House of Lords
Thursday, 3 April 2014.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.
Payday Loans: Advertisements
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce the number of payday loan advertisements watched by children.
My Lords, payday loan adverts are subject to the Advertising Standards Authority’s strict rules. The ASA will not hesitate to ban irresponsible adverts. The Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice is currently considering the issue of payday loan advertising on children’s TV and the potential implications for ASA regulation. The Financial Conduct Authority has introduced new requirements on payday lenders, including mandatory risk warnings and signposts on debt advice in adverts. It can ban misleading adverts that breach its rules.
I thank the Minister for the reply. Daytime television, my Lords, is deluged with advertisements for payday loans, many of them including fluffy puppets, catchy jingles and smiley people. Children see these advertisements and, not surprisingly, when family money is tight, they pester their parents to take out these loans. I intend to table a Private Member’s Bill to ban all advertising of high-cost, short-term loans until after the watershed. Will the Government support me?
My Lords, I think it is right first to set out the scale of the problem. I am not doubting that there are issues, which is why the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice is looking explicitly at this matter. However, to set the issue in context, payday loan adverts in 2012 comprised 0.6% of TV ads seen by children aged four to 15, and, last year, all personal debt ads on children’s television amounted to 0.2% of total ad spend on children’s television. I am not saying that it is not an issue, but the number of ads being watched by children in this area is relatively modest—hardly more than one a week.
My Lords, payday loans are a form of grooming. So, to protect our children, should there not be an additional clause in the Advertising Standards Authority’s children’s code that refers to the scheduling of adverts that encourage potentially harmful lifestyle choices such as easy access to borrowing, including payday loans?
My Lords, that is exactly why the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice is looking at this issue. We expect to hear from it in the next few months and there may be consequences for the ASA code. I have some difficulties about the use of the word “grooming” in this context. It has come to have a specific meaning in relation to sexual exploitation, and, whatever the problems with payday loans—and there are very considerable problems—they are not of that degree of difficulty.
My Lords, the Minister has indicated that there has been a minor reduction over the past year, but the scale of payday loans is astonishing—and they are directed at children because that is a soft way to get at parents. Is this not something that we all ought to criticise and deplore, and on which we ought to expect authority to take action, because the only reason that daytime children’s television in particular is deluged with these loan advertisements is that it puts pressure on parents?
My Lords, this Government have taken very strong action in respect of payday loans by giving the FCA very considerable powers in this area, which it has started to exercise. It is a sign of the times that yesterday DFC, one of the country’s three biggest payday loan providers, issued a profit warning and surrendered to a takeover, citing the tougher new regulatory regime. The weather is changing for payday loans.
My Lords, I appreciate that this is slightly to one side of the Question, but can my noble friend tell me whether any work is being done to find out how many advertisements for easy ways of gambling away your money are seen by children?
My Lords, I do not have any specific response to that, except to say that the ASA is able to investigate any complaints about the effect of ads on particularly vulnerable groups, which potentially would include gamblers. Certainly, if you watch paid-for sport television, you get a very large number of ads for online betting, which I find distasteful—but, as with many things in life, there is an interesting argument to be had about the line between what is distasteful and what should be banned.
My Lords, it is a pity that the Minister has resorted to statistics to try to explain this away. All it needs is one of these very cleverly devised adverts to put pressure on children or to influence children to put pressure on their parents, who can ill afford to take out these loans. Will the Minister answer the question put by my noble friend Lord Mitchell: when he brings forward his Bill, will the Government give sympathetic consideration to supporting it?
My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, brings forward his Bill, the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice will have expressed a view on these loans. The Government will take very considerable account of what it says in forming their view about the noble Lord’s Bill.
My Lords, children do not watch only programmes that are designed for them; in some households they watch programmes all day. Can the Minister tell the House what percentage of advertising in general across the schedule is advertising for payday loans?
My Lords, I do not have that figure. I will write to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, is there not a case for looking at daytime advertising? On the one hand, you have ads that are encouraging people to take out loans at very high interest rates and on the other you have people being encouraged to go on gaming sites. With hindsight, was it not a great mistake for the previous Government to abandon the principle with respect to gambling and advertising that we should not take any measures that stimulate demand?
My Lords, it is a highly contentious issue and there are simply different views on it. As I said, personally I find those adverts distasteful, but that is not to say that I necessarily want to ban them all. One problem with a lot of adverts is that they encourage behaviour that might be thought to be irresponsible. There are a lot of ads on children’s TV for expensive toys and games that encourage children to say to their parents, “Can I have that toy and that game?”, which the parent cannot necessarily afford.
Prisons: Education and Training
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what impact prison staff cuts have had on the provision of education, job training and substance abuse programmes in Her Majesty’s prisons.
My Lords, staff reductions have been made as part of the benchmarking reforms of public sector prisons. Benchmarking is the best means of delivering value for money for the public purse. It either increases purposeful activity or sustains current levels, and refocuses work and job training to enhance prisoners’ employment prospects on release. The Prison Service works closely with commissioners of substance misuse services and education to optimise the provision of these services to meet prisoners’ needs.
I thank the noble Lord for that rather disappointing reply. Provision of and access to education and training are two key factors in any meaningful attempt to prevent reoffending. I cannot imagine that anyone responsible for the conduct of imprisonment could be happy about an Ofsted report which finds that, despite some prisons having state-of-the-art facilities:
“Training and education in prisons are very poor and are failing to support offenders into employment… In many prisons, training and education comes too far down the list of priorities for prison governors and other senior staff.”
Nor could anyone be happy about a London University Institute of Education survey which found that 62% of prison educators criticised the negative effect of payment by results on prisoners as learners, and on the overall quality of education. When prison educators are complaining and prison staff are speaking openly about the difficulties of getting prisoners to education due to cuts in staffing, I hope that Ministers are suitably concerned. Will the Minister please tell the House what steps are being taken to rectify the situation?
Many steps are being taken. Work is progressing on introducing a new mandatory assessment for all newly received prisoners by OLASS, the Offender Learning and Skills Service providers. This will ensure that all offenders receive a learning assessment focused on English and maths, rather than those who simply go on to learning. NOMS and its partners are working towards implementing better data about sharing arrangements. I should say that intensive maths and English courses are being piloted in prisons, based on a model adopted in the Army, particularly to address prisoners serving short sentences.
My Lords, the Minister just referred to purposeful activity for those who are in our prisons. I know of one women’s prison where this activity is filling sandwiches for Pret A Manger. Is this the kind of purposeful activity to which he refers?
Purposeful activity covers a number of different areas: work, training, education, PE and programmes designed to tackle the causes of prisoners’ offending. Quite a lot of the emphasis on purposeful activity is to try to allow prisoners to engage in activities where they will have some prospects of work outside, particularly in the catering business. With great respect to the noble Baroness, who I know has great knowledge of these issues, that is in fact not out of step with where they might be able to find employment afterwards.
My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister accept that prisons are overcrowded, and that controls and discipline are difficult to maintain? In fact, there has been an increase of 72% in calls on riot squads, and we have reached a high point in the level of deaths in custody. Under these circumstances, in order to ensure that prison’s objectives of education, training and jobs are not affected by cuts in government expenditure, would the Minister not agree that it is time for automatic inspections by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons?
Any violence or instability in prisons is clearly to be regretted. However, the noble Lord will be aware that assaults in prisons are at their lowest level since 2008, and the number of cases of escaping or absconding has reduced by more than 85% of what it was 10 years ago. I am afraid that I cannot accept that there are problems as a result of overcrowding. At the moment, although there is no room for complacency, matters are stable in the Prison Service.
My Lords, does the Minister recall the debate last Thursday in which it was mentioned that more than 5,000 IPP prisoners are being held in prison, two-thirds of whom are beyond their tariff, and that the main reason for this is the lack of training for rehabilitation? Given that this is costing more than £200 million a year, is it not penny wise, pound foolish to cut back on courses of that sort? Can the Minister give some assurance that these prisoners can have the hope of getting rehabilitation courses?
I well remember the debate and the prominent part which the noble Lord played in it. He will also recall the response that I gave him, which was that there was a considerable, co-ordinated effort to ensure that those IPP prisoners were enabled to engage in appropriate activities which would increase the likelihood of, although not guarantee, their release after hearing before the Parole Board. That is happening, and the Prison Service is well aware of the problem.
My Lords, on 1 April 24 years ago, if my recollection is correct, the British prison system was subject to a series of riots. A Conservative Home Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, asked me to make a report. Another Conservative Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, received that report and the House of Commons, with one exception, indicated that it accepted the recommendations, limited to 12, in that report. I am very pleased that a Government of whom the Conservatives are part have now focused on the importance of rehabilitation. Does the Minister agree that if you are going to have rehabilitation, it is very important, first, to control the numbers in prison and, secondly, to have the staff needed to cope with that number of prisons, for the reasons identified by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham?
The noble and learned Lord is referring to the Strangeways report. I entirely accept that rehabilitation should be a key part of prison. The noble and learned Lord will recall that the transforming rehabilitation reforms mean that those serving short sentences for the first time will now be able to obtain support after leaving prison and will be enabled by means of resettlement prisons to have some continuity in the support that they receive inside and outside. I accept his general observations. It is a matter very much to be borne in mind.
My Lords, whatever the Justice Secretary is now saying, is not the reality of the situation that his policy is preventing family and friends sending books to prisoners? Does not a state which treats its prisoners with gratuitous harshness and which seeks to suppress the life of the mind put itself and society to shame?
That is not strictly within the Question but entirely predictable. The Secretary of State has not banned books. Each prisoner is entitled to 12 books in their cell. The libraries in prisons are impressive. If the noble Lord would like to visit one of the prison libraries, that can be arranged with my department. It is a matter of great disappointment to the librarians that so many people have criticised the provision of books. What the Secretary of State is trying to do is prevent people sending in parcels that do not always contain books, or not exclusively books, to try to stem the real problem there is in prisons of drugs and other contraband, extremist literature and the like. We are not banning books.
Health and Safety Executive
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the findings of the triennial review of the Health and Safety Executive.
My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and in doing so draw attention to my interest in the register.
My Lords, Martin Temple’s triennial review of the HSE concluded that the functions performed by the Health and Safety Executive are required and that it should be retained as a non-departmental public body. He made recommendations concerning potential efficiencies and opportunities to raise income, and the Minister for Disabled People has asked the HSE to work on these. Other recommendations require further consideration, and we will respond more fully later in the year.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for what I take to be a positive reply. The Minister will be aware that the report refers to the “nearly universal praise” for the HSE, which it considers a reflection on its,
“impartiality … independence … professionalism and technical competence”.
