All 19 Parliamentary debates in the Lords on 10th Mar 2022

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Elections Bill
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Elections Bill
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Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Committee stage: Part 2

Grand Committee

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Thursday 10 March 2022

Arrangement of Business

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Announcement
13:01
Baroness Barker Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Barker) (LD)
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My Lords, Members are encouraged to leave some distance between themselves and others and to wear a face covering when not speaking. If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.

Scotland Act 2016 (Social Security) (Adult Disability Payment and Child Disability Payment) (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Considered in Grand Committee
13:02
Moved by
Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott
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That the Grand Committee do consider the Scotland Act 2016 (Social Security) (Adult Disability Payment and Child Disability Payment) (Amendment) Regulations 2022.

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Stedman-Scott) (Con)
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My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Scotland Act 2016 (Social Security) (Adult Disability Payment and Child Disability Payment) (Amendment) Regulations 2022, laid before the House on 24 January 2022, be approved. I am pleased to introduce this instrument. Subject to approval, it will make some necessary legislative changes to prevent overlapping entitlements of the soon-to-be-introduced Scottish adult disability payment, with UK disability benefits.

In consequence of the Scottish Government’s child disability payment, very similar regulations were made in July 2021. As these regulations mirror, in relation to adult disability payment, much of the policy intent and technical application of the previous instrument, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I repeat much of what was said during the debate on those previous regulations. My honourable colleague the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work brought this instrument before the other place on Monday, so there is little new to outline in my opening remarks. I am satisfied that the Scotland Act 2016 (Social Security) (Adult Disability Payment and Child Disability Payment) (Amendment) Regulations 2022 are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The UK Government are committed to making devolution work and to ensuring the transition of powers to the Scottish Government under the Scotland Act 2016. This is a long-standing commitment. As a result of the devolution of social security powers to the Scottish Parliament under this Act, the Department for Work and Pensions will need to update its legislation from time to time to reflect the introduction of the Scottish Government’s replacement benefits. Section 71 of this Act allows for the necessary legislative amendments, in this case as a result of benefits introduced under the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018.

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate these regulations today. They will effect some purely technical, administrative changes. They will prevent overlapping payment of the Scottish adult disability payment and UK disability benefits such as the personal independence payment and Armed Forces independence payment. The instrument also includes some time-limited overlapping provisions for Northern Ireland.

Noble Lords will be aware that the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 established the legislative framework for the Scottish Government to introduce new forms of assistance using the social security powers devolved under Section 22 of the Scotland Act 2016. Specifically, Section 31 of the 2018 Act allows the Scottish Government to introduce legislation to provide financial support through its disability assistance for people in Scotland with long-term additional health needs.

The Scottish Government recently legislated to provide for its disability assistance for working-age people, which will be introduced from the 21st of this month. They are calling this “adult disability payment” and I will refer to this as ADP from now on. If the regulations are passed today, they will ensure that there are clear boundaries between entitlement to ADP and entitlement to a relevant UK Government benefit to ensure that there is no overlapping provision of payments. It will do that by making it clear that a Scottish resident cannot be entitled to a relevant UK Government benefit and that in the case of those who move cross-border, a DWP payment will not start until the day after payment of ADP has ended. This will not only protect the public purse by avoiding double payment to the same claimant for the same need but help prevent the need for complicated overpayment calculations and recovery. Furthermore, it is also in the best interests of the claimant, who will have clear expectations of which Government are responsible for paying their benefits at which point in their claim or award.

As just noted, as part of the offer, although ADP has residency-based conditions attached, the Scottish Government will continue to pay ADP for a period of 13 weeks after a claimant has left Scotland and moved to another part of the UK. This will allow claimants time to sort out new benefit arrangements, should they wish to, and the instrument sets out that a successful claim to a UK Government benefit will start the day after the end of that 13-week period.

Our intention is to offer later this year a similar facility for those moving to Scotland, and this is not the subject of these regulations brought before this Committee today. What are needed now are modest but necessary legislative amendments to avoid overlapping payments in order to both support the devolution agenda and strengthen a union that works together in the best interests of our shared citizens. The instrument also includes provisions on behalf of the Ministry of Defence to ensure that Armed Forces independence payments will similarly not overlap with ADP.

Finally, provisions have been included to prevent overlapping entitlement when a claimant moves to Northern Ireland and is in receipt of the 13-week run-on payment from the Scottish Government. I commend this instrument to the Committee.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations. As we have heard, following devolution of responsibility for certain social security benefits, the Scottish Government are introducing ADP for applicants ordinarily resident in Scotland. It will start to replace personal independence payment, PIP, in Scotland from this month.

The primary purpose of these regulations, as the Minister has explained, is to prevent overlapping payments of attendance allowance, DLA, PIP or Armed Forces independence payment when a claimant is getting ADP. We support the instrument and are pleased to see the Scottish Government using the powers transferred to them under the 2016 Act and subsequent legislation—although I express a bit of disappointment that it has taken such a long time for this to happen. It is critical that the rollout of ADP goes well, and that the transition from the current regime is smooth. Since these regulations are part of that process, we want to see them succeed and are pleased to support them.

The Minister mentioned that ADP will carry on being paid for a period of 13 weeks following a move from Scotland to England or Wales or Northern Ireland, to allow the claimant time to make a claim for the relevant benefit. When the Social Security (Scotland) Act (Disability Assistance and Information-Sharing) (Consequential Provision and Modifications) Order 2022 was discussed in the other place on 2 March, the Minister Iain Stewart said:

“At its introduction, adult disability payment will operate in broadly the same way and for broadly the same group of people as personal independence payment.”—[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee, 2/3/22; col. 3.]


So can the Minister tell the Committee whether the conditions for eligibility for ADP are the same as they are for PIP, or will someone moving from Scotland to another part of the UK have to undergo a fresh assessment to get PIP? If they do have to be assessed, is that classed as an assessment or a reassessment? There is a distinction in terms of time, as the Minister will know, and priority for processing a claim.

The Minister Iain Stewart also said:

“The 13 weeks is a safety net, and applications can be made in advance. It is there to ensure that payments can continue if there is some delay, so that no one is disadvantaged.”—[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee, 2/3/22; col. 8.]


The intention clearly is that there should not be a gap in payment between somebody moving from Scotland on ADP and coming to England, say, and claiming PIP. So can the Minister tell the Committee how long it takes to process a claim for PIP? Is she confident that 13 weeks will be long enough to ensure that there is no break in payment?

I dug out what I think are the latest official statistics, which were for last October, and which showed that clearance times for normal-rules new claims were 24 weeks from registration to a decision being made—and that is assuming the claimant was not one of the millions who end up having to go for mandatory reconsideration to get their benefit established in the first place. That adds another 11 weeks to the process. So can the Minister tell the Committee whether this means that, if someone moves from Scotland to England—just across the border, say, to Berwick—then makes a claim, and it takes either 24 or potentially 35 weeks, they will still get only 13 weeks’ run-on? What happens to them during those remaining weeks when they are still waiting for their claim to be processed? Also, does the comment by Iain Stewart about applications being made in advance mean that someone preparing to move from Scotland to England or Wales could make a claim for PIP while they were still living in Scotland in advance, as they prepared for their move to England—again, to avoid any gap in payments? That might deal with the problem that it takes longer than 13 weeks to process a claim.

I understand that applications for ADP will open at different times in different parts of Scotland. I think it will be piloted in some parts. Does the Minister know when it will be fully rolled out? If somebody were to move now from England and they happened to land in the bit of Scotland where it is being piloted, presumably they would have to make a fresh application for ADP. The Minister mentioned that the intention of the Government was to arrange this so that the run-on is a two-way street—so that, in due course, if you move from England to Scotland, you will get a 13-week run-on of PIP while you make an application for ADP. In fact, Iain Stewart said in the Commons that

“the situation does apply both ways. If a person in England claims PIP or one of the other benefits and moves to Scotland, the DWP would look to ensure they had an equivalent transition period.”—[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee, 2/3/22; cols. 7-8.]

But if somebody on 1 April were to move to Scotland and happened to be in an area where they had started doing ADP, would they get a run-on or no run-on? Would they suddenly find that their PIP stopped immediately and they had no benefits at all until their ADP was processed?

Finally, the Minister said something about the regulations also introducing some time-limited overlapping provisions for Northern Ireland. Can she tell us what they are, because I could not figure it out? I apologise for that and look forward to her reply.

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, for the points she has made. I shall try to deal with them.

I turn first to what happens to a person if they move now. While DWP is administering the existing disability benefits on behalf of the Scottish Government under agency agreements, any customer moving to Scotland will be handled as a routine change of circumstances. This means that these cases will continue in payment on the same benefits as now and form part of the Scottish caseload administered on behalf of the Scottish Government. DWP will continue to manage their claim until they are transferred to Social Security Scotland. The case transfer process has been agreed with the Scottish Government and claimants will not see any disruption to their payments.

13:15
The noble Baroness asked why the regulations include provisions for Northern Ireland. Social security in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. The inclusion of provisions for Northern Ireland has been agreed with the Department for Communities, as it does not have the powers to make these necessary amendments because matters relating to the Scotland Act are outside the legislative competence of the Assembly. However, what has come to be known as the parity principle contained in Sections 87 and 88 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides for a single system of social security in line with the DWP. As such, the UK Government can agree to legislate on behalf of Northern Ireland at the request of its Ministers.
Including Northern Ireland amendments will ensure as consistent an approach as possible and minimise disruption for claimants in receipt of ADP moving to Northern Ireland from Scotland. The Northern Ireland provisions are narrower, in that they will prevent duplication of disability payments only during the period when the Scottish Government pay their 13-week run on following a move from Scotland to Northern Ireland.
The noble Baroness asked what will happen when a claimant moves from England and Wales to Scotland once the agency arrangements have ended. We intend to provide a similar payment run-on to that offered by the Scottish Government. We recognise that people need time to sort out their financial affairs when they move, including making new claims to benefits. This provision will not be needed until all cases for the relevant benefit have been transferred to the Scottish Government. We are currently completing policy and legislative work on this.
The noble Baroness also asked what safeguards are in place for the transfer process for those currently on PIP. The UK and Scottish Governments are committed to ensuring safe transfer of powers and claimants between their agencies. DWP will continue to administer individual cases through agency arrangements until the Scottish Government are ready to take over payment. Both Governments are working closely on the practical and technical issues associated with the transfer of cases and data, ensuring that processes and data are safe and secure.
The noble Baroness asked what the Government are doing to reduce the time it is taking to clear a new PIP claim. This is not what we are here to debate, but we are committed to ensuring that people can access financial support through PIP in a timely manner. However, I accept that the current average time that it is taking to clear new claims is far too long. That is why we are using a blend of phone, video and face-to-face assessments to support customers and deliver a more efficient and user-centred service; where it is safe to do so, we are making in-house decisions without referral to the assessment providers; we are increasing case manager and assessment provider health professional resource; and we are prioritising new claims while safeguarding the continuity of existing awards.
The noble Baroness asked what will happen when a claimant in receipt of Scottish disability benefit moves from Scotland to England or Wales. Once the claimant notifies Social Security Scotland of their move, the Scottish Government will write to them to advise that they will continue to be paid ADP for a period of 13 weeks following the move and that they will need to make a claim to the DWP for a UK disability payment such as PIP if they so wish. The DWP and the Scottish Government are working collaboratively to ensure communications to claimants will be clear.
If the claimant is late in making a claim following a move, there is a greater risk that there will be a break in payment. However, arrears will be paid back to either the date of claim or the date the run-on ceases, depending on circumstances. If a claimant delays making an application and their ADP stops before their claim has been made, any new claim can be paid only from the date of that claim. The payment of a 13-week run-on from the Scottish Government following a move will reduce the risk of claimants experiencing a break in payment. It is, however, the claimants’ responsibility to make a claim to DWP for PIP following a move to England or Wales and to do so as early as possible to reduce the risk of seeing their payments stop.
I believe that the noble Baroness was very keen for us to say that PIP is taking far too long, and with the 13 weeks there might be a break in payment. If she will allow me to, I shall go back to the officials to get more detailed information, in the hope that I can answer her question in full.
Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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I am grateful for the considerable information that the Minister has given me. In fact, I was not asking or generally complaining about PIP being slow, which is what she said. I do think that it is too slow, but that was not my point; my point is that everything about the description of ADP suggests that the intention is that there will not be a break in payment. The Minister in reply to me has just said that the 13-week run-on will reduce the risk of a break in payment, but it is the claimants’ responsibility to apply quickly. As she seems to be suggesting that a claim cannot be made until the claimant has actually moved to England, and if there is only a 13-week run-on, and even if she applies on day one, it takes 24 weeks to process the claim, even if she discharges her responsibility with impressive speed, it seems impossible to avoid there being a break. That is what I am interested in. What are the Government going to do about that?

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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I think that I was trying to make the point, although I accept that I made it badly, that on the specific point that the noble Baroness has just raised I want to go back to the officials to get more detail, because this must have crossed their desks as a risk. If the noble Baroness will allow me, I shall write to confirm.

As I have said, the UK Government are working collaboratively with the Scottish Government to ensure that the two systems of social security will operate effectively alongside each other, and the required legislation that underpins them is delivered successfully for the people of Scotland and, where relevant, claimants in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The order highlights the importance that the UK Government place on the effective functioning of devolution. I commend the order to the House.

Motion agreed.

Early Legal Advice Pilot Scheme Order 2022

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Considered in Grand Committee
13:23
Moved by
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar
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That the Grand Committee do consider the Early Legal Advice Pilot Scheme Order 2022.

Relevant document: 29th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Wolfson of Tredegar) (Con)
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My Lords, I beg to move this statutory instrument, which establishes the early legal advice pilot scheme that will be conducted in Middlesbrough and Manchester for a time-limited period. The instrument amends part 1 of Schedule 1 to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, colloquially known as LASPO, to bring civil legal services for certain housing debt and welfare benefit matters in scope of legal aid for the purposes of the pilot scheme. It makes consequential amendments to secondary legislation for the purposes of that pilot scheme. The draft order is made using the powers conferred by LASPO itself.

The instrument lays the necessary foundations to put the pilot scheme into operation and signifies a crucial step in delivering a key commitment made in the Ministry of Justice’s legal support action plan, which we published in 2019. Through the pilot scheme, we will test the impact of early legal advice on the resolution of legal problems. We will also seek to quantify the benefits to individuals, their support networks, the Government and, ultimately, the taxpayer.

Civil legal aid is available to an individual if their issue is listed in Part 1 of Schedule 1 to LASPO. Legal aid may also be available on an exceptional basis where there would be a breach, or the risk of a breach, of the individual’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights or any retained enforceable EU rights. This is known as exceptional case funding, or ECF.

Eligibility for legal aid, for both in-scope matters and ECF, is subject to a statutory means and merits assessment. The means test sets out that, if an individual’s capital or disposable income is above a certain threshold, they are generally not eligible for legal aid. There are different merits tests depending on the type of case but, generally, the merits test provides for a cost-benefit test and a “prospects of success” test. If those tests are not met, again, funding would not be granted. Under the current arrangements, legal aid for social welfare law matters such as debt, housing and welfare benefits is limited to the most urgent and important circumstances, for example if an individual is at risk of losing their home through eviction or repossession. This is so that legal aid is targeted at those who need it most.

However, during the post-implementation review of LASPO, we heard from respondents that the reforms in that Act, which came into effect in 2013, might have caused increased financial costs to individuals, their support networks and the Government. Those respondents explained that individuals experiencing social welfare legal problems, especially related to housing, were now unable to resolve their problems at an early opportunity. This meant that they were now likely to experience problem-clustering and problem escalation, each of which can lead to costly intervention. Frequently cited examples included increased use of court services for possession proceedings; greater reliance on welfare benefit and on temporary and permanent accommodation services; and increased use of health services for stress and anxiety.

Although we have some anecdotal evidence to support the view that early legal advice could produce benefits to individuals and to local and central government, there is limited empirical evidence. In particular, there is limited evidence in relation to the financial impact of early intervention through the legal aid scheme. I am sure we can all agree that the argument that early intervention can result in cost savings feels intuitively correct. However, in order to make robust arguments for funding for early legal advice and ensure that we provide value for money for the taxpayers who will fund it, we need an argument based on actual evidence. We are therefore bringing these matters into scope and using the pilot scheme as an opportunity to gather robust, quantitative evidence that can demonstrate whether early legal advice can lead to early problem resolution, thus bringing savings to the public purse.

The pilot will be in two specific areas—Manchester and Middlesbrough—and will be time limited, from 1 April 2022 to 31 March 2024. Individuals will be eligible if they live, or habitually reside, in the area of Manchester City Council or Middlesbrough City Council. They must be selected to participate by a person appointed by the Lord Chancellor, who will publish guidance explaining who the person will be—they might be an independent evaluator—and how they must select participants. Participants will receive a maximum of three hours of advice and assistance for housing, debt and welfare benefit matters.

We have worked closely with legal aid providers and other government departments to devise the pilot scheme and finalise the terms of this amendment. The amendment to Part 1 of Schedule 1 to LASPO in this instrument brings these matters into scope for legal aid, subject to some exclusions outlined in the order; for example, participants cannot receive advocacy or representation services. This reflects the intentions of the pilot because it is all about advice before court proceedings are initiated.

It covers, therefore, civil legal services relating to advice and assistance in relation to housing, debt and welfare benefits for a maximum of three hours. Participants can receive advice and assistance irrespective of whether their matters fall into one or all of those categories. They will receive holistic advice on all those categories as far as needed. The maximum time for advice is fixed at three hours, but there is no means or merits test. The only criteria are the geographical requirements and that they are included in the pilot scheme by the person appointed by the Lord Chancellor.

13:30
I should also point out to the Committee that there are some technical amendments to other instruments. It amends the regulations on financial resources, merits criteria and remuneration. The financial resources and merits criteria regulations set out the means and merits tests, and they are amended, as I explained, to enable participants to meet the means and merits tests. The amendments to the remuneration regulations introduce a new fee for the legal providers undertaking work as part of the scheme. They will be asked to provide information and data for the purposes of assessing the pilot in addition to the information they normally provide to the legal aid scheme, as any legal provider would do. Because they are being asked to do more, we will pay them an extra 25% uplift to reflect that extra burden of providing information for the pilot.
The essential point is that this will enable us, we hope, to have an evidence base to allow us to determine whether a service as set out in the pilot would provide meaningful benefit to individuals and local and central government. We think this is the best way to proceed so we can obtain that evidence, and I commend the instrument to the Committee.
Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD)
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An evidence base? The clue to these proceedings was in the Minister saying that they are looking for savings to the public purse. I think the Treasury is definitely behind this.

When I was a humble solicitor in the 1960s, I used to fill in a green form for people to give them advice. In 1973, a simple green form scheme was introduced and in 1994 the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, then Lord Chancellor, described it as

“an important means of access to legal advice for people on low incomes. In 1993/94, over 1,600,000 people received help from the … scheme.”—[Official Report, 3/11/1994; col. WA 73.]

I fail to see why we now need a highly expensive two-year study to find out whether there is a need for such advice. It is obvious. It was in 2013 that the coalition Government, I am afraid, reformed the scope of civil legal aid in the LASPO Act, including, as the memorandum tells us,

“the removal of funding for early legal advice and support for most social welfare law.”

Some reform that was.

As for research, the Explanatory Memorandum states in paragraph 7.3:

“While research by organisations such as Citizens Advice, Shelter, the Law Society and the Equality and Human Rights Commission was persuasive in suggesting a link between early legal advice and downstream benefits, officials in the department concluded that their findings did not robustly quantify the financial savings for government, nor did they account for the costs of individuals whose problems would not be resolved with early legal advice”.


So there has been considerable research by NGOs, all pointing the same way.

The Government produced their review in 2019, and it has been knocking about for three years before anything was done under it. There will now be a two-year pilot scheme, very limited to 1,600 individuals in Manchester and Middlesbrough. Some five years will elapse from the review that the Government themselves carried out.

The Government describe the pilot scheme in this way:

“the Ministry of Justice is commissioning a process, impact, and value for money evaluation to support the effective delivery of the project, and the generation of robust impact evidence. An initial phase ahead of pilot delivery will be an in-depth feasibility study to fully assess and recommend a robust, practical research pilot and evaluation design”.

It is

“the gold-standard approach to assessing impact, highly novel in the Access to Justice policy area.”

These very helpful answers were provided to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, whose questioning of the Ministry of Justice was admirable and full and produced a lot of information that I need not go into. But there we are: gold-plated research, which means that people whose needs were seen in 2019 will have a five-year wait before anything happens, and we do not even know whether it will happen then because it will depend on the evaluation of the gold-plated people of the project.

We currently face a great rise in deprivation that will happen to people in this country. The situation as we know it is dire and will get worse, with price rises and additional taxes. Now is the time for the people in this category—the people I used to advise in those far-off days when we did not live in a very rich area—to be given support, not in 2024 and thereafter. This is a disgrace.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has given us an historical context for what we are receiving through this statutory instrument. We of course support it, because it goes some way to ameliorating the position we have had since the massive cuts in 2013 with LASPO. The noble Lord has made the broader points, with which I agree.

I want to focus on two particular questions, one of which was asked by my honourable friend Afzal Khan when this matter was debated in the House of Commons. He contacted the Greater Manchester Law Centre and the Law Society there, the only two welfare benefit and legal aid providers in Manchester city and the only two debt legal aid providers in Middlesbrough, one of which also advises on welfare benefit law. He made the point in the House of Commons that the scheme will undoubtedly create an increase in demand. There was scepticism, from that limited number of providers, whether the three-hour limit is enough in itself and whether the pay is enough for those three hours. How, given that there is very likely to be an increase in demand, will the ministry respond?

The Minister used a couple of phrases that I thought were appropriate when he talked about the problem of the clustering of cases around a multitude of different contexts—housing, welfare and the like—and about the problem of escalation. From different parts of our working lives outside this House, we all know that both of those things are right and true, both in the housing context and the criminal justice context as a whole—something I know from my work in magistrates’ courts.

The Minister said that there was limited evidence of financial benefit from early intervention. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, expressed extreme scepticism, and I agree with him: there is a multitude of reports about the benefits of early intervention, and I have lost track of the number of early-intervention pilots that I have seen on the criminal justice side that have fallen by the wayside for various reasons.

I will raise another question, which comes from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee report’s appendix 2:

“Further information from the Ministry of Justice on the draft Early Legal Advice Pilot Scheme Order 2022”.


Question 1c is as follows:

“The wording of the SI indicates that those who are selected but receive no advice will also be informed that they are part of the pilot—will that control group also be required to fill in any evaluation or description of their experience? Otherwise, they will be just like any other Housing benefit claimant—what marks them out?”


That is to say, what marks them out as different in the data collected? The answer is:

“The pilot is seeking to develop robust quantitative impact evidence, and so how to best collect control or comparison group evidence is a priority issue to be examined. The specific criteria and process for identifying and engaging the control or comparison group is to be determined based on feasibility work to be undertaken by the independent evaluator.”


