partners within the triangle of care. We are simply not valuing or mobilising the assets we hold as a country. We have a vicious, not a virtuous, circle. Perhaps the Minister can give us some assurances this evening that adult social care will get a bigger share of the health and social care levy. Without that, there is no way that the NHS is going to meet the backlog of care, let alone its other ambitions. This is because the NHS, as we have heard again across the House, is short by 110,000 staff, and this includes one in 10 nursing posts. The last health workforce strategy was in 2003. Can the Minister tell me when the next will come?
Where does the education service fit into this? My noble friend Lady Morris gave a wonderful speech on this issue this evening. Despite the optimism of the Minister, whom I respect very much, there is nothing in this Queen’s Speech or in the policy which will close the attainment gap between poor children and the rest. School funding levels have simply returned to the levels they were at in 2010. However, the crucial failure is not to have put in place measures to strengthen and stabilise the early years and childcare sector. The costs of childcare in this country are horrendous; the sector is increasingly fragile. We predicted this with the childcare Act of 2017, and I am sad to say that we were right. It bears down hugely on families, who are now facing horrendous cost of living issues. All that is offered is a review of childcare ratios—it is shocking. Can the Minister explain how this is going to improve access to high-quality care or help for poor children?
One solution the Government have offered is to cut civil servant numbers by a fifth because of Brexit. The Times demolished that assertion on Saturday, saying that
“many of the new jobs were driven by the longer term demands of Brexit”
“departments expanded to take on regulatory functions previously carried out by the EU. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs … has trebled in size.”
In plant health, Defra has had to create 20 committees to replace the EU regulatory framework. Brexit is going to be a burden on the public and Civil Service for years to come. We need a new social contract between the public services and public servants in this country to ensure that, in the future, we have the public services that we need and deserve.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to participate in this debate on the gracious Speech. As a working-class child growing up in the north of England, I never maximised my grammar school education and have devoted much of the last 35 years to levelling-up efforts on behalf of the younger generation. I have specifically helped the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and Outward Bound in their work to fill the gaps that even supposedly good schools far too often leave in their pupils’ skillsets.
Absolutely nothing matters more for the prospects, long-term outlook and opportunities of our nation than the correct, proper, appropriate, no-compromise, world-standard education of our children. However, none of it can be achieved unless we have the appropriate and quality institutional framework in place to ensure the delivery of the highest educational standards across the whole country. That is why I fully welcome the new, full, visionary and ambitious schools White Paper, as it introduces much-needed coherence and offers a clear plan to complete the schools revolution started by Michael Gove back in 2010. The current system is neither fully academised nor fully local authority controlled; it is neither one thing nor the other. Therefore, it is sensible, appropriate and right that every school should join—or at least be in the process of becoming a part of—a family of schools by 2030. We have seen and experienced, through participation and involvement, that such families of schools can work exceptionally well. That enables them to share all the very best practices and the most effective proven experiences and ideas.
The point of it all is to elevate standards, so the Government’s intention to set a target of 90% of primary school-age children reaching the expected levels in literacy and numeracy by 2030 is welcome indeed, as is their ambitious goal to increase the national GCSE average grade in both English language and maths. However, let us not underestimate the poverty gap and the long tail of underachievement in this country. It is encouraging that 24 priority areas, many in the north, have been identified in the White Paper for extra support—I thank the Government for that—but the underattainment of children from lower-income backgrounds is widespread and persistent and exists throughout most of the country. Clearly, if all schools can perform at the level of the best, we will achieve our aims and aspirations, but it will undoubtably require major committed resourcing and priority in public expenditure to enable this to happen. We have in the White Paper the design of a world-class system but, for this to become a reality, we will need world-class resourcing too.
One of the great advantages of the academy system is the freedom that it gives trust leaders to make decisions and be accountable for them. However, I am forcefully told by those working in the field that, in recent years, a plethora of regulatory bodies have started to eat away at these freedoms. Academies are accountable to the DfE, the Education Funding Agency, Ofsted and regional schools commissioners, often reporting to them on overlapping areas. Consequently, the Government’s proposal to undertake a regulatory review to simplify the system is to be greatly welcomed, but we also need to streamline regulation and introduce a risk-based approach, targeting regulatory resource where it is needed most. The state does not need to become involved in overregulating high-performing, low-risk academies and trusts. We all know from bitter experience that bureaucracy has an ability to spread itself perhaps rivalled only by Japanese knotweed, and the greatest care is needed to keep it under firm control.
Finally, I want to comment on the proposal to allow good schools, in exceptional circumstances, to request to move between academy trusts. This has the potential, if not handled with great thought and care, to undermine all the gains that successful academy trusts have already made and could achieve in future. The best academy trusts take in failing schools and improve them rapidly by committing resources to and investing heavily in them. Such trusts then leverage these much-improved schools in their turn to develop underperforming new joiners. However, this virtuous circle risks being broken if improved schools can threaten to vote to exit their academy trust if they are asked to devote their own resources to helping newly joined underperforming schools. Any legislative change that might incentivise such an outcome must be avoided at all costs.
I believe that this is a vital caveat but, having made the point, I conclude by reiterating my strong support for the basic principles of the White Paper and urging that the proposed reforms be implemented as speedily and urgently as possible. Our nation’s children deserve no less.
My Lords, I am pleased to make a short contribution to this debate on the Queen’s Speech. I declare my interests in the register, particularly as a trustee of both the Centre for Mental Health and the Prison Reform Trust and as an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists.
