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Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, on all proposals emanating from the Commission on financial services, we will vigorously defend British interests. We will continue to do so. Indeed, we believe that we have protected our interests in being able to do so by not signing up to the treaty. On the second question, I hope that I have dealt
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Lord Brittan of Spennithorne: Would my noble friend agree that, as financial services regulation can be passed without unanimity, the only reason such regulation has not been passed in a way that is unacceptable to this country over the last 30 years is because we have been able to get sufficient goodwill from our partners? In order to retain the goodwill which will continue to be needed in future, would my noble friend agree that it will be necessary-if not today, certainly soon-to make it clear that we are not going to try to stop the 26 going ahead by denying them the use of European Union institutions? That would be regarded as an act of great hostility and would deprive us of that goodwill in future.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, we very much want to retain goodwill and there is no reason why we should not do so. I say again that it is not yet entirely clear what role is being proposed for the EU institutions. We will want to look carefully at the details of what is proposed. No doubt we shall do so over the course of the next few months.
Lord Davies of Stamford: My Lords, does it not beggar belief to suppose that anybody could be so stupid or incompetent, if he really believed that there was a threat to national interests from a prospective change in financial service regulation in the EU, as to engineer a situation in which henceforth such regulation will be discussed and in practice decided in a context in which we will not even be in the room? Is it not absolutely clear that it was not national interests at all that drove the Prime Minister but party political interest and the desire to curry back the favour of the Tory Eurosceptics who gave him such a hard time last Wednesday? Does the Leader not think that the country is intelligent enough to see through the propaganda that they have heard this afternoon and to realise that the Prime Minister has played with the national interest for party political reasons?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, only the noble Lord could come out with that particular quip. Of course we feared the dangers to our national interests or we would not have said what we did. It takes two to agree but it also takes two to disagree. The other 26 could have wholly accepted that we had a deep concern about our national interest and agreed with us. Then there would have been a treaty of the 27.
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: My Lords, given that we have now cast the veto without stopping anything; that in the name of protecting the City of London we have made it more vulnerable; that we have in a time of crisis given greater incentive to investors to put their money in northern Europe than in isolated Britain; and that we have reduced our leverage in Europe and diminished our voice in Washington, is it not now necessary that we take every step to get ourselves out of the position that we find ourselves in, make ourselves relevant to the argument and get back in the game? How do we intend to do that? Does my noble friend realise how much depends for this country-and for this Government-on our success in doing so?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I cannot agree with my noble friend. We believe that we are very firmly in the game. Our voice is not diminished. It is strong. We have defended vital British interests and we will continue to do so in the single market at the level of 27.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, would the Minister confirm that, had the texts before the Council in Brussels been agreed by 27, not one word would have applied to this country because they solely concerned tighter arrangements for the eurozone countries? If that is so, it is a little hard to see why they were contrary to our interests. Would he also now perhaps answer the question that has been put to him quite a lot of times? There was a tried and trusted route used by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. In 1985, when she was voted down on the procedural issue of starting a treaty-changing negotiation, she nevertheless decided that her Government would participate in that negotiation. She stated that if it did not come out in a way that safeguarded British interests, she would have no hesitation in vetoing it at the end. In the end it came out for British interests. Why on earth did we not do that this time?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made an entirely appropriate and sensible decision on Friday night not to agree with the treaty that was going forward. He did so because he believed that vital British interests were at stake. Contrary to what the noble Lord said, our view is that the new treaty would have completely reshaped the whole basis of the EU treaties. We would have been dragged into a whole series of changes and evolutions that would not have served our interests well. That is why we vetoed it.
Lord Clinton-Davis: The complacency of the Leader of the House is mind-boggling. Has he not managed to discomfort the majority of the Liberal Democrats? He appeals to the worst instincts of the British people. As far as I can see, there is to be no repatriation of powers, no European Union allies and no real protection of the City. The Government have not been courageous but desperately cowardly and, most of all, barren of influence. Is that not the case?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am bound to say that I disagree with all of that. This was not about party but national interests. It was not about-what did he say?-playing to the worst aspects of the British character. That is quite wrong. This is the problem that noble Lords opposite find themselves in. Time and time again, they feel that agreeing with our European partners on everything will protect our long-term interests. We disagree.
Lord Trimble: My Lords, we are not absolutely sure of this but is it not likely that the issue will come back to the European Council if there is any attempt or desire on behalf of the eurozone people to make use of the institutions of the Union? When the issue comes back, we will be there making our point of view known. Did the Leader of the House hear on Radio 4 this morning the comment by the distinguished American economist that if you are not prepared to walk away you will have no leverage?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I did not hear that interview, but my noble friend is right. In any negotiation, particularly one as important and controversial as this one, you have to take a decision right at the beginning on whether you are going to negotiate in good faith. As I have already said, we put forward a proposal that was relatively humble, it was not agreed with, and that is why we said no.
Lord Bilimoria: My Lords, with the veto of the treaty, we are losing sight of the essence of this; it is about sorting out the eurozone mess. I have two questions. First, the Government seem to be encouraging greater fiscal union among the eurozone countries to sort out the eurozone problem. Surely the Government accept that the euro is dead in the water-in fact, it is under water-and that these countries will never be in sync, and fiscal union and handing of sovereignty realistically will never happen. If it were to happen, those countries would unite even more and we would be even more isolated.
Secondly, the Prime Minister insinuated in his Statement that the veto was almost a negotiating tactic, and that, if we did not use it, we would not be taken seriously as being able to protect our own interests. Surely, if that is the case and we intend to go back to the table, we might be seen not as a bulldog but as a dog returning with its tail between its legs.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the noble Lord says that the eurozone is in a mess and that it will not succeed. That is not the view of the British Government. We believe that the countries of the eurozone have got themselves together. It is true that they face a crisis, but the issue that needs to be resolved is how to solve that crisis, and to do so as quickly as possible, since, as every week goes by, it becomes more expensive to be able to do so. We think that sensible steps were taken forward over the last few days, but only the markets will decide whether the euro is to succeed. We
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Secondly, as to question of whether this was a negotiating tactic by the Prime Minister, it most certainly was not. Of course we understand that at this level these summits end up in negotiations. Indeed, we put forward a very fair proposal that we wholly expected the other European countries to agree to. They did not do so, and that is why the Prime Minister could not agree.
Baroness Morgan of Ely: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, if the Prime Minister had not attempted to pacify his party when he was first elected by leaving the European People's Party-a group to which both Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy belong-and hooked up with some pretty unsavoury parties from Eastern Europe, he would have been invited to the pre-summit meeting in Marseilles where he could have made his case? He locked his party out of the room and now he has locked the country out of the room.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, it is a nicely put question, but I cannot agree with the noble Baroness. We left the EPP for very good reasons to do with a different philosophical view of where the EPP was heading. I also cannot believe that, if we had been present at the Marseilles meeting, Thursday night would have ended up any differently.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, does the Leader of the House recognise the huge damage done to Britain's influence and reputation far beyond the European continent, as any reading of recent journals in the United States or, for that matter, in Russia indicates very clearly? Would he agree that, in the negotiating document that was put to the 26 by the Prime Minister, there were a number of issues that were already on the way to being resolved in ECOFIN, and some of them had already been resolved in ECOFIN 2009? Would he also agree that there were some issues that related to unanimous votes like the financial transfer tax, and therefore there was no threat to British interests? Finally, going back to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Ashdown, I ask whether the Prime Minister and the Government will now recognise fully the need to make a gesture towards the crucial importance of saving the eurozone, which is in our interests as much as in theirs, by making clear that the European institutions will not in any way be blocked from being part of the outcome of that difficult decision?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I really do not believe that Britain's influence or reputation have been affected in any way negatively by what was done at the end of last week. If anything, they have been enhanced. A British Prime Minister laid out very carefully what he was going to do to protect British vital interests. He went and negotiated, and when he could not get what
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On the question of the institutions of the EU, which I know are of great interest to many Members of this House, at this stage it is too early to take a view of what is proposed or all the detail of what is meant and what EU institutions are going to be asked to do at what stage. We will look very carefully at these proposals as they come out.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, there has been a lot of controversy about when exactly the British proposals were put before our colleagues in the European Union. May I follow up on the question raised by my noble friend Lord Mandelson and ask when exactly were these proposals put to the French?
Secondly, the text of the Statement twice refers to an intergovernmental arrangement being "not without risks". Can the Minister tell us what are the risks that the Government acknowledge are inherent in the intergovernmental position that is now before us?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I cannot give an exact date as to when the proposals were put to the French, but, if I can find out, I will be very happy to write to the noble Baroness. However, the generality of the Prime Minister's position has been well known for some weeks, and particularly over the course of the days leading up to the summit. Of course, even within an intergovernmental treaty, there are some risks attached. To some extent, we will have to wait to see exactly how that works out. As to the kind of risks, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, spelt out that there are some countries that might feel the need to go along with what the big countries in the intergovernmental treaty want. Again, we shall have to wait to see. Nobody should be under any illusions that the British Government will not continue to fight very strongly for vital British interests, whether it is within an EU treaty or an intergovernmental treaty.
Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, if I may strike a slightly more optimistic note, is my noble friend aware that our achievement in getting major headway on the Single European Act at the Luxembourg summit followed immediately after the Milan summit, in which our agenda scarcely received any attention at all? That is another rather surprising matter that went ahead without us having much enthusiasm for it. Is my noble friend aware that the future is not as gloomy or as difficult as some people might believe?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I very much welcome the positive note that my noble and learned friend brings to all of us. He is also right about the Single European Act, which was a vital and game-changing initiative. I agree with him that nothing is ever quite as bad as you think it is, and perhaps some things are not quite as good as you think they are either. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister made the right decision on Thursday night and, if he were asked again, he would do the same thing.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: May I congratulate my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on standing up for Britain and speaking for the people of this country, as opinions show? May I also congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on establishing a new principle that a weekend is a long time in politics?
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: I think this may be the last time that I get called. On the substance of the meeting, why did no one address the immediate crisis, which is what to do about repaying the debt? If anyone is isolated, is it not Germany because Germany needs to realise that she needs to write a cheque or allow the European Central Bank to be the banker of last resort and print money? We will otherwise go into deep crisis. This crisis is being used as an excuse for further integration and as such is deeply irresponsible.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend that the substance of the issue is to solve this economic crisis-an economic crisis which has a chilling effect on the rest of Europe, including this country. In the first instance in the short term, you have to have a firewall of money to stop contagion. Secondly, we accept that there need to be clearer fiscal rules so that countries cannot get into the trouble they have got into in the past. Thirdly, far more work needs to be done on competitiveness within Europe and between countries of the European Union. It is the only way that we are going to succeed in the long term.
