The Lord Speaker: My Lords, I have to inform your Lordships that, pursuant to the order of the House, I, together with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Brabazon of Tara, the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, waited upon His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh this morning, with the Message of this House of 8 June, and that His Royal Highness made the following reply:
"My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I received your kind message of congratulations on my ninetieth birthday with the greatest pleasure. I have derived much satisfaction from the many years that I have been able to help and support the Queen. Few others, if any, have had the satisfaction of witnessing the affection and respect that so many people round the world have shown for the Queen since the beginning of her reign. I acknowledge that the position that I have held has made it possible for me to support and encourage a great many valuable and worthwhile organisations in this country and further afield. It has been a particular pleasure to be associated with so many organisations that have encouraged the development of the younger generation in this country and in the wider world".
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, to return to Her Majesty the thanks of this House for Her Majesty's most gracious Message, and to assure Her Majesty that this House, always desirous of availing itself of every opportunity to manifest its dutiful attachment to Her Majesty's Royal Person and Family, will cheerfully concur in all such Measures, as shall be necessary and proper for giving effect to the object of Her Majesty's Message.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, perhaps a brief word of explanation would be appropriate at this time. Yesterday, the Queen sent a rare gracious Message to both the House of Commons and to this House to initiate parliamentary consideration of the Civil List and other financial support of the Royal Household. In his comprehensive spending review statement last October, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed that the Civil List and separate grants in aid to the Royal Household be abolished and a new, single sovereign grant, linked to a percentage of
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The Motion I am moving today replies to the Queen's Message. It indicates that this House will concur in the provision that the Commons proposes, as with previous such Bills. When the Commons sends us the expected Bill I expect that we will follow that precedent and give the Bill a full Second Reading, but then take its remaining stages formally. I hope that that explains the meaning and the purpose behind the humble Address, which I shall now present to the Lord Speaker.
The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Sassoon): My Lords, on 15 June my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that a sales process for Northern Rock should commence, following a recommendation from UK Financial Investments. Prospective acquirers will be asked to provide a view on the impact of their acquisition on competition. UKFI also expects prospective acquirers to lay out their plans for the company's headquarters and branches.
Baroness Turner of Camden: I thank the Minister for that response. Since tabling the Question, I have been visited in this House by representatives of the workforce, whose chairman and organiser came to see me. They are still very worried people, although they appreciate the sympathetic response that the Minister gave on 16 June when this question was originally raised. On the other hand, they are very concerned because of the employment situation there and very keen on mutualisation, which they believe would be much better from the point of view of employment and as far as the community is concerned. Would the Government give serious consideration to that?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, the Government, through UKFI, will consider all options for the disposal process, including stand-alone remutualisation. However, it is important to recognise that the Chancellor believes that a sales process is most likely to generate the best value for the taxpayer, and that is why that is being explored as the lead option. Of course, the Government are committed to promoting mutuals and we very much welcome bids from mutuals as part of the sales process that is to start.
Lord Shipley: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the staff of Northern Rock have, in the past three and a half years, done a magnificent job to recover the
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Lord Sassoon: My Lords, first of all, it is right that Northern Rock is now a highly liquid and well capitalised strong bank, which is why UKFI has been able to recommend the start of a sales process to the Treasury. Incidentally, for all the very significant reductions in the number of employees that there have been, the bank still has a footprint of some 75 branches-little changed since before the collapse of the bank. As for its commitment to the foundation, the bank has a signed agreement with the foundation, signed in March 2011, under which Northern Rock plc agrees to donate 1 per cent of pre-tax profits to the foundation under a covenant with an initial expiry date of December 2012. It will be very much in the interest of prospective purchasers to make clear, if they want the support of people in the north-east, what their plans are for the headquarters, for their support for the foundation and for other matters.
Lord Borrie: I wonder whether the noble Lord could show a little more enthusiasm for mutualisation as a most desirable method of organising and purveying financial services. That would give the Government a chance to distance themselves from the sad period of the 1980s, when far too many building societies moved away from mutualisation, with a lot of risky business being pursued thereafter.
Lord Sassoon: I have made clear on this and previous occasions that the Government regard mutualisation as a desirable model. It would be wrong to say that it is the best model, as the noble Lord has suggested, but, indeed, we want to see variety of provision of financial services in this country by organisations with different models, of which mutualisation should be one.
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, the overarching aim of any sales process, as well as getting a clear exit, is to obtain best value for the taxpayer. There are of course tensions between that objective and certain methods of sale, and that is precisely what the experts conducting the sale will assess.
Lord Sassoon: No, I will not confirm that to the noble Lord. The best value will be obtained for the taxpayer by conducting an exemplary sales process
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Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, going back to the question of the Northern Rock Foundation, I am certainly no expert on the sale of banks but I know how important the foundation is in the north-east. I was slightly troubled by what the Minister said about the commitment that has been made so far, because it appears to be a very short date. Could he perhaps be a little more enthusiastic, to use the word used by my noble friend Lord Borrie, about the importance of the foundation and put it more firmly on the agenda when it comes to issues of sale?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I am sorry if I cannot work up enough enthusiasm at 11am on a Thursday morning. The first thing to say is that not only has the foundation done good work in the north-east but its footprint covers Cumbria. We must not forget Cumbria. The previous Government agreed that Northern Rock would donate £15 million per annum to the foundation for a three-year period, 2008-10, and that commitment was honoured. Yes, the new agreement has an initial expiry date of December 2012, as I said, but it has the potential for a rolling one-year extension by mutual consent, to be agreed under certain terms. The door is open there, and it will be one of the things that I am sure prospective purchasers will want to take into account.
Lord Eatwell: My Lords, in the determination of best value for the taxpayer, how will the Government balance the short-run cash return from the sale with the long-run benefit to the taxpayer of there being a stable and successful mutual?
Lord Sassoon: The noble Lord makes a presumption there about the form of sale. We will be guided by the experts who have been appointed to conduct the sale, who will give advice on these matters to the Treasury.
To ask Her Majesty's Government what principal subjects they intend to discuss with the government of Poland when they next meet, in view of the start of the Polish European Union Presidency from 1 July.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, Her Majesty's Government engage with the Polish Government at all levels. These meetings are opportunities to discuss a range of issues and occur at both ministerial and official levels. Prior to, and during, the Polish presidency, the Poles have outlined their priorities as being divided into three general themes: European integration as the source of growth; a secure Europe in terms of food, energy and defence; and Europe benefiting from openness.
Lord Dykes: I thank my noble friend for that Answer. In view of the Energy Secretary's disappointment about the Polish Government's refusal last Tuesday to accept the 20 per cent target for emissions by 2020, will my noble friend confirm that Poland is willing to accept a compromise solution to this unexpected problem during its presidency period?
Lord Howell of Guildford: We shall have to see how this works out. Obviously, there are a lot of elements in this debate as we move forward to a new energy mix and the energy transition throughout Europe. Poland will play a leading part in that, whether or not it accepts the immediate renewables targets, because it is seeking to change its own economy away from a heavy coal base and a reliance on Russian gas to a more modern mixture of energy developments. That will include renewables and, possibly, the major development of shale gas and other unconventional gas sources.
Lord Tomlinson: Will the Minister confirm that if there is some spare time in his meetings with the Polish presidency he might ask it to explain precisely its budget proposals, which are attracting so much media and political attention? Can he confirm that there are currently no budget proposals other than a seven-year financial perspective; that the 5 per cent increase in the budget that is being talked about is 5 per cent over seven years, the duration of the perspective; and that, in any event, a financial perspective is a ceiling which cannot be exceeded, not a target to be reached?
Lord Howell of Guildford: Obviously this issue will come up in the dialogue that we have with Poland on the budget, which has continued in the past on a number of areas. The proposals for the next multi-annual financial framework are issued today, so it seems pretty pointless to speculate ahead of that. We are focused on areas in which we can co-operate and work together. I take the noble Lord's point that there are difficult challenges ahead, and we will certainly discuss them with Poland.
Baroness Hussein-Ece: My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware of reports that Poland has initiated direct chartered flights to the northern part of Cyprus? If there are to be discussions, will he ask how Poland has managed this when, in the past seven years, every other country including ours has said that it is illegal to do so? Neither we nor other member states have been able to honour the promise that was given to Turkish Cypriots to end their isolation; I would be interested to hear how Poland has managed to do so.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I am not sure that I can tell my noble friend very much more. She raises an issue relating to the Ankara protocols and the question of Turkey's negotiations on the European Union, which are proceeding although slowly. The problem of northern Cyprus has been, sadly, an obstacle in the way of developments in Turkey's application to join the European Union, which we of course strongly support. I am afraid that I cannot tell my noble friend more on the detail of what has been decided by the Polish authorities about their own airline flights, but I will write to her if I find any more information.
Lord Richard: Have the Government yet had the opportunity of discussing with the Polish Government the provisions of the European Union Bill, and explaining to them that no less than 56 instances could spark a referendum in this country? If they have done that, could he tell us what their reaction was?
Lord Howell of Guildford: We have certainly discussed the European Union Bill with all our European partners in various ways. We have not raised with them the noble Lord's proposition, because it is completely inaccurate and does not represent any aspect of that Bill. The whole idea of there being 56 items which could initiate a referendum is complete nonsense. These are 56 veto elements in four or five absolutely key areas, which the noble Lord, as a supporter of the previous Government, believed are important just as the rest of the British people do today.
Lord Howell of Guildford: These matters remain under constant discussion. Everyone recognises that the common agricultural policy continues to have its flaws and challenges, given the ways in which it promotes exports out of Europe at great expense to poorer countries and farming communities. We will certainly discuss all these matters on a continuous basis.
Lord Harrison: Will the Minister confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, said, which was confirmed by Commissioner Viviane Reding this morning on the "Today" programme, that the MFF stretching from 2014 to 2020 is a 5 per cent increase over that seven-year period, and should not be understood to be an annual increase?
Lord Howell of Guildford: This is very recent news. Initial reactions have not been favourable in other countries or this one, where we are thinking in terms of austerity in order to promote sound budget discipline and the basis for sound recovery without soaring interest rates and other deterrents. I cannot add more beyond the initial reaction that these things will be looked at very carefully indeed. The spirit of common austerity practices by the European Union in all its parts as well as the member state countries will have to be reflected.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, the Republic of Ireland's interest in rejoining the Commonwealth is a matter for the Irish Government and, of course, for the existing Commonwealth membership.