I did not read that out very well, but I understand what it means. My experience on the family court side is that a large number of people drop out of the system. Advice is made available and people start accessing it, but then the process becomes difficult and tiresome and people just stop engaging.

So, arising out of that question and answer, my question to the Minister is: will there be an evaluation of people who start the process but do not finish it? That is part of the overall cost, and it is also a demonstration of the impact or otherwise of these schemes. As I say, from my experience in a different context—family law—a very big part of the overall picture is the people who do not pursue the advice and support that are available to them because doing so is just too burdensome.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I am very grateful for the contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. I will pick up a few points in response. On the Treasury being behind it, I say that this is not a Treasury-driven measure, in the sense that the sole focus is not the public purse. But we have to recognise that the Treasury is ultimately behind the legal aid system: it is funded by the public purse, and we have to make sure that we get value for money.

One of the things that we are doing here is trying to answer this question—we all feel this instinctively, perhaps, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said, there are lots of people in the market, so to speak, who say, “Spend some money now; you’ll save more money later on”. But we want to have some robust evidence to see to what extent that is actually the case—and also to see to which particular groups it applies more and to which it applies less. We have a very diverse population, and one of the things that we will be able to do in the pilot is look at people with different backgrounds and needs and see the extent to which the early legal advice actually helps. Although I am well aware of the research by the various NGOs that the noble Lord mentioned, that is not empirical evidence. We do not have the robust, quantitative evidence that we will get from the pilot.

I will pick up the points made the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, who asked a few questions around time limits and associated points. First, on the appropriateness of the fee, I explained the 25% uplift. To obtain the figure for the underlying fee, we used the existing non-London hourly rates for housing and family matters; that generated the baseline fee for the work. We added the 25% uplift to increase the extra costs. We are confident that that will mean that we get proper take-up from providers.

13:45
As to why the allocation is three hours and not, for example, two and a half hours or four hours, I will make two points. First, at the moment, little information is available about the average time that providers would spend with somebody requiring advice of this nature. As part of the pilot, we will ask providers to record the time that they spend. We will also ask them whether they spend that time during one appointment or over a series of appointments, because some people might come and say, “This is my problem”, and the provider might say, “Ah, I can help you on that, but I need to see a particular document that you haven’t brought with you. So please make another appointment and come back”. So they might have an initial half-hour, for example, and then another two and a half hours later. The pilot will enable us to gather that evidence. To make this administratively simple, the way we are doing this is that, even if the provider spends only two and a half hours, there is a flat fee for three hours with the 25% uplift. There may be a bit of rough with the smooth, so to speak, in that we have sought to make it simple because we want providers to engage and we want proper take-up.
On the other point made by the noble Lord—I say respectfully that it was a very good point—we will follow up on the experience of people who are part of the scheme. Specifically on dropouts, it may be a bit more difficult, but we will attempt to follow up on the experience of people who dropped out and ask them why they dropped out. Was it because they did not like the provider, for example? Was it because they thought their issue was a housing issue but it turned out that it was a different issue? We are focused on that; it is an important point.
I hope I have responded to the main points that were made. I am grateful for the broad support for the instrument, even if it is on the basis that heaven rejoices over all sinners who repent. At least there was broad agreement on the principles underlying the pilot; I therefore commend the instrument to the Committee.
Motion agreed.
Baroness Barker Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Barker) (LD)
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My Lords, the Committee will adjourn for a few moments until the people involved in the next business are in place.

13:48
Sitting suspended.

Airports Slot Allocation (Alleviation of Usage Requirements) Regulations 2022

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Considered in Grand Committee
13:49
Moved by
Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie
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That the Grand Committee do consider the Airports Slot Allocation (Alleviation of Usage Requirements) Regulations 2022.

Relevant document: 29th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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My Lords, I beg to move that the regulations be considered.

Slots are a means of managing scarce capacity at the busiest airports. Ordinarily, airlines must operate slots 80% of the time to retain rights to them the following year. This is known as the 80:20 rule or the “use it or lose it” rule. In normal times, this rule helps ensure capacity is used efficiently and prevents airlines from hoarding valuable slots without using them.

The Committee will be aware that Covid-19 has caused exceptional challenges for the travel industry. One way in which the Government have supported the sector over the past four seasons has been with generous alleviation of these rules. On 11 February this year, we lifted most remaining travel restrictions, which means that people can now travel abroad and visitors can come to the UK more easily, whether for a holiday, for work or to visit loved ones. We have reopened the country, and our slot alleviation plans for the summer season are designed to support this process.

This package was developed following consultation with industry. We received 48 responses from air carriers, airports and industry bodies, which supported a wide range of different measures. Views ranged from calls for a full waiver to support for full reinstatement of the 80:20 rule, with most responses somewhere in between. We have carefully considered these views, alongside the available data, to develop this package of measures.

I shall give some brief background to this. When the pandemic initially struck, the 80:20 rule was fully waived to avoid expensive and environmentally damaging flights with few or even no passengers on board. Following the UK’s departure from the EU, the UK Government chose to extend the European Commission’s waiver of the 80:20 rule to cover the summer 2021 season, which lasted until 30 October 2021, through the Airports Slot Allocation (Alleviation of Usage Requirements) Regulations 2021. Taking the opportunity of our departure from the European Union, we then used the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Act 2021,or ATMUA, to create a more flexible set of powers that could adapt to the specific circumstances of the sector. That legislation was recognised as an essential tool to help to manage the impacts of the pandemic, and received cross-party support.

For the winter 2021 season, we used these powers for the first time. As recovery remained uncertain, our focus was on supporting the sector. Our measures were generous and exceeded the alleviation package provided by the EU. By allowing airlines to hand back full series of slots, we gave them certainty that they could retain their slots, even if not operated, which helped to mitigate some of the commercial impacts of the pandemic. This is because otherwise airlines might have chosen to incur the cost of operating near-empty flights merely to retain slots. This also reduced the likelihood of needless emissions from near-empty aircraft. We are proud that, thanks to these measures, we are not aware of any flights that have taken place solely to retain an airline’s slots.

As required by the ATMUA Act, we have determined that there is a continued reduction in demand, which is likely to persist. We consider that further alleviation measures are justified for the summer 2022 season, which runs from the 27 March to 29 October 2022. On 24 January, we therefore published this statutory instrument, setting out the package of alleviation measures that we propose to put in place for this coming summer. The draft instrument applies to England, Scotland and Wales. Aerodromes are a devolved matter in relation to Northern Ireland and, as there are currently no slot co-ordinated airports in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Executive agreed that it was not necessary for the powers in the Act to extend to, or apply in relation to, Northern Ireland.

In the draft instrument we are considering, our measures aim to encourage recovery, while protecting carriers where severe international travel restrictions remain. This includes changing the minimum usage ratio to 70:30. This means that airlines are required to use their slots at least 70% of the time to retain the right to operate them the following year. This is lower than the 80% in normal times but higher than the 50% ratio adopted for the winter season, thereby reflecting progress towards recovery.

The draft regulations include stronger provisions to avoid low-volume flying, by expanding the reasons which airlines may use to justify not using slots to include existing Covid-19-related restrictions. This will apply where measures, including flight bans and quarantine or self-isolation requirements, are applied at either end of a route and have a severe impact on demand for the route or on the viability of the route. Unlike during the winter season, this will also apply when restrictions could reasonably have been foreseen, so as to protect carriers in markets with long-term restrictions in place. There will be a three-week recovery period during which the provisions may still apply following the end of the Covid restrictions.

In addition, we will allow earlier applications for justified non-utilisation of slots. By this I mean that, where there is an official government announcement, either domestic or overseas, about the duration of the Covid restrictions, at that point the carrier will be able to ask the slot co-ordinator for justified non-use to cover the whole period. This can be done in advance and will mean that the carrier will not have to reapply every three weeks, as at present. This will allow earlier hand-back of slots, so that other carriers will have an opportunity to use them, and it will remove some of the administrative burden on airlines.

In the winter 2021 season we made provision for “full-series hand-back”—in other words, allowing an airline to retain rights to a series of slots for the following year if it returned the complete series to the slot co-ordinator for reallocation prior to the season’s start. We have decided not to continue full-series hand-back this season. It was a generous measure that reflected the uncertainty around the winter season.

Given the success of the vaccine rollout, the relaxation of travel restrictions and the more positive demand outlook for the coming summer, I believe that it is now time to move towards a normal usage ratio, but with a strengthened justified non-utilisation provision to provide protection in case of severe restrictions or the emergence of new variants of concern. These measures will cover the summer 2022 scheduling period. and we are currently considering alleviation for winter 2022. I reassure the Committee that we will consult on this later in the year.

I will say a final word about so-called “ghost flights”. Carriers in restricted markets will still be protected by our justified non-utilisation provision. For open markets, the decision to operate flights is ultimately a commercial one for airlines, but carriers will be subject to a lower than normal usage ratio of 70%. The alternative of providing unlimited relief would allow incumbent airlines to retain unused slots at airports while preventing other carriers from using them, restricting competition and ultimately harming consumers.

Through this package of measures, we aim to strike a balance between supporting the sector and encouraging recovery and the efficient use of slots. The regulations that we are considering today make use of time-limited powers designed specifically to respond to the impact of Covid. However, the Government are focused on supporting the industry not just in the short term. As the UK’s aviation sector grows, we will review the slot allocation process as a whole to ensure that it is well equipped to encourage competition, consumer choice and efficiency. I commend the instrument to the Committee.

Baroness Foster of Oxton Portrait Baroness Foster of Oxton (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his comprehensive update on the adjustment from 80:20 to 70:30. It is a reasonable and practical way forward. Could he also take into account that, although there are fewer long-haul flights to east Asia due to the impact of Covid, the closure of Russian and Siberian airspace will also have serious long-term repercussions, as the traffic from the UK naturally increases for our long-haul carriers?

Although a side issue, the knock-on effects of these airspace closures on the reduced frequency of operations will include increased fuel burn, which in turn will affect ticket prices on what are normally extremely lucrative routes. As of Sunday, carriers such as China Eastern, Air China, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air and some others with bilateral air service agreements with the UK were still flying over Russian and Siberian airspace to the UK. Some of those countries actually abstained in the vote on the invasion of Ukraine at the Security Council meeting, and will no doubt continue to fly when possible. That brings in a competition issue. I would be grateful if the Minister could take on board these points for further consideration.

14:00
Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson (LD)
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My Lords, I welcome this SI and thank the Minister for his explanation. It provides stability for the aviation sector and, importantly, removes much of the incentive for airlines to operate environmentally damaging ghost flights or flights with very few passengers just to keep their slots.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee questioned the Government’s decision to opt for 70%, which was the preferred option of airports, over 60%, the preferred option of airlines. This is a finely balanced decision based on data that is not available to me but which I hope the Government have analysed. I tend to side with the airports and hence endorse the Government’s decision, because airports have a much less flexible business model than airlines. You cannot just park up an airport; you have to keep it functioning, for certain safety reasons, even if you no longer have any commercial income.

I also welcome the Government’s additional reasons for non-utilisation of slots. The Explanatory Memorandum refers in paragraph 12.2 to what I call the game of slots played by certain airlines. It explains how attempts to consolidate valuable Heathrow slots have an impact way down the line on smaller airports—and, it is worth pointing out, on the availability and choice of flights and their price for passengers. This emphasises to me that the airlines have the upper hand here. That is another reason to endorse the Government’s decision.

However, I have one important question for the Minister, which echoes the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, with whom I fully agree. All these decisions were made prior to the recent awful war in Ukraine and its impact on many long-distance routes. There is likely to be a deterrent effect on travel to eastern Europe, which is generally regarded as being potentially affected by political instability. A vast range of frequent short-distance flights for leisure travel, as well as for business travel, to eastern Europe may be affected by this.

The noble Baroness pointed out an important loophole in the rules on overflying Russia and accepting flights in this country that have in practice flown over Russia. It is important that the Government clarify their position and amend their decisions in that regard. Can the Minister tell us what discussions the Government have had with the aviation industry about the impact of the war in Ukraine on it and what trends are emerging from what they can see so far? This is already being described as a second major challenge to our assumption that we can rely on easy international travel.

Lord Rosser Portrait Lord Rosser (Lab)
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We are in agreement with the statutory instrument so I do not intend to speak at any great length. However, I have one or two questions and queries, which may display the fact that I have not fully understood the SI rather than anything else.

The reality is, as the Minister said, that we have slots because of lack of runway capacity and, indeed, airports. Presumably, if we had sufficient runway capacity and airports, we would not need slots. Do the Government accept that that is the case? If so, is that issue of runway capacity and airports, or lack of runway capacity and airports, one that the Government intend to address, since it appears that slots are related to that situation?

There is also a reference in paragraph 6.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum to the

“allocation of slots to air carriers at congested airports”.

I almost certainly ought to know the answer to this but I cannot think of it offhand. Which UK airports are deemed congested and therefore have the slots? Is it just the obvious ones that we can probably think of, or is it rather more extensive?

I believe the Minister said in his comments that, as a result of the measures that had been taken, the Government were not aware of any flights that had taken place just to retain the slot—that is, ghost flights. I may not have understood correctly what the Minister said but, if I did, how have the Government got this information and how would they define a flight that has taken place just to retain slots? As I understand it, during the waiver period, there were a substantial number of flights at very low capacity. I know that there may be an argument that they were carrying cargo, or they may have been repatriation flights, but does that mean that the Government really have kept tabs on all those flights and have satisfied themselves that none of them was flying purely to retain a slot? Admittedly, with a waiver rule, one wonders why they would have been doing that in any case, but it would be helpful if the Minister could comment on what I believe he said about the Government not being aware of any flights just to retain the slot.

Before the pandemic, can I take it that we were in a situation whereby no flights took place just to retain slots? In other words, in the summer of 2019, how many empty or near-empty ghost flights were operated? Perhaps the answer is none at all, in order to retain an airline’s historic rights to its slots. Is it anticipated that, with the 70:30 ratio, on which there has been a lot of consultation, as the Minister said, there will be no need for any airlines to start to operate ghost flights to retain that ratio? Is that how the figure has been determined as the appropriate one for this summer?

Finally, I come back to a point to which the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, referred, on the response of the airlines. As I understand it from the Explanatory Memorandum, there were rather more airlines in favour of the 60% usage ratio, and most airports preferred 70%. The Government have decided on 70%. I am certainly in no position to say that they have got that wrong, but the noble Baroness referred to the data on which that assessment was made. I know that I am repeating a question she has already asked, but what data led the Government to decide that the 70:30 ratio was appropriate, bearing in mind that they apparently had airlines more likely to go for 60% and airports more likely to go for 70%? Was it a case for the Government of tossing a coin, or is there some hard data and evidence that led them to go down the road of 70%?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I start by thanking noble Lords for their consideration of these draft regulations. I appreciate the comments that have been made and the questions that have been asked. Before I respond, I shall say a few words about the challenges that our aviation industry has been tackling and take this opportunity to pay tribute to its efforts.

At the height of the pandemic, in April 2020, passenger numbers fell by 99% compared with the same month in 2019. Only 330,000 passengers passed through airport terminals. During the summer of 2020, passenger numbers increased as travel corridors were introduced but remained 80% below the equivalent 2019 levels. Following the introduction of the traffic light system on 17 May 2021, flight and passenger numbers rose at a steady pace between May and October 2021. In December 2021, 9.1 million passengers used UK airports but that was still 57% down on the same month in 2019.

I move on to answering the questions that were asked, if I can, in no particular order. I will start with the basic but important question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, about which UK airports we consider to be congested and which ones fall within the remit of these draft regulations. There are eight of them in the UK, including Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Bristol, London City, Stansted and Manchester. Of course, there are a lot of other airports around the UK, but they are not considered part of this.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, also asked about engagement; that ties in with some of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson. I have a bit to say about this. In November and December, we held a targeted, four-week consultation in which we asked airports, airlines and industry bodies for their views on alleviation measures and invited supporting evidence. This takes account of the noble Lord’s point about the 70:30 or 80:20 split. We received 48 responses from 36 carriers, seven airports and five industry bodies, which we carefully considered alongside the available data. I say “the available data” but, as I said in my opening speech, we took account of them all and decided to take a middle line. As ever, in a consultation, you have to take account of all views.

On the impact of these measures, I want to go a little further in answering a question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson. The impacts were carefully considered—the noble Baroness mentioned the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which is a fair point—as they were developed. We sought feedback and evidence from across the aviation sector and an impacts note was prepared to inform the advice to Ministers following the consultation. A formal impact assessment has not been prepared for this instrument because it makes provisions that are to have effect for a period of less than 12 months. That is my understanding of how the process works, which the noble Baroness may know more about than me.

I want to say some more about ghost flights in response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. There have been reports, particularly in the press, of up to 15,000 ghost flights; I think that is what the noble Lord was alluding to. The figures reported in one newspaper—it happened to be the Guardian—covered departing flights from 32 airports between March 2020 and September 2021. During this period, there was full alleviation of the slot usage rules in place. One of the purposes of this was to prevent airlines needing to operate environmentally damaging ghost flights during the Covid-19 pandemic. We do not hold data on why flights may have taken place but, given the financial pressure that the Covid pandemic has put on the aviation sector, I know that airlines will not have wanted to operate flights unless they had to. As well as maintenance and training, we believe that many of these passenger flights will have been for reasons such as carrying cargo, as the noble Lord alluded to, or returning UK citizens home when Covid restrictions were introduced or changed at short notice. I am not sure that the data one can get is an exact science but I hope that that goes some way to offering a response; it is certainly as far as I can go.

14:15
My noble friend Lady Foster and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, raised some very important and highly topical points about Russia and Russian airspace. It is too early to give a full answer on what we are doing, but I will give an overview of the aviation sanctions we have and explain the sanctions we have in place, which I hope will go part way towards being helpful. The Committee might know some of this.
UK Ministers have signed legislation bringing the existing ban on Russian aircraft under the sanctions legislation. This bans all aircraft that are Russian registered and owned, operated or chartered by persons connected with Russia or designated persons from entering UK airspace and landing in the UK effective from 5 pm on 8 March 2022. This legislation is part of an unprecedented package of sanctions that delivers the highest economic costs we have ever imposed on the Kremlin. This is a necessary act to hold the Russian Government to account for their actions in Ukraine, a sovereign democratic state.
These measures also include powers to detain Russian aircraft already at an airport and to direct them out of UK airports, as well as to ensure that anyone sanctioned by the UK can no longer register aircraft and will have any existing registrations terminated in the UK. Our actions are legitimate and proportionate as a response to Russian aggression towards Ukraine and its failure to comply with its wider international obligations. I hope the Committee would wholeheartedly agree with that.
To address the question raised by my noble friend on our aircraft flying into Asia and needing to avoid airspace, that is the gist of my point: it is too early to give a view on that, although it is quite clear that will have an effect on the length of flights and fuel consumption. It is something we will get back to the noble Baroness and the Committee on. She raises a very important point.
To go back to the regulations, overall, throughout this period, we have supported the industry not just through slot alleviation but since the start of the pandemic. We estimate that the air transport sector will have benefited from around £8 billion of government support. We have seen some new services start, both to European destinations and transatlantic. Since the international travel changes implemented on 11 February, the UK now has one of the most open and streamlined Covid-19 border regimes in the world. That is why we feel the time is right to focus on recovery and to allow the sector to move towards normal, notwithstanding what is going on in Ukraine.
To conclude, without this instrument there would be a return to the default 80:20 slot usage rule. Although the sector is recovering, we believe there is still a need for relief to reflect lower passenger demand to avoid empty or near-empty flights, as well as to support carriers serving severely restricted markets and to protect connectivity. I hope the Committee has found this informative.
Baroness Foster of Oxton Portrait Baroness Foster of Oxton (Con)
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Just before my noble friend’s final comments, can he address another point of concern that I made? Notwithstanding that some airlines such as those I outlined are still coming into the UK—China Airlines and so on, which are obviously using Russian airspace to come here—I emphasised that if that continues we will end up with predominantly a competition issue, apart from other issues, whereby we are building our traffic flying to east Asia but it has to go the long way round, which obviously adds cost, while the airlines I mentioned may continue to use Russian airspace, thereby using a shorter route and burning less fuel. It therefore becomes a competition issue. Will the Minister take that away, too, for his colleagues to look at?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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My noble friend makes a good point on incoming flights being cheaper to operate than other flights. I have got that message. All that I can do is take that back to the department; I am sure that the officials will do so.

Lord Rosser Portrait Lord Rosser (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I ask this more as a matter of interest than anything else. Was it the case in the summer of 2019—that is, before Covid—that the 80:20 ratio meant that there were no ghost flights and there was no need for them? Is it the Government’s view that with the 70:30 ratio in operation this summer there ought to be no need for ghost flights?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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On the first point, yes, my understanding is that there were no ghost flights during the operation of the 80:20 rule. I wanted to make that clear but I will double-check and write to the noble Lord if I am wrong. I made that clear in my opening statement but just to be sure I will write to him. With the introduction of the 70:30 rule, the idea is that there should be no need for ghost flights. That has come about as a result of the consultation that has taken place.

Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson (LD)
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Finally and briefly, when the noble Viscount looks at the issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, raised, will he undertake to write to all of us who have taken part in this debate and set out an explanation of the Government’s view on the matter?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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Indeed. I thank the noble Baroness for that point. Actually, I was saying to myself—this goes much wider than these draft regulations—that I imagine that an enormous amount of work is going on within the airline sector, the Government and particularly within the Department for Transport as regards discussing quickly and on a timely basis how to address these demanding issues. I undertake to write to the Committee on these matters.

Motion agreed.

Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 (Disability Assistance and Information-Sharing) (Consequential Provision and Modifications) Order 2022

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Considered in Grand Committee
14:24
Moved by
Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel
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That the Grand Committee do consider the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 (Disability Assistance and Information-Sharing) (Consequential Provision and Modifications) Order 2022.

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scotland Office (Lord Offord of Garvel) (Con)
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My Lords, I beg to move that the draft order, which was laid on 31 January 2022, be approved. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this order. It is the result of collaborative working between the two Governments in Scotland. The order is made under Section 104 of the Scotland Act 1998, which allows for necessary legislative amendments in consequence of an Act of the Scottish Parliament. Scotland Act orders are a demonstration of devolution in action and I am pleased to say that, although this is my first order, my office has taken through more than 250 orders since devolution began.

The draft order amends various pieces of legislation in the United Kingdom as a consequence of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, which I shall refer to as the “2018 Act”, and regulations made under the 2018 Act. This order has been brought forward as a result of the close co-operation between the UK and Scottish Governments. Through the 2018 Act, the Scottish Government can introduce new forms of disability assistance using the social security powers devolved under Section 22 of the Scotland Act 2016.

