20 Lord Sikka debates involving the Leader of the House

Tue 28th Jun 2022
Mon 28th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Committee stage: Part 2
Wed 23rd Mar 2022
Wed 18th Aug 2021

Business of the House

Lord Sikka Excerpts
Wednesday 6th December 2023

(4 months, 1 week ago)

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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I thought that question had strayed from the House of Commons, so I was not planning to give it an answer.

Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, I am not sure whether this is the appropriate place to ask some questions about the way we do business in this House, but I will try. The brief background to my point is this: ever since BHS’s demise in 2016, the Government have promised legislation that has not materialised. Then, on 19 July 2023, the Government published a draft statutory instrument, the Companies (Strategic Report and Directors’ Report) (Amendment) Regulations 2023. It was scheduled to be debated in this House on 17 October, as per the business papers. However, the afternoon before, the Government issued a press release stating that the proposed legislation had been withdrawn. The next day’s business papers in this House, on 17 October, said that the Department of Business and Trade had withdrawn the regulations that were due to be debated on that day. No other statement was made to this House. Can the Minister explain why no statement was made to the House when the announced legislation was withdrawn? I am sure he would agree that press releases are no substitute for Statements and Questions in Parliament. Will he now ensure that the relevant Minister comes to this House to make a Statement about this withdrawn legislation and take the appropriate questions?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, many thousands of statutory instruments are tabled in draft every year under every Government. It is not usual to make a Statement in Parliament on rescheduling statutory instruments. In relation to these draft regulations— I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me notice on the subject about which he was concerned—the department had carried out a call for evidence to inform a review of existing non-financial reporting. This high- lighted strong support from both UK business and investors for existing company reporting to be simplified and streamlined. The Government therefore decided that it would be better to consider the reporting measures contained in the draft regulations alongside wider reforms to deliver a more targeted and effective corporate reporting framework. I know that the noble Lord is a great enthusiast for laying regulations on business, which does, in fact, destroy jobs in the end, but there is a wider review going on. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that explanation.

NHS: General Medical Practitioners

Lord Sikka Excerpts
Monday 20th November 2023

(4 months, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords—

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

Lord Evans of Rainow Portrait Lord Evans of Rainow (Con)
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The noble and gallant Lord raises a very important point. The delivery plan for recovering access is backed by a major investment in primary care services, up to £645 million over two years, to expand services such as community pharmacies. Getting more people to use community pharmacies and other such facilities enables GPs to focus on exactly what the noble and gallant Lord is talking about: those people who need to have diagnoses and very quick scans in hospitals.

Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, England has 7.8 GPs per 10,000 of population, compared with the OECD average of 10.8. That is a gap of 16,700 GPs. Can the Minister explain how England has fallen so far behind other OECD countries and what the human consequences of this are?

Lord Evans of Rainow Portrait Lord Evans of Rainow (Con)
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The Government are working hard to make sure that we recruit more GPs. Last year we saw the highest ever number of doctors accepting a place on GP training—more than 4,000 trainees, up from 2,600 in 2014. The number of places available will grow to 6,000 by 2031-32.

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Lord Sikka Excerpts
Moved by
23: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—
“Research grant funding and academic integrity
After section A7 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (inserted by section 4) insert—“A8 Research grant funding and academic integrity(1) The provision of grant funding for research shall not be used as a means of interfering with the freedom for academics—(a) to publish and disseminate their research; or(b) to decide on the final form and academic integrity of such research.(2) Unless the conditions in subsection (3) apply, no contractual or other provision in a funding agreement that gives editing or publishing control to the funder shall be enforceable by law.(3) The conditions referred to in subsection (2) are— (a) that a court finds the full publication of the research would threaten national security, public safety, or health; or(b) the contracting parties to a research funding arrangement agree confidentiality of results in advance.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment reduces the ability of public, private or philanthropic funders of academic research to infringe upon academic integrity and the freedom to publish results. Contractual attempts at interference with academic expression will be unenforceable, unless confidentiality of research was agreed in advance or where a court finds a national security, public safety or health justification for preventing publication.
Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for their support for this amendment. I raised the subject of academic integrity and freedom to disseminate research findings at Second Reading and in Committee. Several important issues were raised, and this amendment has been extensively rewritten in light of that. I believe that it now complies with Article 10 of the ECHR.

The revised amendment prevents the gagging of academics by research funders who do not like the findings. However, the right to publish research is also constrained by my amendment’s proposed new subsection (3), which basically states that, if the research findings would

“threaten national security, public safety, or health”,

they need not be published. They also would not if

“the contracting parties to a research funding arrangement agree confidentiality of results in advance.”

Major issues were raised during the last debate, and I will address them.

