Grand Committee

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Thursday 25 April 2024

Educational Trips and Exchanges

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Question for Short Debate
13:00
Asked by
Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the importance of educational trips and exchanges from England to other countries, and the measures needed to facilitate them.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, I declare my interest in languages as set out in the register. My first point, however, is that this is not just about languages; the importance of educational exchanges and trips abroad applies to many other areas of the curriculum, including geography, history, STEM subjects, art and sport. But I shall focus on languages in summarising why these trips are so important.

In fact, the DfE itself gave us one of the best and most thoughtful reasons why learning a language is so important in its document outlining the aims of the key stage 3 curriculum. It says:

“Learning a foreign language is a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures”.


Yet the EBacc boost has stalled and barely a month goes by without yet another university announcing cuts in its modern language degree courses, which in turn weakens the supply chain of MFL teachers. This vicious circle is damaging to our economy and to individuals and their employability, with UK businesses saying that our school leavers and graduates do not have the language skills that they need. On top of all that, there is a stark correlation between the lowest take-up of languages at GCSE and the regions with the highest unemployment and skills shortages. Levelling up would benefit enormously from a boost to language learning.

How do trips and exchanges help? The Association for Language Learning has reported a positive impact on educational outcomes. Trips and exchanges raise motivation as well as achievement, encourage development of life skills, and help students see wider perspectives and develop and international mindset. University students who have spent a year abroad are more likely to gain a first or 2.1 degree and are 23% less likely to be unemployed six months after graduation, compared to people who have not spent a year abroad as part of their course, whether they are linguists or not.

Against this background, the APPG on Modern Languages, which I co-chair, heard detailed evidence from stakeholders on the problems that they are up against. The decline is worsening fast: data show that 50% of schools are now cutting trips and exchanges, rising to 68% in deprived areas—a massive increase from last year, when it was only 21%, though that was bad enough. Much of the educational benefit is being eroded, as a result of schools moving to what we might call cultural leisure tourism, with stays in hotels rather than exchanges in schools and families. I do not suppose that your average 14 year-old staying in a hotel with 30 classmates spends much time immersed in a language or practising their spoken French or Spanish.

The reasons for this decline, as presented to the APPG by teachers are fourfold: post-Brexit paperwork for travel and border checks; the increased burden of DBS checks; the lack of, or conflicting, official guidance; and, lastly, access to opportunity and funding. The impact of all this is unsustainable pressure on staff time and increased costs for schools and families; inequity, with some families having to pay more for the same trip; and the risk of a stressful journey, with delays caused by border checks.

Based on all this evidence, the APPG submitted a six-point plan of action to the DfE. I know that the Minister has seen this plan, as well as the reply that we received from Damian Hinds, the Schools Minister. However, we think the response rather weak, and I appeal to the Minister to work with the APPG to achieve more before another whole cohort of students loses out on what should be one of the most inspiring and stimulating parts of their education.

There are six practical steps to turn things around. First, it is not just a problem for the DfE to resolve. I see the Minister sighing with relief. The problems are rooted also in the Home Office and the FCDO. We need cross-departmental leadership and a designated Minister to co-ordinate this work. I believe the Minister would have exactly the right attitude and clout for this. What is more, she could rely absolutely on active help from stakeholders across the sector. The ALL, the Association of School and College Leaders, the Association of Colleges, the British Council, the School Travel Forum, all the relevant embassies and cultural institutions and, of course, the APPG would pitch in to support her. I have also had supportive contact with ABTA, the school travel organiser, the Boarding Schools’ Association and the Sutton Trust. That is quite an alliance.

Secondly, the paperwork and costs must be reviewed. We should look at bringing back the list of travellers scheme, which allowed non-EU nationals to travel without a visa or ETIAS to EU member states. We should also explore bringing back a new group passport scheme. Where passports are necessary, we should reduce their cost; £53.50 is just too much for some families for an under-16 passport. The bilateral agreement with France on easing travel rules for educational group visits should be extended proactively by HMG to all EU countries. We should not wait to be approached, as suggested by one Home Office Minister; it is in our interests to make it happen and we should ensure that the arrangements are reciprocal. Last week, the Government—and, indeed, the Labour Party—gave very short shrift to the European Commission’s proposal for a UK-EU youth mobility scheme for 18 to 30 year-olds, saying that we now prefer to deal bilaterally. If we really are too squeamish now to deal with the EU, can we at least see some proactive bilateralism?

Thirdly, we need clear and consistent guidance to help teachers plan trips. The FCDO travel entry information must cover school groups that include both UK and non-UK nationals, while accurate information on visas—including Schengen visas—and discrepancies between the advice to schools from local authorities and that coming from the FCDO must be ironed out.

Fourthly, I turn to the burden of DBS checks, where—happily—there seems to be some welcome progress. Checks already carried out by another organisation, such as the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, are now allowed without people having to go through the whole process again. Schools are also now free to decide whether an enhanced DBS is always needed for every adult in the household. However, these changes are not yet common knowledge in schools, so more needs to be done to communicate them.

Fifthly—I know that this is a big ask, given what the Minister has said on this topic previously—the Turing scheme should be reviewed. The new, more streamlined application process has been welcomed, but schools tell us that they also want multi-year funding cycles because a single-year cycle is impractical for many schools and colleges and their international partnerships. We know from experience that reciprocity helps the future MFL teacher supply chain, which badly needs boosting.

The easiest way of doing this, of course, would be to rejoin Erasmus+ as a non-EU associate country. I implore the Minister to respond positively to the invitation earlier this month from the European Economic and Social Committee for us to enter into negotiations to rejoin Erasmus+. The reason for leaving it given by the UK representative there was that the UK’s language skills are just too poor to justify the expense, which seems to me the very reason for being in it and which would pay off in the long term.

Sixthly, and finally, our plan of action proposed a number of initiatives to incentivise participation, for example, rejoining or creating a UK version of eTwinning; promoting more energetically the quality assurance schemes to support teachers and schools, such as those offered by the School Travel Forum; the LOtC Quality Badge; and the British Council’s International School Award. I salute the Minister for being here today to reply on these matters, many of which fall outside the remit of her department, but I very much hope that she will agree to initiate the cross-departmental action needed to improve the situation I have been describing. I look forward to her response.

13:09
Earl of Effingham Portrait The Earl of Effingham (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for raising this important debate.

It is increasingly apparent from reading the newspapers that our current generation of schoolchildren live in a challenging world. Most recent research from NHS England found that 20%

“of eight to 16-year-olds had a probable mental disorder in 2023”.

Today’s front page of the Times warns us:

“England is worst in the world for under-age drinking”.


It is therefore essential that we do everything we can to help our schoolchildren understand that there is a big world out there that offers amazing learning opportunities away from their smartphones and peer group pressure.

I will offer some examples. Households in India spend roughly double the amount of time cooking at home versus the UK. Some 58% of households in America own listed company shares, versus around 20% in the UK. The Dutch and Germans spend approximately twice the amount of time that the UK does doing physical exercise per week. Food education, financial education and physical education should be three of the four pillars of a child’s learning, so giving our children exposure to how other nationalities operate is key. Learning a language also improves brain and memory functions; it boosts creativity and self-esteem and helps with future career opportunities. Probably most importantly for these trips, social interaction with new people in a fresh environment challenges us to step outside our comfort zones, which is a foundational life skill for the future.

I had the opportunity to visit an academy recently in one of the most deprived parts of the UK. It is achieving 15% Oxbridge entrance and 65% Russell group entrance. However, one focus area that the principal flagged and that I picked up on was that a lot of these pupils did not make eye contact when engaged in a conversation. Thrown into an overseas exchange, however, they would have no choice other than to do that. By giving our schoolchildren this opportunity, they can take away the positives of the experience and build on it incrementally. There will be less pressure on schoolroom disruption and a greater desire to learn, which will rub off on fellow pupils. In later life, with a better education under their belts, there will be less pressure on the NHS and the state.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government aim to ensure that we maintain the momentum of these overseas trips and exchanges, aside from responding to requests to continue collective passports and to win agreement to replicate the list of travellers scheme.

13:12
Viscount Stansgate Portrait Viscount Stansgate (Lab)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on enabling this short debate to take place and am pleased to take part. What a pleasure it is to follow the noble Earl, Lord Effingham.

I begin by agreeing with all noble Lords who have not yet spoken, including the Minister, because the value to young people of educational trips abroad is incalculable. In my short contribution, I will emphasise the importance of musical exchanges between our country and our neighbours. There is a richness of immense value to musical exchanges, as music is a language that knows no geographical boundaries. When an orchestra goes to Italy and plays an Italian piece of music, there is no need for an interpreter.

I am more than happy to declare that my interest in this subject derives from the fact that, year after year, I spent the summers travelling in Europe with both my children, who were members of the Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra, conducted then by the redoubtable Adrian Brown. My daughter rose to become the leader of the orchestra and my son was the leader of the cellists, and we went to every country you could consider in Europe. For many, if not most—we are talking about schoolchildren—it was their first experience of being abroad, and certainly their first experience apart from their parents. The benefit of the exchange that took place was beyond measure.

We are now a third country and treated accordingly. The ease of freedom of movement has disappeared. The Independent Society of Musicians talks about

“the enormously damaging impact that Brexit … had on musicians’ ability to tour in Europe”

and has emphasised

“the need to resolve post-Brexit mobility issues for touring creatives”.

I have previously referred to the problems for youth orchestras. On the other hand, I am delighted to bring to your Lordships’ attention the fact that, eventually, some progress is being made. The Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra has now restarted its yearly summer tours. Last year, it went to Ravenna and this year it is planning to take 80 young musicians to the Czech Republic. Another youth orchestra, the Kimichi Symphony Orchestra, is planning to visit Kraków in October this year, which is a significant date.

However, I want to draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that some problems still make life difficult, such as the sheer time it can take to cross the border into France. Every single person has to get out of the bus and have their passport stamped, and the risk is that the coach drivers who operate and drive under rules and regulations cannot carry the young people to their destination in one go. I understand that last year the orchestra reached Ravenna and it was touch and go to get there in one go, as it were. From October, the situation will get worse. The new rules the EU has introduced mean that photographs and fingerprints will need to be taken; this has been raised in your Lordships’ House.

I appreciate that the Minister replying to the debate is from the Department for Education, which is not responsible for these types of practical difficulties. But when it comes to the solution, more broadly, I think and hope it will be possible to reach an agreement with the EU that benefits young people, as referred to by the noble Baroness. On 18 April the Commission said that it wanted to open negotiations with the UK. The Vice-President of the EU said:

“The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union has hit young people … Our aim is to rebuild human bridges between young Europeans on both sides of the Channel”.


The Government have made it clear that they do not intend to go ahead with this. My own party, sadly, does not appear minded to do so at the moment. But I very much hope that that is the way the future can develop so that young people can enjoy these wonderful exchanges.

13:16
Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD)
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My Lords, I start by paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for her indefatigable support for modern languages and the international relations which are so enhanced by being able to talk to people in their own language instead of just speaking English loudly.

We are very concerned that modern languages have declined in state schools such that some universities, as the noble Baroness indicated, have closed their modern language departments. The independent sector understands the importance of being able to speak to others in their own language. Overseas trips and exchanges play a vital role in encouraging young people to continue their language studies.

This is where young people discover that foreigners can be really interesting people and the different habits of those in other countries can be life-enhancing. That includes the food, alluded to by the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, and indeed the music, alluded to by the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate. If we can foster international friendships among the young, we shall go a long way to improving international relations in later life.

We very much miss being part of Erasmus, the programme which gave our young people the opportunity to travel and work with people of other nations and those from other nations the opportunity to experience life here in the UK. The Conservative Government assured us that Brexit would not mean leaving Erasmus—one of the very many broken promises of the disaster that is Brexit. The Turing scheme is better than nothing—it is global rather than having the Erasmus focus on the EU—but with fewer opportunities than Erasmus and without the reciprocal arrangements which were such a powerful tool in increasing friendship between countries. Turing funding is secure only until the end of the spending review 2024-25. What efforts are being made for us to rejoin Erasmus+ and what are the future prospects for the Turing scheme? If we are left with no prospect of educational trips, the future for our international relations looks bleak indeed.

There has been a distressing decline in overseas school trips in recent years, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, indicated. The biggest decline has been among the most disadvantaged—those who could benefit most from the experiences. Previously, as has been indicated, if the pupils on a trip were all from the UK or the EU, no forms were needed, but now the complexity of visas and passports has increased markedly. Of course, many UK and foreign students do not have passports, nor do they want the expense of getting one. Surely the Government could agree some other form of identification or that a list of travellers on coaches could be adequate. Our young people need visas for 16 European countries at £70 for over-12s and £35 for six to 11 year-olds. For many disadvantaged young people who would benefit most from these visits, these costs will be more than their parents can afford. The processing time for passports has also increased greatly.

Visiting other countries can be a transformational experience, particularly for young people who have not had the chance of overseas holidays, nor of meeting foreign people. In these days of international uncertainties, the Government should do all in their power to encourage educational trips. Can the Minister say how the Government envisage improvements in international relations, and hopes for peace, without ensuring that the young meet and befriend those in other countries?

13:19
Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull (CB)
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My Lords, last month I spoke at the launch of the European Economic and Social Committee’s opinion on youth engagement, and, as my noble friend Lady Coussins has already noted, educational exchange was a key theme. The opinion represents the views of young people across Europe, and there was universal and overwhelming support for UK reintegration into Erasmus+, with 86% of young people believing that educational exchange has been negatively impacted since we left. They spoke of its benefits in broadening horizons, connecting across cultures, enhancing career prospects, personal growth, and the learning of new languages. This lent a grim irony to the comments of the UK’s deputy head of mission to the EU, who, on the same platform, justified the UK decision to leave Erasmus+ on the basis of our

“inability to speak languages very well”.

The UK Young Ambassador to the European Youth Forum, a wonderful young man named Maurizio Cuttin, spoke of a less well-recognised casualty of the exit from Erasmus+: the British Youth Council. It relied on Erasmus+ for some 40% of its budget and is now closing after 75 years. Can the Minister say whether the Government have any plans to fill the gap left by the British Youth Council, which had such a key role in engaging young people in the process of democracy?

I sit on the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, where there is a shared appetite across all its parts—MPs, Peers and MEPs—to address youth opportunities. At its last session, it formally recommended to the Partnership Council that the UK and the EU negotiate a comprehensive and reciprocal youth mobility initiative, which would allow young people to live, work and study across our shared continent. Your Lordships’ European Affairs Committee has recommended the same, so it was briefly thrilling to hear the EU open this conversation last week and devastating to hear it closed so peremptorily by the Government and, indeed, the Opposition. A mobility programme is not a return to free movement and there are precedents: the UK has such an arrangement with Australia. Does the Minister not agree that a mobility arrangement with a block of countries on our doorstep would be far more inclusive of all young people, not just those who can afford long-distance air fares?

Young people had the least voice in the UK’s decision to leave the EU, but they will feel its impact for the longest time. When the TCA review comes around in 2026, I hope that the Government of the day will listen to what future generations want and be willing to think again.

13:22
Earl of Clancarty Portrait The Earl of Clancarty (CB)
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My Lords, I will make a couple of points about education in Europe for British students. The first is about maximising opportunities. My 19 year-old daughter is currently doing an MA in drama in France, outside any exchange system. I have to say, her French is improving in leaps and bounds, which is a good in itself. However, it is clear from our own experience that the costs and red tape involved are now prohibitive for disadvantaged students in a way that simply did not exist before Brexit. This is not just about Turing and Erasmus; Brexit itself has made studying in Europe so much harder for British students.

Analysis by IFF Research, focusing on the first year of the Turing Scheme, found that inadequate funding and delivery problems have disproportionately impacted students with fewer resources. As the Association of Colleges points out, the lack of reciprocity means that institutions are forced to fall back on pre-existing connections, where they are able to. Erasmus is so much richer in its offer, including staff mobility. The Association of Colleges recommends that we rejoin Erasmus+ but retain Turing as a global and possibly Commonwealth scheme. Erasmus+ is expressly referred to in the EU Commission’s proposal on youth mobility. It is keen to have us back, and I hope that a future Government will act on that.

Secondly, we require more efficient Europe-wide solutions to these problems. For instance, it is clear that, for school visits, we need the reinstatement of a list-of-travellers visa scheme and collective passports, for the whole of Europe. I hope, too, that the EU Commission is not put off by the Government’s or Labour’s response to its proposal. A future Government may change their mind. Despite what the Government say, it is not free movement—more is the pity. With a single destination specified, it will not, for example, solve the problems even of young musicians touring, and Labour is right to see that as a separate issue.

The response to this scheme that intrigued me the most was that of Anand Menon, director of UK in a Changing Europe, who, as reported in the Guardian on 19 April, said that the EU is

“scared that member states will do bilateral deals, which becomes more of a threat the better the Eurosceptic parties do in the elections”.

In this context, bilateral deals become synonymous with cherry picking. I cannot therefore get too worked up about the Government’s response to the Written Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, regarding school visits and whether the Government would establish arrangements with other countries similar to those with France. They said, on 12 December last year:

“We would consider negotiating with other countries should they approach us with an interest in making similar arrangements”.


On its own terms, this is terribly lazy foreign policy, considering that it is our schoolchildren who will be most affected and less so European schoolchildren, who will have many other easy options to choose from: 30 other European countries, including Ireland.

13:25
Lord Hannay of Chiswick Portrait Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB)
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My Lords, this debate in the name of my noble friend Lady Coussins, who is a tireless worker in this field, about educational trips and exchanges could not be more timely. It comes one year after your Lordships’ European Affairs Committee, of which I was then a member, made some important recommendations to the Government on both these topics, and four years since Brexit dealt a hammer blow to both of them.

First, school visits: the biggest cause of the dramatic drop in visits, as assessed by the Tourism Alliance in 2023, is a requirement imposed by the Government for all students coming on such visits to have a passport and not, as in the past, for an identity card to suffice. Were schoolchildren so equipped a cause of illegal migration? Apparently not. Last March the Government rather belatedly agreed, at Prime Minister/President level, to waive the passport requirement with respect to France. At the time the agreement was reached, without any notable enthusiasm or initiative, the Government said that other EU member states could benefit from similar arrangements if they wanted to and asked for them.

Will the Minister update the Committee on the following points? What is the trend in UK-France school visits since last December, when the new arrangements rather belatedly came into force, nine months after the President and the Prime Minister agreed them? What proactive steps are the Government taking to encourage other member states to agree similar arrangements? How many and which ones have responded positively?

Then, university-level educational exchanges: the end of access to the Erasmus scheme for British students has never been properly explained, let alone justified, by the Government. They merely stated flatly that continued involvement

“did not represent value for money”.

That is not the view of a wide range of other European third countries which do participate in Erasmus. Will the Minister therefore kindly respond to the following points? Will she set out, rather than simply assert, the basis for not regarding the Erasmus scheme as value for money? Will she explain why the Welsh Government’s Taith scheme, which does contain reciprocal elements with Erasmus, is not worth considering?

Overall, this is a sorry story of self-inflicted damage and two clear disbenefits of Brexit, but it is not too late to remedy matters if action is not further delayed. In that context, the reported willingness by the EU to negotiate a youth mobility scheme—another idea put forward by your Lordships’ European Affairs Committee last year—is surely worthy of positive consideration. We really must not allow opportunities such as that to repair the damage done by Brexit to emerging generations of our citizens to slip away.

13:28
Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Portrait Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston (CB)
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My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for this opportunity, but there is a tinge of sadness about it, because what I am about to say, I would probably have been able to say five, 10 or 15 years ago. That is in relation to foreign languages in general and, if I might be forgiven for focusing on one language, to German, my first language, in particular.

More than 50 years ago, Willy Brandt, the then German Chancellor, observed:

“If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen sie Deutsch sprechen”.


That was true then and it is still true today. However, foreign languages are about far more than just economics, although we should not underestimate that economics is essential. While English language speakers have an initial advantage, they are very often overlooked when it comes to deeper relationships, particularly in export markets: you do have to speak the language well, and there is a sense of sadness on my part that even the Foreign Office, when it recruits its diplomats, does not particularly value their language skills as part of the recruitment process.

I want to quote the German ambassador, Miguel Berger, who observed in January this year that just 2,210 students sat German A-level in 2023, a drop of 17% on the previous year and a fall of almost 48% since 2013. He called that

“a truly dramatic decline, which is deeply worrying especially as it is an ongoing trend”.

I have to say that in all my time of meeting a succession of German ambassadors, each of them starts off by saying that it is their mission to ensure that more students learn German—and by the end of their term, fewer of them do.

It is worth looking at teaching, particularly for a language such as German, which is perceived to be a difficult one. If I compare it with the way that English is taught in Germany, years 4 and 5 there would probably spend about five hours a week focusing on one language to gain confidence and the joy of it, whereas here we spend only about two hours—maybe sometimes three. I urge the Minister to focus on the amount of teaching hours that we have on one language.

The second thing worth looking at, when we compare the British Council’s latest statements on international engagement, is that there has been an increase in schools doing online digital links with schools outside the UK. In 2023, some 14% did that, so even if we cannot encourage the travel, there is that sense of curiosity and eagerness to learn. I urge the Minister to look at that and encourage digital engagement to create that curiosity and interest in learning languages.

13:31
Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
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I say a huge thank you to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for securing this debate. The importance of educational trips and exchanges between England and other countries cannot be underestimated from an academic, educational, cultural or economic perspective. They are often life-changing for the pupil or student, who establishes bonds of friendship that can last a lifetime, and of course it develops our soft power.

Universities report that the amount of funding through the Turing Scheme is only a fraction of what the last combined Erasmus+ award was. As a consequence, the opportunity to undertake creative study and work abroad is limited to students on a course with a mandatory period of exchange or students who are able to fund their period abroad themselves. The former is already troubling, as we are aware of the importance of exchange, but the latter is especially detrimental to the Government’s commitment to equal opportunities. This funding shortfall is, unfortunately, not the only issue impeding equal opportunities.

In the first analysis of the Turing Scheme, fewer than half of university students felt that the funding covered half of their costs on placement. Additionally, many described worrying a lot before funding was confirmed, then struggling with day-to-day living costs while waiting for funding to come through. More students reported significant delays in response to their application to the scheme. This means that students who rely on funding to start their exchange will feel forced to drop out of it when delays in funding occur.

Although the Turing Scheme was promised to be a real game-changer for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is especially those students who will be negatively affected. I have no objections to the Turing Scheme but, in departing from the Erasmus+ funding, we ought to ensure that the Turing Scheme is equal, if not better—as of course was promised by the Government and Ministers.

The number of students coming to the UK on trips and exchanges is on course to decline for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic. We should all be concerned about this. A report by Universities UK emphasises the importance of international students to local economies throughout the UK. It states that the economic benefits associated with students coming to the UK on exchange programmes are currently being underestimated. Unlike the former Erasmus scheme, the Turing Scheme does not provide for this reciprocal funding. This cut in funding for inbound students raises concerns not just for them and local economies, but for how universities are to sustain relationships with other institutions, say, in research and other educational projects. Moreover, it begs the question whether this reflects the inclusive and welcoming image that we aim to portray as a nation.

Although the Government are clear that they do not intend to establish reciprocal arrangements, I urge them to re-evaluate that stance. Whether it is for languages, music, education, understanding or just plain old-fashioned friendship, a new Government need to work either to restore Erasmus or to develop, as was promised, a Rolls-Royce alternative.

13:35
Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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My Lords, I begin by expressing my shock and disbelief at the events in Ysgol Dyffryn Aman yesterday. I cannot believe what happened. My thoughts are with the teachers and pupils, who now have to pick up after these terrible events, and with the emergency services that dealt with it so swiftly.

I had a long teaching career and, at Hartridge High School in Newport, a challenging demographic of prior low attainment and poverty. Our engagements with partner schools in Bayeux in France and Castellammare di Stabia in southern Italy were crucial links in widening horizons and helping the creation of positive learning environments. The regular trips and exchanges developed among our pupils and theirs gave an understanding of culture, a mutual respect for each other’s languages and traditions, and value for all pupils irrespective of attainment group. Teacher-pupil relations were strengthened in and out of class, and communications between schools, teachers, pupils and parents were enhanced through regular fundraising and cultural events. I look back on those times as some of the most pleasurable in my career.

Sadly, the picture today is in serious decline. The School Travel Forum said that there were 2,922 fewer trips in 2023 than in 2019. The Sutton Trust report said that 50% of school leaders had made cuts to trips and outings; this has doubled since 2019, representing the highest percentage increase of any budget cut in the survey.

We know that, between EU countries, school trips can move freely without individual documentation. This acts like a group travel document, and includes pupils who are not EU citizens but resident in member states. Sadly, we no longer have access to this scheme in our post-Brexit world.

Other organisations, such as the Association for Language Learning, the School Travel Forum and Tourism Alliance, have indicated that post-Brexit issues have reduced trips both to and from the UK. I would be grateful if the Minister could give an update on any efforts that the Government may be making to pursue further bilateral youth mobility partnerships with our international partners.

School trips allow children to have experiences that they may not necessarily have in their lives currently. They can have a positive impact on well-being—seeing somewhere new and being with friends in a different context. Children are able to get to places that they may not otherwise experience. They also share experiences with many of their friends and not just a select few. We need a richer, broader curriculum for all students, and travel experiences both within and outside the UK have a significant role to play in this enrichment.

13:38
Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
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My Lords, I share the noble Baroness’s reflections on the tragic events in Ammanford in Carmarthenshire. I will not try to attempt her expert Welsh pronunciation. I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on securing this debate and thank noble Lords for their contributions.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins, Lady Stuart and Lady Garden, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, focused on the importance of modern foreign languages in our curriculum. Of course, the Government absolutely agree. Rather like the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, I agree with everything that has been said and is about to be said. That is why we have made modern foreign languages part of the EBacc. The Committee is well aware of the recruitment challenges in that area, some of the reasons for which were explored in speeches this afternoon.

If I may, I will start with a bit of good news and reflect on some of the achievements of the Turing Scheme, which is backed by £110 million of funding for the next academic year. The scheme allows schools, colleges and universities to provide students from across the UK the chance to develop new skills, gain international experience and boost their employability by undertaking a study or work placement.

The Turing Scheme has funded tens of thousands of UK students to gain international experience. It is currently funding more than 41,000 participants—including nearly 7,000 school pupils—to undertake placements in more than 160 countries. Around 24,500, or 60%, of these opportunities are for students from disadvantaged backgrounds—something that was raised, rightly, by my noble friend Lord Effingham. An application assessment for the fourth year of the scheme, which will begin in September, is currently under way. The appetite for the scheme is clear, for the reasons that your Lordships set out, with an increasing number of applications every year that the scheme has been available; the number has risen from 412 applications across all sectors in the first year to 619 applications for the current academic year.

The Government recognise the difficulties that schools, colleges and universities have faced in recent years when it comes to organising international visits and exchanges. We are taking steps to address this. Although we are, sadly, not yet in a position to have a Minister directly responsible for this issue—I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for her kind words—we are working closely with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office to make sure that we have a joined-up approach; that was, I know, the spirit of the APPG’s recommendation.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, said that some institutions have found the administration of the scheme particularly cumbersome. This is something that we are aware of and have heard from stakeholders about. We will take the administration of the scheme in-house—that is, back into the department—in the next year to make sure both that we have the most streamlined experience and that the new online application process is as user-friendly as possible.

I move on to where I shall, perhaps, disappoint your Lordships. The DfE is not currently exploring the possibility of adding a reciprocal element to the Turing Scheme. We believe that it is right to use taxpayer money to prioritise international opportunities for students, learners and pupils at UK education providers over placements in the UK for students from other countries. Of course, it has always been the case that other countries and their students make their own arrangements to support study and work in the UK. We have seen a strong appetite across the globe for placements, which indicates that the Turing Scheme’s focus on outward mobility funding has not inhibited its success.

I turn now to some of specific issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, from the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s recommendations. We are grateful to the APPG on Modern Languages for its work. The noble Baroness referred to the paperwork and costs for both outgoing groups and groups coming into the UK. For incoming students, the standard visa route allows individuals to come to the UK and take part in either educational exchanges or visits with a state-funded school, be it an academy, a maintained school or an independent school. All of that is permitted activity under the Immigration Rules.

Regarding group travel paperwork, since October 2021, the EU, the EEA and Swiss nationals have required a passport to travel to the UK. We provided almost a year’s notice for this change, allowing people to plan ahead and obtain a passport if they needed to do so. On the same date, we ended the use of the list of travellers, which was in the EU scheme.

Similarly—to respond to some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay—the European Commission ceased to accept the list of travellers from the UK from January 2021, although some EU countries have since decided to allow visa-free travel for visa national children on their trips to the UK.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked about trends in trips from France, particularly following the agreement between the Prime Minister and President Macron. We do not have detailed data on that yet but, if that emerges, I will be very happy to update the noble Lord.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said that schools needed clear and consistent guidance. Of course, this is not something that the FCDO provides, as the noble Baroness knows, but schools should contact the Department for Education or their partner school’s travel forum to get specific information and guidance when taking school groups overseas.

I thank the noble Baroness for acknowledging the flexibilities around the use of DBS checks from other organisations. The example she gave of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme is absolutely appropriate.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty—almost all noble Lords, in fact—mentioned issues about Erasmus+. The Government do not intend to negotiate resuming participation in any aspect of Erasmus+ with the EU, as a programme country; that includes e-twinning. We just do not believe that it is necessary to do that to facilitate education exchanges between the UK and the EU.

We are working beyond the Turing Scheme. We have opportunities such as our Mandarin Excellence Programme trip to China this summer, when 1,300 pupils are expected to visit the country—most, I imagine, for the very first time. We also continue to work with the British Council on the annual language trends survey, to make sure that we incorporate further school trip data and promote the work of the British Council, particularly its international school award, to all schools.

A number of your Lordships, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, asked about an EU-wide youth mobility scheme. We are not planning to introduce such a scheme. Free movement within the EU has ended. We have successful schemes with 13 countries, and we remain open to agreeing them with more.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, asked about proactive bilateralism. We understand the arguments for that, and, as I said, we are open to negotiating similar agreements with other countries.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, discussed the importance of the fact that disadvantaged children might be prevented from making long-distance trips. In the company of so many foreign language aficionados and advocates, I hesitate to say this, but the evidence suggests that, for some children from disadvantaged communities, going to a country where English is spoken is a help in seeing the wider world. It is not just about languages; it is also, as noble Lords said, about taking children out of their comfort zone and seeing the way that other communities live.

I thank the noble Baroness again for securing this debate. I will write to noble Lords, including the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, on musical exchanges. The Government absolutely recognise the importance of educational trips and will continue to work to promote them.

Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull (CB)
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As we are slightly under time, can the Minister say something about the closure of the British Youth Council, particularly the resulting loss of international exchange and the young voice in the democratic process? The British Youth Council was responsible for the UK Youth Parliament.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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As the noble Baroness is aware, the responsibility for the British Youth Council relationship sits with DCMS. I met and worked with the British Youth Council many times when I was a Minister in that department. I am not aware of whether there are plans to address the gap—I do not think that the noble Baroness used the word “replace”—left by its closure. From the perspective of the DfE, I can say that having a youth voice at the centre of our policy and its development is absolutely critical.

13:51
Sitting suspended.

Peaceful Protests

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Question for Short Debate
14:00
Asked by
Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Practical toolkit for law enforcement officials to promote and protect human rights in the context of peaceful protests, published on 7 March by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and how they intend to ensure that the United Kingdom aligns with United Nations standards on the use of surveillance technology at protests.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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My Lords, what a select little bunch of Peers we are. Clearly, we all know our stuff on this.

A few years ago, I introduced what I think was the first ever debate on facial recognition here in Parliament. At that time, I recognised it as part of a wider package of changes that were on the route to dismantling parliamentary democracy here in the UK, because, when you combine facial recognition and other technologies with the draconian laws passed in the police Act, the Public Order Act and by ministerial decree, a full-scale clampdown on any form of effective protest is now possible. We are a very short step away from what happens in Russia on a regular basis as the authorities here attempt to stifle protests.

If you add to that the plans for the Government to spy on pensioners’ bank accounts, to promote their own digital currency and to link an array of biometrics to a digital ID card, we enter a very different world where the state can switch on and off your access to the basics of life. We have already given the Home Secretary the power to banish anyone with a dual passport from this country, with no right of appeal in this country, and laws that allow the police to stop named individuals attending a demonstration are in place. Is the UK state going to set up the technological infrastructure that will allow for the internal banishment of people with views the Government do not like, with the denial of privileges that we currently see as rights?