Section 31 of the 2018 Act allows the Scottish Government to introduce a payment to provide financial assistance for disabled people in Scotland, called disability assistance. Disability assistance will replace three existing benefits currently delivered by the Department for Work and Pensions: disability living allowance, personal independence payment and attendance allowance. Through these powers the Scottish Government have legislated that adult disability payment will replace personal independence payment, beginning with a pilot on 21 March 2022.

From introduction, adult disability payment will operate in broadly the same way for broadly similar people as personal independence payment. Applications will be accepted from individuals between 16 years old and state pension age. It is the UK and Scottish Governments’ intention that there will be equitable treatment for those individuals receiving personal independence payment and adult disability payment. If this order is passed, it will ensure the equitable treatment of individuals in receipt of adult disability payment and personal independence payment with regard to tax treatments, benefits, entitlements and voting rights.

I will next outline the details of what the order does to ensure that people receiving adult disability payment receive equitable treatment with those on personal independence payment. In terms of changes to taxation legislation, the order will extend the definition of a disabled person to include individuals in receipt of a qualifying rate and component of adult disability payment. This will apply in two cases: first, where the tax treatment of property is held in a trust for the benefit of a disabled person; and, secondly, to the early withdrawal of funds from a child trust fund or junior ISA if the young person is terminally ill.

The order also extends provision to ensure that those on adult disability payment benefit from the following reliefs: a VAT zero rate for the leasing of vehicles to individuals under the Motability scheme; a VAT zero rate for the onward sale of vehicles previously let under the scheme; an exemption from insurance premium tax on the insurance covering vehicles leased under the Motability scheme; eligibility for a driving licence at age 16 rather than 17 when the individual has an award of the enhanced rate of the mobility component of adult disability payment; and an exemption or a 50% reduction in vehicle excise duty if the individual receives either the enhanced rate or the standard rate of the mobility component respectively. The order will also allow the DVLA to request data from Scottish Ministers to confirm whether an individual is eligible for a driving licence at age 16 or eligible for reliefs in vehicle excise duty.

The order also ensures that adult disability payment can act as a qualifying benefit for the annual Christmas bonus, carer’s credit and carer’s allowance in England and Wales. The latter will ensure continued entitlement to the reserved carer’s allowance in the small number of instances where someone in England and Wales is caring for an individual in Scotland. The order also makes changes to election legislation to entitle those receiving the enhanced rate of the mobility component of adult disability payment to a proxy vote at UK parliamentary and local elections. It also allows for this group to provide a proxy signature for a recall petition without attestation of the application.

Lastly, corresponding provisions for entitlement to carer’s allowance and carer’s credit have been included for Northern Ireland. This will ensure that a carer can apply for support in relation to an individual who has moved from Scotland to Northern Ireland while remaining in receipt of adult disability payment for the 13-week run, affording the individual time to apply and be assessed for personal independence payment.

As I highlighted earlier, all these changes simply ensure that the system for disabled people who are receiving adult disability payment operates in an equitable way, as for a disabled person receiving personal independence payment. These changes are not within the competence of the Scottish Parliament, and the UK Government are therefore facilitating them through this order. This ensures that people in Scotland are not disadvantaged by devolution, meeting the principles set out in the Smith commission.

14:30
Finally, the UK and Scottish Governments have worked closely together to ensure that the two systems of social security operate effectively alongside each other, and that the required legislation that underpins them is delivered successfully for the people of Scotland. This order highlights the importance that the UK Government place on the effective functioning of devolution and the strength of the union.
Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for that introduction, and indeed welcome him to the special joys of secondary legislation consideration in the House of Lords. I wish him many more in the future.

We support this order and are pleased to see the Scottish Government using the powers transferred to them under the 2016 Act and subsequent legislation—although I briefly venture that we might wish that they had been a little speedier in so doing. However, to say that is to grumble. As we have heard, the Scottish Government are introducing disability assistance for disabled people, and this new adult disability payment has been created to replace DLA, PIP and attendance allowance, starting with a pilot on 21 March. Indeed, a little earlier in Grand Committee, we were debating an order relating to how the ADP will interact with benefits in the rest of the UK. I will not go back over the other questions, but, as the Minister indicated, the order also extends exemptions in relation to mobility, vehicle exemption, access to early driving licences and the definition of a “disabled person” in some tax and benefit legislation.

I have a couple of questions. The Minister said:

“At its introduction, adult disability payment will operate in broadly the same way and for broadly the same group of people as personal independence payment.”—[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee, 2/3/22; col. 3.]


I take that to mean that the conditions for eligibility for ADP will be the same as for PIP, at least at introduction. Does the Minister know whether it is intended that the benefits will continue to be in alignment, or might they diverge over time? Does he know whether there will be a similar, or indeed the same, assessment process for accessing ADP as for accessing PIP? That could make a difference if someone was in receipt of one benefit and moved to the other jurisdiction.

What discussions have the UK Government had with the Scottish Government about how this transition will work? When this order was debated in the Delegated Legislation Committee in the other place, the Minister, Iain Stewart, said:

“The 13 weeks is a safety net, and applications can be made in advance. It is there to ensure that payments can continue if there is some delay, so that no one is disadvantaged.”—[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee, 2/3/22; col. 8.]


I took that to mean that an application for PIP could made while someone was still living in Scotland—in other words, in advance—in order to avoid any gap in payments. But I raised this with the DWP Minister in relation to the earlier DWP order, and, although I have not had the chance to read Hansard, I got the impression that this was not the case: someone would have to wait until they moved to England to make that application. But, if the Minister knows, I would be grateful to understand that—I may not have heard it correctly.

Either way, the intention of the run-on is clearly to ensure that there is no gap in payment for someone moving from Scotland to England. But is the Minister aware that the latest official statistics show that it takes 24 weeks for a claim for PIP to be processed? So, if there is a 13-week run-on and a 24-week application process, I wonder whether there have been discussions between the two Governments about how to manage that. Again, I raised this with DWP, but it is a matter for both departments to consider.

Could the Minister tell us what discussions have happened between the UK and Scottish Governments to ensure that disabled people in different parts of the UK are informed of the consequences of a move to or from Scotland? What support will be put in place to ensure a seamless transition from previous benefits to the new regime administered in Scotland? Ministers have said that the intention is that there will be a run-on going the other way as well, but we do not know when yet—so obviously that is an issue in the short term.

Finally, I have one brief question. There will need to be effective interaction between these new Scottish systems and the existing UK infrastructure, including in respect of DVLA as well as DWP. So how do we ensure that both those systems work well and that people who are getting benefits are aware of possibly different timescales and application mechanisms—and, as a result, know what to do? These benefits go to some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and it is very important that they work well. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, for her comments. It is indeed interesting that the first instrument on this afternoon’s Order Paper covered the same piece of legislation from the other end; we are joined up in that respect. The question here is broadly about the same way and the same people. The principles are very much that the two Governments work in lock-step; that the treatment of individuals in the UK should be the same, whichever jurisdiction they happen to be in; and that, at the current moment in time, there is absolutely equal treatment in terms of qualification and payments between the two countries.

However, as part of the Scotland Act and the Smith commission, a transfer is ongoing. This is in fact the 12th such benefit to be moved north of the border. Effectively, it allows the Scottish Government not only to become the payer but to have the machinery to make payments through Social Security Scotland. The customer should see absolutely no difference in this transition but, going forward, we have pilots starting in Perth and Kinross, Dundee and the Western Isles. Initially, new claimants will come on to the new system. The idea is that, from the summer onwards, 300,000 people will be transferred across from the English system to the Scottish system. However, it is absolutely not our place to debate in this place how that will go forward. When we transfer those powers, we do so on an equal basis; it will then be for the Scottish Government to decide how they will legislate for their programme of government. We cannot comment at this point as to whether there will be divergence; that will be a matter for the Scottish Government.

As far as the 13-week timeframe is concerned, that is considered reasonable. I heard the point made in the first debate about 24 weeks, which seems rather long. I know that the Minister in that regard will write; the question of what will happen if there is a gap is one that we will probably come back to. The objective here is to have no gap, so that, as claimants move from one region to the other, they can apply and be assessed within 13 weeks, and continue—and, indeed, be backdated as well. The spirit of this legislation is that there should be no gap, but the specific question about 24 weeks needs to be looked at, so I will combine with the Minister from the first debate, my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott, on that one.

Crucially, the notification of customers is dependent on what we now call customer care. It should be done with the customers. The DWP must write to customers who are transferring, and anyone coming south of the border again must be notified by Social Security Scotland. One has to assume that the agencies involved will do that and take care of the process. At the end of the day, the DWP and Social Security Scotland will co-operate closely. Their objective will be to ensure that there is no detriment to disabled people as a result of the introduction of the adult disability payment.

I conclude by saying that this instrument demonstrates the continued commitment of the UK Government to work with the Scottish Government to deliver for Scotland and maintain a functioning settlement for Scotland.

Motion agreed.

Flood Reinsurance (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Considered in Grand Committee
14:39
Moved by
Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That the Grand Committee do consider the Flood Reinsurance (Amendment) Regulations 2022.

Relevant document: 29th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait The Minister of State, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park) (Con)
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My Lords, the instrument before us was laid before the House on 27 January. It makes important changes to the Flood Re scheme, a joint government and industry scheme launched in 2016 designed to improve the availability and affordability of UK household flood insurance.

In 2019, the scheme administrator, Flood Re, published its first quinquennial review. This is a statutory requirement. Flood Re made several recommendations to the Government. A number of proposals have since been assessed and consulted on, leading to the changes set out in this instrument.

To date, Flood Re has helped more than 350,000 households at high risk of flooding across the UK to access affordable insurance. Before Flood Re, just 9% of policyholders with a prior flood claim could obtain flood insurance quotes from two or more insurers, and none could get quotes from five or more. Following the scheme’s launch in 2016, the availability of flood insurance policies for those with prior flood claims has increased. Around 96% of customers can now get five or more quotes, and four out of five householders with a prior flood claim have seen price reductions of more than 50% since the scheme’s launch.

Building on this success, the statutory instrument makes technical changes to the scheme to improve its efficiency and effectiveness and changes to drive the uptake of property flood resilience measures, helping the UK to become more resilient to the changing climate. I will outline these measures in turn.

The statutory instrument designates a revised scheme, as described in the new scheme document dated 19 January 2022. The scheme document provides the framework for Flood Re to administer the scheme. First, the new scheme document will allow Flood Re to propose a revision to levy 1 every three years instead of every five, and reflects the Government’s assurance process. Levy 1 is the scheme’s primary income, raised from UK household insurers based on their market share. The revised levy amount will be subject to parliamentary approval every three years. This change will allow Flood Re to obtain better value for money when purchasing reinsurance and be more dynamic in response to the potentially changing risk profile. The instrument amends the figure for levy 1 from £180 million to £135 million per year for the next three years. This will ensure that the total levy is no higher than it needs to be.

Secondly, the new scheme document will allow Flood Re to set the liability limit— this sets the maximum amount of claims that Flood Re is liable to pay to insurers in any one financial year—every three years instead of every five. This will align it with the levy-setting cycle and afford Flood Re greater flexibility to respond to the scheme’s changing income needs and risk profile.

Thirdly, the new scheme document also makes a technical clarification that levy 1 funds will be returned to the Government when the scheme ends, in line with the established agreement between the Government and Flood Re.

I now turn to the change that will help drive the uptake of property flood resilience in UK households. We have seen only recently the devastation that can be caused by flooding and the impact on the lives and health of those households that are affected. Property flood resilience gives homes and businesses the tools to manage the impact that flooding has on their property and their lives, enabling them to respond and recover more quickly if flooding happens.

The new scheme document will allow Flood Re to pay claims from insurers ceding to the scheme, which include an amount of resilient repair up to a value of £10,000 above the cost of like-for-like reinstatement of actual flood damage. This will allow UK householders to build back better after a flood, making their homes more resilient to possible future flooding by using products such as air brick covers, flood doors, water-resistant kitchens and plasterboard. Resilient repair will enable homeowners to return to their homes quicker and reduce the cost of any future claims.

Build back better is being introduced on a voluntary basis. Insurance companies who cede to the scheme can choose whether to offer build back better to their customers. Participating insurers will be able to start offering build back better soon after the regulations come into force. Flood Re, the scheme administrator, will require insurers choosing to participate in build back better to offer it across their home insurance offerings rather than just on insurance policies ceded to Flood Re, thus ensuring consistency and fairness for all customers.

By providing Flood Re with the power to pay claims to fund resilient repair over and above normal reinstatement, the Government and Flood Re aim to drive a cultural shift across the insurance market, driving positive changes in supply chains, raising awareness and demand for property flood resilience, and helping to capture the evidence on the benefits of property flood resilience to support future changes in the market.

The Government will publish a property flood resilience road map at the end of this year, identifying the action that government and industry need to take to accelerate the take-up of property flood resilience measures and successfully underpin the market. This will ensure that all relevant bodies play their part and that consumers can have assurance about the quality of products and their installation. The road map will consider whether any changes to build back better are required to strengthen and improve it. Any future regulations brought forward making further changes to the Flood Re scheme would receive parliamentary scrutiny through the affirmative procedure, as required by the Water Act 2014.

Flood risk management policy is devolved. However, insurance policy, including the operation and application of the Flood Re scheme, is a reserved policy. Any changes to the scheme, including those in this instrument, take effect across the UK. The Government have engaged extensively with the devolved Administrations throughout the development of these changes; they support their implementation. No impact assessment has been prepared for this instrument because it has no significant impact on business, charities or voluntary bodies. Most impacts on business are anticipated to be either neutral or positive. There is also no impact on the public sector.

I commend these regulations to the Committee.

14:45
Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Portrait Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to this statutory instrument, which seems fairly straightforward. However, I have a number of questions to ask him, if he is able to answer.

The Flood Re scheme was set up as part of the Water Bill in 2014 after the horrific flooding we witnessed during that winter. It was to ensure that, for those properties whose owners would find it almost impossible to gain flood insurance cover on the open market, the owners would not be left with no redress. The fund was to be paid for by a levy on all insurance companies, so spreading the load. The figure at that time was £180 million, as the Minister said; as a result of this statutory instrument, the figure is being reduced to £135 million.

The Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Climate Change Committee, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, anticipates that flooding is likely to increase rather than decrease. In that case, how can the Government be sure that reducing the Flood Re fund by £45 million will not have a negative impact on those who cannot get insurance on the open market? Surely the fund should be monitored at the very least, or increase in anticipation of future demands on it.

The Explanatory Memorandum is clear that these regulations designate a new FR scheme. Given that the existing flood reinsurance scheme is working well, why is it necessary to have a new one? Apart from the difference in the sum involved, in what way will the new scheme be different from the existing FR scheme?

Paragraph 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that the liability limit will be reviewed

“every three years instead of every five.”

That is fine. The liability limit was £2.1 billion in 2016, with increases in line with the consumer prices index. Can the Minister say what the liability limit is currently, in 2022? It is important to review the limit but it has to be done in conjunction with the risk profile, as identified by climate change professionals, not just what Defra officials think might happen.

Paragraph 7.5 of the EM states that the surplus funds on the wind-up of the existing scheme will return to the Government. Can the Minister say why this surplus is not being transferred into the new scheme? This seems to me to be a mistake. If the insurance companies are paying a levy towards Flood Re, surely they should be the ones to reap the benefit of any surplus in the existing fund. Paragraph 12.3 refers to the lack of an impact assessment, as there is a negligible impact on businesses. If the surplus in the existing fund were transferred back to the insurers, it would have no impact at all on business. The Government are attempting to have their cake and eat it.

The new scheme will allow insurers on a voluntary basis to make payments of up to £10,000 for resilience repair—build back better—over and above the cost of like-for-like reinstatement of actual flood damage. My recollection is that this resilience repair element was part of the original commitment of Flood Re. Can the Minister say whether this was ever implemented from the start? If not, why not? Resilience is a vital element of this scheme.

I cannot see any reason why a new fund has to be set up if the existing one is operating well and has surplus funds in it. I am sorry to say that I feel something of a sleight of hand is going on here; at best, there is a distinct lack of transparency. Given the view of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Climate Change Committee that the incidence of flooding is likely to increase in future, I feel the reduction in the levy pot by £45 million is premature. Can the Minister reassure us that, for those who have access to the Flood Re fund, it will be there when they need it?

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Portrait Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful introduction to this SI and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for drawing it to our attention. I had a strong sense of déjà vu when reading it, as I was present when the first SI was debated back in 2015, which clearly illustrates that I have been in the job too long. I remember our original debates and will come back to some of the issues raised then.

Since then, the UK has suffered more regular and devastating extreme weather events, as the noble Baroness has said, with the result that thousands of properties are being flooded, many on a repeat basis. This has underlined the need for more robust and accessible home insurance. It is good to hear that Flood Re has been judged a success and that it has helped thousands of homeowners in flood risk areas who would otherwise have struggled to insure their homes, as the Minister was saying. It was also reassuring to hear that the scheme has met its initial liquidity and capital requirements and has a high solvency ratio, making it financially secure. On this basis, we accept that it makes sense to reduce the levy on insurance companies from £180 million to £135 million a year.

However, a number of questions arise from the proposals, which I would be grateful if the Minister could address. First, the Explanatory Memorandum referred to the statutory quinquennial review of the FR scheme and the recommendations that arose from it. Have all the recommendations of that review been agreed by government and put forward in this amended proposal today, or are there other recommendations still out there or under consideration or which have been rejected by the Government?

Secondly, as we have heard, one of the recommendations before us today is the build back better proposal to allow claims up to the value of £10,000 to enable homeowners to fund flood-resilient improvements over and above any like-for-like repairs. This is a welcome initiative, but paragraph 12.3 makes it clear that the participation of insurers in the build back better supplement will be voluntary. Why was it not made compulsory for all insurers to offer this payment, given the urgent need to make our properties more resilient to flood risk in future? Do we have any information about the appetite of insurers to pay this extra supplement? The Minister quoted some statistics, but I would be grateful if he could confirm what proportion of insurers are providing the build back better facility.

Thirdly, I return to some of the concerns raised when the original scheme was introduced which still seem relevant today. Are the poorest and most vulnerable—those in tenanted and rented properties—still excluded from the scheme? It really does not seem right that people living in the same or adjoining properties could have access to different standards of flood insurance purely on the basis of the status of those living in the property. Do you still have to be the homeowner to qualify? Since the scheme now appears to be financially secure, what consideration was given to extending access to it to wider categories of claimants, such as tenants?

Can the Minister clarify the current status of farmhouses? I know that this has been a concern for the farming community. Most people would say that they are primarily residential properties, even if they also act as a business address. Can farmhouses join the Flood Re scheme?

Finally, could the Minister clarify whether we are still focusing on properties deemed in high-risk flood areas? Given the recognised threat of extreme weather events arising from climate change—the noble Baroness talked about the issues raised by the Adaptation Sub-Committee on this—how can we be sure that the right areas are now being designated as high-risk flood areas? Has not our experience of flood risk in recent years been that it is increasingly hard to define? Does the Environment Agency have the resources to reassess and redesignate flood risk areas from low to high risk with sufficient speed to ensure that insurers can respond accordingly? What further powers are the Government proposing to give to the Environment Agency to ensure that no further properties are built in high-risk flood areas against its advice, as can happen at the moment?

These are all issues that need to be addressed if Flood Re is to achieve its true potential. I hope the Minister can address them. I look forward to his response.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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I thank noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. I will address the questions put to me.

As has been noted, the levy will reduce from £180 million to £135 million per year for the next three years. That is based on an assessment that £135 million is what is needed. The view is that we do not want to set the levy higher than it needs to be because it is effectively a form of tax.

I note the arguments put forward by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Jones, that everything suggests that flood risk is increasing and that volatile weather patterns are likely to become more so, but the scheme is not designed to be the UK’s answer to flood risk; it is a part of the answer. There is a whole bunch of other policies designed to make the UK more resilient in the face of increasingly volatile weather. For example, a major component of the environmental land management subsidy system is about better land management to create more resilience. Our tree strategy, the peat strategy and so on are all different components of it. There is the grey infrastructure component of the work Defra is doing as well. This is just part of the much wider approach the UK is taking.

The scheme is financially secure. Flood Re has met its initial liquidity and capital requirements and has a high solvency ratio. The Government have undertaken the necessary due diligence to assure themselves that Flood Re has enough funds to cover any losses as a result of a major flood event. The Government Actuary’s Department agrees that £135 million is suitable and well within the risk appetite of Flood Re.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked about the liability limit. Flood Re has set the liability limit at £1.9 billion from 1 April 2022 for the following three years. This is a non-statutory change already approved by the Secretary of State for the Environment, aligned with the Government’s assurance process.

Build back better will play a key role in helping to increase the resilience of UK households to flooding. We hope that it will drive a cultural shift across the insurance market, driving positive changes in supply chains, raising awareness and demand for property flood resilience, and helping to capture the evidence on the benefits of property flood resilience to support future changes in the market.

Research by Defra and Flood Re has demonstrated that the additional investment for flood resilience over standard repair can be as high as £35,000, but averages to around £5,200. However, the Government recognise that the cost of making different properties resilient may still exceed the contribution from build back better. Insurers and/or the householders can choose to pay for build back better above the £10,000 cap if that is what they want to do.

15:00
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked whether the scheme is open to farm buildings. It is open to them but not to outbuildings—the precise definition of which I am unable to offer her now but I will do so if she asks me to follow up in writing.
Build back better is being introduced on a voluntary basis, as I have said. The reason why it is not a mandatory scheme is that we calculate it is very much in the interests of the insurance companies to buy into it, if additional flood resilience measures have a knock-on effect in terms of the costs they are likely to bear going forward. Insurance companies that cede to the scheme can choose whether to offer build back better to their customers, but I am encouraged to hear that insurers representing a big proportion of the home insurance market have already applied to participate. While the noble Baroness was talking, I tried to find exactly how many have signed up, but I am afraid that I do not have the figures so will come back to her. However, I am assured that it is a significant proportion of the market.
Property flood resilience is a nascent market. At this early stage, we want insurers to adopt build back better, embed it into their processes and encourage innovation and learning by doing. Flood Re will work with insurance companies to capture and contribute data and insight to assist the development of an evidence base on the impact of the policy and property flood resilience. Flood Re will encourage insurers to meet best practice when implementing build back better and will set out its expectations in the scheme’s treaty and underwriting guide. This will include recommending assessment surveys and that proposals for measures and installations are underpinned by the property flood resilience code of practice, and highlighting the training opportunities available and the BSI standards and kitemarks for insurers to use.
The Government will publish a road map by the end of 2022 to further accelerate take-up of property flood resilience measures. This will ensure all relevant bodies are playing their part and that consumers can have assurance about the quality of products and their installation. The Government have the option of tightening the regulations in the future, should that be necessary, following the publication of the PFR road map, which will identify the action required by government and industry to successfully underpin the property flood resilience market.
These changes will come into force on 1 April 2022, subject to the will of Parliament. Build back better will be a business decision by insurance companies. It will be for insurance companies that cede policies to the scheme to opt into build back better and to choose how best to offer it to their customers. The Government expect participating insurers to begin offering build back better to their customers soon after these regulations come into force.
I hope that I have covered the questions put to me. The scheme is necessary; it helps improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Flood Re schemes and builds a nation more resilient to climate change. I hope that I have reassured noble Lords on their questions.
Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Portrait Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)
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Before the Minister sits down, one question that I do not think he addressed was about high-risk flood areas. At the moment, you can access the scheme only if you live in a high-risk flood area. Obviously, that is a moveable feast these days because of extreme weather events, so it would not necessarily be the traditional areas that get flooded. There could be flash flooding in many parts of the country for all sorts of reasons. How often does the Environment Agency update that information and allow new properties to come onstream to be insured under the scheme? If we are not careful, it could become outdated very quickly and not be available to all those categories of homes that need it.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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The noble Baroness makes an important point. I am told that the Environment Agency will reissue a map of flood risk some time in 2024. As she says, even that new map will need to be continuously updated. One hopes that those areas at high risk today will not necessarily be at high risk in the years to come if the measures that we invest in now are carried out appropriately and if our rationale and assumptions are correct.

