14 Lord Willetts debates involving the Cabinet Office

Wed 27th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments & Consideration of Commons amendments
Wed 6th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Report stage & Report stage: Part 1
Mon 21st Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage: Part 1
Wed 23rd Feb 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading
in this Bill. There is increasing concern abroad that that is simply not correct.
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I rise briefly to support the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, and to explain why I have put my name to her amendment. She makes a powerful case, and what I hope sways the Minister is that her case rests very much on the policies enunciated by the DWP and the Chancellor, who are very keen to see pension funds take a broader view of their responsibilities and take account of impact and risk. Indeed, the noble Baroness has cited specific DWP regulations which make it clear that risk is something distinct that it wants pension fund trustees to take account of. What she is proposing here is consistent with the wider direction of government policy about how pension fund trustees, particularly local government pension trustees, should see their responsibilities.

My understanding of the Government’s position is that actually “financial value” already captures all that and that the noble Baroness’s amendment, which I support, is therefore unnecessary. However, I must say that I think it is unlikely, given that so much effort has taken place in the Treasury and the DWP to use some other expressions going beyond “financial value” to capture the responsibilities of trustees, that anyone would automatically accept that the formulation currently in the Bill covers this wider meaning. If the Minister is right that it is the Government’s intention and it should have this wider implication, I do not see any difficulty in making that absolutely clear by accepting this amendment. I very much hope that in the spirit of constructive review and revision of legislation, without in any way challenging the fundamental electoral mandate behind it, this amendment is a proposal that the Government can accept. It is, indeed, entirely consistent with the direction of the Government’s own policies.

Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Portrait Lord Palmer of Childs Hill (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I support Amendment 27. The Bill has effects that were not thought of in advance. Local government pension schemes and their administrators have one thought in mind, which is to protect the financial interests of the pensioners and of the funds, and this amendment just clarifies the financial aspects of that. The administrators should not be involved in any international political situation, but be there to look after the funds of the pensioners. Amendment 27 does exactly that in clarifying, which is all it is doing, what this aspect of the Bill does. Therefore, I support it from these Benches.

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Tuesday 7th May 2024

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Moved by
21: The Schedule, page 12, line 21, at end insert—
“3A Section 1 does not apply to— (a) a registered higher education provider in England, as defined by section 3(10) of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017;(b) an institution within the higher education sector in Wales, as defined by section 91 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992;(c) an institution within the higher education sector in Scotland, as defined by section 56 of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992;(d) a higher education institution in Northern Ireland, as defined by article 30 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1993.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would remove universities and other higher education providers from the requirement to act in accordance with Clause 1.
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, we have been going for quite a long time. I will try to keep this brisk because there is apparently still a lot of business to get through today. I should declare my interests in the register, particularly my role as a member of the council of the University of Southampton, because I think university councils could be among the bodies covered by this proposed legislation. Although I will draw on my experiences there, these are of course my personal opinions.

In many ways, the purpose of this amendment, which is essentially to remove universities from the scope of this legislation, arises because universities are just the most acute example of the wider problems in this legislation that have already been discussed. I will briefly explain why I think some of these problems are particularly acute in higher education. First, is there actually a problem of boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions in the higher education sector? I have still not come across any actual, real examples of any university ever trying to do what this legislation would forbid.

There are certainly lots of examples of student unions campaigning on this, and earlier we heard some of those cited, but student unions are not—thank heavens—covered by this legislation. All these issues being debated in student unions are part of the process of learning, growing up and political engagement. But it seems rather odd to pass legislation affecting the universities, which do not do anything, and ignoring the student unions where all these debates happen. It is therefore not relevant to the actual decisions that any real university takes. What is the problem that is supposed to be solved?

I am aware of the media coverage today about what is happening in our universities. The Government’s argument is that this helps with community cohesion. We have heard a lot about community cohesion. I have to say that the weight placed on community cohesion in the context of boycotts and disinvestment is the exact opposite of the weight attached to those kinds of arguments when we were debating the freedom of speech legislation. The irony is that one of the arguments then was that there are people who have to run these institutions. They have a set of rival claims to balance. Is it legitimate for them to say, “Of course you want to hold your controversial event, but perhaps not during the same week as exams are happening”? Or, “Of course you want to have your speaker who may be anti-gay, but perhaps not in Gay Pride week”?

In other words, lots of arguments about community cohesion were completely dismissed on the grounds that there is an absolutist right to freedom of speech, and it is just possible that some of the activities that apparently are now concerning No. 10 are protected by the very legislation that the Government passed only a few months back on an absolutist argument: “You must be able to say these kinds of things”. On the very first day on which the legislation was announced, the then Universities Minister said on the radio, “Yes, of course, Holocaust denial would be permitted and protected by this legislation”. It is a bit odd but, anyway, we have now gone from community cohesion being totally irrelevant to community cohesion being the absolute argument that trumps all others. It is a legitimate consideration but does not bear the weight now being placed on it, and it is probably a great pity that it was not given any weight at all when we were considering freedom of speech.

When it comes to freedom of speech, universities are lively, disputatious places, as are councils of universities. When legislation is supposed to apply to universities and tries to conclude that it would be wrong and prohibited if a decision

“was influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”,

it is hard to imagine a lively debate in a university council that does not involve somebody sounding off about some foreign state or other and how much they disapprove of it and what it is doing for some reason or other. The idea that you can try to forbid consideration of these types of factors in a decision-taking environment such as a university seems to be total fantasy.

It is not only that we all know the life of universities and how disputatious they are but the Government themselves, in other contexts, encourage universities to think about these kinds of factors. Until last year I was on the board of UKRI, which was developing a trusted research agenda that asked universities to consider some of those factors. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, has already been praised enough this evening, but he astutely quoted from the advice that the business department gives to businesses. I am sorry to repeat what he said, but it was absolutely to the point. The advice states:

“UK citizens and businesses should be aware of the potential reputational implications of getting involved in economic and financial activities in settlements, as well as possible abuses of the rights of individuals”.


Businesses are invited to consider that. Will the Minister explain whether it would be illegal for someone in or chairing a meeting of a university council, after a decision has been taken, to cite the advice that the Government themselves have provided in a different context? What if someone said, “We have been influenced on our economic and financial decisions because of possible abuses of the rights of individuals”? Is that legitimate, or is it now to be illegal in universities but advice from government in a different context? It really is quite a muddle.

The Minister may reply to that concern, “But universities are public bodies”. It is not totally clear what makes a university a public body, and we have also heard the expression “public authorities”—I do not know whether that comes charged with some other particular legal meaning. We have also had “hybrid public bodies”. I am increasingly concerned that the bit-by-bit process of adding more regulation and more legal compliance duties on universities pulls them into the public sector, when one of the reasons we have such a well-respected and high-quality university system is precisely the universities’ autonomy. They used to score very highly just for their capacity to run their own affairs. With every step-by-step process in which they appear in more and more of these lists of bodies to be covered by legislation, the greater is the risk that they lose their autonomy and eventually end up as part of the public sector.