In Committee, I provided examples of how the Government themselves suppressed Covid-related research findings, for which we are yet to receive a full explanation. The research was funded by public money and did not threaten national security or public safety, but it was still suppressed. The publication of that research could have provided insights into the cost of Covid tests and of controlling the pandemic, and possibly have helped to frame more effective public policies.

I also cited examples of the tobacco and food industries censoring or preventing the dissemination of research. The unhindered publication of academic research would have created greater awareness of the dangers of smoking and the ill effects of processed food, and, again, this may well have enabled the development of more informed public policies.

Research showing that generic drugs are just as effective as branded drugs would have reduced the cost of medical treatments, as well as the cost to the NHS. In Committee, it was suggested that my amendment was somehow not appropriate for the Bill, and that transparency was a key issue. I will tackle that head on because I am happy to respond to these points. The amendment is about academic freedoms, and the clue is in the title of the Bill, which includes the words “Freedom of Speech”. Advancing and protecting the academic freedom to publish uncensored research is directly relevant to it; there is no other Bill where these kinds of issues can go at the moment. The point about transparency is important, but the unhindered publication and dissemination of research is the best form of transparency.

Over the years, I have been on many academic journal editorial boards, so I am well aware of the politics of publishing and commissioning research and so on. All reputable peer-reviewed journals require authors to disclose sources of research funding and to make the relevant data, wherever possible, available to other scholars. However, that point can be reached only when a scholar submits a paper for publication. If research funders supress the findings, a submission to a journal does not take place, and the data cannot be provided easily to other scholars—you need not necessarily disclose who the funders are, because that point is not reached. If research findings are diluted by the funder, the researcher has the option whether to accept the diluted paper and proceed to publication or not. If the researcher chooses not to proceed to publication, there will be no transparency about funding at all. If the researcher succumbs to pressure from the funder and accepts the dilution of research outcomes, he or she is unlikely to be permitted to say that the funder rewrote or took out large chunks of the paper. So there is no transparency about the pressures which prevent the publication of the paper, which is what I am really concerned about.

Of course, there are numerous research registers which list the grants obtained by scholars, but a mere listing of the source does not amount to transparency because it does not tell us anything about the gagging of those researchers or prevention of their publication. Just naming the funders does not tell us about the contents of the research, research methods, research methodology, analysis, discussion or possible public implications.

Full transparency, which is what I am concerned with, covers all those things, and that can be provided only by publication of the research, not permitting funders to say that you cannot publish it because, somehow, they now feel that it would damage their reputation or reduce the revenues arising from the sale of tobacco-related products or processed food. Gagging comes in many guises; it is not simply somebody saying that they will not let you publish—they behave in all kinds of interesting or strange ways.

I shall give a personal example. For a long time, I have taken an interest in auditor regulation. Under the Companies Acts, a resigning auditor is required to issue a statement addressed to shareholders and creditors stating whether there are circumstances in connection with that resignation that shareholders and creditors need to be aware of, then to list them, or to say that there are no circumstances and leave it at that. What do the auditors actually do? I conducted the only piece of research on that over the past 100 years, and I looked into it. I learned that Companies House does not publish the data, but on inquiry it said that it could write a piece of software for me, interrogate its database and tell me which company auditors had resigned. This was in relation to public limited companies. In those days you had to buy microfiches, so I would have had to buy the microfiches and track down whether there was a letter of resignation from the auditor.

I got the data and approached the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and asked whether it would help to fund the cost of writing the software and buying microfiches. I got the grant, and I looked at all 800 auditor resignations relating to public limited companies. What did I find? Only 2.5% of the resigning auditors complied with the law. The other 97.5% were silent; they did not say anything. But roll forward a few months and I started looking—and what do I find? In many instances, the auditors got out quietly but there was a scandal, with major frauds and other kinds of corporate collapses, which suggested that the auditors had basically abdicated their duty. They did not want to say anything or get a bad name for being troublesome, which is not very helpful for getting new audits or consultancy work.

I submitted my report to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, which said that it would get back to me. That is what is required—you submit a report. Would it say that I could go ahead to publish or say that I could not? It said neither yes nor no, and meanwhile the research was getting stale, and I had to make a decision. Was it important enough for people to know what auditors were up to, or should I just be quiet? I decided that I would publish the research, and it was published as a research monograph. Needless to say, I never got a research grant from the ICAEW again. The public suffers.

That is just one example of how people are gagged. Not everybody wants to follow their conscience and just publish. What I am trying to do through this amendment is to empower academics so they can publish research that is vitally important. There is nothing in the Bill that prevents gagging of scholars through subtle or not so subtle forms of silencing. We all see the world by standing on the shoulders of intellectuals. The barriers to publication of research prevent us seeing things, and this amendment would lower those barriers. I beg to move.

