I also have some reservations about how one actually speaks to organisations such as utilities, which have now become terribly efficient, when you want to do something which is not exactly in the line of what they have anticipated. Of course, there is a phone number for you to ring, is there not? You then find you are speaking to a computer and the computer does not understand what you are saying, because what you are asking has not been programmed into it. Why should those of us who do not want to go down this modern route have to pay for those costs?

If I sound a bit edgy about this, it is because I had a problem yesterday with one organisation. I shall not mention which one, out of kindness. I rang the telephone number and, after a while, I could see that all I was doing was increasing my telephone bill. In some irritation I put my coat on and walked to their office in town. I stood in a queue, waiting to meet a human, and eventually I found a human. She was very helpful and said, “Oh, I can deal with that. I can get you a print-off”. She gave me a print-off and I came back quite pleased. I sat down and then realised that the print-off was not for the dates which I had asked for. So I put my coat on again and walked back.

This is a story of our times—dealing with these people. I find it extremely irritating that the programme is always right and the customer is always wrong. For that reason, I shall support my noble friend tonight. As I say, if we are wrong, and if it is such a beautiful system which all the utilities have introduced, it will not be a problem for them, because nobody will want to do it the way that my noble friend has suggested and all will be well—but I suspect that it will not be.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland (CB): My Lords, I support the noble Baroness in her attempt to get equal rights for consumers who want to have paper bills. It is about consumer rights. The utilities are huge. It is quite right that it is cheaper for them to send the e-mail. It is not cheaper for the very poor and the vulnerable, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, pointed out to us. In the work that I do in social welfare, it is the poorer end, people in poverty and the vulnerable elderly who often do not have family who can do the direct debit for them who actually end up paying more of the bill. What I cannot understand is: if it is going to cost the utilities so much more to send these people paper, why do they constantly send me every week a bit of paper that says, “I think you should know that if you change your supplier, you can save two and thruppence a week,” or whatever it is—I am going back a bit and using that to give a picture of how people view these things.

We can remember that, many years ago, there was an attempt to phase out cheques. That was changed because so many older people could not manage their accounts without having a cheque. As the noble Lord said, as we all die out—all those people who are not in this computer age—there will not be a difficulty because all our children and young people are taught computing at school and use computers all the time. But the costs

26 Nov 2014 : Column 929

must be minimal, compared to the vast amounts being made by utilities, to enable people who are poor and vulnerable to manage their finances in a visible and transparent way that they can understand. That surely is what we should be looking for in consumer rights.

Baroness Deech (CB): My Lords, may I interject a word on this amendment, on which I have spoken before, by way of an Oral Question? To insist that everything is online and more expensive if one opts out is to penalise the poorest and oldest in society. We are always talking about the gap between the better off and the worse off. To ensure that the poorest and oldest—who are least likely to have computers and all the expense that attaches to them—should be penalised is quite wrong. In 50 years from now, I am sure that things will be very different, but we have to cope with where we are today. This amendment is eminent good sense.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, I beg the indulgence of the House first to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, for what she said on caller identification. I was not able to speak at that point, but we are delighted with the movement there.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, for focusing attention in a Bill, as has been mentioned, on consumer rights on the basic right to have an invoice on paper and to be able to pay by cheque for utilities without having to pay for the privilege—it ought to be a right, not a privilege. We need to keep at the centre of our debates those customers who still want paper bills for their electricity, their gas and their water, particularly, as others have mentioned, those with no internet access or, indeed, no printers.

As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, and others have said, the digital exclusion affects some of the most vulnerable in society. More than a third of the digitally excluded are social housing tenants. Seventeen per cent of people earning less than £20,000 have never used the internet, compared with just 2% of those earning £40,000. Moreover, 44% of people without basic digital skills are on low wages or are unemployed. Added to that, 33% of registered disabled people have never used the internet. That is the group that we are talking about, in addition to the elderly.

6.15 pm

This is an issue of fairness. Preparing for the debate this morning, I read in the newspaper—as I suppose everyone like me did—that the head of one energy company is about to be paid £14 million a year. I found it slightly hard to think of all those rather low-paid consumers whose money was going to that extravagance. It is not as if the energy companies are on their uppers. Ofgem forecasts that the profit margins for the big six will be about 8% of each of our bills—that is the profit, not their costs. Indeed, Ofgem has warned that consumers need an explanation from suppliers of why, when costs are falling, they are not seeing cuts in energy prices.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, that that is the real cost-of-living issue, not the cost of a bill. The annual Fuel Poverty Statistics Report shows that the fuel poverty gap—the difference between people’s bills and what they can afford—has grown to £480. More

26 Nov 2014 : Column 930

than 2 million households in England are defined as being in fuel poverty. These are the ones to which we will also add the cost of a bill, if they want to pay in that way. They are also exactly the people who have to budget most carefully with their utility bills, deciding which one is going to be on top and in which order they are going to pay. They are also the ones most likely to want to pay by cheque, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth.

Given that the big six supply 92% of homes, there is a lack of competition. You cannot shop around, even for the supplier, let alone for who is going to charge you or not charge you for a bill. I think that the House knows that we have promised that, if we win in May, we will freeze energy bills until January 2017. I would not want anyone getting around that by adding money to the cost of the bill. We also want a tough new energy regulator that could otherwise intervene on exactly these sort of issues and stop energy companies overcharging people in the future.

As has been touched on, we are not talking about just the price of water and energy. This amendment is also about people who have to in some way share bills or responsibility for the bills. They may be flat sharers. They may be, as we heard in Committee, carers or people who are being cared for, who have to pass on their bills for others to pay. It is also about couples divorcing, when, again, there is a lot of splitting bills. It is about the self-employed, who need to put in claims. It is about people away for work or in hospital for a long period who, even if they can normally get online to look after their accounts, cannot on that occasion.

There will be many people in those sorts of situation dealing with bills, but there is also the identity problem, as has been mentioned. Generation Rent reminds us that it is young renters—a different group from the elderly, about whom we have been speaking—who most need printed bills for identity purposes. They need bills especially for landlords, but for many other things as well. They feel discriminated against for having to pay for the privilege of a bill. Indeed, to get a pass to work here you need a utility bill—not for those of us in the House but for any of our staff. If you want to open a bank account or get a parking permit, you need a bill. We think that it was wrong of the Government to get rid of our plans for ID cards, but, as they have gone, the utility bill remains for a lot of people their main source of ID. That is why we think that those who want and need paper bills should have them of right.

We of course favour encouraging people to go digital when they can to save themselves costs and to save paper and trees. As to those consumers who are able to check their expenditure electronically, and as the Government’s research has shown through Better Choices: Better Deals, if they could use price comparison sites more effectively, they could make enormous savings—perhaps as much as £150 million a year. That will drive competition for a lot of people, which is very good. It is why we welcome many of the ideas and intentions behind the midata project to give consumers more access to their information in a portable and accessible format. Indeed, we tabled an amendment in Committee to facilitate that.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 931

We have always argued that people should have the right to receive information about their services in a way that best suits their needs, which ties in with the principle of the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. Millions of people look carefully at their bank statements and utility bills to check payments in and payments out. Cheques make it easy for people just to put a tick on a bill; later they can throw it away. When you pay an invoice with a cheque, the lovely stubs show you whether and when you have paid it.

It is great that some people can pay electronically. My guess is that they do so for their own convenience rather than for savings. They are likely to be younger and slightly savvier people who have a lot of advantages in life anyway. Do the utility companies have to make life difficult for the rest of us who want paper bills and to use cheques in order to encourage those who can to take up the electronic option? I doubt it. For the moment, we should look at all citizens and ensure that they can receive their utility bills by post and pay them promptly by cheque.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe: My Lords, we are living in a digital age, and many of us welcome the convenience of receiving and settling bills online. I have had an interesting discussion with my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes about the many issues she raises, and I certainly understand that many people want a paper bill. As she says, not all people can manage online, and we empathise with them. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, said, some people have no relatives to help. I also take the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, about the poor and the vulnerable. However, all utility companies will give a paper bill on request. Bills can also be settled by cheque, which was another point made in the amendment, although I accept that certain payment types may attract discounts.

I was glad to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, about the importance of the universal postal service and that he found our exchange of correspondence helpful. Perhaps I may write to him again on the point that he raised. Some noble Lords referred to identity. Although paper bills are useful for the purpose of establishing identity, that is not their primary function. More reliable forms of identity are available, such as passports and driving licences. Going forward, as regards the transition, the Government Digital Service is leading work on the development of the ID assurance programme which will enable people to prove their identity and access government services in a digital world. That is an important bit of long-term work.

I have mentioned the availability of paper bills and I should summarise the current position in each of the utility areas. In water, companies do not make a charge for paper bills and offer a choice of payment methods including cheques. In telecoms, blind or visually impaired consumers who have requested bills in an accessible format, such as large print and Braille, and consumers on social tariffs, such as BT Basic, are not charged for paper bills. Ofcom requires that if there are charges for paper bills they must be set out in a clear, comprehensive and easily accessible manner and providers must publish clear and up-to-date information

26 Nov 2014 : Column 932

on these charges. In energy, paper bills are available and companies are already required under the terms of their licence to ensure that any differences in charges to consumers between different payment methods reflect the cost to the supplier.

I do not want to play party politics but we have reduced energy bills, and of course the energy companies have been referred to the Competition and Markets Authority. I am sure that we will all be very interested to see the progress of its study. As to other communications providers such as broadband, while paper bills might not always be provided, the main suppliers such as BT and Sky make them available and all companies must make a basic level of itemised billing available to all subscribers on request, either at no cost or for a reasonable fee. It is worth noting that the nature of these services is, of course, online.

In my very good meetings with my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes on various amendments to the Bill we discussed a number of the issues that are before the House in this amendment. I understand my noble friend’s analysis that paper transactions can sometimes cost relatively little, and I can agree that it is sometimes costly for a utility to sort out a problem caused by queries, for example a failure to pay electronic bills. However, these are not many cases compared with the total volume of bills. The reality is that utility companies save money by communicating electronically with consumers. That is a cost saving which is then passed back to consumers. As the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, said so elegantly, that is occurring at a time when the cost of living is a really important issue. According to the Digital Efficiency Report, transacting online with the government will deliver more than £1.1 billion in savings because the average cost of a digital transaction is 20 times lower than on the phone, 30 times lower than a postal transaction and 50 times lower than face-to-face contact.

Lord Tebbit: I wonder if I could make a helpful suggestion. Perhaps the Minister could suggest to the utility companies that, before they start to charge customers for issuing paper bills, they will guarantee that they will stop pestering customers with letters to “The Occupier” offering their wares. After all, it must be enormously expensive to do that. So they could save some money there, and that would help cover the costs of what my noble friend would like.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe: I thank my noble friend for his intervention and indeed for that suggestion. The whole business of costs, benefits and so on in this changing world is a very important one and the obvious answers are not always the right ones. I was trying to say that the savings are considerable and, with direct debit in particular, there are savings on both sides. In fact, 50% of those in fuel poverty use direct debit to spread the costs—so there are advantages. I do not want to discourage firms from innovating to protect and empower consumers in different ways. I do not want firms to get the message from this House that we are the enemies of progress. We have to be careful about that.

Baroness O'Cathain: The figures my noble friend gave us about the cost savings of doing it online in

26 Nov 2014 : Column 933

comparison with paper bills did not take into account the cost of installing broadband and buying computers to be capable of going online.

6.30 pm

Baroness Neville-Rolfe: I agree that broadband is a substantial investment. The Government and the utilities are putting a large amount of investment into a broadband structure, not least—I used to campaign on this when I was on the Back Benches—to ensure that there is proper broadband right across the UK. There are obviously costs to consumers in change but it is extraordinary how the cost of software, smartphones and so on has come down as a result of our innovative industries in the UK demonstrating great progress.

Transparency is also important. If utility providers choose to make a charge for providing a paper bill or for settling bills by a more expensive payment method, the law requires that these additional charges be made clear to customers before they are bound by a contract. We are working on this. We are not standing still. The regulators keep a close eye on charges to customers and on the issue of choice and there is a good deal of work going on in this area. For example, Ofcom has announced that it will be collecting further information on energy suppliers’ approaches to settling price differences between payment methods. When Ofwat approves water companies’ charges each year it makes sure that the companies offer a reasonable range of payment options. Ofcom published research in July which looked at the affordability of essential telecom services. It found that the cost of the itemised bills was not a material concern to its customers.

Turning to the amendment in detail, I shall explain why I cannot accept it. There are legal constraints, particularly from European directives, which would prohibit legislation in the manner proposed. My noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes mentioned the French and Spanish legislation in this area and the excellent staff in the House Library have provided a note on that. It records that the French Minister made an order regulating billing for electronic communications services—that is, calls, text messages and the internet. However, some of the parallels stem not from the consumer rights directive but from French national policy under French law. We have already fully implemented the consumer rights directive in the UK—that is the directive to which my noble friend referred—and that process was completed in June. I should add that the consumer rights directive requires the provision of pre-contractual information on a wide range of matters before the consumer is bound by a contract. However, it does not require bills to be provided to the consumer in paper form. I just wanted to clarify the legal position.

Although I agree that we need to think about the interests of the 7 million people who are not online, what really matters is getting people the best advice and putting them on the right tariff. Citizens Advice is seeking to help people to do that, as are the comparison sites to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, referred, and to save significant sums of money. The key message we should take away from today’s debate is how much you can save by being on the right tariff.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 934

As I have said, the Government cannot support the amendment but I want to take action in this area. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, for promoting the importance of choice for a paper bill and the need to keep a close watch on this important issue. We also need to ensure that the pace of change is not so fast that it is detrimental to consumers, a point well made by several noble Lords.

I announce today two things. My honourable friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs will ask Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland to develop new guidance on this issue. This means that when a consumer phones Citizens Advice or CAS with a concern, the staff have useful relevant information to help the consumer. The Competition and Markets Authority has agreed to follow up its recent work on problem debt by considering further practices or markets that may generate particular problems for consumers with low incomes. If lack of access to paper bills is highlighted as an issue, the Government would look to act further.