Motion agreed.

National Minimum Wage (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Considered in Grand Committee
15:05
Moved by
Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan
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That the Grand Committee do consider the National Minimum Wage (Amendment) Regulations 2022.

Lord Callanan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Lord Callanan) (Con)
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My Lords, the purpose of these regulations, which were laid before the House on 31 January 2022, is to raise the national living wage and the national minimum wage rates on 1 April 2022.

We are committed to making the UK the best place in the world to work and build a business. The pandemic has presented extraordinary circumstances. The labour market shows strong signs of recovery but both workers and businesses will be concerned about the rising cost of living. Our approach must always balance the needs of both.

The UK labour market’s recovery from the pandemic is one to be proud of. The current number of payroll employees is over 400,000 more than pre-pandemic levels, and unemployment has fallen to 4.1%. This success is in no small part due to government intervention, most notably the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which supported more than 11 million jobs over the course of the pandemic. The UK’s economic recovery has been no less impressive. GDP at the end of 2021 recovered to the pre-pandemic level and increased by an estimated 7.5% over the year.

However, we are aware that a key issue on people’s minds is the rising cost of living. We have already acted to support households with rising energy bills. We recently announced a package of measures worth £9.1 billion for 2022-23, including a £200 reduction in energy bills and a £150 rebate on council tax bills for all households in bands A to D in England. These are in addition to measures that we have already announced, such as cutting the universal credit taper rate and freezing fuel duty for the 12th year running.

Central to managing the cost of living in the long term is the creation of a high-skill, high-wage economy. We are committed to doing just that. Through policies such as the plan for jobs, we are helping people get into work and gain the skills they need to prosper, progress and succeed. We are also committed to supporting the lowest paid on this issue. Since 2015, we have increased the national living wage significantly faster than average wages and more than twice as fast as inflation, meaning more money for the lowest-paid workers. The increase in the rates this year will continue to protect the lowest paid against the increase in the cost of living.

These regulations will increase the rates of the national minimum wage and the national living wage from 1 April. We estimate that these will provide a pay rise to around 2.5 million workers. I am pleased to say that the Government accepted all the rate recommendations made by the Low Pay Commission in October 2021. The commission is an independent body that brings together the views of business and workers and is informed by expert research and economic analysis. Once again, I express my gratitude for its excellent work and well-informed recommendations.

The Government have a target for the national living wage to equal two-thirds of median earnings by 2024. Commissioners made their recommendations last October, taking into consideration the target and the strong economic and labour market recovery to that point alongside the remaining uncertainty and feedback from a wide range of stakeholders. We are delighted that this increase keeps us on track to reach our target for 2024; we remain committed to it. The Low Pay Commission made its recommendations on the basis of significant stakeholder evidence from business, workers and academic representatives. Businesses spoke of the variety of concerns they faced at that stage of recovery, as well as how they continue to plan for the future based on our target for the national living wage.

These regulations will increase the national living wage for those aged 23 and over by 59p to £9.50—an increase of 6.6%. A full-time worker on the rate will be more than £1,000 better off over the course of the year. The regulations will also increase the rates for younger workers and apprentices. Workers aged 21 and 22 will receive an increase of 82p an hour—a 9.8% increase—to see a minimum hourly rate of £9.18. Workers aged between 18 and 20 will be entitled to an extra 27p an hour, taking their rate to £6.83. Under-18s will have a 4.1% increase of 19p, to an hourly rate of £4.81. Apprentices aged under 19, or those in the first year of their apprenticeship, will receive an increase of 11.9% to an hourly rate of £4.81—51p more. This rate will remain equal to, but separate from, the under-18 rate. The regulations will also increase the amount that employers can charge workers for accommodation without it affecting their pay for national minimum wage purposes. From 1 April, it will be £8.70 per day.

Looking ahead, the Government have pledged to continue raising minimum wage rates. As set out in our manifesto, we have set a target for the national living wage to reach two-thirds of median earnings by 2024. To improve fairness for younger workers, we also have a target to further reduce the age threshold for the national living wage, making it apply to those aged 21 and over by 2024. These targets remain dependent on economic circumstances, and we will monitor the labour market carefully.

In conclusion, these regulations ensure that the lowest paid are fairly rewarded for their contribution to the economy. The Government will continue to monitor the impacts of increasing the minimum wage and will remain abreast of concerns about the cost of living. We will shortly publish the remit to the Low Pay Commission for 2022, asking it to provide recommendations for new minimum wage rates to apply from April 2023. I commend these regulations to the House.

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction and welcome the fact that the figures are being increased. The support of the Government for having a minimum wage is to be welcomed. The Bible tells us that reformed sinners are to be welcomed. It does not say that we should not remind them of their previous sins. To be honest, I wasted a bit of time re-reading the Second Reading of the National Minimum Wage Bill in your Lordships’ House in 1998. I have several good quotes. The Conservative Front-Bench spokesperson said:

“If the Government go ahead with this legislation they will have to accept that business closures will lead to extensive unemployment in country areas.”—[Official Report, 23/3/98; col. 1078.]


There are several other statements on a similar theme. So I extend a welcome to a reformed sinner.

The second, brief point I will make is that of course this is not the real national living wage, as I am sure the Minister is aware. There was a national living wage before the Government co-opted the title, and it is somewhat greater than the figure being presented to us today. So I ask the Minister: have the Government considered the continued gap between their version of the national living wage and what I regard as the real living wage?

Finally, my main point, and why I am here today, is on the issue of pensions. I argue, and ask the Minister to accept, that a national living wage has to have built into it sufficient resources so that people can retire on a decent pension. A national living wage should encompass not just the day to day but a reasonable pension when the recipient of the national living wage comes to retirement. The Low Pay Commission reported on a submission from the TUC setting out that point in some detail—it reported on it but did not respond to it. If you dig down through what the Government are doing on pensions, you see that they are simply adding a margin that reflects what a typical employer does. It begs the question: is that sufficient to provide a decent pension when people get to retirement? The answer is that it is not.

15:15
Of course, some low-paid workers miss out on any pension at all. A worker on the minimum wage working less than 12 hours a week will miss any opportunity of an automatic enrolment pension because they are not entitled to one. If they work less than 20 hours a week, they have to request employer pension contributions. There is no automatic entitlement, and we know from experience how important that is in incorporating people into the pensions system.
So we have a minimum wage that fails to deliver an adequate pension. A worker on 32 hours a week on the proposed level of the minimum wage will earn a bit under £16,000 a year. That results, given next year’s earnings limits, in an annual pension contribution from employer and employee of £765. If they maintain this level of contribution for 40 years and we assume average investment returns of 2.5%, they end up with a pension pot of less than £50,000. That is insufficient to provide that worker with an adequate pension.
Clearly, there are other things. The Government are on record as “sometime, sometime, never” increasing the minimum contributions. In the meantime, the Low Pay Commission should build into its calculations the cost of providing a decent pension. I invite the Minister to pass on the message to the Low Pay Commission that pensions are part of pay and that the minimum wage should cover the cost of a decent pension.
Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Portrait Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to these proposals, and the Low Pay Commission for the thorough and very persuasive way it has drawn up its recommendations. The labour market during the Covid era was undoubtedly worrying, but it is good to see the evidence that, since the economy has started to pick up, pay growth has been the strongest for low-paid workers. As a result, the proportion of the workforce reliant on the national living wage has fallen from 6.5% to 5.4%.

We therefore welcome the decision of the Low Pay Commission to get back on course to meet the national living wage target of reaching two-thirds of median earnings by 2024. We therefore support the increase of 6.6% in the rate, lifting it to £9.50 an hour for those aged over 23, and the subsequent rates that follow on from that.

These recommendations were finalised in December 2021, but since then we have had rising inflation, a rising cost of living and now the reality of huge increases in energy bills. The Minister referred to that. Has any provision been made for the Low Pay Commission to monitor those significant surges in the cost of living, and potentially to make emergency adjustments to the pay rate to ensure that the lowest-paid workers can survive the coming financial crisis without falling into debt? In the first instance, I suggest that the Government could go further and scrap the national insurance increases, and indeed adopt Labour’s policy of a minimum wage of at least £10 an hour, which would go some way to alleviate the pain.

I also support my noble friend Lord Davies’s point about pensions. He made an important point about pension payments needing to be factored into the living costs of the lowest paid. They therefore should be included as part of the statutory scheme.

Moving on from that, I ask the Minister: what happened to the other recommendations in the Low Pay Commission report? Will they come before us separately? I read the report, and it is clear that the commission has, for example, done a great deal of work on the domestic workers exemption, where staff such as au pairs and domestic servants live with a family. As it says in its report, it heard a great deal of distressing evidence from individuals whose hidden voices are rarely heard. As a result, it made a definite recommendation to remove the domestic worker exemption in Regulation 57(3) of the 2015 regulations. What happened to that recommendation?

Secondly, the commission addressed the issue of the pay for individuals involved in sleep-in shifts in social care. This was subject to a Supreme Court ruling this year, leading to calls for more clarity and consistency. The Low Pay Commission identified that there was a variety of practices across the sector, with payments “unregulated” and

“determined by negotiation between commissioning bodies, providers and the workforce.”

It concluded that any further clarification should be “linked to wider plans” for social care funding currently being considered by the Government. Can the Minister confirm that this issue is being considered in the context of the social care reforms, and that adequate money is being set aside to encourage new people into the sector, including those required to sleep over with those for whom they are caring? If we are not careful, this issue, which the Low Pay Commission has flagged up, will fall between all of these stools: it will not be delivered as part of the minimum wage recommendations and it will not be part of the social care reforms either. Once again, those care workers will fall through the crack.

Finally, we welcome the fact that the commission will carry out further work on the impact of low pay on those with protected characteristics, including younger, older, disabled and women workers, and workers from ethnic minorities. We recognise the complexities of untangling the cause and effect of these trends, but given the undoubted pay gaps that we know exist, we believe further measures may be required to rebalance the pay and employment opportunities of these disadvantaged groups.

I hope that the Government’s remit to the Low Pay Commission for next year will ask it to do further work on this issue so that we can be completely satisfied that the pay rates are being sufficiently addressed. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for their valuable contributions to the debate. The points raised demonstrate the importance of providing a pay rise to workers, and both noble Lords welcomed the increases.

The national minimum wage and national living wage make a real difference to millions of workers in this country, and I am obviously glad that there is cross-party agreement in the House that these increases, which will help to protect workers in all parts of the UK from increased inflation and protect their standards of living, should proceed. It is just a shame that the Liberal Democrats obviously did not consider it important enough to join us for this debate, but I am glad that the other two noble Lords have. The national minimum wage and national living wage have increased every year since their introductions. The regulations mean that, on 1 April, full-time workers on the national living wage will earn over £5,000 more than they did in 2015, when it was introduced.

Everyone will note that, once again, the Government’s impact assessment has received a green fit-for-purpose rating from the Regulatory Policy Committee, which is just as well because I am the Minister responsible for that committee. The impact assessment estimates around 2.5 million low-paid workers will benefit from the minimum wage increase. We estimate there will be a total wage benefit to workers of about £1.3 billion. The total cost to employers for implementing the LPC’s recommended rate is estimated at £1.6 million. This marks a 42% increase in the national living wage since the policy was first announced in 2015. Of course, younger workers will also get more money from the increases to the national minimum wage.

I turn to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Davies. The Government of course consider the expert and independent advice of the Low Pay Commission when setting these rates. We reward workers with the highest possible minimum wage, while considering the impact on the economy and, of course, the affordability for businesses. The Low Pay Commission draws on economic, labour market and pay analysis, independent research and stakeholder evidence. The key distinction between the Low Pay Commission rates and the other rates, such as the Living Wage Foundation’s voluntary living wage, is that the Low Pay Commission has to consider the impact on businesses and the economy.

I turn to the next point that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, raised on pensions. From April, the full yearly basic state pension will have increased by over £2,300 in cash terms since 2010. The overall trend in the percentage of pensioners living in poverty is a dramatic fall over the recent decade. There are 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty, both before and after housing costs, than there were in 2009-10. The Low Pay Commission considers all aspect of low pay when making its recommendations for minimum wage rates.

I move on to points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. In response to the points about the Low Pay Commission considering the change in the cost of living, we consider the expert and independent advice of the commission when setting the rates. The LPC’s remit is for the national living wage to reach two-thirds of median earnings by 2024, subject to wider economic conditions. Since its introduction, the national living wage has grown more than twice as fast as consumer prices. This year’s increase will be the largest ever in cash terms and will help to protect the income of 2 million low-paid workers against the cost of living. In April, a full-time worker on the national living wage will see their annual earnings rise, as I said, by over £1,000. I also said in my introduction that we will shortly publish this year’s remit for the Low Pay Commission, which will once again continue to consider a wide range of stakeholder and academic evidence.

On the point made by the noble Baroness about social care, we are incredibly proud of all the work that our health and social care staff do and recognise their extraordinary commitment. The 1.5 million people who make up the paid social care workforce provide an invaluable service to the nation—and did so especially during the pandemic. The noble Baroness will be aware that we recently brought forward our strategy for the adult social care workforce in the People at the Heart of Care: Adult Social Care Reform White Paper. That was backed by at least £500 million to develop and support the adult social care workforce over the next three years. This historic investment will enable a fivefold increase in public spending on the skills and training of our direct care workers and their registered managers. This will include hundreds of thousands of training places, certifications for care workers and the professional development of the regulated workforce. It will help support our commitment to ensure that those who receive care are provided with choice, control and support to live independent lives, that they receive outstanding quality and tailored care, and that people find social care fair and accessible.

Since the introduction of the national living wage in 2016, care worker pay has also increased at a faster rate than ever. So I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that we remain committed to supporting worker protections through this crucial policy and to ensuring clarity for businesses on how the policy will develop over the next few years. We will also run a communications campaign alongside the uprating, thereby helping workers to check their pay and supporting businesses to make the necessary changes. We will also continue to monitor the labour market closely over the coming months. We will continue to prioritise enforcement of the minimum wage through HMRC’s ongoing work and the naming scheme, where we will continue to name employers who have underpaid their staff. We named 208 employers on 9 December 2021, including some of the UK’s biggest household names. To date, we have named more than 2,500 employers.

As the noble Baroness also mentioned, the Minister for Small Business, my colleague Paul Scully, confirmed in the House of Commons that we will bring forward regulations to remove the exemption from minimum wage legislation for so-called live-in domestic workers such as au pairs. This change will newly extend this right to them, ensuring that those workers receive the wages that they deserve and that we thereby do our bit to help tackle exploitation.

I again thank the Low Pay Commission and its staff for gathering the extensive evidence and providing well-reasoned recommendations. It gives me pleasure to commend these regulations to the House.

Motion agreed.
Committee adjourned at 3.30 pm.

House of Lords

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Thursday 10 March 2022
11:00
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Leeds.
11:06
The following Act was given Royal Assent:
Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Act.

Women: Cost of Living

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

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Question
11:07
Asked by
Baroness Crawley Portrait Baroness Crawley
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to mitigate the impact on women of the rising cost of living; and in particular, the impact on single mothers in poorer households.

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Stedman-Scott) (Con)
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My Lords, the Government are acting to support families with the challenge of rising living costs by providing £12 billion of support for this financial year and next, increasing the national living wage and cutting the universal credit taper. Through our Way to Work programme and a new network of specialist progression champions, we are helping people to get a job, get a better job and build their career, which we believe is the best route to managing living costs. In everything through Way to Work, we are cognisant of single parents’ issues.

Baroness Crawley Portrait Baroness Crawley (Lab)
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My Lords, I am glad that the Government see the need for some intervention in response to this tsunami of rising household costs, but I have to say to the Minister, for whom I have a lot of respect, that it does not go nearly far enough, especially for lone parents, 90% of whom are women and 43% of whom live in poverty according to the Women’s Budget Group. Will the Government increase all benefits by 7%, in line with inflation? Will they reintroduce the £20 increase in universal credit and working tax credit equivalent, as well as paying the childcare element of universal credit up front instead of in arrears to make it easier for lone parents to re-enter the workplace? Women should not be shouldering this cost of living catastrophe.

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness for her intervention. I say again that we are cognisant of and understand the issues faced by lone parents, not least in respect of childcare and the barriers that stop them getting into work. That is why our work coaches are there. I shall pass to the Treasury the exam question that the noble Baroness has given me; she will forgive me if I cannot answer it.

Baroness Fookes Portrait Baroness Fookes (Con)
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My Lords, I hope I am right in assuming there will be some extra benefits for households subject to the benefit cap. If so, can my noble friend say what they are and, just as important, how easy or difficult it will be to access them?

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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Claimants can apply to their local authority for a discretionary housing payment if they need help to meet rental costs. We have the flexible support fund to help people as well, and we have given help with energy costs, which are rising exponentially. Of course, I have not tried to claim those benefits myself, but I know from somebody who has that it is reasonably straightforward, and I am not aware of any backlog in dealing with those claims when they have gone in.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
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My Lords, as the main managers and shock absorbers of poverty and inadequate social security benefits, women are bearing the brunt of not just the benefit cap but the two-child limit. When will the Government take the advice of the former Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and scrap these poverty-creating policies?

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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I understand the passion with which the noble Baroness makes her points. All I can say, and I have said it time and again, is that I will take the representation back to the department and make it known, but I am not able to give the response.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Portrait Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con)
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Will my noble friend look again at the report of the Economic Affairs Committee on universal credit and in particular reconsider the decision to take away £20 a week from the poorest families in the country? I understand that it is very expensive—it costs £6 billion—but that is because it affects 6 million people: 6 million people who are going to have to cope with these astonishing increases in bills, not just energy bills but bills across the piece. Surely, in the name of humanity if not in the interest of politics, we should look at this again, given that the Chancellor is getting increased revenue from the rising costs of petrol and other energy sources.

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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Many noble Lords have made the point about the £20 uplift. To be absolutely straightforward and open, there is nothing I can say about it, other than that for those on universal credit the taper rate compensated for some of the withdrawal. There are moments when I wish I was Chancellor.

Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, let me spell out what this is going to do. Inflation is running at record rates. The Bank of England forecasts that, next month, it will go up to 7.25%. That forecast was made before the war in Ukraine. Benefits are going to go up by 3%. Next month, the energy price cap will go up to £2,000. People are currently being offered £3,500 fixed-price tariffs. To put that in context, that is £67 a week. We give an adult on universal credit or JSA £75 a week to live on. How are they possibly meant to manage?

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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The noble Baroness’s explanation of the metrics is absolutely accurate. Inflation is gathering momentum, mainly because of pressures from rising energy prices and disruptions to global supply chains. We understand about the higher cost of living, but at the risk of repeating myself—I have no desire to annoy noble Lords—there is no comment I can make about what the Government may or may not do about the situation.

Baroness Pinnock Portrait Baroness Pinnock (LD)
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My Lords, here is a simple action the Government can take that will help the poorest households, many of which are forced on to prepayment meters for their energy bills. The cost they have to pay per unit of energy is hugely more than the average household has to pay. First, does the Minister agree that it is scandalous that we are asking the poor to pay the most? Secondly, will she force change on to the energy companies so that the poorest pay the least—the cheapest rate possible?

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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In our debate yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, raised the issue of the higher energy costs due to the method of payment that many people face. I have agreed to take that back to the department, and I will do so. Again, I can make no promises. As for forcing change, I will have a good go.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, yesterday evening, believe it or not, I hosted a dinner for those in the bailiff industry, as I call it, and they are expecting a veritable explosion in debt, because people on benefits simply cannot pay council tax and all the other things they have to pay. Does the DWP have an estimate of that huge explosion in debt? If not, will it please get that information, because it will need it? This can be resolved only by the Treasury, and the DWP needs its ammunition.

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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I am not aware that the information the noble Baroness suggests we should have is there. She makes a good point, and again, I shall go back, talk to my colleagues and try to get that information.

Baroness Altmann Portrait Baroness Altmann (Con)
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My Lords, many single women are older—including mothers—and in poorer health, and they are also at greater risk of long-term unemployment. What are the Government doing to address that issue?

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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The Government are doing an awful lot in this area. Despite the unacceptable rise in the cost of living and all the impacts on people, we are working morning, noon and night to get people back to work—into a job, a better job and a career, so that they can be self-sufficient. The Restart programme really helps them to do that. It is intensive tailored support, which I am sure will have great benefits for some people.

Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
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My Lords, the Spring Statement is due on 23 March, so will the Minister talk directly to Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that there is a one-off windfall tax on energy prices? They have risen exponentially in the last two weeks, therefore disproportionately impacting on women, households and, in particular, single parents.

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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Again, we have another question that is very Treasury driven. I have no doubt—indeed, I know it for a fact—that the Chancellor is well aware of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, has been making on this subject.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, the 15 years from 2007 to 2022 are forecast to be the worst on record for household incomes. Is the term “cost of living crisis” really adequate for the situation we are in now? What we are really seeing is a long-term collapse in the financial stability of British lives; this is not just a crisis of the moment. Do we not need to take a different approach to offer people true security, particularly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, single parents—overwhelmingly women—who are bearing the greatest weight? Do we not need a universal basic income?

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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We have spoken many times about universal basic income, and I have heard nothing on the airwaves to suggest that it is being considered. I will finish this Question by saying that it is a difficult time, and that we understand the great challenges people face. Please do not think this Government do not care—because they do.

