The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, made this point neatly in the types of issue he outlined and wrote into his amendment. These are the matters that the Government have said need further consideration. Although there are more: I believe the amendment fails to address the security issues, such as hacking and malicious attacks, which my noble friend Lord King emphasised. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, proposes the use of the Central Arbitration Committee, also mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Lea of Crondall, and Lord Dykes, but it has no experience of industrial action or electronic balloting. The noble Lord acknowledged that today, but I am not sure that allowing it to bring in an expert quite does it for me.

Lord Collins of Highbury: I am not keen to stop the flow here, but does the noble Baroness not recognise that the CAC does have experience of workplace ballots, statutory recognition ballots? They are not a minor matter for those balloting or, for that matter, the companies subject to those ballots. Does she feel that those are somehow insecure or not valid because they are conducted in the workplace, overseen by the CAC?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe: That is a different matter. To respond to the question that was asked, we are in fact in contact with the CAC, but to bring in electronic balloting, as I have said, you need to be clear that the matter is extremely carefully addressed. A key area is to ensure that the electronic system correctly establishes an individual’s eligibility to vote. It has to capture the vote accurately while at the same time protecting the individual from being identified. The system needs—and I think there will be a lot of agreement on these points—to be both anonymous, to preserve individual privacy and secrecy, and accountable, to guard against malpractice and fraud.

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Lab): Is the noble Baroness therefore questioning ballots such as the one in Durham, which finished last weekend, on whether the population want to accept the Northern powerhouse? Is she saying that such ballots, because they include online voting, are not legitimate and should be rejected?

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Baroness Neville-Rolfe: If the noble Baroness will let me make a bit of progress, I am going to address the difference in good order. Obviously, avoiding malpractice and fraud is absolutely critical. I will explain why. There are many respectable organisations that were mentioned this evening, such as the National Trust, that choose to use electronic means to capture votes. However, strikes have a huge effect on our public services and can cause enormous problems for hardworking people. We heard a number of examples at Second Reading.

The public sector strikes in 2011 closed 62% of the schools in England and led the NHS to cancel tens of thousands of operations. We therefore need people to have confidence both in the way the ballot is conducted and in the outcome obtained. Thresholds will provide the level of confidence we need in the outcome that is currently lacking, but the method of voting is a separate matter. Postal ballots already provide appropriate confidence in the way the ballot is conducted, though there have been comments today about them. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said about postal voting, but the Government recognise this, which is why we do not object in principle to electronic balloting.

John Cridland, the then director-general of the CBI, spoke to the Public Bill Committee, which discussed this matter at some length, as I am sure you know. On thresholds, he said:

“I think the provisions in the Bill that are of most concern to businesses are those that ensure that where there is strike action … it reflects a significant voice from the workforce … In principle, I think these are the right provisions”.

On e-balloting, he said that,

“we do not think at the moment the evidence is there that e-balloting can be secure and effective. We do not have a problem in principle with e-balloting, but it is probably premature to have it available … The need to protect the privacy of an individual trade-union member voting is important to their employer, and we would want more assurance that that could be effectively conducted”.—[

Official Report,

13/10/15; col. 6.]

Perhaps this is the point at which I should respond to the noble Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood—

Lord Mendelsohn (Lab): John Cridland did make the point that he was unclear that there was sufficient assurance that the personal details could be maintained, although all companies now put their individuals’ records in electronic form. He never explained any of the duality of that particular point, nor did he go into detail as to why they were more at threat than any other form of individual record. By way of contrast, at the same committee, Dr Marshall from the British Chambers of Commerce said this matter could be dealt with, so I was very dubious as to the evidential basis of John Cridland’s comments. Can the Minister shine any light on that, rather than just quoting his opinion?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe: I think different people have different opinions on this matter; as the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, recognises, there are issues that need to be looked at.

I think there is recognition on all sides of the House that checks and safeguards are essential to any electronic balloting process. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, made

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this point admirably in his amendment. It is clear from today’s debate that noble Lords have given this issue very serious consideration. I have listened very carefully to the points that have been made, and in particular to all the ideas that noble Lords have put forward from all sides of the House. They have expressed their concerns on how to conduct safe and secure electronic ballots for trade unions. I will take a little time to reflect on these points.

In saying that, I want to be clear that it is modernisation of voting systems to which we have no objection in principle. As a Digital Minister, I can say with conviction that online is the way forward, but I agree with my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater that workplace balloting would be a regressive step. We must not lose sight of the fact that, however well supervised the ballot, people still need to get to it. That, unfortunately, provides scope for them to be under pressure of influence or intimidation.

Therefore, while we are keen to explore how to make electronic balloting work, we are not convinced that we could provide, especially in high-profile ballots, sufficient protection for employees voting in the workplace—that is, the protection of privacy and from the risk of intimidation or other influence, be it from the employer or the union.

The noble Lord, Lord Monks, was concerned that the practical effect of the thresholds would stop strikes taking place, and that results of other ballots in different areas would not have been legitimate had these thresholds been required. He quoted elections from the other place and, of course, those of the police and crime commissioners. However, the important point relating to all the examples given by noble Lords is that this is not a fair comparison. Everyone could participate freely in these elections and have a democratic say on the outcome. By contrast, only union members are eligible to vote in ballots for strike action and large numbers of people who do not get a say are affected by the outcome. It seems right that stronger support is required for strike action.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I am reluctant to intervene and I do not normally, but I am genuinely puzzled by the arguments. Apply all this to the choice of the Conservative candidate for the Mayor of London, which was done electronically: was that not a significant choice? Could it not have a big impact on working people? There seems to be something not quite joined up in the thinking expressed.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe: I thank the right reverend Prelate, but I see it as different. The difference is that strikes have a huge effect on our public services and can cause significant disruption for hard-working people. We are legislating here not for the mayoralty of London, but for industrial relations. Statutory ballots require strong assurance on issues such as legitimacy, safety and security of voting.

The noble Lord, Lord Monks, mentioned that Germany and Denmark use thresholds and that these are not tied to particular ways of voting. However, I do not think that it is helpful to compare UK law and that of other countries when the context of each is so different. It is clear that all the relevant international treaties require national laws to be considered.

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Finally in that connection, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, suggested that the proportionality of the proposed thresholds might be vulnerable to challenge were the Government to refuse to allow e-balloting. I note that he acknowledges that thresholds are a proportionate response, given the widespread impact of strikes on the public. I repeat what I have said twice now: we have no objection in principle to electronic methods of balloting, but we need to be reassured on issues of legitimacy, safety and security of voting.

Lord Pannick: I am grateful to the noble Baroness. All noble Lords now live their lives electronically. I exempt the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, from that, but the rest of us shop, bank and conduct any number of transactions electronically. What is it about a trade union ballot that exempts it from principles that are commonplace in society nowadays?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe: My Lords, the simple point is that we need to be assured that the electronic ballot will give us a safe and secure outcome. I have heard from many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord King, whose conclusion I agree with, that the fullest turnout is the best safeguard against a wrong result. Frankly, that has been the spirit of several comments this evening. I want to ensure that we take fully into account noble Lords’ detailed knowledge of these matters and experience of how we can get round the difficulties on electronic balloting. I want to reflect further on the very excellent arguments we heard today. I ask noble Lords not to press their amendments.

Lord Stoneham of Droxford: Before the noble Baroness sits down, I am sorry, but I asked three questions, none of which has been answered. I will not go into all three, but first, have the Government talked about the CAC’s experience of dealing with workplace ballots? Secondly, will she tell us whether the Conservative Party regard the ballot it recently had for its mayoral candidate as safe and secure?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe: My Lords, I did try to answer in passing the noble Lord’s questions. I think that I answered all three of them. We are satisfied that the arrangements used in London were appropriate for the purpose, but as I have sought to explain, this is a little different. We need to reflect further on the best way to conduct electronic balloting, which we have agreed to in principle.

5.45 pm

Lord Kerslake: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her response, in particular her undertaking to reflect further on these issues. There were a large number of contributions—I counted a total of 17; I may have missed some—for which I am very grateful to the House. Recognising the length of the debate, and the fact that there are urgent debates to follow, I will not go through every one of those contributions. I ask noble Lords to bear with me. I shall highlight some of the key points.

There is absolute common agreement in the House about the need to maximise engagement. Nobody is arguing about this. There is absolute agreement in the

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House, including from the Minister, who spoke just a minute ago, about the principle of using digital means to carry out activities. There is no doubt about that point either. We are left with one question: can it be established that you can do this in a secure way? As a large number of Members said, there is ample evidence of very important transactions that are done securely. They do not get more important than how you manage your banking; perhaps with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, a lot of us use that method. The crucial point I make is that we do very important and serious things through electronic means. I cannot believe that it is beyond the wit of the House, and, indeed, of the Government, to find ways to ballot for industrial action in the same way.

Lord King of Bridgwater: Would the noble Lord not agree that anybody who has an understanding of the situation in the internet world and its security knows that every responsible bank is extremely worried about being able to maintain security? There are current stories of major companies that have had huge losses of information about their customers. I say to the noble Lord that the ballot on the Mayor of London was a little time back. We need to ensure that we have a fresh look at this in the current climate of risks to security.

Lord Kerslake: The noble Lord is absolutely right that cybersecurity is critical. Indeed, I was going to come on to that. It is critical across every aspect of digital technology and use of digital systems. In fact, many security systems in this country are highly dependent on tackling cybersecurity issues. There is no doubt that we need to deal with it. I venture to suggest that, in comparison with those risks and issues, the risks associated with electronic balloting for potential strike action may not be quite as big.

The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, made a powerful argument about how this issue sits in the wider context of balance and proportionality as the Bill is taken forward. We are applying quite significant thresholds. Have we done everything possible to enable unions to achieve that turnout? Are we acting in a proportionate and balanced way? That is critical. In many ways, the amendment may well save the Government from themselves and a potential successful legal challenge in the future.

I will finish with two points. First, the whole purpose of my amendment is to actively and independently look at issues of security. I am 100% persuaded that we can have sufficiently secure electronic balloting, and, indeed, workplace balloting, which, as has been said, happens now through the CAC. Secondly, the purpose of my amendment is to look at this issue through an independent process. Let us not put it above the principle of thresholds, as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said, but if we put these thresholds in place, we should reasonably and independently explore the question and report back to the House.

This is most definitely not a manoeuvre to delay the Bill. In fact, I have put a time limit of two months in which to carry out the work, which should be more than ample to do work of this nature. Therefore, this is

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not about saying that we have definitive answers—although I personally think we do—but that we should properly and independently test this issue.

My last point goes to the argument made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester. Ultimately, this is about fairness. Are we acting in a fair way in the changes we are making, which affect a very important issue in this country: the right to strike? That should be our determination and, if we believe that that is the core of this issue, the amendment is entirely reasonable. I really hope the Minister will think about how we might do this. Given her very constructive commitment to think seriously about this issue, I will of course withdraw the amendment and hope to have further conversations on this issue.

Lord Balfe: Before the noble Lord sits down, we have of course discussed five different amendments. My amendment says that a trade union may only use electronic voting,

“subject to the agreement of the Certification Officer”,

which would obviously be if the system was secure. So I draw the noble Lord’s attention to the fact that the Minister has many different options to choose from, as well as his own very well-drafted, crafted and spoken to amendment. The principle of electronic balloting is at the heart of this debate.

Lord Kerslake: The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, makes a very powerful point. I entirely agree that the aim here is to be able to say, by the point at which we introduce these thresholds, that we have given the widest range of choices. That is where we are trying to get to. If there are alternative ways of doing it, I am very open to that conversation. That is why I am willing to withdraw the amendment at this point, and to continue that conversation. It will not be good enough simply to let the issue drift and return to it as and when appropriate. We need to sort it out now, as part of the Bill.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed.

House resumed.

Junior Doctors

Statement

5.52 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Prior of Brampton) (Con): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question on junior doctor contracts given in the other place by my honourable friend the Minister for Care Quality. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I will be delighted to update the House on the junior doctors’ proposed industrial action.

This Government were elected on a mandate to provide for the NHS the resources it asked for and to make our NHS a truly seven-day service. The provision of consistent clinical standards on every day of the week demands better weekend support services, such as physiotherapy,

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pharmacy and diagnostic scans, better seven-day social care services to facilitate weekend discharge, and better primary care access to help tackle avoidable weekend admissions.

However,consistent seven-day services also demand reform of staff contracts, including those of junior doctors, to help hospitals roster clinicians in a way that matches patient demand more evenly across every day of the week. In October 2014 the BMA withdrew from talks on reforming the junior doctors’ contract and, despite the Government asking them to return, did not start talking again until the end of November last year, in talks facilitated by ACAS. Throughout December we made very good progress on a wide range of issues and reached agreement on the vast majority of the BMA’s concerns.

