House of Lords
Thursday 13 October 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.
Oaths and Affirmations
Several noble Lords took the oath or made the solemn affirmation.
Public Spending: Borrowing Increase
My Lords, the Government’s growth plan set out the important steps we are taking to drive growth. This will help to improve living standards and fund high-quality public services. Sustainable long-term growth depends on a disciplined approach to public finances that includes focusing our spending on core priorities and working efficiently. The Government will set out more details on their approach to public spending at the medium-term fiscal plan on 31 October.
I thank the noble Lord for that expert reply. Has the Prime Minister any idea what on earth she is doing? The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates she must slash public spending by some £62 billion, on top of the £180 billion of public spending cuts since 2010, or forego the tax cuts. The NHS is on its knees, social care hangs by a thread, and schools and local government are tottering, while millionaires will be much better off. Then, just yesterday, the Prime Minister claimed, “All is well. There’s no need for cuts”. Is it any surprise that the markets are spooked?
I do not take the view that the noble Lord has. The Government are focused on increasing economic growth to boost living standards through supply-side reform. This will create new, better-paid jobs, allowing people to keep more of what they earn, and ensure that people from across all spectrums of society, including the most vulnerable, will benefit. On the noble Lord’s question, the detail of the growth plan will be rolled out on 31 October. It is intended that we should show that we are fiscally responsible.
Does my noble friend think that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, did not notice that this week the Labour Party voted for the reversal of the national insurance increase? He asks what the Government are doing; what they have done is save people from energy costs that would have been £6,500 a year and save businesses from bankruptcy. Is that not the case? That is something which the Labour Party is unable to match, because its guarantee was for only six months while ours is for two years. Most people in the country will cheer that, will they not?
My noble friend is right. The Government are reducing the tax burden by delivering tax cuts worth around £45 billion by 2026-27. We know that is for both individuals, through the EPG, and businesses, through reversing the increase in corporation tax from 19% to 25%. It is an ambitious first step towards this mission of cutting taxes. However, as I said earlier, this includes looking at the public sector and liberating, in particular, the private sector.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister was very clear that there would be no cuts in funding for public services. Could the Minister clarify whether she meant no cuts in real or nominal terms? Public services will be very badly hit if this is protection in only nominal terms and they have to absorb all the costs of inflation, well in excess of 10%.
I am well aware of what the Prime Minister said yesterday. I reiterate that the 2021 spending review set out the departmental budgets for three years and overall departmental spending is still growing in real terms. It also cited that 5% efficiency savings against day-to-day budgets would be looked at for 2024-25. Having said all that, a reprioritisation, efficiency and productivity review has been announced and will be undertaken.
My Lords, according to the ONS, since 2010 this Government have borrowed more in real terms than all Labour Administrations combined—and Labour created the National Health Service, the welfare state and many new industries. In contrast, the Government, despite borrowing an extra £1.5 trillion, have created poverty and homelessness and destroyed public figures. Can the Minister publish a paper explaining how this £1.5 trillion has been wasted?
I have spoken about an efficiency review and a reprioritisation, and that is under way. I say that it is not all as the noble Lord paints; for example, we have got unemployment down to its lowest level for about 40 years, at 3.5%, which is excellent, and there is much more we can do to that extent. The economy is actually in a pretty robust state, despite what the noble Lord might be indicating.
My Lords, as somebody who spent much of their career in the public sector, I know that, at the shop-floor level, “efficiencies” is a euphemism for “cuts”; that is what we are effectively talking about. But let us get down to the nitty-gritty of this debate. Volatility in bond markets continues to feed through to the mortgage market, where the average two-year fixed interest rate has jumped by around half a percentage point in the last week alone. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government have conducted, or at least commissioned, any assessment of how many repossessions we are likely to see in the coming months? If not, will he commit to taking this back to the department?
On the mortgage market, I am very aware of the pain that many people are suffering at the moment. Interest rates have been going up—this is not just a matter for the UK; it is a global issue, particularly among the developed countries—and interest rates link into mortgage rates. We very much hope that they will come down. This is very much a matter that the Bank of England is taking decisions on, and we are all aware of the announcements that have been made to stabilise the markets.
May I take the Minister back to his response on the issue of public service expenditure? In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, he said that he was very well aware of what the Prime Minister said. I think many of us would like to know what the Prime Minister said actually means. Does it take into account the effects of inflation?
We will obviously have to wait for the fiscal statement that is coming on 31 October. We, and she, expect departments to continuously be identifying opportunities to bring down the cost of delivering public services through better use of technology and by reducing bureaucracy. It is also important to praise the level of service and the hard work that public services and the public sector undertake.
My Lords, what does the Minister have to say to his noble friend Lord Finkelstein, who has just said on the BBC News channel regarding the Prime Minister and these policies: “They can keep pressing on with this policy but the consequences are obvious to see and will be paid for by lots of people, and therefore also electorally by the Conservative Party in the end”?
I am not going to be drawn into responding to that. What I will say is that we are set on announcing the medium-term fiscal plan—as I have mentioned at least three times—on 31 October, and that of course is linked to the OBR giving its view on the Government’s plans. We are confident that we will be able to roll out in detail our growth plan, what it means and how it will get this country moving.
My Lords, the pandemic involved a huge increase in public spending and borrowing, which I thought had the general support of all parties. Stopping the bleeding over energy prices was the same, and yet another colossal amount. As everyone knows, combatting climate change is going to require still more. These are huge increases in borrowing and surely now we are having to pay the price. If in America the Fed is putting up its interest rates, we will have to do the same. Can the Minister clarify where the Opposition stand on that, because they sound as if they are going back on this whole sensible analysis?
I thank my noble friend. I think the Opposition probably do understand that. The Government launched the independent review into the delivery of the net-zero climate commitments with a focus on ensuring that the UK’s fight against climate change remains undiminished. I have shied away from saying it so far because everybody has been saying it but many of the issues that we are having to deal with stem from the tail end—the sting—of the pandemic and from the war in Ukraine. We all know that.
Horn of Africa: Famine
My Lords, the crisis in east Africa continues to worsen. Drought is causing significant levels of food insecurity. Over 51 million people in the region are estimated to be facing severe food insecurity, and of particular concern is the recent data from the Bay region in Somalia projecting that famine is likely to occur this year. The UK is a major humanitarian donor to the east Africa region and UK-funded activities are making a difference and saving lives. In the financial year 2022-23, the UK intends to provide approximately £156 million in humanitarian aid across east Africa. Of this amount, nearly 50% has already been allocated to help those affected by this devastating crisis.
My Lords, a combination of conflict, climate change, increasing world food prices and a fifth year of drought means that we have an absolute humanitarian crisis hitting this part of the world. In Somalia alone, the UN is estimating that about half a million children are likely to die shortly. We have slashed our aid budgets to that part of the world. We need emergency funding as well as long-term funding. What can we do in addition to what the Minister has said in working with our international partners to get emergency aid into those areas which are dreadfully affected?
My Lords, it is absolutely right to say that the UK reduced the proportion of its GNI spending on overseas aid from 0.7% to 0.5%, but we are committed to returning to 0.7%. Like many noble Lords, I hope that happens as soon as possible, but in the meantime it is worth reiterating—to remind the House—that we remain one of the world’s most generous donors, particularly when it comes to humanitarian assistance, and the proportion of our ODA which goes toward the very poorest people in the world is higher than that of any of the other G7 donor countries, I believe. It is an important point that if you tot up all the international aid provided year on year, which comes to around $160 billion a year, that is not a patch on the actual needs, so we will not solve these problems through ODA alone. That is why our emphasis in the UK on facilitating easier trade with poorer countries and bringing investment to them is so important to leverage the support we can give.
My Lords, further to the excellent question from the right reverend Prelate, does the Minister agree that there are now indications that some of the humanitarian aid is being intercepted and interrupted by that vile terrorist organisation, al-Shabaab? What assessment has he made of this and what measures can be taken to try to stop it?
My noble friend makes a hugely important point. The challenge of delivering humanitarian assistance to countries where there are so many people in need but where the authorities are not always moving in lockstep with us makes things very much more difficult. In Somalia, it is now estimated that nearly 8 million people—approximately half of the country’s population—currently need humanitarian assistance. We will continue to focus as much of our support as possible in that region and the wider region of the Horn of Africa, while using whatever leverage we have to deliver political stability in Somalia.
My Lords, during the 10 minutes of this Question, 12 people will die of severe hunger and malnutrition in the Horn of Africa. I declare that I was in the wider region over the recess. The scale of the Government’s cuts is adding to the problem. The UK committed £861 million in 2017 to support a less severe famine, and there is now less than a third of that from UK support. Hospitals that serve children in Somalia are closing which the UK was directly funding. At the very least, can the Minister intervene to ensure that hospitals that serve children are not being closed as a result of UK cuts?
My Lords, the UK-supported humanitarian activities are saving lives and having immeasurable impacts. In the year 2021-22, we provided a total of £230 million in humanitarian assistance to the east Africa region, to which the noble Lord referred. In the current financial year, the UK intends to provide £156 million in addition to that. The impact of our work can be seen and measured but, in the light of the undoubted ODA pressures that we face, we are doing everything we can to prioritise spending where it is most needed, tackling the most acute humanitarian crises.
My Lords, the Horn of Africa is now entering an unprecedented fifth failed rainy season, which is having devastating consequences for the local population. Can the Minister outline when the Government will reinstate the overseas aid budget to 0.7% of GNI? Will it be this year, next year or in 2024?
My Lords, I would love to be able to answer that question, but I cannot. The Treasury set a test, with which the House is familiar, and it will be the Treasury that decides when we have met that test. My hope, like that of everyone here, is that we pass that test sooner rather than later and that we resume our 0.7% commitment.
My Lords, the UK aid budget is under additional pressure after the cut from 0.7%, as the Government may be planning to charge an estimated £3 billion of domestic refugee costs to ODA, which would amount to about 25% of what we would normally spend overseas. I am sure we are all in favour of supporting Ukrainian refugees in this country, but I hope that this will not be done at the expense of children and their families who are in so much need in the Horn of Africa. Can my noble friend confirm the domestic refugee cost for this year and tell me how it will be funded?
My Lords, my noble friend is right. The Government’s response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the wider ODA pressures, including the ODA-eligible expenditure incurred through the Afghan resettlement programme and the UK support to people fleeing Ukraine, has put unexpected and significant pressure on the ODA budget. The Foreign Office and the Treasury are in discussion as to how much of that funding should be categorised as ODA and how much should not. Of course, the hope has to be that there is as little impact as possible on the broader ODA budget, and that is certainly the Foreign Office’s position.
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate referred to the underlying causes. One persistent underlying cause has been conflict. The situation in Tigray is of particular concern, especially as it has involved awful crimes against humanity. What steps is the Minister’s department taking to work with our allies to ensure that we can bring peace to this region, so that all the development support measures can have effect?
My Lords, the situation in Ethiopia is particularly alarming. Ethiopia was the country that, for many people, opened our eyes to some of the problems of acute famine in the world. It was the beginning of a whole bunch of UN and philanthropic programmes designed to tackle acute famine—both the immediate effects and prevention. Ethiopia is now relapsing to those days. Millions of people in Ethiopia face the real prospect of famine returning. That is exacerbated massively by the conflict to which the noble Lord refers. This is a priority for us. It is an issue raised at every opportunity by the Minister for Africa. I do not want to exaggerate the potential power we have as a country to bring such conflict to an end, but we are using whatever levers we have, and on a routine basis.
My Lords, it is clear that climate change is making these events more frequent and more intense, so do the Government support the Climate Vulnerable Forum’s call for COP 27 to commission an IPCC special report specifically focused on loss and damage? If the answer is no, perhaps the Minister can say why such a report would be undesirable.
My Lords, I have spoken regularly to representatives of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, and they make a very strong argument on loss and damage. They would probably agree that it is because of our presidency of COP 26 that loss and damage now has a chapter within the annual COPs where that can be discussed. It will be for the donor countries at COP 27 to determine how far they want to go, but the UK’s position is that the arguments are very strong, we will maintain our commitment to £11.6 billion for international climate finance, and are doing everything we can to encourage other countries to step up as well.
Although I agree with the Minister that the bolstering of humanitarian aid is critical and essential, does he accept that the mantra of poverty alleviation should be to achieve more with less? With that innovation, much more can be done to assist peoples around the world. How might that be achieved, and might not the private sector play a critical part in that process?
The noble Viscount is absolutely right. There is no way these problems can be solved through ODA or other aid alone; it is just not possible. That is why the UK has taken an innovative approach to trade, for example. I believe that 65 poorer countries now enjoy simpler, cleaner trade access to the UK than they had before. In many respects, in many of those countries, that is worth more than they could ever expect to receive in aid. That is just one example of what the UK is trying to do to leverage our position to deliver more than just 0.5% or, I hope soon, 0.7%.
UN Sustainable Development Goals
My Lords, we remain committed to achieving the sustainable development goals by 2030, including the eradication of extreme poverty. For the first time in years the number of people living in extreme poverty is rising. To get the sustainable development goals back on track we need to counter malign activity, deliver lasting growth, alleviate suffering and tackle the causes of the crises. The UK’s strategy for international development outlines how we will focus our development efforts to deliver this ambition.
I welcome the sentiment behind that Answer. The Minister will recall that David Cameron was chair of the UN commission that established the sustainable development goals. Yet last month the replenishment conference of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria raised $14.25 billion, but the UK, hitherto a major donor, contributed absolutely nothing. Even the Democratic Republic of the Congo contributed $6 million. UK aid has been savagely cut, and now frozen, so development agencies do not even know what their future is, after an unexplained £3 billion overspend. How on earth can the UK maintain that it has a credible commitment to the UN objectives of ending absolute poverty by 2030 and leaving no one behind? Without the restoration of our aid budget, there is no credibility in the Government’s statements.
I have already made comments about the issue of 0.5% and 0.7%. I will not repeat them, other than to say that, like everyone in this House and the other place, we look forward to being able to return to 0.7% very soon. On the specific point that the noble Lord made about the Global Fund, it is true that we have not yet committed to a number, but that is not the same as saying that we are delivering nothing to the Global Fund. We are committed to the Global Fund. I cannot announce the financial commitment that that represents, but it is not true to say that we are withdrawing our support; far from it: we will be making a substantial commitment in due course.
My Lords, disease causes poverty and poverty causes disease in a vicious circle. Does the noble Lord agree that health underpins all development: social, educational and economic? Does he further agree that, within ODA and our ODA commitment, our support for health should be prioritised?
The noble Lord is obviously right. Health remains one of the top four priorities as set out in the integrated review and the international development strategy, neither of which has changed or been forced to be changed as a consequence of recent activities, not least Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Health remains a top priority and will continue to do so.
My Lords, when the UK Government signed up to the sustainable development goals and the eradication of absolute poverty by 2030 they also made that commitment for the UK itself. Will the Minister outline the strategy for the UK eradicating absolute poverty here? If that strategy does not exist, will the Government bring forward a strategy to do so?
The noble Baroness makes an important point. I am afraid this is far beyond my brief, given that my focus is on international poverty alleviation, environment and climate change, but I will ensure that her question is noted and that there is a response.
My Lords, one thing about the SDGs is that they are not about ODA; they are about all countries making a commitment to address these vital goals for the future. One of the goals that will impact on poverty is goal 13 on climate change and the action that we need to take, not only domestically—I am not going to talk outside his brief. What are the Government doing to ensure that climate change and SDG 13 are a major priority for the international community? Will the Minister commit to making steps to ensure that the UN adopts climate as the fourth pillar so that we can actually see the world address this issue to safeguard our future?
My Lords, it is widely acknowledged that COP 26, of which we were president, was a diplomatic triumph. We did not achieve everything that we wanted to achieve, but by the time we completed the conference—we remain president until we hand over to Egypt—90% of the global economy was signed up to net-zero commitments; it was 30% when we took on that role. As to broadening the agenda at the climate conference beyond merely counting carbon and looking at the impact on the natural world—forests, mangroves and so on—I think it is recognised that COP 26 was the turning point that we needed. We remain president of COP and continue to maintain and nurture the diplomatic capabilities that we built up for COP 26. All our climate environment attachés are still working hard to ensure that, as we hand the baton to Egypt, we hand over something that can be properly built on by the new president. We are also using the same network to advance global ambition in relation to the biodiversity COP, which is happening in Montreal at the end of the year and is no less important than the climate COP.
My Lords, the latest Goalkeepers report from the Gates Foundation finds that we need to speed up the pace of our progress by five times if we are to stand any chance of meeting the goals. Mindful of the noble Lord’s earlier answers, does he agree with the report’s emphasis on providing to sub-Saharan Africa and other low-income regions the necessary support and investment in agricultural R&D to provide for innovative inventions such as drought-resistant maize and short-duration rice?
That is an extremely important point. It is a core part of the work we are doing, particularly in the Horn of Africa, which we discussed in the previous Question. I will not repeat all the numbers because the House will have heard them, but the right reverend Prelate makes an important point. Total annual global aid is around $170 billion, but it is estimated that the funding gap, if we are to achieve the sustainable development goals, is nearer $3.7 trillion. Even if we were all to double our aid commitments globally it would still not touch the sides. The answer therefore has to be to use other tools that Governments have access to. I mentioned trade earlier. The UK, as the fifth- or sixth-biggest economy in the world and a big, attractive market for those poorer countries, is committed to making itself more available and more accessible to those countries in a way that perhaps we should have done in the past.
My Lords, many of the people facing extreme poverty live in certain countries in Africa and many of those countries are run by corrupt neo-dictatorships, particularly Zimbabwe at the moment. What more can His Majesty’s Government do to expose the corruption in these countries, which is costing the lives of so many ordinary African people?
The noble Baroness is right. Unfortunately, it is not just a handful of countries; a lot of countries could fit the description that she put forward. From the perspective of our international development assistance, we are very careful not to provide funding directly to Governments because we know that, where we do, a lot of that money ends up fuelling corruption and rarely reaches the projects on the ground. Our job is to try to find examples of projects that we can support outside national Governments where we can attempt to enable those communities where we are investing to prosper in a way that does not foster corruption in those countries.
My Lords, it is not good enough for the Minister to say that he hopes to return to 0.7%. The Government set fiscal tests that would be determined by the OBR. The OBR said in its spring report that those tests had been met for next year and the Government, in their spending review, had set an unallocated £4 billion a year. It would be unacceptable if, as a result of the mini-Budget, this unallocated fund was now raided. Would the Minister not agree that tax cuts for the richest at home meaning raiding the budget for the poorest abroad is morally unacceptable?
My Lords, I echo the comment made by the noble Baroness opposite. I spent five years on the African, Caribbean and Pacific-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly when I was an MEP and we regularly visited many countries in Africa. What was so obvious so often was that the aid provided never reached the people it was meant for. Too many Governments renege on their responsibilities and continue to be too reliant on overseas aid. As was said, the corruption was rife. Does my noble friend agree that these Governments need to be brought to account if we are to achieve the improvements needed to improve the lives of the people there?
I agree very strongly, but without exaggerating the ability the UK has to do that. What we can do is be sure that the money we provide from UK taxpayers via our overseas development assistance does not fuel that kind of corruption. It is also worth looking for opportunities in countries where governance is less of a problem to use other mechanisms to deliver development. Gabon, for example, a country I recently visited, is not asking the UK for ODA. It is not asking any country for aid; what it wants is to be able to trade in a more equal and fair manner, and to access our markets in a way that it has not been able to in the past. That would be worth far more, by its calculations—I think it is probably right—than anything we could ever offer through aid.
Skills for Care Report
To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they plan to take in response to the report by Skills for Care The state of the adult social care sector and workforce in England 2022, published on 11 October, which shows that there are 165,000 vacancies in the social care workforce and that this workforce has shrunk for the first time in 10 years.
My Lords, we are investing in adult social care. We have made £500 million available to support discharge from hospital into the community and bolster the workforce this winter; that is on top of record funding to support our 10-year plan as set out in the People at the Heart of Care White Paper. We are backing recruitment at home and abroad with a £15 million international recruitment fund and a new domestic campaign, which we will launch shortly.
I thank the Minister. I expected him to mention the £500 million workforce fund, of course, but he will know that it has been described as a drop in the ocean and that councils are calling for far more to be pumped into better pay and recruitment in the social care workforce. I do not want to be disrespectful to the new Minister, who I know has a lot on his plate, but I wonder whether he and the Government really understand the scale of the crisis in social care. Some 50,000 people left an already inadequate workforce last year; that is not surprising when they can get better pay and conditions in Tesco, and when one in five care workers is in poverty despite being in full-time work.
The previous Prime Minister told us that he would fix social care. The current Prime Minister has withdrawn the levy that would eventually have provided extra funds, with no indication of how those funds will be replaced. Is the Minister aware that, meanwhile, thousands of older and disabled people, both in their own homes and in care homes, are being neglected and deprived of services in a way that no decent society should tolerate? Will he acknowledge both the depth of the crisis and the fact that we need a step change in the way we value social care and the dedicated people who provide it?
First, let me say that we value social care. As the noble Baroness will be aware, the £500 million was in addition to a £5.4 billion increase over three years. Again, that underlines the importance that we see behind adult social care and how it is a crucial part of our whole plan, as outlined in ABCD, not only to give the right conditions and dignity for the elderly people whom the noble Baroness mentions but as a vital way of releasing space in our hospitals—this drives right through the system—to create space both in A&E and through the rest of the care system. It is an area of vital interest and something that I can assure noble Lords has a lot of focus from the department.
My Lords, I strongly welcome the Government’s action to put care workers on the shortage occupation list this year, which is important for unlocking immediate supply. However, might I ask the Minister to note two key points from Skills for Care’s report, which are important for further action for sustainable care workers? The first is that, although the retention rate has remained more or less stable since last year, the starter rate has fallen from 37.3% to 30.8%. Can I suggest that the Minister looks at more incentives for starters? The second point is that, on average, employers with favourable work metrics such as high levels of learning and development have better CQC ratings. Given the UQ coming up later, that is another critical area to look at for improvement.
My Lords, my noble friend is correct that this is also a labour supply issue. Part of the benefit of living in an economy with full employment is, of course, that there is little unemployment. Part of the downside of that is the competition for jobs. My noble friend rightly points out the need to recruit more in this sector; that is why I am pleased that she mentioned the work we are doing to add this sector to the essential workers list so that we can recruit people from overseas and get essential workers in.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his post. I look forward to working with him. In that spirit, I ask him this: where might I find the data relating to the long-term planning for the NHS and social care workforce? If such data does not exist, will he agree that such planning data should be made available as a matter of urgency?
My Lords, my understanding is that there is a 10-year plan as part of a workforce plan, which rightly looks at the issues raised by the noble Lord. As I mentioned in my answer to the previous question, the workforce is key to this sector. We employ 1.5 million people; I think that they account for about 5% of our whole workforce. So making sure that this is an area that people want to come and work in, that people enjoy and that people see as a vocation is vital and will be part of the plan. I will look up the data requested and reply in writing.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the Minister to his place. I congratulate him on the tone of his responses so far. I agree with him that the workforce is key. Another feature of the report is that a quarter of the adult social care workforce are on zero-hours contracts and get paid £1 an hour less than healthcare assistants on average. Given the projection in the report that, if we are to keep up with our ageing population, we will need the best part of 500,000 more of these workers by 2035, we must address their low pay, must we not?
The noble Baroness is correct that a number of people are on zero-hours contracts. As I am sure she is aware, their employment is through a number of agencies and local authorities, but it is an issue in a number of places and goes to the wider conversation about how we make this sector an attractive place to work. Earlier, my colleague mentioned the Skills for Care working group, which found that a significant proportion of all employers—around 20%—have a turnover rate of only around 10% versus the 29% average. So, clearly there are areas where certain employers do a fantastic job of not only recruiting but retaining, and making the sector an attractive place to work. I believe that the whole emphasis of the conversation we are having now is exactly about how to make this sector an attractive place to work because, as we all know, it is a vital part of our care and health system.
My Lords, the Minister referred to the £500 million investment in social care but this is only his fourth day in the job. Many people in your Lordships’ House know that that money is for winter pressures and was omitted from the budget for the NHS and social care at the beginning of the year. Without it, social care would be in even deeper trouble than it is now. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, made an extremely important point about zero-hours contracts. The problem of staff working in domiciliary care is that there is not enough money even to allow them to be paid for travelling between clients. There is a real shortage of money. This is a group of dedicated workers who are being treated very badly. Will the Minister undertake to look at this particular problem?
Any industry with the sort of turnover rate that was mentioned earlier demonstrates that there is a need to look further into it, so I absolutely accept the premise of the question and, as I mentioned before, the importance of this area. As I have said before, this is also about looking at areas of best practice because we can always look to spend more money but we know that there are limitations on the public purse. I would not be doing my job if I did not try to see where we can learn from good employers, employ those practices and see whether we can spread them wider so that everyone has the same level.
The other point that I made previously was about opening this up. We know that our healthcare system is founded on good workers from all around the world. They can be a bedrock. I am delighted that we are looking into that area now. We are starting to see good numbers of people coming in from abroad. It is an excellent level of entry into our country. There are a number of things we can do to improve the situation but I completely agree with the noble Baroness on the importance of tackling it.
My Lords, the Health Foundation has described the Skills for Care report as yet another signal of a social care system on its knees, with care providers struggling to compete with other employers and, in many cases, unable even to pay the national minimum wage to essential care staff. As we have heard, the figures are that one in five residential care workers in the UK was living in poverty, and that was before the cost of living crisis, compared with one in eight of all workers, which is a shocking figure in itself. When will the Government commit specifically to addressing the appalling low pay and poor working conditions throughout the social care sector?
My understanding is that the pay of carers is always at least the national living wage. I will look into that, but that is my understanding. That is not to say that where they deserve, and should be paid, more that this should not be the case, but the national living wage is set, as the noble Baroness will be aware, exactly as it says: a national living wage. In terms of the cost of living pressures, the energy price cap is of course about focusing on those people who need it most, so there are a number of measures that we are putting in place to ensure that this happens. Most of all, it is about ensuring that this is a good, safe and enjoyable vocation for people.
