I just want to raise one small policy point that illustrates the issue of ideology versus practicality. I think it is ideologically led that the current Justice

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Secretary, Chris Grayling, has put on the table plans to double the fee to file a petition for divorce, charging £750 and making a profit for the state above costs of £30 million. I am absolutely delighted that Simon Hughes in the same department has opposed this. As we all know, women are by far the highest number of applicants for divorce, and among those, inevitably and tragically, there are women who must escape from a violent partner. No one should place top-dollar prices on that woman’s chance to get out of the relationship and no one should turn it into significant profit for the state.

I will close by praising the work of Ann Fowler House in Liverpool, run by the Salvation Army, which works in precisely the area that some noble Lords have described of separate service, working one on one with women who are victims of domestic violence to build skills and support self-esteem. We have heard so many really tragic stories that I thought it would be good to tell one that has a better ending. Joanne came to Ann Fowler House after suffering domestic violence. It was discovered that she had a skill of hairdressing. She has now qualified as a hairdresser. She returns once a week and has very quickly found herself somewhere to live. I thought it would be good to end on a nice note. I hope that this debate, and the debate that the noble Baroness has initiated, leads to more stories like Joanne’s. I thank the noble Baroness for raising it.

2.18 pm

Baroness Thornton (Lab): My Lords, what an excellent debate and what excellent contributions we have heard from all sides of the House. I, too, welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to her place on the Bench as a government Whip. Clearly the coalition could not manage without her—quite right, too. I extend my congratulations to my noble friend Lady King on securing this important debate. We have had two brilliant maiden speeches. My noble friend Lady Rebuck’s speech was a model of its kind and we look forward to further great contributions from her. I have bad news for the noble Lord, Lord Farmer —I am still finding staircases and corridors after 16 years. It takes a long time to find your way around. Perhaps it is like Hogwarts and they move. I enjoyed the noble Lord’s maiden speech very much indeed.

My noble friend Lady King powerfully set the scene in relation to domestic violence, recognising the work of Women’s Aid and the wider issues of homelessness and social exclusion. We know that domestic violence cuts across class, ethnicity and background: it is an issue for all of us. This debate has shown how important it is to recognise the impact of domestic abuse on people’s life chances, their education, housing and indeed happiness. It is clear that domestic and sexual violence is little short of a national scandal and we need to do more.

Statistics have been shared during this debate, and however we look at things the scale of reported incidents is staggering. Women reported more than 12 million incidents of domestic abuse last year. At least 750,000 children in the UK witness violence in their home every year, and two women are killed by their partner or an ex every week. In some areas, one in five 999 calls is about domestic violence. It is a huge drain on our economy as well as a blight on society. Domestic abuse alone costs the UK almost £17 billion per year. My

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noble friend Lady Armstrong illustrated how well some of the programmes can work and how cost effective they can be. I want to congratulate my honourable friend Seema Malhotra for her work as a shadow Minister, preventing violence against women and girls. Her appointment is a symbol of how important the Labour Party regards this issue.

As many noble Lords have said, there is real and growing concern about the provision for those fleeing domestic violence, and this is what I shall concentrate on first. Women’s Aid has raised the adequacy of commissioning local domestic violence services. This was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Healy. Women’s Aid says that its member organisations are experiencing several problematic commissioning practices. Between April and September 2014 concerns about commissioning processes were raised in 16 areas of the country. Twelve specialist domestic violence services across England lost the services they were providing, through the competitive tendering commissioning process. Several local authorities issued tenders that included local connection rules, meaning that 70% to 80% of refuge spaces in their services must be reserved for women and children with a local connection. One local authority has put its domestic violence services out to tender and has included specific provision for male survivors. However, that is included in the totality of the funding, rather than being an increase in the funding, which means that providing those important services effectively reduces capacity for women survivors and their children. The alarming trend we see for local authorities to impose local rules on refuges effectively dismantles the national network of refuges, and that is very important.

The following is an example of this trend. A 24-hour domestic violence helpline support worker took a late-night call from a housing officer from an emergency duty team. He was trying to find refuge accommodation for a 19 year-old woman with twin babies. The only refuge space available for her across England was in a refuge subject to a local connection rule. The available space matched all the woman’s and children’s needs but she was unable to take the place as she had no local connection. So the woman was instead placed in emergency accommodation in the area she was trying to flee from, which was significantly less safe, and the specialist refuge was left with empty beds, as they were unable to accept her. That is a totally unacceptable situation.

I refer to other examples. Services are being squeezed throughout the country. A few months ago I raised the situation in Cheshire West and Chester at Question Time, after the Conservative council voted to stop funding a number of women’s refuge centres across the region. They have now pulled funding to the centres in Chester, which has had to close, and in Northwich, which faces a very uncertain future, leaving just one for the entire region, in Ellesmere Port. The number of beds available to women has been reduced from 17 to 12 and furthermore they have capped at 20% the number of women and children from outside Cheshire West who are able to seek refuge there. The remaining council service in Ellesmere Port is working with the housing sector to provide secure premises but these do not offer the same level of support as a refuge.

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This is the reality of this Government's approach to vulnerable women, and it is not an isolated incident. The same has happened in Gloucestershire. As a result of funding no longer being ring-fenced, the facilities in Cheltenham, Gloucester and the Forest of Dean have had to close their doors. Only the refuge in Stroud remains open. It has to service the needs of vulnerable women across the entire county. Although the contract has been awarded to new providers who offer some outreach support, they no longer provide the specialist refuge or accommodation-based services. The refuge in Stroud is, not surprisingly, struggling. This, again, is the reality of the Government’s approach to vulnerable women. South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre has in the first four months of this financial year taken as many referrals as in the whole of last year, and there is a five-month waiting list for access to specialist sexual violence counselling services.

Hertfordshire is another place where the pressures on vulnerable women and those trying to help them are increasing: they feel that the system is working against them. An example is the woman testifying against an ex-partner who was told that she might have to appear in court on her son's first day at school, or face contempt of court and arrest herself. In many cases these women have to turn to the voluntary sector to get by. Does the Minister really believe that this is acceptable?

In Plymouth, a combination of government policies has left vulnerable women at even more risk. Services are being pushed to breaking point and in places where domestic abuse incidents have increased—such as Plymouth—it is even more difficult. In the year 2012-13 there were 6,092 domestic abuse incidents recorded in Plymouth, up 5% on the previous year. We know, however, that this figure masks the real truth, as on average a woman is assaulted 35 times before she reports it to the police.

Funding cuts are just one of the problems. The coalition’s bedroom tax is also having serious consequences on vulnerable women. “Safe rooms”, where domestic violence victims can take refuge, are considered as spare rooms, so that many women cannot afford to stay in their homes and are left without access to this vital sanctuary.

There are three important areas the Government need to address. First is prevention, in which I would include, as a top priority, sex and relationship education, as mentioned by the right reverend Prelate. Consider the challenges faced by our young people today. They are under a lot of pressure to conform, whether through their access to online pornography or through gang culture in some areas. Having compulsory sex and relationship education is about giving those young people the resilience to stand up and make sure their voices are heard.

We need to pay tribute to the work of Women's Aid, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Rape Crisis and others. They do incredible work, but they are under increasing pressure. In my party, my right honourable friend Yvette Cooper has committed a new £3 million annual fund for refuges, to support victims of domestic violence, because we want to see the continuation of a national network of refuges. What are the Government proposing to do?

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Finally, we need to improve access to justice, to ensure that there is a joined-up justice system that works fast, gets things right and is cost effective and easy to access. We believe that we need a new commissioner for domestic and sexual violence who would sit in the heart of government to ensure that victims’ voices are heard. We believe that police training needs to be updated and refreshed.

This has been an incredibly important debate. We cannot rest while domestic abuse happens every day in homes across the UK.

2.28 pm

Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD): My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady King, for initiating the debate on this important subject and for introducing it with her customary passion and expertise. I also thank noble Lords for their kind words on my return to the fray. I join, too, in the congratulations to my noble friend Lord Farmer and to the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, on their maiden speeches. My noble friend Lord Farmer confessed himself confused by “west” being “north”, but he has overcome many more challenging hurdles than that in his moving story of survival. He has a great deal to offer to this debate and to this House. His experience and subsequent achievements will, I am sure, benefit us all.

In welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, I identify with her words. My husband and hers were both introduced on that list in 2004, a list distinguished by both of them. They are both very much missed. I hope she will find that this House offers many opportunities to contribute and to help to make the world a better place. She has a wonderful record already in that regard. The thoughtful and eloquent words of both our new Members have greatly added to the debate and we look forward to hearing from them both on many occasions.

Many issues raised by noble Lords today are ones of which we are well aware. Generally speaking, women are more likely to be poorer and less likely to control their own destiny. This is as true internationally as it is in this country. There are many challenges and we continue to work to break down those barriers, creating a culture shift that empowers women. Under this Government, there are more women employed in the UK than ever before, with 14.4 million now in employment. Since the coalition Government came to power, that is 711,000 more women in jobs since May 2010.

We know that caring responsibilities disproportionately fall to women. That is why we are introducing a system of shared parental leave from next year and reducing the cost of childcare. We are addressing the gender pay gap and increasing flexible working. Those policies are giving women the help that they need to give them the financial independence which they have so often lacked in the past.

As we know, women can be more vulnerable and disproportionately affected by homelessness related to domestic violence. Statistics show that more than half of people who receive homelessness assistance are women. The homelessness legislation in England provides one of the strongest safety nets in the world for

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families with children and vulnerable people who become homeless through no fault of their own. Local authorities already adapt their services to meet the needs of homeless women.

Women do not simply become homeless: there are clear reasons why it happens. Domestic abuse can mean that a woman needs to flee her home to protect herself and her children, or a mental health issue may mean that dealing with finances may become overwhelming, leading to the build up of rent arrears. Rather than waiting for a crisis to happen, one of the strengths of today’s homelessness services is that local housing authorities are reaching out to those in need to help them avoid one in the first place. In 2013-14, homelessness prevention work helped to stop homelessness crises happening for more than 200,000 households. That is supported by an investment of £6.5 billion to help households to maintain their tenancies and live independently through housing-related support services.

The type of support provided is wide-ranging and will be tailored to the specific needs of that person. Support could include help to develop life skills, such as understanding a tenancy agreement, or how to pay bills. It could include support services for those fleeing or at risk of domestic violence, adaptations to improve mobility and avoid falls, or support to find appropriate training, or to access education or employment opportunities. Interventions such as family mediation, debt advice, resolving rent arrears or even sanctuary schemes provided by specialist domestic violence services all help to prevent problems escalating out of control. More often than not, it is the local authority working hand in hand with the voluntary and community sector to provide effective support services that vulnerable women really need to get their lives back on track and make a fulfilling contribution to society. I also recognise that, tragically, last year, 77 women lost their lives at the hands of a current or former male partner. That is the lowest number of intimate partner homicides since 1998, but there is precious little comfort in that. Any more than zero is too many.

Domestic violence and abuse is an insidious and terrible crime, and it rightly has the attention of both Houses. Only last week, a debate took place in Westminster Hall to highlight its horrors. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, spoke eloquently during the Report stage of the Serious Crime Bill about criminalising coercive behaviour. My noble friend Lady Jenkin referred to that in her speech.

Noble Lords will know that the Home Office has recently concluded a consultation on whether the law on domestic abuse needs to be strengthened. We will publish our response to the consultation shortly. We heard a powerful contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, on that. Domestic abuse cuts across all social boundaries and cultures, disempowering women financially, emotionally and practically. The Government are determined to do all they can to tackle it.

Alongside the £40 million of funding for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services, we have rolled out Clare’s Law and domestic violence protection orders, and placed domestic homicide reviews on a statutory footing to make sure that lessons are

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learnt from individual tragedies. My noble friend Lady Bakewell spoke about the implications in her area of Somerset.

However, introducing new laws can only go so far to break the cycle of abuse which victims suffer. The Government are clear that changing hearts and minds is also required to send a clear message that domestic abuse is never acceptable. It is never too young for children to learn how to respect others and how to grow in self-respect. The right reverend Prelate, my noble friends Lord Paddick and Lord Sheikh, and the noble Baronesses, Lady King and Lady Thornton, all referred to the important role that schools can play in raising young people’s awareness of issues within the PSHE curriculum. I pay tribute to the teaching profession for all it does to encourage positive behaviour in young people. I also draw attention to the pupil premium, which is being used very effectively to help those pupils who are at the greatest disadvantage. The Home Office has also run two successful campaigns aimed at teenagers to help to prevent them from becoming victims or perpetrators of domestic abuse.

The police were referred to by my noble friends Lord Sheikh and Lord Paddick, the right reverend Prelate, and my noble friends Lady O’Cathain and Lady Jenkin. Following Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary’s report on the police response to domestic abuse, which highlighted significant failings, the Home Secretary chairs a national oversight group to drive an improvement in the police approach. Following a letter from her to chief constables, action plans to address these failings are now being quality assured by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in partnership with the voluntary and community sector. The Government expect police and crime commissioners to use those action plans to hold their chief constables to account.

We have not stopped there. My noble friend Lord Sheikh mentioned forcing someone to marry against their will. We have now made that a criminal offence. I am proud to say that the UK is leading the fight to stamp out that harmful practice in the UK and overseas. On violence against women, the message from the coalition Government is crystal clear: forced marriage, domestic abuse and other types of abuse are totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

I will try to pick up as many of the questions as I can in the time available. The noble Baroness, Lady King, asked: how do the Government know what is the level of domestic violence services? Decisions on funding are best taken by local authorities, and the Government do not collect information on funding for local services. The noble Baroness asked me to ask the Chancellor to meet Women’s Aid. I will certainly pass on her request and would welcome being part of the meeting, with or without the Chancellor—but I guess that the presence of the Chancellor is her main purpose.