Belarus

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Question
11:17
Asked by
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the detention of political prisoners, (2) the attacks on journalists, and (3) the constitutional referendum, in Belarus; and what representations they have made to the government of that country on these issues.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait The Minister of State, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park) (Con)
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My Lords, we have been clear in our condemnation of the repressive campaign by the Belarusian authorities against the human rights of the people of Belarus. We have repeatedly urged Belarus to release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally. These reprehensible actions continue, of course, in the context of the Belarusian regime’s support for Russia’s illegal and unprovoked attack against Ukraine; this support must stop. The constitutional referendum fell well below international standards, and again denied genuine choice to the Belarusian people. The Minister for Europe and North America’s public statement on 28 February made it clear that we firmly support the Belarusian people’s right to determine their own future.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, I am really grateful to the Minister for a helpful reply. I have just come from a meeting of the all-party group, and I would like to welcome Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, the leader of free Belarus, who is sitting in our Gallery today—[Applause.] When I tabled this Question four weeks ago, it was to ask about political prisoners like the one I have adopted—Stepan Latypov. But the Minister has answered that, saying that the Government are putting pressure on for their release. What I now want to ask him, given the complicity of Belarus in the Russian attack on Ukraine, is: will he say unequivocally that the UK Government will impose the same sanctions it is imposing on Russia on the Lukashenko regime in Belarus?

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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My Lords, I join the noble Lord in welcoming the leader of Belarus’s opposition, Mrs Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya. The UK absolutely recognises that the current regime does not speak for the majority of its people, and supports the extraordinary bravery of the opposition and civil society. On the question of sanctions, I can confirm that what the noble Lord said is correct. This goes back some way: since August 2020, the UK has introduced more than 100 sanctions designations in response to the fraudulent elections and human rights violations in that country. This includes sanctions against senior ranking officials in the regime, including the President of Belarus and his son, and BNK Ltd, an exporter of Belarusian oil products. More recently—in fact, just a few days ago—the Foreign Secretary launched a package of sanctions on those individuals and organisations who have aided and abetted Russia’s reckless aggression against Ukraine, and we continue to develop that position.

Lord Russell of Liverpool Portrait Lord Russell of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, I am a fellow member of the Council of Europe, along with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I also had the privilege of monitoring the rather farcical parliamentary elections in Belarus in 2019. Having just been at the same meeting and having listened to the leader of the opposition, it is very clear that the Russians are already beginning to use some Belarusian enterprises, state enterprises and banks as a means of avoiding the sanctions stranglehold we are trying to impose on the Russians, so I can only re-emphasise how important it is that we try to block off any opportunity for Russia to use Belarus as a means to try to evade sanctions.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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The noble Lord makes an extremely important point. This view is shared by the UK Government, and it is reflected in the approach we are taking in relation to sanctions on individuals and organisations in Belarus.

Baroness Northover Portrait Baroness Northover (LD)
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My Lords, I, too, welcome the leader of free Belarus, and I hope we will not have to wait too long before she is in the position that she should be in. She told us how important those sanctions are and, as the noble Lord, Lord Russell, just referred to, that the Russians are using loopholes. We need comprehensively and urgently to address this. We will put some people from her group in touch with the FCDO with further details. One of the other things that struck me from what she said is how vital it is for unbiased news to reach the citizens of Belarus, which we will come on to later. What action is being taken to support news organisations, particularly the BBC, in relation to Belarus?

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness for making the introduction. I can tell her that Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly met the leader of the opposition, Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, only yesterday, but we will certainly continue that dialogue, important as it is.

The noble Baroness is also absolutely right on the question of the media. We condemn the politically motivated crackdown on independent media in that country and remain deeply concerned about the safety of journalists there. Dozens of journalists, bloggers and media workers are under arrest or in jail. Websites of reputable media outlets have been declared extremist by the regime. One of the priorities of our programme funding in Belarus is supporting media freedom. We appeal to the Belarusian authorities to unconditionally and immediately release all political prisoners and to fully restore the free media space in Belarus, online and offline. Finally, we have increased our funding in this area, I believe threefold. If that is wrong, I will get back in touch with the noble Baroness.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answers today. I think the whole House stands alongside the people of Belarus. As somebody who also sponsors a political prisoner, on behalf of our side of the House, I welcome the leader of the opposition. As a leader of the opposition myself, I think she has to face things that nobody in this country ever has to.

The Minister’s answers today have been welcome. On his response to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, on the role of the BBC and getting information, it is so important for those who stand for freedom in Belarus to have accurate information to support civil society. It is very important that we have a strong civil society in Belarus that can speak out for the people who also support a free Belarus. Will the Minister report back to the House at some point to say what more the Government can do in all areas, not just the media, to support civil society and give strength to those people who are standing up for freedom and democracy?

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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The noble Baroness is absolutely right. Although she is asking a broader question, at the root of this, without a free press, freedom of speech and guarantors of that sort, it is very hard to imagine a flourishing and free civil society. To confirm what I hinted at earlier, we are, of course, supporting civil society and independent media in Belarus, and we have tripled our programme funding compared with pre-crisis levels, so it is now £4.5 million. We continue to look for opportunities to support civil society and, in particular, a free press in that country.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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My Lords, do we not need to salute the courage of the leader of the opposition—the rightful democratic leader of Belarus—and all those thousands of people who, week after week, took to the streets last year? I am deeply disturbed about the BBC World Service, which is a wonderful example of soft power. Belarus needs to have free information, unfettered, yet the BBC World Service’s budget has not been guaranteed beyond April of this year.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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My Lords, that is an important point, but I point out that in two Questions’ time, that will be the subject of a 10-minute question and answer session, where I hope to be able to provide some reassurance at least.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, will the Minister take the opportunity to criticise and condemn the reprehensible actions of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus for the way in which it uses refugees as cannon fodder—deliberately bringing in refugees from the Middle East, including Syria, and then using them to promote its own interests by pushing them against the Baltic states and Poland? Given the number of refugees now being displaced in Poland—maybe as many as 7 million, according to some estimates—does he not agree that the situation is going to go from bad to worse?

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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It absolutely will go from bad to worse if trends continue. The actions the noble Lord described are reprehensible. We have been clear in our condemnation of Lukashenko’s actions in engineering a migrant crisis to try to undermine our partners in the region. We have deployed a small team of UK Armed Forces to Lithuania and Poland to provide support to address the ongoing situation at the Belarusian border. We are also supporting our humanitarian partners to help alleviate the suffering of migrants at the border, including through our contributions to the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund.

Baroness Crawley Portrait Baroness Crawley (Lab)
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My Lords, I, too, welcome the leader of free Belarus today. Is the Minister aware that last week I spoke to the mother of young Dzmitry Zherbutovich, who wanted me to raise his prison treatment in our Chamber this morning? He is serving a five-year prison sentence in Belarus for the crime of standing in front of a water cannon. For the first year, he was forced to be in a five square-metre cell with 14 other prisoners, all of whom except Dzmitry smoked, with no ventilation and where they all had to stand during the day. Will the Minister put even more pressure on the Belarusian regime about its inhumane treatment of political prisoners?

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness for raising the case of young Dzmitry. I am not familiar with his case, but I am familiar with many others which are no less appalling. We are deeply concerned about the conditions in which political detainees are held in that country. Many of them have limited or no access to anything like proper healthcare and are subject to relentless interrogation, intimidation and psychological pressure techniques, all of which amount to a form of torture. This is contrary to Belarus’ international obligations to which the authorities have committed themselves on numerous occasions but continuously fail to uphold. We make our solidarity with political prisoners clear frequently, attend trials and engage with the families of political prisoners at every opportunity.

Care Homes: Evicted Residents

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Question
11:28
Asked by
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Portrait Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the annual numbers of care home residents (1) evicted, (2) threatened with eviction, or (3) facing a visiting ban, following complaints against the care home.

Lord Kamall Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Care (Lord Kamall) (Con)
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It is unacceptable for a care home to punish a resident for raising concerns. This would be a breach of existing regulations, and the CQC will investigate any such cases. Although the Government do not collect figures on this, the CQC collects data on care home evictions and seeks assurances that visits are allowed by care homes on an ongoing basis. We are exploring ways to improve the complaints system and the quality of care.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Portrait Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab)
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My Lords, may I urge the Minister to do even more than he suggested today? We know that some care homes are still being very highly restrictive on visits. The Alzheimer’s Society, the Relatives and Residents Association and other organisations report that many relatives are frightened to go through the homes complaints system for fear of reprisals such as visit bans, or even evictions in the most extreme cases. The CQC will not investigate specific complaints. Will he change that policy and give support to relatives who wish to make legitimate complaints?

Lord Kamall Portrait Lord Kamall (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for raising this issue. I am sure he will recognise, from when we have worked together on a problem, that the first question I ask officials is: what is the problem and what are we doing about it? When I asked this question, I found that my colleague Gillian Keegan, Minister for Care and Mental Health, has met relatives and residents’ associations to hear directly about their experiences and focus on how we could strengthen the CQC role. In addition, in the Living with Covid-19 strategy, we are reviewing a range of measures in place for homes, including visitor restrictions. The updated position will be set out in guidance by 1 April. We are encouraging representatives, patients and patients’ groups to come forward and feed into that.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Portrait Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (CB)
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My Lords, I declare my role as chair of the National Mental Capacity Forum. There are many people with impaired capacity in care homes, whose mental state is deteriorating through lack of stimulation, inability to be taken outside and lack of general overall mental activities. Does the CQC have any idea of the number of people with impaired capacity still subject to restricted visiting by their relatives?

Lord Kamall Portrait Lord Kamall (Con)
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The noble Baroness has identified a potential issue that we have to address, which is drilling down into detail. One of the things that the CQC does is to look at aggregate numbers of complaints and concerns. Of course, there is a Local Government Ombudsman who looks at this issue as well. We are looking at ways where that works and where it does not work, and at how we could improve the system. This is all part of the ongoing review to build up a better, integrated health and care system.

Baroness Wheeler Portrait Baroness Wheeler (Lab)
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My Lords, on the issue of carers hesitant to make complaints to care providers, the confusion and muddle over the current complaints system and the roles of the care home, the CQC and the ombudsman compound the problem. Does this not underline the urgent need for the review of the current arrangements to ensure that people making complaints about their loved ones feel reassured and protected through the process and comforted that appropriate action will be taken?

Lord Kamall Portrait Lord Kamall (Con)
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Having looked at the different procedures, I am sure that the noble Baroness is absolutely right. One thing that we want to do is to ensure that the guidance is quite clear. The CQC collects certain data and the ombudsman can investigate certain cases, but the CQC cannot investigate individual cases. It clearly is confusing and one thing that we want to do to improve the system is to make sure that we have a better complaints system and, overall, a better quality of care for patients all round.

Lord McFall of Alcluith Portrait The Lord Speaker (Lord McFall of Alcluith)
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My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, will make a virtual contribution.

Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD) [V]
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My Lords, the provision of high-quality, personalised care in residential care settings is likely to reduce the chance of complaints being raised in the first place. The Skills for Care workforce review showed that only 44% of care staff have any training on dementia. Will the Government commit to all social care staff receiving tier 2 training in the dementia training standards framework?

Lord Kamall Portrait Lord Kamall (Con)
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The noble Baroness raises a very important point. When we look at the current landscape in the social care sector, it is clear that people do not really understand the overall sector. One thing that we are looking at in regard to the voluntary register is encouraging care staff to come forward to register. Registration includes their standard of education and the qualifications they have received. We will look at how we can improve and have a more consistent qualification system, so that being a care worker is a more rewarding vocation in the future.

Baroness Pitkeathley Portrait Baroness Pitkeathley (Lab)
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My Lords, is the Minister aware that restrictive practices about visiting in care homes extend not just to relatives and friends visiting but to the outside people who come in to provide stimulation to residents? These include people who bring in animals, for example, and people who do physiotherapy or all sorts of word games and so on. Those people are also restricted now by some homes, though not all. That results in further deterioration in the mental and emotional health of residents, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay.

Lord Kamall Portrait Lord Kamall (Con)
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One thing that has clearly upset a lot of people is that they are unable to visit. This means not just relatives but, as the noble Baroness rightly said, people who enter care homes to offer healthcare, stimulation and other services to residents. These issues were brought up, I understand, in a meeting with my colleague, the Minister for Care and Mental Health, when she met residents’ associations. It is very important that we recognise all the problems and that we tackle this in a holistic way to make sure that, as we improve the quality of our social care system, and make it more joined-up and integrated with the health system, we are aware of all these problems so that the patient experience is far better all the way through.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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My Lords, I agree with my noble friend the Minister and noble Lords opposite that it is very important that people can visit their family and their friends in care homes. My husband has had a copy of Wisden from last year for a friend who has been in a care home, and he has not been able to deliver it.

I want to make a wider point about the importance of focusing on social care, despite other preoccupations of the Government. How many care homes do we have now in this country? Is provision going up, or do we have a serious problem?

Lord Kamall Portrait Lord Kamall (Con)
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I am afraid I do not have the detailed answers to my noble friend’s questions, but I will write to her. On the overall sentiment behind that question, it is clear that people now recognise—as we have an ageing population and people are living longer—that we should not see social care as a sort of bolt-on or a Cinderella service. It should be properly integrated, which is why we published the paper on health and social care integration and why we want to make sure that people and patients, all the way through their lives, have access to good-quality care, whether in the current health system or in the care system, at whatever stage of their lives they need it.

Ukraine: BBC World Service

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Question
11:36
Asked by
Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Portrait Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking, if any, to support the provision of the BBC World Service to the people of Ukraine.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait The Minister of State, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park) (Con)
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My Lords, we strongly value the work of the BBC World Service and its independent and impartial broadcasting. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine means that BBC World Service channels play an increasingly valuable role in challenging the disinformation emanating from the Kremlin. BBC Ukrainian services are wholly funded by the licence fee, and officials from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are working closely with the BBC to consider how best to support BBC services for the people of Ukraine.

Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Portrait Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. We have had a bit of a warm-up, but there is no harm in that. Among the many incredibly distressing events unfolding in Ukraine is Putin’s manipulation, distortion and, most recently, penalising of free media. I pay tribute to all those courageous journalists who continue to bring us the truth. From the Minister’s response to an earlier Question, he clearly recognises that the BBC World Service is a beacon in this, so can he confirm—I think he has—that the FCDO will provide funding at levels that will allow the World Service to continue to be this beacon?

In response to the same request—from my friend Christine Jardine MP in the other place—the Secretary of State at the DDCMS appeared not to know that the World Service was part of her department, although 75% of its funding comes from the licence fee. Can the Minister assure this House that she now understands that it is, and does he agree that support for the BBC World Service is not compatible with the freezing of the licence fee, from which it gets so much of its funding?

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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My Lords, I strongly agree that the BBC World Service provides just that: a world service and a world-class service. It is something that we are, and can continue to be, very proud of, particularly in these dark circumstances of today. It now reaches 364 million people every single week, a 40% increase since the FCDO’s well-funded World2020 programme began in 2016. That is a big jump in a short period. Global audience measure data for last year demonstrates that it is the top-rated international broadcaster for trustworthiness, reliability and depth of coverage. I therefore very strongly agree with the premise of the noble Baroness’s question. I cannot give her financial answers, because that will not be possible until the spending review settlement has been made public, but I can tell her that the final decisions will reflect the importance and respect with which we hold that organisation.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, I have never heard such a dissatisfactory Answer. We are in a global crisis. Ukraine has been invaded by a hostile force which is committing war crimes. One of the most important contributions we can make is our soft power through the BBC World Service, which is 75% funded from the licence fee. The Government should now urgently take steps to properly fund the BBC World Service, extend its coverage, particularly through the internet, and find ways to circumvent the Russian Government’s ban on access to the BBC. Will the Minister take that message back to other Ministers? It is important that it receives vital funding now.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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My Lords, it is worth pointing out that, since the war began, the BBC Ukrainian website has had 7 million page views, with just under 1.5 million for the live page YouTube channels alone—a 100% audience increase. BBC News reaches 5.5 million people in Ukraine, with BBC Ukrainian reaching 3.7 million and 1.5 million accessing English language news content. Demand is increasing and the supply is there. The service is being provided at an absolutely critical time and is providing a service that is second to none. As the noble Lord knows, I am not in a position to make spending commitments on behalf of the department at this point, but I can tell him that no one in the department, or indeed in government, questions the value or importance of the World Service that I have just recognised in my answer. That will be reflected in decisions taken.

Lord Bishop of Leeds Portrait The Lord Bishop of Leeds
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My Lords, no other broadcasting company could have flexed as quickly as the BBC has in this emergency, particularly in relation to HF shortwave broadcasting. Could the Minister at least give a commitment that the BBC as a public service broadcaster at home and abroad will be adequately supported and resourced and not undermined in the public discourse?

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question. I hope that the answers I have already given demonstrate that there is nothing other than respect for the service that the BBC World Service provides and an absolute commitment that that service will continue. For all the reasons we know, it is so important.

Lord Howell of Guildford Portrait Lord Howell of Guildford (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has a point: the time has come to use our soft power effectively. The entire Russian murder campaign is conducted behind a cover of a wall of lies and fake news and that has to be countered. Even though there may be separate views about the long-term funding of the BBC’s excellent World Service, now is the time to concentrate reviews, resources and effort on boosting our counter to this battle of lies, which is where the war is being fought. Could my noble friend take back this very strong message to his colleagues? I think we could do a lot more in this area.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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I strongly agree with the point made by my noble friend. I do not think there is any question on this; I am certainly not aware of anything that has been said that would in any way suggest that the Government do not recognise the tremendous value that the World Service provides, particularly in circumstances such as today’s, where, as my noble friend said, we are up against a brutal regime which is second to none globally in the art of misinformation. So I strongly agree with my noble friend’s comments and will convey the message from him and other noble Lords to the department.

Baroness Northover Portrait Baroness Northover (LD)
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The integrated review proudly and rightly states that

“The BBC is the most trusted broadcaster worldwide”,


and the Minister has repeated that. When the review was published, with the cut in ODA and the attacks on the BBC, that struck me as extreme irony. The Minister has just said that he cannot comment on funding, but he should be able to, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, is right that he can certainly make sure that the constant and insidious attacks on the BBC, including the World Service, are silenced.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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My Lords, the BBC as an organisation is absolutely gigantic. We are talking today about a critical part of that service, but it is just one part. It should be possible to be critical of many different aspects of the BBC as an organisation or its focus, without that being seen to undermine what everyone recognises as the extraordinarily valuable and unique international service it provides. I reiterate what I said earlier: that service will continue.

Earl of Clancarty Portrait The Earl of Clancarty (CB)
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My Lords, I was expecting DCMS to answer this Question. Nevertheless, as this is a cultural question, I ask the Minister: what advice and assistance are we giving to help protect Ukraine’s artistic and cultural heritage, which is substantial and threatened? What role can our own cultural institutions play in this?

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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My Lords, I am not going to bluff this answer. I am afraid I do not know. I recognise the merit of the noble Earl’s question, but I am not the right person to answer it. I will convey his question and secure a response.

Baroness Sugg Portrait Baroness Sugg (Con)
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My Lords, it is clear that there is support for the BBC World Service across the House, and I welcome the commitment made in the October spending review that the Government will continue to invest in it. I understand what the Minister says about the spending review, but might he be able to say when the BBC World Service will receive its future funding settlement, so that it can continue to plan for its important work in Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere?

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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I would love to be able to give my noble friend a precise answer. However, I can tell her only that the department making the decision will hear the message from this House loud and clear and that I will do what I can to ensure that we have a resolution as soon as possible.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, in the aftermath of the Cold War, I met a young Ukrainian woman who told me that the proudest moment of her life was when she told her parents that she was going to work for the BBC World Service. They had listened to it clandestinely throughout the whole Soviet era. As the noble Lord told us, last week 5 million Ukrainians listened to the BBC via its digital platform. In addition to that, 17 million Russians—triple the usual number—listened to the BBC last week alone. Can we urgently do as so many noble Lords have urged and come to a decision within the next week? The money runs out at the end of March or beginning of April. In these urgent, desperate times, we need a decision on this.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park (Con)
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My Lords, I do not disagree with what the noble Lord has said and, as I said, I will push for the earliest possible resolution. Finally, I would just reiterate that the value this Government place on the service that is being provided internationally is absolute and there is no question of it being cut back.

Committee (1st Day)
Relevant documents: 13th Report from the Constitution Committee, 5th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 21st Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
11:48
Clause 14: Strategy and policy statement
Lord McFall of Alcluith Portrait The Lord Speaker (Lord McFall of Alcluith)
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I call the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, to move Amendment A1.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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I ask the House to forgive me, but I am not aware of having anything to do with Amendment A1.

Lord McFall of Alcluith Portrait The Lord Speaker (Lord McFall of Alcluith)
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I assure the noble Baroness that it is on the Marshalled List.

Amendment A1

Moved by
A1: Clause 14, page 21, leave out lines 6 and 7
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I beg to move.

Lord Ashton of Hyde Portrait Lord Ashton of Hyde (Con)
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Now we have a debate, which the Minister can answer.

Lord Stunell Portrait Lord Stunell (LD)
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I thank noble Lords and join in the general confusion about where we are up to. I speak in favour of the two amendments in this group tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. They seem to be a ranging shot on one of the most important issues embedded in this Bill.

I hope that noble Lords will excuse me if I take this opportunity to explore what the amendments do and why it is so important that they and other matters relating to Clauses 14 and 15 are given serious consideration. These provisions are at the heart of the matter which I want to speak about. The question is really: is the United Kingdom to retain, as one of its trusted institutions and symbols of democratic legitimacy, the Electoral Commission, or is it to join an increasingly long list of countries that have, step by step and little by little, eroded their democratic base, undermined trust in their electoral processes and cast doubt on the legitimacy of their elected representatives?

The Electoral Commission was set up as a direct result of recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, on which I serve. The committee is chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale, and its first chairman was Lord Nolan. People refer frequently to the Nolan principles but those are in the guardianship of the Committee on Standards in Public Life; so, we believe, is the Electoral Commission. It is a body which emerged from recommendations presented to the Prime Minister by the CSPL. It has since been overhauled and reviewed by the CSPL and there have been changes made in legislation, again based on recommendations made directly by the CSPL. In a report last year, the Committee made further recommendations to the Prime Minister about changes that needed to be made in response to the inquiry and the evidence that it took. All those recommendations were designed to make the Electoral Commission a more effective body, with clear and specific recommendations on how that should be done in each case.

The Electoral Commission was set up on the advice of the CSPL. It was updated on advice from the CSPL, and the Government have before them clear recommendations from the CSPL on how it could be improved further. Our report strongly emphasised what every piece of evidence showed: that to maintain trust in the electoral integrity of our democratic processes, it was essential that the Electoral Commission retains its independence from political interference—interference from any political party or faction, but particularly from the party in power at any one time. Unfortunately, Clauses 14 and 15 take our country in the wrong direction. The two amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, try hard to pull it back from the brink, so yes, they have our support.

At Second Reading, I asked whether the Minister would be ready to hand over to a future radical-left Government the powers that the Bill, in its present form, would give them. He is far too skilled an operator to answer that question, but it is very hard to believe that he would. It could start off with something as innocuous as a requirement for the Electoral Commission to have regard to the Government’s manifesto policies; levelling up, for instance, or maybe levelling down, as will surely be achieved as a completely accidental by-product of other provisions in the Bill.