Regrettably, we did not come to an agreement on two substantive issues, including weekend pay rates, so, following strike action last month, the Secretary of State appointed Sir David Dalton, one of our most respected NHS chief executives, to take negotiations forward on behalf of the NHS. Further progress has been made under Sir David’s leadership, particularly in areas relating to safety and training. However, despite agreeing at ACAS to negotiate on the issue of weekend pay rates, Sir David Dalton has advised us that the BMA has refused to discuss a negotiated solution on Saturday pay.

In his letter to the Secretary of State last week Sir David stated:

‘Given that we have made such good progress over the last 3 weeks—and are very nearly there on all but the pay points—it is very disappointing that the BMA continues to refuse to negotiate on the issue of unsocial hours payment. I note that in the ACAS agreement of 30 November, both parties agreed to negotiate on the number of hours designated as plain time and I hope that the BMA will still agree to do that’.

The Government are clear that our door remains open for further discussion and we continue to urge the BMA to return to the table. Regrettably, the BMA is instead proceeding with strike action over a 24-hour period from 8 am this Wednesday. Robust contingency planning has been taking place to try to minimise the risk of harm to the public, but I regret to inform the House that latest estimates suggest 2,884 operations have been cancelled. I hope honourable Members from all sides of the House will join me in urging the BMA to put patients first, call off its damaging strike action and work with us to ensure we can offer patients consistent standards of care every day of the week”.

5.56 pm

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab): My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Answer given in the other place. Clearly, the current situation is very worrying and we all want a speedy resolution of it, but I have three quick points to put to the Minister. First, he will know that imposing a contract which the overwhelming majority of junior doctors oppose risks industrial action further than that to which he has referred tonight, and more anger among NHS staff at a time when morale is low. If a new contract cannot be agreed, will he now rule out imposing one?

Secondly, the Minister knows that much of the angst among junior doctors has been caused by the Health Secretary’s repeated attempts to conflate reform

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of the junior doctor contract with the issue of a seven-day NHS. Will the Minister tell the House, for the record, which hospital chief executives have told the Government that the junior doctor contract is a barrier to seven-day service working? Will he tell me why this Health Secretary has gone out of his way to pick a fight with the very people who are already working across seven days?

The Minister is very well acquainted with the NHS and, indeed, with the views of junior doctors, with whom I know he keeps in very close touch. Does he not consider it absolutely appalling that these hugely important people, on whom the health service is going to depend for the next 20 or 30 years, have been so upset by the Health Secretary’s approach that they feel such estrangement from the NHS? Does he not think that the Government need to completely reset this process and what they have been saying about junior doctors and seven-day working, to get a proper resolution of this dispute?

Lord Prior of Brampton: My Lords, the noble Lord said he had three questions; I think there were only two questions there, which is unusual, if I may say so. We do not want to impose a contract. We want the BMA to come back and continue the talks and we still hope that that will happen. Clearly, imposing a contract is not what we ever wanted to do when this whole process started. As was said in the Statement, the Secretary of State’s door is open and we hope that we can resolve these difficult issues in a negotiated, consensual way.

On the noble Lord’s second question, he rightly said that this is an appalling situation, but actually I describe it more as a tragedy. Let me quote from a trainee doctor:

“I feel undermined and not valued at work and I have seen how this flagging morale among colleagues has caused more than ever to leave the profession. It is a hard job that takes dedication and stamina to continue. But as we are criticised and treated as ‘cogs in a wheel’ rather than as individual professionals, I think we will see ever increasing numbers of people leaving this profession”.

That was in 2005, after the contract came in. The issues facing the junior doctors go back a long way. It is not just about plain time on Saturdays or this particular contract but about how we value, reward, train and trust junior doctors. That is the issue we must come to when the current dispute is resolved.

Baroness Walmsley (LD): My Lords, I think that the Minister did not answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about which hospital chief executives believe that the junior doctors’ contract is what is getting in the way of seven-day services. Surely the state of primary care, which is stretched all over the country, and the lack of diagnostics, laboratory services, X-rays and so on in hospitals is much more significant.

My own question is about plain time, which I believe is the sticking point. It occurs to me that the best way of ensuring patient safety is to make sure that we do not have tired doctors. Can the Minister convince me about the fact that we are being told that junior doctors will not have to work any more hours than they do now? If you are extending plain time from

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8 am until 10 pm, instead of 7 pm, and into Saturdays then it strikes me as quite possible that they will work much longer hours. I would be very interested to know what the average working week of a junior doctor is now compared to 20 years ago, because it strikes me that we are in danger of going backwards.

Lord Prior of Brampton: My Lords, I apologise for not replying to the question earlier about the number of chief execs. The point is that this is not just about junior doctors; I think we all understand that totally. We are hoping to have more primary care, more social care, more diagnostics and more senior consultant cover at weekends, which will support junior doctors and make their lives better at night time and over the weekend. As far as the hours are concerned, the new contract proposal puts far greater safeguards over the amount of time that junior doctors will be working. I think that is largely accepted by the junior doctors. Going forward, the maximum number of consecutive nights will be down from seven to four; the maximum number of long shifts—that is, over 10 hours—will be down from seven to five; the number of consecutive late shifts will be down from 12. We are putting in those safeguards to ensure that we do not go back to the bad old days of very long hours. They were the bad old days on one level but if you actually talk to most doctors, they did get tired and it affected safety but it built a sense of teamwork, camaraderie and purpose in hospitals. We need to be careful about rubbishing the old days when they built up a lot of really serious, good professional work.

Lord Warner (Non-Afl): My Lords, can the Minister clarify whether this dispute has to be settled within the Government’s pay guidelines of a 1% annual increase for the rest of this Parliament?

Lord Prior of Brampton: It was always agreed that the package offered to junior doctors would be cost-neutral.

Lord Lansley (Con): My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister recall, as I do, that it was a Conservative Administration who introduced the new deal for junior doctors and established a process by which unsafe, excessive hours for doctors were not to be pursued? That started happening in the early 1990s and no one is thinking that we would go back to that. I was delighted that my noble friend was able to make it clear how the negotiations can introduce additional guarantees about not having unsafe hours for junior doctors. However, I put it to him that at this stage in the negotiations there may be an alternative approach—an objective of enabling seven-day rostering for junior doctors, in this instance but also more widely, and an overall financial envelope. It might be put to the BMA that rather than it standing aside from the negotiations, it should take responsibility and say how it proposed that junior doctors should be remunerated within that financial envelope to meet those objectives.

Lord Prior of Brampton: My Lords, we certainly do not want to go back to the days when junior doctors were working very long and unsafe hours but nor0

8 Feb 2016 : Column 2034

should we ignore the fact that they do not, by and large, like being treated as shift workers. The continuity of care is very important to most professional doctors. As for the actual negotiations, I have not been directly involved with them so I do not know to what extent the junior doctors have been asked to consider what my noble friend Lord Lansley has suggested. However, what he says has much merit.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall (Lab): May I take the Minister back to an answer which I think he gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley? He referred to his hope that other medical professionals will in due course be included in seven-day working in order, as I think he put it, to support the junior doctors. Can he say whether those people who are involved in the lab work, the diagnostics and so forth will also be asked to work on contracts comparable to those which the junior doctors are currently being asked to accept?

Lord Prior of Brampton: My Lords, I think that they will be different for different people but we already have seven-day working in some of our hospitals. Salford Royal is a case in point where we have a lot of seven-day working. This is something which will evolve over the next three years.

Syria

Statement

6.06 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for International Development (Baroness Verma) (Con): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made in the other place earlier today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development. The Statement is as follows.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a Statement updating the House on the recent Syria conference, which the UK co-hosted with Kuwait, Norway, Germany and the United Nations last Thursday. For nearly five years, the Syrian people have suffered unimaginable horrors at the hands of the Assad regime and, more recently, Daesh. Inside Syria, there are 13.5 million people in desperate need and a further 4.6 million people have become refugees. As we have seen over the past 72 hours alone, the impact of this crisis on the people of the region is terrible and profound.

I was in Lebanon and Jordan last month and spoke to refugees, some of whom are now facing their fifth winter spent under a tent. Their stories are similar: when they left their homes, they thought that they would be back in weeks or perhaps months at most. It has turned out to be years, with no end in sight. Syria is now not only the world’s biggest and most urgent humanitarian crisis; its far-reaching consequences are being felt across Europe and touching our lives in Britain. More than 1 million refugees and migrants risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean last year. Of these, around half were fleeing from the bloodbath in Syria.

8 Feb 2016 : Column 2035

Since the fighting began, Britain has been at the forefront of the humanitarian response to the Syrian conflict. Aid from the UK is helping to provide food for people inside Syria every month, as well as clean water and sanitation for hundreds of thousands of refugees across the region. Our work on the Syrian crisis gives people in the region hope for a better future and is also firmly in Britain’s national interest. Without British aid, hundreds of thousands more refugees could feel that they have no alternative but to risk their lives by seeking to get to Europe.]

But more was needed. The UN’s Syria appeals for the whole of last year ended up only 54% funded. Other countries needed to follow the UK’s lead and step up to the plate. That is why the UK announced that we would co-host an international conference in London on behalf of Syria and the region. This would build on three successful conferences held in Kuwait in previous years. On Thursday last week, we brought together over 60 countries and organisations including 33 Heads of State and Governments.

The stage was set for the international community to deliver real and lasting change for all the people affected by this crisis, but in the end it will all come down to choices. Could we pledge the record-breaking billions needed—going much further than previous conferences? Could we commit to going beyond people’s basic needs and deliver viable, long-term solutions on jobs and education for Syria’s refugees and the countries supporting them?

At the London conference, the world made the right choices to do all of those things. Countries, donors and businesses all stepped up and raised new funds for this crisis to the amount of over $11 billion. This included $5.8 billion for 2016 and another $5.4 billion for 2017 to 2020. This was the largest amount ever committed in response to a humanitarian crisis in a single day. It means more has been raised in the first five weeks of this year for the Syria crisis than in the whole of 2015. The UK, once again, played our part. We announced we would be doubling our commitment—increasing our total pledge to Syria and the region to over £2.3 billion.

Going beyond people’s basic needs, at the London conference the world said there must be no lost generation of Syrian children, pledging to deliver education to children inside Syria and education to at least 1 million refugee and host community children, in the region outside Syria, who are out of school. This is an essential investment, not only in these children, but in Syria’s future. It also gives those countries generously hosting refugees temporarily the investment in their education systems that will benefit them for the longer term.

The London conference also made a critical choice on supporting jobs for refugees and economic growth in the countries hosting them. We hope historic commitments with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan will create at least 1 million jobs in countries neighbouring Syria, so that refugees will have a livelihood close to home. This will create jobs for local people and leave a legacy of economic growth. By making these choices, we are investing in what is, overwhelmingly, the first choice of Syrian refugees: to stay in the region and closer to their home country and their families still in

8 Feb 2016 : Column 2036

it. If we can give Syrians hope for a better future where they are, they are less likely to feel they have no other choice left but to make perilous journeys to Europe.

The world has offered an alternative vision of hope to all those affected by this crisis, but only peace will give Syrian people their future back. The establishment of the International Syria Support Group at the end of 2015 was an important step on the path to finding a political settlement to the conflict. The Syrian opposition has come together to form the Higher Negotiations Committee to engage in negotiations on political transition with the regime, and the UN launched proximity talks between the Syrian parties in January.

The UN Special Envoy for Syria took the decision to pause these talks following an increase in air strikes and violence by the Assad regime, backed by Russia. The UK continues to call on all sides to take steps to create the conditions for peace negotiations to continue. In particular, Russia must use its influence over the regime to put a stop to indiscriminate attacks and unacceptable violations of international law. Across Syria, Assad and other parties to the conflict are wilfully impeding humanitarian access on a day-by-day basis. It is brutal, unacceptable and illegal to use starvation as a weapon of war.

In London, world leaders demanded an end to these abuses, including the illegal use of siege and obstruction of humanitarian aid. Our London conference raised the resourcing for life-saving humanitarian support. It must be allowed to reach those in need as a result of the Syria conflict, irrespective of where they are.

I also want to take this opportunity to provide an update on the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Since my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary last updated the House on the campaign against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the global coalition, working with partner forces, has put further pressure on Daesh. Iraqi forces, with coalition support, have taken large portions of Ramadi. In Syria, the coalition has supported the capture of the Tishrin dam and surrounding villages as well as areas south of al-Hawl.

The UK is playing our part. As of 5 February, RAF Typhoon, Tornado and Reaper aircraft have flown over 2,000 combat missions and carried out more than 585 successful strikes across Iraq and Syria. We are also leading efforts to sanction those trading with, or supporting, Daesh. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister gained agreement at the European Council in December on asset freezes and other restrictive measures.