The noble Baroness also mentioned average earnings. In fact, average full-time earnings for men are £556 per week, up 1.8%; for women, they are £489, up 2.2%. So the gap is narrowing, but it is obviously still not close enough.

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I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Newlove for her courage and work in such areas. I welcome her many suggestions and will look closely at Hansard to see which of those we can apply and take up. I also noted her comment that simple solutions are not what is required for complex problems.

I acknowledge the invaluable work of the churches and faith communities. I assure the right reverend Prelate that we always pay heed to what we hear from them about their work as they often have first-hand knowledge of such cases and are the front line of defence. He probably knows that, earlier this year, 200 faith leaders signed a pledge to eradicate female genital mutilation in faith communities. That is a potent gesture and a sign of the work that is being done.

My noble friend Lady Tyler spoke about local homelessness services offering a choice between mixed or single-sex services. They are required to take account of the needs of victims and we hope that they would always consider the preferences of the victims as to where they felt safe. She also movingly mentioned the health of homeless people, with the simple thing of not being able to brush your teeth or wash your hands if you are homeless. We are looking at how to improve access to primary care services and hospital discharge arrangements for the homeless, but there is much work still to do on that score.

Several noble Lords mentioned issues about the police, some of which I have touched on. The right reverend Prelate mentioned the mandatory training of police. Training on domestic violence is already a mandatory element in police training, but we will look at this again with the review that is going on. It is too early to have figures on the domestic violence protection orders that he mentioned, but early indications are that they are working well. It is something that we will need to monitor.

I pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for the work that he does, particularly with looked-after and vulnerable children. It is much valued and appreciated. He raised the issue of maternal and perinatal mental health. The Department of Health is working closely with partners to ensure that trained, specialist, perinatal mental health staff are available in every birthing unit from 2017. There is a lot of work going on in this area, too, but awareness has certainly been raised that this is an issue. It is important that these issues are brought to our attention because it is only in that way that measures can be taken to improve things. As the noble Earl also mentioned, a focus on maternal mental health is important, not only for mothers but for children too.

The noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Graham, talked about social housing, as did my noble friend Lady Grender. Since 2010 almost 200,000 affordable homes have been built in England and a further £23 billion will help us build another 165,000 affordable homes between 2015 and 2018. That is the fastest rate for at least 20 years. We have a lot of catching up to do in this respect. On the right to buy, for the first time, every additional council home sold under the right to buy will be replaced with a new, affordable home. Related to this is my honourable friend Sarah Teather’s Private Member’s Bill to tackle retaliatory evictions.

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My noble friend Lady Jenkin referred to particular cases of domestic abuse work in Essex. We welcome the excellent work of Essex County Council in transforming domestic abuse services across the county. It is rebuilding services to meet the needs of victims for refuge, outreach, support for children and so on. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for her long record in this field. She asked about supporting women with children in care. Housing for Women’s programme to reunite female ex-offenders leaving prison with their children who have been in care has an economic value as well—it saves the taxpayer money but it also helps to reduce reoffending rates to 3% and, of course, reunites families. Programmes such as these are vital in improving people’s futures.

On homelessness and domestic violence, which was touched on by my noble friend Lady O’Cathain, the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baronesses, Lady Healy and Lady King, we fund the National Domestic Violence Helpline and UKRefugesOnline so that those looking to find a safe place and the appropriate support can do so quickly. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and to my noble friend Lady Bakewell that funding for refuges has never been ring-fenced, and that when the Supporting People ring-fence was removed in 2009, spending on support for victims of domestic abuse actually rose. I say to my noble friend Lady O’Cathain that refuges have discretion over who they admit.

My noble friend Lord Sheikh asked about legal aid. We have retained legal aid in key areas impacting on women; in particular, for injunctions to protect victims from domestic abuse and for family cases such as child contact or division of assets after separation where domestic violence is a feature. We continue to provide civil legal aid for the victims of domestic violence to apply for protective injunctions, such as non-molestation orders. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, for raising the issue of women in prison, which is another whole field of debate in association with these issues. The Government will respond to the St Mungo’s Rebuilding Shattered Lives report shortly and set out our work in support of vulnerable women. Once again, this is an issue that needs to be kept high on the agenda as there is so much that could be done regarding women sent to prison and the negative effects that this has on society as well as on them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, mentioned those with social and learning disabilities and their additional needs. That, too, is something that we shall need to keep an eye on in order to make sure that they do not suffer additional disadvantage because of their inability in one way or another. My noble friend Lord Wasserman mentioned the tagging of domestic violence offenders. I have just been part of the Digital Skills Committee and our eyes have been opened to an amazing range of the wonders of technology. I cannot remember whether we have had this impact of digital technology brought to our attention, but the Government are certainly aware of the huge potential of technology to help protect victims of domestic abuse. We are exploring, with industry, how tagging can be used to protect victims of domestic abuse, but I accept my noble friend’s point that it may need legislation in order to be totally effective.

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My noble friend Lady Grender raised concerns about the rising cost of divorce. She is quite right that we would not wish to see people trapped in unhappy marriages because of the rise in the cost of a divorce. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, raised a number of issues on prevention and access. I think that, along with other noble Lords, I may need to respond to her in writing.

This has been a very rich, informative and insightful debate. I am conscious that I have not answered all the questions that noble Lords have raised and so I will write to them. I hope that I have offered some reassurance that this Government are totally committed to helping women who face homelessness, domestic abuse and social exclusion. I have outlined some of the significant steps that the coalition Government have taken to transform the opportunities and services available for vulnerable women, supported by the dedication and hard work of local authorities and the voluntary and community sector. This is targeted help that is designed to prevent homelessness and domestic violence happening in the first place by identifying the complex needs that many women have at the point of crisis and helping them to get their lives back on track and make a full contribution to society.

I repeat my congratulations to our two new Peers on their outstanding maiden speeches. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady King, for bringing this debate to our attention and all noble Lords for their participation. It has been insightful and important and I hope that it will help to move some of these issues forward.

2.47 pm

Baroness King of Bow: My Lords, this genuinely has been an extraordinary debate. I know that everyone always gets up at this point and says that, but I am genuinely moved when I hear politicians at their best; not least because everyone else usually only reads about us at our worst. Having said that, I cannot, in the two minutes available to me, mention all the important contributions that were made. Let me just say that the high quality of debate was exemplified by the two brilliant maiden speeches. These were from my noble friend Lady Rebuck, whom I have admired for many years, and from someone I hope will be my friend—the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. That has scared him. I hope that the noble Lord, a self-confessed hedge fund manager, will take a compliment from me, a self-confessed champagne socialist. The insight and understanding he brought to the debate were breathtaking.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, was less impressed with me and was very disappointed by my opening remarks. I must say, with all the kindness in my heart, I, too, am very disappointed that the very clever people currently running the Treasury are either unaware or do not care that their actions disproportionately harm women. Of course, I take the noble Baroness’s point that no party holds a monopoly on policy solutions. That is exactly why I shelved many of the questions I had for the Minister and asked her, instead, whether she will use all her powers of persuasion to get a meeting with the Chancellor. If George Osborne actually knew, in a little detail, how much harm these cuts cost, if he had heard this debate, he would make

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cuts elsewhere. The Treasury must understand that supporting women is not a passing PC fad, it is fundamental to the future of our country.

Motion agreed.


Question for Short Debate

2.49 pm

Asked by Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the international response to Ebola.

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead (Lab): My Lords, at the outset I must pay tribute to the considerable contribution that the United Kingdom and its NGOs, health workers and service personnel are making in efforts to respond to the Ebola crisis. Despite those and other great efforts, as the world now knows, Ebola continues to destroy lives, livelihoods and communities. It impairs national economies and is severely damaging what are already very fragile basic services. It is reversing years of development efforts with devastating effects and there is a danger that this epidemic could undo years of efforts to stabilise the west African region and lead to new tensions between neighbouring countries.

Against that background, does the Minister agree with Kofi Annan, who has said that:

“If the crisis had hit some other region it … would have been handled very differently”?

He went on to say:

“When you look at the evolution of the crisis, the international community really woke up when the disease got to America and Europe”.

That judgment is echoed by Dr Chan, the director-general of the WHO, who has emphasised,

“the dangers of the world’s growing social and economic inequalities”.

She said:

“The rich get the best care. The poor are left to die”.

Hearing that, does the Minister agree that Ebola is tragically highlighting the basic reality that Governments and commerce must give higher priority to investment in the prevention of disease in developing countries? Should donors not be spending much more on global health, including overcoming malaria, TB and HIV, when those plagues are fundamental causes of underdevelopment and when more has to be spent on treatment simply because too little is still being invested in prevention?

We surely need to deal now with the reality that the world has simply not prepared itself for an effective response to any severe, sustained and contagious health emergency. The progress which is claimed by some to be taking place is, to say the least, uncertain. Experts grimly tell us that we are not close to reducing mortality or stopping Ebola’s transmission, which will not happen for some time. On just one day this month, 2 November, 61 new cases were reported across Sierra Leone, bringing the nationwide toll to 4,059 cases. According to Save the Children, five people are being infected every single hour in Sierra Leone.

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However, Ebola emerged 40 years ago, so why after four decades of huge scientific advance is there no vaccine and no cure? Could it be because Ebola has no R&D incentive for a profit-driven global pharmaceutical industry? Professor Peter Piot, the director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who is of course the scientist who first identified Ebola, has said that it would not have been difficult to contain the outbreak if those on the ground had acted quickly. He has also said, however, that tragically:

“Something that is easy to control got completely out of hand”,

as isolation, care and tracing and monitoring contacts, which have worked before, will not prevent the spread now. He went on to say:

“It may be that we have to wait for a vaccine to stop the epidemic”.

The awful truth is that no one knows the real death toll in Sierra Leone. We do know, however, that there is the most terrible suffering and misery. I will give just one all-too-typical instance. A woman with a nine year-old child and a six year-old child lost her husband to the disease. Naturally, she had nursed him. Now she is dead and both children have Ebola. They are orphans and victims. But hugging loved ones should not be a death sentence. Obviously, as in every culture, the women of west Africa are the carers of their families. They are consequently the front-line health workers who are most exposed to and affected by Ebola. In fact, in Liberia, 75% of those infected with or killed by Ebola are women.

Even before this crisis Sierra Leone had one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates. Now, because of the collapse of healthcare and the fear of contracting Ebola in hospital, many more women are dying in childbirth because they are afraid to go to hospital. Donors, including the UK, clearly need to take account of the higher risk that women and girls face of getting Ebola. In addition, priority should be given to sexual and reproductive healthcare, and it is vital that there is a proper response to the increased vulnerability of women and girls to violence during the Ebola crisis. Can the Minister tell the House whether efforts are being made to ensure that women are engaged at national and community level in shaping responses to this crisis?

After years of devastating civil wars, already fragile basic services are now desolated. In Sierra Leone, nearly 40% of the population do not have access to clean water and sanitation is worse than rudimentary. As a result, maintaining the level of hygiene needed to prevent the further spread of a virus which is transmitted through contact with body fluids is extremely difficult, and clearly the lack of basic services is putting at risk the lives of all those who care for Ebola patients. There is surely a need to make systematic and rapid efforts to ensure universal access to these basic services in all the hospitals, homes and schools. Without that, a future public health catastrophe is inevitable. In addition to addressing the response being made to inhibit the current epidemic, can the Minister clarify whether the Government are making a long-term response to the Ebola outbreak in west Africa that promotes the systemic changes required to deal with any future outbreaks?

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The president of the World Bank has said that:

“We were tested by Ebola and we failed … miserably in our response”.

He then asked:

“Why don’t we have a multibillion dollar fund of $10bn, $15bn or $20bn … so that once there is a global health emergency it can be drawn down on … quickly?”.

He is surely right to ask that question, so what is the answer from our country and our Government? Are we going to try to win this battle or will we actually fight to win the war?

2.57 pm

Lord Fowler (Con): My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on that quite excellent speech, with which I very much agree. Quite apart from the present effort to deal with the Ebola crisis, I will emphasise just two points on future policy.

The first is that the Ebola crisis again illustrates how deficient the health systems are in so many countries, not least in Africa. There is a lack of doctors and nurses; there is a lack of equipment and of modern buildings. Their health systems are under enormous pressure in what could be termed normal times, let alone abnormal times. Nothing is more urgent than that British aid policy should be directed here. That will also have the effect of tackling other scourges such as AIDS, which even today accounts for more than 1.5 million deaths a year, many of which are, of course, in Africa.

My second point is that if we are to help further, we need to look again at our policy of recruiting medical staff for the National Health Service from some of the poorest countries in the world. The latest figures that I have are that 21,000 National Health Service staff had their primary medical qualification in Africa, including almost 600 from Sierra Leone. This is in no way a criticism of them but we should examine our policy to see that we are not taking medical staff from countries which have trained them and whose need is much greater than our own here. Our aim should be to be self-sufficient and for us to provide more training in those countries which are undoubtedly in the greatest need around the world.

2.59 pm

Lord Giddens (Lab): My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Kinnock on having introduced this debate so ably. I confine myself to posing a number of questions to the Minister.

First, there are signs that the number of new cases of Ebola in west Africa is levelling off—especially in Liberia, less so in Sierra Leone. Do the Government have a view on this? If so, I hope they will bear in mind the words of a seasoned observer who said, “I’m terrified that the information will be misinterpreted”—in other words, that relaxation will follow. It absolutely must not.