What assurances can the Minister give that any requirement placed on the HSE to increase its commercial income will not impair those vital attributes, and what more can the Government do to promote the excellence of the HSE and the UK health and safety system?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question. I think that Martin Temple pointed out exactly that. He paid tribute to the work of the HSE, which it does day in, and day out, in maintaining safety standards. One reason why this country enjoys such high standards of health and safety in the workplace is because of the work of the HSE. It is of course necessary to ensure that its work is efficient and effective. For that reason, he suggested that the HSE focus its efforts on major hazard sites rather than those areas of relatively low risk. That is what it has been doing over the past couple of years.
My Lords, one of the recommendations in the report is to delink the need to prop up the budget and fines for intervention. We have been here before with speed cameras, where there was a suspicion that police forces were increasing their budgets by overuse of speed cameras. How will my noble friend learn lessons from that, and from the recommendation in the report that fines for intervention should not be linked to propping up the budget of the HSE? What steps will he take to implement that?
It is a good question. The point is that fines for intervention are where visits and inspections have taken place and problems have been found which have resulted in prosecution. In those circumstances, the view of the HSE and of the Government is that the taxpayer should not have to pick up the bill; the person who has not been fulfilling the obligation to implement the rules correctly should pay the price.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the Health and Safety Executive played a key role on the Olympic construction site. Our country should be very proud that not a single person died as a result of that building work. Following on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord German, the independent report states that the link between funding of the regulator and income from fines is a “dangerous model”. How will the Minister ensure that the HSE’s integrity and independence will be protected?
That is a very good point. I certainly endorse what the noble Baroness said about the Olympics. There were 46,000 people working on that site and to have not one fatality is exemplary. That gives me the opportunity to point out that that is one thing that the UK does extraordinarily well. Fatalities in the workplace are much lower in the UK, at 0.71 per 100,000 workers, compared to an equivalent rate of 0.81 in Germany, 1.57 in Italy and 2.49 elsewhere. That is an important record, showing that the HSE is working correctly with contractors in major projects, and this will ensure that that work continues in future.
My Lords, one question raised in discussion of the review was the desirability of increasing commercial income for the HSE. Notwithstanding the Government’s view of that, will the Minister take this opportunity to assure the House that they have no plans to privatise the HSE?
Yes, I can very quickly do that. There is absolutely no question of privatising the HSE, but Martin Temple, himself a businessman with a distinguished background in engineering and manufacturing, recognised that there were great opportunities, because the Health and Safety Executive is genuinely admired around the world. A lot of people are coming to look for good-will advice as to how to operate their systems, and I think it is absolutely right for the taxpayer that the HSE ought to be free to exploit those commercial opportunities to enable it to continue doing its excellent work around the UK.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
My Lords, the Government welcome this expert and comprehensive appraisal of climate change impacts. Unmitigated climate change poses a risk to natural ecosystems, human health, global food security and economic development. A combination of adaptation and mitigation will help to reduce the scale of the risk. Even under all those scenarios, some risk will remain. The report represents a consensus of 310 scientific experts.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Would she agree that the first way in which people are likely to experience climate change is through food—its shortage and its price? The report suggests that wheat yields over the next decade will go down by 2% and over two or three decades by 25%; fish stocks in tropical areas will be down by 40% to 60%. What intergovernmental institutions and organisations are in place to plan for this scenario? What role are the United Kingdom Government playing in that?
My Lords, the noble and right reverend Lord poses a number of serious issues that are facing us. As he is aware, the UK has a lead on many of these issues. We work very closely with our EU and international partners to ensure that all of us are signed up to trying to mitigate as much as we can the impact climate change will have on food, but—let us not be in any doubt—unless we bring forward processes, we will face huge difficulties in the future.
My Lords, this latest report clearly states that the impact of climate change by the latter years of the century is likely to be less than 2% of global income and will be small relative to other factors such as economic development. Given that the co-chair of that report, Chris Field, is on record as saying that the really big breakthrough in this report is the new idea of thinking about management of climate change, would my noble friend agree that the time has come to congratulate my noble friend Lord Lawson, who has been saying exactly this for eight years? I declare my energy interests as listed in the register.
I am extremely grateful for my noble friend’s intervention highlighting the great work my noble friend Lord Lawson does in this field. However, as the noble Viscount will accept, I may not always agree with both noble friends. The report highlights the great risk of not doing anything. Whether you are sceptical of climate change or not, what we cannot allow to happen is to do nothing. It is really important, when leading scientists have produced evidence, that we respect that evidence and ensure that we respond to what is being told to us.
My Lords, given that the noble Baroness recently replied to a debate on promoting a low-carbon economy, would she spell out the huge business opportunities that arise from promoting that low-carbon economy? What are the Government doing to help those opportunities arise?
The noble Lord is absolutely right. Of course, we have seen a real increase in the low-carbon sector; in the renewable sector itself we have seen since 2010 over £36 billion of investment come to the UK. It is a £3.2 trillion global marketplace out there, of which we have a fair share of £128 billion. There is much more to do. There are great opportunities. As last week showed, Siemens sees the UK as an ideal place for investment, by investing over £300 million in Hull.
How will the results of the intergovernmental panel affect the position that the Government and their European Union partners are developing for next year’s framework convention conference in Paris?
My Lords, my noble friend knows of course that we work very closely with our European partners. We will of course push those that are slightly slower in coming forward in reducing their carbon emissions to do much better. We all need very ambitious targets. I hope that the conference will see that.
Is the Minister aware of the number of organisations asking for a single voice, or person, in government whom they can approach about, for example, taxation on different fuels, which does not take into account the advantages and disadvantages in terms of their impact on climate change? That is a particularly important point and the Government could move on it. Will the Minister listen to those many organisations that want a place to go in government with a single message about what government can do to relate to their need to improve performance?
The noble Lord is of course right to raise that, but I assure him that climate change is embedded in thinking across all departments.
In that case, my Lords, perhaps it might be time for the noble Baroness to comment on the fact that we have a climate change sceptic leading our environment department. How can that be?
My Lords, that would be unfair, given that the coalition Government have signed up to ensuring that we have made the largest investment in the green sector during our tenure.
My Lords, en passant I express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Ridley. If I may say so, the Minister is quite mistaken in suggesting that the alternatives are either decarbonisation or doing nothing. The IPCC report says very clearly, first, that climate change is far less serious than other changes affecting the world at present and, secondly, that the most sensible response is adaptation, something that, as my noble friend said, I have been advocating for the past six years.
My Lords, if my noble friend had listened to my original Answer, he would have heard that it was about adaptation and mitigation. They both work hand in hand, rather than either/or.
My Lords, my noble friend expressed appreciation for the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Lawson. Would she like to take this opportunity to say how much we appreciate the enormously hard work undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and his committee?
Absolutely, my Lords. In this House we have experts from both sides of the argument, which is why it is crucial that when debates take place we hear and challenge both sides when we think that there is a challenge to be made.
My Lords, would it conceivably help if the Minister could persuade some of the deniers to go down to the West Country and the Levels to help with the dredging and digging?
My Lords, what we have witnessed is a severe weather event. What we need to do is to have mitigation systems in place to ensure that those local residents do not have to suffer again as they have done.
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Ketamine etc.) (Amendment) Order 2014
Motion to Approve
That the draft Order laid before the House on 5 March be approved.
Relevant documents: 24th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Considered in Grand Committee on 31 March.
Report (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 22nd, 23rd and 24th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee and 6th Report from the Constitution Committee.
That the Bill be now considered further on Report.
My Lords, before we consider this legislation, perhaps the noble Lord the Leader of the House or the government Chief Whip can explain why we are taking government legislation on a Thursday when we have been given four weeks for Easter and we will not be sitting for a week in which the House of Commons is sitting. Will she confirm that Prorogation will not take place until 21 May, as already announced, and not earlier as rumoured? This House is not here just to consider government legislation; it is here to debate the issues of the day and to hold the Government to account.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes—I will get the pronunciation of his name right in the end. I beg his pardon; as he knows, I have been very punctilious in persuading others of the difference between Faulks, Foulkes and Fookes. The noble Lord raises several questions. First of all, he has been a Member of the House for a very long while. He will therefore know that the Companion sets out very clearly that, from the end of January, Thursdays are used for government business.
So it is of course a time when the Thursday debates come to an end. I have been extremely generous, as the House knows, in giving up government time on Thursdays to have debates. We have had more debates this Session than in any other in living memory. That has been welcomed by this House. On this occasion, we have legislation today at the express request of the opposition Front Bench and it is to accommodate that request that I have enabled legislation today and ensured that there will be no legislation next Wednesday, when debates will take place.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, referred to Prorogation. He will also know that it is a long-standing practice in Parliament that the Prorogation date is not announced until government business has been secured. Therefore, I am afraid that I have to say gently to him that he is wrong to say that the Prorogation date has been announced by anyone—certainly not by me. I am always most cautious to keep to the conventions and the rules of this House. I ask the noble Lord to exercise his patience a little bit longer until I am able to give him accurate information.
My Lords, I do not wish to prolong this. Of course, the noble Baroness the Chief Whip is absolutely right about business on Thursdays—that is the norm and I completely accept that. However, there is some discontent on all Benches in this House about the fact that our recesses are prolonged this year, which does not enable this House to hold the Government to account as we would see fit. I do not wish to prolong this debate, but I feel it necessary to make that point because it is our duty as a legislative House to hold this Government and any other Government to account.
My Lords, the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition says that she does not want to extend the debate—that is a little ironic. I remind her that, as she is aware from discussions earlier this week, we were able to demonstrate that the number of weeks on recess has been consistent over the past three or four years. There is just one issue about the Scottish referendum, which is an unusual matter, and that has perhaps changed the timing. I do not have control over Easter or Whitsun. There is a perception perhaps held by some that there are more recesses than at other times. The figures simply do not bear that out. I suggest that the House is eager to progress with the work that it does well—the scrutiny of legislation—and I know that my noble friend Lord Taylor is keen that the House should address the matters of the Immigration Bill.
23: Before Clause 19, insert the following new Clause—
“Exemption to charges under Part 3
No restrictions on access to tenancies or charges for services under this Part shall apply to persons—(a) holding Tier 4 (General) visas sponsored by a recognised higher education institution, or(b) holding Tier 2 visas and registered in full-time undergraduate or postgraduate study at a recognised higher education institution.”