I want to focus my remarks narrowly on the proposed publication of a draft Mental Health Act reform Bill, especially the parts of such a draft Bill that relate to the interface between healthcare and the criminal justice system. First, I want to make a general comment on the proposed draft Bill, which emanates from Sir Simon Wessely’s excellent independent review of the Mental Health Act 1983. I agreed completely with the Centre for Mental Health’s view in response to the Queen’s Speech when it said:
“The Mental Health Act needs to be updated to uphold people’s rights, minimise the use of coercion, put advance choice documents on a legal footing and ensure more people get access to advocacy. It needs to curb the use of Community Treatment Orders. The bill is a chance to enshrine children’s rights more clearly within the Act and to ensure that people in prison are not forced to wait for weeks and months for an urgently needed hospital bed.”
I ask the Minister, in closing this debate, to be more precise on when the draft Bill will be published and to confirm how this House will be involved in scrutiny of it.
Turning to aspects of the relationship between policing and the Mental Health Act, Sir Simon made a number of recommendations. They included:
“By 2023/24 investment in mental health services, health-based places of safety and ambulances should allow for the removal of police cells as a place of safety in the Act, and ensure that the majority of people detained under police powers should be conveyed to places of safety by ambulance. This is subject to satisfactory and safe alternative health based places of safety being in place.”
Crucially, he recommended:
“NHS England should take over the commissioning of health services in police Custody”—
a recommendation that I made in my independent report to the Government in 2009. There is no mention of these points in the commentary to the Queen’s Speech on the Bills issued by the Prime Minister, but I hope and expect that they will be included in the draft Bill for proper scrutiny.
Secondly, in relation to Sir Simon’s recommendations on patients in the criminal justice system, he made this clear:
“Prison should never be used as ‘a place of safety’ for individuals who meet the criteria for detention under the Mental Health Act.”
I agree. Again, this must be included in the draft Bill.
Further, Sir Simon recommended:
“The time from referral for a first assessment to transfer should have a statutory time limit of 28 days. We suggest that this could be split into two new, sequential, statutory time limits of 14 days each”,
“from the point of initial referral to the first psychiatric assessment”
and the second
“from the first psychiatric assessment until the transfer takes place”.
This is a far more elegant proposal than the similar one I made in my report. It is pleasing to note that the Government have responded positively to this proposal but the devil will be in the detail; these and other recommendations must be fully scrutinised by this House, then debated when the Bill is introduced to Parliament.
I welcome the intention finally to introduce a draft Mental Health Act reform Bill. I echo the words of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, which rightly pointed this out in supporting the reforms:
“Understanding and being understood is central to all four of the key guiding principles of the proposed reforms … Therefore, the communication needs of people accessing mental health services must be identified and supported. This must include them having access to speech and language therapy where required.”
I also echo the words of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which stated:
“While RCPsych welcomes the proposed reforms to the Mental Health Act to improve patient care and increase safeguards, it cannot be emphasised enough that they are not deliverable without the required investment in the psychiatric workforce.”
The Government must continue to invest in stretched community services and ensure proper capital funding to fix the dilapidated, often unsafe buildings used for mental health services. They must also ensure that there are enough mental health staff to meet demand, equipped with the right skills and support. This will be the underlying challenge that the Government must face when we deliberate this proposed Bill.
The topic I wish to address is education, and in particular teaching about rights and responsibilities, and the constitution. I start with a question: what is it that binds the people of Britain together as a community? Yes, we have cricket, rugby and football, among others, as national sports. We have singers and entertainers of international repute and we have a wonderful National Health Service. Great Britain has a long history. None of these, however, can be said to be a defining feature of Britishness, in the sense of affecting and binding everyone in our community, whatever their background, ethnicity, cultural affiliations and personal outlook.
The one and only thing that binds us all is the collection of legal rights and responsibilities, and the institutions that together form or are derived from our unique constitutional settlement. They are the product of many things, including in particular the golden thread of our common law, the separation of powers between the legislature, the Executive and the courts, statute law and the international treaties to which we are a party. This is our unique heritage among the nations of the world, of which we should be very proud.
In December 2020 the independent review of the Human Rights Act, with Sir Peter Gross as its chair, was established by the then Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Sir Robert Buckland. The review’s report was submitted in October 2021 and was published in December 2021. The very first recommendation was that serious consideration should be given by government to developing an effective programme of civic and constitutional education in schools, universities and adult education, and that such a programme should particularly focus on questions of human rights and individual responsibilities. The report said that this was:
“A matter repeatedly and cogently emphasised in submissions and presentations to the Panel.”
The Government launched their consultation on Human Rights Act reforms and a Bill of Rights in December 2021, but they did not comment at all on that recommendation of the Gross review. That may be because such an educational programme requires interdepartmental co-operation between the Department for Education, the DCMS and the Ministry of Justice. The lead must surely, however, come from the Department for Education.
There is a high level of misunderstanding and a lack of knowledge among the general population, and indeed some public officials, about legal rights and responsibilities and our constitution. That lack of knowledge is a huge obstacle to public ownership of legal rights, which is what we should be aiming for in a properly functioning democracy. The Bar Council and the Law Society have promoted various voluntary educational initiatives, but what is in substance recommended by the Gross review, at least so far as concerns schools, is that there should be teaching about rights and responsibilities and the basic features of our constitution as part of the national curriculum in England. Discussions could no doubt take place with the devolved Administrations.
Will the Minister please say what is the Government’s response to the Gross report’s important recommended educational initiative and, if the Government do not yet have a view, will she give an assurance that the Department for Education will pursue the issue with such other Ministers and departments as may need to be involved?
My Lords, one of the great things about coming this far down a long list of very distinguished speakers is that other people have done all the hard work. The only thing is that it has put considerable pressure on my editing skills—but we shall see.