Secondly, could the Minister comment on the secondary health crisis fast developing in west Africa, alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler? This is the result of already rudimentary medical resources being concentrated on Ebola. It involves a surge in cases of

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untreated malaria as well as other serious health hazards. Large-scale resources need to be injected here—and very rapidly. Where will they come from? Are the UK Government contributing?

Thirdly, these problems add to the horrendous economic costs of the Ebola epidemic to already impoverished societies. The damage inflicted to date is estimated at $32 billion in Liberia and Sierra Leone alone. How can we counter the very real danger that, if and when Ebola is contained in west Africa, the rich countries of the world will lose interest? What representations are the Government making to the World Bank and the IMF on this issue?

Fourthly and finally, the threat posed by Ebola to countries with advanced health systems is low. However, would the Government agree that a certain level of global risk remains? The key country in question is China, given its extensive involvements in west Africa. Some 9,000 people from areas where Ebola is concentrated have entered Guangdong alone since August. The standard of care in Chinese hospitals is quite low. Perhaps the noble Baroness would like to comment on that.

3.01 pm

Lord Chidgey (LD): My Lords, for almost a decade I was responsible for managing major infrastructure projects along the Guinea/Sierra Leone/Liberia border. Only 5% of Sierra Leone’s highways are paved and the rest of the network is gravel, generally poorly maintained. We are nearing the end of the rainy season, and in the interior some rivers will have flooded and roads and minor bridges will have been washed away, isolating many communities. In yesterday’s Disasters Emergency Committee briefing, it was clear that it had yet to reach the remote areas of Guinea.

Visiting American envoy Samantha Power has lambasted the international community for not supplying aid, doctors and health workers to an area where hundreds of thousands of people can rely on perhaps only a handful of clinicians for their health needs. As she boarded a plane for Guinea, she said:

“You have countries at the United Nations … who are signing on to resolutions and praising the good work that the United States and the United Kingdom … are doing, but they themselves haven't taken the responsibility yet to send docs, to send beds, to send … money”.

The international community,

“isn’t just losing the race to Ebola. We are getting lapped”.

Both the DEC and the UN admit that Ebola cases are doubling every three to four weeks, with the potential to reach 1.2 million. The WHO says that, unless the rate of infection reduces by 1 December, it will be overwhelmed by,

“an entirely unprecedented situation, for which we do not have a plan”.

At present, less than a quarter of the almost 5,000 planned Ebola treatment beds are operational, due fundamentally to a lack of foreign medical teams. Lack of bed space has become a huge issue.

What is desperately needed is the development of community health systems, which expand and grow from the bottom up in the communities and settlements in the interior. Dependency on outside intervention leaves the people hostage to fortune in terms of accessibility by road, particularly in the rainy season.

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In this regard, what precisely are the special resources that NATO is able to bring? Does NATO have the thousands of clinicians and aid workers that might turn the tide? I some how doubt it.

3.03 pm

The Earl of Listowel (CB): My Lords, I suggest that the current crisis indicates the great wisdom shown by the coalition Government in dedicating a higher proportion of GDP than any other developed nation towards international development. Their leadership is admirable and much to be commended. This is a time when our economy is growing and unemployment is much better than other nations, so it is not too costly to do.

I ask the Minister how much funding the Government are providing for UNICEF in dealing with these issues and whether more can be done. UNICEF highlights that one in five Ebola patients are children. At least 3,700 children have been orphaned by the disease and 8.5 million children and young people under the age of 20 live in affected areas. Many schools are closed and, in terms of the breakdown in the healthcare services, children do not receive vaccinations and necessary preventive care for common childhood illnesses. More and more children are dying of malaria, for instance, because the facilities are not available. Also, the fear of seeking treatment at medical facilities means that deaths from malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea could well outstrip those from Ebola three or four times.

A very difficult child protection issue is becoming apparent, with the preliminary figure of at least 3,700 orphans—the real number may be much higher—who have lost one or both parents. In addition to facing the challenge of growing up without parents, they may face further stigma or discrimination from their communities or families. Children who lost relatives to the disease are often ostracised, even if they were tested negative—there are reports of children being treated in this way. Those who have been orphaned by Ebola are even more so, because of the nature of the challenges they face: they risk both infection and rejection. They risk infection because they have been exposed directly to the virus through their parents and they face rejection because others around them, whether relatives, friends or community members, may be too afraid to go anywhere near them.

UNICEF is doing very important work in this area. It has made an appeal for £120 million and has only achieved 35% so far. I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

3.05 pm

Viscount Ridley (Con): My Lords, I would like to begin by praising the Government’s generous and effective response to this crisis. The opening of the Kerry Town clinic in the last day or two shows the dedication and efficiency of our troops at their best. I hope that the Minister will pass on our congratulations on that. Even more praise should go to healthcare workers from this country who have volunteered and are active in Sierra Leone at the moment.

I do not think that we should be so impressed with the World Health Organization. Despite its history of overreaction to swine flu in Mexico in 2009, on this

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occasion it has been dangerously complacent for far too long. In March it contradicted Médicins Sans Frontières when it said that this crisis was getting out of control, saying that it was not. Only in June did it call a meeting of its global outbreak alert committee and it only declared an emergency in August. The danger is that if an international agency of this kind is not worried, then the rest of the world does not follow suit. It has a unique responsibility to get this kind of thing right. The world cannot be expected to respond appropriately if it is not getting those kinds of signals.

I can see why the World Health Organization thought that this problem was containable. The previous 33 epidemics of Ebola have all been relatively easily contained. What it overlooked, of course, was the desperate poverty and the aftermath of warfare in this particular region and that individuals in those countries were being left to bury their own dead, with particular risks to them, and to treat family members.

Poverty is the scourge we need to eradicate if we are to prevent such outbreaks in the future. It is no accident that this outbreak has happened in three of the very poorest countries in the world. I ask that my noble friend looks very hard at the World Health Organization and lessons that must be learnt from this epidemic when the time is right. Were its priorities correct in this epidemic?

One final, different point is that this is a disease that is harboured largely by bats, as far we can tell. It is not the only one—rabies, Lyssavirus, Hendra virus, Nipah virus, Marburg virus and even SARS are harboured by bats. We need to draw on zoological expertise to try to understand why so many dangerous diseases are coming from bats.

3.08 pm

Baroness Hayman (CB): My Lords, I draw attention to my interests declared in the register. In particular, I am a trustee of the Disasters Emergency Committee, which currently has an Ebola appeal to which the British public has responded to the tune of over £13 million within a week. Also, my husband chairs Restless Development, which is supported by DfID in its work in sensitisation and education in Sierra Leone.

I have two points. The first, which comes from the 11 DEC agencies working in the field, is about the breadth of the needs in these countries. Of course treatment and quarantine centres are essential, but if we are to stop the spread by stopping transmission we need to facilitate safe burial, education, water and sanitation kits and food for people who are in quarantine and who will otherwise leave it to get their own food. The range of humanitarian needs is enormous and will continue to be so, because of those orphaned children, because of those children who have not been educated since April and have no prospect of schooling, because of the women who are dying in childbirth and who will be leaving more orphans, because of the people with malaria who are not getting treatment and because of the vaccination programmes that are not taking place. So the scale and range of needs is going to be really long term.

The second point is one to which the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, referred. The reason why we do not have a vaccine for Ebola is not because it is a uniquely

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complex vaccine to develop. The reason why we do not have a vaccine for Ebola is the same as the reason why we do not have treatments and vaccines for other neglected tropical diseases: they are diseases of the poor, and we have a complete market failure in meeting them. We need to put more resources into developing vaccines and treatments, not only because of the humanitarian imperative but because we live in a global world and it is actually our best protection, as well as a humanitarian imperative, to use our expertise and resources to treat these diseases.

3.11 pm

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Lab): My Lords, this is a very important debate, and I regret that we have only one hour. The Ebola crisis is already a medical and humanitarian disaster. Thousands of lives have been lost, and tens of thousands are at risk if we do not act more effectively now. It is particularly tragic because over a decade of progress in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea is under threat. In recent years, for example, Sierra Leone had halved the number of women dying during childbirth, but we now know that that is in reverse.

I am a trustee of a charity, the Africa Governance Initiative, which has teams of people working on the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. They are working alongside Governments and the international community to put in place the systems—command centres, hotlines and so on—to manage the response. They went to those countries to help build government capacity on other issues and reduce poverty. They did not expect to be dispatching ambulances and managing body disposal, but they have done so anyway and I am very proud of every one of them.

The UK Government’s commitments are welcome but I think they have been too slow, and we are not ensuring that there are sufficient doctors and health workers on the ground. There is a real imperative for us to do more on that. I am proud of another organisation that I am a trustee of, Voluntary Service Overseas, which this week—again, a bit late—has put out an appeal to all return volunteers who have a health qualification to volunteer to go and help with Ebola. However, even if every one of the 600 or so who have been asked were able to help, that would not be enough. There is a real imperative for us to get more people on the ground who are able to get on top of this crisis as quickly as possible.

If we do not get hold of Ebola, these very fragile states will become much more vulnerable and their ability to survive and look after their people will be lessened even further.

3.13 pm

Lord Crisp (CB): My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, set out very cogently the big picture and the underlying issues. I want to pick up a small but important element in the international response. Let me say how good it is to see the UK leading the way but how disappointing it is to see that some other countries seem to have adopted a fortress mentality, which is short-sighted and contrary to both best practice and international agreements on tackling global epidemics.

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I turn to my specific point. I declare an interest as chair of the King’s Centre for Global Health advisory board. King’s has been working in Sierra Leone for two years and is one of the very few organisations that stayed in the country when Ebola broke out. Its team has played a central role in the multiagency effort in the country, and now has very considerable experience. Noble Lords may recall that the King’s programme leader, Dr Oliver Johnson, was previously policy director for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health, a number of whose members are in the House at the moment.

The King’s team had to work with what was available at the start of the epidemic. Its members created an isolation facility out of the rooms and equipment that they had to hand. As a result, they have developed an approach that engages local people alongside international workers and can be scaled up both quickly and cheaply. They have had 600 people through their unit, of whom 300 have tested positive—that is one-quarter of all those infected in Freetown. There have, however, been no infections of local or international staff in the unit.

Such a scale-up would involve creating small local units for treating people with the minimum of facilities and staff. King’s argues that, while the large, well equipped facilities such as the Kerry Town unit are very welcome, in the short run at least there is also a need for the immediate construction of small facilities that can be operational very quickly and reach into smaller communities. They also have the advantage of maintaining greater local control, rather than just being about international aid. What is Her Majesty’s Government’s view on this? Will they support the further development of these sorts of facilities? Moreover, I have learnt today that seconded NHS staff are going to be allowed to work only in the big units. Is that the case? Will they be allowed to work in these smaller units as well?

I add my praise to the praise that others have already given to the work of so many UK and other volunteers who have shown remarkable courage, as well as skill, in doing the wonderful work that they are doing.

3.16 pm

Baroness Williams of Crosby (LD): My Lords, I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Crisp. The heroism of those who have volunteered from the NHS, and from all over the world, as health medics to work against Ebola is unbelievably impressive and should raise our sense of the possibilities of a human response of the kind that is needed for the desperate position laid out by the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock.

I shall be quick. The first point is that the WHO has now named 15 countries that are on the edge of being likely to slip into Ebola epidemics unless there is preventive action as soon as possible. Those 15 countries are all in Africa, mostly in west Africa. There is also, although we have not mentioned this so far, an instance of an outbreak of Ebola separate from the west African outbreak in, of all countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Already, 88 deaths have been attributed to Ebola in that country and are not related to the west Africa epidemic, which is rather frightening—it means that we are now looking at the spotty emergence of the Ebola epidemic.

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I want to make a rather larger point. I declare an interest as a member of the board of the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington, DC, which is currently supporting the one and only global surveillance of infectious diseases, in a unique international network. It is called CORDS and is doing some remarkable work. This last point is the most important one. In a Question to the Government last week, I raised the issue of whether any thought has been given to calling a special meeting of NATO. I mention NATO following a long conversation that I had with the chief assistant adviser to President Obama, Mr Weber of the Department of Defence, now at the Department of State. He made it clear that he thought the NATO countries should call upon NATO to hold a special summit meeting to consider what help it could give, because it is one of the very few organisations in the West that has the capacity for an immediate response in engineering, construction and medical terms.

I want to make it very clear that, as the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, said, we need the rapid engineering to put up field hospitals and immediate centres to deal with the epidemics in rural areas, where—as in, for example, Sierra Leone—the infection rate is now nine times what it was two weeks ago, according to reports from the WHO. We should seriously consider this possibility, recognising the scale and, even more, the immediacy of the crisis, given the 15 countries that are now seriously at risk.

3.19 pm

Lord Patel (CB): My Lords, I join other noble Lords in praising our volunteers who are currently working in west Africa, and also our Armed Forces who so rapidly constructed the first hospital in Sierra Leone. I congratulate our Government on their rapid response once it became obvious that this Ebola infection was out of control.

There is a lesson here. Infections will continue to come—that is the history of developing viruses in that area. Humans have been infected by four strains of Ebola virus so far, and there remains only one strain that has not yet infected humans but has already been found in pigs in the Philippines. If it goes from pigs to humans, it might become even worse. Marburg virus is just waiting on the sidelines.