My Lords, this is the fourth occasion in recent weeks that the House has debated the cumulative negative impact that the Government’s immigration policy is already having, and is set in future to have, on the higher education sector, one of Britain’s most buoyant and valuable assets. Amendment 23 is designed to avoid that negative impact.
First, I will say a word or two about detail. I and my co-sponsors have not moved, as we did at the Committee stage, to exempt undergraduates and postgraduates from the streamlined appeals procedure. We listened to the arguments advanced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, in Committee and concluded that the arguments for and against the new procedures were sufficiently well balanced, so far as students were concerned, to justify reluctant acceptance. We have also removed from the scope of the carve-out proposed in our current amendment the issues of bank accounts and driving licences to meet the points raised in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach.
I shall say a word now—I hope a final word—about the ways statistics on migrants are compiled in this country and then submitted to the UN, an issue highlighted again this week by the publication of the extremely worrying figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England which demonstrated, yet again, that the optimism expressed by the Minister in previous debates was a bit wide of the mark. As the noble Lord said in his very welcome letter of 24 February, these statistics are already, since last year, disaggregated so that students can be distinguished from other migrants, even though the net migration figures are re-aggregated for the purposes of submission to the UN. However, we are not talking about the way in which the Office for National Statistics compiles statistics. We are talking about the public policy implications in our immigration policy for this category, which is already recognised, as I have said, as being distinct. On that, we are proposing an approach which has been vigorously promoted for several years by six Select Committees of both Houses.
I very much welcome what the report of the noble Lord, Lord Howell Guildford, on UK soft power had to say, which was identical to what was said by the other five committees which had already reported. This view has been supported by members of all three main parties and of none: quite simply, that we should remove full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students from the public policy impact of the UK’s immigration policy. That is what our main competitors—the US, Canada and Australia—are already doing. Doing that in the context of the Bill, as my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf made clear in the Committee stage debate, would send the most powerful message possible around the world that we want our higher education sector to be open to all who are qualified to benefit from it, without any new obstacles or disincentives being put in their way.
In moving the amendment, it would be less than fair if I were to fail to recognise and to welcome the substantial shifts in the provisions on student accommodation which the Minister introduced in the amendments he tabled last weekend and which are grouped on the Marshalled List together with this amendment. He wrote in detail about these proposals to a number of Members—in his letter of 27 March to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and in his letter of 1 April to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. His key phrase was:
“Where a landlord has proof that a tenant is a genuine student, we can allow landlords to rely on the checks that have already been performed”.
The letter continued:
“Private landlords do not have to conduct immigration status checks when the tenant is nominated by an educational institution”.
He has thus widened considerably the previous exemptions which covered private halls of residence, including houses and flats. His amendments sound more and more like a carve-out for the student accommodation aspects of the Bill and, as such, I welcome them.
When the Minister comes to contribute to the debate, however, I would like it if he could address three rather important points. First, can he confirm that these exemptions apply to all students: undergraduates, postgraduates and those studying for doctorates? Secondly, can he confirm that if an overseas student is furnished by a higher education institution with a certificate or nomination stating that he has a valid student visa and has been admitted to a course at the institution, then that will exempt the landlord from making checks and from any other provisions of the Bill with respect to student accommodation? Thirdly, I confess that I still find the use of the word “nominated” in Amendment 29 a trifle esoteric. I know that the noble Lord is a great supporter of plain English, so I hope that in his reply he will say in plain English that this in no sense involves higher education institutions in the contractual arrangements between the landlord and the student.
I am a bit less joyful about the NHS surcharge on overseas students. I cannot welcome anything there because the Government have not tabled any amendments in respect of them. It has been argued that the surcharge is modest and entirely fair, and it is true that it is lower than the health insurance charges that an overseas student would pay in the United States. However, that insurance charge in the United States is not imposed by the state and does not discriminate between US and overseas students. A US student would also have to pay for health insurance to cover their health charges while they are at university. Our proposed surcharge does both those things. It is imposed by the state and it discriminates between overseas students and domestic and EU students.
Moreover, there are potential anomalies. A student who came here as an undergraduate and progressed through a postgraduate degree, perhaps to a doctoral course—a not unusual progression—could end up paying more in surcharges for longer than a genuine economic migrant who came here to take a job and was given leave to remain. Does that make sense? Is it fair? Should there not be some kind of cut-off for a student on that kind of progression? This issue was discussed in detail and with great courtesy by the Minister at a meeting on 27 March. He pointed out that issues such as this could well be considered when the secondary legislation to give effect to the provisions of this Bill was being drawn up. I should be grateful if he could confirm that undertaking now.
The answers to my three questions on the accommodation issue will certainly influence my decision and the decision of the other co-sponsors of the amendment on whether to test the opinion of the House on it. I look forward with eager anticipation to the Minister’s response. I beg to move.
My Lords, as one of the co-sponsors of this amendment, I will add a few further thoughts to the ones so ably mentioned by my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. I completely bear him out that the history of higher education in this country for overseas students is one of the most remarkable success stories of any country in the world. For the past 20 or 30 years, we have maintained an astonishing magnetic appeal to young men and women coming from other countries, both within the European Union and far beyond it, to a greater extent than any other country in the world—although recently the United States has moved into first place in the league table of such countries.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, pointed out that, sadly, the United Kingdom has lost some momentum in attracting overseas students, and I will say a few words about that in a moment. First, I thank the Minister for the immense amount of work that he has done, his willingness to have meetings day after day and the huge amount of effort that he has put into them. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that nothing would give us greater pleasure than to receive a response that would enable us not to proceed further with this amendment. However, there are still substantial questions out there to be answered.
I will therefore begin by saying that one of the troubling aspects of this situation, which is a relatively new one, is that in the past couple of years the standing of the United Kingdom as regards its acceptability to overseas students has been quite substantially damaged. As an example I will give the House the benefit of what the National Union of Students said about the extent to which overseas students see us as a welcome and welcoming country. It conducted a substantial survey of some 18,000 people in early January of this year and found that 51% of undergraduates from overseas—just over half—said that they had not found the United Kingdom a welcoming place in which to study. In some ways even more troubling is that, among postgraduates who have a degree and are now staying in the country particularly with a view to working to fund the completion of their qualifications, the number was as high as 66%. Two-thirds of postgraduates who responded to the survey said that they had not found Britain a welcoming country in which to study. That is substantially different from figures in earlier surveys, which showed that the United Kingdom was rated very highly as regards the welcome it extended to overseas students.
I will add two other rather hard things. First, many billions of pounds—the estimate is about £3.5 billion—have come into this country as the result of payments made by students to universities for the studies that they have made. Perhaps at least as significant in that context is that the attitude of postgraduates to work-study arrangements that are made is increasingly negative. Our work-study arrangements are now less generous than those of other countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States. I will give a figure for that shortly, but before I do so I will add one crucial fact.
I was for three years of my life the Minister for Education and Science. One thing that is not sufficiently recognised in this country is the extraordinary contribution made by postgraduates and post-doctoral overseas students to the remarkable scientific achievements of this country. In many cases scientific teams are heavily dependent on attracting outstanding young men and women from abroad to take part in our research teams, primarily directed at science and medicine. I could give many examples, but I will give just a couple. The remarkable achievements in connection with graphene in the past couple of years, which led to no less than a Nobel Prize, were the outcome of the work of mixed teams of our own people and people from overseas, and that was a very remarkable achievement.
I can give another remarkable achievement, in this case from the University of East Anglia, where a former student who became a postgraduate and continued to work in the field of medicine established that at least one of the regularly prescribed pharmaceutical products designed to deal with diabetes was in fact the source of more frequent heart attacks among diabetes patients than among people of the same age group. That gentleman made a huge contribution by revealing this in detailed scientific papers, as a result of which that particular pharmaceutical product has now been withdrawn and the effect it had on heart attacks among diabetic patients has ceased.
A third example is the remarkable building up of a huge history of China by a mixed team of people, in this case in the humanities, which shows in detail the way in which China has developed, the sources of its growth and the sources of its political difficulties right up to the present time. I will not go on, but any Member of this House who wants more detailed information will find an extensive list of the achievements by postgraduates from overseas, together with British graduates and post-doctoral students, which shows how important that group is.
I will say right away, therefore, along with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that we are very pleased that the Minister has addressed the very difficult question of landlords and tenancies and the question of accommodation. I share with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, gratitude for the steps that the Minister has taken, which have been achieved with a great deal of hard work, innovation and determination to get an answer. We are truly grateful for that and, like the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I hope that he will be able to confirm this morning that there has been an adequate extension of the plan for undergraduates to postgraduate and post-doctoral students.
However, there are two real problems that must be mentioned. The first is the quite dramatic decline in the number of postgraduates who have managed to get the so-called extension for postgraduate work. This, incidentally, is the source of much of the research I have referred to. You need to go beyond your postgraduate degree—to work in the field—to realise some of its potential. The gap has been quite troubling. In 2011, 46,875 postgraduates managed to get agreement to an extension of a work visa to enable them to put into practice what they had learnt theoretically. In 2012, the figure was 36,505: a drop of more than one-fifth in one year. Will the Minister say something about the effects of the rather more relaxed attitude this year and last towards work-study visas, compared to 2012? The work extension principle is crucial across the piece, not just in science and medicine, for some of the most outstanding young men and women postgraduates in the world.
Secondly, I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about the health position. We accept that the £150 which has to be paid on the visa for health coverage in the United Kingdom is not unreasonable, and this view is probably shared across your Lordships’ House. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, it becomes unreasonable for a postgraduate who may be studying for four or five years and, perhaps, doing work study for another two or three, who may bring a spouse and a number of children. That makes the health surcharge terribly hard to manage and pay for. It would be unreasonable to suggest it should be withdrawn, but we ask the Minister to look at two possible ways to deal with the issue. One would be to exclude children under 16, who are normally excluded from paying NHS charges for medical attention. The second, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, would be a cap on the amount that a young person working in research and academic teaching would be expected to pay year after year until such time as he was accepted as resident in this country.
I turn to two other issues. First, there is real difficulty with our visa system. I recognise that the Home Office is making an effort to improve the efficiency of visa handling and processing. However, as most people will recognise, there is much evidence from universities of sudden decisions taken to remove, refuse or delay a visa. That has seriously affected our ability to attract overseas students. In one year, Australia changed the whole of its processing of visas to make them much more rapid and efficient. As a result, it leapt up the table of preferred destinations from fairly low down to near the top. Canada had the same experience and is now the second most favoured destination after the United States.
