Delegated Legislation Committee
Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2018
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Ian Austin
† Aldous, Peter (Waveney) (Con)
† Atkins, Victoria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
† Baron, Mr John (Basildon and Billericay) (Con)
† Beresford, Sir Paul (Mole Valley) (Con)
† Bradley, Ben (Mansfield) (Con)
Burden, Richard (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)
† Daby, Janet (Lewisham East) (Lab)
Dakin, Nic (Scunthorpe) (Lab)
Duffield, Rosie (Canterbury) (Lab)
† Goldsmith, Zac (Richmond Park) (Con)
† Harris, Carolyn (Swansea East) (Lab)
† Masterton, Paul (East Renfrewshire) (Con)
† Maynard, Paul (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Newlands, Gavin (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP)
Perkins, Toby (Chesterfield) (Lab)
† Prentis, Victoria (Banbury) (Con)
† Smith, Eleanor (Wolverhampton South West) (Lab)
Yohanna Sallberg, Medha Bhasin, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Tenth Delegated Legislation Committee
Monday 12 November 2018
[Ian Austin in the Chair]
Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2018
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2018.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. Before I start, I ought to declare an interest in my husband’s business concerns. The business produces an ingredient for another type of epilepsy medication, so I am being very cautious, as we will discover. The order relates to pregabalin and gabapentin, two substances used to manage a number of disabling long-term conditions including epilepsy and general anxiety disorders.
The draft order was laid before Parliament on 17 October, and it will control the two substances as class C drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. I should like to thank the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for its advice, which has informed the draft order. If the order is agreed, pregabalin and gabapentin will be subject to permanent control under schedule 2 to the 1971 Act, through an amendment to part III, which specifies the drugs that are subject to control under the Act as class C drugs. The advisory council recommended that the two substances should be controlled in that way, as their harms are commensurate with those of other substances controlled as class C drugs.
We want to ensure that those with a legitimate medical need can get access to these drugs. Therefore, subject to Parliament’s approval, we shall schedule both drugs under schedule 3 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 through further regulations. While they have legitimate medical uses, these substances can lead to serious harms when used in combination with other central nervous system depressants. They can, for example, cause drowsiness, sedation, respiratory failure and even death. The ACMD also concluded that pregabalin and gabapentin present a risk of addiction and a potential for illegal diversion and medicinal misuse. It highlighted concerns of health staff in prisons, who reported a high number of prisoners being prescribed the drugs without a thorough assessment of their needs.
To give the Committee a sense of the prescription rates, pregabalin prescriptions increased from 2.7 million in 2012 to 6.25 million in 2017, while gabapentin prescriptions rose from 3.5 million in 2012 to more than 7 million in 2017. Sadly, there has also been an increase in the number of deaths related to pregabalin and gabapentin since 2009. In the last five years there have been 408 deaths where pregabalin was mentioned on the death certificate, and 203 in the case of gabapentin. In controlling the two drugs we will restrict the potential for misuse by reducing diversion and their illicit supply, while ensuring that they are available to healthcare professionals for genuine healthcare needs.
I reassure hon. Members that, because we are conscious of the need to ensure that the medical community is aware of the changes, the measure to control the drugs is scheduled to come into force in April 2019. The healthcare sector will thus have the opportunity to plan to implement the stricter requirements over the period. There is a strong plan for communications to the health sector and the wider public. The Home Office will issue a circular with legislative guidance for the police and the courts. Guidance will also be published following engagement with interested parties about the effect of the legislation in preparation for its coming into force in April. We shall of course continue to update our messages on the harms of the substances in question. I hope that I have made the case to control these harmful drugs, and I commend the order to the Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve under your wonderful chairmanship, Mr Austin. The Opposition support the order. The misuse of these two substances has become an increasing issue, with many tragic fatalities. However, while we believe the correct steps have been taken in this instance, overall the Government’s approach to drugs since they took office in 2010 has been ideological. Their most recent drugs strategy has simply not addressed the problems.
Labour supports the use of cannabis oil for medical purposes and, although we have currently made no commitment on the decriminalisation of cannabis or other drugs for recreational use, we will always consider the latest independent expert advice. There is nothing more important than preserving the lives of our citizens, but our current approach to drugs does not do that. Does the Minister believe it is time to consider all the options, based on what is most effective in reducing harm? Finally, does she have any plans to present a review of the current drugs strategy to the House, so that hon. Members can raise any concerns they may have?
I thank the hon. Lady for her constructive engagement on this order, which I am pleased the Opposition support. We keep the drugs strategy under review—so much so that, on illegal or illicit drugs, we recently announced an independent review of the misuse of drugs in the 21st century. I know that she and other colleagues will take an interest in the results of that. We look at the drugs strategy and prevention in the context of not only the harms that these substances can do, but the wider societal effects that they can have, for example through county lines and the exploitation of children. I am grateful to the Opposition for their support for this order. I hope that the Committee will see it as part of the Government’s continuing work to ensure that these harmful substances are controlled as much as possible and that the message is sent out that they must not be misused.
Question put and agreed to.
Draft Road Safety (Financial Penalty Deposit) (Appropriate Amount) (Amendment) Order 2018
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Ms Karen Buck
† Boles, Nick (Grantham and Stamford) (Con)
† Brown, Alan (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
† Cadbury, Ruth (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
† Coaker, Vernon (Gedling) (Lab)
† Donelan, Michelle (Chippenham) (Con)
† Foxcroft, Vicky (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
† George, Ruth (High Peak) (Lab)
† Grant, Mrs Helen (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con)
† Heappey, James (Wells) (Con)
† Jones, Mr Marcus (Nuneaton) (Con)
† Kawczynski, Daniel (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)
McKinnell, Catherine (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
† Maskell, Rachael (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
† Norman, Jesse (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
† Philp, Chris (Croydon South) (Con)
† Seely, Mr Bob (Isle of Wight) (Con)
† Yasin, Mohammad (Bedford) (Lab)
Jeanne Delebarre, Jonathan Whiffing, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee
Monday 12 November 2018
[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]
Draft Road Safety (Financial Penalty Deposit) (Appropriate Amount) (Amendment) Order 2018
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Road Safety (Financial Penalty Deposit) (Appropriate Amount) (Amendment) Order 2018.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. We had a valuable debate on the international road transport permits regulations and trailer registration regulations last week. The statutory instrument we are considering today is part of a package to put in place the necessary framework and systems for the haulage industry after the UK leaves the European Union in March 2019. It is very narrow in scope; it simply sets the level of a set of financial penalties. The road haulage sector plays an integral role in keeping our economy moving and helping businesses throughout the UK to trade with international partners in the EU and beyond. This instrument will support that with the effective enforcement of those regimes.
The order will support the enforcement of the haulage permits and trailer registration regimes. Its provisions will come into force on the same days that the related offences come into force. For the haulage permits and trailer registration regimes, the draft order will apply from 1 January and 28 March 2019 respectively. Later this month a further order will be laid, subject to the negative procedure, to designate offences for both permits and trailer registration, for which a fixed penalty notice may be issued or a requirement to pay a financial penalty deposit may be imposed. The order will set the level of the financial penalties associated with those offences.
