House of Lords

Thursday 21st March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Thursday 21 March 2024
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Worcester.

Introduction: Baroness Monckton of Dallington Forest

Thursday 21st March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Rosamond Mary Monckton, MBE, having been created Baroness Monckton of Dallington Forest, of Earlsdown in the County of East Sussex, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Altrincham and Lord Laming, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.

Introduction: Baroness Smith of Llanfaes

Thursday 21st March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Carmen Ria Smith, having been created Baroness Smith of Llanfaes, of Llanfaes in the County of Ynys Môn, was introduced and made the solemn affirmation, supported by Lord Wigley and Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.

Household Support Fund: Children’s Bed Poverty

Thursday 21st March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Asked by
Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the Household Support Fund on children’s bed poverty.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Viscount Younger of Leckie) (Con)
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My Lords, an evaluation of the current household support fund scheme is under way to better understand the impact of the funding. In the Spring Budget, the Chancellor announced an extension to the household support fund in England for a further six months, meaning that the Government will ensure that targeted support is available for those facing the most challenging financial circumstances as inflation falls. Subject to local decisions, this funding may be used to purchase beds and other household essentials for those in need.

Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
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I thank the Minister for that Answer, and indeed for the fact that the Government extended the household support fund for another six months. But this morning the Government’s latest statistics on child poverty have been published: 4.3 million children are now growing up in poverty. That is an increase of 100,000 since figures were last published, equivalent to the population of a town the size of Eastbourne. With the household support fund due to end again in September, will the Government use these next six months to carefully consider a longer-term strategy than funding settlements for local crisis support, which is a lifeline for children and their families?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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The Government have kept the household support fund under review, as with all such schemes. Given the changing circumstances, including falling inflation, it was important to consider this in the round as part of the Spring Budget. The right reverend Prelate will know that this is now the fifth household support fund scheme and, following their experience of previous schemes, we know that local authorities and their partners are well placed to deliver support to those in need in particular areas.

Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
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My Lords, the Work and Pensions Select Committee in the other place has just published a report into benefit levels, clearly carried out on the basis of the evidence submitted, which showed that claimants are often not able to afford daily living costs and extra costs associated with having a health condition or disability. In view of those findings, will the Minister talk with his ministerial colleagues in the DWP and ensure a review of benefits and welfare based on the essential principle of need, which includes the operating of benefits commensurate with that level of need in our wider community, including the household support fund?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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Of course I will take that point back, but the noble Baroness will be aware that much thought and work is going into this area. In terms of targeted support locally, she will know that the Government have delivered a balanced package of funding through the local government finance settlement for this coming year, 2024-25, which makes available up to £64.7 billion for local authorities in England to target in the right place. I reassure her that this targets the deprived areas of England, particularly the upper decile of the index of multiple deprivation, and they will receive 18% more per dwelling in available resource than the least deprived areas.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con)
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My Lords, I very much welcome the Government’s decision to extend the household support fund for a further six months, but further to the right reverend Prelate’s supplementary question, I ask: what steps can my noble friend take to ensure a smooth transition, particularly for families with children, when the scheme comes to an end on 30 September—which may be a sensitive time in the political calendar?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I am well aware of the sensitivities if decisions are made for that particular time. We will have to wait and see. But as inflation falls, as in the good news yesterday with the fall to 3.4%, and with evidence of some price falls and, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, some evidence of some green shoots, notably with energy prices coming down as well, the Government will want to take careful stock over the next few months. Of course, any decision on the future of the household support fund after 30 September will be a matter for the Chancellor when he deems the timing to be right.

Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Portrait Lord Palmer of Childs Hill (LD)
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My Lords, it is vital that the household support fund continues, but the sad reality of children’s bed poverty is that it stems from systemic problems with our benefit system, which keeps people in deep poverty. Does the Minister agree that the most efficient and effective means of reducing child poverty is to lift the two-child limit? It is not just the right thing to do to end hardship now but the best route in which to end the cycle of poverty for future generations.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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We are very alert to the issue of child poverty. Tackling child poverty is incredibly important, and we have set out a clear and sustainable approach based on evidence of the important role that parental employment plays in reducing the risk of child poverty. But it is more than that. The Question focuses on bed poverty, and it is good to mention that the household support fund can be used to ameliorate bed poverty. There are some examples that the noble Lord may know of, particularly in Bolton and Oldham.

Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D'Souza (CB)
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Despite the many different kinds of benefits that the Government provide, the evidence suggests that deep poverty remains stubbornly high, at 7% of the population. Does not this suggest that what is needed is a public health approach, whereby there is a co-ordinated strategy by central, national and local government, including business, civic society and communities to develop multi-year schemes to address the damaging social consequences of such poverty?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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The noble Baroness makes a very good point of tackling poverty not over one year but over several years. She will know that we will spend £276 billion through the welfare system in the coming year, 2024-25, including around £125 billion on people of working age and children. This is very much work in progress. Bearing in mind the point behind her question, I can say that my department, the DWP, is working ever more closely with the DHSC and other necessary departments to take a range of initiatives forward.

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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I cannot resist making the point that the last Labour Government actually lifted hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty. It is welcome that the Government, with less than a month to go, have renewed the household support fund temporarily. The last time that noble Lords discussed this issue at Oral Questions, I asked the Minister how the Government would work on long-term strategies to fight poverty rather than short-term measures renewed only at the last minute. My question remains very much the same: given that two-thirds of children growing up in poverty live in a household where one adult works, are the Government going to work to create long-term stability and security for families, including those experiencing in-work poverty?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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Again, the noble Baroness has made a good point about looking beyond a year and taking a long-term view. More than 26 million awards of support were made between October 2021 and March 2023 across the first of the household support fund schemes. I reassure her that the largest category of spend has been on food support, including support during school holidays, targeted particularly at children who receive free school meals in term time. The focus on children is incredibly important and should be continued.

Baroness Buscombe Portrait Baroness Buscombe (Con)
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My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend and his department for all they are doing in terms of a long-term strategy. Given that we are about to pay out something like £290 billion in that one department this year, which is entirely unsustainable if the Government are to support defence, our health service and everything else as well, surely the best way in which to take people out of poverty is to help them into work. That is something that the department is focused on. The opposite party for years has preferred to keep people trapped in poverty. Am I not right that he is doing the right thing?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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My noble friend is absolutely right. The House will know—and I shall say this again—that this is one of the ways forward. The most important thing is for people to be in work. She will know, for example, that we have brought the figure down for workless households very substantially since 2009-10.

Lord Bird Portrait Lord Bird (CB)
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With eight different government departments dealing with poverty, is not it time that we actually co-ordinated our dismantling of poverty by bringing in a government department that deals exclusively with poverty prevention?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I am very aware of the noble Lord’s interest in this area. I recall the debate that he led on about three weeks ago, which I was involved in. I have very much taken note of his view. We do not agree that there needs to be such a high level of focus on poverty. Having said all that, I think that he is aware of the huge number of initiatives that we are taking, particularly cross-government, in tackling poverty, particularly child poverty.

National Minimum Wage Legislation

Thursday 21st March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Asked by
Lord Sahota Portrait Lord Sahota
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve the enforcement of national minimum wage legislation.

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business and Trade (Lord Offord of Garvel) (Con)
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My Lords, the Government take enforcing the minimum wage extremely seriously. We are clear that anyone entitled to be paid the minimum wage should receive it. Robust enforcement action is taken against employers who do not pay their staff correctly. Since the introduction of the national minimum wage in 1999, the Government have overseen the repayment of more than £173 million to 1.4 million workers, issued nearly £86 million in financial penalties and completed more than 87,000 investigations.

Lord Sahota Portrait Lord Sahota (Lab)
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I thank the Minister. The International Labour Organization recommends that there should be one inspector for every 10,000 workers to check that employees are being paid the minimum wage. The UK ratio is 0.4% for every 10,000 workers; that way, UK employers can expect an inspection every 500 years. That is not good enough. You only have to talk to overseas students and workers in minority communities to see how widespread the problem is. In order to stop paying the minimum wage to some employees, employers make them work 20 hours, but on the books they are paying them for only 10 hours—this is one way they get round it. We need stronger and tougher sanctions against rogue employers, so we can get on with it.

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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The Government remain totally committed to the effective enforcement of employment rights and provide a lot of funding, including over £35 million this year to the existing dedicated labour market enforcement bodies. That is a 121% increase in funding since 2010, so a lot of money has gone into this area. On top of that, we provide funding of over £50 million per annum to ACAS, to support employment tribunals. We have had great success in reducing the number of companies not paying the national minimum wage.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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My Lords, we heard about in-work poverty in the previous Question. One reason there is so much in-work poverty is that too many workers are slipping through the national minimum wage net. One of the key areas in this is food delivery apps. Uber justifies its treatment of its employees as so-called self-employed as balancing flexibility and protection. Does the Minister agree that it is the food delivery apps that get all the flexibility, while the workers get no protection at all?

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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In the recent Supreme Court judgment on Uber, it was made clear that those who qualify as workers under existing employment law are entitled to core employment rights and that all gig economy businesses must ensure that they fulfil their legal responsibilities. We now have a situation in which the national minimum wage is two-thirds of hourly median pay, and under OECD rules that means it is no longer classified as low pay. We know that 5% of our workforce is on national minimum wage, which is a great success.

Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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Currys, EasyJet and Greggs are part of a parade of companies that never forget to pay bosses but somehow forget to pay the minimum wage to workers. Their memory can be improved by effective sanctions requiring that the fine for not paying the minimum wage must equal remuneration of the entire board, of which at least 50% must be paid personally by directors. When will the Minister introduce this sanction?

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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One of the sanctions available to the Government is the naming and shaming scheme, which is very successful. We have a large number of companies which have been subject to that, and we have therefore increased greatly the number of companies complying as a result. When HMRC finds employers which breach this, it can impose a penalty of up to 200%; the penalties are severe for companies which do not comply.

Lord Bellingham Portrait Lord Bellingham (Con)
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My Lords, the Minister pointed out the work by the HMRC national minimum wage enforcement team, and the general consensus is that it is doing an effective and professional job. Does it concern him that 95% of the 65,000 HMRC staff are working from home at least one day a week? Can he tell the House whether this is hampering effectiveness?

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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I thank my noble friend for his question. There are a number of bodies that enforce our employment laws in the UK. Obviously, HMRC is the body that oversees the national minimum wage; my department, DBT, ensures that agency workers are well protected; and within the Home Office, we have the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority. So we have three very effective regulators, which are well funded, and we continue to pursue, name and shame, and impose penalties on companies that do not respect the law.

Lord Leong Portrait Lord Leong (Lab)
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My Lords, this year we celebrate 25 years of the national minimum wage, which was brought in by the Labour Government. It has played a vital role in protecting the UK’s lowest-paid workers. Some 524 employers were recently named and shamed for underpaying around 172,000 national minimum wage employees by nearly £16 million. Can the Minister confirm that these underpaid employees have now received all the pay that they have earned and how often sanctions beyond the standard fines are applied to repeat offenders?

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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Since the introduction of the national minimum wage in 1999, the Government have ordered employers to repay over £173 million to 1.4 million workers. It is far more effective that the employers are made to pay the workers than be dragged through courts, which delays payments to workers and does not provide any respite. I am interested in the fact that this is the 25th anniversary of the national minimum wage. When this Government came to power in 2010, the number of employees on low hourly pay was 21% of the workforce; today, that is 8.9%. I also point out that, when this Government took over from Labour in 2010, benefits were the largest source of income for the poorest working-age households, but under the Conservatives it is now their wages.

Lord Watts Portrait Lord Watts (Lab)
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Is it not the case that far too many employers still find it to their own advantage to pay below the living wage and below the basic wage? Is it not time that we made this a criminal act, so that we can hold the directors of those companies accountable for their actions?

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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As we have said before, our labour market in the UK is one of the most sophisticated and best-working in the world. Out of a population of 66 million people, 33 million are working, and only 5% of that workforce is on the minimum wage. In the meantime, 30% of the population do not pay any tax and the 1% highest earners pay 30% income tax. I think noble Lords would agree that our workforce is in good shape. Instead of criminalising employers, we need to spread the education required to make sure that everyone has higher wages.

Earl of Clancarty Portrait The Earl of Clancarty (CB)
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My Lords, some of the examples that have been given are technically people who are self-employed. Does the Minister not believe that the whole area of self-employment needs to be looked at very carefully in this respect?

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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Of the 33 million workers in the country, there are 27 million employees; that means that we have a proportion of the workforce which is self-employed. You might say they are the unsung heroes—the ones who put their laptop on at 8 am and close it down at 10 pm—and they deserve our respect.

Lord Harris of Haringey Portrait Lord Harris of Haringey (Lab)
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My Lords, is it not the case that, two years ago, the Government undertook to close the loophole which enabled P&O Ferries to pay way below the minimum wage? Has the Minister seen the reports in yesterday’s newspapers that many of its employees are currently being paid half the minimum wage? What are the Government doing about this?

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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Obviously, that case is well known, and P&O was rightly named and shamed. I saw the article but I am not aware of the details of the case. However, I am very clear that we will check to make sure that P&O continues to act within the law.

Baroness Blower Portrait Baroness Blower (Lab)
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My Lords, in its day, the national minimum wage was indeed an achievement. However, does the Minister agree with me, and with the OECD and the ILO, that the best way to ensure that workers have sustainable good pay and conditions is through sectoral collective bargaining—for example, in the care sector?

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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I am sure we all agree on one thing: that we want our workforce in this country to be well paid and to increase their training and skills. Surely the best form of welfare we can give anybody is a good job.

LGBT Veterans: Financial Redress

Thursday 21st March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Asked by
Lord Cashman Portrait Lord Cashman
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To ask His Majesty’s Government when they expect to have implemented Lord Etherton’s recommendations on financial redress in the LGBT veterans independent review.

Earl of Minto Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (The Earl of Minto) (Con)
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My Lords, defence has accepted the recommendation of a financial award, as proposed by the notable review from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, and is working with experts across government to establish an appropriate scheme, acknowledging that the process is intricate. Defence is committed to maintaining the momentum of the review and honouring all commitments made in the Government’s response, published in December 2023. Work continues to deliver the financial scheme by the end of 2024, and I commit to updating the House on the design of the scheme before the Summer Recess.

Lord Cashman Portrait Lord Cashman (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. This country’s treatment of LGBT armed services personnel has indeed been shameful, and the longer it takes to implement the financial elements of the report from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, the worse it gets. The Government have had the report for a long time. They accepted it in July, but we still have no financial redress for these veterans, whose careers were ruined, whose employment prospects were damaged and whose service pensions and benefits were denied. Many are now in their senior years and living in hardship. Therefore, I ask the Government at the very least to commit to an operational date for the financial redress scheme and, if they cannot do that, to update the House, as the Minister has said, at least within three months of this Question.

Earl of Minto Portrait The Earl of Minto (Con)
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My Lords, I certainly commit to updating the House on that latter point. I think all sides are vigorously agreed on this important issue: the treatment of LGBT serving personnel between 1967 and 2000 was wholly, wholly unacceptable. There is just no question about that. But the situation today is very different, and we are trying to address the wrongs of the past as rapidly and practically as we can. We are working across government to deliver all 49 recommendations as effectively, practically and expeditiously as possible.

Lord Lexden Portrait Lord Lexden (Con)
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My Lords, do the Government realise that there is grave anxiety among brave and unjustly treated LGBT veterans, because Ministers do not seem to have accepted in full the central recommendation of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, that claims for financial compensation should be met unless the Government can

“disprove the evidence of the veteran making a claim”?

Since so many of the relevant records have been destroyed by the MoD, would it not be quite wrong to place the burden of proof on veterans? Is it not indefensible that severe financial hardship should be endured by veterans such as Mr Joe Ousalice, now suffering from terminal cancer, who was sacked simply because he was gay after giving nearly 18 years loyal service to the Navy?

Earl of Minto Portrait The Earl of Minto (Con)
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My Lords, nobody can do anything other than agree with my noble friend. The progress we are making is as we set out after we received the review and considered it in December. Since that time, 26 of the 49 recommendations are now complete, eight remain to be completed by the Ministry of Defence, 12 remain to be completed by the NHS and three remain to be completed by the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, which is all about the very important memorial issue. The door has opened to the extremely important webpage “LGBT veterans: support and next steps” on GOV.UK—I will repeat this as often as I can. We have now had over 2,000 contacts, which have so far resulted in 415 applications to date for restorative measures, including financial measures.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, there is something of a pattern here. When His Majesty’s Government pledged to make recompense to the war widows, there was an assumption that something would happen, but we heard a few weeks ago that some of the war widows were no longer eligible for the money they thought they were going to receive. We are now hearing that His Majesty’s Government are spending time creating a scheme for LGBT veterans. That is clearly welcome, but, as we have heard from both sides of the Chamber, there is an urgency about this, because some of the veterans have terminal illnesses. They and their families need to know that they are going to be recompensed sooner rather than later. Can His Majesty’s Government make a commitment to come back not just with another Statement but with the scheme that is needed?

Earl of Minto Portrait The Earl of Minto (Con)
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My Lords, I am fully aware of the war widows issue and we are addressing that at the same time. It is very important that all these things get finished off as quickly as we possibly can. As far as the content is concerned, I have given a commitment that I will return before the Summer Recess. That will not be another Statement; it will contain what the process is going to be.

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Portrait Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab)
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My Lords, I am happy to pay tribute to the Minister for the commitments he has made openly, both to the Question we are discussing and to the modes by which he will deliver further progress on this issue. He will have noticed, in the way the Question was formed, that my noble friend Lord Cashman has used the future perfect of the verb. In other words, will it be enough to hear an update on what is happening, or do we all long for the day when we know what has happened?

Earl of Minto Portrait The Earl of Minto (Con)
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My Lords, we come back to grammar. We are all on the same page on this. Everybody is in full agreement, but we have to make certain that it is done fairly, that everybody who has the right opportunity to apply gets that opportunity, and that the compensation and other restorative measures are available to everybody concerned at the appropriate time.

Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Portrait Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton (Con)
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My Lords, I remind your Lordships’ House of my interest as a serving member of the Armed Forces. It is imperative that our Armed Forces are representative of the society they seek to protect. While there has been significant progress in recent years when it comes to the recruitment of women and ethnic minorities into the Armed Forces, much work still needs to be done. The Royal Air Force has been an exemplar in this area. So can my noble friend simply reassure your Lordships’ House that this remains a priority for His Majesty’s Government?

Earl of Minto Portrait The Earl of Minto (Con)
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My Lords, I can do no more than assure the House that it is indeed an absolute priority for the Government.

Baroness Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent Portrait Baroness Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent (Lab)
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My Lords, I remind your Lordships’ House of my registered interests, specifically my roles with the Royal Navy. I also put on record our thanks to my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, for everything they have done to keep this issue on our agenda.

Fighting With Pride has done an extraordinary job of raising the horrendous experiences of LGBT+ veterans who served prior to 2000, and I thank the organisation for its service. It is the least that we owe it, and the veterans it serves, to enact every recommendation in the review of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, especially recommendation 28. Can the Minister update us on whether the planned financial redress will be a blanket amount per affected veteran, or whether it will—as requested by Fighting With Pride—be applied on a case-by-case basis?

Earl of Minto Portrait The Earl of Minto (Con)
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My Lords, when it comes down to it, it must be on a case-by-case basis, because a lot of the information that we have available to check and re-check exactly who has been so badly dealt with is either missing or not particularly accurate. I say again that anybody who has any interest in this should apply on the “LGBT veterans: support and next steps” page on GOV.UK. So far, we have only had just over 400 applications, which is less than we thought. We really want to make certain that this is absolutely comprehensive and that everybody gets paid—and all the other restorative measures, which are just as important, are taken—as quickly and practically as possible.

Lord Cashman Portrait Lord Cashman (Lab)
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My Lords, it is commendable that 26 recommendations have been adopted, but does the Minister agree that, without the financial element, it could be seen as window dressing? Difficult though it is, the Canadian Government turned around a much larger scheme with a much larger cohort within four months of receiving their report. I am mystified as to why the MoD cannot do the same.

Earl of Minto Portrait The Earl of Minto (Con)
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My Lords, the Canadian example is apposite but very different. The Canadian Government took a very clear administrative approach, which addressed a specific number of people, where they already had the information. We are not in that position, and it is important that we catch everybody who is likely to be affected, to make certain that justice and the right thing are done.

Asylum Seekers: Rwanda

Thursday 21st March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Asked by
Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what are the reasons for their new policy of paying failed asylum seekers to travel to Rwanda; how this policy will deliver (1) justice, and (2) deterrence; and how they expect it will work alongside their policy of seeking to forcibly transport illegal migrants to that country.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, voluntary relocations to Rwanda support efforts to remove individuals with no right to be here. This will be offered to failed asylum seekers, those without leave to remain and those who have put in a claim to the UK’s asylum system that was unsuccessful. Once the Bill and the treaty are in place, we will look to enforce the removal of individuals entering illegally, so that their asylum claims can be processed in Rwanda.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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As always, I am grateful to the Minister, particularly this morning. Can he help me a little with the following logic? As I understand the Government’s own case, in pursuit of deterrence some genuine refugees who have come by irregular routes will be forcibly transported to Rwanda, while failed asylum seekers, including some who have made fraudulent claims, will be given the £3,000 golden goodbye.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, yes. The fact is that people who have paid £5,000 to £10,000 to a murderous criminal gang to get to the UK—let us not forget that they have been sold a lie and will not be able to stay here—are unlikely to be attracted by an offer of £3,000. I do not believe that it will have any effect on the deterrence principle.

Viscount Hailsham Portrait Viscount Hailsham (Con)
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Will my noble friend the Minister help the House by telling us whether the numbers of migrants who are paid a fee to go to Rwanda will count towards the numbers that Rwanda has agreed to take as compulsory relocations under the Bill’s provisions?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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As the scheme has only just begun, I do not know what the numbers are likely to look like in the end. However, as this is governed by a separate agreement, I imagine that the answer is no.

Lord German Portrait Lord German (LD)
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My Lords, can the Minister tell the House the size of the cohort that he described and to whom the offer will be made? What will the status be of those people when they arrive in Rwanda, given the present position of the Bill, the treaty and everything else? I draw attention to my interest in the register that I am supported by the RAMP.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, as I said, this will be offered to individuals with no right to remain. They are visa overstayers and failed asylum seekers, who are offered this option as part of our regular dialogue. It is very hard to say exactly how many people are likely to be offered this, so I cannot answer that question in its entirety. However, this builds on our already widely used voluntary returns scheme, which saw more than 19,000 people accept support to return to their country of origin last year. We have agreed with the Government of Rwanda that individuals who are relocated voluntarily will have the same package of support for up to five years as those who are being discussed under the Bill.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Portrait Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con)
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My Lords, has my noble friend the Minister seen reports this morning in the Times, the Telegraph and other newspapers suggesting that this House has delayed the passage of the Rwanda Bill unnecessarily, resulting in people being exposed to the dangers of the channel? Will he take this opportunity to point out that this House was well prepared to pass the legislation back to the House of Commons for consideration before Easter, that it is no fault of this House that the legislation has been delayed and that this House has just been doing its job by asking the Commons to think again and is not responsible for delaying the legislation?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I am happy to reassure my noble friend that I have seen those reports and that I passed that very message back before those newspapers published their reports.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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My Lords, if Rwanda is a safe country, can we have an explanation of why we are taking Rwandan refugees here in Britain?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I have discussed that many times from the Dispatch Box. The fact is that we take refugees from many countries, some of which are safe.