Lord Rana: I thank the Minister for that Answer. May I take this opportunity of congratulating Her Majesty and the President of Ireland on a very successful royal visit to the Republic of Ireland? In the light of this outstanding success, do the Government agree that it is important to build on the results of the visit in a constructive way so as further to improve relations within these islands and between the two parts of Ireland? In particular, do the Government agree that if Ireland, as an independent republic, was to rejoin the Commonwealth, or have a new association with the Commonwealth, this would be calculated to be of benefit to Ireland, and more particularly greatly improve relations between the divided communities in Ireland?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I agree 100 per cent with the noble Lord's remarks about the enormously successful state visit, which has no doubt struck a very positive chord and gives great hope to all of us who are familiar with and wish to see ameliorated and put in the past the great problems of Ireland of the past few hundred years. The noble Lord is absolutely on the right track there. However, I have to reiterate that the initiative on which he is questioning me-membership of the Commonwealth-really is a matter for the Irish Government to look at. In many other areas I suspect that the state visit has provided an impetus and a momentum on both sides of the water for new initiatives to bring the Republic of Ireland and all aspects of the United Kingdom still closer together. They are our good friends and we are theirs.
Lord Howe of Aberavon: In encouraging movement in the direction suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Rana, may I remind my noble friend of the very different example of the great success with which the former communist Portuguese colony of Mozambique has become a fully fledged member of the Commonwealth, with great benefit to the Commonwealth as well as to Mozambique?
Lord Howell of Guildford: My noble and learned friend's question gives me the opportunity to observe-I imagine that this will come as no surprise to noble Lords-that the Commonwealth club today is one which many people wish to join and be associated with in all sorts of forms. There is no doubt that, as we move into the 21st century, the particular nature of the Commonwealth, with its linkages, close associations, common elements of trust, understanding and friendship and its capacity to expand trade and investment, is the kind of club which many countries want to join. They look at the example of Mozambique and see a new Commonwealth pattern emerging, not necessarily precisely related to the old question of which countries were members of the British Commonwealth or the British Empire. It is a very successful platform for the 21st century and many other countries are queuing up to join it, which is very flattering.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree with me that relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have never been better, that Ireland is our closest trading partner and that the contribution made by Irish people, and people of Irish origin, has been of great benefit to this country and is something to be celebrated?
Lord Alderdice: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that during the peace process I approached the leaders of all the political parties in the Republic of Ireland, all of whom said the same thing-that an application from Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth was unlikely but that if unionists were to request it as part of the peace process it would undoubtedly be deliverable? The unionist parties did not request it so that moment has passed. However, it seems to me that perhaps an application will only follow invitations. Will my noble friend undertake to explore with the Secretary-General and other members of the Commonwealth whether the Irish Republic might be invited as a guest to Commonwealth events, perhaps even the Commonwealth Games, to help move us in a direction whereby it would not have to make an application but would nevertheless be welcomed in?
Lord Howell of Guildford: This is one of the very interesting and exciting approaches that now become possible as our relations have kept improving to their present excellent level. I cannot make any precise promises because, as I said at the beginning, we must expect the signs to come from the Irish Government that that is the way forward, but there is no reason why the Commonwealth Secretariat should not invite any country, including the Republic of Ireland, to be aware of the vast variety of Commonwealth developments, associations and branded activities throughout the globe in which Ireland or any other country may be interested.
Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, does the Minister realise that the peoples in both countries in the island of Ireland-in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland-rejoice at the success of the state visit by Her Majesty the Queen to the Republic of Ireland? Secondly, does he accept that, in the case of Mozambique or, more recently, Southern Sudan, a decision to join the Commonwealth was left to the peoples of those countries, not through any encouragement from the United Kingdom? I speak from long experience of politics in Northern Ireland and relations with the Republic of Ireland. Does the Minister accept that any encouragement from the United Kingdom to the Republic of Ireland to join the Commonwealth would be counterproductive?
Lord Howell of Guildford: The noble Lord speaks with much wisdom and experience on these matters. I hope that something of what he said was reflected in my initial comment that any move of this kind must come from the Irish Government and the Irish people in the first instance. As to other countries seeking to join, of course, the ultimate decision is not in the gift of the British Government, it is in the gift of the
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The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Sassoon): My Lords, UK Financial Investments manages the Government's shareholding in financial institutions. UKFI's objective is to dispose of the investments in an orderly and active manner, with an overarching objective of protecting and creating value for the taxpayer. The Treasury and UKFI continue to assess all potential options to realise value for taxpayers through the disposal of these shares.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, there is a well known saying by a famous American tennis player: "You cannot be serious". Does the noble Lord himself believe what has been said, given that that would achieve nowhere near best value? If you wanted to have an administrative scheme that was absolute nonsense, you could not find a better one. Given that the Government manage potential sales, is the Minister seriously suggesting that the Chancellor is looking at that proposition? If so, what would be the eventual cost in loss of expected revenue in due course from the sale of Lloyds and RBS shares?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, what I said is that we are considering all options for the disposal of the shares in RBS and Lloyds Banking Group. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has asked the Treasury to consider a particular disposal option, and that is what UKFI and the Treasury are doing.
Lord Lawson of Blaby: Will my noble friend tell the Treasury that there is no need to consider this tired old suggestion for long? It was fully considered in 1979 when we embarked on the original privatisation programme and I am sure that his officials will be very pleased to give him all the old papers showing that it bristles with practical difficulties, not least the precise method of allocation, quite apart from the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. Will my noble friend also bear in mind the wise words of that great radical, Thomas Paine:
Lord Sassoon: On the one hand, I might say to my noble friend that sometimes the old ideas are the best ones and it is good to dust them off. I recognise that the idea of free distribution of shares is not new but it is perfectly serious. However, the difficulties that my noble friend rightly puts up and some of the questioning from the noble Lod, Lord Barnett, are issues that must be properly considered.
Lord Skidelsky: My Lords, noble Lords will be aware that the Government have promised to set up a green bank with a capital of £3 billion. Does the noble Lord agree that a more constructive version of the Deputy Prime Minister's suggestion might be to sell the shares in Lloyds TSB and RBS, as convenient, and use part of the cash thus raised to increase the capitalisation of the green bank? If in addition the bank was allowed to borrow, could that not be a powerful instrument for economic recovery and long-term development by mobilising shares for which there is no present business use?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, we have been very clear about our plans for capitalising the green investment bank, as the noble Lord says, with £3 billion. I see no particular link between that and the question of disposal of the bank shares.
Lord Peston: My Lords, bearing in mind the immense damage that the Government's fiscal policy is doing to the economy, is not the explanation of the hare-brained scheme from the leader of the Liberal Democrats simply an attempt by the Government to distract the public's attention from that damage?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I do not know what constitutes language that is not permissible in this House but I do not accept one iota of that analysis. The reason why we have an enormous monetary stimulus through the interest rates-last night, 10 years were at 3.33 per cent-is precisely because we are sticking to the plan to reduce the deficit. Otherwise nothing else would be possible in terms of growth for the economy. Indeed, one of the potential downsides of handing shares out free is that it would have a negative effect on the public finances, which is one of the issues that must be considered.
Lord Newby: Would the Minister accept that technology has moved on since 1979 and whatever might have been in the papers at the time in terms of doing something then is wholly irrelevant to the costs of doing something today? Can he see the strength of the argument that once the Treasury has its money back, best value for the British people might best be served by giving them some cash in their pockets to decide for themselves the best way of spending the upside of the privatisation of the banks?
Lord Sassoon: Of course I agree with my noble friend that IT has progressed significantly over the past couple of decades, but that does not mean to say that it would be easy to create an IT database of the sort that would be required for this operation. While that is one of the issues to be considered, there are other questions-of distribution, of the impact on the banks' own funding, of share overhangs and so on. All of these things would have to be looked at.
"(3A) At the start of each session of Parliament the Clerk of the Parliaments may in writing ask any Lord Temporal not on leave of absence, suspended or otherwise disqualified from attending the House, who in the previous session attended the House very infrequently, whether he wishes to apply for leave of absence for the remainder of the Parliament.
(3B) Any Lord who fails to reply to a letter sent by the Clerk of the Parliaments pursuant to paragraph (3) or (3A) above within three months from the date the letter was sent shall be granted leave of absence for the remainder of the Parliament."
(c) if the petition is a special-case petition (see section (Petitions: special cases in which holding of referendum is discretionary)), the authority resolves in accordance with section 48 that the referendum should be held."
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, we now return to the debates which we had the other evening in Committee on the new extension of community empowerment through the role of referendums. Perhaps I may begin by returning to Tuesday evening and the brief discussion that we had right at the end on the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Greaves. He asked-and I called it a conundrum-why a petition signed by 5 per cent of the people calling for a referendum should prevail over a petition signed by 10 per cent or even 20 per cent against one. At first reaction, and at that late hour, it appeared a complex question. I have since reflected on the issue.
It seems complex because it is founded on what I might describe as a false premise-that is, that having a referendum is in itself the final decision on an issue. It is not. Having a referendum is merely a way of opening the door to obtaining the views of local people. In the particular circumstance described by my noble friend, there is clearly a difference of view among local people; and where a number of people-we think 5 per cent is about right, as we discussed on Tuesday-want to have that view tested in a referendum, we think that they should be allowed to do so.
So my short answer to my noble friend's conundrum is simply this. If 5 per cent want the issue tested in a referendum, then we believe that it should be tested. That is not denying choice to others. They can express their view in the referendum. As I made clear in my response to all this, it is within the defined scheme; and that is that unless there is a petition, the full council must agree to hold a referendum; and where there is a petition, the council must hold it if it meets the appropriate tests on costs, appropriateness, and duplication, which we will discuss in this group. These tests enable local authorities to exercise discretion and not to hold a referendum.
Now I turn to these government amendments, to which I alluded the other evening and which I think greatly help this debate to go forward. Government Amendments 120A, 120D, 120F, 121A, 126G, 128E, 128F, 128G and 129J all deal with the issue of the grounds for an authority to decline to hold a referendum, notwithstanding the receipt of a petition with the requisite number of signatures. These amendments address concerns raised during the passage of the Bill in another place that local referendums could be very costly or otherwise inappropriate. Such concerns were also expressed by the Greater London Authority and Transport for London.
Members in another place also expressed concern that the Secretary of State exercising his power in Clause 47 to specify matters that need not trigger a local referendum could result in a council rejecting a valid petition for a referendum on a manifestly local matter. Having considered these concerns, the Government accept that, in line with our localist agenda, removal of the Secretary of State's power of specification in Clause 47 will not remove any necessary protections in the referendums scheme. If the amendments we have tabled are accepted, councils will have the power to determine whether a referendum should be held in difficult cases.
There are circumstances in which a referendum could be inappropriately expensive for a council or could cut across or effectively duplicate other statutory consultation processes for which there is also a statutory right to review or appeal. This would include planning applications. We therefore propose to remove the power of specification in Clause 47(5) and replace it with provisions that give councils increased flexibility to decline to hold a referendum in special cases. Those cases, defined as "special case petitions", are where: first, the cost of holding the referendum would be more than 5 per cent of the council's council tax requirement for that year; the referendum matter has been the subject of a previous referendum within the previous four years in that area; or the referendum relates to a matter subject to other statutory consultation processes for which there is a right to review or appeal. I have already given the example of planning applications. These provisions reflect our view that councils should be able to refuse referendums that are unduly costly or are on substantively the same issue as a previous referendum. They also reflect our view that the mechanism for local referendums should not duplicate or cut across existing statutory processes.