Financial penalty deposits are an effective system for enforcing road traffic law on non-UK offenders and UK offenders with no fixed abode. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency can issue fixed penalties to non-UK residents and UK residents and request a financial penalty deposit from any offender without a fixed UK address. As such, fixed penalties ensure that enforcement can be undertaken regardless of whether a driver is from the UK or elsewhere. The offences and deposit amounts under both regimes replicate the existing enforcement regimes for international haulage and motor vehicle registration. Penalty deposits for haulage permit offences will be £300. For trailer registration they will be £100, except for the offence of obstructing an examiner, which will be £300.
Members will be particularly interested in how the order will affect Northern Irish hauliers. The enforcement orders cover Great Britain only, as enforcement in Northern Ireland is covered by devolved legislation. It will be for the Northern Ireland Executive and civil service to decide whether they wish to enforce these offences using financial penalty deposits. Nevertheless, the absence of the Executive will not prevent the Northern Ireland Driver and Vehicle Agency from enforcing such offences through the Northern Irish courts system.
Approval of this draft instrument is important to ensure the effective enforcement of the regimes that have already been considered in Committee. The order will ensure that effective and equitable enforcement action may be taken against UK and non-UK drivers alike for offences committed under those regimes. I commend the draft order to the Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. Given what we have seen in the past week, it appears that this legislation will more or less be required as a result of the chaos ensuing in Government over Brexit, not least in the Department for Transport. The draft order puts forward the penalties that would apply should someone not have the required permits that have been discussed in the regulations we debated last week. Opposition Members challenged then the random nature in which penalties could be awarded, and that still very much concerns us, because a secure economy requires a systematic mechanism to award permits. That was clearly absent in the Government’s fall-back position.
I do not know what this financial penalty structure is meant to achieve or what evidence there is that it will achieve the desired outcome, in the light of the small amount of the penalties—£300 to £100. Will the penalty be used in part to offset the cost of running the scheme, and will it be included in or excluded from the amount set aside? What evidence is there that such a low penalty will act as a lever to ensure that goods vehicles have the correct permit documentation present? I await the Minister’s response.
May I ask the Minister a couple of questions that occur to me? If someone gets one of these penalties, how long will they be given to pay it? What happens to them if they do not pay it? What are the consequences for them? The Minister said that the scheme has been very effective, but can he give us some idea about what happened under the old scheme? How many drivers failed to respond? What is the amount outstanding? What was the previous amount and what has it gone up to? I know that it is an easy amendment and nobody is opposed to it, but I think that it would be helpful to have more information about the effectiveness of the old scheme and what we have moved to. I am particularly interested in how long someone has to pay the deposit and what happens to them if they do not.
Let me pick up the questions that have been asked. The hon. Member for York Central asked whether the fines are set at a level that will ensure effective enforcement. We believe that they are, as does expert opinion, because the enforcement tracks the levels currently levied for domestic offences. If the offence goes further than that and becomes a matter of systemic abuse or fraud, then different laws apply and different fines—potentially much larger ones—can apply as well.
For example, the fine for using a vehicle
“in…contravention of the requirement to possess a Community licence”
is £100. The fine for causing or permitting
“a breach of a prohibition…on taking a vehicle to a country without reasonable excuse”
is £300. These are well-recognised numbers within our domestic enforcement.
That is precisely what they apply to: the domestic commercial environment. If someone commits multiple offences, they can be fined on multiple different grounds. If someone commits systemic or fraudulent offences, they will of course be prosecuted at a significantly greater level.
The hon. Member for Gedling asked how long people have to pay. If it is a fixed penalty deposit, they are required to pay immediately at the roadside, and they can be immobilised if they fail to do so or if there is a risk that they might flee. In response to his other question, if they fail to do so they can be taken to court. The normal regime of enforcement applies.
A communication today from representatives of the haulage industry speculates that the new permit system will be over-subscribed at the UK end, so the same may apply to reciprocal arrangements. Are the fines enough of a deterrent? If companies do not get the permits they seek, people’s livelihoods and businesses are at stake.
In previous Committees I have described several scenarios and set out why we believe that hauliers will be able to get permits in each case, whether through a liberalised trade regime, through a European Conference of Ministers of Transport regime or through bilateral arrangements. None of those, however, is germane to the question before the Committee, which is what the fines associated with the various offences should be.
Let me fill out the picture. The Committee will recall that we undertook a consultation on the level of fines. There has already been considerable discussion with industry on the matter.
Order. If the hon. Lady wishes to intervene, she should stand and intervene properly.
Let me be perfectly clear: the fines are to be levied in the usual way, and there is no question of any offset. As I have already said in a previous Committee, the permits confer a valuable right. That is why it is appropriate for people to be charged a suitable amount purely on a cost recovery basis, with up-front costs paid by the Government.
Approval of the draft order is important in ensuring that effective enforcement action can be undertaken, against UK and non-UK drivers alike, for offences committed under the regimes that the Committee has considered. Once again, I commend the draft order to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Draft Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2018
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Mr Virendra Sharma
† Amesbury, Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
† Badenoch, Mrs Kemi (Saffron Walden) (Con)
† Cameron, Dr Lisa (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP)
Eagle, Ms Angela (Wallasey) (Lab)
† Ellman, Dame Louise (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op)
† Foxcroft, Vicky (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
† Freer, Mike (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
† Graham, Richard (Gloucester) (Con)
† Hoare, Simon (North Dorset) (Con)
† Knight, Julian (Solihull) (Con)
† Kyle, Peter (Hove) (Lab)
† Metcalfe, Stephen (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
† Scully, Paul (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)
† Skidmore, Chris (Kingswood) (Con)
† Streeting, Wes (Ilford North) (Lab)
† Tomlinson, Justin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
† Williams, Dr Paul (Stockton South) (Lab)
Ian Bradshaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Ninth Delegated Legislation Committee
Monday 12 November 2018
[Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
Draft Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2018
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2018.
The draft regulations were laid before both Houses on 12 July 2018. The regulations will enable the Department to make amendments to child maintenance legislation to deliver the new child maintenance compliance and arrears strategy.
A comprehensively reformed child maintenance scheme was launched in 2012. The main aim of the scheme is to encourage and support parents to take responsibility for paying for their children’s upbringing. We want parents to work together following separation and, where possible, to make a family-based arrangement for maintenance, avoiding state intervention altogether. Where parents do not meet their responsibilities, the statutory scheme is there to enforce payments.
I am pleased to say that, following careful staged implementation, the new service is working well and avoiding the problems that beset the previous statutory child maintenance schemes. As we have implemented the reformed scheme, we have listened to the issues that hon. Members and external stakeholders have raised. The draft regulations address a number of those issues by closing known loopholes, updating the way in which child maintenance is calculated and introducing a new sanction to target the small minority of parents who persistently evade their responsibilities.
For many years, the old system under the Child Support Agency did not provide the right support to parents and was expensive to run. The majority of cases with ongoing maintenance have been closed in the CSA schemes. I want to provide clarity to thousands of families who have a case in the CSA with arrears. In many of those cases, the children are now adults and the outstanding debts are small. In some cases, when asked, parents have moved on with their lives and are not interested in pursuing the debt. The draft regulations will enable us finally to address all arrears that built up under the CSA, meaning that we can close the cases and end years of uncertainty for the families involved.