Lord Browne of Ladyton Portrait Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab)
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My Lords, if I understood the Minister earlier, did he mean to tell the House that this arrangement with Rwanda—for people to go there with £3,000—is not covered by the UK-Rwanda asylum partnership agreement, and that there is another agreement of some description with Rwanda, the details of which have not been shared with Parliament? When will Parliament see that agreement?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, as I said earlier, this is separate from the Bill and the treaty. I cannot answer the question, as I do not know when Parliament will see the agreement.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, in the proceedings of the Illegal Migration Bill—now the Act—that was passed last July, the Minister told us that the Act was necessary as a disincentive for people who would cross the channel. The Government have not brought the Act into force yet, eight months after it was passed by Parliament. Can the Minister confirm that those people who have arrived by boat since the passage of the Act until today have been able to claim asylum? How many have been doing so and what are the financial consequences?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have the numbers to hand, because the Question that I am answering is of a very different nature. I will have to come back to the noble Lord.

Baroness Bryan of Partick Portrait Baroness Bryan of Partick (Lab)
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My Lords, I am surprised to hear that there is no budget for this policy, but I am sure that the Minister agrees with the two Ministers who answered Questions this morning about the importance of people being in work. Does he agree with me that many people who come to this country would make a valuable contribution if only they were allowed to work?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I agree in certain circumstances, but we are talking about failed asylum seekers. These people will be offered the opportunity to work, but in Rwanda.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, is it the Government’s position that there will be a finite number of places and that some of the people who go there voluntarily will take some of those places but that will not have any effect on the deterrence of the Government’s policy?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, as I have also said many times from the Dispatch Box, this scheme and the Rwanda scheme are uncapped, so there is no finite number of places.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick Portrait Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB)
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My Lords, will the Minister consider his words a little more carefully before he describes people as “failed asylum seekers”, when we have actually refused to consider their asylum requests?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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No, I am afraid that I will not. They are failed asylum seekers, visa overstayers and people who are outside of the current system.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester Portrait Lord Faulkner of Worcester (Lab)
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My Lords, further to the excellent question from the Minister’s noble friend Lord Forsyth about the attitude of this House towards the Rwanda Bill, will he care to put his ministerial colleague Mr Tomlinson right on remarks that he made on the “Peston” programme last night? He said that the Government lost the seven votes in this House yesterday because of all the votes of the Labour Peers who were whipped into the Lobby by Sir Keir Starmer. Can he point out what the arithmetic is in the relationship between Conservative Peers and Labour Peers?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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The noble Lord makes a good point. I am afraid that I did not see Minister Tomlinson because—noble Lords may be surprised to know—I was in the bar after yesterday’s efforts. However, I have some other statistics: Labour has voted against tougher measures on illegal migration 118 times and voted to block, delay or weaken our plan to stop the boats 105 times.

Israel and Gaza

Thursday 21st March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 19 March.
“Israel suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history on 7 October last year. The scenes that we saw on that day were appalling, and Hamas’s disregard for civilian welfare continues today, more than five months later. We remember all the time those who are still being held hostage and their families, and we call once again for their immediate release. However, we naturally remain deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the impact of the conflict on all Palestinian civilians. We have borne witness to death and displacement on a vast scale. More than 1.7 million people have had to leave their home, many on multiple occasions. We are deeply concerned about the growing risk of famine, exacerbated by the spread of disease, and, of course, about the terrible psychosocial impacts of the conflict, which will be felt for years to come.
We are totally committed to getting humanitarian aid to all those people in Gaza who desperately need it, doing so either ourselves or through UN agencies and British or other charities. We and our partners are pushing to get aid in through all feasible means, by land, sea and air. We have trebled our aid funding to the Occupied Palestinian Territories this year, providing just under £100 million, of which £70 million has been delivered as humanitarian assistance. On 13 March a further 150 tonnes of UK aid arrived in Gaza, including 840 family tents, 13,440 blankets, nearly 3,000 shelter kits and shelter fixing kits, 6,000 sleeping mats, and more than 3,000 dignity kits. A field hospital, provided through UK aid funding to UK-Med, arrived in Gaza from Manchester last Friday. This facility, staffed by UK and local medics, will be able to treat more than 100 patients a day. Along with Cyprus, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and others, Britain will help to deliver humanitarian aid by sea to a new temporary US military pier in Gaza via a maritime corridor from Cyprus.
We have made it clear, however, that air and sea deliveries cannot be a substitute for the delivery of aid through land routes. Only through those routes can the demand for the volume of aid that is now required be met. We continue to press Israel to open more land crossings for longer, and with fewer screening requirements. There is no doubt that land crossings are the most effective means of getting aid into Gaza, and Israel must do more. There is also no doubt that the best way to bring an end to the suffering is to agree an immediate humanitarian pause, and progress towards a sustainable, permanent ceasefire without a return to destruction, fighting and loss of life. Reaching that outcome is the focus of all our diplomatic efforts right now, and a goal that is shared by our international partners. We urge all sides to seize the opportunity, and continue negotiations to reach an agreement as soon as possible”.
Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, the Minister has told the House that the United Kingdom has stressed to the Israeli Government the importance of complying with the ICJ decision on provisional measures, making the point that it is central to the issue of humanitarian aid. Both the Minister and the Foreign Secretary have also stressed the importance of UNRWA in distributing aid, so why have we not accepted the recommendation of the OIOS inquiry’s interim report to recommence payments to ensure that the aid, which is increasing, is properly distributed? What are we doing to speed up the broader review of UNRWA’s activities and neutrality by Catherine Colonna? It would be good to hear that we are actively engaged in that, to ensure that we can get into Gaza the aid that is so desperately needed.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, I am sure I speak for everyone in your Lordships’ House when I say that, following the 7 October attacks, we were all shocked and appalled by the allegations that UNRWA staff were involved in those attacks. Like many other countries—the US, Germany, Italy, Finland, Switzerland and the Netherlands—we suspended funding. However, the noble Lord is right to raise the importance of the reports. We have spoken repeatedly—as has my noble friend—about the important role that UNRWA has played in providing aid and services. We have continued our support through other agencies, and the Foreign Secretary and I have been advocating very strongly for the opening up of new land access points to Gaza, which is showing progress. For example, we saw 185 trucks get through the Kerem Shalom crossing.

On the two reports, I can assure the noble Lord that the UK is fully engaged, primarily through our excellent ambassador at the UN, Dame Barbara Woodward. There is a briefing for UN Security Council Permanent Representatives on the interim findings of Catherine Colonna’s report at 8.30 New York time today. We are following this very closely, but there are important measures and mitigations that need to be put in place. While we recognise the important role of UNRWA, we must ensure that any resumption of new funding to UNRWA from the United Kingdom is based on those mitigations being in place.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, the Minister is aware that I asked the Foreign Secretary last week about concerns over potential breaches of international humanitarian law. The Department for Business and Trade instigated a change of circumstances review for export licences for military equipment in December, and the significance of the concerns has only grown since then. Can the Minister confirm that this is probably the appropriate time for that review to err on the side of caution and for the UK to follow Canada in pausing the export licences for military equipment to the Government of Israel?

Secondly, given the concerns about two of the Ministers within the Netanyahu coalition—Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, against whom these Benches have called for actions to be taken—can the Minister update the House on discussions between the UK Government and the Israeli Government on a free trade agreement? Does he agree that it is probably not appropriate to continue discussions about a free trade agreement with those two Ministers at this time?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Lord will be fully aware that, as the Minister responsible, I called out the statements made by the two Ministers he named as inflammatory and not reflective of a majority of progressively minded and right-minded people and citizens of Israel across all communities who do not adhere to the statements made by those Ministers; we have rejected those words. The more substantive issue of IHL is important; we regularly review our assessment and we have previously assessed that Israel is complying with IHL. The noble Lord will have heard the words of my noble friend the Foreign Secretary about the importance of this and, while we will not give a running commentary, we have to go through specific processes in this regard, and I assure him that we are seized of this.

Lord Pannick Portrait Lord Pannick (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for the support that he, the Foreign Secretary and the Government have given to the families of the hostages in Gaza. Will he please reconfirm that the Government are doing all they can to release these unfortunate people? Can he also make special efforts to try to secure the release of the remains of those hostages who have died in Gaza so that their families can give them a decent burial?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I can give the noble Lord both those assurances. This week my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken directly to hostage families. I also met, for a second time, one of the mothers of the hostage families; he is not in his place, but I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Levy, for arranging that. It is important, and I assure the noble Lord and your Lordships’ House that this is a key priority. That is why we need the fighting to stop now so that we can get the hostages returned and aid in. To his point on remains, I remember a very poignant meeting, together with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, at which one of the relatives looked at me quite directly and said that irrespective of our faiths—I speak as a Muslim and she was of the Jewish faith—we all recognise the importance of closure, and we need to bring closure to the families of those tragically killed.

Viscount Hailsham Portrait Viscount Hailsham (Con)
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My Lords, will my noble friend impress on his counterparts in the Israeli Government that, difficult though the two-state, or confederal, solution may be, it is by far the least bad of those that are available—not least because if the political aspirations of the Palestinian people are not met by such an approach, there will be no lasting peace?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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I totally agree with my noble friend, and that is why we have impressed, and my noble friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear, that a key component of the key deliverables for a sustainable peace is a political horizon towards the two-state solution, which includes—as the Saudi Foreign Minister rightly said—irreversible steps to that solution. There is a real willingness and recognition of the need—I know that many in your Lordships’ House who know the Palestinians and Israelis would agree—to ensure security, stability and peace between both peoples, and that can be delivered only through a viable two-state solution.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Lab)
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My Lords, I return to the funding of UNRWA. I found the Minister’s response to my noble friend Lord Collins a little disappointing, given the concern that he and the Foreign Secretary have justifiably expressed about the urgency of getting humanitarian aid into Gaza and distributing it. Is he aware of just how much experience and expertise UNRWA has in this—far greater than any other group he could name? There are UNRWA people on the ground who can do the distribution. Is he also aware that our allies, Canada, Spain and others, who suspended funding to UNRWA have now restored it? What is preventing the UK Government restoring it and consistently pushing policies that will do something about the humanitarian disaster in Gaza?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that we are fully seized of our engagement with UNRWA. I have spoken several times to Philippe Lazzarini, the director of UNRWA, as has the Development Minister, and we will continue to engage directly on the importance of mitigations, as I outlined to the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I fully agree with the noble Baroness—I said it again today—about the important role that UNRWA has played; I have said from the Dispatch Box that it has been the backbone of the humanitarian operation in Gaza and continues to provide important support.

I will make two points, though. We have not suspended humanitarian support in Gaza: additional money, now more than £100 million, continues to flow in. We have delivered over land, and the noble Baroness will know that we have also delivered through air and maritime routes. But we have been pressing the Israeli Government, with a degree of success and through working with the World Food Programme, for example, to ensure that aid is delivered, and we are working with other key partners on that. The important thing, as the UN and the Secretary-General recognise, is that those concerns, raised by the United Kingdom and others, allow UNRWA to move forward in a progressive way, with those important mitigations in place so that this chapter cannot be repeated.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick Portrait Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB)
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My Lords, the Minister helpfully referred to the report being made to the Security Council today by the Secretary-General’s representative, Catherine Colonna. Will he share the report with Members of the House, perhaps in writing, when it becomes available to him? Given the imminence of the Easter Recess, will he tell the House before we go into recess what the Government’s response to that report is?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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As the noble Lord will know from his own time as an ambassador to the UN, the report being shared today is an interim report by the former Foreign Minister of France, Catherine Colonna. It is a UN product. Ultimately, as she has said, it is a report to the Secretary-General, and how its details are shared and briefed will be a matter for the Secretary-General.

Hong Kong Security Legislation

Thursday 21st March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 20 March.
“Yesterday, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council passed new national security legislation unanimously under Article 23 of the Basic Law. The Bill, which rushed through the legislative process, and is likely incompatible with international human rights law, will come into force on Saturday. Since 2020, we have seen Hong Kongers’ rights and freedoms deliberately eroded as a result of the Beijing-imposed national security law, and this law continues that pattern.
Yesterday, His Majesty’s Government made it clear that the law’s overall impact will be to further damage the rights and freedoms enjoyed throughout Hong Kong. It will enable the authorities to continue their clampdown on freedoms, including freedom of speech, assembly and the media. It will further entrench the culture of self-censorship dominating Hong Kong’s social and political landscape. It fails to provide certainty for international organisations, including diplomatic missions, operating there. Broad definitions will negatively affect those who live, work and do business there.
Although Britain recognises the right of all jurisdictions to implement national security legislation, Hong Kong is also required to ensure that laws align with international standards, rights and norms as set out in UN treaties, the Sino-British joint declaration and its Basic Law. Hong Kong is an international city. Respect for the rule of law, its high degree of autonomy and the independence of its well-respected institutions have always been critical to its success. The British Government have urged the Hong Kong authorities to respect rights and freedoms, uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rule of law, and act in accordance with its international commitments and legal obligations.
Let me conclude by welcoming the contribution that our growing Hong Kong diaspora make to life in the UK; they are safe to live here, and exercise the rights and freedoms that all other British residents enjoy. We will not tolerate any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK. This law has no effect in the UK, and we have no active extradition treaty with Hong Kong”.
Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, Andrew Mitchell said yesterday that the legislation is a breach of the Sino-British joint declaration, adding that the United Kingdom decided in 2021 that China was in ongoing breach of that agreement and declaration. Earlier this week, Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that there were serious concerns raised about the incompatibility of many of its provisions with international human rights law. Can the Minister tell us what we are doing at the United Nations to support the high commissioner on these points and to raise these serious breaches of the joint declaration? Can I also ask about the ongoing detention of Jimmy Lai, a British citizen who is a stark symbol of the decline of Hong Kong’s freedoms? What update can the Minister give the House in relation to our efforts to secure Jimmy Lai’s release?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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I can confirm for the noble Lord that, after a series of breaches by China, including the imposition of the national security law and the changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, the UK declared China to be in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the declaration in March 2021. This new safeguarding Bill, as the High Commissioner for Human Rights said, may not uphold those obligations, which are bound to it within international human rights laws. It falls short of international standards that Hong Kong itself has promised to uphold. The agreement that we signed with China—the joint declaration—is a legally binding international agreement registered with the UN. So I assure the noble Lord that we will continue, as we have done and as my noble friend the Foreign Secretary did in his announcement, and that the legislation will come into effect this weekend. We will look at this in a focused way. My noble friend has commented quite strongly in this respect.

We continue to raise the case of Jimmy Lai consistently. The Foreign Secretary reiterated the call for his release on 16 February directly with Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Munich Security Conference. On 23 January, the UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN also called for China to cease his prosecution and repeal the 45th national security law during the universal periodic review. On 28 February, I myself called again for the immediate release of Jimmy Lai, at the UN Human Rights Council.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, in spite of what the Minister says about the UK saying that there is an ongoing breach, the first time a Minister of His Majesty’s Government visited Hong Kong, it was the Investment Minister, Lord Johnson. He did not raise Jimmy Lai with Hong Kong or Chinese officials; he did not raise human rights with officials; he did not raise the sanctioning of democracies; and he did not meet democracy campaigners in Hong Kong. The Minister made only one media comment saying that the British Government were concerned about human rights. In his comments today, the Foreign Secretary said that he was concerned that this would impact on investment. Is the UK so dependent on Chinese imports of goods and Hong Kong investment that we will not act when it comes to enforcement on what we believe should be human rights breaches? Why do Ministers visit Hong Kong but not raise these issues with Chinese officials?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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As the noble Lord mentioned, on the visit of the last Minister, he did, according to our records, raise the issue of human rights. That is a consistent policy; I, as the Minister for human rights, ensure that they are included in briefings, wherever they are and with whatever Minister.

I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Purvis: as I demonstrated in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we have consistently raised the issue of Jimmy Lai specifically. On the issue of not acting, we have. When it comes to broader issues around human rights—for example, the noble Lord will be aware of Xinjiang—the United Kingdom has been instrumental and has led action at both the UN Human Rights Council and the UN in New York.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, I declare a non-financial interest as a patron of Hong Kong Watch. In addition to the case of Jimmy Lai, at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong only yesterday morning, we heard from a young man who had been tortured, had suffered violence and had been brainwashed before he was able to escape. He is now in the United Kingdom with many of the others who have come here under the Government’s commendable BNO scheme.

That young man raised the issue of transnational crimes, as well as the breach of the basic law, and the experience that some are already having in the UK as a result of Chinese operations in Great Britain. What are the Government going to do about this and about raising, along with the case of Jimmy Lai, the cases of the 1,700 political prisoners who are still in jail in Hong Kong? As the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, just said, we are more interested in building trade relationships to try to address the £50-billion trade deficit with the People’s Republic of China instead of doing something to make it honour these things.

Secondly, I want to ask the Minister about something that the right honourable Member for Chingford, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, raised only yesterday in the House of Commons on this question. He asked about a document that has been circulating from the Foreign Office saying that sanctions have been suspended indefinitely in the case of Hong Kong and China. Is that true? Will the Government please publish it? After all, not a single person has been sanctioned in Hong Kong by the UK, while the United States has sanctioned 47.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I will answer the second question first because it is very important. I assure noble Lord that that is incorrect. The FCDO has never ruled out sanctions designations on any individual or entity. This is something that I confirmed before coming here. I am aware; I followed the debate in the other place and noted its strength. I commend the noble Lord because he suffers directly as a result of sanctions that have been imposed on him. We recognise this; I hope he recognises the support that the UK Government give. I say again, very clearly, that the FCDO has not done this and continues to review designations on individuals and entities. Of course, I cannot go into what we may do in future, but I want to give the noble Lord that assurance.

On prioritising trade over human rights, I think the noble Lord recognises that, as was said in our integrated review, we recognise that China has an important role when it comes to key partnerships on areas such as our response to Covid, climate change and even areas of AI. We look to see how we can work together constructively but we are clear in our approach, as was demonstrated in my earlier answer. When my noble friend the Foreign Secretary met the Foreign Minister of China, we made it clear that the case of Jimmy Lai and human rights were key areas of discussion between them.

Lord Kamall Portrait Lord Kamall (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned the fact that 47 individuals in Hong Kong have been sanctioned by the US Government. Given that, what co-ordination does my noble friend the Minister’s department and the Government have with other Governments around the world to make sure that they are targeting the same people so that, where they sanctioned by a liberal democracy in another country, we do the same or have very good reasons for why we do not follow suit?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that we co-ordinate on sanctions across the piece with all our key partners, as we have said on a number of occasions, in relation to other countries, regions and situations. We work closely with the United States on China. Of course, its application of sanctions is different to ours. I can go no further than to say that, of course, we have not stopped or paused any of this. Where we see egregious abuses of human rights, and where we see that there is a legitimate reason, those names and entities are tested in a robust way. We will bring forward sanctions at the appropriate time.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, as there is a moment before we leave this Question, I want to go back to something that I asked the Minister about just a week ago: the way in which we go about sanctions. It is an opaque and random process. As the noble Lord just said, we should be doing this in co-ordination with others. A genocide had been declared in Xinjiang. Whom have we brought to justice? What sanctions have we imposed in those circumstances? There are daily threats to Taiwan and we have seen extraordinary cruelty and barbarism in Tibet, along with anybody who is a political or religious dissident being imprisoned —and, yes, seven Members of both Houses of our Parliament have been sanctioned by the PRC. Why do the Government place trade as a higher priority than speaking out in favour of the rule of law, democracy and human rights?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I have already partly answered that question. We regard human rights as a key part of our foreign policy. On Xinjiang, we have taken direct action against the Chinese authorities, which the noble Lord is aware of. We will continue to review the appalling situation in Xinjiang—in particular that of the Uighurs, which I know the noble Lord is very much seized of. We will continue to update the House accordingly.

Local Government Finances

Thursday 21st March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Motion to Take Note
Moved by
Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley
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That this House takes note of current local government finances and the impact on local communities.

Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD)
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My Lords, I thank all those who are taking part in this debate, and I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

We have debated local government funding and the impact of cuts in spending on essential public services on many occasions, but things are getting worse. There is a gap in funding in the face of rising costs and rising demand, and it is widening. In its commentary on the recent Budget, the OBR predicted a four-year squeeze for local government services. It said that local authority funding is due to fall from 7.4% of GDP in 2010 to 4.7% in 2028-29. Indeed, just two years ago, it was only 5.1%. The National Audit Office put it another way: between 2010-11 and 2021-22, the real spending of English councils was reduced by 29%.

Council spending has fallen in all services except social care. At the same time, council tax is having to carry a bigger burden. In 2010, council tax accounted for 40% of councils’ core spending power. It is expected to be 56% in 2024-25. We must conclude from this that the Government have passed on the burden to local council tax payers.

On 26 January, the noble Lord, Lord Markham, wrote to me after a discussion in this Chamber on the proportion of councils’ revenue spending on social care. He said that, in 2022-23, 69% of the discretionary service spending of councils with social care responsibilities was spent on social care of both adults and children. Some have a slightly higher figure than 69%; others, slightly lower. It follows that only 31% is available for everything else. It is simply not enough, and the Government have knowingly let, and are knowingly letting, it get worse. They have been forcing up council tax to meet the rising cost of social care.

Social care has two elements to it—children’s social care and adult’s social care. A few weeks ago, the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee issued a report referring to local authorities’ financial distress and said that one cause was higher spending on children’s social care, with high agency costs, high placement costs and rising demand. I know well that the Government are trying to address that issue, but it needs urgent action and I hope the Government will do that. The number of looked-after children has gone up from 68,000 to 84,000 in the last 10 years. I remind the House that the Children and Families Act 2014 introduced new requirements for additional support, but that has never been properly funded and has not kept up with demand.

The Government’s White Paper on long-term reform of adult social care was published in December 2021. They said that they would set out their plans for adult social care by October 2025—four years’ delay. Meanwhile, the Public Accounts Committee recently said that adult social care demand is not being met. Sir Andrew Dilnot recently said that there has been “no serious addressing” of the problem. Many have concluded that this matter must be decided by all-party agreement, led by the Government. I am clear that that is the right approach. After consultation on an all-party basis, the Government should establish their policy for adult social care and then pay for it, rather than forcing closures of neighbourhood and community facilities and services that are used by everyone.

I was surprised to hear the Secretary of State say, when the final settlement for next year was announced in January, that:

“The Government is committed to continuing to protect local taxpayers from excessive council tax increases”.

I found that a bit rich because, since 2016, the Government have been increasing council tax by 2% a year, compounded, to help pay for rising demand in social care. He went on to say that councils should set out how they will

“improve service performance and reduce wasteful expenditure, for example on consultants or discredited equality, diversity and inclusion programmes”.

The sums involved are very minor compared to the costs of social care. Anyway, in practice, the Government have forced local councils to employ consultants to write all the competitive bids for funding on which Ministers love to adjudicate.

Council tax is regressive and out of date, and there are not enough bands. Some 46% of homes in England—46%—are now charged a higher rate of council tax than Buckingham Palace, which, on band H in the London borough of Westminster, has a comparatively low council tax rate. I was grateful for the reminder about this in the 27 January edition of the Economist. Surely, we need more bands at the top end.