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 12 October.
“The Chancellor of the Exchequer is in Washington, having meetings with the IMF. They are routine meetings that have been long scheduled, and are certainly not a cause for exuberance or overexcitement from the Opposition.
As we know, the world has faced surging energy prices since Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. We have seen very high inflation across the western world, and we have seen a cycle of increasing interest rates across western economies as well—across many western economies. But let me reassure the House that the fundamentals of the United Kingdom’s economy remain resilient. Unemployment, at 3.5%, is the lowest it has been in my lifetime—and for the record, I was born in 1976. Economic growth last year, the calendar year 2021, was the highest of any G7 country—7.5%. Just yesterday the IMF forecast that economic growth, GDP growth, this current year in the UK would be at 3.6%—once again, for the second consecutive year, the highest of any G7 country, so our economy is in resilient condition.
But I know that many families are worried about the challenges we face, and that is why, just a few weeks ago—two or three weeks ago—we introduced the energy price guarantee. Families were genuinely fearful that they might face this winter energy bills of £3,000, £4,000, £5,000, £6,000 or even £7,000 per year, but that energy price guarantee will ensure that the average household sees energy prices no higher than £2,500 on average—not for six months, like the Labour plan, but for two years.
We also introduced a growth plan to get our economy growing, to see wages sustainably rising, to see good jobs created and to create a sustainable tax base to fund our public services. This Government have a growth plan; the Opposition have no plan.
We intend to do this in a way that is fiscally responsible, and that is why, on 31 October, in less than three weeks’ time, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will set out the medium-term fiscal plan, explaining to the House exactly how he will do that, and how we will continue the UK’s track record of having the highest growth in the G7, not just last year but this year as well.”
My Lords, it is hard to believe that so much damage has been caused in just 20 days. Rachel Reeves was right to refer to the mini-Budget, with its unfunded tax cuts, excessive borrowing and undermining of financial institutions as a bonfire. The Conservative Party have set it and our economy ablaze, with ordinary working people paying the price. Ultimately, this can be resolved only if the Government accept their role in creating this crisis, put the national interest before their pride and reverse the mini-Budget.
Overnight media reports suggest that the Prime Minister’s most senior advisers now agree with that assessment. When can we expect the Chancellor to complete the U-turn?
The noble Lord will not expect me to agree with much, or any, of what he says, because it was right that the Government took a very rapid step to support those in the lowest socioeconomic groups, particularly on the energy costs. In terms of the tax reductions, this is part of the plan, in line with the growth plan that will be announced on 31 October, which will kickstart the economy. It is absolutely right that this happens, given that growth has been lagging, having been on average about 2.5% between 1949 and 2007, just before the financial crash. Therefore, it is right that we should look to make some changes. We believe that these are the right changes and that they will benefit all in the long run.
My Lords, I have a very specific question. Given the turbulence in the financial markets, can the Minister, on the record, give an assurance to pensioners and future pensioners in defined benefit pension schemes that their pensions are safe, and that the Government will act if necessary to keep them safe?
There are two points to raise on this front. The pensions are confirmed. The decisions being taken by the Bank of England are enough to respond to the market turbulence by undertaking certain measures to restore ordinary market conditions. This will feed through to the pension funds, which are already adjusting their portfolios to balance between collateral-linked funds and cash-readiness.
My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the Bank of England itself has played a role in what has been happening in the markets? Are there discussions between the Treasury and the independent Bank of England to urge it to extend, if necessary, the emergency measures that it has brought in, which are meant to expire tomorrow, to give the Chancellor an opportunity to restore confidence in the fiscal policy by 31 October with his Financial Statement and Budget Report? If this does not happen, the lack of action by the Bank of England that led to the currency turmoil the day before the mini-Budget, coupled with the loss of confidence in the Bank of England’s policy because it was about to unload £80 billion-worth of gilts in the market, will continue to unsettle the markets. The Bank of England needs to take some responsibility here.
The Treasury is working with the Bank of England to monitor the implementation of the operations that the Bank has decided to undertake and the potential risks that it may pose, as well as continuing to monitor wider market conditions. It is thought that the announcements on Wednesday 28 September and the very recent ones on Monday 10 October and Tuesday 11 October will allow enough to be done. As I say, this is to settle the markets and to ensure that there is an orderly exit, as planned, from this Friday.
My Lords, I make no apology for continuing the points raised by the noble Baronesses from different sides of the House. Yesterday, there was a headline in the Times, “Threat to pension funds”. Today, a headline in the Daily Express is “Doom loop Friday—will BoE governor Andrew Bailey let financial system collapse tomorrow?”. So far this has been a crisis of liquidity. However, earlier in the week, the Bank of England told us that
“self-reinforcing ‘firesale’ dynamics pose a material risk to UK financial stability.”
This is what the Daily Express refers to as the “doom loop”, and the point about it is that you do not know how deep it will go. Therefore, it raises the issue of a threat to solvency and hence to members’ benefits. The problem is that I doubt the ability of the Bank of England, with its mixed messaging, the Pensions Regulator and the PPF, to sort this out. Is it not the Government’s responsibility and a reversal of their mini-Budget the only way to solve it?
I probably answered the noble Lord’s question earlier by stating, as an observation, what the Bank has done. I mentioned the announcements made on those three dates. The Bank has also announced that it will stand ready to increase the size of its daily auctions to ensure that there is sufficient capacity for gilt purchases ahead of this Friday. It continues to work with the liability-driven investment funds and pension funds as they continue to build their financial resilience ahead of the end of the Bank’s intervention. This is very much as an observation about behavioural change and there are signs that this is working.
My Lords, the Minister has many times referred to growth. I am sure that the Government recognise that for that growth to come, private sector companies must have the confidence to invest in their businesses and deliver that growth. For that investment to come, it requires a stable economic situation. Would the Minister describe the current economy and economic situation as stable?
The detailed plans will be announced on 31 October so, picking up on what the noble Lord has said, there are five key areas where the detail is needed on what we are planning to do on growth. Obviously, just to pick up from the noble Lord’s experience, increasing private sector investment is critical, as are getting more people into work with the right skills, getting the housing market moving, improving infrastructure and accelerating delivery of major priority infrastructure projects. I could go on. This is what we are about. It is all to do with getting growth going and, as the Prime Minister has said, expanding the pie.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on twice playing a very straight bat on a very sticky wicket this morning. Will he convey to the Chancellor that it is really important that, on 31 October, we have announcements that stabilise things and give people proper encouragement and confidence? The present chaos cannot be allowed to continue.
I agree with my noble friend. We have already said that the announcement of the medium-term fiscal plan on 31 October will be accompanied by the independent OBR assessment of the economic and fiscal outlook. Much work is going on. My noble friend need not be reminded that this was originally going to be on 23 November; it has been deliberately brought forward to 31 October to provide further stability about what we are looking to do.
My Lords, the Government assured us that co-ordinated international action would undermine Russia’s economy and protect ours. Why then is today’s rouble stronger than in any almost any recent period? On 15 April, at the beginning of the immediate crisis, there were 105 roubles to the pound; today there are 70 to the pound. Currencies do not normally strengthen when economies are under pressure or under attack. What is the explanation?
I wish I could give the noble Lord a full explanation for that. I have no information on the Russian rouble in my file. I just take this opportunity to say, as I think I said earlier, that there is strong resilience in the UK economy. The fundamentals of the economy remain sound in this country. I mentioned that unemployment is close to its lowest level for 50 years. I just finish by saying that the latest forecast for UK growth, over 2021, 2022 and 2023, is 11.7%.
Edenfield Centre: Treatment of Patients
Commons Urgent Question
My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend in the other place.
“I am grateful to my honourable friend for this important question. Like him, I have been horrified by the treatment of vulnerable people at the Edenfield Centre, which has been brought to light by undercover reporting from the BBC. There is no doubt that these incidents are completely unacceptable. My ministerial colleague, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, has met with the Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, and a number of steps are being taken.
As a matter of first priority, my department is working with the trust to make sure all the affected patients are safe, and a multidisciplinary team has completed clinical reviews of all patients. Secondly, a significant number of staff have been suspended pending further investigation. Thirdly, the trust has agreed there will be an independent investigation into the services provided at the Edenfield Centre. Fourthly, Greater Manchester Police is investigating the material presented by BBC ‘Panorama’. For this reason, I will not be commenting on the specifics of the case. The trust will continue to work closely and collaborate with local and national partners including NHS England, the Care Quality Commission, the police and, of course, my department.
These are important first steps, but they are by no means the last. There are serious questions to be answered, especially in light of other recent scandals. I want to put on the record my thanks to the whistleblowers, the BBC and, above all, those patients and families who have been so grievously affected. Anyone receiving mental health treatment is entitled to dignity and respect. On that principle, there can be no compromise, and this Government will work with whoever it takes to do right by those affected.”
My Lords, patients and their families rightly expect in-patient settings to be safe places. The bullying, abuse and clinical errors at the Edenfield Centre are deeply disturbing. It should not have taken an undercover investigation to expose this cruelty. Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House what actions have been and will be taken to ensure that this abuse and these shortcomings are not happening in other settings? What are the Government doing to tackle the chronic staff shortages that exacerbate these situations and to recruit more staff across mental health services, including those focused on prevention?
My Lords, I completely agree with the question in making sure that this does not happen or is not happening elsewhere. We have been in touch with the CQC, as one would expect, which has made significant changes to protect people in specialist services, people with learning difficulties and autistic people in mental health patient settings. These include making it mandatory for all staff to undertake specialist training before inspecting these settings and introducing a new single assessment framework, which would allow more frequent inspections of the worst-performing providers. The CQC is doing a number of things around that framework, including six key evidence categories, which set out the type of evidence that will be collected. These categories are: people’s experiences; feedback from staff and leaders; observation of care; feedback from partners; processes; and outcome of care. The new assessment means that more targeted time can be spent on site, taking longer to talk to people using services and making every minute count.
Those are some of the standing replies. On a personal level, there clearly need to be questions about how the CQC can go in on an ad hoc basis because, when an investigation or inspection has been announced, a place has an opportunity to put things right. One area of my interest—and I do not claim to be an expert on this—is how we can pick up those ad hoc cases quickly. Clearly, we should not be expecting people such as “Panorama” to be doing that; we want to pick those up ourselves.
My Lords, despite the Minister just commenting on the way it is possible for some organisations to game-play inspections, it is noticeable that the CQC inspection of 2019, published in 2020, was “Good”, despite the finding that,
“In acute wards … records did not show that supervision of staff in the service was effective”,
which was a “breach of regulation”. This is really concerning.
Reform of the Mental Health Act is long overdue. It was created over 40 years ago, and many noble Lords have been fighting for that to happen. It was good to hear in the Queen’s Speech that there will be a draft mental health Bill, but there are real concerns that it is about to be shelved. My honourable friend Munira Wilson MP asked the Minister responding to this Urgent Question whether it was going to come forward. She did not get a straight answer. I ask the Minister whether Parliament, and this House in particular, will see the mental health Bill this Session.
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, I am aware that the White Paper is in draft, but I have not seen its latest status. I know it will address some of the issues that we all agree are not to our satisfaction. At the moment, I can undertake only to understand the position of the White Paper and come back to her, if I may.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the Minister on his position. It is a baptism of fire, but I know he is up to the role. Would it be better if we engaged with the CQC better, so that these issues did not arise, rather than leaving it to undercover reporters? Thinking outside the box a little, what about body cameras? The police have them, after all, and they can protect not only workers but those the carers are looking after.
My noble friend is correct that these are the sorts of things that we need to think about in this situation. It is a complex situation because, of course, as well as the advantages of body cameras being able to pick up things like this, these are first and foremost patients in need of care and there are all sorts of privacy issues to take into account in such a situation. I think that what this shows is that more intensive dialogue and thought on this whole area is required. I do not believe that there is an easy solution such as body cameras; that might be one approach, but first and foremost I want to feel that these are places where patients feel that their privacy is respected.
What I would violently agree on is the need for further conversations with the CQC, so that it is aware of the need to do a review on this. We need to be looking at exactly these types of things to see if a more intrusive type of system is what is required to stop these sorts of things happening again.
My Lords, I declare my interest, which is in the register, as a vice-president of the National Autistic Society. I welcome my noble friend, and I hope that he and I will have an opportunity in the very near future to discuss autism and learning disability. He mentioned more recent cases. I quite take his point, but these are not just recent cases. These have gone back over decades. I have listened, in both Houses, to Minister after Minister say that there is going to be change, and it does not come. In the vast majority of cases, it is totally inappropriate—in fact, I think it is criminal—for people with autistic spectrum disorders and learning disabilities to be placed in mental health institutions. It is not the place for them. There are proven records, over and over again, that it is not the right course of treatment, any more than you would think of putting someone with a coronary heart condition into such a place. So I say to my noble friend that this needs urgent attention from the Government.
I agree with the points that my noble friend makes. I have some personal experience of people with learning difficulties, and I completely agree that the right setting for them should actually be in the community. I know that is the direction of travel of this Government, and I know that there is an objective to make sure that that is the major place where they are cared for. I have some further details on that, which I would be happy to share, and to meet with my noble friend.
My Lords, I have been in the Minister’s place, answering on similar scandals, and I think that the whole House shares the dismay of my noble friend that we are in this place once again. I hope that the Minister will take back the condemnation of this House that such a thing should happen in this country. We want to say that it will never happen again, but I think that we feel as though we will be back here once more.
If I could raise one single point, it is that the CQC, the police, the Government and all those involved in the investigations that go forward should take particular care with the patients and families as they go forward, to have the utmost respect and transparency in the way in which they communicate. Too often in these cases, information is leaked to the media or there are failures in communication, which leads to even more distress over and above what has already happened. Please can that not happen in this case, and can those who have already been so grievously affected be protected going forward?
I am grateful for my noble friend’s comments. She is absolutely correct that, although we are grateful to the likes of the BBC for highlighting these issues—and I speak here as a former director of ITV—and for the undercover work they do, I believe that there is a responsibility there as well, when they have found these sorts of cases, to allow the patients and the people affected some sort of early indication, because the impact on them is central to all of this. I do not know what the BBC did in terms of an early warning on this, to make sure that there were no surprises. I think it is a very good point. We need to make sure that, although independent journalists are correctly doing their job and highlighting important issues, for which we are grateful, we first and foremost need to make sure that when this happens, patients and their family are made aware first and that their concerns are foremost in any action that is taken.
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I begin by welcoming the Minister to his new post. I know from experience that DCMS is an exciting department in which to be involved, although one that is sadly undervalued by Governments of all persuasions. I refer to my interest as the chairman of Peers for Gambling Reform, an organisation whose 150 members—Peers from all sides of this House—have been pressing for the implementation of the recommendations from your Lordships’ Select Committee on gambling, on which I had the opportunity to serve. Sadly, much time has passed since the publication of its report and since the Government’s own consultation on gambling legislation was concluded. A much-anticipated White Paper was approved twice by the previous Cabinet, yet has still not seen the light of day. With at least one gambling-related suicide every single day, we simply cannot wait any longer. Could the Minister tell us when the White Paper will be published, and will he agree to meet with members of PGR as soon as possible?
Noble Lords may wonder why I have begun with reference to gambling reform when this debate is actually about loot boxes. I believe there is a very clear link and, as I will argue, that loot boxes should be treated as gambling and regulated accordingly, with a change to the current legal definition of gambling. Your Lordships’ committee recommended this, as did the House of Commons DCMS Committee. The Conservative manifesto for the 2019 election also made a link between gambling and loot boxes. It made a commitment to undertake a review of the Gambling Act 2005,
“with a particular focus on tackling issues around loot boxes”.
While we await the gambling White Paper, we at least now have the response to the separate consultation on loot boxes. I was, frankly, shocked by its contents. It said that the evidence submitted to the consultation showed a link between loot boxes and gambling harms and to wider mental health and financial harms. But it went on to say that the Government do not intend to amend gambling regulation or to introduce any other statutory consumer protections to cover loot boxes. Frankly, that makes no sense. How can a Government that have stressed that they would take an evidence-based approach accept there is a link between loot boxes and harm and yet not legislate to protect people from this harm?
A report commissioned last year by GambleAware stated that links between loot box purchasing and problem gambling
“have been robustly verified in around a dozen studies”,
and argued that loot boxes were “psychologically akin to gambling”. The Select Committee heard similarly overwhelming evidence. Dr David Zendle, of the University of York, for example, has done extensive research in this field. His findings, presented to the committee, found that in every one of his studies spending money on loot boxes is linked to problem gambling, and that the more money individuals spend on loot boxes, the more severe their problem gambling. He told the committee that the link between problem gambling and loot boxes is extraordinarily robust. We also heard that research around the world, from Canada to Finland, has replicated those findings.
Perhaps the most worrying findings were in relation to young people. In the UK, we currently have around 60,000 young people aged 11 to 16 who are deemed to be gambling addicts, with a further 85,000 deemed to be at risk of becoming so. Rates of harmful gambling among 17 to 20 year-olds are increasing threefold. We should be particularly concerned that the research by Dr Zendle and others shows that the observed links between loot box spending and problem gambling were much stronger in adolescents than in adults. According to some research, young people who spend money on loot boxes are more than 10 times as likely to be problem gamblers than those who do not.
Three years ago, the Children’s Commissioner’s report, Gaming the System, also expressed concern about the impact of loot boxes on young people and, like the Select Committees in both Houses, recommended the regulation of loot boxes as gambling. More recently, GambleAware pointed out that, without action, loot boxes—used by 40% of children who play video games—will continue to normalise gambling-like activities with all the well-established consequences.
I have been careful to refer to a link between loot boxes and problem gambling rather than a causal relationship between them. The more money an individual spends on loot boxes, the more likely they are to suffer gambling harm, but I acknowledge that establishing a causative relationship is much harder. However, this effect shows very clearly that one of two things is happening: in one situation, loot boxes are causing gambling problems; in the other, the companies that sell loot boxes are profiting inordinately from children and vulnerable individuals who suffer gambling harms. Such individuals commonly spend thousands of pounds on loot boxes. Either outcome is a cause for concern. So I do not believe that the absence of definitive proof of a causative link justifies the Government’s response, which is, in essence, to do nothing except encourage further research and hope that the industry will do something.
Of course I welcome further research, so can the Minister provide an update on the video games research framework? I am a fan of the UK’s games industry. It contributes significantly to the success of our creative industries, and with developments in virtual and augmented reality will be even more important. It is a responsible industry but, with significant earnings to be made from loot boxes, asking it to take significant steps to reduce their well-documented harms is asking too much of it.
Waiting for enhanced industry-led protections was exactly the same argument that allowed the worst practices of the gambling industry to go unchecked for many years. We were told that the Government did not need to regulate fixed-odds betting terminals because the industry would self-regulate. It did not. We were told that there was no need to bring in a statutory levy to fund research, education and treatment because the industry would provide sufficient through the voluntary levy. It has not. We were told that the industry would cut down on the advertising that is constantly marketed to young people and recovering gamblers. Instead it introduced, for football, a measly whistle-to-whistle ban that does not even begin to deal with advertising hoardings, front-of-shirt sponsorship or programme ads. There has been no let-up in non-football-linked TV ads, nor the constant bombardment of online marketing.
To be told once again that we can once trust the industry to self-regulate a product that directly funds those companies is surely not the right approach to take. A business model that relies on the fiscal success of harmful products must be regulated by the Government, not by the companies themselves. If the Government will not change, can the Minister at least provide details on progress made by the technical working group set up to develop those industry-led solutions?
Even the type of industry measures that the Government are suggesting seem likely to have little effect—for example, enhanced parental controls. As one commentator pointed out, that is like allowing children to gamble in a betting shop as long as a parent is present. More worryingly, as GambleAware-commissioned research points out, advocating enhanced parental controls as a key part of the solution shows how little the Government appreciate how difficult it now is for parents to understand and adequately protect their children from gambling harms, and, given the rapid changes to online activities, how lacking in confidence parents are even about talking to their children about these issues. Surely, given all the evidence, we should expect the Government to adopt a public health approach based on prevention.
In his previous role as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Health and Social Care, where I believe he did an excellent job, the Minister was a powerful advocate of such a public health approach. I am grateful to the Library for providing numerous quotes from him showing how on several occasions he praised
“public health interventions and a strong regulatory framework”—[Official Report, 3/12/21; col. 1610.]
in relation to other harms such as smoking, obesity and mental health conditions. I remind him that when in March this year, during an Oral Question, I asked him about adopting a public health approach towards gambling he said:
“I know we take very seriously that this is a public health issue that we must tackle in a holistic way. We are looking at how we can allocate funding in the NHS long-term plan to tackle gambling addiction and to ensure that we focus more on prevention rather than simply dealing with people once they have a problem.”—[Official Report, 28/3/2022; col. 1262.)
Does the Minister really believe that the Government’s response to their own inquiry into loot boxes is evidence of the adoption of a public health approach? I certainly do not.
I remind him that as part of the review his own department commissioned Loot Boxes and Digital Gaming: A Rapid Evidence Assessment, a report whose results it sat on for ages. I suspect that was because it showed a
“stable and consistent association between loot box use and problem gambling”.
Despite that, there has been no action by the Government. Leave it to the industry and to parents, and encourage more research, but do not expect the Government to act.
In moving that the House takes note of the response by His Majesty’s Government to the consultation on loot boxes, I simply say that I was dismayed by it. I hope the Government will think again and instead take note of the recommendations of the Select Committees in both Houses, the Children’s Commissioner, GambleAware, numerous academics and many others who believe that loot boxes should be regulated as gambling. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster, on obtaining this debate and on the doughty work that he does as the chair of Peers for Gambling Reform. I also welcome the Minister to his new brief.
As the noble Lord, Lord Foster, said, we had expected and hoped that the Government’s White Paper on the results of their wider review of gambling legislation would be published before the Summer Recess, but it was delayed by what the Government would no doubt describe as circumstances outside their control. There are a lot of circumstances outside the Government’s control at present; in fact, it is difficult to think of many that are within it. That is all the more reason to get ahead with discussing what we actually have: namely, the Government’s response on loot boxes.
As we know, the definition of loot boxes is
“features in video games which may be accessed through gameplay … virtual currencies, or directly with real-world money.”
As the noble Lord said, the Conservative manifesto for the 2019 general election committed to undertaking a review of the Gambling Act 2005,
“with a particular focus on tackling issues around loot boxes”.
It is worth noting those words because they imply that, at that time, the Government regarded loot boxes as falling within the definition of “gambling” for the purposes of the Gambling Act. However, the view has subsequently been taken, including by the Gambling Commission, that loot boxes do not fall within that definition because they do not give monetary prizes.
The Government have now said in their response to the consultation that they do not propose to amend the Gambling Act, despite the recommendation of the Select Committee, to bring loot boxes within its purview. I do not propose to waste time arguing today whether loot boxes are or are not a form of gambling, but I would say that most people would take the view in ordinary parlance that when someone pays for access to a loot box giving the chance of a greater or lesser prize, they are taking a gamble. If it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. The Belgian gaming commission has concluded that loot boxes are a form of gambling. As I say, I see no point in pursuing that issue today. Its significance for practical purposes is that if loot boxes were defined as gambling, they would come under the regulation of the Gambling Commission.
What matters is whether the harm which access to loot boxes can do might be prevented in other ways, particularly in its effect on children. This is a serious issue and, if we are to believe the Government’s words, they take it seriously. I have referred, as did the noble Lord, Lord Foster, to what the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto said about this. In her foreword to the Government’s response to the call for evidence, the former Secretary of State said:
“We want all players, especially children and vulnerable people, to have the tools and information they need to enjoy games safely”.
Video games are particularly attractive to children. It follows that particular care needs to be taken to protect children. The majority of Google games and iPhone games contain loot boxes; the vast majority of them are also available to children aged 12 and over. The issue is whether existing safeguards are sufficient to protect children, and the evidence is that they are not. A 2021 report commissioned by GambleAware found that the links between loot-box purchasing and problem gambling have been robustly identified in about a dozen studies—the noble Lord, Lord Foster, cited that. It is certainly the case that only a small minority of loot-box purchasers are problem gamblers, but those who are have a serious problem. As with gambling generally, some 5% of loot-box purchasers generate half of loot-box revenue, and a third of that 5% are problem gamblers.
The Government’s objectives deriving from the call for evidence, as in their response to the consultation, go in the right direction but many of us think—as the noble Lord, Lord Foster, said—that they do not go nearly far enough. The Government’s view is that
“purchases of loot boxes should be unavailable to all children and young people unless and until they are enabled by a parent or guardian”.
Good, but note that there is no definition of “children and young people”, so 12 year-olds will still be able to spend money on loot boxes. The Government welcome the fact
“that some platforms already require parental authorisation for spending by under-18s within games.”
Good, but what about those that do not?
The Government’s solution is to
“convene a technical working group to pursue enhanced industry-led measures to mitigate the risk of harms for children, young people and adults from loot boxes in video games”.
“We expect the development of industry-led design norms and best practice guidance with regards to loot boxes to be an output of this work”.
As the noble Lord, Lord Foster, has said, the Government appear to have more confidence in the likelihood that the industry will introduce effective safeguards than many of us do. The fact, which cannot be escaped, is that the industry has a conflict of interest. As I have said, the bulk of its revenue comes from a very small number of loot-box purchasers, of whom many will be problem gamblers. We have to face the fact that the industry has a strong financial interest in fostering addiction—but we shall see.
I see one positive aspect of the Government’s response to which the noble Lord, Lord Foster, did not refer. The Government say that if the games companies and platforms do not improve protection for children, young people and adults, the Government will not hesitate to consider legislative options. Those are not very strong words, but the best thing about the Government’s response is that they will
“provide an update on the output of the technical working group and progress made to strengthen industry-led measures, by the first quarter of 2023”.
That is only six months away and it indicates some sense of urgency. We must hold the Government to that.
This Government do not want to be a nanny state. Many of us welcome that, but sometimes children need a nanny if they are not getting adequate protection from other sources when they need it.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for bringing this important debate before your Lordships’ House. I also welcome my noble friend to his new role in government. Noble Lords will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to use my full time allocation, but rather to use the time I have to lay out my own position on the response to the consultation.