Where it is proposed that a referendum should be held across the whole of London, we want to be sure that the matter is truly a pan-London issue-as I explained the other evening to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. We therefore propose a requirement that for a petition to be eligible for such a referendum, in addition to the 5 per cent threshold of London-wide signatures it should have the signatures of 1 per cent of the electorate in each London borough. This would prevent a situation where a matter of vital importance to just one part of the capital might attract a very large number of signatures to a petition-enough to reach the 5 per cent threshold across London-yet would be more appropriate for a referendum in the London borough or boroughs where the affected citizens live.
I hope noble Lords will agree that these amendments address some concerns that are raised by amendments in later groups and will feel able to agree them. This will colour the debates that follow. I will address other amendments once they have been moved.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I have one amendment in this group-Amendment 128EZA-that I will speak to. I will not speak to Amendment 128A in the group. I spent some time last night and this morning trying to liberate it from the group but failed miserably. I am now degrouping it, and it will come back in the group that starts with Amendment 126A. I hope that that does not cause the Minister too much difficulty.
I thank the Minister for dealing with such seriousness this morning with the question I asked at the very end of our proceedings on Tuesday. It was a cheeky question, but it is nevertheless one that people will ask because it is a fairly obvious cheeky question. I am grateful to him for dealing with it. It does, in many ways, underline some of the things that are wrong with the whole of this provision.
However, I welcome the main substantive amendment that the noble Lord has just introduced in this group-Amendment 128E, on what are known as "special-case
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"The petition is a special-case petition if the proper officer of the authority is of the opinion that the matter to which the referendum question relates has been, or has substantially been, the subject of at least one local or other referendum held-
Therefore, there are two qualifying provisions for the authority to be able to say that it will not have the petition. One is that there has been one in the last four years and the other is that it took place in the area to which the petition relates.
I shall speak to an amendment on the second of those. Before I do, however, I have another amendment, which is bound up with some other stuff, that proposes that the period during which there should be a moratorium on holding a new referendum on the same or similar issue should be 10 years, not four. I will not be pressing that heavily when we get to it because at least we have a four-year moratorium here. Nevertheless, it seems to me that four years is not long enough. It will still be quite easy for people to bring back the same thing every four years and it will become very repetitive and they could keep going until they get the right answer.
It is quite clear that what the Minister has moved means that if there has been a petition in an identical area it qualifies as a special case and if there has been a petition in a bigger area, which includes the area of the petition, it qualifies as a special case. It is not clear what will happen if the new petition is in area larger than the area that previously had the petition. For example, let us imagine that there is a town with four wards. If there was a petition in a ward, and then the petition came along for the county electoral division,
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While we are on Amendment 128E on special-case petitions, I have two more points. One is about the council tax requirement. I am one of the few people in your Lordships' House who does not understand local government finance in great detail, but I know that there are great experts here. What is meant by the phrase "council tax requirement"? Exactly what that means has a bearing on the meaning of the proposal that the Minister is putting forward in subsection (2), which he explained when he moved the amendment. I will not say anything more on that until I have heard what a council tax requirement means and decide whether I want to pursue it further.
Subsection (4) of the new clause is about not having a referendum if there is a statutory process and that statutory process includes giving members of the public an opportunity to make representations on the matter as well as statutory rights of appeal or to instigate a review. This is extremely welcome. It clearly refers to the planning system. It obviously refers to planning applications. I assume that it applies to local plan making because that includes a whole series of public consultations. It almost certainly applies to all licensing matters, so we are not going to have petitions on whether Joe Bloggs should get a taxi licence or whether a particular shop should get an off-licence licence. Do the Government have any sort of definitive list, or a greater list, of the sort of things that might be caught by this provision, or have they got further than planning and licensing in their thoughts on the matter? It will be extremely helpful if they have an idea of more or less the full list. We can probably never have a completely full list.
Lord Avebury: My noble friend remarked on new subsection (4) and the barrier against presenting any petition relating to planning matters. Knowing the strength of feeling against Gypsy sites in most localities in England, we can envisage that if people can conceivably find a way of lodging petitions against anything to do with a proposal for a Gypsy site, they will do so. I was quite relieved to hear what he said, but is it his opinion that new subsection (4) provides adequate safeguards against that kind of petition which would be unnecessary because the protection, if needed, is provided by the planning process?
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am not sure that it is my job to give a definitive view of what the legislation means. Anybody can put forward a petition on anything. When planning applications come in, people often present petitions on planning applications and they are perfectly entitled to do so, whether or not my noble friend and I agree with what is on the petition-that is nothing to do with it. The point is that this is a provision for a petition that triggers a referendum. As I understand it, what the Minister is proposing would prevent a referendum having to be held on a planning application while the planning application is being considered, which would obviously not only be stupid but would cause such huge delays in the planning system that the whole thing would fall apart.
Lord Soley: I am going to intervene very briefly. First, I apologise to the House for not having been involved in this long and very complex Bill before. I am intervening now because I am a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which met yesterday to look at this Bill. We have a real problem with this incredibly complex Bill, and with many amendments coming forward, in understanding the full implications of some of the sections. I want to refer to some aspects of the report which is out this morning as a result of the meeting we had yesterday. Two of the sections relate both to petitions and hybridity and to referendums. I am not sure that they strictly apply to the Minister's new clause but they apply in general on the issue of referendums.
In his opening comments the Minister agreed the possibility of a local authority being able to decide whether it wants to hold a referendum, which is fine. However, in paragraph 31 on page 9 of the committee's report we recommend that regulations under Section 9MG of the 2000 Act, which is added in the Bill-they relate to,
The other thing I wanted to mention, because it affects petitions and hybridity, is the recommendation in paragraph 29 on page 9 of our report, which refers to the hybrid instruments procedure. It says:
"Given the lack of any statutory requirement to consult before making an order under section 9HF, the Committee is concerned that the disapplication of the hybrid instruments procedure-and thereby the opportunity to petition Parliament-leaves inadequate means to ensure private or local interests are taken into account when the power is exercised".
I do not wish to delay the House with an issue with which I have not been involved and do not have great knowledge about, but we expressed considerable concern
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Lord Newton of Braintree: My Lords, declaring once again my wife's interest as a councillor and, I suppose, my interest in my wife, I speak with some diffidence in a House awash with experts with experience of local government in one way or another. I am one of the few without that. All that I want is to ask a question for clarification, which picks up on the questions raised by my noble friend Lord Greaves. It is clear that these amendments are intended to deal to some extent with the concerns expressed about planning and licensing. I should like to be absolutely clear. The new clause on petitions and special cases to be inserted under my noble friend the Minister's amendment refers to a special-case petition. I am shorthanding and if I am getting it wrong, I expect someone will tell me.
From my experience as an MP, my understanding is that if it is your planning application and it is refused, you have a right of appeal. But if you are the neighbour or the neighbourhood who objected to the planning application and it is granted, you have no right of appeal. Does that mean that if you are the neighbour or the neighbourhood and the planning application is granted on planning grounds, you can now instigate a petition and have a referendum on the granted planning application?
Lord True: My Lords, I might try to comment on the important points made by my noble friend Lord Newton of Braintree in a moment. It is a complex and important area, on which I expect we will have to have discussions as the Bill proceeds. In the main, I welcome the amendments laid by my noble friends and I am grateful for them in terms of their clarification. I have a number of concerns, which are perhaps not addressed by these proposals.
Since I was in charge of my authority's finances for some time, it would be alarming if I did not understand the council tax requirement. In my authority the council tax requirement is defined in our budget resolution currently at a little more than £100 million. Therefore, 5 per cent of that sum would be several million pounds. I know that our authority is exceptional in terms of having a heavy requirement on council tax to raise its resources but I do not think that we would find that provision helpful in resisting referendums. I should be grateful if my noble friends would give some consideration to that rather brutal financial reality as the Bill proceeds.
As regards the other elements, the power for a proper officer to determine whether something has substantially been affected and might be the subject of a referendum was a rather localist answer to the points made by my noble friend Lord Greaves. In the light of local circumstances, it is probably reasonable to leave it to the local authority to make that kind of determination and I welcome that wording. Being an arch-localist, I am slightly less fearful of referendums than some other noble Lords in this Committee. Four years may be too long in certain circumstances but I can see nothing in this provision that prevents a local authority from authorising a referendum in less than four years if it wishes to do so. It simply defends the local authority against the vexatious demand to have a referendum more frequently than four years. If I have interpreted it correctly, I would be happy to accept the provision as a welcome offer by the Government and a very useful compromise position.
I have troubled the Committee before on this matter and I am afraid I will trouble it later on it, but I am worried about the way in which this alleged referendum right will operate in those areas of the country that are still subject to regional government-again I declare my interest, as I have done several times in Committee, as leader of a London borough council. This has an inter-relation with the position not in terms of specific, small-scale planning applications, about which my noble friend Lord Newton has raised a point, I believe, but in terms of the planning process determining a planning brief for an area of a borough.
Yesterday I read that the mayor, whom I strongly support and wish to see re-elected, had intervened on a planning proposal by a London borough. I do not wish to comment on that because I do not know the circumstances on either side, but let me give an example with which I am more familiar. There is a strategic site within my borough. For the last year or so, the council has been making strenuous efforts to agree, with local residents, a community brief for that site when it comes up potentially for development. We hope to have that brief adopted by our borough council before too long, subject to a public ballot. It may well be that at a later date, perhaps propelled by a desire for a community infrastructure levy, to promote Crossrail or for some other purpose, another mayor might come along and say, "This is not an appropriate planning brief for this site. We have a regional authority and a regional spatial strategy and we wish to propose a different use for that site". It might have more housing or less housing on it, more industry or whatever, and that could be put forward. What is the position then of
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I agree with noble Lords who said we do not want to get into having referendums on every planning application; that way lies the road to perdition. However, I believe that there are circumstances such as the one that I have set out where-if we are charting this way towards genuinely giving local people authority over decisions that affect their lives, and the lives of their children in terms of the long-term decisions on the development of a substantial area of a city-it is clear that we must have some mechanism by which people have the right to petition against an authority that is overriding the settled will of the local community. Maybe my noble friends can assure me-not today but perhaps later by correspondence-that there is a mechanism by which my local residents can be insured against the fear of that happening, but I think there are serious potential difficulties. There could be smaller examples. Like my noble friend Lord Greaves, I am not clear on where the boundaries of the statutory right of appeal lie, and the noble Lord, Lord Newton, has obviously raised a point. My residents in this case, with their community brief, would not necessarily have an appeal. What about transport issues or something controversial such as parking? All these things have statutory procedures and provisions for consultation. Where do the bounds lie there? I do not know whether they would be open to petition or not. Again, I do not expect an answer today.