I declare my interests as a member of the Middlesex Learning Trust and as a trustee of the Artis Foundation. I want to remind the House that the gracious Speech says:
“Reforms to education will help every child fulfil their potential wherever they live, raising standards and improving the quality of schools and higher education.”
It is pretty hard to argue with that as an aspiration, but what would it take for it to be fulfilled? Well, it might take a well-trained, well-motivated, well-rewarded and well-respected workforce. Do we have that? Statistical and anecdotal evidence suggests that we do not, and the recruitment and retention problems bear this out.
We might need students who are well supported outside the classroom, as well as in it, especially those with special needs or mental health issues, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, or all of the above. Do we have that? No, not nearly enough, despite upcoming new provisions for special educational needs and disabilities.
We might need a well-balanced, broadly based and flexible curriculum. I shall come back to that. We would need well-equipped, environmentally sound buildings and facilities, and I refer your Lordships to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, on that subject. I do not need to add to them.
We would also need funding, both revenue and capital, sufficient to make these things possible. Do we have that? Well, numbers of people speaking in this debate have made it pretty clear that we do not, and that there is no such uplift in funding realistically in prospect. By the way, let us not forget the scandalously short shrift given last year to the Government’s own adviser, Sir Kevan Collins.
Does the Schools Bill focus on these issues? It does not, as my noble friends Lady Morgan and Lady Morris said so eloquently—and I genuinely have nothing to add to what they said about academies, so I will not say any more on that. On the curriculum, last year I had the privilege of serving on your Lordships’ Youth Unemployment Committee, which heard substantial evidence, a lot of it from employers and young people themselves, indicating, as the report says, that
“while the national curriculum plays an important role in guaranteeing minimum common provision and rigorous standards, it is too narrowly focused to ensure that it prepares all young people for the modern labour market … in particular for the creative, green and digital sectors.”
I, like many noble Lords, am particularly concerned about the drop in take-up of creative subjects, with music for example being dramatically down at both GCSE and A-level, despite growing evidence of the value to overall learning of engagement with these subjects, both within the curriculum and outside it. Does the Bill do anything to address that? No, it does not.
The Bill also brings in new provisions about teacher misconduct. Why is this necessary? I accept of course that teachers must be held, and hold themselves, to the highest possible standards, but what evidence is there that current arrangements are inadequate or that there is a newly significant problem about teacher behaviour? To choose this moment to focus on the small number of teachers whose conduct is unsatisfactory strikes me as frankly tin-eared when so much else is unaddressed.
Teachers and school leaders are under enormous pressure following the pandemic and most are working with extraordinary commitment to mitigate the effects on students of two years of disruption, including a massive increase in mental health issues. Now, more than ever, we should be reminding those in our education workforce how much they are valued, and offering them every possible support, not telling them off. That is what certain members of this Government—and I completely exempt the two noble Baronesses who are in charge of this debate, for whom I have great personal respect and affection—do best: tell people off. Not just in education but across most areas of public service, the tone from government is too often ungenerous and censorious. Civil servants have been told off, as have doctors, the police and universities, and, in my experience, you do not get the best out of people that way.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register, particularly as a non-executive director at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust and as a member of the Financial Inclusion Commission. I wish briefly to highlight three areas today: mental health, carers and financial inclusion. I do not think that that last subject has come up yet.
Turning first to health, as we have heard, the main legislative plans are the long- awaited reforms to the Mental Health Act. However, the wider context cannot be ignored. Tackling the backlog of NHS care is a matter of life and death for many, or having to endure chronic pain, with growing waits for treatment, major workforce shortages and an unsustainable social care system following a decade of funding settlements that have failed to keep up with demand. Yes, these challenges have been accelerated by Covid, but they were leading to rising pressures on services well before the pandemic started.
I welcome, like others, the announcement of a draft Mental Health Act reform Bill; many of the reforms are urgently needed. I look forward to scrutinising the detail of the legislation relating to detention criteria, the offer of a mental health advocate for all in- patients, changing the definition of mental disorder so someone cannot be detained solely because they have a learning disability or are autistic, and a greater voice for all in-patients in detention in their treatment and care. However, I believe there are areas where the current proposals should go further, including by abolishing community treatment orders, addressing race inequalities and equity more comprehensively in the Act, and ensuring the reforms work for children and young people too. It is vital that the reforms are fully funded and that there is sufficient investment in mental health, particularly the workforce, to ensure that everyone can access the support they need when they need it.
Therefore, will the Minister answer the following questions, or perhaps write to me if that is easier? First, what is the timeframe for pre-legislative scrutiny, introduction of a Bill and implementation of the reformed Act? Secondly, are the Government proceeding with all the reforms included in the White Paper? Thirdly, will the Minister provide assurance that children and young people will benefit from the reforms at least as much as adults?
Of course, we also need a much stronger focus on preventing people reaching the point where they risk being sectioned. This means deeper and wider preventive mental health work in our communities, but the most important thing the Government need to do, as we have heard already, is to introduce proper workforce planning across both health and social care that is designed to meet both current and future demand for care, as so many of us argued for powerfully during the recent passage of the Health and Care Bill. What a pity those clarion calls went unheeded.
Like others speaking in today’s debate, I was particularly disappointed that the gracious Speech contained no reference to carers’ leave to help carers juggling work and unpaid care at a time when they most need it—not least because it was a Conservative Party manifesto commitment back in 2019. Responses to the Government’s consultation were positive, from carers and employers alike, with 53% of working carers saying they need unpaid leave in order to juggle work and care successfully. We are talking not about giving people leave so that they can sit in the garden, but giving carers the flexibility to ask for leave to attend medical appointments, provide short-term care and step in if care arrangements break down. Can the Minister explain the Government’s current position on carers’ leave and when we can expect to see proposals bought forward? Does she agree with me that support for carers is an integral part of both tackling health inequalities and levelling up?