Since day one of this crisis, the UK has led the way in funding and shaping the international response. We have evolved our response as this incredibly complex crisis itself has evolved. There will be no end to the suffering until a political solution can be found. The Syria conference, co-hosted by the UK and held here in London, was a pivotal moment to at least respond to help those people affected and those countries affected. We seized the chance to offer the Syrian people and their children hope for a better future. The UK will now be at the heart of making that ambition a reality and keeping the international community’s

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promise to the Syrian people. This is the right thing to do on behalf of those suffering and, fundamentally, it is the right thing to do for Britain, too”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

6.17 pm

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab): My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I also congratulate the Government on bringing together last week more than 30 Heads of State, the UN Secretary-General, heads of international organisations and NGOs. I particularly welcomed the inclusive sessions on how we build support for Syria and address the growing needs of the Syrian people. There is no doubt that the conference has generated significant new help for the immediate and longer-term needs of those affected by the conflict, including increased funding.

I read a recent Save the Children report, which found that 47% of refugee households in Jordan rely, at least in part, on putting boys and girls to work to make ends meet. Even after up to five years of exile, the majority of refugee boys and girls are still out of school. All of this is amid the endemic hunger, biting poverty and untreated disease which affect the mass of the displaced persons. I also welcome the education policy changes announced by the Governments of refugee-hosting countries, including support for non-formal education which will need to happen hand in hand with increased funding to ensure children can access quality schooling.

However, any plan for the region must ensure that we in Europe do what our values command: treat humanely those refugees who are here now with a planned and orderly resettlement across the continent. While we seek the elusive peace, we must guarantee the regular flow of food, shelter and healthcare for those cut off at the centre of the conflict. Despite the panic we see in the media surrounding the levels of migration into Europe, 14 in every 15 of Syria’s displaced persons are still in the region. If we want families to stay in the region, we have to give them a reason to hold on. We have to give them hope. We have to ensure that their families have more than just food and shelter. The children need education and the adults need jobs.

Will the Minister outline in more detail the plans to create jobs in the region? How is it going to be done? I am keen to understand better how we can boost the economies of the host regions, so that assistance is not simply seen as a scheme for the refugees but as a plan to promote sustainable development in the host regions.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for welcoming the work that was done at the Syria conference last week. I think he will agree that many of the NGOs and civil society organisations that were present demonstrated their gratitude for the opportunity to establish a response on the ground that suits the needs and challenges of the people in Syria and in the region.

I agree with the noble Lord when he says that we must go beyond providing basic aid. That is why I was so pleased that the UK stepped up to the mark and doubled its pledge to £2.3 billion and other countries

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also demonstrated that they were keen to go beyond the basic needs and assist with livelihoods so that people could contribute to the economies of the host countries.

I agree with the noble Lord that we must not lose a generation of children who will not have the education and skills that will be really needed to rebuild Syria when peace comes—sooner rather than later, we all hope. Of course, these are complex and difficult crises, and we must respond to them.

I am pleased that the action that the UK Government have taken has encouraged others to raise their ambitions. But as the noble Lord rightly says, we can give hope only when genuine peace negotiations are going on. That is why we will push hard for those who are involved to press the Assad Government to deliver a successful peace negotiation as well as deliver support while the crisis continues.

Baroness Northover (LD): My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for the Government’s continuing and massive commitment to Syrians in the region.

How will the Government seek to ensure that others who have pledged at this conference will in fact deliver? For those who are now besieged in Syria, will there be systematic air drops? For those who are on the border with Turkey—they are, apparently, not being let through that border—how will we guarantee their security if they are not allowed to cross that border?

Baroness Verma: I thank the noble Baroness for welcoming the conference and the commitments made by all those present. She is absolutely right to say that we need to press hard for others to make sure that they fulfil their commitments. It is right that, once we have made commitments, we deliver on them. The people who expect us to support them depend on all our commitments.

The noble Baroness is also right to say that in some areas it will be incredibly difficult to deliver aid. She asked whether we would try to use air drops. We do not believe that is an effective way to get food and other essential aid to people. We believe that using UN agencies and others delivering aid by road, and others who are respected and understand the situation on the ground, is probably the best way to ensure that the aid gets through to the people who most require it. But we do not rule anything out. We have to keep everything under check, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, will be aware from when she did my job in government.

However, what is really important is to recognise that we cannot allow starvation to be used as a weapon. We must press hard those who have influence on the Assad regime to make them understand that it is criminal to use food starvation sieges as weapons of war.

6.25 pm

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, within the past half hour a Yazidi woman gave evidence here in the House about the plight of the minorities in the region. The Minister will know that the European

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Parliament passed a resolution last week declaring these events to be genocide. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has done the same. What effort was made at the conference to prioritise the needs of groups such as the Yazidis, the Christians, the Shabaks and others who have suffered this genocide? Although everyone has suffered in this conflict, these people are peculiarly and specifically targeted because of their ethnicity or religion. What is being done to assist them?

Will the Minister return to the question that the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, put to her about events in the province of Aleppo today? Around 100,000 people are amassed on the border with Turkey. Because of the aerial bombardment by the Russians, these people’s lives are in the balance, but they are not being allowed over the border. What are we doing to persuade Turkey to open the border to give safe refuge to those people?

Baroness Verma: My Lords, on the question of the minority groups within Syria, there have been horrific attacks by violent extremists on Christians and other religious minorities within Syria. As the noble Lord is aware, all our UK-funded humanitarian assistance is distributed on the basis of need alone, to ensure that civilians are not discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion or ethnicity. We prioritise reaching the most vulnerable across Syria, and that includes all groups. Of course, it is a challenging environment; these are incredibly complex, difficult areas to navigate, but I take the noble Lord’s point. Of course, where we can, we will work closely with the NGOs on the ground to get aid to as many people as possible.

The noble Lord mentioned the latest indications about the numbers of people being displaced from Aleppo. We know that many of them are sheltering in the border area, with more people on the move. We are exploring all options on how we can ensure that their humanitarian needs are met.

Lord Howell of Guildford (Con): My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that with Daesh we are seeing genocide. I know that the word has to be clearly defined, but the sooner that is recognised and settled, the better. The Statement was mostly about the humanitarian side, and it is perfectly clear that very fine work indeed has been done. I am afraid that the challenges will get very much worse in the future.

Does my noble friend accept that we need to be kept well informed and up to date on the apparent breakdown in the talks in Geneva and whether the Russians have almost deliberately undermined the talks by bombing the free Syrians with renewed ferocity? Will she reassure us that she and her colleagues will keep us up to date on that?

Could she just comment on reports that the British Army is now sending 1,600 troops to Jordan as part of some exercise, while the Egyptian troops are moving to Saudi Arabia to ally with them in preparation for possible moves to Jordan? The Jordan authorities have been urging for a long time that this is where we should open a new front, develop a buffer zone in the north and strike into the heart of ISIL territory. Is the

8 Feb 2016 : Column 2040

war entering an entirely new phase? Could she just bear that in mind? She may not be able to answer that question at the moment, but we need to be kept up to date if things are changing as rapidly as it seems they really are.

Baroness Verma: My noble friend makes an important point about the talks and making sure that they do not stall. They have come to a pause. The UN special envoy decided to pause the talks until 25 February as it was apparent that there was little prospect of progress being made at this time. But my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will be in Munich on Thursday 11 February and will press the Russians, who I am sure will be attending, too, to ensure that they put pressure on the Assad regime, so that the conditions allow unfettered humanitarian access across Syria and that we have an end to the violations of international humanitarian law, as set out under the UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

My noble friend is absolutely right to ask that we keep the House updated and we absolutely commit to do so. He also mentioned Daesh—and of course our goal is to defeat Daesh so that it no longer presents a threat to the UK or to international stability. As he rightly says, we are dealing with very complex circumstances. He asked about the troops on the ground in the countries that he mentioned. I shall have to write to him, because I do not have that answer at hand—so if he will allow me to, I shall write to him and place a copy in the Library.

Lord Judd (Lab): My Lords, I am sure that many of us in all parts of the House will want to express our appreciation to the Government for the successful work last week. It was very important. Does it not illustrate beyond doubt that, with all the tragedies that confront us now and in future, international co-operation and effective international arrangements are absolutely indispensable, and that, unless we work on foreign policy as a priority and build these up all the time, we shall be sticking our fingers in the dyke?

The Minister talked about the importance of education, and that of course is right. But if we are going to talk about reconstruction and the long-term future of these young people, it is not just a matter of getting children into schools; it is also a matter of further and higher education. Can she reassure us that there are plans in hand for adequate access to higher and further education, as well as to schools?

Baroness Verma: The noble Lord is absolutely right—it will not be just about primary and secondary education; it will be about vocational skills and higher education. Often, the length of time a person is a refugee is around 17 years, so he is absolutely right that we need to make sure that we are addressing not just children’s needs but wider needs, including making sure that people are being trained up with the right skills. That is why I am really pleased that we have doubled our efforts to give support in Jordan and Lebanon. We have put extra money there to ensure that people get that training and investment, and get the help that will help them to go on and rebuild Syria.

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Lord Naseby (Con): My Lords, I, too, congratulate Her Majesty’s Government on calling this conference and on the UK showing the lead that it has in money and resources to help the refugees. Nevertheless, I am reminded of what happened in the Second World War. Is my noble friend clear that the Americans and Churchill found themselves having to work with Stalin? I cannot understand why the West, and the UK Government in particular, cannot bring itself to do business with Assad. There is no way out for peace in that country—and certainly no way to deal with Daesh—unless there is some dialogue and connection with Assad.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, my noble friend absolutely puts the focus on Assad. Assad and his regime have got it in their hands to stop bombing their own people. If there is to be a political solution, it is incumbent on everyone to come around to the talks and ensure that we get a positive outcome that enables peace to take place.

Lord Soley (Lab): My Lords, I noted with great pleasure the Government’s achievements the other day at the conference. However, I am deeply disturbed by the Russian bombing at the moment, which seems to have two clear aims—one to keep Assad in power and the other to drive thousands of new refugees towards Turkey, with all that that implies. Have there been any discussions with the Russians about that? Are the Russians giving any money to this fund?

Baroness Verma: My Lords, on the latter point, I shall have to write to the noble Lord; I cannot give him an answer right now. On his point around the Russians needing to do more, it is absolutely right that they need to do more to meet their obligations under international law. As a member of the UN Security Council and the International Syria Support Group, Russia needs to step up and put pressure on Assad. What I hope will happen when my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary goes to Munich on Thursday is that those are the conversations that will take place.

Lord Higgins (Con): My Lords, would my noble friend agree that negotiations are not likely to be successful and may not take place so long as Assad—clearly, in the present circumstances, backed by the Russians—believes that he might achieve a military solution? In that context, are we really sensible to use our resources and air power in bombing ISIL in Syria as well as in Iraq? Should not we redeploy those forces to attack ISIL in Iraq and, once that task is done, turn to ISIL in Syria? At the moment, in Syria we are helping Assad to take the pressure off as far as ISIL is concerned. We really ought to shift the balance more towards our intervention from an air power point of view into Iraq, until such time as that is solved, when we can go on to Syria.

Baroness Verma: My noble friend highlights the complexity and difficulty of what we are having to deal with, and what the international community has to deal with. It is really important to understand that our goal has to be to defeat Daesh so that it no longer presents a threat to UK or international stability, which means focusing on Daesh’s core in Syria and

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Iraq and working with our allies to support those countries where Daesh is becoming a threat to help them prevent its spread.

Lord Hain (Lab): My Lords, in welcoming the Minister’s insistence that only political negotiations will end this disaster of almost biblical proportions, I ask for some recognition that western foreign policy has in large part been responsible for this disaster. Why? Because we insisted at the very beginning on imposing a precondition that Assad must go when he was never going to; then we tried to arm the rebel groups, when parliamentary support was not present for that; then an ill-fated decision to try to bounce Parliament into military strikes was attempted by the Prime Minister; and now we are still setting preconditions by saying that Assad must go within six months. You cannot get negotiations off the ground or deal with Russian malevolence—a fact my noble friend has drawn the House’s attention to—unless you learn the lessons from Northern Ireland, which are that you do not impose preconditions and you try to get a political settlement in the context of everybody co-operating and finding out where the different interests can be reconciled. I urge some sense of humility on the Government, who have acted with far too much bombast and blunder for years now and therefore bear a share of responsibility.

Baroness Verma: My Lords, it would be much more constructive for us to work with international partners to ensure that the voices coming from all of us are about supporting the people of Syria. While I understand the main thrust of the noble Lord’s points, it needs to be very carefully worded so that we give a very clear message that what Assad is doing to the people in Syria is not acceptable. Across Syria, Assad and other parties to the conflict are wilfully preventing and impeding humanitarian access on a day-by-day basis. That is why we need to be incredibly careful with our words and to continue with our ongoing support to the UN and international NGOs which risk life and limb every single day to help the people of Syria.