We are entering this new era of a Big Brother state at speed, and democracy will be the victim of the inevitable crash. The UK police charged with combating extremism now have similar powers to the Russian police combating extremism. I was once called a “domestic extremist” by the Met Police; it watched me for 10 years because I was clearly a threat to democracy—and it lied about it as well. The differences are dependent on which police officer interprets the law; the vigour of groups, such as Big Brother Watch, which seek to defend our rights; and the spirited independence of those lefty lawyers whom the Government complain about so often.

In Russia, more than 2,000 protesters against the war in Ukraine have been arrested or detained using facial recognition technology; they include people visited at home and questioned after a peaceful protest. This has also become standard practice by the Met Police, which trawls through video footage to identify people it wants to arrest. Most importantly, facial recognition is now used in Russia to detain those on their way to a protest after being spotted by the metro camera system. This mirrors the new laws in this country allowing the authorities to ban protesters ahead of demonstrations by issuing control orders or the new serious disruption prevention orders. The Met Police also has access to much of Transport for London’s camera network, yet the only political party to have ever pressured for constraints and safeguards to be put in place is the Green Party.

These deployments of facial recognition have turned our city streets into mass-scale police line-ups, with hundreds of thousands of innocent people subjected to biometric identity checks. Yet, eight years after UK police first rolled out this invasive technology, there has been no democratic consent to live facial recognition and biometric surveillance in Britain. No legislation to approve or ban the use of live facial recognition technology in the UK has been passed or even seriously proposed. Instead, the police operate in a grey area, enabled by a democratic deficit to use rights-invading technology with minimal oversight.

That is why we need to apply the UN standards as a minimum. Those standards make it clear that such technology should not be used to identify people participating in peaceful protest and that protests should not be used as surveillance opportunities. The UN model protocol prohibits the use of facial recognition to identify those participating in peaceful protests. These are standards designed for the likes of Russia, Zimbabwe and Uganda, but we actually cannot meet them here in the UK.

For example, Cheshire Constabulary has stated that it intends to use facial recognition technology to monitor, track and profile individuals. There are no safeguards in place to protect individuals’ rights and the right to protest. This is hardly surprising. How many times, in recent years, have we heard senior politicians and Home Secretaries saying that they believe in the right to protest—“Ah, but not for those particular protesters or protests”?

We need a charter of democratic freedoms that enshrines the right to protest and to assemble. We must never have another situation like the Sarah Everard vigil, when senior officers at New Scotland Yard decided on a clampdown against people who were coming together to remember a woman murdered by a man nicknamed the “rapist” by his colleagues in the Met, while they allowed him to remain in their ranks.

Our authoritarian Government are proposing the abolition of the existing scant oversight of facial recognition and other forms of advanced surveillance through its Data Protection and Digital Information Bill. You cannot use a system designed to protect consumer privacy to protect you from state intrusion. My big concern is that we contest each of these new laws and technologies in isolation, rather than seeing the big picture of what this Government are out to achieve. The ban on strikes, the granting of legal immunity to undercover officers who spy on campaigners, and voter suppression are all part of a rapid slide into an authoritarian country.

I hope that the next Government aim to restore the freedoms that we have lost and replace the safeguards that have been dismantled. I look forward to hearing from the noble Lord the shadow Minister on that. I will be pressurising the next Government to make that happen and for our freedoms to keep pace with the technologies used by the state to restrict them. Will the Government accept these UN standards?

14:07
Lord Strasburger Portrait Lord Strasburger (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for calling this very important debate and I declare my interest, as recorded in the register, as chair of Big Brother Watch. I thank Madeleine Stone of Big Brother Watch for the excellent briefing that she provided parliamentarians about the UN toolkit that we are debating today. I also thank Professor Peter Fussey for his guidance; he was an important contributor to the UN toolkit.

The very worrying subject of this debate is just part of the Government’s assault on the privacy of ordinary, law-abiding citizens. Another example of the Government’s propensity to spy on us all is their smuggling into the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill a last-minute amendment enabling the Government to snoop on all our bank accounts. The pretext for this suspicionless financial snoopers’ charter is benefit fraud, for which authorities already have ample powers. This would affect every one of us, with our bank accounts being repeatedly scanned on secret criteria, set by the Government, and the banks forced to hand over unlimited amounts of information. This financial snoopers’ charter is not linked to serious crime or to any crime at all. This House must stop it in its tracks.

The trigger for this debate was last month’s publication of the UN toolkit, Human Rights Compliant Uses of Digital Technologies by Law Enforcement for the Facilitation of Peaceful Protests. Protests are important in a democracy, because they empower people who disagree with their Government’s actions. Those citizens may feel isolated and powerless, but public demonstrations show them that they are not alone and that there are thousands who agree with them. Those in power may try to ignore dissent but, if there are enough protesters, the Government will feel the need to come up with reasons why the protesters are wrong. That is when the debate begins, which is good. Protests also provide an essential voice for minority groups, who otherwise would not be heard.

I return to the UN toolkit, which challenges the UK police approach to biometric identification technologies such as facial recognition. It states very clearly:

“Facial recognition technologies and other biometric identification technologies must not be utilised to identify or track individuals peacefully participating in a protest”.


It also states that protests should not be used as a surveillance opportunity, which I and the Liberal Democrats also support. The reason given by the UN is simply that the use of this technology at protests represents a significant threat to the rights to freedom of expression and association. The inevitable “chilling effect” will mean that members of the public are less willing to engage in their right to protest, as they fear the loss of anonymity and possible reprisals, either now or in the future.

This is in line with the 2023 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights that Russia’s use of facial recognition technology to identify protesters was unlawful. Since this ruling, Russia has continued to use the technology to target protesters against the war in Ukraine and those attending the funeral of the political dissident Alexei Navalny.

However, despite the UN and ECHR rulings, police forces in the UK are already using facial recognition technology to monitor and identify peaceful protesters, in a total legislative vacuum. No primary legislation or regulations cover the use or oversight of this technology, so the police are writing their own rules, with no consideration of the human rights of their targets. This is a totally unacceptable state of affairs.

Facial recognition technology is wholly intrusive. It is the equivalent of stamping a barcode on every citizen’s forehead so that they can all be identified from a distance. Less intrusive identification methods, such as using fingerprints or DNA, are heavily prescribed in their use and the retention of their data. But, scandalously, there is nothing to control the use of facial recognition technology, which poses the most serious threat to human rights of all these technologies.

Facial recognition technology was used by police in Cardiff to monitor an entirely peaceful protest. The watch-list fed into the system contained mostly individuals not wanted for any criminal activity. It was just monitoring law-abiding citizens exercising their right to peaceful protest. The Appeal Court found that South Wales Police had unlawfully deployed the technology, but that has not stopped it being used at peaceful protests.

Current police policy, which, in the absence of any legislation, they have written for themselves, covers identifying people who “may cause harm”—whatever that absurdly broad phrase means. It can be used to include just about anybody. This do-it-yourself police guidance sets no criminal threshold for the use of live facial recognition and can be used to justify any kind of use, including surveillance and identification of peaceful protesters.

Amazingly, this is only the second time that facial recognition has been debated in Parliament in the eight years since the police started trialling it. As a result, there is no democratic mandate for the use of this technology. The Science and Technology Committee called for an “immediate moratorium” on its use, which has been ignored. There has been sustained criticism of the legislative vacuum from parliamentarians, academics and rights groups. The independent review commissioned by the Met criticised the force for failing to consider the impact on human rights and relying on an inadequate legal basis. Four Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioners have found that the existing legal position is not fit for purpose.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. If he feels unable to answer them all today, will he write to me and the other speakers in this debate with his answers? How do the Government justify taking the opposite approach to that of our allies and the UN guidance, instead mimicking the Russian police state practice of using facial recognition to identify protestors at peaceful protests? Will the Government commit to complying with the UN toolkit, which prohibits using facial recognition to identify those participating in peaceful protests? How have the Government evaluated the chilling effect on peaceful protests of using facial recognition, including at the Coronation?

Furthermore, what recourse is available to citizens who are wrongly placed on the facial recognition watch-list or are misidentified by the technology? Big Brother Watch has examples of innocent people, including a 14 year-old boy being mistakenly identified as a criminal, with seriously traumatic effects, possibly lifelong. The UN model places a clear responsibility on states to ensure proper oversight of advanced surveillance technologies at protests. With the likely abolition of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner by the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, who will conduct this oversight?

Lastly, when will the Government wake up from being fast asleep at the wheel on this vital matter and legislate? We need a robust and clear domestic legal framework, governing the use of digital technologies by law enforcement that conforms to international human rights law.

14:16
Lord Paddick Portrait Lord Paddick (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I remind noble Lords that I am now a non-affiliated Member of this House and that I served for 30 years as a police officer specialising in public order policing. I also declare an interest as a paid non-executive adviser to the Metropolitan Police Service, and I am grateful to the Met for providing me with a briefing, and to Big Brother Watch, as I have managed to acquire its briefing.

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for the opportunity to debate the practical toolkit for law enforcement officials to promote and protect human rights in the context of peaceful protests, although I fear that this debate may be a little premature, as components one and three of the toolkit are yet to be published. However, we have component two, “A principle-based guidance for the human-rights compliant use of digital technologies in the context of peaceful protests”.

Looking at this document from a practical UK policing perspective, I found it somewhat confusing—and I am looking at this from a physical assembly or demonstration perspective, rather than an online one, which is included in the UN document. As Big Brother Watch points out, and as the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, just said, the guidance states that biometric surveillance should not be used

“before, during or after protests”

and

“facial recognition technologies … must not be utilised to identify or track individuals peacefully participating in a protest”.

Big Brother Watch goes on to say that:

“The use of this technology at protests represents a significant threat to the rights of freedom of expression and association, as the chilling effect will mean members of the public are less willing to engage their right to protest, as they fear loss of anonymity and reprisals both now and in the future”.


If, and only if, facial recognition is deployed to capture the images of peaceful protestors and identify them, would the fear of loss of anonymity be a reasonable one—and if, and only if, those protestors were to engage in unlawful activity, would there be a reasonable fear of reprisals, at least here in the United Kingdom? The fact is that live facial recognition as deployed by police forces in the United Kingdom does not capture and retain images but simply compares those images with a limited and specific database of individuals, which changes depending on the deployment.

For example, my understanding is that the images of those convicted of stalking-type offences in relation to members of the Royal Family may be used at events such as the Coronation, but away from sites of lawful protest. Biometric facial images are captured and compared with the event-specific database images, and if there is no match, the image is immediately and irreversibly deleted. At events such as the Coronation, where assembly was lawful, and mindful of the potential chilling effect, the Metropolitan Police confirmed in a public statement that facial recognition

“is not used to identify people who are linked to, or have been convicted of, being involved in protest activity”.

It was used to protect peaceful gatherings, not where people had peacefully gathered, by identifying individuals who present a danger in crowds, such as registered sex offenders.

If live facial recognition was used against some universal database, as are, I believe, commercially available to law enforcement organisations outside the UK—a global compilation of millions of images taken from open sources, such as Facebook and Instagram, whereby the police could identify most people at a peaceful protest—the concerns of Big Brother Watch and the UN special rapporteur would have some justification. My understanding is that this is prohibited in the United Kingdom.

Big Brother Watch says:

“Despite international warnings that the use of facial recognition in the context of protest poses a grave threat to human rights, police forces in the UK are already using the technology to monitor and identify protestors”.


However, my understanding is that police forces are not using live facial recognition technology to monitor and identify peaceful protesters but to monitor and identify those who may present a threat to peaceful protest. The example that Big Brother Watch gave of its use at Silverstone, for example, was in connection with an unlawful protest, where the lives of both the protestors and those trying to prevent them could have been put at risk; it was not deployed at a peaceful assembly.

I agree with Big Brother Watch in its assertion that there is insufficient primary legislation specifically overseeing the use of facial recognition, meaning that the police can, to some extent, write their own rules about how it is deployed. However, they are bound by data protection law and the Human Rights Act, which restrict their activities to what is necessary and proportionate to achieve their lawful objectives. In the case of peaceful protest, that is to ensure that the protest remains peaceful. Being able to identify, isolate and restrict the activities of known troublemakers is surely preferable to placing unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on the activities of the peaceful majority. Properly deployed, controlled and audited, the use of live facial recognition can enable, rather than have a chilling effect on, the right to free assembly and protest. I for one would be more likely to engage in a protest if I believed that the police were taking necessary and proportionate action to identify, isolate and prevent the attendance of those known to be intent on criminal activity.

Big Brother Watch quite rightly questions who is on the databases that the police use, and against which live facial recognition compares captured images. There is a legitimate need for the police to be audited in some way to ensure that their actions are lawful, necessary and proportionate. Arguably, primary or secondary legislation is needed to ensure that the police are deploying live facial recognition in a human-rights compliant way.

However, in my opinion—based on 30 years as a police officer, 10 years as a Liberal Democrat Peer, with eight years as their Front Bench spokesperson on home affairs, and now being back in the paid employ of the Met—live facial recognition in the vicinity of protests, assemblies and elsewhere has the potential to make policing even more proportionate, better targeted and less interventionist. As with so much technology, it is not, as it seems to be portrayed by some, bad in itself—but it has the potential, without proper regulation, to be used in a non-human-rights compliant way. While that is contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, suggested, perhaps the way in which the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has recently resisted calls from politicians to ban peaceful protests might give her some hope for the future.

14:25
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, first I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for introducing this debate. Although there are very few speakers, it is actually a very important subject. I declare my interest as a sitting magistrate. I have heard cases regarding protests and sentenced protesters on occasion.

I am speaking for the Labour Party in this debate and we, of course, support the right to peaceful protest, which has helped us in this country win so many of our historic rights. In a democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and historic rights to protest run alongside the rights of people to go about their daily lives, the right to be free from harassment or intimidation and the vital need to ensure that essential services are not disrupted. That is why this House voted against the sweeping stop-and-search powers in the Public Order Bill that risked penalising peaceful protesters and passers-by. As one of the Labour Front-Benchers on that Bill, it was disappointing that the Government failed to pay due attention to the opinion of this House when they brought those measures back in secondary legislation only months later. Will the Minister say what assessment has been made of the impact of these measures?

This debate’s title is highly focused, and it would be useful for the Minister to respond in a focused way to the UN guidance being discussed, and how it relates to the UK’s current strategy towards protests. The debate’s title reminds us that peaceful protesters worldwide face intimidation, repression and human rights violations. Britain must show that the right to peacefully protest should be fiercely protected, while the minority who seek to abuse that right are stopped from doing so.

When the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, introduced her speech, she drew comparisons with Russia and Belarus. I have worked extensively in Russia and have visited Belarus many times, and I think her comparisons with those countries are completely absurd and alarmist. The noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, also made various alarmist claims, but the substance of the points he was making about the use of facial ID technology, and in particular live facial recognition technology, are indeed concerning. I was very interested to hear the fuller explanation of how the Metropolitan Police and other police forces are using this technology. Obviously, the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, gave reassurances about who is on the police database and who can have access to that database when comparisons are made between the faces on the technology and the live facial recognition. He gave the example of stalkers and a couple of other examples. I understand that the noble Lord is talking about the practice of the Met—nevertheless, this is an alarming development, and I think the Government need to be very aware of the way this is developing.

While I accused the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, of being alarmist when comparing Britain to Russia, nevertheless it is the same technology that is being used. This is international technology. We are here talking about what the British Government do but, of course, that facial recognition technology is used completely internationally. There are huge databases of our faces and our characteristics being built up all over the world. We have debated the implications of that on other pieces of legislation fairly recently, and I know the Minister is aware of how that will impact on the way police forces and other agencies try to keep us safe in our own country.

To repeat myself, while I called what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said ridiculous and alarmist—I used those words very deliberately—we should be very concerned about the subject and keen to understand developments in live facial ID recognition. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that the Government are keeping the most serious eye on the way this technology is developing.

14:30
Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for securing this debate, and indeed thank all the other Peers who have spoken. I particularly thank the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord Paddick, for reminding us of the positive benefits that can accrue to law enforcement, and to keeping the public safe, from the appropriate and proportionate use of this type of technology.

I will do my very best to address all the points raised but, before I do that, I also thank Professor Peter Fussey, who reached out to me directly, which I appreciate, for making some very interesting contributions to the wider discussions on these complicated issues and specifically for his work in co-authoring the recent UN publication. As I say, I will do my utmost to address the points raised and if I fail in any of those, I will scour Hansard and, of course, write.

First, I would like to reassure noble Lords that the Government absolutely recognise the gravity of these issues. They are fundamental to the functioning of our democratic process. For any democracy to be considered a truly free and liberal society, the right to protest peacefully is of course essential and there is a long-standing tradition in this country of people gathering to express their views on all manner of topics. None of us here would wish that right to be unduly diluted or curtailed.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that there is no intention to stifle protests. I am afraid that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that comparisons to Russia are absurd, alarmist and specious. That is not to say that protestors have carte blanche to behave in an unacceptable or illegal way. Their rights must be balanced against the rights of others to go about their lives free from obstruction and harassment. Should a protest contravene the law, the police have comprehensive powers to deal with activities that spread hate or deliberately raise tensions through violence or public disorder. Again, that does not negate the right to peaceful protest. The use of these powers and the management of demonstrations is generally an operational matter for the police.

Turning to the specific focus of the debate, the Government again take this opportunity to thank the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association for his recent report which detailed, as has been noted by all the speakers, a model protocol for law enforcement officials to promote and protect human rights in the context of peaceful protests. The report constitutes the first component of a three-part toolkit that he is publishing. As the Committee would expect, the Government are currently reviewing the model protocol report and will also be assessing the second and third components of the toolkit once they have been published. I can say that, at a high level, the protocol appears to set out some helpful principles; it also recognises that digital tools can enable protest, a point that was powerfully made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick.

The role of the police in protest is to preserve the peace, to uphold the law and to prevent the commission of offences. As noble Lords are aware, police forces in this country have operational independence and decisions on how to achieve these objectives are a matter for chief officers. The Government are committed to supporting police forces to make use of surveillance technologies to detect and deter crime, and to keep the public safe. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for his examples and, obviously, for his extensive expertise, particularly as regards keeping peaceful protests just that—peaceful.

There is of course a comprehensive legal framework governing the use of surveillance technologies. This includes the Human Rights Act 1998, the Equality Act 2010, the Data Protection Act 2018 and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, as well as national guidance and published police policies. Surveillance technologies such as CCTV, drones, facial recognition and body-worn video can be used for policing purposes only where necessary, proportionate and fair; I think that answers one of the points from the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger. They cannot be used to restrict the rights of peaceful assembly and association. However, the police do have the right to monitor a protest if serious disorder is expected, in order to keep the public safe.

The Government recognise the importance of ensuring that these technologies are used appropriately and that safeguards are in place to ensure that. As has been stated, their use is governed by data protection, equalities and human rights laws, as well as guidance. As I have just mentioned, they can be used for a policing purpose only where necessary, proportionate and fair.

Your Lordships will be aware that there are a number of oversight bodies active in this space, which hold the police to account for their use of surveillance technologies. The Information Commissioner’s Office regulates all use of personal data, and this includes police use. The police must also comply with data protection legislation, which is regulated by the Information Commissioner’s Office, and with human rights and equalities legislation. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is responsible for upholding equality and human rights laws. The courts also play a vital role. His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services monitors and reports on the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces, and the Independent Office for Police Conduct holds the police accountable for their actions, to improve police practices.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, suggested that we are abolishing the Biometrics Commissioner and the Surveillance Camera Commissioner, and indeed their powers, but that is not the case. We are transferring them to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, which has expertise and experience in carrying out similar functions. The Information Commissioner’s Office already regulates these areas for all organisations, not just the police. As I said, the Biometrics Commissioner’s casework functions are being transferred. That is because we think that simpler oversight is better.

I spent some of my morning reading the Independent Report on Changes to the Functions of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner Arising from the Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill of 6 October 2023, by Professor Pete Fussey. Although I do not necessarily agree with all of his conclusions, he notes that:

“It is widely accepted that current arrangements for oversight for public surveillance and biometric techniques are complex and would benefit from greater clarity”.


We may disagree about how that is done, but it is precisely what we are trying to do.

With regard to the comments by the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, about citizens recourse, the ICO is open to anyone to complain, and, as it is a regulator, unlike the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, it has the power to take enforcement action. Complaints are relatively straightforward; they can be made via the website, via direct contact, via a police station or, of course, via an MP.

The noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, suggested that in the south Wales case, the use of live facial recognition was deemed unlawful. That is not the case. The court found that South Wales Police did not fully comply with privacy, data protection and equality laws during two of their pilots, but made it clear what needed to be done to ensure compliance with the legal framework. Since then, the police have addressed those court findings. The College of Policing has issued national guidance on live facial recognition, in particular setting out the circumstances in which the police can use it and the categories of people they can look for. The National Physical Laboratory has independently tested the algorithms used by South Wales Police and the Metropolitan Police and found that they were very accurate, and there were no statistically significant differences in performance based on gender or ethnicity—a point that often gets made and needs clarifying.

The noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, implied that none of our allies is using this sort of technology. Of course, it is up to other countries to decide how to regulate the police use of technology, but it is estimated that nearly 70% of police forces globally have access to some form of facial recognition technology, so we are not alone.

In concluding, I thank again the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for securing this debate, and all those who spoke. It was an interesting and thought-provoking discussion, and I hope that I have provided useful context and background regarding the Government’s position. These are important issues, and I am quite sure we will return to them; this is not the last time we will talk about them. As I have set out, the Government support the police in the proportionate and fair use of surveillance technology to protect the public. We are also committed to maintaining the right to protest lawfully, while also protecting the rights of citizens to go about their lives unimpeded. We absolutely recognise the importance of striking the right balance, and we will continue approaching these questions with the seriousness and care that they deserve.

14:40
Sitting suspended.

Pakistan: UK Aid

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Question for Short Debate
15:00
Asked by
Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool
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To ask His Majesty’s Government how UK aid is used to support minorities in Pakistan.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords participating in today’s short debate about ways in which UK development aid to Pakistan, which is rising from £41.5 million this year to an estimated £133 million next year, will be used to help the poorest of the poor in Pakistan’s minorities to climb out of destitution and caste.

I declare a non-pecuniary interest as co-chair, along with Jim Shannon MP, of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Pakistani Minorities, on whose behalf I am currently chairing an inquiry into the plight of brick kiln bonded labourers caught up in modern slavery—including young children—who are massively and disproportionately drawn from the country’s minorities. I have shared the draft report and preliminary recommendations with the Minister and pay tribute to the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s secretariat and advisors, notably Mr Morris Johns and Professor Javaid Rehman.

Before I say more about the horrific evidence that we have taken in the current inquiry, let me refer briefly to the other questions and recommendations that I have sent to the Minister and to which my noble friends will refer later. Some of the issues are referred to in earlier reports by the APPG and in the submissions of the APPG on Ahmadis. They include discrimination and persecution against minorities, entrenched in school textbooks; stigmatisation in schools and colleges; and primitive and dismal conditions in the so-called colonies where Christians live, which are often devoid of running water, sanitation and electricity and which I have personally visited with Marie Rimmer MP and Jim Shannon MP.

The APPG has highlighted the lack of reparations and convictions and the impunity following the violence in Punjab’s Jaranwala in 2023, when a mob rampaged and torched churches and homes. I hope that the Minister will respond to that and to the destruction of Ahmadi mosques and cemeteries; the persecution of the dead as well as the living; the violent attacks, including murder; and the denial of comparable voting rights with other citizens. We want to hear the Minister’s assessment of the abduction of Hindu and Christian girls, with forced conversions, rape and coercive marriages—all issues that British aid could, and should do more to, address. Lastly, what happens to those who try to escape and end up caged like animals in detention centres in other countries, which my noble friend Lady Cox and I have seen at first hand?

For the record, 3.72% of Pakistan’s 230 million people are from religious minority backgrounds: 1.6% are Hindus and 1.59% are Christians, some of whom converted to escape the untouchability of the caste system. Most of the Hindus are also from Dalit, or scheduled caste, backgrounds, with all the stigmatisation and discrimination to which that leads. Does the Minister agree that their plight deserves greater focus? Further, does he agree that women and girls from the religious minorities remain at the very bottom of the societal hierarchy? Has he had a chance to read Life on the Margins, a report that includes disturbing evidence of child mortality rates being higher than the national average?

In acknowledging the significant impact of the FCDO’s work on improving lives in Pakistan, it would be negligent not to point out the failure to prioritise the minorities. Our resources should be used to challenge and reform laws and policies that are used as a pretext for persecution; procedures that breed impunity; and priorities that bypass the destitute and despised minorities. In saying so, we stand with the foundational ideals of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s original constitution and, more recently, the findings of its most eminent jurists.

On 19 June 2014, the then Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued an admirable landmark directive. It included the continuing failure of the state to create a federal task force to promote religious tolerance; new educational curricula to encourage religious harmony and social tolerance; the curbing of hate speech on social media; the establishment of a national council for minorities’ rights; police reform; employment opportunities; and prompt action whenever the constitutional rights of religious minorities are violated or places of worship desecrated.

UK aid programmes should be turning that 10 year- old directive into action. When did we last raise the failure to implement the directive with the Government of Pakistan, and what response did we receive?

I return to the plight of bonded labour and the preliminary findings of our inquiry. Pakistan has one of the highest numbers of bonded labourers in the world, with over 1 million workers in brick kilns. Although religious minorities comprise less than 5% of the total population, the percentage of religious minorities in brick kilns is often as high as 50%, especially in Punjab and Sindh, where most of the religious minorities live. This finding is corroborated by Anti-Slavery International.

UNICEF says that

“bonded labour is an abuse analogous to slavery”—

a system in which the middleman, or jamadar, arranges the advanced loan, called peshgi. The often illiterate worker must work exclusively for that employer until the loan has been paid off, including interest at high rates. It is a vicious circle, trapping workers and their families across whole generations.

According to the 2023 Global Slavery Index, in one recent year an estimated 10.6 of every 1,000 people in Pakistan were in modern slavery. Theoretically, bonded labour was made illegal under Pakistan’s Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992. It has signed international treaties that outlaw slavery, as does its constitution. But in practice, successive Governments have lacked the political will or capacity to implement and enforce the law on bonded labour.

In evidence to our inquiry, we heard shocking stories that women and girls from minority backgrounds have been subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse—reduced to lives of servitude. Our inquiry can confirm the finding of Human Rights Watch that:

“There is a consistent pattern of sexual abuse at the brick-kilns, including rape”.


I draw the Minister’s attention to the testimony of “Sara” and other accounts from women who told us of rapes by jamadars or local police officers. They describe women and girls being sold into marriage or prostitution.

We heard of enslaved children to whom debts had been passed down from generation to generation. Recall the horrific murder of Iqbal Masih, who was taken into bonded labour at the aged of four. Having escaped and campaigned against modern slavery, he was murdered at the age of 12. He had helped 3,000 children escape bonded labour. When did we last specifically raise the plight of children with Pakistan? Children should be in school, not servitude.

Our inquiry also heard accounts of a lack of any safety equipment, no medical coverage or social protection, shortage of clean drinking water, absence of latrines and obscenely low wages. A recent ILO report highlighted the dangers that workers face, including

“exposure to toxic fumes and carbon particulates”.

We set out 10 practical recommendations to the UK and Pakistan Governments, from ethical buying standards to confiscation of assets. If time does not allow him today, perhaps the Minister will commit to responding to each of the recommendations by letter. I also hope that a Select Committee will use our report and this debate to drive this issue forward until change occurs.

No one should underestimate the consequences for those who call for change, equity and reform. In 2011, the Christian Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, and his friend, Salman Taseer, the Muslim Governor of the Punjab, spoke up for Asia Bibi and called for reforms. Both men were murdered. When did the UK last challenge Pakistan over the failure to bring the murderers of Shahbaz Bhatti to justice? If you cannot bring the killers of your Minister for Minorities to justice, is it any wonder that the two children forced to watch a lynch mob of 1,200 burn alive their parents, or minorities living in places like Jaranwala, are in despair?

I shall conclude more hopefully. Also recall that, on 11 August 1947, the great Muhammad Ali Jinnah insisted in a famous speech that:

“You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state”.


Jinnah gave the newly independent Pakistan a new flag—symbolising the country’s plurality and diversity, combining the Islamic green of its Muslim people with the white of the country’s religious minorities. The flag’s crescent represents progress, and the five-pointed star symbolises light and knowledge, objectives which Jinnah hoped would inspire and unite the nation.

Empirical research shows that the countries which enjoy the greatest prosperity and harmony are the ones that promote freedom of religion or belief for their minorities—something that the UK, Pakistan and the Commonwealth should prioritise. It is my fervent hope that our short debate will return Pakistan to that path and encourage the realisation of many of Jinnah’s unfulfilled hopes.

In ending, I pay a personal tribute to the Minister for all that he does on these issues and his wonderful generosity with time, which he has given on many occasions to address some of the issues that I have mentioned.

15:10
Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, first, I agree with that last sentiment concerning the Minister. From the short time I have been in this House, I know that he spends a lot of time dealing with these issues and has a passion for them, as we do, and I thank him for that. It is of course a huge pleasure and privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and to thank him for bringing this important Question for Short Debate, which concentrates our focus on how UK aid is used to support minorities better in Pakistan. At the outset, it is important to say how much I welcome the increase in overseas development aid. That provides our Government with an opportunity to do more to support minorities in a practical and meaningful way.

Looking at the aid profile for the year 2023-24, it has to be acknowledged that the Government did a lot with the budget they had. Priorities listed include climate vulnerability, gender inclusion and disability inclusion—all very laudable goals. There is much I can speak about this afternoon, but I want to spend the limited time I have looking at the issue of women and girls. There is, no doubt, a lot of work to be done in this area. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referenced the work that the APPG has been doing on the bonded labour issue and he outlined the issues surrounding women and girls on that.

I make the point, as I did in my Question for Short Debate on global Christian persecution, that women and girls from a minority faith, whether it is Christian, Ahmadi Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, face a double marginalisation or a double injustice. That could be through people trafficking, gender-based violence, kidnapping, forced marriage and/or forced conversion. It is still shocking to me that, in our world today, young girls are being groomed, trafficked into sham marriage and then forced into conversion. The international development White Paper commits the UK to develop policies that are inclusive of people marginalised for their religion and belief, and I very much welcome that, but we need to turn this commitment into positive actions.

We know that Pakistan is the third least tolerant country in the world in terms of social acceptance of religious diversity, and that cannot be ignored. In terms of the treatment of women from minority religions, a survey taken by the Punjab Bureau of Statistics on the social and economic well-being of women has shown that they have a higher than average illiteracy, and that has persisted among minority women in the province—64% as opposed to 34%. Minority community members get into a cycle of illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, and early and often forced marriages. This can be broken only by getting good education, academic or technical, for children and especially for girls. It is even more difficult for Christian students to get places to study in higher education, if they are lucky enough to have education at primary level, because the good marks which are needed are often obtained by bribes, and most Christians do not have the financial resources to deal with bribery.

Recently the Punjab Government allocated 2% of seats in universities for minority students—of course, that is to be welcomed—but that is only one province, and the other provinces have no plans to help students from minority communities in this way. There are, of course, good missionary schools and colleges which could offer quality education for minority girls, and UK aid could be used to get education for minority girls in those schools and, in doing so, lift their families out of poverty. It would be great to hear from the Minister whether there are any plans to ring-fence a percentage of aid for minorities in Pakistan and use it for education and practical training for girls. That is in line with the Government’s goals, and indeed the existing minority schools could be utilised for this purpose.

Of course, education works only if the girls are free, and it is estimated that at least 1,000 girls belonging to Christian and Hindu faiths are abducted and forcibly married and converted each year. In some cases, such forced conversions are used as a smokescreen for other serious crimes such as human trafficking, forced prostitution and child abuse. As the mother of a daughter, whose birthday is today, I cannot imagine the pain that this causes to the child and the family of the child —yet it appears that very little help is available.

It would be a very positive sign of global leadership in this area if we could use the UK aid programmes as a tool to spread education among minority girls, so that they are aware of their rights and, importantly, to train police officers and judiciary members on the laws pertaining to this issue and how to treat such cases. The Minister will be aware that the Punjab police have set up Meesaq centres in police stations in areas with a large percentage of Christians, but it is important that these centres are staffed by trained individuals. Likewise, in education it would be important to train teachers in religious tolerance and to promote a positive image of coexistence.

In closing, I commend the tireless work of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the APPG for the Pakistani Minorities. The increase in aid is a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the minority communities in Pakistan and cement the UK’s leadership role in our strong belief and commitment to freedom of religion for all by taking practical steps with the aid budget such as I have laid out in relation to training and education.

15:16
Baroness Cox Portrait Baroness Cox (CB)
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I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Alton for initiating this debate on a subject of such current concern, which is not widely reported, and where the suffering of people requires an appropriate and timely response.