I turn now to financial inclusion, which I see as a critical part of the levelling-up agenda. The financial services and markets Bill is potentially an excellent opportunity to redesign financial services regulation. It is a chance for the Government to ensure that both the financial regulator and the industry better serve the needs of consumers. However, I strongly believe that this can only be achieved by giving the Financial Conduct Authority a “must have regard to financial inclusion” duty as part of its overall remit. The soaring costs of living have only increased the importance of making sure that everyone has access to financial products and services that meet their needs; but low-income and vulnerable consumers still struggle to afford, are having to pay extra for or are unable to access appropriate services.
Finally, I turn to access to cash. Three years ago, the Access to Cash review warned that Britain was sleepwalking into a cashless society. This has been exacerbated by Covid. Recent research shows that 10 million people would struggle to cope in a cashless society. That is why I was pleased to see the announcement in the gracious Speech of the Government’s intention to legislate to protect access to cash, which is important to so many people. This must be seen as part of the levelling-up agenda.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president and former chair of the Local Government Association, and as a member of Beckfoot Trust, which is a multi-academy trust, and the Leeds Diocesan Learning Trust.
I thank the Prime Minister for showing that this Government are serious about levelling up all areas of the country, as this Queen’s Speech seeks to enshrine the 12 missions into law. These missions will all be crucial if we are finally to tackle the inequalities in our communities. As a former council leader, I would like to put on record that councillors are as ambitious as the Government are for the people and places they serve. Given councils’ role in providing more than 800 different services to local communities, local government will be vital to ensuring that we can deliver on our promise to the nation.
As a former teacher, I am also passionate about ensuring that every child and young person has the best start in life. The Schools Bill seeks to achieve this by introducing measures that will deliver a higher-performing school system. The Bill rightly recognises the important role councils play as education partners. I know that the Local Government Association has commended the Government for that. In particular, the measures to allow councils to set up their own multi-academy trusts have been welcomed. Councils have an excellent track record in providing a high-quality education, with the highest proportion of schools rated good or outstanding. The plans to introduce a home schooling register have also been welcomed by councils, which have been calling for these reforms for a number of years. This shows that the Government are in listening mode and take action when they hear that things need to change. With this in mind, I urge the Government to listen to the call of councils that want to be able to deliver safeguarding checks on home-schooled children and hold the powers to take action against illegal schools. I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s views on this.
As the Government explore bringing the reforms in the SEND Green Paper forward, I urge Ministers to look at the complexities in the funding system that make it almost impossible for councils to transfer money for funding to the high needs block to best meet children’s needs.
I will briefly touch on the important issue of skills. Research commissioned by the LGA and carried out by the Institute for Employment Studies, published today, shows that in two-fifths of the country there are more vacancies than unemployed people. With the right powers, councils could do much more to ensure that everyone has access to targeted local support and the chance to learn new skills and find work. Locally led solutions are often the best way of fixing the national challenges we face. This is why I am pleased to see the Government introduce the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill so quickly after the Queen’s Speech.
The UK remains one of the most centralised countries in the democratic world, so it can only be a good thing that the Government are seeking to pass power to local areas. All experiences of previous rounds of devolution deals have underlined the value of local collaboration and consensus. I trust that the Government will approach these new deals in the same way. In the same spirit, I know that those of us who sit on the devolution all-party parliamentary group would welcome engagement on how we can ensure that the Government’s plans reflect the diverse needs and aspirations of communities across the country.
Finally, I would like to touch on the women’s health strategy that has been announced. This presents an important opportunity to improve women’s health outcomes, particularly if the strategy adopts a preventive public health approach. I would also like to put on record the significant health and care challenges experienced by men. We know that 75% of deaths by suicide are those of men. In Mental Health Awareness Week, the Government demonstrated the importance of tackling poor mental health through their commitment to reform the Mental Health Act. Will the Government commit to addressing the very real male health issues by bringing forward a men’s health strategy?
To conclude, I share the Government’s ambitions to level up all parts of the country and look forward to working with the Government to deliver the proposals in this Queen’s Speech.
My Lords, as a neuroscientist I welcome the consideration of mental health in the gracious Speech and declare an interest as the founder of a biotech, Neuro-Bio, working towards an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. However, in this capacity I was sadly disappointed that no mention was made of addressing the urgent issues relating to such a devastating health problem.
This debate is taking place during Dementia Action Week, so it is an especially pertinent time to highlight the needs of people living with this condition. Alzheimer’s is a neurological disease characterised by memory loss, disorientation and general cognitive impairment. It presents typically, though not exclusively, in older people: one in six over the age of 80 and as many as 70% of residents in care homes. The spectre of Alzheimer’s is one of the cruellest potential scenarios awaiting us in later life. While heart disease and cancer are serious, often disabling and sometimes terminal, you can still reminisce over old photographs and spend meaningful and precious time with your grandchildren. These life-enhancing moments are gradually closed off to an individual with dementia.
There are currently around 900,000 individuals living in the UK with dementia, a figure projected to rise to 1.6 million by 2040. The cost of care in the UK is currently £34.7 billion, and this is set to rise sharply over the next two decades to £94 billion by 2040.