Baroness Morris of Bolton (Con): My Lords, I declare an interest as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Jordan and Kuwait. I congratulate everybody who took part in the donors conference. There was a great deal of generosity and warmth of spirit in London last Thursday. I also congratulate the Prime Minister, who for some time now has been determined to provide jobs not only for refugees in the region but also for locals within those countries. It is going to be very important, if those jobs are going to be meaningful, for the private sector to be involved. Can my noble friend confirm that the private sector, both here and in the host countries, is being consulted at an early stage?

Baroness Verma: My noble friend is absolutely right. Like her, I congratulate the vision of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for DfID, who have led the charge in encouraging others to look at the long-term planning for a lot of economic investment and jobs not just for refugees but for people in the host countries. It was very evident when we were talking to people from Syria that that is exactly what they were looking

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for. I know that we will encourage that and work both across Whitehall and with other countries to ensure that investment does go in so that it gives confidence, hope and opportunity to not just the refugees but all of those very generous, very kind host countries which are taking so many of the people fleeing. The private sector is going to be key and it played a key role in the conference, particularly around the education agenda.

Local Government Finance

Statement

6.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con): My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat the Statement made earlier this afternoon in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

“Mr Speaker, I am pleased to report to the House my response to the consultation on the provisional local government financial settlement for the next financial year. I have considered all 278 responses to the consultation. My Ministers and I have met with local government leaders of all types of authority from all parts of the country. I have listened carefully to each of them. I am grateful to everyone who has taken the trouble to make suggestions. The provisional settlement contains a number of important innovations.

First, although the statutory settlement is for 2016-17, I set out indicative figures to allow councils to apply for a four-year budget, extending to the end of the Parliament. Such a change permits councils to plan with greater certainty. The offer was widely appreciated in the consultation. This is not surprising, since it has been a key local government request for years. I want to give councils the time to consider this offer and formulate ways to translate the greater certainty into efficiency savings. I will therefore give councils until Friday 14 October to respond to the offer, although many have done so positively already.

Secondly, in the provisional settlement I responded to the clear call from all tiers of local government to recognise the important priority and growing costs of caring for our elderly population. In advance of the spending review, the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services had written to me requesting that an additional £2.9 billion a year be made available by 2019-20. Through a dedicated social care precept of 2% a year, equivalent to £23 per year on an average band D home, and a better care fund of £1.5 billion a year by 2019-20 to address pressures on care, the provisional settlement will be made up to £3.5 billion, available by 2019-20.

Thirdly, recognising that council services in rural areas face extra costs, I proposed in the provisional settlement that the rural services delivery grant should be increased from £15.5 million this year to £20 million in 2016-17—the year of this settlement—and to £65 million in 2019-20. Councils and colleagues who represent rural areas welcomed this, but some asked

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that the gap between rural and urban councils in central government grants should not widen, especially in the year ahead for which this statutory settlement is concerned.

Fourthly, this year’s provisional settlement marked the turning point from our over-centralised past. At the start of the 2010 Parliament, almost 80% of council expenditure was financed by central government grants. By next year, the revenue support grant will account for only 16% of spending power, and by 2019-20 only 5%. Ultimately, the revenue support grant will disappear altogether as we move to 100% business rates retention. Local financing through council tax and business rates rather than a central government grant has been a big objective of councils for decades. However, some authorities argued for transitional help in the first two years, when the central government grant declines most sharply. They argued that other local resources would not have time to build up fully. So, much in the provisional settlement was welcomed, but specific points were made about the sharpness of changes in the government grant in the early years of this Parliament and concerns about the costs of service delivery in rural areas.

Another very important point was made. Many councils felt that too much time has passed since the last substantial revision of the formula which assesses a council’s needs and the costs it can be expected to incur in delivering services. These responses to the consultation seem to me reasonable and ought to be accommodated if at all possible.

Everyone will appreciate that the need to reduce the budget deficit means that meeting these recommendations is extraordinarily difficult. I am pleased to be able to meet all of the most significant of them. I can confirm that every council will have, for the financial year ahead, at least the resources allocated by the provisional settlement. I have agreed to the responses to the consultation which recommended additional funding to ease the pace of reductions during the most difficult first two years of the settlement for councils with the sharpest reductions in revenue support grant. I will make additional resources available in the form of a transitional grant, as proposed in responses to the consultation by colleagues in local government. The grant will be worth £150 million a year, paid over the first two years.

On the needs formula itself, it is nearly 10 years since the current formula was last looked at thoroughly. There is therefore good reason to believe that the demographic pressures affecting particular areas—such as the growth in the elderly population—have affected different areas in different ways, as has the cost of providing services. So I can announce that we will conduct a review of what the needs assessment formula should be in a world in which all local government spending is funded by local resources, not central grant, and use it to determine the transition to 100% business rates retention.

Pending that review, I recognise the particular costs of providing services in sparse rural areas, so I propose to increase more than fivefold the rural services delivery grant from £15.5 million this year to £80.5 million in 2016-17. With an extra £32.7 million available to rural councils through the transitional grant I have described,

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this is £93.2 million of increased funding compared to the provisional settlement available to rural areas. Significantly, this proposal ensures no deterioration in government funding of rural areas compared to urban areas for the year of this statutory settlement. I have also, at the request of rural councils, helped the most economical authorities by allowing them to charge a de minimis £5 more a year in council tax without triggering a referendum. I will also consult on allowing well-performing planning departments to increase their fees in line with inflation at the most, providing that the revenue reduces the cross-subsidy that the planning function currently gets from council tax payers.

A final point from the consultation is that although the figures for future years are indicative, a small number of councils were concerned that as their revenue support grant declined, they would have to make a contribution to other councils in 2017-18 or 2018-19. I can confirm that no council will have to make such a payment.

These are important times for local government. The devolution of power and resources from Whitehall is gathering momentum, yet I am aware that there is serious work for councils to do to provide excellent services to residents at the lowest cost possible over the years ahead. I acknowledge the important role of councils which deliver the services on which all our constituents depend. I am grateful for all their contributions. My response to the consultation has responded positively to sensible recommendations, in as fair a manner as possible, while holding firm to our commitment to free our constituents from the dangers inherent in the deficit. I commend this Statement to the House”.

6.52 pm

Lord Beecham (Lab): My Lords, I extend the customary thanks to the Minister for repeating the Statement, although what is being offered to local government could best be described as the equivalent of a cup of hemlock, slightly diluted. It is seven weeks since the provisional local government finance settlement was announced. Today, barely a month before councils are required to determine their budgets and set the council tax rate for next year, we have the final instalment.

The reaction to December’s announcement was interesting. The Conservative leader of Bracknell, Paul Bettison, an old sparring partner of mine in the Local Government Association, protested vigorously at the cuts that his and other Berkshire councils were facing. The leader of West Berkshire district council rejected the notion, consistently promoted by Ministers, that councils could easily deploy reserves to close the gap, and the leader of Lincolnshire was critical of the Conservative-led Local Government Association for what he described as its muted response to the Statement, saying that it did not put across the scale of the issue. These are councils whose problems of deprivation and need are significantly less than those of many cities and urban areas—and, indeed, of some rural areas—which have been especially hard hit over the past five years.

The LGA in its response, while welcoming the four-year period of the indicative settlement, raised a

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number of issues. It asked that the rating appeals system be reformed and that the new system in which councils will retain business rates should be based on a fundamental review of the needs basis and include equalisation as well as incentivisation to promote business development. The Government have announced a long-overdue review of the needs assessment formula in the light of the abandonment of the revenue support grant, but what is the timescale? What is meant by the phrase that this will be used,

“to determine the transition to 100% business rates reduction”?

What action, if any, will be taken in relation to the rating appeals system?

The LGA pointed that while the better care fund is to enhance the amount spent on social care, there is no extra funding for next year and only £105 million for 2017-18, when not only is demand rising but councils will have to meet the cost of the national minimum wage rises, which will be £330 million next year and £834 million a year by 2020. Will the Government comply with the call for the better care fund increase to be implemented in 2016-17, as opposed to two years later, and how do they envisage councils meeting the longer-term costs, not least in relation to the minimum wage point?

Council tax freeze grant will no longer be paid as it has been for the past few years—although, of course, this was top-sliced from the settlement in the first place in a piece of political legerdemain. How do the Government respond to the complaint that £74 million included in the current year for local welfare schemes is not embodied in the settlement? What is the position in relation to the independent living fund, where the £191 million passing to councils last year should be updated to £255 million, the full-year cost? Is that provided for in the settlement? It is noticeable that there will also be a cut of £600 million in education services, notwithstanding the growing pressures reported in the press of rising school rolls and teacher shortages.

Today, it is fair to say that the Government have slightly softened the blow for rural authorities, which will be welcome so far as it goes, but severe problems remain for councils and their communities. The boasted 2% social care precept which councils can levy will help wealthier areas much more than those with high numbers in the lowest council tax bands. As I pointed out last week, Newcastle, with 70% of households in bands A and B, will gain only £1.7 million to reduce the severe impact on its social care provision within the £132 million cuts that the council faces next year. That sum, an annual sum for one council, is almost as much as the entire national transitional grant payable over two years and not far from 10% of the total national amount to be raised by the 2% precept and the better care fund contribution combined.

The Secretary of State claims:

“The devolution of power and resources from Whitehall is gathering momentum”,

and that he has,

“responded positively to sensible recommendations, in as fair a manner as possible, while holding firm to our commitment to free our constituents from the dangers inherent in the deficit”.

What is gathering momentum is the devolution of responsibility without power and the danger of the constant erosion of the services which a civilised nation

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should be providing across a range of services from social care to education, policing to child protection, public health to libraries, museums and the arts and many others—the very essence of community life and of a healthy local democracy.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: My Lords, in terms of the final settlement and councils about to set their budgets—and I totally appreciate that point because, like the noble Lord, I would wait with bated breath until I knew exactly what I was dealing with in terms of final settlement—through the final settlement today, the Secretary of State has made it quite clear that no council will be worse off and no council will lose anything from the provisional settlement. In fact, Newcastle will benefit to the tune of about £6 million because of the new approach to the settlement. We recognise the difficulties of the first two years, which is why we are providing this transitional fund.

The noble Lord talked about the national minimum wage. It is definitely a significant cost, particularly in the area of social care. That is why the 2% precept, plus access to the better care fund, is being made available.

The noble Lord asked about the review of the needs-based formula. I cannot actually remember the point he made. Does he want to repeat it?

Lord Beecham: How long will that process take and how will it work through?

Baroness Williams of Trafford: I think that that will be in place for 2019 and it will be based on wide consultation with local authorities.

The noble Lord also asked why the council tax freeze grant was going. For many local authorities, the council tax freeze grant was a mixed blessing, because, while councils received it, it would also put their baseline down the following year. So many local authorities are pleased in many ways not to be dealing with the freeze grant but having far more control of their own destinies.

The noble Lord asked also about the Independent Living Fund. That will continue to be a separate grant made available to local authorities.

Lord Shipley (LD): My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. I should declare that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I welcome the four years of the settlement period. The decision by the Secretary of State to extend the consultation to October is the right one. Will the Minister confirm that underlying that four-year settlement is an expectation by the Government that council tax will rise by up to 4% a year, each year, for the period of this settlement? Secondly, in issuing a Statement of this kind, I wonder whether greater care might be taken with words. It says that a four-year settlement is better for generating efficiency savings, but it is not just about efficiency savings. There is rising demand and there are rising costs, of which the living wage is one.

On the extra £3.5 billion that is going to be available for social care by 2019-20, £1.5 billion of that will be from the better care fund. What more can be said

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about how the better care fund is going to be distributed and, indeed, whether it could be distributed starting earlier? The point is that some councils are under exceedingly great pressure on the matter and need to have support earlier—and we need to ensure that the distribution reflects that need.

We welcome the extra help that is being given to rural areas. Will the Minister confirm that that is real, extra money for the whole of the settlement period and will not in the future be simply a transfer from other parts of local government, particularly the urban areas?

Finally, on the issue of business rates, as we move to 100% retention, there is an issue about those places less able to raise money from business rates because they grow more slowly than others. It is good that there is going to be a two-year transition period, but what is going to happen after that? I hope that the consultation that was announced in the other place a little while ago is going to be a genuine one that will end up with a revision of the formula for central government support. The Statement reminds us that all local government spending is going to be,

“funded by local resources, not central grant”,

and says that there will be a consultation to determine the transition to 100% business rates retention. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, talked about this. The implication is that the transition is going to be a great deal longer than two years. Will the Minister comment on that?

Baroness Williams of Trafford: I thank the noble Lord for raising some important points. His first question was about the four-year settlement and whether there was an assumption of council tax rises. We are not making any assumptions about what councils might want to do; in those figures we are making an assumption of CPI plus 2%.

The noble Lord asked about the better care fund and how it might be distributed. It is intended to benefit most those with the lowest tax bases, so that it is fairly distributed and helps the places most dependent on central government grant. The better care fund is distributed to take into account additional income that could be raised through council tax.

Did the noble Lord have another question?