Some time ago I met refugees from Pakistan who fled to Thailand to escape the hardships inflicted on them in their home country. Many were living in dire and deeply disturbing conditions, in detention centres. I visited some of those refugees to witness their predicament and I was profoundly disturbed by the conditions in which they were forced to live. But the situation that had forced them to leave their homes and their homeland was so dire that they had to emigrate. Their predicaments include discrimination against, and persecution of, minorities, resulting in severe hardships in so-called colonies where violence is perpetrated against communities, including desecration of Ahmadi mosques and cemeteries, the destruction of churches, and the abduction of Hindu and Christian girls, involving forced conversions, rape and forced marriages.

There is a continuing culture, with stigmatisation of minorities even instilled into the culture by inclusion in school textbooks. The blasphemy laws continue to be used as a justification for persecution, and there is a culture of impunity. For example, no one has been brought to justice for the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minorities—and reference has already been made to that terrible situation.

Those who wish to see a change in the culture of prejudice and persecution recommend many fundamental changes, and I shall highlight some of them. First, they recommend the use of the percentage of official aid for minorities mainly for education and professional training projects, such as nursing for girls, in line with the Government’s MDG goals. Secondly, they recommend support for the Punjab police’s commendation policy of establishing Meesaq centres in police stations, in areas where there is a large percentage of Christians. These are staffed by minority police staff and can be used by minority members to report crimes and seek appropriate protection and/or recompense. As the competence of staff is essential, UK aid could be used to help to train the staff and maximise the use of this significant opportunity.

Thirdly, provision of funds is recommended for basic necessities such as fresh water and electricity in slums and primary schools where there is a concentration of minority members. Fourthly, they recommend the provision of funding for training teachers in religious tolerance, so that they are equipped to deliver positive images of coexistence in their schools. Fifthly, provision of funds is recommended for shelter homes for the victims of forced conversions and forced marriages, where they could be taught skills to be self-sufficient. Finally, provision of funds is recommended for labourers working in the sewers to safeguard them from deaths and injuries.

Having heard the first-hand accounts of the suffering inflicted on so many Pakistani civilians from those people themselves, I passionately hope that policies to alleviate their suffering will be recognised as matters of profound concern and measures will be taken to implement them as an urgent priority.

15:19
Lord Bishop of Guildford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Guildford
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My Lords, I am privileged to be the first of a trio of Bishops speaking in this debate.

For the past eight years or so, the diocese of Guildford has partnered with the diocese of Sialkot in the Majha region of Punjab. Sialkot is probably best known for the production of medical equipment and World Cup footballs. The diocese also includes the Mirpur district, which has strong connections to the British-Pakistani community—not least in Woking, just a few miles from where I live, which boasts the oldest purpose-built mosque in the UK. I was privileged to visit Sialkot and Mirpur in 2019; Mirpur had just suffered two devastating earthquakes. I am a vice-chair of the Pakistani Minorities APPG.

I am hugely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating the debate and for his tireless championing of freedom of religion or belief over so many years. I fully support the suggestion that religious minorities should be explicitly included in the list of marginalised communities when it comes to the provision of UK aid.

As we have heard already, there is no question that discrimination exists on all levels against religious minorities in Pakistan, most notably against the Ahmadi, Christian and Hindu communities. In part, that is due to extremists who frequently use the blasphemy laws to whip up public anger and acts of violence, with the arson attacks on dozens of churches and hundreds of homes in Jaranwala on 16 August last year a particularly egregious example. In part, it is also due to an entrenched institutional malaise despite the specific protection of religious minorities under the constitution. Aspects of that malaise are well documented; many of them have been highlighted in both the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and subsequent speeches. They include: a biased educational system; a legal code that specifically discriminates against Ahmadis; the blasphemy laws, which are so widely drawn and frequently abused; and the continuing legacy of the caste system, which frequently leaves Christians and Hindus at the bottom of the pile.

Issues of modern-day slavery have been highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, especially in the huge brick-making industry and in the sewers, where—as my friend the Bishop of Sialkot, who came to lunch last Saturday, tells me—there are deaths reported almost every week due to a lack of basic personal protective equipment. Complaints about abduction, rape, forced conversion and forced marriage are frequently given short shrift in the courts. One particular concern in the diocese of Sialkot was the effective confiscation of eight church schools, which remains in place despite a subsequent ruling by the federal Government that they should be returned. That is a particular tragedy for both the Christian community and wider society given that so many of the key Muslim leaders across many aspects of Pakistani life have benefited in the past from a church school education, often giving them a wider, more tolerant perspective on those who adhere to faiths other than their own.

I could cite various examples on the other side that have sent out more hopeful and positive messages to minority religious communities in recent years. There are courageous people across Pakistan who believe in the constitutional protection of religious minorities and who seek, often very bravely, to promote that belief. I was privileged to meet some such people in my visit in 2019. However, as this is a short debate, I do not want to add to it unnecessarily. My points here are that the negative stories remind us of the continuing need for change, in which UK aid can play a significant role if carefully directed, and that the positive stories remind us that change can happen—especially when we pay proper attention to religious tolerance and the equity that flows from it.

Many of the problems for minorities emanate from the fact that they are often very poor, with illiteracy the primary cause of that poverty. Indeed, it is something of an irony that, although it was often the Christian missionary schools that began to educate many from a variety of religious backgrounds, all too often the Christian community is left behind today. As the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, pointed out, the survey taken by the Punjabi Bureau of Statistics on the social and economic well-being of women showed that, while women’s literacy in a general population was 64%, women’s illiteracy in a minority population was also 64%, showing the extraordinary imbalance between the two groups. From those statistical foundations flow unemployment, poverty, early marriages and poor health outcomes in a cycle that can be broken only by renewed efforts to improve the educational opportunities for children, especially girls, from minority communities. The UK Government could help to advance that ambition through carefully targeted aid to the educational institutes that promote it.

In conclusion, I suggest the following. First, UK aid should include religious minorities in the list of marginalised communities within Pakistan. Secondly, I support the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, that a percentage of the aid budget be set aside for minorities, using most of it on education and professional training projects, in line with the Government’s MDGs and the Pakistan Government’s allocated quotas for minority groups.

15:25
Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB)
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My Lords, I would like to see UK aid support in Pakistan focus sharply and almost entirely on identifying and supporting minority communities, of which there are of course a number of different kinds; they include the religious—such as the Ahmadi, who suffer viciously—as well as Hindu and Christian minorities.

A high percentage of those who suffer most among the minority groups are Dalits. I want to speak mainly about the Dalits, who suffer disproportionately in every area of life because of the terrible stigma of untouchability. According to the 2017 census figures for minorities, the number of registered scheduled castes in Pakistan is 849,614, but, according to researchers and Dalit activists, their number is more likely to be in the millions. They have no representation in political life. All 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims and political parties are occupied by dominant caste Hindus and Christians. The National Assembly has never had a Dalit woman parliamentarian. Despite the fact that 33% of all women have seats in the national Parliament due to temporary special measures, few political parties nominate a Dalit woman for the reserved seats. This means that they have no voice to make their plight known.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, minority communities suffer particularly in the areas of poverty, slavery and forced labour; as I suggested, a very high percentage of those who suffer in these areas will be Dalits. They are excluded from union representation and are in widespread employment in the brick kiln and agricultural sectors. As has been mentioned, Dalits—in particular children and not least women—are working in hazardous and slave-like conditions. One aspect of this is that Dalits, particularly women, are most likely to be assigned to manual scavenging. This undignified work, without any safety equipment, exposes them to death, accidents and poor health, while 80% of sanitation work in Pakistan is carried out by minority communities—mostly Dalits—through hereditary schemes.

There is another factor: water and sanitation issues are intimately linked to the mistaken notion of purity, leading to the untouchability stigma. Sanitation workers face a risk of fatality that is 10 times higher than for workers in other sectors, while Christians, a minority in the country, are the largest community represented in the sanitation workforce.

Forced marriages and conversions are widespread, as the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, emphasised. I will not add further to that except to point out the figures showing that, since 2017, no official data on forced marriages and conversions was produced, though estimates vary between 300 to 1,000 per year with only 16.67% of victims aged over 18.

Since 2006, the Pakistan Parliament has provided about 6,000 projects in a national poverty reduction scheme. This progress is welcome but none of these projects target issues specifically facing Dalits, who are floundering in a vicious cycle of poverty and lack of land, which forces them into that poorly paid employment where they can be exploited. Many take on loans from their employers and are unable to pay them back. There is a high level of suicides among this community due to this distressing economic situation. Nearly 74% of Pakistan’s Dalits are illiterate, among which 90% are Dalit women, leaving no prospects for Dalit children and thus perpetuating the problem. At the heart of it all, this is reinforced by the education programme itself as school textbooks portray Dalits as inferior, which is absolutely intolerable.

I will briefly mention in addition one point already raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. One of the most distressing features of Pakistan is the law on blasphemy, which carries a sentence of death and can be used in village or family disputes to target perfectly innocent victims. Among them are Mariyum Lal and Newsh Arooj, two Christian nurses recently charged with allegedly removing a sticker with Koranic verses from a hospital wall. Also unjustly imprisoned with the threat of death are Zafar Bhatti, Asif Pervaiz, Ashfaq Masih, Shagufta Kiran and Ishtiaq Masih, to mention just a few. My plea to our Government is that our aid should be directed almost entirely to these minority communities, and that real efforts be made to identify them, especially the Dalits among them.

15:30
Lord Bishop of Leicester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Leicester
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My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate, and I commend his tireless campaigning over the years for the UK to defend and support the rights of minorities in Pakistan. I will focus on two specific issues raised with me by members of the large Pakistani heritage community in Leicester: first, the plight of Christians forced to work as gutter cleaners with no personal protective equipment; and, secondly, the need for a small, safe and legal route for persecuted minorities to come to the UK.

Christians, who are less than 2% of the overall population, account for more than 80% of the sewerage and street-cleaning workforce in Pakistan, where hazardous conditions and a lack of workplace health and safety regulations and protective equipment cause untold preventable accidents, illnesses and deaths. The accounts of their working conditions are truly repugnant, made even more shocking by the fact that the government agencies advertise cleaning positions for Christians and other religious minorities only.

Safe and sustainable economic development and inclusion of minority groups go hand in hand; the Government’s approach to development in Pakistan must recognise that. I, too, warmly welcome the increase in the aid budget for Pakistan, as others have. Will the Government commit to targeting aid to the poorest of the poor and, in particular, the provision of protective equipment to industries where minority populations comprise the majority of the workforce? Such provision would provide an important symbol of the Government’s priorities and, moreover, save lives.

My second point relates to the provision of a small, safe and legal route for persecuted minorities to come to the UK. The well-documented case of Asia Bibi is a case in point—the Canadian Government are to be applauded for their approach, as are those Muslim leaders in this country who spoke out in support of her—but there are others. I was approached by a bishop in Pakistan to ask if I might help secure asylum for one of his priests. The priest’s brother had been murdered and there was clear evidence to suggest that others in the family were at serious risk. But despite all my efforts, and indeed the intervention of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, we could not secure a visa for the priest and his family.

Would the Minister be willing to discuss with his colleagues in the Home Office the possibility of a small, safe and legal route—in the sense of 50 or so people, not the hundreds coming by other legal routes—for persecuted minorities in Pakistan to receive a welcome in this country? Given the history of this country’s involvement in the region, I dare to suggest that we have a moral duty to offer such help.

If the Minister cannot answer these two points today, I dare to hope he might be willing to write to me. First, there are many possibilities for how our aid budget might be targeted and I dare to suggest that helping the poorest of the poor must be a priority. Secondly, where the risk is simply too great, might we also be willing to offer a route to safety for those being persecuted?

15:34
Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow this small convocation. I join all speakers in congratulating our friend the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate and his determination and perseverance on these issues. However, I will briefly raise with the Minister from the FCDO a specific point, as it is the first opportunity that I have had. I think he will understand the concern among the diplomatic community about the statement yesterday by the Home Office Minister about not recognising Gaza as part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I look forward to the Home Office writing to me, but the Minister has not so far today.

Returning to this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, kindly shared with me the draft of his report and it makes for truly depressing reading. I share his comments on the need for our friends in the Pakistan Government to adhere to the obligations that they have signed up to under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the convention on forced labour, the ILO and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, so I endorse everything that he said.

Pakistan has been and is one of our most important development partners and, of course, a diplomatic partner too. That country has seen huge UK commitment to development over the last 20 years. It has also seen enormous progress itself, halving poverty in 25 years, but there are concerns that this progress is now in doubt, with 40% of that population—95 million people—living below the poverty line. I want to commend British officials, especially those who have been in DfID, for the work that they have done and their programmes. Over those years, UK development reach has secured clean water and sanitation for more than 2.5 million people. More than 2 million children have received a decent education as a result of British support and partnership, including more than 1 million children under five, and women and adolescent girls. That point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Foster.

UK support, working with our NGOs and the Pakistan Government, has brought about results, but that does not mean we take focus away from the points made in this debate. UK support in partnership with Pakistan in 2017-18 was £441 million. It went down to £77 million and is now rising again, which I support. Pakistan remains the sixth largest bilateral program for the United Kingdom, so is a very strong priority for us.

I also commend the Aawaz programme. My understanding is that, over the last decade or so, the Aawaz programme has been focusing on accountability and the inclusion of at-risk groups. This has been a £90 million programme, with the second phase of it addressing modern slavery. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that child labour, child and forced marriage, gender-based violence, and human trafficking and modern slavery remain a priority of the programmes that will be going forward.

I will use two sources for the remainder of my comments: the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s 2023 review of UK development support, including for Pakistan, and the House of Commons International Development Select Committee’s 2022 review. The ICAI report highlighted some of the concerns and difficulties in delivering some development support, because of the increased restrictions faced by and backtracking on civil society, with media restrictions and, as ICAI put it, “increasingly populist politics”. As the ICAI report highlighted

“the UK government decided to deprioritise democracy objectives”.

I would be grateful if the Minister could say whether the Consolidating Democracy in Pakistan programme will be brought back, in either its previous or a revised form. Will we be reprioritising the civil society and democracy reforms that had been part of previous programmes, all of which are focused on ensuring that there is space for minorities—not only for their development but to participate in the public space?

The final element I wish to highlight is that the Select Committee and ICAI reports called for the UK to have a more systematic implementation of human rights objectives in its policies and programmes. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether, if we are increasing support, it will include support for civil and political space, human rights and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked, individual minority groups within the country.

15:39
Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate. He has heard me say many times that violations of freedom of religion or belief do not happen in isolation. Countries that fail to respect religious freedom or the basic right to no belief invariably also fail to respect other basic human rights.

I start with a specific question regarding the Afghans whom we addressed in the Urgent Question Repeat last Wednesday and who are at risk of being forcibly returned by the Government of Pakistan. Last week, the Minister said that Pakistan had not made a “formal announcement” recommencing the removals, although it was talking to representatives of the Pakistani Government, and stressed the need to uphold international humanitarian commitments. What is the department doing to track developments? Have any further representations been made since the Urgent Question on 17 April?

In this debate, we heard in some detail about the experiences of Christians in Pakistan—including, as the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, highlighted, accusations of forced conversion and forced marriage, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, highlighted, violence and attacks on places of worship. The blasphemy laws continue to be used as a pretext for persecution, with a culture of impunity.

During our debate on 25 March about the persecution of Christians, the Minister said that he had recently spoken to Pakistan’s new Foreign Minister, Ishaq Dar. Can the Minister give us more detail and an update on those conversations? Has he had any further ones?

I want to focus on what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, highlighted: the bonded labour sustaining a caste system that massively and disproportionately affects minorities. Pakistan has one of the highest numbers of bonded labourers in the world. According to reports, there are more than 1 million workers in brick kilns in Pakistan. Apart from brick kilns, bonded labour is most prevalent in agriculture, and the carpet-weaving and mining industries. I am grateful to the noble Lord for highlighting the excellent work of the APPG for Pakistani Minorities and its inquiry into the brick kiln workers; although it continues its work and has not yet reported, its draft report highlighted the failure to implement constitutional prohibitions on modern slavery and laws against bonded labour.

We need to hear from the Minister about how we are using the UK aid budget—as we have heard, it will increase to £133 million next year—for greater scrutiny and monitoring of compliance with the ILO conventions on the prevention of slave labour, on child rights and on women’s rights. Although the Government of Pakistan have passed legislation to outlaw the practice, as we have heard, implementation of the law is basically non-existent.

In their response to the Commons International Development Committee’s report in November 2022, the Government said:

“We prioritise our aid to achieve maximum impact for the people of Pakistan in line with our strategic priorities, including promoting FoRB. Our Accountability, Inclusion and Reducing Modern Slavery programme … brings together community leaders and minority representatives to promote tolerance”.


I ask the Minister: does it specifically address the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton? Does it include advice to businesses in relation to the high risk of modern slavery in the brick kilns in Pakistan? Surely we should be using these programmes to support provincial labour inspectorates to ensure that they can fulfil their obligations, including support in the use of modern technology so that they are much more able. These are straightforward, simple things that we can do and which can make a huge difference.

Finally, what are we doing to support the Government of Pakistan to ensure implementation of the existing legislation? We need to do more. I remind the noble Lord that I have constantly raised the issue of working with trade unions. What are we doing with the international trade union movement and the ILO to ensure compliance with these important conventions?

15:45
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 extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for convening this debate and for his kind remarks at the conclusion of his speech. I thank my noble friend as well for what he said about my personal and professional commitment to this important agenda. I also thank my noble friend Lady Foster, for her kind comments, but while I accept this graciously, I also accept fully that the challenge we have over freedom of religion or belief around the world is immense. That is why I have been delighted, over the years, to support work on Christian persecution and the work that has been undertaken by my department in this respect. It has been recognised by many and has been transposed into policies and programmes. That said, as we have heard from all noble Lords during this brief but important debate, the challenges remain immense.

I begin by paying tribute to the strong advocacy of human rights in Pakistan, particularly for oppressed minorities, from the various all-party groups. I pay tribute particularly to Javaid Rehman, with whom I work very closely—I met him recently, albeit briefly and coincidentally—and to the work of Morris Johns. He is amazing in what he does and I join in the tributes of the noble Lord, Lord Alton.

I also thank all noble Lords for their contributions. The noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, raised a number of points on prioritisations, from bonded labour, which I will come on to, to modern slavery. I was delighted to meet my right honourable friend the former Prime Minister Theresa May, at the launch of her Global Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking. She is playing a very active role in getting that commission set up and I am sure that, as she looks at the key priorities of countries, she will be working constructively with Pakistan, a country she knows well.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, among others, raised the importance of increasing aid. When we look at the stats, almost one-third of Pakistan’s population lives in poverty, and this was exacerbated by the devastating floods in Pakistan in 2022, when 33 million people were directly impacted. I remember visiting Sindh and seeing that the most vulnerable and marginalised were the ones who suffered. Therefore I am delighted that our programme looking specifically at some of the key minority parties, which I will come on to explain, is being expanded into Sindh.

I acknowledge at the outset—as I was saying to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, just before the start of the debate—the need, which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, also acknowledged, to visit Pakistan. I think it helps. It helps the British Government in explaining some of our priorities and it provides valuable context on some of these challenges. Some of the communities that suffer, frankly, particularly those who are the most economically and socially marginalised and indeed come from a minority faith, often just accept what is being endured as the norm. We need to ensure that the investment in education is key, as my noble friend Lady Foster pointed out. That is why I am proud, over the years, of the commitment of successive Governments to 12 years of quality education for girls, but we need to ensure empowerment and access as well. The noble Baroness also talked about the situation in Thailand. I am seized of that issue, but I agree with her that, when we see what is happening there, it must have been pretty desperate for them to be in that situation.

The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Collins, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford referred to the issue of bonded labour in Pakistan. I welcome this report, because again it draws an important prioritisation on this issue. It is real and we need to face it. The UK is committed, I assure the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, to eradicating all forms of modern slavery and human trafficking and we work with international partners, the IOM in particular, on the important issue of modern slavery.

I will take back the issue of trade unions in Pakistan, to see what kind of work is taking place. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that it is a weak structure, but it is important that we continue to see how we can further work in co-operation with key bodies.

I will answer some immediate questions on the report. We have supported the Pakistani authorities to undertake the first child labour surveys in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. We are now using that data to support policy formulation on child bonded labour, including the formation of child protection systems. The UK is also working very closely on the issue of modern slavery through the £26 million we have allocated to the regional child labour programme—the FCDO’s largest modern slavery programme—which helps to deliver the UK’s commitment not just in Pakistan but in Bangladesh and India.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of Afghanistan, which I have followed through. I have not yet had any further updates or announcements, but I will of course keep the noble Lord and the Grand Committee informed. We are very much seized of the situation in Afghanistan. Yesterday, I once again met the courageous Fawzia Koofi, a former vice-president of the National Assembly in Afghanistan, to understand the issue of the discrimination and marginalisation of women that continues in Afghanistan.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford highlighted the injustices, discrimination, economic exclusion and wider intolerance suffered by minority communities in Pakistan. We condemn unequivocally the desecration of religious sites and graves and the violence against individuals, and we want perpetrators to be held accountable. On a personal note, I will be courageous enough to say to all noble Lords participating in the debate that no one knows better than I about the challenges that the Ahmadi Muslim community faces.

The right reverend Prelate asked about safe and legal routes. I know that the community has worked consistently with successive Governments on the importance of those fleeing asylum because of religious persecution. While the Government have a very robust policy on immigration, as we have seen in recent months, it is important to sustain, maintain and strengthen those seeking asylum in the UK, particularly those who are persecuted simply because of their faith. Let us be frank: I have seen the benefit of those who have come to our country. When you look at a proper analysis, they make an incredible contribution to the progress of our country, and we are richer for it. I can speak with some personal experience on that front, too.

Overall, our development budget for Pakistan this year is more than tripling, as noble Lords have acknowledged. I will spend some time on the specifics that have been raised. I assure all noble Lords that we are very much seized on some of the key priorities. On the brick kilns, I visited a zig-zag kiln in Lahore in 2021 with the then high commissioner, Christian Turner. On a more amusing note, the last thing that you want to do as a suited and booted British Minister is to be put on top of a brick kiln in the middle of summer—so I know how it feels. The zig-zag technology used in Pakistan evolves the brick kiln operation into something that is a substitute for coal, will reduce emissions and will improve the welfare of brick kiln workers. For some of the workers, that is their only source of income, so we need to ensure that there is an effective transition, both for cleaner energy and to protect their rights. I have seen that in operation. The UK’s £46.5 million Aawaz accountability, inclusion and reducing modern slavery programme is working to tackle child bonded labour directly, alongside the formation of the child protection systems that noble Lords alluded to. I have already mentioned the importance of the surveys; having read the ICAI report, I will follow up on specific elements.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others who came to see me in the aftermath of the appalling mob attack against the Christian community in Jaranwala last August. I have a regular drumbeat of visits to the region to ensure that the houses are being repaired—they are—and that the places of worship are being repaired, which I am informed they are. The issue of compensation is important, and I am told that it has begun. We want to follow through on that. Indeed, when I met the Foreign Minister from the new Government of Pakistan during his recent visit to London—as well as in my first meeting by phone call with the Human Rights Minister—I prioritised the issues of minority rights and forced marriages in our conversation.

The harms of forced marriages, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others, are very clear, and we want to tackle them. There is a phrase in Islam, from the Koran, “Lā ’ikrāha fi d-dīn”, which means, “There is no compulsion in religion”. We need to ensure that that is carried through. I was pleased that we were able to exercise human rights sanctions in our human rights regime on a particular individual who exercised this vulgar practice.

I am conscious of time, but I assure noble Lords, including the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that I shall look specifically at the issue that he raised about Dalits. They are among the most marginalised of the marginalised, and we need to stand up and ensure that their rights are equally protected. There are a variety of other programmes, including GOAL, which looks at improving education outcomes, with a focus on minorities, and we will continue to focus on minority communities. I assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford on that, as well as the other Bishops—indeed, we have three bishops. The buses analogy comes to mind, but I shall not use that here. Their contribution to this debate is particularly welcome; we are following through in a range of initiatives, in prioritising and ensuring that education is not in any way lost.

Meanwhile, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, will be pleased to learn that our hate speech and disinformation programme aims to protect vulnerable groups with a focus on making digital spaces safer for women and religious minorities. In the run-up to the general election in Pakistan in February we supported voter education, and we also support, through the UK’s Magna Carta Fund, Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights and the Minister for Human Rights. The review of technical assistance for Pakistan’s national curriculum has also remained a vital priority, and we continue to work with the new Government in that respect. The £130 million Girls and Out of School: Action for Learning programme focuses on improving teacher quality and learner outcomes for children in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I assure my noble friend Lady Foster that we are working to ensure that much of this fund is allocated specifically to the education and protection of minorities. When I had my call with the Law Minister, Azam Nazeer Tarar, we looked specifically at freedom of religion as a key priority of our continuing relationship.

On the final point that I shall make—I shall of course follow up on any questions that I have not been able to answer—on a positive note, some progress has been made. We have seen the route for Sikh pilgrims into Pakistan being sustained and protected. We recently saw through our initiatives Pakistani Ministers attend various events, including during Easter and Eid, which involved all communities being in attendance. We continue to stress to Pakistan the importance of inclusivity, particularly for minority communities such as Christians and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, which are particularly persecuted and denied voting rights. You either claim that you are a non-Muslim, if you want to vote, or you cannot vote at all. That is fundamentally flawed and needs to be corrected.

I shall continue to work with noble Lords on these important priorities to ensure that we deliver them. I know that we are short of time. I do not know whether we are up against the time on the clock—we have three minutes, I think.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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Could I just ask the Minister about the brick kiln report and the draft recommendations? Will he commit to write to those who have taken part in today’s proceedings, responding to the recommendations?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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I shall do so. I have read part of it—as I say, it is an active part of what we are looking at, and there is a series of work that we have been doing on brick kilns. I stress the importance of transition in a way that is practical and does not end up with people having no money at all—but I shall certainly respond formally.

I thank all noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for convening us on this important issue.

Prisons: Foreign National Offenders

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Question for Short Debate
16:00
Asked by
Lord Jackson of Peterborough Portrait Lord Jackson of Peterborough
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce the proportion of foreign national offenders incarcerated across the prison estate.

Lord Jackson of Peterborough Portrait Lord Jackson of Peterborough (Con)
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My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to raise this important and timely matter—one that has been debated at some length both here and in the other place over recent months. My aim in this debate is to seek clarity and an understanding of not merely the policy direction of His Majesty’s Government, which is commendably clear, but whether they have the determination, political will, focus and resources to achieve their publicly stated objectives. This will of necessity involve me asking a number of questions of the Minister, for which I beg your Lordships’ indulgence.

At the outset, I would make the point and concede that issues relating to foreign national offenders are clearly linked to bigger economic, social and geopolitical issues in respect of immigration and displaced persons, which affect almost every country in Europe and will be a big problem for whichever party is elected to government at the general election later this year.

The most recent figures indicate that we have a foreign national offenders population of 10,423 in our prison estate—approximately 12% of the total population of more than 87,000. That is an increase of 13.6% since 2019. Each FNO costs an average of approximately £40,000 per annum to keep incarcerated and, of course, takes up valuable prison places, which, as we know, are at capacity or near capacity—notwithstanding the Government’s ambition to deliver 10,000 additional prison places by the end of next year.

However, the Government are removing significantly fewer foreign national offenders than they did even five years ago. In 2023, only 3,936 removals took place, compared to 6,437 in 2016, 6,292 in 2017 and 5,518 in 2018. In 2012, we removed more than 15,000 foreign prisoners. The Government are to be congratulated on their initiatives to address this situation—such as the May 2023 prisoner transfer agreement with Albania, which accounted for 37% of removals last year—but it prompts a wider question as to why so many Albanian criminals, who are easily the biggest cohort of FNOs in the prison estate, were admitted to the United Kingdom in the first place, especially as they were never able to exercise their rights as members of the European Union. The National Crime Agency has warned that Albanians have driven organised crime in Greater London and other parts of the UK.

On the subject of Albanians, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the German Government are quite content to derogate parts of the European Convention on Human Rights to prevent multiple vexatious and spurious claims by Albanian criminals? Why have we not done the same and saved the British taxpayer millions of pounds? In addition, the Germans are seeking to legislate with tough proposals to deport gang members with proven criminal links, even if they have no criminal convictions. The German Minister of the Interior, Nancy Faeser, has visited a number of countries, such as Morocco, Kenya, Colombia, Moldova and Uzbekistan, in order to secure potential deals to receive migrants. She stated that the package

“is necessary so that we can continue to meet our humanitarian responsibility to people we have to protect from war and terrorism”—

such as the 1.1 million refugees from Ukraine—and said:

“In order to protect the fundamental right to asylum, we have to clearly limit irregular migration”.


Why have our Government not considered similar measures, as a close neighbour and a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights?

Close to a third of FNOs are citizens of an EU country, most of whom exercised their rights under the free movement directives of 2004 and 2008 and committed offences for which they were given a custodial sentence, prior to the United Kingdom formally leaving the EU in 2020. May I press the Minister to tell the Committee how many of them have been removed using the public policy, public health and public security provisions of the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2016, which still obtain?

While much is made of bilateral prisoner transfer agreements with over 100 countries, the actual results are disappointing. Why, for instance, have we not deported any Jamaican prisoners, as I understand it, under the prisoner transfer agreement concluded nine years ago with that country, and with a sweetener of £25 million to build a new jail on the island? Why do we routinely not deport prisoners to the Republic of Ireland, our closest neighbour? Between them, the two countries represent an FNO cohort of over 1,000 prisoners. Why are Irish criminals treated as special cases?

Can the Minister confirm that any new prisoner transfer agreements will be centred on compulsory repatriation, rather than voluntary or those with the prisoners’ consent? The latter has resulted in not much more than a pitiful one prisoner a week being sent home to their own country to complete their sentence. More generally, will my noble friend update the Committee on progress in respect of existing prisoner arrangements, including the new one with the Philippines?

These are, broadly speaking, bipartisan issues. I trust that we are beyond the spectacle of Labour Members of Parliament, Peers and others who should have known better attaching their names to letters imploring the Government, as in December 2020, not to deport prolific and violent offenders, murderers, rapists and drug dealers to their own country.

I note the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (Removal of Prisoners for Deportation) Order, debated last year in your Lordships’ House, which increased the early removal window in the early removals scheme from 12 to 18 months. It appears sensible and reasonable, but it has naturally prompted a number of important questions six months on. What are the costs of the policy against the benefits? What legal challenges have materialised and how many prisoners have been removed as a result of the new scope of the policy? Furthermore, what steps are being taken to advise and communicate with the victims of these crimes, who might reasonably expect criminals to be incarcerated for as long as possible, as per the decision of a court and due process?

I find it odd that we are quite content to incarcerate foreign criminals for a custodial sentence of less than 12 months and then, upon their release, allow them to claim asylum as if they are good citizens, rather than individuals who have grievously abused the hospitality of British taxpayers. How can this outdated policy, the 12 months’ cut-off for deportation, be allowed to continue without review? After all, between 2007 and 2017, 13,000 individuals were convicted of rape or sexual assault and were not sentenced to immediate custody—not 12 months, 12 weeks or 12 days. In the case of EEA citizens, the Home Office could remove them immediately on grounds of public safety. Why does it not? In the case of others, we have measures contained in the Immigration Act 2014 which can be exercised to remove foreign nationals who are “persistent offenders” or have committed offences which resulted in “serious harm”.

I raised the issue of asylum-seeker criminal convictions in the House on 8 February in the wake of the notorious Abdul Ezedi case and was told rather indignantly by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans that reports of religious conversions by the Church of England to assist bogus applicants were untrue and unsubstantiated. Imagine my surprise a few weeks later to learn that an announcement had been made in the General Synod that an urgent inquiry by the Church hierarchy had been commissioned to look at these same allegations. Perhaps my noble and learned friend the Minister will discuss this issue with his colleagues in the Home Office, as I understand that they have undertaken to thoroughly investigate these well-sourced claims.

There is a fundamental reason we are not deporting more foreign national offenders: it is as a result of chronic and endemic mismanagement in the criminal justice system. It is why we have, according to the CPS, nearly 12,000 such individuals living in the community who should have been removed—an increase of 192% in the past 12 years.

I also ask my noble and learned friend the Minister to look favourably on the amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill tabled by my right honourable friend Robert Jenrick in the other place, which would compel Ministers to report regularly on the nationality, visa status and asylum status of every offender convicted in England and Wales, and therefore allow the Home Office to amend its policies to respond to operational needs, as has happened in countries such as Denmark.

