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Grand Committee

Tuesday, 29 October 2013.

3.30 pm

Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) (Amendment) Order 2013

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by Lord Wallace of Saltaire

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) (Amendment) Order 2013.

Relevant documents: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 11th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD): My Lords, in moving this Motion, I shall speak also to the next Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper—that is, on the Representation of the People (Ballot Paper) Regulations 2013. I shall speak to those regulations first. They amend provisions in the parliamentary elections rules set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983 to make changes to the form of the ballot paper used at UK parliamentary elections. The changes are being made following widespread consultation involving a programme of public user testing and are designed to make the ballot paper clearer and easier to use, and so to facilitate electors’ engagement with the voting process. The intention is for the new ballot paper to take effect for any UK parliamentary by-election arising on or after 22 May 2014, and for the general election scheduled for May 2015.

The draft regulations are being made as part of a wider exercise that will see the introduction through secondary legislation of a set of up-to-date forms and notices to be used by voters—including poll cards, postal voting statements and the ballot paper—at UK parliamentary, European parliamentary and local elections and also other statutory elections and referendums, which are intended to make the voting process more accessible. This reflects moves in recent years to modernise the appearance of forms used by voters at newly created polls, such as the police and crime commissioner elections and the 2011 referendum on the parliamentary voting system.

The revised material—including the ballot paper we are considering today—has been produced following a programme of public user testing and consultation with the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, territorial offices, electoral services suppliers and with Scope. The regulations make changes to the layout of the ballot paper. They do this, first, by, for example, providing for the left alignment of candidates’ details, which reflects the way in which people read English—that is, left to right. Secondly, they introduce a requirement for the ballot paper to display the title of the election. The

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title of the election must also be printed inside a box to give it prominence. This helps to remind people which election they are voting in, which is particularly important if the election is combined with another poll.

Thirdly, the regulations replace the traditional grid pattern on the ballot paper with horizontal rules that allow the voting box to float freely between them. This will help electors with certain eyesight problems who found the old design difficult to use. Additionally, the regulations require a final bold horizontal rule to be added to delineate strongly the end of the ballot paper. The regulations amend the directions for the printing of the ballot paper to support the changes being made to the layout, wording and design of the ballot paper.

As I have indicated, the Government have consulted the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders over the new ballot paper. Further, in line with what has become established practice for new voting forms, the ballot paper has been subject to public user testing. Representative samples of members of the public in different parts of the UK have therefore had the opportunity to input their views on the clarity and accessibility of the current ballot paper and the proposed new ballot paper, and to influence the proposed changes. This resulted, for example, in the pictorial depiction of the cross to be put by the voter in the box next to their choice of candidate to be more prominent in the guidance to voters on the ballot paper. The Electoral Commission, stakeholders and members of the public involved in the user testing have all been supportive of the proposed changes, agreeing that they are an improvement on the current design.

The Government are committed to supporting electors’ participation in elections and effective electoral administration. The proposed changes to the form of the ballot paper provided by the regulations will make it clearer and easier to use and therefore will improve electors’ experience of voting in UK parliamentary elections. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

I turn now to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) (Amendment) Order 2013. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 places a number of requirements on parties and officers. These include the provision of quarterly donation reports and annual accounts. The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 provided the Electoral Commission with new investigatory and civil sanction powers. These powers were introduced to remedy the practical difficulties the Electoral Commission found with the limited investigative and sanctioning powers provided for by the 2000 Act. The Electoral Commission has been able to use these additional powers since 2010. They include fixed or variable monetary penalties, compliance notices and stop notices. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) (Amendment) Order 2013 makes two technical amendments to this regime. These changes have been requested by the Electoral Commission in the light of its experience of using these civil sanctions.

First, the order allows the Electoral Commission to impose a fixed monetary penalty or discretionary requirements on a registered political party and similar

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bodies in circumstances where a party office holder or responsible person has committed a prescribed offence. The Electoral Commission has highlighted a concern that it is unable to sanction a party for breach where an individual has committed an offence; only the individual. In certain circumstances it is more appropriate to sanction the party, for example, where the individuals responsible for compliance are frequently changed or where the breach arises from the individual following a party policy.

Secondly, the Electoral Commission will be able to recover a non-compliance penalty in England and Wales as though it was payable under a court order. This means that if such a penalty is unpaid, the Electoral Commission does not need to make a claim in the courts in order to enforce payment. Instead, it can proceed straight to taking enforcement action as though it had already obtained a judgment following such a claim. Presently, this power is available to the Electoral Commission for various financial penalties under the civil sanctions regime, but not in relation to non-compliance penalties, which the order seeks to rectify.

The Electoral Commission has discussed these changes with all the political parties, which have raised no concerns. The Government have consulted the Electoral Commission on the draft order, which responded on 3 June 2013 to say that it is content that the drafting achieves the policy objectives set out in the Explanatory Note. I beg to move.

Lord Maxton (Lab): My Lords, I will be brief. I welcome the order and the regulations because any changes that make it easier for people to vote are to be welcomed. However, we live in an electronic age, we no longer live in a paper age, and we certainly do not live in an age where we use a pencil. As I said in an earlier debate, the last place where an adult actually uses a pencil will be when they put a cross on a ballot paper. Even golfers will have turned to electronic means to keep their scores rather than recording them on a piece of paper. Surely it is time to wake up to the fact that our younger generation, who we are concerned to get involved in the political process, are moving further and further away from us in terms of how we carry on our democracy. This building is an example of how far behind the times we are in that we still practise our democracy in a building that is so out of date, being 18th or 19th century in its design.

If we are going to involve younger people, not only do we have to educate them, we have to change our democracy so that it takes them into account. They now use electronic means to do a variety of different things, as do some elderly people such as me, and use all forms of electronic devices. Why on earth are we not moving, rapidly, towards electronic voting and using ID cards—which this Government of course stopped—or smart card technology in order to ensure that the right people vote and the register is automatic? If we had some form of smart card, anybody could simply turn up and vote anywhere—eventually, even at home, by putting their card into their computer or their finger on their iPad, or whatever it might be, to prove who they are and then voting.

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That would be quite possible these days and it should be part of the process. I hope that the Minister, having put these regulations through, will go away and at least start to think about where we go next.

Lord McAvoy (Lab): My noble friend has outlined what should happen, and all the various ways of doing it, but has not mentioned what the benefits are of doing it.

Lord Maxton: I am quite happy to take that intervention. The benefits are twofold. First, you have an automatic register and do not have this problem of people committing offences by not registering. There would be a register, and you would have an ID card that included your address, which would therefore be on the register in each constituency.

Secondly, the benefit of voting electronically through some form of ID card is that you increase the number of people who vote because you make it possible across a whole range of outlets and places, such as supermarkets or wherever it might be. People can vote provided they can prove their identity. At the same time, that does away with the problem of fraud because you cannot vote unless you have an ID card or some form of fingerprint, eye scan or whatever recognition you might use. That will ensure that we have a system which stops fraud from taking place. It will not stop all fraud but it will dramatically reduce the amount of fraud that, supposedly, takes place in elections at present.

All I am asking is that the Minister goes away and least looks at this matter. If 2015 is too soon, it will certainly be quite possible to have the first electronic election in 2020.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab): I thank the Minister for introducing this debate and my noble friend Lord Maxton, who introduced me to the Kindle. I remain for ever grateful that he kicked me into the century in which we actually live. In a previous debate, I said to the Minister that he would rue the day that his party insisted on getting rid of ID cards. He has yet to admit it but I will welcome it when he does repent in that way.

We welcome the first draft order, for which the Electoral Commission asked, as the Minister told us. It allows civil sanctions to be used against the relevant organisation, whether a political party or a third party, rather than simply the “responsible person”. However, it does rather beg the question of why, under the other bit of mischief that he is up to at the moment—the “Lobbying and Interference with Civil Society” Bill that he is steering through the House—the Minister is introducing criminal sanctions. I am not quite certain what the thinking is behind that. I am also not certain, under that Bill, to whom the criminal sanctions would apply. Would it be the “responsible person” or, as with this order at the moment, the body rather than the individual concerned? In other words, is it the hapless officer who happens to have spent £20 over the cap on travel costs, their boss or the trustees of the charity? It is interesting that the distinction being made in this order between the individual and the organisation is not as clear as in the other bit of mischief he is up to.

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It would therefore be useful if the Government could provide clarity as to who the responsible person is under that Bill, as otherwise there will be much anxiety in your Lordships’ House, many Members of which are trustees of charities.

We are content with the regulations dealing with the ballot paper and ask the Minister only two questions. First, will he confirm that political parties have been consulted on this and not simply the returning officers that he mentioned? Although I think he mentioned Scope, I do not think he mentioned organisations such as the RNIB, which deals not just with those with no sight but also with those with restricted sight, and organisations dealing with people with other physical difficulties who may have difficulty casting a vote. Have those organisations been consulted? Secondly, can he indicate the date when we can expect to see the Welsh version of the ballot paper? I know that he has got into hot water before over the difficulties of producing a Welsh version of a ballot paper in time, so it would be useful to know when the bilingual version will be available.

3.45 pm

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I thank noble Lords for those comments. I am always extremely happy to listen to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, on why we should become electronic in every single way. I am sorry that he did not read his speech from his iPad. I would have liked to see that. I should declare that I have recently acquired an iPad and am taking advantage of the offer made by a number of noble Lords to assist us in learning how to deal with its quirks. I look forward to being helped by the noble Lord’s noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth who has offered to assist me in this regard.

As the noble Lord knows, I am very sympathetic to his approach. The question of identity assurance is, of course, the key to all this. The Cabinet Office is discussing with the individual privacy lobby—if I may put it that way—the whole question of how we move forward on identity assurance. We will be bringing forward a draft data sharing Bill in January for discussion and, I stress, pre-legislative scrutiny. At that point there will be plenty for the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, to get his teeth and his iPad into, and we will take it further forward. With the move towards individual electoral registration, we have made it possible to register electronically. That is a step in the right direction. However, as we all understand, the identity assurance issue is very important.

Lord Maxton: At the moment, we can do this electronically, but we can confirm only. Is this a new way of registering? Am I correct in thinking that you can now register online?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: That is my understanding. I will write and contradict myself if I discover that I am mistaken. Listening to the noble Lord, I recalled that at each Liberal Democrat party conference we sing the Land Song during which we all wave papers and sing, “Why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hand?”. It would not be quite the same if we were waving our iPhones. There is something tactile about the old-style ballot.

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As regards the Welsh version, bilingual forms will be brought forward in due course before the polls in 2014. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, understands the subtle differences between “soon”, “in due course”, and “in good time”. The political parties have been made aware of the proposed changes to the ballot paper and other forms. We understand that Scope represented a number of disabled bodies, so we have consulted widely with those who have particular difficulties in this regard.

I hope that I have answered all the questions on these SIs. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, raised a number of wily issues about another Bill, which she and I need to discuss in the Corridor before we move to Committee stage. I have no doubt that we will have plenty of opportunities to discuss the question she raised over the next few weeks and months.

Motion agreed.

Representation of the People(Ballot Paper) Regulations 2013

Considered in Grand Committee

3.49 pm

Moved by Lord Wallace of Saltaire

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Representation of the People (Ballot Paper) Regulations 2013.

Relevant document: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

Motion agreed.

European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2013

Considered in Grand Committee

3.50 pm

Moved by Baroness Randerson

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2013.

Relevant document: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Wales Office (Baroness Randerson) (LD): My Lords, I beg to move that the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2013, which were laid before the House on 18 July, be considered.

These regulations update the administrative framework for European parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland ahead of the poll scheduled for 22 May 2014. The regulations implement an EU Council directive and amend the current rules for European parliamentary

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elections to make changes which have already been made in respect of parliamentary and local elections in Northern Ireland. We consulted the Electoral Commission and the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, and his office, on the draft regulations.