In conclusion, I do not agree with the terms of the noble Baroness’s amendment, although I value all she has done during the passage of this Bill and in her long career as a consumer champion. The world is changing. We cannot and should not try to prevent that. But paper bills and cheque payments are available and we are taking action shortly through the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill to make accepting cheques more attractive to business. I have set out in detail what is being done to protect choice and I have announced some action today as a result of the contributions that have been made by my noble friends and others during the passage of the Bill.

I warmly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, for making this debate possible, but I ask her to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the amount of time that she has spent on this issue with me. I also thank her for not making more public some of the arguments that I put forth when we met privately.

We shall have to do this. The fact that the French have taken one road and the Spanish another does not solve anything. The directive says that when a contract is embarked on its details can be provided in a way appropriate to the means of the person and should be given on paper unless other requests are made. Identity proof by passport or driver’s licence immediately knocks out most of the neediest people in the country: the elderly. They do not drive cars. They do not have passports. They do not go away. Those sorts of helps are not really any good to them. But the number of people in this country who still do not have broadband is about 1.7 million, so there is a big area of exclusion.

I am grateful to everyone who has contributed, and especially to my noble friend Lord Tebbit. His seal of approval is very important to me and to the House. Therefore, I think I really must test the opinion of the House.

6.37 pm

Division on Amendment 50

Contents 163; Not-Contents 189.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 935

Amendment 50 disagreed.

Division No.  3

CONTENTS

Adams of Craigielea, B.

Adonis, L.

Alton of Liverpool, L.

Armstrong of Hill Top, B.

Ashcroft, L. [Teller]

Bach, L.

Bassam of Brighton, L.

Beecham, L.

Bichard, L.

Birt, L.

Boateng, L.

Boothroyd, B.

Bradley, L.

Brennan, L.

Brooke of Alverthorpe, L.

Brookman, L.

Browne of Belmont, L.

Campbell-Savours, L.

Carter of Coles, L.

Cashman, L.

Clark of Windermere, L.

Clarke of Hampstead, L.

Clinton-Davis, L.

Cohen of Pimlico, B.

Collins of Highbury, L.

Colville of Culross, V.

Cormack, L.

Craigavon, V.

Crawley, B.

Cunningham of Felling, L.

Davies of Coity, L.

Davies of Oldham, L.

Davies of Stamford, L.

Deech, B.

Donaghy, B.

Drake, B.

Dubs, L.

Elder, L.

Elystan-Morgan, L.

Erroll, E.

Evans of Temple Guiting, L.

Farrington of Ribbleton, B.

Finlay of Llandaff, B.

Foster of Bishop Auckland, L.

Foulkes of Cumnock, L.

Freyberg, L.

Gale, B.

Giddens, L.

Glenarthur, L.

Golding, B.

Gordon of Strathblane, L.

Gould of Potternewton, B.

Griffiths of Burry Port, L.

Grocott, L.

Hannay of Chiswick, L.

Hanworth, V.

Harries of Pentregarth, L.

Harris of Haringey, L.

Hart of Chilton, L.

Haworth, L.

Hayter of Kentish Town, B.

Healy of Primrose Hill, B.

Hollick, L.

Hollins, B.

Hollis of Heigham, B.

Howarth of Breckland, B.

Howarth of Newport, L.

Howe of Idlicote, B.

Howells of St Davids, B.

Howie of Troon, L.

Hoyle, L.

Hughes of Woodside, L.

Hunt of Kings Heath, L.

Hylton, L.

Irvine of Lairg, L.

Jay of Paddington, B.

Jones, L.

Jones of Moulsecoomb, B.

Jones of Whitchurch, B.

Judd, L.

Kestenbaum, L.

King of Bow, B.

Kinnock, L.

Kinnock of Holyhead, B.

Kirkhill, L.

Knight of Collingtree, B.

Laming, L.

Lawrence of Clarendon, B.

Layard, L.

Lea of Crondall, L.

Lennie, L.

Liddle, L.

Lister of Burtersett, B.

Lytton, E.

McAvoy, L.

McConnell of Glenscorrodale, L.

McDonagh, B.

McFall of Alcluith, L.

Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.

Maginnis of Drumglass, L.

Mallalieu, B.

Mandelson, L.

Masham of Ilton, B.

Mawson, L.

Maxton, L.

Meacher, B.

Mendelsohn, L.

Mitchell, L.

Moonie, L.

Morgan of Drefelin, B.

Morgan of Ely, B.

Morris of Aberavon, L.

Morris of Handsworth, L.

Morris of Yardley, B.

Nye, B.

O'Cathain, B. [Teller]

O'Neill of Clackmannan, L.

Oppenheim-Barnes, B.

Palmer, L.

Patel of Blackburn, L.

Patel of Bradford, L.

Pearson of Rannoch, L.

Pitkeathley, B.

Prescott, L.

Prosser, B.

Quin, B.

Rea, L.

Reid of Cardowan, L.

Rendell of Babergh, B.

Richard, L.

Robertson of Port Ellen, L.

Rogan, L.

Rooker, L.

Royall of Blaisdon, B.

Scotland of Asthal, B.

Sherlock, B.

Simon, V.

Skidelsky, L.

Smith of Basildon, B.

Smith of Finsbury, L.

Soley, L.

Stevenson of Balmacara, L.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 936

Stoddart of Swindon, L.

Stone of Blackheath, L.

Taylor of Blackburn, L.

Taylor of Bolton, B.

Tebbit, L.

Temple-Morris, L.

Thornton, B.

Trees, L.

Tunnicliffe, L.

Turnberg, L.

Turner of Camden, B.

Wall of New Barnet, B.

Warnock, B.

Warwick of Undercliffe, B.

Watson of Invergowrie, L.

Wheeler, B.

Whitaker, B.

Whitty, L.

Wood of Anfield, L.

Woolmer of Leeds, L.

Worthington, B.

NOT CONTENTS

Addington, L.

Ahmad of Wimbledon, L.

Allan of Hallam, L.

Anelay of St Johns, B.

Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, L.

Ashton of Hyde, L.

Astor of Hever, L.

Attlee, E.

Avebury, L.

Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, B.

Balfe, L.

Barker, B.

Bates, L.

Benjamin, B.

Berridge, B.

Black of Brentwood, L.

Blencathra, L.

Borwick, L.

Bourne of Aberystwyth, L.

Brabazon of Tara, L.

Brady, B.

Brinton, B.

Brougham and Vaux, L.

Browning, B.

Burnett, L.

Carlile of Berriew, L.

Carrington of Fulham, L.

Chalker of Wallasey, B.

Chidgey, L.

Clement-Jones, L.

Colwyn, L.

Cooper of Windrush, L.

Cope of Berkeley, L.

Cotter, L.

Courtown, E.

Crathorne, L.

De Mauley, L.

Deighton, L.

Denham, L.

Dholakia, L.

Dixon-Smith, L.

Dobbs, L.

Doocey, B.

Dundee, E.

Dykes, L.

Eaton, B.

Eccles, V.

Eccles of Moulton, B.

Empey, L.

Evans of Bowes Park, B.

Falkner of Margravine, B.

Fookes, B.

Fowler, L.

Framlingham, L.

Freeman, L.

Freud, L.

Garden of Frognal, B.

Gardiner of Kimble, L.

Garel-Jones, L.

Geddes, L.

German, L.

Glasgow, E.

Goddard of Stockport, L.

Gold, L.

Goodhart, L.

Greaves, L.

Greenway, L.

Grender, B.

Hamwee, B.

Hanham, B.

Harding of Winscombe, B.

Heyhoe Flint, B.

Higgins, L.

Hodgson of Abinger, B.

Holmes of Richmond, L.

Home, E.

Hooper, B.

Horam, L.

Howard of Rising, L.

Howe, E.

Howe of Aberavon, L.

Howell of Guildford, L.

Humphreys, B.

Hunt of Wirral, L.

Hussain, L.

Hussein-Ece, B.

Inglewood, L.

Janke, B.

Jenkin of Kennington, B.

Jolly, B.

Jones of Cheltenham, L.

Jopling, L.

King of Bridgwater, L.

Kirkham, L.

Kirkwood of Kirkhope, L.

Kramer, B.

Lang of Monkton, L.

Lawson of Blaby, L.

Lee of Trafford, L.

Leigh of Hurley, L.

Lexden, L.

Lingfield, L.

Linklater of Butterstone, B.

Livingston of Parkhead, L.

Loomba, L.

Luce, L.

Ludford, B.

Luke, L.

Lyell, L.

MacGregor of Pulham Market, L.

Mackay of Clashfern, L.

Maddock, B.

Magan of Castletown, L.

Manzoor, B.

Mar and Kellie, E.

Marlesford, L.

Miller of Chilthorne Domer, B.

Mobarik, B.

Montrose, D.

Morris of Bolton, B.

Moynihan, L.

Naseby, L.

Neville-Rolfe, B.

Newby, L. [Teller]

26 Nov 2014 : Column 937

Newlove, B.

Nicholson of Winterbourne, B.

Noakes, B.

Northover, B.

Norton of Louth, L.

Paddick, L.

Palmer of Childs Hill, L.

Pannick, L.

Patten of Barnes, L.

Perry of Southwark, B.

Popat, L.

Purvis of Tweed, L.

Randerson, B.

Razzall, L.

Redesdale, L.

Rennard, L.

Risby, L.

Roberts of Llandudno, L.

Rose of Monewden, L.

Rotherwick, L.

Saatchi, L.

Scriven, L.

Seccombe, B.

Selborne, E.

Selkirk of Douglas, L.

Selsdon, L.

Shackleton of Belgravia, B.

Sharkey, L.

Sheikh, L.

Shephard of Northwold, B.

Sherbourne of Didsbury, L.

Shields, B.

Shipley, L.

Shutt of Greetland, L.

Smith of Newnham, B.

Spicer, L.

Stedman-Scott, B.

Stoneham of Droxford, L.

Stowell of Beeston, B.

Strasburger, L.

Strathclyde, L.

Suttie, B.

Taylor of Holbeach, L. [Teller]

Taylor of Warwick, L.

Teverson, L.

Thomas of Winchester, B.

Tope, L.

Tordoff, L.

Trefgarne, L.

Trimble, L.

True, L.

Tyler of Enfield, B.

Ullswater, V.

Verma, B.

Wakeham, L.

Wallace of Saltaire, L.

Wallace of Tankerness, L.

Warsi, B.

Wasserman, L.

Wei, L.

Whitby, L.

Wilcox, B.

Williams of Trafford, B.

Wrigglesworth, L.

Younger of Leckie, V.


6.51 pm

Amendment 50A not moved.

Amendment 50B

Moved by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara

50B: After Clause 86, insert the following new Clause—

“Payday lenders levy

The Secretary of State shall produce an annual report on the level at which a levy on lenders in the high cost consumer credit market should be set and bring forward measures to ensure—

(a) provision of free debt advice for vulnerable consumers; and

(b) provision of affordable alternative credit through credit unions.”

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara: In moving this amendment, which stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Hayter, I repeat my declaration of interest as the retiring chair of StepChange, the debt charity. I make it clear at the start that some of the free debt advice available in the United Kingdom is funded directly by creditors and by charitable donations. For example, StepChange Debt Charity receives the funding for all the work it does through this mechanism. Most of the major creditors, including some payday lenders, pay this fair share contribution, as it is called. Although it is not fashionable to do so, I put on record our thanks to the major creditors, including the banks, for their philanthropic activity, which last year allowed StepChange Debt Charity to offer advice and debt solutions to more than 500,000 people with unmanageable unsecured debts.

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Other mainly face-to-face free debt advice services, and some of the telephone advice services operated by six other organisations including Citizens Advice, receive funds from the Money Advice Service via a compulsory levy on FCA-authorised lenders and financial institutions. The FCA collects the levy, but the Money Advice Service determines its size. We understand that it is the Government’s intention that payday lenders should pay this levy, but only when they are fully authorised, which will not be until spring 2016. Our amendment asks why we should wait. Why not now? The amendment would bring into scope creditors that do not yet pay the FCA levy, allow the FCA to vary the impact of the levy in relation to the consumer detriment caused on a sort of “polluter pays” principle and, as a result, increase funding for free debt advice and provide funds for the credit union movement.

Payday lenders cause a disproportionate level of consumer harm relative to the amounts that they lend, so they should, as the amendment suggests, contribute to debt advice a higher amount, proportionate to the greater level of detriment they cause. As high-cost credit providers exist only because there is not enough low-cost credit available in society, it is surely right that payday lenders should also be required to make a contribution to the credit unions, which provide exactly the sort of low-cost credit required but lack the resources necessary to reach out to all who need it.

When the Minister responded to the debate in Grand Committee, she said that the Government already put £38 million into credit unions—but that is a drop in the ocean compared to what is required to transform radically credit unions’ ability to supply low-cost credit where it is needed. I think that most people would accept that there is a greatly increased need here to cover the whole country. Where will that funding come from? A payday lender levy would help, and the next Labour Government are committed to introducing one.

In replying to this amendment in Committee, the Minister also said:

“The Government believe in the importance of free debt advice”.

I am relieved to hear that, but she rather spoilt it by adding:

“Free debt advice is funded by a levy on lenders, once they are fully authorised by the FCA … The noble Lord’s proposal would duplicate the existing funding arrangements for debt advice”.—[Official Report, 3/11/2014; col. GC 619.]

I hope that I have explained that the situation is a little more complicated than the noble Baroness said. Our proposals would add to the current level of funding, not duplicate it. Our argument is that the payday lenders that are causing the most consumer detriment should be asked to pay more and to do so now, so as to increase the pot of money available, rather than waiting until spring 2016, when the FCA authorisation will finally take effect.

I will make one further point. When the Minister comes to respond, could she let us know when she expects the Farnish review of the Money Advice Service to be published? One of the problems that we are experiencing in the debt advice and solutions area is that, following a rather trenchant Treasury Select Committee report, the organisation has been dogged

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by criticism and, not unnaturally, that radiates uncertainty about its future. It is in everyone’s interests that we achieve clarity going forward.

The main issues facing debt advice and solution services at present are as follows. The Money Advice Service’s statutory objectives were put in place before the reconfiguration of the regulatory architecture, which, among other things, has put the FCA in the driving seat for debt advice and solutions. It is difficult to see what role the Money Advice Service should play in terms of quality advice and so on going forward, as it would clearly duplicate what the FCA is doing and, in some senses, confuse lines of accountability. That needs to be resolved.