Let me posit another example, a real-life one from another London borough. I was speaking to the leader, who told me that a town centre improvement scheme was proposed by a central London authority after consultation with local residents. The local authority suggested amendments that were supported by the residents in a ballot, but the higher authority, in this case London Buses, came in and said, "No, we don't agree. We are going to proceed with our original plan". Do local residents have a chance to petition and say, "Actually, we like our plan rather than the one being proposed by the higher regional authority"? That is a much smaller example than the one of a statutory planning area, but it is a complex area.
I do not seek an answer from my noble friends on these matters today and I do not want them to feel that I am not grateful for the amendments that have been put forward. But there is a serious issue in the Bill in relation to the rights of members of the public living in areas where there is still regional government.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I want to make only three points at this stage of the debate. We are here on the fourth day in Committee on this Bill and I have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, with what I have to say is some dismay. I have certainly not had
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My second point is that, in welcoming the amendments that have been tabled by my noble friends, I should like to say particularly how much I appreciate the way the Government have listened to the representations made in another place about the question of a petition that might be called for by the Greater London Authority. The suggestion they have come up with, that there needs to be a 1 per cent vote in every London borough before the GLA has to call a referendum, is a wise one. As my noble friends have suggested, it will prevent a fuss in a particular area, one that might arouse considerable public opposition, forcing the GLA to hold a referendum at huge cost-estimated at somewhere between £5 million and £12 million depending on whether it happens on the same day as another election. The Government's suggestion that a 1 per cent vote in every borough would trigger the obligation to consider whether a referendum should be held therefore seems absolutely right.
My third point arises from representations that I have had-I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Best, will be interested in this-from the Local Government Association. Noble Lords may remember that, on the second day of Committee on 23 June, I expressed some dismay that the opportunity had not been taken in the Bill to follow through the general power of competence, which Clause 1 gives to local authorities, by substantially lightening the burden of central direction on them. I said during my brief remarks then that both the London Councils-I declare an interest as a joint president-and the Local Government Association, of which I am a vice-president, had said, "Yes, Patrick, we agree but it would be an entirely different kind of Bill". I remarked in my speech on the difficulty of trying to amend the Bill to try to remove some of what I see as retaining an over-complex power for central government to tell local authorities what to do and how to behave. Giving a general power of competence requires trusting the local authorities to do things in a sensible way. They are accountable to their local electorate if they do not.
I think that the Local Government Association saw that as a bit of a challenge. It has produced for me a list of amendments designed to return to local authorities the responsibility for deciding when and how to conduct
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The LGA makes the point, just as I did on the second day in Committee, that it seems absurd in this day and age that central government should retain such an overwhelming control over how local authorities continue to manage their business. It draws attention in particular to Part 4, Chapter 1 of the Bill and the whole question we have discussed of holding a referendum. The LGA says:
"This section of the Bill is symptomatic of the difficulty Whitehall has had in translating Ministers' localist ideas into legislation. Instead of freeing local people, and their councils, to decide how best local consultation and challenge should take place, the Bill lays down an extremely prescriptive process, managed from the centre, determining exactly how localism should work on the ground".
I have every sympathy with that sentiment. My only regret is that, like the report of the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, it has come to me rather late. There will be another opportunity and, as I said, I will want to raise the matter again.
I shall want in particular to ask that it should be the local council rather than the Secretary of State who determines the threshold for a petition to trigger a referendum and that the Bill should allow the local council rather the Secretary of State to determine whether a petition or a signature thereon is acceptable-and decide what is a local matter.
I want also to see the local council, rather than the Secretary of State, determine the conduct of its referendum, including choosing the date and deciding how to publicise it, who is eligible to vote, how votes are counted and so on. Are the councils not capable of doing that? There may be some that will fall short but so be it: if we are serious about localism and about pushing decisions down from central government to the local level, we have to trust the local authorities to deal with that. I am much encouraged by seeing nods all round the Chamber and I am only sorry that, because of the late arrival of these suggestions, we are not able to discuss them on specific amendments this afternoon.
I will want to return to this matter. The Local Government Association has now risen to the challenge that I threw out at Second Reading and produced proposals which would involve removing quite large elements from this part of the Bill in order to make sure that it is local councils that decide how they are going to run their own affairs, not the Secretary of State.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I associate myself very much with all three substantive points that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has made. On his last point, I, too, received the briefing from the Local Government
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Lord Jenkin of Roding: If my noble friend would allow me, I have already expressed my contrition. I did so at Second Reading, when I mentioned how I failed to persuade the senior officers in a conference of chief executives that the Government were entirely justified. I did not convince them, mainly because I could not convince myself.
Lord Tope: The noble Lord is forgiven: blessed is the sinner that repenteth. He is absolutely right in what he says. I, too, was looking at this briefing-I was in fact in Brussels until this morning and looked at it coming back-which, like the noble Lord, makes the point:
That is so absurd that it is just laughable. The noble Lord and this briefing are both saying that if we were to do all of this, and I suspect a bit more too, we might have something that could be called a Localism Bill. That is what this is about. If he chooses to return to this at a later stage, we will certainly be sympathetic to that.
My original intention in standing up was on the second point from the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and, for once, to congratulate and be thankful to the Government for their amendments on the pan-London referendum. Perhaps I speak as a London taxpayer as well. He made the points, so I will not repeat them, but the proposals are clearly both necessary and very sensible and it is very welcome that we will now have a sensible provision. Should there ever be a pan-London referendum, it will not be called because of some probably serious issue in some part of London that does not apply to the whole of London. By making this provision, such a referendum will truly be on a pan-London issue, as it should be.
Lord Beecham: My Lords, I, too, remember the noble Lord in his days as Secretary of State for the Environment. He was also chairman of the inner-city partnership team that met in Newcastle and I remember amusing him once by referring to the city action teams he was intent on imposing in our city, and I think in others, as feral cats. He liked that phrase and I liked what the noble Lord said today, particularly in relation to the Delegated Powers Committee report. It is interesting that it was compiled in such a hurry that the title of the printed document is the "Localsim" Bill report. I do not think that it has any connection with telephony. It is certainly very late and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Soley on managing to master as much of it as he apparently has. I have only just seen it this morning.
I agree with the thrust of the noble Lord's argument about centralism and too much central prescription. I do not entirely agree that it would be wise and safe to leave some of the structure entirely in the hands of local councils. Most local councils would perform perfectly adequately and properly, but we need to consider that there may be some councils which would choose not to develop a proper procedure and we need to protect the interests of those in those authorities. That, in my view, should not be done by the Government, but the Local Government Association itself should perhaps produce a model against which councils' performance could be judged. That is the local government family, as it were, assuming responsibility, as opposed to the Secretary of State, and it strikes me that, in this and perhaps other areas, that might be a better way forward.
The noble Lord, Lord True, referred to areas with regional governments. Of course, thanks to the present Government's "settled determination", in the phrase of the noble Lord, to abolish all regional structures except that in London-it is only London that is privileged to have a regional body, although it is a privilege that the noble Lord may not be too comfortable with-it is probably right to encourage and facilitate petitions for the kind of issues that the noble Lord referred to, rather than referendums, in the same way that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, answered the question put to him earlier.
Having said all that, I thank and congratulate the Government for responding so constructively to so many of the points that have been raised around these issues. It is very welcome. I particularly celebrate the removal of Clause 47(5), which stipulated that the third ground for determination was,
My last point relates to the strange provision about the cost of a referendum. The noble Lord, Lord True, referred to the figure of around £1 million as representing about 5 per cent of the council tax requirement of his authority. I believe that it is roughly the same-the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, may recall and confirm, or otherwise-in Newcastle. There will be many authorities where 5 per cent is an enormous amount of money. If an authority presented and circulated petitions inscribed in gold leaf on vellum, it would still not reach 5 per cent of most councils' expenditure. It seems a ridiculous figure. I wonder whether a decimal point has been missed somewhere-the printers have clearly had difficulties with the Bill, as I have already indicated. Five per cent seems extraordinary and I wonder whether any proper estimate has been made-or any estimate at all-by the Government, or those advising them, about what the cost of a referendum, perhaps on a city-wide basis, or district council basis, to take a lower level, would be. It may be that, if we are going to have guidance of this kind, differential provision ought to be made according to the size of the authority; perhaps something on a per capita basis, rather than on a percentage of revenue.
If we are to have a cap, as it were, of a percentage kind, should that relate to an individual referendum, or cumulatively? If there were a large number of referendums in the authority of the noble Lord, Lord True, or in mine, or in any other, one could reach even the high figure. I do not ask the Minister to respond to that thought, which has only just occurred to me-I cannot expect him to answer that-but it might be considered when he looks again, as I hope he will agree to do, at this provision. I welcome the provision; it is right that there should be some consideration of a financial limit by an officer-rather than a member in this case-but the one suggested seems to have little justification and little relationship to reality on the ground.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, this has been an interesting debate and I take it as a general welcome for the Government's amendments. A number of interesting points have been raised which probe again at the boundaries of the referendum principle. Noble Lords are right to point to the balance between the Secretary of State and local authorities, but on examination they will discover that the powers of the Secretary of State are residual powers, usually to modify arrangements as a result of experience, rather than to impose a pattern of governance on local authorities throughout the Bill. However, some forms, some articulation of the form of referendums and suchlike are in legislation, because Parliament exists to ensure that, in the context of a citizen's relationship with a local authority, there are certain rights. If a referendum is considered to be something which citizens can combine collectively to seek, those rights need to be established in law and it is Parliament's job to establish them in law. I ask noble Lords to differentiate between the two things.
It was said-in jest, I hope-that the Secretary of State was empowered to decide what was local. If noble Lords had looked at our amendments, they would know that our amendment removes that power from the Secretary of State. My noble friend Lord Jenkin asked whether we can leave it to local authorities to decide when and how to conduct referendums. I have made the point about the protection of the citizen within local government. We could, of course, leave it to local authorities, but localism is about more than empowering local authorities, it is also about empowering people. This part of the Bill enables local people to require a referendum, but contains some sensible safeguards to combat abuse. I hope that my noble friend will be able to see the Government's position in that context.
I, too, received the Local Government Association briefing asking me to table some amendments and to speak in its support-it is very wide in its mailings. However, that was drawn up before the Government's amendments were known, so some of its criticisms-it generally welcomed many of the provisions of the Bill in this area-were made without the advantage that we now have of knowing what the Government's proposals are.
