Thursday 17 June 2021
Electoral Policy: Increasing Parliamentary Accountability
The public rightly expect effective and independent regulation of the electoral system. The Electoral Commission has a vital role to play in upholding the integrity of free and fair elections and public confidence in that integrity. As the independent regulatory body charged with such pivotal responsibilities, the Commission should be fully accountable to Parliament for the way it discharges its functions.
In recent years, some across the House have lost confidence in the work of the Commission and have questioned the adequacy of the existing accountability structures. We must reflect on the current structures charged with this important responsibility, enhance good practice and, where there is a need for change, be prepared to make it.
Parliamentary accountability on electoral policy
The Government are therefore announcing today that we will bring forward measures in the forthcoming Elections Bill to improve the Electoral Commission’s accountability arrangements through the introduction of a strategy and policy statement that sets out guidance and principles to which the Commission must give regard in exercising its functions. It is commonplace for the Government and Parliament to set a policy framework by which independent regulators should work.
The statement will be subject to parliamentary approval and will provide an opportunity for Parliament to articulate its expectations of the Commission and enable greater visibility and scrutiny of its work. The statement will be developed through a statutory consultation with key stakeholders, including the Electoral Commission. It is likely to include the following:
A statement of priorities for the Electoral Commission, rooted in priorities already set out in law, such as: providing clear and high-quality guidance for campaigners, setting and monitoring robust performance standards for returning officers and electoral registration officers, and effectively enforcing the rules on political finance and election spending.
Executive and legislative priorities during this Parliament in relation to elections, such as the content of the Elections Bill once passed.
Principles for the Electoral Commission, such as: impartiality, accountability, value for money, proportionality and consistency.
An illustrative example of a statement and policy statement for the Electoral Commission will be published during the passage of the Elections Bill to aid parliamentarians. We will also be engaging with the Parliamentary Parties Panel and other interested parties on how a draft statement might be framed.
Enhancing the remit of the Speaker’s Committee
The Speaker’s Committee, to which the Commission reports, is not currently able to hold the Electoral Commission to account for its performance and delivery of general objectives.
Therefore in addition to the strategy and policy statement, measures in the Elections Bill will expand the function and powers of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. These will include assessing the Commission’s performance against objectives set in the strategy and policy statement, and allowing Parliament to better scrutinise the work of the Commission.
Clarity on criminal prosecutions
The Government are clear that the proper place for criminal investigations and prosecutions relating to electoral law is with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (and the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland) who are experts in this domain.
In recent years, the Electoral Commission has sought to develop the capability to bring criminal offences before the courts. This has never been agreed by the Government or Parliament. Having the Electoral Commission step into this space would risk wasting public money as well as present potential conflicts of interest for a body responsible for providing advice and guidance on electoral law to initiate proceedings which might depend on the very advice that was given.
We will therefore maintain the status quo by providing clarity in law that the Electoral Commission should not bring criminal prosecutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This measure will not apply in Scotland where there is already a single prosecutorial body. We are committed instead to supporting the existing independent and impartial police forces, prosecution services and courts as necessary to enforce electoral regulation fairly and effectively.
Such reforms do not seek to interfere or inappropriately influence the investigative, operational or enforcement decisions of the Electoral Commission. These planned reforms predate any current inquiries, and stem from work initiated following (the then) Sir Eric Pickles’ independent review: “Securing the ballot: Report of Sir Eric Pickles’ review into electoral fraud”. The reforms would not in any way affect the ability of the Commission to undertake enforcement activity as it sees fit, but they will ensure greater accountability to Parliament on how the Electoral Commission discharges its wider functions.
This Government are taking forward a greater emphasis on the need to tackle and prevent electoral fraud, especially in light of the corruption that took place in Tower Hamlets in 2014, in light of the points made in the Pickles review. These measures also address the concerns and recommendations raised in the Pickles review on the role of the Electoral Commission and the current system of its oversight.
More broadly, the Committee on Standards in Public Life is undertaking a review into electoral regulation and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is doing an inquiry into the work of the commission. We will carefully consider any proposals from these Committees in due course.
We are committed to protecting our democracy and maintaining public confidence in our electoral system. The measures in the Elections Bill will ensure that our democracy remains secure, modern, transparent and fair.
Local Elections: EU Citizens Living in the UK
In June 2016, the British people voted to leave the European Union, and this Government were elected in December 2019 on a mandate to get Brexit done.
Now that the UK has left the EU, and with the ending of free movement and introduction of the new points-based immigration system in last year’s Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act, there should not be a continued, automatic right to vote and stand in local elections solely by virtue of being an EU citizen.