What can we learn from that? To control infections we need good health systems and that has been the major failure. The current health systems in west Africa are not adequate and for all the investment we made in AIDS, we have not hitherto helped build good health systems. To control infection we also need to identify and care for patients. We are now beginning to grasp that by building hospital facilities but for Sierra Leone we will probably need 4,800 beds. Currently they have 236. Secondly, we need treatments such as vaccines or drugs. Vaccines are in development; the first is being trialled in Mali and two more—one developed in Canada and another in the US—will start trials soon, but it will be months before we know whether they are effective. There are drugs in development, and I hope that our Government, through Porton Down laboratories, are supporting trials of some of the drugs that are produced by our small biotech

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companies. Drugs might not directly kill the virus, but they may stop the chain process of replication, so I hope our Government will support that.

I congratulate the Government on their initial effort. We have not yet begun to control this infection, and yesterday’s news of Sierra Leone having 30 corpses appearing in one small area which was supposed to be free of Ebola proves the point.

3.21 pm

Lord Truscott (Non-Afl): My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock of Holyhead, on securing this short but important debate. The noble Baroness is of course an expert in the field of international development as I remember from the European Parliament. Your Lordships’ House benefits greatly from the noble Baroness’s knowledge and compassion.

I declare an interest as a shareholder and former director of African Minerals, the largest employer in Sierra Leone and the largest contributor to the country’s GDP and budget. I am proud of the work that the company does in supporting medical facilities, schools and orphanages under the leadership of chairman Frank Timis. On a couple of trips to Sierra Leone I was greatly taken with the warmth, resilience and fortitude of the Sierra Leonean people who have been through so much in the bloody civil war. I had the privilege of meeting President Ernest Bai Koroma who is working hard to develop his country. Although the international response to the Ebola crisis was initially tardy, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, said, I would also like to praise Her Majesty’s Government and our ever excellent Armed Forces in their recent major initiatives. As already mentioned the facilities at Kerry Town and elsewhere will make a major difference.

After Ebola, there will be a need to rebuild the economies of west Africa which are all primarily dependent on natural resources. Ivan Glasenberg, Glencore CEO, has warned of the danger of global mining giants deliberately undermining west African mining companies and thus depriving their Governments of vital revenues. One mining executive has said in response that charity begins at home, which in my view is socially irresponsible.

At the end of the day, Sierra Leone and the other countries of west Africa are grateful for charity, but what they really crave is the self-respect which comes from self-sufficiency and we should help them achieve that aim as they struggle to survive this terrible crisis.

3.23 pm

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, in her powerful opening speech the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, referred to the tragic legacy of the number of orphans who will be left in these west African countries as a result of the Ebola epidemic. Last week I attended an international conference which highlighted the plight of the world’s orphans. The number of orphans worldwide is already estimated to be around 150 million and, compounded by HIV/AIDS, we know that many of those are in Africa. If the WHO’s estimate is correct that more than 1 million people in west Africa will die from Ebola, and that by Christmas there will be 10,000 Ebola orphans, the noble Baroness,

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Lady Kinnock, is right to have made this a key question in her remarks. I hope that when the Minister comes to reply, she will tell us how we can develop a long-term plan for the care of those orphans.

I would like to ask the Minister a number of other questions, some of which I have raised previously with the Government. How have they responded to the motion on Ebola passed by the BMA last month, especially its call for the provision of more protective clothing and the training of staff? Is she in discussion with the BBC World Service to see how it can sustain and expand its excellent African initiative to disseminate public health information about the disease? Can the Minister also tell us—I have raised this point with her on the Floor of the House before—what response the Prime Minister received from the 27 European leaders to whom he wrote asking them to step up their donations after it was revealed that the Swedish furniture manufacturer, IKEA, had given a bigger donation than the Governments of Spain, Norway and Luxembourg combined? Can she say whether the first part of the 700-bed facility which we are constructing in Sierra Leone opened on schedule at the end of last month; and when the rest of the facility will be functional? Are they keeping under review the use of merchantmen and cruise ships as potential hospital ships capable of providing immediate beds and isolation? Is she truly satisfied that British personnel can be cared for adequately in west Africa rather than being flown home, should they contract the virus? Given its successful use in the case of the British nurse flown home after being infected with Ebola, are there sufficient supplies of ZMAP available to immediately treat others, or are those supplies exhausted?

Among all the things that can be said about Ebola, it represents a major setback to development. I hope the Government will reconsider their opposition to putting universal healthcare at the heart of global development, for without such provision the festering conditions in places such as Monrovia and Freetown are a perfect breeding ground for the further spread of epidemics of this kind.

3.26 pm

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab): My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for initiating this vitally important debate, and like her I welcome the Government’s response on the ground and their decision to provide more than £200 million for trials developing new treatments and vaccines for Ebola, working alongside a range of partners from both the public and private sector.

This crisis underscores the importance of investing in a strong system of research and development for global health. As the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said, the fundamental lesson is that we do not know what else is around the corner in terms of other viruses and infections. It is also possible that efforts to control the Ebola virus in those countries affected by the outbreak risk setting us back on the gains made against malaria as health systems have been pushed to breaking point and people avoid using them because they fear contracting Ebola. In 2012, malaria killed 7,000 people in these countries. As we have heard, most of them were children.

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What steps are being taken to ensure that we are offering other health services alongside containing and eliminating the Ebola virus in west Africa?

The long-term impacts for these countries will be catastrophic. What are we doing to ensure that other local services such as education and local markets are not severely impacted? My party has called for universal health coverage and access to be placed at the centre of global development. The noble Baroness, in response to an earlier question of mine, said the United Kingdom supports the development of health systems in developing countries, but as we have heard, the United Kingdom—the home of the National Health Service—is still opposing making universal healthcare and access an explicit goal at the UN. Can the Minister explain why?

3.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for International Development (Baroness Northover) (LD): My Lords, I, too, would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, for securing this debate and for so ably and movingly introducing it. On behalf of DfID, I thank noble Lords for their tributes to the department in this crisis. As I said the other day, if anything shows the importance of aid, both morally and for our self-interest, it is this epidemic. We are all globally linked and noble Lords made that point extremely clearly. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, that we will be examining the lessons from this crisis. Because of that global linkage, it becomes extremely important that we draw out what we can learn from this.

My noble friend Lord Ridley and other noble Lords are right that the root of this—the cause of the spread of this epidemic—is poverty. Of course, we will need to work internationally to improve and strengthen our international organisations. However, as my noble friend Lord Chidgey says, we need other countries to respond as well, not only to this crisis but to that analysis, and to take forward the ability to respond internationally.

The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, is also right that we need to make huge efforts to contain this in case we should see, as we do not yet see, a levelling off of numbers; obviously, we hope that with the measures we put in place we may be able to detect that. However, if and when we see that, we should not lessen our efforts, otherwise the epidemic will spiral further. He and other noble Lords are right about the economic effect of Ebola. As regards Sierra Leone, the IMF estimates that its GDP growth is likely to be about 6% rather than the 11.3% it had estimated before this crisis. As other noble Lords—the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, my noble friend Lord Fowler and others—have emphasised, the health systems we are facing here reflect the fragility of these states, which is why the epidemic has been able to take root.

We are certainly very fortunate in the United Kingdom to have the outstanding staff in DfID who are working both here in the UK and in Sierra Leone. I pay tribute to them as well as to the staff in the Ministry of Defence, the FCO, the Department of Health, from across the NHS and from NGOs who have volunteered their services in one of the most dangerous situations in the world. The audio diary that we hear on the “Today”

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programme should bring it home to everyone how important, but also how incredibly challenging, their work is. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, spoke of health workers, and the numbers are extraordinary. Some 852 NHS front-line staff and 130 staff via Public Health England have volunteered, which is clearly outstanding.

The Ebola epidemic in west Africa continues to grow. The latest figures from the WHO as of 31 October put total cases in the region at 13,567, with 4,951 deaths. We know that that number is an underrecording. The UK has now committed a total of £230 million to the response in Sierra Leone. As noble Lords know, we are focusing on that country while the United States focuses on Liberia and France on Guinea. That sum includes the commitment to aid-match the first £5 million of the appeal launched by the Disasters Emergency Committee. I, too, pay tribute to the DEC and to the public response to its appeal. We are now the second largest bilateral contributor in this epidemic. We have committed, among other things, to provide over 700 beds. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that the first UK 92-bed treatment hospital opened yesterday in Kerry Town. That facility includes 12 beds that are set aside for health workers who are staffing the beds, which will increase to 20. As I said in a previous answer to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, it may well be best, on a case-by-case basis, to treat a case there in Sierra Leone rather than to expose that person, if very sick, to being transported home. The intention is to be able to provide the same level of care, whether it is here or there.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, noted, ensuring safe burials is key to turning around the epidemic. With the United Kingdom’s support, International Red Cross burial teams in the western area, which accounts for approximately a third of Sierra Leone’s population, are now burying 100% of reported bodies within 24 hours. That is a huge improvement over the situation just a few weeks ago.

We are also expanding laboratory capacity and have pledged £20 million to establish, equip and run at least three new laboratories. We are also providing isolation within communities through up to 200 community care centres, which are the most effective way to prevent further spread. The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, noted that that model is innovative and unique and he is correct. The purpose is to have safe, humane isolation as the key to reducing community transmission. The faster we can bring down those transmission rates, the sooner the health system can resume functioning. Noble Lords mentioned the challenges with other diseases, maternal care and so on, which are also being undermined by this epidemic.

Some of the CCCs are to be located within primary healthcare facilities, which will allow rapid separation of patients presenting with fever—suspected Ebola cases—from others, which will allow healthcare workers to continue to offer routine services such as antenatal care, routine immunisation and other essential health services. The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, in particular, flagged the concerns of pregnant women who are reluctant to come in for care. Of course, the centres also help to protect healthcare workers, which, again, is absolutely vital.

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We are also supporting this with social mobilisation work. I too noted the very interesting report from the BBC World Service on what it is doing to encourage behaviour change. All that work is overseen by a command and control centre to co-ordinate the response.

Many noble Lords have mentioned the weakness of the health systems in Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Of course that is, as I said, part of the root of the problem. Clearly our current priority must be to help tackle this epidemic; but obviously, we will then wish to help Sierra Leone to return to the trajectory it was on before the crisis, which was moving from a fragile state after conflict to a middle-income economy. That, of course, will include the strengthening of its health system. I note what my noble friend Lord Fowler has said about health workers, and I know the efforts that have been made by the NHS to try not to draw upon staff from developing countries such as Sierra Leone.

We are engaging with partners to ensure that other countries in the region are prepared. We are ensuring that our bilateral programmes in high-risk countries actively support national emergency preparedness. It is of course encouraging to see that, in the first instance, Nigeria was able to contain the case that arrived in Lagos, and to see the way in which it ensured that although others were affected, the virus did not spread further. However, we are constantly vigilant, because other cases may develop.

The UK is also playing a leading role in galvanising international support—a number of noble Lords mentioned that. We are very glad that, last Friday, the UK signed an MOU with Norway to establish the deployment of up to 200 Norwegian health personnel in Sierra Leone. We also welcome the Government of Australia’s commitment yesterday to manage and run a 100-bed treatment facility in Sierra Leone. The EU has pledged €1 billion towards that, and we will be meeting with all our partners to discuss bringing aid forward.

We are working closely with UN agencies, for example with UNICEF on social mobilisation, child protection and so on. A number of noble Lords—especially the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel—emphasised the dire situation of children. We are working very closely with UNICEF to support the needs of vulnerable children, including those who have been orphaned by Ebola. We do not underestimate the challenges that they face.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords—

Baroness Northover: I am very short of time; I will be very happy to speak to my noble friend afterwards, and I will come on to her point about NATO. NATO is following closely the situation through its crisis management and civil contingency functions, and the allies are assessing whether and how NATO would add value at this stage of the response. However, I also note what my noble friend Lord Chidgey said with regard to what the military might or might not be able to contribute.

The noble Lord, Lord Patel, is right to emphasise the need both for treatments and for vaccines. I hope he will be reassured that we are prioritising both. It is immensely encouraging to see the work of the Lister

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Institute, for example, and the possibility of a vaccine. Clearly, it could be critical to this epidemic if that work was brought forward, but it will certainly be critical in stemming future epidemics. I note very much what the noble Lord says.

An unprecedented outbreak requires an unprecedented response. That is what we have committed to and we are encouraging the international community and all the international players in each country to play their part to ensure that this terrible epidemic is defeated. As noble Lords have said, poverty is at the root of what we are seeking to address here. That is why we have made the commitment to aid to the poorest countries, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, pointed out. That is what it is all about.

Low-income and Vulnerable Consumers

Motion to Take Note

3.40 pm

Moved by Lord Whitty

That this House takes note of the cumulative effects of Government economic, public spending and regulatory policies on low income and vulnerable consumers.

Lord Whitty (Lab): My Lords, the central statistics for this debate are these. For households in the lowest two deciles of income, since the financial crisis in 2008 the cost of their basket of essential goods has gone up by 28%, but their average income has gone up by 9%. Those central statistics underline my theme for today. The world financial crisis hit everybody, but I will be contending that the actions, or inactions, of this Government over the past five years of office have made the situation significantly worse and have placed the burden of the austerity programme on the poorest in the land. Even as we enter into a phase of recovery, that continues to be the case. As a result, they have deepened and exacerbated the polarisation of our society, to the detriment of our more vulnerable families and households. That is quite a charge sheet.

Most of what I say will be about the costs to these households, but I shall first say a few words on the income side and the state of the labour market. Employment is now growing, which is very welcome, but the nature of that employment is often very precarious. There is a growth in part-time employment, some of which is desirable, but quite a lot of people would like to work full-time, or, at least, significantly more hours. There is a growing number of people on zero-hours contracts, which is highly precarious work. There is a growth of what we used to call bogus self-employment: forced self-employment. At the bottom end of this dysfunctional labour market there are some really nasty practices indeed. Next week we will be debating the Modern Slavery Bill. The reality is that, in certain agricultural sectors and in parts of catering and construction, we are seeing trafficking of workers, which is undermining the conditions of everybody.