Of course, this is just one more step. The ONS is reviewing whether universities should be categorised as in the public sector. This is not necessarily the straw that will break the camel’s back and will determine that they are in the public sector, but every time in this Chamber we find some other cause that we care about and say “Let’s add universities to the list and cover them as well”, the greater the risk that that is where they will end up.

I remember the days when the Government increased taxes on North Sea oil companies. We never knew at what point they would go on investment strike and turn away; it was hard to predict, but at some point they did. At some point, we will have brought universities into the public sector if we are not careful and, when we look back to how it happened, this will be one of the many steps in the process that takes us to that position.

I am more concerned about that when I hear the other doctrine of the single foreign policy. It is quite a new doctrine, this idea that somehow all these public bodies, in some broad sense going beyond the public sector, all have to have one foreign policy. It is true that universities can play a role in foreign policy. I remember when I used to go on missions to India, accompanied on a couple of occasions by the vice-chancellor of Cambridge. I knew my place. I would speak to the Indian Science Minister or the Indian Universities Minister but, because the Prime Minister of India was an alumnus of Cambridge, the vice-chancellor went to see him and occasionally told me what had happened in these conversations. It was quite helpful to have the vice-chancellor’s much higher-level connections than I could possibly muster.

Of course, universities are places where people debate foreign policy issues. They certainly debate all these moral considerations around boycotts. Can we not be a little more relaxed, accepting that, on the very broad definition of public bodies, which is now in this legislation, there will be, in a modern, diverse civil society, a range of views? The Foreign Secretary’s authority to communicate British foreign policy is not weakened by some university having a view on the morality of something happening in the Middle East. The old doctrine was exactly the opposite: “One of the great things about Britain is that we have lively public debate, there’s no central control and we don’t go round giving everybody else instructions about what they should say about these things. That’s just the kind of country we are”. And I think that was great—we were not anxious about the wide range of different views that might be expressed.

I referred to the Foreign Secretary, my noble friend Lord Cameron, and perhaps that is a note on which to end. One of his most effective political slogans was that he wanted to see a small state and a big society. The more we expand this definition of public bodies and public authorities that all have to be guided by the single foreign policy doctrine, the more we grow the state and shrink society. That is not the right direction in which to go and universities should not be part of it.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Leigh of Hurley Portrait Lord Leigh of Hurley (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, it seems to me to be fundamental to this Bill that universities and other relevant bodies are included. We are not talking about individual academics having their right to free speech being affected at all. We are talking about institutional behaviour. Yes, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, has pointed out, what happens in universities really matters. I also went on a trade trip to China with the vice-chancellors. I remember, because they were the ones sitting in business class. They are a very important part of the fabric of our society—

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

You were in first class—

Lord Leigh of Hurley Portrait Lord Leigh of Hurley (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Possibly first class. No one can forget that academia is not immune to bigotry. Let us recall that Heidelberg University in Germany was no less prestigious than any UK university in its day. In the 1920s, it was the centre of liberal thinking. A decade later, a mob of Heidelberg students burned Jewish and other so-called “corrupt” books in the Universitätsplatz. Jewish students and Jewish academics were banned, its faculty developed pseudo-academic fields such as race theory, eugenics and forced euthanasia. Heidelberg was led by administrators who lacked moral leadership—and we all know how this ended.

It cannot be right that students at universities around the world feel unprotected and threatened. Most ironically, only a few years ago, children of Jewish friends of mine were telling their parents they did not feel comfortable going to a UK university, so they applied to go to one in the United States. The appalling lack of leadership in some US universities has quite rightly led to the removal of their leadership in some famous cases. We are all watching Columbia University, apparently led by the noble Baroness, Lady Shafik, most carefully to see whether it can exhibit proper leadership against the vile intimidation and abuse.

In the UK, we have seen many universities fail to take proper action. I will cite some alarming incidents indicative of this unsafe environment. For example, in Leeds there was the attack on a Jewish chaplain, a rabbi, the sit-in at the Parkinson building, the daubing of the Jewish student centre and the encampment outside of the student union. Apart from the absurdity of the protesters protesting against an occupation by occupying university buildings, the demonstrations themselves are misplaced—and, as at other universities, such as King’s College, Cambridge, are causing huge distress to Jewish students, as has been noted.

Despite very sterling work by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, it is endemic. In Birmingham, students called for “Zionists off our campus”. We know what they mean, “No Jews here”—as they did in Heidelberg. A while ago, in December 2021, City University students, among others, demanded a BDS ban. It was stopped only because the Charity Commission ruled that this was in breach of its charitable status. Interestingly, the leader of the call for BDS there, Shaima Dallali, was subsequently elected president of the National Union of Students before she was suspended for anti-Semitism. The connection between the call for BDS and anti-Semitism is staring us in the face

--- Later in debate ---
I am sorry to have taken time to answer the questions raised. I put it to my noble friend Lord Willetts, and the Committee, that universities should be open spaces for academics and students to debate alternative points of view. I think we are all agreed on that. It is inappropriate and divisive for universities to take a side on foreign policy matters in their corporate capacity; this Bill takes a measured approach to preventing them from doing just that. I hope he will agree to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I am grateful to the Minister for engaging with the points that have been made. I will certainly want to look at some of her observations carefully; the business investment guidelines, for example, are potentially a very important concession and piece of advice.

However, I think the mood on all sides of the Committee is one of deep scepticism about whether these provisions really will help and have any significant effect when it comes to higher education. We have heard powerful interventions from my noble friend Lord Johnson, and a particularly powerful point from the noble Lord, Lord Mann, with his long history of engagement and challenges in fighting anti-Semitism.

Perhaps I may briefly pick up on two points. The question from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on where this comes from goes to the heart of this legislation. This is American legislation. This is an American culture war brought to the UK. Universities are involved in this because in the US they have massive endowments. The politics of BDS is about D, above all: investment. What has happened is that the provisions go from the highly charged American debate about the investment of over $800 billion, the size of American endowments—that is why the American neocons go for BDS provisions in universities—and have been incorporated into this Bill, which now comes over here and those provisions are replicated.

This cuts both ways. It is not a straightforward point. The reality is that British university endowments in total are probably 1% of American endowments. So all the charged politics and the significant financial decisions, as one tries to argue politically about investing $800 billion, is not quite so charged if it is perhaps $8 billion in total. However, it is also the case that one can predict, and you can see it happening, that some universities have endowments and this matter will be increasingly raised in those tent cities on some of our campuses. “Will you promise that you won’t invest in companies doing business with Israel?” I can see that happening as a cause.

This is where the inclusion of the Occupied Territories gets very complicated. I may say so, it was a strategic blunder in the formulation of this legislation because, by including the Occupied Territories, where there is explicit government guidance already, “Be very careful about investing in them”, that totally muddles up the issue. So I suspect that the way all this will go is that the government concession will be on removing the Occupied Territories from the provisions. It would be great if the Government would also consider more widely what they are doing on universities. This is an area where, again, the British debate is so different from the American debate.