On the implementation of EU Council Directive 2013/1/EU, these regulations amend the European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2004 to transpose, for Northern Ireland, the changes made by the directive. The Council directive concerns the right to stand as a candidate in elections to the European Parliament for citizens of the Union who live in a member state of which they are not nationals. In the UK, this means an EU citizen who wants to stand for election in the UK but is not a UK, Irish or Commonwealth citizen—in simple terms, an “EU candidate”.

At previous European elections, each EU candidate had themselves to obtain a certificate from their home member state that they had not been disqualified from standing in European parliamentary elections by a decision in that member state. They had to provide that certificate when submitting their nomination. This was perceived to be a barrier preventing EU candidates from standing for election, so the law was changed at EU level. From the 2014 polls, under the new directive the UK Government will be obliged to request information from the candidate’s home member state, instead of the candidate being required to do so. This requirement will be applied across all EU member states. Similar legislation for Great Britain was brought forward by the Cabinet Office and debated in this House on 15 October. However, the use of the single transferable vote system in Northern Ireland means that the implementation of the directive must be slightly different in Northern Ireland. I reassure the Committee that Irish citizens in the UK are treated on the same basis as British citizens for these purposes; the changes apply only to citizens of the Union who are not British, Irish or Commonwealth citizens.

I now turn to the changes being made by these regulations which reflect changes that have already been made for other elections in Northern Ireland. First, as noble Lords will be aware, the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 provides that persons who are inside the polling station, or queuing outside the polling station, at the close of the poll—that is, at 10 pm on polling day—can apply for a ballot paper. These regulations make the same change in respect of European Parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland.

It is also worth noting that no provision is made in these regulations in relation to the delivery of postal ballot papers by persons queuing at polling stations. This is because, in contrast to Great Britain, delivery of postal ballots to polling stations is not permitted. In Northern Ireland postal ballot papers must be delivered directly to the returning officer.

Secondly, as noble Lords will know, voters applying for a ballot paper in Northern Ireland are required to present identification. In 2010, amendments were introduced to include European Community licences within the definition of a “driving licence” in the

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prescribed documents that can be produced when a voter applies for a ballot paper for parliamentary and local elections. These regulations make the same change in respect of European parliamentary elections.

Thirdly, amendments were made to absent voting provisions in 2010 for parliamentary and local elections. These regulations make the same changes for European parliamentary elections. Applicants for a postal vote are now required to give an explanation when applying for a ballot paper to be sent to a different address from that in the register.

3.56 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.05 pm

Baroness Randerson: Changes are also made to the requirements in relation to attestation of applications for an absent vote on the grounds of blindness or other disability.

The regulations make two further necessary amendments relating to the conduct of European parliamentary elections. Polling districts and places designated for European parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland were previously the same as those used for parliamentary elections and, in turn, polling places for parliamentary elections were based on those for local elections. As a result of local government reform in Northern Ireland, the local government boundaries will no longer be the same as the parliamentary boundaries and so the polling station schemes for local and parliamentary elections will need to be different.

These regulations provide that polling places for European parliamentary elections will now be the same as those for local elections. However, they also give the chief electoral officer the flexibility to use some different polling districts and places if special circumstances make it desirable to do so. For example, if a parliamentary or Northern Ireland Assembly election poll were combined with a European parliamentary election poll, it might be more appropriate to use the parliamentary polling districts.

The final amendment being made by these regulations is to make it an offence in Northern Ireland for a person to stand as a candidate in a European parliamentary election in more than one electoral region in the United Kingdom. This is already an offence in Great Britain.

I hope that you will agree that this is a sensible set of regulations necessary to facilitate the European parliamentary election in Northern Ireland next year. I commend them to the Committee.

Lord McAvoy (Lab): I thank the Minister for her clear exposition of the regulations. Most, if not all, of it has been the subject of a considerable amount of scrutiny in various bodies. They obviously have our full support.

I have a couple of questions and comments, in case any explanations are available. Paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that the deadline

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for a candidate to submit nomination papers remains the 19th day before the poll. It goes on to say that:

“any ‘EU candidate’ wishing to stand will need to submit a declaration that they are not disqualified to the returning officer at the electoral office headquarters … by 4 pm on the 24th day before the polling day (i.e. 5 working days before the close of nominations)”.

It goes on to say that returning officers send a copy of the declaration to the Secretary of State who then contacts the candidate’s home member state to ask for information about the EU candidate’s eligibility to stand for election. The Secretary of State will then send any response back to the returning officer.

Can the Minister give us any indication if there was any background discussion about the tightness of that timetable, because it seems a possible hiccup? The Explanatory Memorandum continues:

“EU candidates who miss the 24th day deadline may themselves obtain confirmation of their eligibility to stand from their home member state. If such information confirms that the candidate is not disqualified, it can be submitted by the candidate together with the specific declaration on another nomination paper by the 19th day before the poll”.

However, what follows is causing me a bit of anxiety:

“In most cases, the information will have been received in relation to an EU candidate’s eligibility by the close of nominations on the 19th day before the poll. If it is not received by then, the EU candidate will nonetheless remain on the ballot paper. In the unlikely event that information is received after the close of nominations from the EU candidate’s home member State indicating that the EU candidate is disqualified, the EU candidate will be excluded from the election at the first stage of the count and his or her votes will be transferred to the next available preference indicated on the ballot paper”.

Were there any discussions about this and was any consideration given to coming up with a better solution that this? When someone casts their vote, for that vote then to be excluded—disqualified—risks calling into question the democratic credentials of the election itself. The Minister might now have an account of the conversations that took place on these two situations and I would be grateful if she could repeat them.

Baroness Randerson: I thank the noble Lord for his comments and for indicating his support in general terms. I also thank him for his questions. I shall address first the issue of the five-day timetable and how tight it is. The timetable is the same as that used in Great Britain and the system will be familiar to other member states. That is because the obligation is on every member state of the EU to behave in a similar manner. All member states will be alert to the need for swift action on this. It is also worth pointing out that in these days of electronic communications, referring back to the previous debate in this Committee, the timetables can be very much tighter than in the past.

I turn to the issue of a disqualified candidate appearing on the ballot paper and the possibility of finding a different way of dealing with it than simply reallocating the votes. Of course, in Great Britain the system of elections is different in that it consists of party lists, so the vote would simply pass on to the next candidate on that list, but with STV in Northern Ireland, obviously that is not possible. However, it is also possible for the chief electoral officer to take any measures he sees fit in order to alert voters to the situation. For example, it

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would be perfectly reasonable, in those circumstances, to expect the chief electoral officer to put up posters at polling stations to inform voters that one of the candidates appearing on the ballot paper had been disqualified. In terms of the tightness of the timetable all round in these issues, it is worth pointing out that the whole process cannot be put into place until the nomination forms have been received. There is a set of rules to determine how many days are available from nomination to the election. The period cannot be made too long for obvious reasons, and all these procedures have to be fitted in. I hope that the noble Lord will agree that the suggested solutions are a practical way forward.

4.15 pm

Lord McAvoy: Before the Minister sits down, has any discussion taken place about the possibility of the system being manipulated? For example, if a candidate with a similar name to someone else on the ballot paper, or a similar party, failed to meet the system but remained on the ballot paper, where would the votes go? Perhaps it is a bit far-fetched but, as an experienced election agent, I can think of ways of confusing the public by the manipulation of names of candidates on the ballot paper, but maybe I am being too paranoid.

Baroness Randerson: I can tell the noble Lord that there have been some very thorough discussions and consultations on this set of regulations. As I indicated in my speech, the Electoral Commission, the chief electoral officer, the chief returning officer and so on have been fully consulted on this. Of course, all these proposals are made against the background of more stringent checks which have taken place over many years in Northern Ireland in order to deal with electoral fraud. These are businesslike and reasonable regulations that will address all foreseeable issues of this nature.

Motion agreed.

Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Designation of the UK Green Investment Bank) Order 2013

Considered in Grand Committee

4.17 pm

Moved by Viscount Younger of Leckie

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Designation of the UK Green Investment Bank) Order 2013.

Relevant document: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Viscount Younger of Leckie) (Con): My Lords, the purpose of this order is to designate the UK Green Investment Bank for the purposes of Sections 3 to 6 of the Enterprise and

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Regulatory Reform Act 2013. Designation means that certain statutory requirements provided for in that Act will apply to the bank.

First, Section 3 of the Act will apply, preventing the bank from altering its objectives unless this is either required by law or approved by the Secretary of State. This will ensure that the bank’s articles of association always remain consistent with the green purposes provided for in the Act. Secondly, Section 4 of the Act provides the Government with a bespoke power to fund the bank. Thirdly, Sections 5 and 6 impose on the bank certain enhanced reporting and publication requirements, including a requirement to report to Parliament if the operational independence undertaking is revoked or materially altered.

This enhanced reporting requirement means that the bank must, for example: report as if it were a quoted company; as part of this, include in its annual report information on its impact on the environment and on directors’ remuneration; and, finally, report on the likely effect of its investment-related activity on greenhouse gas emissions.

The Act specifies that certain conditions must be met before the bank may be designated. I am satisfied that each of these conditions has now been met. I would like to go through these. First, the bank’s objectives, provided in Article 3 of the bank’s articles of association, provide assurance that the bank will engage only in investment-related activity it considers likely to contribute to the achievement of one or more of the statutory green purposes. Secondly, the bank’s objects provide assurance that the bank’s investment-related activity, taken as a whole, is likely to contribute to a reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions, in line with the approach agreed during the passage of the Bill. Thirdly, the bank’s operational independence undertaking was laid before Parliament in July, at the same time as the draft order. Finally, I can also confirm that the bank is wholly owned by the Crown.

In June, the Secretary of State placed a copy of the bank’s first annual report in the House Libraries, providing detailed information about its strategy and approach to delivering its remit and about its activities to date. Designation of the bank will mean there is a statutory obligation on the Secretary of State to lay a copy of the annual accounts and reports before Parliament in future.

The bank has now been operating for one year and in that time it has achieved a great deal. As noble Lords will know, it has a double bottom line of being both profitable and green; it will achieve its objective of mobilising additional private sector investment in green projects only if it can demonstrate such investments make sound commercial sense.

The bank has developed its strategies for investment in relevant sectors and made commitments to green projects in each of its priority sectors of offshore wind, energy efficiency, waste recycling and waste to energy, with the projects supported located throughout the United Kingdom. The bank has to date committed a total of £714 million and has brought alongside over £1.8 billion of additional private sector finance. Information about individual commitments is routinely made available on the bank’s website and in its annual

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reports. It has made a good start on delivering green impacts, and we would expect this to continue as more of the projects that the bank has supported become operational. There is clearly an important role for the Green Investment Bank to play in mobilising additional private capital into green sectors. That is why at the recent spending review we allocated a further £800 million to it, meaning it now has £3.8 billion of funding for the period to March 2016. We are in the process of seeking European Commission approval for this additional funding and hope to make progress with that further approval in the early part of next year.

By designating the bank, we are bringing into effect the statutory requirements and safeguards that will ensure that the bank will, and can continue to, deliver its green purposes. I commend this order to the Committee.

Baroness Worthington (Lab): My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his introductory comments and for setting the context for today’s debate. It is to be welcomed that the bank is to be designated and is to fall under the statutory controls that were set out in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on some of the events that have occurred over the past 12 months, now that it has been operating for a year, as the Minister stated.

To what degree does the Minister feel that the bank’s ability to perform its task has been affected by recent messages coming from the Government about the desire to roll back on support for green energy taxes and levies? My concern is that the green bank will be only as successful as the policy environment in which it can operate. We will increase risk and reduce profitability for the bank if we do not create the right investment signals about our commitment to low-carbon investment and projects. In the review that we are told is taking place on green levies and taxes, will the impact on investor confidence be fully taken into account and will the Green Investment Bank’s advice, comments and thoughts be sought in that review?