How can we get more people to seek the best advice in a timely manner and to sign up to debt solutions that best suit their circumstances? Given that there is a problem with not enough people coming forward for the debt advice that they urgently need, how can we incentivise people to take action to resolve their debt problems? In Scotland, there is a system which gives legal protection to people who enter a statutory debt-free payment scheme. It is called the debt arrangement scheme and it protects them from further interest or other charges. It is a really good system and it works well. Could we not have something like this in the rest of the UK? It would provide an incentive for those with problem debt to take responsible action.

We need to get more people using telephone and online services, with the latter having the great advantage of being scalable at negligible additional cost. We estimate that the cost ratio of offering a face-to-face service compared to telephone and online services is of the order of 50:5:1—in other words, a very large factor if you go for face-to-face services as opposed to interaction through the internet. We do not believe that the need to channel change is being effectively addressed within the sector at present.

How do we make the best use of the limited funding available to support people dealing with personal debt problems? The Government need to come up with an overall strategy to ensure the optimum use of such funds and to incentivise collaboration between the agencies in the interests of reaching more people in need, making the optimum use of the available resources. This does not need overcomplicated regulatory structures or duplication of co-ordination.

In fact, funding for debt advice and solutions has dwindled under this Government and, indeed, may be cut further if rumours are to be believed. According to recent research on this, the level of personal debt across the economy amounts to £8.3 billion per annum, as mentioned in an earlier debate. Some debt solutions, such as the debt relief order, are run by government but the costs fall to the charity sector. For example, it costs StepChange Debt Charity more than £2 million a year to support clients through this process.

I believe that it is time for a root and branch review of how we deal with personal debt and to integrate the current arrangements better. We need to have statutory insolvency provision, and we need that to be linked to insolvency services so as to provide efficiency and to cut the cost of services to the sector and the public. It is important to help people back on to their feet. It is

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also important to make sure that it does not impact on our overall economy. If we had a long-term strategy for the delivery of debt advice and debt solutions, we would be in a better place. I look forward to the Farnish report setting out sustainable principles which will encourage the free debt advice sector to have responsibility and a strategy for the future. I beg to move.

7 pm

Baroness Drake: My Lords, I support Amendment 50B. The evidence available on the use of payday loans heightens fears that credit is increasingly seen as the new safety net for many citizens. StepChange found, for instance, that its clients with payday loans often have other forms of debt, such as a much greater likelihood of being behind with their rent.

The FCA has taken some strong and definitive action against the payday loan companies, and is suggesting that within a year or so perhaps 95% of these payday lending companies will be withdrawing their services. However, on its own admission, even after the cap on charges is introduced, the proportion of borrowers experiencing financial distress as a result of such borrowing will remain at about 40%. But whatever the action taken by the FCA to regulate a particular market, the demand for credit among low-income households will remain, as will the problem of rising debt and the need for help and advice.

Even after addressing the business models of the payday loan companies, the systemic problem will still need to be resolved: how can people get access to affordable credit and get access to, and use of, a free debt advice service? Only the Government can drive the policy needed to secure sufficient capital liquidity for not-for-profit affordable lenders to provide an alternative source of credit. This amendment captures the need for the Secretary of State to bring forward measures to address those twin needs of free debt advice for vulnerable consumers and the provision of affordable credit.

As a comparator, for those who have assets rather than debts, the new freedom and choice agenda for pensions due in April 2015 comes with a guaranteed guidance service, captured in legislation—on the assumption, quite rightly, that the position of pension savers and consumers in the marketplace will be more vulnerable to poor decision-taking without such guaranteed guidance. How greater is the case, then, for those who have debts rather than assets?

No doubt the argument will be made that significant numbers who would benefit do not seek debt advice and that the allocation of funding to a debt advice service is proportionate to the demand. My response is to say that the Government should take the lead in creating the demand and the take-up for that debt advice service. My noble friend Lord Stevenson suggested examples based on the Scottish system. Maybe we should see the introduction of some conditionalities into the credit market on taking debt counselling in association with the giving of loans. There are lots of initiatives that the Government could take, not only to provide debt advice services but to ensure that users or takers of loans use that service.

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We also need to see how structural changes in the labour market interface with the social security system to understand whether this is reinforcing the use of credit as a systemic solution to low-income families’ financial management, demonstrating the need for free debt advice services. I will take a few moments to explain what I mean. The casualisation of employment contracts, along with variable and zero-hours contracts, can result in significant volatility around hours worked and income received in any one week, let alone between weeks. In such situations, where people do not have a smooth income flow, if you have to pay your rent, buy food for your children or repair a much needed broken washing machine, you probably cannot wait until a week where you have more hours and higher wages. You need the credit to tide you over.

However, the welfare system cannot provide a real-time response. Under the current system, if you work less than 16 hours in a week, you do not qualify for the working tax credit in that week. If you are tied into an exclusive contract with an employer and provided with very few hours of work that week, and are not available for other work because of that exclusivity, then you cannot get JSA. Universal credit, when it is rolled out, may overcome the barrier of the 16 hours but it will replace it with another hurdle that will increase the need for credit. Universal credit is paid monthly in arrears, so you would struggle to catch up with your debt even under universal credit.

If you face such volatility in your hours and income and have more than 16 hours of work, you deal with the HMRC, but if you have worked under 16 hours in that week, you deal with the DWP for JSA and with the local authority for housing benefit. You also have to manage your debts. As my noble friend Lady Hollis frequently comments, being poor can be a full-time job—even more so with the changing nature of the labour market and, potentially, the greater need for credit.

The point that I am making is that for lower-income households, given what is happening in the labour market and how the welfare system operates, even under universal credit, the need for short-term credit for families—particularly vulnerable, low-income ones—to manage their finances will increase, not decline, and with it the desperate need for debt advice services. The examples that I have given illustrate the real evidence why low-income people will persist in being vulnerable to high-cost loans and in need of debt advice services.

The problems are compounded by the insufficiency of low-cost sources of credit and the absence of public policies promoting savings strategies for low-income people to provide a savings buffer. Most do not have such a thing or the means to acquire it. Tax incentives are targeted at the better off. One has to earn enough in the first instance to get the benefit of incentivised tax relief. The need for low-cost loans and debt counselling will remain very important for the foreseeable future for many on low incomes. Whatever the FCA does to the business model of payday loan companies, the systemic problem of how low-income people manage their finances, their dependency on loans and their need for assistance in managing debt will, when one looks at what is happening in the world of work, increase and not decrease.

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This amendment would put a responsibility on the Secretary of State to bring forward measures to ensure,

“free debt advice for vulnerable consumers; and … provision of affordable alternative credit through credit unions”.

Much is said by politicians, including in both Houses, about protecting people in the face of the realities of today’s labour and financial markets. Helping them manage their finances, which will protect the well-being of their families though the provision of affordable credit and debt counselling, has to rank very high.

Thinking of a comment to conclude my speech, I remembered being at a discussion dinner a while ago on the duties of care of providers in the wholesale and retail asset management industry, an issue on which I engage a great deal. There was a mixed group of people there from different sides of the industry and of different political persuasions. Someone asked why the management of consumers’ assets and savings receives so much more political attention than the management of debt. There was a pause around the room. I replied that it is because unmanageable debt is concentrated among the poor.

We have to raise that issue and say that there is nothing, looking at the horizon of the labour market and at how the welfare system will operate, that provides an easy solution for families caught in this need to manage their finances. That is why this amendment is so helpful. We have to sustain the debate. Governments and the Secretary of State must take on, as a core societal issue, how they address providing or delivering debt advice and low-cost access to credit to so many people who need them.

Baroness Jolly: My Lords, those were really interesting contributions from noble Lords who know—not at the coal face but at the advice centre—what the issues are.

Turning to the noble Lord’s proposal for a levy on payday lenders, I commend his work in the area of debt advice as he stands down. I am sure that he will find something else to do with his time. The Government believe that the key to tackling problem payday lenders is tougher and better regulation. This is already set out. I have spoken at some length today about the way that the Government have reformed regulation of the payday market with the introduction of the FCA’s new regime.

FCA regulation is already having a dramatic impact on the payday market. Indeed, the FCA has found that the volume of payday loans has fallen by 35% since it took over regulation in April. Further changes are expected to follow the introduction of the cap on the cost of payday loans in January. The FCA has estimated that as few as three or four lenders may remain in the market. Consumers are better protected under the FCA regime. It has introduced binding rules and a rigorous authorisation process where it assesses payday lenders’ business models and compliance, which will begin next month. Firms that do not meet the FCA’s threshold conditions will not be authorised.

The amendment specifically proposes imposing a levy on payday lenders to support free debt advice and credit unions. The Government share the view of the importance of free debt advice and acknowledge the

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points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, that people in debt have problems around well-being. The well-being of families has to be critical and core to all of these issues. The Government have put the provision of free debt advice on a sustainable footing through the Money Advice Service, but it is clearly supplemented by organisations such as StepChange and Citizens Advice.

Free debt advice is funded by a levy on lenders: once they are fully authorised by the FCA, payday lenders will contribute to this levy. The noble Lord’s proposal would therefore duplicate existing funding arrangements for debt advice. It is important to note that the FCA is also taking steps to ensure that vulnerable consumers are aware of the free debt advice available to them. The FCA requires all payday lenders to signpost free debt advice at the point a loan is rolled over, and all payday lending adverts must include a risk warning and information about where to get advice.

The Government also place great emphasis on the role of credit unions—I note the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. Credit unions provide an invaluable service to a growing number of members, many of whom are on lower incomes. The Government have already taken a number of steps to support them, including investing £38 million to support the credit union expansion project to ensure sustainable growth of credit unions. This is not going to be a quick fix but a slow burn.

The Government have also raised the interest rate that credit unions can charge. It used to be capped at 2%; it is now 3%. That sounds like a small difference, but it should make quite a sizeable difference to a credit union’s bottom line, month by month, to support its financial strength through their savers’ interest.

As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, will know, the Government issued a call for evidence in June to seek views from interested parties about the future of credit unions and how the Government can do more to support the development of the credit union movement in Great Britain. The Government want to see the credit union movement go from strength to strength and the call for evidence is the first step in developing an environment of co-operation and mutual self-reliance.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked several questions. One was whether payday lenders would be authorised by the FCA in spring 2016. The FCA authorisation period for payday lenders begins next week, as I suspect the noble Lord knew. His second point was on the Farnish review. The Government commissioned an independent review into the effectiveness of the Money Advice Service. It will report to the Government by the end of this year.

The call for evidence has been successful in allowing all credit unions, regardless of size, to contribute their vision for the future of the sector to the wider debate. The Government’s response to the call for evidence will be published shortly. We believe firmly that consumers will best be served by the tough regulatory regime for payday lenders and the Government’s ongoing support for free debt advice and credit unions. Therefore I ask the noble Lord to withdraw this amendment.

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7.15 pm

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her remarks, which were broadly in support of the approach I was taking. I understand her difficulty in accepting the amendment, although I am sad that she will not be able to do so. I also thank my noble friend Lady Drake for her very interesting and wide-ranging comments. I thought she was right to pick up on the possibility of more work being done at the point of transaction in relation to personal debt. The idea of conditionality is a good one and perhaps we should think again. She was right to warn us that things are going to get much worse, particularly in relation to those at the low-pay end of the labour market because of the interaction between welfare and tax and the need for some sort of savings vehicle to help with the problems we encounter there. The truth is that we are going to have problems with problem debt for a long time. I think that she, like me, is arguing that we need to think very hard not so much about having a financial capacity strategy, which is very often prayed in aid at this time on these issues, but actually focusing a bit more on debt.

Debt is a necessary component of growth in the economy and yet it is the one we understand least about and about which we have very little statutory or other measures in place. Most of it is done by the charitable sector and the Government’s arrangements are being reviewed by the Farnish review—which I mentioned, although unfortunately a coughing fit may have covered my best lines. I wonder if I might just sharpen them up at the end so noble Lords can get a sense of them. Perhaps the noble Baroness might write to me about some of them. It is really important that the Farnish review, if it is coming out by the end of the year, focuses on what the structural changes have been in this area because they are not helping at present. It is really important to find a role for the Money Advice Service. It needs to be a facilitator, not a service deliverer. When it tries to do service delivery it just bumps into the existing structures and is not working.

We need—as I think I managed to get out before I was caught by my coughing fit—a statutory backing for personal debt. The arrangements in Scotland work; they are very effective and we should learn from them. We need to tie any new statutory interventions here into a thoroughgoing review of the Insolvency Service which offers too many not very well organised and not cognate solutions. For instance, if you do the decent thing by your debts and go and see a free advice service and talk about what you can do to get your debts paid off, you come off worse in terms of what your credit rating will be at the end of that process than if you had gone bankrupt. In other words, if you try hard, save money every month, repay all your debts and after six years emerge cleansed of those debts, you cannot get credit for six years. If you go bankrupt, you immediately lose your debts—and you certainly lose your credit rating—but you are back in business in three years. If you do a debt relief order, it is four years. What logic is there behind that? I would have said all that earlier. I could not say it. I say it now and I would like a response to it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Amendment 50B withdrawn.

Amendment 50C not moved.

Amendment 50D

Moved by Baroness Howe of Idlicote

50D: After Clause 86, insert the following new Clause—

“Duty to provide an internet service that protects children from digital content

(1) Internet service providers must provide to subscribers an internet access service which excludes adult content unless all the conditions of subsection (3) have been fulfilled.

(2) Where mobile telephone operators provide a telephone service to subscribers which includes an internet access service, they must ensure this service excludes adult content unless all the conditions of subsection (3) have been fulfilled.

(3) The conditions are—

(a) the subscriber “opts-in” to subscribe to a service that includes adult content;

(b) the subscriber is aged 18 or over; and

(c) the provider of the service has an age verification policy which meets the standards set out by OFCOM in subsection (4) and which has been used to confirm that the subscriber is aged 18 or over before a user is able to access adult content.

(4) It shall be the duty of OFCOM, to set, and from time to time to review and revise, standards for the—

(a) filtering of adult content in line with the standards set out in section 319 of the Communications Act 2003 (OFCOM’s standards code);

(b) age verification policies to be used under subsection (3) before a user is able to access adult content; and

(c) filtering of content by age or subject category by providers of internet access services and mobile phone operators.