As I have previously explained to this House (for example, in response to PQ 66206 and PQ 175803 on 8 October 2018), the issue of local voting rights of EU citizens living in the UK needs to be considered alongside the rights and interests of British expatriates living abroad. This did not form part of the withdrawal agreement, as such matters are not within the competence of the European Union and local voting rights are a matter for individual member states. I noted how the Government intended to adopt reciprocal agreements with individual countries within the EU.
The Government propose that EU citizens who have been living in the UK prior to the end of the implementation period will maintain their local voting and candidacy rights in England and Northern Ireland, provided they retain lawful immigration status, which goes beyond our obligations in the withdrawal agreement. It also mirrors the stance taken on the EU settlement scheme, which protects the rights of EU citizens who were resident here by the end of the implementation period and provides them with the UK immigration status they need to continue to live, work and access benefits and services here. To 31 May 2021, over 5 million grants of status have been made under the scheme.
EU citizens, who have arrived since 1 January 2021, will move to a position whereby future local voting and candidacy rights are granted where there is an agreement with individual European Union member states to preserve these on a bilateral basis.
This will apply to local elections in England and Northern Ireland, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales. These measures also cover the polls in which EU citizens have been eligible to vote as part of the local franchise: local authority governance referendums, local council tax referendums, neighbourhood planning referendums and parish polls. Other local and devolved elections in Scotland and Wales are within the remit of the devolved Administrations.
The Government have already confirmed that resident EU citizens elected in the May 2021 local elections in England, and the police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales will be able to serve their full term, and this will also apply to those elected before 2021. An EU citizen elected before these measures come into force, and who otherwise remains eligible, will be able to serve their full term.
Citizens of the Republic of Ireland will not be affected by these changes, as the voting rights of Irish citizens in the UK long predate EU membership. The rights of qualifying Commonwealth citizens will also not be changed by these measures. As such, citizens of Malta and Cyprus—which are both EU member states and Commonwealth countries—will continue to hold voting and candidacy rights in local and national elections.
Voting and candidacy rights agreements
Local voting and candidacy rights for EU citizens who arrived in the UK after 31 December 2020 will therefore rest on the principle of a mutual grant of rights, through agreements with EU member states. We have already secured such agreements with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland.
The UK will continue to invite EU member states which are interested in entering into such agreements the opportunity to negotiate treaties.
These measures therefore ensure that British nationals living overseas in the EU benefit from the Government’s approach.
The Government intend to legislate to deliver this policy through the forthcoming Elections Bill. This approach will reflect the fact that we have left the European Union, reflect the settlement arrangements for existing EU citizens resident in the UK, and maximise opportunities for British nationals living overseas.
The Elections Bill will also enfranchise more British citizens living overseas by abolishing the “15 year rule”, supporting our vision for a truly global Britain.
The right to vote in parliamentary elections and choose the next UK Government is already rightly restricted to British citizens and those with the closest historic links to our country. Should any EU citizen wish to gain full rights to participate in local and national elections, they may apply for British citizenship, depending on their circumstances.
UK Infrastructure Bank
The UK Infrastructure Bank has begun operating in an interim form and is open for business.
The bank, owned and backed by the taxpayer, will support and enable private and public investment in infrastructure, with core objectives to help tackle climate change, particularly meeting our net zero emissions target by 2050, and to support regional and local economic growth. The Government and the bank have also set out the institution’s investment principles today which will guide how it delivers its objectives.
HM Treasury and the UK Infrastructure Bank have entered into a keep well agreement to ensure that the bank has sufficient funds to be able to meet its payment obligations in full as they fall due.
The UKIB will be headquartered in Leeds, and will operate across the whole of the UK, supporting projects in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Over the coming months, the bank will continue to build its capability and capacity as it establishes itself as an independent institution.
The Government are also publishing the bank’s initial framework document, which sets out the institution’s relationship to the Government.
A copy of the framework document, alongside an unexecuted copy of the “Keep Well Agreement”, which has information redacted on the basis that it contains either commercially sensitive or personal data, will be placed in the Library of the House.
Vulcan Site at Dounreay: Defueling and Fuel Management
On 25 March 2015, the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Sir Michael Fallon, made a statement about the findings of the Royal Navy nuclear reactor prototype review. At the time it was anticipated that defueling and fuel management activities would continue at the Vulcan naval reactor test establishment at Dounreay in Scotland until the end of 2022.
While I can confirm that the Ministry of Defence remains committed to the timely decommissioning of the Vulcan site, a recent review of the totality of fuel management activity has identified that the facilities used at Vulcan will now be required longer than originally planned. The Department will deliver its intent to remove fuel from the site as soon as is reasonably practicable and we will therefore pursue an effective balance of decommissioning delivery while meeting the need to support the extended scope of the operational work. It is not expected the decision to extend fuel management activity at the Vulcan site for up to three years will impact on the coherent approach being taken with the activity at the Dounreay civil site.