My noble friend Lord Greaves asked whether the Government have a list of things that would be caught. My noble friend Lord True also wondered about this, but said that he hoped local authorities would be
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My noble friend Lord Greaves asked whether a petition would qualify as a special case if it covered a large area. Yes, it would. The council would be able to refuse such a petition under the provisions as drafted. He also asked what "substantially" meant. I can give him only a quasi-legalistic answer: it means more than incidentally. I hope that that helps him in his appreciation of that.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I am sorry, the noble Lord is asking me to do his remembering for him. I have enough of a job to remember what I am supposed to be doing myself, if I might say so. Perhaps I may continue.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, talked about the reports of the Delegated Powers Committee. In fact, some of the points that he made were in an earlier report, published on 16 June. However, there is now another report-indeed, the ink is scarcely dry on it; it is rubbing off on my hands here-about these matters. I reassure the noble Lord that in general terms we take the opinions of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee seriously, and it is likely that we will respond positively to its suggestions and observations. I hope that the committee will accept that.
On the regulations in new Section 9MG about the conduct of referendums for mayoral elections, those referendums are binding, which is why they are rather different from referendums conducted under these provisions, which are not binding on local authorities.
The Minister said, rightly, that these decisions should be the responsibility of the local authority if we are to be localist. As he said, though, it clearly says in subsection (4) of his long new amendment about special case petitions that it is a statutory process by which there is a statutory right to appeal or to instigate a review. Surely it is not the job of a local authority to decide what is a statutory matter. A statutory matter is set out in law, so there might be a bit of interpretation to take place but by and large the local authority's hands would be tied.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: If I remember correctly, my noble friend asked me if the Government had a list of these things. The truth of the matter is that we do not. It will be up to local authorities to determine at the time whether something is caught under this provision.
That brings me on to the whole business of a statutory right of appeal or review. My noble friend Lord Newton asked about this provision. The existence of a right of appeal means that a petition would be a special case petition-it is not relevant who has the right of appeal or review. The Government are satisfied that there is adequate opportunity for all people affected by planning applications to contribute their view. To be clear about this, the Bill does not give a right to a referendum on planning applications.
My noble friend Lord True was particularly concerned about the council tax requirement. He mentioned the large local authority budget that he is responsible for. The whole point of the council tax requirement was to provide some protection for the smaller authority. We were concerned, rightly, that the costs should not be disproportionate to the budget, and that is why that provision was made. It is not a cap or an upper limit on how much can be spent on a referendum, but it means that no local authority should be subject to a disproportionate proportion of its budget being spent on any one referendum.
I was asked about the whole business of planning briefs and indicative planning. My noble friend Lord True kindly suggested that I might write to him and other noble Lords on this issue. It is probably a good thing that I do so, defining the nature of this general view of that planning applications are in fact subject to the special case treatment. There is the question of indicative plans and planning briefs, and I would like to make the position on those absolutely clear.
My noble friend asked how referendum schemes will operate in areas where there is regional government. The Government are committed to abolishing regional spatial strategies. I have already set out the details of how our amendments will ensure that London-wide referendums will take place only on true London planning issues.
I have explained to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, my point about the cap. We have some information about what we estimate to be the cost of a referendum. Our impact assessment estimates the cost to be between approximately 50p and £1.50 per voter, depending on whether or not it is held with an election. I think that I have covered the questions raised.
Lord Beecham: I am grateful to the Minister for that information. Would he consider the issue of a per capita amount rather than this very large limit-not a large percentage, but in cash terms-that would have to be breached in order for there to be reason not to hold a special referendum?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: That is a suggestion that we would like to consider. It is the spirit of this Committee that we appreciate approaches that are
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Lord Newton of Braintree: Before my noble friend sits down and the experts start coming in, I welcome the clarity of his statement about planning applications, leaving aside the more complex high-level issues raised by my noble friend Lord True. Thinking back on my time as an MP, I see that it would sometimes have been very pleasing to have been able to point constituents aggrieved by the granting of an application in the direction of a petition. Looking at it objectively, though, I am bound to say that the whole area of the application of planning policy would turn into a nightmare world, so I very much welcome the clarity of what has been said.
Lord Soley: I again apologise. I would not normally come back on this issue, but it is very important. The job of the Members of this House and of the House of Commons is to hold the Executive to account. I had a note put into my hands a few moments ago from Hansard saying:
Of course, I was quoting from clauses after that. I picked up the papers just before Questions finished. This means that anybody else who came into the House for this debate this morning probably would not have got a copy of that report; here I am grateful for the comments and support of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. It is hard to hold the Executive to account if Members cannot get a copy of a report which is regarded as important by the House in all cases.
Having handed the note in-which is I why I was not in my place when the Minister referred to me, as I was trying to get it-it has now gone, and they are now going around looking for another report. It is deeply unsatisfactory. One reason the Government are getting into problems in a number of areas is that business management is failing. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, and other Members on that side of the House who have been familiar with managing government business in previous years will know precisely what I mean by this.
I emphasise that, like all members of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, I am aware of the sort of Bills we will have to look at in advance. When you get something like this, you make yourself aware of the basics but do not get down to the detail until you are close to the date of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee meeting and when you are in that meeting. You have to go into the small print to get it in order and so it is very difficult to speak to it the following day when the report has not been available to any Members of the House except those who were fortunate enough to get a copy before I picked up what must have been one of the last ones. That is deeply unsatisfactory. The Government should take this very seriously.
I know that the Government take seriously the reports of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Indeed, since I have been a member, most of our recommendations have been accepted. This Minister, most notably, has been very good on this as well. However, we are looking at how the Executive are held to account by the House. To have a situation develop where a particularly complicated and large Bill like this is before the House and an important report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee is not readily available must cause concern. You cannot even refer to it. Obviously, I knew what the arguments were because I was in the committee meeting yesterday, but it is not satisfactory and I think a number of Members know it. Although I welcome the Minister's comments that he will be taking on board the committee's report, that is like saying, "We hope that we will be able to meet the committee's concerns" when it might be too late after that until we get to Third Reading.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I assure the noble Lord that the Executive-or the Government-have no control at all over the conduct of House committees. I make no criticism of either the committee or the House authorities. I am grateful that we have indeed had the observations of the report on the Bill. It is a pity that they are last minute, and I was not aware that copies were not available. I picked one up as I came in. I had a hasty look at it; we did not have very long before we started.
We should be careful. We obviously need as a House to have these matters properly examined and scrutinised and to ensure that noble Lords are aware of them. I hope that I have helped the Committee by saying that our attitude is to take these reports seriously. I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that commitment.
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat as a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the other place.
"Mr Speaker, earlier today I placed a Written Statement before the House outlining the next steps in my consideration of the potential merger between News Corporation and BSkyB. In this I explained that I have published the results of the consultation on the undertakings in lieu offered by News Corp together with the subsequent advice I have received from Ofcom and the OFT.
As I outlined, the consultation did not produce any information which caused Ofcom or the OFT to change its earlier advice to me. I could have decided to accept
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Significantly these changes strengthen further the arrangements for editorial independence and business viability of the new spun-off Sky News. In my view, they provide a further layer of very important safeguards. As amended, I believe that these undertakings will remedy, mitigate or prevent the threats to plurality which were identified at the start of this process. If, after this next consultation process, nothing arises which changes this view, I propose to accept the undertakings in lieu of a reference to the Competition Commission. Before coming to this view, though, I will of course seek once again the advice of the independent external regulators".
Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I do not think that its content has come as a surprise to anyone in your Lordships' Chamber. What has come as a surprise is the fact that, knowing the degree of interest in this subject in both Houses and among the wider public, the Secretary of State has tried to slip this decision out rather than coming to the other place to make a proper Oral Statement.
This is the continuation of a rather sad state of affairs. The initial delay supposedly arose from the need for a consultation on the Secretary of State's in-principle decision. As the Minister made clear at the time:
"I am opening a consultation period, during which time all interested parties will be able to express their views on the undertakings. Once I have considered representations, I will reach a decision on whether I still believe that the undertakings should be accepted".-[Official Report, Commons, 3/3/11; col. 519.]
I am curious to know what responses were received to that consultation. For example, did the Secretary of State take into account the views of the public, who, after all, have a keen interest in maintaining diverse news sources? If so, what is the Minister's response to the fact that a recent poll showed that 64 per cent of the public are opposed to the merger because they think that it will give News Corp too much power? Or did the Secretary of State take into account the submissions made from the Alliance of Media Organisations, representing most of the media household names, including BT, Guardian Media, Associated Newspapers, Trinity Mirror, Northcliffe Media and the Telegraph group, all of which wrote to oppose the merger? They argued, among other things, that Newco would not be independent but would be economically dependent on News Corporation; that there are insufficient safeguards for editorial independence; and that the proposals put too much power in the hands of the Culture Secretary rather than independent regulators. Can the Minister confirm whether these views have been taken into account? It appears, on the face of it, that the only organisation which remains enthusiastically in favour of the merger is News Corp itself.
There is a fault line at the very heart of the process which the Secretary of State has adopted for the consultation, because by narrowing down the debate
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This decision is taking place against a backdrop of outstanding legal cases arising from the phone-hacking scandal, and other noble Lords may wish to comment on that. Of course, the current police investigation must pursue its course to enable those responsible to be brought to justice. However, it undoubtedly brings into question whether this is the right time, when so many questions still hang over the ethical principles underlying News Corp, to give it so much additional media power in this country. I very much hope that the Minister will support our call for an independent inquiry into press standards once the investigations are complete.
I have a number of specific questions for the Minister. First, the new deadline for the latest consultation is 8 July. That is an eight-day consultation. In the previous consultation the media organisations in particular protested that there was insufficient time for them to formulate a detailed response. What chance have they got on this occasion, and how can the Minister be serious about conducting a proper consultation in such a short period?
Secondly, given the further consultation taking place, when does the Minister intend to bring the matter back to the House to enable a full debate to take place? Thirdly, to enable a full debate to take place, will the Government give a commitment to publish not only the latest undertakings but the full independent legal advice on all aspects of the acquisition which the Government have received? Fourthly, is the Minister now able to state categorically that the financial and editorial independence of Newco has been prescribed in such a way that there cannot be a seepage of influence or control back to the main News Corp board? Finally, can the Minister give an assurance that the shareholder register for Newco will be published so that there is full transparency regarding the ownership of that company?
This is not a great day for media plurality or British journalism. I foresee that in years to come there will be cause for many people who believe in open democratic debate to rue the day that we allowed so much power and influence to be centralised in one media organisation. I do not know what it would take to persuade the Secretary of State to carry out one of the Government's infamous U-turns, but on this issue I can assure the Minister that it would be widely welcomed across both Houses and among the wider public.
Baroness Rawlings: In answer to the noble Baroness's first question, I think it is a bit rough to say that there was surprise. There was no surprise as there has been ultimate transparency: at every stage of this discussion, debate and decision-taking the Secretary of State has published every single document relating to his meetings.