Lord Shipley: It was about business rates and the two-year transition and how the consultation will be done to reflect needs.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: The Government are quite clear that the consultation will be done to reflect needs. The transitional fund is designed entirely to meet some of the pressures of getting through the period to 2018-19 that councils were talking to us about.

7.05 pm

Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con): My Lords, I thank the Minister for all the work that has been done on behalf of local government. I have been in local government for 20 years and cannot remember a time when a Government have actually listened to local

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government, as far as the settlement goes, and changed their mind—so my thanks goes to the team for doing that.

The transitional grant was critical to councils, particularly those with social care responsibility. They needed that transitional fund to plan for the future. Together with the undertaking to review what the needs assessment formula will look like as we move from government grant to local resourcing of councils, this, too, is extremely welcome.

For me and for many others in rural authorities, we have won the argument over the costs of providing, in particular, social care services in large, sparse rural areas, and I thank the Minister for that. A lot of work has been done in both Houses to lobby the Government for this settlement and I thank them and the Local Government Association. I also assure the Minister that, as ever, local government will continue to be as efficient a part of government as it is now and will always be there to deliver those important services to the residents we represent.

What is meant by the “most economical” authorities? These are the authorities that will be allowed to make a de minimis charge of £5 on council tax without a referendum, but it is not made clear what the most economical authorities are.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: I thank my noble friend for making some very constructive points, particularly about the issues that rural authorities face with things such as the delivery of social care in sparsely populated areas. The rural services delivery grant will be £60.5 million this year and £30 million next year, compared to the provisional settlement. That will be for all councils where 2% is less than £5—whatever is the greater—and will apply to all shire districts.

Lord Liddle (Lab): My Lords, in declaring an interest as a member of Cumbria County Council, perhaps I may associate myself, first, with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Beecham about the very serious threat to the quality of life and basic decency of our society that the cuts in the local government grant represent. This is a horrific situation for all those who care about the public realm. Having said that, my own instinct as a localiser is to move to self-funding, but I have always thought that we needed new and reformed methods of finance and a proper assessment of needs, along with some sort of transfer mechanism to make it possible.

Of course I welcome the increase in the rural services grant, but I point out that the numbers in the Statement that has been circulated show that the big increases are £11.9 million for Surrey, £5.7 million for Kent, £7.7 million for Hertfordshire, £9.3 million for Hampshire and £6.9 million for Essex. This looks like a Home Counties settlement, not one for the whole of England.

My own authority of Cumbria is glad to see that some consideration has been given to the problems of a genuinely stretched local area. However, in a Question in the House a couple of weeks ago, I raised the problem of how funding for the costs of flood recovery

8 Feb 2016 : Column 2050

is going to be made available. Is what is in the local government settlement all there is going to be, or will some special announcement be made to reflect the hundreds of millions of pounds in costs facing councils in our area, and in the rest of the north, as a result of the floods? Is this it or is there more to come?

Baroness Williams of Trafford: My Lords, I wish that the noble Lord had been in the House either last week or the week before, when we were talking about the floods and some of the infrastructure replacement requirements. The noble Lord makes the point that some of the infrastructure repairs in Cumbria are going to be far greater than we had thought, and I said to noble Lords at the time that if there were infrastructure repairs that they thought had been either overlooked or not identified yet, they should get in touch with me and I would speak to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. If the noble Lord thinks that the funding assumptions are out of kilter, I ask him to let me know. I look forward to having another conversation with him in due course about that and, perhaps, devolution.

The noble Lord also makes the point that Surrey and so on have had more. I have just been having a look at the figures for poor old Trafford, which has got minus 1.2%, while Manchester has had a £16.8 million increase. We always think we are worst off in our part of the world but Trafford, sitting beside Manchester, has actually done considerably less well. Still, this settlement recognises some of the challenges to those county areas. I hope that the noble Lord will get in touch with me over the flooding issue.

Lord Porter of Spalding (Con): My Lords, I point noble Lords to my registered interests but more particularly, for the purpose of this, to the fact that I am chairman of the cross-party Local Government Association, in which the Conservatives are only 40% of the total voting weight. I need to make it clear that I am a Conservative but am chairman of a cross-party organisation, and our organisation broadly welcomes today’s announcement.

We all knew that the local government settlement was going to be tough, no matter which of the two main parties won the election. We knew before Christmas that it was going to be tougher than we had expected for some councils, and I am pleased that the Government have actually listened to the remarks that we made in the consultation period. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, on the opposite side of the House, mentioned Lincolnshire and its complaints about the way that the LGA handled its negotiations. Does the Minister think that the way we handled it had something to do with the fact that the Government have listened and found over £400 million of new money to alleviate some of the pressures that we have highlighted?

Baroness Williams of Trafford: My noble friend is absolutely right. We have had an extremely constructive process, at the end of which £400 million more has been found to address some of the transitional pressures that local authorities say they have faced, and I pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lord Porter for the part that he has played in it.

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Lord True (Con): My Lords, I declare an interest as leader of a London borough that in the provisional settlement faced a 48% grant loss, so of course I am delighted by the measures that have been taken, the finding of new resource and the provision of the transitional grant. I add to those who have paid tribute to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and indeed my noble friend on the Front Bench; there has been an outstanding willingness to speak and to listen, which has not always been the case in the past. I, too, welcome the chance for a longer discussion in relation to longer-term arrangements. Giving councils until 14 October to respond is a great step forward. I hugely welcome the review of the needs approach, especially, as the Secretary of State said, given that demographic pressures are changing in different parts of the country. I also welcome some chink of opening on planning fees, although I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that in the consultation it will be possible to look at the full recovery of costs locally as that dialogue goes forward. With many thanks to her and my right honourable friend, I welcome this adjustment.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: My Lords, the minute that I got the list of figures, I looked at those for Richmond because I know of the problems and some of the challenges that it faces. That £2.9 million adjustment must have been welcome relief indeed. On the planning fees, obviously the consultation is just beginning but my noble friend has mentioned this to me before and I am looking forward to having a discussion with him during the consultation process.

Lord Beecham: My Lords, I apologise to the House; I omitted to mention my local government interests, which are recorded in the register.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: I think we know that the noble Lord is interested in local government.

Opticians Act 1989

Question for Short Debate

7.17 pm

Asked by Lord Newby

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will amend the Opticians Act 1989 to allow certain adjustable-focus eyewear to be sold over the counter as is already the case with reading glasses.

Lord Newby (LD): My Lords, adjustable-focus eyewear are pairs of glasses that allow consumers to adjust the focus of each lens separately. They achieve the desired focus for each eye by turning a dial located at the side of each lens. The quality of definition achieved is extremely good, and to demonstrate this I am wearing a pair of these glasses this evening.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Newby: They are produced by Adlens, an Oxford-based company. They are sold in some 57 countries worldwide, but the largest markets are Japan, where some 650,000 units have been sold, and the US, where some 500,000 units have been sold, many without a

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prescription. They are particularly valuable for people whose eyesight varies from day to day—for example, diabetics or those who have had cataract surgery—but they have many other uses, such as emergency substitutes for glasses that have been lost or damaged until permanent replacements are produced, or as a spare pair while travelling. They sell for approximately the same price as a pair of high-end ready-to-wear reading glasses—a few tens of pounds.

The concept of an individual adjusting the power of the lens in glasses until it reaches an optimal level is already the way in which we decide on the strength of the glasses that we get, the only difference being that, if I go to an optician, it is the optician who presents a series of lenses before my eyes and asks, “Which is better, lens one or lens two?”. With these glasses, I physically make the adjustment myself. So we are talking about a product that is quite cheap, of extremely high quality and for which there is an obvious demand. So far—but only so far—so good.

The logical next step for Adlens would be to sell its glasses in pharmacies and supermarkets in the UK in the same way in which reading glasses have now been sold for 27 years. In order for this to happen, an exemption needs to be specified under the Opticians Act 1989 to allow them to be sold without a prescription. Framing such an exemption is relatively straightforward and so, having seen a demonstration of the Adlens glasses, I suggested while in government that an amendment to that effect might be made to what is now the Deregulation Act 2015. I contacted the right honourable Oliver Letwin, the Minister in charge of the Bill. He, in turn, contacted the General Optical Council for its advice. The GOC is the standard setter for the optical sector. Its response was stark. The risks to the public of allowing adjustable eyewear to be sold without prescription was so grave, it believed, that it claimed:

“We do not believe that the proposed changes warrant further consideration”.

The council formed this view without seeking or obtaining any expert evidence whatever.

Undeterred, Adlens sought a meeting with the GOC staff, which took place in June last year. The GOC agreed at the meeting to commission an expert report on the Adlens glasses and Dr Charman of the University of Manchester was duly appointed and reported last October. His conclusions were broadly that the glasses worked well; that the risks were the same as for over-the-counter sales of fixed-focus spectacles with similar powers; and that there was no fundamental reason why Adlens glasses with the same characteristics as reading glasses should not be made available over the counter. However, he also made the point that Adlens needed to rebut the argument that such sales might result in fewer people having a full eye examination where they needed one on health grounds.

The GOC standards committee met on 8 October to consider Dr Charman’s paper. It turned a very balanced and positive assessment into a litany of objections, some of which were, frankly, ludicrous. My favourite was the following:

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“It was noted that these products were originally developed for use in the developing world – it was felt that a solution for a developing world problem was not transferable for the UK”.

This statement was made, despite the fact that more than 1 million pairs of the glasses have been sold in Japan and the USA. However, buried among the criticisms, the GOC agreed that,

“if the product were restricted to 0 to +4 D”—

the D is for dioptres—

“(as ‘ready readers’ currently are) the view of the Committee was that this might be acceptable, as it would reflect the parameters of the current legislation”.

The GOC objections have subsequently been endorsed by the Optical Confederation, the trade body for the sector. Its concerns, when boiled down, essentially amount to two. First, if sold over the counter, the product would reduce the number of people who have eye tests and that therefore a number of eye diseases would go undiagnosed. Secondly, if used for driving, they would be unsafe.

On the first objection, the evidence shows that, since over-the-counter reading glasses became available in 1989, the number of eye tests has been on a steadily rising curve and has continued to rise steadily over the past 15 years, despite the growth of online contact lenses and online glasses. The GOC basically believes that restricting access to eyewear will force the public to have their eyes tested more regularly. However, this approach has failed in almost every public health initiative to which it has been applied, whether for the management of hypertension, obesity, diabetes or alcohol abuse. If we want people to have their eyes tested more often, the evidence suggests that the way to do so is by consumer education programmes such as the National Eye Health Education Programme, the Think About Your Eyes campaign and the EyeSmart campaign.

As for the second objection, there is no evidence that the product is unsafe to use while driving. There have been literally zero reported cases of driving accidents in Japan and the USA involving the million-plus consumers who wear variable focus eyewear. Indeed, when this issue was contested in court in Arizona in a case brought last year by the State Board of Dispensing Opticians, evidence submitted by Adlens persuaded the Assistant Attorney-General to support its arguments and the board of opticians to abandon their action. The case was lost simply because the evidence did not support it.

If I were a cynical type, I would think that some of the arguments put forward by the GOC and the Optical Confederation were designed to maintain the current rules in order to require people to go to an optician who did not need to do so. That may be harsh, but throughout my discussions with the industry there seems to be a distinct lack of interest in putting the interests of consumers first. There is certainly no appetite for reform and without a big push from the Government, reform simply will not happen.

The judgment which now needs to be taken boils down to what I think of as the paracetamol test. Paracetamol is a product which can be purchased cheaply over the counter to treat pain in a manner which is effective for the vast majority of its users. It can however, if abused, kill you and, as the instructions

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helpfully point out, it can cause many other potentially harmful side effects. We tolerate this situation because we believe that, on balance, over-the-counter purchase of paracetamol is hugely beneficial to consumers. There is no evidence whatever that adjustable eyewear can have the same deleterious effects as paracetamol if abused. I therefore believe that they do pass the paracetamol test and that it is in the consumer interest for them to be sold in the same way as reading glasses.

Can the Minister confirm that a decision about the type of amendment to the Opticians Act which I am seeking is at the discretion of the Government and cannot in effect be vetoed by the General Optical Council? Secondly, will the Department of Health now review the matter? Thirdly, subject to their being satisfied that the risks of making the proposed change are greatly outweighed by the disadvantages, will the Government agree to bring forward at an early legislative opportunity the amendment to the Opticians Act which I seek?

7.25 pm

Lord Faulkner of Worcester (Lab): My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Newby, on securing this debate. He has raised a number of interesting and very important points, and I hope that the Minister—if this is how he responds to the debate—will be able to offer some convincing reasons for not acting in the way the noble Lord proposes.