Lord Lea of Crondall: Are the Government aware that the British press-the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Telegraph-are becoming more and more xenophobic in the way they treat this question? Is the Minister content with this trend whereby British public opinion seems to think that a "fight them on the beaches, fight them in the air, no surrender" policy is reasonable and one with which we can make friends and influence people around Europe?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I do not at all agree with the noble Lord. This is not about the newspapers. I think that the British people generally accept and support what the Prime Minister did because they understand that he was standing up for vital British interests.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, the Leader of the House has time and again stated the clear intention of Her Majesty's Government to assist the eurozone. Does he accept the stark reality of the situation; namely, that 17 countries with different economies and utterly disparate economic circumstances formed a eurozone but, when bad weather came along, disintegration became a very real possibility? In practice, the only two real possibilities are either that there
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Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, that is a huge question and one that requires a much longer debate on another occasion. However, I agree with the noble Lord that there is a mess. There needs to be discipline; whether that is in a United States of Europe is another question altogether.
Lord Garel-Jones: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that under the terms of Article 136 of the treaty of Rome, to which the United Kingdom is a signatory, those members of the eurozone have been entitled, and are entitled-we wish them well in doing so-to take measures specific to those member states whose currency is the euro, so in that sense nothing has changed? Furthermore, is it not the case that under Article 136, those measures must be taken ensuring that they are compatible with those adopted for the whole of the Union, of which the United Kingdom continues to be a member? Does he not agree that what we are witnessing is not the end of the European Union or of the eurozone, and it is certainly not the end of Britain's influence in those matters?
"(ba) any amount of support for disabled children included under section 10 should be no less than the amount that was provided under the benefits and tax credits system prior to the introduction of the universal credit,"
Baroness Grey-Thompson: My Lords, this amendment would ensure that the disability additions for children provided under the universal credit are not cut compared with the disability additions provided through the current benefits and tax credits system. Families with children who have a disability are likely to have much higher costs than other families. I would briefly like to explain the current system. Disability living allowance is there to make a contribution to those costs. In addition, the means-tested system has also offered extra support to these families to help with these costs. Families with children who are judged to have the highest needs and receive the highest rate of the care
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The Government have announced that the disability elements of the child tax credit will be replaced with a disability addition and higher addition within the universal credit. However, all those who receive the higher addition will receive only half of the current rate. If the child is in receipt of the higher rate of the care component of DLA, the family will receive the higher disability addition, worth £77. Children who are registered blind will also now qualify for this higher addition. This means that those families who have a child eligible for the higher addition will receive £1.50 a week more than current claimants. However, households with disabled children who are not entitled to the higher rate and who claim benefit after the measure is brought in will receive only the disability addition worth about £27, which is about £27 less than the current rate.
As can be seen, the disability addition halves the level of support provided under the current system, so most families with a disabled child will lose around £1,400 a year. I have a number of concerns regarding which families will be affected by this. Only families of children in receipt of the higher rate of care component of DLA and severely visually impaired children will receive the higher addition. All other families of disabled children receiving DLA will receive the reduced level of support. In order to receive the middle rate of the care component of DLA, children have to need help frequently throughout the day or through the night. Those care needs have to be substantially in excess of the average care needs of a child the same age. To receive the higher rate of the care component, the child has to have frequent needs through the day and the night. Many children with a very significant level of impairment such as children with Down's syndrome or children who are profoundly deaf are likely to be in receipt of the middle rate of the care component as there is no reason why they would be likely to have substantial care needs in excess of other children at night. They will thus only be entitled to the lower addition.
The Government estimate that this change will affect around 100,000 disabled children. Disabled children are more likely to live in poverty than other children. Recent research by the Children's Society indicates that once the additional costs of disability are accounted for, four in every 10 disabled children are living in poverty. Contact a Family in 2010, in a survey of more than 1,000 families with a disabled child, found that almost a quarter of those families were unable to afford sufficient heating. This figure had risen from less than a fifth of families in 2008. It commented that,
"You try and do what's right by your child, give them the food instead of yourself. She's had one chest infection after another because we have no central heating and it costs too much to put on the oil filled heater".
The Government have argued that this measure aligns the level of support for disabled children with those for disabled adults, contributing to simplification of the welfare system. However, the gateway for additional support for disabled children for universal credit will be through receipt of disability living allowance, whereas for adults it will be through the test of fitness for work. These tests are very different so support will not be aligned. For example, someone who is severely visually impaired will receive the higher addition as a child. However, as an adult he is likely to be found fit for work and so then he will be treated as if he had no level of impairment at all and receive no extra support.
The Government have argued that this proposal will be fairer as the addition for disabled children will be the same as the addition for disabled adults. Members of your Lordships' House will by now be familiar with the additions and disregards for disabled adults. Although it is true that the addition for disabled adults who are found not fit for work is £27-the same as the proposed addition for disabled children in universal credit-disabled adults also get some extra help through the disability disregard. The disability disregard gives disabled adults who can do some work £17 more help than other adults. This means that disabled adults potentially get £44 of extra support while disabled children will get only £27. This does not align support.
It is certainly true that disabled adults need the support, but there are different and equally valid reasons why disabled children also need this extra support. Poverty from an early age is likely to affect the long-term life chances of disabled children. Cuts in support to disabled children are likely to have a negative impact on the later life chances of disabled children, making it harder for them to escape poverty as adults. Parents of disabled children want their children to have the opportunity to reach their full potential, but giving them this opportunity takes extra time and money.
A Citizens Advice adviser described one family. They have two disabled children. Their father has to spend a considerable period of time working away from home. The older child has multiple conditions, which require numerous hospital appointments. The younger child has cerebral palsy and has regular appointments and a lengthy list of exercises to be done in short bursts for his parents to carry out while playing with the child. They have spent a lot of money on equipment and toys to help the children's development. Giving the children the best possible chance to fulfil their potential is expensive and a very demanding full-time job for their mother.
Lots of parents of disabled children also find it impossible to work because of their care responsibilities and childcare is often either not an option or not appropriate. The Children's Society described a single mum who it has been supporting. She is bringing up her disabled son. He is now 14 and has both severe
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I would like the Minister to respond to the points I have raised as so far I am not convinced of the arguments for the Government's reform. Indeed, I think it will damage thousands of families who rely on this support for their disabled child who does not quite meet the threshold of severity to keep the benefit level they once had. I beg to move.
Baroness Campbell of Surbiton: My Lords, I am happy to put my name to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson. Losing 50 per cent of the support currently provided by the disability element of child tax credit will be extremely difficult for many families who face considerable extra costs as a result of having a disabled child who may not meet the severe disability threshold.
The severity of one's disability should not be the overall defining factor for eligibility to this financial entitlement. The impairment severity is a highly unreliable measure for financial support needed by families to offset the extra costs of raising these children. All manner of disabled children face the extra costs associated with overcoming socioeconomic and environmental barriers. Medical textbook impairment measures are only part of the picture. For example, according to the textbooks, as a child I was considered to be at the most severe end of the scale-very severe. This is still the case today. A person with moderate autism or cystic fibrosis, however, is deemed much less severe. But if you ask my mother who, in my school class, needed financial support the greatest, she would say without a doubt, "Lorna, Mark and Peter". All would be deemed to have moderate impairments today. We all came from similar economic backgrounds; working class and money was extremely tight. So why were their needs greater than mine?
My mother explains much better than me-as always. Lorna, because she had a hole in the heart and needed expensive extra warmth, good nutrition and babysitting, as both parents needed to work to survive and no family friend or family members felt confident enough to care for her. They were scared: she had a hole in the heart; she was going to die at any moment. Actually she was not, but that was the assumption. Mark, because he had moderate autism, whose particular behaviours could not be financially accommodated by his disabled mother, who herself needed support financially to raise his other two brothers as well. Finally, Peter, whose asthma meant several emergency admissions to hospital per month making it almost impossible for his single parent mother, with two other young siblings, financially to bear the cost of transportation to the hospital and childminders for the other siblings. None
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I believe the Government's obsession with aligning certain benefits to be really hazardous-unintentional, of course. Such assumptions are not based on practical evidence, as we realised when the Government attempted to align hospitals with residential care homes when looking for areas to cut the significant DLA budget. Please do not let us make the same mistake again.
The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, has given reams of evidence from various notable NGOs and charities which I do not need to repeat. Before finishing, I did contact the eminent Dame Philippa Russell for advice as to what to highlight today. Noble Lords will know of Dame Philippa. She is famous for advising successive Governments for nearly 40 years on disabled children, and she ran the Council for Disabled Children for 30 of those years. She is currently the chair of the Prime Minister's Standing Commission on Carers. She said to me:
"I am very keen (with my two sector hat on) to stress the need to move away from this categorisation of people as having severe, moderate, low needs. None of those categories make sense without screeds of explanation that tax credit assessors simply will not have. They completely negate the idea of prevention and support".
Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, I spoke to a similar amendment to this in Grand Committee, but it was grouped with various other amendments and the debate was therefore not as clearly focused on disabled children as it might have been. In this amendment, the focus is simply on ensuring that disabled children do not receive less support in universal credit than they did under the benefit and tax credit system. The two noble Baronesses from whom we have just heard said it all and I shall not repeat what they said. However, it may be worth reinforcing how this works.
The disability elements of child tax credit will be replaced under universal credit with either a disability addition if the child is on the lower rate of the care component of DLA, or a higher addition if the child is in the middle or top rate of the care component. Children who are registered as blind will now qualify for the higher addition. The difference in rates is significant. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, said, the lower addition will be worth about £27 instead of the current £54. We know that children will still receive DLA, even after other disabled people have transferred to the personal independence payment, and there are three rates of care component within DLA-lower, middle and higher. In the benefits system, the middle and higher rates usually go together, but under universal credit the middle rate will be aligned with the lower rate. This means, as we have heard, that children with significant impairments, such as those with Down's syndrome or who are profoundly deaf and who now receive the middle rate, will in future be entitled to only the lower rate. Thus, their families will lose out.
The bar is set pretty high for children to qualify for the highest rate of the care component. They either have to be visually impaired or need not only frequent
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The rationale for the change is, as we have heard, supposedly to align the rates of support for adults and children and to simplify the additions-as well as to target those in greatest need. However, the gateways for children and adults are so different that the alignment is not really relevant. As for targeting those in greatest need, it is a matter of judgment as to whether it is better to help a greater number of families with disabled children or to give fewer families greater help. What worries me most is that families with disabled children are disproportionately more likely to live in poverty, as many studies have demonstrated, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, said. Parents of disabled children are less likely to be in work, so the so-called tidying-up and aligning exercise is likely to push already poor families deeper into poverty.