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 23 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. I said at Second Reading that there was a lacuna in this Bill, in that it did not deal with finance and money. Finance, of course, is what makes the world go round, and the scope for using money to limit freedom of expression and academic freedom is obvious. It hardly needs to be explained. So why would a Bill that addressed academic freedom not deal with this question of money and its potential abuse?

Quite independently of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, in Committee I tabled three amendments trying to cover such aspects as the use of donations, the use of research grants and a couple of other matters which I thought were worthy of debate. Independently, the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, tabled an amendment much along the lines of the one he has just spoken to. As we proceed to Report, I have dropped mine, but the noble Lord has refined the drafting of his amendment considerably, and it is now a very good amendment and one that I think deserves a response. Sadly, in Committee, I do not feel it had quite the response or the engagement from either Front Bench that this important topic deserves.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, Amendment 23 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, seeks to ensure that the provision of grant funding for research does not interfere with the academic’s freedom to edit and publish their research. The only exceptions would be if there was a confidentiality agreement between those giving and receiving the grant made in advance or if a court finds that full publication would threaten national security, public safety or health.

The noble Lord is of course right to be concerned about the provision of grant funding for academic research and, as he acknowledged, we discussed this issue in Grand Committee, although perhaps not conclusively. The approach in the Bill is to place duties on registered higher education providers, their constituent colleges and student unions. I have to say that it goes too far to place duties on others, such as those who give grant funding, and I am also not at all comfortable with the idea of interfering in the private contractual arrangements between parties, which would be the effect of this amendment.

If an academic wishes to seek grant funding, it is for them to agree with the other party what contractual arrangements should apply. That is in fact reflected in proposed new subsection (3)(b) of the noble Lord’s amendment and reflects the Haldane principle: that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review—a principle enshrined in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

However, in my view it would go too far to require legal proceedings to determine whether full publication of research would threaten national security, public safety or health. First, those are extremely limited reasons, which I appreciate is the noble Lord’s aim, but there may well be other legitimate reasons why the grantor would not want full publication. Secondly, this would potentially open the door to costly and time-consuming litigation. I fear that this may have a chilling effect on grant funding if it deters grantors, which is obviously not desirable; it may also affect the academic, as a potential party to the litigation, who is likely not to have the means to fund their part in it. It does not seem to me that the involvement of the courts in such a matter is appropriate.

Noble Lords have suggested that there is a lacuna as regards transparency in the domestic funding of higher education. I hope that I can allay that concern very simply. The Higher Education Statistics Agency collects data about research grants and contracts, which is publicly available. The OfS collects data that it needs to support its functions, including ensuring that providers are financially sustainable, and publishes this through annual reporting.

Given those points, I hope that noble Lords will agree that this amendment is not necessary.

Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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I am grateful to the Minister and all the other participants in this debate for the vital points that they have made. This amendment is not about sources of funding. It is about the ability to disseminate research findings when the funder decides that the outcomes are not what they were looking for but are of vital interest to other stakeholders. It is when those findings are suppressed that I am really concerned about. I gave an example from my personal experience but, if you met academics on the conference circuit, many of them would tell you similar kinds of stories. That issue remains, and I do not see anything in the Bill to address it.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for his comments but I do not think that this is an issue of codes of practice. Codes of practice cannot bridge asymmetric power relationships. The more powerful are going to define the codes of ethics; they do not give anybody any enforcement rights. You cannot go to a court and say, “I want to enforce a code of conduct”, because no law of any kind has been breached. There are issues around adjudication and enforcement. Before long, we will come back to the need for a legal framework.

I am also not convinced by the argument that it is up to the institutions. What can universities do? They are hungry for external money, and will persuade and pressurise academics to get it. Beyond that, they are not really interested in how the academic negotiates publication. They cannot deal with that. Then the academic is left on his or her own versus what the funder desires. Academics may well have spent a long time on their research but they will have nothing whatever to show in terms of any publications, dissemination or conference presentations. They are left on their own versus a very powerful provider of research. The Bill does not do much on this issue either.

The Minister said that this amendment could have a chilling effect on research grants. I do not see how. Let us say that two parties want to negotiate on some blue-sky thinking, develop some new technology to manufacture engines or whatever, and want to consult an academic. If it is agreed that this kind of research would be confidential, that is fine. Nobody is interfering with that. The point is about what your research findings show. For example, imagine somebody is looking at the effects of living in poor housing and suddenly discovers that a two year-old child is breathing mould and is therefore likely to be disabled for the rest of his life. What should they do? Should they be quiet? At the moment, they can be silenced by the landlord. I am giving people freedom. I am saying that they should have the freedom to communicate that living in those kinds of housing conditions is damaging and can kill people. However, the response I am getting from both Front Benches is, “We can’t have that”. That is unacceptable. People reading this debate will see that it is unreasonable. How will we eradicate the conditions that I have just described for people living in poor housing? I have not heard anything in this debate to offer me any comfort on this point.