(5) The standards set out by OFCOM under subsection (4) must be contained in one or more codes.

(6) Before setting standards under subsection (5), OFCOM must publish, in such a manner as they think fit, a draft of the proposed code containing those standards.

(7) After publishing the draft code and before setting the standards, OFCOM must consult relevant persons and organisations.

(8) It shall be the duty of OFCOM to establish procedures for the handling and resolution of complaints in a timely manner about the observance of standards set under subsection (4), including complaints about incorrect filtering of content.

(9) OFCOM may designate any body corporate to carry out its duties under this section in whole or in part.

(10) OFCOM may not designate a body under subsection (9) unless, as respects that designation, they are satisfied that the body—

(a) is a fit and proper body to be designated;

(b) has consented to being designated;

(c) has access to financial resources that are adequate to ensure the effective performance of its functions under this section; and

(d) is sufficiently independent of providers of internet access services and mobile phone operators.

(11) In this section, internet service providers and mobile telephone operators shall at all times be held harmless of any claims or proceedings, whether civil or criminal, providing that at the relevant time, the internet access provider or the mobile telephone operator—

(a) was following the standards and code set out by OFCOM in subsection (4); and

(b) acting in good faith.

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(12) For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in subsections (1) and (2) prevents providers of internet access services and mobile phone operators from providing additional levels of filtering content.

(13) In this section—

“adult content” means an internet access service that contains harmful and offensive materials from which persons under the age of eighteen are protected;

“harmful and offensive materials” has the same meaning as in section 3 of the Communications Act 2003 (general duties of OFCOM);

“material from which persons under the age of eighteen are protected” means material specified in the OFCOM standards under section 319(2)(a) of the Communications Act 2003 (OFCOM’s standards code);

“opts-in” means a subscriber notifies the service provider of his or her consent to subscribe to a service that includes adult content.”

Baroness Howe of Idlicote (CB): I am very pleased to move this amendment, which requires internet service providers and mobile phone operators to provide default adult content filtering that can be removed if the service user opts in to adult content, demonstrating, as indeed they must, that they are aged 18 years or over. I am very grateful to my cosignatories from all sides of the House—the noble Baronesses, Lady King and Lady Benjamin, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.

The Government have taken an important step forward in negotiating the self-regulatory default-on filtering arrangement with the big four ISPs. However, while this progress is welcome it cannot be seen as anything other than a single, momentary step towards a proper solution because of the significant problems that are central to the self-regulatory arrangements, of which there are at least three. First, the self-regulatory arrangements fail to cover more than 10% of the home broadband market, leaving a significant number of children outside its scope. Logically, it makes no sense for the Government to fight for a default-on arrangement, arguing that it is very important—as the Prime Minister has done—but then to stop short of applying it generally. To say that it is very important but then settle for delivering it to only some children ultimately amounts to saying that some children are worthy of more protection than others. That is not a sustainable long-term position.

Of course, I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say about this matter when I raised it in Committee. She made the point that because the other ISPs are not party to the agreement with the big four does not mean that they are not also providing the default-on system that the Prime Minister announced in his NSPCC speech in July, 2013. I have never suggested that only the big four ISPs do this; I have said simply that I am aware of a good number that do not and at least one that boasts of not doing so. Indeed, since Committee stage some research has been conducted and of the 14 smaller ISPs that service homes rather than businesses, four were found to offer something comparable to default-on, but 10 did not. Of those 10, two made it clear that they did provide filtering, but that it had to be applied by the customer separately; it was not an unavoidable choice at the set-up. Seven ISPs could not provide any information about filtering. One boasted that it deliberately did

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not filter. Amendment 50D would address that problem by requiring the provision of default-on in all households for all children.

Secondly, age verification is of pivotal importance. If you introduce a default-on arrangement that is not properly age-verified, the credibility of the whole system is completely called into question at two points: the initial set-up phase and in the event of any subsequent attempt to change the settings. The truth is that often it is the more technologically literate children who handle the set-up process on behalf of their parents. Where that happens, it is children, not adults, who will make the decision whether to opt in to access adult content. However, if an adult does the set-up and decides to have adult content filters to protect their children, there is nothing to stop their children subsequently changing the settings when their parents are out and opting in to access adult content. Without age verification of the person seeking to opt in to access adult content before the removal of filters, the credibility of the whole self-regulatory system breaks down. When pressed, the Government and industry say that if someone opts in to access adult content, the ISP will send an e-mail to the account holder, who must, by definition, be an adult. Even if a parent responds quickly, reads the e-mail the same day and acts on it, the children, unavoidably, still would have some hours of accessing harmful adult content from which we should be protecting them. The truth, however, is that we do not all process e-mails from ISPs quite so expeditiously.

Polling conducted by ComRes for the charity Care demonstrates that a total of 34% of British adults—that is, 16.3 million people—say that they would not read an e-mail from their ISP immediately. Eleven people said that they probably would leave the e-mail unread for up to a week, and nine people would be likely to leave it for more than a week. A staggering 14% said that they were unlikely to read an e-mail from their ISP. That figure rises to 18% when we look at the parents of children between five and 10 years old.

At the end of the day, the question is not: is it technologically possible to age verify before allowing someone to opting to access adult content? We know that it is entirely possible. It is already required by law if you want to place a bet online. The question is: how high a priority is child protection in Britain in 2014 and are our children worth it? The amendment, crucially, provides for statutory age verification before opening the door to someone opting to access adult content.

Thirdly, there are no common standards regarding what is and what is not adult content. Moreover, the way in which the standards are set is in no way publicly accountable. Different companies make those decisions on their own, generating complete inconsistency and uncertainty. For example, BT deems gambling to constitute adult content and blocks it, while Virgin does not. Amendment 50D addresses the problem by giving the responsibility for setting standards to a single, publicly accountable body, Ofcom. In the first instance, it means that the standard selected will be common to all filtering. Parents will be able to depend on consistency. In the second instance, it means that

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the standard selected will be accountable. As a public body, Ofcom is accountable and will indeed be required to consult on standards.

Having considered some of the problems with self-regulation and how Amendment 50D addresses them, I want briefly to set out how I see it delivering alongside other provisions, before homing in on the reasons why it is so important. I want to be exceptionally clear that I am not saying that the amendment is the only thing we need to keep children safe online. Education, for example, is vital. It is one of the two central pillars of my Online Safety Bill. The amendment is not an alternative to education, any more than education is an alternative to the amendment. Education is vital to help children to deal with online behavioural challenges. It is also good at helping children to avoid content that they want to avoid. It is, however, not effective at protecting children from content that they may want to access but from which they should be protected, as some sad stories that we shall now consider show all too clearly.

There are now multiple examples of children committing criminal acts which act out the sadistic, hardcore pornography that they have seen online. Consider the following. In Committee, I mentioned a case in Shropshire in August where the judge recognised that the 14 year-old boy in question, who raped a 10 year-old girl, was acting out what he had seen online. However, there are many more cases. I would like to go through a list, but there is clearly not time. They all, however, comprise the same ingredients: a child watches pornography online and then commits a criminal act by acting out what he has seen on another child.

I shall mention just one other case, that of a 12 year-old boy who raped his seven year-old sister. That came before the Blackburn youth court earlier this year. District Judge James Prowse readily acknowledged that the boy had been moved to act out pornography that he had watched online via his Xbox. He said:

“Society's view on pornography covers a wide spectrum from complete condemnation on the one side to being laissez faire on the other but even the most liberal-minded share society’s profound unease that children of your age can and do access the internet and watch graphic images of sexual intercourse”.

These, then, are the facts and we must not hide from them. They require a response. As William Wilberforce famously once said:

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say that you did not know”.

Children are freely accessing hardcore porn online and then looking for opportunities to act it out, with disastrous consequences. They are also freely accessing other forms of adult content that are harming their development. I have not had time to consider violence: a recent Centre for Public Innovation report concluded that children are increasingly being exposed to violence online.

We cannot brush this off and seriously suggest that a flawed self-regulatory system that misses out hundreds of thousands of children and does not, in any event, bother to age-verify people before allowing them to opt in to access content is a credible arrangement. It clearly is not. I very much hope that the Government

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will not seek to oppose the amendment but recognise that it is vital if we are serious about helping children to stay safe online. I beg to move.

7.30 pm

Lord Stoneham of Droxford: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, raises once again the really important issue of the protection of our children from the dangers of the internet, and specifically the pornography and violence that can be accessed too easily.

However, there are problems with opting in to internet content filters, which remain crude, even though there has been some improvement in recent years. The problems of the opt-in system proposed by the noble Baroness are twofold. The first is that it is possible for too much to be filtered out. Imagine a young person who is not sure about their sexuality. The words “homosexual”, “lesbian” and “transgender” would be filtered out, and organisations such as Stonewall, which does excellent work with confused young people, will find that their websites are banned by these filters. More sophisticated versions can filter out skin. Here there is an attempt to filter out pornographic images, but these filters have also banned the Daily Mail, which had a photograph of a woman in a bikini on the front page. The second problem is that internet-knowledgeable young people find mechanisms to work their way round filters, through murky rings round the usual internet. Most parents do not understand or know about these and will assume that their child is protected, whereas the reality is that they are not.

I am also concerned about the proposals in subsection (4) of the proposed new clause, which say that Ofcom has a duty to filter content,

“by age or subject category by providers of internet access services and mobile phone operators”;

and, in subsection (9), that,

“OFCOM may designate any body corporate to carry out its duties under this section”.

Is Ofcom now going to start classifying content? Even if it designates the British Board of Film Classification, that is fine for the areas that the BBFC covers—film, video, video games, mobile phone content that you can buy—but it does not cover other material, especially private, and we know from the revenge porn debate in your Lordships’ House recently that this is one of the first areas of porn that young people see. It will always be impossible to cover private material, so there will always be a way in.

There is also a further issue about young people who work their way round filters, usually in a ridiculously short time. Would that young person, often under 18, be committing a crime, or would their parents be committing one for not supervising their internet use? The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre website for parents, children and teachers, called “Thinkuknow”, advocates the best way forward. It talks about parental involvement with their children, and for parents, teachers and friends to alert young people to the dangers of the web. Sex and relationship education in schools is increasingly including teaching about the dangers and problems with porn. The website states:

26 Nov 2014 : Column 950

“Parental controls will never make the internet 100% ‘safe’. They should not be used as a substitute for communicating safety messages to your child. Make sure that you talk to your child about their behaviour online and remember, your home is not the only place they will be accessing the internet!”.

An opt-out, rather than an opt-in, system leaves the control with the parents. They cannot relax and assume their children are safe—nor should they—and they are more likely to have sensible conversations with their children than parents who believe they are covered by an opt-in system.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham of Droxford, has just made one of the most extraordinary series of arguments against the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. He seems to suggest that because filtering systems are imperfect it would be better not to require filtering systems to be in place in the first instance. We all recognise—the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, made this clear when she introduced her amendment—that this was just one of a number of things that need to be done. However, the concept that because there is not perfection in the art of filtering out pornographic, violent or dangerous images, therefore you should not attempt to do it, seems a particularly bizarre position to take.

The noble Lord also suggested—and I have read carefully the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—that if we were not careful we would criminalise children who found their way past these filters and their parents for not adequately protecting them. However, there is nothing in the amendment which creates a criminal offence for a child to try to get past a filter.

The amendment is about creating a sensible framework so that the internet service providers have an obligation to put the filters on as a default—that is essentially what this means—and that there should then be a series of hurdles that have to be passed before that default filter is removed. It also requires Ofcom to promote best practice, to set standards in the way in which the filter operates and to develop an age verification policy. This is long overdue not only in this area but also in other areas where children need to be protected or adults need to be prevented from accessing material which is only for children, which is the other side of the same coin. All of this is eminently sensible material.

The Government think that this is not necessary because self-regulation operates so wonderfully. The problem with self-regulation in this instance is that although the three or four most responsible internet service providers may take these steps and do what is necessary, the others will not. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, cited the example of the internet service provider that, in its promotion material, makes a positive virtue of the fact that it does none of these things. It is essentially saying, “Come to us because there are no safeguards whatever”.

I hope the Minister will either accept the amendment or agree to have urgent discussions with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and those who are advising her on this issue to see whether it is possible to develop something that meets these requirements. It is quite clear that we are not taking seriously the fact that children are accessing extremely nasty and dangerous

26 Nov 2014 : Column 951

material. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, gave some sad, tragic and awful examples of where children have acted on such material. We know that children and teenagers act impulsively. The brain development has not yet occurred which enables them to give proper consideration to and have understanding of the consequences of their actions and what that means.

Under those circumstances, not trying to create the safest possible environment for them, and not trying to create a situation in which the default starting position is that filtering systems are in place, even if some of them are not as good as they might be, is completely irresponsible. I hope the Minister will tell us either that the Government are prepared to accept this principle or, if they have some difficulties with the way in which this is presented, agree to have urgent discussions with the noble Baroness to try to put this matter on track.

Baroness Benjamin: My Lords, I have put my name to Amendment 50D because I am concerned about the easy accessibility of adult material to children online. It is that simple. Recently, a parent contacted me to inform me about their eight year-old son who was, quite innocently, led into accessing many pornographic images, unknown to them. They have now activated a block which bars such material, but, like so many other parents in this country, they wish it had been on by default. Their son now has unwanted memories of what he saw popping into his mind. Childhood lasts a lifetime and those early memories will lay the foundation that stays with that child for ever. They cannot be erased. How can we sit back and let that happen?

This year, the Authority for Television on Demand published a report entitled For Adults Only? which revealed that, in the space of just one month, at least 44,000 primary school children and more than 200,000 under-16s accessed adult content, including hardcore pornography. If we are serious about caring for our children, we must do far more to protect them online before more tragic, heartbreaking, life-damaging sexual, mental and emotional abuse takes place. There is a series of problems with the current voluntary approach deployed to keep children safe online. These are all addressed by Amendment 50D.

I congratulate the Government on all the progress they have made on this issue but, as has been said before, more needs to be done. In terms of internet service providers, the current voluntary approach to default adult content filters is inadequate and does not constitute a credible, long-term solution, for several reasons. It leaves 10% of the market uncovered. This represents several thousand children. It fails to provide any form of age verification before someone seeks to opt in to access adult content. You have to do this before you access gambling and other online activities, why not for accessing online pornography? It involves different companies applying different standards about what does and does not constitute adult content, so there is no consistency. Children like consistency. It helps with their development. There is no central mechanism for efficiently addressing the problem of overblocking. No one wants to block unnecessarily.