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On 3 March the Secretary of State informed the House that, based on advice he had received from the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom, he was minded to accept the undertakings offered by News Corp in lieu of a reference to the Competition Commission. As the Enterprise Act 2002 requires, he published these undertakings for public consultation which ended on 21 March.
The noble Baroness asked about the representations. The Secretary of State received more than 40,000 representations to this consultation, including a very large number of near-identical responses as a result of internet campaigns. The summaries of the main responses are on the DCMS website. He met representatives from Trinity Mirror, Guardian Media Group, Telegraph Media Group, Associated News and Media and Slaughter and May on 24 March, and met Avaaz on 15 April. Notes of these meetings will be published at the end of the process. The substantive points have been carefully considered by the Secretary of State, advised by the independent regulators. Regarding the public values, Sky will have less power than it has at the moment and will be cross-promoting for stability in financial areas.
Lord Fowler: My Lords, this was intended as a Written Statement. It was only when two PNQs-one in this House and one in the Commons-were tabled that we had the Statement that we have just heard. Will my noble friend tell the Secretary of State that it would have been much better to have freely volunteered an Oral Statement in both Houses? That would have been much more convenient for Parliament. This is an important decision but, frankly, we are now being presented with a done deal. Therefore, I have two questions. First, would a British company be allowed to take full control of an American media company, or is it not the case that we are limited to a maximum stake of 20 or 25 per cent? What are the Government doing to break down that barrier? Secondly, is it not clear that we have a position today in which too much market power over the British media is being exercised by one company? I hope that the Government recognise that very many people in this country regard this concentration of power as unacceptable. I urge the Government, even at this very late stage, to review and strengthen the rules on media plurality.
Baroness Rawlings: I thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for his questions, and I will of course relay his concerns to the Secretary of State. As I said in reading out the Statement, this is still an ongoing situation. We have until midday on 8 July before any final decision is taken. This has been going on since last summer and there have rightly been many consultations. The Secretary of State has published all papers relating to every
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Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Does my noble friend the Minister recall that in 2002 the Labour Government denied that we needed a general plurality test on media ownership and that it was only because of the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, my noble friend Lord McNally and others, that the plurality test was eventually included in that Act? Given recent events and controversy surrounding the acquisition of BSkyB and the fact that in March the Secretary of State said that the existing check on media plurality "may not be as robust as it should be", and ahead of the upcoming and very important communications Bill, is it not time that the Government set up an independent commission to look at the issue of plurality in order to ensure that, in future, we have a robust mechanism for dealing with threats to media plurality?
Baroness Rawlings: I thank my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter for that question. She is absolutely right that plurality is one of the major concerns at the heart of this. During the consultation period a number of issues were raised that were not material to the issue of media plurality. A number of respondents raised competition issues, which were dealt with by the European Commission, but the Secretary of State said today in the other place that he would be looking further at various areas of plurality. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising that point. I add to my response to my noble friend Lord Fowler: the previous Administration removed foreign ownership restrictions, which is why foreign companies can buy UK media companies.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, does the noble Baroness really believe that the public will benefit from the proposed merger? How? Why? Is it not clear that the Secretary of State has been too easily influenced by the power of the Murdoch empire?
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, raises an important point, which covers the independence of News Corporation. The undertakings provided by News Corporation provide a stronger degree of independence for Sky than the original provisions for the Times. Those safeguards operate at a number of levels and, taken together, should make certain the editorial independence of Sky News. In particular, to cover concerns expressed by the noble Lord, News Corporation will remain a minority owner. The new company will have a majority of independent directors and be independently chaired. At least one independent director must have senior editorial or journalistic experience, and the company's articles of association explicitly contain the principle of editorial independence and integrity in news reporting. There will be a corporate governance and editorial committee to make certain that there is compliance with those requirements, which will also have a majority of independent directors and be independently chaired. The Secretary of State feels that, with those new, binding words, he is and the public should be totally satisfied.
Lord Inglewood: The noble Lord suggests that this is a done deal. My noble friend's remarks suggest that the Secretary of State will consider additional material in the week of consultation that remains. Can my noble friend explain what issues will need to be substantiated in such submissions to persuade the Secretary of State to change his mind?
Baroness Rawlings: Under the law, a minimum of seven days' further consultation is required. The Secretary of State will be receiving suggestions or ideas for changes that people feel necessary to present to him; then he will take the decision. He is in a quasi-judicial situation, and he will take the decision wisely, I am sure.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, has the Secretary of State already taken into account the fact that, as we have already heard, 64 per cent of the population is opposed to the proposals? Has he already taken that into account and rejected it? That is what it looks like, which does not seem to be paying much attention to public opinion.
Baroness Rawlings: I am sure that he has taken the 64 per cent into account, the details of which I have not got in my brief, but I will write to the noble Baroness with the results of the poll-there are many different polls and I am not sure whether they all come out at 64 per cent.
Lord Prescott: My Lords, this is not simply an issue about the plurality of the media. It is about the credibility of the person who is purchasing BSkyB. First, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and say that it was terrible to hear on Radio 4 a report on what the Minister was putting out in a Written Statement today, when this House should have been given a proper Statement on what is clearly a very controversial issue.
My concern is about the company to which we are now considering that ownership should be given-whether it is a done deal or not, I shall wait to see, but I suspect that it is. That is an indication of the Government's change since 3 March. They have listened to the consultation; they have made proposals; and, yes, there are some changes. That is not the only change that has taken place since 3 March, when a Statement was made to this House about the purchase of BSkyB. Many other things have changed, not least the admission now that it was not a single rogue operator. Other reporters have been arrested who were working for the Murdoch press who were committing these criminal acts. Also, we know that a chief executive has now admitted that she was paying-the Murdoch press was paying-the police for information. That is the company that we are now considering should have control of a major media organisation.
On top of that, Mr Murdoch himself, in settling a case with Sienna Miller, has now admitted-he has not only apologised for what they were doing-that they did not provide all the information. Withholding information is a criminal act under our laws as well. That is the man, Mr Murdoch himself, who said, "We were not robust enough in our inquiries in providing
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Lord Prescott: I will be smacked on the hand if necessary, but I will say what I have to say. What I shall say is that the case of the apology is now an important issue. He is the man who is purchasing. He admits that they have committed criminal acts. In those circumstances, that is a consideration.
Plurality is a minor part. The credibility of the person who is purchasing is an essential issue for us. I cannot help but feel that this decision came shortly after the Prime Minister met Mr Murdoch. A few days later, we get the decision. Of course, I cannot say that anything happened there, but we have a decision, a change and a commitment.
Is the Minister aware that all those things have gone on? Are there not issues about due process to be considered in the company? Are the Government now prepared to have a public inquiry? Are they prepared, as I have constantly asked, not to do anything until the criminal inquiries have been completed?
My final point, just before I finish, is that what I found alarming in the settlement of the Sienna Miller case is that the agreement was not to say everything in court but to tell Miller after, in private. That is about what other criminal acts have gone on. There is no exposure in that. Our courts are not considering all that has gone on. This man, to my mind, is not a fit and proper person to be purchasing such an organisation, and I hope that we will come back to have a debate followed by a public inquiry.
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, as I have said once or twice before from this Dispatch Box and to the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, we take hacking very seriously. It is a serious crime and no company is above the law. The Secretary of State has taken the view that News Corp has offered serious undertakings and has discussed them in good faith. Hacking, as I said, is a serious matter but it has been around for a very long time. That does not make it any better but this is not the first case of hacking, and perhaps they are not the only people hacking. We have had four Questions and several debates on this in your Lordships' House, but the hacking aspect is not part of today's Statement. As I said once before, it is a criminal case and one that the Home Office is looking at.
Would the Minister outline what those previous guarantees were, what assurances were given in the past in relation to other matters by News Corp and whether it is correct that those guarantees and assurances have not been abided by? I recall seeing in a publication-I cannot remember which-a suggestion that an independent chair was appointed for a period but that after a certain amount of time, perhaps some years, that position lapsed.
Can the Minister tell us how many members would be on those boards and committees, to give an indication whether the independent director would be a lone voice among many or few? Above all, would it be possible for the company to change its articles of association, and if so, when? In other words, for how long would those undertakings be legally enforceable?
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, the editorial independence is of paramount importance. A number of changes have now been made to the undertakings to strengthen further the arrangements for independence, which I will read out:
"Sky News' Articles of Association set out the definition of independent directors; Meetings of the board of Sky News about editorial or journalistic matters will only be quorate if an Independent Director with senior editorial and/or journalistic expertise is present. Similar arrangements apply to the corporate governance and editorial committee. This is a response to representations that these arrangements could be undermined if this Director was often unavailable for meetings for whatever reason"-
"The change will ensure that Sky News organises its business so as to ensure that there is always appropriate senior editorial and/or journalistic expertise at relevant meetings. The appointment of a Monitoring Trustee whose main role is to ensure that News Corp complies with the undertakings and make sure that News Corp does not do anything 'that would prevent Newco [i.e. the spun off Sky News] being placed in an overall position of editorial, governance, commercial and financial independence in which it will contribute to plurality as Sky News did prior to the Transaction'".
Baroness Kingsmill: My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can give some assurances about the financial viability of Sky News following this proposed spin-off, if you like, as an independent. Without the backing of a large media organisation, one wonders how long it can possibly last. It does not make any money as an organisation as part of News Corp, so how long is it likely to survive? We need this as part of the news plurality in the UK. Perhaps the Minister can give us a little information on that one.
Baroness Rawlings: The noble Baroness brings up a very important point. The carriage and brand licensing agreements are an important part of this process. The Secretary of State will only accept the undertakings once he has approved these agreements. These documents have been reviewed in great detail by the Office of Fair Trading, Ofcom and external lawyers. We believe that their independent, expert advice provides confidence that undertakings in key agreements are robust. They have concluded that the drafts of the carriage agreement and the brand licensing agreement are now fully consistent with the proposed undertakings.
In addition, the OFT confirms that the terms of the carriage agreement and the brand licensing agreement mean that Sky News will be practicably and financially viable for the lifetime of the carriage agreement, which I believe is 10 years. There is a need for 80 per cent of votes to change the articles. News Corp must vote against changes for so long as they have less than 50 per cent of the shares. The Secretary of State has made it clear throughout that we are committed to maintaining the free and independent press for which this country is famous and proud. The Secretary of State has sought and published independent advice throughout this process. He has listened carefully to the points made in the consultation and amended the undertakings where appropriate. He is fully aware of the importance of the financial side of this. He has also gone for maximum transparency while taking reasonable account of commercial confidentiality considerations. He continues to believe that if he allows this deal to proceed, Sky News will be able to continue its high quality output and will have greater protections for its operational and editorial independence than those that exist today.