I conclude with a point that I know the Minister is sympathetic to, as he has expressed this to us. In order to recognise that we have a change in attitude to bring about on the part of overseas students, we have to be perceived differently. It may be fair or unfair, but I have read the figures which show we are not perceived as a particularly welcoming country. The Government and the universities need to work closely together to convey a message that overseas students who are legal, good citizens and who contribute to universities are very welcome to enter the country. They need to make it clear to these students that, as long as they have the right attitude to their studies, work and their fellow citizens, they are extremely welcome because this is one of our greatest contributions to the world.
My Lords, as a co-sponsor of this amendment, I too add my support to the pleas made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. There is no need at this point to further persuade the House of the enormous benefits that international students attending our universities bring to their universities, their local areas and the country at large. To focus minds, I will present one fact: it was announced today in a report by Universities UK that the total economic contribution to the UK made by higher education exports in 2011-12 was £10.71 billion. To put that in perspective, the House of Commons Library estimated the economic contribution of the entire motor vehicle manufacturing industry at £10.4 billion. That is the scale of the industry we are discussing today.
I think that the Minister and the Government accept that analysis and generally want to encourage students from across the world to study here, which is to be welcomed. But the Government need to be particularly careful that these welcoming messages are not undermined by changes to the visa system that could be perceived as being unwelcoming towards international students. The survey conducted by the NUS, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, highlights some worrying trends about the way the immigration system is perceived by the very people the Government want to attract.
Some of the measures in Part 3 have the potential to add to that perception. That is why I and other noble Lords tabled our amendment to remove students from these measures and to send a clear signal to current and potential students that they are welcome in the UK. While the Government are introducing new barriers to potential international students, reassurances overseas that the UK is open for business may ring a little hollow.
I have talked of perception and presentation because these are very real concerns when it comes to attracting international students and staff to the UK. However, there are a number of more practical concerns about the impact these measures could have on both students and staff. I want to follow on from the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, in introducing the amendment, all of which I support. Since this amendment was debated in Committee, the Minister has gone out of his way to provide detail on some of the measures in this part of the Bill, so I hope he will forgive me if I ask him to repeat and clarify some of these points now.
First, on the checks that landlords will be required to carry out before offering tenancy agreements, we should remember that many students coming to the UK will be moving out of their parents’ home, let alone their own country, for the first time. Assuming that the Minister’s Amendments 26 to 29 are accepted, many international students will live in accommodation that is exempted from the Bill, which is helpful. I am glad that the Government agree that the previous exemption failed to capture many students.
However, some students and, of course, the vast majority of international staff will still be moving into property in the private rental sector which is not exempted by the Bill. It is essential that students are able to secure accommodation in good time before their arrival in the UK. Similarly, academic staff at universities will want to make sure that they and their families have a roof over their head before they move here.
Tier 4 student visas can be applied for only a maximum of three months before the date of travel, so they are often received very close to the date that the student arrives in the UK. Students must be able to make at least conditional arrangements before they receive their visas. Will the Minister clarify that it will be legal and proper for landlords to enter into conditional arrangements with potential tenants who do not at the time of entering into that conditional agreement have a relevant visa and that this will be clearly communicated in any official guidance issued?
Secondly, only those without settlement rights will have to pay the NHS surcharge. Time spent on a tier 4 student visa does not count towards residency requirements for settlement rights. As other noble Lords have said, the Bill could result in the deeply iniquitous situation that an economic migrant who is later granted settlement may have to pay the charge for five years but a student who finds work and stays on here may have to pay for far longer—as long as 12 years in a row—if they studied at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.
With the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I ask: will the Minister commit to addressing this unfairness when the secondary legislation is drafted? It is easily fixable by, say, limiting to five the number of years for which a person would have to pay the charge. There is provision in the Bill to at least have these charges applied fairly. Will the Minister commit to doing so?
I cannot end without supporting the plea of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, on behalf of postgraduate students. Those with a family are going to be hit really hard by the health charges. One has only to think of the number of our postgraduate courses that survive only because of the number of international students that we are able to attract to see the dangers if large numbers should fall.
I remain concerned that this Bill is part of a wider trend of immigration policy that could mean that the UK fails to capitalise on the extraordinary potential of its higher education sector. Even if the Minister is unable to commit to reversing this trend this afternoon, I hope that he will address at least some of the practical issues that I have highlighted today.
My Lords, I listened with great interest to the debate on this amendment in Committee on 10 March. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for all of it, although I read it carefully in Hansard, and so was not able to take part, but I would like to make a brief contribution today.
Winding up for the Opposition on that occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara—that demon of the squash court, as he keeps saying—had some fun at the expense of my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, when he said:
“I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, on putting his head above the parapet. Although I think he picked up some of the arguments, I did not think his heart was entirely in it”.—[Official Report, 10/3/14; cols. 1607-08.]
I intend to put my head above the parapet this afternoon, and I have to say that my heart is entirely in it.
Overseas students make an exceptionally valuable contribution that enriches our university life, but as I shall explain, I have concerns about scale, about leakage at the end of courses, and various consequent impacts on our settled population. Further, I think the extent of the beneficial impacts, adduced by various briefings we have had, are somewhat overstated.
I begin by following my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby in talking about the briefings we have had, some of which have been quite cataclysmic in tone. They suffer, in certain instances, from mixing absolute numbers and percentages. It is perfectly possible to have an increasing absolute number and a declining percentage. Indeed, if one looks at market share, as some of the briefings do, it is almost certain that the UK will have a declining market share in an era when global university education is rising rapidly in parallel with people in the UK wanting to study overseas. In addition, as the UK has a historically high level of overseas students and a relatively small population in world terms, our market share is almost certainly bound to be declining.
More importantly, there have been attempts, in my view, to ascribe all the changes in student numbers to the proposals that we are discussing in this Bill. This is fanciful. There is a host of other reasons that influence people’s decisions on where to study—of those, notably, cost. Indeed, there was an article in the Times yesterday with a headline that suggested changes in the system were deterring students, but when you got into the meat of the article it was actually about cost. The piece mentioned cost only in sterling or Euro terms, failing to take into account the other great part of the cost—changes in the exchange rate. A year ago $1.50 bought you £1; today you need $1.66, so if you are a dollar-based student you are facing an increase of 10% in the costs of studying here in the UK. As regards India, which is an even more important market, as many noble Lords have said, a year ago 83 rupees bought you £1; today you need 100—a 20% increase in costs to a student from India.
Having thus far been somewhat disobliging to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and his supporters on this proposal, I support them strongly in one respect: that is, their request that student numbers be broken out of general migration statistics in the way to which the noble Lord referred. Wherever one stands on this issue, clarity and transparency can only help our debate, so I express the fervent hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench has managed to persuade the Home Office of the wisdom of the noble Lord’s approach. I was a member of the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on soft power, and students are undoubtedly a specialist category. We really need to show them separately to make sure that we are all arguing from the same place on the hymn sheet.
In debate in Committee, I discerned two major philosophical themes attacking the Government’s position. The first is that it is in our national economic interest not to limit—but to maximise, some might say—the number of foreign students. It is certainly true that in the short term, the fees that foreign students pay help the universities. The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, referred to this. The money that those students spend on living expenses also help the local communities in which they exist, although one could argue about whether students are big spenders. There are also costs to the state and the community, which are in part the reason for the Government’s amendments and the discussions we are having today.
However, this argument goes further and claims a long-term economic benefit because of the cultural and other links established at university. In my view, this argument is, at best, not proven. Let us take the case of India, a country which has featured much in our debate and from which we have had many students over many years. It is a country with long historical links to the United Kingdom: accordingly, it is one which would be expected to have the best long-term economic dividend for us. Yet if you examine Indian import statistics when broken down by country for 2011-12—having looked at the numbers, that is not an unusual year—you will find that China’s imports are the largest at 12%, followed by some Gulf states at about 8%, which was probably oil, the USA at 5.2%, Switzerland at 4.6%, Germany at 3% and the United Kingdom at 1.6%. So we are exporting about a third of what the United States does and about half of what Germany does.
I therefore find myself forced to the conclusion that the issue of creating long-term economic advantage by bringing students here may well be yesterday’s argument. In a global world, having studied at a UK university may help at the margin but people buy goods and services that are competitively priced, delivered on time, perform well and are properly resourced as regards after-sales service.
That was the first plank of the argument against the Government but the second has an altogether loftier aim: that we have a duty to export our values to the world. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, made that point very fairly in his speech in Committee about the importance of the rule of law, and he is of course absolutely right. Development experts tell us that property rights and the rule of law are essential preconditions for a country’s development. However, that lofty and indeed worthwhile aim can be achieved only if the students who come here return to their country of origin. We know that there is leakage. How much leakage there is, we do not know precisely and will not know until our e-border system is up and running but my noble friend on the Front Bench pointed out, again in Committee, that in 2013, of the 124,000 non-EU students who came to this country, only 49,000 left it.
Some noble Lords, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, make the point that it is entirely right and fair that this country should cream off the brightest and best students from non-EU countries. I ask those noble Lords just to bear in mind the potential drawbacks to that approach. In an increasingly interconnected world, we all have an interest in global stability. Stable societies emerge because of leadership in government, law, medicine, engineering and so on. If we encourage such potential leaders to come and study here, and then stay here, there may be some economic benefit to us as a country in the short term but there may be long-term political disbenefit.
Finally, I ask those who argue this to consider the impact of increased numbers of foreign students on our settled population. I quote from a Higher Education Commission inquiry into postgraduate education, on which my noble friends Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Boswell of Aynho served. It said:
“Much of the recent increase in postgraduate student numbers is due to rising numbers of international students. Postgraduate enrolments have increased by more than 200% since 1999, compared to an increase of just 18% for home and EU students. The Commission is concerned that this increase masks stagnation in the qualification and skill level of the home-domiciled population. We need an emphasis on up-skilling the UK population, ensuring that British students are able to compete in the global labour market”.
I conclude by saying that of course we should attract international students to study here, but we need to do that with realistic aims in mind.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way, but I wonder whether he does not find it a trifle ironical that he is speaking from the Benches of a Government who have exhorted the country, correctly in my view, to succeed in what is called the global race, and above all to maximise the industries and services that we produce best. He has developed an extremely elaborate argument for saying that we must embrace declinism in the higher education sector and we must accept that it is not in our interest to go on growing this potentially extremely valuable resource. Is it not a bit contrary to government policy that one industry in this country should be treated as something that can be tripped up and hampered at every stage while all the others are being encouraged to develop?