Nevertheless, I am grateful to noble Lords. Since both Front Benches are opposed to my amendment, or at least do not fully support it, I have no choice but to withdraw for the time being. However, as and when an opportunity arises, I shall return on this issue.

Amendment 23 withdrawn.

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Lord Sikka Excerpts
It is intended to cover all flows there might be, probably unsuccessfully, as some may escape, but it is at least a chance to hear from my noble friend what the role of money is. Are we going to blink and just ignore this absolutely huge means of influencing free speech and expression of opinion?
Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, on this. He mentioned money; I wish I had some, like many other people. Let me declare an interest: I am emeritus professor at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield.

My amendment seeks to loosen the shackles imposed by private sector research funders upon the ability of academics to publish research. Those shackles have got much tighter with the advent of the research excellence framework, which attaches weight to the external research funding that is raised by universities. Within universities, indeed, any academic these days wishing to be promoted has to show that he or she has managed to secure a lot of research funding.

This research funding comes with lots and lots of strings attached, which raises conflicts of interest. Can your Lordships imagine trying to get some research money to look into gambling or the development of weapons? It would come from the gambling industry or from British Aerospace and others. Then if you produce research which is critical, would they really let you publish it? That is really the question.

I have looked at many research contracts—some colleagues have told me about them—that include clauses which give the funders the final say on whether the research can be published. Funders can vet, and have vetted, the research questions, methodologies and methods, data analysis and the conclusions of the studies. In many cases, draft papers need to be submitted to the funders. I have experienced that myself, and their approval is needed before anything can be disseminated, perhaps at a conference—because many academics present papers at conferences before they submit them to any peer-reviewed journal—so they need to be vetted. Funders can block, delay, or demand changes to the papers because they do not like the research findings, or they may just sit on the paper for a prolonged period to make its research very stale and untimely. Again, I have experienced that, as I explained at Second Reading.

One prominent scholar told a peer-reviewed journal:

“In our commissioned research project, the commissioner’s representative interfered with both the entire study and the publication because I did not let him influence the sample. Instead of random sampling, we should have made a ‘comfort sample’.”


There is a classic example of a pharmaceutical company funding a researcher to compare its branded thyroid drug with a generic competitor’s. The researcher found that the generic products were as good as the expensive branded products. The publication of the research could have jeopardised the funder’s sales and profits so the drug company went to enormous lengths to suppress the research, including taking legal action against the researcher and her university to prevent the paper’s publication.

In the past few days, one UK academic told me that the funder vetted his paper and did not like the negative health effects associated with the consumption of processed food. The funder decided that some cases of negative effects were outliers and were to be eliminated from the paper. It is bit like saying, “Somebody has died from this disease but it is an outlier so let us ignore and suppress it”. The academic concerned refused to accommodate the changes and the paper was never presented at a conference nor published. Another academic told me:

“The funder demanded control of all the raw data relating to the negative effects of a drug. Under pressure, I agreed. Subsequently, the funder would not allow me to release the data to a peer-reviewed journal and I could not publish the study, which was less than complimentary about the funder’s products.”


Over the years, several studies have established links between passive smoking and lung cancer. Tobacco companies have a long history of trying to subvert research by framing the research questions, designing the study, collecting and providing data and even writing the final papers for academics. Industry funding and the quest for research grants have persuaded many scholars to ignore important research questions because they simply will not get funding otherwise. Indeed, in my own field, it is incredibly rare to find research that is critical of auditing or the anti-social practices of the finance industry. None is ever funded by anybody from the City or the world of accounting because that is not the kind of thing that they fund. Many academics also do not do that kind of research because it jeopardises their chances of getting research funding from the world of accounting and the City, so such issues are basically ignored.

The Government are also a culprit. Commenting on a June 2016 report by Sir Stephen Sedley, Missing Evidence: An Inquiry into the Delayed Publication of Government-Commissioned Research, Nick Ross concluded that

“expensively commissioned findings sometimes fail to see the light of day and weak rules are used to bury unwelcome evidence for long enough to make it stale.”