A lot has been said recently about Section 114 notices. We know that several councils face bankruptcy as they try to meet statutory demands and balance the books. One in five says that it is in danger of issuing a Section 114 notice in the next year or two. In the last six years, eight councils have issued Section 114 notices, but it is important not to confuse this issue with the few councils that have not managed their finances well or have made bad investment decisions. They are the exceptions; the real problem is the Government making decisions for local government to fulfil without making the money available to do it—hence all the cuts in a range of discretionary services, of around one-third to 40%, over recent years.

For example, a third of libraries have closed in the last 10 years. Temporary accommodation for people who are homeless now costs £1.74 billion; 104,000 households are in temporary accommodation. We have seen cuts in parks and green spaces, in culture, museums and theatres, in youth services, and in sports, leisure and swimming pools. We have also seen a drop in spending on preventive services that can save money in the medium to long term.

I heard in the news on Monday that half the local road network could fail within the next 15 years. The Local Government Association estimates that there is a £14 billion backlog in local road repairs. To take an example of the Government not funding things, the national living wage will apply in social care and that is excellent to see, but it needs to be fully funded; otherwise, council tax payers will have to make up the difference.

The question for this debate, and for this and all future Governments, is what to do. There is an urgent need for reform of local government funding, and it needs to be done with all-party agreement. We need long-term funding that is not based on competitive bidding. As we have seen, the levelling-up allocations are centrally managed with central deadlines, and only 10% have been spent so far, as the Public Accounts Committee told us last week. Not enough of the projects were “shovel-ready”, and local capacity has not been available because of cuts in funding, so there have not been enough people to do the work to deliver the outcomes. As I say, government deadlines have been far too strict.

What happens now is that we have one-off, sticking-plaster allocations of money. They are not enough, as the recent extra £500 million for adult social care has demonstrated. Local authorities are accused of having reserves that are too big. Let me say clearly that they do not. If I were a chief finance officer of a local council, I would be extremely worried about the projection that the OBR has given of finances for my council over the next four years, and I would want a healthy reserve in place. That is normal—strong reserves are normal for capital investment and for the rainy day that we may well have. Public money requires good stewardship, given the further cuts on the way.

Local authorities need greater freedoms. I have never understood why the Government are so determined not to allow local planning authorities to decide their own fees. Why on earth should they not be able to do that, and recover 100% of the cost of doing it?

We also have to encourage local authorities to invest to save. That requires a national discussion as to how you really can do that—there are things that can be done. If you invest to do something, you will save money in the long term.

We need an acknowledgement that council tax is regressive and needs reform. We need two bands at the top, and quite soon in my view, because otherwise more and more poorer people will pay a higher proportion of their income to support local services.

I have not mentioned business rates. We have had many debates on business rates in this Chamber, and perhaps that is why. It has become a national tax; it is no longer a local tax. I remember when, in my days as a councillor, business rates were managed by local authorities, which decided what the rates were, but that was a long time ago. I repeat what I said during the passing of the Non-Domestic Rating Bill: business rates have simply got too high.

The Government are failing to produce long-term settlements. For the last six years, we have had one-year settlements for local authorities. I do not understand why the Government cannot do better than that. It would really help people to plan.

The Local Government Association has told us that cost and demand pressures have now led to a £4 billion funding gap over the next two years simply to maintain the level of current services, not to increase them. That is a substantial sum of money, and local government finances will be in a precarious state unless action is taken.

I do not want us to end in a permanent state of crisis. With thinking and all-party discussion, that can be avoided, but I wish the Government would do a bit more on audit. The Audit Commission was abolished just over 10 years ago, and I have no doubt that it had suffered mission creep. Equally, I know that having a proper audit system underpinning local government, and feeding information to the Government about how things are going and where extra investment is needed, is really important. In your Lordships’ Chamber, I have previously welcomed the Office for Local Government, Oflog. It should be at the centre of all this but, to be honest, I do not know whether it is. We now have a huge gap in audit, which is starting to cause us some concern.

Finally, we need the fair funding review. We also need to reflect, as we used to, the needs element of local government spending, which has gradually over time been eroded. I hope we will have a helpful debate, and that this Government and any future Government will be able to take action on the things identified by noble Lords. I beg to move.

Baroness Eaton Portrait Baroness Eaton (Con)
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My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on securing this incredibly important debate today on local government finance.

Local authorities across the nation—small and large, rural and urban—continue to deliver the very best for the communities they serve. We saw this during the coronavirus pandemic, when local authorities rose to the challenge of distributing millions of pounds-worth of grants and loans to keep businesses afloat. Upon the Kremlin’s barbaric and illegal invasion of Ukraine, it was local government that stood up to the test of supporting well over 100,000 people who were settled into this country through the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Further to this, I hope the House will note that local government has far more trust among the public than government departments in Whitehall. Research from the Association for Public Service Excellence confirms that three times as many people trust their local councils over national government.

It is, of course, Conservative-led councils that continue to deliver more for less across England. A fine example of this is Fenland District Council, in Cambridgeshire, which has yet again cut council tax precepts for the next financial year.

The recent uplift in the local government finance settlement, published earlier this year, was welcomed by councils. In particular, the work of Ministers in DLUHC to secure an additional £500 million towards easing the pressures in adult social care should not go unnoticed. However, if local government is going to be trusted to deliver more and better on behalf of the state, the state in turn needs to award local government with the package of fiscal devolution it deserves and needs to get on with the job for our communities.

Home ownership in our country is becoming an ever-increasing topic of discussion, not just in this place but outside. Local government can turbocharge housing delivery and increase home ownership, but it needs fiscal powers from the Government to support it in doing so.

On fiscal devolution, what quick and easy wins could the Government award to councils? First, the backlog in dealing with planning applications has never really recovered post-Covid. In addition to the pandemic, the retention of staff in local government planning continues to be a challenge, as councils compete with the private sector and major infrastructure projects such as HS2.

To address this capacity gap, the Government should consider devolving the powers of planning fees directly to councils with responsibility for planning, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said. While the recent increase in planning fees from the Government is welcomed, based upon figures from the 2020-21 financial year, 305 out of 343 were operating on deficits which totalled together £245 million. The ability to set planning fees internally by councils, based upon local need and demand, will help speed up the planning applications process and get spades into the ground.

While private home ownership is vital, we should not dismiss the benefits of social housing in supporting our more vulnerable communities in eventually getting on to the housing ladder. Councils have a great track record of building more social housing, yet with more fiscal devolution, local government can do an even better job at increasing social housing supply.

The Government confirmed that, with respect to the retention of right-to-buy receipts, councils would be able to keep 100% of their retentions for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 financial years. As reported in the Financial Times last week, the 100% retention of right-to-buy receipts has delivered an additional £200 million into delivering more social housing. It is therefore disappointing that, in the recent Budget Statement from the Chancellor, there was no indication of whether this initiative would be extended. I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could provide some details on this in her contribution to the debate.

Building more social housing is not just a massive win for our local communities, it is a financial win for government. For councils to build the next generation of social housing, they must have the fiscal powers necessary to get spades into the ground. The Government absolutely should commit to the 100% retention of right to buy receipts if they are genuinely serious about increasing housing supply in our nation.

On a completely different subject, I want to now talk about roads and highways. Many local authorities want to get back to basics and ensure that the state of our roads is vastly improved. As many local councillors—and, I am sure, Members in the other place—will testify, potholes continue to be one of the dominant subjects that constituents raise on the doorstep. My view on this is very simple: local government needs to have certainty around its funding, and multiyear financial settlements with respect to highways funding can be the answer to many of the issues we face on our roads today. National Highways is responsible for 4,500 miles of roads in England—just 2% of the road length in England—yet, unlike local government, it receives five-yearly funding allocations from the Department for Transport. Local government should be brought on a par with National Highways and treated as an equal, with multiyear financial funding settlements.

Another issue causing no end of misery, to our rural communities in particular, is fly-tipping. I am pleased that the Government through the National Fly-Tipping Prevention Group have committed £2.2 million in grant funding so that councils can reduce fly-tipping incidents through the installation of CCTV. In addition, local government has been leading the transformation agenda in catching fly-tippers. For example, Buckinghamshire Council has proactively used artificial intelligence to catch fly-tippers in key hotspots and reduce this awful crime. That said, many local councils anecdotally report that the fines they receive from catching fly-tippers simply do not cover the costs they incur in collecting fly-tipped waste. Very simply, I hope the Government will consider giving the powers necessary to local authorities to set their own fine levels, dependent again on local need.

In conclusion, I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will consider the four examples of fiscal devolution I have highlighted that could be extended to local government and once again I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on securing the debate.

Baroness Hamwee Portrait Baroness Hamwee (LD)
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My Lords, I readily accept that I am past my sell-by date, but there are times when speaking from your own experience just feels right. I was a London borough councillor from 1978 to 1998—a much shorter time than other noble Lords have chalked up. Over 20 years and five elections, the turnout in my ward was never below 60%.

That was then. Not everything was peachy. Householders paid rates; my noble friend mentioned business rates as well. I represented a newly built council estate—those really were the days—on the borough boundary. The rates on the large houses on the other side of the boundary—the other side of the road, indeed —were much lower because of the big differences in government grants to the two authorities. I gather that the reserves which the other authority was able to build up during the many years it was so favoured now have a similar effect on council tax.

The 60% turnout did not seem unusual; if anything, I would have hoped for more, given the effort that went into keeping in touch with local residents. We were able to consult about the level of tax rates—x% more would enable the expansion of such a service, x% less would mean this or that reduction; y% would allow for reduction here and expansion there. Referendums are not the equivalent and there is an understandable reluctance, I think, to spend scarce cash on an expensive exercise.

How different it is now. The whole budget, not just the bottom line, is so divorced from local decisions about tax that taxation and representation are largely detached. This is the particular reason I wanted to speak today. What has been happening and continues to happen regarding finances puts local democracy in jeopardy. There is almost no local discretion and, I suspect, no bandwidth to think strategically. Councillors have ambitions for their local communities; they have them for various different communities, such as users of this park, travellers to that school, supporters of a certain football club and the passengers on the 8.23 to Waterloo.

It has always required agility and resilience, because politics is about balancing priorities and should be about being able to take preventive action. How soul destroying to have to keep saying, “We can’t, there’s no money”; spotting a need but knowing that there is no point in pursuing it, and knowing that local residents have decreasing confidence or trust in their local authority.

An unproductive, unedifying blame game does not foster good relationships. Residents—voters—must feel more detached: abandoned, even. In this situation, can local government attract the best candidates across a range of experiences and representatives of their local communities? There is a lot to be said about staff, too, but I will stick to my main point, save to say that the problems of recruitment and retention affect council services and contribute to the overall worrying picture. In addition, charities—the third sector—to which we have so long looked are not in a position to fill the gaps. I am now told that it is very rare to find people who work in local business among councillors. No doubt there are various reasons for this, but those informal links were so valuable.

As I have said, there is so little local discretion and so much is mandatory, the how as well as the what: how you do it, as well as what you do. Recently there has been an announcement about low-traffic neighbourhoods. Central government has said how local authorities should approach these but not said how they should pay for them or given them any more to pay for them.

My noble friend mentioned planning fees. He probably does not know that I was the chair of my local planning authority when we decided to charge all of £25 to businesses for advice on proposed developments. We were taken to court and we lost.

Local authorities are increasingly dependent on what they can raise locally, but this is increasingly restricted. I travel to Westminster on a road that has a yellow box junction which, because of the sets of traffic lights on either side of it, often traps traffic. It may be an urban myth but it is said to be the most profitable yellow box in London. I understand that the local authority does so well out of infringements in that yellow box that it is one of the very few that still offers free domiciliary care.

I would be frustrated now—to take one example which, judging from the speakers’ list, may get quite an airing today—if I were a member of a local authority which was cutting all spending on arts and culture, which I regard as essential and not an optional add-on. If I were not a councillor, in this context, would I want to stand? In fact, I would feel quite anxious at the prospect, at a time when councils are selling off the family silver—indeed, heading towards fire sales—and spending capital receipts on revenue. Those are receipts from assets paid for by the public and they will be lost from public use.

I am well aware that my references to local government finance are a bit simplistic and, at any rate, broad-brush, but my central point is absolutely serious. Our communities are not short of issues to get involved in, but I would guess that most noble Lords would argue that single-issue politics are rather different from the democracy which comes with responsibility and should come with power.

On these Benches, and around the House, we value local democracy. I came here in 1991, because my then party leader was able to make a single nomination and wanted our single new Peer to have had experience in local government and to make the point about its importance. I stood again in 1994 because the local mandate was the only democratic mandate I was able to seek. I am sure I am not the only speaker to have done that—in fact, I know that. My local community was very important to me. Would I want to do the same in 2024?

Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull (CB)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for securing this debate. As trailed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I will indeed use this opportunity to highlight how the current crisis in local government finances is impacting on arts and cultural services, and the communities that enjoy and benefit from a thriving local cultural ecology.

The positive effects of arts and culture on place-making and local communities are well evidenced. Aside from the intrinsic value, cultural venues and services create jobs, attract visitors and support the wider local economy. Cultural programmes provide skills development for young people, connect with marginalised groups, engage communities in local issues and encourage active citizenship. Culture makes neighbourhoods more desirable places to live, with cultural spaces providing a resource in which people feel pride and a place where different parts of the community can come together. In short, arts and culture make for a better place to live, work and do business—all of which is very much the core business of local authorities. Indeed, much of this cultural activity is enabled by local authorities, which are the main public investor in arts, culture, tourism and heritage, allocating £650 million each year to libraries and £430 million to museums, heritage and the arts.

However, this long history of investment is under increasing threat. We have already heard about the pressures facing local government today: inflation, wage increases, pensions, the cost of living and energy, homelessness, the rising cost of adult social care, and increased numbers of children with special educational needs and disabilities. Analysis from the Local Government Association in October last year showed that English councils face, as we have heard, a £4 billion funding gap across the year—and that is just to keep services standing still. The extra funding announced for 2024-25 will help, but it will not bridge this gap.

The now too-familiar reports of, at worst, bankruptcies and, at best, dramatic cuts, can no longer be seen as isolated incidents, but have to be acknowledged as systemic failure. Currently, some 19 councils across England are receiving exceptional financial support, which is more than double the more typical number—between five and nine—in this category since the onset of the pandemic. Local councils’ core spending power has seen a 24% real-terms reduction between 2010 and 2025. While much of this has been absorbed in new ways of working, efficiencies and staff reductions, it is inevitable that non-statutory services, such as arts and culture, will take a hit. According to a recent LGA survey, 55% of responding councils

“reported that cost savings would be needed in their sport and leisure service provision”,

with 48% reporting

“that cost savings would be needed within their library services”,

and over a third, 34%, reporting

“the need for cost savings in their provision of museums, galleries, and theatres”.

For cultural organisations, this crisis in local government funding sits alongside changes to the Arts Council portfolio and the ongoing impact of Covid, from which the sector has yet fully to recover. It also has to be set against a backdrop of the 10 years of austerity policy, which saw average local authority investment in culture reduced by nearly 37%. As a result, directly or indirectly, theatres, venues and arts organisations in local communities are facing existential crises—from Windsor and Maidenhead to Woking, Ipswich, Nottingham, Birmingham and beyond. Some have already closed; others are struggling to pull off a five loaves and two fishes-type of miracle to get them through the coming year. While London venues and organisations are certainly not immune, withdrawal of local authority support has a disproportionate effect outside London and other major conurbations, where there are far fewer alternative sources to fill the gap through, for example, corporate sponsorship.

The allocation of levelling-up funds to cultural projects has been welcome, although it is concerning to read in the recent report from the Public Accounts Committee in the other place that as at September last year, local authorities had been able to spend only 10% of the Government’s three levelling-up funds. Likewise, the announcement in the Spring Budget that theatre, orchestra and exhibitions tax relief will be made permanent was warmly welcomed, but it might be hard for some local communities to feel the benefits of theatre tax relief when their local theatre is boarded up.

What is needed is not one-off funding but long-term, sustainable and multi-year settlements that will enable councils to invest in the local cultural infrastructure and services that create thriving, dynamic environments for local communities. Without guaranteed funding, cultural activities suffer from an on-again, off-again effect which leads to community disengagement and uncertainty for organisations and the people they employ. In the end, it is local communities that suffer. Will the Government heed the call from the Local Government Association for multi-year settlements that allow councils to plan ahead and provide communities with the services they deserve?

Pitting arts and culture head-to-head against other local priorities and needs is never a good idea, particularly so at the moment, when the here and now pressures are so loud. Arguments about their longer-term impact on the economy, growth and jobs are understandably hard to hear.

Nevertheless, arts and culture play a major role in delivering for communities, and successful local cultural strategies—that is, strategies that are specific to the area and that work in partnership across different sectors—can deliver to multiple local priorities: skills, regeneration, education, employment or health. As Liz Green, the chair of the LGA’s Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, has written, local councils need the creativity of cultural organisations and their perspective on how things might be done differently, not just in cultural services but across the board. There are many good examples of this collaborative approach in practice, with a recent example being Culture Start in Sunderland —a city-based partnership spanning social housing, schools, the voluntary and youth sectors, and higher and further education, as well as culture—which aims to mitigate the impacts of growing up in poverty by enabling more children and young people to access the multiple benefits of cultural participation.

Strengthening and enhancing the local cultural offer strengthens and enhances local places and improves the lives of people who grow up, live and work there. It makes them more attractive to visitors and business, and more likely to attract funding from grant-makers and investors, all of which further enhances the local environment. There are many stakeholders who contribute to the positive benefits that this kind of local cultural ecology can deliver, but the underpinning certainty of local government funding has always been the catalyst that enables the change.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market Portrait Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for securing today’s debate, and for the characteristically incisive way he introduced it. My noble friend Lady Hamwee need not be diffident about painting with a broad brush, because her broad brush, in the hands of someone with many years of experience, painted a picture of the threat to local democracy that our current system is posing. In many ways, that is probably the most important point that can come out of today’s debate.

I share my noble friend’s commitment to local communities. That is why, when the National Association of Local Councils asked if I would become its president, I was very happy to take on that role, because that town and parish council sector, which covers 91% of the country, is the first layer of local government and the one that faces these challenges on a very personal and day-to-day basis.

I want to make sure that that sector is not lost in today’s debate. It is interesting that, in the otherwise excellent House of Lords Library briefing, this sector does not get a mention. There are around 100,000 councillors who are volunteering their time in this sector, putting in, we estimate, 14.5 million hours a year—I sometimes felt that I worked that myself. They are working so hard to change and improve their local area. Unlike other tiers of local government, they do not have many statutory duties but they do have an array of discretionary powers, which they are using to deliver services in their area. Sometimes it is interesting to see these quite archaic powers, designed in a different age, being used to address very modern problems, such as loneliness, the climate emergency and the cost of living crisis. They are doing that on top of the more conventional activities, such as dealing with allotments, bus shelters, Christmas lights, open spaces and public toilets.

In that sector, the parish precept is usually the main and only dedicated source of income. In 2023, the total parish precept came to £708 million, which is 1.8 % of the total council tax requirement for England, with an average band D rate of £78. Unlike principal councils, local councils do not receive revenue support grant or a share of business rates, and they do not generally have access to central government funding. It remains a very strong feeling in the sector that parish and town councils should be able to apply for central government funding schemes on the same basis as principal authorities.

During the passage of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, I put forward an amendment to address the situation where government said it did not have the powers, but disappointingly the Government did not agree. On a positive note, and I thank the Minister for this, the Government have extended the community ownership fund to allow applications from parish councils. In the short period of time since then, around £4.5 million has been allocated for community assets, such as a market, community centres, a library, parks, a skate park and a nature reserve.

I move on to trends in spending power and the impact of reductions. It is striking how investment by town and parish councils in their local area has changed over the past few years. In 2010-11, the total precept was 1.4% of the total council tax requirement for England, and, as I have said, this year it is 1.8%. In some cases, that is because the sector is doing more, getting involved in more things and being more active, and that should be welcomed and applauded. However, it is also because many parish and town councils have stepped up to take over services from principal councils, particularly those discretionary areas where principal councils feel they have no choice but to withdraw. It is alarming to hear warnings from bodies such as the LGA that government funding will lead to a £4 billion gap over the next two years. When coupled with the number of principal authorities issuing Section 114 notices, this will place even more pressure on parish and town councils, especially town councils, because otherwise they will completely lose those important discretionary services such as libraries and leisure centres, and support for community organisations, culture and the arts.

You can argue that it does not matter which bit of local government is paying for something. I would argue that it does matter, because facilities such as libraries, for example, are often used by a significant rural hinterland, and there is a danger that the local town council will end up footing most of the bill, whereas, at the moment, it is spread more widely, right across the local authority precept. It is simply not going to be sustainable for parish and town councils to keep on increasing their precept to provide much-needed investment in their area just to stand still and take up the slack that has been left by principal tiers of local government which have no choice. I think the sector would argue that we should have access to dedicated funding for some of those services, such as improving high streets, parks and leisure centres—the quality-of-life services that matter so much.

Despite increasing pressures on their budgets, town and parish councils have taken all available steps to demonstrate financial prudence when setting the precept. I think that has been recognised by the Government, who continue to defer setting referendum principles for that tier, which is welcome. However, I argue that no local authorities should be forced to hold referenda. We should not be having levels of intervention by the Government at this point. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, that finance settlements should cover multiple years. Local government has always been told that it should behave more like business; no business would operate on a one-year basis.

I conclude with two specific asks for the Government. The first is technical but important, and is for one specific reform to the audit regime. The limited assurance regime for smaller councils works very well, but there is a £25,000 threshold at which they enter the rather more costly and onerous category 1, and there is currently a backlog for that. If the Government would consider raising that level and introducing a matching transparency regime, it would relieve some councils of a huge burden. The second is more fundamental: that parish and town council should have the diverse range of funding opportunities they need to fund growing services, take local action on national priorities and help pick up where principal authorities are having to leave. This includes direct access to government funding, multiyear freedom to set their precept, no referenda, a share of business rates and the exemption of cultural assets.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, and to agree with her about the importance of parish and town councils. In travelling around the country, as I often do, I see so many of them stepping up to the plate where the larger-scale authorities—the principal authorities—are simply not able to continue as they do not have the funds. That is crucial. Keeping public toilets open, managing areas of grassland, and even keeping tourist centres open are the kinds of things I have seen.

Like other noble Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for securing this crucial debate. There is hardly anything more central to the declining quality of life in the UK—the broken Britain that we talked about when we were debating the Budget—than how much local government is struggling. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and of the National Association of Local Councils.

In April, we are coming up to about 75% of councils making the maximum increase that the Government allow, according to the County Councils Network. That means a £99 increase for a band D average property, with bills going to more than £2,000 a year. At the extreme, things are absolutely desperate. The obvious example is Birmingham City Council, which is looking at a council tax hike of 21% over two years as it struggles to find savings of £300 million. This is in a context where councils and councillors are acutely aware of how the cost of living crisis is affecting so many of their residents, but we are in TINA land: there is no alternative. For councils to keep meeting even their statutory requirements—requirements that are put on them by Westminster, about which they have no choice—they have to put those increases in.

I suspect that, if one were to search this debate, “one in five” would be the phrase that comes up most often. I make no apologies for repeating the phrase, because one in five councils is at risk of going broke. That is 20% of councils in the country. This is an absolute crisis, yet our media is so focused on what happens here in Westminster, particularly in the other place. A media that focuses on London will fail to grasp the scale of the crisis around the country, and I am afraid I do not think the Government have truly grasped the scale of the crisis either.