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There have been two high-profile cases, as we have heard, of mobile phone operators not abiding by their code: BlackBerry and Tesco Mobile. The operator Three does not even claim to be compliant with the code. This is what self regulation allows. All these problems are addressed by Amendment 50D. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will give careful consideration to this amendment and I look forward to her response, in the hope that it will show that the Government truly care about our children’s holistic, long-term well-being.

Lord Cormack (Con): My Lords, I will be very brief. I put my name to this amendment. I am also speaking later in the debate secured by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, which I do not wish to delay unduly. I put my name to this amendment because there is no greater crime than the destruction of childhood innocence—and we are in danger of doing that on a very large scale indeed.

I believe that the day will come when we make the provision of pornographic services online a criminal offence. No one benefits from watching them, whatever his or her age, and I think that they tend to deprave—but I am absolutely convinced that our children must be protected. Speaking as a grandfather and as one who has many friends who have younger children, I do not like to think of the future into which they are growing up, in which they are led to believe that it is better to have 100 virtual friends than one real one and that whatever they watch does not really matter because it cannot change their character. It can, as the noble Baroness indicated in her speech. It is for that reason that I support the amendment.

7.45 pm

Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Con): My Lords, I strongly support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. I assume that all Members of your Lordships’ House are of the view that children should be protected from hardcore pornography. I hope that that assumption is justified. My second point is that there is ample evidence that children can currently access hardcore pornography. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, has given some examples. There are court cases in which judges said that children’s motivations for committing very serious crimes were that they had seen it done on television or online. It is most important that that should be stopped.

Do the Government agree that it is highly important that children should be protected from hardcore pornography, which is included in the idea of “adult content”? Secondly, do they agree that there is evidence that the present system is not working, with very serious results in cases that have already reached the courts? Thirdly, can they advise that there is any better system to cure this problem than that contained in Amendment 50D?

When I say what is contained in Amendment 50D, I mean the principle of the amendment: they may be able to improve the detailed wording of Amendment 50D if they wish to, but it is the principle of the amendment that I strongly support. I do not know of any better system than that at the moment. If the Government can come forward with a better system that they are

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prepared to put into the Bill instead, I would welcome it. Until that happens, Amendment 50D seems to be the best protection that we can afford our children from a devastating influence that can, as my noble friend said, devastate them for life, whether they get themselves in the criminal courts or not—and it certainly devastates their lives when they do. I do not wish to be party to a system where there is a possible solution that we do not take.

Baroness Shields (Con): My Lords, I must say, from my position in government, that the Government take the issue of child safety online very seriously. My role is to engage with industry to solve this problem. A lot of information has been put forward this evening that is heartbreaking and shocking. That is why the Government chose to act in July 2013. They very bravely and boldly chose to take on this issue and to work with industry to solve the problem.

The work that has been done by the ISPs, on behalf of the country, to put forward the safe internet provisions has now been brought to bear. A lot of the cases that have been discussed this evening relate to a time when these internet filters were not active and functioning for all ISPs. However, over the course of the past year all the major ISPs have installed the internet filters as default-on. They have also reached out to all their clients and customers to advise them that the filters are available, and given them an option to turn them on again. This process has been under way for the past 18 months.

The same is true of the mobile operators, and Minister Vaizey has written to them all this past month to make sure that they are complying with age-related content filters. The points that have been made here are absolutely vital, but to add additional regulation when we are getting voluntary compliance from the industry is just not necessary.

We are working hard, and if there are cases which this is not addressing—the 10% that has been referenced from other parts of the country—we will take that on board and work with the service providers that address those markets and make sure that their customers have a safe internet situation.

Education is vital to ensuring that parents and teachers are involved. There is a big campaign, funded to the tune of £25 million, called Internet Matters. It is led by the major ISPs and my noble friend Lady Harding. The process of educating parents takes time. Most parents are very intimidated by the internet, and their kids are more savvy than they are. We must take this on; the education process has to continue because, as one of my noble friends said, kids are very smart and will find a way round it. The important thing is the education that has to take place with parents and teachers. We must all stay engaged in the process, because the moment we come up with a way of solving the problem, the children find a way round it.

I understand the reasons for the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, spoke so eloquently, and I appreciate it. We all believe that children need to be protected online. But I believe that the way to do that is to continue the work that we have been doing. The voluntary co-operation that we have had has been

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phenomenal. We can continue the process by identifying the areas where we still need to do work, and we make a commitment to do so.

Lord Framlingham (Con): My Lords, I shall support the amendment if the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, decides to divide the House. I am grateful to her for so ably moving it and explaining it to us all. I am normally a loyal government supporter, but only a few days ago in this Chamber I expressed my deep and growing concern about the serious damage being done to the young minds of our children by what they are seeing and hearing online. I said then that I found the statistics relating to the problem alarming and horrifying. Your Lordships have heard one statistic this evening, but I am going to repeat it, because I also mentioned it in my speech the other day. In just one month, 44,000 children aged between six and 11 visited an adult website. I know that time is short, but I am going to say that again: in one month, 44,000 children aged between six and 11 visited an adult website.

I also said that we speak so often in this Chamber about the welfare of the child being paramount—I have heard that again today. I then asked what we were actually doing about it. Now is the chance for us to show that we mean it, and to actually do something. There may perhaps be some imperfections in the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe; it would be surprising if there were not. But it is an important step in the right direction—a step that surely we must take tonight. I repeat my support for the amendment, and I urge every Member of your Lordships’ House who really cares for the welfare of our youngest and most vulnerable children to do the same.

Baroness King of Bow (Lab): My Lords, I will summarise where we are as regards this important Amendment 50D, as I spoke to it in greater detail in Committee; today I will make an additional comment on mobile phone operators.

I will quickly address some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, who clearly was not keen on filtering. However, we have moved beyond that discussion, because we have to recognise that the Government have already supported and encouraged filtering to cover 90% of the marketplace. Therefore, with all due respect, that is not the issue, as the argument has been superseded. The issue is how you make blocking consistent and avoid some of the problems that the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, raised. You do that by having a central mechanism to deal with over-blocking, which is what Amendment 50D provides for but self-regulation does not.

I welcomed the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, and welcome her to the House. I commend her work and her great expertise in this area. I suggest that the key point here is not about the expertise that noble Lords may have in the area of technology but about how we think we should close the gap of clear and present dangers to children. Given those dangers present, I argue that we should do it the other way round. In other words, we need to give children safety through that statutory protection, and if in one, two or five years’ there is a voluntary approach, that would

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be fantastic. However, the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, just made clear the amount of damage that can be done in just short periods of time when he quoted the statistic that 44,000 children between the ages of six and 11 view inappropriate adult content. That will damage our children, affect their adult behaviour for a lifetime and increase levels of violence in our society, and we should not accept that.

In a nutshell, therefore, the situation is the following. The Government think that default-on internet filtering is the best way to protect children from inappropriate adult content online. The Government are right. It is funny—how often do you hear Front-Bench spokesmen standing here and saying that? However, they are wrong to limit that to the big four ISPs by using a voluntary approach, which leaves more than 10% of the broadband market uncovered, as we have heard. Government policy, therefore, leaves a significant number of children uncovered and unprotected from adult content. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, outlined in another powerful intervention, that results in the following problems.

In the most extreme cases, children act out, in the real world, sadistic hardcore porn that they saw in the online world. That is not just a matter of opinion; as we heard, it is a matter of fact in our courts today. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, referenced the 12 year-old boy who raped his seven year-old sister after he saw pornography online via Xbox. I would think that that one statement alone merits us taking urgent action on this. This is horrific, and we need to deal with it urgently. Even the self-regulatory system that is now in place does not use age verification, so it can easily be evaded by tech-savvy children. I take the point that they will get around these things, but we should not leave them an open goal, which it seems we are doing at the moment in some instances.

Therefore, not only is there no consistency but there is no logic. Amendment 50D would bring both consistency and logic to the Government’s approach to this problem. The lack of consistency is very clear when we look at mobile phone operators. I will not speak in any detail on that, because the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, did a very good job. Let it suffice to say that mobile operators have been flouting the provision in the code that they should provide adult default filters. Indeed, the Prime Minister himself—as the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, knows better than anyone else in this House—said in July that all mobile phones were already subject to default filters. However, at the time they were not. In the past 12 months, Tesco Mobile has been exposed, and so on.

I therefore say to Conservative Peers, and indeed to coalition Peers, that if they want to support not just the spirit of what their Prime Minister said but also the letter, they need to support this amendment. If there was ever a case for contravening your Whips and voting for what is right, it is surely on this amendment, which would extend greater protection to all children. I grant that you will be choosing between your Whips and your PM, but if I were you, I would stick with the PM. I quoted him in Committee on this. He said that this was about “protecting childhood itself” and he added that,

“I will do whatever it takes to keep our children safe”.

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That is what the Prime Minister said. Well, the minimum it takes—the absolute minimum—is supporting Amendment 50D, which is tabled by a Cross-Bench Peer, a Conservative Peer, a Labour Peer and a Lib Dem Peer. This is not a party-political issue; this is a child protection issue.

I realise that my appeal will fall on deaf ears, but as the mother of four young children, I am one of the 82% of British mums surveyed who want the Government to tackle child protection online more urgently than they are doing at the moment. For that reason, I urge all Peers in this House to support Amendment 50D.

8 pm

Baroness Jolly: My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for the opportunity to talk about this issue on Report in the Chamber—it is something that we will not forget in a hurry. I reassure noble Lords that we share a common goal to ensure that our children are safe online. Given the huge importance of the interest in children’s safety—and the complexity of the issue, because it is very multi-faceted; it is not straightforward or cut-and-dried—I ask for the indulgence of the House to speak at some length.

The 21st century has thrown many dilemmas at families, schools, and indeed government, about how to bring up and educate our children. Over the past 20 years, the landscape has changed enormously. Whereas in the 1990s children’s entertainment came from TV, comics, books and video games, with a few families having a computer in the corner, the turn of the century saw wholesale change. Homes became connected to the internet, and now four in five children have mobile phones, most of which are internet-enabled, which act as their main means of contact with the world at large.

For many parents and grandparents this is difficult new territory. The power shift of competence has changed, while our care instinct remains. How do we best protect our children both from the dangers of the known world and that of the unknown and byzantine internet? Ensuring children’s safety online is a complex—

Lord Harris of Haringey: I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness when she is in full flood and what is obviously going to be a lengthy speech. If the balance of competence has shifted to the child, could she explain why we are taking away, or not prepared to support, protections to make it more difficult—in effect, holding back the shift in the balance of competence—by requiring default protection?

Baroness Jolly: I ask noble Lords to be patient; I am just painting a scene and intend to explain about the 90% and the 10% and the issues that have been raised by the noble Baroness opposite.

The safety of our children is our collective responsibility. The Government are not being laissez-faire about this. Recognition of our collective responsibility lies at the core of the UK’s world-renowned collaborative self-regulatory approach. According to the Family Online Safety Institute, the UK is a global net exporter of internet safety. It states:

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“Since the emergence of the Internet in the mid-1990s the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of online safety and best practice”.

Under the auspices of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, every three months, key players from industry, the third sector—including parents—and government bodies meet and work in partnership to help keep children and young people safe. This model serves us extremely well, and has driven recent progress.

Technical tools that we have discussed, such as filters, play an important part in enabling parents to protect children from inappropriate content. I outlined in Committee the tremendous progress made on this by Government and industry, which I will summarise now.

The vast majority of mobile phones sold are done so with filters automatically set to default on—including pay-as-you-go handsets. For contract customers, three of the UK’s four major mobile network operators also have their filters on by default, with the remaining provider, Three, committed to doing so by July 2015. I am quite happy to take away Tesco and have a look at Tesco online.

Responding to the Prime Minister’s request, the four major providers of home broadband—BT, Sky, Virgin and TalkTalk—now provide customers with family-friendly filtering solutions. Parents can easily block a range of content categories, such as adult content, gambling and violence. Nine in 10 UK broadband connections are provided by these four companies. In Committee, noble Lords expressed concerns about families not covered by filters. It is correct that smaller, more niche companies, many focused on the SME market, provide one in 10 UK broadband connections. They also have acted. The largest of these, including EE, covering 3% of the market, and Kcom, already offer family-friendly filters to customers free of charge, and Plusnet, the sixth-largest ISP, is trialling its filtering tool next month with a launch plan for March 2015. I think it is worth mentioning that in Committee, I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, to let me know which one was flouting the Prime Minister’s request openly, and I do not think I heard from her, so if she would like to get back to me with that one, I am quite happy to take action on that as well.

We should note that seven in 10 households do not have children, so we can surmise that few family homes are served by the smallest providers, who might not provide filters, and every family in the UK has the ability easily to choose a provider with strong child-safety credentials. Children also access the internet outside the home, often through public wi-fi, and we have therefore taken action here too. The six major providers, covering more than 90% of the market, provide family-friendly public wi-fi wherever children are likely to be. Taking into account progress on mobiles, on home broadband internet access and public wi-fi, we can be confident that families now have the technical tools available to enable them to filter inappropriate content.

Filters are an incredibly important part of the solution, but they cannot protect children from the aspect of online life which evidence shows us causes most distress—cyberbullying. Nor can they give parents a cast-iron guarantee that children will be protected from inappropriate content, and at some point, at a certain age, filters may be turned off.

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It is an unwelcome truth that there is no silver bullet to child safety online. Alongside technical solutions and through education, which I will come to, we must therefore support parents to adopt other forms of mediation, such as having conversations with children and monitoring internet use. Parents do not always feel aware of the risks their children face when online. Indeed, many feel overwhelmed by technology and certainly less savvy. This leads to reluctance among some parents to engage in issues surrounding their children’s online activity. The need for us to guard against parental complacency is an incredibly strong reason for preserving the unavoidable parent choice on filters. The systems that providers have put in place act as a useful catalyst, forcing parents to take decisions, and prompting them to enter into discussions with their children. Default-on filters would eliminate that route to engagement.