In November 2020, the British Medical Journal published an article, “Covid-19: Politicisation, ‘Corruption’ and Suppression of Science”, which reported four instances of the suppression of science during the pandemic. It was all to do with the government-funded research. One instance related to the suppression of the 2016 study codenamed Operation Cygnus, which documented deficiencies in the UK’s pandemic preparedness. The report was eventually released in 2020 after an outcry in the media and interventions by the freedom of information commissioner. The Government did not want to publish it; their suppression denied the public, parliamentarians and medical communities vital information. The funder of the study stifled the debate.

The BMJ reported that a Public Health England report on Covid-19 and inequalities was delayed by the Department of Health; a section on ethnic minorities was initially withheld and then, following public outcry, was published as part of a follow-up report in 2020. Authors from Public Health England were instructed not to talk to the media about it. On 15 October 2020, Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, publicly stated that an author of a research paper, a government scientist, was being blocked by the Government from speaking to the media because of a “difficult political landscape.”

Another example relates to what the Government codenamed Operation Moonshot. The project required an immediate and wide availability of accurate, rapid diagnostic tests for Covid. This research concluded that the Government procured an antibody test, which cost £75 million, that in real-world tests fell well short of the performance claims made by its manufacturer. Researchers from Public Health England and collaborating institutions sought to publish their study findings before the Government committed to buying a million of these tests but were blocked from releasing them by the Department of Health and the Prime Minister’s office. Public Health England then unsuccessfully attempted to block the British Medical Journal’s press release about the research paper. The reason for all this was that the research was damaging to the commercial interests of the corporation involved in these tests.

I have provided only a brief glimpse of some of the ways in which academic research is subverted and suppressed and, consequently, scholars and policymakers are denied the opportunity to see the evidence, data and findings. This is damaging to academic freedoms, scholarly endeavours and society as a whole. Amendment 53 seeks to prevent funders exercising undue influence on the design, conduct and dissemination of research. After all, what kind of expertise do they have in these matters? If they had any, maybe they would be doing the research themselves. This amendment makes scholars, their communities and journal reviewers the final arbiters of the quality of research. I urge the Minister and the House to support it.

Lord Triesman Portrait Lord Triesman (Lab)
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My Lords, I can probably do this quite briefly. These are very helpful amendments, which illustrate an extremely important point. To work out why or how the Bill will be useful or effective, it is important to understand what academics do—what life on the ground is actually like and what having a career entails. I want to follow my noble friend Lord Smith of Finsbury’s earlier comments, but I think that is for a later debate. If academics want to pursue a career, there are facts on the ground that cannot be overlooked, and these amendments address them.

There is a longish history to this; I must confess to having my fingerprints on parts of the REF at different times in the past, so I want to acknowledge that I have probably contributed to a problem. Today, if you want to make progress, it is entirely commonplace in universities to expect that, in the last period of assessment of research, you will have produced at least three articles in reputable referee journals. If you have not done so, you will not be promoted and if you do not have tenure, you will probably not survive at all. It is imperative. It is a gating process about which this Grand Committee will do nothing, because it is not in our power, but that is how it happens.

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Amendment 34 withdrawn.
Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, if I may respond to some of the points—

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Finlay of Llandaff) (CB)
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For the convenience of the Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, has already withdrawn his amendment and no one has objected to that.

Replacement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer

Lord Sikka Excerpts
Tuesday 18th October 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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No. A number of very important steps have been taken by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to which your Lordships are invited to assent. Yesterday, for example, I was very grateful for your Lordships’ support for the Bill that was passed that concerned reversing the national insurance levy, and I am hoping for equal support for my right honourable friend’s initiative in relation to the Energy Prices Bill.

Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, the Government’s austerity policies have already caused over 334,000 deaths. Why is the Government looking for further cuts in public spending?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I realise the economic stable from which the noble Lord came, but the central responsibility for any Government is to do what is necessary for economic stability, and that means that there will need to be reflection on levels of both spending and taxation. As my right honourable friend has made clear, there will be difficult decisions, there will need to be spending restraint, and departments will need to find further efficiencies, but more details will be set out in the medium-term fiscal plan, as I said earlier.

Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. I declare my interests. I am an emeritus professor at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield. I have spent some 43 years in the higher education sector. I have spoken at academic venues all over the world and I have welcomed scholars and other speakers from all over the world.

I just cannot see the need for this Bill. I have not encountered the problems this Bill is trying to deal with. There is more diversity of views on university campuses than at party-political conferences, but I do not see the Minister trying to introduce the notion of free speech for party conferences. Maybe because the Government’s problem is that they are really attacking civil liberties and clamping down on dissent. After all, young people have to learn to express their views and they just do not like it.