I begin by laying out where I stand on the gaming industry, a position that I believe is shared across this House—we have already heard from the noble Lords, Lord Foster and Lord Butler—and within the Government. There is an opportunity now to find a sensible and responsible way forward in response to the response to the consultation. I pay tribute to the games industry and the enormous contribution it makes to the creative and electronic economy across the UK. It would be remiss of me not to make a special note of the impact that the games industry has had in Scotland, specifically in Dundee—a city where it has made a huge difference to the economy.
When I was a member of your Lordships’ Communications and Digital Committee I had several very helpful interactions with the industry, including chairing a conference on its future. I am not some Luddite who in any way denigrates the enormous part that gaming now plays across the ages and sexes. This is not an industry maintained by a stereotype of teenage boys gaming in their bedrooms through the night, but rather a market which is extremely diverse in age and gender. I speak as a friend of the industry and an advocate of the positive part that gaming plays in a healthy, managed way in the lives of millions across this country. Also, I am not someone whose first reaction to any problem is to look for a ban.
However, turning to the matter in hand, the Government’s response to the consultation currently does not goes quite as far as I would like in managing the balance between a thriving industry, while protecting young people from gambling, and the potential for acting as a gateway to negative life choices as they go forward. The fact is, as far as I can see it, that nearly all empirical studies have identified a relationship between loot boxes and gambling. That relationship, as the noble Lord, Lord Foster, said, may not be conclusively causal or directional, but the fact that one has been found suggests that the matter requires a precautionary approach. This has also been the outcome of committee inquiries in your Lordships’ House and the other place.
I have no issue with the ability of players, including under-18s, to augment their playing with specific purchases that are transparent and obvious, where an informed decision, with knowledge of value, can be made. The measures to allow probability to be shown before a purchase are a good step in the right direction, but this does not go far enough in providing categorical assurance that minors are not engaged in activities that can be viewed as gambling.
My noble friend the Minister’s department has invested significant time and effort in examining this knotty problem. I and others, I am sure, are very grateful for that investment of time and resource. The issue is indeed complex, but complexity should not be an excuse to avoid action. The fundamental point is that we have laws, which in the case of the National Lottery were tightened only in April 2021, to disallow under-18s from being able to gamble.
I have absolutely no issue with over-18s being able to buy loot boxes with a knowledge of probability and good practice safeguards; they are making an informed decision. But, for under-18s, we have a responsibility to safeguard. I therefore favour loot boxes not being allowed to be available to under-18s. We read in the consultation document that there is a concern that this could lead to minors using 18-plus accounts, but this argument would be equally valid about banning anything for under-18s.
Loot boxes clearly create an element of risk in the purchase that encourages further purchases. The analogy of a Kinder Surprise egg, which some in the industry used in response to the consultation, does not hold up to scrutiny, not least in terms of the financial resource involved. I reiterate that I am not saying that younger players should not be able to buy player and performance augmentation, but this should be on a straight purchase basis, just as it is with skins and other gaming elements.
Parental safeguards just do not work when so many parents are unaware of them. In preparation for this debate, I spoke to a number of responsible parents of gamers of my acquaintance. I asked them about loot boxes: some were vague, some thought that they had already been banned, some said they were no longer credible and some said that their children never bought them. I asked them to check with their children, and every single one of them had bought one in the last year, using their parents’ credit cards. They did not know it was a loot box; they just assumed that it was an extra augmentation to the game. Surely it would be more sensible to provide clarity to parents and children that they just cannot buy loot boxes.
In conclusion, I ask my noble friend the Minister to ensure that the Government build on the very real improvements included in the response to the consultation, and I ask that they work with industry and improve safeguards for all users. I am glad to hear that the working group will report early next year, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said. However, I ask my noble friend to ensure that consideration of the banning of loot boxes for under-18s remains part of the discussions, and that the door is not completely closed within the consideration of the review of the Gambling Act 2005. This is not about stopping income generation within gaming; rather, it is about removing the ability to gamble from those who would not be permitted to do so by the law in other areas.
My Lords, I am also a member of Peers for Gambling Reform, led tirelessly by the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, although my contribution is negligible compared to his and to the work done by the noble Lord, Lord Butler. I agree with everything that they have said, and I have also found the Government’s response to the consultation on this matter naive and unsatisfactory. I will develop certain criticisms.
First, the response recognises, fairly enough, that there is compelling evidence of an association between the purchasing of loot boxes and problem gambling. I recall that 12 peer-reviewed studies are cited, and they all come to the same conclusion. It might be thought that that represents a good reason for taking some sort of action to mitigate the damage being done by the availability of loot boxes in video gaming. But the Government’s response declines to take any such action on the basis that there is at the moment no satisfactory evidence to support a finding that there is a causal connection of the relevant type between purchasing loot boxes and problem gambling. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foster, that, even if that were so, it would not in itself be a sufficient reason for complete inaction of the type commended by the Government. But I find completely unconvincing the Government’s position on the quality of the evidence for a causal connection between the two things. In the course of my brief discussion of loot boxes and all that they bring with them, I will suggest that it is obviously correct to infer that there is some relevant causal connection between what one might call excessively enthusiastic and expensive purchasing of loot boxes on the one hand and problem gambling on the other.
Secondly, in the course of my speech, I will agree with and develop the point made by other speakers that the purchasing of loot boxes is, in substance, a form of gambling. The Government’s response relies, inappropriately, on a semantic analysis of the definitions used in the Gambling Act 2005. A realistic assessment of the position would recognise the very close similarities between loot box purchasing and what one might call gambling in the strict sense.
Thirdly, the response is disappointing in that it pays almost no attention to what one might call the lived or real-life experience—I suppose it is real life—of those who play video games and are motivated or incentivised to buy loot boxes. Like the majority of Members of this House, I suspect, I am not a video gamer, although I am a gambler, as I have declared on other occasions, and I know all about gambling for all sorts of reasons. However, I have spent some time on YouTube over the last couple of days, looking at some interesting presentations of the opening of loot boxes, so I have some idea of what goes on when one pays one’s money and opens up a loot box. With respect, I say that nothing in the Government’s response suggests that the authors are familiar with or have paid sufficient attention to the visual and auditory stimuli used by the gaming industry to make loot boxes attractive.
Finally, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Butler, that the core message of the response—which is that, as things stand, it is sufficient to leave it to the industry to sort matters out—is wholly unrealistic and naive. It is also unfair to the gaming industry, which is a magnificent part of this country’s economic activity, because it ignores the acute conflict of interest that arises.
I will briefly develop what I have said about the Government’s position on an absence of evidence on the relevant type of causal relationship. Generally, the paper takes a rather odd approach to the role of evidence in the preparation of this sort of document. This does not augur very well for the White Paper we have been promised for months and months on the reform of gambling legislation in general. Of course, evidence is very important; it is taken in the course of this sort of consultation process, and it must be assembled and acted on. However, when I read the report referring favourably to the provision of evidence from respondents that children have less developed impulse control than adults, have a greater susceptibility to peer pressure than adults and may have a limited understanding of purchasing decisions, I wonder why it is thought necessary for any evidence to be given on those blindingly obvious matters at all. That is an indication that something rather strange is going on in relation to the handling of evidence.
Looking at this point about causation, what sort of evidence would be required to prove a causal connection between overenthusiastic purchasing of loot boxes on the one hand and problem gambling on the other? Would the research show that children developed a taste for gambling by unlawfully gambling online, then became problem gamblers, and then started to play video games and found that the purchase of loot boxes satisfied their craving to gamble? It is not likely that that evidence would be available; children generally get into video gaming first and then gambling later—only a bit later, unhappily, because of the accessibility of online gambling. That is the general sequence.
Might there be evidence that some human beings are predestined, for genetic reasons, to become problem gamblers, and the same innate characteristics that will make them problem gamblers cause them to be overenthusiastic purchasers of loot boxes? Maybe, but there is no such evidence of a genetic or neurological nature to that effect yet. I suggest that a more sensible analysis of the position would run as follows. First, there is a very close resemblance between the act of buying a loot box and the act of gambling on, say, an online slot machine. Secondly, the gaming industry presents loot boxes in a way that makes them virtually indistinguishable from some online slot machines. Even I am not stupid enough to play online slot machines, but I know what they look like. Thirdly, the buyer of a loot box unquestionably takes a risk, using in-game currency to buy something the value of which is unknown.
Fourthly, there is an illusion of control, in that different types of box—which, visually, could be a crate, pack or some form of container—may be chosen. They have different and rather odd names, they cost different amounts of money, and a child might well wrestle for some time with what he or she thinks is a delicate decision as to which box should be purchased to obtain what is hoped to be an ultra-rare product contained within. Fifthly, suspense is generated—I have seen this on YouTube—by a delay while the box is opened, or while it explodes slowly and dramatically, issuing forth all sorts of good things. Similar effects are created by suitably dramatic background noise. Sixthly, there is the possibility of a big win: the acquisition of some so-called ultra-rare item which will enable the gamer either to compete more effectively or to dress or equip the avatar in a way that will impress other users. Seventhly, the industry uses the notorious near miss effect, which can persuade the disappointed purchaser, who finds that the box contains some humdrum piece of equipment that is already possessed, to have another go and cough up some more money. In the words of an academic study footnoted to the government paper,
“the randomness is objectified and becomes part of the entertainment”.
I therefore entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Butler that, if it looks like a duck and does everything else that a duck does, it probably is a duck. In substance, then, this is probably gambling.
The paper relies on the definition of gambling in the Gambling Act and, at paragraph 35, says,
“we view the ability to legitimately cash out rewards as an important distinction.”
That is, if you gamble in the strict sense online or elsewhere and you win, you can turn your winnings into money or they represent money—which you can spend on other things, if you are wise enough to take it out and do so. Very well, that is one point, but I suggest that the distinction is more apparent than real: video gamers are using what is called “in-game currency” to gamble on a loot box which may contain something that they value—they may win; they may lose. The fact that what they are acquiring normally has value only within the virtual universe constructed by the game— although there are circumstances in which the contents of loot boxes can be traded for real money—is nothing to the point. This can be compared and contrasted—but mostly just compared—with the position of a problem gambler in the strict sense: the problem gambler risks cash and when that problem gambler wins cash, the value of it is, as it were, contained within the gambling universe and will be used to buy further gambling time. The analogies are compelling.
I am out of time, so I simply close by respectfully inviting the Minister to assist the House by indicating precisely what the Government expect the gaming industry to do to mitigate the risks connected to loot boxes. If I were running a gaming company and I read this response, I would not know what I had to do to clean things up.
My Lords, this is one of those debates when you think that you have something to say, you wait to say it, but then somebody says it all before you. The noble Lord has probably just done the House a favour by getting rid of much of what I was going to say. I came across loot boxes and started taking them seriously while following my noble friend Lord Foster of Bath’s campaign, for which he deserves a gold star from the rest of us. I am sure that most of the Front Bench dealing with DCMS would like to give him something else, but never mind. We have a situation where something is clearly not right.
The difference between loot boxes and gambling seems to be one of semantics, as the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, just said. It is totally artificial: players are taking a chance on something. It also seems to be inspired primarily by the thrill and chance of getting something good. I have a very old friend who works at a senior level in the gaming industry—I will not name him because I did not say that I was going to mention him—and we previously had a look at this issue. I will share a story about us to illustrate how senior he is in the gaming industry. I saw a picture of a BAFTA on his Facebook account, and I said, “Oh, you’ve been to the BAFTAs.” He replied, “No, I’ve won one for game design.” So this is someone who knows what they are talking about. When he asked me whether I knew about loot boxes, I said yes. He said that they were nasty ways of making more money. They really do nothing else. In our messages, he also added, “Oh, aren’t they illegal?”
Loot boxes are something that people do not quite get their hands on. The more you look at this idea that you might just get something if you purchase one, and it might just be useful, the fact is that the chance you will get that thing next time is incredibly attractive to somebody who is paying just a small sum of money, then another and another. It is an endorphin hit which makes you think, “Maybe I’ll get it.” I had not really taken on board the impact of the near-miss strike; I had only seen it a couple of times and had not really understood it properly, so the noble Lord must be congratulated on discussing that.
Anyone who does any form of gaming—even if it is, for someone like me, only card games on a phone—is in their own little world for a bit. The loot boxes are saying, “Have a look at this: you can get this thing which allows you to get further in this little world.” As has been pointed out, we all know that the adolescent male is probably most likely to want to dive into that world. That was certainly the case when I was an adolescent male. You have the idea that you are doing something that really brings you in, and that you can get a little further into it and more secure and successful by taking on that little extra hit, that little extra bit of expenditure—usually with a parent’s credit card. It draws you further and further in.
As I said, apparently only the British Government think that this is not gambling, from what we can make out—only because they devise rules that do not hit. It is also very rewarding for the games industry, which does not have to go back to my aforementioned friend, for example, and say, “Devise another level where you’ll need to make a purchase to go up.” Your development costs have actually been kept down to get a reward. Let us just have something that ensure that, to make a change in a classic shoot-‘em-up, such as body armour or extra gun capacity for someone’s video image as they blast things into the sunset—I will be told that I am being far too simplistic, but that is it—someone at least knows what they are buying. Basically, it is the case that they are very bad value. If you know what you are buying, buy it. If your game is good enough people will stay and make that purchase. Even if it is only for a limited period of time, they will know what they are getting. They will be able to come in and out of the game and ask what the value is of what they are doing and whether they can get a better product somewhere else.
If there is that eternal element of chance, you always come back to “It might be a bit better next time.” I have heard stories from colleagues about people discovering that money is being spent only when they look at their credit card and go, “No, that definitely isn’t a coffee shop and I didn’t have 43 cappuccinos in one day.” That is the level of expenditure that we are talking about.
If the Government will not do something, what sticks or carrots will they give to the games industry to do it itself? At the moment, it is quite clear that the industry has a financial incentive not to do anything. It could be made marginally more difficult by, say, reminding people to check on something. If you are doing something illegal or something you should not and someone tells you that you are doing it again, you will say “Yes, that’s right; I knew.” What will the Government do to engage on this? If the Government are not going to do this, they really have to just come down and say, “No”.
This is a creative, developing industry. If it cannot develop a monetising model that avoids this then it really is less attractive and has less capacity for the future than any of us thought. It should have that capacity within itself. Let us please make sure that people at least know what they are purchasing. There may well be an addictive element to that, but there will be some limits on it and it will be easier to spot and stop.
Can the Government please just say that they will do something? At the moment, they are obfuscating behind an odd definition and saying that nothing is going to happen. That is what it feels like—the Minister shakes his head; he will be able to tell me why in a few minutes. What is actually going to happen? If nothing, then we will simply keep coming back to this. The problems will get worse until there is some form of tragedy and the Government are dragged into doing something—that is what happens, let us face it. Then we will have to do something. Let us get ahead of the game, or at least catch up with it for once.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and his request for action—as has been expressed by so many noble Lords today in the debate. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster, on securing this debate and, more than that, on setting out the issues so clearly. I associate myself with the comments that he made about the need for a public health approach—that prevention is surely better than cure. That has underlined all of the debate today on an important matter that needs to be taken seriously by the Government.
Many people were disappointed when they read the Government’s response to the consultation on loot boxes prior to the summer break. As other noble Lords have highlighted, the Government acknowledged that there is a “consistent association” between the features of loot boxes and the characteristics of problem gambling, yet we await further action. We know that the Gambling Commission, various academics and multiple parliamentary committees have been calling on the Government to take action for some years. I therefore say to the Minister, who is new to his post—I have welcomed him previously and am glad to reiterate that welcome—that here is an opportunity to distinguish himself still further than he has done already. I hope that he will take up that opportunity.
As outlined in the Library briefing received by many noble Lords, a very high percentage of games available on the Google Play and Apple digital stores contain loot boxes, with a sizeable proportion of users paying for them at least once. I have previously made reference to the prevalence of media stories about high spends on loot boxes in games such as “FIFA” and “Call of Duty”, which are widely played on games consoles as well as on mobile phones. With all this in mind, the take-up of loot boxes is likely only to increase. They are becoming increasingly important to developers and, given the obvious links with gambling—as has been acknowledged to some degree—are we not looking at an exponential growth of risk in the coming years? As noble Lords have said, we should not wait for something of a crisis for action, but should seek to prevent that crisis happening.
Relatively tame controls around parental consent are indeed a step forward, but the question for the Minister is whether they are really sufficient to mitigate the risk that loot boxes become a gateway to “proper” gambling products. How are we to react to the effect of loot boxes on young people? We know that the rapid rise in online gambling activities affects not only children but parents, as the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, said—I was very interested to hear his comments about the role of parents in this. The rapid rise of online gambling activities has led to a lack of confidence for parents to understand and adequately protect their children from gambling harms. Some 42% of parents of children under 18 would not be confident in talking to their children about loot boxes—something that the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, bore out in his research. Indeed, 79% have never heard of skins betting. Should we not help parents to assist children and young people, and should we not help the children and young people themselves? Rates of harmful gambling among 17 to 20 year-olds are increasing more than threefold. There are some 55,000 children aged between 11 and 16 who are experiencing gambling harm in our country, with a further 85,000 estimated to be at risk. Does the Minister agree that this is a ticking time bomb that needs addressing?
It has been mentioned in this debate that several other countries have classified and/or applied gambling restrictions to loot boxes, yet the UK Government have opted against this. Will the Minister give us some indication as to why? One option, as we have heard, was to tie loot boxes in with the long-running and repeatedly delayed gambling review, but again the Government have declined this opportunity, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said. We now read reports that the Prime Minister is looking at scrapping the review altogether, meaning that practices that we know are harmful could be allowed to continue. Will the Minister comment on those reports and, if they are not true, will he tell your Lordships’ House when the much-delayed gambling White Paper will be published, so that we can ensure that the right legislation, the right regulation and the right resources are in place to protect people from gambling harms?
While I am on my list of requests for things we need, will the Minister provide an update on the video games research network, which it is hoped might guide and inform legislation to protect children and young people from gambling-related harms through video games? Further to that, it would be helpful if he would give details on progress made by the technical working group, which is due to be set up to develop industry-led solutions to mitigate the risk of harms from loot boxes in video games. We all know that the cost of living crisis is worsening, so has the department made any assessment of whether people may be tempted to try gambling as a way of covering growing household bills? If there has been such an assessment, what action is going to be taken? As we see a spiralling cost of living, this link will not go away.
On the matter of evidence, the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, talked about the clear causal connections between loot boxes and problem gambling. There seems to be great resistance on the part of the Government to accept the evidence. If that reluctance continues, will the Minister consider a review of the existing evidence and perhaps identify any gaps in the evidence and seek to fill these?
Having listened to the debate today—as I have listened to debates on this subject a number of times, as many noble Lords have done—I am struck very much, and I hope it strikes the Minister equally, that there is a potential harm that access to loot boxes can do, particularly with regard to children. This is about the potential for problem gambling and it begs a question as to why the Government have dragged their feet in acting. Today gives an opportunity, I hope, for the Government to change that approach and seek to take action. I hope that we will hear from the Minister how he intends to do that.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for bringing this important debate to the House today, all noble Lords who have spoken and those noble Lords who took the opportunity to welcome me to my new role. I am grateful and I look forward to working with noble Lords. I am sure that those noble Lords who worked with me in my previous job will recognise that I have always been open to meetings with officials to probe further than can be done within the confines of this Chamber.
In May this year, my ministerial predecessor, my noble friend Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, to whom I pay tribute for his work while he was on the Front Bench, responded to an Oral Question from the noble Lord, Lord Foster, about loot boxes. Since then, in July, we published the government response to the call for evidence and this debate therefore provides a useful and timely opportunity to discuss the findings and the next steps set out in the response in more detail. As I said, I will be happy to have more meetings with noble Lords on these issues and I welcome the continued scrutiny and engagement of this House on this.
Like other noble Lords who spoke, the Government are proud of the UK’s world-class video games sector and are committed to its continued growth. We introduced the video games tax relief in 2014 and have strengthened the UK’s reputation as a leading destination for developing games. In fact, as one noble Lord said, it has become so well known, you can now win Academy Awards for it. In addition, through the UK Games Fund, the Government are providing more than £8 million over this period to support the development of new games businesses and talent across the UK. But that comes with a large “however” or “but”. The scale and reach of the video games sector bring with them a responsibility to ensure high standards for protecting players. The Government are committed to ensuring that the UK is one of the safest places to be online, and this includes video games. We want all players, whether young people and children or vulnerable people, whatever their age, to have the tools and information they need to enjoy games safely.
In response to the debate today, I will set out some of our findings from the call for evidence—a number of noble Lords have already referred to these—and the steps we are taking. To begin, it was very helpful of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, to give a definition of loot boxes, but it was only half a definition, so I will continue by saying that the distinguishing feature of loot boxes is the random reward mechanism that allocates apparently randomised items to each purchase. Players do not know what they will get before opening the loot box. There are a variety of ways in which loot boxes are implemented, designed and used within games, including rewards that help players to compete in games, and cosmetic rewards, such as new skins, for example.
In response to growing concerns, including in this House and from players and parents, the Government ran a call for evidence, which was open for public submissions from September to November 2020. We received 32,000 responses from members of the public and 50 submissions from academics, the games industry and other organisations and individuals. This includes Peers for Gambling Reform and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gambling Related Harm. Many noble Lords paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for his leadership of that group. In addition, the Government commissioned an independent evidence assessment of academic literature on loot boxes, and I am grateful to noble Lords for referring to that today. Throughout this process, we are continuing to engage with the games industry, academics and other organisations and to press the industry in these forums on improving protection for players.
We published our response in July this year, and I recognise it has been a lengthy process but there were 32,000 submissions and 50 larger submissions. It is important that we consider these complex issues properly. But let me be quite clear: we agree that just because something is complex does not mean that you do nothing about it. It means you dive deeper into those issues and look at the links. As a former academic who sometimes wrote papers or had to assess papers for their use as evidence, I have been very careful to make sure that the conclusion comes from the evidence, rather than having an intended bias, before writing the paper. We have taken account of a huge number of submissions and I again thank all organisations and individuals who responded to that call.
The evidence identified a range of potential harms associated with loot boxes. This includes harms associated with gambling, as well as other potential mental health, financial and problem gaming-related harms. It suggests that the risk of harm is likely to be higher for children and younger people; we can agree on that. While the evidence base is still emerging, one of the more thoroughly explored harms from loot boxes is the nature of any possible association with gambling-related harm. A number of noble Lords asked about the nature of that association. The 15 peer-reviewed empirical studies considered by the InGAME evidence assessment found a stable and consistent association between loot box use and problem gambling. However, the research identified a range of plausible explanations that could underpin this association between loot boxes and problem gambling, and has not established a causal relationship, as noble Lords said. Some noble Lords challenged that, but I want to explore the other potential explanations.
Explanations include the fact that loot box purchasers are already heavily engaged in a range of gambling activities; that other factors, such as impulsivity, drive this association; that loot box purchases exhibit maladaptive motives, creating uncertainty for their users; or that loot box purchase itself leads to gambling-related harms. We have to consider all these possibilities in the ongoing academic debate. For example, a third factor, such as impulsivity, may underpin higher engagement in both gambling and loot boxes. So, evidence emerged of a number of other harms in our call for evidence, including financial harms, mental health harms and a possible relationship with problem gaming behaviours. The other thing that should be remembered when we look at a definition is that it is possible to purchase loot boxes in games without paying any real-world money at all. That is something we have to be quite clear about: how do we treat those players?
In addition to harms, the call for evidence considered the voluntary and statutory protections that have been introduced. Games companies have introduced a number of measures, including those that noble Lords referred to today. In response to the call for evidence, the Government’s view is that purchases of loot boxes should be unavailable to all children and young people unless and until they are enabled by a parent or guardian—it is not enough to say that; we are engaging with industry in various working groups to make it a reality—and that all players should have access to, and be aware of, spending controls and transparent information to support safe and responsible gaming; and that better evidence and research, enabled by improved access to data, should be developed to inform future policy-making.
A number of issues came up in the debate, and it is really important that we engage with them. I do not have the exact answers here now, so I am very happy to write to noble Lords and to allow them to ask my policy officials their questions in further detail. For example, the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, talked about younger gamers buying loot boxes without parental knowledge. That is undoubtedly a problem. We have seen that even a 10 year-old kid can be much more tech-savvy than their parents and can run rings around them when it comes to these issues. I will look into that to see if I can come back with an answer, but I hope that noble Lords will also be able to ask those questions directly when I arrange meetings on request.
We have made some progress on industry-led protections, but it has been uneven. We have been quite clear about this, and we know that more should be done by games companies and platforms. However, rather than imposing a solution, we want to work with the industry to ask how it will tackle this problem, given its creativity, innovation and technical experience, and how it will deliver tangible progress in the near future.
Once again, we want parents to be able to make informed choices. We welcome the fact that some platforms require parental authorisation for spending by under-18s within games, and we are calling on those who have not yet introduced such measures to introduce them and to ensure that loot boxes are not purchased without informed parental permission. We have to do more work on that. For all players, our view is that harm minimisation and player safety should be embedded into game design, and that is why we want to work with the industry to make sure that it embeds these measures into the games, rather than saying, “You must do this.” We expect games companies and platforms to provide further information to players and to look at that minority of players who spend a disproportionately large amount of money on loot boxes, whether or not they have parental allowance or permission, who may be at a greater risk of harm.
To deliver on these objectives, we have brought together a technical working group, as noble Lords said, which includes game industry trade bodies, platforms, publishers and developers. The group engages with academics and consumer and third sector groups to ensure that solutions are workable for parents and players. It has met several times already and has heard directly from a number of academics, including—as the noble Lord, Lord Foster, referred to—David Zendle, who has also attended the loot box technical working group. The DCMS chief scientific adviser, Professor Tom Rodden, has also visited the University of York and met David Zendle’s team, so there is ongoing interaction. The working group has met several times already, and it is actually meeting again today to discuss in detail how the objectives set out in the government response can be delivered. That is what the focus of the group’s discussion today will be. We want the group to facilitate the development of industry-led best practice guidance on the use of loot boxes, which should support players and parents across all platforms, from PC to mobile games.