On the ONS issue, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, made a fair point. This is absolutely not automatic, but we are aware of what happened with further education colleges. That is why this is such a highly charged issue for higher education; it is because FE colleges have already been through this twice. The issue is control. At what point do things look controlling? Normally the ONS gives the Government time to correct and reverse the measures that might pull a body into the public sector. If this were to happen with universities, one very much hopes that the Government would try to pull them out and then they would probably bring before the House a long list of control measures that were being rescinded in order to get those bodies healthily out of the public sector. I have a modest bet that this would be one of the many pieces of legislation on the chopping block in order to reverse the danger.

In the light of the Minister’s comments, I certainly beg leave to withdraw the amendment now, but we may find ourselves returning to it at a later stage.

Amendment 21 withdrawn.
I hope that the Minister is able to answer this question. I reflect on times in which those who ran nurseries also provided fruit for children, on the basis that an apple or orange a day helps, and the people who ran such nurseries said that they would not provide Outspan oranges. A range of folk from the voluntary and charitable sector have run those nurseries—mothers’ unions have run them—and they said that they would not provide Outspan oranges because they knew the oppressive system that provided them. They substituted their values for those of the Secretary of State, and it is very a good job that they did, because their values were superior. I want to know this: will nurseries that are run by volunteers and provided by the charitable and voluntary sector, and happen to receive some form of public money from somewhere, be covered by this measure? If they are, it will be and should be no comfort to us or anyone, on any side of this House, that the Secretary of State can be left to decide.
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I intervene briefly, if I may, in support of Amendment 54, which is calling for a comprehensive list to be laid before Parliament. This debate is getting a bit metaphysical about public bodies, and it is revealing that there is no authoritative shared definition of a public body and no single authoritative list of public bodies. The term “public body”, on which the Bill rests, is itself very hard to define. I have two observations about this.

First, we therefore reach out to lists of bodies that have been developed for other purposes in other legislation. There are candidates around: one is the Freedom of Information Act. I am looking across at the Lib Dem Benches, because I vividly remember a debate within the coalition about whether or not universities should be covered by the Freedom of Information Act. The Lib Dem members of the coalition thought that that information should be available from universities. We had a negotiation as part of some wider deal and agreed that universities should be covered by the Freedom of Information Act. At no point in those exchanges did people think that that meant we were defining them as public bodies. We were simply trying, for the purposes of where the information should be and what should be covered by the Freedom of Information Act, under pressure from a member of the coalition, to include universities. It was not intended to be an authoritative definition for other purposes of legislation. In these circumstances, I think that it is sensible to say that we should just have a list of the bodies for which this legislation is most relevant and not try to reach out to find some other list or some permanent definition on all accounts.

There is a second reason, which, if I may say so, is particularly relevant for us on these Benches. There is a paradox in the Conservative position here: the supporters of the Bill are quite keen to stop sanctions, boycotts and anti-investment campaigns by as many bodies as possible. That means that Conservatives are currently reaching out for a very ambitious definition of “public body” because they want as many as possible to be covered.

I am not totally sure that, in the long run, this is an approach that Conservatives will not find comes back to haunt Conservatives, who may think they have ended with an overambitious definition of “public body” that in turn gets used for many other purposes. There are good reasons for a highly precise and limited list of bodies to be covered by this legislation—anything else and you are on very slippery ground, and we may find it has consequences that, even within my own party, people come to regret.

Baroness Janke Portrait Baroness Janke (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank the proposers of these amendments for offering an opportunity to establish, as many have said today, some precision and clarity on the range and definition of the public bodies referred to in the Bill. The Minister has an opportunity to reassure us and many groups who fear the implications of this Bill.

In Amendment 22, we are talking about schools or nurseries. The Minister has said we are talking about procurement, but do the Government really intend that school governors should sit poring over the school meals procurement to see whether they are contravening the terms of this Bill in any way? Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said earlier, would they also contravene the terms of the Bill even in talking about it and taking advice?

Do the Government intend that charity commissioners and trustees should take into account the implications of this Bill, and perhaps face vexatious challenges to contest some of the decisions that they have already made? The fact that the definitions are so poor, as many people have said here today, will leave open legal action and vexatious possibilities of weaponising this legislation, by the whole scope that seems to be covered. But the Minister can reassure us today, or in writing, that the list of public bodies covered is, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said, closely defined and clearly identifiable by those whom it affects.

Particularly concerning, as highlighted in Amendment 26, is the implication for charitable organisations delivering public functions in terms of overseas aid and humanitarian work. Often founded on moral principles, as the right reverend Prelate said, many of these organisations have foundations which relate to moral principles and values, which they take into account when taking their decisions, whether on procurement or on investment. I believe territorial considerations must also be key to the functioning of these groups and charities. I agree we need a clear definition, and I would also like to understand and be reassured by the Minister on the reason for the additional powers being given to Ministers.

On the last amendment on this list, we should really have a much better idea—I think the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, who said that we are swimming through a sticky pudding, was absolutely right. We are totally unclear about the terms and the scope of this Bill, and I hope that we may be reassured in the course of this Committee.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, in her opening speech, the Minister rightly reminded us of the very difficult circumstances, particularly in Israel and Gaza, that are the background to the Bill, while we have just heard in that powerful intervention a reminder of the lively public debate about the case for and against boycotts, divestment and sanctions. However, whatever we may think of those issues, surely across the House people are shocked by clauses of a Bill with titles such as:

“Disapproval of foreign state conduct prohibited”


and

“Related prohibition on statements”.


It is indeed to be an offence for someone to indicate that they would intend to act in such a way were it lawful to do so. These are shocking provisions to bring before this House.

Many of us debate these issues in a host of environments, including this Chamber, and many of us have had responsibilities in public bodies and public authorities. It is very hard to draw the distinction that the Minister has attempted to draw between somehow acting in a leadership role in a public body and expressing a personal opinion. That is a distinction that I do not believe will bear the weight that she hopes to put on it.

There was a manifesto commitment, of course, which was clearly put:

“We will ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries”.


There is nothing there about expressions of view or statements of opinion. It is focused entirely on banning BDS campaigns. The Government can claim a manifesto right for that proposal but nothing that goes beyond it.

The Minister has said in her letter to us about this legislation—and this is an argument that we have heard elsewhere—that one argument for it is that such campaigns will damage community cohesion. That is a legitimate concern and of course it needs to be taken into account, but I have to say that if there had been an attempt to amend the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill so that freedom of speech was not permitted where it would damage community cohesion, the Government rightly would have had nothing to do with such an argument as a constraint on activity and freedom of speech. It would be a suitable irony, if the Bill goes forward as currently proposed with new powers for the Office for Students, if the newly appointed free speech tsar should be given authority as well for trying to implement the provisions that the Government are now putting forward.