As we do in relation to road safety, unsafe sex, alcohol consumption and other risks children face, we must raise awareness. Earlier this year, the internet service providers made a significant addition to the online resources already available to parents in the UK from education, charity, industry and law enforcement sectors. Internet Matters was launched in May and provides parents with advice on how to keep their children safe online. I commend it to noble Lords.

As well as government, parents and industry, schools have a critical role to play here. Through schools we are teaching our children the skills they need to navigate the online world safely. As part of our reforms to the national curriculum, we have adapted computing programmes of study to incorporate internet safety. Since the start of the school year in September, the curriculum has included internet safety for five to 16 year-olds, key stages 1 to 5.

The promise of a software or hardware gizmo to protect our children is seductive. Yet even with filters on, in possession of excellent digital skills and with a sensible head on their shoulders, children will still have worrying experiences in this area, whether through exposure to inappropriate content via a text message, or witnessing abusive comments online or in other situations. As well as informing and supporting parents and working with industry, we must empower children and foster their confidence online so that they are resilient when the time comes.

In childhood, we learn about the world and develop the skills to make good choices. We must avoid over-cosseting our children to the extent that they do not acquire the skills required to cope with offline and online challenges when they face them. When a child encounters a problem online it is critical that they are able to find help and support. This might be through accessing online or offline information and advice, or by speaking to a friend or trusted adult, or to a teacher, carer, parent or other family member. We all share the responsibility to be there for them when needed.

It is right that the Government take steps to regulate where necessary. However, progress on filters has been remarkable. We should for a moment consider the real impact of the amendment. If it became law, while all providers would be required to provide a filtered service parents would still be able to opt for a filter-free service if they chose to do so. In doing so, they would need to

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verify their age, but account holders already need to be over 18. What difference would this amendment make? Arguably, the difference would be that parents would make the choice at the point of sale, rather than being able, as they can currently, to choose to customise their settings according to family circumstance and context.

In addition, this amendment would place significant burdens on and potentially sound the death knell for the very smallest ISPs, which are in any case business focused—and this at a time when government is seeking to reduce regulation. Furthermore, parents have told the Government that they want the freedom to make this choice, which is why at present they are faced with an unavoidable choice. If we take this choice away from them, we risk their disengagement and apathy. Many may reject filters completely, leaving children less protected than they are now.

The internet can be an outlet for children’s creativity and a tool for social engagement. However, we are all aware that it brings risks. We share a responsibility to ensure that children make use of digital opportunities in a safe and supported way. I believe strongly that self-regulation and partnership have got us further than regulation in this area would have done, given the pace and complexity of change. Filters are an important part of our approach to online safety. I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, introduced her internet safety Private Member’s Bill in 2012, before the current parental control filters and the unavoidable choice had been introduced. I pay tribute to her and others who have engaged with this important debate. It has reaped results already, but we are not complacent and the debate is now moving on.

I have painted a broad picture of the issues concerning online safety and I thank the House for its tolerance. I have done so to highlight the range of challenges that we face and the collective approach needed to address them. Through work with industry, we are improving the tools available to families, who now have the resources that they need to keep their children safe online. Through schools, we are equipping children with digital skills and the understanding that they need. Through awareness-raising, we are supporting parents to engage in these matters.

While I know that all noble Lords here wholeheartedly agree that children should be protected from harmful digital content, which is the intention behind the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, I hope that they are reassured that the Government’s current approach is the right one. Therefore, I ask that the noble Baroness withdraw her amendment.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern: Before my noble friend sits down, can she help me on one point? Can she recommend any better protection than this amendment specifies? If not, why should we allow children to be able to access this type of material until the negotiations are complete, which will not be tomorrow or the next day?

8.15 pm

Baroness Jolly: I thank the noble and learned Lord for his question. I said earlier that there is not a silver bullet in this situation. This is a very elegant amendment

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and, as I say, it is really very seductive—but as soon as it has been enacted, we will find that people will develop workarounds and we will be back to square one. Parental and educational means are the best way forward.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken today. There was an amazing range of huge expertise and concern for our children. It was interesting to hear the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, as a new Member of the House. She is clearly going to be involved in lots of such things.

The Minister indicated exactly why I want to put this to a vote: each time one puts pressure on the Government, it improves the situation. It is important that we have age verification; there is no doubt about that, when we think of the amount of material that is streamed into this country, not able to be accessed, theoretically, via any of the routes, but nevertheless able to enter this way carrying R18 material—live streams from outside the UK. So I am very grateful for the range of comments made, I think we will all be thinking about this for a very long time, and I would like to test the opinion of the House.

8.17 pm

Division on Amendment 50D

Contents 65; Not-Contents 124.

Amendment 50D disagreed.

Division No.  4

CONTENTS

Adams of Craigielea, B.

Andrews, B.

Bach, L.

Benjamin, B.

Boothroyd, B.

Bradley, L.

Brookman, L.

Browne of Belmont, L.

Campbell-Savours, L.

Carter of Coles, L.

Cormack, L.

Crawley, B.

Donaghy, B.

Drake, B.

Farrington of Ribbleton, B.

Finlay of Llandaff, B. [Teller]

Foster of Bishop Auckland, L.

Foulkes of Cumnock, L.

Framlingham, L.

Gale, B.

Gardner of Parkes, B.

Gordon of Strathblane, L.

Goschen, V.

Gould of Potternewton, B.

Greaves, L.

Greenway, L.

Harris of Haringey, L.

Hayter of Kentish Town, B.

Healy of Primrose Hill, B.

Hooper, B.

Howarth of Breckland, B.

Howarth of Newport, L.

Howe of Idlicote, B.

Howells of St Davids, B.

Hoyle, L.

Hylton, L.

Jones, L.

Jones of Moulsecoomb, B.

King of Bow, B.

Kirkhill, L.

Laming, L.

McAvoy, L.

McDonagh, B.

Mackay of Clashfern, L.

Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.

Maginnis of Drumglass, L.

Mawson, L.

Mendelsohn, L.

Morris of Yardley, B.

Pitkeathley, B.

Prescott, L.

Prosser, B.

Roberts of Llandudno, L.

Royall of Blaisdon, B.

Scotland of Asthal, B.

Smith of Basildon, B.

Stevenson of Balmacara, L.

Swinfen, L.

Trees, L.

Tunnicliffe, L. [Teller]

Turnberg, L.

Warnock, B.

Wheeler, B.

Whitaker, B.

Whitty, L.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 961

NOT CONTENTS

Addington, L.

Ahmad of Wimbledon, L.

Allan of Hallam, L.

Anelay of St Johns, B.

Ashton of Hyde, L.

Astor of Hever, L.

Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, B.

Balfe, L.

Bates, L.

Berridge, B.

Black of Brentwood, L.

Blencathra, L.

Borwick, L.

Bourne of Aberystwyth, L.

Brabazon of Tara, L.

Brady, B.

Brinton, B.

Brougham and Vaux, L.

Burnett, L.

Carrington of Fulham, L.

Chidgey, L.

Colwyn, L.

Cope of Berkeley, L.

Courtown, E.

Craigavon, V.

De Mauley, L.

Deighton, L.

Dholakia, L.

Dixon-Smith, L.

Dobbs, L.

Dundee, E.

Dykes, L.

Eaton, B.

Eccles, V.

Eccles of Moulton, B.

Evans of Bowes Park, B.

Fookes, B.

Forsyth of Drumlean, L.

Freeman, L.

Freud, L.

Garden of Frognal, B.

Gardiner of Kimble, L.

Garel-Jones, L.

Geddes, L.

Hamwee, B.

Hanham, B.

Harding of Winscombe, B.

Higgins, L.

Hodgson of Abinger, B.

Holmes of Richmond, L.

Home, E.

Howe, E.

Humphreys, B.

Hunt of Wirral, L.

Hussain, L.

Inglewood, L.

Janke, B.

Jolly, B.

Jopling, L.

Kakkar, L.

King of Bridgwater, L.

Kirkham, L.

Kirkwood of Kirkhope, L.

Kramer, B.

Lang of Monkton, L.

Leigh of Hurley, L.

Lingfield, L.

Loomba, L.

Ludford, B.

Luke, L.

Lyell, L.

MacGregor of Pulham Market, L.

Magan of Castletown, L.

Manzoor, B.

Mar and Kellie, E.

Miller of Chilthorne Domer, B.

Mobarik, B.

Montrose, D.

Morris of Bolton, B.

Moynihan, L.

Neville-Rolfe, B.

Newby, L. [Teller]

Noakes, B.

Northover, B.

Pannick, L.

Perry of Southwark, B.

Popat, L.

Purvis of Tweed, L.

Randerson, B.

Redesdale, L.

Saatchi, L.

Scriven, L.

Seccombe, B.

Selborne, E.

Selsdon, L.

Shackleton of Belgravia, B.

Sharkey, L.

Sheikh, L.

Shephard of Northwold, B.

Sherbourne of Didsbury, L.

Shields, B.

Shipley, L.

Smith of Newnham, B.

Spicer, L.

Stedman-Scott, B.

Stoneham of Droxford, L.

Stowell of Beeston, B.

Strasburger, L.

Strathclyde, L.

Suttie, B.

Taylor of Holbeach, L. [Teller]

Tebbit, L.

Tope, L.

Tordoff, L.

True, L.

Ullswater, V.

Verma, B.

Wallace of Saltaire, L.

Wallace of Tankerness, L.

Warsi, B.

Wasserman, L.

Wei, L.

Whitby, L.

Williams of Trafford, B.

8.28 pm

Amendment 50E not moved.

Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 9.29 pm.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 962

Houses of Parliament: World Heritage Site

Question for Short Debate

8.29 pm

Asked by Baroness Boothroyd

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to preserve the Houses of Parliament as part of a World Heritage Site.

Baroness Boothroyd (CB): My Lords, shortly before the Summer Recess, and almost unnoticed, UNESCO announced its intention to put the Palace of Westminster on its danger list of world heritage sites. It was not referring to the urgent need to repair and restore the fabric of this building. It was alarmed by the increasing number of high-rise tower blocks being built and planned along the South Bank. UNESCO reminded us that Parliament’s historic setting on the Thames was recognised throughout the world as the home of British democracy; that the Houses of Parliament are a unique and distinctive part of London’s skyline; and that this place, along with Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s, was of such “outstanding universal value”—those are UNESCO’s words, not mine—that its importance transcended national boundaries.

Those of us who work here tend to take that for granted and we assume too easily that the universal affection for this place, if not for its politicians, will protect it. UNESCO’s glowing description encourages us to believe that to be true—but it is a false assumption. UNESCO has now sounded the alarm. English Heritage, Westminster City Council and other cultural bodies have registered their dismay at the dangers posed by the loosely controlled planning laws which allow the South Bank to become London’s second-biggest building site, which can no longer be ignored. The growing number of tower blocks being planned for the other bank jeopardise the status and integrity of this Westminster site on which this palace and our Parliament stand.

Visitors who flock here from all parts of the world have no idea what is happening and I believe that many people in this country are none the wiser either. Since April, 127,000 visitors have paid to be shown around—but, of course, the total of constituency and other groups is far greater in number than that. There is affection for and interest in this place at home and abroad. A recent survey ranked the Houses of Parliament fourth out of 80 attractions in terms of the enjoyment that people get from coming here. Yet we now face the prospect of being delisted as a fully protected part of our national and world heritage.

If the redevelopment of the South Bank continues at its present rate, this ancient seat of government will be diminished. The Government have the power to prevent it but, unfortunately, have refused to use their authority. If this continues, we face the prospect of a wall of high-rise, high-density tower blocks stretching in a jagged line from Waterloo to Vauxhall. If that is allowed, it would ruin the dominant setting that this place has enjoyed for centuries on this stretch of the river.

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Waterloo nearby is identified by Lambeth Council as a “major development opportunity”. The Mayor of London agrees. Noble Lords have only to look at the architects’ illustrations for the redevelopment of the Shell site and the adjacent Elizabeth House project to realise the enormous size and scale of what is planned. Here I have two sets of architects’ sketches which show the planned development along the South Bank. Would it not be helpful if we were to be made more aware of what is proposed by developers there? Would it not also be helpful to us all if our Lord Speaker were kind enough to arrange an exhibition which graphically explains the proposed development on the South Bank and at the same time provide us with an update on the state of the parliamentary fabric, about which many of us know very little?

I am afraid that we are approaching the point of no return. So far, the Government have paid lip service to our heritage and have let the building boom rip. I understand that the Tower of London was lucky to avoid a similar danger notice. If this place is confronted by citadels of glass, steel and concrete on the other side, UNESCO has no choice but to tell the world that we are failing to meet our obligations. It would be a shameful blow to this country’s reputation, a dereliction of the Government’s responsibilities and a betrayal of future generations. Nothing like this has happened in continental Europe and it must not be allowed to happen here.

The more that I look at this, the more amazed I become. Here we are, cherished throughout the world but at the mercy of local councils and developers who enjoy the Government’s wholehearted support. What does UNESCO want? It wants the Government to strengthen the planning laws and create buffer zones between the high-rise development to protect this Westminster setting. Mr Eric Pickles, the local government Secretary, sees no harm in building a new, eight-tower cluster around the existing Shell building across the river—one of them 37 storeys high. Boris Johnson also gave his blessing. It is a far cry from when he defended Westminster’s heritage before he became Mayor of London. He changed his tune when he was elected; he should do so again before he resumes his parliamentary career.

In June, when I heard of UNESCO’s intention to put Westminster on the danger list, I sought an emergency debate, but I was unsuccessful. This Motion has been on the Order Paper since June. A week later, in early June but only after intense diplomatic pressure, UNESCO decided to give the Government another chance. It set a new deadline of 1 February, only nine weeks away, for the Government to respond to its warning. It will then review the situation at its next annual session in Bonn in June. So there is little time left and the omens are not good.

In their submission to UNESCO last year, the Government opposed the need for tighter planning controls on the grounds that they would not suit London’s “metropolitan character”—which I take to mean that it would hinder foreign investment. The Government also said that it would “unreasonably limit” London’s development, which I take to mean that it would restrict the height and density of the

26 Nov 2014 : Column 964

massive developments that attract overseas investors. The borough councils on the south bank are willing participants in the building frenzy, which is the biggest, I understand, for 300 years. The councils were supposed to discuss the new framework for major projects on their side of the river that affect this place; but they have not met for a year because, I am told, there is no prospect of them agreeing anything.