A small number of non-resident parents are able to lower their child maintenance liabilities, or avoid them altogether, by drawing an undeclared income from assets. Whether that is via loans against the value of bullion or the acquisition of virtual currency, the cultivation of a cash-poor but asset-rich lifestyle is a rare but growing method of evading child maintenance responsibilities. The draft regulations introduce new powers to address that problem.
Where a partner believes that the ex-partner possesses the relevant assets, the Child Maintenance Service will investigate, escalating to the financial investigation unit if appropriate. If possession of a relevant asset is confirmed, and the value exceeds £31,250, a notional income will be calculated at 8% of the asset’s total value. That would be added to the total income used to calculate liability. We expect the use of the power to be appropriate only in a very small number of cases. We recognise, too, that such assets can be acquired for legitimate reasons. That is why we have protected assets in certain circumstances, including where the asset is used for business purposes or is the primary home of the parent or a child.
Some parents intentionally manage their financial affairs around joint or unlimited-partnership accounts, as those are inaccessible to our existing powers. The draft regulations seek to extend our ability to use regular and lump-sum deduction orders in relation to joint and unlimited-partnership bank accounts, and to use lump-sum deduction orders in relation to sole-trader accounts. Through that new power, we may be able to collect an additional £350,000 a year for children. I want to make it clear that we want to strike a balance between recovering money for parents who are refusing to pay child maintenance and protecting the rights of other joint account holders. To achieve that, a number of safeguards have been put in place to prevent the other joint account holder’s funds being deducted.
Deductions will only be made from joint or unlimited-partnership accounts where there are insufficient funds held in the parent’s solely held accounts. Before action is taken, the previous six months of account statements will be checked to establish ownership of funds. In a small number of cases where, despite investigation, it is not possible to establish how much of the funds in the account belong to the parent—for example, because no evidence is furnished as to ownership—a pro rata approach will be adopted. This will assume that the parent’s share of the funds is equal to that of the other account holders.
All account holders will be notified before a deduction order is made in respect of a joint account and will be given the opportunity to make representations in relation to the funds targeted. The standard representation period will be 14 days for regular deduction orders, and 28 days for lump sum deduction orders. All account holders will have appeal rights. Further safeguards are in place to ensure businesses have enough cash flow to continue to trade. For example, a deduction would not be taken if it would reduce the account balance below £2,000. We have provided a requirement for the Department to review these provisions every five years.
I plan to commence an existing power to enable the Child Maintenance Service to disqualify a paying parent with child maintenance arrears from holding a UK passport. The regulations make further provisions in respect of this power. The measure will only be used where a parent has consistently failed to meet their financial responsibility for their children and all our other enforcement powers have failed to regain compliance. It will operate in a similar way to existing sanctions of commitment to prison and disqualifications from holding or obtaining a driving licence. Given the serious nature of the power, it will be for the court to decide whether to disqualify a parent from holding or obtaining a UK passport. The court has the power to suspend the disqualification order on such conditions as the court thinks appropriate. Although the power will be used only in a small volume of cases, I expect it will be an effective deterrent to secure payments and maintenance as early in the case as possible.
As soon as the CSA came into existence in 1993, debt began to build up quickly. Operational improvements from 2008 onwards halted the lack of growth, but reducing the historic balance has been extremely challenging. Successive Governments have not sought to hide from it, and since 1996 have published information on the client funds accounts on the amount of debt believed to be uncollectable. The latest Child Support Agency client funds accounts for 2015-16 make it clear that £3.1 billion of CSA debt is deemed uncollectable.
Over the years, a number of strategies have been tried to collect the debt, including using external debt collection agencies and offering parents the option of making a part-payment, but none has been successful in getting money to children. The regulations include changes that help to deliver certainty to parents by attempting a final collection of their debt, where they want it and where such action is likely to be cost-effective for the taxpayer.
For a case to be in scope for the regulations, the debt must have accumulated on either the 1993 or 2003 CSA cases; it must be an arrears-only case, where no maintenance is due for a child currently; and it will not have received a payment within the past three months. Where a case started on or before 1 November 2008 and has over £1,000 arrears, was over £500 if the case started after 1 November 2008, or the arrears were accrued under the CSA but have transferred to the Child Maintenance Service system and are more than £500, we will write to the parent the money is owed to and ask if they would like us to make a last attempt to collect the debt. Parents will be given 60 days to tell us that they want us to attempt to collect their debt. If representations are not received within the 60-day period, the debt may be written off.
The regulations will enable the CSA debt to be written off without seeking representations where it falls below the prescribed thresholds. That is because it would not be cost-effective to attempt to collect the debt below these levels. There are different thresholds according to the age of the debt, as the older the debt, the harder it is to collect. Where such debt is written off, both parents will be notified. Where the debt is below the value of £65, the regulations will enable the debt to be written off without notice to either parent. That is in line with the current threshold used in my Department for debts owed to the Government.
Finally, if a case of debt subject to sequestration—Scottish insolvency—these regulations will enable it to be written off when the sequestration expires. This will apply to all child maintenance schemes if the debts become legally uncollectable due to the way in which sequestration operates.
In conclusion, the launch of the Child Maintenance Service has gone well, but we now need to build on that success. We propose to do that by first widening our enforcement powers, closing down known loopholes and sending a clear signal that we will pursue those who fail to meet their obligations to their children. Secondly, we will not back away from the hard choices. We will commit to tackling the arrears that represent the legacy of the CSA and will do so in the way that best balances the interests of parents and the public purse. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the Minister for explaining the regulations. As hon. Members know, much of the detailed work of the House goes on in legislative Committees such as this one, away from the political knockabout of the Chamber. It is vital that the Opposition take the chance to scrutinise proposals and identify concerns, issues and improvements. We hope to do that today, because parts of the regulations cause concern and could be modified, but on an issue such as the one before us, it is important that we do so in a considered and constructive manner. We must not lose sight of the fact that we are talking about children and families, so when we hold the Government to account on the proposals, we do so with the sole aim and objective of ensuring that money reaches children and families in a fair and timely manner. It is right for the Opposition to highlight where the Government could make improvements and where their actions and approach have fallen short in relation to child maintenance policy.
We recognise that some of the challenges that we face have their roots in the actions of successive Governments over the years. The question is this: how do we make the system work effectively? On this issue, we do not believe that the current approach is delivering, and we and others have a number of concerns. As my good friend Baroness Sherlock has identified elsewhere, although some people believe that there is a case for writing off some historical debt and introducing new compliance measures, we have to ask the following questions. Are the proposals likely to achieve the objective of getting more money to children, and do they do that in a fair way? As the Opposition, we have further questions. First, before we consider new measures, it is incumbent on the Department for Work and Pensions to show that, in relation to current child maintenance liabilities, there is effective enforcement. If there is not, writing off historical debt risks sending a message to parents who have not paid to support their children that if they just do not pay, the Government will eventually give up.
No Government have a perfect record in this area but, like many other hon. Members in the room, I know from my own case load that many children and families are losing out as a result of the failure by some parents to pay what they owe. Arrears are rising under the new service. Only 62% of paying parents on Collect and Pay paid something in the quarter ending in June 2018, and 44% of all maintenance due under Collect and Pay still had to be paid in that quarter, so there is some way to go before we will be confident that everything that can be done is being done.