In many areas, but particularly Clauses 14 and 15, the Bill seems to have been drawn up by people who have never been in opposition, which is startling because the Minister has plenty of experience of that, having lived as an oppressed political minority in the Liberal Democrat-run London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. The Minister may protest that there is to be a comprehensive consultation with various bodies before any strategy statements come into force. Of course, the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, very much bear on the question of the terms and conditions on which such a strategy report might be made.

The Minister might refer me to the elaborate wording of proposed new Section 4C, which is in Clause 14. But when I pointed out to him at Second Reading, as many noble Lords did, that practically every outside body that had expressed an opinion on these changes had strongly advised against them, and that the CSPL itself, which created the commission, had said that our electoral processes must be overseen by an independent regulator protected from political pressures and separate from the Government, and that it must demonstrate its impartiality and effectiveness at all times, the Minister’s reply was that the Government take a different view.

Noble Lords should bear in mind that five bodies must be consulted, according to proposed new Section 4C, before any such strategy document moves forward. It would be interesting to know what they will do when they get their first strategy statement. Actually, we do not have to wonder, as they have already commented on the proposals in front of them. Two opted out in disgust, which is why the Scottish and Welsh amendments flow in the next group. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has strenuously protested and recommended that the Government take these provisions out of the Bill. That is three of them. The Speaker’s Committee is packed with Cabinet Ministers, which is an offence when it is the budget holder for the Electoral Commission—a matter we shall talk about later. It is also worthy of note that all but one of the Electoral Commissioners jointly wrote an open letter of protest, pointing out that this fundamentally undermines their legitimacy and our democratic system. Therefore, of the five consultees in proposed new Section 4C, four have expressed vigorous dissent with the proposal and one is packed with Cabinet Ministers.

Interestingly, neither the CSPL or any local government institution was consulted: the one which created the electoral commission, and the people who will receive the benefit of its administration above anybody else. What we learn from this is that a fig leaf of consultation, even when we have a benign regime such as this, is not a safeguard. Under a less benign regime, as seen from the Minister’s viewpoint, that fig leaf could be gone in the space of a short consultation. I repeat my question: is the Minister completely at ease with the provisions in these two clauses? I and my noble friends are certainly not.

A look at the international stage may help noble Lords to understand our deep unease more clearly and explain why we are so strongly in favour of the Minister giving a fair wind, at the very minimum, to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher.

12:00
Any power-hungry regime anywhere in the world, on coming to power and wishing to keep it, looks around to take steps to make that happen without having to take too much account of the vagaries of public opinion, if necessary. Some well-understood steps to take are set out in the autocrat’s playbook. High on the list is undermining the independence of the election regulator. Following that, guidance can be produced that facilitates the selection or deselection of candidates, the application of rules and the prosecution of offences—I will not give away any more trade secrets. But noble Lords can see where that goes by looking at Russia today. Mr Putin’s most dangerous opponent in the last presidential election managed to overcome the requirement to get a million signatures on his nomination form, obviously placed there by the election regulator, but it was deemed that there were a few duds in his list of nominees, and, although he had a million valid ones, he was disqualified for submitting fraudulent names—strictly according to the rules, of course.
Another entirely rules-based democratic disaster is playing out in Hong Kong. Legislation on elections there, largely bequeathed by Britain, has been subtly modified by the applications of government strategies on the election regulator. That should give the Minister nightmares. Candidates there could stand for election only if they had signed up to one of that Government’s key manifesto policies—unification with mainland China. It was hardly a surprise that only unification candidates were elected and that the election had the lowest turnout of voters since British handover.
I ask the Minister to consider a hypothetical UK Government with a majority of 80 and a core policy of rejoining the European Union and the power that these two clauses would give that Administration to facilitate their desired outcome. I ask the Minister for a third time: is he completely at ease with forcing these disastrous and damaging clauses through Parliament?
When the Berlin Wall came down, the United Kingdom Government, driven on by Mrs Thatcher, set up the Westminster Foundation for Democracy as a vehicle to help the newly emerging civic societies in eastern Europe understand the basic rules of a democratic multiparty system. There were many exchanges between politicians of all parties in the UK with civic and political organisations in those emerging democracies as part of that effort, and one group visited the Liberal Democrats as part of that study tour. Members of that group had never heard of knocking on doors and engaging with electors. They were absolutely at ground zero. After a day of seminars and discussions, we had a feedback session. There was a lot of enthusiasm and excitement coupled with some trepidation about the lessons that they had learned and the work ahead of them. However, the spokesman for three dour Albanians simply said, “We prefer to win our elections by administrative means”, and that sounds a great deal more chilling with an Albanian accent.
There are some faint echoes of that today. Mrs Thatcher knew the importance and value to Britain of our soft power and our reputation for robust multiparty democracy, fought on a level playing field with a referee who did not take instructions from whichever club happened to be top of the league when the match was played. Mrs Thatcher knew the value of and invested in democracy. Perhaps in a small way, the responses of those same eastern European nations to the current Ukraine disaster show that it was money well invested. I ask the Minister not to throw all that away. Give some comfort to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and adopt her amendments as a small first step to undoing the harm proposed in the Bill. He needs to take these two dangerous clauses out of the Bill, and my noble friends and I will energetically make that case in the debates that follow.
Lord Lipsey Portrait Lord Lipsey (Lab)
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My Lords, when the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, came into the Chamber, I do not think that she was expecting to have to move any amendments, and when I came into the Chamber, I certainly was not expecting to speak on any of them. But in a few sentences I would like to inject a broader perspective.

At the moment, we see a conflict between democracy and totalitarianism in Ukraine such as we have not experienced since the end of the Cold War. Democracy must win. But at this very perilous moment, the Government are introducing measures to shackle the independent Electoral Commission and put in its place the will of government Ministers. The Minister may say that they have no intention of doing anything naughty, but I would not trust him on that and, even if I did, I certainly would not trust every subsequent Government to go the same way. This is a disgraceful proposal. It undermines the democratic case that we are making to the world, and I hope that the Committee will have none of it.

Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, this is the most extraordinary debate that I have ever taken part in, with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, first disowning the amendment in her name on the supplementary list of amendments and then moving it formally but not explaining what we are debating. I hope that the noble Baroness remains to withdraw her amendment at the end. Otherwise, we may be in a little trouble.

I was unable to take part at Second Reading on this Bill because I was not in the country, but I have of course read Hansard on that debate and I hope to take part in the remaining stages. I will not range as widely as the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, because I hope to say more about Clause 14 generally when we get to the stand part debate, where I think it would be most appropriate. But I will say a couple of things about the two amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, because neither of them is necessary.

Amendment 4A states that the Electoral Commission only needs to comply with the strategic and policy statement if it conforms with its own objectives. The amendment is unnecessary because the only requirement in new Section 4B in Clause 14 is for the commission to “have regard to” the statement. Nothing compels the commission to do anything specific as a result of the statement being published, and nothing in Clause 14 changes the requirement for the Electoral Commission not to do anything which conflicts with its statutory duties. In short, its regulatory independence is already protected by Clause 14.

I was somewhat mystified by Amendment A1 which removes the role and responsibilities from the strategic and policy statement. These strategic and policy statements merely set out what the Government’s priorities are and what the Government see as the role and responsibilities in relation to those priorities. It does not override the commission’s independence but gives guidance as to the Government’s priorities and of course those priorities will be approved by Parliament. Public bodies do not exist in a vacuum; they exist in a political context. The strategic and policy statements just give that context—nothing more, nothing less. Clause 14 does not impact on the independence of the Electoral Commission.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, this is an astonishing Bill. I understand why there was confusion at the start; I do not blame the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in any way and I hope no one else will, given what we are facing today.

This is an outrageous Bill in almost every way: a 171-page compendium of political bias. In the case of the Electoral Commission, I can understand why the Government are embarrassed. As I understand it, the commission pointed out the kind of money that the Conservative Party was getting and where it was getting it from. Given that we are now in the middle of a war in which the Russian state—Mr Putin and his cronies—are invading Ukraine, the fact that some of the money was coming from Russian sources must be an acute embarrassment to the noble Lord and his cronies. That is why they do not like the Electoral Commission.

We just have to look at what is in the news today about the Charity Commission. The story is that the Government are about to put in a Tory placeperson—a placeman, as it happens—as the chair of the Charity Commission, as they have done before. This is what they do, and it is happening throughout our public system. A Member of this House, who used to be a Labour MP, has been appointed to post after post because they supported the Government in the last election and supported the Vote Leave campaign. It is cronyism squared—cubed, probably.

The Liberal Democrats mentioned the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in a speech earlier. I used to be a board member of that foundation and am now on the executive of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. We are about to have a seminar, with representatives from all around the Commonwealth, at which we will be talking about good governance. How on earth can we try to put forward the idea that this so-called mother of Parliaments is an example of good governance if this Bill becomes an Act? We must do everything we can, not just to amend it but to scupper it.

Look at today’s amendments: after the two from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, we have over 100 government amendments. What on earth is going on with this legislation? We will soon be moving towards Prorogation and the Queen’s Speech. This Bill should be totally abandoned. In many ways we are wasting our time going through amendment after amendment; I do not think there is any prospect of the Bill moving forward.

I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly. We go around monitoring elections in other countries and we see what happens. If there is no effective independent electoral commission in a country then we criticise that and say it is not a proper democracy. How can we properly participate and show face in these countries if this Bill becomes an Act? It is just outrageous.

I know the Minister has an impossible task. Those of us who have been in the House of Commons know the kind of debates that take place there. Regrettably, the House of Commons these days is not taking the time—it does not have the time—to examine 171 pages and all these amendments in detail, let alone their implications for our democracy. We are dealing here just with the Electoral Commission but there is a whole range of other issues, such as identification, which will make the opportunity for ordinary people to vote much more difficult.

As I say, the House of Commons has not given this legislation the kind of scrutiny that its Members ought to have done. They understand elections more than we do; they take part in them year by year, so they understand the implications of the Bill. We have a responsibility to go through the Bill line by line, but there is no way we can do that in the next couple of months. I hope that at some point—even if not now, it is inevitable that this is going to happen—the Minister will throw in the towel and say, “This is just not going to proceed”. If not, I warn him that we on this side of the House—and I think the Liberal Democrats are filled with the same kind of enthusiasm and determination, as are the Greens and, I suspect, a huge number of Cross-Benchers—will do everything we can to undermine and thwart the Bill and make sure that this abortion—no, that is not the right word.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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Thank you; I am grateful that I have some friends around here who are far more literate than I am. We will do everything we can to make sure that this abomination of a Bill never becomes an Act.

10:10
Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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My Lords, I apologise that I cannot be here for the whole of today. When I spoke at Second Reading, I made my reservations about the Bill quite clear. There are certain aspects that I support, such as tidying up postal voting, but all that that needs is a short Bill.

It is grotesque that we have this Bill before us while people are literally dying for democracy. The best, most seemly and most honourable thing that we can do is to delete these clauses completely from the Bill. They have no place in a Bill of this nature in a country that prides itself on being the mother of Parliaments—it is not the institution, by the way; Bright’s quotation was that the country was the mother of Parliaments, and that is what we are. It is a heritage that we should do everything we can to cherish and preserve. We are exceptionally fortunate in the democracy that we have, warts and all. While people are being mown down in Ukraine and while brave people in Russia, in St Petersburg, Moscow and other cities, are going out on to the streets to protest, knowing that if they are arrested then they might face 15 years in jail—we heard earlier in our deliberations today of that poor man or woman who was in jail in Belarus in a tiny cell with 15 others, all of whom were smokers—we have an absolute duty to cherish and preserve our democracy.

A democracy needs to have a monitoring body. I spoke for the Conservative Party from the Front Bench in the other place when the Electoral Commission came into being. As we said at Second Reading—my noble friend Lord Hayward made this point—it is certainly entirely appropriate to review its operations after two decades, but to shackle it in such a way that the Government are in a position to dictate what it does is utterly and completely wrong.

There is no point in my noble friend, for whom I have considerable affection and regard, pretending that this Government do not mean any ill. I am perfectly prepared to accept that they do not mean any ill, but what if Mr Corbyn had had charge of this? Would we on our side of the House have thought it appropriate that a Corbyn Government should have the power to dictate to an Electoral Commission? One only has to state the words to underline their absurdity. I hope my noble friend will not see that we have protracted debate on this but will say that these clauses should go, and that we do not have to debate them further.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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When I listed the people and groups who were going to oppose the Bill, I should have included the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and some of his Back-Bench colleagues. I apologise for leaving him out.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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It is a touching gesture. Anybody who considers himself or herself a parliamentarian should be opposed to this particular part of this particular Bill. I hope that message will be received by my noble friend and that he will realise that it should not be his mission to undermine, however indirectly, our parliamentary and electoral democracy because, of course, this applies to elections as well and not just to Parliament.

We are much in the debt of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for tabling these amendments. She introduced them with remarkable brevity. Let us have done with this.

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
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May I ask my noble friend before he sits down just to clarify his comments about the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher? Will there also, as I see it, be an opportunity to comment in more detail when we debate the clause standing part? That may be the occasion when I comment on his generous comments about me, for which I thank him.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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Yes, that is fine. I think there is even a case for deleting these clauses in Committee.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I was not intending to speak on this part but I feel very queasy about the way a number of noble Lords are using the situation in Ukraine to have a go at this part of the Bill. People are indeed dying for democracy, but they are not dying to defend an Electoral Commission—an unelected quango in the UK. I think it is rather unbecoming to use that.

The Electoral Commission is relatively new to the UK’s democratic life and democracy thrived when it did not exist. At the very least, we should stop aggrandising the Electoral Commission as though the electorate depend on it. There are problems with it and there are problems with the way the Government are trying to deal with it. I am not necessarily defending the Government’s way of solving the problem of the Electoral Commission—

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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Will the noble Baroness give way?

Lord Blunkett Portrait Lord Blunkett (Lab)
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Go on, defend it. The noble Baroness used to be in the Communist Party.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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Very good, well done everyone, carry on.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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The noble Baroness said that we had a functioning electoral system before we had the Electoral Commission. The commission was a move to improve it, just as votes for women was a very great step forward. I am sure she would not want to go back to the time before that.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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I appreciate that I am surrounded by Labour noble Lords who object to what I am saying. One of the great advantages of votes for women was that occasionally we get to say the odd thing that does not go with the grain.

I am raising the problem that the Electoral Commission is not necessarily all good. I want to say this about it. There was a great deal of dissatisfaction about the Electoral Commission’s lack of independence in its response to the 2016 referendum, which I referred to in my Second Reading speech. Such were the concerns about the bias of the Electoral Commission in that period that it had to apologise for the bias of many of its members. This is not me saying it—I am quoting the Electoral Commission, which we are all told we have to listen to.

The bias led to many voters feeling that the Electoral Commission was not fit for purpose and was in fact biased against their wishes as an electorate in that referendum. Many of those people were not Tory cronies but Labour voters—Labour voters who may no longer be Labour voters because they became disillusioned by the fact that the Labour Party told them they had got it wrong, they were duped and they needed to think again. While the Labour Benches are very keen on democracy, they were less keen on the democratic decisions of many of their voters in 2016 and subsequently.

At the very least, therefore, it is important that we look at the role of the Electoral Commission critically and seriously. I do not think the way the Government have gone about reforming it will clarify or help things. I will make those points another time. But to say, as has just been said by a number of noble Lords, that we have a responsibility to take the Bill and thwart it, scupper it, throw it out and all the rest of it, seems to me rather to fly in the face of democracy. A little humility is maybe needed to remember that the plans for the Elections Bill were in the Conservative Party manifesto—which noble Lords will be delighted to know I did not vote for, before they all start.

Nevertheless, I clocked that they were there. We in this House are unelected legislators and need to take at least a smidgen of note of what the electorate might consider priorities. Not everything is a Conservative Party plot but one reason many people voted for the Conservative Party in 2019 was that they felt abandoned by the opposition parties.

Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D’Souza (CB)
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My Lords, I wonder whether noble Lords are fully aware that this is Committee and not Second Reading.

Lord Beith Portrait Lord Beith (LD)
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My Lords, I want to make a Committee point, if I may. Even though I agree with the general statements that have been made about the deep undesirability of Clauses 14 and 15, and the danger they represent to the reputation of this country as a guardian of democracy, my noble friend made quite clear that we would want to see those clauses removed but also indicated his support for the noble Baroness’s amendments, which would ameliorate those clauses slightly if the Bill were to retain them. I am very keen that the Bill does not retain them.

The amelioration has its limits and, in that context, I want to remind the Committee of the report of the Constitution Committee on the Bill in this respect. Paragraph 39 says:

“We are concerned about the desirability of introducing a Government-initiated strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission. The proposal will open up to risk the independence of the Commission … it would be dangerous if the perception were to emerge that the Commission is beholden to the Government for its operation and delivery.”


The weakness of the noble Baroness’s amendment, which I know is well intentioned, is that the statutory status of the statement remains and she creates a rather interesting situation, which I had not seen in legislative form before, in which the commission can carry out what the Government suggest if it already agrees with them, which would be a new kind of statutory position. The fact is that there would still be a statement that had some degree of statutory authority behind it.

Governments and governing parties can always criticise what the Electoral Commission says and does and have shown little hesitation about doing so over the years. There has never been a limit on the ability of the Conservative Party to say what it disagrees with in the Electoral Commission’s work. But to create a statutory process, even with the consultation involved, and produce from that a statement which explicitly or implicitly appears to bind the Electoral Commission is highly dangerous. I see that statement as addressing priorities of the commission. Is the commission spending too much time on political finance and donations? Is it spending too much time trying to register groups of people in this country? Should it spend more time trying to find more overseas voters? Such issues are not things on which we want to see the Electoral Commission steered by a statement that has any authority from statute. Let parties both in government and outside it continue to express their views and, indeed, their criticisms, but do not build into our statutory system that kind of statement.

Lord Butler of Brockwell Portrait Lord Butler of Brockwell (CB)
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My Lords, I put my name to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, which my noble and learned friend Lord Judge will move this afternoon. As I may not be able—depending on the progress of business—to speak then, it may be for the convenience of the Committee if I make a very short intervention now.

I spent last night reading the illustrative example of a strategy and policy document issued by the Government in September. This document is no doubt designed to reassure but we are left with the question of how much further this clause gives an opportunity to a Government to go in regulating the activities of the commission. That is the subject that should worry us.

12:30
The question that I have upmost in my mind is: why have the Government felt it necessary to take this power? The answer may be the one that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, gave; they feel that the Electoral Commission did not behave properly on the Brexit debate. It will be interesting if the Minister explains that that is the reason. But even if the Electoral Commission fell short of what was expected of it at that time, the right way to deal with that is not by the Government taking powers to direct it. That is why these clauses are very worrying and I hope they will be omitted from the Bill.
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, the processes of your Lordships’ House are enclosed in layers of impenetrable language, punctuated by archaic ritual and layered in complex paperwork that can confuse even the veterans among us. For International Women’s Day I have been exhorting the young people of Britain, particularly young girls, to watch the House of Lords—with some trepidation because it is not easy to understand if you just switch on Lords TV.

Many noble Lords will have noticed, in the great increase in our piles of letters and emails in our inboxes, that the House of Lords is—this is responding particularly to the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox—a place where democracy is being defended. Several noble Lords have said, “Oh well, we don’t have to worry about this Government having the power of control over the Electoral Commission; it’s some other putative Government we are concerned about.” However, when I look at the police Bill, the judicial review Bill, the Nationality and Borders Bill and many others, and I look at my postbag of people saying they are concerned, I know that the public are asking us to represent them, and we have to worry about this Government as well as any potential future Government.

As a further piece of evidence, noble Lords may have seen, a week or so back, the Democracy Defence Coalition’s giant van and billboard parked—deliberately—outside Millbank House, where many of us have offices. That organisation represents hundreds of thousands of people who are concerned about this Bill. The top line in their list was concern about the independence of the Electoral Commission, which is what these amendments seek to address—particularly Amendment 4A.

Coming to the detail of this, I entirely understand the impulse from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, to try to put some controls and limits in. But the only way forward is to get these clauses out of the Bill. More than that, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others, that this Bill is an absolute mess. As others have said, the number of government amendments makes that very clear. We must not be proceeding with this Bill as an absolute minimum at the moment.

Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for tabling these amendments and setting an example for all of us in Committee to present our amendments with such brevity in such a concise nature. I declare my interests in the register which are relevant to this Bill.

The noble Baroness’s amendments do their utmost—if these two clauses are to remain part of the Bill—to keep the Electoral Commission as independent as possible from government interference. It might be worth looking at a dictionary definition of independence. It is: the ability to go about one’s business without being helped, hindered or influenced by others. The Minister may say that this is trying to help the Electoral Commission. Independence means that you stay out of the function of that commission.

In response to the noble Baronesses, Lady Noakes and Lady Fox, we have to be very clear what the amendments are trying to omit. The role of the Electoral Commission is not to carry out the priorities of the Government. Yet we see in new Section 4A(2)(b):

“The statement is a statement prepared by the Secretary of State”—


a Cabinet Minister—

“that sets out … the role and responsibilities of the Commission in enabling Her Majesty’s government to meet those priorities.”

The role of the Electoral Commission is not to meet the priorities of Her Majesty’s Government, it is to ensure free and fair elections for all parties—not at the behest of one political party. That is why these amendments, if the clauses stand part of the Bill, are important.

At Second Reading I said to the Minister that when the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and I are together, there must be fundamental flaws in the Bill. With what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has just said, I feel like calling him my noble friend on this particular issue. His powerful words—as upsetting as they are to some noble Lords—are absolutely correct. At this time, when people are fighting for the basics of freedom and democracy, it is wrong that we are having to debate a Bill which tries to put the Electoral Commission’s strategy and priorities in alignment with those of Her Majesty’s Government—a political party. Those are not the free and fair elections which are the basis of a strong, functioning democracy.

It is for those reasons that if at a later stage your Lordships decide to see Clauses 14 and 15 stand part of the Bill, these amendments at least try to bring back a semblance of independence and take away the role of government. That is why these Benches support the noble Baroness’s amendments as drafted.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and we agree with everything he has just said. This is the beginning of our debates on the Elections Bill, so I start by thanking the Minister and his officials for taking the time to meet me and my colleagues to go through some of our concerns.

I turn to the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher—again, it is unusual to find such brevity in an introduction—which draw attention to the link between the Electoral Commission and the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, gave a very clear overview of how the Electoral Commission came into being. He also talked about some of the comments from the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Our concern is with Part 3 of the Bill, and Clause 14 in particular. We believe it represents a deeply worrying step for our democracy. The Minister and his Government might like to think that it is their party in government today, but legislation is for future Governments. This could be for other parties, including parties not represented in this Chamber. It is not for any Government to dictate the priorities of an independent watchdog, yet these proposals, as we have heard, allow the Government of the day to set the agenda of the Electoral Commission.