The parallel with the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act is relevant since, as we have heard, universities are clearly covered in this Bill under a government definition of “public bodies”. This creeping definition of public bodies is another worrying feature of the Bill. One reason why Britain has such an internationally respected and successful university system is the autonomy of our universities. We cannot carry on, week by week and month by month, bringing in more regulation and more legislation that tries to control what they do without jeopardising their position as autonomous institutions. Indeed, we know that the Office for National Statistics is currently reviewing their position as to whether they should count as part of the public sector. Every time we add a new set of instructions as to what universities should do, we increase the risk that they are classified as part of the public sector and become subject to far heavier public sector control.

As well as community cohesion, the other argument, which we have heard both in the other place and here, is that it is not the role of all these bodies to run the Government’s foreign policy. I am not sure that I completely understand this argument. It is perfectly clear where the Government’s foreign policy resides. I have enormous respect for the work of my noble friend the Foreign Secretary. I think we know what his foreign policy is; occasional actions by other bodies do not interfere with any understanding of what foreign policy is or should be. However, it is absolutely clear—and encouraged by the Government themselves in other guidance—that bodies such as universities should take account of legitimate foreign policy concerns. I used to sit on the board of UKRI when the Government introduced some of this guidance and, as a visiting professor at King’s and a member of the council of the University of Southampton, I am very aware of the Trusted Research Guidance for Academics. It asks and encourages universities to know their partners. It asks them to address questions such as:

“Are there any potential ethical or moral concerns for the application of your research? … Could your research be used to support activities in other countries with ethical standards different from our own, such as internal surveillance and repression?”.


It goes on to urge universities to note the importance of understanding the “democratic and ethical values” of the country that they partner. So that is absolutely encouraged by the Government but meanwhile, in this legislation, explicit consideration of such issues is apparently also to be forbidden.

I was privileged to serve in the Government of my noble friend the Foreign Secretary. One of his best slogans was that he believed in a big society with a small state. This is absolutely a “big state with a smaller society” Bill. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to consider amendments to it. I believe it will be possible to amend the legislation in ways which are still consistent with the manifesto pledge on which the Government were elected.

Industrial Strategy

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Thursday 1st February 2024

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to welcome the maiden speech from the noble Lord, Lord Rosenfield, to congratulate him on the points that he made and to welcome him to this House. By happy accident I follow him in this debate, and I realised that there were some rather significant career parallels. We both began our careers as Treasury officials and both then moved to 10 Downing Street. He worked for Boris Johnson; I worked for Margaret Thatcher. I am now here on the Tory Benches and he is a Cross-Bencher, which may tell us something about the particular qualities of bipartisanship that he will bring to this Chamber and which I am sure will lead to many interventions in the months to come.

I register my interests, particularly as president of the Resolution Foundation and chair of Innovate Cambridge.

Industrial strategy is a very fraught concept, which is sometimes argued about too much. It has a very simple meaning. All of us believe that we can promote economic growth by horizontal policies that apply across the entire economy: a good tax system and an efficient planning system. Industrial strategy says that there also have to be vertical policies addressing particular sectors, particular places—as we just heard so eloquently—and particular technologies. I have observed many Ministers who arrive in government determined to have purely those general horizontal policies and find that they are brought into having to take decisions—where to make transport investment, exactly what kit to buy, how to spend a limited science and technology budget—and they need some criterion for reaching those decisions. That is why you need some kind of strategic framework.

I welcome the excellent opportunity of this debate and the opening speech. However, I quarrel with some of the terms in the Motion before us, such as “comprehensive”. There are some sectors that just want to be left alone; I think “comprehensive” may be too ambitious. It should be comprehensive where there is a need, certainly, but I am not so sure that you can have something as comprehensive as Labour’s National Plan of 1965. Similarly, “industrial” has rather a precise meaning. Our work at the Resolution Foundation in our recent economic inquiry showed that it was absolutely clear that Britain has a real comparative advantage in services, which is an area where we can do more. For me, with my interest in higher education, I think of higher education as a really important British export industry. Therefore, any kind of industrial strategy really has to cover services as well.

There are, of course, risks to industrial strategy, and it is just possible that in subsequent interventions we may have warnings of some of those risks. One risk is producer capture: big, powerful lobbying firms getting things for their advantage. One reason why I very much agree with the excellent points made by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, is that one of the arguments for investing in disruptive new technologies is that they rarely favour incumbents. They are a great way of shaking things up, hence the particular importance I attach to technologies being supported.

One of the reasons why I very much regret the Government’s decision to abolish the Industrial Strategy Council is that the real purpose of that council was not to write detailed plans but to keep industrial strategy honest by scrutinising what was being done, what was proving to be effective and should be grown, and what was ineffective and should be abandoned. I very much hope that it will be possible in the future to recreate something like that excellent body.

Elections Bill

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I will not say very much about the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, because I wish to concentrate on that in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. All I will say is that I think we need identity cards in this country, full stop.

I feel very troubled tonight. At Second Reading, I made it quite plain that I was strongly opposed to Clauses 14 and 15. I made a similar comment in Committee. On Monday, I was glad to be able to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, when, along with nine or 10 Conservative colleagues, I voted for the amendments in the name of the noble and learned Lord to delete those two clauses.

I am troubled because, frankly, although I accept the good intentions of the Minister, my noble friend Lord True—his integrity is not in any doubt whatever—I do not think that tinkering will really meet the points that were made by those of us who wanted to delete the clauses. It is not for me to say that we should insist, because it is very much the noble and learned Lord’s amendment and he has made his decision, which, again, I respect totally. However, faced with a choice between tinkering and tinkering, I personally think that we have missed the opportunity to put this Bill in order by deleting two clauses that are fraught with danger to our constitution and election system.

The best we can hope for now is really scrupulous post-legislative scrutiny to see how this works out—it is essential that that happens—but we are put under a degree of pressure. Although this is the first stage of ping-pong on this Bill, when I came in this morning, all the robes for Prorogation were hanging up. The Government are clearly determined to prorogue Parliament tomorrow and not to use time later this week—which could have been used—or next week for a battle. I therefore find myself very much in the position of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, at an earlier stage today, when he praised the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, but said, “Really, the time has come”. I believe it is quite clear that the time has come for the end of this Session of Parliament. It is not one that will go down in the history books as a Session of glory or a Session that has enhanced the democratic credentials of government. It will not go down in history as a Session that has seen our country maintain its staunch defence of the rule of law, as it has done in the past, but that is where we are.

Frankly, the most honourable thing I can do tonight is not to vote. I believe that we should have deleted the clauses, but we have not done so. We gave the Commons an opportunity to delete the clauses, but they completely spurned us. They are entitled to do that, but I do not necessarily think that they were wise in taking the line they took. However, that is the line they took, and it is the line they will take if the amendments in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, are passed tonight.