We also have concerns about parts of the proposals in relation to debt that is considered too expensive to collect. We recognise that there is some logic to this. Some debts may be perceived to be uncollectable, and others will cost more to collect than will be gained by retrieval. However, the regulations give rise to a number of concerns. For example, they allow wide discretion for caseworkers to decide whether a case is worth pursuing. They place the onus on receiving parents to make representations so that the DWP continues to try to collect the maintenance owed. The cash thresholds disproportionately affect those parents who are least well off. A sum of less than £500 may be a lot of money to someone managing on a very low income. The DWP says that it expects to collect historical debts in only 10% of outstanding cases and less than one fifth of the total amount of outstanding debt. As a result, many parents may lose out—the responsibility is not theirs but the system’s. When that happens, the Minister needs to answer the following question. Will parents be able to claim compensation in cases in which the outstanding debt was due to the failings of the DWP system?
Additionally, when looking at this area, we must do more than a simple profit-and-loss calculation. As with any policy, we have to consider the message that it sends and the effectiveness of the manner in which it is applied. The explanatory memorandum says that there are uncollected arrears of £3.7 billion, of which £2.5 billion is owed to parents and £1.2 billion to Government. The Department for Work and Pensions says that it would be too expensive to try to collect it all, so there are proposals to try to split hairs and claw back some of the unpaid debt. Crucially, the benchmarks, as the Minister stated, are where there has not been a payment in the last three months or, in certain cases, where the DWP asks clients if they want to try to collect the debt. If no representations are received, or the collection of the debt is not possible, it may be written off.
As my colleague Baroness Sherlock has said elsewhere, we need to ask how representations will be sought and whether each parent to whom the money is owed will be written to individually. In addition, where there has been no payment in the last three months, the case started on or before 1 November 2008 and the debt is less than £1000, or the case started after 1 November 2008 and the debt is less than £500, or the debt was less than £65 when it started, the debt can be written off without asking the parents at all.
That is where there is concern about the three-month cut-off point. When the DWP contacts parents to notify them that a debt will be written off unless they make representations, it places the onus on receiving parents to ensure that the case is pursued. We are concerned that that risks sending a message to parents who have not paid to support their children that, if they just do not pay, the Government will eventually give up. We fear that a tiny minority of parents who deliberately refuse to comply will try their luck for three months if it means they will no longer have to pay at all. That is morally and practically wrong. I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that.
We also note that the regulations create new powers of enforcement and extend the kinds of income taken into account when assessing the child maintenance that a parent should pay. Again, in principle, we support greater enforcement powers and a better approach to how ability to pay is defined. Many of us will know from our case load that there can be differences between declared assets, income and apparent lifestyle. When that happens, it is often children who lose out; in some cases they are living in poverty as a result. Why therefore did the Government reject reintroducing the lifestyle variation? Will the assets that will now come within the scope for calculating maintenance include just the UK, or also assets outside the UK?
Once again, we ask whether any new powers will have a major impact, since the CMS does not seem to be using its existing powers of enforcement effectively. Charities such as Gingerbread are concerned that even new regulations could leave loopholes via which people could transfer money elsewhere to avoid their responsibilities. Why would a non-payer fear enforcement action, if they are already getting away with not paying their fair share under the current system? We need to ask how much additional child maintenance the Government expect to collect as a result of these changes, and whether they will set a clear target for improving compliance. Getting the existing house in order must be a priority.
We also have concerns about the charges. These new regulations fail to address the fact that the Government actively dissuade parents from accessing CMS through charges: first, through a £20 application fee to enter the services and secondly, if the collection service is needed due to the other parent not paying. The Government believe that charges encourage compliance, but without evidence of compliance under direct payment, we cannot know. There is no information available on amounts paid under direct pay or for those who paid in full under Collect and Pay. DWP’s own research published in 2016 showed that many charges are ineffective, and in cases where there is domestic violence direct pay arrangements are likely to be inappropriate.
However, charges are likely to deter parents from using Collect and Pay. The Department for Work and Pensions should be much more transparent about it, so that an informed judgment can be made about whether charges incentivise behaviour as the Government intend. In our view, there is a major question about that, and it is incumbent on the Government to answer it.
Finally, we cannot consider the proposals entirely in isolation. They come at a time when many children are feeling the effects of other changes in social security, with more to come—lone parents will be particularly affected—and they bring into sharp focus the importance of ensuring that child maintenance money goes, as intended, to the child. We believe that that must be the focus of the proposals.
We accept that the regulations are made in good faith, but much more needs to be done to ensure that there is compliance within the current system, if people are to believe that the powers will be more effective. Many others will see the writing-off of money that was destined for children, often resulting in children living in poverty, as a bitter pill when the Department is failing effectively to tackle non-payment under the current CMS. It is hard not to see that as an acceptance of failure and, worse, a failure whose consequences are borne by those who did nothing to cause it—children.
We therefore do not support the regulations, taken as a whole. There are positive steps forward, but there is a real danger that writing off historical debt without taking effective action to tackle arrears under the current system will send the wrong message. The Government should produce a strategy aimed at ensuring that more people make maintenance arrangements—that should mean addressing the issue of charges—and at increasing compliance rates. Existing collection rates are too low, and questions remain about the effectiveness of charges and other approaches, so we cannot give the proposals unqualified support.
The Government must get their act together on collection, using existing powers more effectively, and must provide clear evidence that their charging policy works and is fair. We urge the Minister to ensure that that happens, and, in doing so, to make sure that the policy and approach work for those for whom they are intended—the children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.
Further to the comments of the Minister and the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, we agree that the writing off of historical debt is an issue; the agency has had long-standing difficulties making sure that people pay the fair amount that they should for their children and look after their welfare—as they should, and as is their responsibility. However, we welcome much of what has been said about closing loopholes, trying to ensure that there are better enforcement powers going forward, and making sure that parents take appropriate responsibility for children who are no longer resident with them.
Some additional issues that have not been raised come to mind. The Minister mentioned drawing on undeclared income via assets. What is his position on that, in cases where there is not currently an income but there might be at some future point, such as where an individual owns a house in which their parents are living, and which does not produce income? The asset might become relevant in future, perhaps if the individual chose to sell it after the parents were deceased. How would such an issue be handled?
As to sole trader accounts, cash flow is not the same as profit, so how would the new scheme treat cases where companies’ bank accounts—not limited companies, obviously—appear to show high cash flow, but where moneys might be owed and due to come out? How would the scheme take that into account?
On the matter of the sum of £65 or less potentially being written off without people being notified, we think that that would be a mistake, particularly given the linked issue of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. It might seem like a small amount of money, but it is significant to many people who have battled for a long time to get money they are owed. How would they feel if it were suddenly written off and they were not at least notified about that? It would be important for individuals to be notified and letters sent out to them.
I want to check with the Minister the circumstances for disqualification from UK passport holding; he mentioned that the circumstances would be limited, but what are they? They should be entirely in line with human rights legislation. Will the Minister reassure us about that? We want to ensure that we have a system that works and can collect money and support children, but is balanced at its core.