The Electoral Commission regulates the elections in which Governments are elected. It is very important that the Electoral Commission has independence from the Government of the day. The existence of an independent regulator is fundamental to maintaining confidence in our electoral systems and, therefore, in our democracy.

That is particularly important when the laws that govern elections are made by a small subset of the parties that stand in elections. Many parties that stand in elections in our country do not have Members of Parliament, and much of the legislation here will be done as secondary legislation, so the commission’s independence needs to be clear for voters and campaigners to see. It must be viewed as fair and impartial. As we have heard, no organisation has given these proposals its full support.

The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, referred to the consultation around the statement, but I have to say that consultation on these proposals so far does not exactly fill me with confidence. If the Committee will bear with me, I will just refer to the Government’s response to PACAC’s fifth report around consultation. In the report, the committee

“urges the Government to provide guidance, as a matter of urgency, on the proposed consultation mechanisms, which should be agreed with the list of statutory consultees in advance of publication.”

The Government’s response says:

“The consultation mechanism for the designation of the Strategy and Policy Statement is already outlined in detail in new sections … Those statutory consultees are: the Electoral Commission, the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.”


But parliamentary consequences of the recent machinery of government changes, whereby ministerial responsibilities for elections now sit with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, will mean that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee may need to be replaced with the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee as a statutory consultee on the statement. Considering that PACAC was one of the organisations most critical of the Bill in its response, I find it very concerning that it is being threatened with removal. I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s justifications for that.

Furthermore, in the response:

“The Government notes the Committee’s suggestion to set minimum timeframes for consultation but considers it would be disproportionate and unnecessarily burdensome.”


Again, I ask the Minister why. Consultation used to be my profession; I was an associate at the Consultation Institute. We lay out best practice for consultation and that is not best practice.

The Minister has previously said that it is important that we have independent regulation so that the public can have confidence in our elections. But the implication of this is that we do not currently have independent or impartial regulation of elections. It implies that somehow the Electoral Commission, as currently constituted, is fundamentally flawed and failing in its duty. That is a substantial claim, and I have seen no evidence for it.

My noble friend Lord Foulkes talked about the importance of good governance and how the proposals in this Bill completely undermine that. He also talked about how we monitor elections in other countries and how on earth we will continue to be taken seriously in the future if we have basically kneecapped our own Electoral Commission and are bringing in many of the other measures in this Bill.

The Electoral Commission is already accountable to the House through the Speaker’s Committee. There are regular questions in the Chamber of the other place precisely to provide some of that accountability. The members of that committee scrutinise the operation of the commission, and there are also procedures at Holyrood and at the Senedd in Cymru to ensure the Electoral Commission self-accounts for its operations in those parts of the United Kingdom. These proposals threaten to end the commission’s independence and put control of how elections are run in the hands of those who have won them, which cannot be right. These look like the actions of a Government who fear scrutiny, and I suggest we have seen that in other legislation in recent times. I ask the Minister: under the current proposals in the Bill, will Parliament be able to amend the statement?

12:45
The government response to the PACAC report says:
“Further, to support parliamentary scrutiny during those debates, the Government also provided an illustrative example of the Strategy and Policy Statement which parliamentarians will be able to use to supplement their views.”
We have heard what that looks like from other Members so, again, I ask the Minister exactly how that is supposed to replace the current system and provide sufficient scrutiny going forward.
Elected representatives have an active and vested interest in the regulation of elections, even more so for a Government who have been elected and want to remain in power. It is not right that such a Government can direct the body that oversees what is supposed to be an impartial process. A country where the Electoral Commission is told what to do by the Executive is not a country with free or fair elections. The regulator has to be independent and impartial and must not be subject to political control. I say to the Minister that that message has come across from the majority of noble Lords who have spoken so far today.
We completely understand the aims of the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and why she is trying to make an appalling situation better and, as the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, said, “pull it back from the brink.” But we agree very strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that it is grotesque while people are dying for democracy and that the most honourable thing to do is to delete these clauses from the Bill. Our position is that they should not stand part of the Bill and should be removed. I look forward to the debate on this, which we will come to later today.
Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness opposite for her kind remarks at the outset, and make clear that I have been privileged by and welcomed the discussions I have had with her and other noble Lords in the passage of this legislation so far. I give an assurance to the House that I will always be open for those discussions. We may not agree, but I am concerned to hear the opinions and seek to address the concerns of noble Lords on all sides. I may not be able to succeed, the Government may not be able to succeed, but that is the spirit in which we should go forward.

I hope the one thing we might agree on is our revulsion and scorn—and hatred, actually, which is a word I do not use often—for the activities of the Russian Government and army in Ukraine. But I beg that the enormity of what is happening there should not be adduced as an argument in questions of judgment about the degree of our regulation of electoral amendments, which this amendment before the Committee is about. I do not believe it is comparing like with like. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. She seemed a little surprised, but I thank her for putting these amendments before the Committee.

I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, was in his place and rose swiftly to read a 13-minute speech on these amendments to the House. Perhaps, he was not as surprised as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, by the events which occurred.

I did not intervene in the debate because the glory of this House is that it is a free House; it is the master of its own procedures and its own way of going forward. The group of amendments we have just discussed has nothing to do with excising Clauses 14 and 15. There is no amendment to Clause 14, and the noble Baroness suggests leaving out two lines and adding a couple of points to Clause 14. On the Order Paper, we have a clause stand part on Clauses 14 and 15. The appropriate procedure, I venture to suggest, with the greatest respect to your Lordships’ House—protecting and arguing for your right and freedom of procedure, which I, as a Member of this House, regard as one of its glories—is that we should address in Committee points that are before the House in Committee.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I apologise. Did the Minister just say that the amendments have nothing to do with Clause 14? They are amendments to Clause 14.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, I said that what was before the House was not a clause stand part debate. I will address the amendment before the House. The proposal to excise Clauses 14 and 15 comes later today, in the sixth group, in your Lordships’ House. The noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, actually said—

Lord Lipsey Portrait Lord Lipsey (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am doing my best, on the basis of only 20 years’ experience in this House, to follow the Minister. Is he saying that he is going to try to improve a clause in Committee, when later we are going to have an opportunity to choose whether to reject the clause as a whole? Of course, we must do both. I hope that it is rejected eventually but in the meantime, the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, goes some way to mitigating its worst features.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, I am not saying that in the slightest. I will address the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, because that is the proper thing to do in Committee. All I respectfully submit to your Lordships is that, if there is a clause stand part amendment—the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, made a clause stand part speech because, as he explained, he is not going to be here later—then the appropriate place for it is probably within that debate. The noble Lord—

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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Following on from my noble friend, I have only been in this House for 16 years, so I am a relative newcomer compared with some Members, but I have sat through lots of Committee stages. I say this with great respect to the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, as she is a former Speaker: in the first debate in a Committee, I have often seen Members take the opportunity to speak more widely than the specific amendment. I do not think that either Back-Benchers or, particularly, the Front Bench should object to that.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, and the noble Lord, for whom I have the greatest affection, is never slow in coming forward in such debates. Indeed, he used the amendment to say that the whole Bill should be thrown out, not just these two clauses. I assume that he includes in that tackling postal vote fraud, clarifying law on digital campaigning, protecting voters against intimidation and various other things in this legislation. Do I infer that the noble Lord, as he said in his speech, would like to throw the whole Bill out?

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I look forward to the evidence being put forward about postal vote fraud. I have certainly not seen a lot of it around where I vote; I have not seen any intimidation at all. Anyway, these things could be dealt with in different ways.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Okay, I take that as a yes: that the noble Lord would like to reject the whole Bill. I will be interested to see in Committee if that is the position of the Labour Party.

As I said, I make no objection to the free procedures of the House—

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I slightly object to that, because the Minister is extending a response to one point to a general point. He was able to read the Second Reading speeches of all noble Lords, including mine and that of my noble friend, which made our position on postal votes and on intimidation absolutely clear. For the record, I hope that he will understand what the Labour Party’s position is.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for that, and I do know that that is the Labour Party position. I was pointing out that the noble Lord sat at the back might not actually have the support of the Labour Party on his proposition to throw the whole Bill out.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree completely with what my noble friend has just said. I was saying that there are different ways of dealing with this, rather than in this huge omnibus Bill which deals with so many things and does not allow us to scrutinise matters such as postal votes, fraud and intimidation. These should be dealt with properly, and given the time needed to consider them properly, rather than in this mammoth compendium of a Bill.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I anticipate that we will discuss all those things. I intend, if nature allows, to be present for every hour of Committee on this Bill and every hour on Report, and to give full attention and respect to everything your Lordships say. Perhaps I could get on with the amendments before the House—

Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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I point out to the Minister that he has just spent 10 minutes doing exactly what he has told noble Lords not to do. Now that we are in Committee, will he come to the substance of these amendments?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would have done so slightly quicker if the noble Lord had not intervened.

The suggestion before the House, which I will deal with later, is that the Government are attempting to interfere with the operational independence of the Electoral Commission. We contend that that is a mischaracterisation, and I will deal with that at the appropriate time. Reference has been made in the debate to the illustrative statement the Government have published for the Election Commission, which we will discuss later. I hope that all noble Lords will have a look at it. It states:

“This Statement does not seek to interfere with the governance of the Commission, nor does it seek to direct specific investigative or enforcement decisions of the Electoral Commission. This Statement does not affect the ability of the Commission to undertake enforcement activity as they see fit”.


The Government are not seeking to direct, as has been submitted, the Electoral Commission. Amendment 4A seeks to amend Clause 14 so that the commission only has to consider following the guidance in the strategy and policy statement if the commission considers that the guidance aligns with its own objectives. As I have set out, the duty on the commission to have regard to the statement on the discharge of its functions contained in Clause 15 is not a directive; it simply asks the commission to consider the guidance. This protects the operational independence of the commission and means that the amendment is unnecessary.

Amendment A1 would remove the provision for the strategy and policy statement to be able to set out the role and responsibilities of the commission in enabling Her Majesty’s Government to meet their priorities in relation to elections, referendums and other matters in respect of which the commission has functions. First, on a technical note, this amendment would not limit the scope of the strategy and policy statement, as intended, as the clause would still provide for the statement to set out guidance relating to particular matters in respect of which the commission has functions. Secondly—and we will debate this later—it is entirely right that the Government should include within the statement the role and responsibilities of the commission in enabling the Government to meet their priorities in relation to elections.

For any Member who has not already seen the illustrative strategy, I say again that I hope noble Lords will review the document, and that many will find it to some degree reassuring—to the use the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Butler—and hard to disagree with the content. However, I will listen to the comments on that, as on anything else. The statement sets out the Government’s expectation that the commission should tackle voter fraud, improve accessibility of elections and increase participation. I hope we can all agree that these are important aims that it would be wholly appropriate for an electoral regulator to support. For these reasons, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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The Minister did not address my concerns around consultation on the document. Will he come back on that, please?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, we will come to that document later. The specific recommendations taken up in these proposals were those of the Pickles committee in 2015.

13:00
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response to this excellent debate. I did table these amendments but did not ask for them to be degrouped. It never occurred to me that they might be degrouped, hence I was a little ill-prepared this morning: I was expecting to deal with them in about six hours’ time. I am incredibly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, for picking up the pieces of my confusion and making an outstanding contribution. The clerk has said I could make a few comments at this point—a very few—but I have barely recovered from the incredible response of the Committee to my confusion. Noble Lords have been courteous, amusing, gentle and kind, and I am enormously grateful, I really am.

Let me just explain why I tabled these amendments, despite the fact I feel passionately that Clauses 14 and 15 should not stand part of the Bill and be removed. I worked in Russia at the beginning of the 1990s; I watched President Yeltsin trying to create democracy in Russia and have watched it disappearing. We need to treasure our democracy and these clauses, in my view, will drive a wedge between democracy and a bit of reality in our political process. I completely agree that Clauses 14 and 15 should not stand part of the Bill, but I tabled these amendments to make the point that it is crucial that the Electoral Commission is free and independent to do what it believes is right and proper for it to do.

The suggestion was made from the Conservative Benches that, “Oh, no, it’s fine; these amendments are completely unnecessary because all the commission has to do is to ‘have regard to’ the will, the policy and the strategy of the Government.” But I have worked in these public bodies and am very aware of people asking, “Do we have to have regard to the Government or not?” This is vital, because if these clauses go through and these amendments do not pass, then the chair and the CEO of the Electoral Commission will be very anxious—believe me, having been there—to comply with the will, policy and strategy of the Government. That is the whole point: the commission must be independent, feel independent and act independently. These amendments are necessary unless the ideal situation emerges where the clauses are removed from the Bill. With all that said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment A1 withdrawn.
Amendment 1
Moved by
1: Clause 14, page 21, line 13, at end insert—
“(3A) The statement must not include provision in relation to elections, referendums and other matters so far as the provision would relate to the Commission’s devolved Scottish functions or the Commission’s devolved Welsh functions.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that a statement under the inserted section 4A of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (“PPERA”) must not include provision about matters so far as relating to the Electoral Commission’s devolved Scottish or Welsh functions.
Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I apologise to the Committee at the outset for the large number of amendments in this group. They are technical amendments, in the main, and the overwhelming number of those I speak to—Amendments 1 and 2, 21 to 24, 26 to 30, 33 and 34, 36 to 38, 40, 43, 46 to 51, 106 to 108, 110 to 118, 124 to 133, 157 to 160, 162 to 167, 169, 173 and 174—are related to the discussions the United Kingdom Government have had with the devolved Administrations in preparing the policy and drafting the legislation. We undertook extensive engagement with them.

For a number of measures that are within devolved competence, the United Kingdom Government considered that a co-ordinated UK-wide approach would have been beneficial, ensuring consistency and operability for electoral administrators and those regulated by electoral law while strengthening protection for electors and relevant political actors. It is therefore regrettable that while the Government sought legislative consent for these measures, the Scottish Parliament has not granted such consent and the Welsh Government have recommended that the Senedd does not so. In respect to those positions, we have therefore tabled these necessary amendments to ensure that measures in the Bill apply to reserved matters only. In addition, an amendment has been tabled to the digital imprint provisions, which already apply UK wide, to ensure they will continue to function correctly once other parts of the Bill concerning devolved matters are amended.

We welcome the indication from the Scottish and Welsh Administrations, however, that they are considering legislating comparably in a number of areas covered by the Bill. The United Kingdom Government remain committed to working closely with the Scottish and Welsh Administrations to support consistency in electoral law and ensure clarity and coherence are achieved across the United Kingdom for voters, the electoral sector and those regulated by electoral law.

Additionally, this group contains technical amendments in my name that are necessary for the measures to be fit for purpose and operate as intended. I will give a brief description of each and the reasoning behind them.

Amendment 82 relates to voter identification and clarifies the information to be displayed on both the poll card and the large notice in polling stations. These will tell electors which forms of identification will be accepted. Amendments 74 to 77 and 123 to 133 are minor clarificatory drafting changes to Schedule 1 and Schedule 6 to reflect that Northern Ireland-registered voters and GB-registered proxies are not mutually exclusive categories, with a further change to make sure that dates of birth for GB-registered temporary proxies can be checked at Northern Ireland Assembly elections, in line with the intended policy. Amendments 157 to 160 are minor amendments to the European Union voting and candidacy rights provisions in Part 2, to remove an unnecessary reference to Northern Irish local councillors in the transitional provisions for officeholders.

In addition, Amendments 5, 6, 10, 11, 15 and 16 are government amendments relating to the Electoral Commission measures in Part 3. This partly answers the noble Baroness’s questions. I was going to answer them later but, since they have come up now, they relate to the change in the committee which is responsible and reflect the parliamentary consequences of the recent machinery of government change, where ministerial responsibility for elections was transferred from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

As a result, the amendments replace PACAC as the statutory consultee on the strategy and policy statement with the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee which will have responsibility henceforth for looking at electoral matters, in line with the machinery of government. This would also align the consultation requirements with the recent change to the membership of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, where the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee chair has replaced the PACAC chair. The noble Baroness and the Committee will know that the chair of that committee is Mr Clive Betts, who is, I say with all sincerity, a very distinguished and experienced Member of the other place. The amendments are technical in nature, as is the move, and does not result in any other changes to the statutory consultation requirements and process.

Amendments 181 to 196, the final government amendments, are to the digital imprint provisions in Part 6. Once again, these are all technical in nature and aimed at ensuring that the provisions deliver the policy as intended. I urge noble Lords to support these technical and necessary amendments—I apologise if I have missed citing any in my speech—and I beg to move.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, on this occasion, I have a lot of sympathy with the Minister. As I understand it, these amendments have been tabled because of the consultation that has taken place since the original drafting of the Bill. I commend the Government for the process—I will come to substance of it—and I have sympathy with him.

However, in dealing with this, the Minister has the support of an excellent team—I see the Bill Committee officials here—whereas my noble friends on the opposition Front Bench have, in comparison, a very limited group of people helping them; they are limited in number—I had better make that clear—but able in every way. That makes it difficult to deal with such a complex Bill. However, I ask the Minister to think of the problems of Back-Bench Members, who have no help whatsoever. We have a huge volume of legislation to consider at the moment, not only this Bill, which is big enough in itself, but so many others, and this does create problems for us.

I would have liked to have spent more time discussing these amendments, particularly as they relate to Scotland and Wales. I was a great advocate of devolution in Scotland—and subsequently in Wales—and strongly supported giving more power to the Scottish Parliament. I served as a Member of the Scottish Parliament for four years, so I know the kind of work that is done there. Some of it was very effective, although it is less effective now under the SNP—much less effective than it used to be in the joint Labour-Liberal Democrat Administration. I wonder if all the differences that are now demanded by the current Administration in Edinburgh are genuinely sensible or just for the sake of being different in Scotland. I sometimes think that they just want to be different for the sake of it. I would like the Minister to reassure us that this is not the case in any of these amendments, because what difference is there?

In relation to voting at elections in Scotland and England, people move quite a lot from Scotland to England, so in one year they may vote in Edinburgh and the next year they may vote in London. Therefore, some degree of consistency has an advantage. The only difference that I know of at the moment is the voting age in Scotland, which is 16 for Scottish Parliament elections, but apart from that I think that the procedures are fairly similar. Can the Minister assure us that each of these amendments—as I say, I have not had the time, opportunity and support to be able to go through them one by one—is a genuine, excepted difference? Or has the Minister had his arm twisted and, wanting to keep the SNP Administration quiet, has he just agreed to do what they suggest?

Baroness Humphreys Portrait Baroness Humphreys (LD)
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My Lords, I wish to speak to those amendments in this group which deal with the consequences of the Welsh Government’s refusal to grant legislative consent to this Bill—primarily, Amendments 1 and 2, and others. The Welsh Government’s refusal results, of course, in the removal from the Bill of all aspects which relate to devolved elections. I am pleased to welcome these amendments, but I must say that the pleasure is tempered by the sympathy that I feel for my English colleagues, who will have to contend with some aspects of this Bill which they, and I, find very difficult to accept, and which go against the principles which govern free and fair elections in the UK.

At Second Reading, I spoke against the moves to neuter or control the Electoral Commission by the introduction of a strategy and policy statement, which your Lordships’ Committee has just dealt with. I also spoke of the deep disappointment felt in the Senedd at the way in which the UK Government was prepared to overlook or ignore the role of the Llywydd’s Committee, and its role in holding the Electoral Commission to account on behalf of the Senedd itself.

The refusal of the Welsh Government to give legislative consent to this Bill has resulted in Amendment 1, which excludes the Electoral Commission’s devolved Scottish and Welsh functions from inclusion in a statement, and Amendment 2, which defines the elections to which the functions relate, thereby securing the status quo for the commission in Wales. The refusal also has the effect that, in devolved Welsh elections, there will be no need for voter ID, no new constraints on postal or proxy voting and no extension of the overseas franchise.

13:15
Our Senedd will continue to be elected by the d’Hondt system—not a perfect system, I would agree, but it introduces a good element of PR and results in a balanced Senedd, where the seats allocated to political parties reflect the number of votes cast. Of course, in the devolved elections for the Senedd and for local government elections, our 16 year-olds will continue to be able to vote—not that this right, or our more proportional voting system, is under threat from the UK Government in this Bill, but I mention both merely to emphasise how much our systems have already diverged. Dealing with even more divergence will become the new normal, as voters and officials cope with different systems for devolved and reserved elections.
I thank the Minister for his letter to Members, in particular for the section dealing with the disapplication of the devolved provisions. I am grateful for his decision to respect the wishes of the devolved Administrations by the tabling of these amendments. I understand the Minister’s disappointment and his concerns about the exclusion of what he terms the “protective measures” in the Bill—modernising the offence of undue influence and the regulation of political finance, for example—but these are issues that can be determined by the Senedd, and it is the Senedd’s right to do so. The Senedd’s Counsel General has already indicated his desire to introduce an elections Bill in the Senedd and, as the Minister himself says in his letter,
“the Welsh Government has expressed support in principle for a number of areas in the Bill”.
The challenge for the Welsh Government will be to take noble Lords’ concerns on board in their new Bill, once they have undergone the due process of scrutiny and consultation.
Although I believe that the rights and responsibilities regarding devolved elections in Wales lie with the Welsh Government, I cannot resist the temptation to add a further challenge or gentle nudge—and that is for the Welsh Government and the whole Senedd to finally come to a decision about the size of the Senedd and an even more proportional system of voting for our Senedd. I know that this is already a work in progress, but we have been waiting in anticipation since the Richard commission reported in 2004.
Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
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My Lords, I have one question of clarification to ask my noble friend. During his introduction, he referred to the change of structure of government and therefore the change of structure of committees in the other place, and their responsibilities for dealing with electoral matters. Given that the Government have a habit of restructuring virtually everything virtually every year, whichever party is in power, can I seek clarification that these amendments are future-proofed—in other words, that we are not writing into the Bill the name of a committee that may not exist in one or two or three years’ time?

Lord Lipsey Portrait Lord Lipsey (Lab)
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My Lords, I will briefly make a point about these proceedings. As I understood it, when we debated the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, the Minister said, “We should not have these general arguments; we should be focusing on the specific amendments.” In a corner, as he was, I can see that that was the best sort of argument available to him. Now we have nearly 100 amendments which change the law of this nation, and how much time did the Minister devote to each of them? It was six seconds. This is not a detailed examination of a Bill; it is a Minister who thinks that whatever he happens to want—I am sure that most of these amendments are completely acceptable—should go through without proper debate, consideration and deliberation by this House.

I say that both as a protest and as something that I hope the House will carry forward in its future deliberations on the Bill. It cannot be done at the kind of speed whereby 100 amendments are considered in one grouping. It will not be done, and we will stop it being done.

Lord Stunell Portrait Lord Stunell (LD)
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My Lords, I will speak very briefly to this amendment. I seem to have used my time allocation earlier—I apologise to the Minister for wasting his time. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and my noble friend just pointed out—the Minister probably cannot hear me with my mask on, so I am sorry about that as well—it is six seconds per amendment against 13 per amendment on my part. I apologise for that.