We should just mark this as a pretty sad episode and, as I say, scrutinise the legislation once it is on the statute book. We will need to come back to these issues. We must make absolutely sure that the Electoral Commission is not trammelled in its work and is able, as similar bodies in other democratic countries are, to ensure that our elections are scrupulously controlled, totally impartial and never subject to the whims of any political party—right, left or centre. This is a sad day for me, but that is the conclusion I have reached.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I want briefly to refer to Motions B and B1. In this House, we moved and passed an amendment that would have significantly added to the list of possible identifications that could be used by voters. I continue to believe that that would have reduced the risk of genuinely eligible voters finding themselves unable to vote. Nevertheless, that amendment has been substantially rejected in the other place and, as we have just heard from my noble friend Lord Cormack, we are drawing to the end of this Session.

I take some comfort from the words we have just heard from the Minister; I thank him for his engagement with this issue. He assured the House that it will be perfectly possible through secondary legislation to add to the list of identifications that can be accepted. He also assured the House that the Government will monitor the potential for new forms of ID to be used and improvements to the security of IDs, which appeared in our original amendment but have now been rejected. I hope that the evaluation he has promised will show that it is possible to add to the list of further IDs that can be used; that would be desirable. I very much hope that the Minister and the Government will be as flexible as he has said. In the light of his assurances and the clear rejection from the other place, I do not think that it is now our role to pursue this issue further.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I support Motion A1, but I want to speak briefly to motion B1, which I also support. My primary concern throughout our debates has been the impact on the ability of people experiencing poverty to exercise their right to vote. I am not going to repeat the arguments, but I hope I can get a couple of assurances on the record from the Minister.

First, I thank him, as I understand he has asked officials to include organisations led by people in poverty— such as Poverty2Solutions and, I would add, the APLE Collective—in their ongoing consultations about the implementation of the Bill, so as to get their expertise on the experience of poverty. I would welcome it if the Minister could place that commitment on the record.

Elections Bill

Lord Willetts Excerpts
The Government even accept that photo ID may be acceptable at the polling station even if the photo is not recognisable, so what is the point of requiring photo ID at all? Non-photo ID would be sufficient and proportional to deal with any perceived threat of election fraud. The Government should concede that they have consistently failed, at every stage of this Bill, to show that there is any real evidence of a significant level of fraud at polling stations. They have failed even in trying to assess the scale of any problem with personation, as was powerfully demonstrated by my noble friend Lord Scriven in Committee. Spending £180 million over the next 10 years to address this potential problem is unnecessary and disproportionate.
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I will briefly speak to Amendment 8 in my name and the names of other noble Lords. The proposal in Amendment 8 would extend the list of accepted documents beyond the narrow group of photo ID that the Government are proposing, but I regard my amendment as consistent with the commitment in the Conservative Party manifesto. I approach this from the perspective of red tape. Is the extra regulation being proposed proportionate to the problem that needs to be tackled? As we have heard from all sides of this House, there is no evidence that personation is a significant problem in the British electoral system.

That is very different from Northern Ireland, where ID and then photo ID were introduced. There, there was in the words of the then chief electoral officer a “planned and well organised” programme of personation. In the absence of any such evidence of personation as a significant problem in the UK, the costs imposed by this measure seem to go way beyond the scale of the problems—costs estimated at £180 million over 10 years. If a broader range of documents is accepted, that removes the need for a new, separate group of voter ID cards and, hence, lowers the costs involved.

I acknowledge the way in which the Minister has engaged with these issues and has recently written to us on these proposals. He may say, “Well, there’s not a problem now, but we still need to do this to boost confidence in the security of the British electoral system”, despite the evidence that our problems are actually in postal voting and proxy voting and not in personation. We know that confidence in the British electoral system currently runs at over 90%. It is not clear that confidence could be much higher than that. Indeed, the attempt to legislate may have the opposite effect to the one that Ministers are seeking and may create anxiety and uncertainty where none existed before. In Northern Ireland, where there is a track record of voter ID, confidence in the system is no higher than in Britain—indeed, on some measures, it is lower.

Besides this, I have one wider concern: what might happen at the next election if a significant number of voters—hundreds of voters per constituency—confronted with a new requirement with which they are unfamiliar in order to vote, photo ID, are turned away from polling stations and do not return? Let us imagine that the outcome of the next election is a modest majority—I hope a majority for the party of which I am a member—where, throughout the day, the media story has been of voters being turned away from polling stations. That seems a significant political and constitutional risk that needs to be taken into account if this measure is introduced. Here we do have a precedent from Northern Ireland: the first use of voter ID in polling stations there was estimated to have reduced voter turnout and turned away the equivalent of approximately 1 million voters across Great Britain, so this is a real risk.

In light of that, while I respect the similar thinking behind Amendments 5 and 6, for example, my intention is to divide the House on Amendment 8, because I regard it as protecting our system from a major political and constitutional risk while remaining consistent with the manifesto on which the Conservative Party fought the last election.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 8, to which I have added my name. I am very pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Willetts.

The one real argument put by Ministers to support the restriction of identification to photo ID was that it is the most secure form of ID. However, we never got an explanation of how it was decided that, in the necessary balancing of the two, security trumped accessibility to the point that only the most secure forms of ID were permissible, despite the lack of evidence of fraud, as we have heard. In reaching that position, it was not clear why the Government rejected what we might call the “Pickles principle”—that perfection must not get in the way of a practical solution. Amendment 8 and some of the other amendments offer such a practical solution, but the Government’s response hitherto has been disappointing.

Ministers have also frequently cited the finding of the Electoral Commission tracker that 66% of the public say that the requirement to show identification at polling stations would increase their confidence in security. But I note that the word “photo” is never mentioned, so I can only assume that the question did not specify photo ID. Also, we do not know how members of the public would weigh up that balance between security and accessibility. It would appear from the latest election tracker—a point made by the noble Lord—that a much larger majority, eight in 10, are confident that elections are well run, and that nearly nine in 10 think that voting at polling stations is safe. But there is a real danger, as has been said, that perceptions will be tainted by the Government’s narrative of voting fraud, which risks reducing trust in the system, as has been pointed out by a number of bodies. According to the Electoral Reform Society, recent US studies have found that talking up voter fraud reduces confidence in electoral integrity and has indeed corroded trust in the system.

As I made clear in Committee, I am particularly concerned about the impact on people in poverty or on a low income, who are not necessarily caught in the Government’s focus on groups with protected characteristics. Of course, I am concerned about them too; I particularly noted the position of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities in Committee. The Government have chosen not to enact the socioeconomic duty in the Equality Act, which might have encouraged them to focus on people in poverty. As it is, the more I have read, the more convinced I am that they have in effect been ignored in consultations with stakeholders and in the pilots.