The only interest I have to declare is that I am someone who is very short-sighted. I have worn glasses continuously since the age of seven, apart from a brief and unsatisfactory period in middle age when I tried contact lenses.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Newby, I have visited the Adlens operation in Oxford, and got to know a number of its senior people. He has described very well what the product is, how it works, and how an amendment to the Opticians Act 1984 allowing adjustable-focus glasses to be sold over the counter without a prescription would be of immense value to the millions of people who need to wear spectacles. It would give them the chance to buy a back-up pair and put them in the glove box of the car for emergency use—the noble Lord pointed out that they are safe when driving. People would also regard them as a reassuring presence about the house, perhaps offering different pairs for different tasks, such as reading in bed or working on the computer.

I found the account of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, of how he attempted as a Minister to get the law changed particularly interesting. It seems to me that the arguments used by the General Optical Council in blocking the change and repeated in the briefing it has sent us for this debate are examples of protectionism of the very worst kind. I understand that they are similar to the arguments it employed when it attempted to block the removal of restrictions on the sale of reading glasses in supermarkets and pharmacies nearly 30 years ago.

The GOC is right in stressing the importance of encouraging customers regularly to take eye tests. These tests not only identify the strength of glasses that may be needed to correct sight, but are also an

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important way of spotting incipient eye diseases such as glaucoma and other life-threatening conditions such as brain tumours and high blood pressure.

The GOC’s case against amending the Opticians Act to allow retail sales of adjustable-focus glasses could have some validity if the number of eye tests carried out following the deregulation of reading glasses in 1989 had fallen. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, has correctly observed, they have been rising steadily. I have no doubt that this would continue to be the case following the change we are debating this evening. What matters is that eye tests are promoted as part of an essential health screening and education programme, not as the manifestation and continuation of a restricted practice which is no longer of much benefit to consumers.

Before I conclude—I am speaking very briefly tonight—I would like to say a word about one particular market in the world where Adlens glasses can be bought over the counter. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred to the huge sales in Japan and the United States, and there is also a strong market for them in Mexico and Norway. Its briefing says:

“Adlens has supplied over 1.5 million products to consumers in 57 countries around the world”.

There is a remarkable philanthropic side to the company as well. Alongside the commercial operation is a charity called Vision for a Nation, started in 2009 by one of Adlens’s co-founders, James Chen, whom I met on my visit to the company in Oxford. This is a programme which aims to address the unmet need for affordable glasses in low-income countries.

The first pilot study was in Rwanda, a country where, Mr Chen estimated, up to 1 million of the 11 million population need glasses. Most of them will require standard reading glasses but between 5% and 10% will benefit from the Vision for a Nation adjustable lenses. Over 18,000 have been supplied free to the Rwandan health authorities and the charity is also funding a training programme for nurses to conduct eye tests. I gather that the plan now may be to expand the service to Bhutan. It will make a real difference if these services can become a central component of a nation’s non-communicable disease strategy.

In echoing the call from the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for an amendment to the Opticians Act 1989, I make the additional point that if Adlens were able to develop a successful retail business in the UK, comparable to that in Japan or the United States, not only would British consumers benefit from increased customer choice but the profits generated would allow the company’s marvellous work through its Vision for a Nation charity to be expanded into more third-world countries. I find that a pretty irresistible argument and I hope that the Minister will agree when he replies.

7.31 pm

Lord Stoneham of Droxford (LD): My Lords, I speak in this debate not as a health expert but in my capacity as business spokesman for these Benches and as somebody who is interested in encouraging innovation, improving the export potential of our country and encouraging science-based university innovation centres of excellence. I also spend quite a bit of time discouraging practices which suggest or encourage unfair competition.

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To me, this is a restraint of trade issue. As the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, said, exactly the same arguments were used against the sale of reading glasses in 1989 as are now being made against adjustable-focus glasses. The Minister would do well to read the report at that time as a way of convincing himself that the arguments in this debate should be answered.

Health and regular eye tests are things that I am not expert at discussing. As I said, I am more interested in the competition aspects, but I think that by freeing up the market a little, a bit more competition might increase the number of eye tests, as was shown in the case of the sale of reading glasses.

I am one of those who finds it convenient to go into an optician for regular eye tests, and I use one. I do not use it purely because it is the cheapest way of getting glasses but because there is the convenience of fitting and getting regular maintenance, for which it is good to have a relationship with a local optician. Glasses in this country are about variety, style and fashion, however we might think of them as items for improving our health and eyesight. Until recently I went to one optician for 20 years, mainly because the lady who used to serve me always used to tell me how good I looked in the pair of glasses she was trying to sell me.

It is a competitive market and cost is very important. I accept that opticians have to earn a profit. However, I recently changed my optician. The nice lady had gone. When I went to get my spectacles repaired, I was told that they could not be repaired because they had got bent and there was a danger that they would break. I was assured that I needed a new pair. I went to another optician and got the old pair repaired in five minutes. I subsequently bought a new pair when the lenses needed to be upgraded. We should not hide behind health issues in protecting opticians unless they are really warranted. We should encourage competition and choice.

This is a patented British product and I do not believe that it will be what I call a real blockbuster that puts all our opticians out of business. As I said, fashion, style and brands will still rule as the country becomes more affluent. Despite all the arguments, as we have already heard, the threat of selling reading glasses did not undermine the opticians’ business. However, there will be a market from these glasses among people who want to buy a second or spare pair and among diabetics who need to adjust their lenses regularly. There will also be a demand for sunglasses and so on in the leisure market. I think that there will be a huge market in the third world, where there is no network of opticians and price can be critical. We have heard that 1 million pairs are being sold in the US and Japan. If this company wants to sell these glasses in other markets, how convincing will it be when it has to admit that it cannot sell them in its home market? It must go with its hands tied behind its back when it goes into those sales opportunities. Frankly, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for International Development should be jumping up and down encouraging this product and pioneering further development.

I have several questions for the Minister. First, will he reread the documentation of the 1989 review, when reading glasses was the issue under discussion, and

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will he perhaps reflect on how similar the arguments are in relation to these glasses? Secondly, does he intend to have discussions with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on how we can encourage competition in this area? That would, I believe, lead to even more eye tests being carried out by opticians. Thirdly, will he also engage the Department for International Development to look at the great potential for this product in developing countries?

7.37 pm

Baroness Walmsley (LD): My Lords, first, I apologise to my noble friend Lord Newby for missing the first half-minute of his speech. I am afraid that I was not informed that this debate was to start 15 minutes early; I thought that I was 10 minutes early.

I thank my noble friend for explaining what this debate is all about and for putting the case for looking at this issue again so comprehensively that there is no need for me to repeat it. To me, there are three principles that should apply when considering this matter.

First, the best interests of the patient must come first, so we must ask ourselves whether changing the law would or could do any harm to patients. Secondly, we need to consider whether availability of this new eyewear would deter people from getting a full eye test from a qualified ophthalmologist. Thirdly, would the state of the current law prevent patients receiving any additional benefits that might be available to them through the over-the-counter availability of this new product? We should bear in mind that, when the law went through Parliament, there was no such thing as self-adjustable eyewear, so perhaps it is time to review it.

In considering this matter, we must be impartial to both those already in the optical services business and to those who want to get into it. Could the briefings we have received amount to vested interests? Some noble Lords think so. I am afraid that I think that those who have provided the briefings might have vested interests, although it is perfectly reasonable for them all to make their case and I am sure that they are all providing legitimate information. That is why I ask the Minister whether the Government will set up a completely independent impartial investigation to receive evidence from both sides of the argument and make a truly impartial recommendation, and then will they act on it at the earliest opportunity?

The evidence we have received from the manufacturer Adlens suggests several benefits and no harms. Like the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, I really must congratulate it on its charitable work in Rwanda and other places. It is doing some very important and worthwhile work, which will benefit the economy of that poor country enormously, as well as individual patients. However, it stands to make money in the UK if the law is changed, so we should be aware of that. Mind you, it would probably be a very small amount compared to what companies make in the USA and Japan where these glasses are already allowed to be sold off prescription.

On the other side of the argument is the General Optical Council, the Optical Confederation, the

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professionals and the retailers who have a financial interest in selling the fixed-prescription spectacles which they prescribe. Of course, they also have a professional duty to put the patient’s eye health first, and I am sure that is their priority.

There would be a very strong argument for refusing to change the law if clear evidence existed that the availability of these adjustable spectacles over the counter deterred people from having a proper eye test—but I have seen no such evidence. We must bear in mind that eye tests are not just done to diagnose and correct vision but also, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, pointed out, to screen for eye health and indicators of other types of ill-health. They are very important, which is why we give them free to children and older people.

The fact is that we have been choosing our own vision correction for years. When I go to the optician, I select “red” or “green” and lens 1 or lens 2 all the time. I am selecting my own correction. What, therefore, is the difference between doing that and twiddling a little screw on your own spectacles to get the correction that you need? I accept that these may not be suitable for people with serious astigmatism, but those people probably would not choose them anyway because the quality of vision would not be as good as that from their correct fixed-lens prescription.

Concerns have been expressed about the safety of driving in self-corrected glasses. I was impressed by the study done by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, which showed that there is no statistically significant difference between US drivers wearing prescription glasses and those wearing self-adjusted glasses in their ability to see a hazard ahead. I have seen no evidence to the contrary but, of course, it would be the task of the independent committee that I am calling for to see whether there is any.

As I said earlier, I would be concerned if ownership of these glasses were to deter regular eye examinations, but, again, the evidence I have seen is to the contrary. When over-the-counter reading glasses became available, there was no evidence that this deterred people from getting their eyes tested. Indeed, they need to do so in order to determine what strength to buy from the local chemist. Rather, government agencies and professionals alike believe that the best way to persuade people to look after their eyes and get them tested regularly is by public information and education. A number of these programmes have been mentioned, and they have been around in the UK for years; I am sure Governments would not spend money on them if they did not work.

These new products would have considerable value as a temporary solution for three groups of people: older people may need three different pairs of glasses for different tasks—I know I do—and many find it difficult to afford three pairs; people who have had cataract operations have a period during which their eyesight is settling down and might find these useful then; and new diabetics, whose eyesight may vary while they are working out the right dose of medication to control their blood sugar, may also find these a useful temporary solution. In the last two cases, it is very unlikely that an optometrist would prescribe several pairs of glasses just for a few months. Of course, it is

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vital that people get their eyes checked regularly, particularly diabetics as there are a number of risks to vision associated with diabetes. However, a pair of these new glasses could be part of their solution.

The fact is that we are already in charge of our own eye health. I recently had to apply for a new driving licence and, as part of the process, had to confirm that I have an appropriate level of vision to drive a car safely. Nobody asked me to get an optician to verify that, although I am in the habit of having regular eye tests and would recommend that everybody do so. In addition, correction prescriptions do not have a finishing date on them, so you can buy contact lenses on the internet using a prescription that is years old if you want to, even though that may no longer be the correct prescription for you. This solution would be a great deal better than that.

I am inclined to allow people to take responsibility for their own eye health, and I thought that a Conservative Government, being in favour of the free market, would be inclined to allow these glasses to be sold without prescription and to give people a choice. However, the cautious thing to do is to set up a truly independent inquiry. I hope the Government will do that, and then the evidence can speak for itself, as can the patients.

7.45 pm

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab): My Lords, it has been a riveting debate and noble Lords have expressed a very clear view, although the Minister will be aware that we have had written submissions that express very different views, which are potentially bound up with financial interests. So we are all looking forward to the adjudication that the Minister will, I hope, give us in a few minutes.

I start with a point about innovation and adoption, because I know that the Minister is concerned about this. On the face of it, here we have an innovative UK-based company doing very well abroad but not in this country because of this dreadful healthcare issue of slowness to adopt. I know that eyes are precious and, clearly, in the end, a precautionary principle must be applied. However, I worry that, one way or another, the healthcare establishment is putting barriers in the way of what appears to be a really innovative company. I hope the Minister will pick up that argument.

From the documentation, it is clear that the paper by Dr Charman is an important one. The question I put to the Minister is whether he is satisfied that the GOC and its standards committee actually discussed that paper appropriately. I have seen annexe 4 of the paper we have been sent: notes of the standards committee discussion. This does not seem to be a scientific examination of the report by Dr Charman. Rather, it looks like—how can I put it kindly?—a group of prejudices looking for an argument to put across. It comes across as a very paternalistic approach. First of all, it makes the statement that the market for this product in this country was,

“not thought to be significant”.

Of course it is not significant at the moment, because it is not allowed to develop. Having been sent these adjustable spectacles—although I was not brave enough,

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as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, was, to wear them—I know that they are clearly very easy to use and to adjust.

The second argument, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, is about the developing world issue. The third argument, which I find puzzling, is the statement that:

“It was not clear what benefit the product would bring”.

It is patently clear what benefit the product would bring to the public. The final point, and one that really interests me, is point 12:

“The Committee raised the fact that it has been documented in the academic literature that ‘self-adjustment’ by patients is very subjective”.

Well, “subjective” is a word I would use to kindly describe the paper by the standards committee.