Many noble Lords have spoken about carers, and this is particularly important with respect to Alzheimer’s. Imagine the impact of Alzheimer’s on the family, specifically the financial and mental health repercussions of giving up a job to care for a loved one—perhaps the love of your life—who then no longer even recognises you; that is a scenario I have heard described, on more than one occasion, as a living death.
Two other main issues could have been addressed in the gracious Speech and were omitted. One is the issue of obtaining a diagnosis. The reaffirmed commitment to invest £2.3 billion to increase diagnostic activity, with ambitions to roll out up to 160 community diagnostic centres, is obviously to be welcomed. However, this must include a specific commitment to improve dementia diagnoses. These are currently at a five-year low, with more than 30,000 additional people now living in England not formally diagnosed. The Alzheimer’s Society estimates that it would take four years to clear the current backlog without extra help. There are national strategies to deal with the backlog in elective care and cancer diagnosis, but nothing to fund or plan to deal with the specific backlog for Alzheimer’s. It will not go away on its own.
Memory assessment services are vastly overstretched due to the pandemic. This is largely caused by workforce pressures. Individuals are being referred to services, but the services cannot deal with referrals at the same rate. Memory services are seeing people come to them with much more advanced symptoms than previously. Just £70 million would allow the NHS to address the backlog in secondary care while making allowance for increasing primary care costs. Up to 65% of emergency hospital admissions for people living with dementia could be avoided if they had the right support.
The individual patient could then become more actively involved in personal decisions, including healthcare. They could use treatments more effectively, focus on what is important and make empowering choices. They could take advantage of resources and help advance research, perhaps by joining clinical trials. With more than 150 such programmes worldwide currently examining potential dementia treatments, it is more pressing than ever that we can identify suitable participants.
This brings us to the third issue: research and the development of new drugs. The Government need to deliver on their manifesto commitment and fund the dementia moonshot as soon as possible. As a scientist on the front line of research, I was saddened to see no mention of this in the gracious Speech, but such funding is urgently needed to deliver on our ambitions for dementia research and, crucially, to deliver new treatments. In parallel to increased research funding, the forthcoming national dementia strategy must set out a bold and ambitious approach from government to create new momentum and help push us over the finish line to the first wave of new treatments.
For example, Alzheimer’s Research UK is leading calls for the Government to apply lessons learned from the Covid-19 Vaccine Taskforce by establishing a dementia medicines task force. The task force would act as a catalyst to accelerate the development of new treatments. It would harness the existing strengths and leading initiatives in the UK, minimising gaps and tackling any duplication in current approaches. The goal would be to ensure that new treatments reach those who need them as soon as possible. It would drive progress in research and speed up clinical trials, as set out in the dementia moonshot manifesto. This would ultimately benefit current patients, while also creating a powerful offering for global life science investment.
Any one of us here could succumb to Alzheimer’s, and a significant number of us are likely to do so. It is one of the biggest health challenges we face, and as such it cannot, as it was in the gracious Speech, be ignored.
My Lords, the Queen’s Speech was described as thin on education and so has proved the Schools Bill, as my noble friend Lady Wilcox said. At a time when there is so much to do in and for our education service, a more wide-ranging Bill would have been appropriate.
Both the Queen’s Speech and the Bill have ducked significant issues. Clearly, insufficient has been done to date to address Covid recovery. Like much else in education, this is about funding. As proposed, the national funding formula is both an attack on local democracy and a failure to provide adequate resources. Funding is a significant problem for a huge majority of schools, with the National Audit Office reporting that money will be redirected away from schools serving the poorest pupils.
Primary class sizes are now the highest they have been this century, and secondary class sizes the highest since records began. Much of our school estate—our school buildings—is in a terrible state, frankly. Investment is urgently needed to make these buildings fit to provide education for our children and young people. Good, qualified teachers, supported by teaching assistants and the whole school workforce at school level, are of course the biggest factor in ensuring success for all our young people. But, alas, teachers are leaving the profession in very high numbers and recruitment to teaching is missing its targets—not to mention the contested market review of initial teacher training and education, with so many high-quality institutions no longer in this field, as reported yesterday.
Throughout the pandemic, Ministers stood at the Dispatch Box and praised teachers for their work. That was very welcome, but fine words butter no parsnips, and what we see in schools is that around a quarter of new teachers leave the profession within three years. The loss of experienced teachers is a problem too, with barely 60% remaining in the profession 10 years in. OECD research clearly suggests that a mix of experience levels is a prerequisite for good outcomes for students, especially in areas of high poverty, but all too many schools are starved on a turnover of early-career teachers who leave within five years—and not, I am afraid to say, to go to other schools.
Many teachers who leave cite workload as an issue. Where is the Government’s response to this? If the answer is the Oak National Academy, I really believe the Government need to think again. Of course teachers value good, high-quality resources, but teaching is a creative profession, one in which teachers should have autonomy, agency and the ability to collaborate with colleagues in relation to curriculum design and pedagogy—it is not a place for pre-packaged lessons to deliver a curriculum wholly centrally determined. When teachers cite workload, they generally mean Ofsted-driven activities arising from performance measures that, as professionals in classrooms, they consider unnecessary and often unrealistic. We should bear in mind that the number of hours worked by teachers in England is significantly above the OECD average of 41 hours per week.
As to academisation, the Government’s ideological position of academising all schools by 2030—or at least having them on the route to academisation—has not met with enthusiasm or approval from within the profession. This is unsurprising when research by both the National Education Union and Birmingham University contradicts in stark terms the claims made by government of the alleged benefits of multi-academy trusts. I genuinely look forward to a detailed discussion with the Minister on this, as it is clearly a contested area.