We will also provide an update on industry-led measures by the first quarter of 2023, which I am sure will be of interest to noble Lords, but let me be quite clear: the Government expect action. The industry should be aware that the Government will not hesitate to consider legislative options if we deem it necessary—if these working groups do not deliver the action that noble Lords are calling for today. We are also working collaboratively on the video games research framework, and we hope to publish that by the end of the year. Its purpose is to facilitate better evidence and research but also to enable better access to data to support that evidence.
In addition to setting out why we believe action is needed, the government response considers the case for making changes to statutory consumer protections for users of loot boxes. I understand the views, including those raised by many noble Lords today, that the Government should go further, particularly with regard to the Gambling Act. The Government’s response to the call for evidence has been developed alongside our review of the Gambling Act, and the crossovers between gaming and gambling have been carefully considered. For noble Lords who asked about the delayed White Paper, we expect it to be coming out in the coming weeks—the noble Lord, Lord Foster, can chalk that up as a victory.
I want to be absolutely clear that the Government share strongly the views expressed today, but we do not intend to amend the scope of gambling regulation. Regulating loot boxes as gambling is only one potential means of mitigating the risks. Noble Lords may ask why, so let me go into some detail. First, while many loot boxes share some similarities with traditional gambling products, the Government view the ability to legitimately cash out rewards as an important distinction. In addition, entering the game without real money is not gambling real money, so we have to be very careful about that. The Gambling Commission has shown that it will take action when there has been unlicensed gambling within games, and noble Lords will be aware of the prosecution of FutGalaxy in 2017, which shows that action will be taken.
Secondly, changing the Gambling Act with regards to loot boxes would have some unintended consequences. It would require substantial changes to the gambling tax system, which is not designed to calculate duties owed on gambling transactions where the component parts have no clear monetary value—loot boxes have user-defined value in games, but they do not have a clear monetary value. Regulating loot boxes as gambling would also increase the scope and costs of running the Gambling Commission at a time when we are giving it more challenges by updating gambling regulation to bring it into the modern age—as I mentioned, the White Paper will be out soon. There is also the risk of other unintended consequences or activities. In my former career as an academic and researcher, I did quite a lot of work on unintended consequences, and we have to be quite clear about this.
However, in not taking forward changes to the Gambling Act, we believe that the statutory consumer protection obligations will continue to be the relevant regulatory framework. How do we make sure that those obligations are used in a proper way to tackle this issue? That work is being progressed through the DCMS-convened technical working group and will lead to further improvements. So we believe that it is premature to pursue legislative options at the moment, but we have said to the industry at these working groups that we will not hesitate to use that option if not enough is done. With the industry’s creativity, we are looking for it to come back to us with solutions it can design into a game, rather than being bolted on, to make it as integrated as possible.
I will quickly address some of the issues raised. Even though the gambling White Paper has not been published yet, we have already taken some action. We have banned gambling on credit cards, tightened restrictions on VIP schemes, strengthened the rules on how online operators identify those at risk of harm, and updated the gambling advertising codes. That shows all the things that can be done, and more can be done before passing legislation.
A number of noble Lords referred to other countries. We are looking at the evidence from Belgium and the Netherlands, but there are some issues here. For example, there are protracted legal proceedings going on in the Netherlands over how gambling laws should apply to certain loot boxes, and we want to see the outcome of those before looking at the option here. In addition, research in Belgium suggested that there is still loot box content in mobile games, despite the Belgian regulator’s decision to consider loot boxes as a form of gambling. So, once again, these countries have done something, but has it been effective enough? We need to look at the evidence of what has worked in other countries, rather than just what has been done there.
In conclusion, there are some other questions I have not answered, and I will make sure I write to noble Lords to deal with these issues. We all share the same objective, but we may think that there are different ways to achieve it. We are working closely with industry, academics and others to bring them together to find those solutions, but we also have the threat of potential legislation if the gaming industry and others do not come forward with appropriate protections. I am sure that the industry has heard loudly and clearly from noble Lords in this debate today, even though they may well be in a working group. It is quite clear that there is a strong feeling that something must be done. We want to do it with the industry, in co-operation, but I also understand and welcome pressure from noble Lords on the industry to make sure that we deliver on this.
In that light, before I sit down, I once again repeat my invitation to have meetings with noble Lords with the appropriate officials, to allow them not only to press my officials on that but to make us aware of things we may not have considered. We think we have considered everything, but we are very happy to consider all the evidence. With that, I once again thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for securing this debate, and I look forward to working constructively with him and other noble Lords in the future.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply to the debate and his clarity about being willing to meet, and I hope he will meet with Peers for Gambling Reform in the near future. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in what I believe is a very important debate, not least because of the issues that have been raised about harm currently being done to children and vulnerable people. I believe that further action that is way beyond the sort of promises we heard from the Minister must be taken, although I welcome the work that is being done. I believe—and I think the Minister has heard this—that far more needs to be done.
I think we have been clear, and I hope the Minister will understand, that we are huge fans of the games industry in this country. Before this debate, I was in a meeting of the Communications and Digital Committee, hearing from one of the leading experts in the world of digital games industry, who rightly pointed out that they are leading the way in new developments in VR and AR that are not only going to help their industry but areas such as health and education also—these are very important. As I hope the Minister has heard, we are clear that where they have a significant financial vested interest in the issue of loot boxes, it is wrong to expect them to take responsibility for dealing with the concerns that we have.
While we have been debating, reports have come out that No. 10 is debating a major U-turn on the mini-Budget. I had hoped that this debate would have led to a smaller U-turn on the issue of loot boxes. Sadly, we have not had that, but I am grateful for what the Minister said and the offers that he made. We look forward to further discussions on these issues. I beg to move.
Imprisonment for Public Protection Scheme
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am most grateful for the opportunity to bring this issue before your Lordships’ House today. My noble friend Lady Hamwee, who originally managed to secure this debate, has stood by to allow others more time to speak, as this is an important issue about which noble Lords feel strongly, given the number who have put their names down to speak today. I will follow her lead by being as brief as possible in my remarks
I heartily welcome the report of the House of Commons Justice Committee on IPP sentences. The report pulls no punches in its description of the dysfunctionality of the current IPP system and the mental toll it takes on those trapped within it. It makes clear that unless considerable resources and improvements to the system are employed, the current rump of about 3,300 IPP prisoners—either on recall or never having been released at all—will not diminish significantly anytime soon.
I do not want to spend time going into the history of how we got here—only to say that, since 2016, several action plans have been implemented—but progress has been slow, to put it mildly. The current plan focuses on 15 different work streams, each of which seeks to tackle a different aspect of the problem, such as mental health issues, progressive transfers and so on. This is clearly ineffective without resources and without regular monitoring, reviewing and evaluation of the effectiveness of the different programmes.
The report recommends a fresh action plan to include clear performance measures for each work stream, someone accountable, and a timeframe for completion of each activity. Then we will know what the targets are and be able to measure how effectively they are working within the target timescales. The committee recommended that this revised plan be published by around March 2023.
I must tell the Minister that I have a lot of questions, and if he is unable to answer any of them today, will he kindly undertake to write to me and other noble Lords with the answers?
On the new action plan recommendations, are the Government currently working on a new action plan along the lines of the Justice Committee’s recommendations? Will they at least aspire to meet the timescale for producing the plan recommended in this report? Will the plan include clear performance measures for each work stream? Will someone be held accountable for performance within a specific timeframe?
The report is graphic on the psychological harm caused by IPP sentences. Will the MoJ and the HMPPS set out how they intend to improve access to mental health support? Will the Government publish the commissioned report by Professor Paul Moran into the offender personality disorder pathway by this December, as the Joint Committee report recommends?
Another major inhibitor to progress is the lack of appropriate parole preparation courses. Long waiting lists add time to sentences before the prisoner can even reach the starting gate for assessment. Will the MoJ and HMPPS ensure there are enough places on courses?
There is the whole system of managing the release into the community and the parole system to consider. Will sufficient resources be made available to curtail the inordinate delays in helping to prepare prisoners for parole? Will the parole system prioritise consideration of IPP prisoners, and will more help be made available to enable prisoners who have been released to make a success of life on the other side of the bars?
All those recommendations deal with the system as it stands, but the report goes further—much further. The committee recommends a reduction in the qualifying license period from 10 years to five. Our doughty cross-party team of Peers who worked on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill earlier this year—many of whom I see in the Chamber today—argued strongly for this, and I hope the Government have had time to reflect and see they can make a big difference without compromising public safety.
The final, primary and most radical recommendation of the report is to end the plight of those still suffering from this cruel, inhumane sentence altogether, by conducting a resentencing exercise with a small, time-limited expert committee and members of the senior judiciary. I do not propose to speculate on exactly how this would work, and I know it would not be easy, but this terrible, unjust treatment of prisoners must end. Will the Government look at the feasibility of creating this committee and how it might go about its work?
I commend Bob Neill and his committee: they took the brave step of showing a path to end this sentence. They have not consigned the solution to the “too difficult” box, and neither should we.
My Lords, that was a masterly introduction to this debate, and I am honoured to follow it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, says, this report is to be welcomed greatly.
Your Lordships’ House has long recognised the shocking injustices suffered by all those sentenced under this scheme—injustices continuing and growing 10 years after its abolition. We have hitherto been given to understand that the other place, the all-powerful elected Chamber, is unpersuadable; we have been told they do not have the appetite to change the law in a way which could put at liberty some who could reoffend and who are currently—however unfairly and most of us regard it thus—lawfully locked up.
This House of Commons report is not so hard-hearted, but nor is it soft-hearted; rather, it is hard-headed. It contains a masterly analysis of the wrong and what is necessary to put it right within the system. At last, it is recognised that the scheme has resulted in a gross injustice. IPP sentences are effectively life sentences by the back door. The committee describes it as “preventive detention”, imprisoning people
“on the basis of what they might do, rather than on the basis of what they have done.”
As the committee recognises, the only actual, long-term, final solution is for those still affected to be resentenced according to just principles.
Of course, everybody ever sentenced to an IPP sentence—between April 2005 and December 2012, until its prospective abolition under LASPO—is still subject to this injustice; not only those still detained, many for years beyond tariff dates and several beyond the statutory maximum for their offence, but everybody. That is a total of 8,711 IPPs, the only exceptions being the tiny handful who have finally secured the discharge of their licences by definition, 10 years after their initial release. All these are to be regarded as victims of an unjust scheme, who desperately need far greater help than most have been getting in order to secure and then retain, at long last, their liberty. As the committee recognises, what is needed now is an intensive, well-resourced, new scheme, custom built to maximise the prospect of safe and sustainable release for this whole cohort of our unfortunate fellow citizens. The report points the way ahead.
My Lords, in a short debate such as this, it is often not possible to say anything at all and certainly not anything original. However, the two previous speakers, the noble and learned Lord and the noble Baroness—I congratulate her on achieving this debate—have demonstrated that my first premise is wrong. I congratulate them on what they had to say.
That said, I happily refer once again to my connections to the Prison Reform Trust and a few other charities connected to the welfare of prisoners, and pay tribute to the small band of noble and noble and learned Lords, many of whom are taking part in this debate, who have kept the continuing injustice of indeterminate sentences for public protection before your Lordships’ House, the Government and elsewhere.
I shall make a couple of points. First, the Commons Select Committee report is a powerful document, as the noble Baroness made clear. It needs to be taken seriously by the Government and not just put in the “too difficult” file. The Government must act quickly on the recommendations that can be dealt with now and make a solemn promise, despite the many other matters on the public agenda, to produce a plan or schedule to deal with those recommendations that will take a bit more time. Whatever the timetable, the work must start now. Procrastination or equivocation will no longer satisfy the need for justice to be done and for hope to be restored to all those still incarcerated many, many years after their tariffs expired. The burden of proof is very much on the Government to show why no or little action is the answer, and why those still in prison beyond their tariff or those who have already served longer than the maximum for the underlying offence should not be released.
Secondly, historians can occasionally identify watershed moments in the past which turned events. There have been debates, books or public events which, it can be said with the benefit of hindsight, influenced, or even catalysed, the course of history. Is it too fanciful to ask my noble and learned friend the Advocate-General to recognise that we are now at a time when the Government must do things about IPPs which in the future can be seen to have made that real and civilising difference? This sentence, which the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has bravely admitted should never have been enacted, was abolished 10 years ago; let us strike out now and clear its foul stench from our justice system. If our forebears stopped sending children up chimneys and abolished slavery, I rather think that we can get rid of the remaining injustices caused by IPPs. Can I see a Wilberforce or a Shaftesbury on the Treasury Bench?
My Lords, I look to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, for a sign that the message has got home. This injustice should never have happened in the first place but, having happened, surely there is a very heavy burden on the state to rectify the injustice for which it is responsible. I hope this reminder, if it is needed—I hope it is not—gets home and persuades the House and those responsible in this area of government that enough has been enough.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness in securing this debate and to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who has admitted that this was a mistake.
I want to make three points. First, we now have what is essential for policy, which is an evidence-based report. The committee listened to everyone on all sides. It has produced a clear analysis. The conclusion from that analysis is clear: although there are a few people who present an ongoing danger for a long time, the position of the vast majority needs reconsideration as incarcerating them for longer puts the public at greater risk.
Secondly, we must bring to an end delay, procrastination and failing to grasp the problem. It is very long standing. When I visited Leeds Prison in February 2006—some months after the sentence had been introduced—it was clear that the problems that have emerged were already apparent. There is no excuse for the inordinate and inexcusable delay. The report sets out with absolute clarity the effect of inaction. Inaction in many cases does not necessarily make the position worse but in this case it has. I have sat on cases where it is self-evident that the terms of the IPP sentence have made the prisoner more dangerous. That we cannot go on with. The reasons are set out with the utmost clarity. They are completely accurate and I need say no more.
Thirdly, I welcome all the solutions, but in the time allowed I will say something about resentencing. This was first raised with the Government by me in 2010, so it is nothing new. There are very good examples of where the judiciary and the Government have worked together to get sentencing right. The 2012 Act was got right with such work, save for this one problem. The experience of dealing with resentencing on murder—in which I had a role to play—has worked. Although there are difficulties, they can be overcome.
I urge the Minister: use an evidence-based report, do not delay, do not procrastinate and, at long last, achieve justice.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble and learned Lord. I read yesterday his judgment in the Roberts case in 2016, in which the Court of Appeal described the circumstances of various offences which had led to the imposition of IPP sentences in the relevant period. The court, for the reasons explained in its decision, had to reject the appeals because they were not good as a matter of law, but I was left reflecting that those individual offenders had committed offences that were certainly serious—they were not trivial—but far from being the most serious types of offence that come before the courts. Those offenders, if still in prison, and some may well be, would have been sitting in prison now for 15 years or so watching other offenders come and go. These other offenders who had committed markedly more serious offences and have since been released while they remain in prison, unable to obtain parole for a number of reasons powerfully and devastatingly set out in the House of Commons committee report.
Coming for the first time to understanding the detail of this shocking state of affairs, the reasons, it strikes me, include the following. First, an outrageous lack of resource was made available following the imposition of this new and strange regime. Secondly, the striking fact, as given in evidence by a number of prisoners, is that prison is sometimes not an easy place to demonstrate that one is of a peaceful disposition. It is sometimes a place in which it is unwise to make that claim to your fellow inmates. Thirdly, and most troubling of all, is the fact made so strikingly in this report that this regime, with its unfair and cruel imposition of potentially indeterminate imprisonment, has itself impaired the mental health of many of these prisoners in a way that has made it even more difficult for them to satisfy the Parole Board release test.
I think there are still around 3,000 IPP prisoners in prison. That is a shade over a third of all those subjected to these sentences in the first place. That is a lot of prisoners. Apart from the possibility of a resentencing exercise, which I can see will generate problems, but may well be inevitable—if it is going to happen, it should happen now—there is one possibility that I respectfully ask the Minister to consider in his response. It is that canvassed by the committee report, namely using the power under Section 128 of the LASPO Act 2012 to reverse the burden of proof for IPP prisoners when they make their applications to the Parole Board so that the burden rests on, as it were, the state to demonstrate that the relevant prisoner remains dangerous. That would reduce some of the current unfairness.
My Lords, rarely can a report from a Select Committee have been welcomed with such joy by those directly affected by it. What is perhaps most welcome about it is its sense of urgency and dispatch. We have discussed this topic for quite a long time now. We have had warm words and sympathy from Ministers, but we have not had evidence of the urgency and dispatch that this report so rightly calls for. Ministers and officials wish to be seen as just, but they know that they are practising a major injustice. They wish to be seen as humane, but they know that they are continuing a monument to inhumanity.
Think about this briefly from the point of view of those affected: prisoners who are told that they are in prison for life but can get out if they demonstrate this, attend certain courses and go through certain hoops. They then find that they cannot demonstrate it: the courses are not available or, if they can get on one, they then find they might be moved to another prison before they can attend it. No wonder their mental health has deteriorated. No wonder they do not talk about it. Look at paragraph 49:
“I don’t speak to staff as any mention of a mental health issue goes on your prison record and will be brought up at board and can block release. The truth of it is we are all suffering from mental health problems because of the sentence but we are frightened to speak up”.
Imagine being in that position.
Think about the licensee, the person out on licence, having to demonstrate for 10 years that they are of good character or whatever, subject to being capriciously taken back into incarceration. Look at paragraph 115, which tells you that the majority of those taken back into prison have not committed a further offence; they have simply failed to satisfy their parole officer that they should remain out.
Think also here about the psychologists involved: people who are there to heal, but know that by giving a correct clinical judgment about the mental health of the prisoner, they are not assisting that prisoner but condemning him to continue in the circumstances that are the cause of the mental health problem. They feel deeply compromised in the role they are asked to carry out in prison in dealing with IPP prisoners. One of the most touching things in the report was the evidence of the prisoner who said that the best thing that ever happened to him was being sent to a mental hospital during his sentence, because at least there he was treated like a human being.
Finally, I ask your Lordships to think about the families, because they are serving the sentence too. With that, I come to my question for the Minister. There are two groups representing the families: UNGRIPP, the United Group for Reform of IPP, and the IPP Committee in Action. They will be lobbying the prisoners’ MPs on 19 October. Will my noble friend secure a meeting for them with the Secretary of State and the Lord Chancellor, either on 19 October or on some date soon after that, because they wish their voice to be heard and for Ministers to take this up and pursue it properly, as this report recommends?
My Lords, I thank my noble friends Lady Burt and Lady Hamwee for securing this debate and pay warm tribute to Sir Bob Neill and his committee. Sir Bob has been a constant supporter of prison reform and that is reflected in this report. I also send my good wishes to the new Prisons Minister, Rob Butler MP, who was an assiduous and thoughtful member of the Youth Justice Board during my tenure between 2014 and 2017.
My locus in this debate is that I was the Minister who took the LASPO Bill through the Lords and abolished IPPs—as we thought. I made it clear that good existing IPPs would be dealt with by various means, including prisoners being able to earn their release through various training schemes and rehabilitation programmes, to which the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, just referred. The truth was that that idea was foiled by the various Catch-22s to which the noble Lord referred, including a lack of resources.
No one has claimed that LASPO denied judges the opportunity to hand down strict sentences—I was pleased to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, refer to this—and the LASPO regime has stood the list of time. What remains is a hangover, which both the Minister who introduced IPPs, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and the Minister who thought he had abolished IPPs, have said does not work as we thought it would and remains a stain on our justice system.
Let me put one shade of doubt into our debate. Throughout my time in the Ministry of Justice, attempts at prison reform were knocked back by 10 Downing Street with the simple message “not politically deliverable”. Throughout this time, we have had to face the problem that both Front Benches have been keen to avoid being outflanked on the right by being seen to be soft on prison reform. I fear that this is still the problem and it will need a great deal of courage to overcome it. This is not a plan to set free dangerous criminals but what a civilised country would do. I hope the Minister has come with a brief accepting the report and committing the Government to legislative action to right this wrong.
As I came into the Chamber, I received an email from the British Psychological Society, from which I shall read only one sentence:
“A resentencing exercise would restore a sense of certainty, hope and fairness: three vital ingredients to behavioural change, engagement with psychological support and compliance with the law.”
This has been an overwhelming message to Ministers. I hope they are listening.
My Lords, I signed up for this debate for two reasons: a nagging discomfort about the handful of IPP sentences that I felt myself obliged to impose—not on the most serious criminals—as a Recorder of the Crown Court, prior to 2012; and respect for and solidarity with those noble and learned Lords who have done battle on this subject for so many years.
I simply add two stray observations. First, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood has pointed out, the Justice Committee’s report noted that the IPP sentence is unusual in that it detains individuals in prison on the basis of what they might do, rather than on the basis of what they have done. It occurred to me that similar comments are often made about the sentencing of terrorists—the so-called precursor offences—and indeed about the effective house arrest of terrorist suspects by executive measures, such as TPIMs. The pre-emptive aspect of counterterrorism law rightly results in particularly anxious public and parliamentary scrutiny. The same uncertainty that contributes, according to this report, to the high levels of self-harm and suicide of IPP prisoners was something this House had well in mind when it refused to allow TPIMs to become indefinite—a position to which the Government eventually agreed in the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Act 2021.
While we can get it broadly right where terrorists are concerned, it is depressing that we still have not corrected a manifest injustice for those convicted of ordinary criminal offences; an injustice that was recognised as such not only by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, but by Michael Gove and Liz Truss when they were Lord Chancellors in the middle of the last decade. It is an injustice that, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, said, may even make the subjects of that injustice more dangerous.
Secondly, the committee notes that it was the decision to curtail the usual discretion of judges to determine the most appropriate sentence for each offender that led to the initial proliferation of the IPP sentence. There is there, surely, a cautionary tale. We see in this place repeated proposals for remote control of judicial discretion, whether by minimum sentences in criminal cases or by seeking to influence the grant of remedies in civil cases—I think of the Environment Act 2021 and, rather more happily, of the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022. Such attempts are liable to cause more problems than they solve because of that most foundational law of all, the law of unintended consequences. That is certainly what we have seen with IPPs.
I strongly support the Justice Committee’s recommendation of a comprehensive resentencing exercise for the reasons that it gives and look forward to finding out whether the Minister is able to do so as well.
My Lords, I am unable to maintain my self-denying ordinance. I had hoped to give other noble Lords more time than has been allowed, although I cannot work out the arithmetic. Noble Lords have been particularly succinct, so having spotted the gap, I will move into it.
I have been particularly struck over the last few days by the emails that I have received from family, friends and campaigners in this area who all thought that I would be leading on this. I have thought about how much this regime brings the law into dispute and what a very serious matter that is. If somebody had written a novel about all of this, we would say that it could not happen; but it has and it must not go on.
My Lords, I want to open by thanking the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt and Lady Hamwee, for securing this debate. I agree that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, gave a masterly and comprehensive introduction to the issue. I also extend my best wishes to Rob Butler MP, who is the new relevant Minister. I served with him as a youth magistrate at Highbury magistrates’ court for a number of years and wish him well.
We too welcome the JSC’s report. It pulls no punches. It makes concrete recommendations, and I will listen to the Minister’s response to them with great interest. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, said, it is now 10 years since the abolition of the IPP scheme. There has been a consistent effort from many in this House to move forward and try to find a way of resolving the wrong that has been done to the many people who are currently languishing in our prisons. My noble friend Lord Blunkett has bravely spoken out against the regime that he himself introduced.
There have been some exceptional contributions today but the gist of them is that the Government need to respond positively and urgently to the recommendations made. It is also fair to say, to take on board the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that there is a shade of doubt. We need to acknowledge that. There is a political decision to be made about the possibility of releasing dangerous prisoners, and there needs to be a proper way of reducing those risks.
I want to make one major point that is different from the points made by other noble Lords and to speak to the brief from the National Association of Probation Officers, which wrote to me about this matter. Its point is covered most fully in paragraphs 93 and 94 of the JSC’s report. In a nutshell, it is about resourcing. It is about allowing probation officers to do their job properly, to have training, and to provide resources for offenders once they have been released and are out in the community. It is no accident that the support is not adequate and there is a high level of recall for these prisoners. That is a problem that can be partially addressed by the Government recognising that there is an additional training and resource element for the probation service. I hope that the Minister will address this specific point, because it is one that I have been asked to raise here today.
My Lords, I join many of today’s speakers by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for securing this important debate. I say how glad I am to see her in her place and how much I appreciated her succinct contribution.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for opening the debate and laying down so many challenges for me to meet in the form of questions. In the spirit of good will and co-operation across the whole House, let me begin by providing her with a specific answer to one of the questions she asked. The report by Professor Moran on the offender personality disorder pathway was published today on GOV.UK. With that expression of delight from noble Lords, I should perhaps sit down, but I have more to say in response to the many points taken up by your Lordships.
It is indeed the case that the IPP sentence continues to generate enormous interest, concern and challenge in this House. The Ministry of Justice has certainly felt the strength of feeling from many noble Lords in previous debates on this matter. I acknowledge the work of the probation service, to which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, referred a moment ago, in playing its part in addressing the difficult problems that have emerged as a result of this piece of legislation.
As noble Lords will know, the IPP sentence became available for the courts to use from April 2005. When the sentence was abolished in December 2012, there were more than 6,000 offenders in prison serving an IPP sentence. Since that time, the Parole Board has released a substantial number of those prisoners on licence, although I assure the House that we recognise that there is still much more to be done.
On 30 June this year, there were 1,492 offenders in prison serving the IPP sentence who had never been released, and 1,434 offenders serving it following recall. In light of these numbers, I should here reaffirm the Government’s commitment, through the work of His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, to support: first, those serving the IPP sentence in prison, to reduce their risk to the point where the Parole Board, in the exercise of its independent function and discretion, judges that they are safe to release; and secondly, those serving the IPP sentence in the community, to progress to the point where the Parole Board, in the exercise of that same discretion, judges that their IPP sentence may safely be terminated. Our commitment will be delivered through the HMPPS action plan.