I would very much welcome some help regarding the transitional arrangements, which I failed to grasp when my noble friend described them in Committee. Perhaps he can tell us about them in his reply. We are having to cope with a difficult question.
I had an opportunity at Second Reading and in Committee to refer to the extra cost and burden placed on families with disabled children as a direct result of their disability. The extent of the extra costs will obviously vary with the extent of the disability. One does not argue about that, and the previous system has contained gradations that allowed that to happen. One accepts that those in the greatest need should have the greatest support. None the less, there are those in the intermediate category who have substantial needs and they would, without financial help, undoubtedly feel enormous stress arising directly from their financial position.
If the figures quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, of a loss of up to £1,400 a year are true, such a sum cannot be ignored, and the stress that that would cause to the parents and families of disabled children would be immense. That surely cannot be allowed to happen. If as many as 100,000 families could be affected directly-presumably not to the extent of £1,400-that is an immense number.
I put it to the Minister that if one went out on to the streets in the towns and villages of these islands and asked whether people would be prepared to pay a little extra in tax to ensure that families with disabled children would not lose out as a direct result of government policy arising from this legislation, people would say yes. Surely in those circumstances, the Government must look at their priorities and ensure that families with disabled children are not left to carry the can for the financial mess in which we find ourselves.
Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, I strongly support the amendment and urge all noble Lords to do so. Are we really becoming such a mean-spirited nation that we are willing to take away funding from less disabled children as the only means by which more severely disabled children can benefit? That is what the Government are proposing to do with this clause, although we know from a recent Children's Society report that 40 per cent of disabled children live in poverty, and that if there is more than one disabled child in a family the poverty rate increases to 50 per cent. As the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, suggested, might there not be some people with broader shoulders who could contribute and endeavour to raise all disabled children out of poverty?
In order to be eligible for the higher rate, a child must require care both day and night. Many disabled children with significant needs will not qualify. Think what the loss of that money means for a family on a very low income-that £1,400 a year would amount to £22,000 over the life of a disabled child. It can mean not buying another box of incontinence pads when your allocation runs out, so that the mother spends exhausting hours changing and washing bed sheets, day after day. It can mean not being able to replace a sibling's toy that the disabled child has broken, perhaps in a temper tantrum or frustration or because he or she cannot control their movements. It means intolerable strains on families that too often lead to family break-up.
Much of the Bill is about changing behaviour by the imposition of penalties. However, having a disabled child is not a lifestyle choice. Parents desperately need financial help in order to give their disabled child an equal chance in life, or are we really willing to let this legislation increase the shameful number of thousands of disabled children already living in poverty?
Lord Boswell of Aynho: My Lords, it would be impossible to have served, as I have for a number of years, as party spokesperson on disability issues and maintain a continuing interest in my party's disability group without a degree of sensitivity to the problems of disabled children and, of course, to those of their families. The noble Baronesses and noble Lords who have spoken about this issue are clearly right in drawing the House's attention to it. All that I would say is that we need to pause for a moment in looking at the overall implications of these proposals, because my understanding of the position is that relatively-broadly over the past decade, and it may properly be attributed to the previous Administration-there has been significant acceleration in the support given to disabled children, reflecting the pressures to which we have referred that have caused their benefit rates to increase faster than those of adults.
The Government's proposal is not, and indeed was not presented as being, simply a matter of cutting back the support for disabled children. The other aspect of the Government's proposals is the alignment of rates, reflecting the position of adults and including some with more severe disabilities. All I would say, with respect, to those who have moved this amendment is that if we are going to make proposals that will increase or maintain the public cost in relation to children, it will be very difficult to provide the equivalent
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There may be a glimmer of hope-indeed, there is already a chink of precedence-in relation to the arrangements for transition and run-on to the new system. I know that the Government have already indicated that they will maintain DLA with its three levels in relation to children rather than transfer them all to the personal independence payments. That is a start. The key to this-and this will not be the only case in the matters that we will hear tonight-is that there should be appropriate and sensitive transition arrangements so that people do not lose significant or very large sums in years one or two, but that nevertheless the overall objective-rebalancing the system and maintaining some coherence in public revenues and expenditure-is maintained.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I support the views that have been expressed today. They were not as clearly enunciated in Committee, as we have already heard, but they have been spelt out pretty effectively today. I also accept that the money has to come from somewhere. The important thing may be the transition period and keeping an eye on just what the effect of the transition period is. However, when one thinks that 100,000 disabled children will be less well off as a result of some of these changes, one becomes worried. Four in every 10 lives will be lived in poverty-that was the figure given by the Children's Society.
Although I accept that it is a difficult decision for the Government to make, I would like to think that there are other pockets from which rather more could be produced. I urge the Minister to look hard in those directions.
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I, too, support this amendment. I have been reading in newspapers lately that parents of disabled children have begun to get very worried lest the changes being brought about by this Bill reduce the benefits that they already get. This has made a number of them extremely nervous, with the result that we have had a fair amount of lobbying from the organisations that represent disabled people.
One of the attractive things about this amendment is that it seeks to ring-fence the benefits that people have at the moment so that they do not decrease as a result of this Bill. We have heard today from a number of speakers that bringing up disabled children is really quite difficult. Very often parents give up their work in order to care for them. It is often also extremely expensive to look after disabled children. It therefore seems to me that there is some merit in ring-fencing what people have at the moment, so that people who look after disabled children at least have some assurance that they are not going to be worse off as a result of the benefits being introduced under the welfare Bill before us this evening.
Baroness Sherlock: My Lords, I will detain the House only very briefly, but I feel I should say a word of support, having put my name to this amendment, put down by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson.
I wish to say just three things. First, we have heard that the effect of these cuts is really quite severe. The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, is correct: parents could find themselves losing up to £1,400 a year, even if they have a family with just one disabled child. That is a very significant loss.
Secondly, the case for doing this is weak. The only case that I have heard over money is about alignment with adults. We have heard a very compelling argument from the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, as to how that simply is not the case.
Finally, there is the question of money. I understand that the Government have said that the cuts are not intended to save money but to redistribute it, so that the money saved by these cuts will be used to raise the level of support for adults in the support group. This amendment lays down a marker; by saying that the support given to disabled children cannot be reduced below the current level, it makes the Government think again about that particular brand of rough justice. There is no particular reason why, in making these redistributions, disabled children should be asked to pay for money that is being given to other groups of disabled people. This amendment is not seeking an investment of billions of pounds; it is simply laying down a marker and saying that, when decisions are being taken, this group cannot be expected to bear that cost.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, we support Amendment 4, so comprehensively moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and spoken to by a number of noble Lords who are very knowledgeable about these issues. It deals with just part of the inequity introduced by the restructuring of support for disabled people: that affecting families with children. We will debate further issues affecting disabled adults and the removal of the severe disability premium in due course.
Like other speakers, I welcome proposals to increase, over time, the levels of benefit for those in the support group, but we do not think that this should be paid for by drastic cuts in support provided for families with disabled children. Leaving aside transitional protection, my figure is that some 200,000 could lose £27 per week. Whether it is 100,000 or 200,000, it is many children indeed.
We have heard about transitional protection, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, but transitional protection is of no use to new claimants. It might stop you losing what you have, but it does not help if you are claiming for the first time. As it is a cash protection it will in any case reduce in real terms over time. Transitional protection will also cease on change of circumstances-the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, pursued this point-and we have yet to receive clarity on quite what this means.
We are told that the restructuring of these benefits is to simplify the system and that aligning the rates of support for adults and children will ease the transition for disabled children into adulthood, but how does the
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In Committee, we had some knowledgeable contributions from noble Lords about the costs that families with disabled children face. We know that families with disabled children are disproportionately likely to be living in poverty. In Committee, we heard the very personal experiences of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. We also heard detailed analysis. We have heard further details today from the noble Baronesses, Lady Grey-Thompson and Lady Campbell, and my noble friend Lady Wilkins. I shall list some of the potential extra costs faced by families: heating, which is a big issue; sensory equipment; special toys; special diet; transport; extra and special clothing; and help with siblings, who will not have their parents' time and attention. To this must be added the lost opportunity for parents-or at least for one of them-to work.
For those in work, costs can be higher because of the increased costs associated with care and transport for disabled children. Those costs do not only or most heavily fall on families with the most disabled children-that point was tellingly made by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell. As framed, the amendment need not have overall cost implications for the Government, but it would of course cause a rethink of the restructuring, a restructuring that currently redistributes resources away from children and towards adults.
Reversing a benefit loss of £27 a week for some of the neediest families in our country must be a priority. Failure to do so will inevitably increase poverty at a time when the Government are reneging on their commitment to upgrade the child element of the child tax credit by more than inflation-a measure that they proclaimed in their 2010 Budget would ensure that effects on child poverty would be statistically insignificant but that is a cloak that they can no longer hide behind.
Lord Freud: My Lords, I appreciate absolutely the intention behind the amendment, which is to protect the amounts currently paid to support disabled children. I also take the opportunity to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, for her letter, which covers this matter. I will also address some of the points that she raises in this amendment.
This is not easy. We have a fixed financial envelope as we face these difficult times and we have to target resources, so we have some real choices to make. Our approach is to focus our support on the most severely disabled people, ensuring that we have the best support possible for those with the greatest need. I make it
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We know that the movement between support for disabled children and adulthood can be very difficult. The report, Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People, shows that the drop in income from childhood to adulthood can cause financial difficulties for young disabled adults. We want to smooth the transition from childhood to adulthood by removing that artificial divide. This is clearly also essential if we are to protect work incentives in adulthood.
To pick up the point raised the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson-that amounts for children and adults are meant for different things-support for families with disabled children is not limited to the disability addition. Families with disabled children also receive a disregard. The purpose of the disregard is to make work pay for the household. If the parent of a disabled child is working, they will qualify for a disregard at the appropriate rate for a couple or a lone parent. Our latest assumptions about earnings disregards mean that families with children will always have a disregard at least as high as the disability disregard.