I referred to the rise in council tax, but the proportion of money that councils get from council tax has risen from 40% in 2009-10 to 60 % now. Where else do councils get money from? Often, they can charge for certain services, such as leisure centres and parking, and they can generate income from the sales of property and from certain types of waste removal. But think about those services, and put them at the intersection of the cost of living crisis: yes, they can increase the cost of the local swimming pool or the gym, but that means that more and more people will not be able to access them.

We can think about the issue of sales of property. We have seen, since the election of Margaret Thatcher, the sale of 50% of what was publicly owned land—a large amount of that being council land. Once it is sold, it is not coming back. You close the library; you sell the building and the land. When times get better, you cannot bring them back—it is gone. That library is so much a part of central meeting places. Even as technology changes and IT comes in, it is a public space that could have been dedicated to public purposes in the future, but we have simply lost those spaces. Communities do not have places to gather any more.

It is also worth highlighting—I do not think anyone has picked this up yet—that we have seen austerity right across central government, cuts to Civil Service workers’ pay, and to the real level of benefits. That increases poverty and ill health, which puts more pressure on councils to provide services such as social care. This is literally a downward spiral in which we are trapped.

The list in the Library briefing is worth looking at; this picks up points from the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and others. We have seen the following spending cuts from 2010-11 to 2019-20: cultural and related services cut by 37%; planning and development services by 37%; non-school education—we keep talking about the need for skills—down by 32%; housing services by 25%; highways and transport services by 24%, which picks up the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, about potholes and the general state of the roads; and environmental and regulatory services down 10%, just at the point where we are starting to realise what an incredibly parlous state our natural world is in and that it desperately needs to be boosted, in its own right but also to improve public health.

Many noble Lords will have received the briefing by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which raises the important point that we think about the cuts to council services and how much is lost—the libraries, the theatres, et cetera—but funding that local councils have given to charities and community groups has also been slashed, and that again is cutting away at the basic standard of quality of life in our communities. Almost three-quarters of organisations are not receiving enough funding to meet the demand for the services they offer. Nearly two out of five organisations have reduced the number of people whom they support. When you think about the Covid pandemic—several noble Lords have referred to the loneliness pandemic—and an ageing population, we are reducing the number of people being supported when it is clear that the need is increasing.

I come, briefly, to two final points—first, that council tax and business rates is a broken, wildly out-of-date system. The Green Party has long held, and continues to call strongly, for a land value tax, which would be levied on the annual value of land itself, excluding any structures or improvement. It follows good taxation practice, it would be cheap to collect and difficult to evade, and it would discourage the use of land for speculation. At the moment, land is an ideal speculative investment, and we can, I am sure, all point to examples where land is not used well, because someone is just sitting on it and waiting for its value to rise.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, talked about elections. Of course it would be lovely to have democratic elections with a single transferable vote system or similar, as there is in Scotland for local councils. It would be great to have local communities fully represented in the House of Commons. But what is interesting and worth noting is that there is a big shake-up happening in local councils: we increasingly see groups of different parties coming together to run councils, which is an exciting development.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Portrait Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer (LD)
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My Lords, in my noble friend Lord Shipley’s excellent opening speech, he mentioned many of the public amenities that are now under immense threat due to this Conservative Government’s starvation of local government. These public assets—community assets—have been built, bought and improved over centuries and decades. I appreciate how lucky I was in my 15 years in local government in Somerset that we were able to plan and construct local amenities. Now, under this Government, starved of resources, local authorities will have little choice but to sacrifice these common assets, be they libraries, green spaces, public toilets or cultural centres.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, just said, once amenities are gone, they are gone. She is right, and it puts me in mind of a well-known poem, written at the time of the Inclosure Acts, and just as relevant today:

“The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose”.

That is just what this Government are doing—they are stealing the common.

These common assets are irreplaceable, and the ones I want to highlight today are libraries. This possibly stems from my time at school and the only post I had—head librarian—led to a career in books. More importantly, libraries are a crucial element for everybody in intellectual levelling up. Nobody has put this better than Bobby Seagull, who many remember as the “University Challenge” champion who went on to become a City whizz-kid and then a maths teacher. He is, especially, a great advocate of libraries, as he explained when he came here to Parliament a while ago:

“Growing up in financially challenging conditions in an east London council estate, our library was a paradise”.

More affluent areas are more likely to still have quality libraries that remain open and well stocked, but deprived areas will suffer multiple deprivations, and libraries will be one of the first of these. The Government are consigning a generation to poorer literacy and lower academic attainment.

Libraries are popular—they have 40 million visits a year, which is more than cinema and football combined. They are one of the most popular services that councils provide. In addition to their central focus on reading and literacy, libraries support a wide range of activities, which was particularly seen during the pandemic, including digital skills, warm hubs, job clubs, and access to financial advice and support. They are the ultimate community resource, yet public library funding in the UK has fallen by more than 30% in total since 2009-10, and 800 libraries have closed. At least 32 councils are exploring very significant cuts or closures—in some cases proposing to close over 65% of their branches. I hope the Minister will not dare to suggest that such cuts are a local government choice. She knows perfectly well that local authorities now have no choice, given that central government has subjected them, year after year, to real-terms cuts.

What answer are the Government giving to the worst-affected local authorities, struggling in the face of ever-diminishing central government funding? They are saying, “Sell off your assets”. The exceptional financial support framework will allow councils involved—I use the word “allow” in inverted commas—to use capital receipts from the sale of assets or borrowing to cover their day-to-day costs of this amount. Traditionally, libraries occupy buildings at the heart of their communities, where land values are higher—making them an obvious option to cash in on short-term capital at the expense of long-term value.

The Financial Times highlighted this recently when it said:

“The UK government is now considering loosening the rules for allowing councils to sell off assets. This is bad news for everything from libraries to swimming pools, town halls to toilets”.

We really are in a disgraceful state of affairs. A later verse of the poem I quoted is just as apposite as the first:

“The poor and wretched don’t escape

If they conspire the law to break;

This must be so but they endure

Those who conspire to make the law”.

Earl of Clancarty Portrait The Earl of Clancarty (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for the opportunity to speak in this debate. Like my noble friend Lady Bull, I will talk about the arts and cultural services.

A good place to start is by quoting the briefing that the Local Government Association provided for the debate in this House on the arts in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on 1 February:

“Councils have a key role to play—they are the biggest public funders of culture, spending over £lbn a year and running a wide range of other services. They are also place shapers and have a convening and supporting role in setting the context in which the arts can flourish. The arts are discretionary, but councils invest because they see the value to local people”.

One could of course add, “when they have the funding to do so”. The quote is valuable because it describes the intricacy of the relationship between the arts and the local community. On the one hand, the arts are a good in themselves in many different ways—they are something that local people can take pride in, and they may have a national or international reputation—but, on the other, the arts are also inextricably bound up in the identity of a local area. They are or can be a part of the character of that community.

How should all these varied arts be funded? I believe they should continue to be funded primarily through local government funding. That is still the most efficient and comprehensive means by which we can fund the day-to-day activities of the arts and other cultural services: efficient because local governments are the experts in their areas, and comprehensive because every area of the country is covered by local government and therefore much better at levelling up than the patchiness of the levelling up fund, whose purpose in any case ought to be properly understood as additional to the core funding of local government.

The great tragedy of the last 14 years is that, not only for the arts, we have seen at least a partial dismantling of this inherently efficient and comprehensive system. The specific point about the arts in relation to the funding cuts, as the noble Lord, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, pointed out recently when interviewed by the Observer on these cuts, is that they have been a “canary in the mine”. The noble Lord said:

“What we learn in Birmingham will soon matter across the country”,

and we are seeing that in Hampshire, Nottinghamshire and many other councils. It is the arts and other cultural services such as libraries, community and leisure activities that have been the first to feel the effect of long-term cuts. Indeed, around seven years ago Nicholas Serota made the point that the biggest crisis in the arts was in local government funding. It was seven years ago too that we had a debate in this House on local government funding and the arts—for which the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, did the summing up for the Liberal Democrats—which was in effect a warning sign to the Government that, bleak as the picture was then, it was going to get bleaker unless the matter was addressed. As we know, it has not been addressed, with a cliff edge having been reached in some cases.

The Government have had all the warning signs, but the Secretary of State for DCMS, Lucy Frazer, recently gave an interview for the Stage in which she said:

“It’s disappointing when local authorities make decisions to cut the arts”.

What is of course far more disappointing is the refusal by this Government to take responsibility for a situation for which they are ultimately responsible. The evidence is in front of them: it is not about well-managed authorities or otherwise. It is always possible to pick out councils that can be understood as examples of good practice—or in some cases good fortune, as recipients of the levelling up fund—but that does not describe the overarching narrative across the country of decreasing funds and the cutting of services, and of the irreparable loss of infrastructure, including buildings, as others have referred to. It is this that Lucy Frazer and the rest of her Government refuse to acknowledge.

I applaud the Government for giving the arts and the creative industries such a prominent position in the Budget, and one hopes that prominence will continue. However, theatres, museums and orchestras will have a sense of relief, more than anything, that tax relief, which was originally increased to counter the effect of Covid on the arts, has been set permanently at a higher rate. That shows perhaps more than anything how much some organisations that have normally depended on local government funding have come to depend on what was originally a temporary measure.

Staying with the Budget, capital projects are welcomed and will not be turned down, but what the arts really need is that basic help with day-to-day funding for which local government has been key. As a colleague pointed out to me earlier in the week, the Budget is not a spending review.

I will touch on one other area, the nature of the arts themselves. It is impossible in this discussion not to bring in funding streams other than local government, such as the Arts Council, which has started to fund through the Let’s Create strategy much that would once have been funded by local government, such as community arts projects, side by side with professional arts and arts facilities. For a long time my worry has been where this leaves professional artists and performers. Both community arts and professional arts are important, but there is an increasing danger that the professional arts are being shut out. That needs to be addressed because it is happening due to local government cuts.

It has become clear that we do not have a strategy for the arts that includes local government funding. We need more joined-up thinking, including between DCMS and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. On funding of the arts overall, we are still moving in the wrong direction. I understand that the Arts Council has been asked how it can now make further savings of 5%. This makes no sense. As the LGA says:

“Public funding is an essential part of the ecology of the arts and culture in the UK”.

The Arts Council found that in 2020, for every £1 generated in the arts and culture, an additional £1.23 gross value was generated in the wider economy. Our arts and creative industries are the growth area in this country. They stimulate growth, as my noble friend Lady Bull pointed out. It is high time we reinvested in them, not least at the hugely significant local government level.

Lord Hussain Portrait Lord Hussain (LD)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Shipley for securing this debate. I am one of those Peers who had the opportunity of being a member of my local borough council—in my case, Luton Borough Council—for many years before coming to this House. Serving on the local council gave me a sense of pride and satisfaction. The council’s remit stretched from social services to education, housing, environmental improvement, libraries, parks, leisure services, community development, street services and much more.

On top of the usual meetings of the council and other outside bodies, I remember that the ward councillors periodically used to have surgeries and tour every street of their wards, along with field officers from relevant departments, taking note of any potholes, graffiti, fly-tipping, fly-posting, flooding, broken pavements, abandoned vehicles and anything else that was reported to them, and took prompt action as required. All this was made possible with sufficient central government funding and local taxation, but over the years our local authority, along with other authorities, has met with drastic cuts in central government funding. That has resulted in significant reductions to the library service, the youth service, community centres, daycare services, road repairs, refuge collection, street cleaning and many other areas of service, while the council tax has risen four times over the years.

The local government finances granted to councils such as Luton are only about 10% of what they used to get 10 or 12 years ago in their annual settlement from central government. Not only has this had a major impact on the level and quality of services that the general public used to get but it has put huge financial pressure on the residents, particularly low-income families, the elderly and single parents. To be honest, I am not sure I would really want to be a councillor any more.

Luton, in the east of England, is generally known to be an affluent town and has been well known for manufacturing for a very long time, but it has what are considered to be some of the most deprived areas in the country, with old housing and poor housing conditions, overcrowding, high unemployment, health inequalities, outdated school buildings, low educational attainment, a high crime rate and antisocial behaviour. The longer these areas are ignored, the bigger the problems will become. Urgent action is needed; these areas need huge investment to bring them in line with the rest of the town. What plan do the Government have to deal with the most deprived areas in the country, such as these?

The issue today is not about Luton alone. Many local authorities are struggling with their finances and some, including Birmingham, Nottingham, Woking and others, have actually gone bankrupt, while many more are on the brink of bankruptcy. According to an LGA survey carried out in December 2023, before extra money was announced—and I am glad that it was—one in five council leaders and chief executives in England thought it very or fairly likely that their chief finance officers would need to issue a Section 114 notice this year or next. Half are not confident that they will have enough funding to fulfil their legal duties next year, 2024-25. This includes the delivery of statutory services. Can the Minister say what plans the Government have to deal with this unprecedented situation and avoid more local authorities being bankrupted?

Lord Bishop of Manchester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Manchester
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My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for securing this important debate, but I am doubly grateful for its full title. This is not simply a debate about local government finances; it is a debate about the impact on local communities, and that is a vital distinction. Money is only ever a means to an end. It is an input—a crucial one—but what really matters are the outcomes and, in terms of local government, what really matters is how well local communities are served.

I still recall that back in the 1990s, when I started attending and speaking at national housing conferences, there were some where every positive mention of housing associations brought an audible hiss from some local authority members who were present. They saw us as rivals, and in some cases even the enemy, as we were taking money that had formerly gone to them to provide services that they had previously enjoyed delivering. I guess their attitude could be summed up as: if a job is worth doing, it is for the public sector to do it. I hope that we have long moved on from those attitudes. Local authorities have a vital and leading part to play in the service of their communities, but they are not the sole provider. Other agencies are not competitors; they are partners in the common task of supporting the local community.

Much of my diocese, as noble Lords will know, falls within the Greater Manchester area. Our mayor, Andy Burnham, understands well that it needs more than just local authorities—indeed, more than just the wider public sector—to pull together if we are to maximise the positive impact we can have for our local communities. So, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority works closely with voluntary, community, faith and social enterprises, and our faith communities work hard to be both visible and distinct. The authority acknowledges that faith-motivated work makes a significant contribution to the well-being of the whole of our communities, regardless of the service users’ faith.

Only last year, the GMCA’s faith and belief advisory panel drafted a statement which drew attention to the variety, visibility and delivery of faith community support in a whole range of areas of social need—things such as homelessness and food security. That initial statement is part of working towards a faith covenant. We are currently drafting one which we hope will be signed by each of the 10 local authorities, along with faith community reps. Faith covenants actually emerged from the APPG on Faith and Society, and I know that they are already operating in areas such as the West Midlands and in Leeds.

Our combined authority has a number of action networks, including the homelessness action network. A youth homelessness report from 2023 showed that at least two community partner agencies are working to resolve individual youth homelessness cases through the pathfinder programmes that have grown out of faith communities. Faith involvement is woven into the whole of the provision of tackling homelessness, including the “A bed every night” scheme, whose target remains to ensure that nobody need sleep rough on our streets. The Greater Manchester Food Security Action Network is a similar story, with 134 food banks and 68 pantries or clubs across Greater Manchester, many of them run by faith communities, including my own local Broughton food pantry run by St James Higher Broughton, which I think has been well-reported here before.

As well as responding to immediate needs, partners recognise that the long-term future prosperity of Greater Manchester depends on our being able to achieve our shared commitment to be carbon net zero by 2038. To that end, our faith leaders—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jain—invited our mayor and other civic leaders to accompany us in a delegation to meet and discuss these matters with Pope Francis and leaders of the international Roman Catholic organisations in Rome last year. That really inspired us to think about how we could better work together as faith and political leaders to achieve our goal.

I have drawn my examples predominantly from the combined authority level, but I could equally mention more local cases, such as the Manchester homelessness partnership board, which I chaired from its inception until recently. That body brings together businesses, charities, and faith and public sector partners to maximise impact on ending homelessness in the city. I could speak of how the housing association that I chaired, Wythenshawe Community Housing Group, provides much of the services for young people in its area, using properties owned by the city council but where that council is no longer able to be the provider. Our emphasis is on synergies and partnerships—on recognising that faith communities deserve a seat at the table for what they already do, and what more they can do.

This debate must be as much about recognition and partnership as it is about sources of funding, but I guess that is where the levels of local authority funding kick in. Noble Lords have spoken, and will no doubt in the rest of this debate speak, of the severe limitations that many are operating under and the rapid rise in Section 114 notices that we have heard about. The danger is that when they are faced with major deficits, councils become tempted to cut back on the vital support they provide to those partner bodies, simply to maintain as much as they can of their own directly provided services. I understand why they want to limit the damaging impact of redundancies among their own staff. The trouble is that those understandable responses tend to maximise rather than minimise the harm being done to local communities.

Noble Lords will also note the negative impact of very short-term funding. Earlier on, I asked a Question about the household support fund and its extension for a mere six months. We debated that this morning, but local authorities and their partner agencies need longer-term certainty so that they can plan and provide. They are not helped by constant fears that funding may end in the very near future. So yes, my speech is a cry for a more generous settlement for local authorities; not so that they can plot a return to the municipalism of former decades, but to allow them to plan and deliver services along with their partner agencies.

The principle that we should come together across all sectors to support and strengthen community life is important at all times, not only when the money is short. Because it is through that partnership working, as I have seen over and over again throughout my adult life, that we begin to see, in big ways and small, not only our communities served better but the revitalisation of our common shared life together.

Lord Foster of Bath Portrait Lord Foster of Bath (LD)
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My Lords, I too begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Shipley on securing this debate and on his excellent introduction to it. I want to concentrate on just two issues: arts and culture cuts, and the unfairness in the allocation of funds between rural and urban areas.

In 2016, the chief executive of Arts Council England, Darren Henley, published a book, The Arts Dividend; Why Investment in Culture Pays. He argues in it that the dividends from investment in the arts and culture include encouraging creativity, helping educational attainment, improving health and well-being, supporting the creative industries, providing defining characteristics to villages, towns and cities, contributing to economic prosperity and enhancing our global reputation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, made similar points, and I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, may well say something about this, too. Indeed, the noble Earl referred to a debate that he secured back in 2017 on local arts and cultural services, during which reference was made to a speech given earlier that year by the then new chairman of the Arts Council, Sir Nicholas Serota, who said:

“I need to voice long-term concerns around public investment, and especially the loss of local authority funding—which is now the most pressing issue, day to day, for many cultural organisations across the country”.

Seven years on, with further losses to local authority funding, the situation is dire. The extra £600 million this year does not begin to address the acute funding and service demand pressures on councils, which are now merely managing decline.

Our councils are the biggest funders of culture, spending around £1 billion in England on services such as libraries, museums, heritage and the arts. Most are discretionary, not statutory, but many councils are trying hard to protect them as they see the benefits to residents. However, with continued funding cuts, it is ever harder. Spending reductions in cultural and related services are now higher than for any other service area, and councils are warning that further cuts can be expected. As others have said, to avoid still deeper cuts, councils are selling off their assets at a rate of knots. One survey suggests that an average of 6,000 assets, from swimming pools to libraries, are being sold every year, which certainly does not bode well for the future.

A possible lifeline—the levelling-up funds for local councils—is simply not getting through. As the PAC announced last week, only 10% of levelling-up funds have been spent, due to delays in funds being received by councils. Can the Minister explain what is being done to speed up those payments? More importantly, does she accept that councils’ arts and cultural services are not a luxury but are integral to supporting communities, contributing to the economy and helping individuals live more fulfilling and healthy lives? If she does, can she tell us what plans the Government have to reduce their decline?

Some councils are better placed than others to sustain such services, so I turn to the issues impacting rural communities. In 2015, the then Defra Secretary, Liz Truss, claimed:

“This Government … is committed … to ensuring the interests of rural communities and businesses are accounted for within our policies and programmes”.

Four years after that claim, I chaired your Lordships’ special committee on the rural economy, which concluded that her commitment had not been met and rural areas were losing out. We demonstrated that, for many rural services—health, dentistry, public transport and policing, among others—government funding per head was lower for rural areas than for urban ones despite higher delivery costs. For policing, for example, the current funding formula means that, in Suffolk, where I live, we get a Home Office grant of £114 per resident, whereas Merseyside gets £217.

The committee also demonstrated that rural house prices and rents were higher despite lower wages’ that broadband and mobile connectivity were worse; and that government funding to rural local councils was lower, meaning higher council taxes for rural dwellers. The evidence was clear that rural areas were being unfairly treated, not least in the local government funding settlement.

Five years on, little has changed: all of these disparities remain. Of course, there have been some welcome initiatives—Delivering Rural Opportunity, published only on Monday, lists some of the Government’s favourites —but, despite such welcome initiatives, huge disparities remain between rural and urban areas. In times of reducing public expenditure, it is ever more important to distribute available resources fairly.

Michael Gove, in the final local government finance settlement update, appeared to suggest that he had cracked it. He said that,

“in response to the consultation feedback and in recognition of the specific challenges and difficulties local councils can face serving rural, sparse populations, we are increasing the Rural Services Delivery Grant by £15 million in 2024-25”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/2/24; col. 6WS.]

Of course, any increase is welcome, but, as the Rural Services Network has pointed out, the extra money will go to only a limited number of rural councils—only the top quartile—based on a “super sparsity” measure. Very many will get no extra funding.

Even with this small amount of extra cash for a few councils, huge rural/urban disparities will remain. The RSN analysis for 2024-25 shows just how stark it will be. Urban local authorities will receive some 36%—£141—more in government-funded spending power per head compared to rural authorities. Rural residents will pay, on average, 20%—£112—more per head in council tax than their urban counterparts because rural councils are still getting less government grant. This simply is not fair. Rural communities continue to be disadvantaged and their residents left behind at a time when the aim is supposed to be levelling up across the country.

Ten years ago, the Government seemed to acknowledge the need to do something about this and changed the funding formula to make it fairer. But, in effect, they then did not use it. They added and froze in place a “damping process”. As a result, there are councils in London receiving millions of pounds more than the Government’s own formula says they should and rural councils getting far less than they should. Of course, I want to see the size of the pot increased, but, whatever its size, it should be allocated fairly. Does the Minister accept that it is not being, that rural communities are losing out and that the damping process should be phased out? All councils are getting a poor deal from this Government, and rural councils are getting the worst deal of all.

Lord Freyberg Portrait Lord Freyberg (CB)
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for initiating this important and timely debate. As the final speaker before the Front-Bench speakers, I would like to add my voice to others’ on how the arts and cultural services are an essential component within our local communities. As stewards of our communities’ well-being, it is incumbent on us to confront the challenges facing local government and to recognise the indispensable role that the arts play in enriching our lives and fostering vibrant and inclusive communities.

The fiscal health of local government is a barometer of our collective prosperity and resilience. However, over the past decade or so, most local authorities have grappled with budgetary constraints exacerbated by economic downturns, rising costs and competing priorities. The ramifications of these financial challenges extend far beyond the balance sheets of government offices; they reverberate through the very fabric of our communities, affecting the services and amenities that define the quality of our lives.

Amid these fiscal pressures, one area that often bears the brunt of budget cuts is the arts. Programmes and initiatives that support cultural enrichment, confidence-building, skills development, creative expression and artistic endeavours are often deemed non-essential or expendable in the face of tightening budgets. Yet such a narrow perspective fails to recognise the intrinsic value of the arts and their profound impact on our communities’ social, economic and cultural vitality.