As your Lordships will be aware, it has long been the Government’s intention to review and refresh the action plan once the Justice Select Committee published its report following the IPP inquiry. We welcome the fact that, after a year-long inquiry, collation of the evidence base to which the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, referred, was published on 28 September. That means that we can now review thoroughly this important collation of evidence and recommendations in the context of consideration of our next steps. However, I emphasise that the Government have not stood idly by, awaiting the publication of this report. Work has been done to ameliorate matters for persons serving such sentences, as I will advise your Lordships.
As your Lordships have noted, the Justice Committee has laid out a clear recommendation for a new IPP action plan and a new approach to its oversight. The committee wants focused, actionable guidance to ensure that the plan has a clear strategic priority and ownership, and for HMPPS to deliver more in terms of fixed timeframes and performance measures. The Government welcome the publication of the committee’s report and view it as a real opportunity to take stock and identify areas for possible improvement. As I have observed, HMPPS has been working very diligently, over a considerable period, to deliver improved prospects for those serving IPP sentences. However, we must always be responsive to new information and take further steps to ensure that this work is robust, structured, and properly directed.
A full government response will be provided to the Justice Committee by 28 November this year, with an updated IPP action plan to follow. I emphasise that 28 November is the final date. My noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy, the Minister with responsibility in this area, will be very much looking forward to sharing and discussing progress on this with your Lordships over the coming months.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, in his powerful submission, acknowledged the importance of evidence, and of an evidence base on which to work. I emphasise that such an evidence base, together with the facts and statistics already available to the Government, must be subject to proper interpretation and analysis. However, I hope that this will not amount to what my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier potentially styled it as procrastination, or to equivocation.
While our focus is now on revising the action plan to address the Committee’s recommendations, it is important in a debate such as this to give a short overview of what has been delivered and achieved thus far in support of bettering the prospects of those serving an IPP sentence and in permitting them to progress through the system. Indeed, many of the improvements delivered in recent years will remain key features of the IPP action plan, as they have been shown to be effective in supporting progression.
In September 2016, a joint HMPPS and Parole Board IPP action plan was introduced, overseen by a board of senior representatives from prisons, probation, the Parole Board, health services and psychology services. I place particular emphasis on that latter component because of the profound concern that your Lordships have exhibited in relation to the mental health of persons imprisoned in this way. This early version focused significantly on improving the processes associated with the delivery of an efficient and timely parole process. At the time, there was a significant backlog of oral hearings which had a particular bearing on the prospects for IPP prisoners to secure progression, but, through the work outlined in the first action plan, the efficient flow and handling of cases improved significantly and that backlog was eliminated.
Once the parole process was operating efficiently, focus shifted largely to what HMPPS could and would do to support IPP prisoners, so that they could embark on their parole reviews with realistic hopes of showing the Parole Board that the statutory release test was met in their case. Then, as in each year from 2016, the Parole Board released hundreds from their IPP sentence for the first time and, as more were being managed in the community on an IPP licence, HMPPS began to explore what was needed to support those eligible to apply for the supervision requirements of their IPP licence to be suspended and, later, to apply for their IPP licence to be terminated altogether.
I now turn to the specific achievements of the IPP action plan thus far. I start with the case review initiative delivered by psychology services. These are comprehensive reviews, vital to identifying the most appropriate pathway for individuals, especially those with complex needs and challenging presentations, which the significant majority of those who remain in custody have. However, it is important to note that the case reviews are not a ticket to release but an absolutely key step to help practitioners home in on the best course of action to enable that individual to take progressive steps.
The department considers it impressive that almost every post-tariff unreleased IPP prisoner currently in prison has now received such a case review. The initiative has delivered well; between July 2016 and April 2022, 1,877 thorough reviews were completed, with many individuals going on from this platform to complete the work required to secure their next progressive step. In fact, 552 prisoners in this cohort have subsequently been released and a further 537 secured a progressive move to open conditions. It is clear that these reviews have, in conjunction with prison and community offender managers, led to improved individual pathways to progression, notwithstanding the fact that many are still struggling to progress due to their challenging behaviour, complex needs and the risks that they pose. Such cases are revisited through an update to the original case review and further multidisciplinary discussions of next steps.
Another key success of the action plan is the planning and implementation of three specialist progression regimes, which brings the total of such regimes to four. They collectively offer 385 places. These regimes, at His Majesty’s Prisons Warren Hill, Erlestoke, Humber and Buckley Hall, operate in closed, adult male prisons and provide opportunities for prisoners to gain a fuller understanding of their risks and problematic behaviours, and support to address them. Progression regimes aim to reintroduce the responsibilities, tasks and routines associated with daily life in the community, to test prisoners’ readiness to respond appropriately to trust where it is placed in them, and to encourage the active pursuit of activities and relationships that support rehabilitation. The system and the Government are conscious of the pressures posed on persons who have spent a long time incarcerated on returning to ordinary life. Although not all IPP prisoners would be ready to move to a progression regime due to the unique regime offering increased freedoms and responsibilities, it has proved an important opportunity for many to secure future release, and will be for many more who arrive there in the future.
Also worthy of note is the delivery of the IPP progression panels initiative, led by the probation service, which supports progression for those serving the IPP sentence in prison and in the community. These panels offer a multidisciplinary approach to risk management and progression, enabling cases which may have stalled to be put back on the right progression pathway. The panels are informed by the psychology services’ case reviews and are an important part of the wider toolkit to improve progression of IPP offenders. These are used prior to release but mainly following release to enable the effective management of individuals while on licence in the community. To date, over 6,600 IPP progression panels have been held across community and custodial settings.
The final success that I would like to highlight today to your Lordships is the addition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act earlier this year which requires the Secretary of State to automatically refer every eligible IPP offender to the Parole Board for consideration of licence termination. This takes effect once 10 years have elapsed since their first release and then annually thereafter. I note that this period is one which is challenged by the report of the Joint Select Committee, and the department looks forward to engaging with that matter in due course. This is something that your Lordships’ House certainly played an important part in delivering.
I join others in acknowledging the work and approach of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, in relation to consideration of the impact, value and merit of the IPP sentence. I think it was my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier, in particular, who made mention of that, but others did as well.
This amendment built further on what was previously delivered through the IPP action plan, which was to amend policy to seek proactively to ensure all eligible cases for licence termination made application to the Parole Board. Every eligible case will be considered by the Parole Board and, where successful, will lead to the IPP licence, and IPP sentence as a whole, being brought to a definitive end.
I am aware that many of your Lordships considered that this change did not go far enough and have pushed for a reduction on the period before individuals are eligible for consideration to have their IPP licences terminated. That featured, as I say, in the recommendations of the Joint Select Committee, although its primary recommendation has sought to go much further: to set up a time-limited expert committee, as your Lordships have heard, to advise on the practical implementation of a resentencing exercise, which the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice could then consider. As stated previously, all recommendations within the report will be considered thoroughly. However, I am unable to comment on the Government’s views on the report’s recommendations until that formal response is available.
Although the successes coming from the IPP action plan, which I have sought to outline, are certainly encouraging, it is crucial at the same time to recognise the enormous challenges faced in working with this cohort to best effect, and the challenges that a refreshed IPP action plan will need to tackle. As the number of IPP prisoners who have never been released continues to decrease, the proportion of those who remain in prison who committed more serious offences and whose cases are particularly complex continues to grow. These prisoners, when not being released by the Parole Board, are still assessed to pose a high risk of committing further violent or sexual offences. These risks and associated behaviours must be addressed, and that has to be kept in mind when we consider IPP sentences because there is a risk-management component involved in that. It is not a simple task.
The Government’s priority continues to be to protect the public, but we remain committed fully to doing all that we can to support the safe progression of those serving IPP sentences.
My Lords, at the risk of prolonging my noble friend’s speech—I sense that he might be sitting down shortly—what can he say in response to my question about what he will do to secure a meeting with the families and the Secretary of State on 19 October, or as soon after that as possible?
I can give my noble friend an assurance that there will be engagement with the bodies to which he referred in his submission.
As your Lordships recognise, it is a mark of the health of a society that it extends compassion to victims of crime as well as to those who find themselves in custody as a result of having committed it. The proposals that the Government will bring forward once we have considered the terms of the JSC report will, I hope, assist that and permit people to reform and to enter into society to lead as full and useful a life as they may.
Times Education Commission Report
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am very glad to introduce and set the scene for this debate on the report of the Times Education Commission, which was published in June, attracting a good deal of praise, not least from former Secretaries of State for Education of both main political parties. That was an indication of the widespread consensus in its favour that the report evoked. I should mention at the outset that in the last few days the Royal Society has sent me its endorsement of the report’s key findings. That august body stresses that Britain needs an education system that acknowledges
“the value of academic study, technical training and career pathways.”
The commission had 22 very distinguished members, including four who sit in your Lordships’ House, and it is good to see one of them, the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, in his place today. It was chaired by the well-known Times columnist, Rachel Sylvester, noted for her acute assessments of political life. Her deputy chairman was Sir Anthony Seldon, a prolific historian who has long been prominent in the world of education. Their colleagues were all leading figures in the fields of business, science, the arts, politics and of course education itself. They worked intensively for over a year. They have produced a unanimous report—no mean feat in an area of policy where controversy thrives.
In the report, the commission makes 45 recommendations, all designed to equip our country with an education system fit for the 21st century. No one who reads the report can fail to be struck by the success with which the commission has carried out its work. Its conclusions and recommendations deserve the most careful consideration by the Government, the political parties and the country at large, particularly by the people with the closest interest in the proposals: families, teachers, employers and, of course, students—the working population of tomorrow.
The report charts a clear course of action, not for the replacement of the existing education system but for its evolution to secure the improvements that, in the commission’s view, are needed if Britain is to thrive in this century. Economic policy alone, even when successfully constructed, can never ensure a nation’s prosperity. Conservatives in particular should recall the words of Disraeli:
“Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends.”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/6/1874; col. 1618.]
In my experience, it is always a good idea to quote Disraeli in the presence of my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking; he is temporarily absent from his place, but I know that my noble friend Lord Willetts has a considerable interest in Disraeli as well. Disraeli’s simple truth can be easily obscured by the many other issues that clamour for attention day by day in political debate.
A little belatedly, I must declare my interest as president of the Independent Schools Association. Its members, nearly 600 strong, are small in size, diverse in character and successful in performance—not just academically but in wider terms, such as involvement in their local communities, to which the commission’s report rightly attaches great importance. They are totally ignored by the national media, which skews the perception of the independent sector as a whole as if it consisted only of big, expensive institutions. This large group of small schools forms part of a wider organisation, the Independent Schools Council, which has some 1,300 members that it accredits and represents.
The report treats independent schools with the same critical rigour that it brings to bear on other elements of the education system. It calls for
“much greater collaboration between state and independent schools”
“Many more private schools should join multi-academy trusts, sharing assets and expertise across the group”.
There is indeed no better way of drawing the two education sectors more closely together, wherever feasible. But there is great merit too in partnership schemes between schools in the two sectors, through which teachers and pupils work together as colleagues to their mutual benefit. Today, such partnership schemes are flourishing in their thousands across the country.
The inclusion in the report of wise comment about independent schools, a small component of the system as a whole, is an indication of the report’s comprehensive character. In this respect it is, I think, unprecedented. There have been reports and government papers galore on schools, universities and other individual parts of the system. Here we are given the carefully considered recommendations of a panel of experts on the system as a whole, from early years through to lifelong learning. It is the range of this report that gives it such significance and stature.
The commission has devised a bold 12-point plan, which would carry its recommendations into effect. At the very centre stands its proposal for a British baccalaureate. It would offer broader academic and vocational qualifications at the age of 18, with parity of funding for pupils in both routes, so students would be able to gain high-quality qualifications in a wider range of subjects and disciplines, as in other advanced countries. Time and again, across the House we have called for an end to the decline of sport, drama, music and other creative subjects in our schools. The commission’s plan would bring them back to the heart of education where they belong.
A YouGov poll carried out for the commission found that 72% of parents were in favour of
“all schools receiving extra government funding to provide additional extracurricular activities like sport, drama, music, debating or dance.”
For me, and for many others across the House, music has a particular importance. Its neglect over recent years would, I know, have once again stirred impassioned comment from my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood, chairman of the Royal College of Music, if ill health had not prevented him taking part in this debate.
It is an area in which the gap between independent and state schools tends to be particularly wide. Many independent schools are trying to help close it by working in partnership with their state sector colleagues. But it is the kind of approach that the commission’s plan embodies that could help bring the glories of music to our young people throughout the country. Above all, the commission’s plan makes provision for both knowledge and skills. Are both not required in our fast-changing economy?
I will not go through the plan point by point; noble Lords will have studied it and formed views about it. This debate provides an opportunity to consider them. But what should happen after our debate? The Government should, of course, give the report careful consideration as they continue to review their Schools Bill, a measure strongly criticised across this House on a number of specific grounds, and more widely for its lack of ambition and vision.
But we need to look beyond this particular Government. If a report like this had appeared when I was in the Conservative Research Department years ago, I would have said at once, “This is manifesto territory”. It used always to be the case that policy groups, serviced by the Conservative Research Department and drawing on the work of outside experts, were set up to prepare the ground for election manifestos. This has not happened in recent years in the Conservative Party. I suggest that now is the time to revive the practice, with a Conservative education policy group, stimulated by this report, leading the way. Who better to chair such a group than my noble friend Lord Willetts, an authority on education and on conservatism, whose features and character so badly need restating today?
The quality of government suffers if party election manifestos are not based on detailed, serious policy work conducted within the parties themselves. We have seen some of the ill effects of the absence of such work in certain policies of the Conservative Party over recent years. It simply will not do for a Conservative election manifesto to be cobbled together by one or two people at the last moment, with contents that take the party as a whole almost entirely by surprise. Should not renewed policy work within parties seek as much consensus as possible between them? Do we really want education to be a fierce party-political battleground? Is that in the national interest?
When I referred to the report of the Times Education Commission in the House in June, my noble friend Lord Cormack, who unfortunately cannot be in his place, quoted those well-known words from the Book of Proverbs:
“Where there is no vision, the people perish”.
The report of the Times Education Commission sets out both a vision and the means of achieving it. In the words of the report,
“Education should combine skills and knowledge; character and qualifications; oracy and literacy; emotional as well as intellectual understanding.”
Is this not the kind of system that a successful Britain needs? I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. I applaud him for securing the debate and for his introduction. I declare my education interests in the register, particularly my interest as a co-owner of Suklaa, which has a number of education clients. I am also a board member of Century Tech and an adviser to Nord Anglia Education, and I chair the E-ACT multi-academy trust, among other things.
In my view, there can never be a more important time for us to thoroughly re-examine education and what we are doing with our school system in particular. This is a time when the brittleness of our resilience is being tested—the resilience of the planet, the economy and our political system. A lot of change is going on, and it would be easy to find ourselves with an absence of hope. There is one public service that is about the future: education. When we talk about a national education service in our policy conversations, in many ways our vision is for a national hope service.
I hugely applaud the Times for making the decision to resource and commission this really thorough and excellent piece of work. I pay tribute to the four Members of your Lordships’ House who served on that commission. I look forward to the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Rees, and it is good to see the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, in his place listening to the debate. I was also pleased to see that the chair of the Select Committee, Robert Halfon from the other place, was part of this commission.
We should take this really seriously, in part because the commission makes the case for change in education compelling. This country’s school system is high-stakes, with a high level testing and accountability. According to the commission’s report, we have the highest amount of testing of children anywhere in the developed world. We have great professionals working in our schools and, by and large, we have really good schools. We have a system that, in many cases and in many ways, is working really well for the purpose for which it was designed.
Unfortunately, I disagree with that purpose in the current context, because it appears that the system was designed to filter children. It was built during an age of an industrial economy, where swathes of people could leave education without much in the way of qualifications or skills but could still get reasonably rewarding work in factories or by marrying people working in factories. Because we largely now have norm-referenced examinations in our public examination system—we are talking about Ofqual tightening up the grade boundaries again next summer—large numbers of children will fail; that is how the system is designed. Of course, those children most likely to fail in such a system are those born to disadvantage. That is not fair.
I believe in education as something that lifts people up and releases the talents of all children. Having a school system in this country that is obsessed with the academic while neglecting the social, emotional and physical literacy of our children does not serve our nation well. Those who get left behind by the system become a burden on us as taxpayers, because we do not have an economy that is designed to pick up the slack in a modern labour market where people without higher levels of education will struggle to prosper and to get work.
We have some peculiarities in our system: it is remarkably broad within the academic context up to the age of 16, and then it narrows massively between the ages of 16 and 19 with A-levels, for those who pursue that route. This is because, in the end, it is a filtering system for universities. It serves that system pretty well, but it does not serve the rest. We retain a snobbery about the vocational route. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, is in his place and, as ever, look forward with great enthusiasm to his contribution. The work he has done on university technical colleges as institutions for 14 to 19 year-olds and trying to break down that snobbishness about the vocational route is to be applauded. Not everyone has been successful in this regard but plenty have, and he has been hampered in his efforts by a system that is not really designed to work with enrolment at 14. This means that he has a disproportionate number of young people coming to UTCs who have not enjoyed success in education, and his institutions then have to deal with them.
I hear complaints every week from employers that our education system is not producing an output that they need. They have to train too many people as they join the workforce in quite basic things, because we are bringing up children with an ingrained fear of failure. If you are in the current work situation, where we need creative, collaborative and problem-solving workers, you have to learn to fail successfully by learning from those failures in order to progress—yet we do not nurture that culture. I hear the same from young people and from parents: that they are impatient to see our education system significantly change.
At its harshest we have those with special educational needs and disabilities on education, health and care plans. We have 4% of our pupil population on EHCPs and, statistically, only 4% of those on an EHCP will get a job. What a waste of talent in our school system that we indulge. I can also talk about the mental health crisis. Within E-ACT, we are responsible for educating 18,000 children. Statistically, 3,000 of those are likely to self-harm during their school career. We have profound problems that we should be talking about, and this commission report and this debate from the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is our opportunity.
What of the prescription from the commission? We have been waiting for the British baccalaureate for a long time. One of the biggest regrets of those of us who were involved in education during the Blair/Brown years was our failure to adopt the Tomlinson proposals around a post-16 baccalaureate. That was a profound mistake. It is notable that, among the people who have endorsed the commission’s findings are former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major. I also noted that, during the recent Conservative leadership contest, the losing candidate, Rishi Sunak, also advocated something similar to a British baccalaureate. I would hope that, as parties think about this proposal for a much broader post-16 offer that mirrors those of successful economies around the world, they will also want to see things like maths continuing all the way through until 18; again, that is something that we see around the world.
I hugely applaud the commission advocating a significant rebalancing of funding towards the early years. I also applaud what it says around a strategic embedded use of technology, particularly at a time of teacher shortage. It is really important to magnify the impact of great teachers using technology. I applaud very much the sense that our higher education institutions should partner more with further education institutions, so that they can extend their reach into parts that, geographically, they struggle to get to. The notion of electives around access to the creative subjects and to citizenship activity is to be commended. A national well-being survey on an annual basis is of course also to be welcomed.
In many ways, the prescriptions, or the 12-point plan, that the commission report produces—most of which is hard to argue with—should be the stimulant for the debate. The final point in that 12-point plan is a 15-year strategy for education. In a political setting, it is quite unpopular to talk about taking education out of politics; there will be certain things that will just always need to be there, such as funding. The biggest issue facing us at the moment as a multi-academy trust is how on earth we are going to keep the doors open and stay financially solvent if the inflationary pressures coming through the system are not met by some kind of funding for education. Funding will always be a political issue; whether we are successfully recruiting enough teachers of a high enough quality will always be a political issue. But I applaud the notion that, across parties—perhaps this Chamber is a great place to start—we could develop some longer-term consensus on what sort of education we want. Ultimately, I want a system in which every child can thrive, with a diverse curriculum offer and diversity of provision that maximises the opportunity of technology to be able to link institutions and to link learners across the country and the world. It should be a system where every child feels safe and loved and where every child learns to care for themselves, for others and for their natural environment—both for the present and for their future.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for enabling us to have this debate and the Times Education Commission for its very thoughtful analysis and its clear conclusions and recommendations. Some of those recommendations are similar to those reached by other recent reports, some are new and some require further discussion, but all of them share a concern to improve educational outcomes for all our young people.
I was privileged to chair the Select Committee on Youth Unemployment last year. We reported in November, almost a year ago. I just say in passing that we still await the allocation of time to debate that report on the Floor of this Chamber. I am not sure why it takes quite so long for Select Committee reports to be discussed, for ours is not the only one in this position.
I spent most of my professional career with the Open University, so I was pleased to read in the commission’s report its commitment to lifelong learning. As the report says:
“The idea that education is something that stops at 18 or 21 is increasingly at odds with the reality of a rapidly changing world.”
However, I ask the Minister if the Government can say anything more about the lifelong loan entitlement: it would be very helpful to know. I understand that it was confirmed last week at the Conservative Party conference that it remains government policy to launch it in 2025, but it is now many months since the skills Act passed this House, so it remains to be seen how much of an impetus to lifelong learning it will be.
In the context of lifelong learning, the commission’s call for the creation of new university campuses in higher education cold spots seems a very promising proposal, but of course flexible higher education will be crucial to delivering this, given the geographical scale across the country of 50 or so such centres. That is because flexible higher education tends to have a higher entry rate into higher education cold spots outside large cities, because there is inevitably limited face-to-face provision there. The option of supported distance learning is also very time effective and cost effective for students in remoter rural areas.
One of the objectives of our Select Committee on Youth Unemployment was to consider the impact of the Covid pandemic on young people, so it is very useful to see the publication just this morning of a landmark study involving longitudinal analysis undertaken by the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies and the Sutton Trust. It is, I understand, the largest study of its kind into the impacts of the pandemic on young people’s life chances. The report says that the majority of students say that their academic progress has suffered and that their future plans have changed due to the pandemic. Eighty per cent of young people say that their academic progress has suffered as a result of the pandemic. Importantly, state school pupils are more than twice as likely to feel that they have fallen behind their classmates than independent school pupils. Nearly half—45% of all pupils—do not believe they have been able to catch up with lost learning; almost half of young people have accessed no catch-up education; and a large majority have not accessed tutoring.
There are many other pieces of evidence in the report that merit further study, but I want to repeat the conclusions reached by Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, who said today:
“These findings show that far more needs to be done for young people. While all young people have been affected by the pandemic, there is clear evidence that students from less well-off households have been impacted most. Funding provided so far for catch-up has been a drop in the ocean. It’s less than a third of what is required and it’s at a level three times lower per person than in the US. The government’s education recovery plan must be much more ambitious, or we will blight the life chances of a whole generation.”
That is clearly a very important point.
The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, made mention of the Royal Society response to the Times Education Commission, and I agree with him that its conclusions are very important. The Royal Society talked of a narrowing path to success in the 16 to 19 curriculum breadth and employment outcomes, and the importance of reviewing the school education system, including exploring how a broader education up to age 18 should be undertaken to provide the skills to drive sustainable growth founded on increased productivity. The Youth Unemployment Select Committee reached similar conclusions:
“The Government must recalibrate the compulsory components of the national curriculum, taking into account its capacity to equip young people with essential knowledge and the technical, cultural, creative and professional skills the economy demands. Skills development and the tackling of skills shortages should be central to curriculum development … This would not involve removing key subjects, but rather refocusing on those that are essential to a good education, increasing school autonomy and facilitating the development of a broad range of skills.”
These are clearly very important issues.
The Royal Society talked of the need for a mathematical futures programme, since it has been estimated that at least one in four economically active adults is functionally innumerate. The Royal Society also says that there should be an acceleration in science teaching to give young people the world-leading science education that they deserve. In my view, these are crucial proposals if the Government’s growth agenda is to be fulfilled.
On investment in people, I draw your Lordships’ attention to a report published in July by the Prince’s Trust and the Learning and Work Institute, supported by HSBC UK, entitled The Power of Potential. The report finds that
“there are almost half a million NEET young people”—
that is, not in education, employment or training—
“who are able to and want to work”,
and with the right support, could help to fill the record number of vacancies we have. Many young people with mental and physical health problems and caring responsibilities are keen to find work despite these challenges. Of those NEET young people polled, more than eight in 10 said that they had employment or career aspirations within the next three to five years. The question, as our Select Committee addressed, is what will change to ensure that we do not waste the talent of so many of our young people. Nearly 10% are NEET. That figure is far too high, and it is for the Government now to move ahead, given all the evidence they have.
Some of the conclusions of the commission are very important, and some are similar to our work on youth unemployment. On the question of an electives premium for all schools to be spent on activities including drama, music, dance and sport, we had similar conclusions in relation to digital skills, design and technology, and creative skills, which are extremely important given the apparent decline in provision in our schools in recent years.
The commission also proposed setting up a new cadre of elite technical and vocational sixth forms with close links to industry, to be known as career academies. I find this a most interesting proposal, which would require further discussion, but I think we need to consider what it means in the context of current provision—I am thinking of university technical colleges and the T-level curriculum. The commission also recommends providing a laptop or tablet for every child, which our committee concurred with.
The commission says that there should be a counsellor in every school and an annual well-being survey of pupils. I concur with that and would add careers advice to it, specifically how important it is, particularly for those students leaving school, to continue to have one-to-one advisory support for what they are doing to develop their careers.
The commission wants to reform Ofsted so that it works collaboratively with schools. I agree, and our committee said that:
“The Government must also recalibrate progress indicators so that schools wishing to focus on practical, technical, cultural, business- and work-related skills alongside core subjects are able to do so without being downgraded on Government performance measures.”
Research from UCAS has found that two in five students believed that more information and advice would have led them to make better choices. It also found that one in three applicants first start thinking about higher education at primary school, but that disadvantaged students were more likely to consider HE at a later stage than their peers, which we know can limit choices. Additionally, it says that, despite the Baker clause, it found that one in three students reported not receiving any information about apprenticeships from their school. UCAS has made significant financial investment to ensure that its services for would-be apprentices are as strong as they are for potential undergraduates. It says its ambition is to act as a digital Baker clause to ensure that everyone, regardless of background or location, gets independent, high-quality advice on all the choices available to them. I commend all of that.