I can take noble Lords through some of the figures. Large figures have been cited for the number of disabled children affected, which have not taken into account the overall effect of universal credit. When you consider what happens to a family with a disabled child where someone in the family is in work, the total return for that family goes up from £383 to £416. That is the effect of all the elements of universal credit coming together. That is for the disabled child, not the severely disabled child, who clearly gets more.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, made a point about the number of children in working families receiving the disabled child element of child tax credit, which is 157,000, which is substantially more than the ones who are not working. The equivalent figure is 131,000. I share with other noble Lords a concern to get this right. When you look at the figures of what is happening under universal credit, a large number of the children about whom we are worried, when you look at the whole package, will benefit. For the minority who see a decline, there will be behavioural changes as they move into the other category, where they can-I accept that they cannot always.
To pick up a question from my noble friend Lady Thomas about what happens in universal credit to children on the middle rate of DLA care, they will get the lower of the two rates of current child tax credit. We are carrying forward the rule that the highest rate goes to those on the highest rate of DLA care.
As I have continuously reiterated through our debates, we are overhauling the entire support, so it is important not to fixate on one aspect of universal credit but to consider the entire package for families. That is why we need to look at that rather than to concentrate on individual components.
Lord Wigley: The Minister has acknowledged that whereas some will benefit from other sources of money and that that will counteract the loss of disability benefits, there will be a category who, unless something else is done, will lose out financially. Does he have any proposals to provide a safety net for those people?
Our impact assessments made clear that, overall, families are more likely to be better off on universal credit. In addition, departmental modelling estimates are that the impact of the reform of disability payments on the number of disabled children living in relative poverty will be negligible. We must remember that support for families with disabled children is provided by the universal credit package as a whole.
On the absolute figures of support, under universal credit, an out-of-work family with a disabled child will receive just over £8,000 a year in benefits for their child once universal credit has been introduced. That compares to just over £4,000 for an out-of-work family with a non-disabled child and about £1,000 for a family who receive only child benefit. The figure for a child on the severely disabled level is £12,000. That is the order.
Let me now turn to the really important point raised by many noble Lords about taking money away from families who have learnt how to build their lives around it. That is exactly why we have introduced transitional protection. My noble friend Lord Boswell has referred to an assurance on no losses for years one and two. The way transitional protection works is that where circumstances remain the same, people's payment level is protected on a cash basis. That means that families currently receiving child tax credit will not see a cash reduction at all as a result of the move to universal credit, and we will provide cash protection for as long as the universal credit award is less than the previous benefit entitlement. I hope that represents a level of ring-fencing that the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, will recognise.
Lord Freud: No, clearly there is an erosion factor. Cash protection does not also inflate it. But the point about the universal credit is that it is structured to provide adequate support for families overall, and on top of that where there are differences we have a reasonably long period of transitional protection.
We simply cannot maintain the existing rates for disabled children if we are going to increase the rates for severely disabled adults. I know it is hard to absorb lots of figures at once, but let me just try and capture it. What we are looking at is fundamentally paying a severely disabled child or adult £77 once the universal credit is introduced. That is a big leap for severely disabled adults today who are on £32.35. That is where we are trying to move to, and that is where we are trying to put our resource.
Lord Freud: As we move people on to the universal credit and take people off the other systems we will be gradually putting people on to that amount. But I am better off writing to the noble Lord on that particular matter of timing because it is quite a complicated equation. Basically, we are looking to maintain an overall fixed level of spend in this area, and as we pull down one element we can move up the other elements-that is essentially what is happening, so there is a periodicity there.
We are trying to get money to the most severely disabled in our community. There is a real decision here: maintaining the existing rates for children without doing that-without finding this money-would cost an extra £200 million a year. I simply do not have that money. If this amendment is passed, it will not be possible to increase the addition for the most severely disabled people to £77. So there is a decision to be made here: do you agree with the way we want to rebalance the system-
Lord McKenzie of Luton: I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord again, but is it not right that that equation only follows if you look at those two together? You do not have to operate within that envelope; there are other envelopes, as my noble friend Lady Sherlock mentioned in her contribution.
Lord Freud: That is the envelope in which we are operating. If I could find £200 million more to add to that envelope then I could do it, but we are not in that position. As noble Lords know, we have put a lot of money into the universal credit. The overall gross figure going into people's pockets-the poorest people in the country-every year once we get universal credit in is £4 billion a year. Of that £2 billion is net extra; £2 billion is through a more efficient system. That is the money we have found; that is the overall envelope that we are operating in. I do not have any more money, and there are some very difficult choices.
The question is this: does the noble Baroness want to maintain the rates for moderately disabled children at the expense of raising the limits for severely disabled people? That is really the juggle that we have to do. As I have said, this is not easy; these are difficult judgments. It has been very difficult to get to this position, and that is the decision that we think is best for people who we really want to help. We want to focus our support on the most severely disabled people regardless of their age; to simplify and to align the extra payments for disabled people; and to smooth the transition into adulthood. That is fundamentally the reason why I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Grey-Thompson: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate on this vital amendment. The restructuring of support for disabled adults and children is taking money from disabled
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Additionally, this measure is going to cause significant hardship to families with disabled children, who are already disproportionately likely to be living in poverty. It will make the situation much worse for those who are likely to have higher costs-those in the very group of adults whom this measure is meant to help. I believe that the Government's proposals will undermine their own prevention agenda. There is no reason why an adapted form of the current levels of financial support could not be introduced into universal credit, with extra help being given to the support group when new moneys allow. It would not cost anything and would mean that families with disabled children were not among the biggest losers under the new system.
We have often heard it said that the devil is in the detail, and I agree, but I believe that the Minister is also making grand assumptions about the ability of parents of disabled children to work. We have heard much about the transition but this is about the new children who will be coming into the system. I believe that the measures that the Government are proposing will push more children into residential care.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am moving this amendment precisely because I strongly support universal credit. If the House agrees with me in supporting universal credit, I suggest in all decorum that it should also support this amendment.
At the moment, council tax benefit is a social security benefit-a national benefit-which responds to local need. The DWP reimburses local authority spend. If, for example, a factory closes, the need for council tax benefit in that community may increase, and that need is met because the benefit is national and needs-led. Sensibly, therefore, it should be part of universal credit, along with JSA, housing benefit, ESA and so on, because the need for council tax benefit runs alongside those other benefits and should be related to family need, as universal credit will be. Instead, the DWP's need to include CTB within universal credit appears to have been trumped by the demand of the DCLG and other departments that it form part of a completely separate agenda-the localism agenda. These agendas-universal credit versus localism-clash, and so far the wrong decision has been made.
What is DCLG proposing? In future DCLG will award a fixed-rate grant to local authorities from which it will have to construct its own council rebate scheme. What is wrong with that, your Lordships may think? Quite a lot, and there are three reasons in particular. First, instead of one national scheme that is common across the country, understood by everyone-claimants, local authorities, staff and advice centres-there will be 400 different schemes. There will be a separate and different scheme for every local authority in the country. Norfolk, for example, will have seven schemes that are all different.
Think of the staff resources involved, when we are trying to save money, in constructing and running such schemes, especially when local authorities already outsource much of their work. Think of the complexity
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We in this House are rightly building these problems out of universal credit, and the Minister is to be congratulated on that. But we will be building them back in again if this amendment is not accepted. DCLG has balkanised council tax benefit in the name of localism. It recognises this, and now DCLG urges local authorities to do the opposite of what it was calling for-to share common schemes-in which case, why balkanise it in the first place? It will be financed by a fixed grant and will not be needs-led in future. If a factory closes and local need increases, the grant will not go up. Presumably everybody gets less. Or, it will have to be topped up by the council tax that is already suffering 30 per cent cuts in services and a freeze. Think, my Lords, for a moment if that applied to jobseeker's allowance, and that what you have if you are unemployed in your district depends not on your needs, or on any national standard, but on the needs of everyone else in your district. Your payment would go up and down according to local employment or unemployment figures in your district.
DCLG in its consultation paper recognises this risk, so it suggests-hopefully, idealistically-that local authorities should voluntarily help each other and bail each other out. Oh yeah? Why balkanise, as DCLG requires, if local authorities are too small to bear the risk, as DCLG recgonises? Worse, that fixed grant will be cut by the DCLG by 10 per cent, perhaps more in future. There will be a 10 per cent reduction in council tax benefit per head, but pensioners are to be protected, so the cuts that fall on others will be 20 per cent. However the council, under pressure from local charities, could decide to protect, say, disabled people-I could understand why they would-and give them the full CTB. The more vulnerable families you protect in devising your own local scheme, the more that families in low-paid work-the last man standing, so to speak-carry the cuts.
The Association of North-East Councils has calculated that once vulnerable families are protected, other working-age claimants will face cuts of up to 50 per cent in their council tax benefit. Then work will not pay and universal credit will be a waste of time. Severe cuts in other words are being smuggled in under the drapery of localism but are they essential? At the same time DCLG is spending £250 million on reinstating weekly bin collection or £800 million to freeze council tax, so that my council tax bills are protected while those with much lower incomes on council tax benefit will face cuts of 50 per cent.
Finally, what you will get in CTB will, of course, be determined by your income. Families facing the means test of universal credit will now find that they also face
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UC was designed to bring all working-age benefits together into one so that every one of us would know what we would get and why work paid. Under the localism agenda, council tax benefit-a social security benefit-is being plucked out of UC, thereby destabilising it and balkanising the system. Forgive me, but this is administrative madness. All of this is being proposed in the name of localism but do local authorities want it? City authorities, like the one I used to lead in Norwich, hate it, as they will see some of their poorest citizens unable to pay their council tax and facing arrears and debts. Equally, some small rural districts are now wondering where they will get the staff resources to devise and run their own in-house schemes. East Devon district council's cabinet has said that the scheme means: "costs, costs, costs". A councillor said:
Nearly 6 million people receiving council tax benefit will in future not know what they will get because they will have no entitlement-just a handout from the local authority whose generosity or meanness will vary from district to district, from factory opening to factory closure, and from year to year. We took social security away from local authorities when we finally abolished the Poor Law after the Second World War. Now one of the worst effects of the Poor Law-the postcode lottery-is being reinstated for council tax benefit under the name of localism. That is wrong. To add extra means-testing on top of universal credit's means-testing is insane. It will undermine universal credit without a shadow of a doubt. I and almost every other Member of your Lordships' House want to see it working, so what then is the point of this Bill? Worse, this guise of localism will make poor people poorer, and local authorities, in whose name this is being done, will be powerless to help them. Council tax benefit needs to be brought back within UC. I beg to move.
Lord Newton of Braintree: My Lords, I shall be brief because I know that the House wants to get on. I am a supporter of the universal credit, so I am opposed to anything that is inimical to its success, and the exclusion of council tax benefit is exactly that; it is totally inconsistent with the Government's proposals.