To reflect, we are in a fast-changing environment and energy policy is now at a far more critical stage than it has been. It is important that we do not change course in an unconsidered manner without thinking through the impact that will have on other government policies, including on the Green Investment Bank, which has received many plaudits and cross-party support as regards its objectives and the way it has been set up.

Secondly, given that we have now had a year of operation, to what extent are the priority areas that have been identified for the bank sufficiently broad to enable it to invest in a wide enough portfolio of projects? Despite the fact that £740 million has been committed, I have heard that that investment has slowed down in recent months. The investment is very much front-loaded and a large part of it is taken up with one investment in the Drax biomass conversion project. However, in recent months fewer projects seem to have come forward. Is that because the range of investments is too narrow? I would be interested to hear from the Minister what could be achieved if the list were broader. I am sure that that would involve discussions in Brussels around state aid and what is

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allowed to be invested in. I would be very interested to hear whether discussions are already under way as I am sure that it will take time for any changes to be secured in Brussels.

The other question I would like to raise is around the Green Deal. I understand that the Green Investment Bank has a role to play in supporting the Green Deal. However, as we know, the Green Deal has not got off to the flying start for which we had hoped. That is regrettable. There is a question for the Government now as to what we can do to improve the performance of the Green Deal. One of the problems is that the interest rates being offered on the financial package are far higher than those set by the Bank of England, and that is deterring people from taking out the financial package. I think people are interested because a large number of people are seeking the advice of Green Deal assessors but they are not going on to take out the financial package. Can something be done under the Green Deal to help that? Given that the profit margin it needs to return is only 3.5%, could there be a way in which the Green Investment Bank could be used to bring down the cost of financing? I think that we would all welcome that and I am sure that it would drive more people towards taking up the Green Deal.

As we have said a number of times before, a bank needs to borrow in order to be a bank. It is regrettable that we do not have a bit more clarity over when the bank will be allowed to borrow. If the supply chain of projects is not as great as we had hoped, the Labour Party would want to give the bank more flexibility in relation to borrowing. In fact, the Leader of the Opposition said in his speech at the conference this summer that he would give the bank full borrowing powers. The Government have set criteria to be met after which the bank will be allowed to borrow but it seems to me that those criteria are rather harsh. It could be that they are never met and that our deficit reduction plans curtail the bank too much. However, if we were to free up the bank, that might well help us to meet our deficit reduction plans quicker, so there is definitely something to be said for looking at that again and providing more clarity as to when the bank can become a more fully fledged bank. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Viscount Younger of Leckie: I thank the noble Baroness for her general support for this statutory instrument, as well as for her helpful questions, and I will endeavour to answer them.

First, the noble Baroness brought up the effect of a desire to roll back green taxes. She asked whether the tax review would damage investor confidence and whether the Green Investment Bank would contribute to the review. The Government are looking at how to get people’s energy bills as low as possible to help hard-pressed families; she will know that this is a tack that we are taking. We have already increased competition and brought new players into the market to offer consumers real choice, and the most vulnerable are getting direct help with their bills this winter. We will continue this work to make sure that consumers are getting a good deal. No one is talking about changing support for large-scale renewables or feed-in tariffs, which are essential for investor confidence in the

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renewables sector and our commitments to a low-carbon economy. It is a bit too early to say what the review’s outcome will be, but it will take account of the effect on green investment.

4.30 pm

The noble Baroness also spoke about the damage to the Green Investment Bank’s success if the Government do not continue to support green policies. The bank is a discrete measure that supports and complements wider green policies. I assure the noble Baroness that there is no question of the Government moving away from their policies in support of renewable energy and green growth. I know that the noble Baroness has supported this over many years, and I hope that I can go some way to reassuring her on our stance.

I turn to the question of funding. The noble Baroness brought up an important point about borrowing. She will know that we have provided the Green Investment Bank with all the funding that it requires for the period up until 2016 to the tune of £3.8 billion. In the longer term, we will keep under review the position on Green Investment Bank borrowing from the capital markets as levels of public sector debt begin to fall. We have said this before, as I know. In the interim, the Green Investment Bank has the option of borrowing up to £500 million of its £800 million provision for the 2015-16 year from the HM Treasury’s National Loans Fund.

The noble Baroness also asked about the priority areas and as to whether they were sufficiently broad. The priority sectors agreed by the commission are sufficiently broad to enable the Green Investment Bank to invest in current green sectors. We will, of course, discuss the addition of other sectors as technologies develop.

The noble Baroness also spoke at some length on the Green Deal, and I will attempt to answer her question. The Green Investment Bank has invested in the Green Deal Finance Company; it played a key role in negotiating financing of that company and will contribute, via that, to the Green Deal. The bank focuses on investing in non-domestic or non-residential energy efficiency where it has notable successes already.

I think that I have answered nearly all the noble Baroness’s questions, but there was one that I wanted to pick up on in particular. She is completely correct that we are seeing a general slowdown in market activity in the green economy; she will probably know more than I do about this, from her experience. This means that there are fewer transactions being done that meet the Green Investment Bank’s investment criteria—being additional, having a green impact and achieving profitability. So it is possible that our original targets for capital deployment in 2013-14 will not now be met, but the Green Investment Bank has full flexibility to carry forward funds within the current spending review period, and it can carry forward into the next period up to £1 billion of funds, committed but not actually drawn down. I hope that provides a more expansive answer to a well made point.

I shall endeavour to answer in writing any questions that I have not responded to, but the noble Baroness may wish to pick me up on some issues right now.

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Baroness Worthington: I thank the noble Viscount for his answers and apologise for the number of questions. It would be good to carry on the correspondence in writing.

One thing that I did not quite hear an answer on was: could something be done using the Green Investment Bank to bring down the costs of borrowing for the Green Deal financing? I do not expect an answer now because it is something that needs quite a lot of consideration but it is important that the use of the Green Investment Bank is maximised to try to make these policies successful.

On the pipeline of projects, I hope that the Green Investment Bank is able to provide feedback to the Government on how it perceives this conveyor belt of projects can be improved. I sense that this is all tied up with the Energy Bill that is currently being finalised. One of the key issues in the Energy Bill is strike prices—what the level of support is going to be for different technologies. Knowing how interested the Green Investment Bank is in offshore wind, I encourage the Minister to listen to what it says about the number of projects that can come through under the current proposed strike prices.

With regard to the Government’s backing of offshore wind, we have seen a steady decrease in estimates of how much offshore wind we are going to see. That has unsettled the investment community and might have something to do why there is not the healthy conveyor belt of projects that we might want to see. I do not expect a reply on that either, I just urge the Minister to consult the Green Investment Bank and to work with colleagues in DECC to ensure that the offshore wind industry is supported, because it is so important for investment in the UK and for jobs in areas that are in desperate need of regeneration.

Viscount Younger of Leckie: I will most certainly reply to the noble Baroness on her first, more broad-ranging question. I think that will be an interesting reply, giving the Government’s position but also acknowledging the importance of green energy. I certainly look forward to doing that. I will reflect on the other points the noble Baroness has made and get back to her with some clear answers on those issues, including the very important point about offshore wind. With that, I commend the order.

Motion agreed.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Andrews) (Lab): My Lords, because the annunciator was running 10 minutes behind, Members taking part in the next debate will not have had a fair chance of getting here. We are waiting for one Member; we have sent out a search party. Perhaps we could adjourn for 10 minutes or however long it takes her to get here.

Earl Attlee (Con): My Lords, I propose that we adjourn for five minutes.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees: Yes, five minutes.

4.38 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Public Library System


4.44 pm

Asked by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the contribution being made by voluntary staff to a sustainable public library system in the United Kingdom.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab): My Lords, I thank those who have put their names down to speak in this debate today. We are a small band, but we are experts in these matters and I am sure that the debate will be of very high quality.

I will first look at how public libraries are run in the United Kingdom; then ask whether we have got the right system; express concern about the level of closures in recent years; and ask for the Minister’s views on the viability and long-term future of community libraries in the light of the recent Women’s Institute report, On Permanent Loan?

I have some key facts. There are 3,243 libraries in England and 4,265 in the UK as a whole. Authorities in England spend £820 million on their library services. There were 256 million visits to libraries in England and 244 million book loans in England last year. However, these figures mask the fact that this is a service in crisis. This is a service, together with others, which is delivering against a backdrop of significant public sector financial difficulty. It seems to many people that we are failing to deliver a “comprehensive and efficient” service to a population which, despite other competing attractions, retains an appetite for reading.

The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 places a statutory duty on library authorities to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service. Despite the fact that the Libraries Minister is in DCMS, the libraries’ authorities are in fact the local authorities. As the Minister, Mr Ed Vaizey, said in his speech last September:

“As I often point out, libraries are emphatically a local authority service, and are fully funded by local government and run by local government”.

What role, then, does DCMS play in this? Clearly, nothing direct. Mr Vaizey goes on:

“Nevertheless, they can benefit from having a national development agency to push innovation and best practice. And our decision to give responsibility for libraries to the Arts Council (ACE) will provide exactly that service”.

Although DCMS therefore has statutory responsibility for there being a national library service, the operational responsibility lies in another department—as does responsibility for many of the users, children in particular.

This is all quite mad, but all is not lost. The Minister goes on to defend the decision to give such responsibility as his department has for public libraries to an arm’s-length body responsible for the arts, though he rather spoils his case by announcing that,

“the Arts Council will be allocating £6 million from its Grants for the Arts programme over the next two years for library authorities to lead projects working with artists, arts organisations and other

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cultural organisations on arts and cultural activity through libraries … This fund will aim to stimulate ambitious, innovative partnerships between libraries and artists and arts organisations. It will help raise the ambition and expectation of libraries, and represents a significant commitment by the Arts Council to their new role”.

Well, it is certainly a significant commitment, but I am sure that noble Lords will be left wondering how this helps the basic work of public libraries.

Mr Vaizey also announced that CIPFA will be commissioned by DCMS to provide reports on all library authorities in England. I would be interested in hearing from the Minister whether these reports are helping the situation and what they constitute. Mr Vaizey says:

“My Department will use the reports to look for ways in which we can help local authorities. I must emphasise that this is not an attempt to sanction local authorities and certainly not a return to top-down, inflexible library standards. But if we see wildly diverging opening hours between two similar authorities with similar budgets and infrastructure, there will be an opportunity to ask questions and look at how opening hours could be improved … Or if one authority is spending twice as much on book stock as another, but providing a similar number of books, we can ask if there are ways to improve efficiency in the authority in question”.

This is all very silly. So that is how it is done. I look forward to the Minister’s comment. Can he give us a concrete example of any action that has flowed from this new approach? More generally, can he say in what way the library service in the country has been improved under these arrangements?

Of course the situation on the ground is rather different. In his speech, the Minister dealt with library closures:

“A figure of 600 library closures is regularly quoted in the media—but it is very wide of the mark. A truer picture of building closures would be about a tenth of that”.

My calculations make that 60. However, I read today on the website “Voices for the Library” that,

“201 library service points were closed last year … A further 336 are threatened with closure … Arts Council England predicts a further cut of at least 40% by 2016”.

That sounds a lot more like 600 than 60. The Library Campaign is the national group for library users, which says:

“Library users have appealed time and again to the minister to intervene against mass closures. He has a legal duty to ‘superintend and improve’ the service. But he does nothing”.

Turning to the subject of the debate today, community libraries, we can all agree that libraries offer a lifeline to many people in need, especially to those with no internet access, families with small children, those in education and older people. It has been put rather better than I could have done:

“Libraries are the last refuge of a civilised society”.

According to the Library Campaign, many communities are now trying to run their own libraries as the only way they have of saving them. CILIP—the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals—published a survey in March which found that 13% of councils had set up community-managed libraries, and that 38 libraries became or planned to become community managed in 2011-12. The way in which libraries are managed varied from area to area. For example, in Doncaster, volunteers run Warmsworth library but can telephone a staffed branch if they need advice. However, handing over libraries to volunteers continues to divide opinion.