This debate is about the Times Education Commission report entitled Bringing Out the Best. The Select Committee on youth unemployment that I chaired was called Skills for Every Young Person. With skills, we will bring out the best in all our young people.
My Lords, first I would like to thank my noble friend Lord Lexden and congratulate him on creating the opportunity to debate the curriculum and assessment in our schools. In his work for the Tory party over many years, he has always taken a great interest in what we say about education in our manifestos—and there is a great job to be done on that in our next manifesto.
We do not often speak about education here in the Lords. This happens to be the first three-hour debate to discuss the curriculum and assessment since 2010, and yet we have in our House a great number of people who know a great deal about education at all stages—primary, secondary and universities. We really ought to find more opportunities to debate education.
The Boris Johnson Government was not a listening Government—they just went ahead. We do not know yet whether the new Government under Liz Truss are listening or not. The one thing we do know about her Government is that they have one overwhelming object, which is economic growth. She hopes that this can be achieved simply by cutting taxes and changing supply matters. She will soon find out that they might be helpful but they are not of themselves assurances of economic growth. In the week that she said this, she also announced that the number of job vacancies in our country was 1.3 million. That is a skills gap of 1.3 million people who cannot be employed by industries that are expected to grow—the skills gap is there. I tried to find a speech in the last 12 years from any Secretary of State or any Education Minister about how they proposed to fill the skills gap. I could not find one. In fact, in 2016, the body that measured the skills gap was abolished. We now have an enormous skills gap.
Why do we have that? The reason is that Michael Gove, who did know a great deal about education, imposed his own idea of a curriculum on our system, namely eight academic subjects. He was implementing the theory of an American educationalist called Hirsch who said that if you give the most disadvantaged children access to academic subjects, it will transform their lives. We have been the testbed for that theory for 12 years and it has totally failed. The number of disadvantaged children today is exactly the same as it was in 2010. That is the indictment of Conservative education policy for the last 12 years, so we need a new curriculum.
What has happened as a result? Design technology has been virtually eliminated from schools at age 11 to 16. Cultural subjects, which are now very much in demand because of streaming and Netflix, have fallen by 40%, 50% and 60%. We are not going to get much economic growth from this curriculum, if it lasts much longer.
If you want evidence, do not just listen to me. Chapter 3 on the curriculum and chapter 4 on assessment are the best chapters of the report we are talking about. Chapter 3 says that James Dyson, the greatest engineer in the country, commented to the commission that it was an “economic disaster” that design technology has been excluded from the curriculum. I beg the Government to listen to people such as James Dyson. If they do not think that that is convincing enough, they should listen to Kate Bingham, the lady who ran the vaccination procurement programme so successfully. Chapter 3 cites her saying that if she had a magic wand, she would wave it and create significant practical and technical education in all our schools. A growing number of people are saying this.
Since I have been promoting technical colleges, I have had to deal with eight different Secretaries of State. I tried to meet them all, but two were there for such a short time that they did not have any meetings at all. Of the six I met, not one was a real educationalist, apart from Michael Gove. The others had very little knowledge of education apart from their own school experience. Certainly, apart from Gove, they did not produce any original ideas on education in that period. None of them is remembered for introducing anything novel or interesting. For the last 12 years, our education system has been run by the department; the Ministers have had very little influence on it. I hope that might change.
This report is not the only report to be issued recently. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, just spoke. In November, our Select Committee produced the report Skills for Every Young Person. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, was also on the committee. The report has about 100 different suggestions. I am told that the draft response prepared by the last Government was going to accept not one. We recommended that the curriculum should be changed fundamentally and that it should be reduced from eight to five subjects—English, maths, two sciences and data skills—and that every school should then choose which others it wants, with a much wider range of subjects including engineering, business studies and particularly the cultural subjects.
It is extraordinary that cultural subjects such as the performing arts, drama and dance have fallen by 40% or 50% at the very time when Netflix and streaming services are expanding rapidly. We are building new film studios in Britain and will eventually produce more films than Hollywood. I am very glad that eight of the university technical colleges I have been promoting now focus on the entertainment industry. We have one at Elstree, next to the film studio, one at Pinewood, and one in Salford Quays, where the television industry is. They are training youngsters in not only the techniques and machinery but the performing arts themselves. This is the sort of education we need in our country.
If the Times Education Commission report was the third report, the fourth was from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It said that there has been no change in the school disadvantage gap over the last 12 years. Schools are no longer the agents of social mobility. This is perfectly true. You still have that huge number, the forgotten third, who are not benefiting at all from social mobility.
The fifth one was the Institute for Government on the exam question, again advocating a change and moving away from GCSEs and A-levels.
The sixth, which is very interesting, which Labour Party members, I suppose, have read—or some in the Labour Party, because it is by Tony Blair—is called Ending the Big Squeeze on Skills: How to Futureproof Education in England. This is a very well researched and very good report and I hope that the Front Bench of the Labour Party will find a way of debating it in this House. It has some very interesting suggestions.
One idea that goes back to the very first report was from the high mistress of St Paul’s School way back last October. She asked 800 people, mainly teachers, what they wanted. Half were from the public sector, half from the private sector. They all wanted a change in the curriculum. They wanted it to be more creative and more imaginative, developing curiosity, innovation and inventiveness.
The report from Blair says much the same. There should be a commission set up immediately to examine the curriculum and the need for changes to it and to assessment. It is a very commendable report. It is quite substantial.
There is huge volume of opinion now—the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, said exactly the same thing—thinking and talking about education in a very creative way and wanting a change. We have to make the curriculum suited to this age of digital and net zero. We are miles away from it.
Take data skills; these ought to be embedded into the curriculum at all ages. They simply are not. Only about 10% of children take GCSE computing science. The other 90% do not do it. In fact, since the other GCSE was abolished in 2016, computing is now taught 40% less than it was in 2016. This cannot be defended by any government Minister. There are now fewer children in our schools being taught anything about computing and data skills than in 2016, when the rest of the world is roaring ahead. The head of Apple, Tim Cook, has said very clearly that every child should be able to code. Very few people code in our country. But coding clubs are starting in primary schools and they will spread. They want to spread completely over the whole country.
I came across one primary school on the borders of Wales that taught computing from the age of five and six. All the teachers were able to code themselves and they taught the children coding. By 14, they could almost take the GCSE exam. But when they went into the secondary schools in that part of Shropshire and Herefordshire, they would go backwards because the schools were not teaching anything in computing. It can be done. The important thing to appreciate is that those young children should be taught how to use the thing which they all have in their pockets, not just for Instagram, Facebook and Twitter but as a source of huge knowledge and expertise. It can be done. That is the first thing I would say.
In any data curriculum, all students should have access to a computer or a tablet. It is great credit to the Government that they have done a lot of that, but it falls short of all at the moment. They did it very largely because the pandemic required distance learning. Every child, even the most disadvantaged, should have that facility—number one.
This is such a serious issue that next September all children starting at 11 or moving into 16 should be taught computing or data skills. That is a very challenging task—I know that—because there is a teacher shortage. Even now as we are talking, if this Government really wanted to make data skills a major priority, they would be saying to all the teacher training colleges you must start now before Christmas to teach data skills and coding.
It is not just coding. Company after company came to our Select Committee and said, “We want 18 year-olds to have employability skills.” We asked, “What do you mean by employability skills?” They said first, “Data skills are absolutely essential.” Then they said, “We want children who have experience of working in teams.” That does not happen for 11 to 18 year-olds: the only teams are in sport, not education. There is no collaborative problem-solving, which is part of life. They also said that they wanted children to have experience of making things with their hands and designing things on computers, but you cannot design something on a computer until you have been taught CADCAM. CADCAM is not even in the T-level digital curriculum, but it is essential and all children should be able to start learning it.
Coding is not the only thing to learn; one must learn the ability to join IT teams, which most industries now have, which means they must have knowledge of artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and virtual reality. These are all happening in industry today but the education system in our country is just not providing them.
In our UTC at City Airport, we have a sixth form using virtual reality—about 100 youngsters, girls as well as boys, sitting with headsets on their heads and designing things with two big screens ahead of them. I think it is the only sixth form in the country doing that; I have not heard of another one. Companies are using virtual reality much more; it will be very important in education, apart from anything else, and it is being used for design purposes in industry. I already mentioned the views of the chief executive of Apple.
It also applies to the green agenda. Our committee was told that there could be 400,000 jobs in 2030 in what is called the green agenda. This concerns not only climate change but electric vehicles, new fossil fuel substitutes—hydrogen and such things—the sustainability of species, and huge changes in agriculture and horticulture. None of that is anywhere that I can find in the school curriculum, with one exception, which I learned from my grandson, who has just started to do his A-levels. He chose geography—rather surprisingly, I thought, because it was thought not to be very important in my time. But geography is now the one area where you can study climate change. He is fanatical on this: at the age of 16, he refused to fly anywhere, which makes for very expensive holidays by railways and so on. Anyway, I learned that from him. Where else is it done?
The green agenda is multidisciplinary. It deals not only with climate change itself but with agriculture, horticulture, hydrogen, and all these other things. We need it built in to the curriculum as soon as possible.
The Government have launched a competition for 15 new schools. They asked for the initial bids in September and will have the full bids by Christmas. Those free schools should be only two types of schools: special schools for children who have special disabilities of one sort or another, of which there is a lack in the country and there should be more; the others should be technical schools. The last thing we want is more ordinary secondary schools.
I am trying to inject into the Government’s thinking a sense of urgency about this, because if we go on with the present curriculum for the next two years we will have virtually no economic growth. It is not helping to fill the skills gap for our country and our industry. There must be changes. We cannot go on as we have—that is a growing feeling in the country.
The schools I have set up over the past 12 years—we now have 45—have 19,000 students and the best destination record of almost any schools in the country. We produce 20% apprenticeships at 18; other schools produce only 6%.
I know that the Whip is waiting for me, but every Minister so far has spoken for less than 14 minutes, so there is a little bargaining to be done, unless he wishes to move that I should be no longer heard. He could always do that if he would like to.
I would also say, if I may, that we also send 55% of our children to universities and 75% of them do STEM subjects. The rest get local jobs, which means that they do not drift away from their towns down to London. We have to take these issues very seriously and bring such influence as we have to bear on the Government to listen to us, to respond and to act.
My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for facilitating this debate and to the Times for establishing the commission, which has produced such an impressive report. It is fair to say that the report has been widely welcomed, first as a means of shining a light on the problems currently facing the education system, which the commission damningly found to be “failing on every measure”.
Secondly, the report offers a raft of proposals that would help reshape education in this country and guide it to a place where it can not just adapt to the needs of the 21st century but thrive on the challenges that the rapidly changing demands of the economy require.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, has just said that he felt chapters 3 and 4 of the report were the most important. They certainly contain important recommendations. But, to be frank, almost everything necessary to lay the foundations for the future of education, the future of the economy and, by extension, the future of the country is contained in chapter 2 of the commission’s report, entitled “Social mobility and levelling up”.
I have said to noble Lords before that I dislike the term “social mobility”. It is restrictive because it seems to imply that if just a few people improve their learning and subsequent status, that is progress. To a certain extent, that may well be true, but I prefer the term “social justice”, which casts the net much wider and seeks to make improvements based on raising the standard of living, including education, for everyone in disadvantaged categories.
Chapter 2 concerns early years, with a number of very necessary proposals, not least in the short term bringing the early years pupil premium—currently £302—into line with the primary school rate of £1,345. As with most of the commission’s proposals, this is costed: at £130 million a year it would represent a tiny fraction of the overall DfE budget of around £45 billion.
It is critical that we invest in the early years to avoid costs later in a child’s life. This would have a major impact on children with special educational needs and disabilities. Some young children undoubtedly need more support than others, but to reach them we need high-quality services for all.
The commission’s call for the eight programmes that support childcare being managed by the DfE is certainly laudable, but I believe it is undeliverable. The silo mentality that operates within government departments would never allow that to happen. Too often, the cross-cutting approach on delivery that is essential is lacking, leading to many of the most vulnerable children falling into the gaps between public service provision and in many cases becoming invisible. The complex and disjointed system of services—national and local—often overwhelms the most disadvantaged families, particularly if they have complex needs or a disabled child.
This stems, in part, from significant underfunding, but also results from the failure to use existing resources as effectively as possible. Children and families need services that offer coherent, relevant and familiar support based on local strengths and relationships. There is limited and inconsistent communication and collaboration between different agencies, which means that families often waste time providing them all with the same information. That point was made forcibly by the Public Services Committee of your Lordships’ House in its report of November 2020.
Total public spending on early education is around £5.5 billion, yet costs for families are among the highest in the OECD, according to the Education Policy Institute’s 2020 annual report. Serious concerns have also been raised by the Institute for Fiscal Studies about how we prioritise that spending. It demonstrated that support for low-income workers fell from 45% of total childcare spending in 2007 to just 17% 10 years later.
The Government should fundamentally overhaul the early years funding model and replace it with a new formula that focuses more effectively on the child. That revised funding settlement should prioritise quality of care and access for the most disadvantaged children, and should aim to tackle educational inequalities, to ensure that children are school-ready.
The pandemic has highlighted many of the failings in the education system but, of course, it did not create them. Disadvantaged pupils are now more than 18 months behind their better-off peers at 16 and 40% of that gap is evident when they first arrive at school.
Rethinking our approach to early years education is therefore vital and urgent. I agree with my noble friend Lord Knight that there is much to commend a British baccalaureate, as proposed by the commission in chapter 4—one that mixes academic and vocational qualifications. The UK is an outlier in requiring students to specialise so much at 16. As the report states pungently:
“No other developed country’s teenagers sit as many high-stakes tests as ours do and the focus on academic attainment has unbalanced the system”.
The commission’s report identifies the problems with the current system and notes the concerns about change. Students currently study a narrower range of subjects at A-level than in 2010, which reduces their resilience to fluctuations in future employment needs.
This is a direct consequence of the Government’s obsession with the English baccalaureate, which narrows students’ choices. The Royal Society supports the proposal to broaden education up to the age of 18 and advocates a wider range of study options that would mean more young people could try more subjects for longer, helping them to develop a broader range of skills. The British baccalaureate would be a customised version of the international baccalaureate, which has almost 2 million students around the world—including around 4,500 in this country already. It would cost around £1 billion a year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, but would also remove what it says is an historic anomaly in the funding mechanism that dates to the time when the school-leaving age was 16.
The commission identifies low morale in the teaching profession. After 12 years of Conservative Governments, I am sorry to say that we have a demoralised and underpaid workforce, often overpoliced by Ofsted. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, referred to Disraeli. Without going quite as far back as that in the mists of time, I am reminded of a quote from a Cabinet Minister more than 100 years ago—not a Labour one, as we were still six years away from that, but a name that may be familiar to noble Lords on the Liberal Democrats Benches: HAL Fisher, then a Liberal MP and president of the Board of Education. He is perhaps best known for formulating the Education Act 1918, which made school attendance compulsory up to the age of 14. He was also responsible for another Act in the same year that introduced pension provision for all teachers. He stated:
“Elementary teachers are miserably paid, and a discontented teaching class is a social danger.”
Today we have discontented teachers. Unlike in 1918, the Government prefer Ofsted accountability to winning the hearts and minds of teachers to help in developing the school system.
To return to the curriculum, in Committee stage on the Schools Bill—whatever became of that, I wonder?—an issue on which I spoke was oracy, which facilitates the development of numeracy and literacy skills. More than 60% of primary school teachers say that they lack confidence in their ability to develop the speech and language skills of their pupils. A new hub system, similar to those in existence for maths and English, would build that confidence and, ultimately, standards of speech and language skills development on a national scale. I hope I might make some progress with the Minister on this, even if it does not find favour with her when the Bill returns to your Lordships’ House.
The final chapter of the Times Education Commission’s report speaks highly of the lifelong loan entitlement, introduced in the Skills and Post-16 Education Act, but key questions remain on the future of the LLE. Can the Minister provide more detail on how it will support adult learners in particular to follow more flexible ways to upskill and reskill? Will it, as suggested in the report and advocated by the Labour Party, include maintenance provision? Will that be available to all learners, regardless of study mode? I raise that point as those studying through part-time distance learning are currently not able to access maintenance support in England.
Another issue on which the Minister might be able to update noble Lords is the minimum eligibility requirements for access to university. That was a policy position advocated two or three Secretaries of State back—although that time covers a mere four months, I think. Can she say whether it will be taken forward by the current Secretary of State? Nothing has been heard since the DfE consultation on higher education reform, which closed in May, and an update is certainly overdue. Can the Minister confirm that the exemption for part-time provision, as proposed in the consultation, will remain if the policy is enacted?
The Open University was founded on the principle of full inclusion and open entry and has been supported by every UK Government since. However, in general these are problematic times for higher education. The Government—at least, the previous one, as we have yet to hear where the latest version stands on these issues—seemed to think that too many young people go on to higher education, and they too often sought confrontation with universities on issues such as the value, in the narrowest sense, of certain types of degrees to society.
We await the Government’s response to the consultation on the reintroduction of student number caps and minimum eligibility requirements, both of which, if introduced, would disproportionately affect those from disadvantaged backgrounds. From the policymaker perspective, widening access and driving forward social justice must be at the heart of what we try to achieve with education reform.
At one point, the Times Education Commission report states that the focus of higher education policy in Britain
“can be more about who is excluded than who is included.”
No Government should allow such an approach, and I pay tribute to the work of the National Education Opportunities Network, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. It co-ordinates the widening of access to higher education and its success can be measured by the fact that, in 2021-22, almost 80% of entrants to higher education from low-participation neighbourhoods went to NEON-member higher education providers. More encouragement is needed from other providers to encourage young people to be ambitious and not conclude that certain types of study, or certain institutions, are “not for me”.
I do not agree with all the recommendations in the commission’s report—for instance, on the creation of “career academies” and the establishment of satellite university campuses in cold-spot communities. The aims of both are already delivered by further education colleges, which already have an established reach into their communities to promote lifelong learning. Developments along that route would be more profitable and avoid reinventing the wheel. However, the commission deserves much credit for its work, and I hope that the Government will do more than “take note” of the recommendations, which very largely map out a positive route to funding education at all levels to prepare the skills needed for the workforce of the future, while delivering greater social justice.
My Lords, we must thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for bringing this report to our attention. I did not read in it anything that I had not heard before, or at least heard discussed, but if you are interested in education and happen to have been in the upper Chamber of the British Parliament, you probably would have heard most of these things, so that is not a big surprise. The interesting thing is that they are brought together here as a whole. It is good to see this in the round, even for someone such as me, who tends, when he looks at education, to cast half an eye over the special educational needs provision—and if the Minister could tell us where that review has got to, I would be jolly grateful, but there might be a bit of a list there.
Before I go on, I should declare my interests. I am a dyslexic who is president of the British Dyslexia Association, and I am a user of assistive technology and chairman of a company that provides assistive technology. I looked at this from the position of special educational needs and thought, “How do I pull it all together around this one area, and how does that affect the other bits of the subject?” This is something where, in this Govian model of passing English and maths, as a dyslexic you think, “Oh, there’s a little conflict there from the start, isn’t there?” People do not actually get that we are thinking, “Well, this is what we’ve got to do, but we’re the group who will do it worse than others—but we can do it, because since some dyslexics do pass.” We then discover that systematic synthetic phonics is a system which does not help dyslexics. Even if a few get through, some do not. Bad short-term memory means that we do not learn well things such as equations in mathematics. One or two people say that dyslexics do not have short-term memories, but only one or two. Therefore, you have a series of conflicts built in there.
This means that you have a group who experience failure early in our system. It is not the only reason people struggle in special educational needs. If you go through the neurodiverse groups, both dyspraxia and dyscalculia are much bigger than we originally thought a few years ago, and there is attention deficit disorder and various levels of functioning in the autism spectrum. And guess what, lucky teacher? They overlap.
When the report says that classroom teachers should be better trained to deal with this, they should, but you need more than a few classroom teachers being taught how to do this. You need a systemic approach with awareness of how to spot and how to back up, and that things will occur and become present at different times. Early years is a very important sector, where we tend to look for autism, especially at the lower-functioning end. It does not pick up those at the higher-functioning end, who will just be a little awkward and cranky, with a few social problems.
The same is true of all of this: you need continuing awareness at different times to pick this up. This means you need to invest, back up and make sure that people are ready. You will then have to deal with people who are failing. As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, the system may not be that friendly to anyone going through it, but these people are going to be that much more disadvantaged.
I will carry on to some other points. If you invest in things that some of these people might be able to do better, such as sport, music, drama and things that give people a chance to succeed, this group will stand a better chance of succeeding here than they would somewhere else. Regular failure reinforces itself. Failure makes sure that people cannot do things, because they know they are going fail. Think of the damage there: this is not just about failing to get on a course because you have not passed an exam; it is about not being able to integrate with anything.
Going back once again to the Govian model and that initial exam, I have spent a long time on the Back Benches of this Chamber saying that identified dyslexics should be allowed to take apprenticeships, if they can use assistive technology for English, without having to pass an English exam. That was an incredible experience. I forget who it was who said that the system had been run by officials in the department, who could not quite get that somebody could fail or that it was difficult. Ministers did; Ministers agreed with me, then disappeared and came back saying, “This is awfully difficult.” Eventually, the noble Lord, Lord Nash, took on the department and let us win that battle, at least in principle. He deserves eternal credit for that, but life is too short to do it over and again—certainly mine is. I hope that, when the Government look at this and in their replies, they look at ways that mean that people are supported and backed up throughout the systems. They will need backing and even more training-based systems.
What else in this report allows this to happen more easily? The answer is simple: technology. Most ways in which you can support people with educational problems are contained within computers. A few years ago, you had to stick on add-ons to the computer; now, voice recognition and readback is a standard package in just about any computer you can get. Those were the two big things that changed my life about 20 years ago. I hasten to add that they work a lot better now than then, but you still need to be in an environment in which their use is accepted. A classroom has to accept that somebody will produce their work differently. They may need to sit at the back of their class, so that another voice is not on the microphone. If my noble friend Lord Razzall were here, I would tell you in considerable detail what happened when he was sitting behind me and started talking to me when I was making a message in this way; I will leave out the expletives.
We have to learn how to use this and how to structure it, but we have that capacity to make lives a lot easier. Could the noble Baroness, in her reply, give us some idea of the thinking about the use of technology in normal, mainstream classrooms, if we are going to start coding, et cetera? This can help; it is a tool that will touch everyone’s lives.
Nobody has ever challenged me seriously about one idea: no one cares whether the document they are reading was word-processed by somebody talking or somebody tapping a keyboard. If they have, I have not met them. Think about it: it is a written document in front of you. You do not care. You might think that the punctuation or grammar is a little more like spoken than written English, but you can teach that. You can change it. It is that readily available.
Are we going to make sure that these groups outside can actually access the rest of the system, and these basic components, by using the technology? We have to have environments in which people can succeed, and we will make it that much easier if we take this step forward. Teachers have to be trained to spot and encourage people to use this correctly. But it is all there.
The waste in human population that this avoids is massive. The amount of extra time taken by the tiger parent to fight to get their child through will be reduced, such that everybody has an easier life. For the person who does not have the tiger parent who expects them to pass exams, maybe we can get teachers saying, “By the way, you can do it: this is the way.” It would be a major change.
This is not the whole story, but it would make the rest of the story easier for not only those teaching but a large part of the population. If we can integrate this, it means that people can be better employed later on. Knowledge of a subject and the use of technology opens up the world to a whole section of society which was restricted. I hope that we can do this, but what will get in the way—and has got in the way in the past—is an over-adherence to a very seriously academic curriculum, where other levels of success and types of creativity are frowned upon.
I do not know whether the Minister will wholly embrace everything that I have said. When she replies, some idea of what we are doing about the special education needs review would be very helpful—I am sure that not everything I am saying here is alien to the Government, and I hope not, because half of it has been taken from policy documents that they have produced over the years—so we can actually get some idea of where we are going. Because if you can allow people to access and thrive—and it will not just be these groups but people who are just slightly worse at spelling, or take it on later on or do not get the environment at home—you will actually allow people in.
I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Knight, who said at the start of this debate that we have a system now which is designed such that the ideal person is somebody who passes their Oxbridge exam first time and sits down at the age of about 17. There are only a few people who are ever going to do that. So let us make sure we can expand to the rest of them, so that they have reasonable chance of succeeding, and having a meaningful and happy life afterwards. You can always struggle around, and have the brilliant and the lucky get through, but those are not odds that I like.
My Lords, we should thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for instigating this debate. I was privileged to be one of the Times Commissioners, and the report’s thoroughness and readability are owed especially to two people: Rachel Sylvester and Sir Anthony Seldon. The most moving and disturbing section for me was the evidence of the tragic backwardness of deprived five year-olds entering reception classes. Until this is remedied, equal opportunities really are a sham. There is much wise discussion in the report of the optimum school curriculum and how to use AI to supplement the work of teachers.
Having said that, I will focus my comments on post-16 and university-level education, declaring an interest as a member of Cambridge University. After two years of Covid-induced disruption, we cannot expect full reversion to the old normal, nor should we wish for it. The upheaval should energise reforms to the whole post-18 education sector, which needs more institutional variety and more flexibility in its offerings. There is now more experience of online and remote teaching. We can make a more realistic assessment of the most effective use of contact hours for students. We can also learn from institutions that had already spearheaded that transition pre pandemic; for instance, the fast-expanding Arizona State University.
In more traditional universities, the basic lectures on core topics are given live to audiences of 200-plus. There is no real feedback or discussion during these lectures, although, at least in the better institutions, they are supplemented by smaller classes and tutorial groups. Little would be lost if those big lectures were videoed rather than live. Indeed, they could then be more carefully prepared and achieve higher quality. Moreover, not only could they be watched more than once by the primary student audience; they could be made available globally. There have been successful precedents at MIT and Stanford, and scholars such as Harvard’s Michael Sandel have become international stars.