It is an open secret, although I do not expect the Minister to confirm this from the Front Bench, that the DWP does not want council tax benefit to be excluded, that there has been a battle with the DCLG and that for the moment, although heaven knows why, the localism agenda has prevailed. When anyone asks about 400 different social security systems, we are told that it will not be allowed to happen-so the localism
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I have two or three points to make. This is said to be cash limited, and indeed a cut. What is going to happen in an area where there is a big factory closure and the money has already been spread out? Does everyone already on council tax benefit have to take a cut in order to finance those who have just come on to it? In areas where, say, a big Tesco opens and 400 new jobs are created, does everyone get a bonus because a lot of people have been taken off council tax benefit? It is mad.
My first constituency boundaries straddled a parish boundary; number 36 Havengore was in Braintree and number 34 was in Chelmsford, but the houses were semi-detached. Can we really have totally different benefit systems for the people living in those two houses? Again, this is mad. Do the local councils want it? The answer is no, it is a nightmare for them. We should stop it, and if this amendment is pressed to a vote, for the first time today I shall not be able to vote for the Government.
Baroness Meacher: I support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on the importance of including council tax benefit within the universal credit structure and payments system, and I reinforce what the noble Lord has just said. As always, the noble Baroness has set out the arguments extremely cogently, and I know that the Minister needs no reminding of these arguments from me. I want only to reinforce the important point about the resentment of local authorities and their resistance to the proposal to leave them with the council tax benefit problem.
The head of the benefits department of a particular local authority explained on Friday that because they have so little time to change the council tax benefits system radically, they are going to have to use the current system with a 20 per cent taper. This means that they will have to impose a minimum percentage that every claimant of working age will have to pay. This will apparently vary from one local authority to another, depending, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has said, on the numbers of pensioners living in particular communities and of other vulnerable people who will have to be protected. This particular local authority will have a basic council tax rate of 25 per cent that will have to be paid-a sort of poll tax of 25 per cent of council tax. The local authority in question is far from happy about that, and I understand, as others have said, that anger on the part of local authorities is widespread.
On a more personal basis, a fixed charge of 25 per cent of council tax for people on JSA of £67 per week will cause enormous problems and will be one of the factors that will lead to the debts that we were discussing earlier with regard to another amendment. In addition to ruining the work incentive system within the universal credit and its simplicity-two aspects of the system that have had broad support from across the House-in my view council tax could become a major political
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Lord German: My Lords, I do not intend to turn my back on what I said in Committee; in fact, I intend to repeat some of it, so I hope that noble Lords will bear with me. If you believe that council tax benefit is a universal benefit and part of the social security system, clearly you need to ensure that it is delivered everywhere within our country and on a uniform basis so that people will know the rules and the benefit they are going to get.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has talked about England, but I want to talk, as noble Lords know I frequently do, about the other parts of the United Kingdom that will also be affected by this. I start with a big question to the Minister. He wrote to me about this issue when I asked him how it would work in Wales and Scotland. I was told that the money would be given with a 10 per cent saving-that is a crucial sentence because we can reflect on that and on how we can manage the budget within a council tax benefit structure-and that the saving would be given to the devolved Administrations to enable them to bring forward their own arrangements for help with council tax.
The next sentence was about the powers that they would need to bring forward their own arrangements for help with council tax, and it says that these arrangements must fall within existing competence. This is a crucial question; if there is one thing that I know about, it is that the demand for competence is very important. Clearly it is not primary competence because it is not primary legislation that is being transferred, but executive devolution powers must be being given to both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly to be able to achieve that. I would like to know which executive powers have been given, because both Scotland and Wales could refuse to have those powers, which would be a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do. If they think that this is not something that they can manage or want to do, they can refuse to take those competences.
Even if Scotland were to accept those powers, and I have made this point in Committee, I wonder what game we would be playing into in Scotland alone. Remember that the basis of the Scotland Bill that is before your Lordships' House is that social security should not be devolved; it is part of the glue that holds the United Kingdom together. Say that you do not give the social security competence but you obviously give some competence to the Scottish Government. If you give them that money, my guess, and it is purely a guess, is that they will take the money, convert it by putting a bit of Alex Salmond paste on top of it and
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I am told that Clause 11 gives powers to take the competences back. There is no doubt that there is considerable anguish about this matter, but if you believe that it is a universal system, surely it makes sense to use the funding as part of the universal benefit but also to take the hit that has to come with the budget reduction. After all, if the DCLG is going to be able to allocate the money with the budget reduction, that budget reduction could just as easily be done by the DWP. Obviously it would not be a nice, friendly or comfortable process, but as with all levers you have not damaged the social security structure of this country at the same time.
My question to the Minister is this: if you are to retrieve these competences from Wales and Scotland, which competences are you retrieving, and where does Clause 11 give the power to the other place to bring back the powers into the social security structure? The most important feature that we have to decide here in your Lordships' House is whether it is better placed, with the appropriate cut, inside the universal credit or inside a social security system for our country as a whole, or whether we wish absolutely and once and for all to abolish council tax credit and have what might be called a local support scheme in whatever the local authority can provide with the money that is provided for it if you cannot even call it a benefit.
I worry greatly about this prospect, and I ask my noble friend the Minister to reassure me that we can bring this back and to tell me how we can bring it back and how we get it back from Scotland and Wales.
My noble friend delivered a devastating critique of the proposal in Committee and has done so again today. Indeed, I thought I saw the Minister nod in approval at one stage. If he did not nod in approval at my noble friend, perhaps he did for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Newton.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: Very good. Of course, this issue is having to be considered, as has been said, against the backdrop of the overall funding for council tax benefit being reduced by 10 per cent but with commitments to protect awards of council tax support for pensioners and possibly for other vulnerable groups. This means, as has been said, that support for working age claimants is to be squeezed dramatically.
The consultation on this proposition, the Localism Bill, closed two months ago, and perhaps we can know when the Government's response to this will be
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This will in effect change under a localised system. If claims under a localised system exceed the budgetary amount locally, authorities will have much more limited resources from which to meet the increased demand. They might dip into reserves, if they have any, or they might make the system less generous in a subsequent period. They might switch expenditure from other local authority spend, but given the savage cuts to local authority budgets that have been made recently, there does not seem to be much room for manoeuvre to do that.
It is suggested that local authorities might approach a localised system on some consortium basis, and therefore that other local authorities will help out. I suggest that the prospects for this are not strong. One consequence of these constraints will be that local authorities will inevitably budget on a prudent basis, building in contingencies that will further diminish the resources available to claimants of a localised system. That indeed is what the risk assessment will dictate.
This is a rather strange view: that it takes possible savings from a benefit pot for local authorities to have an incentive to help people back to work. It is a view that ignores, or is ignorant of, the proactive and imaginative work that many local authorities do to help local residents into work. However, in any event, the driver for having clear incentives to support work is supposed to be the universal credit itself. If there is any incentive in the system, there is a risk that local take-up campaigns will diminish, as any wider take-up will come from the resources of the council.
We have yet to know how much central direction there will be for a localised system. If the Government run true to form, there will be quite a lot. This was certainly the outcome of the Localism Bill, which espoused localism and gave additional powers to local authorities but came with lots of strings attached, as the noble Lord, Lord Newton, will recall, despite some of those strings being removed in your Lordships' House. There will clearly have to be central direction if the position of pensioners is to be protected, and some form of direction to deal with tapers and work incentives.
We understand, to follow the line of questioning by the noble Lord, Lord German, that the Minister will say that he cannot support a change to the universal credit to include a council tax benefit now. However, there is nothing to stop it being included in the future,
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The noble Lord, Lord German, also raised some fascinating questions about how this works for Wales and Scotland. Can the Minister say whether the proposition that he will advance tonight will be, "Don't worry about it now-you can get it all back in due course."? What changes would have to be made to the systems that are currently being built to put this into effect? Including council tax support as part of universal credit is of course not without its challenges, particularly the payment issue, so perhaps we can hear whether there has been any thinking around that matter.
However, we support my noble friend's strong contention that the sensible, practical and principled way to deal with council tax benefit is to include it as part of universal credit. We believe that the Minister, a very logical person, must have come to the same conclusion. If a strong vote today will help his cause, we are more than prepared to play our part.
Lord Freud: Beware Greeks. My Lords, noble Lords will be aware from previous debates that we are proposing to abolish council tax benefit before the introduction of universal credit and replace it with local schemes of support. Localising support for council tax is part of a wider policy of decentralisation, which will give councils increased financial autonomy and a greater stake in the economic future of their local area. Localisation also reintroduces the link between council tax levels and the costs of providing support, thus reinforcing local financial accountability.
This reform will give local authorities a significant degree of control over how a 10 per cent reduction in expenditure on the current council tax benefit bill is achieved, enabling them to balance local priorities and their own financial circumstances as they see fit. This saving is an important contribution to the Government's vital programme of deficit reduction. We need to ensure that localisation supports the improved work incentives that universal credit will bring. However, the Government believe that the key principles required to incentivise work can be delivered through local schemes with the help of technical guidance provided by central government. Local authorities will have a greater stake in getting people back into work than ever before.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has consulted on the proposal for local schemes in England. The consultation closed on 14 October. There were a very high number of responses, demonstrating an appetite among local authorities and other stakeholders to come up with practical solutions to the outstanding issues. The Government will publish a formal response shortly and plan to introduce legislation this Session through a local government Finance Bill.
The time has passed for the inclusion of council tax benefit within universal credit. The universal credit programme is now too advanced for such a change to
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I shall turn to the specific questions raised by my noble friend Lord German, which were reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, about the move of council tax benefit to both English local authorities and the devolved Administrations. CTB is not being devolved. Under Clause 33, it will be abolished and funding made available for local schemes in England. The devolved Administrations will be funded through the Barnett formula to bring forward new schemes within their existing competence. If a future Government so decided, Clause 11, which covers housing costs, is sufficiently broad to give legislative cover to include support for council tax costs in universal credit.
Scotland and Wales already have the executive powers to establish schemes based on applying discounts to council tax. I can assure my noble friend that social security remains absolutely reserved as a UK matter and that localisation funding does not affect this. I thank the noble Baroness for raising these issues.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord would reiterate a point. I thought I heard him say that a Bill for the localisation of council tax benefits or whatever it is called will be introduced in this Session. Does he have any more precise detail?