Meanwhile, the Government are continuing their attacks on the protection that workers have in the labour market—on trade union organisation, the individual rights of workers and their access to tribunals

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and legal redress. That affects not just people at the bottom; it drags everybody down, in particular those who are just a little above them. Of course, the other source of income for these bottom two decile families is social security benefits. Those, too, have been largely frozen and, in some cases, cut. They have been the subject of huge and negative political propaganda. I read in the


today that the Government are telling us that 25% of tax is spent on welfare, which conjures up views of the work-shy—when, in fact, the bulk of that goes on pensions and the increase is largely in payments to people at work whose wages are simply inadequate.

Both low-income households, dependent on low wages, and households dependent on benefit payments have seen the real value of their income squeezed and their protection reduced. Who are these people? If you read the Daily Mail or listen to some government Ministers, you would assume that they are all in multigenerational, unemployed households; they are work-shy teenagers; they are benefit tourists from eastern Europe and beyond; or they are illegal immigrants. However, the reality is that there are large numbers of pensioner households in that group, and the vast majority of the rest have at least one person in work. Often the reality is that the main earner in those households is a woman, who is often in and out of work and is subject to very variable income. That of course relates back to the earlier debate today.

Those are the consequences of our so-called “flexible” labour market, in particular for households where the main earner is a woman. When we talk about the decline in real incomes for these people, the usual way in which statisticians calculate it is to set the income against the general consumer prices index. But for those households, the key issue is the price of essential goods and services. If we take a longer period from before the financial crisis to the end of last year, the CPI in general has gone up by 36% but the cost of water has gone up by 51%, housing by 61%, food by 61%, public transport by 111% and electricity and gas by 161%. Inevitably, that puts cost pressures on all these low-income households. The concentration of that pressure on the poorest is not inevitable. Government action and Government inaction have helped to aggravate or, indeed, cause it. I shall take just a few examples.

The first is that of energy. It is true that the Government have started, neatly, to statistically redefine fuel poverty. Whatever one thinks of that redefinition, the numbers are still going up in almost every part of the country, whether on the old definition or the new one. Gas and electricity prices for our poorest households are going through the roof. There was an item on the news today about heating oil. Many of our rural poor depend on heating oil; they are very dependent on it in Northern Ireland. Yet the cost of that, despite the fall in world prices of oil, is still going up. As for fuel poverty programmes, there has been a deliberate action by this Government to cut what was in England the Warm Front programme, so there is no direct taxpayer-funded improvement in the energy efficiency of their homes.

There is also, probably more importantly, a failure of the regulator, Ofgem, and of the codes by which the regulator operates, to gear tariffs to help those who

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have relatively low use and are in relatively poor households. The ECO, which is supposed among other things to replace the Warm Front programme, actually does nothing of the kind. The warm homes discount is welcome and valuable, but it is a sticking plaster over inequitable overall tariffs. Some of the interventions by government over the head of the regulator have made matters much worse. The Prime Minister called for a simplification of tariffs, which we can all agree with, then called for four tariffs—but, in the process of drawing up those four tariffs for gas and electricity, Ofgem has ruled out and dropped a number of the pre-existing tariffs that were geared particularly towards pensioners and low-income families. The net effect of that is that the whole structure of tariffs, against the background of rapidly rising energy prices, is making the situation of the fuel poor worse. I declare an interest as the head of a charity that makes grants for research into fuel poverty.

Another area is transport. The working poor by and large require public transport to get to work or to seek work, but bus and train fares are soaring. For buses we need a whole new deal, as the Labour Party has set out recently. As for trains, we need to relook at regulation, and at whether fares, which can benefit those who can afford to book substantially ahead, for those who are in and out of work on different days of the week and do not know whether they will be working from one week to the next, are unregulated, in effect, in the present system, and do not meet their needs.

The other area is housing. Many in this House have heard me rant on about housing many times over the past few months, and I shall not repeat my continued analysis of this, but I will say a few words on it. I have always accepted that the Government did not inherit the greatest situation on housing; the crisis was already there. For nearly 30 years, we failed to build enough new housing. But this Government have made matters worse. They cut the affordable homes budget by 60%—that was almost their first action. The soaring prices in the overheated south-east and London are affecting all forms of tenure and all parts of the country to a greater or lesser extent. For the young—and by that I mean those under 40—on average or below incomes, house purchase is now out of the question. That of course puts huge pressure on the private rented market, where there is a soaring level in most of our urban areas, particularly in London, of private rented accommodation. The average private renter uses 50% of their income simply to pay rent and housing.

The Government have deliberately reduced the supply of social housing. Access to new tenures within social housing in most parts of the country is almost nil. For those who are in social housing, they have geared the level of social housing rents to reflect those within the private sector, or 80% of the private sector. So where rents are rising highest in the private sector, at a cost to private tenants, that is also being reflected in the social sector. The Government and Treasury rules prevent local authorities and, to a large extent, housing associations investing in new social housing. Worse than that, the Government are allowing developers to move in, in a number of areas where social housing does exist, both local authority and housing association owned, and to

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replace what was social housing with luxury flats. You do not have to go very far from this building to see exactly that in operation.

Meanwhile, the pressure on the private rented sector has brought a number of landlords into the situation who do not act in the best interests of their tenants or in the best interests of the reputation of the private rented market—yet the Government have refused even to register private sector landlords, let alone to engage in any degree of rent control or setting the minimum level of tenure of lease. So we have families with children who are being brought up in inadequate conditions, who are seriously affected by insecurity and who are being bullied and often evicted by landlords. Of course, mothers in this situation may themselves want to go out to work or extend their hours of work—but then there is a real problem with childcare. Net childcare costs in this country are the highest in all OECD countries with the sole exception of Switzerland. That is a deplorable state of affairs.

So what do those families then do? If they seek credit to tide them over this period, the mainstream banks do not want to know. They will not advance credit to these people, who are then forced into the hands of payday lenders, pawnbrokers, doorstep sellers and worse. Until very recently—until the last few weeks, almost—the Government had failed to respond to the campaign to do something about this.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the market, there are other rip-off situations. There are scams on insurance, food and buying second-hand cars. There is a failure by the Government to ensure proper enforcement of existing regulations. In particular, they have allowed the decimation of the trading standards role in local authorities. I declare another interest as vice-president of the Trading Standards Institute. The workforce in trading standards has been cut by 50% over the last six years. That puts greater pressure on voluntary organisations, Citizens Advice and local authority-funded schemes, but the grants to those schemes from local authorities have also been squeezed.

The Minister may well say that this is the local authorities making their own choices. However, the Government have cut local authority spending at three times the rate that they have cut central government spending. They have targeted the poorer local authorities, so that Hackney has had a bigger cut than Westminster and Somerset has had a bigger cut than Surrey. Those authorities have had to cut back on discretionary areas, which include all the back-up services and advice for consumers and other hard-hit households.

By a threefold knock-on, the services that were there to help people out of poverty have begun to disappear—and in many parts of the country they have disappeared. For example, there is only half a trading standards person in a large number of local authorities. The result has been greater indebtedness. We now have half of households in the lowest two deciles spending more than a quarter of their income simply paying the debt and the service on that debt. We have £4.8 billion-worth of debt from payday lenders. The pressure on these households leads to stress. As we said in the last but one debate, it leads to domestic violence, the breakdown of relationships, mental health problems and family

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break-up. There are now 2.4 million children living in families with huge debt problems. This is an appalling outcome. It is not inevitable. It occurs only if the Government allow it to occur. I believe it to be a disgrace that this Government have failed to take steps to mitigate the effects of these developments.

3.56 pm

Lord Haskel (Lab): My Lords, I do not know if the Minister goes to the World Economic Forum at Davos. In 2009, a speaker said:

“There is a disconnect between capitalism and people’s lives”.

That speaker was David Cameron, a year before he became Prime Minister. My noble friend’s debate today is a good opportunity to see whether the Government’s policies of the last four years have put this right. The disconnect to which the Prime Minister referred was rising social inequality and inequality of opportunity; and how the lives of some people, even those at work, were becoming more precarious and threadbare, while others benefited from economic progress, as my noble friend explained.

Have the Government’s policies made this better or worse for consumers? I will not burden your Lordships with more numbers, but various reports recently from well respected organisations tell us that, as the economy improves, so the number of people on low pay rises. Both in the public and private sector, for many pay has not even kept pace with inflation. The Populus survey reported in today’s Financial Timesfound that only one in seven feel the benefit of any recovery.

Part of this disconnect is that the Government encourage low pay by subsidising it through the welfare system. Why should the taxpayer subsidise firms that cannot pay their people enough to live on or cannot raise productivity so that consumers can earn more? As the Prime Minister said, there is a disconnect here.

When I first became interested in housing, 80% of the money went into construction and 20% into helping with rent. Under this Government, this has been reversed, as my noble friend described. In our current budget the opposite is true: 80% goes on rent and 20% on encouraging construction. Housing has become the low-pay subsidy for low productivity. By creating more and more low-paid consumers, not only are we making their lives more difficult, but the Government are creating difficulties for themselves—difficulties caused by the low tax revenue that they announced earlier this month.

The cumulative outcome for the consumer is the worst of both worlds: low productivity, which means low pay, and a housing shortage, which means high rents, with rises of up to 61%, as my noble friend Lord Whitty just told us. But at least business is starting to recognise this insanity, with 1,000 companies now paying the living wage.

The Government say that they are helping these consumers by taking low earners out of income tax, reducing the burden on hard-working families. However, before the income tax threshold is reached, national insurance becomes payable—the Minister knows this—so national insurance is the first burden on the low paid, and it is mainly the middle and upper-middle earners

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who benefit from raising the income tax threshold. Raising the national insurance threshold would have been of more benefit to the low paid, especially as national insurance rates rise with inflation. However, this Government consider it more politically expedient to do it the wrong way round, so it is the low paid who suffer.

The same mismanagement affects business. Let us take the annual investment allowance. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, knows all about this. During the last years of the previous Administration, it was set at £50,000. The new Government soon increased it to £100,000. In 2012, it was cut to £25,000, but the following year it was increased to £250,000. Last year’s Budget raised it to £500,000, and the current plan is that it will return to £25,000 in 2016. Yes, there is more confusion. At the same time, the annual investment allowance has become restricted to investment in plant and machinery, and the allowance for industrial buildings was scrapped altogether.

Does the Minister agree with the conclusion of the Institute for Fiscal Studies in its paper Tax Without Design, published two months ago, that the cumulative effect of all this creates costs and uncertainty and that it distorts behaviour? At this time of great business difficulty, it may be one reason why we are seeing a reluctance to invest—which of course is perhaps the major contributor to low pay.

Another area of cumulative failure is what I would call putting out one fire but not preventing the next. A good example is the Government’s policy towards private companies providing public services. It is obvious that the business model is wrong. Tenders are often won by large companies that overpromise on quality and bid low on price. This effectively rules out smaller providers, so there is little competition. Two of the major providers have been shown to be dishonest and other inquiries are under way. We know that when things go wrong there is little redress and revoking contracts can be very costly.

To the consumer of a public service, public service ethos is essential, especially in sensitive areas such as probation work. Indeed, some services have such social pressures that you cannot leave them to the market. Consumers want to know how these companies make their profits, who their suppliers are and where the dividends go, but most of this is hidden from them. What is obvious is that the Government’s ability to manage outsourcing is weak. They have failed to make this market work both to the benefit of the contractors and to the benefit of the consumers of the services. This weakness is also apparent in the railway franchise system.

The Government’s continued dogmatic refusal to correct the business model means that we are now facing a crisis of public confidence in these services. Refusal to encourage public sector bids and reluctance to accept locally administered solutions mean that these services are not as good as they should be—and it is the vulnerable and those on low income who suffer most from this. The real truth is that we are all victims of these avoidable and unnecessary difficulties, brought about by the Government. Are we going to see any change?

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4.05 pm

Baroness Noakes (Con): My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, with whom I often debate. I often agree with him but I am going to be taking a rather different tack today: I disagree with much of what he has said. In particular, on the point he has just made about contracting out, although I agree that the Government have not been good contractors-out, I should remind the noble Lord that it was the party opposite which took the private finance initiative—the mega contracting-out—to the illogical extremes that have left such huge problems in parts of the National Health Service. That issue cannot be laid at the door of this Government.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on securing this debate. Of course, he portrayed a very gloomy picture of the effect of government policies on the poor and vulnerable. I am not going to pretend that life has been a bed of roses for those people in our society, but I am genuinely proud of this Government’s economic record over the last four and a half years and that is why I have chosen to speak in this debate. I am absolutely convinced that, if the party opposite had remained in power, life would have been very much worse for the whole of our country and, in particular, for the very groups that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is so concerned about. I am going to focus my contribution on economic and public expenditure although I will, at the end, touch a little on regulatory policies.

Policies pursued by this Government have to be put in their proper context. In 1997, the party opposite inherited a booming economy. In 2010, we were bequeathed an economy on its knees. The deficit was at its highest level in peacetime history; government debt was over 60% and still rising. Under Labour, we had slipped down the international league tables of competitiveness; we had uncompetitive personal and corporate tax systems; and unemployment had increased by 20%. I could go on. We had a huge job ahead of us to restore the economy to health. Without a healthy economy, we cannot achieve all the other aims that the noble Lord desires.

My right honourable friend the Chancellor wisely ignored noisy calls from the party opposite for higher taxes, higher spending and higher borrowing. The consequences for economic growth, interest rates, the deficit and the debt of heeding those calls do not bear thinking about. Instead, my right honourable friend the Chancellor has pursued moderate policies which have targeted fiscal rebalancing at a carefully considered pace. In so doing, he has created the environment in which the economy can start to grow again, because growth is a precondition for everything else.