I support the draft regulations that the Minister has introduced. It is incredibly important that child support maintenance regulations reflect the realities of how some parents escape their responsibilities. Although I am absolutely enthusiastic about the new regulations on non-resident parents, would the Minister tell us about the situation for resident parents? A parent may pay CMS and possibly earn good money, perhaps as a sole trader, but not declare it all to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, yet his former partner will know him to be accumulating expensive cars and perhaps a new and expensive home. The Minister will have heard a similar story in his surgeries; at what stage can those assets be brought into the equation and lead to higher CMS payments, so that everyone’s assets can be considered where there is a serious disagreement on the income levels?
I pay tribute to the MPs across all parties who have engaged with me on this subject; since I became a Minister it has been probably the most popular topic. Colleagues have even sat through some of the presentations with me as we have developed the regulations. Their experience, either through individual casework or with people with a lot of knowledge in this area, have helped to shape these regulations. All the contributions recognised that the absolute priority must be the children. There is much that we agree on. It is disappointing that the Opposition do not support the regulations because they send a crystal-clear message to the tiny minority of parents who choose to avoid their responsibilities.
I will try to cover the points raised. The historical debt is about £3.1 billion. It would cost us somewhere in the region of £1.5 billion to pursue all that debt, some of which is many decades old. Estimates are that we would get back between £0.1 billion and £0.6 billion, because of the nature of that historical debt. The absolute key is that we learn the lessons. That is why the CMS was brought in, and it is making a difference. In the first five years of the CMS, about £113 million was owed; in the first five years of the CSA, £1.5 billion was owed. That is a considerable difference. In March 2015, arrears were about 17%; they were 13.3% in 2016, 12.5% in 2017 and 12.1% in March 2018. I do not want to tempt fate, but the last available statistics from June 2018 show it was down to 11.8%.
There is still much more to do, but these regulations are part of the ongoing journey. This will not be the last time that we introduce regulations that are shaped not just by cross-party MPs but by the stakeholder organisations, including Gingerbread, which the shadow Minister rightly credited for the work it does in this area. I have met Gingerbread; we listened the experience it offered. The issue of three months of no payments refers only to the CSA historical debt, not the ongoing CMS or, in effect, live case, when that would not apply.
On enforcement and, in particular, why we do not take lifestyle into account, that would be a blunt tool. This may also cover the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, because in some cases people might have a flash car but on investigation it is found to be fuelled by debt or is not their car. Rightly, therefore, we have brought in the financial investigation unit, so that we can investigate if receiving parents notify their caseworker if they feel that there is evidence of lifestyle inconsistency. The highly trained specialist team from the unit will now be able to look at that and, if they find grounds for changes, they will take enforcement action.
On the specific point about passports, I must stress that use of that power is a last resort, once we have exhausted all other enforcement powers. Maximum enforcement lasts for two years, and it must be granted by the court—not by us—so there are numerous safety checks in place. We used to rely on the removal of driving licences. Not unreasonably, however, the paying parent often argued, “If you take my driving licence away, I won’t be able to earn and you won’t get another penny from me.” We think that this might be a better way. We hope that it is a sufficient deterrent and is used only in a very small number of cases.
On assets outside the UK, yes, absolutely, they may be considered. On notional income, that would be applied at 8%, not on the primary home, because we work on the assumption that the child and the paying parent live there, but if they have another home and, for whatever reason, the paying parent decides not to charge rent on it. The example given was of an asset from parents given as a goodwill gesture. We would then attribute what we believe to be fair, which is the notional income of 8% derived from that asset. That would be added to the paying parent’s total income for the year, which is used for the calculation of the child maintenance.
The point about targets has been raised with me before, and I understand why—as Governments, we set targets for pretty much everything we do. To be crystal clear, we publish all data, so that all organisations may look at the data and draw their own conclusions. We do not want to set an artificial target, however, because we do not want to create perverse incentives—if we say, “X per cent. has to be enforced”, we might seek to go after easy targets, rather than some of the tricky cases, in particular those of the most vulnerable people for whom it would make a real difference. The key that drives us is to get those arrears down, to act as quickly as possible and to ensure that the child, through the receiving parent, gets the full amount of money to which that child is entitled.
On charges, too, we have had representations, and we undertook a review. What is key, however, is that in an ideal world we would never be needed—all parents would be able to find an amicable way to resolve their differences and to ensure that a fair amount is paid, because that benefits the children. We would all agree on that. The modest charges—bear in mind that my Twitter feed sometimes tells me that the fees are a hugely profitable exercise—cover about 2% or 3% of our total costs. They are a nudge exercise to encourage people to find an amicable way to agree. That can happen—time heals—and we want that in place.
One of the changes that we have made is to go the other way. For example, given those points made about whether Direct Pay always works, we now proactively contact those on Direct Pay through text messages to say, “If you are having problems, contact us, and we can look to change that to collect and pay.” We are ensuring that people, the less confident in particular, are not left without receiving the money that they should be. We can act far quicker than in the past.
On domestic abuse, I am very proud that I have ensured that Women’s Aid is helping to develop training for all our staff, so that they can identify those who might be victims of domestic abuse, which comes in all forms. The administration fee would be waived, and we may take people’s word for it—this is not something that has to be proved strenuously. Through the training, where appropriate, we will then signpost and even—if this is felt to be the right thing to do—contact the police, to alert them to what is happening.
On sole traders, we have trained staff who may use their discretion. I absolutely understand the point about cash flow not necessarily being profit, so they will look into a business not being made unsustainable, which would remove the ability to pay income in future.
We have introduced the measures to continue to build on the success of the reformed child maintenance scheme. Their introduction will send a clear message to parents who go to great lengths to avoid financial responsibilities to their children. Now that the reforms are embedded, it is right to take action to address the historical arrears, allowing us to draw a final line under the problems of previous child support systems and to focus on controlling arrears under the Child Maintenance Service so that they never reach the levels seen in the CSA schemes. The draft regulations will give us the opportunity to offer parents a final chance at collection, where cost-effective to do so and we can be reasonably certain that action would be successful. I commend this statutory instrument to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2018.
Ending Seasonal Changes of Time (Reasoned Opinion)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Steve McCabe
† Costa, Alberto (South Leicestershire) (Con)
† Creasy, Stella (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
† Drax, Richard (South Dorset) (Con)
† Esterson, Bill (Sefton Central) (Lab)
† Grady, Patrick (Glasgow North) (SNP)
† Harris, Rebecca (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Jones, Darren (Bristol North West) (Lab)
† O'Brien, Neil (Harborough) (Con)
† Pawsey, Mark (Rugby) (Con)
† Smith, Nick (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
† Tolhurst, Kelly (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)
† Tomlinson, Michael (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)
† West, Catherine (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
Gail Poulton, Daniel Schlappa, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
European Committee C
Monday 12 November 2018
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
Ending Seasonal Changes of Time (Reasoned Opinion)
[Relevant document: European Union Document No. 12118/18.]
For all but the very experienced hands who know about it, perhaps I should explain the procedure. First, I will ask whether a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wishes to make a statement for no more than five minutes on the Committee’s decision to refer the document for debate. The Minister will then make a statement for up to 10 minutes. A short period for questions to the Minister will follow; I stress that they should be questions, as in Question Time, not an attempt to have a debate. After the questions, there will be a short period for debate. Our sitting is destined to end no later than 7 pm, although I should make it clear that we are not obliged to sit until then—we can certainly end earlier. It is a quaint process.