Lord Freud: I am afraid that I do not have any more precise detail but, although I do not think that in the consideration of the Welfare Reform Bill I can say soon, I can probably say that it will be between January and May or June, or something like that. I have no more precise information.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in this brief expedited debate. I beg your Lordships on the government Benches to hear the words of the noble Lord, Lord Newton, in their ears; namely, that 400 schemes are inane, insane, unwanted and unwelcome, and that council tax benefit should be brought back to where it belongs in social security in order to make universal credit work. The Minister tried to suggest-I would say manfully-that it is too late to change. I do not believe that. That is why we have this House of Lords and this Report stage. Universal credit will not come online until two years' time in 2013. If your Lordships today support what I believe is the real view of everyone in this Chamber-that council tax benefit should be part of social security-they will support this amendment today. I should like to test the opinion of the House.
Lord Ahmed: My Lords, I would like to thank everyone taking part in this debate. I very much look forward to hearing the contribution of the Opposition Front Bench, as well as the Minister's response.
On Saturday 10 December, we celebrated the 63rd anniversary of Human Rights Day. A few days before, we also received Amnesty International's report on Saudi Arabia, Repression in the Name of Security. There have been a number of reports-from Human Rights Watch, the Islamic Human Rights Commission and others-in relation to the crackdown and torture with impunity.
I have great love and respect for the 27 million citizens of Saudi Arabia, as well as the holy places in both Mecca and Medina. For this reason, I believe that it is imperative to speak out against the oppressive, dictatorial and brutal practices exercised by the regime, which interprets its tribal Bedouin culture into religious doctrine in a way which is, in my view, quite contrary to the Sharia and to the practices of Islam.
Over 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Mohammed-Peace be upon Him-worked for a noble lady called Khadijah, who was an entrepreneur as well as a respected businesswoman in Mecca. His daughter Fatima and his wife Ayesha-Peace and Blessings be upon Them-both practised fully in life with men at work, at war, in the community and in business. They expressed their views and opinions, even sometimes against the khalifas-the rulers, who were companions of the Prophet-without fear of being prosecuted or locked up.
Today, women are not allowed to drive or vote; women remain subject to discrimination both in law and practice; women are not allowed to travel, engage in paid work, participate in higher education, or marry
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Some 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Mohammed-Peace be upon Him-said that no Arab is better than a non-Arab, and vice versa. Yet, in modern Saudi Arabia, the practices of pre-Islam are rampant, with white Europeans and Americans treated in a superior manner to Asian and African workers doing the same job. They justify this by stating that people are paid in accordance with the national salaries in the place of their origin. Asian and African people are treated with pathetically low wages, and are held in overcrowded accommodation with few or no basic facilities. Even the hard-working cleaners of the holy places are paid less than £100 per month in the most oil-rich country of the world.
Islam never practised sheikhdoms and kingdoms, the culture of the current Arab countries. Islam was based on democratic elections for candidates with the ability to perform and who had in mind the best interests of society. Even khalifas like Omer, Usman and Ali were elected by the consensus of the people.
According to the latest Amnesty International report, since March 2011, the Saudi Arabian authorities have launched a new wave of repression in the name of security. They have cracked down on demonstrations, protests against human rights violations and calls for reform. The number of people arrested is reported to be between 10,000 and 30,000. According to the Islamic Human Rights Commission, there are more political prisoners in Saudi Arabia today than there were in the USSR at its height. The actions of the Saudi authorities are a cause of concern for us all as they breach basic human rights. Thousands of people have been detained over the past decades on security grounds, many of them held for years without charge or trial, or tried and sentenced in secret with no means of challenging their detention. Some 63 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 1,400 years after the last sermon of the Prophet Mohammed-Peace be upon Him-guaranteeing rights for men, women, children, minorities and the weak, it shocks me that thousands of political prisoners are being held in Saudi Arabia without being charged or convicted.
One of those prisoners is an Islamic scholar who has been detained because he criticised the Ministry of the Interior for its handling of detainees. According to Human Rights Watch, Dr Yusuf bin Abdullah al-Ahmad was detained without charge the day after he published his criticism, apparently as a direct result of his internet post. The Islamic teacher, who is a Sunni and teaches at Imam Muhammad bin Saud University in Riyadh, also criticised the arrest of women who went to the ministry on 2 July and, as onprevious occasions, protested peacefully against the long-term detention of their relatives.
There are many illegal imprisonments, including those of British citizens such as Abdul Hakim Gilani, who was recently released from prison due to the campaign run by Al Karama, a human rights organisation, after six years of terrible ordeal due to his political beliefs. Political prisoners include human rights activists, lawyers, members of political parties, religious scholars, bloggers and individual protesters. I can list many names which are all available on the internet and have been circulated by human rights organisations to expose the reign of terror in Saudi Arabia. Since 2001, abusive counter-terrorism methods have been used against political opponents of the regime and anyone expressing concerns in relation to their right to be able to express freely and without fear of prosecution their right to vote and to live in accordance with their traditions.
Noble Lords may be aware that Amnesty International has expressed deep concern in relation to a new anti-terror law which has been formulated. It will be used to silence discontent in the kingdom. For example, it will be a terrorist crime if you are said to have harmed the reputation of the state or its position. "Questioning the integrity of the king or the crown prince" will be punishable by a minimum of 10 years' imprisonment, while holding a placard could result in a three-year sentence. Already people are tried and held in secret; people are sent to prison for "re-education" or "positive brainwashing". Torture and other ill-treatment remains rife, and confessions are forced out of detainees using beatings, electric shocks and other forms of torture.
I am fully aware that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has more oil than any other country and that we depend on oil. I am fully aware of Saudi Arabia's financial and political influence in the west and I have occasionally been told by colleagues about our interests, but in my view the principle of defending human rights is and will remain at the very highest level, and higher than any other issue. The Saudi authorities claim that they are now the "Arab moderate camp" and should be supported by the west without much reform or change to their way of governance, just because they claim that they provide consistency and security in the region. But we have supported the Tunisian people, and rightly so. We have just spent over $200 million as well as killing thousands of people in Libya to get rid of the tyrant Muammar Gaddafi. We have supported the people of Egypt even though Hosni Mubarak was a safer bet. We are supporting the people of Syria because of the oppressive tactics of Bashar Al Assad. We must not stay silent in the face of abuses of human rights and lack of political rights in Saudi Arabia by the Al-Saud family. Britain along with other countries should stand up and support the human rights and equality movements which are our basic principles. Our values of defending civil, political, social and economic rights should be universal and one.
Finally, I would like to ask the Minister: how many British citizens are held in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and what representation Her Majesty's Government have made to the Saudi authorities regarding this matter. Would he be prepared to support the isolation of those countries which use torture with impunity? Will Her Majesty's Government support
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It is important that we ask for considerable amendment to the draft penal law for terrorism crimes and the financing of terrorism and bring all of Saudi Arabia's terrorism-related laws and practices into line with international human rights law and standards. I believe that we have a duty to uphold international law regardless of the perpetrators and their influences on western society. The people of the Middle East will say that Britain operates a double standard in relation to human rights if we remain silent over our friend's actions. I believe that Saudi Arabia has an important role to play in the Muslim world and that if we fail to encourage wide-ranging reforms and respect for international norms, we will be failing in our long-term duty to create a peaceful world.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: My Lords, perhaps I may say, in a personal moment of reflection, that it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, because he has told me that since my appointment to this House he follows me on every list by accident of my surname, which uses the letter "a" as opposed to his which uses the letter "e". Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord in this debate.
The issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia is one that is very pertinent not just to the Middle East and the Arab world, but to the world as a whole. As the Arab spring is upon us, there are opportunities for greater democracy, increased transparency and a need for greater adherence to human and civil rights. Civil rights and human rights are often bandied about as litmus tests of parliamentary democracies and of countries, whichever model they may follow. It is therefore important that when we look around the world, make the challenges and raise the voice of human and civil rights, we do so with equality enjoining justice. Perhaps that role becomes even more important when we look to established states and to our allies. Where we see rights being usurped, we have two options. Do we turn a blind eye and hope it will go away, or do we do the right thing and raise our voices and, as has been shown in recent months, take action where necessary against discrimination and the usurping of human rights? Surely if these countries are our allies, we should play the role of a critical friend with constructive reasoning.
As the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, has said, Saudi Arabia is the guardian of the holy shrines of Islam in both Mecca and Medina. It is the birthplace of Islam, a religion of peace by definition, and it is the birthplace of the noble Prophet Mohammed, Peace be upon
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The Holy Koran recognises the right to religious freedom and all civil and human rights in the case of all-that is, in the case of other believers but also in the case of non-believers as well. In the context of human rights and the need to exercise religious freedom-or any freedom-it is important to mention a verse in the Holy Koran:
That has application not only to Muslims and non-Muslims alike but also those who perhaps renounce their faith after professing it. The Koran does not prescribe punishment-as is sometimes erroneously interpreted-for the renunciation of faith alone. Ultimately, according to Islamic doctrine-the right and true interpretation of Islam-that decision and a person's ultimate destiny lie in the hereafter in the hands of God almighty.
Muslims believe that the Holy Koran contains the first and foremost universal declaration of human rights in the history of mankind. Let us refer to that for a moment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as we know it, stands as a milestone towards the goal of freedom, justice and equality. Adopted in 1948, it contains the broadest consensus of contemporary civilisation on the subject of human rights. It contains all the important political and civil rights, such as equality before the law, the right to a fair trial, the right to own property, freedom of opinion and expression, and of thought, conscience, and religion:
Let me go forward to the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights. This was something to which Saudi Arabia subscribed in 1990. It offered a somewhat parallel declaration-an Islamic conception of human rights. With this objective, many Muslim countries, under the aegis of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, signed the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights. That also sought to provide protections for the rights of women and religion but there were limitations. Perhaps when you look at the two declarations side by side those are glaringly obvious. The important thing is that it was a step in the right direction. Yet the Cairo Declaration refuses to give the most fundamental of human rights: the freedom of conscience and the right to change ones religion or belief. The Cairo Declaration is deafeningly silent about the right of a Muslim, for example, to renounce Islam in favour of other religions or atheism. We sometimes see the interpretation of that in its very ugly form in certain Muslim states.