The ostensible reason offered some 12 years ago for the emergency legislation on academy status was the independence and autonomy that such schools would enjoy. While that may be debatable, what is true is that such independence will be significantly eroded by the 20 areas in the Schools Bill in which the Secretary of State may set standards by regulation, with one such area being salaries and pensions. If such regulation were to be drawn up following sectoral collective bargaining, I am sure that would be welcome—but I am sure that the Minister will tell me that that is not what is intended.
The Schools Bill is not what is needed in the face of the challenges facing our schools and children, including underfunding and the Covid pandemic, so I really hope that during the passage of the Bill we can make some significant improvements.
My Lords, I too shall focus on education and skills, which are fundamental to the stated priorities of the gracious Speech and to the whole idea of levelling up. Education and skills should be a central part of any Government’s aims and aspirations, so it is encouraging that the Queen’s Speech includes both a Schools Bill and a higher education Bill. The Schools Bill focuses on funding, academisation and attendance, but the Bill on its own will not be enough to achieve the laudable goal of helping
“every child fulfil their potential wherever they live”.
I will briefly address some of the other activities that will be needed but which are not covered by this legislation.
The first is the long-standing challenge of improving the quality and status of technical education. I am encouraged by the Government’s commitment to T-levels, apprenticeships and other initiatives, such as those in the recent Skills and Post-16 Education Act, and the planned lifelong loan entitlement, the introduction of which will be enabled by the higher education Bill. Successful delivery of these will be crucial, but more work is needed both to ensure that all the pieces of the complex skills jigsaw fit together—that Kickstart, for example, leads to apprenticeships—and to convince not just students themselves but their schools, teachers and parents of the value of technical education, such that it finally achieves the long-sought parity of esteem with academic routes. There is also a need for effective provision to allow students to mix and match, combining both technical and academic elements in their studies. Languages, for example, are an important skill in many technical careers, and my own experience shows how valuable classics can be in developing computer programming skills.
Secondly, every young person needs to be aware of the range of jobs and careers available and the routes they need to take to further their own aspirations and abilities. This calls for continuing enhancement of careers information, advice and guidance in line with the Gatsby benchmarks, including contacts with a variety of different employers and workplaces, as well as work experience opportunities. The enhanced Baker clause in the skills Act, specifying the number of meaningful employer contacts students must have, should be embraced as an absolute minimum and enforced when necessary.
Thirdly, it is surely time for the Government to address the persistent concerns of employers and others about the apprenticeship levy, introducing greater flexibility to make it more fit for purpose so that more young people are able to become apprentices, including 16 to 19 year-old school leavers; more small and medium-sized firms are able to offer apprenticeships; and more of the skills that are most needed are eligible to receive funding from the levy.
Other issues include recognising digital skills as a functional skill of comparable importance to English and maths and, as other noble Lords have mentioned, restoring creative and arts education to its proper status as an essential part of the curriculum, as indeed it is in most independent schools. Again, that would clearly qualify as levelling up.
Education and skills are fundamental to the Government’s priorities as set out in the Queen’s Speech. I hope the Minister and her colleagues, as well as meeting their heavy legislative commitments, as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, will find the time and energy to press ahead on the other issues I have highlighted. What matters most is not so much the quantity of legislation—we already have rather too much—but the quality of delivery.
My Lords, my contribution on the most gracious Speech, delivered by His Royal Highness Prince Charles on 10 May, will be very brief. I thank Her Majesty the Queen for her dedicated loyalty and send my warmest wishes to her on her Platinum Jubilee.
I wish to focus my contribution on the gracious Speech on education and the devastating impact of the global pandemic on young people’s mental health. The consequences of the pandemic have been vast and felt across society, but some groups, such as young people in education, have been affected more than others. Many noble Lords have spoken at length in this debate on the subject of education with more experience than I have, so I will not repeat what they have said. I will focus on Covid.
The Health Foundation’s Covid-19 impact inquiry draws on statistics from the young people’s future health inquiry, which focused on gathering evidence from a range of sources to understand the immediate and long-term implications of the pandemic for young people and thus the support needed as the UK moves through recovery.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, school closure restrictions during lockdown reduced young people’s participation in learning, which is an essential building block for a healthy future. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that secondary school pupils spent 4.5 hours per day on learning in the first lockdown, compared with 6.6 hours before the pandemic. There was also a substantial difference in who was spending the most time on learning, with the richest third of pupils spending more time than the poorest third.
One of the most significant impacts of coronavirus was the exposure of the digital divide that exists in the UK. Class differences and social mobility meant that some of the most disadvantaged children were deemed more likely to be affected by a lack of access to remote learning because of technological issues. In 2019, a study by the Office for National Statistics found that 60,000 children aged 11 to 18 did not have internet access in their home, and around 700,000 children did not have a computer, laptop or tablet with which to access online learning. Therefore, schools will never be the same after being enlightened by e-learning and their new-found awareness of disadvantaged students.
While schools reopened in autumn 2020, disruption to learning was still common and access to in-person teaching was not consistent. By mid-November, 51% of teachers in private schools reported being fully open to year 11 compared to just 33% in state schools. School closures put educational outcomes at risk throughout the pandemic, especially for disadvantaged students. Existing inequalities and attainment gaps are already being aggravated, as opportunities for early identification of emerging learning problems have also been missed during the school closures. I have always believed that education is the best gift to children as it dilutes boundaries and will take children, depending on their capabilities, anywhere in life. There is much more to say but I will limit myself to what I have already said.