I will finish with some comments about the report published in June last year by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. As we know, it highlighted the endemic problem of poor data collection, information systems and management to the extent that the inspectorate could not ascertain key data on either the early removal scheme or the facilitated return scheme. The report’s most egregious example was:

“To facilitate the case sampling exercise, FNORC provided inspectors with a spreadsheet containing 558 lines of data. Following initial analysis of the information, inspectors removed 242 duplicate records”.


Half the data in this audited sample was incorrect. The report noted that:

“It is unacceptable that the department cannot produce clear and reliable data on the FNOs for whom it is responsible”.


Time is short, so I finish by saying to my noble and learned friend that I welcome the key recommendations in the report on data management, performance reporting, casework review and case ownership and management. I hope that he can update us on efforts to address these serious failings and the actions taken thus far by both his own department and the Home Office in response to the report published last year. The public expect their elected Government to fulfil the most basic function: to protect their citizens and subjects and safeguard their borders in so doing. At present, we are negligent in discharging those duties, and taxpayers rightly expect us to do all we can to face up to these problems and fix a broken and dysfunctional system.

16:13
Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, if a foreign national offends while being a guest in our country, we have every right to deport them, but we must not pretend that this is any more than a flea bite compared with the challenges of prison overcrowding and court backlog, which are at the heart of the crisis in our criminal justice system. Nevertheless, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jackson, for securing this debate, and at a time that gives those of wishing to take part a goodly time to expound our views.

My interest goes back to the time between 2010 and 2017 when I was, first, Minister of State and then chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales. For the first couple of years, I served with the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Nottingham, who was then Ken Clarke and served as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice with the much-missed Igor Judge as Lord Chief Justice. As a non-lawyer, I found my contact with them both extremely educational, although I probably learned more about the goings on of the east Midlands circuit than was strictly necessary. I count it a great privilege to have worked with them both.

When we came into office, we found that prison numbers had roughly doubled since Ken had been Home Secretary in the early 1980s. We sent some modest proposals over to manage prison numbers down to below the 80,000 mark. The message came back from No. 10 that our proposals were “not politically deliverable”. When some of our ideas did surface, a Labour spokesman in the Commons immediately denounced us for planning to liberate all kinds of dangerous criminals.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem that faces Governments. They are always trying to run up the down escalator with prison numbers. We all know that our prisons are full to bursting yet, on 13 March, the Government announced actions on sentencing, with those committing the most serious crimes being sentenced to 40% longer behind bars, increased sentence maximums for the worst offenders and the blocked release of offenders where it would pose an unacceptable risk to society. All this was with the promise of 10,000 new prison places by the end of next year and 20,000 new places overall. That means that, sometime within the next decade, we will see 100,000 people in our prisons.

It is against this background that we look at proposals to reduce the number of foreign national offenders in our prisons. At present, they account for about 10,500 people—12% of the prison population. Each costs £40,000 or more a year.

During my time at the MoJ, we had a number of exchanges and training programmes with Balkan countries, including Albania. They provided for the development of probation and other support services that facilitated the safe repatriation of prisoners.

In the excellent briefing provided on the current state of play, it states that exceptions to the powers to deport in the Borders Act 2007 include an offender being under 18 at the time of the offence. However, cases have been drawn to my attention where offenders have been brought to England as a child, committed a serious offence under the age of 18 and faced deportation to a country when, in many cases, they do not know its language or have any knowledge of it at all. In replying, could the Minister spell out the rules for such offenders? Could we also hear whether any special programmes are available in advance of deportation, akin to those in place before domestic release had been put in place? I refer to how we have continually urged, as I know the department is trying to make sure, that the best chance of rehabilitation is to make proper plans in advance about where a prisoner will go on release, where he will live and, if possible, where he will be employed.

As has already been referred to, the UK has 110 prisoner transfer agreements with other countries. The noble Lord, Lord Jackson, mentioned the one with Albania, and we also concluded one with the Philippines. Are we in negotiations with any other big countries? Is there a big gap? The noble Lord referred to Ireland—but, with a name like McNally, I understand the reasons why Ireland has exceptions, and they go back many decades. It would be interesting to know where we are going.

I find the Albanian agreement encouraging, as I went to Albania as a Minister to help with the establishment of its probation service and with the early stages of an agreement on prisoner exchange. I later discovered that the number of British prisoners in Albanian jails at that time was nil and the number of Albanian prisoners in our jails who voluntarily wanted to return to the Tirana Hilton was also nil. We do need to beef up these agreements.

The other things that the noble Lord, Lord Jackson, referred to were the early removal scheme and the facilitated return scheme. As he said, these were severely criticised by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, who said that the schemes were “not being administered effectively”. The noble Lord mentioned the four-point plan that was put forward by the Chief Inspector; as the noble Lord requested, could we be updated on those key recommendations?

I quote the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, who said recently that

“a measure of this kind involves making a series of balances between the possible effects on victims and the possible effect on deterrence”.—[Official Report, 26/10/23; col. 688.]

What consultation takes place with victims of crime before the process of deportation? For us, it may be attractive to say that we are getting rid of somebody who has committed a serious crime; to the victim, that might sound like an easy release from punishment for the crime.

All in all, I enjoyed my seven years at the MoJ. Perhaps “enjoyed” is the wrong word; I certainly came away with great respect for the work that people do with prisoners and in prisons in terms of this difficult task of dealing with foreign prisoners. I hope that the raising of this issue by the noble Lord, Lord Jackson, will give the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, an opportunity to assure us that the challenges of this area are well in hand.

16:22
Lord Farmer Portrait Lord Farmer (Con)
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My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who is experienced on this subject. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Jackson on securing this important and relevant debate and on his many specific questions.

Many of our prisons are operating at full capacity and at great cost to the public purse. Rehabilitation, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and is a vital function of prisons—I will address mainly this subject in my contribution—is made considerably harder by overcrowding. Deporting foreign national offenders is key to the overall strategy to reduce the proportion held in our jails. However, we must also get better at reducing reoffending among foreign nationals so that those who cannot be deported do not come back in again.

Eligibility for deportation varies with sentence length and severity. There are many grounds for exception, although the ministerial Statement on 11 March laid out a far more stringent approach—particularly to short-sentenced FNOs. I make no judgment one way or another as to whether there are too many or not enough exceptions. I simply draw attention to the reasons why, according to that Statement in March, only 3,600 FNOs might be returned, leaving almost two-thirds of the 10,000 FNOs in place.

Given that many will be released back into the community, their rehabilitation is not an indulgence but an imperative. The “families and relationships” rehabilitation pathway is by far the most successful. In general, prisoners who receive family visits are 39% less likely to reoffend than those who do not. Hence, if the relationships are not criminogenic, there are significant benefits to prisoners of retaining close ties with people outside prison; for FNOs, this will often include families overseas.

When I did my two prison reviews, prison governors told me that only about half of the general prison population received family visits and that foreign national offenders’ families can be thousands of miles away. This is why I recommended giving any prisoner whose families would struggle to visit access to video-calling technology. The revolution to do this, fast-tracked by Covid, was game-changing. Is data still collected on the number of social video calls in prisons? In some prisons I have visited recently, this seems to have been deprioritised.

Encouragingly, as part of the reviews’ ongoing implementation, HMPPS now requires family services to include initiatives for prisoners who have no active family ties. However, if the mantra of my review, that the importance of relationships should be the golden thread running through all the processes of prison, is to be more than just a slogan, it requires a systemic shift in how prisons function. I see many signs that the Transforming Prisons directorate has fully taken this on board for the purposes of future training, so it is baked into planning for new builds and refurbished establishments. However, we also urgently need a more relational approach across the existing prison estate and among today’s prisoners and officers.

Just after Covid, I did an addendum to my two original reviews and emphasised the importance of peer-to-peer support programmes, especially in early days of custody. The plentiful resource of sentenced prisoners must be part of the solution. In the chaos of reception prisons, systems can be very confusing, especially for first-timers, yet understanding them is essential for settling in. Basic needs, including for family contact but also for such things as underwear, false teeth and reading glasses, often go unmet. The sense of helplessness and despair is greatly amplified for foreign prisoners, who face language and cultural barriers. One-third of all prison suicides occur within the first week in custody and the sense of isolation can play a decisive role. On my post-Covid visits, I have found that well-supervised peer support schemes greatly increase prisoners’ ability to take responsibility for their own lives and contribute to the well-being of others during this period. Setting the right trends at the reception stage can transform the whole of a prisoner’s journey.

In HMP Bullingdon, for example, “Hear to Help” prisoner mentors, wearing distinctive purple shirts, play a key support role in early days in custody, visiting everyone when they come on to the wing and doing what officers cannot. Officers are time-poor, mentors are time-rich, and they have often learned the hard way what works and what does not work in prison: they are people the men can connect with and relate to. One mentor said, “We have helped a lot of people and saved lives”. Indeed, a first-time prisoner told me he would not have survived the early days of his sentence without the help of his mentor. Many prisoners have a lack of trust for authority, are anti-uniform and have a fighter mentality. One mentor described prisoners’ violent behaviour as their “safety net”, their go-to response. It is where they feel safe, but it does not actually solve things.

Mentors provide a different safety net for prisoners’ frustrations and anger. They bring isolated people out of their cells, and their shells, encourage them to do things and “talk to them straight” about their cases and their trials. Without access to this peer support, it can take men several months to settle in, but with their help and presence, it is a lot quicker. These mentors are building community by being good role models and hubs around which positive behaviours coalesce.

You might think, where do you find the paragons of virtue who will take responsibility to look after other prisoners in a jail? For these “Hear to Help” mentors, the job itself gave them the turning point to pivot. Most were previously in trouble in prison, but the responsibility turned them around, and got them to work as a team and develop a whole new sense of purpose. They need to be well-supervised by dedicated senior prison officers who know how to build teams and are relationally brilliant. The scheme in Bullingdon is led by a woman who previously worked with struggling families in the community.

Foreign nationals serving very long sentences need a completely different type of peer support: less help to navigate the confusing prison system and more help to navigate their minds. They need to come to terms with what they have done and the fact of long-term incarceration. In HMP Dartmoor, there is more of an emphasis on training ordinary prisoners to deliver what are effectively low-level psychological interventions. Can my noble friend the Minister give the Committee an indication of the prevalence of peer support schemes that go way beyond the traditional orderly system and what plans they have to proliferate them? I also take the opportunity to ask about their plans to house prisoners overseas. What proportion would be FNOs? Can the Government confirm that family ties will be a key consideration in determining which prisoners are held overseas?

To reiterate, there are many foreign nationals we will not be able to deport and many will have very high-risk factors for reoffending. What happens in prison can heighten or mitigate those risks. As one senior governor who oversees several prisons told me:

“Some people have never learned how to be relational—how to turn themselves around and take advantage of the positive opportunities prison can provide. It’s not about being soft or hard on crime, it’s about what works”.

16:31
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Jackson of Peterborough, for initiating this debate, which has been very informed. I look forward to the Minister’s response in due course.

The Lords Library briefing explains that under UK legislation, the Government have a duty to consider deporting foreign nationals convicted of an offence in the UK and sentenced to at least 12 months’ imprisonment. They can remove foreign national offenders before the end of their prison sentence through various schemes and through prisoner transfer agreements. Prisons refer all cases involving foreign national offenders to the Home Office’s Foreign National Offenders Returns Command to consider whether deportation based on criminality is appropriate. The FNORC has overall responsibility for the management and removal of FNOs. Prisons which are exclusively used for foreign national offenders or are hub prisons have embedded Home Office caseworkers to help progress immigration casework.

In October 2023, the Government introduced changes to the early removal scheme under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. This extended the removal window from 12 months to 18 months, subject to the minimum required proportion of time having been served. Then in March, the Government announced that they will release prisoners up to two months early, to deal with the lack of space in our prisons. Prisoners may be released not 18 days early but up to an unprecedented 60 days early. We have argued that there are consequences to this decision, which are that people who have broken the law and, in many cases, pose an ongoing threat to the law-abiding public are directly benefiting from the Government’s decision to permit early release. Do the Government regret that they were in the position to have to make that decision?

The Government tell us that they will free up more spaces in our prisons by cracking down on the number of foreign national offenders, who are taking up space that we can ill afford to spare when they have no right to be in our country. The number that the Government deported last year are significantly lower than the number they inherited in 2010, when 5,383 foreign national offenders were deported in the last year of the Labour Government. Meanwhile, thousands of foreign national offenders are living in the community, as I think the noble Lords, Lord Farmer and Lord McNally, both said, post release for several years without being removed. Will the Minister acknowledge that this is the result of chaos and incompetence by the Government he represents, and that it is putting the public at risk and leaving Britain less safe?

The noble Lord, Lord Jackson, said—very fairly—that this problem will persist whichever political party is in government; that was a fair point for him to make when he opened his contribution. He went on to say that Albanians form a disproportionately large proportion of the FNOs in our prisons. I hope that the Minister can address specifically what he hopes will happen with the removal of prisoners back to Albania. Of course, we in the Labour Party accept the need to stop irregular arrivals and manage the deportation of FNOs as quickly as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that this problem is a gnat’s bite for the overall problems. I am not sure I agree with that comment. My local prison is Wandsworth Prison and I would say—this is certainly my perception, from everything that I have been told by everyone I know who works around or in that prison—that it is actually a significant problem in certain prisons. It may be a gnat’s bite overall but a very significant problem for certain prisons.

I thought I might mention my own experience in visiting foreign prisons, which I have done in various capacities over the years. I have been to a prison in Minsk, a prison in Sarajevo and prisons in Tashkent, and they are variable. It is interesting to me that the buildings in Sarajevo were about the same age as our Victorian prisons here in London. It was not too bad, actually; that was my experience. In the prison in Minsk, while the dormitories were very overcrowded, there was in fact a lot of open space where the prisoners could exercise better, in many ways, than what we see in our own country. The prison in Tashkent had a very good bakery and there seemed to be an active programme in trying to rehabilitate people. So, in my experience, prisons overseas are not as bad as one might fear from reading about them in certain types of documentation.

I think I have heard the themes of the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, in other speeches which he has given. He opened by saying that rehabilitation is hampered by overcrowding, which is of course true. He talked about social video calls and asked whether they can be kept going; I do not know whether the Minister will be able to comment on that, but that seems to be a desirable thing to keep going as far as possible. The noble Lord also spoke about the work of mentors in prisons. It reminded me that I recently read Chris Atkins’ book about being a prisoner in Wandsworth Prison and the work that he did as a mentor; he literally saved lives while working as a mentor there.

The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, made a lot of pertinent and interesting points. Nevertheless, this debate is about foreign national offenders. I look forward to the Minister’s answers to the questions raised, in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Jackson.

16:38
Lord Bellamy Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bellamy) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who participated in this debate, in particular my noble friend Lord Jackson of Peterborough for raising this most important issue. I am not sure that I shall be able to answer in detail all the questions that I have rightly been asked in this debate, but my officials will go through the transcript and I will write to everybody to make sure that the questions are properly answered.

Briefly, by way of background, noble Lords will see from the House of Lords report that there is a dip in the numbers and that they have started to climb again since the Covid crisis. I am told that, in effect, the dip is accounted for by various difficulties encountered by the Home Office at the time. They include quite a number of legal challenges. One that went to the Supreme Court was on something then called Section 94B, which operated the principle of “deport first, appeal later”; it was lost and, as a result, 700 cases had to be redone. Then, in 2019, there were legal proceedings that, as noble Lords may remember, challenged a lot of charter flights. In the meantime, the modern slavery law came into effect, which increased the number of modern slavery claims being made by prisoners. So a combination of factors led to that decline even before we had Covid, but Covid then had a further adverse effect.

Since then, we have climbed up again, to nearly 4,000 last year—a 27% increase on the year before. I just say that by way of background. I do not accept the stricture that the Government have been in a position of chaos and incompetence; I think those were the words used. The Government have been doing their best with a very difficult situation.

Against that background, briefly, there are, roughly speaking, about 10,000 or so prisoners who are foreign national offenders. About one-third of those are on remand. We cannot do anything about that, so we are talking about 6,500 people or something of that kind. Of course, there are also foreign nationals in the community —that is the number in prison—but we are doing our level best to improve performance in that respect. As I said, we returned nearly 4,000 FNOs from prison last year.

The Lord Chancellor has talked about the new measures that we are introducing; they include the early removal scheme, with which noble Lords are familiar. Between January and March this year, almost 400 foreign national offenders were removed—a 61% increase over the same period last year. Part of this is also due to the increasing use of prisoner transfer agreements. I shall say a word about that because it has, rightly, cropped up in the debate.

The Albanian agreement came into effect, or was improved, in May 2023 in order to speed up prison transfers, with greater numbers of the most serious offenders to be sent back to Albania. That is continuing but, even in the case of Albanian prisoners, there are still procedural difficulties that cause delays in the process. For example, each transfer has to be approved by the Albanian courts, which must sanction the Albanian authorities’ power to hold the prisoners, as it were, when they arrive back in Albania. It is a lengthy process; indeed, quite apart from prisoner transfer agreements, one is wrestling with some difficult issues in physically deporting a foreign national offender. Often, there will be very late appeals and all kinds of claims raised. In many cases, there will be absolutely no documentation, so you do not even know what country they come from; you then cannot prove where to send them or prove to the receiving state that they are indeed nationals of that state. These kinds of difficulties arise, quite apart from the physical problems of having an aircraft, escorting people and all those kinds of difficulties.

One should not underestimate the operational problems here but the Government are determinedly working on them. A better process has been introduced for dealing with foreign national offenders. There is a new task force across the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, and we have recruited 400 additional case workers to prioritise these cases; they have been in place since last month and will streamline the end-to-end process. So the Government are tackling the problem in general terms.

With that broad background, I will see whether I can deal with at least some of the questions I was asked. I will write to noble Lords on the problem of derogations from the convention, which was one of the points raised on the ECHR.

I think the problem with Jamaica has been the difficulty of reaching a political agreement with the Jamaican Government—I think that that is the case, but I will confirm it in writing. The Albanian example is working quite well. We have agreements with many other countries, but they are not always effective, because prison conditions in other countries are not very satisfactory. Sometimes, the agreement is to enable British prisoners in the foreign prison to come back—a recent example was from the Philippines—rather than for us to send people there, so it is a complicated area.

I do not think I can comment on the specific case of Abdul Ezedi in a debate such as this.

We will work very hard to implement the recommendations of the chief inspector’s report. Points about that were well made. It is another aspect where there can be improvement, but, as I said, we are well up—I gave the figure of 61%—on the equivalent period last year in our success in deporting foreign nationals.

Lord Jackson of Peterborough Portrait Lord Jackson of Peterborough (Con)
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Incidentally, going back to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, I once visited the San Miguel prison in Santiago, Chile, with the fabulous penal reform campaign of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. The month before, 81 inmates died in a fire. It was the grimmest prison I have ever been to, but talking about prisons we have known is by the by.

I will press the Minister on the issue of the chief inspector’s report. He know that one of the key issues raised was the routine and repetitive use of manually accessed spreadsheets. There was no IT system that was trustworthy, to the extent that virtually any management data could be easily accessed. Is that a key imperative for the department to work on, as it prepares its formal response to the chief inspector’s report?

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. Yes, that is extremely important. I will write with a further update on what can be done about it. It will be no secret to noble Lords that the problem of data across the criminal justice system and the prison system is ongoing, and we are working with various systems of various ages, including those of elderly status. A great deal needs to be improved.

I will press on, having one eye on the time. One of the various points raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was about the deportation of people who came here as a child. As far as they are protected, those people have to rely on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights on family life, which is often a successful defence, because they will have no connections with the country to which they are being sent.

On other countries, the one with which we are the furthest forward at the moment, as far as I know, is Italy. The Lord Chancellor hopes to reach an agreement with Italy in the next few weeks. I do not think that I can go further than that, but there have been encouraging negotiations with Italy, and I hope that that and the Albanian situation will help significantly.

I understand that consultation with victims is conducted through victim liaison units. In the case of an FNO facing deportation, I am told that, where victims have signed up to the victim contact scheme, that consultation takes place.

I fully agree with the points made by my noble friend Lord Farmer about rehabilitation and the importance of social visits. As noble Lords know, he conducted two important reviews not long ago, and I believe the ministry has accepted all his recommendations. An important part of that work was the social aspect of prisoners. I am not aware of any reduction in emphasis being placed on that, but I will investigate and write accordingly. Almost all prisons in England and Wales now have facilities for secure video calls, or in-cell telephony. I do not know whether that is the case in Minsk or Sarajevo, but it is a considerable improvement on what used to be the case. It certainly does not exist in the United States or, I would have thought, San Miguel prison.

There are important efforts to encourage peer-to-peer support. Pilots are in progress at the moment with a particular focus on FNOs, although there are facilities for long-range contact. FNOs with no visitors can get free phone credits for overseas calls and free video calls, which is considerably better than nothing. As I said, all prisons across England and Wales offer secure video calls.

Noble Lords have raised some important issues. I hope we are grappling with them; their importance is in no way neglected. The overall situation is that the Government are making progress in this area. Noble Lords have made very good points which, if I have not already answered, I will answer in more detail in writing. I close by thanking noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lord Jackson, for raising these important issues.

Committee adjourned at 4.51 pm.

House of Lords

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Thursday 25 April 2024
11:00
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Derby.

Royal Assent

Royal Assent
Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

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11:07
Royal Assent was notified for the following Acts:
Pedicabs (London) Act,
Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act,
Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Act.

Ethnicity Pay Gap

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Question
11:08
Asked by
Baroness Prashar Portrait Baroness Prashar
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the growing number of companies reporting their ethnicity pay gap and of the case for legislating for mandatory reporting.

Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
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My Lords, it is encouraging to see more employers choosing to report their ethnicity pay data. Rather than mandating reporting, which may not be appropriate for all employers, our guidance supports those who wish to report by providing a consistent approach and advice on achieving meaningful comparisons. The latest ONS statistics show that it is difficult to compare data across up to 19 different ethnic groups.

Baroness Prashar Portrait Baroness Prashar (CB)
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I thank the Minister for that Answer. It is good that a number of companies are now beginning to report voluntarily on this, but why are the Government reluctant to make it mandatory, given that in 2017 it was made mandatory for gender disparity?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness for her Question. As she will understand, this is a much more complicated area to get meaningful data on. There are five broad categories of ethnicity that are used by the ONS, for example, and 19 specific ethnicities. The Government’s concern is that there is a real risk of misleading data, particularly among smaller firms that may have very few members of staff from a minority community, and therefore a change in one or two people could distort the figures.

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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My Lords, Labour has a long-term plan to tackle racial inequality after the longed-for general election, if we are elected, including through our racial equality Bill, which will require large companies to report on their ethnicity pay gaps, as they already do for gender pay gaps. I know that the Minister is absolutely committed to equalities. As a common-sense way to begin the process of tackling these glaring inequalities, we would not mind at all if she would commit to this policy and persuade her Government to support it.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I will give a couple of examples. First, there was the work the Government did in 2019, when we engaged with a broad range of businesses to understand the complexities of implementing mandatory reporting in this area. It genuinely showed just how complicated it was to do. That was echoed in the Inclusive Britain report chaired by my noble friend Lord Sewell, which brought out a number of points including, critically, the difference between the ethnicity pay gap of those born in this country and those who are not born here, with which I am sure the noble Baroness is familiar.

Baroness Manzoor Portrait Baroness Manzoor (Con)
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My Lords, I have some empathy with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. There are disparities in pay for ethnic minorities. There are also disparities in senior and board-level positions, where there are targets for women but fewer targets for people from ethnic minorities. If we looked at individual groups within ethnicity, we would never bring about the changes. It is an argument that my noble friend could ask the department to look at again, so that we can move forward and ensure that we can reduce the inequalities that currently exist.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I am more than happy to take this back to the department and share my noble friend’s reflections, but I remind the House that there is no ethnicity pay gap for people born in this country from roughly half the ethnic-minority groups. In fact, in a number of cases there is a pay gap in the other direction. The issue is much greater for those not born in the UK, and there we need to understand to what extent that reflects level of qualification, level of language, age and a number of other factors.

Lord Boateng Portrait Lord Boateng (Lab)
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My Lords, when the TUC and the CBI are both in agreement that this is a policy that should be introduced and mandated—and the Government spend a great deal of time and effort recruiting workers from overseas to fill gaps in our own labour market—why do the Government not accept the wisdom of the TUC and the CBI? They surely know more about the operation of markets than any Government do.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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As I said, the Government have done extensive work engaging with employers in this area. We have the important work of the Inclusive Britain report. An employer of, say, 250 employees would typically have 25 ethnic-minority employees, if it was in line with the national average. With 18 separate ethnicities, the noble Lord can do the maths on the sample size.

Baroness Burt of Solihull Portrait Baroness Burt of Solihull (LD)
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My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s agreement to take this matter back. As I have said before, what you do not measure you cannot manage. I appreciate that the ethnicity mix of one’s workforce is a bit more complex than with compulsory registration of gender pay gaps, but that policy works very well. I hope the Minister will agree that it would be a worthwhile requirement for any larger employer that sees the benefit of having a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The Government agree that it is worth while but not that it should be mandatory. We have developed clear guidance for employers and are seeking case studies from employers monitoring ethnicity pay data—but also, crucially, their diagnosis of any gaps and their action plan to address those gaps—so that other employers can benefit from their experience.

Baroness Whitaker Portrait Baroness Whitaker (Lab)
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My Lords, one of the ethnicity pay gaps is the difference in income that arises from art awards. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Delaine Le Bas, who has just been put on the Turner Prize shortlist for her art deriving from her Romani heritage, as well as the other distinguished members of the shortlist from minority-ethnic backgrounds?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I am delighted to celebrate with the noble Baroness.

Lord Shinkwin Portrait Lord Shinkwin (Con)
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My Lords, I am sure my noble friend is aware that some people from certain ethnic backgrounds, for example African-Caribbean, face a much larger ethnicity pay gap. Does she agree with me that this is unacceptable in 2024 and that therefore we need urgent targeted action to address this?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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My noble friend is right: there are particular groups that have not only a larger ethnicity pay gap but a larger employment gap than other communities. The Government have worked with specific communities. My noble friend raised the Afro-Caribbean communities but there are also, for example, significant barriers to employment and pay differentials for Bangladeshi women. The Government have a number of programmes to address those.

Lord Bird Portrait Lord Bird (CB)
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While we are at it, can we congratulate PwC for taking people from prison? I think that is a great sign. We must remember that people from ethnic minorities are overrepresented in the prison population.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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Of course. I welcome all employers, including PwC, working with those who have been in the criminal justice system and in prison.

Sanctions: Russian Individuals

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Question
11:18
Asked by
Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review sanctions against Russian individuals in the light of President Putin’s re-election and the continuing war in Ukraine.

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, the United Kingdom is at the forefront of international sanctions against Russia, and takes a carefully targeted and rigorous approach to weaken Mr Putin’s war machine and to demonstrate our unyielding support for Ukraine. Together with our international partners, we have unleashed the largest, most severe package of sanctions ever imposed on a major economy. We keep all our sanction designations under review, but we do not comment on future sanction plans.

Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain (Lab)
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Notwithstanding that, does the Minister agree that President Putin is successfully driving forward his barbaric attacks on Ukraine by managing to dodge sanctions, despite the UK Government-imposed measures he has described—including a price cap to curb his profit from Russian oil exports? There is mounting evidence that most Russian oil exports exceed that cap, and Putin seems to be getting all the income he needs to fuel his war economy. More targeted action is surely desperately needed. Will the Government now sanction the insurers—many of which are UK-based—of vessels transporting Russian oil above the cap, and also sanction owners of the ports hosting those vessels? Will the Minister try to get all our allies to do the same?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, on the noble Lord’s final point, as he will know, we are working very closely with our key allies, particularly the G7, on ensuring how we can have more effective implementation of sanctions and how we can address the issue of the circumvention of sanctions. As I am sure the noble Lord would acknowledge, we have seen successes; $400 billion-worth of money has been denied to the coffers of the Russian Government to allow them to continue their illegal war against Ukraine.

The noble Lord mentions specific issues around the oil cap. As he knows, we have banned the import of Russian oil and oil products into our markets. We have also created the oil price cap, to limit the price at which Russia can sell its oil and products globally. We are working with key countries to improve the issue of the circumvention of sanctions. Indeed, as noble Lords will know, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary was in central Asia during the week, and that was one of the key points that he raised during his conversations with Governments across central Asia.

Baroness Goldie Portrait Baroness Goldie (Con)
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My Lords, the annual report of the OFSI indicates a dramatic increase in the volume of frozen assets, which, as my noble friend the Minister has indicated, is reassuring across a number of fronts. The question on everyone’s lips now—to use the popular lexicon—is whether we can move from freeze to seize. What investigations are being undertaken to see if there are legally acceptable routes to get some of that money forfeited and then adduced to good causes to help Ukraine?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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First, I commend my noble friend for summarising exactly the intent of the UK Government and our partners: to go from freeze to seize. All countries in the G7 have been clear on this. There is a meeting in June, which we will be part of, to look specifically at proposals on the table. The focus right now is on a windfall-plus proposal put forward by the United States, which would involve a loan to Ukraine issued by the US and other willing G7 members and repaid over several years from the future profits generated by Russian sovereign assets held in Euroclear. This is just one practical example of the kind of work that we are doing in co-ordination with our key partners.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I strongly support the idea of sanctioning Mr Putin and his colleagues, but once again I ask the Government to provide some assurance that great care will be taken to protect the great Russian people—many of whom I know—who may have assets and yet have nothing to do with the war in Ukraine and who have never supported Mr Putin anyway, in general. They are at risk as this country and other countries extend the scope and severity of the sanctions against Mr Putin and his colleagues.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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As I have said to the noble Baroness and others, and as I know all noble Lords agree, our fight is not against the Russian people. We have seen the appalling treatment of those Russians who have been brave—let us not forget the tragic case of Mr Navalny. We are currently seeing others being held, and I know noble Lords are very much seized of that. We need to ensure that we stand with the Russian people against the draconian regime which suppresses their rights as well. I add that our own sanctions regime is based on a principle which allows for legal recourse, if an individual or an organisation has been sanctioned unfairly. This again underlines the importance of the system of appealing against sanctions, if the individual or the organisation feels that it has been unfairly applied.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, further to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, Russian oil and gas exports are up 57% over the last year, primarily to African nations and India via an enormous shadow fleet that goes through the Red Sea. We have debated RAF pilots putting their lives at risk to protect that waterway, and we are also in discussions with the Indian Government about giving their energy sector preferential market access to the UK. Is the noble Lord not right that this is now the time to be putting in place secondary sanctions to those Governments who give landing permits for shadow tankers of Russian oil, circumventing UK sanctions, and to pause any particular aspects of discussions with the Indian Government until there is clarity about their purchasing of what is considered, from our perspective, illegal Russian oil?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I am not going to go into the process of what may happen next. Our relationships with many countries across the world allow us to have quite direct conversations about the issue of sanctions circumvention. The noble Lord is aware of the initiatives we have been taking with a number of countries—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia immediately come to mind. We have also had bilateral engagement with the likes of Turkey and Serbia. The noble Lord raises India specifically. We have a very open, candid and strong relationship with India. While we are in negotiations about the importance of the trade benefit to both countries, we recognise the important role India has to play. I assure the noble Lord that we exchange quite candid conversations on a range of issues, including the illegal war of Russia on Ukraine.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I return to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie. When questioned from this side of the House about seizing those assets or using them to ensure that we can rebuild Ukraine, the Foreign Secretary has repeatedly said in this Chamber that “We are working towards it”, and mentioned the G7 and so on. Can the Minister tell us whether the Prime Minister raised this with the German Chancellor, to ensure that we get strong support across all the countries, so that we can act and ensure that the Russian state pays for its war of aggression?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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I assure the noble Lord that we have conversations with all of our key partners, including, as I have already said, quite directly with our G7 partners, on this very issue at the highest and most senior level. We are looking at various proposals; I have alluded to one. I also assure the noble Lord that we are looking at our own domestic legislation as well, to ensure that Russia pays for the damage it has caused, both through individuals who have been associated with the Government of Russia and with the Russian Government themselves. We want to establish a route which sanctions individuals who want to do the right thing—there may be some noble intent there, and so they can donate directly to this. It is important that we act in a co-ordinated fashion. I assure the noble Lord that we are doing just that, at the highest level with G7 partners.

Lord Howell of Guildford Portrait Lord Howell of Guildford (Con)
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My Lords, can we be assured that we are pressing ahead with sanctions against the murderers of Sergei Magnitsky under existing legislation which we have now passed? Should we not also be thinking about the same approach to the murderers of Mr Navalny?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I will not go into the area of what we may or may not do when it comes to our sanctions regime. My noble friend is quite right: I am very proud of the fact that it was this Government who introduced the Magnitsky-style sanctions, as they are often called, when it comes to the egregious abuse of human rights. It is right that we have acted in this respect. We work very closely with our key partners to ensure that those who commit these egregious abuses of human rights are held accountable.