The arts are not merely a luxury or an indulgence; they are a fundamental component of what makes a place thrive. From public art institutions that beautify our streetscapes to local theatre productions that ignite our imaginations, the arts enrich our lives in myriad ways. They foster a sense of identity and belonging, cultivate empathy and understanding and serve as a catalyst for social cohesion and community engagement.

Moreover, the arts are not just cultural assets; they are economic engines that drive local prosperity and growth. As the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, mentioned, studies have consistently shown that investment in the arts yields significant returns, generating jobs, stimulating tourism and fuelling economic development. Whether it be through the revitalisation of disinvested neighbourhoods that need to reinvent themselves through leisure and tourism, or the creation of creative industry clusters, the arts have the power to catalyse positive change and drive sustainable economic growth at a local level.

However, despite their undeniable contributions, the arts and cultural provisions remain vulnerable to the vagaries of budgetary constraints and fiscal austerity. When local governments face tough choices about where to allocate scarce resources, the arts are often relegated to the sidelines, resulting in reduced funding for arts organisations, cultural institutions and community arts programmes. This not only undermines the viability of these vital institutions but deprives our communities of the myriad benefits that the arts afford.

The impact of these funding cuts is felt most acutely by the marginalised and underserved communities, which often have limited access to arts and cultural opportunities. For many individuals, particularly young people, the arts serve as a lifeline—a source of inspiration, empowerment and hope in the face of adversity. When funding for arts education programmes is slashed or arts venues are forced to shut their doors, it is these communities that suffer the greatest loss. Here, I completely agree with others that, once these buildings are sold, they rarely, if ever, return to community use.

Moreover, the erosion of support for the arts exacerbates existing inequalities and perpetuates systemic injustices. As we are the world’s sixth richest nation, it is a sad state of affairs that even essential services such as libraries and museums are under threat owing to a lack of funding. Without adequate funding and resources, artists from underrepresented backgrounds face barriers to entry and struggle to make their voices heard. This not only stifles artistic innovation and creativity but perpetuates a homogenous cultural landscape that fails to reflect the diversity of our communities.

In confronting the challenges facing our local government finances, we must reaffirm our commitment to the arts and cultural provision as essential pillars of community well-being and resilience. This requires a paradigm shift in how we conceptualise the role of the arts within our communities—not as expendable luxuries but as indispensable assets that demand our unwavering support and investment.

To ensure the continued vitality of the arts, we must rethink the allocation of resources to support arts organisations, cultural institutions and community-based arts programmes. This includes sustained funding for grants, subsidies and public/private partnerships to empower artists and cultural organisations to thrive. It also entails integrating arts and culture into broader community development strategies, recognising their integral role in fostering social cohesion, mental health and well-being, economic prosperity and inclusive growth.

Furthermore, we must adopt a more equitable approach to arts funding, ensuring that resources are distributed fairly and that all communities have access to arts and cultural opportunities. This requires actively engaging with marginalised and underrepresented communities, amplifying their voices and centring their experiences in our cultural narratives.

The County Councils Network, in its briefing for today’s debate, calls for the next Government to have

“an honest discussion … as to what councils can be expected to deliver”

I believe that we should begin that process right now, because councils cannot afford to wait.

In conclusion, the state of current local government finances presents a formidable challenge, but it also presents an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to arts and culture provision as essential components of vibrant, resilient communities. As we navigate the complexities of budgetary constraints and competing priorities, let us not lose sight of the transformative power of the arts to unite, inspire and uplift us.

Baroness Pinnock Portrait Baroness Pinnock (LD)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Shipley for securing this debate, and for his excellent and analytical introduction, and all noble Lords for the many local examples that they have shared and for their eloquent contributions. I have relevant interests as a councillor for nearly 40 years and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

The words “local government” were once synonymous with pride of place and pride of people. Councils were duly elected and took action to improve that place, be it through housing improvements, creating parks or ensuring public health reforms. It is a sentiment that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester also expressed. The demise of the once great vision of what elected bodies could achieve for their place has been gradual. The question is whether we are reaching an endgame in that vision. My noble friends Lady Scott of Needham Market and Lady Hamwee have exposed and expressed that as a real threat.

Local government is shorthand for the provision and delivery of services that make a tangible difference to the lives of individuals, families and communities, be they in villages, towns or cities. That is why this debate is so important. Cutting funds to councils means real reductions in services that provide basic support to people in need, blocking opportunities for young people and leaving the place that people call home in a state of decline.

The challenge for the Minister is to demonstrate that the Government understand that local government is not about the delivery of disparate services defined only by central government. Local government, at its best, is far greater than the sum of its parts. It is local government that is the key to preventing difficulties becoming crises. For example, closing swimming pools and leisure centres as well as reducing youth provision will mean that young people have fewer places to go and fewer interests to enjoy, and the consequence can be a rise in anti-social behaviour.

My noble friend Lord Shipley has rightly focused on sources of income for local government. That is something that we really need to think about in this debate. A SIGOMA briefing stated—and I thought that this was really telling—that there has been a move away from providing local government funding based on need to one based on local tax-raising ability, so that councils in more affluent areas are able to raise far more through council tax than councils in more deprived areas. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case and that government claims of increasing core spending power include a requirement for councils to raise council tax by the limit set by the Government?

All that adds up to not very much in the sense of levelling up, which sounds ever more a hollow promise, as many noble Lords have said. Does the Minister agree that the social care precept is a new tax, introduced by the Government to help fund social care? That tax adds a further 2% on council tax bills in the higher-tier authorities and unitary councils and 2% more on the bills of hard-pressed council tax payers. In my own council, that means, for the average council tax payer, an additional £200-plus per year. As we all know, council tax is regressive, so is that a fair way of raising more funding for social care services?

As my noble friend Lord Shipley has rightly pointed out, 69% of local councils’ total spend is on adult and children’s social care, leaving 31% for everything else: highways, leisure, parks, libraries, culture, the arts—we could go on. I remind the Minister that my noble friend also said that the Government seem to be knowingly letting things get worse, in terms of the consequences of cuts to all the other services. We are still waiting for the fair funding review.

Of course, there are other forms of income for local government. The Government have been pushing for councils to use their reserves, but this is such a short-term and short-sighted approach to local government funding. As reserves can be used only once, this props up a budget for one year only and leaves an even bigger gap the following year. It is not sustainable for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to push councils to use their reserves, especially because, as we have been reminded, the OBR has assessed that local government is facing further significant cuts to its funding as the proportion of GDP will fall by 3% over the next few years.

My noble friend Lady Hamwee contrasted being a local councillor 30 years ago with how local government is now—so constrained by government that it is in straitjacket. There is, as she says, little local discretion now available to local councils. That means, of course, that local councils are not able to respond effectively to real local need, because if there is no discretion, there can be no response.

Quite rightly, we have a real focus on arts, culture and libraries. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, and my noble friends Lord Foster and Lady Miller all raised the vital role that culture, the arts and libraries play in the life of a place, and their economic importance in attracting business and investment. There are also the life chances they open up and the opportunities they provide for enhancing life and well-being. The tragedy is that these are the areas of local government funding that have had huge cuts, and there is no sense of the Government recognising the impact of the cuts, and no sense that the cuts will be replaced, except by these odd little pots of money that can be applied for and go somewhere—but, in the scheme of things, go nowhere. My noble friend Lady Miller had the telling statistic that more people go to libraries every year than watch football—I am up for that, as a statistic.

My noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market pointed to the value of parish and town councils, and the enormous work they are doing. I know that my colleagues in Somerset Council, which is struggling with huge cuts to services, has sought a bigger and better partnership with its local parish councils to make up the difference.

To conclude, there is a crisis in local government. As we have heard, one in five councils are anticipating effective bankruptcy. Selling off council assets permanently reduces councils’ ability to serve local residents. Local councils matter. As we have heard, people are passionate about what local councils at their best can do. That is why the gradual decline of local government matters. We on these Benches value what councils can do; we will support and enhance them. The question to the Government is, will they?

Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Portrait Baroness Taylor of Stevenage (Lab)
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My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for securing this vital debate and for his excellent and thorough introduction. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken so powerfully. It clearly demonstrates the very rich nature of our sector.

Your Lordships will know that I was a local government leader for nearly 17 years. Distressingly, because of local government funding cuts, I had to cut the council’s budget every single year of those 17. In the first years, this was a very specific technical adjustment which only affected a small number of councils—unfortunately, mine was one of them. After that came a torrent of funding cuts which saw millions of pounds taken from our budget in cash terms—and that is before unfunded inflation is taken into account.

Councils across the country have had the same experience. In spite of the constant refrain from Ministers on the Government Benches that more funding is going in, the fact is that it is not meeting either the rising demand for services, the increasing demand due to failures in other public services, inflationary costs, or the costs of dealing with multiple government initiatives.

I am afraid it is just not good enough to say that this is just a few councils which have been badly managed, or to say that, if councils cut back their budgets for consultants and equalities programmes, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, referred to, the problem would go away. In fact, the Hunger Games approach to funding taken by DLUHC, which sets councils and their communities against one another in competitive bidding rounds, has driven much of this expenditure. It would be interesting to know—across all government departments, but DLUHC would do—what departments have spent on consultants and equalities training in the last three years.

LGA analysis shows that, by 2024-25, cost and demand pressures will have added £15 billion to the cost of delivering council services since 2021-22. Despite increased funding in both of the last two years, mostly from council tax, there is—as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Eaton, Lady Scott, and Lady Bull, have all said—an ongoing gap of £4 billion. There is a dreadful built-in impact here, too, that sees the poorest areas the worst affected. Many noble Lords have referred to that, as did the right reverend Prelate. The broken local government finance system means that those areas get the same cuts and are least able to fill the gap through council tax or retained business rates. As noble Lords have pointed out, the double whammy here is that these areas are likely to have the highest levels of increasing demand, too.

UK councils have fewer powers to raise revenue locally than any other G7 nation, with 95% of the UK’s tax revenue and 75% of public spending controlled centrally. So, when the Minister tells us about the increase in core spending power, as I am sure she is about to do, please remember that 44% of the additional core spending power available to councils will go solely to fund the cost increases in commissioned adult social care, due to the national living wage increase. This leaves a reduced amount of funding to address the impact of national living wage increases on other parts of the local government workforce and outsourced services that are highly exposed to the national living wage, such as waste collection and disposal, let alone the impacts of inflation, demand pressures and other cost drivers across all services.

As the right reverend Prelate mentioned, every aspect of our community life has been impacted. Every service has been affected. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, pointed out the impact on our local democracy; it is not what people become councillors to do. This is not what communities expect; they are paying more in council tax and getting less back in services. We know that people truly value the services that impact on their lives every day, as soon as they walk out of their front door—but look at what has happened to them. Net spending on cultural services has been cut by 43%, with sport and leisure facilities down by 44%. England has lost almost 400 swimming pools since 2010.

Sport development and community recreation has been cut by 59% per person, and spending on parks and green spaces has been cut by 30%. Community centres have been cut by 39% and libraries by 50%—800 libraries have been cut. Museums and galleries have been cut by 40% and theatres and public entertainment by 38%. The noble Baronesses, Lady Bull and Lady Miller, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and the noble Lords, Lord Foster and Lord Freyberg, all spoke very powerfully about the impact of local government cuts on cultural services.

More than half of areas have made cuts of more than 50% to transport and highways. This is even worse when you look at some areas, such as North Yorkshire, Bath and North East Somerset, and Lambeth, where there have been cuts of over 90% to highways work—no wonder there are potholes. Think of the negative impact of that on local economies.

These are services that everyone uses, but what about the most vulnerable in our communities? Some of the high-demand, high-cost services that local government delivers are used by only a very small percentage of our community. With services such as adult care, children’s services and temporary and emergency accommodation, many people will not realise the extent of the funding gap until they try to use that service. A recent County Councils Network report tells us that children’s and adult care services are consuming two-thirds of their total budgets. Surely, we should judge the strength of our communities and society by the way we deliver to the most vulnerable.

There are rising costs in children’s social care, with budgets up by 13.6%, driven by huge increases in placement costs. LGA research has shown that, in 2022-23, councils paid for over 1,500 placements costing £10,000 or more per week—over 10 times as many as the 120 placements purchased by councils at that price in 2018-19. It is way past time that this private-sector racketeering was brought to an end.

Costs of home-to-school transport are escalating, with budgets up by 23.3% in the last year, equalling a 130% cash-terms increase since 2016-17. Increasing costs and demand in adult social care means that budgeted spend increased by £2.5 billion in the last financial year. Costs of homeless services are increasing, with multiple contributory cost and demand drivers pushing budgets up by nearly 20% last year. Government data shows that more than 104,000 households were in temporary accommodation at the end of March last year, the highest figures since records began. Some district councils are now spending 30% to 40% of their total budget on emergency accommodation.

In most local areas, funding to the voluntary community sector from local government has either been cut or dried up all together, with seven in 10 organisations having withdrawn from public service delivery altogether, according to the excellent briefing from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned this. When authorities issue a Section 114 notice, both the NCVO and Women’s Aid report that all their funding is cut immediately. I do not have time to go into the pressure on housing revenue accounts, but the recent decision to remove councils’ rights to retain 100% of right-to-buy receipts, at a time when we should be encouraging a surge in provision of new social housing, is incomprehensible. We need 90,000 new social homes a year, so that cut was a crazy decision.

Levelling up means nothing if we cannot support vulnerable children and adults, the homeless, the voluntary sector, domestic abuse victims and the leisure and arts sectors. Everything I have outlined will have long-term impacts. There will be pressure on acute services from not funding early intervention properly, and pressure on the NHS when our vulnerable residents cannot be looked after in their own homes. There will be an impact on the health and mental health of people and communities when their leisure and culture opportunities get closed down, and there will be significant long-term impacts of poor-quality, unaffordable and insecure housing. Young people will lose their opportunities and aspirations because their learning needs have not been met. New homes will not be delivered or will be delayed because of cuts to planning departments. There is such a simple solution: just allow local authorities full cost recovery on major planning applications. The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, both mentioned that.

There will be a dramatic impact on the economy when local government cannot deliver either the infrastructure or the economic development support to meet business needs. The Government are quite simply closing down the best route—the local, devolution route—towards ensuring that we get the growth that the country needs to fund our public services properly.

I have been in local government for almost 30 years. My colleagues around the country are heroes, from those in parish and town councils—mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market—to those in the larger metropolitan authorities; they deliver for their communities, even in these most devastating and toughest of times. Please give them the trust and respect they deserve, give them long-term funding settlements, and work with them to reform the broken funding system—I was pleased to hear that the new noble Lord, Lord Fuller, is working on this project. Fix the broken business rates system that fails both businesses and the communities where they operate; give authorities the strong fiscal devolution they need, not the piecemeal approach we have seen in recent years; and then leave them alone to get on with it. Local councils, in touch with their local communities, will always deliver better than any Whitehall directive, even a levelling-up mission.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (Baroness Scott of Bybrook) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for bringing forward this important debate on the current state of local government finances and the impact on local communities. I also thank all noble Lords for their considered and insightful contributions today.

The Government are clear in their support for councils—there is no decline in that support—and the vital work they do to support local residents in all corners of the country. It is important to start by recognising some of the things that are happening. In Bolton, Stoke and Wandsworth, the councils have all recently renovated or opened new library spaces to the public. In Warwick and North Yorkshire, we have seen the opening of new leisure centres in Kenilworth and Knaresborough, and in Sandwell, Knowsley and Rushmoor, levelling-up funding will deliver improved leisure centres and facilities for local residents.

The Government are committed to delivering for our towns. In October of last year, we announced the investment of £1.1 billion into 55 towns across the country, with each town receiving a £20 million endowment-style fund to invest over the next decade. This will allow our towns to develop long-term visions and to deliver change for their residents, such as the regeneration of Ashburner Street, in Bolton. Finally, in Blackpool, the central regeneration scheme is scheduled to get under way, following planning approval, with an estimated 1,000 jobs set to be created as a result.

That is only a very small sample of the achievements and developments that councils across this country have made in recent months and years, all of which have made a positive impact on their local communities. All local authorities across the country should know that we place the utmost importance on the partnership between central and local government, and recognise the crucial work they do in delivering day in and day out for our local communities.

However, as has been mentioned, the Government recognise the pressures that some places face in delivering this work. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, that we are letting it get worse. We are not letting it get worse, and I will mention more about what we have done this year to help local authorities. Many of the problems that these places face, and that we all face as a country, are driven by global economic factors and the resulting higher inflation. That is why the Prime Minister has prioritised and successfully delivered on his commitment to halving inflation. However, we are all aware that demand for key services that councils provide, and the costs of those services, continue to rise steeply as well, not least because of an ever-aging population that, quite rightly, requires increasing social care support.

In February, the Government announced the local government finance settlement for 2024-25. This settlement makes up to £64.7 billion available to local authorities next year, an increase in core spending power of £4.5 billion on last year, equivalent to 7.5% in cash terms. This above-inflation increase demonstrates that the Government are standing behind councils up and down the country and are listening to them.

We have additionally taken action to provide further support to local government to enable continued delivery while wider system reforms for social care are implemented. At the final local government finance settlement, the Secretary of State announced that we are providing £1.5 billion in additional grant for social care through the settlement for 2024-25 compared to 2023-24. Having listened to the views of local government, this includes an additional £500 million for the social care grant.

While being mindful of the level of adult care provision, where possible councils should use this uplift to invest in areas that help also place children’s social care services on a financially sustainable footing. This includes investment in expanding family help and targeting early intervention, expanding kinship care and boosting the number of foster places.

Further to this, in the Budget earlier this month the Chancellor announced £165 million to support councils to improve the quality of, and increase capacity in, residential children’s homes, so that children with the most complex needs can be cared for in a provision that meets those needs. This funding will boost local authority-run provision and, in doing so, respond to concerns that excessive profiteering—as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage—and often poor quality is threatening the sustainability and outcomes of local government children’s services.

Nevertheless, we recognise that, sometimes, private placement costs are too high, and that council tax payers are stuck footing the bill. The Government’s position is that this is an issue with profiteering rather than profit. Through reforms to children’s social care, they will continue to explore what action is needed to best support councils. The Government will be developing proposals on what more can be done to combat profiteering, bring down costs and create a more sustainable market for residential placements, which they will publish later this year.

The Government recognise the significance of special educational needs pressures on councils. This is why the Spring Statement committed £105 million towards a wave of 15 new special free schools, to create over 2,000 additional places for children with special educational needs and disabilities across England. On top of this specific funding for social care and SEND, the Government have committed to a 4% funding guarantee that will ensure that all councils receive at least a 4% increase in their core spending power before any local choices on council tax, efficiencies or reserves. We have listened to the many councils and the many things they told us. They would otherwise have experienced cash losses in funding next year, and we have stepped in to prevent that.

We are committed to supporting councils wherever they are in the country. This is in answer to the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, about Luton. The most relatively deprived areas of England will be receiving 18% more per dwelling in available resource through the 2024-25 settlement than the least deprived areas; those councils, such as Luton and others, will be getting more. We understand that those councils have faced historic challenges in tackling deprivation. It is also why we have increased the value of the rural services delivery grant—as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath—by over 15% to £110 million, to support rural authorities dealing with the unique challenges of serving very dispersed populations. That is a second successive year of above-inflation increases for this grant.

The action we have taken to support local government in this financial settlement and beyond demonstrates our commitment to the sector. We recognise and thank those in the sector for the important contribution they make in delivering local services for their communities, up and down the country. We have worked in partnership with representatives, sector leaders and local councils, to ensure that this settlement helps to meet the needs of local government. This engagement has been a vital part of the decision-making for this settlement. When local councils speak to us, we listen, and this includes those councils that face the most significant challenges.

The Government also work closely with councils to understand the specific pressures that local government is facing. They are looking at a range of data on demand for services and the costs faced by councils. As a result of the local government finance settlement, the vast majority of local authorities will be able to set balanced budgets in 2024-25. We have published details of exceptional financial support agreed with a small number of councils, but the vast majority of this support relates to six councils where there has been severe local failure. The Government have had to step in there and take the most serious action through statutory intervention.

A small number of other councils requested financial support on an exceptional basis, due to specific local pressures that they were unable to manage themselves. We stand ready to speak to any council that has concerns about its ability to manage its finances or faces pressures it has not planned for. Our door is always open to them.

Before I conclude, I will answer as many of noble Lords’ questions as I can. If I do not get through all of them, obviously I will write. First, the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Bull, brought up local government funding reform. We remain committed to updating the system in the next Parliament, and will work closely with local partners to take stock of the challenges and opportunities that they face. Of course we will consult with them before any potential funding reforms, but we talked to councils last year about any of the reforms we could make and they did not want any disruption or uncertainty at that time.

The noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Hussain, brought up council tax reform. The Government continue to protect local tax payers from excessive increases. We believe that our approach strikes a fair balance and is an additional local democratic check and balance on local authorities. We are not allowing council tax to increase in place of increased funding; it is provision for a balanced package that includes a substantial increase for this coming year, as I said.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, brought up audit issues and the backlog. Local audit is vital in supporting democratic accountability and providing assurance for local people and their elected representatives. At the time of its abolition, we believed that the Audit Commission was too centralised and that it encouraged local bodies to focus more on the views of the commissioner than on local people. The Government are working with the Financial Reporting Council to tackle a significant backlog of local audits and put the system on a sustainable footing for the future.

Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Portrait Baroness Taylor of Stevenage (Lab)
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Does the Minister think it acceptable that 99% of local authorities did not clear their audits in time last year?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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No, I do not. We will work with local authorities on that issue.

The Government have invested £5.5 billion on highways maintenance since 2021. In 2023, we provided an additional £200 million to fix the equivalent of 4 million potholes. In October last year, the Government announced £8.3 billion of new funding, over a 10-year period, for local road resurfacing. We are putting in extra money and not asking councils to find it in their base budgets.

My noble friend Lady Eaton and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, brought up the Office for Local Government. Oflog aims to provide authoritative and accessible data and analysis about the performance of local government, which is important, and to support its improvement. It is still in its infancy, but its three aims are: to inform, by improving access to data; to support, by facilitating sector-led improvement; and to seek any potential failures that it can find, getting in early to support our local authorities.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, brought up the issue of local democracy and devolution. If anybody sat through the levelling-up Bill in this Chamber, they will know that devolution is at the heart of our plans to increase economic growth and level up the whole country. We remain committed to seeing more empowered and accountable local leaders to do this, who can pave the way for that growth and innovate because they know the challenges and what is best needed for their areas.

There was quite a lot of talk on planning authorities and whether local authorities should have the ability to set their own planning fees. This came from my noble friend Lady Eaton, who has so many years in local government—probably more than many of us who have a lot there. I thank her for her speech and her insight. We increased the fees considerably last year, by 38% for major applications and 25% for other applications. We have done another couple of things to help the planning sector. We have what we are calling a planning super-squad: this is an important team of senior planners who can go into a local authority that has a large or complex application and help it with the capacity and delivery issues. We hope that this will get some of our bigger planning applications away much quicker. We have invested £13.5 million in that. We have also put £29 million in a planning skills delivery fund. That is to help local planning authorities with their backlogs. We are doing a lot but, as we said on the LURB as it went through, we will not look at local authorities setting their own planning fees because we feel it might destabilise things, by having different areas with different fees across the country.