As part of my role as a Peer in the House of Lords, it is both a duty and an obligation to focus on inspiring and encouraging young people—irrespective of age, race and background—to engage in various activities that promote inclusion and respect. Given the knock-on effects of the pandemic and the drastic change to the schooling system in response in recent years, and in line with the State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech, how do Her Majesty’s Government intend to reform higher education and the quality of schools, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds?
My Lords, I too welcome the mention in the gracious Speech of the long-awaited draft mental health Bill, but that has been covered extremely well by my noble friend Lady Tyler and I agree with all the points she made, so I will go no further on that.
However, since the Speech, which followed quickly on the heels of the Health and Care Act, we heard at the weekend that the Government intend, with indecent haste, to backtrack on measures for which they have only just got Royal Assent. I refer to the planned restrictions on TV and online advertising of foods high in sugar, salt and fat. Before the ink is dry on the Act, the Government now want to defer implementation for a further year. Can the Minister write to me to say what representations the Government have received on this and from whom?
In Committee, I commented on government amendments to allow the Secretary of State to defer implementation beyond January 2023. I said:
“Given the notice the industry has already had about these measures and the fact that the Government have already deferred implementation, a year from now should be quite enough time. Why do the Government feel they need these further powers?”—[Official Report, 4/2/22; col. 1212.]
The noble Baroness, Lady Penn, who probably did not know what the Government were planning, said that
“the implementation dates for these restrictions none the less remains 1 January 2023.”
“Amendments 249, 252 and 254 separately introduce the ability to delay that implementation date via secondary legislation, should this be deemed necessary after the Bill receives Royal Assent. We have taken this decision to provide flexibility should emerging challenges mean that implementation from 1 January 2023 proves unworkable. However, I should emphasise that we currently have no plans to delay the introduction of these restrictions.”—[Official Report, 4/2/22; col. 1217.]
It seems I was right to be suspicious.
I ask the Minister: what sudden “emerging challenges” have made it necessary to give the industry a further year’s notice of the restrictions? I presume she meant challenges to the Government’s credibility or perhaps to the leadership of the Prime Minister. It can have nothing to do with the price of gas or a basic food shopping basket, and certainly nothing to do with the health of the nation.
I also asked the Minister some months ago if there was any truth in the rumour going around that the Government planned to ditch the ban on “buy one, get one free” offers on unhealthy foods. I was assured in the strongest terms that this rumour was untrue. Allowing someone to get two enormous bars of chocolate for the price of one will not help them pay their energy bill or buy essential healthy foods for their family. Henry Dimbleby, the author of the national food strategy, said on the radio yesterday morning that it would do nothing to address the nation’s obesity crisis. I also call in aid the noble Lord, Lord Hague, who says in today’s Times:
“These are not ‘good deals’ for our wallet or our health. The whole point of them is to get people used to buying more.”
He called the Government’s backtracking
“intellectually shallow, politically weak and morally reprehensible.”
I could not have put it better.
In the gracious Speech the Government said that they would
“fund the National Health Service to reduce the Covid backlogs.”
That is all very well, but other problems have not gone away. I refer first to the ambulance crisis. Doctors now believe that the wait times are endangering patients’ lives. The problem is the shortage of enough properly trained staff in the right places. The Health and Care Act 2022, as enacted, will not improve the planning and adequate provision of staff. The Minister may recall the all-party amendments for measures to assess and plan workforce needs properly, but the Government resisted. Figures were cited for a shortage of doctors and nurses, but today I give an example from an allied medical profession.
A hospital dietician, who plays a vital role in the treatment and recovery of patients, got in touch with me. Her pay rise has been consistently below inflation for some time. She has no other senior dieticians in her team as they are all off with stress and she is covering their work. She also has to cover for vacant junior posts. Because of savings targets, she must save 20% on her staffing budget. This will mean that she is unable to fill the posts needed for safe staffing levels. Can the Government explain why the system they have chosen for workforce planning is going to help in this situation?
My Lords, like so many of us, I am appalled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I will focus on the welfare of Ukrainian refugees, a subject no one has spoken about today. I declare my interest: the Loomba Foundation, of which I am the chairman trustee, has extensive experience of the impact of conflict in many parts of the world, particularly in driving up numbers of vulnerable widows and single mothers with dependent children and the massive upheaval this causes for families and communities. We have seen how this is the predominant feature of the Ukrainian refugee crisis today and we know the range of support that is essential for these mothers to create the stability they crave for their families.
I am deeply moved by the generosity of the British people, including those who have opened their homes to families from Ukraine. However, the current system the Government have put in place simply does not provide enough support for the vulnerable women and children arriving in the UK. In particular, those arriving on the Ukraine family visa scheme do not have enough protection. Some will have suffered terrible trauma and this may make it difficult for their families to cope.
We need to put measures in place so that, if their living arrangements break down, local authorities receive funding to match them with another family or provide alternative accommodation. We also need funding from central government to provide pastoral and mental health support for these refugees. We know that children, as well as adults, who have suffered trauma need the right help as early as possible so that they can start to build a new future in the UK.
The Loomba Foundation and other charities are doing what they can to fill the gaps and meet immediate needs. Barnardo’s, of which I am vice-president, told me about the case of a woman who arrived in the UK from Ukraine heavily pregnant and with just what she and her husband could carry. They came to live with family in the UK but did not have the basic things they needed for their new baby. Fortunately, Barnardo’s was able to give her all the things that new parents need, including a cot, nappies and clothes. Afterwards, the mother emailed Barnardo’s to say thank you. She said: “In this world there are more good people than bad. Thanks to you we are safe and have our little baby.”