Lord Stirrup Portrait Lord Stirrup (CB)
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My Lords, when considering secondary sanctions, which may well have an important effect, will the Government take great care to ensure that we do not drive those countries that we are actually trying to woo closer into the embrace of Russia and China?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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I assure the noble and gallant Lord that that is exactly the priority. He will have seen the recent travels of my noble friend. We are ensuring that we build a broad and international alliance, to ensure that the systems, structures, openness and liberalism that we stand for—which allow people to prosper, as we have seen in our own country—are reflected around the world.

Lord Touhig Portrait Lord Touhig (Lab)
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My Lords, last week in Strasbourg, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recommended the seizure of Russian assets to be used in support of the people of Ukraine. Two colleagues from this House, the noble Lords, Lord Blencathra and Lord Foulkes, made powerful speeches in support of that proposal. They have worked out a scheme for how this might be done. Will His Majesty’s Government look at this and see if they can support it?

Crown Prosecution Service: Racial Bias

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Question
11:28
Asked by
Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of racial bias in Crown Prosecution Service charging decisions.

Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley (Lab)
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My Lords, as a very happy Evertonian, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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My Lords, we know that some ethnic groups are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and we need to understand why so we can address this. The Crown Prosecution Service commissioned research which found that outcomes of CPS decision-making differ by ethnicity. However, the research did not identify the reasons for this, so the CPS has proactively commissioned further work to explore the impact of other contributing factors, to address this important issue.

Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley (Lab)
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My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, as the Minister knows, told me from the Dispatch Box that

“race plays no part in individual charging decisions”.”.—[Official Report, 19/10/23; col. 295.]

However, the Crown Prosecution Service itself, as has just been said, in its report last year,

“found evidence of disproportionality in relation to ethnicity in the outcomes of our decision-making”,

and that,

“ethnic minority defendants are significantly more likely to be charged for a comparable offence than White British defendants”.

Can the Minister explain why?

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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My Lords, as we all know, individuals commit crimes, and it is up to us to ensure that they are treated fairly and equally. The Lammy Review, published in 2017, found no issues with the outcomes of CPS charging decisions. Given the level of ethnic disparity across the CJS and the fact that the Lammy Review was undertaken some time ago, the CPS commissioned further independent academic research. The findings of this research, while challenging for the CPS, are an important step in ensuring that the CJS is fair and functioning for all sections of society. I am pleased that further work is being undertaken to provide a deeper understanding of this issue and to find solutions as to how best the system can address it. That work will help to identify any issue with processes, and we expect it to be completed in the last part of 2024.

Baroness Hussein-Ece Portrait Baroness Hussein-Ece (LD)
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My Lords, the disparity and bias that we know about is not new. The MoJ and the Crown Prosecution Service have extensive data. This question has come up time and again. There have been reviews and there has been research. I find it very disappointing for the Minister to say that we do not why this is still happening. We know that black defendants spend an average of 70% longer in prison awaiting trial and sentencing than their white counterparts—the Government’s own data shows this—and we know that black and Asian people in prison are more likely to be serving longer sentences than other groups. Do not these shocking figures really lay bare how racism and injustice is hardwired into the criminal justice system? While sentencing and remand decisions are made by independent judiciary, the Government have a responsibility to tackle this. What is being done to end these disparities?

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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My Lords, I do not accept the noble Baroness’s comments that individuals are necessarily being treated differently. However, the research did find an issue, and the CPS is taking several steps to ensure that this work is both credible and robust, including development of an independent disproportionality advisory group that will provide independent scrutiny of its internal research regarding disproportionality to provide confidence that the work is suitably focused, rigorous and transparent.

Lord Kamall Portrait Lord Kamall (Con)
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My Lords, in June 2020 the CPS launched its digital 2025 strategy, which includes how it is going to embrace new technology, including AI. Given that there are many concerns about data bias and algorithm bias in artificial intelligence, what conversations has my noble friend’s department had with the CPS about ensuring that this will not introduce more bias into the system?

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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My Lords, the CPS itself demonstrates a remarkable ethnically diverse workforce. While that does not answer my noble friend’s question precisely, this is an organisation that shows that it has an ethnic-minority background of 23%, well above the 15.4% for the Civil Service and the 19.3% for the working-age population. I will try to respond to my noble friend in writing on his specific point.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, does the Minister agree that my liking for “The Godfather” movies makes me no more or less likely to be a member of the mafia? If I am right about that, why are young black British men being prosecuted for serious violent offences in reliance of evidence of their liking for rap and drill music?

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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My Lords, we do not accept that they are more likely to be prosecuted. The point is that we have identified that ethnic minorities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and we are researching to find out exactly why that is the case. The raw data suggests that they are being charged more aggressively than the white majority, but we do not understand the factors behind that. The review that we have commissioned will report later this year on exactly what factors we can identify.

Lord Bishop of Derby Portrait The Lord Bishop of Derby
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My Lords, I hold responsibility in the Bishops’ prison team for children in the youth justice system, so my question arises not only from access to what I find to be quite disturbing data but also from direct contact with children in the justice system. What steps are His Majesty’s Government taking to eliminate racial bias, including in charging, against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children in the youth justice system, who are often hidden within official statistics?

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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My Lords, the Government are committed to tackling all sorts of racism and discrimination in society. The Government have a robust legislative framework to protect all individuals against unlawful discrimination. Our Inclusive Britain strategy, published in March 2022, set out a ground-breaking action plan to tackle negative disparities, promote unity and build a fairer Britain for all. The strategy includes 74 bold actions to improve outcomes for ethnic minority groups across education, health, employment and criminal justice.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, the Lammy Review was very clear. It said, first, that young men from ethnic minorities—particularly black young men—are more likely to be charged more aggressively, as the noble Lord has just accepted; they are more likely to plead not guilty, which means that they do not get the discount for pleading guilty because they do not trust the system; and they are more likely to be sentenced more harshly when the sentencing actually happens. Will the Government undertake to implement all the recommendations of the Lammy Review?

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for his question. As I said yesterday at the Dispatch Box, I am not going to make undertakings, but we take these conclusions very seriously and will act on them to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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My Lords, three times when presented with evidence of how individuals are being treated differently based on race in the criminal justice system, the Minister has said that individuals are not treated differently based on race. Can he furnish the House with the evidence base that allows him to say that with such certainty?

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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My Lords, while we accept that the research from the University of Leeds, which covered 195,000 cases between January 2018 and December 2021, found that white British suspects had the lowest charge rate of 69.9%, and mixed-heritage suspects had a charge rate of between 77.3% and 81.3%, the statistics are alarming, which is why the CPS has responded by conducting this independent review on a timescale which I hope will please the House, reporting by the end of 2024.

Lord Blunkett Portrait Lord Blunkett (Lab)
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My Lords, given the age profile of those who come up against the criminal justice system, would it not be wise to cross-reference with research that has been undertaken on school exclusions, which show a considerable reaction to authority from certain ethnic-minority boys in particular and a lack of training on how to deal with and understand that reaction?

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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My Lords, the purpose of the additional review being conducted by the CPS is to identify all other factors that could be at play in delivering this data. Once we have the results of that at the end of this year, we will be able to come to firmer conclusions.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, forgive me: I was not clear enough in the phrasing of my earlier question. Young black men are being charged partly on the basis of evidence that they are listening to rap and drill music. This kind of cultural bias is being used in our criminal courts for very serious prosecutions. Is that right? Is that a practice that the Minister and His Majesty’s Government agree with?

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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I am grateful for the initial question. Of course, the Government do not agree with that. We have indeed provided guidance. The CPS is mindful that labels such as “gang” can lead to discrimination by racially stereotyping defendants. That is why prosecution guidance on gang-related offending is clear that prosecutors should not refer to gangs unless there is clear evidence to support the assertion. The CPS will make further improvements to its guidance, including on gangs, this year.

Jewish Community in London: Safety

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Question
11:39
Asked by
Lord Bellingham Portrait Lord Bellingham
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what further measures they plan to take to enhance the safety of London’s Jewish community.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, the Government are steadfast in their commitment to protecting our Jewish communities, which is why we have committed further funding of £72 million for the Jewish community protective security grant to continue the vital work done in protecting Jewish communities until 2028. The JCPS grant is managed by the Community Security Trust, which I had the privilege of visiting a couple of weeks ago and which provides protective security measures at Jewish schools, colleges, nurseries and some other Jewish community sites, as well as a number of synagogues.

Lord Bellingham Portrait Lord Bellingham (Con)
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My Lords, does the Minister agree that the police have a very challenging task to allow peaceful marches, to protect the rights of local people who are observing the march and to arrest those who are blatantly breaking the law—and that they normally they get this right? I ask the Minister to reflect on the Gideon Falter case and just to further reflect on whether, if the person in question had been a hijab-wearing Muslim woman observing a pro-Israeli march, or, for that matter, a Catholic priest, they would have been accused of provocation and threatened with arrest? I suggest that, if that had happened, there would have been massive outrage and the police officers in question would have been dismissed. So all we are really asking for is that everyone should be treated fairly and equally.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I agree with my noble friend that the police have a hugely difficult job, but obviously a police officer telling a person that being openly Jewish is provocative is clearly very wrong. I will not speculate as to what might have happened in the case of other individuals. We should welcome the Met Police’s apology. The Prime Minister recently made it clear to police forces that it is the public’s expectation that they will not merely manage protests but police them and, of course, do so proportionately. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary met with Sir Mark Rowley and the Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist earlier this week, and put it very well:

“Jewish people will always have the right to be able to go about their daily lives safely and freely, in London and across the UK”.


The Home Secretary continued:

“Sir Mark has reassured me he will make this clear to all sections of the community as a matter of urgency. The Met’s focus now is rightly on reassurance, learning from what happened, and ensuring that Jewish people are safe and feel safe in London”.


I think we should all support it in that critical endeavour.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB)
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My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would enhance the image and security of the wonderful Jewish people if the Jewish people in this country were to issue a strong statement dissociating themselves from the policies of the Netanyahu Government and the atrocities that have been committed on the people of Gaza, who are also human? Instead of that, the Board of Deputies has unfortunately sent a delegation to Tel Aviv showing solidarity with the Netanyahu Government, whose atrocities include the destroying of hospitals and the firing on aid convoys, killing even British people.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I think that is a deeply inappropriate question and I will not stoop so low as to answer it.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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Perhaps I can. British Jews are no more responsible for the actions of the State of Israel than I am.

To return to the question, it is clear that this incident was deeply regrettable; that language about being “openly Jewish” was wrong and I am glad that the Met Police has apologised for it and will take the opportunity to reflect and ensure that all Londoners can have confidence in it and everyone can feel safe in their city. I will not try to second-guess policing decisions and I would not expect the Minister to do so, but I am sure that discussions are ongoing around these issues in government. I noticed that this Question was originally down to be answered by the Minister for Faith. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Minister for Faith is being drawn into these discussions so they are not simply seen as a policing or security matter?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, we have to consider all the various aspects of policing in the round. The noble Baroness is quite right; public order policing is very complex and obviously very challenging, but it remains incumbent on Sir Mark and of course the mayor as well to ensure that London remains a safe and welcoming city. As I said in an earlier answer, I believe that the force’s focus ought to be on proportionate policing, making sure that it is done properly and fairly, and obviously we will continue to back forces in that, using all aspects of government.

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, just to follow up on the noble Baroness’s point about drawing in other issues, not just leaving it to policing, the question is about enhancing the safety of our Jewish community. What more can we do to enhance it? Once it gets to policing, we know that it is in a bad place. How can we stop it getting to that point and enhance the safety of our Jewish communities right across the United Kingdom?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I think I answered that in my initial remarks, in which I mentioned the funding that has been increased for the Community Security Trust to administer in the JCPS. Just to go back to the Community Security Trust—I declare an interest as I was at the dinner where the Prime Minister announced the additional funding and I donated some money to it—the fact is that it has an enormous network, which I know is incredibly sophisticated, having seen it in operation, the police work incredibly closely with it, and it does a fantastic job. I very much praise it for all the work that it does.

Baroness Burt of Solihull Portrait Baroness Burt of Solihull (LD)
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My Lords, from a slightly different angle, the additional funding from the Government mentioned by the Minister is extremely welcome, but it is not assuaging the additional insecurity felt by the Jewish community after 7 October. A recent survey found that 50% of British Jews are currently considering leaving the United Kingdom. This would spell disaster for Britain, which desperately needs their talent and creativity and the diversity that they bring to British life. We as politicians have an important role to play here, and we must be extremely careful about what we say and do, which could inflame tensions and increase divisions that are growing and are already way too wide.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness’s statement.

Baroness Altmann Portrait Baroness Altmann (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to the Government for their commitment to protect the Jewish community, and I ask my noble friend whether he will join me in paying tribute, as I am sure he will, to the CST, which is trying to keep Jews safe. I declare my interest as a British Jew and to my other interests in the register. While there are weekly marches calling for “globalising the intifada” and eradication of the only Jewish state, when Jews are pelted with bricks and beaten with bars, and children are threatened on the way to school and university students threatened on campus, I feel that it would be most appreciated if the Government would look carefully at banning more of organisations such as Palestine Action, which has come to light, and other groups which seem to want to target the Jewish community directly, when we have no responsibility for the actions of an overseas Government.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My noble friend makes some good points. Of course, as has been often stated from the Dispatch Box, the Government do not comment on ongoing matters of possible proscription. The police can of course impose conditions on protests where they believe the protest may result in a variety of civil offences, serious disorder, damage to property and so on and so forth, but the ability to actually ban protests is a complex one under the Public Order Act. Of course, I agree with my noble friend, but it is incumbent on all citizens to reassure the Jews, who are feeling so under pressure.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords have been following the events at Columbia University and the encampment there, where there have been some pretty horrific scenes of students screaming rather maniacally to exclude “genocidal Zios”, and using other very offensive and anti-Semitic slogans, and so on. It has just completely got out of hand. The global student movement is coming to the UK: “From Gaza to Columbia to London” is the slogan, and it starts at UCL at 1 pm on Friday 26 April. I am not saying that as an advert, and I am not particularly worried about people protesting or about their interpretive dance against colonisation that they are bringing over. However, I am worried about anti-Semitism on London and other British campuses. Safety is not just a policing question. Can the Minister assure us that guard is being taken against what is happening on campuses, where the levels of anti-Semitism are now routine and normalised?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My noble friend from the Department for Education assures me that there is protection on British campuses. However, I also acknowledge the points that the noble Baroness made and share her concerns; these trends are very disturbing.

Lord Harris of Haringey Portrait Lord Harris of Haringey (Lab)
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My Lords, can the Minister comment on the take-up of grants for the protection of religious premises from attacks? Is he aware of some of the concerns that the processes that his department requires from faith communities are extremely complicated for often quite small sums of money?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I am afraid that I do not have any statistics to hand on that. But, again, the money that we were talking about making available in my initial Answer is administered by the Community Security Trust; there is no application process to access that pool of funds.

Transport System: Failings

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Motion to Take Note
11:50
Moved by
Lord Snape Portrait Lord Snape
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That this House takes note of the case for a coherent plan to address the failings of the transport system.

Lord Snape Portrait Lord Snape (Lab)
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My Lords, the wording of the Motion before your Lordships’ House calls for greater coherence for Britain’s transport system. I hope that, while debating this important matter, we can agree on both sides of the House that coherence is the one thing that is lacking. Indeed, the current Government made a virtue of a lack of coherence with their transport policy. I will come to the divisions within the rail and bus industry in a moment or two, but we lack an overall transport policy in this country and have done for many years. In so far as our major transport sectors are concerned—bus and rail—it is the British people who have suffered, particularly the passengers on both modes of transport.

The failings of our railway network are many and manifold. Since privatisation in 1994, fares for passengers on our railway system have increased by around 20% in real terms; that is not what we were promised when the privatisation Bill went through both Houses of Parliament. We were told that the thrusting private enterprise system being introduced would not just increase competition between railway companies but bring lower fares to its passengers. The result, of course, has been exactly the opposite. We have seen a failure in reliability since privatisation. I have no wish to bore your Lordships with stories of my time on British Rail, but the cancellation of a passenger train in my days in an operating role was virtually unheard of. Because it was an integrated system, we could generally find locomotives, drivers and train crew that could be moved from one role to another in the event of any hiatus within the timetabling system. That does not happen now; because of privatisation, drivers for one company often cannot drive the locomotives of another company; train crews who do not know the route from A to B cannot step in when short-term cancellations take place. Again, this is not what we were promised at the time of privatisation, but it is the reality that we have today.

I read this morning that something like a thousand trains a day on the railway system are cancelled. No other railway system in the developed world has to face such a nonsense on a daily basis. We will be assured by the Minister that everything is in hand and the railways will continue to improve in future, but it is just not true. Another aspect of this is the collapse of morale among those who work in the railway industry. I use Birmingham International station on a regular basis to travel to and from London. The staff there tell me that on some days they hide from the public because they are so ashamed of the product that they have to put in front of them. They also say that, by and large, information is not transported down the line—no pun intended—to those at the front end so that they can pass it on to passengers; they are as unaware as the rest of us of when things go wrong and how they can be put right. This leads, as I have indicated, to a collapse in morale—and in industrial relations generally.

This Government appear to need to find an enemy rather than deal with any problems. The latest enemy, as far as the railway industry is concerned, is ASLEF, the drivers’ union: no negotiations have taken place between the train operating companies and the representatives of ASLEF for over a year. All the Government can say is, “But they earn £60,000 a year”. Well, I do not object to train drivers earning £60,000 a year; it is about an afternoon’s work for a hedge fund operative—whatever they actually do. Someone in a responsible position such as a train driver should be properly paid, and train drivers and their representatives ought to be consulted about not just wages but the aims of the railway industry. We all know that the train operating companies take their orders from His Majesty’s Government in this supposedly privatised world, so they have their hands tied and cannot freely enter negotiations with ASLEF and the other railway trade unions.

We were promised when privatisation took place that there would be an upsurge in new rolling stock and new locomotives for the railway industry. Yet we have just rescued Litchurch Lane in Derby by a last-minute order for trains, to keep something like 1,500 skilled personnel in work there and thousands of other people in the supply chain. Hitachi recently opened, with some fanfare, a factory in the north-east, but that now faces closure because of the dearth of orders for the railway industry, and this has been partly brought about by the nonsense of HS2. I do not wish to rehearse the whole business again in front of your Lordships, but no other country could put forward proposals for a high-speed railway and then keep cutting them back. Only the current Prime Minister could go to Manchester to a Conservative Party conference to tell it that the high-speed line between Birmingham and Manchester is cancelled and expect a standing ovation for doing so. That truncated high-speed route will not just directly impact passengers. Without getting too bogged down again in the details of what is left of HS2, I point out that to travel from Handsacre Junction to Old Oak Common is not quite what was envisaged at the time the proposals for this high-speed railway were put forward. The rump of it has been summed up as a railway starting somewhere that no one has ever heard of, to end up somewhere no one wants to go. Only the present Government could devise a high-speed railway that would make journeys between, for example, Manchester and London no faster and, in some cases, slower than the existing line. The need for a proper strategy for the railway industry is pretty obvious.

I turn also to the bus industry. Those of us who take an interest in these matters were intrigued some years ago to see the Prime Minister at the time, somebody called Boris Johnson—I wonder what happened to him—announce with great fanfare a scheme called Bus Back Better. He was a great man for gimmicks, but what has been the reality of Bus Back Better since its inception? The answer is that bus services throughout the country have been decimated, and many towns and cities that formerly had a proper bus service no longer have such a thing.

At the time of bus privatisation—I was a Member of the other place then—Nicholas Ridley made a virtue of the thrusting competition that would result from the 1984 privatisation Act. Yet towns and cities in this country have seen not only their bus fares increase, in real terms, by around 15% to 20% but their bus services decimated. There is a whole list of casualties of bus services, which have been reduced in previous years, including in cities such as Bath. Everybody talks about Birmingham, of course, and that the near bankruptcy in Birmingham is all the Labour Party’s fault. I do not think that Bath is particularly regarded as a left-wing bastion, yet bus services there have reduced by about 70% since privatisation. The fact is that local authorities, having been starved of funds, have no finance to subsidise essential bus services, and even the commercial routes in many of our cities up and down the country have been cut back because of financial problems.

Bus Back Better has turned out to be “bus back a lot worse” over the last couple of years. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what the Government propose, other than postponing all the decisions until after the next general election, when they will not be affected anyway, as far as bus services are concerned.

Lastly, I will talk for a moment or two about the road network, important though it is. Again, in theory we have a £20 billion-odd road programme in this country, yet driving around our major towns and cities is an object lesson in pothole avoidance. I was driven into the centre of Birmingham the other day to a hospital. I have a bad hand so I cannot drive; I was going on to the railway station, so I do not want to be accused of failing to use public transport. It was fascinating to watch how the regular drivers and commuters weaved their way through all the potholes at major junctions. Are we serious? We supposedly have a £24 billion or £25 billion road-building programme, yet we cannot fill potholes in our towns and cities. The Government will again blame wasteful local authorities, but they have cut back the resources for local authorities for many years. How are local authorities supposed to provide not only the essential statutory services but the upkeep of the infrastructure in the areas they represent?

The lack of a transport strategy is not the only disaster. There is also the attitude of the Treasury towards any major project. All the Treasury ever sees is the cost; benefits never ever occur to it. The fact is that investment in our road, railway and transport system brings a return far in excess of the initial cost, in most cases, but, short-termism being the curse of Britain over the years, the fact is that many of the projects that need to be completed are put aside, HS2 being only one example.

The lack of enthusiasm, strategy and planning as far as our transport system is concerned makes this country the laughing stock of the western world. The fact is, we need proper long-term planning for many of these major infrastructure projects, both road and rail. I leave the last word to the Institution of Civil Engineers, which makes exactly that same point: that short-termism has bedevilled British infrastructure projects for years, and that when things go wrong the Treasury all to soon says, “We can save billions of pounds by cancelling a specific project”. The nation has been the great loser in this lack of any sort of transport strategy over the years, and I hope that, during the course of the debate, I can take noble Lords on both sides along with me when I say that it is the nation that has been the loser. I beg to move.

12:04
Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to participate in this debate. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Snape, on securing it. Despite the somewhat dismal litany we have heard from him, many of us will recognise the challenges and the points he made. I also congratulate him on the fact that, based on the Labour Party’s announcement of a new transport policy today, which is all over the newspapers, he is obviously still pulling the levers of power in the party.

I declare my interests as set out in the register. It is a truism that an effective transport system is a central part of an industrial strategy and a driver for growth. It allows towns and cities to have ready access to skills and it opens up the possibility of development. It allows the movement of freight effectively and contributes to individual travel and leisure. Properly managed, it should also contribute to net zero and a healthier environment, as well as providing a means of levelling up. That list of desiderata shows how vital an effective transport strategy is. The list also provides criteria for judging how effective the Government have been in delivery. I look forward to hearing from my noble friend the Minister in this regard.

The Institution of Civil Engineers, which the noble Lord has just referred to—I thank it for its helpful briefing—points out that uncertainty is a problem. The delays and the cancellation of a large part of HS2 are a graphic example of that. I was a strong supporter of HS2. Key large-scale infrastructure projects are generally, if not universally, to be encouraged. I do not believe, for example, that there are hordes of people who would reverse the Channel Tunnel project now. Also, a glance at the position in other countries is a valuable exercise and a demonstration of major infrastructure’s success in being a driver for growth, be it France, Japan, Germany or elsewhere.

Fragmentation of responsibility is another key problem that has probably bedevilled successive Governments. Investment in England’s railways and roads is determined on a different cycle by central government. The centre is also responsible for capital for local roads, bus support and a range of smaller funding pots. Then, of course, there is the new array of metro mayors and combined authorities with various transport responsibilities. I pause there to congratulate the Government on metro mayors and combined authorities. It is the right policy and is leading to innovation and acting as a driver for growth. My point is that it is one additional layer that has to be brought in as part of the overarching, powerful national strategy. The same is true of the national policies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which present another part of the national UK strategy that has to be adopted. I will be keen to hear what my noble friend the Minister has to say on this.

As I hope we can all agree, we need to speed up national planning decisions. Again, it could act as a driver of a true national transport policy. We need to sharpen our focus on net zero with a push for the use of trams, buses and trains in and between urban areas. This is not, of course, a war on the motorist, but it is a recognition that effective public transport deserves consistent support through funding and policy levers. In this regard, and I declare my interest as a regular rail user—I know my noble friend the Minister is too—the system is creaking badly, as the noble Lord, Lord Snape, has said. We see it every day and it is harming our economy.

I wonder whether I may digress slightly from infrastructure policy to the damaging industrial relations position on Network Rail. I have informed my noble friend the Minister that I would raise this. The noble Lord, Lord Snape, also touched on it. This has gone on for far too long. I wonder what the Government are doing to promote a lasting settlement. Strikes and industrial action not only cause harm to individual journeys and travellers but damage the economy as a whole.

I will share a personal example. I chair a charity—International Students House in London—and every time there is a strike, a plethora of commercial bookings for that charity is cancelled for strike days. This causes dismay and individual disappointment but, above all, it damages the economy of the charity. It is an illustration of what is happening across the nation, with hundreds of thousands of examples up and down the country.

In the time available, I also make a plea for a lasting cap on bus fares. I approve of the cap, which is due to run out in November this year, but what is happening after that? This is another example of the uncertainty in the system. We need to know on a much broader basis what is going to be happening and to know about funding for buses up and down the country.

I know that much rests on my noble friend’s shoulders and that he is well aware of the problems and doing what he can to help. We really need some certainty, an end to the fragmentation and speedier planning. Certainly, looking at the position in rail should be the number one priority for the department but there is also the national bus system and how we can do something on fares. I look forward to listening to my noble friend’s response at the end of the debate.

12:11
Lord Faulkner of Worcester Portrait Lord Faulkner of Worcester (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to congratulate my noble friend Lord Snape on securing this debate. Over the years there has been no better advocate for the railway than him in your Lordships’ House and in the House of Commons before that. He features significantly in the three books on railways and politics that I co-authored.

I remind the House of my railway interests as declared in the register. I chair the Great Western Railway stakeholder advisory board and the North Cotswold Line Task Force and am president of the Heritage Railway Association. I apologise to the House for not declaring the HRA interest when I asked a question in the Chamber yesterday about coal supplies for steam railways.

For nearly 20 years from the mid-1970s onwards, I was an adviser to the British Railways Board. This was the last time the industry benefited from the influence of a guiding mind and from the energy and enthusiasm of its chairman, Sir Peter Parker, and his immediate successor, Sir Robert Reid. It was their misfortune—and the country’s—that this coincided with a period of managed decline and retrenchment on the railway, as transport policy placed far too heavy a reliance on car usage and road haulage.

One of the consequences of that mindset was the decision to reduce the size of the network and take out capacity. With the demand for rail travel having grown so markedly over the past two decades, much effort and huge expense have had to be incurred in the limited programme of station and line reopenings. So much more could have been achieved had many of those closures not happened.

We are now about to embark on another seismic reorganisation and have to get it right. The Government are not short of advice on what needs to be done, and I particularly commend the Manifesto for Rail published by the lobby group Rail Partners. It says:

“Whoever is in office after the next general election needs to take decisions to ensure the industry has the ability to attract passengers back to restore hundreds of millions of pounds in lost revenue, drive modal shift for goods against more polluting modes, and ultimately set up the railway for sustainable success. The public is not that interested in how our railways are structured or organised, they just want to have trains that run on time, that are not disrupted by strikes, and fares that offer them the best value for their journey”.


It is crucial that, with a general election coming so soon and—I think most Members of your Lordships’ House would agree—a change of administration very much on the cards, every effort is made now to achieve a cross-party consensus on what needs to be done. To his credit, I believe that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Gower, gets this, as does the Minister for Rail in the other place, Huw Merriman. I very much appreciate the invitation the two Ministers sent to Members of your Lordships’ House to attend the briefing on the draft Bill on 19 March. The noble Lord, Lord Hendy of Richmond Hill, played a prominent part in that, and I am pleased to see him in his place today. The briefing was also given by members of the Great British Railways transition team.

The overriding priority is to pass rail reform legislation, establish Great British Railways as soon as possible and get on with improving the railways by stimulating demand and reducing cost. The Bill contains some helpful measures in this regard, notably the creation of an integrated rail body, the IRB. In legal terms, the body combines the DfT’s role as franchising authority and takes over the role of infrastructure manager undertaken by Network Rail. The IRB will be held to account on how it delivers rail services and be accountable for the whole system, including passenger revenue and a freight growth target. It is potentially good news for passengers and freight users and could simplify the railway, making it cheaper to run.

The Bill gets decisions away from a remote, non-operational Whitehall department and provides the opportunity to join up the railway closer to the people who use it. The new IRB model should help tackle high costs and project delays. One of our railways’ greatest challenges is the way UK capital projects regularly come in at a much higher cost than those in other countries. Stop-start investment and changing government plans result in project managers overspecifying schemes and suppliers putting in high cost estimates to cover the risk of uncertainty. The cost of electrification schemes is a particular example, and has proved to be the death knell of extending the benefits of HS2 to the north of England and Scotland.

A prerequisite for the IRB’s success is to take revenue risk away from the Treasury and cost control from the DfT. The new body needs to be judged solely on the net subsidy and public investment cost. Rail usage has broadly doubled since privatisation, resulting in a much more congested network, and it is important that we have proper trade-offs on its future usage and meet that demand.

It is evident from the statements made by the Prime Minister and No. 10 that railways are now seen as a problem rather than an opportunity and that tactical policy is now strictly controlled by the Treasury rather than the DfT, with minimising costs being the primary objective. Yet rail is essential if we are to meet the carbon reduction targets required in the transport sector. While electric cars may help, no such solution is available for aviation or heavy haulage, which will be dependent on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. Rail passenger services that offer times competitive with air are essential to reduce the need for internal and short-haul European flights. The same is true for container trains between the ports and inland distribution centres. Not only is rail now cheaper for many of these flows but customers are increasingly demanding environmentally sustainable rail solutions to reduce their carbon footprint.

I will finish with the concluding sentence from Signals Passed at Danger, my third book on railways, published last year:

“The railways’ capabilities are manifest when the management of the railways is restored to those competent to operate them, with a clear strategy and funding agreed to deliver the outputs of that strategy”.

12:18
Lord Goddard of Stockport Portrait Lord Goddard of Stockport (LD)
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My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Snape, on securing this timely debate on the failing transport system. We are normally limited to 30 seconds of quick-fire questions to the Minister, which are batted back. We need to give the new Minister time to understand the problems that the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, had. Now that she skips around the House of Lords without the responsibility of answering for Avanti, she looks about five years younger.

I think we would all agree that the UK’s long-term economic, environmental and social objectives are not being realised at the pace required, and transport has a key role to play in meeting those strategic objectives. It

“enables productivity and economic growth as well as quality of life and social well-being”—

not my words but those of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Mind you, as the noble Lord, Lord Snape, said, there are many forms of transport, and the roads are not much better. There are smart motorways with cameras not working and no safety lanes. If you are on a smart motorway and you break down, you wonder whether your life is literally in your hands. It is unacceptable. There are prolonged lane closures and endless repairs due to budget cuts. There are speed restrictions and, in Greater Manchester, bad design. The M60, the orbital motorway that runs around it, floods around Denton in heavy rain. If there is a motorway that floods, somebody needs to think about that.

There are bus services, again mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Snape. Greater Manchester has dealt with that problem now. That is the beauty of elected mayors: collective responsibility for local people making local decisions. They have taken the buses back into local ownership. Those bus routes will now reflect the routes that they need to run on, at a price that people can afford. They will give a better service and will be integrated with other services. In Greater Manchester, we are now working to try to integrate them with the taxis and trains, trying to get something like an Oyster card going.

As I travel down to London daily on the two-hour grind—well, two hours on a good day, normally two hours 20 minutes upwards—I listen to podcasts. The last one I heard was from Transport for the North, which is chaired by the noble Lord, Lord McLoughlin, who is in his place today. They had Andy Mellors, the MD of Avanti, on. It is worth a listen. Mayor Burnham, and Mayor Rotheram from Liverpool, were questioning Andy about tickets sold for a Saturday service. They were asking him, “When are your trains cancelled for a Saturday service?” He said, “We cancel those trains on Friday afternoon”. They said, “When do you stop selling tickets for those trains on Saturday?” He said, “At 2 pm on the Saturday afternoon”. So Avanti was selling tickets for a train that was never going to run.