My noble friend Lady Eaton also brought up the right-to-buy receipts. At the Budget earlier this year, the Government announced increases in flexibilities available for local authorities to fund a higher percentage of the cost of replacement of affordable homes. That is taking right-to-buy sales from 40% to 50%. We hope that this will allow local authorities greater resources to allocate towards what we know is important housebuilding in the social rented sector.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, brought up business rates. We have ensured that all current enhanced business rate retention areas will continue for the next year. During this time, the Government will continue to review the role of such arrangements as a source of income for areas, and their impact on local economic growth and as part of the deeper devolution commitments as set out in the levelling-up White Paper.

The noble Lord also brought up council reserves. The Government consider reserves to be an important part of the resources available to local councils. Interestingly, reserves remain significantly higher since the pandemic, having risen £31.6 billion over that time, but we expect councils to use their reserves appropriately when there are pressures on them.

I am conscious of the time, so I will move to something that most noble Lords brought up, which was quite an interesting part of the debate: culture and the arts. I will ask my noble friend Lord Parkinson, the Minister for the DCMS, to read Hansard—oh, he is here; that is good timing. The debate was wider than just local government, and is something to do with the responsibilities between local and central government, so we will talk about it.

There were some interesting issues. The majority of funding that comes to local government is not ring-fenced in recognition, quite rightly, that local authorities are best placed to make local decisions. I totally agree with all the speakers that arts, culture, sport and heritage make our communities unique and vibrant. They also drive economic growth, give jobs and improve well-being. We encourage councils to reflect on the important role that these sectors play.

We have provided support for the cultural sector across the country. At the Spring Budget in 2024, the Chancellor confirmed the allocation of £100 million for local cultural projects, recognising the importance of pride for the place. This included a number of nationally significant cultural projects such as the British Library North project in Leeds and the National Railway Museum in York. Smaller amounts were also given to places that did not get levelling-up programmes, including Maldon, Erewash and North Northamptonshire, which have all been awarded £5 million of capital funding. I was also interested to hear that a new studio was announced in the north-east last week. The new north-east mayoral combined authority intends to use £25 million of flexible funding to help that scheme.

I am out of time so I close by saying that we recognise the scale of the financial pressures caused by inflation and the wider economic circumstances that have put local authorities across the country under acute strain. To address this, we have listened to the public and engaged with local authorities; this is why we have provided the substantial increase in support above inflation that this funding settlement provides. Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for bringing forward this debate and all noble Lords for their contributions. I look forward to continuing discussions with them.

Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to all those who took part in this debate. I must say, I have appreciated the richness of what we have heard today. I hope that the Government will take note of a lot of the valuable comments made. I pay particular tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, who picked out the five key words in this debate: the impact on local communities. We have a tendency to debate funding settlements and fiscal policy but the impact on local neighbourhoods, people and communities was the objective of this debate.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s reply and was pleased by one thing. I agree about the work being undertaken to make residential placements for children more sustainable; I hope that that is going to be completed fairly rapidly.

The Minister said that there has been no decline in the support for councils by the Government. I do not agree. She quoted a whole set of examples of new things happening across a range of local authorities but, first, you cannot generalise from the particular, and, secondly, they were capital projects. I am talking about the impact mostly on revenue of the switch into adult social care, which is not being recompensed for local community services.

The Government capped local authorities on council tax. Since 2016, they have required local authorities to increase council tax for the social care precept by 2%. Had all that money been supplied by the Government nationally, that 2% each year compounded would have been available for those services to those local communities. The whole point of my debate is trying to point out that we have got out of kilter here and that something needs to be done.

I am very interested in the Minister’s statement about reserves. We used to have clear rules about reserves and contingencies in local government. When we had the Audit Commission, we had all of these things. Given the, I think, £31 billion that she cited, I would love for the Minister to write to me to say what proportion of that is earmarked, what proportion is unearmarked and, indeed, what proportion is actually in-year contingencies. It would be helpful to know that.

I thank everyone for this debate; it has been helpful. I hope that this Government, and any future Government, will listen. I hope that the Government will undertake a fair funding review, which has been promised over so many years but has never happened. At that point, we might get the word “local” back into government.

Motion agreed.

Human Rights: Sportswashing

Thursday 21st March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Motion to Take Note
Moved by
Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven
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That this House takes note of countries that use sporting events to “sportswash” their human rights record, and the role of sporting bodies in aiding this practice.

Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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My Lords, I am delighted to open this debate on a very important yet often overlooked issue: sportswashing. We all know the positive power that sport has in bringing people together, the pride and enthusiasm, self-development, building resilience, fostering team spirit and promoting the best of what it is to be human. But beyond all this is a practice that operates in the shadows—sportswashing.

In framing this debate, I wish to be clear about what my focus on sportswashing is. It is a political decision by some Governments to use sports events, teams or individuals to divert attention from their controversial actions, human rights abuses or political agendas. Essentially, it is a form of reputation laundering through the world of sport.

How is this practice employed? One of the most common tactics is for countries with tarnished images to build for then host major sporting events. These events attract global attention, providing an opportunity for Governments to present positive imaging while diverting attention away from issues such as political repression, corruption or human rights abuses. Government bodies also invest heavily in high-profile sports clubs to enhance the investor’s global image; we see that with Saudi Arabia and Newcastle United, and also with McLaren and the Bahrain sovereign fund. It is a real concern for some in football and F1 that foreign states could be investing in and using UK-based sporting teams to sportswash their human rights record at home. Another strategy involves signing athletes to promote a positive image; we all remember seeing David Beckham at the Qatar World Cup.

There is nothing new about this; we can trace sportswashing back, although the term came about in 2015. One only has to look at fascist Italy’s 1934 World Cup and the Nazis’ 1936 Olympic Games to see sportswashing in practice. Recently, we have seen sportswashing Olympics held in China and Russia; Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, hosting F1 races; and Qatar holding the recent World Cup.

It has gained much more prominence recently. The dilution of news outlets has made it harder to get one unified and consistent message out to large worldwide audiences but major international sporting events still grab attention and get global focus in a way that few other platforms can. States run by autocrats or royal dynasties, which have poor human rights records or lack respect for normal democratic values, are the ones that have proved themselves the best practitioners. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain have become famous for it.

For example, Saudi Arabia’s total investment since 2021 in trying to improve its image via sport is around £4.9 billion, which is almost the equivalent of the GDP of Barbados. The Bahraini authorities have reportedly signed a new deal with F1, running through to 2036, which costs £41 million each year to stage F1 races there. Most, if not all, of this money is handed over to sporting ruling bodies, such as FIFA and F1, which are private bodies and rely on these massive sums, and make the individuals who run them very wealthy.

Some say it is important to allow these countries to host such sporting events as it brings about change. The last time we heard that was from Gary Neville, who was paid to be a TV pundit at the Qatar World Cup. Did sustainable and real change from the FIFA World Cup come to LGBT+ people in Qatar? No, the money was paid over to FIFA and sportswashing happened. There was no improvement in human rights for the LGBT community there. It is clear that sustainable change does not happen when sporting events are held in states such as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. In fact, things get worse when controlling sporting bodies, autocrats and ruling royal families refuse to accept that human rights abuses even happen, some linked to the sporting events themselves. I am sure that many noble Lords will remember FIFA banning the OneLove armband in Qatar.

Others argue that sport is sport and politics should not be brought into sport. Many agree, but let us be clear why sport and politics are colliding. It is not because of those who are pointing out that sportswashing exists. It is because political decisions are being made by autocrats and ruling royal families to invest in sport events to turn the spotlight away from their record on human rights and democratic abuses. The investment in sportswashing is a political act, so those who say “No politics in sport” should support calls to deal with this political practice of sportswashing through tighter rules and regulations for sporting bodies, teams and clubs.

I turn to one in-depth example of sportswashing: F1 racing in Bahrain, an issue that I have seen close up since 2018. I declare an interest as the vice-chair of the APPG on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf. I got involved when the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, which I thank for its helpful briefings for today’s debate, brought to my attention the case of Najah Yusuf, who in 2017 was arrested, sexually assaulted, tortured and falsely sentenced to three years in prison after she made a stand on social media against sportswashing and the 2017 Bahrain F1 race. The interesting fact about Najah’s case is that, in the court ruling, the court referenced the F1 race and her activism against it on social media as one of the reasons for her sentence—a direct link between F1 racing in Bahrain and the sentencing of an individual standing up for human rights and against sportswashing. Due to international pressure, she was released early. I have since met Najah. She told me of the soul-destroying, continuing abuses that she and her family have received from the Bahraini authorities for standing up to F1 sportswashing in her country. This includes, but is not restricted to, her losing her civil service job and the police continually harassing her family.

Last year four individuals were arrested, threatened, verbally abused and forced to sign a plea restricting their right to protest in future after they held a protest near the Bahrain International Circuit during the F1 race. This was despite F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali’s assurances that

“individuals should be allowed to protest against and criticise our event without intimidation or reprisals”.

When asked about the arrests, F1 reiterated a false statement by the Bahraini Government denying their occurrence. It still failed to acknowledge that these arrests took place and to correct the record on F1’s website, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary after the Bahraini authorities were forced to concede that these events had indeed taken place.

These four Bahraini citizens were subject to further reprisal and harassment this year, ahead of the F1 race. Two of the protesters, Hajer Mansoor and Muneer Mushaima, had their family houses raided. The other two, Najah Yusuf and Ali Muhana, received police summonses. Hajer Mansoor’s son has been arrested without a warrant. This 20 year-old young man, Sayed Hashim AlWadaei, was arrested after a house raid last month and has subsequently been tortured and interrogated while blindfolded, without the presence of his lawyer, on allegations of participating in unauthorised protest. It is clear that his arrest was strategically timed to coincide with the F1 testing, and that his detention was extended in the lead-up to the race for political reasons—namely, to silence all protest surrounding the Bahrain Grand Prix.

I have made repeated requests over the last few years to engage with Mr Domenicali, the CEO of F1, to discuss potential human rights issues linked to his races, and the lack of due diligence carried out by F1 on where they race. In the last month I have personally reached out to him on two occasions to ask him to intervene, due to the nature and timing of Mr AlWadaei’s arrest, as it appears to be linked and timed to deter F1 protests in Bahrain. Unfortunately, a familiar pattern has emerged: Mr Domenicali has not even acknowledged my letters and emails, and has refused any discussion or engagement with me or any other organisation with expertise in human rights abuses in Bahrain when these abuses, and a potential link between these events and F1, have been brought to his attention.

Mr Domenicali’s arrogance, lack of professionalism and non-engagement left me with no alternative but to seek this debate, and to seek further regulation of the practices of F1 and other such sporting bodies based here in the UK. His leadership of F1 is damaging the reputation of his sport, as he refuses to engage with the issues around F1 and human rights. He thinks he can just receive the reported £574 million from the Bahrain authorities up to 2036 that makes him and his organisation richer, while having nothing to do with the real issues that his sport is helping to cloak in Bahrain.

As I said, this is a pattern of the senior leadership in F1, based here in London. Since 2018 I have brought attention to individual and systematic cases of human rights abuses linked to F1 races in the Gulf. F1 has never acknowledged the link—even in the case of Najah. When the court specifically linked her sentence to the criticism of the F1 race in Bahrain, F1 said that no link existed. I was granted a meeting with F1’s senior leaders back in 2018, but they have allowed no further direct contact and I have seen fellow parliamentarians ignored when they have raised potential issues around F1 racing and human rights abuses. On one occasion there was an outright refusal to meet me over F1’s human rights policy. Thank goodness for drivers such as Sir Lewis Hamilton, who has had the courage to say that human rights issues are around and that he is not convinced that F1 going to countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia helps change happen.

My recent contact, via a letter to Mr Domenicali on 14 February and a reminder on 11 March, was an attempt to collaboratively explore with him his comments that F1 is “a force for good” in these countries and can bring about a slow and quiet change. I asked him to show me the evidence, the due diligence done, the results from these investigations and the expert human rights organisations that F1 meets. Again, I did not get an acknowledgment of these letters. It is as though he fears the evidence coming before the public. What is the F1 leadership hiding? What do the evidence and due diligence show, if indeed they are being done at all?

What was even more galling was to see the British ambassador to Bahrain, Mr Long—while I was seeking reassurance on due diligence around human rights issues— posting on social media, helping to promote the Bahrain Grand Prix and endorsing Mr Domenicali’s approach, without acknowledging the issues of human rights abuses potentially linked to F1 races there.

I have four questions for the Minister. First, what is the Government’s view of sportswashing, does his department have a working definition of it and does it plan to adopt the policy of the Government on the issue? Secondly, will the Government make representations regarding the arrest of the 20 year-old Bahraini, Sayed Hashim AlWadaei, during F1 testing this year, and will they try to make a determination about the links of his arrest to F1?

Thirdly, will the new Bill on football regulation that is in front of Parliament include rules and obligations around foreign state ownership of clubs and teams here in the UK, as the Government have just agreed to do around press ownership? If so, will these rules and regulations be extended to UK foreign-supporting companies and bodies, such as Formula 1, to ensure that they carry out proper due diligence, including engaging on issues related to human rights violations?

Fourthly, despite repeated concerns raised directly with the UK Government and the ambassador in Bahrain about the use of sportswashing and abuses linked to F1, including by many Members of Parliament and rights groups, why has the UK ambassador to Bahrain chosen actively to facilitate a race that has links to human rights abuses? What steps will the Government take to ensure that British diplomats take seriously concerns raised about human rights violations and are seen not to potentially aid sportswashing?

I look forward to listening to the contributions of other noble Lords, and I beg to move.

Lord Moynihan Portrait Lord Moynihan (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for leading this debate, which provides a valuable opportunity to consider the link between the role of international sport and human rights. In doing so, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I emphasise that I draw in particular on my time as chair of the British Olympic Association at the time of the London 2012 Olympic Games. I also believe it is important to review the recent World Cup in Qatar.

Far from sportswashing human rights records, the hosting of major sporting events in countries where concern rightly exists about human rights actually does the opposite. It brings with it a spotlight into the darker recesses of the country, which generates action and change, in a way that, when the sporting spotlight is turned off, international attention and calls for change diminish. This debate effectively bears testimony to the fact that sport provides a platform to highlight, not hide, human rights abuses, as we have just heard through Najah’s story. I have long taken an active stance on issues concerning human rights. All Governments need to act decisively on human rights abuses, wherever they exist, by making the strongest representations to the country concerned. However, the question raised by today’s debate is about not condemnation of human rights violations but whether the cancellation or boycott of an international sporting event is the best way to promote change in the country concerned.

For example, was a boycott of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing 2022, for both able-bodied athletes in the Winter Olympic Games and disabled athletes in the Winter Paralympic Games, reasonable, proportionate and effective as the right way to change the course of Chinese domestic policy on human rights? If we are to ask sportsmen and sportswomen to walk away from their careers and close off the chance to compete on the ultimate stage for which they have made a lifetime of sacrifices then the athletes will rightly ask whether the Government are taking action on a much wider front. Calls for a boycott would be very different if trade, cultural exchanges and diplomatic relations were curtailed, rather than seeing growth in trade, the promotion of cultural exchanges and the strengthening of diplomatic relations, as was the case in Beijing.

I remember, as an athlete, being called on to boycott the Olympic Games in Moscow. The team was being turned into a single political pawn to assuage the conscience of the Government of the day, who opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. No other action was proposed. I appreciate that it is not an easy question; indeed, it was made more difficult when, during the same month as the calls for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games on the grounds that the Government were sportswashing their human rights record, with criticisms of the international governing bodies aiding this practice, Governments around the world overwhelmingly elected China—as a champion of human rights—to the UN Human Rights Council, achieving 139 votes out of a possible 193.

Looking beyond the athletes to sports boycotts in the past, we find that they have a patchy record of effectiveness at best. Boycotts have been used to express opposition to patterns of gross human rights violations and to communicate the repugnance of the international community as a whole, or at least a large part of it, at the policies and practices of a particular nation or nations. All have been ineffective tools in this regard, with the one notable exception of South Africa. With the benefit of hindsight, few would deny the significant contributions, certainly at the moral and symbolic level, that the boycott made to the overthrow of the apartheid regime, but it was part of a much wider package of measures taken by the international community on the trade and diplomatic fronts.

There was a very personal sense of outrage at the heart of the apartheid debate—namely, abhorrence over racial discrimination anywhere and at any time. The success of the sporting boycott was due to the fact that the international community was in broad agreement over taking a wide and comprehensive range of punitive political measures against the South African Government, of which sport was actually tangential but important.

It is my view that, for actions of this kind to be effective in tackling what the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, has defined as sportswashing, they must have the broad support of the international community and be the product not of posturing or reprisal but of an astute and practical moral calculus, including a wide-ranging package of trade, travel and diplomatic measures to lead to action that will best advance the cause of human rights and the well-being of those whose rights are violated. Because surely all of us agree that politics and sport, regrettably, are intricately interwoven.

To address human rights issues in relation to international sporting events in isolation from the broader diplomatic framework would, I contend, serve no useful or realistic purposes. I absolutely respect the strength of feeling on human rights in this Chamber and count myself as part of that coalition. It is almost 50 years to the day that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I went to the Philippines as young MPs to write a critical report on the Philippine Government’s human rights abuses, but the reality is that life has changed in those 50 years.

As the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, rightly said, the centre of gravity in professional sport is effectively on the move. The 150 years during which the legacy of de Coubertin made its home in western Europe has shifted to the Middle East, and it will not come back to the West. If we pick out sportsmen and sportswomen to act as our champions to assuage our conscience over human rights abuses, we will have missed the central point: that the only losers in this scenario are actually the sportsmen and sportswomen concerned. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, that sports boycotts, which are the necessary corollary of avoiding the concept of sportswashing, when used in isolation from the many tools at the disposal of Governments, have failed and are never likely to succeed. I do not see our Government imposing widespread economic and political sanctions and a trade ban, for example, on China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or India, to name a few.

On the contrary, I take the view that the significant advantage of international sporting events is their high media profile. This ensured that the spotlight of international attention shone brightly on Qatar during the World Cup. This spotlight, as it ranges over countries where human rights are a concern, will, in time, assist in bringing dividends. I take the view that international sport is a force for good in itself; that engagement is preferable to isolation; that precedents show sports boycotts rarely achieve their goals; and that seeking to impact countries through avoiding sporting contact is highly unlikely to achieve positive improvements on the ground. It could become a symbolic gesture, which would isolate and punish countries, and potentially prove to be a counterproductive and retrograde step.

Ultimately, and to me this point is overlooked by those supporting ceasing sporting contact with countries of concern regarding human rights, the greatest damage will befall sportsmen and sportswomen, and, in the case of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the overwhelming number of athletes who are not motivated by money. Neither the Olympic nor the world sporting movement, nor indeed anyone, should have expected sport alone to bring countries into line with international human rights standards. Expectations of sport-led metamorphosis are simply unrealistic, and real change in a country requires consolidating the position of that country’s domestic reformers and a wider international public recognition of human rights. I do not believe that international sport should be expected to solve a problem to which the Governments of the international community have yet to find an answer.

At the same time, it would be wrong to underestimate the growing international influence of sport as the centre of gravity moves to the Middle East—here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. Just as China’s human rights record fits uneasily with the Olympic ideals, so does the idea that sport can harbour prejudice, geographical or otherwise. Sport is about humanity, and the benefits of the Olympic Games continue to contribute to, not detract from, the changes we all seek.

The same underlying principles underpin international football. The moment Qatar won the bid, it recognised and knew that the spotlight during the World Cup in Doha would be focused on its human rights record. Qatar was in need of comprehensive reforms to its labour market, and I argue that the World Cup has in part led it to adopt labour standards that are the best in the region. It invited in the International Labour Organization and invited it to stay after the World Cup—the only country in the region to do that. The fiercely independent International Labour Organization’s reports on material improvements in occupational injuries and heat stress-related disorders were really important. Qatar reacted—it had to react—to international pressure and implemented measures to prevent passport confiscation, with the full removal of exit permits expanded to all workers in 2020. Of course, more can and must be done, but I argue that it is the very spotlight of international attention on major sporting events that accelerates progress in the alleviation of human rights abuses, in the same way that the immovable date for the opening ceremony in 2012 accelerated the regeneration of the East End of London by 10 years.

I well remember that, just after the curtain came down on the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, I was sitting near here with representatives of human rights groups, whom I got to know well during the build-up to the Games in Beijing. A prominent and greatly respected senior campaigner looked at me and said, with a wry smile, that he privately wished that the Games would be hosted in Beijing every four years. For the human rights organisations, having the Games every quadrennium in Beijing would have been ideal, because the powerful Olympic torch, fuelled by the Olympic ideals, shone into the deeper recesses of China and gave strength to their important campaigns. But, sadly for him, the Games moved on to London, and the challenges to human rights records in China moved with them.

Baroness Grey-Thompson Portrait Baroness Grey-Thompson (CB)
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My Lords, I declare an interest: I am chair of Sport Wales and, with that, I sit as a board member of UK Sport. I also have a number of other declarations in the register—but I emphasise that these are my personal views.

It is always a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan—I like to call him my friend in sport. I agree with much of what he said this afternoon. We talk about sport and politics not being linked, but I note that, actually, the medal table is soft politics: “Which is the best country in the world?” When I first came to your Lordships’ House, I was frequently asked, “Is it not really difficult moving from sport to politics?” Actually, sport provides one of the best political training grounds you could wish to have.

I agreed when the noble Lord talked about boycotting. Athletes are being asked to give up a relatively short career and, unless the Government and Ministers do much more around that to offer athletes support, it does not change the conversation too much. I remember that, prior to the Rio Paralympics, which nearly did not happen, a number of Ministers had gone to the Olympics, and then a decision was taken by the Government not to send a ministerial delegation to Rio. I was asked by a number of journalists, “Won’t athletes be desperately upset that Ministers aren’t going?” With all due respect to the Members on the Front Bench, who I know care passionately about sport, I have not met a single athlete who spent many years of their life training to compete in front of a Minister. But there is a value in our role in educating athletes so that they understand the countries and jurisdictions they go into.

I have long said that many athletes should have families like mine. Way before the internet, when I was competing in Seoul, which was my first Paralympics, my father made me go to the library and take out a whole pile of books and make a conscious choice about what my participation in sport was going to be.

This debate is really important because sportswashing gives us a lens to look at the power of sport, but it is only one lens. There are lots of different types of washing. There is purplewashing, in terms of how disabled people are treated and used. Merely putting a wheelchair user in a picture of people doing sport does not mean there is inclusion in a governing body or an international federation.

There is also greenwashing. In my time in sport, I competed at five Games. At the beginning, I am not sure anybody was looking at the green credentials of the Olympics and Paralympics. By the time of Sydney, that was really important: they gathered rain from the roof of the main stadium to water local farms and vegetable patches; they had worm farms for recycling food; athletes were not allowed to take food that they were not able to eat. By the time of Athens, there was a mass recycling programme for collecting the lids of water bottles; if you got 2,500 lids, that bought a wheelchair for a local child. I still argue that that was the biggest competition at the Athens Games, because athletics beat swimming by quite some way. It is educating and moving people along as you go.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, I worked on the bid and delivery for the 2012 Games. The strapline was: “Inspire a generation”. Well, you cannot have a strapline that says: “Vaguely inspire a few”. But I am really pleased to say that gone are the days when we just dump a big Olympic park into an area and not think about the legacy or the impact it is going to have on the environment around it.