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I am sure that the Minister is aware of the Women’s Institute campaign, Love Your Libraries, which was started after a resolution on the closure of local libraries and received overwhelming support from delegates at the 2011 AGM. Much of what I want to say in the remainder of this speech is taken from its excellent report, On Permanent Loan?. I am very grateful to the then chair Ruth Bond and campaign officer Mary Roberts for their advice.

The report starts by talking about the value of libraries to WI members. Some WI groups have grown up directly from links with local libraries and many depend on libraries to run their book groups or form other links with local libraries. Members with young children value the free and low-cost activities provided by libraries. Those who are older have found the library an important enabler for lifelong learning, et cetera. There is a great deal of involvement of the Women’s Institute with the library service.

The NFWI conducted research with WI members on what made their libraries so important to them, which is included in the report. I will not go into it in detail but it is very useful and very interesting reading. The research found that women in households with children are more likely to access library services than men or households without children, which means that there is also a bigger effect when libraries are closed. That is obviously an important equality point. It points out that libraries are a key service at a time when 20% of households do not have an internet connection. We heard about that in the House this afternoon during Question Time.

The research also reports that there is a strong case for libraries because increasingly children do not own books. A recent survey shows that every third child now does not own a book. That is the 2011 figure, up from one child in 10 in 2005. There is obviously a real concern about the use of library books by young people. The research found that the impact of budget reductions on a local level is such that the future of the public library service is at risk through the gradual erosion of the service. There is insufficient scrutiny of the broad impact of such changes on the network as a whole and the result may be a postcode lottery, with significant variations in service quality across different local areas.

The research also found that the proliferation of community-managed libraries is in danger of creating a two-tier network of library services. Professional staff must be at the heart of a 21st century library service and, while volunteers have an important role to play in public libraries, many communities do not have the capacity or appetite to run services themselves. The report looked at the experience of volunteers from the WI who worked in libraries and community libraries. It found that the piecemeal development of community-managed libraries and inadequate guidance of good practice have resulted in many volunteers receiving a chronic lack of support from local authorities and facing a range of unrealistic demands. Volunteers were navigating a complex obstacle course of responsibilities and often struggling to discharge these responsibilities effectively, raising questions about the long-term sustainability of community-managed

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libraries. These are serious concerns and I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on them as much as he is able to.

As the report says:

“Public libraries are a huge asset to any community, and the fact that numerous communities have gone to great lengths to prevent library services from closing down demonstrates this”.

However, only certain communities will have the resources to set up and run a library and therefore there must be a concern that the proliferation of these models could effectively lead to a postcode lottery, as I mentioned earlier.

Finally, these issues were raised in the recent DCMS Select Committee report. The committee worried how DCMS could retain,

“an element of national oversight”—

a point I made at the start of my remarks—and points out that:

“The current situation, however, where the Secretary of State has considerable reserve powers but is unwilling at present to use them, satisfies no one”.

I gather that the powers were last used in 2009. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that when he responds.

Secondly, the committee says that there needs to be a rethink of the Secretary of State’s supervisory duties, with more emphasis on,

“developing the service, promoting best practice and supporting the service through intervention at a national level in areas where there are potential efficiencies of scale”.

It points out that,

“adopting this approach would not require amendments to legislation as the Secretary of State already has the duty of promoting the improvement of library services”.

Can the Minister comment on that as a proposal?

Finally, commenting on the growth of community libraries, the committee suggests that,

“local authorities need to give careful consideration to how to do least damage to the service provided to the public now and for the future. They must ensure that they retain enough experienced and/or professionally qualified staff to develop the services … and to support the growing number of volunteers both within their core library service and in any community libraries that may be established locally”.

The committee also said:

“Councils which have transferred the running of libraries to community volunteers must above all, however, continue to give them the necessary support, otherwise they may wither on the vine and therefore be viewed as closures by stealth”.

Does the Minister agree with this conclusion, and if so, what does he intend to do about it?

The report also records that the Secretary of State has committed to produce a report by the end of 2014 on the cumulative effect on library services of the reduction in local authority provision and the growth of alternatives such as community libraries. Can the Minister confirm that this will happen, and if so whether it would be possible to have an annual debate on that report in Parliament?

4.55 pm

Baroness Hollins (CB): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for securing this important debate. I am going to focus my remarks on the role of volunteers

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in supporting people who traditionally have made little or no use of libraries, people who could form a completely new audience for them. But volunteers would need to be an additional resource to support such extended services, not a replacement for fully qualified librarians. Not surprisingly, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals has concerns about the use of volunteers to replace qualified staff, stressing that they would be unable to serve the community comprehensively—and the word “comprehensively” is key here.

As a public service, libraries are required under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to their service to support access for people with protected characteristics. My interest in this debate is to consider the role of libraries in the lives of people with learning disabilities. Given that the majority of young people with learning difficulties leave school with very low literacy skills, I suggest that their need for library resources in the community should be a priority, but they need support to access these resources. The 2011 Future Libraries report suggested that:

“By breaking down the barriers of tradition, councils are bringing libraries into the 21st century and meeting the needs of a new generation of library users”.

The authors went on to emphasise that:

“‘Rationalisation’ must be underpinned by a thorough analysis of people’s needs and councils must be able to demonstrate that those needs will continue to be met from the rationalised service”.

The recent Libraries All-Party Parliamentary Group report, The Beating Heart of the School: Improving Educational Attainment Through School Libraries and Librarians, made the point in its foreword that every child growing up in the UK should have the chance to learn and develop through a good school library. The report, however, failed to address the need for access to libraries for children attending special schools—who, incidentally, are even less likely to own a book than the one in three quoted by the noble Lord. The APPG focused its research only on primary and secondary schools. It also commented that library professionals could develop the school,

“as a hub of the community by: Building links with the public library service to support children’s learning outside the classroom”.

Research by the National Literacy Trust has found that one in every six adults in the UK struggles with literacy, with a literacy level below that expected of an 11 year-old, and we know that 60% or more of the prison population has difficulties in basic literacy skills. Libraries, whether in schools or in the community, do not just support literacy, they also support an enjoyment of reading, provide better access to information, and can encourage an interest in books by, for example, arranging discussion groups and reading groups or book clubs.

I will give an example of how a grant-funded scheme in Kent has enabled librarians, working with volunteers, to open up public libraries to this hitherto neglected group. Six libraries in Kent have established book clubs for non-reading adults. Volunteers are also getting involved without additional funding in libraries elsewhere, including in Worcester, where I believe the first joint university and city library has been established. It is known as The Hive, and is a venue where a range of services are co-located. Other libraries pursuing these

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projects include those in Ealing, Thurrock and Merton. The Hive was an early adopter of book clubs for people with learning disabilities, who find pictures easier to read than words. What are they reading?

I declare an interest at this point as the executive chair of a charitable organisation called Books Beyond Words, which publishes picture books without any words on topics of interest to older children and adults. The 40 titles in the Books Beyond Words series cover many health, social care and criminal justice topics such as going to the doctor or being mugged, as well as social issues such as falling in love and books about sport and exercise, healthy eating, and moving house. These pictorial stories are especially powerful when read in a group, prompting fascinating discussions and amusement for the participants and the group’s facilitators.

Beyond Words book clubs in libraries open up a free resource to people who cannot read conventional books and provide them with an enjoyable and stimulating local activity to enliven their week and help them to be more included in their local community. The members choose which book to read, and their choices may sometimes seem surprising. Despite initial concerns about the sensitive nature of many of the books, the experience in Kent is that once the groups have read some of the more everyday stories, they choose tougher ones, too, and relate well to them with help from the group discussion and facilitation from the volunteers. Two groups have now invited community police and shown them some criminal justice books in the series. One group has been invited back to the police station, while one group has invited a professional from the local hospital to a session and then run a book group at an event at the local hospital on improving awareness of the health of people with learning disabilities. Volunteers provide essential support for these extension activities, too.

The Arts Council CEO, Alan Davey, says that the libraries’ role in the community, reaching vulnerable and excluded people, will extend to being invited into other community services or workplaces to meet particular needs—just as these new book clubs in Kent and elsewhere are discovering. Beyond Words group members are becoming regular and positive users of library services and see it as their right, rather than a privilege or something that is not for them as they cannot read, although some of them are beginning to borrow books with words as well. However, when local people were invited to a Beyond Words taster session in Wimbledon library as part of the 2010 Wimbledon BookFest, of the 12 people with learning disabilities who attended, only three recalled ever having been in a library before.

Some book club members are taking part in Kent Libraries’ Six Book Challenge, which incentivises readers with a certificate and small gifts if they read six books. Kent librarians now recognise that reading through pictures rather than words is a valid approach. Participating in a book club in the library means that members can be drawn into other community activities. For example, in Dover, the library and community cafe are in a complex called the Discovery Centre, and the Discovery book club last week spent the first 10 minutes of its session adding to the voices of what

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the people of Dover like and do not like about their town, and helping to think about what its £1 million lottery grant should be spent on. The co-leader of this book club is a volunteer who himself has a learning disability.

There is still much to learn, particularly about how to support networks to become more self-sustaining, how to develop book clubs that integrate with other book clubs and link to other community activities, and how to include even more excluded individuals and reach particular populations, such as those in prison, in education in special schools or with special needs in mainstream schools.

Although book clubs are free to the members, there are costs involved in recruiting, training and supporting volunteers, as well as in covering the cost of the Disclosure and Barring Service. Who are these volunteers and what do they get out of the experience? The Kent Libraries Time2Give volunteering programme has been invaluable in terms of recruiting suitable volunteers for work within the libraries, and a grant-funded project manager. The grant has enabled the librarians and volunteers to attend a half-day training course on how to read books without words in a group and how to set up a book club.

Volunteers have come from a variety of backgrounds and routes, including existing volunteers within the current volunteering scheme who were interested in finding out about these particular book clubs.

As might be expected, people who already have an interest and positive regard for people with disabilities have volunteered, too. They are all people who want to be more involved in their local community and have enjoyed the challenge of setting up something new and finding out what works. Their satisfaction is high when group members are having fun and learning. One volunteer was recently thanked with a huge smile and gentle touch to her arm by a man who does not speak; it was a much cherished moment for her. But they are also given positive encouragement by other casual library users, who see the groups as they are passing through. There is an added value of greater positive visibility for people who are often marginalised. Does the Minister agree that children and adults with learning disabilities could benefit hugely from our growing recognition of community libraries as hubs for information and learning with the additional help of volunteers? Could he suggest other ways in which volunteers could help to improve access to library services for people with learning disabilities and other non-traditional library users?

5.05 pm

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab): My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Stevenson for providing an opportunity to debate this issue as we await the outcome of the review promised by the Government in their response to last year’s Select Committee inquiry into library closures. That review promises to tell us what the cumulative effect has been on library services of the reduction in local authority provision, and the growth of alternatives, such as community libraries. In the mean time, as my noble friend eloquently outlined, we have the benefit of insights from the Women’s Institute, whose perspective on the contribution made

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by community-managed libraries was published earlier this year. This drew on the direct experience of its many members who are library volunteers.

The WI does not believe that community-managed libraries should be used as a substitute for the publicly run network. In particular, it recognises that not all communities have the resources to set up and run a library, warning that if the community-run model becomes the norm, it will lead to a postcode lottery of library services. We know how effectively the WI can make its views known to political leaders. As I read its report, I could hear the echo of a slow handclap of more than a decade ago. When an organisation the size of the WI tells you that you are getting something wrong, you would do well to listen. So while I wholeheartedly support my noble friend’s tribute to the tremendous work of the WI and other volunteers, I also echo his warnings about the potential dismantling of the whole infrastructure of our library system.

Everyone appreciates that libraries are delivering their essential services in a hard financial climate. In 2011, CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, showed a net reduction in total revenue expenditure of £39 million; almost 1,000 posts removed in one year; library hours per week reduced by 3,000 in one year; diminishing book stocks; and reductions in the range of services offered. Its 2012 survey showed a continuing trend of reductions, alongside changes in how services are delivered, including increasing numbers of community-managed libraries. While library closures were fewer last year, more are now being considered. Given the number of community libraries that might need to take over, if these do not materialise, the network of public libraries faces even more closure by stealth.