That particular Saturday, Chelsea Football Club—which I have no love for—was in Manchester to play a football match. There were hundreds and hundreds of supporters trapped in Manchester; you could not get back to London. Following that meeting, they asked the Minister to remove the franchise immediately. It is very funny: I think that that meeting was on Tuesday or Wednesday, and on Friday ASLEF was called in, and—surprise, surprise—£600 a shift was offered to ASLEF drivers to work weekends, which they gratefully accepted without any negotiation. That has made it a bit easier.

But trains are being cancelled. I got the 8.04 this morning; the next train and the one after that were cancelled. Had I not made the 8.04, I would not be stood here this afternoon speaking in this debate. I have heard today of Labour’s plans to run down the contracts of failing companies over five years, but I have to say that that will only add to the misery of thousands of travellers. I will try to explain why.

Avanti trains have three types of travel—actually, they have four. They have standard class, upper premium and first class. They also have another class: sitting on the floor from London to Manchester, which happens very often when trains have been cancelled and they declassify and allow complete overcrowding on them. I have photographs of me sat there. People who know me find it highly amusing to take pictures of me, sat on the floor, demanding I do something about it—which, unfortunately, I do not have the power to do.

If you go in standard class, you buy your ticket and sit down, and then the messages begin to come: “Today, we are not taking cash. Today, we are not taking card. Today, the coffee machine is not working. Today, the toilets are not working”. It goes on and on. These are new trains. You go to upper premium, which is a standard class ticket that you can buy in advance, pay £25 and sit in a first-class seat with a table and wifi. Unfortunately, in the last pay round, they put an extra £5 on that. It is now £30 to sit in the same seat you sat in last week, with no additional benefits. First class is apparently even better: “Chef’s not turned up today. No service. Food has not been delivered today. No service. Water leak in the kitchen. No service”. It is just unacceptable all around.

I wrote down a point about staff morale and the noble Lord, Lord Snape, has done it. I know that train operators do their best, but they do not: if you talk to train managers who have been there for 20 or 25 years, they will tell you that they are absolutely terrified of turning up for work. They have no idea whether the stock will be there and the kit will work, and they take abuse from the public, day in, day out. That is absolutely unacceptable. They do a great job and should be supported more. Just to say that the contracts can run down is an abrogation: thousands of people go up and down every day and they deserve a better service.

Finally, Trooping the Colour is this year, on 15 June. I know lots of people who have tickets and are going to it. Unfortunately, on that Saturday, there are no direct trains to London from Manchester: you can go via Wolverhampton or have a double diversion at Crewe. It is absolutely incomprehensible that this company can keep the contract. I hope the Minister will keep the pressure on—because I know, as we say up north, that he gets it—and does something to accelerate the removal of this contract or demands immediate improvements with huge penalties if that does not happen.

12:25
Lord Campbell-Savours Portrait Lord Campbell-Savours (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend for calling this debate. I shall return to his comments later. My contribution had to be urgently amended late last night, following the more than excellent news that a Labour Government would grasp the nettle and take rail back into public ownership. Whereas I had originally intended to canter around the course on wider issues of public transport, I now intend to confine my remarks to the excesses of private rail and, in particular, its ticket pricing structure under privatised arrangements.

The rising cost of travel following privatisation illustrates perfectly the distinction in priorities between the public and private sectors. Whereas the driver behind public service operations is serving the public interest, the driver behind private sector operations has to be service, but compromised by profit. The water industry provides us with a classic example, particularly in London and the south-east. I am not ideologically opposed to privatisation: I am opposed to privatisation in conditions of monopoly. Monopolies invariably and inevitably abuse their position, whether through restriction of supply or sectoral excess profit taking. This is what has happened under rail privatisation. The idea that you have real competition on the railways, justified on the basis of competing franchises, is for the birds. It is a myth. The reality is that rail franchising under privatisation has saddled us with a string of monopoly providers. That is the case on much of the national network.

For example, if you bring up National Rail Enquiries on 03457 484 950 and ask for a return ticket from Carlisle to London—I see my noble friend there on the Front Bench, who will be regularly buying these tickets—you receive the monopoly price. I was told this morning that there is one contractor, Avanti West Coast, and I give an example. A traveller ringing up to purchase that Carlisle to London standard anytime open return ticket will pay £392. It is grossly overpriced. It is designed in such a way as to catch the traveller going about his or her business and requiring early attendance at their destination. It is excessive, unreasonable and exploitative.

How about this one? A traveller travelling first class on the same train, on a similar Carlisle to London open return, will pay—listen—£538. I ask colleagues to compare that with the return fare from London to Beijing, in the People’s Republic of China, which is available today on the internet from British Airways at £382. Similar ticket prices were available from China Airlines and Lufthansa. So it costs the same to travel standard class—second class in the old days—from London to Carlisle and back as to fly from London to Beijing, in China, and back. What a nonsense.

The response of the wider is public is perfectly understandable: drive by car, add to air pollution, add to and put up with congestion on the motorway system, even risking the potholes that characterise much of our motorway network, and then go on to further increase congestion in London when you arrive. That is the legacy of privatisation: ignore the public interest and put profit before people.

Of course, the rail companies respond with the mantra: “pre-book”, “pre-book”. My main complaint in today’s debate is that it is hugely inconvenient for many in the world of work to pre-book, where travel is essential, often at short notice. Business, wider industry and professionals need to rely on sensible input costs if they are to remain competitive. They do not necessarily need subsidy but equally they need to avoid exploitative costs if the need is to remain competitive. The whole system of same-day ticket pricing is in urgent need of reform, and I am confident that a Labour Government will address that problem.

My case is simple. Public utilities are there to support the wider economy. Their pricing structures should reflect the public interest, not the pursuit of speculative profits. Labour has to sort this out. That is at the heart of yesterday’s announcements, which I hugely welcome.

Before closing, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Snape, an old friend of mine, on bringing this debate. He lives in the real world. Like me, he rejects a world where the “profit at any cost” approach to the provision of public services trumps the wider public interest.

12:31
Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
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My Lords, I too commend the noble Lord, Lord Snape, for initiating this timely debate, from which I suspect a fair amount of consensus will emerge, at least about what is wrong.

In the noughties, I worked as Tony Blair’s strategy adviser, and among my tasks was to lead a study by officials of the UK’s transport system—road and rail. It was a sorry, chastening experience. We identified that the UK had, by a country mile, the least developed road and rail network of any major country. The core reason for this was that, for the previous 50 years or more, the UK had invested—under both main parties—a lower share of GDP than other major countries. At the first sign of economic reverse—it happened time and again—capital spend was cut in favour of current spend. Frankly, the Treasury appeared not at all to value the payback that comes over time from investing in more efficient transportation. Germany’s GDP per hour worked is 23% greater than the UK’s; France’s is 17% greater. Of course, their superior performance is not all down to their superior infrastructure, but it surely helps.

Tony Blair gave an in-principle go-ahead to a high-speed rail network linking Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds to London. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, picked up the baton. It is nationally shaming that, 20 years later, no part of that vision is operating, and that, ridiculously, after multiple revisions, only the Birmingham to London section of HSR is now under construction.

At the time of Tony Blair’s go-ahead, China had no high-speed rail network at all. Now, incredibly—it is very hard to believe this figure—China has more than 40,000 kilometres of HSR in operation. As we meet today, the UK has 113 kilometres of high-speed rail. A World Bank study identifies how China has achieved this remarkable transformation: a well-analysed long-term plan, standardised design and construction, and a competitive supply network, and all at two-thirds per kilometre of any other country. Since 1990, China, with a GDP per capita of around $12,000, has also built 130,000 kilometres of motorway.

The UK’s transport system is not remotely fit for purpose, as we have heard over and again in this debate. I visit the north regularly. Many industrial areas in and around the Pennines are criss-crossed by small, narrow roads—the legacy of earlier eras. These now carry commuter traffic, and at peak travel times are severely overloaded. Recently, I was trapped on the M62, not by an accident but by a gridlocked major junction. As a result, it took me just under three hours to travel the 16 miles from Leeds station to my hotel destination. Best practice would be to design motorways to carry long-distance traffic and for secondary road networks, as in other countries, speedily to convey regional and local traffic.

The train from Liverpool to Norwich, passing through and stopping at some of our great cities—Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and Peterborough—takes five and a half hours. If, rather than take the train from Liverpool to Norwich, you decided instead to fly from Liverpool to Sharm el-Sheikh, you would reach Sharm el-Sheikh more quickly than you would Norwich.

As in so many areas of our national life, we are now operating in slow motion as a country. We need to get a grip; we need massively to raise our game. In transport, we need to learn from the rest of the world and identify what kind of infrastructure is needed in a crowded country heading towards and beyond a population of 70 million. We need to accept that it will take 25 to 50 years to create, but we need to start now.

12:37
Lord Berkeley Portrait Lord Berkeley (Lab)
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It gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Birt, in this debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Snape on the wording for his debate. He has hit the nail on the head, in saying that we have lots of incoherent plans and need a strategy, as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, also said. I fully support this, and we have had some very interesting speeches so far.

I shall say a few words about rail, but this debate is about transport. We had a very interesting briefing from the Low Traffic Future alliance, which reminded us that transport is for moving people and goods. Net zero is important but we have big problems, such as the increased dependency on motorised traffic, poor public transport, poor walking and cycling conditions—certainly compared with the continent—and potholes. I actually came off my bike when I hit a pothole a week or two ago, and it was not very pleasant. We do not seem to be doing anything about that either. We are also out of balance in the benefits of transport between the different regions.

There is an argument for, after the next election, before rushing into legislation, thinking carefully about a national transport strategy. Everybody has been talking about strategies today and I will not go into the detail now. That could involve pausing road schemes and putting more investment into healthy and sustainable transport, and probably helping with changes to planning law. On the railways, it is interesting. We now have the two major parties coming forward with plans to reorganise the railway by legislation, putting the customers first, which is wonderful. I wonder whether actually we need legislation at this stage. How much of it can be done without legislation?

Noble Lords will remember the strategic rail authority, which took two years to be created and then, after a couple of years, two years to be removed. During those two years, very little happened and some of us got extremely frustrated that nothing was happening. I think it is worth looking at what can be done to put customers first with some quick wins. Many noble Lords have mentioned strikes. That is the first thing, and I trust that a new Labour Government will address that. I believe that many of the problems that I and noble Lords have spoken about this morning are down to bad management. I am not sure that it matters particularly whether the management is nationalised or private sector; the Rail Partners’ proposals are a pretty good mix of the two. The management, mainly from the Department for Transport, with a bit—I do not know whether it is support or not, and we can debate that—from the Treasury, has not organised at all well addressing many of the problems noble Lords have spoken about.

My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours and other noble Lords have talked about train fares, but most are set by the Government. The train operators have to implement them, adding a few of their own fares, such as savers. One of the ideas I shall be pursuing over the next few weeks is that train fares should go to the operator on whose train you are sitting. They do not at the moment, unless it is a saver fare. All other fares are divided: if there are two operators on a route, the fare is divided between the two. That removes all incentive for operators to do better. It is a serious issue. It could be done, as now, most people have their ticket checked electronically. It would mean that the train operator has an incentive to run the trains—as other noble Lords have said, that does not always happen—and to provide decent seating and catering, clean, on-time trains, a timetable that customers want and mitigation for customers when things go wrong. Whether the operator is in the private or public sector does not matter very much. It does not need legislation and it would not cost the Treasury a penny. There is now enough information on tickets for this to be taken forward. Train operators could quickly demonstrate how good they are, if they are, or how bad they are if they are not. That leaves the Department for Transport—until there is a change—to identify whether there should be any changes.

We are having an interesting debate on all this. I do not believe it is necessarily in everybody’s interest, including passengers, to hang around for a couple of years before any legislation gets through. A great deal of this can be done now. If the management in the past few years has been bad—it certainly has been pretty bad—that can be dealt with quickly. We should look at that, rather than saying let us do nothing for two years.

I congratulate my noble friend and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has got to say.

12:44
Viscount Hanworth Portrait Viscount Hanworth (Lab)
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My Lords, Britain was once a great innovator in transport. It was the first of the European nations to create a modern transport network. In the late 18th century, John McAdam and Thomas Telford, known to his contemporaries as the Colossus of Roads, were at the forefront of an endeavour to construct a serviceable network of highways that expedited travel in an unprecedented way.

At the same time, a network of canals was under construction that enabled goods and freight to be conveyed over long distances. Then, from the middle of the 19th century, a vast network of railways was under construction. This was achieved by speculative private enterprise, which often resulted in private ruin. In Lewis Carroll’s poem, “The Hunting of the Snark”, we hear of threatening a person’s life with a railway share. The process was a free for all, and it endowed the nation with a network that was arguably full of replication and redundancy. It was fit for pruning. It was eventually reduced drastically and, in retrospect, far too extensively, in the 1960s under was aegis of a certain Dr Beeching. He was an engineer and physicist who had worked for Imperial Chemical Industries before he was charged with this task, which made him a prominent public figure.

By the middle of the 20th century Britain’s transport network had fallen into disrepair, and its roads were no longer to be admired. Britain lacked the autobahns, autostrada and routes nationales of its European neighbours, some of which had been inspired by dictators with militaristic intentions. Belatedly, in the 1960s Britain indulged in a feverish process of catch-up that created our own inadequate motorways.

Our rail system had also fallen into disrepair, and it still compares unfavourably with those of its continental neighbours. They have benefited from national investment programmes that have been absent from Britain. Worse was to come when the Conservative Government of John Major denationalised the railways and sought to re-establish the system of large railway companies that had dominated the industry in the 1930s, which was arguably its heyday.

Now, at the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, Britain’s transport network faces an unprecedented challenge on two fronts. The first challenge is to provide the means of transporting goods and people in a manner that will cater to the demands of the modern economy. The second challenge will be to staunch the emissions of the greenhouse gases to which transport is a major contributor. Current estimates indicate that transport contributes one quarter of all the nation’s domestic emissions. Most of these emissions come from road vehicles. The additional emissions of international transport are not part of this reckoning.

An inescapable judgment is that the present Government have failed adequately to meet these challenges. The denationalisation of British railways has resulted in a system that lacks the strategic oversight needed to maintain an orderly investment programme. The procurement of rolling stock has become disorganised and sporadic, and much of it is provided nowadays by foreign suppliers. The once great engineering works at Derby that served the London, Midland and Scottish Railway has passed into foreign ownership. It was acquired in 2001 by the Canadian company Bombardier and in 2021 it passed to the French company Alstom. Given the current hiatus in the procurement of new trains, it now seems to be destined for closure. Its demise represents a paradigm of national mismanagement and illustrates the danger of allowing our industries to become offshoots of foreign enterprises.

It must be acknowledged that rail transport contributes only a small proportion of the nation’s emissions of carbon dioxide and of greenhouse gasses more generally. However, there are two reasons why attention should be paid to the matter of its reform, and an incoming Labour Government would be committed to do that. First, there are numerous diesel-powered trains on the network that contribute significantly to pollution and need to be eliminated. Next, an expansion of the network would enable people and freight to be transferred from the roads. This would be an effective way of reducing emissions from road vehicles.

The modest size of the total emissions coming directly from the rail network is a testimony to its energy efficiency, and to the fact that much of the traffic is powered by electricity. There must be concern for how the electricity is generated, for it is not free of emissions. Nevertheless, further electrification should be seen as a means of eliminating diesel power. But Britain faces some difficulties in this connection that do not affect continental railways to the same extent. Many of the old bridges and tunnels have small apertures that prevent the installation of overhead electric cables. To overcome this difficulty, trains must be available that are powered by batteries and fuel cells. Here, there has been virtually no progress, for which there can be little excuse.

A major reduction in emissions must come from a major reduction in the number of road vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. There too, the steps taken so far have been wholly inadequate. The Government have backtracked on their original commitment by deferring a ban on the sales of such vehicles to 2035—five years later than originally proposed. The ban on sales of petrol-powered and diesel-powered vehicles should provide a stimulus to our automotive industry, which must adopt batteries and hydrogen fuel cells as a means of powering road vehicles. It will be an effective stimulus for the industry only if there is an accompanying development in the industries that provide batteries and fuel cells.

It is doubtful whether our automobile industry will be able to rise to the occasion. It is in the hands of foreign and international owners who see their British factories as offshoots of their main enterprises. They will be willing to close them and to move their operations elsewhere if this becomes a more profitable option. Manufacturers are liable to be drawn to places where a supply of batteries is closer to hand. The UK has failed to develop an industry that can manufacture batteries in the numbers required. There is only one manufacturer of batteries that operates on a large scale—a plant in Sunderland that supplies the Nissan car factory. It is run by the Chinese company Envision and is small in comparison with the genuine gigafactories that exist elsewhere in Europe and in China. The other automobile manufacturers in the UK rely on imported batteries. Unless we can develop our battery manufacturing, we will be in danger of losing the majority of our motor manufacturers.

12:51
Lord Holmes of Richmond Portrait Lord Holmes of Richmond (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Snape, on securing it. I declare my interests in the technology field as an adviser to Boston Ltd.

I will speak about accessibility and technology in transport. I begin with buses. In London we are incredibly fortunate with so many of our modes of transport—not least the accessibility of London buses, with their audio-visual output. In 2016 I was privileged to launch Manchester’s talking bus fleet. Other major cities have followed suit. We passed legislation to this effect a number of years ago. When the Minister comes to respond, will he say what this picture is looking like across the country? Is it still down to luck—where you happen to get on a bus—as to whether you can have that audio-visual information that so many of us require?

So-called floating bus stops are those where there is a cycle lane between the pavement, the bus stop and the carriageway where the bus pulls up. How are disabled people supposed to board and alight from those bus services safely and effectively? What equality impact assessment has been done around floating bus stops? It must be clear that buses have to be able to pull up, pick up and drop off at the kerbside, rather than the passenger getting on and off the bus in the middle of nowhere, which is what a floating bus stop feels like. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that it is time for a moratorium on floating bus stops so that a full impact assessment can be undertaken? Will he convene a meeting with the Secretary of State and interested parties to come up with accessible, inclusive solutions—which floating bus stops certainly are not?

Taxis are an incredibly important part of our public transport network. We currently have the ludicrous situation in the City of London where Bank Junction is closed to black cabs on erroneous safety grounds, even though a black cab has never been involved in an accident there. There are similar issues with cabs at Bishopsgate. They are also barred from Tottenham Court Road. Will the Minister consider writing to the City of London Corporation in relation to Bank Junction and Bishopsgate, and to the leader of Camden Council and the Mayor of London in relation to Tottenham Court Road, to establish how these effective bans on our excellent black taxi fleet deliver accessibility and inclusion? How do those various authorities believe that they are complying with their equality duties, not least the public sector equality duty?

Another area is so-called shared space. Many noble Lords may have had the pleasure of not coming across these. They are an architectural and planning folly where roads are made completely wide open. Pavements, kerbstones, signs, road markings, crossings and signals are all taken away in the belief that road users and pedestrians will be able to get on better and be more sympathetic to one another. Buses and blind people, toddlers and tankers are able to interact in this extraordinary utopia. We managed to achieve a moratorium on all new so-called shared space. Can my noble friend the Minister say what is happening with the maintenance costs of all existing shared space developments? How many have had to be retrofitted to make them accessible for their local communities?

More disabled people are gaining employment than at any time in our history, and leisure and social facilities are becoming more accessible and inclusive. Is it not a tragedy if disabled people are not even able to get there for want of accessible transport, or are so stressed by the time they pitch up at work because of the inaccessible transport experience? What an unnecessary burden to put on disabled people across our country. It is wholly avoidable and yet currently not avoided.

I turn to technology. We have an extraordinary opportunity—nothing short of the complete technologisation of all our transport with AI, blockchain and the internet of things. What extraordinary possibilities we have to optimise the transport system and to connect all its vehicles in real time. Emergency vehicles would be able to be given the best route through congested traffic. Congestion would be reduced and efficiency increased. Can my noble friend the Minister comment on how much technology is being used by National Highways and Network Rail—not least to optimise their assets and resources, but also to get ahead of all the safety and maintenance challenges?

Inclusion and innovation are the golden threads that we need to see running through all our transport networks and systems. We can have a 21st-century transport network on all modes. Currently, we surely do not.

In conclusion, does my noble friend the Minister agree that we do not have public transport in this country? We have transport for some of the public, some of the time. Outside London, Manchester or other major cities, there is transport for some of the public, some of the time. For a disabled person or a wheelchair user, for the blind, hearing or cognitive impaired, there is transport for some of the public, some of the time. In reality, all too often there is fully accessible transport for many of our fellow citizens none of the time. Yet we know how to do this through inclusion and innovation. Imagine public transport inclusive by design and accessible by all. Would that not be quite something?

12:58
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the compelling contribution to our debate by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes. It was also a great pleasure, as always, to listen to my noble friend Lord Snape. He is a great expert on these matters.

I will speak about railways. Like everybody else who wanted to speak about this, I was caught short this morning by my honourable friend Louise Haigh’s statement about the Labour Party’s position on railways, which I fully support. Some 44 years ago, at Newport station in south Wales, there was a banner that said: “Ninety minutes from Newport to Paddington”. We had very comfortable trains, the food was edible and, of course, the stations that the trains went from were impressive—not least Newport station, the second-busiest and second-largest in Wales. I fear that this is not the case today.

When I was a lad, the station had a wonderful façade and a great entrance, and it was admired by all, but someone decided some years ago to change it for the Ryder Cup. They put the station extension in the wrong place, and the building was so awful that it was regarded as the ugliest building built in 2011. Worse than that, when you go to Newport station now you find that the toilets do not work and are out of order; the lifts have been out of order for some weeks; the buffet café has long been closed; when the station floods, it does so extremely badly; and there is a lot of scaffolding in the station. I referred to the banner that said it took 90 minutes to Paddington. Now, 44 years later, it takes 10 minutes longer to get from Newport to Paddington despite electrification—and, of course, the food on the trains is junk.

When you look at the Great Western Railway, which I have done nearly all my life, you see that its staff are hugely impressive, courteous and engaging, and electrification has certainly helped, but over a number of years we have seen a deterioration in the service of a once great railway company. Cancellations of trains are normal, unreliability is inevitable, there is lateness nearly all the time and, perhaps worse than all that, the overcrowding is now wholly unacceptable. The reason is that the number of carriages on the trains running from London to south Wales and the West Country is often cut by half—from 10 to five is quite normal. I was on one not long ago that was so overcrowded that a woman actually fainted at Reading station, and the train had to stop for about 15 minutes.

Over the last three decades we have seen deterioration. In 1994, when I was in the House of Commons, I voted against privatisation, and I see no reason in the world why I was wrong. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours’s excellent speech on what has happened to railways in the intervening years was absolutely right. The fare structure is complicated, fares are hugely too high, and of course industrial relations are in a mess. It is a sorry story, and that is a great shame because I am a great lover of our railways, as are many of your Lordships. It is the best way to travel, it is the most environmentally sensible way, and it is the way that I would always inevitably choose. It is a sadness that your Lordships have had to comment on and point to the deficiencies of the network in our country. I have touched on a few relating to the GWR but there are other examples as well.

I personally welcome the announcement by my party today on taking the railways into public ownership but not in an old-fashioned way, by letting the franchises disappear and replacing them, as has happened with a number of companies in the country. That is the way ahead. I just hope that, in five or six years’ time, the Great Western Railway will be replaced by the great British railway.

13:04
Lord Whitty Portrait Lord Whitty (Lab)
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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Snape on this debate and his opening speech, particularly his excoriation of the railway system for the experience of passengers these days under privatisation, which my noble friend Lord Murphy has just underlined. His anecdote about Newport station takes me back even further than 45 years to when I used to visit my Welsh relatives. I quite admired and was rather impressed by Newport station, and even more impressed by the train service at the time. Sadly, that has deteriorated.

I also welcome, like my noble friends Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Murphy, the announcement by my friend in another place Louise Haigh, whom I hope will soon be Secretary of State for Transport. We need a drastic change in the way we run our system. Since privatisation, the situation has become even more dire for passengers year by year, and we have ended up in effect with the state having responsibility without power and having to meet a significant part of the cost. The system of franchising is broken and successive regulators have failed. We have had the Strategic Rail Authority, the Office of the Rail Regulator and now we have the Office of Rail and Road. It would have been more accurate if they had all been designated with the title of “Offtrack”, because that is what they are. The system has gone downhill ever since privatisation. Whatever the failings beforehand, they have been multiplied since.

This calls for a broader approach to transport policy—although, before I leave rail, I should mention that the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, has drawn to my attention that, since the start of the debate and his own speech, there have been 10 cancellations out of Euston station this very day.

The question is wider than rail policy. Transport policy has many objectives. Some of them are contradictory, and they need a cohesive and clear approach, both within and between sectors. Some of these contradictions and problems are macro, such as the state of the railways and the fiasco of HS2, but some are micro. I shall give a personal example. I live seven miles from a railway station. There is a bus service to it from my town of only one bus per hour, and outside rush hour there is only one train per hour, but the first three buses in the morning are scheduled to arrive three minutes after the trains for London and Exeter have departed. A little bit of integration could help because that causes people to rely entirely on their cars, increasing congestion on our inadequate rural roads and increasing pollution.

We need integration within and between sectors. I support more space for cyclists, but some of the provision for cyclists contradicts road use elsewhere. The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has just reported one effect of shared space at floating bus stops. We must ensure that pedestrians as well as cyclists are protected and that the provision of cycle lanes—which I support—is done in such a way that it does not increase greater congestion and danger to pedestrians.

We need a real integrated plan. Others have referred to the proposals by the Institution of Civil Engineers for the integration of transport infrastructure; obviously it needs to be broader than infrastructure, but infrastructure is where it starts.

We need to ensure some degree of modal shift away from fossil fuel-using cars and pollution-producing transport. Freight trains, for example, contribute about a quarter of the carbon emissions that the equivalent on the roads would produce. We need to ensure that this is provided for in the infrastructure on the roads as well as on rail.

I shall mention three issues that are dear to my heart but which have not been touched on much today. First, the switch to electric vehicles has slowed down. I was a member of your Lordships’ Environment and Climate Change Committee when we produced a report about a year ago on this topic. I would like a clear and positive response about reversing that decline and ensuring in particular that there is a market for small electric vehicles in this country.

My second point is on aviation. I declare my vice-presidency of BALPA. If aviation is to continue to supply domestic and short-haul routes, it has to be more environmentally sustainable. That means more investment in sustainable aviation fuel. It also means concentrating on changing the pattern of flights, scheduling and payload, and the way in which our domestic aviation system works. That has hardly received any attention.

Finally, building on what the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has said on road safety, I was disheartened a few weeks ago when the Minister replied to an Oral Question that he saw no reason to have a road safety strategy. Previous road safety strategies have worked very successfully and saved many lives. We need to integrate driver behaviour, road and vehicle design, road signage, speed and traffic organisation. That is quite difficult, but it needs to be done. To reduce the continuing high level of accidents and danger to pedestrians and car occupants, we need a proper road safety strategy. I hope the Minister can include that in his reply.

I hope that we can see a more integrated approach. I hope that the incoming Government will provide one. The announcement on railways is a good start, but we need a much broader policy that takes in all modes and types of users.

13:11
Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Snape, for securing this important debate. He gave us a splendid knock-about speech to start, full of horror stories. These have been added to—stories of failures, inconveniences, cancellations and so forth—in the course of our debate. I would like to take the word “strategy” seriously. Many of the examples that have been deduced today are not pertinent to the question of strategy; they are what I would rather think of as tactical failings. You can have a large number of tactical failings without it necessarily meaning that you do not have a good strategy. That said, I do not think the Government have much of a strategy for transport, but the two are worth distinguishing.

I would like to use the few minutes available to set out some of the principles that ought to underly a transport strategy for this country and the United Kingdom. First, we need to think the right way. We need to think teleologically about transport. The purpose of transport is transport; it is moving people and goods. That movement brings economic and social benefits; these are not inherently the purpose of transport but they are beneficial consequences. Transport also brings pollution, which is not the purpose of transport but simply a negative unwelcome consequence. We need to distinguish between the purpose of what we are doing and the consequences.

Secondly, it is also not the purpose of transport to meet non-transport policy objectives—for example, net zero. As an aside, it is quite interesting that I am probably the first person in this debate to use the words “net zero”. I do not use them in a very positive way; I just give it as an example. Extraneous policy objectives are constraints on how you deliver transport policy; they tell you how you should be doing it rather than why. That is also a necessary clearing of the mind if we are to think about these things properly.

My third point might seem obvious, but it has huge consequences. Public transport works best where you have a concentration of passengers. That means that it works well, largely speaking, in cities and larger towns. Having a density of population is a necessary condition for sustainable public transport. It is possible that transport services can create density, in the way that the Metropolitan Railway created Metro-land, but our anti-development planning policies nowadays sadly make that a thing of the past.

Fourthly, as a consequence of that, we have to be realistic about what we are ever going to be able to offer rural areas in public transport services. The idea that rural areas will have transport services akin to what is on offer in London is simply unrealistic. It is to hold out a pledge that can never be met. This emphasises that, especially in rural areas, there is always going to be a very important role for the private motorcar—and, indeed, for cheap private motorcars. The whole question of electric vehicles and how far we can expect them to spread, especially in rural areas, seems to be determined by their cost. At the moment, they are far too expensive. If we want cheap ones, we are going to have to pay to import them from China. That is basically the dilemma we face. We need to be realistic about that.

My next point might be controversial. Public transport is expensive to run, particularly rail. It costs a great deal of money, and not simply because of the monopoly supply of labour and the way in which the trade unions have been able to extract enormous salaries, especially for drivers, as a result of that. It is very expensive to run and only the fare payer or the taxpayer can pay for it. The money has to come from one of those two sources. It is a profoundly political decision how that expense will be allocated.

My suggestion—unpopular though it may be—is that any national strategy should be directed at maximising fare income. This does not mean high fares for everyone, because transport is a paradigm case of where marginal pricing adds to income—railway operators have understood this since the railways started in the 19th century. The fact is that it costs more or less the same to run the train whether it has passengers on it or not. Even £1 from that last marginal passenger adds to income. Airlines completely understand this. They set and vary their prices from day to day on that basis, in order to maximise revenue—not by having high fares for everyone but by having high fares for some and lower fares for others. We should perhaps learn from that.

I am coming to a conclusion. I would like to say a lot about technology, as my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond has. That would be another speech, as there is a great deal to say on that.

Finally, I will briefly say something about the nationalisation of rail, as announced today. I am not, despite what noble Lords might think, a mad privatiser of every utility. I was deputy chairman of Transport for London, so I can hardly believe entirely in privately running things. But the announcement today will make no difference whatever. Nearly everything you can pick up and touch in the railways is nationalised already, except the trains. If you take over the train operating companies, which are already puppets of the Department for Transport, you will simply have the same people doing the same jobs. Nothing very much would change, but you would run out of capital to invest at some point. That is the great advantage of privatisation.

13:18
Lord McLoughlin Portrait Lord McLoughlin (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Snape, on securing this debate and on managing to tee up his party to make its major announcement on rail today. It is a great achievement.

It is a privilege to see the noble Lord, Lord Hendy of Richmond Hill, in the Chamber today. He is somebody who has done a huge amount for rail and transport infrastructure in the United Kingdom. I was very pleased that he was appointed as chairman of Network Rail. In fact, it was my appointment, so I was delighted to be able to do that.

I declare my interest as chairman of Transport for the North and as someone who thinks that strategic transport bodies have importance. I do not have a lot of time to talk too much about that today.

This debate has fallen into the trap we so often fall into when we talk about transport, because transport is not about just the rail industry. Today’s debate has been dominated by speeches about railways from nearly all Peers, apart from my noble friend Lord Holmes, who mentioned Network Rail only in passing, right at the end of his speech—I congratulate him on that. Naturally, railways are very important to our transport system, but I am glad that certain people have made reference to buses, and I certainly hope to do so too.

There is no doubt that transport is the artery of any economy. It gets people to work, children to school and food to shops. Everyone depends on it every day. When transport slows, everything slows; when transport stops, everything stops. We saw an example of that during the pandemic, to which quite a few of the problems we face today relate. We almost forget that, just four years ago, the country was virtually at a standstill because of the pandemic. But lots of things are changing in the transport world.

There have been a lot of attacks on privatisation today. It is worth bearing in mind that, before privatisation, there were 700 million journeys a year on our railways; the year before the pandemic, there were 1.8 billion journeys on our railways. We have seen a revolution in the rail industry: it does far more and serves far more people. That happened because private finance was brought into the rail industry, and we were no longer completely reliant on what the Treasury said and did not say. There have been a lot of attacks today on the Treasury, so I say: be careful what you wish for because, if you wholly nationalise, the people who will take back control will be not the Department for Transport but His Majesty’s Treasury. So one should be a little cautious about what one asks for. On the idea that open access will somehow be allowed to continue, with all the other operators being nationalised and operated from the centre, it will be interesting to see how that develops in the longer term.