In line with international experience, the Government have concentrated 80% of their fiscal rebalancing on cutting expenditure. The truth about our expenditure policies is that expenditure has not been cut in cash terms: nor is this planned. We have protected key budgets, such as health. We have met the rising costs of welfare budgets, which act as a shock absorber when times get tough. Inevitably, that means other budgets have had some quite severe pruning. Overall, the public sector has seen employment reductions and

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limited wage increases. However, these, too, were inevitable because employment costs are around half of current public expenditure. There were no realistic alternatives to get expenditure and the deficit under control.

Taxes have deliberately borne the smaller part of the plan to eliminate the deficit—and here my right honourable friend the Chancellor has crafted a careful combination of tax cuts and tax increases. All consumers have had to bear the increase in the VAT rate but very large numbers have benefited from our income tax changes. These were somewhat dismissed a moment ago, but 3 million people have been taken out of income tax altogether and 26 million people have seen lower tax bills as a result of those changes.

Another achievement has been to base tax policy on sound economic analysis rather than on political doctrine. Corporation tax rates have been cut, as has the 50% rate of income tax. Both were underpinned by rigorous analysis of the impact on tax yields, incentives and competitiveness. The Chancellor was right to make these cuts, and I hope that he will go further still.

The Labour Party has pledged to reintroduce the 50% rate which is the worst kind of gesture politics. According to Mr Alan Milburn, the amount it would raise would be “absolutely incidental”. I believe that it is worse than that—it would be a net negative for our economy. Our tax policies have been tough but they have been fair. Even though the top rate of tax has been cut, the top 1% of taxpayers are expected to pay over 27% of income tax this year. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has produced analysis showing that the top 20% of households paid 54% of all taxes last year and that, since 2010, the top 10% have borne the brunt of the tax changes.

It is true that all parts of the income distribution have shouldered some of the burden. The job of repairing the economy was too great to be borne only by those at the top end. It is also true that those at the bottom end of the income distribution—often those dependent on benefits—have done a little less well than those in the middle of the income distribution. But the alternative would have been that hard-working families on average incomes would have suffered more, and I hope that the Benches opposite would not have supported that.

It is a fallacy to think that we can help the poor simply by taxing the rich. If the rich take their assets, their income and their businesses elsewhere, everyone loses out. If the tax system fails to incentivise effort and innovation, we all suffer. Churchill was right to say that we cannot make the poor richer by making the rich poorer. We have to be realistic about where we are. Despite the tough action to date, on current plans the deficit will not be eliminated until 2017-18. Much remains to be done after the next election to restore our economy to full health. Until we get to that position we cannot start to build in a lot of discretionary, additional policies if they cost money.

The most important thing that any Government can do is to ensure that the economy has the right conditions for growth and wealth creation. With economic growth, jobs will be created and people will share in the wealth that is created. There are no short cuts to this. The economy in the first three years of this

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Government was fragile but we now have the fastest growing economy in the G7. We only have to look over the Channel to France, Italy and Spain to see what happens when tough economic decisions are avoided.

Since 2010, there have been 1.8 million more people in jobs, and three-quarters of those are full-time jobs. That is 1.8 million more people earning money for their families and also contributing to the growth of the economy. Getting more people into work is good for taking children out of poverty. Children in non-working households have something like an 80% chance of living in poverty. If one parent goes into a full-time job, that falls to around 30%. If the second parent also has a part-time job, it falls to below 10%. That is why we celebrate the fact that since 2010 there are 671,000 fewer households with no one of working age in employment.

I have concentrated my remarks on the Government’s economic and public expenditure policies. I will now say a few things about regulatory policies. The most important thing for an economy is when competition flourishes in the context of a global environment without trade barriers. Competition in open markets is the best route to consumer benefit. Competition does not always work, for structural or other market reasons; and so the second most important thing is to have effective regulators and competition authorities. In large measure that is what we have in the UK. I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, as he catalogued the things that did not work well, but I struggle to see what credible policies could have been followed by the Government without completely strangling markets.

I will refer to energy prices. I agree that they have not necessarily been working for consumers, but there are three things that I want to say about that. First, the right thing is to refer those markets to the Competition and Markets Authority, and that is happening. Secondly, the wrong approach would have been to impose a price freeze on the energy companies. As any student of prices and incomes policies will tell you, that is not a long-term solution. Thirdly—this is where I criticise the current and previous Governments—energy prices that hit businesses and consumers currently include a significant impact from the green subsidies that are imposed on the energy industry by government policy and the crazy targets in the Climate Change Act. At the top of my list for removing burdens on the economy, from the largest industrial consumer to the smallest vulnerable consumer, would be the repeal of that Act.

I do not want to end on a downbeat note about the Government’s policies. This Government know that the best way to help the low paid and the vulnerable in our society is to create a prosperous economy. That is what the past four years have been about. I very much hope that next May the electorate will give us another five years to conclude the job.

4.17 pm

Baroness Crawley (Lab): My Lords, we are indeed grateful to my noble friend Lord Whitty, in National Consumer Week, for securing such a valuable and important debate. Although noble Lords opposite and

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my noble friends on these Benches may come to very different conclusions about the cumulative effects of government policies on low-income and vulnerable consumers, after nearly five years of strict austerity it is vital that those policies are scrutinised and challenged frequently in your Lordships’ House.

For “low-income and vulnerable consumers” read “hard-pressed families”. By far the greatest pressure facing families today is, as we know, economic. For many, we have seen living standards fall to their lowest for a decade. Real wages have plummeted and the price of living—especially in energy costs, housing and childcare—has soared. If all families were experiencing such pressure it would be bad enough, but the injustice is that it is families with children that have taken the hardest hit. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown us that families with children have been penalised economically three times harder than work-age households without children. The bankers land us in it and the children pay the price.

So far the Government have done next to nothing to mitigate the issue of falling real wages in the bottom half of income distribution, where a family’s fight to reach the end of each month with bills paid and food on the table is most pronounced. The campaign for a living wage must be congratulated on having signed up, as we heard from the noble Lord opposite, 432 living wage employers, including 18 FTSE-100 companies. Indeed, that number may well have doubled in the past year.

However, much more needs to be done. The minimum wage has not kept up with inflation, and we call on the Government, even at this late stage, to intervene to do more. In its recent report, Low Pay Britain 2014, the Resolution Foundation states that one in five employees is currently on low pay. This can so easily result in toxic reliance on payday loans, as my noble friend Lord Whitty quite excellently illustrated, and other exploitative forms of credit. This is an issue which the Labour Party has taken a prominent lead in tackling and in encouraging regulators such as the FCA to take action.

The seventh report of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, dated December 2013, states:

“In 2011-12, the payday loan market was worth between £2.0 and £2.2 billion, up from an estimated £900 million in 2008-09. This rapid expansion has been accompanied by a significant rise in the number of people experiencing serious debt problems as a result of using these products”.

All too often in homes all round the country there comes a crunch point—and often that point is reached many times—when the payday loan is reached for, not just to fund one-off emergency events such as a funeral, job loss or illness but to pay for everyday things such as utilities, food and housing, with little attention being paid to the miserable consequences of compound interest.

Many people are desperate and the Government need to wake up to that fact. However, lecturing people on the evils of legal payday loans will not put food on the table, and the danger is that the illegal moneylending merchants will become even more prominent. As president of the Trading Standards Institute, I am all too aware

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of the misery brought to families by these despicable moneylending criminal gangs, many of them international, which prey on the vulnerable and those at the end of their tether. It is often the case that people in debt to illegal moneylenders become their slaves, face dreadful violence and, in the case of women, are forced into prostitution, and are rarely, if ever, free of that debt. Realising, of course, that no single action of government can lead to a resolution of these current very serious issues of debt, it would help in this case to track those illegal international moneylenders if the Government opted back in to the European arrest warrant. I wish the Prime Minister every success with his upcoming vote and with his UKIP-flirting faction.

It would also help to tackle those international gangs and our homegrown criminals who prey on vulnerable consumers if enforcers such as trading standards officers, who are responsible for enforcing 250 pieces of consumer legislation, did not have to face the double whammy of drastic local authority budget cuts, outlined by my noble friend, and a legislative handcuff in the form of proposals in the Consumer Rights Bill—which we have shared with the Minister over the past four weeks—that introduce 48-hour notice periods to be given to businesses before their premises can be routinely inspected. Individual trading standards services around the country have had their budgets slashed by up to 86% over the lifetime of this Parliament.

In a time of such economic pressure on consumers, the enforcement community is needed more than ever. On the doorstep and on the internet, consumer-facing crime is rising. Credit-brokering websites are ripping off consumers and draining their bank accounts after promising to find them cheap credit, only for the loans never to materialise. Rogues and scammers are particularly targeting elderly and vulnerable people on the doorstep, pressurising them to pay extortionate prices for unnecessary jobs or goods. We have read this week, National Consumer Week, of many cases of this kind, such as that of Elizabeth, the 89 year-old lady in north London, who was targeted by a serial conman appearing at her door and offering to do a minor repair. He told her that £15,000 was needed to repair a damp problem. Bank staff raised the alarm when Elizabeth came in to get the cash to give to the conman. I understand that he was jailed for 18 months this year.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton (Lab): Does my noble friend agree that that shows that it is a good idea to have banks?

Baroness Crawley:Iagree absolutely with my noble friend.

Often today low-income consumers are forced to make purchasing decisions based almost entirely on cost, and by seeking cheaper options they are exposing themselves to cut-price, counterfeit and often dangerous products. One local authority receives a call every day from a new victim who has lost their life savings to scammers and rogue traders.

We all need to look out for our neighbours, we are told by the consumer campaign, National Consumer Week. Yes, we do need to look out for our neighbours, particularly if they are elderly and vulnerable, but I

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also ask the Government, in the same spirit, to look out for the excellent trading standards enforcement services across the country, which do extraordinarily good work even when their numbers are verging on the unsustainable. Local authority cuts are no laughing matter and central government cannot keep washing its hands of responsibility.

In the analysis accompanying the Budget Statement of 2014, the Treasury concluded that, up to 2012, on average households in the bottom two deciles saw their incomes protected against the effects of inflation. The Labour Party begs to differ and has put forward a cost of living contract with hard-pressed families that will see gas and electricity bills frozen until 2017 and a reform of the energy market. The contract will see up to 200,000 homes built each year by 2020, and a ban on exploitative zero-hours contracts, as well as making work pay by strengthening the national minimum wage, and providing tax breaks to firms that boost pay through the living wage. Among other pledges, the cost of living contract will also help working families with 25 hours of free childcare for three and four year-olds.

It is right that I end my short contribution to this important debate where I started, and that is with children in families: the consumers of tomorrow. The Children's Society and the StepChange debt charity combined a survey of 2,000 families with children and in-depth interviews with 14 families in problem debt. They identified a number of impacts on the children in those families, such as bullying, worry, family argument, early exposure to loans and having to cut back on essentials such as food, clothing and heating for the children, in order to keep up repayments. Instead of Her Majesty’s Government coming up with yet another new wheeze—in this case, that government departments must apply a family friendly test to all policies—let us instead listen to children in hardship themselves, who need immediate government action. We will then know what to do—or none of us should be in public life.

4.30 pm

The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for securing this debate, which I enter in no partisan spirit but hope to contribute some reflections from local experience in Norwich of those on low incomes in our city.

It was more than five years ago that I was first approached to become patron of the Norwich food bank, a relatively early one to be established. Its work informs a good deal of what I want to say. The necessity for it was identified before the previous general election as a result of the recession. Suddenly, people who thought themselves reasonably secure were worried. Those who were already insecure became highly vulnerable. That was all very noticeable within our church communities on the housing estates in Norwich, especially in the areas of greatest social deprivation.

Norfolk is often seen as relatively comfortable, but the reality for many is that it is not. I know that the need for a food bank in Norwich was recognised before the existence of the coalition Government and their policies. Indeed, the first food bank in this country was set up in 1999. Those who run food banks and

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those who give to them represent all shades of political opinion. They do what they do out of human compassion and not to make a political point, but I recognise that political decisions have a major impact on their work. The use of food banks continues to grow rapidly and needs explanation.

According to the Government’s figures, 30,000 people in greater Norwich are living on the edge of poverty. In the Campaign to End Child Poverty report published last year, Norwich is the authority with the highest percentage of children in poverty in the east of England. It is in the worst 5% of all authorities in the UK for child poverty. Norwich is also one of the areas in the country with the highest percentage of employees earning less than £7 an hour. That is why Living Wage Week is being so vigorously pursued in Norwich. Norwich City Council is a living wage employer, much to the council’s credit, and I am glad to say that so too is the diocese of Norwich, through its board of finance. Where families have no financial security, a sudden crisis caused by bereavement, illness or redundancy can leave them unable to feed themselves. Such situations rapidly worsen; relationships break down; houses are repossessed; rent cannot be paid; and the cost of all that for society as a whole is not merely financial.

I sometimes think that our political discourse regards human beings only as economic units. That is a gross disservice to human dignity. Eighty local care agencies refer people to the Norwich food bank; no one can simply turn up. Last year, more than 9,000 people, 6,000 adults and more than 3,000 children—bearing out the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, about children—received three days’ worth of food. That number is expected to have grown to at least 11,000 and probably 12,000 this year.

Dr Kingsley Purdam from Manchester University, the lead author of the report, Hungry? Food Insecurity, Social Stigma and Embarrassment in the UK, which was published last month, recently wrote:

“In political and media debates foodbank users have been variously described as being: ‘opportunists’, ‘not able to cook or budget’ and ‘living like animals’”.