Does a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make a statement?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I will abide by your strictures and endeavour not to keep us here until 7 o’clock.
The proposed directive would end seasonal clock changes across the European Union. At this delicate moment in the Brexit negotiations, let me briefly set out why the European Scrutiny Committee recommends that the House issue a reasoned opinion on the proposed directive.
Today’s debate is not about the merits of seasonal clock changes, on which there are undoubtedly a variety of views across the House—personally, I very much welcomed the extra hour in bed a few weeks ago. It is about whether the EU is justified in ending seasonal clock changes throughout the EU and preventing individual member states from deciding whether to reintroduce them. It relates to the very essence of sovereignty and reminds us of the Brexit debate in the run-up to the referendum in 2016. There is a risk that the EU might come across as a former Prime Minister described it:
“too big, too bossy and too interfering.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 24.]
In his “State of the Union” speech in September, Jean-Claude Juncker announced:
“Clock-changing must stop. Member States should themselves decide whether their citizens live in summer or winter time. It is a question of subsidiarity.”
However, in reality the proposed directive gives member states little more than a stark and binary choice between permanent summertime or winter time all year round. According to the European Commission’s timetable, that choice must be made in 2019.
A reasoned opinion would signify that the House does not consider that the proposed EU legislation complies with the principle of subsidiarity, under which the EU should act only where there is clear added value and where similar benefits cannot be achieved by member states acting at a national, regional or local level. The reasoned opinion proposed by the European Scrutiny Committee is annexed to our report; should this Committee agree, the House will be asked formally to approve it so that it can be sent to the EU institutions by tomorrow’s deadline. The House of Lords agreed it on 24 October.
Why is there haste to legislate now? It may be partly due to the European Commission’s wish to respond to a resolution of the European Parliament in February that called for a review of the existing summertime arrangements, but also underlined the need to maintain a unified EU time regime, even after the end of biannual time changes. The Commission launched a public consultation in July that gave a choice between two options: preserving the status quo and requiring all member states to change their clocks at the same time, or abandoning seasonal time changes altogether. Some 4.6 million citizens responded, and a large majority—84%—indicated that they opposed the current system of changing the clocks twice a year.
The European Scrutiny Committee considers that the large majority is not as impressive as it may first appear. First, three member states—Germany, France and Austria —accounted for nearly 85% of the total responses, meaning that it can hardly be seen as genuinely representative or provide a sufficient evidence base for the views of all member states.
Secondly, the consultation presented only two possible options. The Commission did not seek views on a third option allowing each member state to decide for itself whether to keep seasonal time changes, and limiting EU action to co-ordinating the dates. The European Scrutiny Committee considers that member states are far better placed than the EU to weigh the impact of seasonal time changes on different regions and to determine where the overall national interest lies.
Finally, the European Commission accepts that the choice of time zone is a sovereign matter for each member state. That means that the proposed directive would not, and indeed cannot, remove all time differentials between member states. The European Scrutiny Committee cannot, therefore, see an internal market justification for the EU to remove the ability of individual member states, now or in the future, to apply seasonal time variations.
The United Kingdom will leave the European Union in March 2019, but the proposed directive matters because the United Kingdom may be under an obligation to implement EU laws that take effect during any transition period. For that reason, it is important that the House of Commons continues to make its voice heard while it still has the means and opportunity to do so.
With your indulgence, Mr McCabe, as this is likely to be the last ever reasoned opinion in the House of Commons, I place on record my thanks, and those of the European Scrutiny Committee, to the Clerks, the Clerk advisers and the whole Committee team, who advise Members with such skill, dedication and expertise. I urge Members to support this reasoned opinion.
I call the Minister to make the opening statement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole for explaining the reason for today’s debate. I also thank the European Scrutiny Committee for its report and for requesting a debate on the Commission’s proposal to discontinue the practice of daylight saving time. I am grateful to all members of the European Scrutiny Committee for their work. I was once on that Committee, so it is a pleasure to stand here as a Minister and be quizzed by Members.
I assure the Committee that the Government take these matters very seriously. Let me be clear: the UK Government have no plans to change daylight saving time, and Ministers are actively working to convince other member states to block the proposal. My colleague the right hon. Lord Henley was at the EU meeting in Graz in Austria recently to set out the concerns of the Government and the UK Parliament, of which there are many, and to work with other member states on the proposal. Portugal and Greece supported the Government’s position at the EU meeting in Austria, while a further five member states had not reached a conclusion.
On the background of the proposals, for some time several member states in the eastern part of the EU have been lobbying for the abolition of daylight saving time. In response to lobbying from those member states and increased interest from the European Parliament, the Commission agreed to review the summertime directive. That review included a public consultation, which took place in July and August this year. According to the Commission, the result sent a clear message: of the 4.6 million respondents, 84% no longer want the clocks to change. Yet, as is often the case with closer scrutiny, that one statistic does not reveal the full picture. Nearly 85% of respondents came from just three member states, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole highlighted. Despite that, President Juncker wasted no time in declaring in his “State of the Union” address that the clock changes must stop, and that the Commission would introduce proposals regarding the summertime directive.
Turning to the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, in areas of shared competence, such as that under discussion, the European Union can introduce proposals but must do so within the constraints established in article 5 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union—namely, that such European Union action must be both necessary and add value in a way that would not be better achieved by the member states. There is a crucial difference between the proposal under discussion and previous similar ones: although they sought to advance the harmonisation of time in line with the objectives of the treaties, this new proposal starts from an existing position of harmonisation.
In that context, any proposal seeking to make changes to the current arrangements should be supported by clear evidence of the benefit for the Union, member states and their citizens. Yet the Commission’s impact assessment provided absolutely no detail of the potential impact of the changes it proposed, beyond the summary of literature that already exists. In my view, that literature is inconclusive.
It may be reasonable to suggest that the work would be better carried out by the member states, but the Commission’s timetable is unworkable and would not allow member states to conduct those activities with the necessary rigour and depth. The Commission states in its own proposal that the current body of evidence is inconclusive on energy saving, overall health impacts and implications for road safety, and that technological advances in agriculture have largely offset the destructive effect of biannual time changes.
Providing a reasonable timeframe for member states to carry out a proper consultation and impact assessment would have gone some way to remedy the lack of evidence. However, under the current proposal, member states are expected to conclude the work and all the necessary domestic measures to implement the directive by 1 April 2019. On those points, the Government share the concerns of the European Scrutiny Committee. The European Commission has not presented a compelling case on the need to legislate on this subject in order to further advance the objectives of the treaty.
The Commission believes that the proposal does not go beyond what is necessary to continue to safeguard a properly functioning internal market as regards time arrangements, yet the existing directive already ensures harmonisation of time across the Union and the Commission does not demonstrate how the proposal would enhance that.
Let me conclude by reaffirming the Government’s position. We have no plans to change daylight saving time and we are working with other member states to oppose the proposal, because we believe the current system works for citizens in the UK. I again thank the European Scrutiny Committee for instigating this interesting discussion, and for the valuable points raised in the report.
We have until 5.37 for questions, although we do not have to take all that time. We do not want speeches or statements.
I am grateful to the Minister for the clarity she has given in her statement. As she knows, the United Kingdom had one of the lowest response rates to the consultation. Does she have any information on how many responses were submitted from the United Kingdom, and how much support there was for each of the options presented?