Universities in the UK should either set up platforms themselves or offer their best material as content for the Open University so that it gets wide dissemination. Whereas the overseas campuses set up by some western universities, mainly in Asia, have been rightly criticised as diluting the brand, the wider viewing of good lectures, even if not part of a course offering online credits, should be reputationally positive for the lecturer’s university in the same way as a widely used textbook authored by a faculty member would be. However, what is needed is that students should be able to choose their preferred balance between online and residential courses and to access distance learning of high quality. We need more facilities for part-time study and lifelong learning, and a blurring of the damaging divide between technical and university education.
Incidentally, purely online courses—the so-called MOOCs—have an ambivalent reputation. As stand-alone courses without complementary contact with a real tutor, they are probably satisfactory only for master’s-level vocational courses intended for motivated mature learners studying part-time, but they can have wider benefits as part of a package that incorporates live tutoring as well.
We need to do more than just incorporate virtual activities into the existing framework, though. The higher and further education system needs much more drastic restructuring. Universities all aspire to rise in the same league table, which gives undue weight to research over teaching. Most of their students are between 18 and 21, undergoing three years of full-time, usually residential, education and studying a curriculum that is too narrow even for the minority who aspire to professional academic careers.
Even worse, the school curriculum is too narrow as well, as we have heard. The long-running campaign for an international baccalaureate-style curriculum for 16 to 18 year-olds deserves to succeed but it needs co-operation from universities, whose entrance requirements now overtly disfavour applicants who straddle science and humanities in their A-levels.
We should abandon the view that the standard three-year full-time degree is the minimum worthwhile goal, or indeed the most appropriate one for many students. The core courses offered by the first two years of university education are often the most valuable, both intellectually and vocationally. Moreover, students who realise that the degree course they have embarked on is not right for them or who have personal hardship should be enabled to leave early with dignity, with a certificate to mark what they have accomplished. They should not be disparaged as wastage. They should make the positive claim, as many Americans would, that “I’ve had two years of college”, while those running universities should not be berated for taking risks in admission and should certainly not be pressured to entice students to stay, least of all by lowering degree standards.
More importantly, everyone should have the opportunity to re-enter higher education, maybe part-time or online, at any stage in their lives. This path could become smoother—indeed, routine—if there were a formalised system of transferable credits across the whole system of further and higher education, as urged in the Augar report. We should strive for a flexible grant or loan system offering entitlement to three years’ support, to be taken à la carte at any stage in life. This would mean, for instance, that those who leave university for any reason after two years are not tainted as wastage, but can get some certificate of credit and an entitlement to return and upgrade later.
Admission to the most demanding and attractive courses is naturally competitive and always will be, but what is not acceptable is that the playing field is still far from level. The killer fact, and the most intractable challenge for the access agenda, is that maybe half of the UK’s young people do not receive the quality of teaching at school that allows them a fair prospect of qualifying for the most competitive university courses. Even those who have been at good schools will be handicapped if, because of the specialisation enforced by A-levels, they unwittingly drop science at 16, for instance, and later realise that they wish to pursue it.
It will be a long slog to ensure that high-quality teaching at school is available across the full geographical and social spectrum, and it may be impossible without a narrowing of the gulf between the resources of the private fee-taking schools and those in the state system. In the meantime, it would send an encouraging signal if the UK universities whose entry bar is dauntingly high, such as Oxbridge, were to reserve a fraction of their places for students who do not come straight from school. They could thereby offer a second chance to those who were disadvantaged at 18 but have caught up by earning two years’ worth of credits at other institutions or online, for instance via the Open University. Such students could then advance to degree level, even on the more challenging courses, in maybe two further years.
Let us hope that the recent crisis catalyses constructive innovations in higher education. This sector is currently one of the UK’s distinctive strengths and crucial to our future, but it must not be sclerotic and unresponsive to changes in needs, lifestyle and opportunities. A rethink is overdue if the UK is to sustain its status in a different world. The Times commission’s report sets the wider context, and it should be welcomed by all those in higher and further education.
My Lords, I join other Members of this House in thanking my noble friend Lord Lexden for convening this debate on a very important report. I should register my interests as chancellor of the University of Leicester, a visiting professor at King’s College London and a director of Thames Holdings. It is an excellent report and I see that two commissioners who contributed to it are here in the Chamber at the moment, which is fantastic.
Although a lot of the debate has focused on specific policy proposals—I will turn to two of them myself—there are reasons other than those why this report is so strong. First, the tone of the report is entirely constructive throughout. It does not say that the problems are because there are terrible people running schools, that the colleges are useless or that universities are irresponsible. It realises that most of the time, most people in education are absolutely doing their best in difficult circumstances. Its tone is to try to work with them to improve the opportunities of young people.
The report is full of humanity, not least in the individual examples of the circumstances that some people have to overcome to benefit from education. It is right to recognise how difficult some young people’s circumstances are. If we ignore them and say that the only measure of performance for a university, college or school is how well its students do, regardless of their circumstances, the effect is to incentivise a university, college or school to select students from most advantaged backgrounds because they are the ones who will do best on the metric that the Government have focused on. That is why it is right to take account of personal circumstances when we measure and assess the performance of educational institutions, whatever their level.
I also like the fact that the report cites proper evidence from a range of sources, from social science to neuroscience—it is evidence-based. Nowadays, if we are to make the case for any kind of change, it has to be done on that basis.
Finally, as several noble Lords have said, the report embraces technology, which is changing the way education is delivered. We heard some excellent examples of what this means for people with dyslexia. It is not necessarily a scandal if some students are accessing some or all of a course online. We do not immediately have to fall back on a campaign to shame the education provider into reverting to the world as it was pre Covid. Sometimes online learning can be very effective and other technologies can enhance learning. There are great examples of innovative technologies in the report, and I hope the Minister will endorse technology as one of the most powerful tools that we have for improving the quality of education.
The report then has a very long list of policy proposals, and I will focus on two. The first area of policy is the curriculum at all stages. I personally have been persuaded by the advocates of the importance of knowing stuff. What Ed Hirsch has said about cultural literacy and what Daisy Christodoulou has said about the importance of memorising and knowing stuff are very persuasive—but they are absolutely not the whole story. What seems to have gone wrong is that those insights have been implemented in a way that has turned too many of our educational institutions into places producing the most appalling Dickensian rote learning, which kills joy and enjoyment of a subject. It is important that young people at school, college or university have an opportunity to do stuff that interests them in a way that then leads them to dig into it more deeply, and therefore to enrich their learning. The idea of some kind of special funding, at a minimum, for electives, so that there is a wide range of opportunities at school, is a great proposal and should be endorsed.
Beyond that, of course, we turn to the future of A-levels and the proposals for a British baccalaureate for 18 year-olds comprising three major subjects and three minors. We have heard a lot about this already and it is an attempt to tackle one of the biggest single problems of our education system. There are quite a few ex-Ministers across this Chamber, and it is striking how, when looking back on our time in office, most of us would, I think, say that a lesson that we concluded by the end of it—some may have recognised it at the beginning—was just how serious a problem early specialisation is in English education. I went to so many meetings where people were planning elaborate PR campaigns to try to get teenage girls more interested in science, for example, and you would say, “Why do we have to do this? Why are we expecting teenagers to take these massive life-shaping decisions at the age of 14, 15 and 16, when no other educational system does?”. We should not have to market physics to a 15 year-old because otherwise they would give it up and not have the opportunity of a serious STEM career; it is absurd that we have got ourselves into that position. I strongly support the proposals for broadening the curriculum.
The full-blown English baccalaureate is very ambitious, and we all know how wary the DfE will be of proposals on that scale. However, there are pragmatic steps that could be taken towards it. Given that this report already includes the idea of some funding for a kind of electives premium, why not introduce a premium of funding for 16 to 18 year-olds who are doing some kind of further maths qualification—it need not be a full-blown A-level—just to keep up with, and try to develop, their numeracy skills? Similarly, something equivalent could be introduced for essay writing and the use of English. UCAS could then be asked to allocate points for prospective students who present with those qualifications, in addition to full-blown A-levels. There must be some steps we could take now towards that full-blown baccalaureate.
As the Minister was reminding us, I sometimes think that the current system is a kind of hourglass model: students do a wide range of GCSEs, then focus down more and more on three A-levels—often in a connected set of disciplines—and then go to universities which are increasingly offering a very broad range of subjects that can be combined in a single university course. In a way, some of the classic university courses, such as natural sciences, are examples of that. I almost dare to mention PPE in this context, which enables students to do a range of subjects that is significantly wider than many A-level options.
We increasingly hear from Ministers—it has been referred to again in today’s debate—of a vision of a lifelong loan entitlement that is driving an agenda of a modular structure for higher education, in which presumably it will be possible to put together different modules in a much wider and combined higher education programme than is currently possible. Could the people working in the DfE on a modular structure for higher education care to have a word with the custodians of the three A-level doctrine for 16 to 18 year-olds and ask them what the basis is for this classic model to be followed by a modular structure of higher education? It seems very hard to understand how the same department could advocate such contrasting doctrines for two different stages of the educational process. If you were designing such a system, you might actually try to envisage it the other way round, to allow students to specialise more gradually, rather than specialising first and then be provided with a broader range of opportunities.
I very much hope that the Minister will be able to indicate just the glimmer of a hint of an interest in possible steps towards some modest form in which 16 to 18 year-olds would be able to study a wider range of subjects. I am not being too ambitious; I am pitching it as modestly as I can.
The other area of policy I want to touch on is higher education and cold spots. It is covered in the report and has been referred to and proposed in an excellent paper from that fantastic, newly reunited team of Tony Blair and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who have now become very important co-authors of several education papers.
I confess that, when I was at the Conservative Party conference last week, I spoke at a fringe event which was advertised as organised by the Institute for Global Change. If you looked at it with a magnifying glass, you could see that it was in fact the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. A bold step was taken and it came and ran an event at the Tory Party conference; a group of us turned up and this was the kind of issue that we talked about.
The Tony Blair 50% target has done quite a lot of damage to the debate, because there are now too many people who think that the reason why more people go into higher education is because Tony Blair dragooned them to go by setting a target for it. We all know that the 50% target was really a political device—I am sure that all of us on both sides of this House have deployed it in the past—where, for the purpose of delivering a speech, he took a trend and changed it into a target. The reason why we have 50% of young people going to university is not because Tony Blair announced it at a Labour conference one year but because lots of young people want to go to university. There is overwhelming evidence from all advanced western countries that the number of people wanting to go into higher education is rising; it has gone through 50% and is now higher than that. This is a social trend, not a Blairite target.
It is a desirable social trend, and we must base policy on a recognition that the combination of that aspiration, demographic change and increasing opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to participate in higher education means that, over the next few years, we will see even more people wanting to go into higher education. Either that will mean that our existing number of universities just gets bigger and bigger—which may be one way forward; I would not rule it out—or it is an opportunity to create some new higher education institutions in the same way as has happened in the past when higher education participation has grown. They could be—I look across at the noble Lord, Lord Watson, who was sceptical about this—further education colleges delivering more higher education provision, perhaps with the opportunity in the long run of achieving a university title if that is what they wished.
What I find shocking and frustrating is that, at the moment, we do not have any kind of debate across government and public policy about how we would deliver that provision and what the opportunity is for creating new higher education institutions in towns that do not currently have a university or higher education institution. I suspect that, when they look back on us in 10 years’ time, the historians will ask why, when this entirely predictable trend was beginning to surge through the system, there was so little debate about what kind of provision should be developed as an opportunity to meet that surge in demand.
I very much look forward to what the Minister is going to say. I hope that, in her response to the debate, she will engage with the large number of us from all sides of the Chamber who have pleaded for a broader English educational curriculum and a broader range of opportunities for 16 to 18 year-olds, and will accept as a matter of fact that we are in an environment where the number of people going to university will carry on rising. We all have a responsibility to plan for that and, indeed, turn it into an opportunity for better and more diverse provision.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for promoting this debate and the Times group for promoting the commission. It has drawn on an impressive array of talent, experience and knowledge and, as has been mentioned, the tone of the report is one in which we can all seek value. The commission’s proposal for a national conversation and a long-term strategy for education is very welcome, so long as those who work in schools and colleges have a central role in the process.
This has not been a party-political debate, but it is worth pointing out that—the Minister may wish to respond to this—for anyone reading the report, it is clear that it is another indicator of the gap between what the Government are doing and what we all agree needs to be done. The Minister will perhaps tell us what positive steps will be taken to move towards the general agreement about what can be achieved. I have to admit that I am not absolutely sure what the gap is between the recommendations in the report and what the Labour Party will do when it comes to power, but that is perhaps a separate issue.
I wish to highlight a few issues from the report. I think we are all agreed, everyone is clear, that investing in early years is the most important thing we can do. The report recommends
“A significant boost to early years funding targeted at the most vulnerable and a unique pupil number from birth, to level the playing field before children get to school.”
Everyone is agreed; everyone knows that; we just have to start moving towards it.
An expanded Ofsted—a replacement, if we want to use that word—is also to be welcomed: a fundamental reassessment of its role, so that it is there not to promote league tables but to provide practical assistance for schools in delivering their service. There is general agreement, again, on rethinking our exams system. I sometimes feel we are a bit imprisoned by the use of the word “baccalaureate”, because it means different things to different people, but I think the report is clear about what it has in mind in this area. The emphasis in the report on promoting creativity is also very much to be welcomed, although I have to say I sometimes worry about the implied division between creative subjects and other subjects, because if all subjects are not being creative, then they are being done wrong. These are bold and large-scale measures that will be supported by all educators, and we welcome the recognition that they are part of the solution.
As has been mentioned, the report was unanimous among a disparate group. Well, one of the ways of achieving unanimity on this sort of commission is by leaving subjects out, and there are two issues that I think should have played a bigger role in the work of the commission. The first is the damage that is done to children’s education by rising levels of poverty. We are aware that the children of poor families do poorly at school. Part of that problem can be addressed by what is being done in the school, and that is addressed in the report, but of course there is a previous question about why they are poor in the first place. What needs to be done to reduce poverty in families?
The second issue that has not had enough attention in the report is the deeply flawed system of primary assessment. The commission rightly says that the current assessment system
“has become a dead hand on education that is sucking the energy out of schools, stifling teachers and condemning too many young people to the scrap heap.”
It analysed the problem; I do not think it has done quite enough to set out how it can be addressed. Again, I would be grateful if the Minister would say something in her reply.
The main issue I wish to raise is the issue of girls and maths, physics and engineering. Someone said:
“From my own knowledge of these things, physics is not something that girls tend to fancy. They don't want to do it ... There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think that they would rather not do.”
So said Katharine Birbalsingh, chair of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission and a secondary school head teacher, to the Commons Science and Technology Committee. Comments like this are extremely disappointing. There are multiple reasons why girls do not choose to study physics at A level, or for a degree, and not wanting to do maths is not one of them. It is worth exploring in some detail why the progress that has been achieved in getting girls to do maths has not been reflected in getting girls to do physics. The evidence shows that the expectations placed on pupils by society play a large role in which students go on to take physics at higher levels. A popular example is the television show “The Big Bang Theory”, which had four male physics and engineering students leading. Only in subsequent episodes were young women introduced.
The ASPIRES project found that, from age 10 to 18, boys were significantly more likely than girls to say that their teacher expected them to do well in science, and to feel that their teacher was interested in whether they understood science. The research found that girls often did not feel “clever enough” to do physics, even though girls achieve similar grades to boys in mathematics and physics. The stereotype is that boys are naturally better at physics than girls, and this messaging is still being passed on, both intentionally and unintentionally, to our young people in school, in their home lives and through the media. This is not just me saying this; the Institute of Physics has done the research, and its Limit Less report found that girls are often told that physics is more suited to boys.
Young people are put off studying physics from age 16 by misconceptions about what physics is. Girls are told that physics is too difficult, not creative or boring, but the report also shows that young people are denied the opportunity to study physics because of the prejudice I have emphasised. Another report from the Institute of Physics shows that in single-sex schools, a greater proportion of girls took physics than in co-educational schools across both the state and private school system. In environments where gendered messaging is lessened, the participation rate of girls increases. So, we need to increase awareness among children at school of gendered stereotyping in subject choice and equip them with the tools to be resilient to this. We also need to provide training to support teachers’ awareness of the damage caused by gender stereotypes, and to provide them with resources and tools to combat them.
I am not totally pessimistic about the prospects for advance in this area. In my own profession, the actuarial profession, the position of women has been immensely improved over the last 20 years, with new actuaries coming through virtually in equal proportions, and many women now taking leading roles in the profession. So, we can achieve change in this sort of area.
The specific problem with girls not taking physics is the knock-on effect that they do not take engineering at university because, in practice, most universities require you to have a physics A-level before you can do engineering. So, if you have not done physics, you do not get in to do engineering. This is the central problem that needs to be addressed.
I have only one other issue to raise in passing: school meals are also not mentioned in the report. What is clear is that school meals are important to education. It is not just about poverty relief or helping poor families; it is about improving children’s education. We found that out 30 years ago, when my colleague, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and I fought to provide free meals in our schools. The advantages were clear and absolute, but because we were an education authority, we could do it only for educational reasons. We got a very powerful legal opinion from a future Lord Chancellor and a future Prime Minister, who provided us with clear and powerful advice to that effect. That advice still stands: providing free meals in schools to some extent—I would provide them for all—has a powerful educational effect. There is nothing in the report about that at all, which is a shame.
My Lords, it is an unexpected pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, as I have been promoted one place up the batting order. Much of what I want to say has already been powerfully covered by other noble Lords, but I am afraid not yet by me. I will try not to be unnecessarily repetitive.
Education is a fundamental building block of our national infrastructure. To support and enhance our productivity, competitiveness and growth, we need people with the right skills, knowledge and aspirations to drive our economy and nurture our society. Only education can meet those needs, so it is disappointing that, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, pointed out, education so often seems to take something of a back seat in relation to other policy areas, despite being so crucial to all of them.
The Times Education Commission, with its aim
“to examine Britain’s whole education system and consider its future in the light of the Covid-19 crisis, declining social mobility, new technology and the changing nature of work”,
is therefore greatly to be applauded, as is the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, in obtaining this debate. The report contains numerous ideas and recommendations which deserve serious consideration. I welcome its focus on the content of education—what the curriculum needs to deliver and how it should be assessed—more than on its structure and funding. I will focus on just a few of the commission’s specific recommendations which seem to me to be particularly important.
I will first consider the idea of a curriculum built around a new British baccalaureate, modelled on the highly regarded international baccalaureate. The commission suggests that this could encompass both a diploma programme with a greater emphasis on academic subjects and a career-related programme with a stronger vocational and technical focus, combining learning with work experience. Students could mix and match elements of both programmes and all of them would undertake an extended project and some community service. Importantly, digital skills would be embedded throughout their learning and all pupils should have access to a laptop or tablet.
This approach, which the commission states would be designed to be
“at least as demanding as A-levels”,
would offer major advantages. It should give extra impetus to the long-overdue elimination of the gap in parity of esteem between academic and vocational education—between knowledge and skills, if you like—by ensuring that all students have the option to pursue elements of both according to their own interests and talents.
I strongly welcome the suggestion that
“All secondary pupils should have the chance of work experience”—
but would leave out “the chance of”. All students, including primary students, should have work experience, full stop. It must be of high quality, with the quantity specified by the Baker clause seen as an absolute minimum.
My own former small training business used to run what we called “alternative work experience” programmes for groups of London students for whom their schools had been unable to find suitable work experience placements at the end of the summer term—often students whom they regarded as least likely to do well, or at risk of becoming NEET. One of the most rewarding aspects of these programmes was seeing how the aspirations, interests and enthusiasms of the students often blossomed when they were introduced to a range of very varied working environments of which they had previously had little or no conception: from office jobs in business and accountancy, to hotels and restaurants, car showrooms, city farms, construction sites, leisure attractions, fire stations, film and TV studios, tourism companies—I could go on. For many of them this was a truly eye-opening experience, and another of the rewards for us was seeing the astonished reactions of some of the teachers when they returned to their schools and gave enthusiastic presentations about what they had seen and done during the programme, what they had learned, and how it had affected their career aspirations. How can young people be expected to make sensible career choices if they have had no experience at all of the range of different routes and working environments available to them?
Another important recommendation of the commission is that
“Sport, music, drama, art, debating and dance should be an integral part of the timetable for all children, not an optional ‘extracurricular’ add on”.
This could go a long way to reversing the crowding out of education in music and other creative subjects by the EBacc, which has resulted in an alarming decline in GCSE and A-level take-up in these subjects, and an ever-widening gap between fee-paying schools, which recognise their value and importance, and many state schools, which lack the funding, resources and incentives, if not the will, to give them their proper place in the curriculum.
The “electives premium” for secondary schools proposed by the commission is an imaginative approach to tackling this and I hope the Minister will indicate how the Government might respond to it—perhaps the idea would lend itself to a pilot scheme to assess its benefits. This is also an area where greater collaboration between state and independent schools, as called for by the commission, could play an important part. Perhaps I should declare my interest as chair of a charity promoting classical music teaching in schools.
The final recommendation of the commission’s 12-point plan for education is that there should be:
“A 15-year strategy for education, drawn up in consultation with business leaders, scientists, local mayors, civic leaders and cultural figures, putting education above short-term party politics and bringing out the best in our schools, colleges and universities”
—amen to that. Adapting and enhancing our education system so that it better meets the needs of the world we now find ourselves in, the needs of our young people—not forgetting us older people—and the needs of the nation and the Government in pursuit of prosperity, well-being and growth will never be a short-term challenge, or straightforward politically. It needs time and commitment, beyond the span of a single Government, with a clear idea of where we want to go and how we plan to get there. It needs widespread consensus, buy-in and support across parties, business sectors and regions. It needs to complement and reinforce other strategic goals and policy priorities, notably in relation to meeting recognised skills needs and our net-zero commitments in the green agenda.
The commission has performed a valuable service in proposing ideas that could feature in such a strategy. So I find it disappointing that the Government’s response—and even the response of the Minister, who we know is so strongly committed to ambitious educational reform—has been so dismissive of ideas such as a British baccalaureate, and has said that they have no plans to respond to the commission’s report.
There are a number of questions that I hope the Minister will address in her response to this debate. First, will she look again at the case for some sort of government response to, or at least commentary on, the report? It seeks to generate a debate on a wide range of fundamental issues concerning the future of education policy, and the Government surely need to encourage and contribute to that debate.
Secondly, are there specific elements of the commission’s 12-point plan which the Government might consider implementing or at least exploring further, such as the electives premium? Will the Minister look at how the commission’s findings might be relevant to proposals in the current Schools Bill, with a view to amending the Bill to address them, or even replacing it with a more ambitious Bill tackling issues concerning curriculum and assessment in addition to structure, along the lines proposed by the commission? More broadly, how will the Government seek to ensure that the central importance of education to our national infrastructure and well-being is better reflected across the policy spectrum?
My hope is that the Minister’s answers to this debate will make it clear that this excellent piece of work by the Times Education Commission will not become just another ambitious, comprehensive, broadly based, well-researched exercise destined to languish on numerous bookshelves as a sad reminder of what might be achieved if the challenges facing education were given the priority and emphasis they deserve. It would redound to the Government’s credit if, instead, they seized the opportunity to use this report as a basis for starting a genuine national debate on a longer-term, sustainable approach to meeting our future educational needs, ideally with a 15-year strategy at its heart.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak very briefly in the gap and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lexden on convening this excellent discussion. It is an honour to follow the excellent contributions from Members of this House.
I was particularly struck by my noble friend Lord Lexden’s comments about the need for rigorous manifesto processes and the Times Education Commission being an example of a rigorous process likely to result in good policy in due course. I was privileged to serve alongside the noble Lord, Lord Rees, on the commission and have had a little experience of writing manifestos for the Conservative Party. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment that the more manifestos road test their recommendations with the widest possible groups—the more they consult and the more they engage—the likelier they are to result in deliverable programmes of government. Sadly, the manifesto that I was involved in most closely, in 2015, resulted in the first majority Conservative Government in 25 years but, as a programme for government, lasted less time than I spent helping to write it due to the change in government following the referendum of that year. Good process does not necessarily get you all the way you want to go in the end.
I also want to take advantage of my time to commend the Times and, in particular, as the noble Lord, Lord Rees, mentioned, the outgoing editor, John Witherow; the person who held the pen on this whole project, Rachel Sylvester; and Sir Anthony Seldon for coming up with the idea in the first place. It is worth noting that, as John Witherow retires, after many years at the head of the Times and before that the Sunday Times, he has been a great force for good in British journalism and across the UK media landscape. He has always been a great pragmatic, calm figure. He is someone of great distinction and we owe him a lot for all the good work he has done at the Times and, before that, the Sunday Times over the years.
The commission approached its work very much in an ecumenical spirit. I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Willetts for noting the constructive tone of the report. There were very few arguments between commissioners, notwithstanding the very diverse range of backgrounds and political viewpoints from which they all came. There were very few points of disagreement. Very seldom did it get heated. There was a genuine commitment to trying to work in the greater interests of the country, setting aside party-political disagreements and avoiding point-scoring wherever possible. Rachel Sylvester helped brilliantly in that regard by not really giving us much of an opportunity to comment on the draft once she had written it. It went to print very rapidly before any of us, experts in the art of write-rounds, could stick our oar in. Well done, Rachel, in that respect.
On the substantive points that Members have made, it speaks to an issue of capability in our government system at the moment that we need an exercise such as the Times Education Commission to help us lift our eyes to the horizon and think about the big challenges that our education system faces. Why did it require this? The reality, as we all know, is that Governments of all types—it is not just true right now, although we are in a particularly turbulent time—fail to think for the long term and tend to be consumed by one crisis after another. Ministers have also struggled to think strategically and about systems as a whole. There is an opportunity to take the Times Education Commission’s last recommendation, which is for a 15-year strategy, and to think of the mechanism by which we can best put that in place. I suggest, in my dying seconds, that we could consider a recommendation for a royal commission to create that first 15-year strategy. We have not had a royal commission on education for many years and I think one is long overdue.
My Lords, I sometimes wish I had the confidence and ability just to push aside my prepared words and respond to some of the comments that have been made. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, rightly talks about the continuing growth in university places, but he knows that that is driven by financial reasons in the main. There are more and more overseas students and universities—in London, for example—are setting up campuses that do not even have a library but pile the students in to get the money. They do not even give disadvantaged students access to IT or a laptop.