The Government claim that the Bill protects free speech, but there is no indication in the Bill or the Explanatory Notes, as far as I can see, of when free speech crosses into hate speech. What are the boundaries? When does one become the other? Free speech is a social construct; it is always in the process of being made but is never finally made. It is shaped by contemporary discourses. On that basis, I am willing to argue against racism, but I will never provide a platform to anybody who is willing to argue for racism. Does that make me unbalanced? I doubt it. I am trying to prioritise social justice over some vulgar version of free speech, and the two inevitably clash. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us how we mediate this clash—how does the Bill deal with this?

In his introductory remarks, the Minister said that the Bill strengthens freedom of speech and academic freedom, but I can find no evidence of this in its proposals. Academic freedoms include freedom of inquiry, investigation, publication and dissemination, and these are all under threat from the funders and the Government. I will give some examples. Too many funding contracts include clauses that give funders the final say on whether research can be published. They can and have blocked, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the publication of unwelcome findings—they just do not like it.

A classic example is a pharmaceutical company that funded a researcher to compare its branded thyroid drug with generic competitors. The researcher found that the generic products were just as good as the expensive branded products. The publication of that research would have jeopardised the funder’s sales and profits, so the drug company went to incredible lengths to suppress the research, including taking legal action against the researcher and the university to prevent them publishing the findings. I do not see the Government outlawing any of this or dealing with that problem in the Bill.

Over the years, several studies have focused on links between cancer and passive smoking, and tobacco companies have secretly funded research specifically designed to refute these links. They design the research questions and collect and provide the data, and, in the final analysis, their employees write parts of the paper, which has an academic’s name on it, so that they can gain political advantage from the research.

Industry funding drives researchers to study questions that do not upset the funders, which often means that they focus on maximising benefits and minimising harms related to the particular funder’s products or services. That is unacceptable. Uncomfortable questions are simply not asked. I am an accountant, and you would be hard-pushed to find an industry-funded piece of academic work that examines audit failures in any depth—there are not many studies on it, because people know that they will not get the funding if they want to do that kind of research.

The Government themselves have eroded academic freedoms. In November 2020, the British Medical Journal published an article titled:

“Covid-19: politicisation, ‘corruption,’ and suppression of science”.


It documented four instances of government suppression of research during the Covid pandemic. In one case, the Government procured an antibody test that fell short of the performance claims made by the manufacturer. Researchers from Public Health England and collaborating institutions pushed to publish their study’s findings before the Government committed to buying a million of these tests, but they were blocked by the Department of Health and the Prime Minister’s office. Subsequently, Public Health England unsuccessfully attempted to block the BMJ’s press release about the research paper. The key issue here is the conflicting commercial interests and consultancies of Ministers and their advisers—they just did not want to see this piece of research.

I will give a personal example. Some years ago, I secured a small grant from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales to examine the resignation letters submitted by company auditors. By law, they have to say whether there are circumstances in connection with their resignation that shareholders and creditors need to be aware of. This was a big study. Only 2.5% of the auditor resignation letters at plcs were accompanied by any statement listing the reasons. Almost all filed a nil return, even though there were headlines and front-page news stories about scandals within days of the auditor resigning. There is massive legal non-compliance. We submitted the findings to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, but it was not happy about them. There was no correspondence, and it was all done on the phone: “We will tell you”, “We will come back to you, and then you can come back to us”. Years and months passed by, and it never published the information. I have been in the game long enough, so, in the end, I knew what to do: I found alternative means to publish papers from this—but not everyone can. I never went back to any accountancy bodies for research grants again.

My point is that the Bill does nothing to check the funders’ influence on academic research, and it completely fails to advance academic freedoms. I hope that the Minister will give serious thought to this is. If not, I will consider tabling some amendments to further explore these points.

Elections Bill

Lord Sikka Excerpts
We need to strengthen controls over public finance in the Bill: involving both major domestic donors and, much more importantly, donors with foreign influence. It is already a problem; it has contributed to a loss of confidence in public life. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will be willing to accept, in some revised form or other, some of the overlapping language that appears in several of these amendments, including the ones which have my name on them.
Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 212. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and I also fully support the position taken by my noble friend Lady Hayman on this Bill. There are a number of amendments here which all have a common concern with preventing abuse and ensuring that there is a level playing field, and my amendment is a contribution to that. Amendment 212 seeks to end abuse of “permissible donors” and prevent the flow of foreign money into UK political parties.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was really shaped by the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s fifth report, which was published in October 1998 under the chairmanship of Lord Neill of Bladen. In developing its recommendations, the committee invited evidence and considered the issue of foreign donations at some considerable length—chapter 5 of the report covers that. In its evidence to the committee, the Conversative Party stated:

“in the future we will not accept foreign donations.”