I very much regret the Government’s decision on stopping HS2. Unfortunately, HS2 became a discussion about speed, but it was never about speed; it was about capacity on our network and freeing up a lot more room for other services on it. Two metro mayors, Andy Street and Andy Burnham, commissioned a report from David Higgins on what a future Government will do, and it will be interesting to see that, whatever happens after a general election. I slightly warn people: I remember that, when I was first elected to the House of Commons, I was told by the BBC that it had done an exit poll in my constituency and I had lost. The returning officer told me otherwise. From that day onwards, I have always believed that the returning officer is a bit more authoritative on election results. Given that, let us be careful about what we see as the future of the rail industry.

The other interesting growth and important change that has taken place is the growth of metro mayors and their importance as far as their impact on transport and transport policy is concerned. As I say, Andy Street and Andy Burnham commissioned work from Sir David Higgins about what should happen as a result of terminating HS2 at Handsacre, and it will be interesting to see exactly what happens with that under any future Government.

On some of the points made earlier about buses, I say that buses are incredibly important to our transport system. I congratulate the Government on the £2 fare cap that they brought in. It has seen patronage start to rise and more people using buses. It is due to end on 31 December this year. A few other things will take place between now and then that may preoccupy parties’ minds, but, if this does end, it will be a very retrograde step for the bus industry. I hope my noble friend on the Front Bench can relay the message to the Secretary of State that this should be extended at least to the end of the financial year, so that people are not starting to think now about what they might do if that £2 fare cap were removed.

There was an interesting story in the Times a few weeks ago about how much has already been spent before any decision on the lower Thames crossing has been made:

“National Highways, which manages the strategic road network, has spent more than £267 million on the application alone, while overall spending on the project has surpassed £800 million”


before a spade has been put in the ground. We need to look carefully at how we do long-term planning for these big infrastructure projects. I think we have got the system wrong.

I can see my time has come to an end, so I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that transport is about not just the railways but a lot of other subjects that we have not had time to talk fully about today.

13:25
Lord Fowler Portrait Lord Fowler (CB)
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My Lords, I will speak in the gap very briefly. I congratulate my noble friend on his speech. I notice that things in his constituency went his way after my visit: his deficit was turned into a majority, and I am glad.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Snape, on this debate, not just because he was my pair when I was Transport Secretary but also because of his long and abiding interest in, and knowledge of, transport—I mean that very generally. He has been a great asset in both Houses on this subject.

The transport debate has moved on. The Guardian, from which I get all my news about what is happening behind closed doors inside the Labour Party, says that Labour vows to nationalise the rail network within five years of winning the election. The shadow Minister says that

“this is not just ideology, it’s a detailed reform plan”.

Frankly, the less ideology, the better. We will wait to see the reform plan.

The noble Lord, Lord Snape, criticised very much what has happened under privatisation, but I am sure he would agree that, in the time of British Rail, not everything was fantastic. It was not a time of unparalleled industrial peace when all trains ran on time. There were divisions inside the trade union movement, as he well knows, on the way forward. I had a number of meetings with the heads of ASLEF and NUR that were made memorable by the fact that neither of them spoke to each other and they sat at opposite ends of the table. That did not seem to me to be industrial co-operation as I knew it.

One of the major problems was, obviously, a lack of investment, which is what we had to tackle. The Treasury was not interested, frankly, in financing luxury hotels, for example—who can blame it? That is one of the reasons why, in my so-called privatisation measures, we got rid of that and put them into the private sector. In the main, people have not complained about that. I do not think anyone is pressing the Labour Party to take on Gleneagles as a publicly operated hotel.

The important point that I would like to make about privatisation is just this: when we privatised, we did not bring in a lot of outside experts to run these companies; we appointed and recruited them from inside. There were people like Peter Thompson in the NFC and Keith Stuart in Associated British Ports. There was tremendous talent inside the companies, but that talent was not being used. That is an important point about privatisation which has not been recognised. We set that management free. I heard the criticism, but it should also be recognised that, when this has been done well—I accept that it has not always been—the public have benefited from it.

13:30
Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington Portrait Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington (CB)
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My Lords, I also speak in the gap and thank noble Lords for allowing me to do so. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Snape, on this debate. I will not be talking about railways, buses or anything in relation to that; I shall be talking about drones. We are on the verge of a massive impact of the use of drones in the civil context. We have had it in the military context, of course, in Ukraine, Israel and the like, and there is a real need here to bring the CAA together with the Ministry of Transport.

Here, I should declare my interest, as listed in the register, in general aviation and associated business interests. A number of experiments and systems have been used over the past three to four months in the north-east of England, and they have not been very successful at all. A pilot scheme, a corridor from Wansbeck to Alnwick to Berwick, has affected general aviation in such a way that other aircraft cannot fly. Drones were going to be used five to 15 times a day, but because of weather it did not happen. We are now going back to another kind of pilot scheme, along the same route and along the River Tyne, which will be conducted for six months. It will affect general aviation in a major way. Looking ahead, drones will be used extensively and there is therefore a need to put together a strategy that delivers sensibly and safely.

Over the years, a lot of work has been done on aircraft safety, and the conclusion reached is that any aircraft that hits organic matter—birds, for example—will probably survive, but if it hits a drone is very unlikely to survive at all; the result would be catastrophic. We have here something new, and it is going to happen and will affect us all. Speaking as a pilot—my friend and colleague the Minister is also a pilot—I can say that this issue really needs to be addressed. The potential is massive, so the issues need to be sorted out and the pilot schemes need to be done in a way that is satisfactory to all.

13:33
Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Snape, for giving us such a broad canvas for our debate today. It has left us free to roam over fertile territory, pointing out the failings of current policy and the daily transport crises that fail travellers. It is very easy pickings because there is so much to choose from.

Many noble Lords have used this debate to highlight important issues arising from their own experiences. I especially welcomed the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, on issues that particularly affect people with disability. I note my sadness that I am the only woman speaking in this debate, because a good public transport system is an equality issue. Women and girls are more likely to use public transport than to have cars. My noble friend Lord Goddard referred to ticketing, as did many others. He spoke particularly about Avanti and praised its on-train staff for dealing with the pressure they face so expertly in their responses. I second that by referring to Great Western staff; the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and I suffer the vagaries of the Great Western service. Just to illustrate a point: while we have been sat here, four trains have been shortened from 10 to five carriages, making all the associated trains uncomfortable, too.

Transport is fundamental to the success of the economy, despite all the talk of working from home, using Zoom and so on. Failing transport networks stifle the economy, as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, said. Wherever we look, our transport infrastructure is failing. The Centre for Cities estimates that that costs our economy £23 billion a year. Our roads, both local and national highways, are seriously congested and in urgent need of repairs. Now, I am a Liberal Democrat and I like talking about potholes, but potholes have become a national topic of conversation because of local government underfunding. Our motorways are heavily congested. The Government therefore invented smart motorways, which are supposed to rely on sophisticated surveillance equipment to keep drivers safe. Just this week, however, we hear that this equipment is subject to frequent failures.

Bus services have declined dramatically, leaving rural areas as bus deserts. The youngest, oldest and poorest in our society in particular are left without any affordable means of getting to work, to education, to training, to doctors’ appointments and to see family and friends. Although the £2 fare is welcome, like so much that this Government do, it is short term, haphazard and certainly not strategic. Money to incentivise zero-emission buses is welcome but, outside London, there are many areas where this has hardly made any impression at all. Above all, there is the uncertainty of funding, with four separate funding streams for buses. What we need, for a start, is one integrated system and more transparency to make sure that the money gets spent properly.

Train services are a national tragedy. When we ask questions here, Ministers always recite how much taxpayers have subsidised rail services since the pandemic. They overlook the subsidy that taxpayers give to road building and maintenance, and that every train passenger benefits all those who do not or cannot take the train by taking themselves off the roads. The nation that invented the railways has proved itself incapable of building a modern high-speed line in an efficient and sensible manner. We have had years of government contortions and “will they, won’t they?”, when first one leg and then the other leg of HS2 north of Birmingham was cancelled. At a stroke, that cancellation added vast amounts of money to future contractors’ estimates, because they will factor in the financial risk of project cancellation. We are told that, unlike on the high-speed lines that we see across the world, HS2 trains will travel on standard rail lines north of Birmingham, but they will of course have to travel more slowly than classic trains because those trains will not tilt.

Recently, we discussed the crisis facing train manufacturers Alstom and Hitachi because of the stop-go approach to rail investment. Thousands of jobs are at risk, with the Government scrabbling around at the last minute to try to save them.

Instead of HS2, we have the hotchpotch of Network North. Individual projects are probably very sensible and worthy, but there has been a lack of consultation, no coherent overall strategic plan, no proper discussion with local mayors, and so on. Of the £36 billion allocated to HS2, £11.6 billion will go to Network North; that is a major cut in funding for rail. The Rail Industry Association complains that there has been no assessment of value for money and risk, and that many of these are simply reannouncements, with only five new projects.

Just look at the current problems that face LNER, for example, with its planned new timetable, which will reduce services to key towns such as Berwick. The plans are now being put on hold for the second time because, according to Network Rail, they are undeliverable. There has been a lack of coherent consultation. Across the whole sector, investors and professionals are crying out for certainty and an end to U-turns and the stop-start approach to funding.

The Government had some good ideas, but they have dropped most of them. Theresa May made a bold and laudable decision when she fixed 2030 as the date for phasing out new petrol and diesel vehicle sales, but a single parliamentary by-election changed government policy and the date for that decision. As a result, the whole of our valuable automotive industry was wrong-footed.

There is no proper leadership on a sustainable charging network for electric vehicles and there is a lack of incentive to attract those who are less well-off into EV ownership. It is no wonder we are far from the world-leading image produced by Boris Johnson on EV manufacture and take-up.

In 2021, we had the Williams-Shapps report for rail reform. In 2022, in the Queen’s Speech, we had a Transport Bill announced, but it was never introduced. We now have the draft Rail Reform Bill, which has only just started scrutiny in the House of Commons and will have no chance of becoming law before the general election. Now we have Labour talking about a five-year lead-up to nationalisation, which will be five years of uncertainty—the last thing the rail industry needs.

We have a long way to go now. We need certainty and dramatic change in our bus services, our EV charging, our automotive manufacturing, our railways and much more. We need heaps more awareness of the value of investment, rather than the cost of each individual minute aspect of it. We need less political interference; we need investment, vision and less short-term bean counting.

13:43
Lord Liddle Portrait Lord Liddle (Lab)
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I congratulate my noble friend Lord Snape on introducing this debate in his own informed and inimitable way, and join those who have paid tribute to him for his contribution over many decades to the transport debate in this country. I also thank former Secretaries of State for contributing to this debate and I particularly endorse the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord McLaughlin, about my noble friend Lord Hendy, who unfortunately is not able to contribute to this debate; it would have been nice to hear from him. Those present also remind me of those absent, and one of those is, of course, Lord Rosser, who was a much-loved Member of this House and a very great, moderate and sensible trade union general secretary.

It would be nice to have a coherent plan for transport, but in the last 14 years we have not achieved that. We had the impact of austerity, which led to massive cuts in local government budgets. I saw it in Cumbria, where we had fewer professional highways staff and where planned maintenance on our roads was cut to the bone, so we inevitably ended up with a chronic problem of potholes. The Government have done a lot of announcing about special funds for potholes, in a sort of patchwork attempt to cover up the consequences of what they did 10 years ago. In fact, that will only cover about half of what is needed to have a proper system of planned maintenance for our highways.

Austerity also brought big cuts in bus subsidies. When I was a Cumbria county councillor, we were forced to abandon bus subsidies for commercial services altogether. As a result, bus travel outside London has collapsed. The annual number of journeys since 2009 has gone down from 2.4 billion to 1.6 billion—a third lost.

Boris Johnson realised, to be fair to him, that this was a big problem. His Bus Back Better White Paper was full of typically bold promise and ambition, but, as with so much else, delivery was another matter. This is a serious issue—it might be even more serious than the railways—because the bus crisis affects the young, the elderly and the poor most of all. For a social democrat like me, we must do better and find a better policy.

The solution stares us in the face. London has seen little of the decline experienced in other parts of England. Why? Because, instead of the philosophy of provision being driven by free market competition, bus services in London are a fine example of public/private partnership, with a franchising model that works. This eliminates competitive cherry picking on bus routes that are highly profitable and allows cross-subsidy of those routes where there is less revenue.

The difficulty with this problem that Boris Johnson recognised is that the Government have never found time to legislate on it. This year, to be frank, the Government judged the pedicabs Bill more important than doing something to remedy our bus service problems. I regret very much the way that government policy has tilted against public transport since the Uxbridge by-election. The Government have tried to pose as a defender of the motorist against sinister socialist plots—this is nonsense. I am a strong believer in the freedom that cars bring. I was brought up in a non-car owning household and realised, with great wonderment and affection, how a car enabled me to travel to parts of the Lake District near my home that I had never been to before. As a councillor for Wigton in the last decade, I also saw how, in certain places where public transport is rotten, people depend on their cars. The care worker who is on the minimum wage—if that—depends on a car to do her job. Let us have no more of this culture-war nonsense.

We need, of course, sensible policies in towns and cities. We realised in the 1970s that there was no financially affordable or environmentally acceptable way in which road building could solve congestion problems. We did not want to become like America. When I was a young Labour councillor in Oxford in the 1970s, we championed what we called a balanced transport policy. We brought in park and ride from the outskirts, and bus lanes to get buses into town quicker. I remember how much opposition there was. Traders thought this was the end of the world. Professionals objected to not being able to drive their car to work as easily as they had done. But, when people saw the benefits, the objections quickly subsided. We could do much more in cities to improve bus reliability and efficiency without vast increases in public spending.

The same opportunity exists on our railways. I was never a dogmatic opponent of all privatisation, but I thought that separating the natural monopoly of the infrastructure from competing services that use it, while it might work well in telecoms, was a much more difficult proposition with railways. That has proved to be the case. The growing problems with privatisation have been evident for two decades. We had the collapse of Railtrack in 2001. We had the problem of franchisees overbidding for contracts and hoping that a weak Government would let them off the hook. My noble friend Lord Adonis told them to get lost, and their franchises were taken into public ownership. In 2018, the railways were unable to produce a timetable that worked. Since Covid, there has been a vast increase in costs and a real decline in quality of service. As a frequent Avanti user, although not quite as frequent as the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, I still cannot understand why it has been allowed to keep its franchise.

What Labour has announced today is fundamentally right—that we intend to bring the major part of the railway under unified public control and ownership. I disagree with my noble friend Lord Berkeley: we must take legislative action on this quickly, in our first term of office. A unified railway will save hundreds of millions of pounds by getting all parts of the system working together. It will end the costly arguments about delay attribution, and I hope that it will release the railway from the micro-control of civil servants who are currently making decisions about services and spending. It will not be a return to British Rail. Open access will be retained; freight services will continue to be operated by the private sector; the lease-holding arrangements for rolling stock will remain in place. This is a pragmatic response to the failings of the existing system. I hope that it will allow the kind of long-term approach that the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, talked about.

Again, there is not much difference between the Williams-Shapps plan and Labour’s proposals, which is why Keith Williams has backed them today. This provides an opportunity to establish a new, lasting consensus about the way railways should be run, and I hope that the Conservatives will take that view if they lose the next election.

Another area where consensus needs to be struck is on the issue of high-speed rail. After the Prime Minister’s decision, we are left with a high-speed line with apparently no public funds to build its London terminus at Euston, and a connection of HS2 to the west coast main line which makes the problem of train congestion to the north worse, not better, than it is at present. What was envisaged as a revolutionary transformation has, in effect, morphed into a high-speed tube extension from Old Oak Common to Birmingham. It has destroyed the integrated rail plan. In its place, we got the shoddiest White Paper I have ever seen from a Government, on the Network North plan; a set of incoherent proposals cobbled together in Downing Street without any expert input from transport people. This is no way to run a country.

Labour is not going to go for headline-grabbing announcements, but we need a carefully considered decision based on detailed work about where we are. There we have it: we must have a coherent policy at long last, replacing 14 years of dither and delay interspersed with reckless decisions. The country deserves a lot better.

13:55
Lord Davies of Gower Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport (Lord Davies of Gower) (Con)
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My Lords, I am very pleased to respond for the Government on this debate on the transport system, which I thank the noble Lord, Lord Snape, for tabling. I also thank noble Lords who have taken part for their insightful and wide-ranging points. I will do my best in the time allotted to me to address those in my response.

This country has a proud transport history, spanning great maritime successes, the birth of steam-powered engines and the creation of one of the safest road networks anywhere in the world. Our heritage inspires us to look forward. We continue to strive towards an excellent transport system that supports people and businesses, wherever they live and work.

We are not only managing the transport system we inherited but taking steps to make it fit for the future, seizing opportunities for transport to unleash economic growth and improve people’s lives. We are mending the potholes, making life easier for drivers and reforming our railways. We are capitalising on our world-leading research and innovation capabilities by legislating to make the UK one of the best places in the world to invest in, produce and use self-driving vehicles. We are giving local and regional leaders the powers and funding they need to deliver transport systems which get people and businesses moving across the country.

Naturally, there are forces that have had significant consequences on transport and those who use it. These include the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and the historic high levels of inflation which have impacted economies across the globe. These challenges have left their mark on the ways in which people travel. They have also impacted the cost of building infrastructure and running services, but thanks to our interventions we are well on the road to recovery.

In the three years after the pandemic began, the Government provided more than £45 billion of operational funding to keep the railway running. Now, passenger numbers are back at 80% of pre-Covid levels. To tackle the cost of living crisis, we have capped bus fares at £2 and launched two “Great British Rail Sales”. We have cancelled planned inflation increases on fuel duty and, from 2022, temporarily cut the rate by 5p, saving the average car driver around £250 in total since then. We are supporting drivers through our plan for drivers and ensuring we can reach our net-zero goals in a proportionate and pragmatic way. Thanks to the difficult decisions we have made on HS2, we are now redirecting £36 billion of investment towards rail, roads and local transport as part of our Network North plans, allowing us to benefit more people in more places, more quickly.

This Government have the practical and long-term vision to improve and nurture the transport system in the future. Allow me to outline some of our plans in detail. On rail, we are acutely aware of the need to bring the railways into the 21st century. Vital to this is our ongoing work to upgrade the existing rail network, to improve rail operators’ performance and to make the railways more accessible to all. We have published a draft rail reform Bill and are pushing ahead with a range of non-legislative reform measures. We are continuing to deliver HS2 between London and the West Midlands, boosting economic growth, improving journey times and adding much-needed capacity on one of the UK’s most congested rail routes.

On trains, I noted this morning the announcement that Labour proposes an ideological nationalisation, with no detail beyond a soundbite and no response to how nationalisation will make a difference to things that people really care about: reliability and affordability. There was no real detail of what Labour proposes to do with the parts of the industry that are profitable, including the rolling stock operators and the open-access operators. The rolling stock operators have used private finance to fund 8,000 new carriages since 2010. The popular open-access operators have reconnected communities and given them direct services to London. Either Labour proposes to nationalise this part of the sector, or it is not serious about nationalisation and it is simply a fig leaf to appease their union paymasters.

All Labour’s current policy to nationalise passenger rail contracts will deliver is baking in some of the existing challenges, such as too much involvement from Whitehall in running the railways, taking on the parts of the sector that require greatest public subsidy, with no plan to grow passenger numbers—the only way to reduce subsidy. It also means that rail workers will become public sector workers, and so their pay rises will need to be in line with those of nurses and teachers, rather than in line with private sector wage growth. To quote the noble Lord, Lord Snape, we will indeed be “the laughing stock” of the western world.

We have set out a 30-point plan for drivers, bringing about smoother journeys and easier parking, stopping unfair enforcement and inconsiderate driving, and helping the transition to zero-emission driving. Spades are in the ground on our second road investment strategy, and we are preparing plans for the third road investment strategy.

At the local level, we are devolving powers and budgets away from central government through measures including the local transport fund, city region sustainable transport settlements, devolution deals and trailblazer settlements. This is giving leaders the funding and powers they need to get people and business moving. We are investing in a long-term sustainable future for buses, including more than £4.5 billion to support and improve bus services since March 2020. We are investing in active travel infrastructure, including the active travel fund and the second cycling and walking investment strategy.

We have set out a clear vision and ambitions for the future of the British maritime sector, focused on growing our economic impact, keeping people safe and protecting our environment. The UK SHORE programme alone is providing £206 million to accelerate the technology needed to decarbonise the domestic maritime sector.

We have established a strategic framework for aviation focused on innovation, sustainability and efficiency. Our updated airspace modernisation strategy will enable quicker, quieter and cleaner journeys, and increase UK airspace capacity. We have set a road map for how drones and novel electric aircraft can deliver better public services and green economic growth. In November last year, we saw the first ever transatlantic 100% sustainable aviation fuel flight by a commercial airliner, from Heathrow to New York, made possible with government funding.

Finally, on the environment, we have dedicated over £22 billion to help the UK meet its 2050 net-zero target, and we are ensuring that our transport system will be resilient to climate change. Network Rail alone will be investing around £2.4 billion in England and Wales over the next five years to improve resilience to extreme weather and climate change. However, these ambitious plans are not for government alone. We are working closely with the devolved Administrations to deliver a world-class transport system across the country. We engage closely with our friends across the world and with international bodies to deliver frameworks and standards, to share and contribute to best practice and research, and to drive forward global action on decarbonisation and the environment. We consult broadly and deeply with industry, civil society, academia and the general public to shape and deliver our plans.

With that, I turn my attention to points raised during the debate. Quite a lot of points were raised, and I will try to get though as many as I possibly can in the time left. The noble Lord, Lord Snape, talked about rail performance in his opening speech. The department has been clear that the current performance of the railway is unacceptable. The industry needs to make significant improvement to deliver the punctual and reliable services that passengers and taxpayers deserve. That is why the department has regular high-level meetings on punctuality and reliability with both Network Rail and representatives of the train operators to hold rail partners to account. All private-sector operators have now transitioned over to National Rail contracts, which include a revenue-incentive mechanism, encouraging train operators to minimise cancellations and short formations unless absolutely necessary.

The noble Lord, Lord Snape, also referred to Hitachi. The department is holding intensive discussions with Hitachi to find a sustainable solution for train manufacturing at its Newton Aycliffe plant. Train operators are subject to procurement law as they operate under contracts directly awarded by the department. This is complex and difficult. There are no simple solutions, and any solution needs to be legally robust and sustainable for the long term.

The noble Lords, Lord Snape, Lord McLoughlin and Lord Liddle, talked about bus service cuts and ongoing support for the sector. The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, talked about the less well off using them; I can assure him that I use buses regularly. The Government have announced unprecedented funding for bus services, totalling over £4.5 billion since March 2020. This includes £2 billion to prevent reductions to bus services following the pandemic and over £1 billion allocated in 2022 to help local authorities deliver their bus service improvements.

The noble Lords, Lord Snape and Lord Liddle, talked about bus strategy. The aim of the national bus strategy is to make buses more frequent, more reliable, easier to understand and use, better co-ordinated and cheaper. The strategy required all local transport authorities to publish bus service improvement plans, setting out local plans for the changes in bus services that are needed, driven by what passengers and would-be passengers want.

The noble Lords, Lord Bourne and Lord Birt, talked about road investment. The Government are investing £24 billion from 2020 to 2025 to operate, maintain and enhance our strategic road network of motorways and major A roads. In the last four years we have completed 23 major enhancement schemes across all the English regions, including three on the A19 in the north-east and, only last month, the A585 Windy Harbour scheme in Lancashire. The road investment strategy 3 will build on the priorities and outcomes of the first two road periods, adjusting focus where necessary to tackle the next big priorities for improvement and achieve a long-term strategic vision for the network.

The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, talked about enabling economic growth. Growing the economy is a priority for the Government, and a secure, reliable, well-connected and integrated transport network is a vital tool for growth. It allows individuals to access more jobs, education, services and amenities, and allows firms to access wider labour pools and share knowledge and supply chains, boosting productivity in the long run.

The noble Lords, Lord Bourne and Lord Fowler, talked about rail industrial action. The industry is facing a serious financial challenge. Reform is essential to deliver a better railway for passengers. Since coming into office, the Transport Secretary and Rail Minister have met with the rail unions and industry to facilitate discussions, which have resulted in pay offers being accepted by the RMT, TSSA and Unite unions in exchange for negotiations on reform. ASLEF is now the only rail union that continues disruptive national-level strikes.

The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, mentioned decarbonisation. The Government expect both electrification and alternative technologies to play a role in net zero by 2050. That is why my department has delivered more than 1,250 miles of electrification in Great Britain since 2010.

The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, talked about rail reform. We are committed to rail reform and delivering improvements for customers ahead of legislation. We recently completed barcode ticketing for all national network stations and announced a 75% rail freight growth target by 2050. In line with Network North and wider stakeholder engagement, the Great British Railways transition team continues to develop the long-term strategy for rail. We need to ensure that the strategy reflects both the realities of the railways and the clear direction set by Network North.

The noble Lords, Lord Goddard of Stockport and Lord Liddle, talked about holding Avanti West Coast to account. The department takes performance very seriously and holds all franchised operators to account for the service they provide. As part of the national rail contract, Avanti West Coast has a series of challenging but achievable targets to meet, which the department monitors, and officials continue to closely monitor and review Avanti West Coast progress to a sustained recovery. The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, mentioned the Avanti West Coast rest day working agreement. On 13 March 2024, Avanti West Coast secured a 12-month rest day working agreement with ASLEF. The new agreement will support Avanti West Coast’s driver training programme as it transitions to its new Hitachi fleet over the coming months.

The noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Berkeley, referred to rail fares, ticketing and retail. We have already made progress on fares reform, launching flexible season tickets in 2021, delivering on our commitment to extend single-leg pricing to the vast majority of LNER’s network, launching a trial of simpler fares on LNER, and announcing that we will extend contactless pay-as-you-go to an additional 53 stations in the south-east by spring this year.

The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, and the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley and Lord Whitty, talked about decarbonisation. This Government have done more than any other to promote walking and cycling, and we remain fully committed to the vision that half of all journeys in towns and cities are walked or cycled by 2030. Over £3 billion is projected to be invested in active travel up to 2025. Despite the challenging financial climate, since 1 June 2023 Active Travel England has played an important role as a statutory consultee within the planning system. The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and other noble Lords talked more on decarbonisation. The UK has decarbonised faster than any other major economy, more than halving emissions since 1990. Our credible, cross-cutting plan to decarbonise all transport is at the heart of our ambition.

On a point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, there are now more than 1 million battery electric cars on UK roads, which is evidence that more and more drivers are switching to electric vehicles. We continue to work with the industry via the automotive transformation fund to support the creation of an internationally competitive electric vehicle supply chain in the UK.

The noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, talked about access for all. The Access for All programme has provided accessible, step-free routes at more than 240 stations and small-scale improvements at around 1,500 more since 2006. As part of our recent Network North announcement, the Government confirmed that £350 million will be made available to improve accessibility at our train stations. On bus accessibility, we are requiring operators across Great Britain to provide audible and visible information on their services. Our new accessible information regulations will require almost every local service to provide audible and visible next stop announcements. The £4.65 million accessible information grant will help the smallest operators to comply. The department has driven change through its support for the Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Disabled Persons) Act 2022 and through updated best practice guidance for local licensing authorities, including on supporting an inclusive service. However, I note what the noble Lord said in relation to particular areas of London.

The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, also talked about technology performance. It is right that road users should expect high standards when it comes to managing and responding quickly to incidents on the motorways. National Highways has rolled out new stopped vehicle detection technology on “all lane running” smart motorways, which can detect a stationary vehicle and alert an operator who can close lanes and dispatch a traffic officer.

I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, said, particularly about Newport station—much of what he said existed under British Rail. However, as we know, it is now devolved to the Welsh Government and has been nationalised as Transport for Wales, so I am afraid that any comment on that should come from the Welsh Government. However, I will say that Transport for Wales last year was reported to have the worst customer satisfaction for train operators in the whole of the UK.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, talked about aviation and decarbonisation. The jet zero strategy sets out the Government’s approach to achieving net zero by 2050 in UK aviation. It focuses on the rapid development of technologies in a way that maintains the benefits of air travel while maximising the opportunities that decarbonisation brings for the UK.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, raised the issue of road safety. While the UK has some of the safest roads in the world, any death is a tragedy, which is why we continue working tirelessly to improve road safety for everyone.

The noble Lords, Lord Moylan and Lord Liddle, talked about rural transport. The Government recognise the importance of transport provision in rural areas and are committed to finding solutions that ensure viable and improved transport.

In a very well-informed speech, the noble Lord, Lord McLaughlin, talked about rail passenger numbers and revenue. All substantive financial risks of rail services sit with government. Between 2021 and 2022-23, the taxpayer provided funding of £45.9 billion for the operation of the rail industry—just over £1,500 per household. He also talked about the HS2/Network North decision. The HS2 programme accounted for over one-third of all the Government’s transport investments, doing little to improve the journeys that people make the most. That is why the Government cancelled phases 2a and 2b—the western leg—of HS2.

Noble Lords made many other points. I will quickly mention the Lower Thames Crossing, which the noble Lord, Lord McLoughlin, mentioned. As the scheme is a live planning application, there are sensitivities in what I can say and it would be inappropriate to say anything that could prejudice that process.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevens, mentioned general aviation, which was a refreshing change in the debate. The department actively supports GA in achieving key government objectives. I hear what he says and understand his concern regarding drones. There has been a CAA airspace review. The rules are well defined for the use of drones but I acknowledge his concern.

I have come to the end. I think there are one or two other contributions that should be responded to. I will do that in writing. I thank noble Lords for their attendance and their contributions.

14:16
Lord Snape Portrait Lord Snape (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply, given at his customary express speed—far exceeding any Avanti train that leaves Euston on the west coast main line. I was intrigued by his attack on today’s proposals from the Labour Party to renationalise the train operating companies. Coming from a Government who have renationalised no fewer than seven train operating companies in the past couple of years, we may well depend on his expertise if the result of the general election goes the way we would like.

I pay tribute to the two former Secretaries of State for Transport who participated. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, reminded us of the occasional tensions between the two major railway unions, the National Union of Railwaymen as was and the drivers’ union. He might reflect that the one thing that united the pair of them was attacking the third railway union, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, so tensions are by no means unusual. The noble Lord, Lord McLaughlin, quite rightly reminded us of the occasional vagaries of the polling system. I do not know whether he is tempted to head for the bookmakers to back his views but, if he does, I should think he would get fairly long odds.

Once again, I thank all noble Lords who participated in the debate. It is a subject I am sure we shall return to in the near future.

Motion agreed.

Gambling Advertising

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Question for Short Debate
14:17
Asked by
Lord Foster of Bath Portrait Lord Foster of Bath
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of gambling advertising, marketing and sponsorship on problem gambling, and in particular the risk posed by the exposure of children to gambling advertising.

Lord Foster of Bath Portrait Lord Foster of Bath (LD)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords, including the Minister, who are taking part in this debate. I declare my interest as chairman of Peers for Gambling Reform, which was set up to press for the implementation of the recommendations made by the Lords committee on gambling. I am delighted that very many of those recommendations, either in whole or in part, were included in the Government’s White Paper. However, except for the Gambling Commission taking a closer look at bonus offers such as free bets and spins, and the Premier League’s voluntary ban on front-of-shirt gambling logos, the White Paper proposes very little action in respect of gambling advertising.

The Gambling Act 2005 liberalised gambling advertising, and now on Twitter/X alone there are 1 million UK gambling ads a year. Gambling companies’ annual spend on marketing now exceeds £1.5 billion. As the Lords committee noted, companies would not spend so much if it did not work, leading to more gambling and greater risk of harm. Yet very little action is proposed. Surely any Government should have been worried to read just this weekend in the Observer, under the headline “UK children bombarded by gambling ads and images online”:

“Young people feel their internet activity is overwhelmed by betting promotions and similar content”.


If the Government are not worried, other people certainly are. Opinion polls show that the vast majority of the public want a clamp-down on gambling advertising, including Conservative supporters. A very recent opinion poll found that 77% of Conservative councillors agree that tighter restrictions on gambling advertising would reduce gambling-related harm. With the Government doing very little, others are taking action. In March, Sheffield City Council joined over 80 other English councils in restricting gambling advertising on land, buildings, vehicles and even bus stops, websites and newspapers they own. The Mayor of London says that he intends to end gambling ads across public transport in the city. I hope he gets on with it quickly, as one gambling operator is currently advertising that TfL tube and train carriages are now casinos, with bus-stop ads saying: “Your bus is now a casino”. In sport, the absence of government action has led 35 football clubs to decide to go it alone and join the Big Step’s campaign to end gambling advertising in football. Can the Minister explain why the Government are so out of step with all these voices and seemingly so in step with the gambling industry?