I obviously have not made myself clear. I hope that I have made it clear that I am not attacking foreign students because I think that they have an important role to play. I said that, first, the Government’s proposals are not the key determinant of why people come to study here. The key determinant is the overall cost and, in particular, the cost in the currency of the country of origin of the student in question. Secondly, I question—I do not know—that the long-term economic benefits which have been adduced to having students here are not as great as they might be.
The noble Lord has talked about costs. Does he not agree that one of the great advantages of having overseas students in this country is the fact that they bring down the costs for internal students reading medicine and engineering in particular? Otherwise, our universities would have to charge them much more.
The noble Lord is right, but if what UK universities are saying is that they want to bring foreign students here to subsidise our university education system, that would be a clearer argument than the rather lofty arguments we hear that our duty is to do this because of our benefit to the world and because it is actually to our long-term advantage. If the noble Lord is saying that it is really all about money in the short term, fine—let us say that and be clear about it. I understand that as an argument and I am perfectly happy to accept its value.
Perhaps I may conclude. I repeat again for the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that we should attract students to study here, but we need to do so with realistic aims in mind. In our very proper wish to do right by the world, we should not overlook the needs and indeed the rights of our settled population. That is why in my view the Government are right to take these measured steps. They are steps that I believe, and which the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, have acknowledged, have become more measured as the Government have responded to comments and criticisms as laid out in my noble friend’s letters of 12 March and 1 April. That is why I will be supporting the Government if the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, decides to test the opinion of the House on this amendment.
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, will not feel that he has to test the opinion of the House, but I can imagine that he has been to some degree sorely provoked to do so by the remarks of my noble friend. That is because there did seem to be an inherent contradiction in them. On the one hand he protests—I do not doubt his integrity for half a second—that he wishes to see foreign students come here in great numbers, while on the other he seems to be arguing that we should not push it too far.
I do not want to repeat what I said in Committee when I supported the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, but I will briefly refer to one thing that I touched on then. I have the honour of being a member of the senior common room at St Antony’s College, Oxford. As I told noble Lords last time, we have students from 73 countries there at the moment. It is an extraordinarily important centre for postgraduate education—not just in Oxford, not just in England, but in Europe and, indeed, the world. From all over the world students come. In common with students at other colleges and universities, many of them go back and play leading roles in their countries. Some stay and play leading roles in ours. Where would we be in medical science and many other disciplines if some of them had not stayed? I hate to think how many consultants there would be in some of our hospitals—excellent consultants—if it were not for the fact that foreign students had come here, been taught—no doubt inspirationally—by people such as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and had stayed. We are protecting ourselves, as well as our image as a nation, if we encourage without inhibition and without qualification.
I was very taken by what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, both in Committee and today, and by what my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby said. However, I have also been extremely impressed by the diligent interest that my noble friend Lord Taylor has taken in these matters. He clearly listened carefully to the arguments advanced in Committee and has tabled a number of amendments today that will go a fair way towards meeting many of the concerns that were expressed in Committee. I thank him for that, and for the infinite patience and trouble that he has taken in talking to me and others, and in trying to recognise where we are coming from.
A word that cropped up many times in our first debate was “perception”, and it has been touched on again today. How are we perceived? Where I take slight issue, not with my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby but with the National Union of Students’ report from which she quoted, is that my anecdotal evidence from St Antony’s, Hull, Lincoln and other universities with which I have a connection would not bear that out. Most of the foreign students to whom I have talked have always said that they feel extremely welcome here—and proud to be here. They are anxious to stay to complete their studies, and most of them are anxious to return to play a leading part in their countries or localities when they go back. The National Union of Students’ statistics, which of course I am not in a position to challenge, clearly depend upon the questions that were asked. I just wonder what questions were asked.
However, I am concerned not with the past or the present so much as the future. It is clear from the article from which my noble friend Lord Hodgson quoted, and from other reports in recent months, that there is a falling off in the number of students coming from certain countries. Of course my noble friend Lord Hodgson is entirely right to say that there are a variety of causes and reasons for this. Of course he is right to say that cost is a factor, but it is not by any means the only factor. What we have to be absolutely sure of is that students coming, or contemplating coming, from other countries still keep the United Kingdom very much at the top of their wish list. From talking to Professor Margaret MacMillan, the Warden of St Antony’s, who herself is a distinguished Canadian historian, it is clear that Canada and the USA are more attractive to many students who would hitherto have put the United Kingdom at the top of their list. I am concerned about that.
I very much hope that when the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament, as of course it will, we will have been able to inject amendments into it that will make it very clear that, in seeking to tighten up our immigration policy, we are not in any way setting our face against students. The Prime Minister himself has said on many occasions that foreign students are welcome here without any cap on numbers. I welcome that. I am sure there is not a single Member of your Lordships’ House who does not welcome that. But it is important that we prove that that is what we mean by the contents of the legislation that we pass.
I look forward very much to what my noble friend the Minister will say when he replies. I hope and believe that he will be able to give the sort of assurances that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, sought in his speech. I hope that the House will be united in backing his amendment, secure in the knowledge that, supplemented by future regulations, the situation will be as we would wish it to be: namely, that any potential student, be he or she in India, any part of the African continent or anywhere else for that matter, will feel that not only are the doors indeed open but that the “Welcome” sign is above them.
My Lords, in support of the excellent and measured speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and of the other signatories to this amendment, I offer not a speech but a quotation. It runs as follows:
“One of the biggest categories of ‘immigrants’ is overseas students—176,000 last year, over a third of the total. They are not immigrants but they are defined as such because they are here for more than a year … There has recently been a crackdown on the undoubted abuse of visas by some private colleges but the consequence of tightening the rules has been to drive away bona fide students, especially from India, to the US, Canada and Australia. Universities, and Britain, are poorer as a result”.
These are the words of the member of the Cabinet who runs the department that is responsible for universities: Vince Cable. They are not private; they were in the Evening Standard about two weeks ago. I quote them not to make mischief for the coalition Government, because I believe that the country has benefited from the strength of coalition government, but to say that here at the heart of government, the individual responsible for universities and their impact on this country is clearly at odds with what is happening in legislation today. I think that he is right and that his words bear repeating, which is why I happily support the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and his colleagues.
My Lords, I am particularly pleased to follow a reference to my right honourable friend Vince Cable, who has been very energetic in spelling out the value, if I can put it this way, as an import and as an export, of overseas students. I have been worried, and have said so publicly, about the use of the phrase “the brightest and the best” in immigration policy, but I have to say that I did not read my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby as wanting to cream off the brightest and the best; I do not think that was where she was going.
As has been said, we have a very good story to tell. We are curiously inept in some parts of the system at telling it. The word “perception” has been used, rightly, by a number of noble Lords. We should not get stuck on the overall immigration numbers without disaggregation, but I do not want to repeat all the arguments that I and other noble Lords have made.
I have just a couple of comments on this. I doubt that many people, even in this building, know that the Budget added to the funding of the Education is GREAT campaign, which seeks to attract international students to the UK, and that the number of Chevening scholarships supporting students from developing countries who come here to study is being tripled. I will let those two facts speak for themselves, and I hope they will add a little to the perception.
On tenancies I am very much with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and others. I want to make use of this Report stage to come back to some rather focused questions on those amendments.
As I understand it, the health levy or surcharge really is an integral part of the Bill. As the Minister will remind us, in absolute terms it is competitive, and I say that it is very good value insurance. Some anomalies and issues need to be followed up, and others have drawn attention to these. I am reassured by the fact that secondary legislation will, I hope, deal with the detail.
I welcome the student tenancy amendments which my noble friend the Minister proposes but, if I may, I will seek a little more assurance. I was concerned about the numbers and types of properties that students use as accommodation. Given the time, I will try to summarise on the hoof the understanding I have gained from Universities UK. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me. It is important to say that about a quarter of international students are likely to still be living in accommodation which is not within the categories specifically defined so far. The Minister has been very generous with his time in meetings and in correspondence, and he foreshadowed the amendment to the halls of residence test at the previous stage. I would have liked to have seen an exemption which focused on the people—the students—rather than on the property.
I am concerned about the term “nominated”, as are other noble Lords. I hope that my noble friend might be able to say that, although this term is used rather differently in other contexts, here it really amounts to “accredited”. I am sure that the Minister will spell out in his reply that there will be guidance, and there will be consultation on the guidance. Perhaps he might also state that, as well as the accommodation owned by a relevant institution, the halls of residence and the nomination for what we might understand to be a private tenancy, where a landlord is approached by a student and none of those three situations is in place, the landlord can in effect obtain the nomination from the university and come within that exemption.
I, too, am concerned about postgraduates and doctoral students, and I looked at the definitions brought into the Bill from the Local Government Finance Act 2012. I hope that my noble friend will be able to confirm that postgraduates and doctoral students fall within the definitions in that legislation. I hope he may also be able to set out the balance between studying and teaching within the work done by, let us say, a postgraduate student, many of whom also teach, that the Government will expect to see in order for the exemption to apply. I assume that research is regarded as study.
I hope—well, I assume—that the relevant orders following from the Bill will be made by the Home Secretary, because many Secretaries of State come within this whole picture. I have probably taken enough time, and the Minister is aware of my concerns. He looked slightly puzzled at my last comment, but I was thinking of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who makes the order about who is a student. It is a bit of a jigsaw.
My Lords, I sense that the House wishes to come to a decision, so I shall be extremely brief in making a couple of points. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is always so reassuring and we think that he is going to bridge the gap which exists between the proponents of the amendment and the Government, but I fear that this is not the case. This is a serious disagreement.
I shall speak mainly about higher educational institutions in the widest sense. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said that she was concerned about the welcome that we are giving to students—the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, reiterated that. We used to talk about a climate of disbelief in the Home Office a few years ago; now, I think that there is a climate of frustration, interference with and even prejudice against what I might call the lower order of colleges of education and those which are capable of offering places to bogus students, who have rightly to be returned. I am very concerned about the climate in this society that we have.