As your Lordships know, these uncertainties arise at a time when we face enormous upheaval in this building. The first stage has begun of the programme to restore and renew the Palace of Westminster as a legislature fit for the 21st century and beyond. Independent consultants have been commissioned to present three options of how best to proceed after the election. The next Parliament will choose its preferred option in 2016 and work is envisaged to start after 2020. The information I have got is from the BBC, which tells us that the cost of the entire programme has risen to an estimated £3 billion—£3,000 million—and probably more. Nobody knows for sure, because we do not know the cost of the options. The House of Commons had a brief debate on this issue on 11 November. As we know, this House is equally involved but we have not yet had a similar opportunity. I hope that pretty soon we will get one.

The future of the Palace of Westminster is in the melting pot. Tonight I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that the Government will preserve Westminster’s status as a world heritage site. I ask him: will the Government review the planning laws that endanger it? Will the Minister convey to the Government my feelings, which I think are the feelings of many of your Lordships, about the need to take urgent action now and to make it clear at the highest level that, while foreign investment is welcome, our heritage is not for sale?

8.39 pm

Lord Dobbs (Con): My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow that passionate speech by the noble Baroness, and I am very grateful to her for introducing this debate. There is a huge issue about our continuation as a world heritage site but also, as she referred to at the end of her speech, about us continuing in any state at all right now. We face some desperate problems, and there are some real decisions to be made in this place about the future of this House. Perhaps I could spend just a couple of minutes, before other speakers venture, on putting this in its historical context.

This is, of course, not the first time that we have faced a real problem here, because 180 years ago these great Houses of Parliament were in a desperate state. Parliament was said to be vile and filled with rats and river smells; indeed, it was said to be a second edition of the black hole of Calcutta. It was full of rubbish and part of that rubbish was the tally tax sticks, which we had used for centuries to calculate and to charge taxes. It was decided that we would burn them, which seemed a very sensible idea at the time. A furnace was used—the furnace which heated the House of Lords—and the tally sticks were put into the furnace in order to destroy them and to heat this House. That seemed like a fool-proof plan because it was a coal-burning furnace

26 Nov 2014 : Column 965

and coal burns at about 600 to 800 degrees centigrade, while the flues were lined with copper, which melts at a little more than 1,000 degrees centigrade.

It should have been a fool-proof plan except, of course, that wood burns differently. Old wood burns fiercely and dry old wood burns quite ferociously. When Mr Cross, the workman involved, went for his tea and his pint at the Star and Garter over the road, as it then was, at four o’clock, he thought that the job was finished. But by six o’clock the flames were leaping past the windows of the House of Lords, and in one evening this perhaps less than magnificent but historic site was laid to ruin, with the exception of Westminster Hall. At the time, it became a great attraction and a sightseeing tour. One contemporary account put it thus:

“Never was a spectacle so much enjoyed. All London went to see the fire—and a very beautiful fire it was”.

I take that from the extraordinary book by a wonderful archivist, Caroline Shenton, called The Day Parliament Burned Down. Anybody who loves this House, as I do, should read it and will enjoy it. I am told that when the roof of the House of Commons fell in as a result of the fire, the crowd looking on burst into spontaneous applause. We politicians should know our place.

Out of that disaster came something of great beauty: this extraordinary Palace, which we have cherished for 160 years since it was opened. As the noble Baroness said, it is the site of the visitors who flock here with awe. How many of us, no matter how long we have spent in this place, have not taken visitors around and seen the awe that inspires them in this building? Of course, the 160 years since it opened have taken their toll in wear and tear. This place is stuffed full of asbestos; it is also stuffed full of mice. If you look at Big Ben, you will perhaps see a wonderful Gothic clock tower but a structural engineer will tell you that it is a chimney waiting to do its business. As the noble Baroness said, this is more than a building: it is perhaps the most iconic building in the entire world. It is also a symbol—a symbol which captures a spirit, a culture and a defiant sense of freedom that Britain has always been known for.

I entirely endorse the noble Baroness’s plea for a balance, and that is what it should be. We must not prevent London becoming, as it is, the most exciting and dynamic city in the world, but a balance has to be maintained. That is why this place must be preserved, not for us but for future generations. The tourists whom we take around this place would think we were mad if we allowed this place either to fall into decay or not to be given the appropriate treatment.

I will conclude simply by saying that when Mrs Cross, the doorkeeper of the House of Lords, at six o’clock on that fateful night 180 years ago, took two visitors into the Chamber, the visitors said, “There is a strange smell coming from this place”. She said, “Don’t worry, there is often an awful stink comes out of here”. I hope that we do not make the same mistake as Mrs Cross and that we preserve what is one of the most magnificent buildings anywhere in the world.

8.45 pm

Baroness Andrews (Lab): My Lords, it is a great pleasure to join this debate and to ally myself with the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, in discussing both

26 Nov 2014 : Column 966

the setting of this House, the threats to that and the future of the House itself. I am very reluctant to drag the House back to the 21st century. I would be very happy to explore with the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, the implications of having a good fire and seeing what we can achieve with that. However, we are at a very serious point for all the reasons that the noble Baroness spoke of regarding the future of this House: first, in relation to what is happening in the setting in general; and, secondly, in relation to the choices that we will have to make in the foreseeable future here.

I want to talk very briefly about one particular challenge in the shape of the replacement building which is planned for Elizabeth House. That has aroused particular problems for UNESCO, and it is in itself a case study of some of the real planning challenges that we have in London at the moment. The original proposal for a building to replace Elizabeth House across the river was approved by Lambeth Council in November 2012, in the face of strong opposition from both Westminster Council and English Heritage, of which I was then chair. As statutory consultees, our challenge to that building was extremely important, and we did not do it lightly.

The case that was made was that the scale and the mass of that building, as proposed, would do significant harm to the setting of the Palace, particularly when viewed from Parliament Square. I am sure that noble Lords can picture the airy space that is now between Portcullis House and the Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben, which is absolutely central to the identity, positioning, character and dignity of this building, as it has been since the beginning: it was going to be largely blocked by the mass of a new building. So alarmed were we by that that we asked the Secretary of State to call the planning application in. We were not entirely surprised that he refused. He is not a Secretary of State given to calling in planning applications—he likes local authorities to decide—but as this case was so exceptional we were surprised that he did. We therefore made a challenge through the courts, via judicial review, to have the application reviewed.

The High Court ruled that although the Secretary of State was within his rights to take the decision, the reasoning that he put forward—which was that it did not impact with significant harm on this building—was flawed. One commentator described the decision as bizarre. The application has gone back to Lambeth for resubmission. I have gone into detail because it is important in the context of what the noble Baroness has said about UNESCO. UNESCO has been worried about the world heritage site for a very long time. It is bound to be, because this site exemplifies what outstanding universal values and world heritage really are about. As the noble Lord said, it is an iconic building. Every child in the globe would probably recognise it. At its meeting in Doha in June, UNESCO recommended that the UK should find a way of ensuring that the proposals were not approved in the current form and were revised in line with the concerns expressed.

Lambeth has come forward with the revised proposal but I am assured, and this is the reason why English Heritage is sustaining its objection, that this second proposal is very much unchanged from the first. It is very similar to the first, so we still have a big problem.

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That is important because, when it comes to consider it in February, UNESCO will look to see whether the application has changed. If it decides that the world heritage site should be put on the blacklist, we will be in serious trouble. We have the reputation as leaders in the world of heritage. If we cannot take care of our heritage, how can we conceivably expect the other 191 countries that signed the convention to do so?

Not only do we have what is happening to the river, but we have a particular instance about this building. Conserving this building is of the highest priority for us as parliamentarians. The biography of our country is written in this building. It will be for our generation to decide what will happen. It has been entirely our responsibility to care for it, but only since 1992. An excellent conservation plan was put forward in 2007, which won the Europa Nostra prize. We understand this building better than we have ever understood it. We know what to do. The question will be how to determine the order of priority and how to make the proper judgment. English Heritage has been fully involved in that, which gives us great confidence. However, the challenge is the long term: the different choices and the outcomes that will depend on those choices. I hope that these decisions will be shared by both Houses and that both Houses, working together, will have a very clear idea of the process, and of how to be involved in and properly manage that process on behalf of the Palace.

This is not a building at risk; it is a tired building. It needs a lot of love and attention. I hope that we will be worthy of the task when it falls to us to make the decisions.

8.51 pm

Lord Addington (LD): My Lords, when I put my name down for the debate, I concentrated on the fabric of the building itself and not so much on the idea of us as an important cultural centre for the world. However, I will make one major observation about this. We are part of the original megacity, London, which is growing and developing around us and going through something of a renaissance and a rebuild. One of the reasons we want to preserve the building is because it is a good environment: it has certain cultural aspects and key points. We will probably damage our ability to attract future generations if we do not preserve the heart and soul of the site. The area around the Palace of Westminster is clearly one of those places.

The Government have a duty to say exactly what they will preserve, how they will keep it intact and how they will keep what is attracting people here and making them want to build. There is a balance between development and preserving what we have to make it attractive and to make it work together. It is never an easy thing to do, and we have plenty of examples around our country where it has not worked that well. The Government have to start to answer how they see that balance being fulfilled. If they do, the rest of the argument will become more coherent.

When it comes to the fabric of the building itself, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, was on fine form when he

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described how things had changed dramatically in the past to get to where we now are. I do not think we want to encourage too vigorous a model of redevelopment in the modern world. On renovation and redevelopment, the noble Baroness described the building as “tired”. I have heard stories about the confused wiring, the pipes that we do not know where they are, the patching up and the, “By the way, you know we’ll have to move out when a certain water main goes and all the water goes into the electric cables?”. I have heard those stories for two decades-plus. I am quite sure that we could patch up and make do and mend for decades to come. However, we probably should not. We should probably have the courage to turn around and say, “We will have to inconvenience ourselves”. Parliament is not good at inconveniencing itself. We are very good at telling other people to do it, but we are not good at doing it ourselves. We will have to inconvenience ourselves by making some form of alternative arrangement for the way we sit and function.

However, as I am at pains to tell everybody I take round this old building, the Palace, magnificent as it is, is not Parliament; we and the representational authority we contain are Parliament, and we can meet in a field if we want to. I would not recommend it—certainly not at this time of year—but we could do it if we had to. There are probably buildings around the area that could contain us and be used as chambers for debate. Let us face it— we moved around in the past, so we could do it. I encourage the Government and everybody within the Palace and structure to be brave enough to say, “We will inconvenience ourselves slightly for a period of time to make sure that this wonderful structure is kept going”.

Whenever I get fed up and feel overworked and unloved, I walk up and down the Royal Gallery and remind myself that people would literally kill to be here but that it is something they can only dream about. I remember how when I first got here and walked around, my chin bouncing off my chest, I thought, “I am in this wonderful place”. It may not be the most beautiful building in the world—some people would say that it is, some would not—but it may well be one of the most magnificent and special. If we cannot invest a little time and effort and inconvenience ourselves to make sure that it carries on, we are not worthy to be here at all.

8.56 pm

Lord Cormack (Con): My Lords, this is a splendid debate, and we are deeply grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing it in the inimitably feisty way in which she did. This House and another place have great reason to be eternally thankful to the noble Baroness, not least for what she said this evening.

When I first entered the House of Commons I could stand on Westminster Bridge and, although realising of course that it was a totally different scene, recognise that the words of Wordsworth, written at the beginning of the 19th century, still resonated:

“Earth has not anything to show more fair”.

I love this building. Over 30 years ago I wrote a book about it, trying to express that affection. However, I quickly became aware that our planning policies were

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deeply flawed. The first internal parliamentary fight I had—I am glad to say we won—was to defeat a proposal for a 300-foot high bronze and glass building designed by Spence and Webster on the site where Portcullis House now stands. We saw that one off. Michael Hopkins’s Portcullis House is not everybody’s cup of tea, but it is a well mannered building because it respects, in its height, the buildings around it.

It is 40 years ago since I introduced a skyline protection Bill in the other House, because I was conscious of the fact that the great city of Paris was protecting its skyline and we were not. I lost that battle because neither party was prepared to be sufficiently vigorous and vigilant. I level that charge at both major parties; the philistines have prevailed too often, and for too long. Now, as was pointed out by both the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, to whom we are, again, much in debt, we are threatened with buildings that will destroy the skyline around this great complex of buildings—the Palace, the Abbey and St Margaret’s—in the way that the skyline has been destroyed around St Paul’s. Anyone who has a real feeling for historic buildings only has to look at those great Canalettos and weep internally at what has gone. We could have developed as a vigorous city without raping the skyline. I hope that the call to arms that has been sounded tonight by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, will be heeded. We need a proper debate in this place about the future of the Palace of Westminster.

This Palace is not ours to possess but ours to guard for future generations. I believe that it is the greatest building erected anywhere in the world in the 19th century. Even if noble Lords cannot go along with me as far as that, there is surely no one who can fail to be moved by this wonderful achievement, which is itself symbolic of our country’s history and which contains so much of that history in the statues, the paintings and everything else.

Whether we have to move out for a brief period, I do not know, but the noble Lord, Lord Addington, is quite right to say that we have to consider these things seriously. I hope that we can remain within the Palace, and I am sure that he would like that to be the case, but we have to face the realities. I have been down into the bowels of this building and have seen the wires and the pipes. I know that there is a great problem. Whatever the immediate solution to that problem is, the long-term solution must be the preservation of this place as a symbol of our democracy and for the enjoyment of our people and of people around the world. These three buildings are a priceless asset. They must be preserved and enjoyed. To enjoy them, people have to be able to see them—including from a distance—rather than see that the philistines have prevailed here. I hope that my noble friend, for whom I have great regard and who I know has a personal feeling and affection for great buildings, will be able to give us an encouraging reply this evening.

Lord Framlingham (Con): My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, could I ask him to agree that on world heritage sites, ancient trees are sometimes as important as ancient buildings? The catalpa trees in

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New Palace Yard, which he and I helped to preserve some 30 years ago, and the pleated lime walk there add immeasurably to the whole atmosphere of the Palace of Westminster.

Lord Cormack: Of course I entirely agree. I remember that campaign with great affection. My noble friend is an expert on trees, who came to the rescue by saying: “You do not need to chop them down; they can survive”. So can this place.