It is sadly true that without a willing group of campaigners to fight for their library service, the future of the library itself hangs in the balance. Often communities find that the only way to retain the service is to step in and take over the management of the library. What these volunteers seem to be telling us is that they need more support and guidance than the Government or the Arts Council have yet provided. The Arts Council England guidance published earlier this year does not go far enough.

We know that the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 places a statutory duty on local authorities to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” public library service for their local community. As the Select Committee inquiry into library closures last year uncovered, this is open to wide interpretation and discretion at local level. What is clear is that more and more authorities are keen to adopt the community-managed model. However, volunteers are warning that authorities’ disparate approaches mean that a piecemeal library service is developing, so varying levels of service provision exist within, and between, localities. Can the Minister assure us that, in his promised review, he will provide more guidance and mechanisms for delivery to assist the growing number of communities which find themselves delivering front-line library services?

There was a lot of discussion during the Select Committee inquiry about the 1964 Act, and I certainly do not propose to repeat it here. But does the Minister

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agree that the 1964 Act is outdated, with its reference, for example, to the provision of gramophone records? Surely we need new statutory guidance that explicitly references the provision of access to digital media and the internet.

I will make one further point on the contribution of volunteers in our public library system. I know that volunteers can provide wonderful services that paid library staff often do not have the resources to deliver. I know of one elderly, housebound resident in a north London borough who is enormously appreciative of the volunteers who staff the home library service. A volunteer visits her every fortnight with a hand-picked selection of up to 30 books, often staying for a cup of tea and a chat. Indeed, the librarian says that without these marvellous volunteers this service would inevitably put impossible pressure on existing paid staff and would in all likelihood eventually close.

There are great examples of community libraries reporting that they are delivering improved opening times, a more flexible and fuller use of facilities, and better outreach services. But we should not be so busy applauding evidence of localism in action that we are blind to the consequences when there is no such band of willing volunteers available.

If the drive to cut budgets means that we damage our national public library system irreparably, the consequences will be far-reaching. The e-Learning Foundation says 1 million children in the UK live in homes without computers and 2 million children do not have access to the internet at home. According to a 2011 National Literacy Trust report, 23% of children do not have access to a desk at home, and this figure increases among children who receive free school meals.

Children who do not have access to books or a desk at home are more likely to struggle with reading. Libraries are places where children can overcome these barriers, through free access to books, computers and the internet, and to study areas with desk space. Libraries also offer assistance with homework. When a library closes, children have one less place where they can have a desk on which to study, one less place where they can have support to do their homework and one less place where they can read.

I do not need to point out the far-reaching consequences of illiteracy, both for individuals and society, but I was struck by a point made in a speech earlier this month at the Reading Agency, a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers, given by the author Neil Gaiman. In it he talked about private prisons in America, a huge growth industry in that country. He said that when the prison industry plans for future growth—in other words, how many prisoners there will be 15 years from now and how many cells they will need—it found that it could predict this very easily using a simple algorithm based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11 year-olds could not read.

For adults, particularly the elderly, libraries are community hubs. Research shows that they are the trusted place to go for health support and that public library staff are second only to doctors in terms of the trust placed in them. Libraries provide non-stigmatised community space, skilled staff and assisted online

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access. They are also an important information hub, somewhere you can freely use the internet to find out about and apply for jobs or benefits—all information which is increasingly exclusively online. Of course, you can do all this with your mobile phone, although those of us more challenged in this area usually need the help of a grandchild or younger colleague. In libraries, that help comes in the form of trained, skilled and experienced librarians.

This aspect of the library service is not something we can deliver through untrained and poorly supported volunteers. There are limits to what unskilled volunteers can offer and what can be asked of them. Volunteers need to be given training, advice and support if they are expected to deliver library services. Without systematic support systems and a clear vision of where volunteers fit within the library network, our new models for a public library system will not serve the purpose. Can the Minister give us an assurance that he will take the opportunity in his report on the growth in community libraries to develop fresh thinking on how these volunteers can play the fullest part in a library service fit for the 21st century?

5.15 pm

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, on securing this debate, which provides a timely opportunity to acknowledge what public libraries mean to their local communities. I will say at the outset that noble Lords have posed quite a number of questions. I will work through some of them but it would probably be more productive if I study Hansard extremely carefully—important points have obviously been made—and reply in a substantial manner.

I am sure that the noble Lord would expect my reply to look to the Government’s response to the report of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. I remind your Lordships that the Government have transferred responsibility for supporting and developing English libraries to Arts Council England specifically so that libraries are more closely associated with cultural institutions. We have worked with Arts Council England to establish £6 million of funding to encourage cultural activities in libraries, and continue to fund the Reading Agency and Booktrust, two charities that undertake a great deal of work about which I will speak more fully.

We are also working with Arts Council England and the Department for Education to pilot automatic library memberships for children and young people, to encourage them to use their library. I was particularly struck by the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, about other vulnerable parts of the community. I will consider and reflect on that, which is also important. We are piloting different approaches, in both the previous academic year and this, to test the most effective ways of supporting children and their families to use libraries and read more widely. We are also co-ordinating and working with Arts Council England and the Local Government Association and others to encourage library authorities to reform and look at new forms of delivery to suit local communities.

The appointment of a specialist adviser on libraries to the department will be valuable and important. The commissioning and publishing for the first time of the

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detailed comparative analyses by CIPFA of the performance of all library authorities in England and Wales in 2011-2012 will, again, furnish the debate and help us more readily address some of the problems. Launching an independent review of e-lending in libraries is also a factor. I was particularly struck, having been to a number of libraries, by the increasing number—from a small start, inevitably—of e-books. I suspect that e-books will be a feature of the future.

The noble Lord has set us the task of discussing particularly the contribution and importance of voluntary staff in the public library system. This is fully recognised by the Government and other stakeholders. I have read the reports from the Society of Chief Librarians and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. All acknowledge the part that volunteers play, although I will place a caveat on that in my speech.

As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, stated, every local authority in England is required to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. Public libraries are run by local authorities, which receive their funding from three main sources: grants from central government, council tax, and other locally generated fees and charges for services. It is for individual local authorities to determine how best to provide that public library service to their local community within available resources, including the use and role of volunteers.

Having sensed some concern in what the noble Lord said, I will say straightaway that professional librarians are at the core of any local authority-run public library service. These highly qualified and skilled people play a key role in delivering the public library service to the community, including literacy and information services, as well as providing support and information for small businesses and homework classes for children who need extra support outside school hours. Those are obviously key examples that highlight why professional librarians are very important and, indeed, essential to the library service.

The origins of the public library service date back more than 150 years, and volunteers have been a feature of most library services for decades. There is nothing new in that, whether it is local volunteers running educational activities within a library, a “Friends of” group raising funds for new projects or a library run by the community. The involvement of volunteers in library services is not new, but their role and numbers have changed over time as library services have responded to many drivers of change.

Those drivers include—I do not hide the fact—financial challenges, which no one can ignore, as well as the Government’s localism agenda, which has prompted local authorities to look afresh at the public library service they provide and at what role communities might be able to play. In recent years, library service reviews have been undertaken by many local authorities, which have resulted in a reshaping of library services with significantly more community involvement and a subsequent increase in the number of volunteers. The growth in numbers is reflected in the annual survey of public libraries conducted by CIPFA for 2011-12. The

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survey indicates that more than 22,000 volunteers were involved in England’s 3,243 public libraries, an 88% increase since 2006-07.

The role of volunteers may vary in each local authority. In some community libraries, volunteers provide support to local authority professional staff. In others, the community library is completely run by volunteers or may be fully funded by the council but delivered by a not-for-private-profit community or social enterprise or mutual organisation. Roles traditionally undertaken by volunteers that may add value to library services are numerous. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, raised a number of examples, and I will mention some. There are the “Read to Me” volunteers, who provide reading services, often to the infirm, visually impaired and physically disabled. There are children and young persons volunteers. While researching for this debate, I was particularly struck by the number of young people who wish to help and volunteer in their local libraries. That, I hope, will encourage many to go on and become professional librarians. Those young people assist library staff and promote reading to younger children. Then there are volunteers who organise extra activities for all age groups and assist new and unconfident internet users with online resources. I experienced that myself in the Diss local library. I pleaded ignorance as to how this worked and was very quickly gathered up and given some very important instruction. Finally, there are home book volunteers delivering books to housebound readers.

Noble Lords can see that volunteers help in many ways and add value, working with professionals in so many places. More recently, there has been a notable growth in public libraries that are either community-managed or community-supported. A community-managed library is largely delivered by the community. It rarely has paid staff but often has some form of ongoing local authority support and can be part of the public library network. A community-supported library is led and funded by the local authority, and its paid professional staff are supported by volunteers. There is a place for both in our communities, although the Government continue to believe very strongly in the importance of professional librarians.

Some library authorities have embedded community libraries as a core part of their service. Indeed, in Buckinghamshire, the 14 community-managed libraries are a significant part of the statutory network of 34 public libraries across the county. Based on some discussions with residents in Buckinghamshire, I am assured that those community-managed libraries are providing a very strong service to their local communities.

Research undertaken by Arts Council England in July 2012 indicated that the number of operating community libraries was 178, with the number rising to more than 250 by the end of the year. One such example is the library service in Croxteth, Liverpool, which was taken over by the Alt Valley Community Trust. It receives funding from the local authority.

There is no doubt that libraries are changing and innovation is going to be extremely important as new technologies come forward. I want particularly to refer to the Summer Reading Challenge. The Reading

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Agency runs this annual programme to encourage children aged four to 11 to read six books during the long summer holiday. Last year, it saw 98% of libraries involved, with 780,000 children participating. Moreover, some 4,382 young volunteers were involved in and supported the Summer Reading Challenge. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, raised the issue of literacy rates. The promotion of a love of books from the earliest age is essential to a child’s life, and I think that the success of the Summer Reading Challenge has been immense.

We should applaud volunteers for giving up their time freely and for their dedication and support, and I hope very much that they in turn derive satisfaction from all that they are doing. There are more than 3,200 libraries in England, and the Government invested £820 million in 2011-12. Libraries remain very popular, and three-quarters of all children visit a library. There are many strong links between schools and libraries, and local authorities continue to invest significantly in public libraries. These include facilities in Birmingham and The Hive in Worcester, as well as community-run libraries such as Wilsden library in Bradford. It is a service that remains hugely important to so many, it is a part of the fabric of our society and the communities within it, and it is down to the dedicated professionals and volunteers to whom we owe so much.

Arab Spring


5.28 pm

Asked by The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the situation of religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa after the events of the Arab Spring.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: My Lords, I am very grateful for this opportunity to speak about the situation of religious minorities in the Middle East and north Africa since the Arab spring. The debate will, I hope, provide the opportunity to take a more detached view on developments over the past few years and to look at the underlying dynamics affecting religious minorities in the region.

Events in the Middle East since the start of the Arab spring have been a challenge not only to those living in the region but to all of us. Many, myself included, have viewed the series of uprisings which started in Tunisia through the lense of our experience of the Cold War. We wrongly assumed then that the fall of the Berlin Wall would usher in an era of tolerance and political pluralism throughout Europe. The reality was very different. Released from the uniformity of authoritarian rule, the former states of the USSR struggled with weak Governments to meet the diverse and competing aspirations of all their people. Often, as in the case of Balkans, those struggles turned horribly violent, with religion politicised as a marker of identity. Of course, the lessons of our own European history are seminal when trying to understand

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the transformations shaping the Middle East today. Revolutions are never simple and straightforward affairs. The Reign of Terror and the Vendée in France at the end of the 18th century were perhaps the beginning in our own modern era.