That gives me, however, an opportunity to say that the Home Office recognises its mistakes. It can correct its mistakes. I had an example only last week where a college in south London with five years of trusted sponsor status, which I have visited, was quite unfairly threatened with the loss of its licence through an association with one of these lower orders of bogus college. It recognised the mistake in the end, but I want to put over that it is a tough environment out there at the moment if you are one of those colleges. Many immigration officers are being put in positions of making educational decisions. I support the amendment; I hope that my noble friend will move it to a Division. The remarks of my noble friend Lord Sutherland were very timely, because this is after all a disagreement within the coalition. It was very welcome to hear the voice of Vince Cable. I am sure that he agrees, as does the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, that the disaggregation of numbers, although it is not the subject of this amendment, has become almost a separate issue which we should come back to.
My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. UK universities have worked tirelessly over the years to attract international students, including Exeter University, of which I am the chancellor so I declare an interest. We cannot sustain the level of financial support that universities require and will continue to require without international student support. We also benefit from those students’ academic and cultural contribution. Our country gains so much from these resources. Exeter benefits greatly from its international students, not just financially but also, because of where geographically we are placed, from the culturally diverse, rich mix that such students bring.
I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on all the concessions that he has made after hearing the concerns that many noble Lords have expressed. I thank him, too, for all the meetings that he has granted us. I also invite him to consider further the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, which would make a difference to the perception that those abroad have of us as a welcoming nation to international students.
My Lords, this has been a very good debate which, with one exception, has focused narrowly on the questions being posed in the amendments that we are considering. Of course, we have still to hear from the Minister on his amendments and I am sure that a lot is riding on them. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, was very kind to refer to our shared interest in squash. I am a little sad that we did not encounter one another on the squash court, because, given his positioning of putting his head well above the parapet and his heart very much in his game, I think that he would have been easy prey, certainly to be beaten by fair means. But if I was struggling, I think that I would have been able to lop his head off quite easily. In what was effectively a Second Reading speech, it was not at all clear which parts of the amendments the noble Lord was supporting or not supporting. I think that we missed that, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, put it very nicely when he explained what he felt about that.
Other than that, we have focused hard on the issues relating to students. The quotation given to us by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, should be very much in our thinking as we look at these issues. There is no doubt that we are talking here about perceptions. We are talking about whether, in aggregate, the work that the Government are doing through the Bill complements, supports or destroys the currently very effective system of higher education that we have in this country in relation to overseas entrants to and users of it—although the context is not that good given the row that there has been in the past couple of weeks about what is happening to the system of higher education as a whole, which I suspect has a long way to go.
The amendment deals with a particular exemption to charges under Part 3 and suggests that, effectively, there should be a complete carve-out for students. We are on record as saying that we do not agree with that approach and we will not be supporting the noble Lord should he take the amendment to a Division. That is not because we are against what is being said, but we think that there are two reasons why it does not work in practice. First, we accept the general proposition that those who participate in and use the NHS should contribute to it. Although we have concerns about the system proposed in the Bill, we are prepared to wait for further discussion and debate on the regulations, following the correspondence that we have received from the Minister. Secondly, we believe that there are wider issues relating to accommodation and the role of landlords in checking it which take the debate beyond narrow consideration simply for students. That is not to say that we do not agree with the amendments proposed by the Minister; there are still questions about them, but we are pleased that he has moved in that direction and we will support them.
However, I should like to pick out some issues that have been raised during the debate, in the hope that the Minister will respond. I picked up on three points that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, made and will add another two. The question of whether the amendments will apply to all students is very important. First, the way in which undergraduates and postgraduates operate within the higher education system is different. Postgraduates often have dependents with them, and we need a system that will work for all concerned. I hope that the Minister can say a few words about how he sees that developing, because it is not entirely clear. The suggestion that we should be looking at students and not the type of accommodation is worth thinking about. It will be difficult to concentrate entirely on the types of accommodation available, because they are not exactly exhaustive and will not necessarily be the same in future. It might be better to focus on the individual, not the way in which they live.
The second point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, was the question of what exactly would be required to be seen by those doing the checking: will a valid visa and a comprehensive statement that someone had been admitted to a qualifying higher education institution be sufficient? Again, I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that.
Thirdly, we talked about the question of nomination and what that meant. I agree with those who said that that is a difficult word to get hold of. One can see where the Minister is coming from on this, but, again, I do not know that it does the trick, so it would be helpful if he would say a bit more about that. If he has any doubts, the opportunity to bring something back at Third Reading might be a way forward. It is important that the distinction made by the noble Lord is picked up. We are talking about a system within which the focus is on whether a person has a right to reside in the United Kingdom by virtue of having been accepted at an institution and obtaining the necessary visa. We are not talking about the subsequent arrangements under which a university or higher education institution sets up a contract for accommodation for that person. That way lies madness. It will not work. We had better try to get that right.
My two further points were also picked up by my noble friend Lady Warwick. There is a problem about pre-booking of arrangements and the extent to which those might fall under any checking or testing. It is probably difficult to get that right, but we need certainty that arrangements to be made for people who will not get visas until very close to the point at which they transition to this country work in practice. That point is important to those who have been lobbying about this.
As I have mentioned earlier, my final point raises the question: what exactly are we trying to get at here? If it is true that about 25% of students arriving here who are not from the EEA have valid visas, have been accepted by institutions and live in accommodation that will not be covered by the government amendment, are we really back in the territory in which we started and sending up a “Not welcome here” signal? If that is the case—and I hope it is not—can we do something about that? Maybe there is a way in which we should focus further on the institution and its arrangements with the student, and not so much on the accommodation of the landlord. We have amendments later on today that will look in more detail at the arrangements for private sector landlords who may have students of this category on their books. Maybe we can find a way—perhaps through a pilot; although the noble Lord does not seem to like that word—of testing to destruction whether we have a system that we can work.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, for his thoughtful contribution to the debate. I hope I can address the issues he has raised. We have had a good debate. We always have good debates on this subject. The House is not always in agreement with the Government’s position on issues, but I think we have come closer together as a result of the debate, the provisions of the Bill and the amendments that I have been able to bring forward today.
I do not want to sound boring, but I will reiterate the mantra that the Government’s objective is to attract the brightest and the best. There is no limit on numbers. We have to say that because it puts right at the top of the page what the Government’s policy is. We will go on, I hope, as we discuss this matter, and as I answer noble Lords’ questions, to demonstrate that the proposals in the Bill are not designed to dilute in any way that central policy.
We have had an interesting debate. I have had an interesting debate going on behind me between my noble friends Lord Hodgson and Lord Cormack. I know that they earnestly believe in the importance of the international student sector. I share that belief. It is a tribute to our education system and the talent of individual students who come here that we benefit enormously through our university sector. My noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby gave examples of outstanding academics who have benefited the world of knowledge and the world of medicine by their presence here in this country. They serve as exemplars of what our academic world is able to achieve. She has given me considerable detail which I am sure she will make available to other noble Lords should they wish to see it.
I turn to the Bill and to the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and my own government amendments. In relation to tenancies, the Bill disqualifies individuals from renting property if they do not have leave to be here. Students will be able to evidence their immigration status simply by showing their biometric residence permits or visas to potential landlords. That is a simple and straightforward check. The Government have nonetheless given this issue further thought. As a result of our debates at Second Reading and in Committee, and as a result of meetings we have had outside this House, we have tabled amendments exempting student accommodation which is owned or managed by a higher education institution, all halls of residence, and any arrangement where the student has been nominated for the accommodation by their educational institution. I just want to emphasise that while the word “nominate” is something that those of us who have political lives associate with nomination papers and so on, nominating is just the naming of an individual as being a student at a higher education institution. That is all it is. It does not necessarily involve the university itself in any contract with the landlord or any renting arrangements that the student may be entering into. It is a form of vouching for the genuineness of the student’s immigration status. That is all. I hope that I have been able to express that in the plain terms that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked for. I say further, and this is important too, that it applies to undergraduates— I think that would be understood—and also to postgraduates and to those completing their doctoral theses, so that all those who this House would consider to be students in the broadest definition of the term are included within this embrace.
The noble Lord raised three points that he wanted me to deal with. The first was the business of whether this extended to graduates. I have confirmed that that is indeed the case. Secondly, he asked whether this genuinely exempts the landlord. Yes, indeed; as long as he is satisfied by the nomination, then he has no need to conduct any further checks. If I may say so, this is rather analogous to the position of a person in a tied cottage. It has nothing to do with this part of the Bill but it is an interesting analogy in the sense that the person being employed can be vouched for and the landlord will have done the check on their employment in exactly the same way as the university will have done one on the engagement of the individual with the university itself. There is no contractual obligation on the university in respect of the tenancy that the individual student may be entering into. It is important to emphasise that as well. There is engagement, of course, but there is no contractual obligation.
Where a landlord wishes to rent to a student and does not want to check their immigration status documents, for whatever reason, they may make inquiries with the student’s educational institution and obtain this nomination. Nomination will be simply a confirmation of the student’s status, something that educational institutions already have to provide to students in order to prove exemption from the council tax. A suggestion made by my noble friend Lady Manzoor led us to explore this possibility. The term “nominate” is a broad exemption and it will allow higher education institutions to confirm that the student is exempt without being prescriptive about the form that this should take.
These government amendments will mean that landlords need not conduct an immigration status check as the educational institution will already have done so. The amendment removes the large majority of students from the scope of the landlords scheme. I also reassure noble Lords that the Government intend to make provision within the code of practice to allow landlords to agree a tenancy in principle with the students who have not yet arrived in the UK, allowing them to undertake a check of relevant documentation immediately before the student takes up occupation. In other words, it is possible for these arrangements to be made in advance of the student actually taking up their place at the university. A number of noble Lords had expressed concern on that point.
Perhaps I may park the landlord provisions and go on to talk about the health service surcharge—
Before the noble Lord does that, might I clarify whether what he is saying is in response to the point I made about a potential tenant entering into a conditional arrangement with a landlord? Is it legal and proper for the landlord to enter into that arrangement even though at that point, because of the time involved and so on, the potential tenant has not actually got their visa?
Yes, absolutely: that is the case. It is up to the landlord to decide whether they want to enter into a conditional arrangement. In university towns this is a frequent enough experience, is it not? They can check the nomination, which may say that the person has a conditional place at the university. That can be checked immediately the undergraduate or postgraduate arrives to take up the accommodation. We do not want to make this difficult. We want to make universities feel that this will help them as well as the students at their university.