When we stigmatise the poor, the unemployed and the vulnerable, we have succumbed to blaming them for their position. However, although some people stigmatise welfare claimants, many others show enormous human and social solidarity by volunteering to help them. A great deal of this has been spontaneous, but rapid growth of food banks is leading to a normalisation of food aid in our country. Are we content to see that in the United Kingdom? Will the volunteer support on which food banks rely hold up in the years to come, especially if the demands get ever greater? Though it is not true in our area, I know of food banks that are finding the need for ever more food to meet rising levels of demand very challenging. What would be the cost of the dislocation if this voluntary system broke down?

Around 30% of all visits to food banks are caused by benefit delays. The inefficiencies in our system contribute to the problem on a very large scale. For a family which lives day to day in its budgeting, a gap of several weeks’ income, which is reported so often as to

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be commonplace, can lead to a rapid deterioration in the quality and amount of food that that family eats. Dr Purdam’s recent research quotes the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which has identified better nutrition as one of the key cost-saving initiatives for the NHS. Poor nutrition and malnutrition is costing us dear. A defence of the NHS budget is heard across the political spectrum, yet that budget may be increasing not least because of policies on welfare which simply displace problems from one government department and budget to another, aggravate them and make them more expensive for the taxpayer in the long run.

These policy debates must never lose sight of the people who have never heard of Hansard, let alone read it. A couple of examples from the research quoted earlier will suffice. A 40 year-old man said of his visit to a food bank:

“I was nervous coming here. I thought I’d done something wrong. When you’re having to ask for food your ego takes a battering”.

Or think of the woman who said:

“I was willing to turn to prostitution if I did not get help from the food bank”.

I take pride in the compassion and generosity of so many people in this country who established such a widespread food aid network. I am glad that Christians in our churches are so responsive to need and that people of all faiths and none have joined the cause, but I am also depressed that this is necessary at all in what is still one of the richest countries in the world, with what we are told is a growing economy. Perhaps the Cinderella subject, which deserves much more attention, is nutrition itself. NICE is clear that better nutrition would save many millions, even billions, from the NHS budget if we took it seriously. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

4.37 pm

Lord Hunt of Chesterton: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Whitty on introducing this debate and I am very pleased to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich. I visit Norwich from time to time, as my daughter is a GP there, and she has told us stories that endorse what he said.

This debate is about issues that I am sure the electors will be considering very strongly next year. Following the global financial crisis in 2008 and the political and economic troubles in Europe, and with the looming problems of energy and the environment, the UK is in a period of great uncertainty, at least as great as other countries in the EU. The duty of Government and society during such periods should be to minimise the effects on the vulnerable and those on low incomes, who suffer most, both materially and in terms of their morale, their health and, often, the breakdown of social relations—the subject of a previous debate this afternoon. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, implied that all these issues are economic, but, as the right reverend Prelate suggested, that is perhaps a simplification.

Curiously during this period, although we normally think of this as all a matter for the Government, it has been quite interesting that the role of the Opposition has been quite strong. For example, on the freezing of

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energy prices, it was quite remarkable how, after a speech from the Opposition, energy prices suddenly started to move downwards in a positive way.

Government actions in dealing with these issues are generally about changing governmental institutions. It is not just a question of moving deckchairs—a favourite sport in Whitehall—but changing institutions is very important, as is improving executive operations. I was head of the Met Office and was hired to change that institution and to try to get good forecasts, so I know these two aspects of government. As equally effective as legislation and executive operation by Government is the Government’s use of finance, legislation, regulations and the Civil Service to influence non-governmental organisations and institutions, as we have been hearing. This is where there are quite large differences between the policies and actions of the parties—less so than 50 years ago, say, but still significant.

Since the 1970s, the Labour Party has broadly worked with the UK’s existing governmental and non-governmental institutions, including private sector commercial organisations and trade unions. These principles are set out on the party card—I have not seen a Conservative Party card, but I do not think it has those on it. The Labour Party has also worked effectively and positively with other countries in the EU. The significant broad changes introduced by the Labour Party in government included Scottish and Welsh devolution, reform of the House of Lords and the hiving-off of Whitehall departments to more effective agencies. These were all broadly accepted by all parties.

By contrast, during this last five years the Conservative Party, which leads the coalition, has not been sure what institutional reforms it wants to introduce or whether it wants to be part of Europe. I did my homework for this speech and looked at what the last Conservative Party manifesto presented. On one page there is a gloomy Chinese-like picture, as if the sad figure was trying to say, “This is the role of big government”. Two or three pages later on, the party put down a very nice statement, which I thought I would read to your Lordships—I do not often read from the Conservative Party manifesto. It said:

“We will make Britain the most family-friendly country in Europe … We will support and improve Sure Start, and introduce a new universal health visiting service. We will give targeted help to disadvantaged and dysfunctional families”.

That is not exactly how it has turned out in practice. Some of the words may be the same, but the actions have been rather different.

One of the sad things about the Conservative Party—finance is another aspect—has been the attitude of its leadership to some of the really important institutions and areas of this country. Twenty or 30 years ago, there were shocking campaigns to weaken some of the communities, particularly coal-mining communities, but even during the last five years we have had rather shocking campaigns criticising social groups and taking money away from things such as the citizens advice bureaux. The way in which this has been done—essentially, through a tax on certain regions of Britain and on types of people by reducing their benefits—is simply inconceivable in any other country in Europe. If you look at the extreme difficulties that they went through in Belgium, France and Germany as their coal-mining

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areas went down, we never saw that ugly rhetoric from party leaders. We saw both social democratic and conservative leaders accepting and moving their Governments forward in those areas. Regrettably, that bitterness still continues in this country.

In the last period before the present Government, there was significant progress under the Blair and Brown Governments to improve social infrastructure in the poorest areas of the UK, particularly in schools and through focused welfare such as Sure Start—which appeared in the Conservative Party manifesto—and regional development plans. Regional development was, of course, cut back when the Conservatives appeared. One Member of the House of Lords—I will not name names—is now chairman of a certain local enterprise board. He has said that the amount of money he gets each year is enough to build two roundabouts, so there has not been a proper continuation of the regional development plans.

The subject of this debate is to review whether the present Government’s policies have been effective. One of the facts which one has to recognise, although it was not recognised in the interesting speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is that there was a global recession between 2008 and 2010 and that, in order to enable its impact to be minimised, the Government considerably increased social expenditure at that time. This has been analysed by many economists in recent months. The destabilising cut-back policies that we saw from the incoming Conservative Government and the accompanying rhetoric—quite unlike what you heard in the rest of Europe—has had very damaging effects upon families involved in public sector employment. Thousands of public sector employees were dismissed. Some of them had to do the work of course, so the work came back in self-employment but with fewer benefits and lower pensions.

An important point for many local communities is that people who were employed by public agencies and local government were allowed to participate in public sector activities—for example, working with the council and many other social units. Once people become self-employed with fewer funds, that kind of activity is often reduced.

Another feature that we might consider is whether this rigorous approach that we have seen in the last five years has led to a higher level of workforce, which is what is needed in modern technological industry. The answer seems to be no. The figures are that UK productivity is 20% lower than that of other countries such as France—the country endlessly attacked from the Benches opposite. By this business of pushing down on poorer people, we are not necessarily actually improving our total economy.

I have put down questions about government agencies being encouraged to employ and use contractors or companies that make best use of advanced technology and productivity, rather than just going for the cheapest price. I believe that there really has been some improvement, and I give some commendation to the Government. In many private companies and public organisations, staff are now being paid more, with a living wage. Last week, DECC reported it was now employing staff on a living wage. However, the government

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policy is still not clear. It could do more to ensure that these contracts improve UK standards, including technical standards, such as in housebuilding, where there are still considerable differences between this country and other countries on the continent.

Another feature of the topic of this debate is the question about the role of different levels of government —local, regional and central. Because most of the money comes from the centre, we still have the situation in Britain that local government relies on central government funding. Of course, fortunately, we still believe in local government, which is still a very important part of communications between individuals, communities and central government—many policies have to be implemented in this way.

This Government started with the term “the big society”—I have not heard about that from the other side today—but one of the roles that one imagines would be performed by the big society would be that you would have local government and local communities do the work and you would need to have methods of making sure that the money was spent properly. What did this Government do—a Government who believe in “money, money, money”? It removed the local government audit organisation. When things go wrong, you will have ad hoc interventions at a local level—which, of course, we have just seen in the case of Tower Hamlets. We had a perfectly good system of local audit. I was a city councillor and we spent a lot of our time thinking about exactly what the local Audit Commission would do; there was a similar situation with schools inspection.

I would like to end with a positive note about how the Conservative Party might improve. I looked up in Google today about the role of the Conservatives and trade unions. There used to be an organisation called the Conservative Trade Unionists, but then it disappeared. Wikipedia says, “We haven’t heard about this for 10 years. Could anybody volunteer to add to the Wikipedia description of Conservative Trade Unionists?”. So there is an opportunity. The Lib Dems, however, do have an organisation of Lib Dem trade unionists, and I am very pleased about that. The only trouble is that they do not agree with the Conservatives about exactly what they should be doing. There is some row going on—you should read Wikipedia.

4.49 pm

Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab): My Lords, I welcome this debate, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Whitty for initiating it. I will start with a quotation from a recent book, Austerity Bites, by the journalist Mary O’Hara:

“If there was one word to capture the mood during the months that I travelled the country, it was ‘fear’. I talked to people afraid of cuts that had yet to be fully felt, of losing their home, of disability benefits being snatched away, of being unable to take care of their children or sick or elderly relatives, of essential local services being eliminated—and of their mental health deteriorating. The more the shockwaves of austerity were absorbed, the more initial fears about what might happen mutated into a daily dread about how to survive”.

That daily dread is not being felt by the privileged, who have enjoyed big pay rises and bonuses during this time of austerity, and many of whom have also enjoyed tax cuts.

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I will focus my remarks on the effects of social security cuts in particular, which, to add insult to injury, have all too often been justified in terms that vilify the benefits system and those who have to rely on it. In addition to the specific cuts that I will talk about, the real value of a number of benefits received by people of working age is being steadily eroded, as my noble friend Lord Whitty explained. This has been justified by Ministers in the name of fairness as between those in and out of work, even though overall the cuts affect more people in work than out of it—the so-called hard-working families. The Chancellor has signalled a further £12 billion in cuts should the Conservatives form the next Government.

Research published this week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation demonstrates how the real cut in living standards for consumers affected is greater because of the impact of differential inflation rates in recent years. This means that, in the words of researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies:

“Recent inflationary trends have disproportionately affected those in poverty”.

In other words, their living standards have been cut by even more than the cut in benefits implies. A companion JRF report points out that it is harder for low-income consumers to shop around or switch suppliers, partly because they often lack access to what it calls “enabling goods”, such as internet access, which advantage better-off consumers.

The best known of the benefit cuts is what the noble Lord, Lord Best, was the first to dub the “bedroom tax”. The UN Special Investigator on Housing has warned that it could constitute a violation of the human right to adequate housing. The justification—to free up larger accommodation in the social rented sector—is looking rather threadbare, with only 4.5% of affected tenants having downsized within the first six months, according to the Government’s own review. But, they say, this is a good start. I dread to think what a bad start would look like. The review also revealed that nearly three in five had cut back on what they deemed to be household essentials in order to meet the shortfall.

According to the New Policy Institute, about two-thirds of those hit by the bedroom tax have also had their council tax benefit cut following so-called localisation, with a 10% cut in funding imposed on those of working age and their families. The institute estimates that this year 2.34 million low-income families will pay on average £149 a year more in council tax than under the old council tax benefit scheme. Advice agencies are already reporting that council tax arrears have become their largest debt inquiry category.

In case these cuts were not sufficient to reduce the living standards of people on benefit, those deemed to be receiving too much money are now subject to a benefit cap. This means that in many cases families are paying the price for a long-term policy—pursued, I acknowledge, by successive Governments—of encouraging higher rents and subsidising them through housing benefit. Research by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion has shown that the cap is causing “uncertainty, distress and hardship” as families cut back on essentials, run up debts or fall back on discretionary or charitable support. Finding work has just not been a feasible solution for many of them.

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The main losers are children, particularly in larger families, which means there is a disproportionate impact on some minority ethnic groups; according to initial government monitoring, 80% of those affected are women, including some carers.

Growing numbers of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance are also being affected by an increasingly punitive benefits sanctions regime. The annual number of sanctions has almost doubled under the coalition. Food banks have identified sanctions as one of the main reasons for people needing their services. Worse still, there have been reports of people who have been sanctioned stealing food in order to survive.

Children have been among those worst hit by the benefit cuts, as already stated by my noble friend Lady Crawley. An impact assessment of tax benefit changes and cuts in public services carried out for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner found that families with children have been disproportionately hit, particularly those on lower incomes. As a result, child poverty is expected to increase significantly over the next few years. This analysis led to the conclusion that the best interests of children are not being treated as a primary consideration in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The growing pressures on low-income families have also been linked by the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services to a big increase in child referrals to local authorities. Similarly, in their foreword to the State of the Nation2014 report for the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Alan Milburn and the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, warned that:

“The impact of welfare cuts and entrenched low pay will bite between now and 2020. Poverty is set to rise, not fall. We”—


“share the view of those experts who predict that 2020 will mark not the eradication of child poverty but the end of the first decade in recent history in which absolute child poverty increased”.