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Cancellation Compensation for Event Organisers in Phase Two of the Events Research Programme
This statement is being tabled for the benefit of all Members of this House to bring to their attention the departmental minute issued today that provides the House with an update to a previous notice of a series of small contingent liabilities created by my Department. This is in relation to a policy to compensate event organisers participating in phase two of the events research programme in the event of their cancellation if public health concerns were to give rise.
The update is to extend the policy to provide cancellation compensation in full (capped at £300,000) to any event organiser putting on events specifically for the events research programme in phase two, should a pilot event be cancelled due to public health reasons. Previously this was limited to events in Liverpool only. The following text therefore provides an update to the previous statement on this issue on 26 May 2021.
The world-leading events research programme ran its first phase of nine pilots (with some running multiple events) in April and May to inform decisions around the safe removal of social distancing at step four of the roadmap. A second phase of events will continue to build on existing evidence and collect additional data to inform organisers and consumers on the logistical and practical considerations of reopening events safely. The pilots cover a range of settings, venues, and activities so that findings will support the full reopening of similar settings across multiple sectors.
The Government will provide compensation on a discretionary basis to event organisers should a pilot event be cancelled due to public health reasons.
This compensation will be capped at £300,000 per event and will cover costs incurred in relation to participation in the programme only (e.g. admission of spectators), recognising the fact that these events would have taken place in line with roadmap restrictions should the programme not exist. For events that have been put on specifically as part of the programme (i.e. would not otherwise have gone ahead), the Government will compensate organisers in full should an event be cancelled, but this will also be capped at £300,000.
The Government do not intend to cancel any event in the programme, however public safety comes first and therefore it is prudent to provide this assurance to the organisers assisting the Government in reopening the economy.
A copy of the departmental minute will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
Health and Social Care
Making Vaccination a Condition of Deployment: Consultation Response
On 14 April, we informed the House of our intention to consult on a proposal to amend regulations to require care home providers, with at least one resident over the age of 65, to deploy only those workers who have received both doses of their covid-19 vaccination (or have a legitimate medical exemption from vaccination).
An extensive six-week consultation, addressing both whether this change should be made and how, has now been completed. We have seen a substantial level of engagement with the consultation with care home staff, providers, wider stakeholders, residents and their families, in addition to the general public, making their views known. We have received over 13,500 responses to the consultation. We are very grateful to all those that took part. These contributions have been comprehensively analysed and carefully considered, and I now wish to inform the House of the Government’s response.
The Social Care Working Group of the independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has advised that a vaccine uptake rate of 80% in staff and 90% in residents, in each individual care home setting, would be needed to provide a minimum level of protection against outbreaks of covid-19.
The current overall figure of 84% for staff uptake and 95% for residents masks significant variation at a regional, local and individual care home level. As of 13 June, only 65% of care homes, with residents over 65, in England, are currently meeting this dual threshold for the first dose, and the proportion is lower in London with only 44% reaching the dual threshold. And—while the SAGE working group advice is specifically about first doses—it should be noted that, for second doses, only 41% of homes are reaching this 80% to 90% level of coverage, with London having furthest to travel on only 23%. Therefore, there is a strong case for introducing a new requirement, in order to make these very high-risk environments as safe as possible from the devastating effects of covid-19.
While a majority of respondents to the consultation did not support the proposal, the responses from the adult social care sector were mixed, with some groups (e.g. care home providers) supporting the proposed legislative change while others (e.g. members of the adult social care workforce) were opposed. While some of those who receive care and their relatives have expressed caution about vaccination as a condition of deployment, many have told us that they want themselves (or their relative) to be cared for by someone who is fully vaccinated.
We see a clear public health rationale for driving vaccination uptake in care homes. It should also be noted that significant parts of the adult social care sector (providers and workforce) do support the proposal. It is our view that the combination of consultation responses and public health evidence provides a strong foundation on which to proceed with the policy. This is based upon minimising transmission of covid-19 and protecting residents in high-risk settings who are most vulnerable to severe illness and death as a result of contracting the virus.
We will be making three key changes to the proposals set out in the original consultation document. These changes are in response to views expressed in the consultation and are made with the intention to best protect all care home residents who are clinically vulnerable to covid-19.
Extend the scope of the policy to all CQC-registered care homes in England providing accommodation for persons who require nursing or personal care, not just care homes which have at least one person over the age of 65 living in their home. This will bring into scope care homes for working age adults.
Extend the condition of deployment to include all persons working in a care home, regardless of their role (excluding residents of the care home; friends and family of residents; those entering to assist with an emergency; those undertaking urgent maintenance work; and those under the age of 18). The condition will apply, for example, to healthcare professionals, hairdressers, tradespeople and CQC inspectors. The requirement will not apply to the outdoor surrounding grounds of care home premises.