That appears on page 69 of the report. There was concern about abuse, and on page 74 the Neill committee report said:

“It is possible to imagine that a foreign corporation wishing to evade the underlying purpose of the provisions which we advocate might cause to be brought into being a UK subsidiary, the sole function of which would be to receive money from the foreign corporation and then channel it to the political party of its choice. This would clearly be an abuse of the system”.


That is a very powerful statement. The committee recommended that the legislation should consider:

“making it a criminal offence to attempt to evade or to render nugatory the statutory provisions limiting donations to those coming from ‘permissible sources’. It would, for example, be a crime for an individual in the United Kingdom, who did not, himself or herself, have the resources to make a large donation, to become a mere conduit pipe through which foreign money was channeled to a particular party.”

The legislation has been grossly circumvented and exploited. I will give a couple of examples of this—that is all I will have time for, although I am sure that the Ministers may be able to add more examples, given their experience and knowledge of the party. The first example relates to Lord Ashcroft, who was once upon a time a treasurer of the party. Around 2008 and 2009, I was asked by a number of media outlets to investigate his donations to the Conservative Party, which added up to £5,137,785. These donations were made by a company called Bearwood Corporate Services, a limited company registered in the UK. However, it never had sufficient profits to be able to pay the donations. My investigations uncovered a complex network of corporations behind it, and the aim of this network was to obfuscate the money trail.

The trail of money began with a company called Stargate Holdings Ltd, which was based in Belize and controlled by Lord Ashcroft. The moneys went in various packages from there to a UK-based company called Astraporta (UK) Ltd. From there, the moneys went to another company called Bearwood Holdings Ltd, and then from there to Bearwood Corporate Services Ltd, and then from there to the Conservative Party. The attempt was to disguise the origins. None of the companies disclosed the payment of political donations. They were all carefully constructed to ensure that they met the definition of a small company, because small companies do not need to disclose political donations. The UK companies involved in this chain either did not trade at all or had insufficient profits to enable them to make the donations. For all practical purposes, the moneys came from Belize and were finally handed over to the Conversative Party. I am sure that a lot of legal advice would have been taken in order to complete that particular route. Clearly, the moneys originated from abroad.

I reported the matter to the Electoral Commission. I told the commission that I was investigating it and what I had initially found. At the minutes of a meeting, the commission noted that it had heard from me. However, in the end, no action was taken by the Electoral Commission.

The second example, which has already been cited, relates to the company called Aquind. This company was incorporated in the UK in 2008, and over many years it remained dormant, but it has paid large sums of money to the Conservative Party. As recently as 2019-20—I have looked at its accounts—the company had no turnover. Indeed, it had no turnover at all at any time in its life. It never made any profit. So, the donations made by the company to the Conservative Party did not originate from any trade or profit in the UK; they obviously came from abroad. The company says that it is ultimately controlled from Luxembourg. I have not looked into who controls the Luxembourg entity, because there is not sufficient time, but I would be happy to take that assignment for the Conservative Party if it wished.

These two examples show how determined donors have been able to play our legal system and bypass it by carefully constructing transactions, and that is not helpful. My suggestion is that companies that make political donations should be able to make them only if they have sufficient realised profits. The term “realised profits” is well understood in the Companies Act. It is nothing new, so I am connecting to it. It generally means the company must generate profits that must result in cash or cash equivalent. If it is not trading, it cannot generate realised profits. This is a way of ensuring our legal system is not abused.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Portrait Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts (Con)
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My Lords, I put my name to Amendment 200 of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and I have Amendment 210 of my own. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has done most of the heavy lifting on Amendment 200, as he explained. I joined with him because I thought that, where we dealt with donations and national security risk, an additional power for the Electoral Commission—the fit and proper test—might be helpful. I tabled the amendment separately, and then, as the noble Lord explained, we wound them together so they are now one amendment.

The concept of a fit and proper test is well developed. Importantly, it lies at the heart of the powers of the Financial Conduct Authority and other financial regulators. It is important because it can put under the microscope the behaviour of individuals, not just a company itself. It has been found that, when people find that they themselves are going to go under the microscope as opposed to the company they work for, that tends to concentrate the mind rather wonderfully. The fit and proper test has a number of aspects to it that might usefully form part of the Electoral Commission’s armoury: honesty, integrity, reputation, competence and capability and financial soundness, all of which would be helpful for the Electoral Commission to have.

What I was seeking to do with the amendments here was propose a similar arrangement in respect of donations from overseas where there was a security risk. This amendment is not going to try and lay down what the fit and proper test should be in respect of this area, because that will need to be done specifically. I just gave the examples from the financial regulator to show the sorts of areas I think the Electoral Commission could usefully focus its activities on. This amendment, along with the broader amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, tabled, will give the Electoral Commission a full set of tools to police this important part of our national life.