When we look at sport, we have to look at the bigger picture: what is the point of sport? Is it for sport’s sake or for changing lives? I argue that it can be both. Back in 2000, Nelson Mandela famously said:

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand”.

That is the best of sport, but, as other noble Lords have mentioned, there are also huge challenges in terms of what we do. As we push younger and younger children through the pathway as we aspire to win Olympic and Paralympic medals and World Cups, we have a duty of care to those we encourage to go through the system. I wrote the Duty of Care in Sport report back in 2017 for the Government. Many of those recommendations, based on the work of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, are still waiting to be enacted. It is really important that we talk about these issues and do not just focus on the amazing things sport can bring.

In turn, we have to challenge the international federations. What is the International Olympic Committee doing? What is the International Paralympic Committee doing? What is FIFA doing? Over the years, they have done some work to diversify themselves. It is possibly slower than I might have hoped, but can we really expect an international federation to change the world? The International Paralympic Committee has a campaign called “WeThe15”. Some 15% of the world’s population are disabled. It was a great campaign for the time of Tokyo, but can the IPC really be expected to change the lives of disabled people in every single jurisdiction around the world? I think that is asking too much of sport on its own.

Many noble Lords have heard me say that 2012 was the most amazing Olympics and Paralympics but it did not change the world for disabled people. Just this week, there has been a report from the UN rapporteur on disability rights saying that the UK is a difficult and challenging place for disabled people to live. Most people would be surprised by that. If the UK is a difficult place, other countries are challenging as well.

The Paralympics in China in 2008 certainly did not change the lives of most disabled people in China. That was the first Paralympic Games in which China competed seriously, and it came top of the medal table. It is almost impossible to see that it will ever do anything but that, because there are something like 85 million disabled people in China.

However, what the Paralympics did for Beijing was to change the lives of some of the disabled people living there. It changed the underground—Beijing has a step-free underground system in Beijing—and tactile paving was put in the city. It started that change. Without the Paralympics, that would not have happened.

I went to Beijing in 2005 and was sitting in a meeting and somebody noticed my wedding ring. They asked me whether I was married, and I said yes. Then I mentioned that I had a child, and the room emptied. I was trying to think about what I had said that had potentially been mistranslated; then everyone from that floor of the organising committee was brought in to meet me, because I was the disabled woman who had been allowed to get married. In Beijing at the time, I was not allowed to hire a car, because disabled people were not allowed to drive—or indeed be married or have children. It is heartbreaking when you see those things. The Paralympics helped to move that on at least a little.

I am going to introduce a new phrase, which I am not sure has ever been mentioned in your Lordships’ Chamber, which is “inspiration porn”. You can safely look at it on a government computer; it has not yet thrown up anything too dodgy. It is about the way in which disabled people are treated. This is another conversation that we do not have often enough, about what we are using sport for in changing the rights of disabled people. The challenge with inspiration porn is about how it is reported in the media that every disabled person is inspirational just because they are in society. That is quite hard in sport, because there are inspirational moments. But we have to challenge ourselves in what we are doing, as much as we challenge other countries around the world.

I worked at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Qatar, where disabled people are called “people of determination”. I really struggle with that as a phrase, but actually it explains the life that a lot of disabled people have to lead in coping with their impairment. Having the chance to go there—I would not have gone there in any way other than working in the media—gave me at least some experience of what life is like there for some disabled people. We have to think about whether going to a country shines a light and can shift the dialogue in a way that, if sport was not there, would not be able to happen.

As for how we push back at the IOC and IPC, they have to look at what the Games are going to be in future. The Games are getting bigger and more expensive, with more sports being added. The Athens Olympics cost $15 billion. We demand bigger and better opening ceremonies. The opening ceremony in Beijing had 15,000 people taking part although there were only 11,000 athletes at the Games. The estimated costs of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics were $38.5 billion, of which more than £20 billion was spent on infrastructure. With regard to the responsibility of the IOC and IPC in moving forward, they can do things in a very different way. The reality is that, if the Games are going to get only more and more expensive, the only countries that will be able to or will want to host them are ones with which we have a fundamental disagreement about human rights.

A slightly brighter area to look at are the Commonwealth Games, which have done some amazing things in inclusion and spreading a really important message of bringing people together. However, the Commonwealth Games are facing a crisis at the moment of countries being unwilling to host, or struggling to host—and in the UK that is something that we will find very hard to do. Sport has to refocus and think very differently about what it wants to be. It comes back to the question of whether it is sport for sport’s sake and physical activity, or whether it is going to do more to try to change the world.

A lot of the area that I work on is around women in sport. The 2012 Games was known as the “women’s Games”—both the Olympics and the Paralympics—with British women dominating. It is incredible to see the rise of women in sport. The number of people who go to watch women’s football is unbelievable; it is something that I dreamt of for years. I have still not forgiven the team behind not giving Mary Earps her own shirt, which was a gross mistake and a missed opportunity.

There are still challenges for women’s sport. For example, the Swiss Football Association has just cut its support for women’s football from £13.5 million to £3.6 million. Women’s sport will be put in a situation where it has to make difficult decisions about where it goes and what support it gets—which, ultimately, will not develop what it is trying to do.

I was very lucky as an athlete because I was never asked to boycott a Games; I honestly do not know what I would have done. It is important, at the moment, for athletes to have that platform. In British sport we now talk about giving athletes a voice and a platform, allowing them to talk about the things that matter to them. We have a responsibility as administrations to educate and support them so that they are not cancelled for having an opinion, but are able to use the very best that sport gives them to keep changing things for the future. We need government support to do that; it cannot be done by sports and athletes on their own. Look at the number of British individuals who sit on international federations in the world of sport; we have to use those voices because, quite frankly, sport can do better. We can do better for sport, but we can use it to change the world.

Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD)
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My Lords, what a privilege it is to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thomson, and I pay tribute to her for everything she has done to open up the world of sport to disabled people. It is an inspiring story, and it is a privilege for us to sit in this House with her.

Max Freudmann was an Austrian Jew who ran in the sprints in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin—it is not so long ago; I was in being, if not actually born at the time. Having escaped the Nazis, he was the sports teacher in my grammar school in Wrexham. I still recall his sardonic evaluation of my running style: “Thomas,” he said, “You don’t run—you knit”.

Despite that handicap, I found myself decades later playing rugby football on the Reichssportfeld where the 1936 Games were held. I was playing for Berlin, and although I may not match the medals of the noble Baroness or, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, I still have the cap that was awarded to me for that privilege. The ground was dominated by a massive limestone podium, the Führerloge, from which the Führer had addressed the crowds. In the Führer’s dressing rooms behind, where the Wrexham team was changing, our captain was warming us up: “Remember what they did to Swansea. Cofio Abertawe!” Heads were banging on the wall and we were exchanging punches to acclimatise ourselves; the air was heavy with sweat. Then the referee put his head round the door and said, “The Berlin team’s short of players”. Well, I drew the short straw and soon found myself in the more relaxed atmosphere, wreathed in cigarette smoke, of the German changing room. You will be pleased to know that the Welshmen won that game, and I just about survived an attempt to knock my head off by an old friend in Wrexham colours.

In 1936, sportswashing had not been invented as a word, but that was the entire purpose of those Games. The Olympic torch relay from Mount Olympus, filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, was an innovation at them. Blonde, blue-eyed Aryans blazed their way through the nations of central Europe which they were shortly thereafter to invade and conquer. The five Olympic rings were carved in stone at Delphi, as though they were an ancient symbol of the original Hellenic games.

Despite assurances given by the German Olympic committee that German Jews would be able to train and be available for selection to the German team, the Nazis, shortly before the Games, simply removed German citizenship from all Jews. Since being a national of the competing country was necessary under Olympic rules, they were thereby banned from competing.

The Americans were highly dubious about competing at all, because they feared that black people would be disqualified. In the event, as your Lordships know, Jesse Owens, with his four gold medals, severely damaged the concept of the master race.

Prior to the games, the Guardian newspaper summed it up:

“This year at Berlin for the first time, we are to see”


“confessedly exploited not for the peace of the world, not even for the pride of one nation, but as an advertisement for a political party. The conduct of the Games and their setting are to be a demonstration of the excellence of”

the Nazis.

Despite these doubts and reservations, Hitler succeeded in his aim. In an editorial at the close of the Games, a New York paper praised the success and stability of the Nazi regime. Worse than that, and to my regret as president of the Lloyd George Society, David Lloyd George, in the following month of September, visited Berchtesgaden and met Hitler. On his return to Britain, he wrote an article in the Daily Express in which he said:

“I have now seen the famous German leader and also something of the great change he has effected. Whatever one may think of his methods—and they are certainly not those of a parliamentary country—there can be no doubt that he has achieved a marvellous transformation in the spirit of the people, in their attitude towards each other, and in their social and economic outlook”.

The Games gave credibility to Hitler, and I wonder whether, later in 1938, they may have supported the appeasers and, in particular, caused Neville Chamberlain to trust Hitler’s assurances that there would be “peace in our time”. Equally, did they strengthen the isolationists in the United States of America, which stayed out of the war until 1942?

The problem is that sportswashing works. The host country comes out of it looking cleaner and brighter. Worryingly, the choice of sporting venues for the football World Cup, the Olympics or other worldwide competitions rests in the hands of committees made up of people who have sporting, not political, interests and qualifications—and history has shown that money changes hands.

Of course, this choice does not rest solely in the hands of those from liberal democracies. Big money comes from principalities and autocratic powers. How to combat it? Well, there is one set of values that is universal: namely, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 70th anniversary of which we recently celebrated. All the 193 members of the United Nations are signed up to it.

The International Olympic Committee is to be commended for its adoption in May 2022 of the human rights strategic framework, which references the Universal Declaration. Further, it now interrogates preferred hosts —as they are called—who hope to stage the Olympics, on how they will seek to identify adverse human rights impacts throughout the lifecycle of the Games. We have yet to see how successful the strategy is, but it is a template for all worldwide sporting competitions to follow.

In the past, I was vaguely against sporting boycotts, and the slogan “Keep politics out of sport” was attractive to me. Fifty years ago, which appears to be a significant date, on my way to watch South Africa play at Twickenham, I was confronted by a well-known Liberal—a friend of the noble Lord, Lord Hain—waving a banner objecting to apartheid. After quite an argument, he asked me whether I had any spare tickets so that he could watch the match.

We must never again have the Olympic Games, or any other world competition, motivated to enhance an ideology or a particular political party or to wash away human rights abuses. In today’s world, we should not hesitate to refuse to participate in any such competition—that is the only weapon we have. I heard the argument very firmly put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and there is a great deal in it—but in what other way can the Games be policed if the International Olympic Committee fails to control the way in which they are held?

Does it matter where the United Kingdom is in the medal table, or whether Wales was whitewashed in the Six Nations and got the wooden spoon? Of course it does—it matters to us all—but athletes are rarely political ideologues themselves; it is for the sporting authorities to act. I have no doubt that Max Freudmann was running for himself primarily, and less for his country or indeed his race; he simply wished, as every athlete does, to test himself against the best in the world—and, in Jesse Owens, he found the best.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for securing this important debate. I am honoured to take part alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, who gave a very important speech. I share her great concern about women’s sport, including how far we have to go towards equality and the understanding that we can go backwards as well as forwards, which is sometimes forgotten. I also credit the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for acknowledging having changed his mind; in your Lordships’ House, it is always good to see people’s thinking developing and going forward.

I will go a long way back to a couple of the origins of sporting activity thousands of years ago. One was the ancient Olympics held in honour of Zeus, who, for the ancient Greeks, was the despotic, sexually abusive king of the gods on Mount Olympus. There was the Mesoamerican ball game. Sometimes, positively, it seems to have been used as alternative to war: Topiltzin, the Toltec king, played against three rivals, with the winner getting to rule over the losers. But later in its history, it became associated with human sacrifice and usually decapitation—blood-soaked sport indeed.

I looked up the origins of the term “sportswashing” as we currently use it. It seems to have begun in 2015, when Azerbaijan used the European Games to divert international attention away from human rights in that country. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, did, we have to draw a parallel between greenwashing and sportswashing. They both make associations with health, democracy, equality and even environmental action—all positives that are churned up together and supposed to put out something good. But, so often, what we are talking about is a very thin coat over some very nasty things underneath.

It is worth looking at where in the UK the term was first widely used: I think it was probably in 2018, regarding Abu Dhabi, the Manchester City football team and the case of Matthew Hedges, a PhD student who was convicted of spying in the UAE. Eventually, after a great deal of suffering, he was later pardoned.

What we saw was lots of Manchester City supporters coming out to defend the UAE and its record on human rights because they wanted to defend their football team. That is a very interesting example of the way in which sport can be used as a lever and a tool, and Amnesty International was particularly effective in highlighting that at the time.

Closer to the current day, a moment when sportswashing became untenable was when UEFA decided to move the 2022 Champions League final from St Petersburg, President Putin’s hometown. That was after the illegal invasion of Ukraine by the Russian regime, but there had already been extensive sportswashing by what was obviously an authoritarian and internationally aggressive regime. That was at its peak during the 2018 World Cup. The president of FIFA declared at the Kremlin that the world was now “in love” with President Putin—what does that image look like now? Even at the time, it was not hard to see how disturbing that was. Rio Ferdinand and Peter Schmeichel were also at that meeting.

Further back, in Argentina the military junta seized power two years before the 1978 World Cup. When the Argentinian team won the cup, it was seen as a real political boost for the junta that helped to keep it in power.

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar was truly bloodstained and a mark of shame on the so-called beautiful game. In 2010, when Qatar won the right to stage the World Cup, it had only one of the eight stadiums needed. Human Rights Watch reported that to build the rest, and the hotels and roads, more than 2 million migrants were forced to work in sweltering heat and extremely abusive labour conditions. They were abused in the interests of sport—and money, of course, which I will return to. It was reported that at least 6,500 migrant workers died during those 10 years of construction. We are not really that far from the Mesoamerican ball games, are we? This is a country where migrant workers and other residents, should they be LGBTIQA+, face severe repression of their basic human rights, as do many other people. This is despite the fact that in 2016 FIFA signed up to the UN principles on business and human rights, requiring it to

“avoid infringing on the human rights of others”.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, spoke extensively about the situation in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. I will not go back over the entire ground that he covered, but it is worth looking at the total list because there has been an explosion of sportswashing by Saudi Arabia. It has spent at least $6.3 billion on sportswashing since 2021—that is 300 sponsorship deals. The Saudi sovereign wealth fund, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and the state-owned oil company—we come back to the link between the environment and sport—have invested in sports such as boxing, racing, football, snooker, golf, ATP tennis, cricket and the America’s Cup regatta, and they are sportswashing what is an increasingly oppressive regime. The regime continues to intervene in Yemen, one of the world’s worst human rights crises, and was responsible for the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

I will also briefly revisit—as the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, did—the situation of Bahrain, particularly Formula 1. The regime has regularly used the Grand Prix to enhance its image, and over the past two decades, as the noble Lord outlined, there have been numerous human rights violations directly associated with the event itself; we are coming back to bloodstains again.

I raise, as the noble Lord did specifically, the case of Sayed Hashim AlWadaei, son of Hajer Mansoor, and ask the Government what they are doing in that situation. I am aware that it is not directly in the Minister’s portfolio, but none the less, in this context, he must have expected this question. Would the Minister defend the UK ambassador to Bahrain, Alastair Long, on 2 March 2024 releasing a promotional video celebrating 20 years of F1 in Bahrain? He talked of the vision it took from His Majesty and His Royal Highness the Crown Prince and boasted of Bahrain-UK tourism ties, completely ignoring human rights abuses and actively sportswashing the regime. I remind your Lordships’ House that this is the UK ambassador to Bahrain. Does the Minister consider that acceptable?

An obvious part of this debate on sportswashing is the place of boycotts, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. I have to raise the impact of the sports boycott on apartheid South Africa. I very much agree with the noble Lord that the sports boycott was only part of the story, but it was none the less an important part. I have to cross-reference what is generally known as the anti-boycotts Bill that the Government are currently pushing through your Lordships’ House, formally the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, not currently in his place, spoke extremely powerfully at the Second Reading of that Bill. I urge noble Lords who have not read that speech to do so. He also writes in today’s Guardian about the power of sports boycotts and the power of local action when the national Government were failing to take action. As the noble Lord says in the Guardian,

“the British people’s international solidarities often exceed those of our political leaders”.

That does not, however, absolve the Government of taking action. Noble Lords and I have only covered so much; there are so many issues around the place of repressive regimes in British sport today. So I have a direct question to the Minister: what steps will the Government take to ensure that multi-billion-dollar companies based in the UK are not actively engaged in covering up human rights abuses through their sports-related activities, actively sportswashing and making regimes have a more positive appearance? My second question is: what steps will the Government take to ensure Sayed Hashim’s release?

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that sport is only a small part of this story. Finance is a big part of the ways in which repressive regimes have infiltrated our society; they have used elements of our financial sector and other elements of our society to make themselves appear respectable. Since my entry into the House, I have talked about the corruption of the London laundromat, the still partly hidden scandal of golden visas and our role as butler to the world’s kleptocrats and populists. That is a term I have borrowed from the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, who gave a speech of that title in your Lordships’ House in February 2022.

It can sometimes seem that sport is small beer in comparison with that wave of corruption that we have invited into the UK—the wave covering up human rights abuses and corruption that has occurred through the City of London and through other British mechanisms. But I come back to the point that the plutocrats and autocrats are people too. They seek acceptance, gilding on tarnished reputations and fake legitimacy, and we have to acknowledge that sport is something that has a very special ability to provide that.

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
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My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, on moving this Motion and on the powerful way in which he covered some very important issues, specifically those relating to Bahrain. I will pick up on some matters that other people have commented on and should identify that, as I think the House knows, I am fortunate enough to be the founder chairman of the world’s first gay rugby club. It is worth remembering that, as was pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, human rights matters are issues not just in Bahrain but for the disabled, for women and for the LGBT community, in all sorts of different ways.

On the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, I checked the term “inspiration porn” on my phone and was not confronted by tractors or anything like that. Fortunately, inspiration porn is exactly as she said. However, it is well worth remembering that human rights issues do not apply only to countries in the Middle East, the Far East and to Russia; they apply to all of us, in different ways. Having been the founder chairman of the world’s first gay rugby club, I am fortunate enough to have watched the progress that all gay and lesbian teams have made in this country as they have broken down barriers over the past 30 years. We were an oddity when we were first formed in 1995; now, we are just part of the local leagues and regularly field four teams. There has been a complete change in society and attitudes towards us and our teams, and that is true on a worldwide basis. Sport can change attitudes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, referred to the growth in awareness of women’s sports. It has been quite sensational. Attendances at league matches have grown so much in a short time. Having said that, I remember having a text exchange with the noble Baroness in the middle of the Commonwealth Games, during the disabled marathon. She commented somewhat ruefully, when progress was being made in other ways, on the lack of participation in some disabled sports over the past decade. They have not grown in the way one hoped they would after the great successes of 2012 and onwards.

Several noble Lords referred to sports governing bodies. We all throw up our hands in despair at the behaviour of the vast majority of them. Some have been shown to be corrupt, while we know that others are just chasing the money in some form or another, but my noble friend Lord Moynihan made an important point: any sports boycott or action is effective only when taken as part of an overall international governmental approach. Otherwise, there is no point in asking sportsmen and sportswomen to boycott.

I remember having a conversation with my noble friend Lord Moynihan and Lord Coe about the 1980 British Olympic team being asked to boycott Moscow at the same time as the Bolshoi Ballet arrived in London. What on earth was the point of saying one thing to one group of people and a totally different thing to another? If we are going to send messages, we have to do it across the whole of society. There have been many references to F1; I am pleased that there is no F1 in Russia now, in part because of the international boycott. It no longer takes place. However, I say to F1 that, like other international bodies, it ought to listen to what is taking place.

There is a difference between the four-yearly Olympics and annual events such as Grands Prix. You can sign a contract for a Grand Prix over four, six or eight years and say, “If you don’t make progress, we’re going to cancel the contract immediately through force majeure. Alternatively, the contract won’t be renewed when it ends”. In the case of the Olympics, it is somewhat different, but the Olympics is awarded many years in advance so the International Olympic Committee should be willing to say, “We’ll award it but we want to see progress at the start of the contract, not at the point when the games take place”. That is absolutely the pinnacle of the event but much can be done beforehand.

There has been reference to sportswashing in events right through from the Berlin Olympics in 1936. It is tragic that the person who designed the first Olympic village, which was in Berlin in 1936, committed suicide two days after the closure of the games because it had been identified that one of his grandparents was Jewish and he would rather commit suicide than face anything thereafter.

I want to touch on one element of sport that has not been referred to this afternoon. The sponsors, such as Coca-Cola, Bridgestone and Visa, have an enormous amount to answer for. If they did not sponsor the events, they would not take place where they were. In conclusion, I really think that everybody should look at sponsorship. I quote the Coca-Cola website:

“Coca Cola has been associated with the Olympic Games since 1928”.

Take note: that is before Berlin, yet it is mentioned with pride. It also says that it gives the

“opportunity to … celebrate with sports fans in … countries”

around the world. What do the Uighurs in China, the lesbian and gay communities in Bahrain, and other oppressed minorities think of that? It is not just about sports organisations or Governments; the sponsors also have a lot of questions to answer.

Lord Addington Portrait Lord Addington (LD)
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My Lords, there are certain debates where you prepare something—at least mentally, in my case—then you have a look at the speaking list and think, “It probably will have all been said”. I looked at this list and said, “Yep, it will have been”. I was right. I started thinking about what I was going to say about the history of sportswashing. Berlin 1936 is the big one. Then I thought, what about the Cold War? Then I saw Lord Moynihan’s name on the list. He is a man who confronted a token gesture and went along with Lord Coe to that environment and said, “I’m going to compete”.

Before I say anything else, I say this: asking an athlete not to go to the Olympics when they have the chance is like asking a politician to turn down a safe seat. It is that important. It fundamentally matters. It justifies your life until that point. If somebody does not realise that and pontificates in the background that this is an easy choice, ignore that person on this subject because they have no concept of what they are talking about. I ask noble Lords to remember that, please.

The other thing is that organisers probably have much more opportunity to intervene in this process. Before the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, got up, I had nice things to say about the idea of sponsors and the ongoing relationship with F1. He said it better than I would have but the fact of the matter is that there is nothing like F1 for being a huge conglomeration of money and razzmatazz. Let us face it: there might even be a few competitors who quite like that and might want to keep it.

The organisers not being prepared to stand up and ask for changes to be made, or to say that there is a price to pay for having this huge benefit, is an act of rampant cowardice. They should really be doing something about it. Much of it is British based, so surely we should be saying, “If you’re going to oppress your population, please do not do it on our watch”. I would have thought that that is the very least we could do, and indeed sensible. But what have they done? They have annoyed my noble friend, and we have had a debate, on the record, and a response is coming.

Pretending that something is not there does not work. I hope that we, and others like us in the rest of the world, will point this out. Saying that it is not there and that nothing is happening is absurd—how much more “feeding the machine” can you get? We should take back the message—and I hope the Government will say it—that we do not expect reality and logic to be defied. You have asked the world to your country and we can see what is going on. We are all looking at you and we all know what is happening. Please can we remember the power that we have, and the power of our press in putting out reports. If you ask us into your house, we will comment on the colour of the furniture. We must do that and we must seize that opportunity. The Government must make sure that those who do that are encouraged to do it.