9.02 pm

Lord Maxton (Lab): My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baroness—at one time I would have called her my noble friend—

Baroness Boothroyd: You still can.

Lord Maxton: I still can; I thank her very much. She sat in the Commons with me on the Labour Benches and was my noble friend then. I also congratulate her on the very eloquent way in which she put her point of view today. I agree wholeheartedly with her that we must preserve this building and make sure that it fits within the context of the London that we all admire and want to see. Where I disagree with her and every other speaker so far, I think, is on the state of this building and what must be done about it. In my view, this building is on the verge of collapse. It is very close to having a major catastrophe. Either the roof will fall in, a pipe will burst or there will be some sewerage problem; something will happen which will make this building almost untenable.

I am told that the present thinking is that we will soldier on, keep going, preserve what we have and, every so often, every recess, some work will be done—probably in the Summer Recesses. That cannot work. First, it is by far the most expensive option being considered for the building. The cheapest option is that we move out completely and that the building is then reconstructed and preserved as it ought to be. It ought to be a major historic building. Apparently, we will be out for some five years. Obviously, during that time the costs will include the costs of wherever we go.

The real question is: should we come back or should we build a brand new Parliament somewhere else? Should we build a brand new legislature for the 21st century, designed to include the rapid changes that have already taken place, which this building does not do, and the changes that will take place in our lifetime—my lifetime is now comparatively short, but within my lifetime, and certainly within my children’s and my grandchildren’s lifetime? In my view, yes.

This building could become a great historic and tourist attraction—it already is. That is one of its problems: there is a clash all the time between the visitors paying to come in and the fact that it is a working building, the legislature of the United Kingdom. Surely it is time that we stopped doing that. It is time that we built a brand new Parliament somewhere else, that we redeveloped this building properly for its historic resonance so that we, the taxpayer—or they, the taxpayers, as they would consider it—will not have to bear the full cost of that.

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We should think for a moment. If we redevelop this building in five years’ time, totally restore it, there will not be one extra new office for Members of Parliament or for Peers. There will still be outbuildings which will be used for that purpose. I think that the time has come when we have to say that enough is enough; this building cannot be preserved.

We can help to pay for the cost of preservation and the cost of the new building by selling off the real estate we own all around this place. We own enormous amounts of real estate. I am not saying that we should not put very strict planning laws on it—we should—but we own a large amount of very valuable property around the place. There is only a small part of this building which is historic. The interior of the building is historic; parts of the interior, from the Robing Room down to the Speaker’s Chair, are of historic importance, and so are the Committee Rooms upstairs—but that is really all. The rest of it could be used for other purposes and it could make money as a result. I am not saying, hand it over to the Russian oligarchs or anybody else—please preserve it from that—but let us at least consider the options. We could have a new Parliament, a new legislature somewhere else, preferably outside London altogether, built for the 21st century, and this building could then be properly developed, as it ought to be, as a historic building.

Lord Dobbs: Before the noble Lord sits down, is there not a simpler solution, which would be to cut the numbers in this House down to a sensible number, reduce all those overheads, and do the same thing down at the other end? Then we could all be accommodated in this wonderful building and we could carry on with this great tradition.

Lord Maxton: The costs of the Members of the House of Lords and Members of Parliament are relatively small in comparison to the total cost of the preservation of this building. I do not intend to go into detail, because my time is up, but I dispute the noble Lord’s solution. I think we ought to cut the numbers in this place, yes, and I assume that the Liberal Democrats will be doing so after the next election.

9.08 pm

Lord Tunnicliffe (Lab): My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, for introducing this debate. It has become two debates; one about the Palace of Westminster and one about its siting within a world heritage site. As accommodation Whip I have worked with the House authorities over the years and I admire their competence and thoroughness. The process and the studies they have gone into in looking at the palace are well summarised in the Q&A section of the Library’s pack. It concludes by saying:

“A final decision to proceed with a comprehensive restoration and renewal programme would require the agreement of both Houses”.

I have some experience in the refurbishment of listed buildings. I was responsible for 80 in my previous life and I have a good feel for what these things cost and how difficult they are. This project does not have the slightest chance of costing less than £1 billion. So

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my first question to the Minister is: when the two Houses have agreed what they want to do, what are the Government going to do about it? Will they find the £1 billion necessary?

Three options have been suggested by the House authorities. Option 3 is to vacate the premises completely so that they can be worked on over a period and brought back quickly and efficiently to a usable state. In my estimation—I again stress that I have some experience in this regard—that will be overwhelmingly the cheapest option, and the best value for money. It will also be, I put it to noble Lords, the least popular option among Members. If option 3 is shown to be the best value for money but the two Houses agree that they would rather have the work done around them, will Her Majesty’s Government overrule the two Houses on the basis of value for money, cost-effectiveness and a proper respect for taxpayers’ money?

I now turn to the UNESCO Elizabeth House saga. UNESCO’s position is clear. In the latest document that it sent to us it,

“reiterates its request to the State Party”—

that is, the UK—

“to ensure that the proposal is not approved in its current form and that it be revised in line with the concerns raised by expert bodies, including English Heritage”.

The debate so far has already been summarised, but perhaps it is best summarised in one of UNESCO’s earlier documents, which says:

“In its letter of 2 April 2013, the State Party”—

again, that is the UK—

“reported that, because of the concerns of English Heritage, the proposal had been referred on 4 January 2013 to the Secretary of State for his consideration whether to call it in for decision at national level following a public inquiry. The Secretary of State decided not to call in the application but to leave it to the London Borough of Lambeth. He considered that the proposed development does not ‘involve a conflict with national policies, have significant effects beyond the immediate locality, give rise to substantial cross boundary or national controversy, or raise significant architectural or urban design issues’”.

How could the Secretary of State possibly have come to that conclusion? I find it impossible to see how he did. He has, essentially, abdicated his responsibility to make a national decision about a national issue and given it to the London Borough of Lambeth. Lambeth, commendably, has reacted to the court ruling by reconsidering the application. I believe that that will happen on 9 December. But it is unfair to put this burden on poor little Lambeth. What do I mean by that? There is no criticism of Lambeth in those words, but Lambeth’s responsibilities are to the citizens of its borough—to their narrow concerns. It has strong concerns and views as to why the project might be sensible and might be favoured, but it does not have responsibility for a world heritage site. It is poor, as all local authorities are, and it cannot afford a big legal battle with a rich, powerful developer.

I ask the Government: why did the Secretary of State decide not to call in the proposal? Did he really want the development to go ahead—knowing, because of Lambeth’s already declared preferences, that if he did not call it in, it would go ahead? Or is he so

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committed to the dogma, or doctrine, that a local council should have sole responsibility, whatever the wider consequences?

I do not have a view about Elizabeth House. It is not an easy decision; it involves a balance between the importance of the world heritage site and the development opportunities in Lambeth. That decision should be taken after deep and careful thought—and I believe that it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility to have called in the proposal and to have had that thoughtful discussion through a public inquiry. He should have properly shouldered the burden of this difficult decision.

9.14 pm

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My Lords, it is a privilege to reply to this debate because this building represents so much about Britain across the world. It has been a symbol of freedom to the world through some of the darkest periods in history, and we have a responsibility to ensure its conservation. More than 1 million people, including 40,000 schoolchildren, visit the palace each year; millions more are drawn to the Westminster area.

The noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, has demonstrated tonight, as she has throughout her long and distinguished career in public service, her devotion to the Houses of Parliament and to all that they signify. This is a magnificent building, one of the most recognisable in the world. My noble friend Lord Dobbs spoke of some of its history and what it represents. The United Kingdom is the custodian of 28 out of a total of 1,005 current UNESCO world heritage sites, three of which are located in the capital. The Palace of Westminster, together with Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s parish church, form the UNESCO Westminster World Heritage Site. As with all 28 of our world heritage sites, the Government are very proud of the Palace of Westminster, and I can assure your Lordships that the Government take their responsibilities to conserve it very seriously indeed.

Parliament has been responsible for the upkeep of the Palace of Westminster since 1992, when the expert staff of the former Property Services Agency were transferred to Parliament to form what is now known as the Parliamentary Estates Directorate. The palace is therefore no longer a direct government responsibility, and the Government exercise their duties under the UNESCO convention, primarily through the good offices of English Heritage.

Conserving the physical fabric of the Palace of Westminster is a considerable undertaking, as many noble Lords have said. A comprehensive regime of conservation maintenance is in place, which comprises regular inspection programmes that have been in progress for many years. This includes the conservation management plan, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, mentioned, was a recipient of the Europa Nostra award in 2005. This plan is due to be reviewed in 2015. As a consequence, much work has been undertaken or is already in progress. This includes work on the cast-iron roof tiles and the repair of the encaustic tiles designed by Minton, which have suffered from wear over the last 160 years. One of the oldest and most significant parts of the palace is Westminster

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Hall. The internal stonework has been cleaned and the conservation of the carved bosses is nearing completion. It was fascinating yesterday to be shown this exceptional work by Adrian Attwood, the project director, and Kimberly Renton, the head conservator. I congratulate them and all the craftsmen and women who have been involved in that project.

Consistent with the conservation management plan, works have been commissioned over the past three years in many additional areas of the palace. These include efforts to re-render the brickwork in the House of Commons, survey and repair the Sovereign’s Entrance gates, refurbish Elizabeth Tower and conserve the House of Lords Library, as well as endeavours to conserve the stonework of the external cloisters and the Star Chamber.

The noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, raised the important issue of continuing maintenance and the independent options appraisal sanctioned by the House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords House Committee, which is due to report in 2015 on the long-term renovation strategies for the palace. I was intrigued by the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, for a new parliament building. I suspect that he will not be surprised if I tell him that I am a traditionalist.

The appraisal will deliver costed analysis of options for the repair and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. It will inform the deliberations of both Houses on the most appropriate options that strike a balance between taxpayer expenditure, timescale and relevant disruption. The work will also be an opportunity to consider broader improvements, including, for instance, disability access to the palace. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about government staff. I am sure that he will not be surprised to hear that I think it would be prudent to wait and see what the options are and what the cost analysis is. That would be the sensible approach, but I am mindful not only of his experience of the task of maintaining ancient buildings but of the balance that will need to be struck. These matters will obviously be for consideration by the next Government.

The report will focus specifically on the substantial remedial works that are necessary to replace the building’s fundamental utilities and services. The Palace of Westminster is a historic symbol of democracy. I was very much taken with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, about its being so much part of the biography of our nation. It is also a functioning, working environment. I believe that the best option for buildings of historic significance is to ensure their continued use. The Government will support Parliament in its overall objectives to ensure the longevity of both these vital functions within the unique context of this irreplaceable building.

Westminster lies at the heart of a dynamic world city. London is an economic powerhouse, and continued development is essential to its future success and, indeed, to that of the United Kingdom. Through the centuries the capital has managed to do so by balancing the old with the new. My noble friends Lord Addington and Lord Dobbs spoke of balance, and I very much agree. The London skyline has outstanding artistic and architectural merits in its own right. Indeed, many

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new developments, from the Gherkin to the Shard, can be sensitive and repect those iconic buildings that long preceded their construction.

Turning to planning, which is very much part of this debate, the Government believe that the best way to address planning proposals is to ensure existing policy and guidance are properly applied by those who make decisions. Our country has a strong planning system which provides for heritage protection, and the protections for world heritage properties in the United Kingdom, including in London, have been strengthened in recent years. Such policy includes the London views management framework, the mayor’s supplementary planning guidance on the settings of London’s world heritage sites, development plans of the London boroughs and the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework, which states that world heritage properties should be treated as,

“designations of the highest significance”.

Planning decisions will, quite rightly, be taken at the local level, and the Government will use their power to call in an application for their own decision only in particular circumstances. These circumstances are outlined in Section 77(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. The Act identifies issues that are beyond a purely local interest. These issues may include overarching national policy, economic growth considerations and matters relating to urban design. It is therefore necessary to seek parity between the ongoing conservation of these sites and the wider benefit offered by planning proposals.

In recent months, issues surrounding the development applications for a number of sites within the surrounding area of the Palace of Westminster, as has been mentioned, have been the subject of considerable consideration. With regard to the plans for the developments at Vauxhall Cross, Vauxhall Island and Nine Elms, UNESCO has expressed concern about the potential impact that the plans for these locations will have on the Westminster World Heritage Site. English Heritage, in its capacity of holding a statutory role in the planning system affecting the historic environment, does not, interestingly, share UNESCO’s concerns. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and other noble Lords, however, spoke of the proposed development of Elizabeth House at Waterloo. The decision is the responsibility of Lambeth Council, and the recent High Court case heard by Mr Justice Collins confirmed that that is the case. As the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, mentioned, Lambeth Council will review the planning application in December. I know that the council is fully aware of its obligations and the balance that needs to be struck.

Finally, the Shell Centre development on the South Bank is currently the subject of a High Court challenge. It would obviously be impossible for me to comment on an issue that is now a matter for the court. Westminster was discussed at the World Heritage Convention in Doha. The committee discussed the impact that development may have on Westminster and its continuing status as a world heritage site. The committee also requested an updated state-of-conservation report by February, which is usual in such circumstances. The

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Government will again demonstrate our commitment to preserving this site by outlining the parliamentary authority’s rigorous plans for conservation, repair and renewal.

London has constantly been evolving and must adapt to its continued growth. There is a strong heritage protection in place through our planning policy to support sensitive and sustainable development. The Government will continue to work with UNESCO; emphasising our commitment to preserving Westminster’s Palace, Abbey and parish church. As a number of noble Lords have said, it is a great privilege to work in this iconic building. We cherish it and have great affection for it. As my noble friend Lord Cormack stressed, the palace hosts one of the busiest parliamentary institutions in the world and as a consequence there is a duty to provide a fully functioning and safe environment for the thousands of people who work within its walls and visit each day to engage in the political process.

I have listened very carefully to everything your Lordships have said, including the robust and strong views expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and others. I promise to reflect all that has been said to ministerial colleagues. We must ensure that the Palace of Westminster’s fabric, surroundings and iconic status are safeguarded effectively for the benefit of present and future generations. We are the current guardians, as my noble friend Lord Cormack said.

Constructive conservation, renewal enabling Parliament to function in a contemporary manner, and regard for its historic setting are all part of the challenges to secure the future of this great building at the heart of our national life.