The noble Lord knows that one has to be cautious here. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, is right: perhaps a way through is to ask an independent adjudicator to look into this. The situation is clearly unsatisfactory and it does not look as though the GOC response has been rigorous enough.

I hesitate to move on to the issue of regulation, but we did debate the General Dental Council two weeks ago. I have been in correspondence with dentists and the GDC, and it seems to me that they are still in denial about the criticisms made of them by the PSA. On the one hand, we see huge improvement in regulators, and I pay tribute to the GMC and the work that has been done there. But on the other hand, there seem to be question marks about how some of these professional regulators operate. I suggest to the Minister that the PSA, which I have great confidence in, be asked to look at this matter, particularly the governance arrangements within the GOC. That might warrant careful examination.

Finally, is the Minister satisfied that the PSA has enough powers of intervention? From what I have seen in relation to the GDC, I am not entirely sure that it has. This is an important issue in itself, but it also raises questions about regulation and the way it is undertaken. Having read the GOC paper, I have doubts about how rigorously that body approaches its task.

7.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Prior of Brampton) (Con): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for bringing this subject, which is a new one for me, to our attention. I tried on a pair of adjustable-focus glasses a few days ago, and they are easy to use. The noble Lord is wearing some this evening, and although they may not be as fashionable as some pairs of glasses, I can see that they are perfectly serviceable.

It is odd for us on this side of the House—it is certainly odd for me—to find ourselves painted into the position of being against choice, competition and deregulation, which are now being advocated from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I do not normally associate them with that particular role. Instinctively I am a deregulator, and to be honest, many of the arguments that noble Lords have made resonate strongly with me. Clearly there is a huge vested interest at stake. Whether

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that is being improperly used in this case I do not know—but one can see that there will always be a strong voice for the status quo.

I should also pay tribute to the company for its work in Rwanda, which is clearly very important. Equally impressive, in many ways, is its breaking into the Japanese and American markets—no easy feat for a small private company. I take on board the words of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about how often we hear about companies finding it easier to break into overseas markets than into our own market. It is deeply frustrating, when we produce so many highly innovative products such as this one.

As for an independent review, perhaps we can come back to that question later. I rather like the thought, but although the role of the PSA was brought up in the context of the GDC, I am not sure what powers it has in such areas. That may be worth exploring. Unfortunately, however, I am going to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Newby—but perhaps not wholly. We shall see when we get to the end. I shall put the other side of the argument, if I can—but in doing that I do not want to imply that the arguments we have heard are not powerful: they are. I know that my right honourable friend in the other House, Oliver Letwin, back when the Deregulation Bill was going through, would have instinctively been very positive towards the arguments that noble Lords are making.

As noble Lords are aware, in order to do what the noble Lord asks it would be necessary to amend the Opticians Act to remove requirements relating to the sale and supply of optical appliances. Clearly this is something we would do only after very careful consideration, and if we were confident that the proposal could stand parliamentary scrutiny. So if we were to take this forward at all, an independent review of some kind would be a requirement.

In the UK the sale of optical appliances is governed by the Opticians Act, which requires spectacles and contact lenses to be dispensed to a prescription issued by a registered optometrist or medical practitioner following a sight test. We are probably all aware of the exception that has been made. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, I should say at this point that I will reread—or rather, read for the first time—the 1989 review, where similar arguments were put forward against the exception for reading glasses.

The Opticians Act does allow reading spectacles to be sold over the counter to adults with age-related sight loss. However, this exception has very limited criteria. The reading glasses must have the same power in both lenses, the power of the lenses must be in the range between 0 and 4 dioptres, and the glasses must be for reading purposes only. The General Optical Council is responsible for regulating the sale of glasses in the UK.

I am aware that Adlens has been in discussion with the GOC about its proposal that over the counter sale of its adjustable-focus glasses be allowed. As noble Lords know, in considering this issue the GOC sought the views of its standards committee, asking for its views on any benefits that adjustable-focus spectacles might bring, and any adverse effects that these products

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might have on the public’s health and safety. I am not aware of the extent to which it took into account the Charman report, which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned. That is something that we should look into.

The standards committee raised a number of concerns, including concern about the safety of the product and the possibility that the product might not meet legal standards for driving,

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: The point is that although the note we have says that the standards committee was provided with the independent report, it is not clear what it actually did with the report. It does not look as if the committee went through it in detail and considered the arguments—but that might just reflect the way in which the note was taken.

Lord Prior of Brampton: We have often been provided with reports, but that does not necessarily mean that we have read them and given them our full attention. I will ask that question.

I was going through the standards committee’s concerns. Another was that individuals may incorrectly self-adjust, causing a danger to the public when driving. Another was that the sale of these products may distract the public from having regular eye examinations. That is an issue that needs consideration. I appreciate that the noble Lord may not be convinced by the arguments put forward by the GOC’s standards committee, but we would be foolish not to take into consideration its professional view—the precautionary view that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned. We have to give that due weight.

I understand that one of the original intentions behind the development of these glasses was to bring accessible vision correction to the developing world, particularly to areas where there was little or no affordable eye care. In the UK we are lucky enough to have no barriers to accessing sight tests and optical appliances which correct refractive errors. The NHS provides free sight tests to children, older people, those with or at risk of eye disease, and people on low incomes. In addition, help with the cost of glasses is available to children and people on low incomes.

It is already the case that self-adjustable glasses can be supplied by a registered medical practitioner or optometrist if they would benefit patients in particular circumstances. I do not think that we should downplay the important role of optometrists in carrying out sight tests. Optometrists are healthcare specialists trained to examine the eyes to detect defects of vision, signs of injury and ocular diseases, as well as problems with general health. Anyone who has had a sight test in recent years will know how much more is done these days than would have been done four or five years ago. Optometrists also offer valuable clinical advice, in addition to prescribing glasses and contact lenses.

One of the concerns raised by the standards committee was that members of the public might be discouraged from attending for regular sight tests. I appreciate that noble Lords do not agree with this argument, given that the availability of ready readers has not had such an impact. However, ready readers have a minimal prescription power and are for reading only.

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Lord Stoneham of Droxford: I reiterate to the Minister why it is so important to read the report about reading glasses. Exactly the same arguments were used then—that they would undermine eye tests—yet exactly the opposite happened.

Lord Prior of Brampton: I have made a promise, and that will be among my other reading material. I do not know how long the review is; we shall see.

However, reading glasses are for a very specific, limited purpose, so might not lead people to think that a sight test is no longer necessary. Self-adjustable glasses, on the other hand, are for wider use, and could potentially lead people to think that their vision needs have been met. They may make do with those glasses for longer, and not consider the need for a sight test. In that way, the case might be slightly different from that of reading glasses.

I accept that there is reasonable concern about the potential impact on the take-up of sight tests if these glasses were to be made available over the counter. It is important to be clear that a sight test is not only about checking whether or not you need glasses. As I said earlier, it goes much further than that. A sight test can identify at an early stage diseases such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and cataracts. Good vision is also particularly important for safety on our roads, both for drivers and pedestrians. So I appreciate the concern raised by the GOC in respect of the safety of drivers using these self-adjustable glasses.

I draw a distinction between the current proposal—which, as I understand it, is for a range of magnification beyond that of ready readers—and magnification restricted to that of ready readers. I am not sure whether or not that makes sense. It makes sense if you read it slowly.

Even if the concerns I have outlined were overcome, it would be very difficult to justify a greater range for the adjustable, and arguably more risky, product than is allowed for ready readers. There is no appetite that I am aware of to extend the exemption applied to ready readers to stronger prescriptions, and similar objections would apply in that they would cease to be simply aids for the limited activity of reading.

However, I note that while the GOC standards committee did not endorse the idea of sale of adjustable glasses restricted to the ready readers range, it commented, as the noble Lord mentioned, that this might be acceptable. I do not know whether those proposing change have had further discussions with the GOC on this point but, if not, it would be sensible to do so before further consideration by the Government. I am not sure whether the noble Lord has had further discussions with the GOC. He might like to say so at the end. This does not mean that the GOC is convinced that this would be a sensible change or that the Government are minded to consult in the near future. I merely highlight that the GOC’s response was nuanced.

Changes to primary legislation are for government, although noble Lords will obviously appreciate that changes will only be made in the light of professional advice, and one of the sources of that advice will be the GOC. The GOC’s report was nuanced and is

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probably worth following up. I have an instinctive gut feeling of sympathy for the arguments made by the noble Lord but there are genuine objections from the GOC.

8.02 pm

Sitting suspended.

Trade Union Bill

Committee (1st Day) (Continued)

8.15 pm

Clause 3: Ballots: 40% support requirement in important public services

Amendment 2

Moved by Lord Wallace of Saltaire

2: Clause 3, page 2, line 3, leave out “the majority voting” and insert “at least 35% of those voting”

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD): My Lords, Amendments 2 and 9, in my name, have a simple aim: to bring into alignment the standards for democratic legitimacy which the Government apply to themselves, and on which their claim to a democratic mandate rests, and those which they wish to apply to the trade unions.

The Government’s electoral majority rests upon the support of 36.8% of those who voted in the general election last May on a 66% turnout, so representing some 24% of the total electorate, at least of those on the register. For neatness and convenience, I have rounded the figures to 35% and 25%, recognising that the Labour Government of 2005-10 were accepted as legitimate on 35% of the vote.

Amendment 8, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Mendelsohn, rounds the figure of the turnout down, to 20%, rather than up, to 25%. Here we have far higher standards set out for the legitimation of ballots by trade unions than are set out by the current constitutional arrangements for legitimating government—50% of those voting and an even higher barrier, 40% of those eligible to vote. No British Government have passed this second hurdle in the past half-century. No Government for more than 60 years have represented more than 50% of the electorate, except of course the coalition Government of 2010-15, considered illegitimate throughout their life by a great many on both the Labour and Conservative Benches.

There is a very serious and constitutional point at stake here. The new Government claim they have a strong democratic mandate. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, underlined this in the first debate this evening. On that basis, they are now pressing through a substantial legislative programme, including a number of radical free-market proposals which were successfully resisted under the preceding coalition. This Bill is a mixture of free-market and authoritarian principles. Trade unions are an important part of civil society, balancing the power of employers and investors in the market. The battle to establish the rights of trade unions to combine was a significant part of the development of British

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democracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I am happy to say the Liberal Government then did a great deal to support that.

Trade unions, like employers and investors, need to be regulated but—again like employers and investors—they are legitimate actors in a market that is rooted in an open and democratic society. Authoritarian free markets, of the sort favoured by some right-wing economists and briefly practised in some South American states, require civil society to be suppressed. But none of us, including those 24% of voters who supported the Conservatives in last year’s election, wants to convert the UK into an authoritarian state.

I ask the Government to recognise the limited and conditional character of their mandate to govern. They require the consent and acceptance of the 75% of UK voters who did not give them their support in last May’s election. The Government hope to govern for a full five years. If after two years they find themselves facing the usual mid-term disillusionment, made deeper by a likely economic recession, while they press ahead with an agenda about which significant parts of the electorate are unhappy, then the discontented will take to the streets and smash windows. We already face a public mood of deep disillusionment with conventional politics. The Government should be careful not to deepen that disillusionment further and provoke public anger.

Many of us will remember the confrontation between the Conservative Government and the trade unions in 1973-74, when the then Prime Minister attempted to assert his constitutional authority and union leaders replied that their total membership was larger than the number who had voted Conservative in the previous general election. The unions are much weaker now, of course, but then so is the Conservative Party—down from the 1 million members it had when Edward Heath was leader to, apparently, 150,000 now. It has far more money, of course, but far fewer members. The number of votes it won in last year’s election, as well as the proportion of the votes cast, was also much lower. To quote the noble Lord, Lord King, we are governed by an active minority against an idle majority.

We all recognise that the Government are opposed to constitutional reform, in particular to electoral reform, which could raise the barrier before an incoming Government could claim a mandate to govern. But, by that token, and recognising the weakness of their mandate, the Government should be cautious about imposing new barriers on union decisions. We know that there is public anger out there about our failures as a political class to impose sufficiently strong regulation on the banking industry, and the absence of prosecutions and punishment for those in the banking industry whose actions triggered the crisis of 2008-09. I meet that anger on the doorstep every time I go out canvassing in Yorkshire. To impose a combination of tougher regulations and higher barriers to legitimate action on trade unions, in contrast to the light touch on bankers and others, will only feed that underlying popular hostility and disillusionment.

I move the amendment, and speak to Amendment 9, in this spirit. The Government should recognise their own position, treat trade union ballots by the same

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standards as parliamentary ballots and recognise that a Government with a limited mandate must compromise with the institutions of civil society. Trade unions are an important element in our civil society. I beg to move.