We heard in the earlier debate today that women, too, have been among the main losers from cuts in benefits and services because they rely on them more heavily. As the main day-to-day managers of poverty, they suffer in particular as consumers, and their job will be made that much harder with the payment of universal credit monthly. According to a House of Commons Library analysis, women have borne nearly four-fifths of the impact of tax benefit changes. The Fawcett Society has warned that overall the impact of cuts spells,

“a tipping point for women's equality”,

leading to,

“a society in which women’s voice and choices are diminished, where women’s access to employment, justice and safety are undermined and where women become more, rather than less, dependent on the state or their families for support”.

They and their families are also becoming more reliant on charity in order to get by, as seen most starkly in the huge rise in the numbers turning to food banks, which was discussed movingly by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich.

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Let us stop and think what this reliance on food banks means. Let us think how we would feel if we had to rely on food banks. Professor Elizabeth Dowler, who co-authored the review of food aid for Defra, observed:

“Not having enough food is … an issue of private shame. … And it is an issue of private suffering. If you are not getting enough food, or the right kind of food, you absorb the misery yourself. The cost is embodied by you. It is your body that becomes unhealthy”.

A letter to the British Medical Journal about a year ago warned that growing food insecurity could turn into a “public health emergency”. Private shame made public becomes even harder to bear.

A similar tale is told by a more recent Joseph Rowntree study of social housing tenants, which found:

“Cutbacks in support make people on low incomes, in work and out, more vulnerable to debt, at risk of eviction and short of essentials, so they rely on food banks and other emergency support”.

Unfortunately the abolition of the discretionary social fund and the transfer—not ring-fenced—to local authorities of the budget that used to pay for crisis loans and community care grants has reduced the emergency support available, with particular implications for survivors of domestic violence.

Another group disproportionately affected is disabled people. Just Fair has warned that the combined effect of a number of changes on disabled people is,

“very likely to compromise their enjoyment of the right to independent living”.

Disability activists have led demands for a cumulative impact assessment of the cuts’ effects. The Government say that that is too difficult to do—but while of course it would be difficult, a report for the Equality and Human Rights Commission has shown that it is “feasible and practicable”, and its initial results confirm the disproportionate impact on low-income disabled people, as well as on women and children. I would very much welcome the Minister’s response to that question of a cumulative impact assessment that is being called for increasingly widely.

No doubt the Government’s response will be that such cuts were necessary in the face of the deficit—caused mainly, I note, by the financial crash. This is not the place to argue the rights and wrongs of deficit reduction, but it is the place to point out that by choosing to fund what I believe is about three-quarters of it through spending cuts and only a quarter through tax rises, the Government have ensured that those with the narrowest, not the widest shoulders bear most of the pain.

The policy of progressively raising personal tax allowances while at the same time cutting the real value of child benefit is no answer, despite the arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. It is of no help to those in or out of work whose incomes are too low to pay tax, of whom over three-fifths are women, according to the Women’s Budget Group. Moreover, as universal credit is introduced, even low-income taxpayers will receive only part of the gain enjoyed by others, because the rest will be clawed back through reductions in the credit. For a Government so keen on targeting, this is a wasteful and regressive use of resources—or, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation put it,

“an incredibly expensive and inefficient way of helping low-income working households”.

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The evidence of the harmful cumulative impact of cuts is mounting. People of working age on low incomes, particularly women and disabled people—in and out of work—are suffering. Children are suffering. Is this the kind of society in which we want to live?

5.02 pm

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab): My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Whitty for introducing what has been a valuable debate and thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich for his warning of the normalisation of food aid in a rich society. We should also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who, sadly, was the only non-Minister to speak from the government side. Needless to say, I very much disagree, along with my noble friend Lord Hunt, with her analysis and particularly with her hopes for the outcome of the next general election.

The essence of consumer policy is not just about putting things right after someone has been ripped off; it is about preventing such action in the first place. Yet, as my noble friend Lady Crawley has demonstrated, without robust trading standards to act on our behalf, consumers are left weak in the face of poor service or shoddy or dangerous goods. There is a proud tradition in the co-operative and Labour movements of fighting for consumer rights. We embedded the consumer voice in regulators, set up ombudsman schemes, established the National Consumer Council—sadly, now demolished by the Government—and we have championed the user voice across both public and private services. As our leader, Ed Miliband, has said:

“In every area, you have to call time on the surcharge culture. Making a fair profit is important, but it can’t be done in an underhand … way … This is about power in relation to … services and how government can be on the consumer’s side … It’s … how you build a competitive economy … It’s about the rules that government sets”.

However, it is not just our leader. I appreciated the quote from my noble friend Lord Haskel, who reminded us that the then leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, said that there is a,

“disconnection between capitalism and people’s lives”.

We see it in housing, where the private market has failed, as rents and house prices drive working people out of the centre of London, putting pressure on transport as well as reducing take-home pay, as more money goes on travel, as well as taking the stuffing out of our communities. It is about water, where one in eight finds bills to be unaffordable. About a quarter of all households, and the majority of the poorest ones, spend more than 3% of their disposable income on water. During the passage of the Water Bill, my noble friend Lord Whitty sought to ensure a national affordability scheme to set targets and minimum standards for company social tariffs, but that was not accepted by the Government. It is not as though the water companies have struggled. Of their £2 billion profit last year, nearly all of it—£1.8 billion—was paid out as dividends.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton: How much of that went abroad?

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: It certainly did not go to domestic users.

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It is about energy, where prices have soared, which has allowed profits from households to double in a year. Those profits comprise 8% of bills. Labour will break up big energy companies, introduce a simple new tariff and replace Ofgem with a tough new energy watchdog.

Travelling by rail to work is essential for many. In Birmingham, Bristol and York the average commuter travels 35 miles every morning; yet half of rail users do not think that they get value for money and commuters’ fares have jumped by an inflation-busting 20% since 2010.

Housing is another area. No one should have to live somewhere substandard, nor with such insecurity of tenure that they fear being chucked out before they can put down roots. Often they are chucked out simply for asking their landlord to do necessary repairs. However, many face such insecurity. There are more than 9 million people renting in the private sector now, including 1.3 million families with children. Yet this is a barely regulated market. These families want the same stability as any of our families would want: to get to know the community, so that their children can get to make and keep friends. However, many families are denied such stability. The bedroom tax, described by my noble friend Lady Lister, often makes them move, sometimes away from the areas close to mum, where they had a ready-made babysitter and a support network. We need longer tenancies and restrictions on rent increases to improve this volatile, unstable market.

It is a market in which letting agents are disadvantaging tenants. The average fee charged to tenants by letting agents is £355, with some having to pay more than £500. For those in a position to buy, estate agents’ fees can be equally unfair. Despite that, yesterday the Government resisted our amendment to the Consumer Rights Bill to prevent letting and estate agents charging both tenants and landlords, or buyers and sellers, for the same service. We will bring this back to the House on Report to stop this exploitation of our overheated housing market, which sucks money out of housing, as it goes neither to the homeowner nor to the landlord, but to people profiting from the desperation of people to find somewhere to live.

Without better regulation and without having someone on their side to champion their rights, consumers will never get a fair deal. Back in 1962, President Kennedy said:

“If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant … if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers”.

Today we have new challenges. We sought yesterday to get the Government to take action on nuisance calls, but we failed. Yet we know that it is the vulnerable on whom the scammers prey, selling high-cost credit, false PPI claims and post-accident help, by nuisance calls or junk mail. Indeed, one campaign group estimates that victims send more than £10 billion to scammers every year. Increasingly, rip-offs are via copycat websites, ads for loans on gambling sites, or payday loans advertised before the watershed, all of which the Government have refused to act on; or there is illegal activity, such as scamming people’s bank accounts, which banks fail to publicise for commercial reasons, and the regulator seems hesitant to act on.

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Meanwhile, there are those who operate within the law but take advantage of the vulnerable, such as the new rent-to-own shops, whereby people supposedly rent a household good, which they will finally own, having paid perhaps three times the price through their weekly payments. This ruse gets around regulation. They are not offering loans or hire purchase that would be covered by the FCA, as people are theoretically renting rather than buying the product. What then happens is a new business model; they add compulsory but useless insurance to the product, charging 60% to 90% APR and encouraging repayment by direct debit, which of course comes out of the bank the day after benefit goes in, giving preference over other payments. Those companies can repossess for a missed payment as the consumer has no protection.

We have seen banks fail to act ethically or in the interests of users. Yet the Government rejected our attempts to introduce a code of conduct for financial services, despite the record of misselling PPI, interest rate swaps and inappropriate mortgages, all the time managing to suck out huge bonuses. Today we welcome, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, would, the announcement of a CMA investigation into personal current accounts and SME banking. We urge all haste to this.

Our political system faces a fundamental challenge. In our globalised world, many feel that they have no influence over their surroundings and that no one is standing up to the strong on their behalf. This feeds the rush towards parties offering apparent simple solutions—everything will be better if we leave the EU or the UK is broken up. That is something that we have to challenge but, as my noble friend Lord Whitty said, the Government have made all of this worse by placing the burden of austerity on the poor. Our vision is different. It is to protect the vulnerable and to remove the fear and shame, as my noble friend Lady Lister called it, of some groups in society. It is to spread the benefits of any growth to all workers and not just to the rich, including to the 30,000 in Norwich who live on the edge of poverty. It is to tackle the cost of living crisis and put families and consumers at the heart of policy.

The Government have resisted all our attempts to get the Consumer Rights Bill to deal with the issues raised today. We will try again; we will bring back those issues on Report; and, if we fail then, we will act from May of next year.

5.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Baroness Neville-Rolfe) (Con): My Lords, first, I extend my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for securing this wide-ranging debate and to all noble Lords who have given their very different perspectives—some cheerful and some rather gloomy. It has been a great opportunity to discuss how government can best support those on low incomes and vulnerable consumers. I have often agreed with the noble Lord on consumer and local government issues, but today his big picture is one that I just do not recognise. I could say the same about the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett.

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In this Government, we are all committed to helping those on low pay and protecting our most vulnerable consumers. We have taken action across government to tackle poverty, allow people to keep more of the money that they earn and give the most vulnerable a loud, clear voice. We have brought forward legislation when it is needed. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said, the Modern Slavery Bill is about to come into our House. Later in the year, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill will come to this House and will deal with the operation of zero-hours contracts.

First, I would like to step back and look at fundamentals. I agree with my noble friend Lady Noakes. When the Prime Minister spoke at Davos in 2009, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, mentioned, he was looking at the problems in Britain then. Following that, the coalition arrived in Government in 2010 and found an economy and institutions reeling from the deepest recession for many years, of which one cause was a prolonged period of fiscal irresponsibility. “On its knees”, I think, were the words of my noble friend Lady Noakes. It left us with an inexorably rising deficit and cost 750,000 people their jobs. That was bad for everyone especially those on low incomes. To pick up the wording of the Motion, the “cumulative effects” have given us an awful legacy.

The key to being able to help low-income and vulnerable consumers is to deliver economic growth. The dire need to get the economy back in shape has been extremely challenging. The public sector has had to become slimmer, better organised and more efficient and many parts of it have responded very effectively to that challenge. Despite the challenges, the Government have reduced the fiscal deficit, while ensuring that the poorest and most vulnerable households are protected. The Government are the first to publish cumulative distribution analysis of their tax, welfare and public spending measures. This analysis shows that the richest 20% of households make the largest contribution to reducing the deficit, both in cash terms and as a percentage of their income. I am afraid it is extremely difficult to do the sort of analysis asked for by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, on individual groups, such as the disabled.

More fundamentally, as Adam Smith pointed out, the best long-term protection for people as consumers, including the poorest, comes from the establishment of genuine competition among providers. We have encouraged this, thereby improving the economy and encouraging innovation. We have not sought to dictate prices—a policy some unwise politicians have recently suggested. This would be foolish and the effects catastrophic, especially on the poorest.

The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, mentioned that only one in seven has felt the benefit of the recovery. I would say that the economy is in a good place and quote the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that real household disposable income will rise in every year to the end of the forecast period 2018-19. This is the best measure of living standards, as it includes employment levels and income.

Employment is one of the key areas that help people to look after themselves. The Government have done a great deal for job creation. More than 30 million

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people are now in work—a record high. A greater proportion of women are in work than ever before. Since 2010, an additional 2.1 million private sector jobs have been created. Creating jobs and helping people to find sustainable employment is the best route out of poverty.

In view of what the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, I am pleased to say that 768,000 more women are employed since the last election. Employment gives individuals financial security and self-confidence, which in turn strengthens families and helps children in those families, as my noble friend Lady Noakes said, and ripples through communities. Our labour market reforms are designed to reconnect the unemployed with the labour market. They have proved successful. Youth unemployment fell a record 253,000 on the year. Long-term unemployment fell 194,000—the largest annual fall since 1998. The percentage of workless households is also lower than it was under the previous Government. Unemployment in the past year has fallen at the fastest rate ever recorded.

We have also been improving education and skills, which, in time, will have a good effect on productivity. Apprenticeships have been a central plank of my department’s drive to open up new routes into work and to give people the skills and experience that they need to thrive. The Government are investing in real jobs for young people. By overhauling apprenticeships and vocational education, we are giving young people access to the tools they need to build a better future and we are giving employers the skilled workforce that they need to compete. We are on track to have 2 million apprenticeship starts this Parliament, and we have introduced national insurance breaks for employers hiring people under the age of 21. This is at the heart of our drive to equip people of all ages with the skills that employers need.

We are also helping people to start their own businesses, although many do this without any help. For our aspiring entrepreneurs, the start-up loans programme provides loans and ongoing business mentoring support. More than 2 million new businesses have been created since May 2010—more businesses, more jobs and more growth.