In her statement the Minister said that the Government have many concerns, but I did not pick up what they were. She mentioned some of the things that the Commission said, but could she spell out the Government’s concerns about the proposed change in time rather than the procedural stuff?
My statement clearly laid out the Government’s concerns. First, the proposed timeframe is not acceptable. Secondly, we are not proposing to change summertime. Thirdly, it should be for member states to make such decisions, but this directive starts from a position of harmonisation. Those are just some of the many concerns.
Currently we do not intend carry out a consultation. We are working with other member states to block the proposal. Obviously, we will respect the implementation of EU rules while we are still a member but at this moment in time we do not want to consult because we are fundamentally against the proposed clock changes.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his clarification. He raises an incredibly important point. One of the reasons that we are against the proposal is that we do not know what its impacts will be. The European Commission has not, as far as we are concerned, properly assessed them, and we have not been able to do so, either, in such a short timeframe. To implement this change in such a short timeframe would not be practical when we do not know the impact it would have across the country.
That is why we are having this debate. The United Kingdom is working with member states in the negotiations, and others have joined us in opposing the proposal. Some member states have yet to give their firm position on whether they will accept the proposal. Responsibility for the time zone is, of course, reserved to Great Britain. If we ever needed to change the clocks, we would, obviously, consult widely within the United Kingdom before making any decision.
The Minister says that the Government are working with other member states to block the proposal but, further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West, what will the plan of action be if they are not successful in doing so?
The Government’s course of action at the moment is to be successful—we are still hopeful that we will be able to block the proposal, thanks to what I have outlined in my statement—but if not, we would work with the devolved administrations and would consult widely. One of the reasons for our objection is the timeframe, which is very short, and other member states have said that other elements are completely unworkable. We have support from different member states and they share some of our concerns.
Does the Minister think that the provision in the Bill presented by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) in the last Parliament but one—that the clocks should go forward to Greenwich mean time plus one hour in the winter and to GMT plus two hours in the summer—would be a good idea, as that would reduce road traffic accidents and save lives? Does she think a similar proposal might be made in the future?
As hon. Members will know, during the second world war, we had GMT plus two hours at one point, before that changed in 1968 to 1971, and again in 1972. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point; many Members of Parliament and other bodies have suggested that a change in the time zone could have an impact on road safety. Currently, we are not consulting within the UK on whether to change the clocks; we are working with other EU member states to block the proposal, full stop.
It would help to understand what the Minister’s plans are to alert the public, should she be unsuccessful in blocking the proposal. Could she tell us a little bit about what work has been done? For example, there is a very real risk that if she is not successful, the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland could face different time zones across that border. What work has she done to alert people to that consequence, given the short timetable that she has set out?
First, it is not the timetable I have set out, but the European Commission’s timetable. Fundamentally, that is one of the reasons we object to the proposal, because we do not feel the timeframe is workable. That is obviously backed up by other member states. I have written to the devolved Administrations to get their position. Given the short timeframe, we need to work. It has been accepted by many that a delay of two years would be preferable for member states to do the necessary consultation to implement any potential new directive that comes from the European Union. At that time, once a decision is made, we will look to ensure that we communicate with people.
Following on from the initial question that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow asked, can the Minister spell out for us what the procedure is for this proposal being blocked, if the reasoned opinion is supported by the Committee today? How does that get support? Is it a system of majority voting, do we have a veto or is it another system? Can the Minister tell us how this would be allowed to go through or stopped, whichever is more likely, and give us a few scenarios?
Obviously, we at the stage where member states are debating the proposal and making their positions clear. What I have already outlined is that we are working with other member states to get the European Commission to change its proposals. At such time, there will be a position where all member states will either agree or disagree with the proposal.
The Minister says she has written to the devolved Administrations as the means by which she is alerting the public in Northern Ireland and Ireland about these issues. Obviously, the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland does not exist at the moment; this House has just passed legislation to give powers to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to issue guidance. Can the Minister tell us what guidance the Secretary of State has issued to the Northern Ireland civil servants on this matter?
On specific guidance, as I have already said, at this moment we have alerted devolved Administrations to this proposal. We are working to block the proposal and a decision on guidance has yet to be made. I have written to the devolved Administrations to ask for their opinions; I have not issued any guidance.
Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent about his preference on what the time changes should be, does the Minister agree that it should be up to this House to debate each of those proposals, and that that is the whole point of this reasoned opinion? It is not for the EU to dictate to us what our time arrangements should be; it is up to this House to debate them fully in due course. That is the whole point of issuing the reasoned opinion.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I agree that this House should decide whether we are to change our clocks. That is why the Government’s position is that, as it stands, we have no plans to change the clocks for summertime. That is why we are working with other member states to try to effectively block this proposal in the European Commission.
I am sorry to press the Minister further, but obviously there is no devolved Administration in Northern Ireland at this moment. She says she has written to the devolved Administrations, but when it comes to the question of a different time zone across the Irish and Northern Irish border, will she clarify who she has written to? Given that the Secretary of State can now issue guidance to civil servants in Northern Ireland about what to do, is the Minister confirming that that has not actually happened yet?
As I have said, there is not yet something to issue guidance on, because a decision has not yet been taken. With regard to the matter of time zones and Northern Ireland, the hon. Lady is quite right that there is no functioning Executive in Northern Ireland, but the time zone is actually a function for Great Britain; it is something that we have here in Westminster. I have written to the other devolved Administrations to ask their opinion; of course, any particular time difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland going forward would be something that we would be addressing as these talks progress. As I have told the hon. Lady categorically, I have issued no guidance to Northern Ireland.
First, I would say that it is rather an unfair question to ask me whether a clock change would save people’s lives. If the hon. Gentleman was able to provide me with evidence to suggest that that might be the case, it might alter my personal position. I highlight to him the fact that the Government’s position is clear: we are not looking to change the clocks as they stand at the moment.
Let me point out that we are not engaged in a debate at this stage. That comes later; we are still in questions to the Minister.
Given what the Minister has just told us, can she confirm whom she has written to in Northern Ireland, and when and how she intends to tell the people of Northern Ireland, given that there is not a devolved Administration at present to talk to, about the possibility of this happening?
I should just point out that we are not supposed to repeatedly ask the same question. I shall invite the Minister to respond, but I would ask hon. Members to bear in mind that we do not repeatedly put the same question.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his clarification. I still believe that his original question was slightly unfair, but as he will know I do engage, as the Minister with responsibility for consumer protection, with organisations concerned with accident prevention. I recently had a forum with those organisations; we are looking at ways in which we can protect consumers and the general public.
If there are no further questions, we will now move on to the debate on the motion.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this Committee considers that the draft Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on discontinuing seasonal changes of time and repealing Directive 2000/84/EC (European Union Document No. 12118/18 and Addendum 1) does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity for the reasons set out in Chapter 1 of the Forty-Second Report of the European Scrutiny Committee (HC 301-xli); and, in accordance with Article 6 of Protocol No. 2 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, instructs the Clerk of the House to forward this reasoned opinion to the Presidents of the European Institutions.—(Kelly Tolhurst.)
Well, what an interesting set of sub-questions. We made some progress and got answers in the end; I thank the Minister for that. I will offer just a few additional thoughts.