Lord Dykes (Non-Afl): My Lords, I will be brief. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on his speech. I missed only about 20 seconds, when the television screen changed back to the Committee, so I was technically here. I agreed with what he said. I hope that he and others agree that the other disturbing factor in this is the context of a Government supported by a low percentage of voters, and only 24% of the electorate. I do not think that there was a lower figure in recent decades. I may be incorrect, but I am pretty sure that that is right. To invoke the regular incantation that something is a manifesto promise is also flawed if the support from the natural electorate is so puny and minor as to render this an illegitimate exercise for such a controversial piece of legislative text that deliberately makes life more difficult for normative trade union behaviour.

There is an idea that because the manifesto is mentioned in the press in the context of an election campaign, therefore the thinking electorate, or the whole electorate, should be well aware of the proposals in it; but, of course, that is not the reality. Most members of the public, first of all, regard politics as a rather distasteful activity and they leave it at the back of all the important activities they have with their families, their holidays, their education and their children, and they go to politics when they have to, when elections come. Therefore they would not be very conversant with the contents of manifestos anyway. So the manifesto-itis element of these very badly drafted Bills that are coming through—skeleton Bills, often, with too many SIs following them and the rest of the problems—also affects this piece of legislation.

I remember when I was the incumbent Conservative MP—proud to be the most left-wing one, of course—for Harrow, the total number of people who came into our campaign office during the election campaign to ask for a copy of the manifesto ranged, over the seven elections I fought, from 10 to six, with an average of about eight. People just did not pay any attention to the details of manifestos. Any newly elected Government, in this case with a 12-seat majority on the basis of 30%-plus support, are entitled to say, “Well, they should have, shouldn’t they?”, but it is not like that.

Therefore, we must produce intelligent legislation which is balanced and fair and consensually based—particularly, as in this case, with the sensitive subject of the trade unions, which have had a very difficult 15 years as a result of the way politics has moved—and we should be very concerned to make sure legislation does the right thing. Therefore, I hope the Government can respond to these realities by responding to intelligent amendments such as that just proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire.

Lord King of Bridgwater (Con): My Lords, I have great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, which is always a warning, in this House, that worse is to come. I simply say that I could not believe the speech he made. I would like to think and hope that he got

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somebody to write it for him, because I thought that the intellectual content was as close to zero as one could get. Of course, I understand, sitting on the Bench he is sitting on, his acute dislike of our present parliamentary system and first past the post, but, of course, that is the situation in which we live.

That is the situation in which noble Lords on the Opposition Benches have stood for office, have won office and have run this country. At times, members of the noble Lord’s party did the same; they formed a coalition because they had enough seats to count under the first past the post system. This, on the other hand, is as if we were to say that no Government were to do anything the least bit controversial because they did not have an overall majority all the time. I am trying to think how many times when I stood for election I ever got 50% of the vote. I think I did on one or two occasions. Against that background, it is as if we were to say to the people who if there is another tube strike will be walking 10 miles to the office, to the people who never make their operation because they cannot get there in time, to the people who never see their loved one who they hear is in a serious situation in hospital but who cannot get there in time, “Sorry, we really cannot do anything which might give more confidence to the Government and to Parliament and recognise your concerns.”

Someone who was an observer from outer space, or in the Gallery here, and who heard the deeply moving speech by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, brilliantly delivered, as it always is, might ask, “What is he actually talking about?”. Oh, it was just to say that if you are going to have an important vote to bring people out on strike, it is unreasonable to say that at least one in two of the union members should actually vote. Some noble Lords may not have had a chance to look at this amendment. This amendment says that it is outrageous to say that one in two of the union members have to turn up for the vote, irrespective of what they decide to do. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, says that it should go down from 50% to 35%, so that it is one in three.

Lord McAvoy (Lab): Can the noble Lord give us the percentage of the people in the United Kingdom who voted Tory at the election?

Lord King of Bridgwater: That is the great fallacy. I have heard the argument about 50%, but that is the point I am addressing: how many people got elected with 50%? The question of a strike is a binary choice. It is not the same as having five or six candidates standing in a by-election or an election. I do not know how many noble Lords have actually stood as candidates for election but a number who are in this Chamber at present have. They will know that if you have a number of candidates, the chances of getting 50% of the vote are unlikely. Are we saying that is a good background against which you would have to go around and say, “Just a minute: we have cleverly worked out that 24% voted for us. Can we find another 3% from some other party and other 10% from somewhere, and then—my goodness—we could make some policy”? That is not the way this country has worked. The answer is that the system we have of first past the post is the basis on which government works.

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8.30 pm

Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, perhaps it would have been more impressive if we were proposing some appalling invasion on people’s privacy and rights—some outrageous intervention. We have already been through the fact that this provision does not infringe the European Convention on Human Rights in this respect. Perhaps I should say that the Government think that this in the interests of all the people. I have mentioned this before and I apologise to the noble Lord for saying it, but what we are really talking about is public sector strikes. Those are the things that really hit people and in which the employer cannot go bust. A lot of the union material makes the point that the good thing about strikes is that strikers always have to recognise that they have some interest in the interests of their employer, because he might go bust. That is absolutely true in the private sector but it is not true in the public sector at all. This is one of the reasons why we have to address the problem. If noble Lords are saying, “Forget that. We will insist on a lower percentage voting. We will stand up”—

Lord Mendelsohn (Lab): My Lords—

Lord King of Bridgwater: Perhaps I could just finish the sentence. Are they saying, “We will ignore the interests of all the millions of people who may be badly affected”? The issue about the public sector is the amount of people in monopoly situations. That is why they are in a special position. We will come on to which industries and activities should be covered. This is a very important issue, and I agree that not everything should be covered. But in those areas where the nation and its citizens are most affected—the public sector—we have a duty as a Parliament to protect them.

Lord Mendelsohn: Does the noble Lord therefore favour the 50% threshold applying only to the public sector and not to the private sector as well, as it currently does in the legislation? Is he also suggesting that if the Government came forward with a ballot paper that consisted of not just a binary decision but a range of possibilities, whoever got the largest amount, he would accept that that was the judgment of the members of the trade union, so balloted?

Lord King of Bridgwater: The answer to the first question is no. The second I will need to think about, as it is far too complicated for me.

Lord Oates (LD): My Lords, I speak in support of my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I must say that I followed his argument completely but I am not sure that I followed that of the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, at all. The noble Lord seemed to make the case that because strikes can be disruptive—we must acknowledge that they can be, particularly in the public sector areas of transport and education, as the Government have argued—and because of the impact on people, that justified the Government’s proposed thresholds. But is the idea that the Government do not impact on people? The Government impact on the lives of millions of people in many areas, not just during the period when a strike may take place. Not long ago, we were discussing the changes to universal

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credit in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which will have a massive impact on some of the most vulnerable people in this country. That is on a mandate of, what, 24%? What we are asking for is a bit of consistency from the Government. Why do they believe that trade unions should be held to a completely different democratic standard than the rest of our democracy operates to?

We should consider carefully this idea of introducing thresholds. It is a major step in the way our democracy operates. In the first place, it second-guesses what the people who do not vote actually mean. It may be that the people who do not vote actually mean they do not want to vote; it does not mean that they wish to vote no. However, under this system, we have the perverse incentive whereby if you wish to oppose strike action you may well be better off not participating in a vote. If you do participate, you may help people over the threshold. As a noble Lord said previously, somebody voting against a strike who tips the vote over the threshold is actually facilitating it taking place. That makes no sense whatever. In a situation where there was a 50% turnout—which would meet the first threshold under the 40% requirement—even if 79% of those voting in that ballot voted in favour, the strike would be illegal. That would have a massive impact on industrial relations.

Thresholds like this are almost without precedent in this country. The only example I came across was the rather ill-fated 1979 Scottish devolution referendum, in which there was a 40% threshold. That was universally regarded as a not entirely successful way to go about things and has never been repeated. It was certainly not something the Government were keen to take on for the European Union referendum. As I have said before, strikes are undoubtedly disruptive, particularly in the public sector, and they should be a last resort. If we vote to leave the European Union, it could massively disrupt all of our lives for ever, but nobody is suggesting a 40% threshold there—for the good reason that inventing thresholds like this simply undermines people’s faith in the system and can create extremely perverse outcomes.

Will the Minister tell the Committee why the Government believe it appropriate to impose such thresholds for a strike, which could cause disruption, but not appropriate in cases such as membership of the European Union? Why should this sort of threshold not be met when the Government are acting as a monopoly supplier of service? For instance, on the benefits system, with what mandate is a party with 24% of the vote savagely attacking the rights of vulnerable working people? There is very little consistency in what the Government are suggesting and I hope they will reconsider it.

Lord Monks (Lab): My Lords, the point I took from the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, was less on the arithmetic and how it all added up and more on a warning to the Government not to overreach; not to be too arrogant. In a number of areas there is now a suspicion—I do not think that it is just on this side of the House—that the Government are being too arrogant with their opponents. Whether it is on Short money, voter registration or whatever, there is a sense that they are overreaching. It is not necessarily a

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matter for the Minister tonight, but I hope that the Government will bear that in mind when they look at their agenda for the Bill as we go into it more. A little bit of humility would come in very handy when they are working out their next moves in a number of areas.

The noble Lord, Lord King, should not always assume that strikes are unpopular. A neighbour of mine, in King’s College Hospital with a heart attack, was astonished when the junior hospital doctors got a round of applause from patients and staff when they walked in after their day off.

We talk a lot about history. In 1974 it was not the trade union members aggregated who made the difference; Edward Heath lost the election on the question, “Who governs the country?” So, funnily enough, strikes can catch a wind at certain times and if the Government really have their ear to the ground they will try to pick them out from the ones that are perhaps less popular. So do not always assume that strikes are turning off the population. Sometimes, they are not.

Lord King of Bridgwater: Perhaps the doctors got a round of applause because the patients were so pleased to see that they had come back.

Lord Balfe (Con): It is good occasionally to get up on this side of the House and remember why I am on the Conservative Benches and not on the opposition Benches. This is a clear manifesto commitment. You can throw statistics around for how many people voted for the Government and how many people did this or that. They are different systems. It is clearly written in the manifesto that:

“Industrial action in these essential services would require the support of at least 40 per cent of all those entitled to take part in strike ballots - as well as a majority of those who actually turn out to vote.”

I am impressed with the arithmetic of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes. I am a little puzzled if the number of people coming into his office for a manifesto varied between eight and 10, giving an average of six—he obviously went to a different school to where I learnt my averages. These are different elections. I have no objection to proportional representation. I was a member of the Labour campaign for electoral reform for the better part of 20 years. I voted for the alternative vote system in the referendum because I believe that democracy is strengthened if it is more firmly based than it is at the moment. I am always impressed by the fact that, whenever the Labour Party is in opposition and look as if it is not going to win, it sets up commissions under the noble Lord, Lord Plant, or Robin Cook to look at electoral reform. Then somehow when it gets into government electoral reform gets lost.

This is a separate issue. What majority the Government have is irrelevant to the fact that the Government have a mandate under our constitutional system and a clear entitlement by virtue of the manifesto to introduce this legislation.

Lord Dykes: Does the noble Lord agree that the aspiration for sensible governance of any country is for the number of seats in Parliament to equate proportionally to the percentage of votes from the electorate? The closer we get to that, the more we get a natural balance of the genuine result. The only such

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systems in Europe, of which the noble Lord has great knowledge, are the Irish with the single transferable vote system and Germany with the additional member system. Why does he not support that?

Lord Balfe: I think we are straying a little, but I am happy to talk to the noble Lord afterwards about different electoral systems.

Many strikes are unpopular, and sometimes the trade union movement does itself no good. I would imagine that everyone on the opposition Benches is uncomfortable at RMT chief Steve Hedley’s comment:

“I think all the Tories are an absolute disgrace, they should be taken out and shot to be quite frank with you.”

Obviously, no one is going to support statements like that, but they are made and reported with pictures of a union leader with a Kalashnikov in the Evening Standard, and this impacts on people.

I quoted earlier what I call the moderate unions—the 16 unions that issued the brief on the Bill. It does not mention strike ballots once. Over four pages it brings out a good number of other points, including on electronic balloting, check-off, agency workers and the Certification Officer. There is not a single word on ballot thresholds. I suggest that the Government have a clear mandate for this. According to the Mayor of London’s brief, which may or may not be accurate, over half the strikes called by RMT would not be possible under this law. That could well be the makings of a rather popular law.

I counsel noble Lords opposite—including the noble Lord, Lord Wallace—to have a look at the sayings of Mr Mark Serwotka, the head of the Public and Commercial Services Union, who said that this Bill provides an organisational challenge. I draw his attention, too, to the words of a trade union general secretary, who is a friend of mine, who said to me, “Richard, I would never take them out on strike if I only had half the people behind me”. If you are going to have a strike, you need to have a good, solid basis of representation and a good, solid majority behind you. I think that the Government in this instance have a very clear mandate for this change, and I doubt that Labour will repeal it when the party—as it inevitably will—comes into office.

8.45 pm