We heard a number of noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Baker, plead with the Government to see sense, but the sad thing is that Governments do not do that. They set out their stall and live or die by it. They might change at the margin and they might firefight, but change comes about when new Governments come into power having listened to the points made over time.
The Times Education Commission report, Bringing Out the Best, is not driven by dogma or idealism. It is not driven by short-term fixes or popular political slogans. It looks at education from preschool to post school and from academic to vocational education; it looks at the needs of all our children. The report brings a well consulted, researched and coherent plan for ambitious education reform. Its conclusions are realistic and achievable, and the financial implications credible and well thought through.
Your Lordships have raised a number of common themes time after time, and I shall add my thoughts to the wise words of my fellow Members, but I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for securing this debate. He is a tireless champion of the independent sector and independent schools. He may remember that a few months ago, I congratulated him on an intervention he made on behalf of the independent sector but, at the same time, I wished for his wisdom for the maintained sector. In securing this debate, he has given that—and in spades.
As the report shows, Covid has had a devastating effect on our children and young people, especially those from poorer backgrounds, who have suffered most. The learning gap has not just widened but become a huge chasm, and the report graphically spells out this and the actions we need to take.
The report also sees it as an opportunity to bring about fundamental change. Tony Blair famously said that it is about “Education, education, education”. I would add that it is about “Teachers, teachers, teachers”. Michael Gove, during his tenure as Secretary of State for Education, always used Finland as an exemplar. What he did not say was that Finnish teachers must have a master’s degree. Finnish teachers are well trained, with continuous professional development. I want the same for our teaching profession: to be the best in the world, with teachers well supported, highly trained, well respected and, of course, well paid.
Teachers should be given greater mental health resources to prevent burnout and the shocking resulting plummet in teacher retention. As the report says:
“The status of the teaching profession in this country should be raised and the job made more intellectually engaging.”
I also very much support career paths for teaching assistants, who are the unrecognised gems in our schools. I have doubts about more routes to a teaching degree. Training a teacher cannot be a quick fix; it needs time, resources and good practice. It is alarming that, in the rush to plug teacher shortages, we look at training them very quickly. Primary teachers, for example, need to be taught child development. The notion that they should go into primary school not knowing about child development is unbelievable. Teachers need to learn how to identify educational needs.
Good schools, of course, are invariably led by good and outstanding leaders. The highest quality of school leadership is vital. So I say yes to a national leadership programme. Teachers need to be free from unnecessary red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy so that they can get on with the job of teaching.
Yes, of course we need school inspections, but we do not need a name and shame regime. We do not need to beat up our schools and our school teachers. Let us ban the need for schools to fly banners from their gates proclaiming they are a good school. There are still 360 areas in England where every primary is rated either inadequate or requiring improvement, with the majority in the most deprived parts of the country. All schools should be good or outstanding and we achieve that by Ofsted identifying problems, with more nuanced inspections, looking into pupil skills, social skills and emotional development; and then, away from the glare of public condemnation, working with those schools to improve.
I taught all my teaching career in one local authority. Every year, that local authority has the worst educational results in the country. From its inception in 1970 or whenever it was until now, it has had the worst results of any school in the country. What have successive Governments done about that? They have allowed the local authority to close all the secondary schools and open secondary learning centres, which got poorer results than the schools that were closed down, which had budget deficits and where over two-thirds of head teachers left within two years. What did the Government do about that? Absolutely nothing.
So to the curriculum. Our school curriculum is rigid and inflexible. As the report says, most schools are constrained by an outdated rubric composed by Whitehall that has no room for regional variation and takes little account of employers’ needs. Our curriculum is hidebound by rote learning. Younger children learn by play and discovery and, as they get older, we have to give them opportunities to ignite their passions, interests and strengths. We need to make a curriculum fit for purpose to reflect the 21st-century UK. It is Black History Month, yet it is a disgrace that the curriculum of most schools does not reflect the multicultural community that our society has become.
The damage that the EBacc has done to creative subjects is there for all to see and the intransigence of Governments, against all the evidence, beggars belief. Further, it is nonsensical to limit creative subjects. The creative industry generated £119 billion for the economy in 2019. The report rightly says that sport, music, drama, debating and dance should be an integral part of the timetable for all children, not an extracurricular add-on, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, knows only too well. The independent schools know and do this well. Employers are looking for diligent, adaptable, innovatory thinkers in their organisations. A more well-rounded curriculum is needed for this, which implies greater emphasis on creative education, extracurricular options and a diversifying curriculum.
I turn to assessment. It should—must—be a continuous process, not an outdated requirement to turn up to an exam hall in the summer months and sit an exam for two and a half to three hours; that takes no account of summer-born children, by the way. What happens if a poor girl has started her period? What happens if there has been some tragedy in the family? The effect that has on that pupil’s ability to do well in their exam is hindered. So I say yes to continuous assessment.
I would scrap the EBacc completely. I welcome the report’s proposals for a slimmed-down set of exams in five core subjects. I very much welcome and like the idea of a British baccalaureate at 18, with academic and vocational subjects under the same umbrella. I must say, I have never been quite sure about the term “vocational”. I do not think that parents understand it. They think it is some sort of namby-pamby thing—that it is not really a qualification at school. We need to find another term instead.
On levelling up, of course the eight measures that support childcare should be overseen by the same department and brought together by one. Yet the recent Schools Bill focused too much emphasis on governance, not content or approach reform in the wake of existing inequalities. Levelling up requires an acute emphasis on addressing the barriers, insufficiencies and struggles addressed in the report, homing in on the ways in which we can tangibly close the gap of disadvantage and leave no child behind for success.
Levelling up must also prioritise the individual and multifaceted needs of pupils with learning and physical disabilities, ensuring that we do not consider only those who fit in the narrow box of success that the system is currently built upon. There is an existing gap between the needs of the economy and how we are preparing future generations. Information and digital skills, practical skills, qualifications, study habits, emotional intelligence and creativity are all needed for success. We must better connect the skills we are teaching children with both industry needs and the passions of children to maximise the potential for success. There is no one post-secondary route that fits all. The system must not only better reflect this but better inquire into how we can better support each pathway option for young people.
The OECD’s director for skills mentions this:
“Your education today is your economy tomorrow.”
Employers are looking for diligent, adaptable, innovatory thinkers in their organisations. Levelling up will not take one action. I agree that long-term planning and consultation with a wide variety of educational experts is needed to drive forward-thinking policies. I commend the Times Commission on showing the kinds of deliverables that can come with this kind of cross-sector collaboration. The report alludes to this Government’s lack of prioritisation for education funding, resulting in children paying a high price for the pandemic. Reform has stalled. The report should be the wake-up call to ignite tangible change that goes beyond short-attention-span policies.
Bringing Out the Best has a 12-point plan, as we have heard. I note that there was a young persons’ panel made up of primary school children, secondary school children and post-16s. I would love to have been a fly on the wall to hear what they had to say. Among the proposals were laptops and tablets, of course, but many poor families cannot afford wi-fi. Why are we not providing wi-fi for those families?
I love the idea of an “army of undergraduate tutors”. Children relate to young people. We could be innovative and, dare I say it, link that to their loan. Well-being should be at the heart of schools. There should be a school counsellor, not just for children but for staff. I also love the idea of an “electives premium” for the arts, sport, volunteering and outdoor pursuits. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Summer Camps Trust.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, is absolutely right that we need in every school a careers adviser who can give face-to-face interviews with pupils.
I want to say how important it is that we develop oracy in our schools. In independent schools, there is a high premium on children debating and being able to speak. We do not do that in the maintained and academy sectors as well as we should, so, when young people go for jobs, they struggle to verbalise how they feel. Oracy should be part of our education system.
The subtitle of this report is
“How to transform education and unleash the potential of every child”.
I hope that the Minister will do all in her power to see that this report informs the thinking and actions of our Government.
My Lords, it is a real pleasure to take part in this debate. I do not know about A-level physics, but getting women to take part in education debates on a Thursday afternoon might need a little work as well.
It is also a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Storey, although I am not quite as miserable about the whole situation as his speech implied that he is. I am sure that he has some moments of optimism and celebration about what is happening in our schools too. I particularly echo his support for teachers. I do not know whether this is compulsory, but I declare that my son has just started a four-year course learning to be a primary school teacher at Nottingham Trent University. I could not be prouder of him. However, my friends who are primary schoolteachers were not exactly encouraging and tried to talk him out of it, which says something a little concerning about teachers who have been in the profession for some time.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, particularly on his introductory speech and on securing what has been a very good debate. I will leave his comments on the internal workings of the Conservative Party to the Minister. I am sure that she has noted the remarks on that subject from the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, which I enjoyed.
Many noble Lords bring professional and personal experience to this Chamber, and that expertise has been most valuable in our considerations this afternoon. However, a thread of frustration ran through the debate. It was not directed at this Minister, but clearly we all want the Government to do much better in education than most contributors agree that they have in recent years. It is a mark of the quality of the debate that no one has claimed to have all the answers to the challenges faced by our children and young people in 2022, except perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Baker, who had rather a lot of the answers. He tested the patience of his Whip but he had something to say. His contribution was well worth listening to.
However, no one will have all the answers until we properly understand the challenges and the problems. That is where the Times report is so valuable. If we are to have a 15-year strategy or anything like that, we must have a shared understanding of the reality as it is today—not how it was when we were at school, how we imagine it might be now or what we pick up from our children, but how it is and what the evidence and experience of people currently in the education system tells us. That is where the report is so helpful.
Of course, what is also needed is a Government with a laser-like focus on this topic, and we do not have that right now. Two politicians have been raised rather a lot: Tony Blair and Michael Gove. Much as I fundamentally disagreed with Michael Gove on many of the things that he did—the one that stands out was the rebanding of the grades in GCSE English one year, which was dreadful—we had a sense that somebody was in charge and that there was a direction of travel at that time. We have missed that since then. I did not like the direction of travel but at least there was one.
This commission has highlighted some of the worst shortcomings of the UK’s education system in recent years. It tells us what many of us already know: that our system is not preparing children adequately for life, never mind employment. Some 22% of adults lack the digital skills to take part in the modern world, and 75% of employers say that they have had to give staff extra training in basic skills. Employers should, of course, invest in their workforce and constantly improve their employees’ skills, but they should also be able to recruit staff with solid basic skills.
As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, reminded us, this is an issue of global competitiveness. I should tell him that I make a point of reading many of the reports from the Tony Blair Institute, not just those on education and skills; I think I was probably a Blairite before it became fashionable in my party again. As the noble Lord, Tony Blair and many others have often observed, a failure to address these challenges and to invest in the skills needed—in engineering, pharmaceuticals or design, for example—will leave the UK unable to lead the industries of today, never mind tomorrow.
I remember being in Sedgefield Labour club around 1998 listening to Tony talking about China. He said that China was not about poor people on bicycles anymore; it was a country that was investing heavily in its workforce and it would be globally competitive as a consequence. He was trying to argue that we should be doing the same. That we have not managed to do that sufficiently is harming our position internationally. It is leaving our country, and our young people in particular, trailing behind other nations.
My noble friend Lord Knight was right to remind us that our education system is a place of hope. We must never forget that: it is an investment in our collective, as well as individual, futures. I always feel more positive and optimistic after listening to my noble friend, because of his day-to-day involvement in schools. The innovation he leads gives some cause for optimism.
Pleasingly, the report seems to have received a warm reception from practitioners and experts, and across party lines in this House. This has not been a party-political debate and it has been all the better for it. I hope we will better understand what the Government make of the report after the Minister closes this debate, but I wonder whether she can tell us whether the Government will publish a formal response. I know the Government do not publish formal responses to every report published by every random think tank, but this report is rather special and it might be worthy of something more substantial from the Government than we have had so far. It is an important piece of work and it would help to know the Government’s view on it. Maybe what we get from the Minister this afternoon will be enough, but it would be good to have something of substance.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Watson on his well-informed comments on early years, and on the emphasis he placed on chapter 2 of the report. We have heard a jumble of comments from the Government about how early years and play-based education are regulated and funded. One product of the rapid turnover of Secretaries of State and Ministers is that we hear random musings from the Government and we do not know how to treat them. It is the opposite of good, clear leadership. I am sure the Minister knows that parents and providers of early years need clarity and certainty to plan. I hope we will get some detail from the Minister shortly, if not necessarily today.
The Minister is familiar with concerns about the impact on the cost per place from direct childcare payments. That is one of the ideas of which the Prime Minister is quite fond. Of course we all want a simplified system, but undermining providers and risking a reduction in places or an escalation in costs, pricing many parents out of childcare altogether, is not the answer. Could she assure us that she understands these concerns and let us know what the current thinking is? Could the Minister also give us an idea of when we might have a fuller Statement on the Government’s childcare reforms, so that we can have an informed debate on the issue?
Talking of informed debate, many noble Lords present spent days working to improve the Schools Bill in Committee, before the Summer Recess. What is the Minister able to say on that topic today? To be fair, the Minister at the time was very understanding of our concerns, and set up a process to examine some of the problems that we identified with the Bill. There were some measures that were broadly welcomed—those around home education, for example—so we would like to know what the current thinking is. We do understand that a new Secretary of State will perhaps want to reconsider the approach; that is only to be expected. If that is what is happening, it would be reassuring to know, as well as an idea of how long that might take.
Some of the proposals in the commission sit well with existing Labour Party policies, such as in-school counsellors to support well-being, a focus on career development for teachers and a collaborative approach from Ofsted. Others are really exciting propositions that we would love to explore further, such as ideas to address higher education cold spots, and the work to improve participation in music, drama and sport. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, made some excellent points about flexible higher education, and his comments chime well with the commission’s recommendations. I hope that we can explore them a little further.
The commission has been creative, curious, and open-minded. That is the approach that I think we want to see from our Government too. I have to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Davies, though, and the National Education Union, when they say that this report is sadly another indicator of the gulf between the Government’s policies and the needs of our education system today. That is how, I am afraid, it does feel to parents and teachers who are dealing with the day-to-day reality of underfunding and lack of leadership. Despite wanting to centralise everything all the time, there is a lack of central leadership from the Government and of clarity of direction. And now we have the threat of strikes from an exhausted, overworked and undervalued workforce, which will not make things any easier at all.
Things have not been going well in recent years; I think that is fair to say. Difficult though it may be, Education Ministers are going to have put aside the broader chaos—if I can put it that way—engulfing this Government and focus relentlessly on the needs of our youngest citizens. I will finish by repeating the noble Lord, Lord Rees, when he said that the upheaval of Covid should energise us. I hope—perhaps more than expect, in the current political context—that that is what is about to happen.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lexden for securing this important debate, all Members of your Lordships’ House who were involved in the Times Education Commission and the wider membership of the commission, and all of your Lordships for the insight and ideas in the debate today. My noble friend set a challenge in terms of vision and ambition, which I welcome warmly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, talked about a gulf between government policy and the ambition in the commission’s report. As she says—I will probably misquote her—I hope, but am not confident, that I will reassure her that the gulf is not quite as she fears. Over the last 12 years, this Government have committed to supporting all children and young people to realise their potential. The Times Education Commission suggests that change is needed, and I am grateful for the opportunity to set out how the Government are certainly delivering on many of the elements of change that are highlighted in this report.
My noble friend Lord Baker was extremely critical of our current education system, but I remind the House that it has made a huge amount of progress over the last 10 years, particularly when compared internationally. England has received the highest ever score in both the most recent international reading literacy study and the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. I hope noble Lords will acknowledge that, because many of the comments in your Lordships’ House might have suggested otherwise. Furthermore, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment showed that 15 year-olds in England performed above the OECD averages for all reading, maths and science subjects, which all your Lordships have stressed the importance of.
In the decade before the pandemic, we drove improvements across the board. Some 87% of schools are now rated as good or outstanding, which is up from 68% in 2010. We are not quite at the ambition of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, of no schools either being inadequate or requiring improvement, but I reassure him that the chart on the wall in my office is of those schools and we monitor it every month to make sure that the number is coming down.
Pre-pandemic results show that, in 2019, 65% of key stage 2 pupils reached the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths, which was a seven percentage-point increase in reading and a nine percentage-point increase in maths since 2016. Of course, as noble Lords have rightly pointed out and as the Government, our children, our teachers and our schools are all too aware, the pandemic has set us back, but the latest post-pandemic results for 2022 show that 59% of key stage 2 pupils met the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths.
As noble Lords know, to address that, we have announced almost £5 billion for an ambitious multi-year educational recovery plan, and earlier this year we published the schools White Paper, in which we set out our bold vision for education to 2030, which is built on four pillars: higher standards, system reform, greater recognition of teachers, and targeted support for students as the foundation of education recovery and social mobility or, as, the noble Lord, Lord Watson prefers to describe it, social justice—let us have both. I will discuss each of those pillars in turn and how they address the commission’s recommendations.
As many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Lexden and the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, have commented, the commission recommends the creation of a new British baccalaureate. As I told this House in June, the Government have transformed the quality of academic and technical qualifications over the past decade. We have reformed GCSEs and A-levels to ensure that they are in line with the world’s highest-performing education systems and to support all young people to achieve their potential. We have introduced T-levels with 45 days’ work experience, which I hope pleases all noble Lords; in particular, that was a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. There are other reforms in train, but we currently have no plans to introduce a British baccalaureate.
A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Willetts and the noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Rees, asked about the narrowing of the curriculum. We are aware that there are trade-offs between the depth of the curriculum and its breadth, as all your Lordships understand. We are very clear that young people should be able to access a broad and balanced knowledge-rich curriculum up to the age of 16. We want pupils to leave school prepared in the widest sense for adult life. The acquisition of knowledge is the basic building block of education to which all pupils should have fair access, and a knowledge-based curriculum can stimulate critical thinking and inquiry skills that can be taught only in the context of solid subject content.
I will absolutely take back to the department the very thoughtful contributions from your Lordships about where they see the potential to broaden or reinforce the curriculum as it stands today. But as I was listening to your Lordships, I thought that we are moving from a world with a choice between breadth and depth to one where, as we have heard, not just in this country but all across the world, the skills required in employment are evolving over time. We have a sort of three-way pull of breadth, depth and flexibility/longevity. I will come on to talk about the lifelong loan entitlement but I know that your Lordships support it as an important way forward to achieving that longevity and flexibility of education.
We will introduce the lifelong loan entitlement from 2025 and people will be able to train, retrain and upskill by undertaking modules or full courses at higher technical and degree levels, regardless of whether these are provided in colleges or universities. I hope that goes some way to addressing the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Rees of Ludlow.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked for an update on the LLE consultation. As he knows, it closed on 6 May. It covered a number of areas, including the ambition and coverage, along with aspects such as maintenance support, which he raised. We are currently going through those contributions and will publish our response in due course; the same applies to the minimum eligibility requirements consultation.
To enable system reform, we have delivered the biggest funding boost for schools in a decade and continue to deliver year on year, real-terms per-pupil increases to funding. We share the commission’s enthusiasm for the potential for technology to improve learner outcomes and reduce workload for teachers, which is why we are building on our huge investment, made during the pandemic, of nearly 2 million laptops and tablets. We are making sure that every school can access a high-speed broadband connection by 2025 and investing up to £150 million to improve school wi-fi in priority areas, which will support schools to meet our new standards for technology.
The noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Davies of Brixton, raised the recommendation in the commission’s report regarding Ofsted: it proposed that Ofsted should focus on sustained improvement. We believe that Ofsted’s education inspection framework, which took effect in 2019, does exactly that. It encourages leaders and teachers to focus on the intent, implementation and impact of their curriculum. As I mentioned, the proportion of schools rated good or outstanding has improved substantially, from 68% in 2010 to 87% in 2021.
The commission also called for improvements in the status of teaching, which the noble Lord, Lord Storey, supported. As part of the schools White Paper, we announced £30,000 as the starting salary to attract the very best teachers, with additional incentives to work in the schools with most need. I think the noble Lord spent his teaching career in Liverpool; I am on the 7.07 am train to Liverpool tomorrow to see some of the work going on there. I really would like to set the record straight about what the Government are doing. We are bringing in some of the best multi-academy trusts so that their expertise is brought to areas which, as the noble Lord knows, have failed children for too long.
Returning to the teaching profession, we will provide better professional development for teachers, with 500,000 training and development opportunities, such as the early careers framework and the refreshed national professional qualifications, so that all teachers and school leaders can access world-class professional development at every stage of their career.
We believe that our Green Paper, published in March, closely mirrors the report’s recommendations for greater support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. The reforms in the Green Paper focus on earlier identification and support for teachers, as well as on making sure that children are supported to manage their needs early and, in relation to alternative provision, that we reduce preventable exclusions as much as possible. We are also providing more training in areas fundamental to high-quality teaching, such as behaviour management, adaptive teaching and curriculum design, which will help teachers support all pupils to succeed.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked me for an update on next steps on the SEND Green Paper. We will publish our response to the consultation via our improvement plan by the end of this year. The noble Lord also asked about accessibility to technology for students with special educational needs, particularly dyslexia. I think the noble Lord is aware of our pilot for assistive technology training, which took place in 74 schools between January and March 2022. We are extending that training to increase staff confidence when using assistive technology.
The commission calls for an “electives premium” and recommends that well-being is put at the heart of education—the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, raised this in particular. To support cultural enrichment, the Government published the national plan for music education in June and will publish a cultural education plan in 2023. This will include our support for young people who pursue careers in our creative and cultural industries. We continue to build on our high-quality citizenship education by supporting the national youth guarantee, promoting volunteering and expanding access to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and cadet schemes. On that note, I echo my noble friend Lord Lexden’s call for greater collaboration between independent schools and maintained schools. In my capacity as Minister in that area, I support that but would be glad of more advice from my noble friend on how we can progress it further.
The commission calls for undergraduate tutors to help pupils who fall behind in their learning. We are addressing this issue through our National Tutoring Programme, which allows schools to decide how to provide this support and has already delivered over 1 million tutoring courses since November 2020. We believe that this is set to rise to 6 million by 2024.
We agree that physical and mental well-being is a key enabler for children to benefit from their time in school. That is why we are building on the additional £79 million invested in specialist mental health support for children and young people during the pandemic by accelerating the introduction of mental health support teams that provide extra capacity for early support and advising school staff.
On early years support, the noble Lords, Lord Davies of Brixton and Lord Rees of Ludlow, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, emphasised the importance of giving our children the best start in life. To do that, we have invested over £3.5 billion in each of the last three years in our early education entitlements for children aged two to four. In October 2021, we announced additional funding of £160 million in 2022-23, £180 million the following year and £170 million in 2024-25. This is for local authorities to increase hourly rates paid to childcare providers and reflects changes in the number of eligible children anticipated at the time of the spending review.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, asked if I would acknowledge that, in any reformed childcare, we need to consider that we do not end up excluding providers and creating even more pressure in the market. Of course she makes a very good point, which will be considered. She also asked about progress on the Schools Bill. The legislative agenda is under review, and I will update the House in due course.
I think that the House acknowledges that we have introduced ambitious, long-term structural reforms to give people the skills they need to get good jobs and to boost productivity across the country. They will put employers at the heart of skills training and education; reform incentives for providers to deliver high-quality provision; and enable learners to take up skills training and education over their lifetimes. Those might be three clauses in one sentence, but I know that your Lordships know that there is an enormous challenge—and opportunity—in delivering that. All this is underpinned by a £3.8 billion investment in further education and skills across this Parliament.
The noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Rees, and my noble friend Lord Willetts all talked about the potential for technology to contribute to our education system. We absolutely agree with that; I share their enthusiasm on this point. On 25 May, we announced that the Open University will partner with further education providers to offer more high-quality technical education to tackle cold spots in provision.
We also share the report’s ambition to establish elite technical and vocational provision with close links to industry. In response to the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, I say that this is why we are establishing a network of 21 institutes of technology across England for post-16 learners. These are prestigious, employer-led institutions that will bring together technical, vocational and industry partners to deliver higher-level technical skills, particularly in STEM-based sectors, including digital, advanced manufacturing, engineering and construction.
I am out of time, so I will cover in a letter the points I have not managed to cover here. I will look back over this debate in Hansard to ensure that I have really acknowledged all noble Lords’ contributions. Like the authors of the Times Education Commission, all of us here are committed to delivering an education system that gives everyone opportunities to thrive and realise their potential, no matter where they live across the country. It may be above my pay grade to be able to organise a royal commission—as my noble friend suggested—but we remain open to discussion, ideas and challenges for improvement. However, as a Government, we also need to focus to deliver the potential of the major changes we are making, particularly to skills and lifelong learning.
My Lords, it is the custom for those who introduce these Thursday afternoon debates to conclude by thanking all those who have taken part. I perform this traditional duty with the greatest possible sincerity this afternoon. I was particularly grateful for the kind comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, because I remember the last time that we found ourselves in debate, during which I spoke rather intemperately about her comments on independent schools. I have been seeking to smile benignly across the Chamber throughout this afternoon.
It is extraordinary to think that so long—12 years—has gone by since we last had a full and wide-ranging education debate in this House, as my noble friend Lord Baker, the Disraeli de nos jours, reminded us. We are united across this House—this is the great point—in recognising the enduring importance of the Times Education Commission’s report. My noble friend Lord Johnson, a member of the commission—thank goodness it was not his brother—spoke of the great commitment that the newspaper has made.
It is right that we end by giving proper, full recognition to that and to Rachel Sylvester, who guided the whole operation, with my long-standing friend, Anthony Seldon, alongside her. Above all, we recognise that the retiring editor, John Witherow, played such an important part in this great project. The best way in which we can continue to recognise the importance of the report is by keeping these hugely important recommendations in our mind, all gathered together, as noble Lords have said so clearly and effectively.
It was marvellous to have so many young people up in the Gallery while we were engaged in our discussion. It was rather tempting to go up and ask them what they made of what we had to say. It really has been a splendid debate, for which I am extremely grateful. With that, I beg to move.
Oaths and Affirmations
Lord Sentamu took the oath and Lord Giddens made the solemn affirmation.
House adjourned at 5.28 pm.