I now move forwards to 2002, when the United Nations published the Arab Human Development report, which noted that the Arab region has the least freedom compared to six other key regions of the
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I return to the Arab spring-a time of opportunity to build a new vision, for countries to embrace change and look again. For those Muslim countries-Saudi Arabia is an example-which seek to build a new vision of Islam and show that Islam recognises opportunities and the civil and human rights of all irrespective of religion, creed, colour or gender, it is important that they show leadership. It is then for these countries-for Saudi Arabia-to provide human and civil rights coupled with religious and political freedoms, where women do not play a peripheral role but a rightful, full and active role in not just partial elements of society but in all elements.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced recently that women will be able to participate in municipal elections in 2015 and become members of the consultative Shura Council. That is a welcome step. It is about the greater participation of women in life in Saudi Arabia. Yet the statement, which was made not so long ago in September, made no reference to other areas of discrimination against women, such as the guardianship system that has been referred to or-one that often hits the headlines-that women still cannot drive in Saudi Arabia on their own. That is not Islam. It is far removed from Islam. I can assure noble Lords that if I, as a Muslim, told my wife that she could not drive on her own, I would get more than just an earful.
On a more serious note, this is not reflective of the origins of Islam. The noble Prophet of Islam, Mohammed, laid down the principles of equal rights for women. Inheritance rights-the rights of daughters to inherit-were previously unheard of, and not just in the Arab world. So the Muslim world was a leading example of those rights. What has gone wrong? It is time to reclaim the true traditions of Islam. I reflect, perhaps appropriately, that this year's Nobel Peace Prize is being awarded to three women. One of those is an Arab woman, Yemen democracy activist Tawakkul Karman, who will receive the Nobel Prize in Oslo. Indeed, I believe we will welcome her to this House over the next few days. Her example should act for Saudi women, for Muslim women across the Islamic world and for women across the world wherever they are-and for all people who suffer any kind of discrimination. It says that if you persevere, if you stay at it, you can ensure that your voice will be raised and recognised. It is important that we support those voices.
Many would say that this is an example of modern empowerment, that it is what Islam did not allow. No: if we go back to the origins of Islam, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, pointed out, in the traditions and history of Islam, in the examples of Hazrat Khadija, Hazrat Ayesha and Hazrat Fatima, we find that those women who laid the basic foundations of Islam were
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Lord Avebury: My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, has given us the opportunity of discussing human rights in Saudi Arabia today, and I congratulate him on his very forthright speech introducing the debate this evening. In spite of its egregious human rights record, it is seldom discussed on the Floor of the House. I looked back over the present Session and found only two occasions. The first took place when the noble Lord himself introduced a debate at Question Time in terms very similar to the one that we are having this evening; the second was introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, at the end of October. On that occasion, by the way, my noble friend Lady Falkner asked the Minister how the UK voted when Saudi Arabia was elected to the board of UN Women; the Minister has not yet complied with the undertaking to write to her on that matter. Perhaps he could tell us now, and at the same time explain how Saudi Arabia came to be a member of the UN Human Rights Council when human rights are non-existent at home.
The Foreign Office's annual report on human rights and democracy shows that in Saudi Arabia the rule of law does not apply because judges apply their own interpretation of Sharia law, including their own arbitrary variations in punishments for the same offence. The death penalty is applied to many different offences, including sorcery, drug-smuggling, homosexuality and apostasy. Minors are not exempt, as we see from the case of the 17 year-old Sri Lankan housemaid, Rizana Nafeek, who was wrongly convicted of the murder of an infant left in her charge. Torture is widespread, but the FCO fails to mention the frequent use of the cruel and unusual punishment of flogging, as in the case of the Australian, Mansor Almaribe, who was on hajj when he was arrested and convicted of insulting companions of the Prophet and sentenced to 500 lashes and a year's imprisonment, although he suffers from diabetes and heart disease and is very unlikely to survive that punishment. The US State Department gives details of reported cases of torture and flogging. Freedom of expression is strictly limited. Newspapers can be closed down without appeal. A journalist was sentenced to 50 lashes for reporting a protest against electricity price rises. There is absolutely no freedom of religion.
The Shia minority, which amounts to 20 per cent of the population, is severely repressed. Unfortunately, the FCO only devotes one short paragraph to this problem and gives no details. There is now major unrest among the 2 million Shia in the Eastern Province, and, as in Syria, demonstrators are being shot dead by the police. A 20 year-old student, Nasser al-Muhaishi, was killed on 21 November when live ammunition was used against demonstrators, also injuring a woman and a child. The young man's body was not handed over to his family for burial, which triggered a further demonstration, during which another youth, Ali al-Filfil,
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Well, we have been singularly unsuccessful in this aim, because there is a constant stream of complaints from the Eastern Province about the prohibition on the building of mosques, arbitrary arrests of leading community dignitaries, raids on private houses where the Shia meet for prayer, and the prohibition on Shia worshippers joining in prayers at Sunni mosques.
As we have already heard, women are allowed to work only in a very few occupations, and then only with other women. All women are subordinate to a male relative, contrary to an undertaking given by Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council that it would abolish the male guardianship system. Girl children can be married off at the age of 12. I expect that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, will have seen the report in the Sunday Telegraph a week ago about the cleric who said that if women were allowed to drive, they would be "driven to lust". The highest religious council chipped in and said that it would be the end of virginity in the country, and a young mother convicted of persistently flouting the ban on women drivers was sentenced to 10 lashes in Jeddah in September in spite of the king's promise to grant her a pardon.
Anti-Semitism is rife and foreign workers, of whom there are almost 8.5 million in the kingdom, are often the victims of violent abuse by their employers, who enjoy almost total impunity. The FCO says that this issue is raised frequently with the Saudi Government, the Shura Council and the media, but it has nothing to say about the success or otherwise of all these representations. The FCO appears to think that we can alleviate the horrendous violations reported in its annual report and covered in far more detail and more effectively in the State Department equivalent, by remonstrations and cosmetic bits of aid which are supposed, for example, to encourage reforms at the Ministry of Justice, promote discussion in the Shura Council on the minimum age of marriage and adulthood, and to sponsor talks about the regulation of foreign workers' rights.
If the Saudi Government had the political will, they could perfectly well undertake these initiatives themselves. It is not at all clear whether any of the glacially slow reforms that are actually or potentially occurring are in fact accelerated by the UK's initiatives. On the contrary, it could be that the authorities play along with our no doubt well meaning attempts to influence them in the direction of human rights and democracy as a means of averting stronger criticism of the kind they have to put up with from human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It would be very interesting if my noble friend the Minister could say something about the incongruity of spending UK taxpayers' money on these puny initiatives when the Saudi hereditary dictatorship is rolling in billions of dollars of oil money. I would also like to hear from my noble friend what the Government's attitude is to the use of those billions to fund the Salafist ideology which is being promulgated in mosques and madrasas throughout the Arab world and in south Asia that are the mainspring of terrorism and the indirect cause of the deaths of hundreds of British servicemen in Afghanistan. This ideology which sanctions the use of violence against all who think differently is the reason why the Christians of the Middle East are being squeezed out of the region, as the most reverend Primate said in your Lordships' debate on Friday. He might have added that they are being squeezed out of Pakistan and other Islamic countries as well.
However, not only Christians are under fire throughout the Islamic world. Last Wednesday, 55 worshippers, celebrating the festival of Ashura, were killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul, while in the Pakistani city of Lahore, 93 worshippers at two separate Ahmadiyya mosques were murdered in terrorist attacks in May 2010. Dozens of assassinations of persons belonging to minority Islamic sects as well as attacks on their places of worship have been reported in recent years and yet there has been hardly any attempt to examine the ideological sources of terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda or al-Shabaab, or even to analyse the literature being used in the madrassahs where the leaders of these movements were educated. I would like my noble friend to say what the FCO is doing, together with the European Union and others, to counter the hate-filled propaganda which motivates terrorists and to expose those who are funding it.
Finally, I request my noble friend to use whatever influence we have with the Saudi regime to persuade it to withdraw its troops from Bahrain, where they are propping up another hereditary despotism. In 1956, when the Hungarian Communist Party invited Soviet troops in to quell unrest, the international community rightly decided that it was a breach of the UN charter. The same verdict was passed on Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1958, and on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, which followed an invitation by President Babrak Karmal. These incursions were violations of Article 2(4) of the UN charter because the Governments of the states concerned were manifestly not representative of their people, and the same is true of the situation in Bahrain. The Saudi troops there may have been used solely to guard critical installations but in so doing they released the
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The Saudi regime cannot last indefinitely, any more than the dictatorships of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt or Syria. The ideal would be a managed transition over a period to a constitutional monarchy, or an elected shura with legislative power, and a Government of the majority with the right to appoint Ministers. However, if that is going to happen, I think it will be as a result of internal and regional forces and not because of the worthy but ineffectual attempts to reconcile Wahhabi absolutism with international norms of human rights and democracy. Whatever influence we do have should be directed towards preventing the spread of the pernicious ideology of the Saudi clerics to the rest of the Islamic world.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will speak on behalf of my noble friend Lord Triesman who is still engaged in Grand Committee. I thank my noble friend Lord Ahmed for introducing this short debate and all those who have made invaluable contributions to it. I can think of no one better than my noble friend to speak out against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. He is a true friend to the 27 million people of that country.
I share the deep concern that has been expressed all around the Chamber about torture; about those who are at risk because they question the integrity of those in authority; about those who have sought to speak freely or associate politically; about those who wish to follow religions of their choice; and, of course, about the women of that country who are subjugated and, as so many have said, not even allowed to drive. As the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, said, the Prophet, peace be upon him, was a proponent of equality, and the traditions of Islam celebrate equality and the rights of women.
As true friends of Saudi Arabia, I think it is our duty to speak honestly about what is happening in that country because that is the role of a true friend. This was always going to be a difficult debate in some ways. On one hand we are discussing an important ally in global and regional security, but we are also discussing a nation with whom we have very important trading relations, and those relationships impact on our most advanced, technically most sophisticated, areas of manufacturing. It is not surprising in these circumstances that the UK is cautious about the language it uses and the subjects it chooses to talk about in respect of its relations with Saudi Arabia. Those of us who are used to the warm and productive relationships with the diplomatic representatives of the country would always wish to avoid gratuitous or discourteous language even when discussing the most difficult issues.
However, those issues cannot and must not be avoided in a world where values truly count and where it is impossible to suppress news of the international events in any country. With almost every citizen with a mobile phone now a kind of news reporter and cameraman with the world wide web an instant and almost unstoppable publishing medium, all of our actions are available for inspection and comment. In short, everything is visible, not least the human rights
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Before I ask your Lordships to consider some of the facts about repression in Saudi Arabia-a country with which, as I have said, we have friendly relations-I would like to deal with the two main arguments as to why we should be honest in our relationship with our friends in Saudi Arabia. As the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, said, we have to be critical friends. Closing one's eyes to real misdeeds by a friend is no basis for any set of shared values. We have to have shared values in order to nurture the friendship between our two countries.