As this example shows, charities can make a difference to the lives of vulnerable women and children arriving from that war-torn country, and we are currently finalising a partnership scheme whereby the Loomba Foundation will fund vouchers for Ukrainian refugee families to obtain essential items from any one of Barnardo’s nationwide network of more than 630 shops. Important as such measures can be for individual families, we cannot rely on charities alone to support the Ukrainian families and their British hosts, and I call on the Government to engage with us to help define the wider support that is needed and to provide due resources for it.
My Lords, in the time that is available to me, I wish to make a wide-ranging and cursory review of our education system, comprising secondary education, further education and higher education. There is distress at all levels, which is quite apart from the effects of the pandemic.
In secondary education, there are ongoing disruptions caused by the policy initiatives of the Government and the Department for Education. These are occurring against a backdrop of a severe decline in the levels of remuneration of teachers and a crisis in teachers’ morale. A recent survey has shown that over the past decade, teachers in secondary schools have lost 9% of their real income. They are leaving the profession in large numbers to seek more gainful employment. More than 30,000 teachers are leaving the profession each year. The number of male teachers in secondary schools in England and Wales is the lowest on record. Whereas one might welcome the advancement of women in this profession, the changing sex ratio is symptomatic of greater male mobility, which allows men to leave the profession more readily. Older teachers who are leaving are being replaced by new recruits to the profession, who are often employed in the guise of supply teachers who struggle to achieve permanent placements. Young teachers have thereby become part of the gig economy. This is threatening the future of secondary education.
In further education, there are clear symptoms of distress. Colleges of further education have traditionally fostered the skills that are required by industry and commerce. However, the available funding has not allowed the colleges to adapt to the changing demands of industry and commerce, and the numbers of students completing their courses have fallen drastically in recent years. The decline of the further education sector has gone hand in hand with the expansion of universities. Since 2012, the universities have been allowed to recruit students without limits. Every recruit carries with them a fee income. This contrasts with the funding system of further education, where the numbers are effectively capped at the level of the previous year’s recruitment.
The implosion of the further education sector has also been a consequence of the reforms of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. This removed polytechnics and colleges of technology from the control of local authorities and allowed many of them to become second-tier universities. Instead, they should have been recognised as equal but different. In the process, they have changed their mission. They have forsaken technical education in favour of degree courses. There is a hierarchy of qualifications in the UK, which is topped by bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and doctorates. The technical and industrial qualifications fall below these levels.
The rules in England for the financial support of students largely disbar persons who have achieved higher qualifications from seeking support thereafter to study technical subjects at lower levels. Thus, a university graduate is disbarred from adding a technical qualification to his or her university degree. Compared with other countries, our funding arrangements drive students and providers away from higher technical education. This is prejudicing the nation’s economic prospects.
Universities have barely profited from their freedom to compete for students. The desire to attract students has led to what has been described as an “amenities arms race”. Campuses have been refurbished to include additional and often lavish facilities for students. This has led many universities into financial difficulties. Funds have been diverted from salaries and, over the past decade, academic salaries have fallen by more than 10% in real terms. The universities pension scheme is in dire financial difficulties, and swingeing cuts to retirement benefits have been imposed. This has given rise to angry industrial action.
Since the 1950s, academics have been subject, at the behest of successive Governments, to an increasingly burdensome audit culture that requires them to demonstrate performance on a set of criteria that are manifestly in conflict with each other. They face a research assessment exercise under the guise of the research excellence framework; they are assessed under the teaching excellence framework and a National Student Survey; and now they face the demands of a knowledge exchange framework.
The academic workforce has been casualised. There is no longer any notion of academic tenure, whereby a lecturer could benefit from job security. Increasingly, they are employed on short-term contracts. It requires a considerable educational investment to become an academic, which entails a lengthy deferment of earnings. Given the job insecurity, the poor remuneration and the even worse retirement prospects, it is doubtful whether anyone should be encouraged to aspire to an academic career—unless they believe that prospects will soon be greatly improved.
The prospects for our university sector are not good. In consequence of Brexit, the sector has lost many of its European academics, who have returned home and will be difficult to replace. Universities have lost the research funding of the Horizon Europe programme, and the prospects of collaborative research with our European neighbours have been prejudiced. This is occurring at a time when the Prime Minister is proclaiming Britain as a scientific superpower that is set to become a high-income economy. This rhetoric flies in the face of reality. Unless we can repair our educational system, we will be destined for economic failure and poverty.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her heartfelt introduction to our debate on the gracious Speech and acknowledge the committed remarks of my noble friend Lady Wilcox, a compatriot from our homeland, the lovely land of Wales. I further acknowledge her fine record of leadership in our local government. It is good to follow the speech from the noble Viscount, a masterly campaigner.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s best speech was his shortest: “Education, education, education”. If our communities are to experience levelling up, we need ever more successful schooling for the many underprivileged children of the north. We do not know when HS2 will reach Crewe and Manchester, but we do know these children are only young once. They have but a decade to get by. As the great Lady Plowden said 50 years ago in her historic report, for the young it is “time irredeemable”.
If you stream the children, you stream the teachers. There are always consequences. RA Butler enacted his historic Education Act 1944, and for Prime Minister Attlee, a determined Ellen Wilkinson developed it. On my paper round, I read the left-leaning New Statesman, edited by mischievous poltergeist editor Kingsley Martin. He had Rab profiled under the heading, “Rab the Apostle of Inequality.”
British Labour’s guru, he of the future of socialism, CAR Crosland, put the Butler Act asunder. It was the beginning of the end of the network of grammar schools. However, it was also the end of those secondary modern school classroom networks that taught technical drawing, the entry card to the then real apprenticeships, when Britain still had a significant manufacturing base. Incidentally, Tony Crosland had his New Statesman prof