According to 2019 data from the British Election Study, provided to me by the Library, there was a clear income gradient in turnout in the 2019 election, with half—or slightly more than half—of those in households with an income of £15,599 or less not having voted. If the JRF is correct that, as it stands, Clause 1 and Schedule 1 risk disenfranchising as many as 1.7 million low-income members of the electorate, these worrying figures can only get worse.

Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, promised that she would get me

“a list of the consultees that we worked with because that is important.”

This was in response to my questions as to

“what engagement there has been with organisations speaking on behalf of people in poverty, or in which people in poverty are themselves involved, so that they can bring the expertise born of experience to these policy discussions”.—[Official Report, 17/3/22; cols. 562, 567.]

I repeated the question when we returned to the issue on day three of Committee, but there was still no sign of that list. Instead, in his letter to Peers, the Minister assured us that there has been a comprehensive programme of engagement with civil society organisations, with a heavy emphasis once again on those with protected characteristics. However, once again, the implication of the letter is that the impact of poverty has been ignored, and that there has been no engagement with organisations working with people in poverty or with those who can bring the expertise of experience of poverty to bear on the matter. Yet, their perspectives could be particularly valuable when considering appropriate voter ID and the process of applying for a voter card. I ask yet again whether there has been such consultation and, if not, will the Government now prioritise it?

As it happens, I was at an event this morning organised by Poverty2Solutions, an award-winning coalition of grassroots organisations led by people with direct experience of poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage and supported by the JRF. The key message was the need to put lived experience at the heart of policy-making, complementing other forms of expertise. I asked whether Poverty2Solutions would be willing to engage with the Government on the development of voter ID policy, and the response was an enthusiastic yes. The door is open.

--- Later in debate ---
Moved by
8: Schedule 1, page 83, line 25, at end insert—
“(1HA) In this rule a “specified document” also means any of the following documents (in whatever form issued to the holder)—(a) a driving licence;(b) a birth certificate;(c) a marriage or civil partnership certificate;(d) an adoption certificate;(e) the record of a decision on bail made in respect of the voter in accordance with section 5(1) of the Bail Act 1976;(f) a bank or building society cheque book;(g) a mortgage statement dated within 3 months of the date of the poll;(h) a bank or building society statement dated within 3 months of the date of the poll;(i) a credit card statement dated within 3 months of the date of the poll;(j) a council tax demand letter or statement dated within 12 months of the date of the poll;(k) a P45 or P60 form dated within 12 months of the date of the poll;(l) a standard acknowledgement letter (SAL) issued by the Home Office for asylum seekers;(m) a trade union membership card;(n) a library card;(o) a pre-payment meter card;(p) a National Insurance card;(q) a workplace ID card;(r) a student ID card;(s) an 18+ student Oyster photocard;(t) a National Rail Railcard;(u) a Young Scot National Entitlement Card.”
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I think it is important to test the opinion of the House. The Minister spoke very eloquently but this is still an enormous and expensive measure of red tape to solve a problem that no one insists is a serious issue in the British electoral system. I therefore seek the opinion of the House.

Elections Bill

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage
Monday 21st March 2022

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Elections Act 2022 View all Elections Act 2022 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 96-V Fifth marshalled list for Committee - (21 Mar 2022)
Baroness Greengross Portrait Baroness Greengross (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I will speak briefly in support of Amendments 64, 78, 79 and 81. On Second Reading, I expressed concerns that the new voter identification requirements in the Bill might disproportionately impact the youngest and the oldest voters. As others have already highlighted, we need to balance, on the one hand, that we ensure we have a secure electoral system that is not open to abuse of fraud with, on the other hand, removing possible barriers to voter participation. The fact that someone does not have a driver’s licence or a passport or cannot lay their hands on their passport on voting day should not mean that they are unable to participate in the electoral process, which is a very significant part of our democracy.

Amendment 64 gives someone the option, when registering as an elector, to apply for an electoral identity document as part of the same process. This ensures that, at the point of registering, people can get the ID needed to vote. Amendment 78 would enable a voter without satisfactory ID to have their identity confirmed by another voter at the polling station who does have acceptable ID. Amendment 79 expands on the list of documents that can be used as ID, again at least reducing the risk that someone is turned away from a polling station due to them not having satisfactory identification on them. Amendment 81 would include the senior railcard as a form of ID that can be used, as older people tend to have it on them at all times. These amendments help mitigate the risk of eligible voters being turned away for not having identification, but they do not eliminate it completely.

Lack of participation, especially by younger people, is by far a greater problem in this country than voter fraud. Can the Government please outline what safeguards they plan to put in place to ensure that eligible voters who lack identification documents are not disfranchised by what is proposed in the Bill?

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, Amendment 80 in my name has the support of other Members of this House, including—he asked me to indicate this—the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, who sadly is not with us now. This amendment adds to the list of voter identification documents that are accepted for the purpose of being able to vote. It is carefully framed so as to be consistent with the statement in the Conservative Party manifesto, because I understand the importance for us in this House of working within the conventions of the respect we give to manifesto pledges. I will share with the Committee the exact words of that manifesto:

“We will protect the integrity of our democracy by introducing identification to vote at polling stations, stopping postal vote harvesting and measures to prevent any foreign interference in elections.”


My view on that list—and I think it is the view of almost everyone in this Committee—is that there is indeed an issue of postal vote harvesting, and we do indeed need measures to prevent foreign interference. I do not believe that the challenge of voter ID is a significant risk in the British electoral system and I do not think anyone has presented any evidence that it is; nevertheless, it is clearly within the framework set out in the Government’s manifesto and we should respect it.

So my amendment tries to do two things. First, it adds some more photo IDs to the current list of photo IDs—such items as the student identity card, the 18-plus student Oyster photocard and the national railcard. I am trying to add, as far as possible, to the list of photo IDs.

But the amendment goes further than this. It includes other documents that are not photo IDs. Here, I am very influenced by the second document, to which I pay almost as much attention as the Conservative manifesto; namely, the report by my noble friend Lord Pickles. In his important report Securing the Ballot, recommendation 8 says:

“The Government should consider the options for electors to have to produce personal identification before voting at polling stations. There is no need to be over elaborate”—


we hear the authentic voice of my noble friend there—

“measures should enhance public confidence and be proportional. A driving licence, passport or utility bills—

I emphasise “utility bills”—

would not seem unreasonable to establish identity. The Government may wish to pilot different methods. But the present system is unsatisfactory; perfection must not get in the way of a practical solution.”

So, at the stage at which my noble friend produced his report, which has been widely cited throughout the debate on the Bill, he clearly envisaged that it should not be just photo ID.