I turn to the health surcharge—there are a number of landlord issues I might come back to but I want to try to deal with this as far as I can in order. I urge noble Lords to bear in mind that international students cost the NHS around £430 million a year and more than £700 a head. The NHS has limited funding and cannot sustain this if it is unsupported by those who use that service. The surcharge for students is just £150 a year. It is a very good deal. It is a fraction of the true cost to the NHS and just 1% of the cost of studying in the UK. There is no reason to believe that the surcharge will deter students from coming to the UK because it is set well below the price students pay for health insurance in our competitor countries.
I accept that international students contribute significantly to our economy, but such contributions do not exempt students from health charges in our competitor countries and there is no reason why they should do so here. Noble Lords will understand our reasoning in that regard. The NHS provides quality care to international students and their dependants for a wide range of health issues. I will speak more on the NHS services that international students have used, if noble Lords wish.
I think the whole House recognises that £150 is a not unreasonable figure. However, there is a very specific and limited case for those in post-doctoral or postgraduate positions who bring their dependants with them. At that point the continuation of the charge, especially if somebody has taken work that enables them to pay national insurance and taxation, begins to feel much more like a burden than like a benefit. Does the Minister agree?
Indeed. My noble friend and I have discussed this in meetings. I take the point. It was made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, as well. I think he and other noble Lords understood that there will be secondary legislation that will define these issues. I am aware of the concerns expressed by noble Lords in this respect. My noble friend Lady Hamwee made the same point about the length of time that some individuals may pay the surcharge. I do not consider this a serious problem but I commit to considering it carefully before bringing forward the affirmative resolution order.
A number of other mattes were raised. My noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby asked about changes to work-study visas. We do not have any figures on this but she is quite right to point out that we have tried to facilitate this, just as through the graduate scheme we have tried to facilitate higher education and have worked with institutions.
She asked about slowness in the visa system. In fact, 93% of administrative reviews for overseas students—these applications are made overseas—are made within 28 days, so it is quite speedy. That is one reason we are looking to use the method of administrative review more generally in this respect.
I hope that I have satisfied the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, about the breadth of the accommodation amendment. Any undergraduate who chooses to use that facility by gaining a nomination from the university will get the accommodation that they need, and it is quite proper to take up a place in advance.
I was asked by a number of noble Lords about our general approach to working with universities. We have been working at ways to promote this country to students from overseas. It is something in which I believe, and I hope that I have been able to reassure noble Lords that with the considerable sums now being put to one side through the Budget to promote our education facilities to overseas students we have a good offer in place.
The noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, was very keen that the Government should demonstrate unity of purpose on this issue. I hope I have said nothing that discourages him from believing that we have a unity of purpose on this issue. I very much appreciate the work that the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, does, in particular with the college in south London. He and I have had meetings on it. I know he had a meeting with officials last week, trying to reconcile them to the arrangements. This is not an easy area but we want to work with this sector.
I did not have the benefit of a university education. I went to work at 17 and it has taught me that there are huge benefits in university education. I believe in it passionately. I do not want to see other people denied the opportunities that our university sector provides. I hope that I have demonstrated my wish to engage with the sector and give it confidence that there should be no reason why a properly constructed immigration policy would be incompatible with our policy objective of encouraging the brightest and the best to come and study at our excellent universities. I hope, in the light of these points, that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who in Committee and on Report supported the amendments put down in my name and those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Williams and Lady Warwick, and the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, whose absence today is entirely due to being in Athens on the business of the House.
I have drawn enormous comfort and support from the way in which each of the debates we have held has been lengthy, thoughtful and devoted entirely to the matter in hand. I contrast that with the fact that the other place, when it took this legislation, never actually got around to talking about students or higher education at all because they were so busy chasing Romanians and Bulgarians around the Chamber. That is perhaps a tribute to the way in which your Lordships’ House conducts its business. We do not miss out really important issues like that of students.
I have a brief comment—or perhaps two—on the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. He raised the question of whether universities were aware and made enough of the fact that foreign students help them subsidise domestic students. All I can tell him is that if he talks to anyone in the higher education sector, of course they all know that perfectly well. They know that a number of courses, particularly STEM courses, would simply not be maintainable without overseas student enrolment. However, the noble Lord will recognise that if we are trying to recruit overseas students, this is not a major sales point. It is not terribly wise to go around the world saying, “You may think your fees are a bit on the high side—but don’t worry, they are going to support British students”. I hope he will understand that one has to treat that with a certain amount of care.
Of course, the noble Lord is right about the exchange rate having extreme importance. I can only offer him the advice that Miss Prism offers Cecily in “The Importance of Being Earnest”:
“The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational”.
I understand exactly what the noble Lord says, and I understand about the sales pitch. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that I am not going to make another Second Reading speech, but we in this House have got ourselves into a position where we are talking about what the Government are saying about visas and about “curbs”: that was the word used. In fact, what it comes down to when you read the detail is that the checks and balances that the Government are proposing to ensure that there is some recovery of costs are not the key issue. The key issue is the overall cost of the education, particularly in the currency of the country from which the student comes.
Well, I think Miss Prism probably had it about right.
Having considered the possibilities, I was struck by the fact that all three Front Benches are opposed to the amendment. The Official Opposition’s description of the reasons for which they were opposed to it holds about as much water as a colander; but let us leave that to one side.
I thank the Minister for his extremely considerate response, for the work he has done in the past few weeks, particularly on the issue of student accommodation, to try to meet some of the concerns that have been expressed, and for the very clear way in which he has replied to questions I and the noble Baronesses, Lady Warwick, Lady Williams and Lady Hamwee, raised in today’s debate. I found some that of the things that he said really helpful. They are on the record and that is very valuable indeed.
Before closing, I will make one point that is outside the scope of this debate. Within the next year, all three main parties are going to write their manifestos for the next election. It would not surprise anyone, I imagine, that there will be a substantial section on immigration in every one of those manifestos, because it is a burning issue of the hour. I make a plea that when they write these manifesto chapters on immigration, they make it quite clear that in the next Parliament they will not treat overseas students as normal economic migrants in terms of the Government’s immigration policy: that they will reflect and that they will respect the specificity of the higher education sector. Frankly, I do not think that they will lose a single vote if they say that, but they will save themselves an awful lot of trouble in the next Parliament. I hope that that plea will be heard and, in any case, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 23 withdrawn.
Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 2.15 pm.
Housing Benefit (Transitional Provisions) (Amendment) Regulations 2014
Motion of Regret
To move that this House regrets that the Housing Benefit (Transitional Provisions) (Amendment) Regulations 2014 are being introduced without Her Majesty’s Government’s full understanding of the numbers of those affected; regrets that confusion and uncertainty are being added to an already unjust policy; deplores that Her Majesty’s Government’s mishandling has resulted in households being unlawfully charged and further pushed into hardship; and regrets the likely disproportionate impact of the Regulations on the most vulnerable (SI 2014/212).
My Lords, this Motion relates to an order brought forward by the Government to address a loophole that they have belatedly discovered in enacting what they call the social sector size criteria and everybody else calls the bedroom tax. The loophole means that people claiming housing benefit continuously for the same home since 1 January 1996 are exempt from the bedroom tax. It emerged recently, as noble Lords may remember from the discussion on a recent Urgent Question, that the group may be even wider as it may affect some people who have inherited this protection from a former tenant who enjoyed it.
People covered by this exemption have unlawfully had their housing benefit cut. When this matter was discussed in the other place, a number of examples of people affected were given. For example, there was a widower in Staffordshire suffering from mental health problems who had to find an extra £14 a week to stay in his home. There was a 56 year-old women from Rotherham with health-related problems who paid over £700 in additional rent, which we now know was unlawful. In Greater Manchester, a woman who cares for her granddaughter paid £200 extra in rent as a result of the bedroom tax, fell into arrears and was threatened with eviction from the home she has lived in for 26 years. Incidentally, Grandparents Plus notes that kinship carers like her are more likely to be affected by the bedroom tax, because they are older and more likely to have spare rooms, technically, because their children have grown up and moved on.
These people and many others like them are now due a rebate but, rather than apologise for the distress that they have been caused, the Government now want to apply the bedroom tax again to these people and thousands like them. Because local authorities in most cases do not have electronic records which go back to 1996, they are finding themselves having to waste time and money trawling through paper files looking for affected cases. Meanwhile, the Government have brought forward this order to close the loophole, despite having no idea how many people are affected by it.
The Opposition have tried very hard to find out how many people are affected by asking Ministers. On 13 January, the Employment Minister, Esther McVey, gave a Written Answer in the other place. She said simply:
“This information is not available”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/1/14; col. 449W.]
On the same day, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told the other place that,
“the number is likely to be between 3,000 and 5,000”.—[ Official Report, Commons, 13/1/14; col. 577.]
The very next day, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, told this House that,
“the numbers involved in this anomaly are small and the amounts are modest”.—[Official Report, 14/1/14; col. 106.]
However, early reports coming from the ground suggested that the numbers could be rather higher than that. Therefore, under the Freedom of Information Act, the Opposition asked local authorities how many people they believed would be affected. The resulting figures already show that over 23,000 are likely to be affected, even though a third of councils have still to reply and many said that they could not give complete answers because they could not include housing association tenants. Not only is this a mess, but the Government seem to have no idea how many people are caught up in the mess.
We should not be surprised. The bedroom tax was a bad policy in the first place, incompetently executed, with the heaviest price being paid by the poorest and most vulnerable. More than 500,000 households have been hit. Two-thirds of those affected are disabled. Of those affected, 35,000 disabled people have had their homes specially adapted with, for example, wheelchair ramps, wider doors, stair lifts or accessible bathrooms. If they are forced to move, it is estimated that the cost of repeating those adaptations in new properties could reach £234 million.
Some 60,000 of those affected by the bedroom tax are carers. More than 200,000 families with children are affected. On average, people are paying an extra £14 a week—the equivalent of losing all of your child benefit for the second child. Most depressingly, so many of the problems predicted by noble Lords from all Benches during the passage of the Welfare Reform Act have come to pass. According to the National Housing Federation, on average two-thirds of tenants affected by the bedroom tax are currently in arrears; of those, three-quarters have seen their arrears increase since the bedroom tax came in. Of those tenants hit by the bedroom tax who are in arrears because they cannot make up the shortfall, 40% have been issued with a notice seeking possession.
The impact on landlords is also huge. Nearly three in five housing associations say that they have been affected by the bedroom tax either a great deal or a fair amount. That hides huge regional problems, as I know only too well. About 90% of housing associations operating mainly in the north-east and 80% in the north-west report that they have been significantly affected.