I briefly turn to Amendment 210, which is also in this group. It is a probing amendment—it is not in a final form by any manner of means—but it would prohibit individuals or companies donating to registered political parties where they have been awarded government contracts of more than £100,000. The broad purposes would be to prevent conflicts of interest, to mitigate any appearance of impropriety relating to the awarding of an individual contract, and to contribute towards maintaining public trust and confidence after a number of scandals—Greensill springs to mind.

P&O Ferries

Lord Sikka Excerpts
Wednesday 23rd March 2022

(2 years ago)

Lords Chamber
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Asked by
Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to appoint an independent inquiry to investigate the business practices of P&O Ferries and its parent company.

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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My Lords, the Government have condemned the appalling way that P&O Ferries has treated its staff. These loyal employees have been working tirelessly to keep our country supplied with essential goods, particularly through the pandemic. We wrote to P&O Ferries seeking information on the decisions it took, to determine whether it had breached UK employment law. We are carefully considering its reply, which the Secretary of State and BEIS have just received. If the rules have been broken, we will not hesitate to take further action.

Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, let us look at the facts. P&O has abused the employment rights of its workers. It took public money while its parent company paid £270 million in dividends. Its UK operating profits are almost wiped out by unexplained administrative expenses. The company is engaged in profit shifting and pays little or no corporation tax. Its 2020 accounts show a pension deficit of £95 million. Any responsible Government would immediately investigate P&O’s abuses. Can the Minister explain why this Government have not begun an independent inquiry?

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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We are taking a number of steps. We are engaged with the Insolvency Service regarding the steps P&O Ferries took in this whole restructuring and redundancy exercise. The £15 million received by P&O was part of the furlough scheme and therefore to the benefit of the employees rather than the company. I know that P&O will still be accountable for the deficit in the pension contribution to the Merchant Navy Ratings Pension Fund. The Government are working very hard in a fast-moving situation to get answers to all those questions and to take the appropriate action.

Coronavirus Grants: Fraud

Lord Sikka Excerpts
Tuesday 25th January 2022

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords—

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I do not accept the premise that lenders are failing on fraud, and, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, will know that I am not in a position to name individual lenders. However, lenders continue to work closely with the Government on counterfraud, including recovering £1.2 million on facilities identified as fraudulent so far. It is important that lenders are held accountable for taxpayers’ money, and all lenders continue to be subject to a robust audit process by the British Business Bank.

Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, two 30-second checks would have saved the Government billions of pounds. First, no one can open an ISA account without providing a national insurance number, but the Government did not require that information from anyone seeking furlough support. Secondly, all applicants for Covid loans should have been required to provide an HMRC reference number. That would have killed off all dormant companies and offshore tax haven companies. Will the Minister please explain why these two 30-second checks were not applied?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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That is a very fair question and of course the sort of detailed question that I cannot answer. In terms of the fraud that we are looking to identify as part of the loan book, as of 17 December 2021 some £67 million worth of claims had been settled for the loan scheme. Of those, £13 million for 337 facilities had been flagged by lenders as suspected fraud. That is the sort of detail that we want to get into.

Afghanistan

Lord Sikka Excerpts
Wednesday 18th August 2021

(2 years, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, the tragedy of Afghanistan has been exacerbated by power games played by major nations. In the 1970s, western powers were not willing to accept a communist Government in Afghanistan and sought to undermine them by arming and funding the insurgents. The Soviet Union responded by invading in 1979 to prop up its client state. The US and western state powers responded by creating and funding al-Qaeda, yet still there is no reflection on the funding of terrorist organisations to further political objectives—the UK Government have continued to suppress documents relating to their support for al-Qaeda.

The Taliban itself came out of the counter-revolutionary insurgency organised by the CIA in the 1970s and 1980s. The objective was to overthrow the country’s Government. Eventually, the Soviet Union was driven out, but rogue elements gained power. As the noble Lord, Lord Suri, reminded us, during the 1996-2001 brutal rule of the Taliban regime, minorities, including Hindus and Sikhs, were forced to wear yellow badges reminiscent of the yellow Star of David that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany—yet there was only muted protest from western powers.

The 9/11 tragedy changed that. The US-led war on terrorism somehow became an expensive occupation. The attempts to build Afghanistan in the image of the West have failed, just as they have failed in Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. The result has been chaos and the deaths of thousands of innocent people. We need a fundamental rethink of foreign policies.

I have three questions for the Minister. Can he assure the House that an independent inquiry will examine the folly of the UK’s foreign policies? Secondly, why did the Government not designate the Afghanistani Taliban as a terrorist group under the Terrorism Act 2000? Thirdly, what are the Government’s preconditions for any recognition of the Taliban Government in Afghanistan?