The Minister, in his response to the earlier debate, took us through the subsequent process, where there was piloting of a range of measures, and said that the pilot with photo ID had strengthened security the most. I accept that point. The question is, to what extent is security the key consideration? Given that voter personation is such a minor problem compared with other genuine issues around security, going for maximum security by requiring photo ID to tackle a problem that is not itself a major issue in our electoral system seems to me to be disproportionate compared with the disadvantages of photo ID. That is why I am trying, within the spirit of the report of my noble friend Lord Pickles and the Government’s own election manifesto, to provide as long a list of documents as possible, so that we will not face that challenge of people who are legitimately entitled to vote finding that, because they do not possess an ID, they are turned away from the polling station.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The noble Lord is implicitly saying that he does not regard the Conservative Party manifesto as extending to photo ID. Indeed, there is a very good reason for not regarding it as extending to photo ID, because it does not say “photo ID”. It is all very well for the Minister to say that he intended it to mean that, but, as I know from having piloted controversial legislation through this House, when it comes to invoking the Salisbury convention on matters of first-rate constitutional importance such as this, what the manifesto says is absolutely crucial.

His proportionate principle is that we should start from a long list. Just from quickly scanning Amendment 80, it looks to me as if about half the items on his list do not require photographs; they give the identity of the person but not the photo. That would seem to me to be exactly the kind of position which this Committee should take—and insist on, if need be—to see that the Government’s manifesto commitment is introduced in a proportionate way and not in a way that is likely to have serious deleterious consequences.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

Well, it will be up to the Committee to decide. I very much hope the Minister will be able to provide some welcome to my amendment, because it is certainly drafted in a way that is intended to be consistent with both the Conservative manifesto and the important report from my noble friend Lord Pickles.

I shall end by painting a picture of a scenario which several noble Lords opposite have hinted at. It is a scenario that concerns me; I think it is unlikely, but it is possible. It is that we go into the next election and in the course of election day we have, for the first time in British political history, a significant number of voters being turned away from polling stations on the grounds that they do not possess a photo ID. We would then have an election won—and I hope it will be an election won by my party—by a party with a small majority, including quite small majorities in a range of marginal seats. We will find ourselves in an extremely difficult political and constitutional crisis if people are saying, “This is an election where a Government has won by a very small majority after we have seen, for the first time on our TV screens, voters being turned away”. I think that would be catastrophic for trust in our electoral system, and everything that we agree in this Committee must be proportionate, given that there are, in the background, risks such as that. I therefore hope that, within the spirit of the Conservative manifesto, it will be possible for the Government to accept my amendment.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Before the noble Lord sits down, I will ask a question specifically addressed to his amendment. By the way, I wholly commend the thrust of what he is trying to do with the amendment and his incredibly bipartisan remarks about our constitution. I looked through his list on the basis of what I readily have to hand myself. Did he ever consider the simple bank card, as opposed to bank statements, mortgage statements et cetera? I understand that he is trying to make the list as broad as possible. For myself, I find the debit card or whatever the most ubiquitous and quite a sensitive form of identity. I would favour it over, for example, a cheque book. I cannot remember the last time I wrote a cheque.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I make no comment about that, but people increasingly use debit and credit cards. They carry them around on their person. In fact, some people now use their phones for everything. People are paperless even in relation to their statements and so on. I wonder whether that was something the noble Lord considered, because I am so with him in the thrust of what he is trying to achieve.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

I take that point; this is not the perfect list. Indeed, there is a rather different agenda behind it. I shared at Second Reading my concern about lower rates of participation in voting and the difficulty of voter registration, especially for younger voters. It is odd that a Government driving forward a digital reform agenda in so many other areas are not doing so in this one. I believe in modernisation; I think digitisation is coming. It is very odd that we are not taking the Bill as an opportunity to introduce it in the electoral register. I also do not believe in lots of red tape and disproportionate burdens from it. By adding to the list, I am trying to reduce the amount of red tape as a barrier to people legitimately voting in elections.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I will speak briefly to support the amendments to which I added my name: Amendment 80 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts—he made a very strong case for the amendment, possibly modified to take account of what my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti said—and Amendment 78 in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayman. Again, my motivation in supporting these amendments stems mainly from my concern that the photo ID requirements will disproportionately exclude marginalised groups, including people in poverty and members of the GRT communities, who are also less likely to apply for a voter ID card, to some extent for the same reasons they do not have photo ID in the first place. The additions suggested by the noble Lord are much more likely to be held by these groups. For me, that is the key test: are these forms of identification that members of marginalised groups are more likely to have?

The noble Lord quoted the Pickles report. I will repeat the quote, because he rather rushed over it and it is worth emphasising:

“perfection must not get in the way of a practical solution.”

My fear is that perfection is getting in the way of not just a practical solution but, as I have said, inclusive democracy and citizenship. I am yet to hear a convincing justification for why this should be accepted as a proportionate response to the supposed problem of personation. Again, the noble Lord spoke eloquently about that.

I am also unclear why the Government are so opposed to a vouching system, as proposed in Amendment 78—they made it very clear in the Commons that they are opposed to it—not least given the fact, as my noble friend Lord Collins pointed out, that the Electoral Commission has supported the idea. Once again, it smacks of a worrying lack of trust in the electorate.

Finally, once again, I welcome the commitment to continued consultation with civil society groups to maximise accessibility for those most likely to need to apply for a voter card and/or who will find it most difficult to apply. Once again, will that include groups working with people in poverty and GRT communities? Will it include those who bring the expertise of experience to the table? That expertise will be of particular value in this context: who will know better what will work, or not, about applying for a voter card than the people who will make those applications? I am grateful to the Minister for promising last week to send me a list of those being consulted, but I would welcome an answer to this specific question about whose expertise will be taken into account in rolling out these provisions, because it is quite important.

Elections Bill

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

My Lords, I join in the many congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Moore, on his excellent maiden speech and give him a warm welcome to this House—and perhaps share with him a reflection from when I arrived in this House from the other place six years ago. One of things that first struck me, having been an MP, was that, unlike the other place, we did not have—if I may say so, with enormous respect—a Speaker who had the powers that the Speaker has in the other place. This Chamber functions rather differently. It functions on the principle that we agree on how we will disagree.

That principle, embodied in the way in which we function, is very relevant to the debate on this legislation, because it is part of a sustained constitutional settlement that a nation agrees on how we will disagree. That is why my first request to the Minister, who I know reflects on these issues, is that I hope that spirit can somehow infuse our debates and consideration of amendments to this legislation in the days and weeks ahead.

I would like to make two particular points. First, on the issue of voter ID, I understand that the case for the measure appears to be the precautionary principle, rather than evidence that there is widespread abuse at the moment. I am concerned that there is a risk that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of voters who do not have a photo ID and do not seek the extra document that the Government are proposing may find that they are unable to vote. So I hope that the Minister will consider adding to the list of acceptable robust documentation, as a minimum measure to reduce the risk of substantial numbers of people being deterred from voting by this provision.

Perhaps I might comment on a second issue: voter registration. I very much agree with the points that the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, has just made. The current system is crying out for reform. It needs of course to be robust and it needs to be modernised—and here I am particularly concerned by an issue which I know the Minister himself has focused on, because he chaired an excellent committee of this House on the very issue: young people. One of the arguments used when one talks about the challenges facing young people is that if young people were really bothered, instead of being so apathetic, they should go out and vote, and if only they voted at the same rate as everyone else, politicians would pay more attention.