When it comes to the other facets of sport, my noble friend in sport—to nick an expression coined, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan—the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, said that certain Games will occasionally push things over the edge to other places, such as disability rights. The 2012 village was reckoned to be the best designed for disability. That was because part of the process of preparing for the Games—I had a small part in this—was to make sure that the village was the best prepared ever. We got in early; we got the structure in; we talked about it; we engaged in it properly. The process of talking about such things early on comes back to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, was making: if you get in there, you actually have a chance of influencing. You cannot ever just say thank you, and think that it is done and move on; you have to engage constantly.

One of the other things—the elephant in the room, which is now trumpeting—is the Gulf states, the sovereign wealth fund and football. Guess what? We now have a Bill where this relationship is going to be discussed. I know the Government are doing their level best not to have this discussed, but it will be, because I am going to move amendments on it. We are going to have to look at how that relationship works. What is a fit and proper person? What is that relationship? If there are going to be barriers in place, where are they going to come in? How does that affect things?

Many football fans probably go into their own little darkened room and say, “My team must survive”. But they have also said that their team is going to be in a competitive league structure, which means that, in some alternative universe, Manchester United could be outside the league structure in six years, because you have relegation as well as promotion. If we have that, we surely should be looking at how the structure is maintained and at the people coming in.

If you are coming in from outside, maybe you should not be allowed to walk away. Maybe you should leave some of your wealth behind—there is a revelation. When football cannot organise its own house and calls government in, we will have a look at the whole structure again. If it is not the furniture this time, it is definitely the colour of the curtains. We are in there and we are taking part in this. I would hope that this House and the whole of Parliament will have a look at what is coming here.

Sport is too big a subject to be pushed off to the side; it affects too many lives. For the amateur sportsman who lives for his hour and a half on a Saturday or Sunday, it is an important part of their life and social structure. They are connected by some sort of invisible magic to the elite—I am not quite sure how it works, but it is certainly there. That is something we will have to talk about better in the next few years than we have before.

I hope that this Government will have a look at their own soft power strategy when it comes to sport. I hope that this Government will be supportive of the Commonwealth Games. We had a wonderful Commonwealth Games in Birmingham—done on the cheap, but it was done. It would appear that the Gulf states, America and China are not terribly interested in hosting the Commonwealth Games, but it is still a very old, multigame structure. Can we please have a look at that? When we had our last discussion on that, I remember finding myself in little confrontations with people from Birmingham, mainly on the Labour Benches, who asked: “How can we possibly milk it to save Birmingham?” I pointed out that you could not save Birmingham’s finances by milking the Commonwealth Games and that the Bill would not allow you to do it, but we still had a jolly good row.

Can we take these things seriously and look at them for the benefit they bring—the things they will give all of us? If we do not, we will end up with these horrible bitty examples. People say that it is sport and not politics, but clearly the two cannot be separated that easily. People say, “It’s nothing to do with me”, because it is only sport or politics or money, but they are all connected.

We have a series of opportunities coming up where we can start to square these circles. The first will be the football regulation Bill, where we will look at sovereign wealth funds and their relationship to football, and fit and proper persons. I hope we can start to have a slightly more nuanced, and indeed adult, discussion of these problems, because sports, sportswashing and the presentation of sport matters to society at a quite fundamental level. If we pretend that it does not, or are individually not interested, we are ignoring our reality. Sport is an integral part of our society, and we should treat it as such. I hope that that is one message we can take from this debate.

Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, is to be heartily congratulated this afternoon on bringing forward this topic for debate. I am not sure what hotline he has to the heart of government, but his foresight in choosing this issue for this week—the week in which the Government plucked up the courage to publish their football regulation Bill—is to be admired. Like me, he sees the opportunity with the football regulation Bill to make a stand on sportswashing—the noble Lord, Lord Addington, has advertised the point well—and to try to set a high bar, not just nationally but internationally.

This afternoon’s debate has been fascinating, with a broad range of views, from the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, through to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, with his nuanced take on how best to tackle sportswashing and achieve change and improvements in human rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, largely echoed his take on how we make more inclusive international events such as the Olympics and the Paralympics. I personally found her take on politics in sport not just realistic but insightful and fascinating. I was particularly drawn to, and enjoyed, the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward; they were not just thoughtful and illuminating but very revealing too. I had not included any points in my comments about sponsorship, as noble Lords will hear, but that was a well-made argument, and one that we should reflect more on when we look at some of the issues associated with sportswashing in the future.

As pretty much all noble Lord have said, sportswashing is nothing new. As long as there have been international competitions between competing nations, an element of sportswashing has always been present. The fascist states of Italy and Germany made ruthless use of sporting events, notably football and the Olympics, to project themselves to the wider world. Of course, the 1936 Berlin Olympics was the most obvious and probably the largest example. I particularly enjoyed the fulsome and witty explanation of all of that from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. In more recent decades, the practice has become more subtle—but arguably not that much more subtle.

What do we mean by the term “sportswashing”? The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, gave his definition and academics have tried to define the idea. Jonathan Grix perhaps nailed it when he wrote that it had become

“a short-hand way of criticising (usually) non-democratic regimes or large corporations for using investment in world-renowned athletes, sports clubs, and sports events to detract from illiberal, non-democratic, and/or exploitative practices in their home countries or businesses”.

As the House of Lord’s Library note says, the term has been applied to hosting large events such as the Olympics and Paralympics or the World Cup, setting up new facilities, sports infrastructure and domestic competitions, investment in teams and leagues internationally, usually through sovereign wealth funds, the sponsorship of teams or tournaments by state-associated bodies such as tourism departments and national airlines and, of course and in particular, engaging well-known international sportspeople in ambassadorial roles for new leagues and bodies.

Many commentators have observed that states getting involved in support, direct sponsorship and other forms of sports-related alignment provides endless opportunities for soft power and reputational enhancement. The opportunities for promoting a positive image of the states themselves and increasing their status and credibility are limitless. From Berlin in 1936 to Beijing in 2008, via the FIFA World Cup in Russia in 2018, the pattern is the same.

In recent years, more attention has, as we have heard, focused on the Gulf states. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, made a good job of displaying exactly how Bahrain is operated, but also Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. The expansion of Formula 1 is an interesting case study in this regard. The Bahrain grand prix has been running for two decades and has been joined on the calendar by races in Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

A BBC estimate suggests that Saudi Arabia has invested some £5 billion in sport since 2021. As well as F1, there have been major investments in events such as boxing, the LIV golf series, the ATP tennis championships and the America’s Cup regatta. In recent times, we have seen the takeover of Newcastle United, and the state’s interest in football seems more to be more widespread, with reports that the country is seeking the rights to the 2034 FIFA World Cup and, interestingly, the 2035 FIFA Women’s World Cup. In the case of the latter, it is worth noting that the growth of the women’s game in Saudi Arabia is both very recent and limited by international comparison.

Of course, elite sport can contribute to economic growth. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman argued in September last year:

“If sportswashing increases my GDP by 1% then I will continue doing sportswashing”.

It could not be more blatant than that. The Sports Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al Saud, explained to the BBC that accusations of sportswashing were “shallow”. On human rights, he said:

“Any country has room for improvement, no one’s perfect”.

He added that

“these events help us reform to a better future for everyone”.

There is little doubt that the Saudi states sees being a player across many different sports, in particular football, as a form of soft power. We in this Chamber often talk about the notion of soft power and the influence that UK institutions can wield through the BBC, the British Council and our aid budget, but these are by comparison benign interventions designed to promote liberal and democratic values. They are not designed primarily to advance solely economic interests or to provide cover for human rights abuses or unregulated workplace practices such as those reported widely during the construction of football stadia for the Qatar World Cup. In that context, yesterday’s report in the Guardian about emerging evidence of similar construction-related deaths in Saudi is very worrying indeed and I think should be reflected in action from FIFA as football’s governing body.

What should be the approach of government to states that use the power of sport to impact upon reputation, international standing, trade and much more? First, we should encourage greater transparency. For example, FIFA should be more open in its dealings with any nation seeking to host a future World Cup. This means that there can be no allegations of corruption surrounding the awarding process, and the adoption of a zero-tolerance approach towards human rights abuse claims. The bidding process should not be used to excuse poor human rights records. For example, if Saudi Arabia is to play host, the Saudi Sports Minister should be held to his words about events being a driver towards genuine and verifiable reform on human rights and much else.

Secondly, we must make it plain internationally that sport—and, in particular, football in this instance—is sport for all. Labour has long believed in sport for all. Our vision is of sports being not just of interest at elite levels but inclusive and participative, so that we can all play our part, and play a role—this, after all, was the motif for the London Olympics of 2012. As we have seen, for many countries, from Afghanistan to the Gulf states, this is an issue. So we should be using our version of soft power to influence Governments who seek to use their wealth to promote strategic investments in sport for less altruistic purposes.

A Labour Government would seek to use their influence to promote human rights and tackle abuses such as those experienced by construction workers in Qatar. Equally, we would wish that influence to stop the abuse of LGBT+ fans and the discrimination that women suffer. In football, we take the view that FIFA should put its house in order. Ahead of the 2034 World Cup, the next 10 years should be used constructively to tackle the issues that emerged during the Qatar event. FIFA should show some leadership and work with its partners to bring change.

In this context, the welcome publication—finally—of the Government’s Football Governance Bill could be used constructively to set a high bar in football regulation that shows what can be done to tackle a myriad of regulatory issues, starting with financial fair play and fairer competition. One important objective of the moves towards football regulation was to give fans a bigger say in the governance of football and put them very much at the heart of the game. We should look to extrapolate that example elsewhere, and use that power to change attitudes nationally and internationally.

I am looking forward to the Minister’s response to this highly significant and well-timed debate. Will the Minister use his time to say a little about how His Majesty’s Government see the regulation of our nation’s number one obsession, football, as a way forward to improve not just governance but other related matters in the culture of the game? Can he also set out the Government’s approach to ensuring higher standards around human rights, LGBT+ rights and workers’ rights in the context of future World Cup bids, and international sports events more generally? Perhaps he could be tempted to reference any discussions that he and other Ministers have had with FIFA and other international sporting bodies to ensure that there are far higher standards for countries bidding to host the World Cup and other similar international events.

This has been a valuable debate, and one that, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, will probably prefigure similar debates during the passage of the football regulation Bill in the future. I have greatly enjoyed, and been fascinated by, the compelling, wide and varied contributions.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con)
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My Lords, I too have greatly enjoyed this excellent debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for securing it and setting it out in the way that he did. It has taken in a great sweep of history: the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and the 1980 Games in Moscow featured prominently, of course, but the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, took us back to Mount Olympus and even greater historical roots.

It was a debate where there was genuine disagreement on points of principle, set out eloquently in the opening speech by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and the powerful contributions from my noble friends Lord Moynihan and Lord Hayward, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and I thank them for that. We have seen competing ideas playing out in this arena in a great reflection of the very best value of sporting events, and it was good to have that reflection. It is important to touch on the vital issue of human rights, which are of course of the utmost importance. We must ensure that the Government and our sporting bodies work together as one on this.

Beyond the game played on a pitch, field or track, sport is a way for people of all nations to display pride in their country and to show off the very best of their nation on the world stage. That is something that the nations of the UK do, just as countries around the world do. We are blessed with an abundance of sporting assets in this country, such as the Premier League, our rugby and cricket teams, and a large number of internationally renowned sports men and women, including our wonderful Olympic and Paralympic athletes who are due to compete on the global stage once again in Paris this summer, and I am sure noble Lords will want to join me in wishing them the best as they do so.

The UK has a proud record of hosting major sporting events. Since the London 2012 Olympics, which my noble friend Lord Moynihan, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and others were instrumental in, we have hosted some of the biggest sporting events in the world, included the Tour de France in 2014, the Rugby World Cup in 2015, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022, the Rugby League World Cup in 2021 and the UEFA Women’s Euros in 2022. We are set to continue our stellar hosting reputation with the Women’s Rugby World Cup next year, not to mention the UK and Ireland securing the men’s UEFA European Championships 2028. Every year we host a number of the world’s biggest annual sporting events, including Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix at Silverstone—which I was delighted to see will remain the home of the British Grand Prix for at least another 10 years thanks to the signing of a 10-year deal to host it all the way through to 2034.

As noble Lords reflected in their contributions, major sporting events are not just for the fans and the people who love watching live sports; they have a much wider impact, one that is felt around this country and around the globe. They help to bring pride and touch the lives of many people in meaningful ways. They inspire people to get active and to push themselves. It is not just our teams, our leagues and our professional athletes that make their mark globally; major sporting events can be used as a way to catalyse investment in facilities to ensure that anyone who wants to take part in sport is able to do so. We have seen that with the Government’s direct investment of over £325 million in improving grass-roots facilities across the UK, as well as the Lionesses Futures Fund, which provides £30 million for 30 state-of-the-art facilities to increase access for women and girls, as well as to celebrate the successes of the Lionesses.

Major sporting events are an excellent way to demonstrate to the world the best that this country has to offer: our infrastructure, our expertise, our culture, and of course our people. Sport shows the very best of humanity and is important in bringing countries together, particularly in difficult circumstances or in times of conflict or uncertainty. It allows us to build bonds with other nations through friendly competition and by sharing a common human experience. The effects of such great sporting moments ripple beyond our athletes and those who are directly involved in putting on these events by allowing millions of people across the globe to share and learn about each other’s cultures and values.

We continue to engage on an international level and directly with other nations about the importance of those values, but we recognise that, crucially, sport is autonomous. Participation in international sporting events is a matter for relevant international sports federations and the national representatives to them. The UK’s sports bodies operate independently of government and, indeed, enshrine that political freedom in their rules and regulations. It is not for the Government to direct or mandate with whom our sports bodies must or must not engage.

On human rights, however, the UK believes that strong democratic institutions and accountable Governments who uphold human rights and the rule of law are key, fundamental building blocks for secure and prosperous societies. Protecting a stable and open international order that safeguards human rights is the cornerstone of UK foreign policy. Globally, our work on human rights is tailored and responsive to the context of individual countries, but, through sustained engagement, often in collaboration and partnership with others, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office works to exert influence over the long term to achieve impact.

In his opening speech, the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, asked me a number of questions, which I will address now. He asked, first, whether the Government have a working definition of “sportswashing”. The short answer is that we do not. The UK believes that strong, democratic institutions and accountable Governments who uphold human rights and the rule of law are fundamental building blocks for secure and prosperous societies, as I said, and has that tailored approach, responsive to each country’s context. We do not seek to define a disparate group of actors and their aims, and we do not consider the question of human rights to be a sports-specific issue, in the same way that it is not a culture-specific issue. We look at it, in and of itself, through many lenses, including sport.

The noble Lord asked particularly about Bahrain, a country with which the UK provides technical assistance for ongoing reform, supporting progress in a number of human rights areas, including alternative sentencing, juvenile justice laws and the development of oversight bodies. The progress that we have seen from that work was reflected in the recent decision to remove Bahrain as a human rights priority country by the Foreign Office. We believe that engagement and support for Bahraini-led reform has delivered, and will continue to deliver, more than disengaging would.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, understandably raised the case of Sayed Hashim, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. The Foreign Office is aware of Sayed Hashim’s detention and we encourage the Government of Bahrain to meet all of their human rights commitments. We also encourage those with specific concerns to raise them directly with the appropriate Bahraini oversight body. I know that the noble Lord campaigns diligently on this and other cases in relation to Bahrain.

The noble Lord also asked about the new independent football regulator. I look forward to the debates we will have on that Bill when it comes to your Lordships’ House—it is a Bill of two Houses—but we have had a very useful anticipation of some of the issues that we will rightly look at when it is here for your Lordships’ scrutiny. On whether the new independent regulator would seek to prevent takeovers or look at questions of ownership on the basis of foreign policy or human rights concerns, or the roles of foreign Governments, the tests for the new regulator have been designed to reduce the risk of unsuitable custodians of teams, without deterring investment.

We do not believe that the new independent regulator should get involved in issues of foreign policy; that is rightly a matter for the Government, accountable to Parliament as they are. In fact, the new independent regulator will have a statutory duty to have regard to the Government’s foreign and trade policy objectives, so that it can follow the things that Parliament has scrutinised and the Government have set out.

We do not think it would be appropriate for a football regulator to make unilateral assessments of human rights concerns. If an owner or officer is sanctioned in accordance with the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations, which the Government brought forward and were approved in 2020, they would most likely be prohibited from being a club owner or director. The regulator’s primary focus is the financial sustainability of clubs and the industry, in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, alluded to. Clubs have many ownership types, including state ownership or owners who may be connected to foreign Governments—but I look forward to debating this more in our consideration of the Bill.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, asked about His Majesty’s ambassador to Bahrain and the grand prix there—a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, also followed up. The ambassador and his colleagues—and, indeed, colleagues at the Foreign Office here in London—regularly engage with Bahrain on human rights issues. That includes attending sporting events such as the grand prix; His Majesty’s ambassadors around the world attend a number of sporting events hosted in countries. The events are an opportunity for them to have conversations and raise issues, as they do.

We are proud that Formula 1 is headquartered in London, with its technical operations based in Kent. We are proud that seven of the 10 Formula 1 teams are based in the UK. Currently, over 6,000 people are employed directly through the sport in the UK, with over 4,500 suppliers. Formula 1 itself has made it clear that human rights are mentioned in the contracts it signs and that any adverse human rights issues arising from its events will not be tolerated—that includes media, freedom of speech and peaceful and lawful protest at events. But, whatever the sport, we are clear that we expect all our businesses to comply with all applicable laws to identify and prevent human rights risks and to behave in line with the guiding principles on business and human rights, including in their management of supply chains here and overseas.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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Before we get away from the video, will the Minister defend the words that the UK ambassador said in it?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I have not seen the video, and I do not want to defend words I have not heard. I have set out how His Majesty’s ambassador and all Crown servants overseas follow the policies of His Majesty’s Government and are rightly held to account for what they say publicly—but my colleagues at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office are perhaps better placed to discuss that.

It is important that we continue to have direct conversations on human rights and other important matters. The UK continues to show global leadership in encouraging all states to uphold international rights obligations and to ensure that those who violate human rights are held to account. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, mentioned the World Cup in Qatar, where I hope he saw that my right honourable friend Stuart Andrew—the Minister for Sport and the Minister for Equality—made the point directly by wearing the OneLove rainbow armband when he attended. By doing so, he showed that we do not shy away from these conversations and gestures. Following the tournament, we continue to engage with Qatar, which has moved forward on labour rights, as noted by noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Moynihan, who pointed to the independent monitoring done by the International Labour Organization.

The benefits of inward investment are key in international sport. In the last decade, there has been an unprecedented level of interest and a flow of private capital investment into the sports sector globally, particularly from international institutional investors. Like others, I think my noble friend Lord Hayward did us a great service in this debate by touching on the importance of sponsors. The Government have consistently supported the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, which are widely regarded as the authoritative international framework to steer practical action by both Governments and businesses across the world in this important area.

The last decade has seen growth in a number of areas across sport, with significant levels of new and innovative investment, particularly in women’s sport. The Government have outlined the important role of inward investment in our sports sector through their recently published sports strategy, which works to encourage investment in our sport system in a sustainable manner. We will work across government departments and with external partners to highlight best practice and opportunities for inward investment in our domestic sport, including women’s sport.

In July, the Government hosted the inaugural investment in sport symposium, bringing people from the sector together with investors and other associated organisations to discuss the opportunities that are available. We have also launched a new women’s sport investment accelerator pilot scheme, which brings UK-based women’s sports rights holders who are seeking investment together with industry experts and investors. We believe there are further opportunities within the sector, in the form of viable investment propositions for the right investors who are committed to the long-term growth and health of the sport.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for what has been a timely debate and a chance to look ahead to the debates we will have on the independent football regulator, but also a powerful opportunity to remind us of the importance of how the Government engage with countries around the world through sport and in other ways, to the benefit of the UK, our sportsmen and sportswomen, and the millions of people across the country who enjoy sport in all its forms.

I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said. There is a powerful lesson in the example of Lloyd George, whose comments about the impression he formed at the 1936 Olympic Games are difficult to hear, not just for the noble Lord and his colleagues on the Liberal Benches but for us all. But I am glad that, as we look back on those Olympics, it is the figure of Jesse Owens, with his impressive four gold medals, that looms larger in the historical imagination, underlining the importance of seizing the opportunity of sporting events to advance important conversations on matters of human rights and politics, which, as noble Lords have rightly said, are often intertwined.

Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in what can only be described as a rich and informative debate underpinned by some values of sport—a respectful debate that brings people together regardless of differences of views and where we start. That was very important.

It was interesting that we started to go down the cul-de-sac of boycotts and bans. That was not the aim of this debate; I specifically did not use the terms in my opening remarks. The thrust of the debate I wanted, and most people got on to, was not just the role of the athletes and the events but the roles of the sporting management bodies and what happens when they do not take on those roles, and how the Government therefore deal with the issues we have spoken about today, such as human rights abuses.

I am not going to go through all noble Lords’ speeches, but the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, raised a really important issue to do with sponsorship. Interestingly, in F1, because of the lack of action by the sporting body even to engage, those of us who are concerned are looking at targeting Rolex, Heineken, DHL and Qatar Airways among other sponsors, because they have a moral duty, and the consumers of those products need to be aware of what they are contributing to.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, said that sport cannot change the world. I think we all agree with that: sport cannot change the world, and there is a broader, more complex issue that sport has to engage with. But sports bodies can change their parts of the world and do things around human rights abuses in their contractual arrangements, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said.

I was slightly disappointed with the Minister. I am not going to give him a hard time on human rights in Bahrain. We could say we were shadow-boxing; I realise that he is not from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. But some of the answers were disappointing with regards to the lack of action the Government are prepared to take when sporting bodies based in the UK are not meeting their international obligations. It does not fit together that the Government say they are not going to get involved in foreign entities owning sporting bodies in the UK when only a couple of days ago they agreed to do exactly the same with the press. I think there is an issue about why these foreign entities want to use sporting bodies in the UK. They are not investing millions of pounds in these bodies purely for the sake of sport—they understand what it brings to their countries’ reputations.

This has been a historic debate, because it is the first time that the UK Parliament has ever debated the concept of, and phrase, “sportswashing”—so we have taken part in an historic as well as an informative and rich debate. To come back to the football issue and the independent regulator, I think that we are getting to the point where amendments will be put with regard to foreign state ownership of clubs, if that is not being done for the right reason.

I will finish with the words of somebody who has been part of abuse in a country and who has tried to stand up for human rights when one of these sportswashing events was held. They said, “These events come and they go, and our country is seen in a light that the regime wants the rest of the world to see us. But our plight is ignored or dismissed by the sporting bodies as they get richer. Yet once they have gone, or sometimes once they are here, doing their sport, our freedoms don’t change and our rights can be crushed. Something isn’t working and something has to change.”

I hope that this debate has said that something has to change, and I look forward to keeping the pressure on the Government, along with other noble Lords, to make sure that bodies or clubs in this country are better regulated and that, if they do not carry out these issues and people continue having issues like this, further action will be taken.

Motion agreed.
House adjourned at 4.36 pm.