Revolutions unlock a Pandora’s box of deep-rooted societal insecurity as people negotiate new identities and find their moral moorings destroyed. We cannot expect the Arab spring to be any shorter lived or less traumatic. These societies are grappling with fundamental questions about identity, how they should be organised, the relationship between what we would call church and state, and about the rights of individuals and minorities. They are attempting to face their past even as they negotiate their future.

How should the international community respond? Perhaps two fairly obvious words are wisdom and patience, with a focus on core values and some kind of shared moral purpose. Getting the policy right is not an easy task; it has certainly been made harder by the complicity of some Governments in the past in their support of authoritarian regimes. At times, our leverage seems slight. But a key point which needs emphasising time and again is that legitimate government can be based only on consent. There may be many ways to achieve and measure such consent, and while, as we have seen in Egypt, the ballot box is an important part of any democratic system, it is clearly not the end of the story.

It is easy for nations such as our own to judge on the basis of our history and tradition. Core values and morality have been hammered out over centuries. Increasingly these have given to our society a security which honours the rights of minorities. Indeed, that very security, produced by an assumption of core values, allows us the sense of freedom to allow those minorities to prosper. In this context, the freedom of religion and belief is a primary barometer of the social health of a nation. States that respect this freedom are more likely to respect other crucial freedoms, particularly because an individual’s sense of his or her identity is generally fundamentally driven by their beliefs and religion, if they have one.

Against this standard, the record in Arab spring countries to date is all too often weak and troubling, even in those countries that can claim to have made some kind of transition from the oppressive regimes of the past. As just one more human being, I am concerned about the fate of all minorities in the Middle East, religious or otherwise. As a bishop, I am understandably concerned by what is happening to the Arab Christians. My time with Robert Runcie, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, when I worked as his international affairs person in the early 1990s made me realise how little the story of Arab Christians is understood in the West.

They have a claim to be seen as the oldest of Christian communities. The Assyrian Christians in Iraq, the Orthodox Christians and Melkites in Syria, the Armenians in Iran and the Coptic community in Egypt, not to mention the Arab Christians in Palestine, all fall into this historic background. They can easily find themselves caught between conflicted forces. In Egypt, Coptic Christians are targeted for the part they

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played in the overthrow of President Morsi and the subsequent return to quasi-authoritarian rule. In Syria, churches are politically targeted, just as they were in Iraq at the time of the fall of Saddam Hussein, having been seen in the past as supporting a brutally repressive regime. Either way, the result is the same. In Israel, Arab Christians are fleeing their ancestral land and homes. Many of your Lordships will know the statistics, and the numbers seem to increase as the weeks, months and years go by. Alongside the events in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, it is a human tragedy of historic proportions.

In many ways, I fear that this vulnerability is a reflection of a wider societal insecurity, as I have already hinted. How can we assist? States need to feel comfortable and confident enough in their own skins, as one might put it, to uphold their core values for all citizens regardless of religious or non-religious background. Even in our own nation, it can sometimes appear to be a fragile commodity but we have the comfort of two centuries’ experience of relative tolerance. If freedom of religion is in many ways the fundamental right upon which all other rights turn, it is important for our and other Governments to remain actively engaged over the long term, pressing for the rights of all religious minority communities. At their best, such nations can offer something of their own experience of tolerance and freedom—of security in their own core values—with the ability to be more generous to minorities.

On the Bishops’ Benches, we have been grateful for the energy that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has brought to this area, especially through the concentrated work of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and, until recently, Alistair Burt. However, I wonder whether the machinery of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office might be further strengthened in this respect by the appointment of some sort of ambassador at large for religious freedom.

In concluding, I merely note that we need to be aware of a growing sense of Middle East fatigue that might lead to international disengagement. As a country, we should never forget our own deep involvement in setting the boundaries and establishing the states that are now struggling to cope with these complex problems. Alongside that, as a member of the United Nations Security Council, our responsibility is to foster international peace and security. The longer these problems linger, the greater the risk of further destabilisation—in Jordan, Lebanon and even Saudi Arabia. I suppose the lesson is that no country is an island unto itself.

5.38 pm

Lord Selkirk of Douglas (Con): My Lords, it is a great pleasure to support the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield in his Question and his wise counsel to the Minister today. I was particularly moved by the scale of the unfolding tragedy that he told us about. The plight of religious minorities, particularly Christians, is very great at this time. The persecution of these minorities and intolerance towards other faiths is a clear abuse of basic human rights.

This is not a new issue. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1791, guaranteed that the free exercise of religion would not be impeded. More recently, there is the historic significance

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of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s message to Congress on 6 January 1941, when he stressed the importance of basic human rights. Apparently, it was the fourth draft he had worked on and he dictated these words to his personal assistant:

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want … The fourth is freedom from fear”.

These four freedoms, which came to symbolise the war aims of the allies, were affirmed in the Atlantic Charter, which Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt shaped during their historic meeting later that year on a warship off the coast of Newfoundland. They were also later enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the fledgling global organisation in 1948. Article 18 declares that everyone has the right to,

“freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.

The right includes freedom to change your religion or belief, either alone or in community with others. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, drafted by the Council of Europe, also provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In view of these humane and civilised declarations down the years, it is a matter of great sadness to have to acknowledge that Christians in particular are currently subjected to various forms of persecution in the Middle East as well as in other parts of the world.

A report produced by Aid to the Church in Need, launched here in Westminster this month with the participation of the immediate former Archbishop of Canterbury, the right reverend and noble Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, claims that the situation of Christians has sharply deteriorated in many countries. The report says that although the Arab spring has brought in its wake suffering to all faith communities, Christians have had to endure the most hostility and violence. One of the authors claim that the report, entitled Persecuted and Forgotten?, begs deep questions about the international community’s commitment to standing up for religious freedom.

Obviously, democratic Governments believing in the rule of law should have the presence of mind to raise the matter whenever basic human rights are flagrantly abused, contrary to the terms of Article 18 of the UN charter. It is an outrageous form of discrimination, which should be vigorously condemned. I therefore ask the Minister to endorse the message given by the previous Archbishop of Canterbury that we are not seeking special treatment for any one denomination but merely the application of the rule of law for all. By inference that necessarily means that religious minorities should be protected. If a country cannot conform with Article 18 of the UN charter, the matter should be raised with the country concerned so that rational discussion can take place and the problem be rectified, if at all possible. I believe that the United Kingdom has a good record but it would not be acceptable for other democratic Governments to behave like ostriches and bury their heads in the sand.

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A short time ago, I visited Winnipeg, where a human rights museum of national and international importance is to be opened in 2014. It will provide a centre for learning where visitors from all over the world will be able to see its mission statement:

“Commit to taking action against hate and oppression”.

Hopefully, it will highlight the stories of men and women who, from the beginning of time, have risked their lives in the struggle against intolerance and oppression, discrimination and persecution.

President Roosevelt ended his speech by saying:

“Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them”.

We must all continue to speak out and strive to bring about a world in which all countries uphold and defend those essential freedoms, including freedom of worship, whose continuing abuse is causing so much suffering in so many parts of the world.

5.44 pm

Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab): My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his initiative and I propose to go even further back than the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, to a time before Franklin Delano Roosevelt—indeed, back to the year 313. This year we celebrate the anniversary of the Edict of Milan—the so-called Edict of Toleration—which stressed freedom of religion. It states:

“When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I, Licinius Augustus, fortunately met near Mediolanum (Milan), and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we thought … we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule”.

That was 1,700 years ago. Now that is echoed both in the international instrument mentioned by the noble Lord, Article 9 of the European convention, and of course, most of all, in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I recall that that post-war universal declaration has been signed by all the key countries in the Middle East, and the words are crystal clear with no ambiguity: freedom to manifest religion and freedom to change one’s religion. However much one tries to modify this—it is fair to say that there has recently been some helpful movement by the OIC on blasphemy—overall, the position has worsened.

A key phrase in the Edict of Milan is significant, which is,

“considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security”.

There are echoes here of our prayer at the beginning of the Session, about seeking the tranquillity of the realm; that is, tolerance is designed to promote stability. In the Middle East today, the persecution of minority religions arises in part from instability and is itself a cause of instability. To quote the general secretary of the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches talking to the Barnabas Fund:

“The majority have been displaced from their homes with hardly anything to subsist on; most are jobless, homeless, and in danger of abduction and assaults by radical militants”.

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The excellent FCO report Human Rights and Democracy2012, published in April, says:

“It is deeply regrettable in particular that religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa have in a large number of cases suffered as a result of instability linked to the Arab Spring”.

How much we welcomed that Arab spring; bliss was in the dawn. Alas, like many revolutions, many sons and daughters of that spring have been killed.

Of course, there is discrimination to varying degrees against many other minorities. One thinks of the peace-loving Baha’i in Iran and the Shia in Bahrain. Overall, however, the chief victims are Christians in the Middle East—as, indeed, in the world as a whole, as the Pew Forum has shown. Of the 49 Muslim states, 17 do not tolerate any other religion; one thinks of Saudi Arabia. It is clear that, after the Arab spring, the position of Christian minorities has worsened in the Middle East, where, of course, Christianity had its origins.

Even in the year before the Arab spring, there were many challenges to Christianity, which some saw as a foreign religion: the religion of the western imperialists, those who invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Even Algeria, after a relatively tolerant period, brought in new, discriminatory laws in 2006. This tempo is increasing. Yes, Christians joined with Muslims in Tahrir Square in Cairo but former President Morsi increasingly followed the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. The Salafists have increased the pressure in Tunisia.

The real dilemma for Christians in many countries today is in recognising that they had a substantial degree of protection from absolute rulers such as Saddam Hussein and Mubarak. Now, despite rejoicing at the liberation of the Arab spring, they find themselves impelled to shelter behind the army or dictators who offer them a far better life. A day or two ago I spoke to a Conservative colleague who was asked by a leading Christian in Syria, “Do you think we shall be here in 50 years’ time?”. He said no, whereupon his Syrian friend replied, “Nor do I”. That is the extent of the pressure on Christians in their own homeland.

What is the nature of the current persecution? The first observation, obviously, is that in this new secularism, western Governments are curiously reluctant to intervene on behalf of Christians and minorities. Christian churches are burnt down, suicide bombers launch attacks on church leaders, while some, such as the Syrian Archbishop of Aleppo, are abducted. Christian families are forced to flee. It is said that over 50% of Egyptians in London are Coptic Christians. In Iran it was hoped that there would be an improvement under President Rouhani, but the latest reports say that no, there has not been.

How should we respond to this? We should do so, first, by seeking to have a blameless record ourselves. We cannot be taken seriously—

Lord Bates (Con): My Lords, I hesitate to intervene on the noble Lord, but I am conscious of the six-minute time limit on speeches.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: I shall end in a moment. Let us have a perfect record by avoiding Islamophobia. We must recognise that Muslims are under pressure in countries such as Sri Lanka and Burma. Let us also

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urge those states that do persecute to mend their ways and accord with the international instruments of which they are members. Most of all, in so far as the Arab spring has soured almost everywhere, we should use every weapon at our disposal, including the sensitive ones, because we must go beyond ritual condemnation. We should use all our tools of soft power, including—I stress this—conditionality because it would be absurd if we continued to bankroll those countries which persecute their minorities, including Christian minorities.

5.52 pm

Baroness Falkner of Margravine (LD): My Lords, I, too, want to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for securing this debate. There are some points that are worth making about the Arab spring in general. The uprisings were not motivated by religious sentiment or indeed through any kind of ideology per se. The report of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place on the British Foreign Office’s responses to the Arab spring showed clearly that what the protests did was to unite discontented citizens from across the political spectrum and the economic, class and religious divides, simply in opposition to the long-standing authoritarian regimes that existed in those countries. Irrespective of the subsequent popularity of Islamist parties, as we saw, Islamism was not what those overthrows of government were about.