We did some research at the Resolution Foundation on why young people had a lower propensity to vote. The biggest single factor by far was that more and more of them are in private rented accommodation and it is very hard to get on the register if you are moving around in private rented accommodation. They are not apathetic. They are finding it hard to get on the register, and it would be wonderful if, as part of this legislation, there were bold moves to reform voter registration so that, while protecting legitimacy and rigour, we also ensure that as many people as possible who have a legal right to vote are on the register.

If I may say to the Minister, who has a deep understanding of Conservative history and tradition, as does the noble Lord, Lord Moore, he will be familiar with Disraeli’s bold move in bringing in the 1867 Act —the biggest single extension of the franchise since the Great Reform Act 1832—and with the Conservative Party’s part in the steady process of extending the franchise over a century. There were Conservatives who thought that Disraeli’s move was electorally suicidal and that the Conservative Party should be trying to restrict the franchise rather than broaden it. But Disraeli discerned the angels in marble: the potential voters out there who could be attracted to the Conservative cause. Engels, observing the subsequent election from Manchester, wrote to Marx:

“It cannot be denied that the increase of working-class voters has brought the Tories more than their simple percentage increase”.


He was very surprised at what happened and went on to say:

“Once again, the proletariat has discredited itself terribly”.


I very much hope that as the Minister and the Government approach the fraught issue of this legislation, they approach it in the spirit of Disraeli.

Space Industry

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Thursday 4th March 2021

(3 years, 3 months ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Asked by
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts
- Hansard - -

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support the United Kingdom space industry.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

I am delighted that your Lordships are debating the UK space industry. It is key to building back better. It is rapidly growing—by 60% in the past decade—and is spread across the whole country, from Goonhilly in Cornwall to the north of Scotland, via Guildford, Leicester, Glasgow and elsewhere. I declare my interests, especially my roles with Surrey Satellite Technology, SatixFy and Skyrora and my position as chancellor of the University of Leicester, which has a long and distinguished history of space science and is now creating a space park, which it hopes will host a national centre for space manufacturing.

I also welcome the Minister, my right honourable and noble friend Lord Frost, to his maiden speech at the end of this debate. I believe there will be two other maiden speeches as well, to which I am greatly looking forward; I am only sorry that the time constraints in this debate are so intense.

I very much welcome the initiatives the Government are taking to promote the British space sector. The National Space Council should integrate governmental policy work on space, and the investment in OneWeb was a welcome and bold initiative. The Government have also led the UN initiative on responsible behaviour in space, an excellent example of soft power. Britain is also one of the key players in the European Space Agency, which is an intergovernmental body and not part of the European Union, which I am sure the Minister will welcome. Now the Government are committed to a comprehensive space strategy, to be published in the next six months, which is also very welcome. Meanwhile, I would like briefly to set out four challenges, which I hope the Minister will be able to address in his response at the end.

First, there is funding. Space is one of those classic areas where well-designed public spending crowds in private spending rather than driving it out, so we do need a well-funded national space programme. However, there are concerns about the future of some existing programmes; for example, the space international partnership programme, which has been part of the Government’s ODA spend. There is a very tiresome media trope that developing countries should not have anything to do with space. The opposite is the case; many developing countries which do not have conventional infrastructure need space-based services even more. This programme provides for partnerships with them, and I very much hope it will be maintained. Also, a national space innovation programme was launched last year, which is an excellent initiative. Because of the lack of a long-term comprehensive spending settlement, there is a risk to that programme as well. It would be marvellous if it could be maintained.

The second challenge is regulation. The Space Industry Act 2018 sets out the framework, but it is important that the detailed regulation is correct and not too onerous. There are exciting prospects for space launch from Scotland. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, whose maiden speech we may hear shortly, who, when he was Minister, pushed the space launch initiative forward. We all want to see space launch from the north of Scotland soon.

This is a race and we must not be complacent. There is a real gap for a European space launch capability, because when you launch small satellites into low-earth orbit, equatorial launch is not what you are looking for, you want to launch north, over the poles, so there is competition between the north of Scotland, Sweden and Germany, which is investing a lot. If the regulations from the CAA are too onerous, we will lose out in this race, so it is important that they are proportionate.

There are also burdens of regulation on satellite operators who are not launching from the UK, but are legally based here. There are long-standing issues, which all of us who were Ministers in the past with responsibility will remember—the tricky issues around liabilities, the cost of insurance, the right balance between private insurance and ultimately the Government taking the risk. It is very important that we do not expect greater legal liabilities from UK-based entities than companies located elsewhere, particularly—I am looking again at the Minister—if EU regulation is less onerous than ours and launch companies move to the EU to escape onerous British regulation.

The Government have just launched an excellent new initiative on innovation and deregulation. Will the Minister give that team the opportunity to review the proposed space sector regulations with the industry to check that they are proportionate, promote innovation and do not put us at a disadvantage.

Thirdly, the Government’s investment in OneWeb is already proving its worth. It will be crucial to Five Eyes capacities over the Arctic and it can do much more in the future when we move on to the second generation of OneWeb satellites. A lot of work was done on a British alternative to Galileo, but the original idea of a technology similar to the Galileo and GPS systems—the large satellites way out in distant orbit, further than 10,000 kilometres—would not have added resilience to the US or European system, because it would have been copying their technologies. It is far better for us to invest in a new LEO—low-earth orbit—constellation, complementing what GPS or Galileo can do.

I put it to the Minister, with his geopolitical interests, that one may imagine a deal in which the EU were given some place at the table in OneWeb in return for our getting access to Galileo once more. But as a minimum, it is important that we look at using the next generation of OneWeb satellites to deliver position, navigation and timing services. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the MoD will commission research on those services for the second generation of OneWeb satellites.

Fourthly and finally on my list, there is the role of space in tackling the climate emergency, with the prospect of COP 26 being held in Glasgow later this year. Earth observation data, in particular, is very relevant to COP 26, There is one estimate that half the 50 essential climate variables that have to be monitored can be observed only from space. There is also the visual observation of marine conservation areas—one of the main ways, incidentally, in which space-based services help developing countries, by enabling them to police their own maritime areas—as well as mapping tropical rainforests and deforestation, and helping disaster response to extreme weather events.

There is a real prospect of space playing an important role in COP 26 and the monitoring of decisions taken there. I very much hope that, given our exciting position chairing COP 26, it will be possible for us to promote and identify a distinct space strand to that discussion.

The Government are strongly committed to space. All of us who have worked closely on space policy in whatever capacity will know the potential that exists there for the UK. I very much look forward to seeing the UK play a crucial role in new technologies, space surveillance and tracking, space debris removal and in-orbit servicing. The Government have already taken very useful initiatives in space, and I hope that the Minister will be able to address the challenges I have identified today and make further progress in the future.