The initial proposals set out that individuals would be exempt from the requirement if they have an allergy or condition that the Green Book lists (chapter 14a, page 16) as a reason not to administer a vaccine. We will additionally provide exemptions for those under the age of 18; those who are clinical trial participants; and, in exceptional circumstances, where a person has a medical reason not to be vaccinated. Guidance will give more detail about exemptions, which will reflect the Green Book on immunisation against infectious disease (covid-19: the Green Book, chapter 14a) and clinical advice from the Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
The Government’s intention is to bring an amendment to the Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) Regulations 2014 legislation to the House, at the earliest opportunity. If approved by Parliament, there will be a 16-week grace period from when the regulations are made to when they come into force, to enable staff who have not been vaccinated to take up the vaccine.
A copy of the Government’s response to the consultation will be deposited in the Libraries of both Houses.
Intention to launch a wider consultation
The responses to this consultation made a clear case for extending this policy beyond care homes to other settings where people vulnerable to covid-19 may also receive care.
We will therefore launch shortly a further public consultation on whether or not to make covid-19 vaccination a condition of deployment in healthcare and the wider social care sector, to help protect patients and the people they care for from becoming seriously ill or dying from the virus.
The consultation will also explore whether flu vaccination should be a condition of deployment in the health and social care sector. Flu is a serious illness for vulnerable cared-for people who may suffer serious complications from infection, including death. Outbreaks of flu in care settings are common most winters and it is important we explore this option to protect those at risk.
Medical Devices (Coronavirus Test Device Authorisations) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Testing will remain important to controlling and containing the virus going forward. We will need a reliable supply of high quality tests available to give people and businesses the confidence to go about their usual activities.
Consumers should have clear comparable information so they can cut through any confusion in a rapidly growing market for covid-19 tests and buy with confidence. People need to know the tests they buy will be as good as those they would receive through the NHS and that they can trust the results they get in order to manage their behaviour accordingly.
The statutory instrument we are laying today will establish a regulatory regime by which this Government will ensure all tests on the UK market meet minimum standards of sensitivity and specificity. The regulations allow us to build a framework to validate all antigen and molecular tests sold in the UK market to the same high standards established for Government-procured tests.
We will establish a clear process for manufacturers to get their test on to the market as quickly and easily as possible, giving consumers assurance of test accuracy. We have set in these regulations performance thresholds that will provide robust criteria for industry to meet when putting their tests on the UK market.
We will publish a register of tests that have passed their validation along with other appropriate information about them. This will be set in a clear and comparable way for each test. Consequently, test users may thereafter be in a position to make prudent choices when buying kits and individual consumers are empowered.
We intend for this regime to recover its costs primarily from manufacturers rather than be supported by taxpayers. This point was agreed by the majority of respondents, during a public consultation,. However, we are also conscious of concerns raised during the consultation that if fees are set too high, it could present a barrier to SME manufacturers entering the market. In response, we have included a discounted fee for such businesses so that they are not blocked from bringing new tests to market.
In order to balance the need to give industry reasonable time against the need to remedy market failure, the instrument includes a grace period to enable tests to continue to be supplied whilst they complete the validation process. This will mean any test already on the market will be able to remain so as long as their manufacturers adhere to the new requirements. They will have until 1 September to apply for the validation process. They will then have until 31 October to pass validation. A test that fails validation will need to be removed from the market.
We are confident this regulation is a proportionate and appropriate measure to ensure that all covid-19 tests available across the UK meet the standards this validation process will establish.
Protecting public health is my overriding concern. We have thus first and foremost considered what impacts potentially bringing a regulatory regime for validation of covid-19 tests will have on public health, as well as the safety of the tests themselves, their availability, and the likelihood of the UK being seen as a favourable place to carry out research on, develop and manufacture covid-19 tests. In all these regards we believe this regulation will have a positive impact on the quality, safety and supply of high quality covid-19 detection tests.
We will also place the draft of the guidance document for manufacturers in the Libraries of both Houses to support colleagues in their scrutiny of the statutory instrument. We will also lay before the debate the impact assessment to further support colleagues in their scrutiny function.
Manchester Arena Inquiry Report: Publication of Volume 1
Today the Manchester Arena inquiry has published volume 1 of its report, which has been laid before the House. The report can be found at www.manchesterarenainquiry.org.uk and on gov.uk. Further volumes of the report will be published at a later date.
This report relates in particular to its investigation into the Manchester Arena complex and security arrangements. I am grateful for the strength and courage of the victims’ families and the survivors, and the engagement of all those who have shared their experiences to ensure the inquiry can deliver its vital work.
Government will review this report and consider how to respond to its content in due course.
I would also like to thank Sir Jonathan Saunders for his ongoing work to uncover the lessons to be learned for the future from this tragic attack.