There was chronic economic underperformance across the region. The United Nations Development Committee reports of 2001, 2002 and, I think, 2004 showed that demographic expansion in the late 1970s has resulted in 60% of the population now being under 25 years of age. High unemployment, rising food prices and a widening inequality with endemic corruption, particularly among the elites of the countries, meant that it was inevitable that any kind of trigger could well result in mass uprisings. It was also predictable that the only organised groups that would have any credibility in protesting against the regimes were those who had made personal sacrifices in the past. They were the Islamists, whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Shia minority in Bahrain and so on. These were people who had credibility because they had worked in towns and villages with the people who had had none of the privileges of the elites that were rising up over the period. As we know, they were elected with great popular support.

With the exception of Turkey with its secularist constitution, there is no tradition in these countries of choosing between different ideologies. The choices are mainly between clan, communal and religious loyalties. Illiteracy among these populations is sometimes as high as 50%. Figures recently released for Egypt indicate that in the rural areas, illiteracy is running as high as 60% or 70%. Half the electorate, notably women, are either excluded or told who to vote for. The only unifying factor across a country as diverse as Egypt or Syria is Islam or variants of it, according to your communal ties.

Religious minorities, just like the population as a whole, tend to opt en bloc for the system that best protects them. While they supported the Arab spring initially, they have witnessed the impact of political Islam on their own survival in these countries. I emphasise

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that I am talking about political Islam, with its emphasis on “us versus them”, rather than the religion I know, which is about pluralism and respect for other minorities, particularly the Abrahamic faiths.

However, political Islam in government—pace Egypt under President Morsi—finds that it has to overturn the status quo ante: it has to overturn women’s rights and reform the structures of state; it has to challenge liberals and secularists, as it has done over the past 16 months, in order to implement Islamist constitutional processes and norms; and it sees minorities as easy to scapegoat as “the other”. So minority rights and secular space are attacked while only fellow religionists are supported.

Recently I came across an article on Egypt by Yasmine El Rashidi in the New York Review of Books, called “Egypt: The Misunderstood Agony”. It sets the record of more than a year of Islamist government thus:

“The groups that have used religion as their shield and succeeded to attracting the public with their distorted view of religion, came to power and stayed there for a year. It was one of the worst years that Egypt ever went through”.

Being familiar with the excesses of the Brotherhood, I used the opportunity when I was in Egypt in August to raise the plight of Coptic Christians and Shias with the leader of the parliamentary faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, Essam al-Erian. Alas, his response was typical of Brotherhood propaganda. “No,” he said, “no Christians, no minorities, nobody has been ill treated. It is just a western media conspiracy”.

In conclusion, our support for democratic government cannot trump our promotion of core values in human rights. It is for this Government to walk the fine line between supporting democracy and popular will but at the same time reminding the Governments of these countries what their obligations are in universal terms.

5.57 pm

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for initiating this debate. I have a non-pecuniary interest as president of UK Copts. Indeed, my remarks will focus predominantly on the situation in Egypt, following on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, has just said.

Before starting, I must say in parenthesis how much I agree with what the noble Lords, Lord Selkirk of Douglas and Lord Anderson, said about the importance of upholding Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I commend to the Minister the excellent report of the All-Party Group on International Religious Freedom or Belief, of which I am an officer, entitled Article 18: An Orphaned Right, which sets out many of the arguments eloquently expressed today by the noble Lords.

Hostility and even violence against Christians is not new in Egypt, but the turmoil that followed the overthrow of President Mubarak and the subsequent removal of President Morsi has led to unprecedented violence. Just a few days ago, as the members of a community prepared to celebrate a wedding, they sorrowfully returned to their church to bury four of

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the guests, including two little girls: Mariam Ashraf Seha, aged eight, and Mariam Nabeel, aged 12. They were shot dead as two men with automatic weapons opened fire on guests outside the Virgin Mary Church on the west bank of the Nile. Another 17 people were wounded. The most senior cleric at Al-Azhar University, the world’s primary seat of Sunni Islamic learning, described the killings as,

“a criminal act that runs contrary to religion and morals”.

These killings come in the wake of a summer of violence. Writing about the plight of the Copts and the other ancient churches of the Middle East, Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford, recently wrote:

“It is easy for them to feel abandoned and betrayed by the Christian-based cultures of the West. When will this Western silence end?”.

In November 1938, in an orgy of violence that would become known as Kristallnacht, Jewish synagogues, homes, hospitals and schools were ransacked and pillaged. The sledgehammers and petrol left more than 1,000 synagogues burnt and more than 7,000 Jewish shops and businesses in ruins. The streets were covered in shards of smashed glass from broken windows. If noble Lords compare pictures of the charred husk of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin, in 1938, with those of the blackened walls of Degla’s ruined Virgin Mary church, taken two months ago in Egypt, they will readily understand why August 2013 represents Egypt’s Kristallnacht. One can also compare the terror of 1938 with the fear among Copts as members of their community have been left dead and others assaulted. Their 118th Pope, Tawadros II, is now under protection, having had death threats made against him.

In 1938, the Times commented:

“No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenceless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday”.

Reports in the Times and Sunday Times in August 2013 are in an almost identical vein, with the latter paper referring to an event in Cairo where Franciscan nuns saw the cross over their school gate torn down and replaced by an al-Qaeda flag. The school was burnt down and three nuns were frog-marched through the streets while mobs showered them with abuse. One nun was reported as saying that,

“they paraded us like prisoners of war”.

Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch, reported that,

“dozens of churches are smouldering ruins, and Christians throughout the country are hiding in their homes, afraid for their very lives”.

It took the outgoing British Chief Rabbi, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks—always mindful of the events to which Kristallnacht led—to point to our indifference to the assault on the Copts, which he described as a tragedy “going almost unremarked” and as,

“the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing”.

That is why Egypt now needs a constitution, an issue being considered as we meet, that protects minorities, women—as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, a few moments ago—and secular groups. It is easy to get into denunciatory mode about the role of armies, but as Egypt saw attempts to impose a theocratic

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state, and the country descended into total anarchy, were those who love their country supposed to simply stand by and watch it happen? Egypt’s future can only be based on a secular constitution where human rights include the rights of women and of minorities and the rights of religion and belief—including the right not to believe—and where all those things are respected.

The 50-member committee tasked with amending the suspended 2012 constitution has, according to the Ahram news website this week, initially adopted an article 47 which stipulates “absolute freedom” of belief for Egyptian citizens and endows the state with the responsibility to ensure free practice of religion. It also adopted a transitional article that will cancel existing restrictions regulating the building of new churches. All this is very welcome, although there is pressure to restrict this to the three monotheistic beliefs, which would exclude Baha’is, for instance. I hope that that will be resisted and will be interested to hear from the Minister whether we have raised that issue directly with the Egyptian authorities.

In a climate of fear and intimidation, coupled with historic and long-standing discrimination, the significant exodus of Copts from Egypt that is now under way is entirely understandable. However, if this represents the only future for Copts it will be a tragedy for Egypt and for the Copts’ Muslim neighbours alike. An Egypt which is unable to accept difference and unwilling to promote tolerance will be an increasingly unbearable place for all of its citizens. That is why Egypt’s Kristallnacht matters so much.

6.03 pm

Lord Parekh (Lab): My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for securing this debate and introducing it with such wisdom. We need to remember that the Middle Eastern countries are negotiating several transitions: not just one from authoritarian regimes to democracy but from a pre-industrial to an industrial society, from a hierarchical to an egalitarian society and from a thoroughly and dogmatically religious to a moderately religious or secular society. The transition to democracy has to be seen in this wider context. Sometimes democracy gets blamed for things for which it is not responsible, because it has to pick up the pieces that the other transitions have provoked.

In this context, there is one important historical lesson to bear in mind, which I call the paradox of democracy. Wherever democracy has appeared, in the first few years you always tend to have this kind of discrimination against religious or ethnic minorities. I cannot think of one example to the contrary. There are two related reasons for this. First, with the rise of democracy, long-suppressed groups that have been denied their legitimate rights begin to claim them; once they have claimed them, the majority, which is not in the habit of conceding them, is forced to grant them, which leads to a certain amount of resentment.

However, there is also a deeper cultural process. When there is democracy, you require a sense of community, which has to be given an identity and defined in a certain way. The majority therefore has a tendency to claim the ownership of the country. I saw that in the case of India, where the Hindus will say,

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“This is our country, isn’t it? Muslims are simply here to live on our sufferance”. This happens in many places, where the majority begins to claim proprietary rights over a country; when it begins to do that, it defines the identity of the country in majoritarian or religious terms, with the result that religious minorities become the first casualty.

We need to remember the inner dynamics of what goes on. When discrimination takes place, as it is taking place in the aftermath of the Arab spring, it takes place either against other religions or against sects within one’s own. A classic example of the latter is what we saw in Bahrain. In 2011, the Government instituted the state of national safety law, under which the security forces detained and tortured thousands of Shia protestors. They destroyed Shia mosques and thousands were dismissed from public and private sector jobs. In Egypt, it has not taken that kind of form; by and large, it has been directed against Coptic Christians. Even there, it has been much more muted; nevertheless, it takes place.

In my remaining two minutes, I do not want to detail what goes on in different countries but to ask what we can do to address the problem. The first point to bear in mind—and here I introduce a note of slight disagreement with the right reverend Prelate—is that we should not single out a particular religious community. When the bishop said that as a Christian we would expect him to be concerned with Christians, I thought that, on the contrary, as a Christian I would not expect you to be concerned with Christians, who take all religious communities in their stride. I thought that the ecumenical state was inherent in Christianity. Of course, I understand what the bishop is saying, but I wanted to emphasise that singling out a particular religious minority, as we have tended to do, makes it a target in the eyes of the local community and makes our motives seem suspicious. We come to be seen not as genuinely concerned with religious minorities and their freedom but rather with one particular group.

Secondly, we need to bear in mind that these countries require a sympathetic understanding. In some cases, minorities may be discriminated against not because they are religious but because they were in league with the previous authoritarian regime or with outside powers, or are in command of resources and therefore resented not as a minority but as a particular class. Sometimes there are genuinely religious reasons why this is happening; the important thing therefore is to understand each situation in its own terms and not simply to generalise.

The third important thing to bear in mind is that Governments have limits, and we should work through NGOs in our own country as well as in the countries that we are trying to address. It is also important to bear in mind that religious conflicts by and large are never sui generis; they are never entirely religious in origin but have political and economic causes. The best way in which to solve them, as in the case of Lebanon, is through constitutional mechanisms, such as giving minorities adequate representation in the institutions of the state.

Finally, it is also important that, in so far as religious leaders have an important say, we find some way in which to get them together and get them to talk.

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I sometimes wonder why the Ditchley Park experiment, which we have tried in some situations, has not been tried in relation to foreign countries. I have attended a couple of sessions there with about 20-odd people from different walks of life who are interested in a common problem. They stay for three days, work and knock their heads together and arrive at some kind of mutual understanding. It ought to be possible to get religious leaders from Middle Eastern countries to travel to Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire to meditate together on problems of common interest. All this will work only if our own record is honourable. By and large, it is, but sometimes it is not. Unless we can say that we have treated our religious minorities with equality and justice, be they Muslims or others, we will not be able to lecture other countries.

6.10 pm

Baroness Morgan of Ely (Lab): I, too, congratulate the right reverend Prelate on securing this debate on the situation of religious minorities in the Middle East and north Africa. Religious persecution in these areas is not new, but the turmoil and instability that we have seen recently have certainly exacerbated the problem. The big difference is that the turmoil and the upheavals have meant that many of the attacks have gone unpunished, which, of course, fuels extremists to carry out further atrocities. The good thing is that, although this persecution has been happening for a long time, the increased focus on the area means that we are shining a light on this issue, thereby giving it the attention which it deserves.