The first argument for refraining from criticism is that it is nothing to do with us; it is a matter for any nation to determine its internal affairs without interference. Clearly that is not correct. Human rights in Saudi Arabia are specified in the basic law, Article 26. The basic law is grounded in Sharia law and it has been argued by Saudi representatives at the UN Committee Against Torture, for example, that law and sentences reflect local traditions, which have been adhered to since the inception of Islam. However, as we have heard clearly this evening, those are not the real traditions of Islam. Indeed, when criticised, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz told the third millennium summit of the UN that:
Without any wish to be offensive to Saudi Arabia or to Islam, such a position is patently untenable. The nations of the world have moved on from defending atavistic brutality as a matter for each sovereign state.
This is not a matter which is advocated only in modern or liberal societies but it is the binding conclusion of the principal multinational bodies. It is the DNA of the responsibility to protect peoples from oppression, which is central to the UN doctrine. It is the purpose of the UN Committee Against Torture, the purpose of multinational bodies charged with protecting the rights of women, minorities, people in gay and lesbian relationships, and it is focal in international efforts to foster democratic practice. In short, these values have become as global as the communication systems that discover and report the denial and breakdown of such values. The world is entitled to comment. Under international law, there is an obligation to comment, whether in Parliaments, the International Criminal Court or the media. We have a duty to uphold international law.
The second argument against criticism is the case that progress is being made, slowly but surely, against the weight of tradition. Some things are changing. People cite the Association for the Protection and Defence of Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia of 2002, recent announcements on women's participation in elections-but, as we have heard, that is indeed a chimera-the funding of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association in 2009, and the ratification of the Arab Charter on Human Rights in 2008. Of course, these small moves in a better direction are welcome but progress is self-evidently painfully slow and if even
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Inevitably, we must look at the realities. Where political freedoms are concerned, including freedom of expression, dissent is routinely prosecuted as evidence of terrorism. In the past six months of galvanic change in the wider region, and at a time of opportunity and new vision, as noble Lords have said, Amnesty reports a wide-ranging crackdown targeting many thousands through arrests and detentions, and that these methods replicate those used in allegations of terrorism. Many are held without charge or are charged with offences such as inciting public opinion, which is what most of us in this Chamber do every day. Months spent in prison do not result in trials. Torture and ill treatment are rife. There is so much more that should not be tolerated by the global community-all those countries that signed the Declaration of Human Rights, whose anniversary we celebrate today. Where trials occur, there are authoritative reports of defendants in court being blindfolded, handcuffed and without legal representation. We cannot allow this to go on.
On human rights issues, the picture is still more bleak. The death penalty, including public beheading, stoning and occasionally crucifixion, can be imposed for a wide spectrum of offences which still include apostasy, witchcraft and sorcery. It is in the area of rights for women that it is argued that the greatest progress has been made. For example, 70 per cent of those enrolled in universities are women, yet women make up under 5 per cent of the workforce. Religious restrictions continue to be imposed on Christian, Jewish and Hindu peoples, and on Shia Muslims. I look forward to the Minister's response to many of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, about the ideology that is taught in some of the madrassas around the world and about the hate-filled propaganda that permeates them and emanates from them. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender groups are defined as criminals under the criminal code. While public execution on conviction is a possibility, courts may impose sentences of flogging and imprisonment. This is outrageous.
All these repressions go well beyond what can be justified by tradition. They lie wholly outside international human rights law and they could all be changed. Sometimes it falls to us, as critical friends, to say so. That is what we in this Chamber are doing this evening. We should strongly but respectfully urge the Saudi Arabian Government to respect in full international human rights and standards. The international community would greet with congratulation the immediate commutation of death sentences and a moratorium on this and other forms of judicial corporal punishment. We need to try to engage Saudi Arabia in discussion of a tangible programme to end capital punishment and corporal punishment of all kinds, movement to wider and durable political rights and involvement, and an end to discrimination against all segments of Saudi society. I have no doubt that these will be difficult discussions that require diplomacy. The movement towards modernity and basic values that are central to the world community will do Saudi Arabia no harm and great reputational good.
Nobody gives up tradition readily. Culture is a deep force-I recognise that-but future regard is an invaluable asset, economically, commercially and politically, and it is an asset worth having. We should not forget, as noble Lords have said, that the culture and traditions which are currently adhered to have no basis in Islam. I trust that today's very welcome debate will assist our Government in their role as a critical friend.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, very much for introducing this debate. I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, in the place of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, who I also now welcome. I am speaking in the place of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who was speaking in the Moses Room as she came up. Much mention has been made of the Arab spring and of change across the Arab world, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and we hope perhaps in Syria. The question is how this affects Saudi Arabia.
One hundred years ago, Saudi Arabia was, with Yemen, the most traditional, tribally based society in the Arab world. As a Christian from a country which has slowly moved, over 10 to 15 generations, from a traditional society to a modern, liberal society, I have to recognise that Saudi Arabia has been moving at immense speed-in two to three generations-from a very conservative, traditional society to one which is facing up to the challenges of modernity. It is, after all, still being governed by the sons of the founder of the kingdom.
I am not qualified to discuss what the authentic Islamic approach is to human rights. I am uncomfortably aware that the Christian tradition has advanced and embraced highly diverse assumptions about the toleration of minorities and of other faiths, the acceptable rights of women, and freedom of expression and dissent. I am conscious that the rights of women were very limited in Britain until less than 150 years ago. We have gradually reformed our laws and social attitudes over several generations since then, and we press the Saudis to pass through the same evolutionary process, but at a much faster pace. The progress that the Saudis are making with education, and in particular the education of women, carries its own dynamic. It is very praiseworthy that they are educating women: educated women are not going to accept, for themselves or their children, the continuing denial of their rights.
We therefore have to recognise that the human rights position in Saudi Arabia reflects widely held conservative social values, but there are indications that the Government and the media are trying slowly to encourage Saudi society to open up. The interfaith initiative that the Saudis are sponsoring is a good example, but it comes up against many Saudis of a more conservative tune, who are not supportive of this. We are attempting to work with those in Saudi society who are advocating reform in order to build support for a full application of human rights standards.
Her Majesty's Government have serious concerns about the current human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. We have made our views well known, and continue to do so through the universal periodic review
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In 2011, we have maintained this frank dialogue, working both bilaterally with the Saudis and with the EU. We have encouraged progress in four priority areas, which for us are women's rights, the death penalty, the rights of foreign workers, on which the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, spoke with particular concern, and judicial reform. We funded a number of projects in 2010, including training for Saudi security forces in forensic analysis and investigative methods, including DNA analysis, which has helped to improve the treatment of suspects.
The British Council trained female entrepreneurs through its springboard training programme. On the question of funding, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury that of course the British Government use our money, as do other wealthy countries, including the United States, to encourage what we value so highly and to encourage others to see Britain as a friendly country.
In September, the Saudi Government announced that women would be allowed to participate in both voting and standing in the next municipal elections. This is another small, but, we hope, constructive step forward and, as such, should be congratulated. Of course there can be further improvement. The next one is the rights of women moving around, including, of course in driving. That underlines the wider issue of the guardianship system, on which the UK consistently calls for modification to allow women fully to participate in society.
The Saudi Arabia All-Party Parliamentary Group recently visited the kingdom-last week, I think-led by Daniel Kaczynski, and discussed with the Saudi Government a draft law on terrorism, which is, I emphasise, only a draft law. A number of amendments have been proposed from within the Saudi Government and society. It reported back to the British Government that it sees the process of reform as slowly moving forward. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred to the pace of reform as glacial. We would of course like it to go a great deal faster, but we think it is slowly moving forward.
A number of other questions were asked in the debate: how many British citizens are there in Saudi jails? I understand that there are currently four British nationals in Saudi jails. We are in regular contact with both them and the Saudi authorities to ensure that they have access to legal advice and to ensure their welfare. We are currently in the process of negotiating a prisoner transfer agreement with the Saudi authorities. This agreement will cover any British nationals held in our respective countries and, of course, the return of some Saudis in prison in British jails.
The rights of foreign workers are a major concern. I think that there are nearly 8 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia and, as the noble Lord has remarked, many of them come from south and south-east Asia. They are clearly denied rights. The rights of maids and women workers are of particular concern. We have made our case to the Saudis on this, as do a number of other Governments, including the Governments of
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On the question of the Salafist ideology, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, it is correct to say that 10 to 15 years ago, a considerable amount of Saudi money was flowing through Zakat to Islamic charities which were funding madrassahs promoting violent views of Islam. I am told that those flows of money are now a good deal less; that they do not come from Saudi governmental sources; and that the Saudi Government are co-operating actively in attempting to promote a more non-violent and modern-oriented version of Salafism.
The noble Lord said that there has been very little attempt to analyse this movement and its motivation. I can assure him that, since 2001, there have been a number of active attempts to analyse the nature of Salafism and the various movements that we are now facing. It is not the case that it is a matter entirely of Saudi leadership and drive; there are now indigenous forms of Salafism in a wide range of Muslim countries. Part of what is driving the growth of Salafism among the young is, very often, reaction to modernity and what are perceived as incursions by the West.
On the death penalty, torture and mistreatment we continue to raise our concerns with the Saudi Government. On Bahrain, we were very concerned but we understand that the Saudi troops who arrived in Bahrain under a Gulf protection treaty have not themselves been involved in human rights violations. We are doing everything we can to promote dialogue between the Bahraini regime and its Shia minority and others.
We have an honest relationship with Saudi Arabia-we are a critical friend. We all know that it is not always easy to be a critical friend. Her Majesty's Government have critical friendships with a number of other Governments with very different circumstances; these range from Israel to Pakistan. Many of the Governments with whom we have these critical dialogues do not like the things that we say, but we continue to be honest and frank. We share inseparable and intertwined interests with the Saudis, and we do our best to build on our long-standing relationship.
We wish to encourage evolution rather than revolution. The aftermath of the revolution in Iran, which some at first hoped would lead to a more open and liberal society but which has led instead to a narrower, more authoritarian and theocratic regime, strengthens our view that evolution through reform is preferable to pushing for the sort of revolution which would lead to destabilising what is still a relatively stable regime.
We recognise the steps that the King has already taken to widen discussion of key social, political and human rights issues through the national dialogue initiative. Through our Arab partnership, we stand ready to work together with Saudi Arabia as partners in building and increasing citizen participation as the only way, we assure them, to ensure long-term stability and prosperity.
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