To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to increase public awareness of female genital mutilation in the United Kingdom and to bring prosecutions under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003.
Baroness Rendell of Babergh: My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as a patron of the National Clinical Group against female genital mutilation and as a participant and narrator in the DVD made by that group.
Female genital mutilation is an African practice, common to many of the countries of Africa since time immemorial-not Muslim or tied to any particular religious faith, but cultural and often tribal. It began to take place in this country when immigrants from Somalia and Sudan, as well as Kenya, Nigeria and Sierra Leone began coming to live in the United
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In some communities the practice is embedded in coming-of-age rituals, sometimes for entry into women's secret societies. In spite of the intense pain caused by performing surgery by an untrained person without use of anaesthetic or sterile instruments, and in spite of this operation permanently denying them pleasure in sexual intercourse and making childbirth more painful and hazardous than it would otherwise be, girls themselves may desire to undergo it as a result of social pressure from peers and family. Those who have not undergone it may not be allowed to milk the cows or go to certain parts of the farm. Such women believe that they can never become a real wife, and parents are convinced that they are doing the best for their daughters in insisting on it, having a good marriage in view. In parts of northern Kenya young men will not marry an uncircumcised girl. FGM is thought to make a girl clean and beautiful and to preserve virginity. In fact, it is unhygienic and damaging to fertility, leading to infection, bladder disease and fistula.
As I have said, FGM was brought here 40 years ago and more; a practice which in African countries was, and is, so common that talking about it was no more necessary than discussing the age-old preparation of certain kinds of food or some system of making clothes. This was the way it was done, so women who came here saw no need to speak of a practice that was accepted and taken for granted. It became, and still is, a secret. It is this secrecy in families and communities, not to mention contact with the outside world, which has made changing the attitude of immigrants and the children and grandchildren of immigrants so difficult and near-impossible. People will not speak of it. They will not talk to their non-African neighbours about it, still less to doctors or the police. It is only when a woman becomes pregnant that her FGM is discovered and a doctor or midwife asks, "Where did you have this done?".
They want to know because performing it is against the law in the United Kingdom. The Female Circumcision Act was passed in 1985 and superseded by the Female Genital Mutilation Act in 2003. This later Act makes taking a female person out of this country for FGM to be performed abroad punishable by a maximum of 14 years' imprisonment. Yet FORWARD estimates that 24,000 women are at risk of FGM in the UK and over 66,000 live with its results in England and Wales, figures which may be grossly underestimated since the data were based on the 2001 census.
Although the police are intent upon bringing a prosecution-it is hoped for more its deterrent effect than as punishment-no prosecution has yet taken
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The public at large know little about FGM and many of those who have heard it called female circumcision believe it to have some connection with male circumcision and be therapeutic or a mere formality. I have told those who have asked me what it really is and my explanation has been received with horror and in some cases, "I don't want to know". But I believe that the more people who know the details of this practice the better; that they know that some victims-the word is not an exaggeration-are babies of three months or even newborns; many are infants and five year-olds.
Obviously, because of its nature, it cannot be the subject of a widely advertised and well illustrated campaign of the kind that alerts the public to the dangers of, say, heart disease, prostate disease and many forms of cancer. Does the Minister believe that such widespread advertising of what FGM is and what remedies are possible-I am thinking of reversals-could be achieved and might be effective?
Reversals are now being performed and they are of enormous benefit to mutilated women. Parts of the excised genitalia cannot, of course, be restored. No surgeon, however skilful, can do that, but reversal is of great benefit to women, restoring ease in urination and establishing straightforward menstrual periods. Most of all, perhaps, it ensures easier childbirth and less danger to mother and child.
I am constantly asked by those who know what FGM is, why, if it happens in the UK, there have been no prosecutions eight years after the passing of the Act. It is not for want of trying that the police have so far been able to bring no prosecutions, against either practitioners carrying out FGM here, or those taking a child abroad for mutilation to be performed in a country less aware of its dangers. The police are anxious to prosecute, as much to provide a deterrent as to punish the perpetrator. They would be much assisted by public awareness. It would be particularly valuable in the struggle against FGM if teachers, especially in primary schools, were to be on the watch for female children who tell them that they are being taken to the country of their parents' origin for a holiday or to visit family in Somalia, for instance, Nigeria or the Côte d'Ivoire.
The Metropolitan Police, in conjunction with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Kids' Taskforce, have made a film to raise awareness of the issue which will be launched next Monday at the Lilian Baylis Technology School in Kennington. The National Clinical Group against female genital mutilation has had worldwide success and benefited a large number of women with its DVD showing a surgical reversal being performed. I understand, too, that there are films being made, often by schoolchildren, all over this
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Lord Sheikh:My Lords, I am thankful to the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell of Babergh, for giving us this opportunity to discuss and raise the awareness of female genital mutilation. We all hear harrowing stories of unthinkable cruelty to women around the world, but female genital mutilation has to be one of the most disturbing and dangerous practices still very much ongoing. As we all know, it is not just confined to faraway lands, but sadly is extremely prevalent and commonly happening right here in the UK. Sadder still is that not only women but girls and baby girls even less than 12 months are also subjected to this most grave act of violence. I have heard many depressing estimations of the amount of women it is affecting worldwide, and just in the UK the numbers are in excess of 20,000. The World Health Organisation suggests that the figures worldwide are between 100 million and 140 million.
I was brought up in Africa and feel strongly about this awful practice. Noble Lords perhaps will be aware that the perpetrators of these barbaric acts often choose summer holidays to carry out this practice. The reason for subjecting young girls to female genital mutilation at this particular time is thought to be that the girls are given time to heal during the summer months. This avoids arousing suspicions from teachers and peers when they resume their studies in the autumn.
Female genital mutilation can be life-threatening; it is a traumatic experience and can cause a host of illnesses. It has come to my attention that communities in Bristol have come together since 2008 to raise awareness of female genital mutilation and to mark their zero tolerance of it. The campaign is highly commendable. However, does the Minister agree that the time has come to launch a nationwide campaign highlighting the dangers of this practice?
It is a sorry state of affairs that there have been no prosecutions under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. The Act was intended to protect females from this practice, but unfortunately it has failed to do so. A barrier to prosecution appears to be a fear of reprisals from the perpetrators of this crime. There is also consternation on the part of the victims by their communities if they speak to the relevant authorities about their ordeal. I ask the Minister why there have been no prosecutions under the Act. Furthermore, will my noble friend explain what more can be done to investigate and undertake prosecutions under the legislation?
In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly created UN Women. Will the Minister tell your Lordships' House how we are involved with this group and whether we are currently working with it on any projects connected with the issues that we are discussing in this debate?
The perpetrators of this most harrowing and dangerous act are brainwashing their victims, and in many cases the girls may be subjected to compulsion. The activities are kept underground and the communities involved keep silent about them. We must meet this challenge with vigour and determination. An Act is in force and I am confident that the Government appreciate the seriousness of the problems and intend to protect vulnerable women and girls. I look forward to hearing the Minister's ideas and updates on progress.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I thank my noble friend for initiating this debate and for once again raising the issue of FGM. I start by declaring an interest as patron of FORWARD, the Foundation for Women's Health, Research and Development. As my noble friend said, two pieces of legislation made FGM illegal, but the question has to be: why have there been no prosecutions? We need to examine the legislation again. Perhaps there have been no prosecutions because the law is applicable only to UK citizens and UK permanent residents; perhaps because the law makes it difficult to prosecute perpetrators as it does not protect temporary residents; or perhaps because, as a recent case review demonstrated, there is a lack of co-ordination, awareness and information-sharing among key professionals.
In February, the Government published practice guidelines aimed as a resource for front-line professionals, but they did not include a plan for disseminating the guidelines to key professionals such as police officers, teachers and social workers. To truly raise awareness we must create an environment of positive change, protective policies, the generation and sharing of knowledge, and the forging of strategic partnerships with policy-makers, statutory bodies and civil society organisations. That procedure was on its way in the form of the cross-government FGM co-ordinator, but the post was abolished by the Government in March this year, leaving individual departments to take on the responsibilities. This makes it even more essential for the Government to set out a clear, comprehensive and long-term strategy for tackling FGM. Will the Minister say whether such a strategy is being proposed, and how it will be financed and co-ordinated across government? The loss of this post is compounded by the fact that many organisations working to eliminate FGM are struggling to survive through lack of financial support, leading to closures-most notably that of the internationally recognised African Well Women's Service.
There are 66,000 women in the UK who live with the consequences of FGM, and 24,000 girls are at risk. The consequences can vary from short-term health implications to serious problems in pregnancy and childbirth and serious psychological damage. An important piece of peer research carried out earlier this year showed that type 4 FGM, known as sunna, which includes pricking, piercing or incision, is widely
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The research also identified that although the majority of cases happen to young children, there is a wider age range of girls being subject to FGM, including in their late teens and early 20s, and that FGM is not discussed even within practising communities so there are differing and contradictory views between the generations about its prevalence. These barriers clearly identify that projects and language must become more adept, dealing with FGM not only as a health issue but also as one of child protection, gender and human rights. To do that there must be greater awareness raising, greater participation and engagement of key communities, including diaspora communities, funding to support existing outreach programmes, the provision of sustainable specialist health and support services, long-term investment and an FGM action plan.
In conclusion, FGM is not only a dangerous and life-threatening practice but a gross violation of the human rights of girls and women. Everything possible should be done to eliminate the practice and ensure that the perpetrators face the consequences of the law.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for this debate. Only this week we received a bulletin from the End Violence Against Women coalition, which estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 girls under 15 could be at high risk of FGM. No civilised country can find justification on any ground whatever for even a single woman to undergo this vile practice.
This subject causes revulsion. Women, and in particular young girls, deserve the support of all those who care about their rights and freedoms, which we cherish and yet are denied to some who are part of our community. I am afraid the FGM Act of 2003 seems not to have been effective. So if the law is ineffective, what else should we be doing? First, let us destroy the argument that this is a religious ritual or practice. I do not know of any religion that prescribes mutilation. There are perpetrators who advance the argument that FGM protects virginity, ensures marriageability and contains sexuality. It does nothing of the sort. We now have to make a clear statement that those who have chosen to be part of our multicultural society should be in no doubt that the law is designed to protect victims, and that perpetrators will have no place to hide.