Although I accept the point that the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, made, it is important to note that 80% of the acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed against Christians, according to the International Society for Human Rights, based in Frankfurt. However, of course, it is not only Christians who are suffering. The Jews, the Baha’i, the Yezidis, the Sabeans, the Ahmadias, and others are all suffering and it is right that we draw attention to the plight of all of them. In the region, they number about 12 million people.

I would like to start by making it clear that the Labour Party condemns all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals and groups because of their faith or belief, irrespective of where this occurs. The area that we are talking about today is huge and diverse so it is not possible to give a blanket response on this persecution. There are some instances in the region where religious persecution is endorsed and accepted by the relevant Government, while in other countries religious persecution is frowned upon formally but little is done by state authorities to castigate those who carry out these repugnant acts of violence. That, of course, fuels the extremists. It is imperative that we have the confidence to tackle both these issues, and that we continue to challenge and confront the authorities in those countries where we do not think enough is being done.

However, it is also important that we do not fall into the trap of inflaming a battle of civilisations and religions in the heat of these exchanges. I do not believe for a moment, as some have claimed, that there

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is a worldwide war on Christianity. There are more than 2.2 billion Christians in the world and the idea that this group is facing a collective siege is a long way from the truth. Moreover, I think that the kind of talk that we have heard from some members of the Tea Party tendency in the USA risks doing a disservice to Christians around the globe who are suffering repression and persecution by misrepresentating and mischaracterising the real threats that many Christians face today. This is not a global phenomenon and it is certainly not a war but it is an increasing problem in the Middle East and north Africa.

Many noble Lords have made the point about the post-war Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of religion as set out in the United Nations charter is absolutely crucial. However, it is important to remember that some of the countries in the area have not signed the charter; what they have signed is the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. That declaration also forbids discrimination on the basis of religion.

I would like to focus on four specific countries where there is clear evidence of discrimination against religious minorities. Iran is one of the countries where there has been a steady increase in cases of Christian persecution. It is of course a theocratic republic with 98% of its population being Muslim and the highest number of Shia Muslims in the world. Under 0.5% of the population is Christian. Many of them suffer from societal ostracism, and nearly all Christian activity, including proselytizing and Bible publishing, is illegal. The Iranian constitution gives nominal protection to members of the Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian faiths by recognising them as minority religions. However, the number of Christians and Christian converts in Iran who have been arrested or detained has increased significantly over recent years. Moreover, under Iran’s strict interpretation of Islam, anyone converting to another religion could face the death penalty or at least life imprisonment. Other religious minorities such as the Baha’is do not receive even this slender protection. Seven members of the Baha’i leadership in Iran have been sentenced to 20 years in prison. In May this year, four high-level United Nations human rights experts called on Iran to immediately release the seven imprisoned Baha’i leaders.

The situation in Iraq is different as in many instances the state is trying to do its best to protect Christian and other churches, but they are being targeted in particular by al-Qaeda extremists. Multiple attacks by these extremists on St George’s Church in the capital have prompted the Iraqi Government to set up three checkpoints to protect it. This demonstrates that the Government appear to be serious about attempting to uphold their international commitments. However, the violence targeted against Christians in Baghdad and elsewhere in the region continues to increase. In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago, Christians were targeted as an alien minority and accused of being in league with the West. In October 2010, gunmen attacked the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, killing 56 worshippers. The number of Christians in the country has reduced from 1.5 million to around 200,000 today. It is something that we need to take seriously.

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Saudi Arabia continues to have one of the most persistent track records of human rights abuses. I need not talk about Egypt because other noble Lords have done so. I want only to point out that women and children in particular are suffering.

What are the British Government doing to draw attention to the situation? The key point is that they should be using all the diplomatic tools they have at their disposal to draw attention to this issue.

6.18 pm

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con): My Lords, first, I join other noble Lords in thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for bringing forward such an important issue for debate, and as all the contributions have shown, once again we have had what I would describe as a thoughtful and constructive discourse. Perhaps I may also add my personal warm welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely, to her new role on the Front Bench. I wish her every success and I am sure that we will work together on many issues.

All of us, whether of a religious faith or not, should be deeply concerned about these issues because, as several noble Lords have said, they touch upon a fundamental human right: the freedom to choose what to believe and how to practise that belief. Such a right should be an indispensable element of any society. I join the right reverend Prelate in the thanks that he extended to my noble friend Lady Warsi in her continuing work, and of course the excellent work of my right honourable friend Alistair Burt.

On freedom of religion and belief, let me be clear that the Government condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals or groups because of their faith, regardless of the faith concerned. Several noble Lords have rightly pointed to Article 18. We base our position on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief”—

as my noble friend Lord Selkirk of Douglas pointed out—

“and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.

I assure all noble Lords that the Government are fully committed to protecting this precious right. Indeed, the promotion of human rights, including religious freedom, is an important part of British foreign policy. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s embassies and high commissions have a responsibility to monitor and raise human rights in their host countries, and they do. Government Ministers and FCO staff raise concerns with host Governments regularly. We take action on individual cases and lobby against discriminatory practices and for such laws of discrimination to be changed.

We also meet regularly with leaders of different religious minorities from across the world, UK faith groups and civil society organisations to understand their concerns. Several noble Lords mentioned the Baha’i community; I have also recently met members of the Baha’i community and will come on to talk about Iran, where I know that that community is

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particularly persecuted. We work with all these groups to promote the universal commitment to religious freedom. I assure my noble friend Lord Selkirk that Her Majesty’s Government will continue to encourage religious leaders to defend publicly the religious freedom of all groups and to promote tolerance and respect between all faiths. As the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said in eloquently reminding us of the words of President Roosevelt, the rule of law should prevail.

We have also been working with the international community to combat religious intolerance and protect human rights. This includes working with Canada to hold an international conference on this subject at the end of 2012. We also support the work of the UN special rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief and held talks with him at the FCO earlier this year. Indeed, Canada’s ambassador for religious freedom, Andrew Bennett, has met with various officials and Ministers at the FCO; I, too, have had the opportunity to meet with him and raise concerns.

My noble friend Lady Warsi hosted a meeting on religious freedom in the margins of the UN General Assembly in September of this year. The discussion focused on international structures in place to combat religious intolerance, building international consensus, forging a common narrative among world leaders and the causes of religious intolerance. We are now looking to follow up on implementing joint projects on this scene with the Canadian Government.

All speakers have touched upon a number of specific concerns about the Middle East. The issue across the region is more poignant because we are discussing the birthplace of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It is a region also particularly precious to many other religious beliefs. The Government recognise that the period since the Arab spring has been difficult for many religious minorities across the Middle East and north Africa. It is a tragedy that so many religious communities across that region are now suffering so badly—and, indeed, that some countries risk seeing the disappearance altogether of some communities which have existed there for centuries. The causes are complex. The key issue is how we and the international community work with the region to address these issues.

The ongoing crisis in Syria is particularly in our minds. Life in Syria for Christians and other minority communities is extremely difficult. We have serious concerns about rising sectarian tensions and believe that President Assad’s actions include an attempt to stir up tensions in his efforts to hold on to power. Non-Alawite minorities, including Christian communities, are in a vulnerable position, being neither Sunni like the majority of the opposition, nor Alawite like the core of the regime. They are also vulnerable because of the relatively small size of their communities and their geographic dispersal.

The Syrian national coalition has declared its commitment to democracy, ethnic and religious pluralism, and the rule of law. It has rejected discrimination and extremism as well as the use of chemical weapons. Of the 114 current parliamentary assembly members of the national coalition, other minorities are represented: Alawites, Christians and Kurds. Three Christians have positions of leadership within the national coalition.

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We are therefore working hard together with the Syrian national coalition to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict and to support the building of a Syria which respects the rights of all its citizens irrespective of race or religion. We have, of course, provided more than £500 million of humanitarian aid; the largest ever UK response to a single crisis.

I will turn to some of the questions raised during the debate. My noble friend Lord Selkirk talked of endorsing the message of Aid to the Church in Need, to repeat the report of the persecuted and forgotten. I agree that we are not seeking special treatment for any particular minority. We raise religious freedom issues whatever and wherever they occur. For example, we make use of the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review process to raise these particular issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, perhaps I may say at this juncture, has done some incredible work in raising minority issues across the world, in particular in Egypt, not just for the Coptic Church, which I know he has a close association with, but for other minorities as well.

We welcome the report of the APPG on international religious freedom and its particular focus on Article 18. I believe that my noble friend Lady Warsi met members of the APPG only last week for a very productive discussion. I can assure the noble Lord that all our work is framed on the full definition of the right to freedom of religion or belief as set out in Article 18, as I have already said.

Turning to Egypt, Tahrir Square is a memory, perhaps, in our minds now. The waving flags have long faded and the Coptic Church in Egypt has been experiencing many challenges since the Arab spring. Pressures and attacks have increased since 2011, but following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak there have been a number of reprehensible incidents—for example, we have just had the second anniversary of the Maspero massacre, in which 28 Coptic Christians taking part in the demonstration were killed.

Following the military intervention to remove Mohamed Morsi on 3 July, there has also been a rise in the number of violent sectarian attacks. Churches, homes, businesses and individuals have been attacked and the Foreign Secretary has publicly condemned such attacks and urged an inclusive political dialogue. Most recently, the FCO Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Hugh Robertson, condemned the killing of four guests at a Coptic Christian wedding on 20 October. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, also raised this matter.

Turning to points raised by my noble friend Lady Falkner, it is clear in contact with Egyptian authorities that the constitution should uphold the human rights of all including women and all religious minorities. We frequently raise these matters with the human rights issues under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood rule. My noble friend mentioned political Islam. It is not for Her Majesty’s Government to indulge in how people should vote in other countries, but perhaps if I could reflect as a Muslim and suggest to many across the Islamic world that, if they looked at early Islam and issues such as the Medina agreement, they might find there the solution to some of their troubles.

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On constitutional issues, Her Majesty’s Government have called on all Egyptian authorities to uphold religious freedoms of all faiths, not just the Abrahamic faiths.

Turning to Iran briefly, we are deeply concerned about the situation for religious minorities in the countries of the region. In Iran, the Bah’ais, in particular, are not just under mounting pressure, they have been clearly persecuted and detained for a long period of time. According to the Bah’ai international community, currently more than 100 Bah’ais remain in detention in Iran. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, also raised this point. On 23 September, the Foreign Secretary met the Iranian Foreign Minister in the margins of the UN and released a statement which underlined our Government’s commitment and concerns over the lack of religious freedoms in Iran.

The right reverend Prelate talked about the decline of Christians particularly in the Holy Land across Israel and the Palestinian territories. Part of this is economically driven, but undoubtedly the conditions that prevail in that region also contribute to migration from that area.

The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, raised issues around Bahrain. The UK continues to work hard in supporting the progress of reform currently under way. Undoubtedly there were issues raised by the persecution of the Shia community. The Bahraini independent commission of inquiry revealed deep-rooted issues that posed significant challenges for the Bahraini Government and we continue to raise concerns with them.

I assure noble Lords that the UK will continue to hold Iran to account for human rights abuses. This will continue in other countries as well.

More broadly, we are working through the Arab Partnership to support long-term positive change in the region through providing support, and for political and economic reform. The Foreign Office continues to review the issue that the right reverend Prelate raised about the appointment of an ambassador for religious freedom, although let me assure him again that my noble friend Lady Warsi, as Minister responsible for human rights, raises this issue wherever concerns are.

I shared many of the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh.

In conclusion, religious minorities of the region clearly face many challenges in the months ahead. I assure noble Lords that Her Majesty’s Government stand with them to be advocates of their human rights and supporters of their full and unhindered participation in all aspects of the nation to which they belong, in whatever aspect of civil society they wish to partake.

The right reverend Prelate spoke in his opening remarks about the need for wisdom and patience. I agree with that. I end with the words of the noble prophet Jesus, who said:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God”.

Let us hope that the peacemakers in the region, supported by the UK Government and others, committed to fundamental human rights, are able to overcome those who would like to sow further violence and division.

Committee adjourned at 6.31 pm.