I will pick up on a couple of things. The Minister expressed regret that Scotland and Wales had opted out of the application of Clause 14 in those two nations. He will understand that I think they have shown the utmost common sense in doing so, and I do not think it is a cause for regret at all. I certainly support what my noble friend Lady Humphreys had to say about that.

I will bring the Minister back to the fig leaf of consultation in new Section 4A in Clause 14. I said before that of the five bodies, four were completely hostile and one other was captured by the Cabinet. There is now a proposal here which means that one of those—PACAC—is captured by the Select Committee for the Department of Levelling Up Housing and Communities, and that Secretary of State will be making the strategy statement: that is something else that has got worse as a consequence of that.

I put back into play the point I made before, that if Scotland and Wales are not going to be part of new Section 4A and if PACAC is going to be neutered and transformed, it might be time to add the CSPL as one of those bodies which should be statutorily consulted as the creator and, up till now, the recommender of progress and developments on that Electoral Commission body. I would have thought that some voice for local government in that consultation should be statutory there, of course only for England, because Scotland and Wales have sensibly opted out.

We shall not oppose these amendments but we believe that the direction of travel on this suggests even more reasons for reforming the application of Clause 14 when we get to that debate.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction. Clearly, these amendments are technical and we agree with noble Lords that they are required.

I agree with my noble friends Lord Lipsey and Lord Foulkes that this enormous number of amendments was chucked at us in one go, with very little time to look at the detail, not just of what they say but of what the implications are. Noble Lords made an extremely important point about that. That has happened with other Bills as well. In debates on the Building Safety Bill, which I have also been working on, an enormous number—38 pages—of amendments were given to us with a very short time to assess them. Can the Minister take that away and think about it for future legislation? It is difficult for noble Lords to assess such amendments in a reasonable fashion.

We need to look at why the amendments are necessary. Clearly, as noble Lords have explained, it is to do with the devolved Administrations. When the Bill was originally proposed, it was for legislating on a UK-wide basis, and that included some areas where the devolved Parliaments in Scotland and Wales could legislate in respect of their own local and devolved elections. Clearly, the Government had to seek legislative consent Motions from the devolved Parliaments. Unfortunately for the UK Government, the Governments of Scotland and Wales both declined to lay consent Motions and requested that all aspects which relate to devolved matters be removed from the Bill, hence the large number of amendments.

I will just draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that, out of more than 350 legislative consent Motions, consent has been denied just 13 times, according to the Institute for Government. UK Bills have been redrafted previously when devolved Administration consent has been withheld under the Sewel convention. Can the Minister say why that option was not considered? Perhaps it was considered and we do not know about that, but it was rejected.

The Government have said that they were disappointed by the move—the Minister used the word “regrettable”—but said that they would respect this request by preparing the necessary amendments to the Bill, which is why we have so many before us in this group. I thank the Minister for apologising for this to the Committee—I appreciate that, as I am sure other noble Lords do.

I want to look at why the Welsh and Scottish Governments did not agree with the Bill. As the Government did not redraft it following the concerns raised but instead decided to plough on regardless, it is important to draw this to the attention of the Committee to fully understand the implications of many of its proposals.

In the Welsh Government, the Elections Bill was scrutinised by two Senedd committees: the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, and the Local Government and Housing Committee. I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, on her excellent speech about disappointment in Wales over the Government’s behaviour around the Bill, particularly because they completely refused to listen to the findings of the Llywydd’s Committee.

The Local Government and Housing Committee report agreed with the Welsh Government’s memorandum that consent should not be granted, saying:

“The majority of the Committee believe any proposals to legislate on these devolved matters should be brought forward by the Welsh Government and subject to full scrutiny by the Senedd.”


The Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee also expressed concern at the lack of engagement between the UK Government and the Welsh Government. Can the Minister say why there was a lack of engagement —what went wrong with that process?

In addition, the committee agreed with the Welsh Government that some of the reserved measures would have a considerable impact on electoral administrators in Wales, particularly around voter ID. The same will happen in England. It highlighted the potential for voter and candidate confusion and complexity for electoral administrators if devolved elections happen close together or on the same day as a reserved election, as happened in May 2021. This could lead to a situation where postal and proxy voting rules were different and voter ID requirements in polling stations were different for polls happening together. My noble friend Lord Foulkes talked about the importance of consistency. Diversion will only cause confusion.

On voter ID, the committee also cited Electoral Reform Society Cymru concerns about poll clerks becoming

“bouncers at the ballot box”

and being required to turn away

“potentially thousands of would-be voters each election.”

Concerns have also been raised by Jess Blair, director of the Electoral Reform Society Cymru, who said that the Elections Bill makes

“sweeping changes to our democracy.”

She said that

“it looks like UK ministers have barely engaged with Wales or Scotland so far. This bill is being swiftly rammed through with little consultation”.

That echoes the concerns expressed already in your Lordships’ House. She continued:

“Moreover, the changes to the Electoral Commission represent a UK government power grab, with ministers given new controls over our elections watchdog. This is a dangerous and unprecedented move that the Welsh Government is right to oppose. This Elections Bill could lead to a ‘two tier franchise’ in Wales, with some elections banning those without ID, and others remaining open and free. Both the Welsh Parliament and Holyrood should use their powers to pause this power-grab bill, and secure changes to protect the right to vote.”


So they have done.

13:30
The Scottish Government also recommended that the Scottish Parliament should not give consent to the Bill and would not lodge a legislative consent Motion. The lead committee of the Scottish Parliament tasked with scrutinising the Bill was the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. The majority of that committee agreed with the Scottish Government that consent should not be granted.
The committee also noted that the Elections Bill requires Scottish Ministers to be consulted on a draft of the strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission. The Scottish Elections (Reform) Act 2020 transferred financial responsibility for funding the Electoral Commission in relation to Scottish elections from Scottish Ministers to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. The committee considered that the SPCB should be added as a statutory consultee to the statement. Can the Minister confirm whether that will be the case?
On voter ID, the committee noted that changes to reserved elections in the Bill had a potential impact on Scottish elections. It raised concerns about the administrative burdens placed on elections staff by the various new measures; in particular, the administration of voter ID in polling stations and registration staff determining applications for overseas voters and absent voting requests. These concerns for England remain within the Bill, and we will come to them as we move through Committee.
The committee in Scotland heard evidence from the Electoral Management Board for Scotland that voter ID requirements are
“out of proportion to the problem they attempt to address”.
The EMB voiced concern over the effect on polling station staff of having to implement voter ID provisions, saying that polling staff would no longer be able to help citizens in elections, but, instead, officials would be checking voters’ identity papers. It is concerned that it will be a less attractive job given the likely associated conflict and bureaucracy.
On the digital imprint measures in the Bill, the Scottish Government and the UK Government disagreed on whether or not the measures are fully reserved. The UK Government believe that the measures are wholly reserved under the “internet services” reservation in the Scotland Act 1998, but the Scottish Government disagree. Their view is that only the measures requiring removal of electronic material that would breach the new measures are reserved. They view the rest of the measures on digital imprints as devolved and consider that the provisions in the Elections Bill would override measures already in place.
The Scottish Government do not recommend legislative consent in this area. Their initial position is that the existing Scottish regime should remain in place, with any necessary adjustments made to accommodate the reserved aspects of the Bill in relation to the “takedown” of material on the internet. I note that the Minister talked about amendments in the area of digital reform. As I have said, we have not had time to go through the detail of all the amendments. I would be grateful if he could comment on what exactly the amendments and the Bill still mean for Scottish powers in this area.
I want to look briefly at some specific government amendments. Those relating to Clause 14 would remove matters relating to the Electoral Commission’s devolved Scottish or Welsh functions from the scope of the proposed strategy and policy statement. They would remove the requirement for the Secretary of State to consult Scottish and Welsh Ministers on a draft statement. In addition to the UK Parliament, the commission is accountable to and funded by the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd. While devolved matters may be removed from the strategy and policy statement, it remains likely to affect how the commission delivers some devolved functions; for example, in terms of resourcing. It will also affect the commission’s core functions, which benefit voters, parties, campaigners and electoral administrators in Wales and Scotland. Does the Minister agree that it therefore remains important that, if the proposed strategy and policy document is brought into law, the processes for development, consultation and approval should reflect those shared accountability relationships with the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd?
Amendments to Clauses 18 to 27 would ensure that provisions in Part 4 of the Bill did not apply to devolved elections in Scotland and Wales. The Government should set out clearly how the amended clauses on notional expenditure and third-party campaigning will apply when there is a combined regulated period covering both reserved and devolved elections.
I return to the Minister’s comments on PACAC being removed as a consultee. This is a backward step in transparency, and it is of concern.
To sum up, the Government have had to table all these amendments relating to the devolved Administrations because they would not give consent. The reasons for withholding consent are due to concerns that should deeply worry us all; in particular, that the Bill risks disenfranchising voters and threatens the independence of the Electoral Commission. It is a great shame that the UK Government did not heed the concerns of the devolved Administrations and go back to the drawing board.
Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken in the debate. Perhaps I am allowed occasionally to speak as an individual from the Dispatch Box as well as a Minister, and I have not changed a view that I held as Back-Bencher, which is that the minimum number of amendments is desirable and that all Governments should seek to get Bills into the best possible condition before they come before your Lordships’ House. That is desirable, and I made an apology at the outset.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, and others pointed out, a significant number of the amendments arise from our decision to respect the recommendations of the Senedd and the decision of the Scottish Government. We believe that some of the issues concerned are important and that we should proceed to legislate, but, as I said in my opening remarks, we intend to continue discussions with the Scottish and Welsh Governments and would be interested to see how they proceed. We have welcomed the indication that they are considering legislating comparably in a number of areas covered.

The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked whether there were areas where we were deferring to the Scottish nationalists. I would not put it that way. Some of the areas were where there was a disagreement. Your Lordships have already indicated that you might also disagree with Her Majesty’s Government—let us say, on the elements relating to the proposed strategy and policy document, and that is one area covered by these amendments, as the noble Baroness opposite said.

However, one consequence of the withholding of the consent Motion will be that the modernised undue influence offence will apply only to reserved and excepted elections. The Government’s view is that a UK-wide application of the measure would have delivered greater levels of integrity by upholding what we submit in this Bill should be a basic principle: that those guilty of an intimidation offence should not be allowed to stand at any election in the United Kingdom. That is why we sought legislative consent from the Scottish Parliament on those measures. Following these amendments, which we have introduced for the reasons that I have given, and if your Lordships give assent to the legislation, offenders will still face a five-year ban from standing for all elected offices in the UK save for the Scottish Parliament or Scottish local government. In respect of devolution, it will be for the Scottish Government to make the necessary changes themselves to disqualify individuals who are disqualified for such offences in other parts of the UK. Other areas of undue influence, sanctions against intimidation, measures on notional expenditure—referred to by the noble Baroness—and third-party campaigning will apply only to reserved and combined regulated electoral periods.

There will be divergence, and in some cases there is already divergence. There is already some minor divergence, for example, between the current version of the undue influence offence in the 1983 Act and the situation in Scotland. That has not so far caused any confusion, and we do not expect this to be any different. We would expect ambiguities to be straightforward for the courts to resolve.

Obviously, we will continue to watch events. I am not anticipating that the Scottish Government would not wish to legislate in this area, or indeed, as the noble Baroness said, that the Welsh Senedd might not. But we are submitting to Parliament the idea that Parliament should act in respect of things such as undue influence, intimidation and the measures on notional expenditure. We have taken the judgment to proceed—showing respect to the devolved Administrations not by waiting, but by excising and allowing them to make their own decisions and proposals.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, asked me a specific question on a specific matter, which I undertake to write to her about, and to place the letter in the House in the normal way. My noble friend Lord Hayward asked about the designation of the new committee. This is in the legislation, because the effect of one of the amendments before the House is to remove PACAC and put in the other House of Commons committee. Ultimately, if this Bill is not thrown out—as was impishly suggested at the start of our proceedings—it will go back to the other place for it to determine. I shall give way to my noble friend Lord Hayward in a moment.

It surely is the case that if a government department is responsible for an important subject such as elections, the scrutiny should be conducted by the committee of the other place that is responsible for scrutinising that department. As I said, that will be the committee that is being substituted, under the chairmanship of Mr Betts. I give way to my noble friend.

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am sorry if I did not make this clear, but I was asking a question about the future structure of committees, beyond the next change. I think I used the term future-proofing, as it takes into consideration Governments’ habit of changing structures. Is there a part of the Bill that will future-proof structural change, so that when we move on from one select committee having responsibility for overviewing elections matters to another committee having that responsibility, it will not require a change to primary legislation?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I have not had advice from the Box on this, and that is always a dangerous place for a Minister to be. However, I try to read carefully what I put before your Lordships’ House, and I think it is provided in proposed new section 4C(8) that,

“If the functions of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee at the passing of this Act with respect to electoral matters … become functions of a different committee of the House of Commons, the reference … to that Committee is to be read as a reference to the committee which for the time being has those functions”.


Maybe I am parsing that wrongly. If I am, I will apologise to my noble friend and to the Committee and come back with a better explanation—but sometimes a Minister just has to try his best at the Dispatch Box. Does the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, want to intervene?

Lord Lipsey Portrait Lord Lipsey (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am sorry to come back to something the Minister said just before the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, but I think the record will show that the Minister said that, when we have passed such amendments as we do, we send them back to the other place for it to determine. I do not think that is the procedure. I thought they came back here, and then we decided whether we accepted them or not. Will the Minister please set the record straight on the procedure?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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I think I did set the record straight on the procedure. According to the principle of amity—I have great amity and respect for the noble Lord—I was not going to pick up the fact that he took me to task for saying that someone had spoken for a long time. I did not say that; I said it was an interesting coincidence that a prepared speech was ready at very short notice. I did say to the Committee—I reiterate this, and the noble Lord can give me a few strictures if he sees my departing back—that I would sit through every hour that your Lordships require of me on this Bill.

13:45
As for the procedural point that the noble Lord asked me about, if a change is made in this House, it is an amendment to the legislation. If it goes in, it will be a Lords amendment to a Bill that has been sent up here, so it will go back to the other place as a House of Lords amendment. If the other place does not like it, theoretically it can reject it, as it can reject any of your Lordships’ amendments. That is the procedural position, and that is what I meant when I said that the other place would be able to determine matters. The noble Lord shakes his head; perhaps he will tell me what he disagrees with.
Lord Lipsey Portrait Lord Lipsey (Lab)
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I do not want to take up the Committee’s time on this. Perhaps we could have an exchange of letters.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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May I take up the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, raised earlier? We are now about to agree—or otherwise—more than 100 amendments, after 42 minutes’ debate. Those amendments are vital in Scotland and Wales, as well as in England, and will determine the future of a whole range of aspects of the electoral structure. This is not giving the matter proper consideration. Perhaps in an unguarded moment, the Minister said that he was prepared to spend all the hours necessary to consider such matters, and we need to consider this in more detail on Report. How can we do that, and look at all the aspects relating to elections in Scotland and Wales as well as in England, without just passing them through in well under an hour?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, the groupings put before your Lordships’ House are agreed through the usual channels. I can only serve the House in the way that has been agreed through those channels. As for the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, I have nothing to add to my explanation. If the substitution of PACAC with the new appropriate House of Commons committee is agreed by your Lordships’ House, it will become a Lords amendment to the Bill, and will go back to the House of Commons and be considered by it appropriately. I have nothing further to add.

Amendment 1 agreed.
Amendment 2
Moved by
2: Clause 14, page 21, line 15, at end insert—
“(5) For the purposes of subsection (3A)—(a) the Commission’s “devolved Scottish functions” are the Commission’s functions in relation to—(i) Scottish Parliamentary general elections, elections held under section 9 of the Scotland Act 1998 (constituency vacancies), and local government elections in Scotland, so far as those functions do not relate to reserved matters within the meaning of the Scotland Act 1998, and(ii) referendums held throughout Scotland in pursuance of provision made by or under an Act of the Scottish Parliament;(b) the Commission’s “devolved Welsh functions” are the Commission’s functions in relation to—(i) general elections of members of Senedd Cymru,(ii) elections held under section 10 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 (elections for Senedd constituency vacancies),(iii) local government elections in Wales, and(iv) referendums held under Part 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 or Part 4 of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 (referendums relating to local authority executive arrangements),so far as those functions do not relate to reserved matters within the meaning of the Government of Wales Act 2006.” Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment defines what is meant by the Commission’s “devolved Scottish functions” and “devolved Welsh functions” for the purposes of the new subsection (3A) added to the inserted section 4A of PPERA.
Amendment 2 agreed.
Earl of Courtown Portrait The Earl of Courtown (Con)
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My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resume, and in doing so, I suggest that we do not resume the Committee stage of this Bill until 2.45 pm.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, we have only done two of these amendments.

Earl of Courtown Portrait The Earl of Courtown (Con)
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As my noble friend the Minister quietly reminds me, the amendments will be moved in their place on the Marshalled List.

House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 2.45 pm.

Ukraine Update

Thursday 10th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Statement
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 9 March.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the situation in Ukraine and Her Majesty’s Government’s support to the Government in Kyiv.
The situation on the ground is grave. As we can recall, on 24 February, forces of the Russian army, unprovoked, crossed into Ukraine’s sovereign territory. Along three main axes, Russian armour has attempted to occupy Ukraine. Its plan was to reach and encircle Kyiv, encircle Ukrainian forces near the border and invade from the south to link up with its forces via Mariupol.
Russian high command committed 65% of its entire land forces, which are indisputably in possession of overwhelming firepower and armour. It is estimated that at the start of the invasion they had between 110 and 120 battalion tactical groups dedicated to the task, compared with approximately 65 in Ukraine. Their missile stocks gave them even greater strength to reach Ukraine at distance. However, what they did not and still do not possess is the moral component so often needed for victory.
After 14 days of the war, according to the Ukrainian general staff, at 6 March, Russian casualties were assessed to include 285 tanks, 985 armoured fighting vehicles, 109 artillery systems, 50 multiple launch rocket systems, 44 aircraft, 48 helicopters and 11,000 soldiers, who have lost their lives needlessly. There are numerous reports of surrenders and desertions by the ever-growingly disillusioned Russian army. To be clear, those are Ukrainian figures; I have to caution the House that we have not verified them by defence intelligence or other means.
I can announce to the House our assessment that, of the initial Russian objectives, only one has been successfully achieved. While Russian forces are in control of Kherson, Melitopol and Berdyansk in southern Ukraine, they currently encircle the cities of Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv and Mariupol but are not in control of them. In addition, their first day objective of targeting Ukrainian air defence has failed, preventing total air dominance. The Ukrainian armed forces have put up a strong defence while mobilising the whole population. President Putin’s arrogant assumption that he would be welcomed as a liberator has deservedly crumbled as fast as his troops’ morale.
For our part, the United Kingdom continues to play a leading role in supporting Ukraine. On 17 January, I announced to the House the Government’s intention to supply military aid to the Ukrainian armed forces. The aid took the form of body armour, helmets, boots, ear defenders, ration packs, rangefinders and communication equipment, and for the first time it also included weapons systems. The initial supply was to be 2,000 new light anti-tank weapons, small arms and ammunition.
In response to further acts of aggression by Russia, we have now increased that supply. I can update the House that, as of today, we have delivered 3,615 NLAWs and continue to deliver more. We will shortly be starting the delivery of a small consignment of anti-tank javelin missiles as well. I want to assure the House that everything we do is bound by the decision to supply defensive systems and is calibrated not to escalate to a strategic level.
Britain was the first European country to supply lethal aid. I was pleased that not long after a military aid donor conference I held on 25 February, many more countries decided to do the same. From right across Europe, the donations came. In particular, I want to highlight the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Poland, Romania, the Baltic states, Belgium and Slovenia for their leadership, and we should not ignore the significance of the German Government joining us, in a change of stance, and donating such aid.
Donations are not enough; the delivery of aid to the front line is just as important. Here, again, Britain is leading, because alongside Canada, the United States and Sweden, we have invested in building Ukrainian military capacity since 2015, and we find ourselves able to co-ordinate the delivery alongside our partners.
As the conflict intensifies, the Russians are changing their tactics, so the Ukrainians need to, too. We can all see the horrific devastation inflicted on civilian areas by Russian artillery and airstrikes, which have been indiscriminate and murderous. It is therefore vital that Ukraine maintains its ability to fly and to suppress Russian air attack. To date, the international community has donated more than 900 man-portable air defence missiles and thousands of anti-tank guided weapons of varying types, as well as various small arms. However, the capability needs strengthening, so in response to Ukrainian requests the Government have taken the decision to explore the donation of Starstreak high-velocity, man-portable anti-aircraft missiles. We believe that this system will remain within the definition of defensive weapons, but will allow the Ukrainian forces to better defend their skies. We shall also be increasing supplies of rations, medical equipment, and other non-lethal military aid.
As with any war, the civilian population is suffering horrendous hardships. According to the Ukrainian Minister of Education, 211 schools have been damaged or destroyed, and media footage shows Russian strikes hitting kindergartens. The Chernihiv regional administration reported that the Russian air force was employing FAB-500 unguided bombs against targets in the city, and according to Human Rights Watch, civilians in Mariupol have now been without water and power for almost a week. President Zelensky talked of children dying of thirst. Today the estimated number of Ukrainian civilians killed or injured stands at more than 1,000, but the true figure is expected to be much higher, and I am afraid that worse is likely to come. It is for that reason that the UK will increase its funding for Ukraine to £220 million, which includes £120 million of humanitarian aid. That will make the United Kingdom the single biggest bilateral humanitarian donor to Ukraine. We are also supporting humanitarian work with the Polish and Romanian Governments on the borders.
As I said in my last Statement, we still believe that it is worth trying to build diplomatic pressure on Russia. This week, my good friend the Prime Minister met the Prime Ministers of Canada, the Netherlands and Poland. He also spoke to the leaders of France, Germany and the United States, and the Prime Ministers of Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The Foreign Secretary is in Washington at the G7, and also attended the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting earlier this month. I myself met the Ukrainian Ambassador just this morning. President Putin should be and can be in no doubt that the international community is united against his actions. It remains strong, and will not back down.
As well as giving direct military support to Ukraine, we continue to bolster our contribution towards NATO’s collective security. NATO Defence Ministers will gather next week in Brussels to discuss the next steps. The UK is doing its bit in giving military support and reassurance to its allies. We are currently supplying significant air power to NATO, including increased air patrols, with both Typhoons and F35s for NATO air policing. We have also deployed four additional Typhoons to Cyprus to patrol NATO’s eastern border, and have sent an additional 800 troops to Estonia. Over the last week, Apache and Chinook helicopters were involved in exercises in Estonia. Meanwhile, HMS ‘Diamond’ has sail