I was surprised that the Minister said that the Government had not carried out an impact assessment. I gently suggest that they might need to do so because, on the basis of her other answers, we do not appear to be in a position to stop the Commission issuing the directive if it decides to go ahead. That might be helpful to the whole country, whether on the island of Ireland or not.
Opposition Members were trying to be helpful with some of our questions. The questions my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent asked about the safety of putting the clocks forward and daylight saving time are actually part of the argument to the Commission. They make the point well that we have concerns about what the Commission is proposing. We were being helpful.
There are some health studies about this matter, and I hope that the Government will look into them. A Nobel prize was awarded to chronobiologists this year, and additional work will be carried out to indicate the health benefits or otherwise of changing the clocks—whether the clocks should change or not. I hope that the Government look at that. One issue is disruption to the circadian rhythm—did I pronounce that correctly? [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] Good; I got that one right. The issue is whether moving the clocks helps or not. What is the impact on the circadian rhythm and health? These are important points.
There are points about the impact on the economy. When we were initially looking at daylight saving time and double summer time, for example, we were in a different era. The importance of the agricultural sector in this country and the impact on agricultural workers were of a different nature, but we still have to consider that. We still have to consider the impact on postal workers, on children going to school and on commuters in the early mornings and whether there is an increase in the number of road traffic accidents when the clocks change. These are all important points that need to be taken on board.
We can start to look at evidence from those countries that have made the change that the Commission suggests. The one piece of evidence that my researcher was able to find relates to Iceland, which has been in a position of removing daylight saving time for some years now. Concerns were raised, in the one English language commentary we found on the matter, about the gap between solar and social time and teenagers dropping out. There is a whole other debate to be had on whether teenagers should go to school later in the day, but that is for another Committee on another occasion.
However, there are concerns about health and about the impact on workers. There is some evidence of small energy savings to be had, whichever way round we go.
The hon. Gentleman raises some interesting points about whether we should change the clocks and consider any safety aspects, as was suggested earlier, but this debate is about whether we should issue a reasoned opinion and whether we agree that it should be this House that determines that, or the EU. What is his position on that?
This debate is about those things, but it is interesting that the documents that we were given cover in some detail all the points that I have raised—without the background, it is very difficult to go forward. I was about to move on—the hon. Gentleman’s intervention was quite timely—to quote paragraph 1.16 of our papers, where his own Committee quotes the Commission, which
“acknowledges, ‘evidence is not conclusive as to whether the benefits of summer time arrangements outweigh the inconveniences linked to a biannual change of time’, leaving room to doubt that a fully harmonised approach is necessary.”
The reasoned opinion that we give back must be as strongly evidenced as possible, if we are to have as much influence as possible. In the absence of certainty of evidence that a change is a good thing, we want to be as strong as possible, along with our allies and partners across the European Union, in influencing the Commission’s final decision.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow was absolutely right to push as strongly as she did the points about what happens in Ireland. She might also have mentioned Gibraltar, of course. It would be very difficult to see differences on either side of those two land borders. These points should go back to the Commission in as strong a manner as possible.
We are due to leave the European Union on 29 March, as the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said—I know that he is very passionate that we do leave on that day. As things stand, we are leaving on 29 March. I hope that there will be a good deal, not the inadequate one being put forward by the Prime Minister—it has little to no support from anybody in her own Cabinet, let alone anywhere else—but we absolutely must not have no deal. If we do get a deal, there will be a transitional period. If this goes ahead, we will have to be ready for it, as with so many requirements coming from the European Union. I hope that the Government will do the work necessary to prepare us for that eventuality.
These questions were raised by the European Scrutiny Committee and are set out in paragraphs 1.19 and 1.20. The Minister is well aware of the concerns raised today. I hope that she will go away and ensure that the Government do that preparatory work and carry out their own impact assessment. Perhaps she will write to members of the Committee with her findings as soon as possible, so that the work we have done today is followed up as thoroughly as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. We are in the rare scenario of having a certain degree of consensus on a European matter, at least regarding the question of the reasoned opinion being submitted. That is largely because, as the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said at the start, this is actually a technical matter about where the decision-making power for this sort of thing should lie. I look forward to the day when an independent Scotland takes its place as a member of the European Union and is able to exercise its subsidiarity on the question of time zones.
That remains to be seen. We will take an independent, sovereign decision to become a member of the European Union. That is one of the definitions of an independent country these days; we can tell that a country is independent if it can choose whether to take part in an international body such as the European Union, the United Nations or Her Majesty’s Commonwealth.
This debate is not really about the merits of British summertime; it is about where the decision should lie. In general, our position is that daylight saving time is very important to the Scottish economy, particularly the rural economy. If it was to be abandoned, there would be an impact on crop yields, farmers’ working hours and children travelling to school. The hosts of radio talk shows would be most affected, as they get two bites at this cherry every year by getting people to phone in with their powerful and strongly held opinions on the matter—perhaps some of the hon. Members who have contributed today phone in as well. Everyone has an opinion, so nothing really changes, because no two will ever agree.
I support the points that have been made. Once we leave the European Union—if the United Kingdom finally leaves—there will be nothing to stop there being different time zones across the island of Ireland, because the United Kingdom will no longer be in a position to have the kind of influence that the Minister has been speaking about, to work with other member states to come to an agreement that this is not necessary. Once we are out, we will have no say in those discussions whatsoever. In between times, as the Labour spokesperson mentioned, we may or may not be going through some sort of transition period, and this may or may not impact on the whole of the United Kingdom or Northern Ireland—who absolutely knows? In many ways this demonstrates the utter mess that the Government have left us in. I therefore echo the calls made for clarity and consultation.
I note that the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said that this would be the last of these European Committees and submissions of reasoned opinions. I think that remains to be seen.
I thank all hon. Members for this interesting and important debate, and the European Scrutiny Committee for its report. I welcome the opportunity to discuss these proposals from the Commission and the Government’s position.
I will highlight a few of the issues raised by hon. Members. We are indeed leaving the European Union next year, as the hon. Member for Sefton Central was right to highlight. He is also absolutely right to request, if there were any proposals to change the times, that the Government carry out an impact assessment on energy, health, agriculture and road safety. The details would be available once the assessment was complete.
I am happy to update the European Scrutiny Committee on progress on this directive. The hon. Member for Walthamstow is absolutely right to raise the Northern Ireland issue, which the Government are taking into consideration; it would be very tricky and the Northern Irish people would not want to live in a different time zone from southern Ireland. We have to work through some of those issues, which is why we are keen to work with all member states to ensure that we can block the proposal.
The UK Government have no plans to change daylight saving time. The hon. Member for Glasgow North is right to raise the specific problems that the change would cause for the people of Scotland because of the daylight times there. Quite rightly, if the UK Government were ever in a position to make any changes, the Scottish people would be consulted. In this instance, we are acting as the United Kingdom and working with other member states to oppose the proposal. To recommend issuing a reasoned opinion is not a matter to be taken lightly. As hon. Members will be aware, the Lords EU Internal Market Sub-Committee conducted a subsidiarity assessment of the proposals, and many of its conclusions reflect the discussions that we have had today. It reinforces the assessment that by bringing forward the proposals in such a manner, the Commission has failed to act within the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.
Question put and agreed to.