I suspect public concern is about to rise because, in July, the Gambling Commission will release new figures about gambling harm. The Gambling Minister in the other place has already indicated that they are likely to show that 1.3 million people will classify as “problem gamblers” and that a further 6 million are at risk. If confirmed, these figures are far higher than those used to inform the Government’s work on their White Paper. This is a real cause for concern, further strengthening the call for action.

If public opinion does not persuade the Government, there are many other justifications for action, including research evidence. When he responds, I suspect the Minister may be somewhat dismissive of the research and claim—as the White Paper does—that it does not show a causal link between advertising and gambling harm. I am prepared to accept that this is largely true, but it does not mean that the research evidence does not support the case for greater action. Academics are clear that, in social science research, causal links are rarely even possible, but they are equally clear that the research findings justify a much tougher stance against gambling advertising. Some 50 academics recently called for “badly needed” restrictions on the promotion of gambling products. They drew attention especially to the unprecedented numbers of young people being exposed to gambling ads via the internet and television, and concluded that

“it has become quite clear that the gambling products being offered and the ways in which they are promoted are harmful to individual and family health and damaging to national life”.

Reviewing the evidence, the Advertising Standards Authority accepted that some studies were robust enough to support a link between advertising and gambling behaviour. The Government’s White Paper itself points to research showing that gambling advertising and marketing leads to people starting to gamble, to gamble more and to recommence gambling. With all this evidence, it is bizarre that the Government are not taking more action.

Unlike us, other countries do not seem to struggle with the evidence, despite having far less of it. Ipsos and researcher Dr Rossi have identified 496 published research papers about gambling marketing here, which is more than the combined number of similar ones in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain. Yet on their evidence they have chosen almost full bans on gambling advertising and sponsorship. Can the Minister explain why the UK Government’s assessment of our evidence is so different from neighbouring countries with similar research findings? Does the Minister really believe that there would be 1.3 million people classified as problem gamblers in the absence of gambling advertising?

Frankly, our Government seem confused. In one breath, they say that action is not justified because there is little causal evidence linking advertising to harm but, in another, without causal evidence, they welcome the removal of gambling logos on the front of football shirts as a harm-reduction policy. The Government’s position simply does not make sense.

The Government have accepted that gambling-related harm should be treated as a public health issue, so they should be adopting the precautionary principle and, on the huge weight of evidence, taking greater action. Yet, the Minister in the Commons said, on advertising causing harm, that,

“if new evidence suggests that we need to go further, we will look at this again”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/3/24; col. 142WH.]

Can the Minister explain what more the Government need before they will act?

I believe that a public health approach to gambling should lead to significant curbs on advertising and a ban on direct marketing, an end to inducements such as so-called free bets, and the removal of gambling sponsorship in sport.

Time does not permit me to detail all that I think should be done. Noting that estimates suggest that as many as 60,000 children suffer gambling harm, I will end with just one area where I believe urgent action is needed: so-called content marketing, which a Guardian headline recently described as “‘Sneaky’ social media ads … luring young into gambling”. Just one example will suffice. A social media post with the heading, “When the barman asks if you want another one”, is followed by a photo of Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp giving a thumbs-up. That is all there is to it.

This simple, humorous post was by Paddy Power, but there are literally hundreds of them, using cartoons and famous people, posted online by gambling companies all the time. In just one weekend, online gambling ads received 34 million views. Over half were content marketing. Research shows that such posts are particularly appealing to young people and that followers of gambling companies’ online posts are, disproportionately, young people.

Yet the voluntary code governing advertising says that advertisements should be clearly seen as such. I have met with the ASA, which oversees the code, and shown it numerous examples of content marketing that clearly breach the code. So I hope the Minister will agree that the time has come for a complete review of the code and its enforcement, including deciding whether self-regulation really is the right approach.

It is worrying that so many young people know the names of gambling companies, follow them online, think that gambling is part of growing up and see it as part of the enjoyment of sport. Gambling advertising encourages more people to gamble and to develop gambling harms. The figures are alarming, as are the consequences to individuals and our society. The threat to our children should be enough on its own to compel the Government to act. No primary legislation is required, as the Gambling Act 2005 gives the Secretary of State all the powers she needs to regulate gambling advertising as she sees fit. So my simple question is: will the Government get on and do something?

14:28
Lord Smith of Hindhead Portrait Lord Smith of Hindhead (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, for initiating this debate and pay tribute to his tenacious pursuit of this particular subject. He and I have worked together for quite some time and served on your Lordships’ Select Committee on gambling harm a few years ago. I declare my own interest as the CEO of the Association of Conservative Clubs. We have several hundred clubs throughout the UK, all of which have gaming machines, play bingo and have small-scale lotteries. I also declare my interest as the chairman of the National Conservative Draws Society, an established society lottery with an income or turnover in excess of £1 million each year.

We have been here before, speaking about gambling advertising and gambling harm, and we have talked before about how to protect children from the harm of advertising. I can recall discussing the subject of loot boxes back in 2016, and I am sure the subject will be mentioned again today. The latest game is “Fortnite”, whose loot boxes I say will be the next ones we will be talking about, in a few months or years to come.

I will today address not just the point that gambling advertising is too much; I think everybody here knows and agrees that we see far more gambling advertising now than we used to. If there is more gambling advertising, there will be more people who gamble. If there are more people who gamble, the 0.5% of people who suffer from gambling harm will increase, and the 0.9% of young people who suffer from gambling harm and have a gambling problem will also increase.

The point I will make today is not that gambling advertising is on the increase, and that more people gamble as a result. I will talk specifically about one area where we might be able to help: children who are suffering from gambling harm, having perhaps been exposed to too much gambling advertising. Problem gambling rises each year; advertising spend on gambling rises each year; and gambling among young people—that is, ages under 18; even under 11 years of age in some cases—is rising as well.

I read the Gambling Commission’s 2023 report on young people and their gambling behaviour, attitudes and awareness. It has an interesting section on young people gambling using a parent’s account. It said:

“Overall, young people were more likely to use their parent’s or guardian’s accounts for any type of online gambling with their permission (6 percent), rather than without (2 percent). When looking at specific gambling accounts, young people were more likely to have played National Lottery games online with their parent’s or guardian’s permission (5 percent), than without (2 percent). Similarly, young people were more likely to have played on gambling websites or placed bets online with their parent’s or guardian’s permission (5 percent) compared with those without (2 percent)”.


We can conclude, therefore, that some parents give permission for their children to gamble, and that it is possible for children to gamble without their parent’s or guardian’s permission, meaning that some young people were playing either via their own account or by hacking into a parent’s account.

Something has gone wrong here with security measures. It should not be possible for a young person to gamble under their own name and details, and it should not be right they do it under their parent’s or guardian’s accounts. I suggest it would be a good idea to mandate a two-factor identification process to be put in place on all online gambling sites, so that if a child is trying to gamble without their parents’ knowledge, their parents’ mobile phones could be notified. This process could deter the child by making it harder for them to get online. Secondly, could the industry do more to provide information and education about the dangers of gambling to children and parents alike?

In terms of how this relates to marketing and advertising, if gambling operators have not got the correct safety measures in place to protect children from accessing their products—and this includes the National Lottery—they should not be able to advertise their services, or even operate until their product can be shown to be safe. We would shut down a bar if under-18s were found to be systematically slipping through and purchasing alcohol undetected. I do not really see the difference here at all. That might be something to think about.

Perhaps we might also touch on the mixed messages we sometimes send about the sports personalities involved with the gambling industry; at the same time, we are just about to wave off our team to France for the Olympic Games, which is almost solely supported by gambling, through the National Lottery.

14:33
Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Portrait Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Lab)
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for initiating this debate, and for all the work and commitment he gives to tackling gambling harm. I too have interests to declare: I am a trustee of GambleAware, I work with the Behavioural Insights Team on its advisory group, and I am also involved with Peers for Gambling Reform.

When I grew up, I had virtually no knowledge or recognition that gambling happened. No child or young person today would be able to say that. Recently published research, commissioned by GambleAware, shows that children and young people described their online spaces as “saturated” with gambling content, which is being seen in their everyday activities, even if they are not looking at supposed gambling sites.

Gambling advertising and content from influencers and footballers were identified as a potential pathway to gambling and are experienced by young people. The bright, eye-catching nature of adverts draw children and young people in. A 14 year-old girl said:

“The ads … make it look like a really fun activity that has no consequence outside of using or winning some money”.


For far too many children and young people, gambling has become normalised. It is simply part of their life. If you ever go to a football match, as I do, you cannot escape the gambling adverts and the involvement of all the spectators in either taking notice or decidedly trying not to take notice of it. There is clear evidence now that this normalisation is a factor in people becoming addicted.

The impact on children and young people is stark. Recall of gambling adverts among 13 to 25 year-olds is positively associated with frequent gambling. Those with the greatest exposure to adverts are 2.3 times more likely to experience problem gambling later in their lives. Marketing is now almost four times more appealing to children and young people than it is to adults, so this is an issue that really hits children and young people.

What should the Government be doing? They certainly need tougher restrictions in sport. There needs to be a stadium and a shirt ban, and the Government should push sports organisations to publish the sports sponsorship code of conduct that they say have completed so that it can be scrutinised. The Government should ban pre-watershed advertising. The Australians, the Germans and the Irish have done this—why have we not done so? That would be another way of making sure that children and young people do not see quite as much advertising. Evidence-based safer gambling messaging and signposting from the operators should also be pushed by the Government. That is possible and available, and it will be available to the Government to push the operators to do that in the very near future.

This morning, we heard that more young people in this country drink, smoke and vape than in any other western country. We could add gambling to that. This is a very serious issue. As I have said, the evidence shows that the more exposure to those sorts of addictions as a child, the more likely addiction is to follow. Those addictions will blight the lives of these children and young people for the rest of their life. We cannot stand by and say that children should not be supported to avoid those terrible addictions. The Government have a responsibility and, quite honestly, they did not meet it in the White Paper. I hope that they will do so now.

14:39
Lord Trevethin and Oaksey Portrait Lord Trevethin and Oaksey (CB)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong. I apologise for my slightly late appearance in the Chamber.

I was also a member of the Select Committee which considered these issues, now a few years back. I am also a member of Peers for Gambling Reform, led by the noble Lord, Lord Foster. I pay tribute to his tireless work in seeking improvements to these problems. Like the noble Lord, I very much hope that, when the Minister responds, he will not be tempted to adopt the position that is to some extent taken in the White Paper, in which it was rather naively said that there is no hard evidence that gambling, advertising and marketing increase problem gambling. It is in the nature of things that conclusive evidence on that point is not available.

The following propositions are not in doubt. First, the gambling industry spends well over £1 billion a year on advertising and marketing in this country. It was more than £1.5 billion in 2017 and I would have a very large bet at very short odds that it is more now. Secondly, problem gamblers unquestionably provide a very substantial part of the profits made by the industry—see the committee’s report and plenty of other material. Thirdly, problem gamblers are more susceptible to gambling advertising than others—see the learned and impressive article published by the Public Health journal in February 2023. In all these circumstances, it is obviously correct to infer that the industry knows what it is spending its money on and why, that gambling advertising and marketing will increase gambling activity, and that a significant part of the increase will involve problem gambling. In short, one simply has to follow the money.

I have looked at some of the material helpfully circulated by the House of Lords Library. It contains a number of studies and papers that have been prepared in the last three or four years. I was particularly struck by one paper which I will mention in the time I have available. It was published by two academics at Bristol University, Rossi and Nairn, in 2021. Having considered evidence from 650 participants who were exposed to 24 gambling advertisements—and also, by way of a control, to other forms of non-gambling advertisements —it found that gambling advertising is

“significantly more appealing to children and young persons than to adults”.

It found that, in 2021, 45% of 11 to 17 year-olds saw gambling advertising on social media at least once a week, and about 25% saw it every day. That was three years ago. Use of, and to some extent addiction to, social media has not decreased since then.

There are various other findings which I do not have time to set out. One in particular struck me, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith, spoke to this. There are many advertisements that relate to esports gambling. I doubt if many Members of this House engage in esports, let alone gamble on them. Esports are the professional, competitive playing of computer games online. To my surprise, I found that there is a huge amount of gambling on this. The authors of this report observed, correctly, that this is a development almost entirely under the radar of public discourse and policy-making. In so far as I can see, there is almost nothing in the White Paper about that.

The authors of the paper made various recommendations, in particular a ban on esports gambling advertising—because it is targeted at children and young persons—an expansion of the definition of a young person from 16 to 24, and enforced arrangements which would involve gambling advertisements being provided only when users confirmed that they recognised and wanted them. I do not have time to say more about the paper or the other available material but, as other speakers have emphasised, it all tends to suggest that there is a very real problem.

I have a question for the Minister. The Government are prepared to make unlawful the purchase of cigarettes for a significant segment of the population. Is there any good reason why they would not enforce an arrangement whereby gambling advertising would have to do what cigarette advertising used to do when it was permitted—namely, inform the potential user of the probable outcome, which is that he or she will lose money?

14:45
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 Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey. His final suggestion was a pertinent and encouraging one. Like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, for securing this debate and for all the work that he has done over many years on this issue. I declare my position as a member of Peers for Gambling Reform.

I shall begin, for a change, with some positive good news—this picks up something mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Foster—which is the ban on various forms of advertising that has come into place in Sheffield following a decision by the council in March. This is a great demonstration that campaigning works and can make a difference. I know some of the people who have been campaigning for that in Sheffield over a significant period. It is also a demonstration of the public desire to have healthier environments and healthy societies, which is what indeed this public health measure does. It is a ban, within the limits of the power of Sheffield City Council, applying to authority-owned hoardings. As well as gambling and betting products it covers short-term loans, alcoholic drinks, fossil-fuel products, some breast and infant milk formulas and petrol, diesel and hybrid plug-in vehicles. We can see the focus there on health. An important point to make is that, as the director of public health in Sheffield, Greg Fell, said, while this measure is not going to break our gambling harm epidemic—and it is important that the public health sector sees that the epidemic is there—it sets an important direction of travel.

I have a direct question for the Minister. Local councils and local communities have been expressing a desire to see these gambling adverts and other harmful adverts out of their communities. If the Government will not act centrally—although I would prefer it if they did—will they allow local communities to make the decision for themselves, not just on the sites that they control but on all the advertising sites within their communities?

It is important to note how much this advertising is focused in poorer, disadvantaged communities. In Sheffield, the group Adfree Cities found that 60% of the advertisements were in the poorest areas of the city while just 2% of the adverts were in the most affluent locations. More than four in five outdoor billboard adverts around the country are focused in the poorest areas of England and Wales. These impact negatively on people’s lives and on the environment in those communities.

Like other noble Lords, I commend the Library, as usual, on its excellent briefing. All the evidence is that, along with the deluge of gambling advertising that we are all being exposed to, we are seeing a great rise in problem gambling. Under the new methodology from the Gambling Commission, we are talking about a 2.5% problem gambler rate—that is more than 1 million people. This is an addiction problem and a public health crisis. The GamCare helpline had more than 50,000 calls and online chats in 2023, up 24% on the previous year.

Other noble Lords have referred to the situation of football. Again, there is a strong, fast-rising grass-roots campaign saying, “We want something to be done about this”. As far as I have been able to discover, AFC Wimbledon was the last club to join the campaign The Big Step, calling for an end to all gambling advertising in football. That campaign is part of Gambling with Lives, the charity set up by families bereaved by gambling-related suicide. I do not think anyone has said this figure yet, but I think it needs to be recorded: the Government’s own estimate is that there are 496 suicides related to problem gambling every year. And I have one figure showing how much people are suffering: in the first weekend of the Premier League last August, fans were subjected to 11,000 gambling adverts.

To put this all in a broader context, we have an epidemic of problem advertising. Figures out this morning from the WHO show that the UK has the worst rate of child alcohol abuse worldwide. We have a real problem where advertising is creating an unhealthy society. We need a much healthier society, which is something the Government themselves often acknowledge. Gambling is part of a much broader problem. There is no right to advertise. We have right to say as a society that we do not want to force unhealthy products on people and communities.

14:50
Lord Bishop of Derby Portrait The Lord Bishop of Derby
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My Lords, I echo the thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for securing this debate and for his work, alongside the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and others, on Peers for Gambling Reform, campaigning tirelessly over the past several years. While the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans cannot be in his place today to add his voice, I am sure I echo the sentiments of all Members when I say that we look forward to welcoming him back very soon to add weight to this conversation.

We have heard this afternoon that the link between problem gambling and serious harm is well documented. There are not only financial impacts of gambling addiction, which may on its own drive individuals with large gambling debts to theft, fraud or other forms of criminal activity, but also impacts on relationships, work, school and serious harm to both physical and mental health. Public Health England identified problem gamblers as at greater risk of dying from any cause and significantly increased risk of dying from suicide, as we have so eloquently just heard.

These consequences, as well as having an impact on those individuals, also lead to indirect harms to children in those households. I welcome the Government’s response to the committee’s second report on gambling regulation, particularly the commitment to use funds from the levy to commission independent research around gambling and gambling-related harms. However, I echo the committee’s call for this research to be undertaken urgently and specifically on the link between gambling advertising and gambling harm to children. I ask for a commitment and a timeline to address that recommendation.

Research by GambleAware released this month makes clear that children and young people are exposed to a high level of gambling advertising, particularly online. While we have heard that this link has not been proven to be causal, we have heard about the research that found that 34% of those who bet in the UK admit to being influenced by advertising, with over 15% claiming that ads cause them to increase their gambling. A similar percentage said that viewing ads resulted in them taking up gambling again after a break.

Gambling reform is not my area of expertise, but I have done a significant amount of work over the course of my ministry with at-risk children and young people. I am currently vice-chair of the Children’s Society. Ofcom’s most recent report finding that one-quarter of five to seven year olds own a smartphone, with nearly one-third using social media unsupervised, caused me great concern. We know that our children are increasingly online. We need to ensure we are keeping pace with the rapidly evolving online landscape to protect our children from harm.

New technologies are significantly increasing exposure to advertisement, sponsorships and marketing, and our current codes must be urgently updated to reflect this. Social media forms a huge part of the gambling industry’s advertising practices. I was really shocked to read recently that 92% of content marketing ads sent by major gambling brands were not obviously identifiable as advertising. That particularly impacts children.

I too will close with an example illustrating that current guidance to protect children and young people simply is not fit for purpose. As recently as a few weeks ago, a gambling firm was promoting a game on social media marketed with three cartoon frogs. Taking a dip with the “ribbiting rascals” might appeal to some adults, but it would almost certainly appeal more to children. Such advertising should not be allowed.

14:55
Lord Addington Portrait Lord Addington (LD)
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My Lords, I start with a small confession: I live in the village of Lambourn, which is the centre of the racing industry. If there ever was an industry linked to gambling, it is racing. That made me think about my reaction to gambling, given that I do not sit on horses or gamble much. It is the fact that it is a day out, when you have drinks in a nice environment, watching racing. Virtually everything we are talking about today does not apply to that scenario. We are talking about casually watching something on a screen, be it the one in our pockets—I have just remembered to make sure mine is switched off—a TV screen or another screen at home. That device in our pockets means that we can gamble at virtually any time. We need only be conscious to gamble on it. That is a totally different situation to the one I originally related to the gambling experience. It is a private activity. We know that the constant hits lead to addiction, so how do we control this situation and limit the inevitable damage, in a few cases, to those few cases? That is effectively what we are talking about here.

As many have mentioned, witty advertising lives with the young, even if they do not buy. How many witty smoking adverts did people come up with? They were quite creative and fun, with running jokes. I note the Silk Cut advert. Even non-smokers waited for the next joke. People bought in—it is very easy to. Some people take the biscuit, and some do not. The amount of money spent on advertising clearly means that the providers of this service see the link. As they are not going bankrupt at a rate of knots, one assumes they know what they are talking about.

What will the Government do to make sure that it is difficult for people to access gambling services? We have had suggestions, from the noble Lord, Lord Smith, for example, about having more difficult identification processes. There was a very good idea about a warning saying, “The person who’s guaranteed to make money on your bet is the bookie”. That is a very creative idea, and I hope we will run with it.

What are the Government doing in a systematic manner to make sure that children have more problems getting access to this? If the parents actively help them, we may have more problems still, but what are the Government actively doing? What are we doing to make sure that the young in particular—going up to about 24 might be a good idea here—will not see this advertising by accident? That is probably the principal objective here. Will you see these witty, well-placed little adverts by accident? Are they something you take on board? If you watch anything that crosses the watershed on late-night TV, you find yourself subjected to gambling advertising—“subjected” is probably wrong because you can always switch off, but it is there and always around. What will we do to make sure that that does not happen?

Finally, when it comes to sports and the big stadiums, if the Premier League is starting to take the adverts off teams’ shirts, why are the Government not encouraging everyone to remove them over a period of time? There is always a run-in, but we are proving to sport generally, and the biggest sport of all, that government will intervene eventually. Encouragement to make sure that we are removing, or at least controlling, this advertising within the stadium and on players’ bodies seems a reasonable step. We can give them some warning, but we can reduce it. If it is going to be in the director’s box, maybe that is fine, but it does not have to be at the side of the pitch. Can we make sure that there is some vision for and thought on restricting this? At the moment, there does seem to be anything coherent. I look forward to seeing how that will change.

15:00
Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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My Lords, I join with others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for bringing forward this topic for short debate. It is timely, and he is an indefatigable campaigner on this issue.

It is often said that we all like a flutter, and it is probably true, although you would struggle to get me to buy more than a raffle ticket. For most who choose to take part, it is an enjoyable and harmless activity but, at its extreme, gambling can be addictive; damaging to family life, relationships, and personal, mental and physical health; and life-destroying. I am sure that pretty much all of us have come across people in our lives with a gambling problem or who have been impacted by gambling problems. I know I have, and it was sad and tragic to see.

The DCMS Select Committee reported last year that

“around a third of a million people experience problem gambling, and it is likely that many more suffer gambling-related harm”.

The Library briefing for this debate, based on updated Gambling Commission data, estimates that it may be over a million. GamCare reports that the number of people seeking help for gambling-related harms is increasing. In the year to January 2024, requests for help rose by 24%. The NHS also reports increased demand for its gambling clinics. This is before we consider those who are struggling but do not feel able to ask for help.

I want to focus briefly on the need for better research. The DCMS Select Committee, in its inquiry into the gambling White Paper, stated:

“There is an urgent need to better understand the effects of gambling advertising on the risk of harm”.


It found that:

“While the existing evidence base does not show a causative link between gambling advertising and harm, it seems clear that advertising encourages participation in gambling and that this effect is more pronounced for children and those vulnerable to gambling harm”.


The activity of the gambling industry clearly suggests that it believes that advertising is a driver of interest in and support for gambling. In 2018, Regulus Partners reported that investment in marketing increased between 2014 and 2017 from £l billion to £1.5 billion, roughly 10% of the industry’s £13.8 billion revenue, with much of it now targeted at gamblers online. The Select Committee recommended that:

“The Government must commission independent longitudinal research on the link between gambling advertising and the risk of gambling harm, including specifically for … children”.


This needs to be a focus of the funding made available by the statutory levy.

I have two questions for the Minister. In their response to the Select Committee, published last week, the Government stated that levy funding will be directed towards independent research on gambling and gambling-related harms, which “could” include further advertising-related research. Can the Minister confirm to the House today that levy funding will be directed at research into the link between advertising and gambling harms, particularly in relation to children? Secondly—I am sure the Minister must be expecting this question—when can we expect the Government to publish their consultation on the statutory levy? The response to the Select Committee gives little away when it states that we should expect it “in the coming weeks”.

Sport, which many noble Lords have spoken about, is another key issue here. It is a huge part of our national and family life, and children are exposed to it and enjoy it alongside older family members. Alongside welcome and effective measures, including the whistle-to-whistle ban and plans for gambling sponsorship to be removed from the front of players’ kits, the Minister will be aware of the concerns raised over the amount of gambling advertising that young viewers are still exposed to during sporting events, and which they cannot opt out of.

It is therefore welcome that the central cross-sport gambling sponsorship code of conduct has been finalised, and that one of the four core principles is the protection of children and other vulnerable people. Can the Minister confirm that the code has been published, so it can be accessed by parliamentarians and sports fans—of course, some of us are both? Can the Minister give an update on when we might expect individual sports to publish their bespoke versions of the code? Can he tell us whether the Government are alive to the VIP managed clients who, thanks to direct online marketing techniques, now generate some 83% of gambling companies’ profits? By the way, one of the code’s core principles is that gambling promotion will be socially responsible. Can the Minister tell us more about what that looks like?

Finally, we welcome the ongoing work on delivering the White Paper; this is an area in which there is a sizable amount of activity and considerable consensus. What Members of this House are seeking to do is ensure that that activity is focused and delivered at pace and that no crucial issues are allowed to fall through the gaps.

15:05
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 thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, for initiating today’s debate and for the way he opened it. I had the pleasure of working with him, and a number of noble Lords who have taken part in today’s debate, on the Select Committee that he mentioned, before I became a Minister at DCMS. So I thank him for his tenacity in this area.

The Government recognise the concerns that he and many other noble Lords have raised about the impact of gambling advertising, particularly its impact on children. The debate about advertising reflects the balance we are aiming to strike with our vision for the gambling sector more broadly: regulating an innovative and responsible gambling industry on the one hand, and fulfilling the duty of government to protect children and the wider public from gambling-related harm on the other.

That is why, as part of our review of the Gambling Act 2005, we took an exhaustive look at the best available evidence. We are certainly not dismissive of evidence: on the contrary, we have sought to take an evidence-based approach. The White Paper that we published in April last year includes a robust, balanced package of reforms to prevent and minimise the risks of gambling-related harm.

Since the implementation of the Gambling Act under the last Labour Government nearly 20 years ago, gambling advertising, marketing and sponsorship have become more visible and widespread, and we have seen a visible integration of gambling advertising within sport. While this continual growth has not resulted in an increase in gambling participation rates, or in population problem-gambling rates, which have remained broadly stable for roughly two decades, it is important that there is a range of robust protections on advertising in place to ensure that it does not exacerbate harm.

The rules on gambling advertising, which operators must follow, are set by the Committee of Advertising Practice. A wide range of provisions in the codes are specifically designed to protect children and vulnerable adults. Compliance with these codes is a condition of Gambling Commission licences, and the commission can—and does—take action on adverts that are in breach of the codes.

Furthermore, the industry code for socially responsible advertising includes a television watershed on all gambling products apart from bingo and lotteries. Children’s exposure to gambling advertising on broadcast television is declining. The industry’s “whistle-to-whistle” ban has cut the number of pre-9pm betting adverts to around a quarter of their previous level, and further cut the average number of sports betting adverts seen by children to 0.3 per week.

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Portrait Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Lab)
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I just want to clarify something: I should have said “pre-watershed”. I was in too much of a hurry to keep within five minutes; I am sorry.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Baroness, and I hope what I have said is none the less helpful in relation to the points she raised in her speech, which I welcome.

We recognise that there is good evidence to show that gambling advertising can have a disproportionate impact on those who are already experiencing problems with their gambling, and that some aggressive marketing practices are particularly associated with harm. The noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, mentioned a study which reflects that.

Evidence from the Gambling Commission shows that 35% of problem gamblers received incentives of offers to gamble daily, compared with 4% of non-problem gamblers. Furthermore, while 10% of gamblers with a “non-problem” or “low-risk” score—according to the problem gambling severity index—were influenced to gamble more by direct marketing, this rose to 41% among those with a “moderate risk” or “problem gambler” score.

We also recognise that content often used in gambling advertising can inappropriately appeal to children and young people—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby raised such an instance. That is why we have introduced a suite of measures to further prevent potentially harmful impacts of advertising, specifically for children. Since October 2022, advertising rules have been strengthened to prohibit content that downplays the risk or overstates the skill involved in betting. The rules also ban content that is likely to be of strong appeal to children. In that regard, I will raise with officials the frog-based example that the right reverend Prelate gave. As a result of this ban, top-flight footballers or celebrities popular with children are banned from being in gambling adverts. In line with existing gambling advertising rules, the Premier League’s decision to ban front-of-shirt sponsorship by gambling firms will commence by the end of the 2025-26 season, breaking the direct association between gambling brands and popular players.

The noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, suggested that there should be warnings to potential players on gambling adverts. Robust Advertising Standards Authority rules prevent content and adverts that, for instance, promote gambling as a route to financial success, and adverts on television must direct people to available support services. We are also working with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Gambling Commission to develop independent information campaigns about the risks of gambling—taking that out of the hands of the industry.

Lord Foster of Bath Portrait Lord Foster of Bath (LD)
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I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but I find it difficult that he stands at the Dispatch Box and talks about all these rules, when I gave a specific example of a Paddy Power advertisement—although it is not called an advertisement—that simply had a large photograph of the Liverpool manager, Jürgen Klopp. Does he believe that was a correct thing for Paddy Power to do, or should it have been banned?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Well, as with the case that the right reverend Prelate raised, I will take that up with officials. I was spelling out some of the actions—some of which are still to come in. As I said, the Premier League rules will come in by the end of the forthcoming season. I am sure the noble Lord will reflect that some of the work has been done and some is coming shortly, but I will raise the case he mentions with the team at the department.

As we set out in our White Paper, we are also working closely with the Gambling Commission to take targeted action on advertising to ban harmful practices and ensure that it remains socially responsible, wherever it appears. The commission has recently consulted on new rules to give consumers more control over the direct gambling marketing that they wish to receive, and on strengthened protections to ensure that free bets and bonuses are constructed in a way that does not encourage excessive or harmful gambling. The commission will set out its responses to these consultations soon. Together, these measures will empower customers and prohibit harmful marketing practices, to prevent the risk of gambling harms.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, referred to the powers available to local authorities. As she reflected, these vary from local authority to local authority, but, as we heard in the debate, the metro mayors in London and Manchester are using the powers that are available to them.

There is no single intervention that provides the answer to effectively preventing gambling-related harm. That is why we have taken a holistic approach that includes action on products and protections for players. We recently announced the introduction of stake limits for online slot games, where we have seen evidence of elevated levels of harmful gambling, and are pursuing broader protections, such as financial risk checks that will require online operators to identify and take action in relation to customers who are financially vulnerable. That will prevent runaway losses, which we are still seeing happen too often. The Government are clear that effective and innovative collaboration to get the right mixture of interventions for the population as a whole—as well as those with specific needs or vulnerabilities—is required to tackle gambling harm.

A key part of that approach is the Government’s decision to introduce a statutory levy, which I know has been a long-standing priority for the noble Lord, Lord Foster, and which the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and others raised. In his opening remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Foster, dwelt on the importance of evidence. Perhaps I should end my remarks by acknowledging that further work is needed to build the evidence base to ensure that policy and regulation are able to deal with emerging issues.

In response to the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, I make clear that developing quality evidence is a priority for our statutory levy. Through the levy, increased and ring-fenced funding will be directed towards high-quality, independent research into gambling and gambling-related harms, including in relation to advertising. We will continue to monitor the evidence base and, if new evidence suggests that we need to go further, we will look at this again. The Government will also respond to their bespoke consultation on the levy and will set out their final decisions very soon.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, for tabling today’s debate and all those who have spoken in it. I am certain that we will return to this topic again before long.

Defence Spending

Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Statement
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 24 April.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a Statement updating the House on the Government’s commitment to increase defence spending to 2.5% this decade.
In my speech at Lancaster House in January, I warned that we were entering a much more dangerous period in the world and I made the case for a national conversation about defence spending. Since then, Putin has stepped up his attacks on Ukraine, China is increasingly assertive, and tensions have escalated in the Middle East culminating in Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel 10 days ago conducted in parallel with the proxies Iran has nourished around Israel’s border in the Middle East, including of course the Houthis who continue to hold global trade hostage in the Red Sea.
Since January, the world has become even more dangerous, not less, and we continue to ask more of our courageous and professional Armed Forces. Our sailors have served under constant risk of attack in the Red Sea, helping to protect international shipping and our own cost of living. We have bolstered our Royal Air Force presence in the Middle East, enabling Typhoon crews to intercept Iranian drones and missiles recently fired towards Israel. And around 20,000 of our personnel from all three of our services, with a huge inventory of naval, air, and land assets, have been active around Europe as part of the largest NATO training exercise since the Cold War. In short, we increasingly need our Armed Forces, and we increasingly are asking more of them.