We all strive hard to make a reality of children's rights. The Government support the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Let us examine what this entails. Article 2 provides the right to equality, irrespective of sex. Article 19.1 provides protection to children from all forms of mental and physical violence and maltreatment. Article 24.1 is designed to provide the highest standard of health. We can add to this the important provision under Article 24.3 to take effective and appropriate measures to abolish traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children, and Article 37(a) which specifies freedom from torture, cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment. I have cited this convention to remind the Government that we have an obligation to
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I ask my noble friend to inquire how the matter of FGM is addressed by our Children's Commissioner, and what guidance the Minister is giving in respect of this problem. We need answers to the following questions. What guidance is given to social workers regarding registration and action in relation to this practice? What common code of conduct is there for all healthcare professionals regarding FGM? What programme of public education is undertaken for refugees who arrive here from certain countries where such practices are prevalent? Do we publish information in other languages so that refugees and others are aware of the law in the United Kingdom? What training and guidance is provided to teachers and students, making them aware of FGM and the law? What financial and other support is available for women's groups and advocacy groups? These groups are vital as a catalyst for opening discussions and breaking the taboo around FGM. What impact will the police cuts have and are there plans to ring-fence some of the funds so the activities are not downgraded?
Baroness Stern: My Lords, I am participating in this debate for two reasons. First, I want to take the opportunity to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, both for instigating the debate and for her untiring work to develop awareness of FGM, to support the many groups working to get it stopped and to support the doctors who do the reversal surgery. Secondly, I want to take the opportunity to mention very briefly-and I must stress that I am no expert on the subject-what I learnt in Kenya during my stay as a volunteer, arranged by Voluntary Service Overseas, with the Coalition on Violence Against Women, an experience which I hope has some relevance in the UK. I participated in the programme the coalition is involved with in the rural areas to persuade whole communities that the time has come to stop this practice. Kenyan law makes it clear that FGM is unlawful. It is illegal under the Children Act 2001 and official figures show the numbers dropping considerably since 2001, although some commentators think all that has happened is that it is now being done in secret.
In Masai communities, with which I was involved, young girls are traditionally circumcised amid great ceremony in preparation for a hoped-for marriage. To avoid this, some girls, who dream of a different life for themselves, run away to safe houses where they are looked after. I visited a school in a rural area which a number of these girls attended. They were being clothed, fed and educated with money raised by various sources from the coalition as their parents would no longer support them. They seemed very determined to avoid the circumcision ceremony and early marriage and to stay on at school. However, the pressure on them to give up and go home was enormous, so I heard. Their parents were telling them, "You will never get married.
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The Coalition on Violence Against Women also organised educational efforts in the villages, spearheaded by men, to spread the word that men would be better off with educated wives who had not been circumcised. While the law is essential and it is imperative that it is clear that this practice is outside the law, it is education of men and wider opportunities for girls that will in the end make it no longer culturally accepted. I was impressed with the Government's multiagency practice guidelines and I thank the Library for providing me with these. Can I ask the Minister whether they are widely known and distributed? Since we are expecting people to resist a powerful traditional force, how far are the Government able to support civil society groups, which can support women and their mothers who want to resist this and to have a very different life?
Lord Parekh: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell of Babergh, for introducing this debate and for pursuing this issue for as long as I can remember-for as long as I have been in your Lordships' House.
We all know that female genital mutilation is a horrendous practice. In this country I am told that at the moment there are 74,000 first-generation immigrant African women who have undergone it. A research paper published a few years ago tells us that in any given year between 3,000 and 4,000 girls are subjected to FGM. Obviously, it is a cultural practice and, like all cultural practices, it is sustained by a personal belief that it is right and by social pressure. How do you tackle a practice based on deeply held personal belief and constantly reinforced by the pressures of others? I want to emphasise this point because, although the law is important, we should bear in mind how deeply seated in the consciousness of this community this practice is.
Some years ago when I was writing about this, I spoke on the subject at a conference. A fairly distinguished academic from Nigeria came up to me and said, "Don't sound off. I have undergone this practice recently, after the birth of my last child". I asked why, at the age of 35, she had done it. She said, "To remind myself that from now onwards I am a mother and not a woman". When I asked whether this was common, she said it was fairly common in certain circles. In certain parts of Africa it is not uncommon for widows to go through this voluntarily and it happens in many groups of immigrants in Europe and the United States as well.
It horrifies us to think that adult, highly intelligent, university professors and doctors want to go through this, but they do. I want us to recognise that ordinary men and women from these communities have got into the habit of pursuing this practice on their children. The question is how we put an end to it. I want to suggest some things based on my own research
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Law is important because it sets the tone of society, but there have to be strong and rigorously pursued prosecutions. I am really disappointed that there have been no prosecutions of the same kind that we had in relation to honour killings or forced marriages. We need to take communities into confidence. There are many men and women in those communities who are appalled by this and they ought to be involved in suggesting ways for it to be tackled. It is also important that social pressure is exerted because everyone thinks other people are doing it. Communities should be collectively persuaded to pass resolutions and to say openly why they would not do this and why they would not allow this.
It is also important to bear in mind that we should not be concentrating only on women. This practice takes place because it is part of the patriarchal system and, more importantly, men want it. I do not have the time to go through all this but if you were to ask in whose interest this is being done-women obviously do not enjoy it-I am told that men enjoy it and it is their way of regulating women's sexuality and behaviour. Therefore, unless we persuade men and boys to recognise that this does not deliver what they think it does, we will not be able to get very far.
It is also important to be able to identify girls at risk fairly well in advance. We know generally that nearly 70 per cent of the girls are between the ages of five and eight and we ought to be able to indentify them and make sure that they are well protected.
Lord Chidgey: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue today. As the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has said, it is estimated that between 100 million and 140 million African women and girls have undergone FGM, violating their human rights and compromising their health. Each year a further 3 million are at risk in Africa alone.
FGM is not only taking place in Africa, as many noble Lords have pointed out. International migration has increased the number of girls and women living in the African diaspora who have undergone FGM or who are at risk from the practice. It is difficult to confirm its prevalence in Europe but the European Parliament estimates that as many as half a million women in Europe are suffering the consequences of FGM.
FGM is increasingly becoming a European problem. Among many communities the practice is seen as an important tradition, often bound up with religion, which makes eradication more difficult. Nevertheless, it may well be possible to think in terms of eradication sooner than is thought. The examples given by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, give us a signpost to the way forward.
Parliamentarians are the custodians of democracy and human rights. They have a responsibility through political will and commitment to support the elimination of violence against women in general and, in Africa,
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Across Europe and Africa, AWEPA has agreed to organise parliamentary action to abandon the practice of FGM. Three target countries were identified-Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal-out of the 17 where the practice is most widespread. An analysis of the relevant legal provisions in each country is being made, and the leeway afforded to parliamentarians as power brokers is being quantified and identified. An analysis is being made in relation to each Government's executive branches and their relevant parliamentary committees as well as to civil society organisations and, not least, women's rights groups. In parallel and in partnership with the Pan-African Parliament and with input from UNICEF and UNFPA, the joint programme is developing a parliamentary handbook in which the UN agencies' policy expertise in the area of FGM combines with knowledge of the parliamentary processes in each country. The handbook is being promoted by parliamentary champions in all three countries through the networks of national bookshops. The issue of FGM is closely linked to the attainment of UN MDG3, promoting gender equality and empowerment for women, and MDG5, improving maternal health. The overall objective of AWEPA's programme is the abandonment of the practice of FGM in Africa and Europe by 2015.
FGM cannot and will not be abandoned in this country until it is first ended in Africa. Laws alone will not end the practice, but parliaments can lead the way in bringing about the societal change needed. At the very least, we should find room in DfID's maternal health budget to support this UNICEF project. Norway, Italy, Ireland and Australia have already made generous contributions to the programme. A further £20 million is all that it will take to fund the five-year programme and see the first target country free from FGM. I look forward to my noble friend's comments on whether DfID will come across and stump up.
Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, this is undoubtedly a human rights issue of a very serious kind. The practice continues despite the criminalising of the process both here and back in most of the countries where it is widespread. I want to reiterate what my noble friend Lord Parekh said: it is very clear what the purpose is. It is about preparing women for marriage. My experience is that it is not often performed on babies nowadays; it is performed on girls, usually prepubescent girls between the ages of eight and 12, and it is done because there is still, if not child marriage, the betrothal of girls when they are still that young.
The idea is to keep women chaste, to remove their opportunity for sexual pleasure and to remove concerns that women with a clitoris will somehow be more promiscuous. Not all circumcision involves the removal of the clitoris, but for most women, it involves the stitching of their vagina and labia. Sometimes it even involves the removal of the labia. In Africa, I have heard practitioners and older men and women claim that it makes girls less wild, more placid and therefore exactly marriageable material.
I have gone to Africa with the charity SafeHands for Mothers and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, I have heard the testimony of women and men and seen how traumatised women are having gone through that experience, especially if you talk to girls who have escaped the possibility or who have just undergone female genital mutilation. I have visited hospitals in north London to see photographs taken of the damaged and mutilated vaginas of women who attend hospital because they are pregnant. Obstetricians have to give them guidance on what to expect in labour and tell them that they will have to have an episiotomy in order to give birth. After giving birth, the women beg those same doctors to stitch them up the way they were in order to please their husbands. Doctors have to explain to women that they will play no part in that practice, but they know that those women return to them with a second pregnancy, and their vagina has been restitched. We have to ask ourselves how that is coming about. Doctors in this country are satisfied that women in the communities here perform these practices.
In Africa, I have heard doctors saying that a practice current there is the performance of symbolic cutting where there is no removal of the clitoris and it is simply, they insist, a small nick that answers the community's cultural demand for the continuation of the practice. I hope that those in authority, in the medical profession and in the police are making it clear that a medical practitioner performing even the small nick will not be endured in this country and that prosecution will ensue. It must contravene the belief that we should do no harm.
I want to hear from the Minister about what is being done about reaching general practitioners, doctors in private practice and cosmetic surgeons to find out whether things are being done to women who want their vaginas restitched after birth. I want to hear what efforts we are making to breach the silence on this issue and whether we are doing enough in our outreach to the communities.
Finally, an absence of prosecutions is usually an indicator that there is something not happening, so I thank my noble friend Lady Rendell for keeping this matter before the House, and I hope that we will see greater activity on this issue.
Baroness Tonge: Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, on instigating this excellent debate. I hesitate to use the word "interesting", but the horrific extent to which this practice still goes on is interesting. Most points have been made, so I have been slashing, cutting and pasting my speech furiously during the debate so that I do not repeat too many points.
The All-Party Group on Population, Development and Reproduction Health, which I now chair, has produced two reports that are extremely relevant. The first was way back in 2000. It was specifically on female genital mutilation and covered most of the points that have been made in this debate and, indeed, reiterated a lot of the experience that noble Lords have told us about today. The second was the 2009 report on maternal morbidity Better off Dead?-that was my title. Both reports highlighted the global human rights violations of FGM, which affects about 130 million women and girls worldwide, 500,000 in Europe and an estimated 66,000 in England and Wales. These women and girls are brutally mutilated and that has long-term physical and mental consequences. Their future reproductive health is violated in the most brutal and disgusting way.
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