What a mess, and for what? What has been achieved by all this chaos and misery? Has the bedroom tax achieved its aims? Ministers have not been able to explain whether the policy is supposed to reduce overcrowding or to save money; it cannot do both. If tenants stay put and accept a cut in their benefits, the state saves money but no houses are freed up. If tenants are forced to move, no money is saved. The costings assumed that people would not move. During the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill, when the matter was voted on in this House on Report on 14 December 2011, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, explained the Government’s position, saying:
“The introduction of size criteria into the social rented sector from April 2013 is essential to reduce housing benefit expenditure”.—[Official Report, 14/12/11; col. 1300.]
So it was indeed about savings. The Minister explained that it would save around £500 million per annum.
I wonder whether those savings really are materialising as Ministers had hoped. Last Friday, Esther McVey was asked on a BBC Radio 5 Live programme how much money the Government had saved through this policy. She began by saying:
“It was never all about saving money”.
The interviewer interrupted just to ask how much it would save. She came back to the question. The interviewer asked her repeatedly whether there would be savings and how much they would be but could not get an answer.
There is now a real risk that the bedroom tax will end up costing more than it saves. Research from the University of York suggests that the policy could save significantly less than the DWP predicted. The National Housing Federation has said that the savings claimed by the Government are “highly questionable”, partly because those forced to move to the private rented sector will end up costing more in housing benefits. Housing associations say that tens of millions of pounds are likely to be lost through the build-up of arrears. I ask the Minister today to tell the House precisely how much of that £500 million savings per annum has been realised in the first year of the bedroom tax. After taking into account the cost of discretionary housing payments, the cost to local authorities and social housing providers and the payment of higher housing benefits to those who had to move, what is the net saving to the public purse? If it was not about saving money, as Esther McVey has said, what was it about?
The Government have since changed tack and claimed that it is about tackling overcrowding or dealing with the waiting lists. They say that people need to be pushed to move out if they have spare rooms so that others can have their houses. At various times, noble Lords from all Benches have pointed out that, in fact, many of these are not spare rooms, and, even if they were, there were nowhere near enough spare smaller properties available in the areas hit by the bedroom tax. Now we know what has happened. A recent BBC investigation showed that, after the first year, just 6% of tenants have moved.
This entire episode should shame this Government. Half a million people have been affected, most of them disabled, losing an average £14 a week from their already meagre incomes. Instead of bringing forward an order to make the bedroom tax apply to up to 40,000 more households, the Government should announce today that they will scrap this unfair, cruel and unpopular tax. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Sherlock for securing this debate. Of all the Government’s reforms to welfare, it is hard to find another more cruel, more callous and more mean-spirited than the bedroom tax. The policy was dreamt up by people who have no need for housing benefit themselves and probably do not even know anybody who depends on it. While it may make sense in theory, in practice it is having a devastating effect on the lives of vulnerable people. Additionally, the very ideas and theory behind the policy are, I believe, wicked and wrong. Ministers have stressed that the policy is designed to fix a broken system of housing benefit and encourage behavioural change among recipients of housing benefit. This is sheer nonsense. The system is broken, though not because of the behaviour of those who use it; the cause is the housing stock itself. In England, there are 180,000 tenants underoccupying two-bedroom homes but only 85,000 smaller homes available.
The Catholic charity Caritas Diocese of Salford has been working with Michelle. She has three children and lives in a three-bedroom home. Originally she cared for her brother, who has now moved into supported accommodation. Her 13 year-old daughter now uses the so-called spare room. Michelle is trying for a home swap, looking for a two-bedroom home, but nothing is available. The £12 she loses each week means that she now regularly resorts to food banks. This is the reality of the bedroom tax. The only economy left for families to make is on food. When that cannot be done, they have to resort to food banks. In Merseyside, social landlords have referred 553 tenants to food banks.
The cost of the bedroom tax is horrific, but the attitude that it displays towards social housing is also wrong. No longer can people regard where they live as their homes. Housing benefit and social housing appear to be something that the Government begrudgingly provide. My local newspaper, the South Wales Argus, recently reported the story of Kevin Reeve, who has occupied the family home for 50 years and cared for his mother and father, who have both now sadly passed away. He is now underoccupying, losing between £35 and £45 a month and has been forced into trying to move.
The local housing association, Bron Afon, has catalogued the effects of this tax on the local community. It discovered that one person affected is a former solider suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. He lives with his daughter, who is hoping to go to university. They already underoccupy by one room. They are already cutting down on heating their home and eating. His daughter is now questioning whether she should go to university. He is resigned to trying to move. His current home is the one in which he raised his children, the home that he shared with his wife, who, sadly, has now died. He is proud of that home, and we should be proud of him, a veteran who has served our country. Is this the way we repay our servicemen?
The bedroom tax is another example of the chaos, confusion and poor implementation of chronically ill conceived policies by the Department for Work and Pensions. It is clear that this policy is unjustly penalising vulnerable people for something beyond their control. It is causing immense hardship and devastating people’s lives. It shows complete callousness towards those who rely on housing benefit. Many good people who rely on housing benefit feel that they live not in prosperity Britain but in poverty Britain, thanks to this Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government. Those responsible for this policy should hang their heads in shame.
My Lords, I should first declare my interest as chair of the National Housing Federation, which represents the housing associations across England.
I will speak briefly, on a personal basis, to say that I cannot support the Government’s policy on this. I believe it was misjudged in the first place and we are rapidly seeing the proof in the pudding. I cannot support something that deprives people of money that, by any standards, they need—the Government do not give people more in benefit than they need to live on—when they have no option to move somewhere else because of the shortage of smaller homes. That is quite apart from the fact that to describe these rooms as surplus to need is in many cases simply wrong, and even if they are surplus today, they are often not surplus tomorrow. Therefore, for example, a family with young children will have to have those children live in a room together, but after a year they might need to live apart.
This simply does not make sense. I very much regret that the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best, on this, were not passed, because that would have secured the Government some of what they wished but given a much fairer deal to individuals; for example by not removing the money if a reasonable alternative has not been offered to them.
However, the most fundamental reason—the proof of the pudding—is that this is not a saving to government any more than it frees up rooms. That is because of the huge cost to housing associations of having to work with individuals to help them, and the cost of the work and the money that the Government have had to put in to support individuals. It has removed capacity from the social housing sector to provide more homes. All of the money lost—and, frankly, the arrears that are being built up—will never be gained back from people who have no ability to pay it. That simply undermines the capacity to solve the very housing problem which the policy was theoretically meant to address but has failed to do.
Although my instincts are those of a team player, and my track record over a substantial period of time shows that to be the case, this is not something on which I can support my noble friends.
My Lords, I completely share the views so ably put by my noble friend Lady Sherlock and my other noble friends, so I will be brief.
On the anniversary of the introduction of the bedroom tax legislation, the Government are trying to close by statutory instrument a loophole without any understanding of how local authorities can identify the people affected or the numbers involved. Instead of trying to close this loophole the Government should finally do the right thing and scrap the bedroom tax altogether, because as the Budget figures show, it will cost more money than it saves. According to the BBC, due to the lack of smaller accommodation only 6% of those affected have moved.
I know that the Minister will have heard these arguments many times before, but they bear repeating. He will have heard that the bedroom tax discriminates,
“against the most vulnerable in society”,
and that the Government have shown,
“a lack of appreciation of the housing requirements of children and adults with disabilities and care needs”.
Those words are not from this side of the House but from the motion passed by his coalition partners at their annual conference last year. I welcome the words of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, and I hope that more of his colleagues will join us in the Lobby this afternoon.
The one thing the Government have managed to do is to unite the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, and the Liberal Democrats in the view that this bedroom tax will have damaging electoral consequences for both parties of the coalition. However, there are other voices, too. The chief executive of the CAB says:
“The Government’s solution to spiralling Housing Benefit costs is simply creating more problems. Thousands are being pushed into arrears, 96 per cent of people affected have no alternative smaller homes to move into and some housing associations”—
as we have heard—
“say they are being forced to demolish homes whilst 1.8 million languish on waiting lists”.
The United Nations says that the bedroom tax is taking a heavy toll on the most vulnerable and recommends abolition and that there is a,
“danger of retrogression in the right to adequate housing in the United Kingdom”.
The Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation has described the policy as an,
“unfair, ill-planned disaster that is hurting our poorest families”.
This retrospective “move or pay” tax simply is not working. For instance, in Merseyside more than 26,000 families are affected, but only 155 have moved. The Work and Pensions Committee has found that between 60% and 70% of homes affected by the change contained,
“someone with a disability and many of these people will not be able to move home easily due to their disability”.
It asked the Government to exempt anyone whose home had been adapted. Instead they are closing a loophole to bring more people into its remit.
Of the 660,000 people affected, two-thirds of those are disabled. The think tank Demos reports that £28 billion will have been taken out of disabled pockets by 2018 due to the cuts in DLA, ESA and housing benefit. Empty properties are increasing, in some areas by a third. In South Shields there are whole empty streets because people are afraid to move into larger houses.
If people end up in emergency accommodation, it costs the country more. But the human cost is huge, too. Grandparents cannot have their grandchildren to stay, so childcare arrangements are affected, and single parents are losing children’s bedrooms. Informal care arrangements for disabled people have come to a halt. A room is not a spare room when carers sleep in it, when couples cannot share a bed for health reasons, or when it houses vital medical equipment such as dialysis machines.
Now the Government have realised that they have been telling local authorities to take away housing benefit from people who were entitled to it all along, so they want to close that loophole. That will mean that local authorities will now have to spend more money and time trying to find out from their records—which go back to 1996 and which they may not have in electronic format—the identity of those people who qualify. It causes bureaucratic chaos and will lead to even greater chaos. This Conservative-led Government should be listening to what people—including their partners in the coalition—are saying, and scrap the whole sorry mess.
My Lords, as the Regret Motion makes clear, we have to understand these regulations in the context of the impact of the bedroom tax.
My noble friend Lady Sherlock quoted Esther McVey on Radio 5. I will take us back to her rather wonderful interview on Radio 4, in which the interviewer had to drag out of her that the Government’s estimate is that only 8% of people had moved—a whole two percentage points more than the BBC estimate which she had been contesting. She was asked if she was disappointed. She replied:
“Well no, because it wasn’t that you had to move house”.
How is that consistent with her statement in debate in the other place? She said:
“The reason that we are putting these measures in place is that we want to ensure we make the best use of our social housing”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/2/14; col. 311.]
In addition, how is it consistent with the constant refrain:
“How can we justify 1 million spare rooms when other people are sometimes crammed together in a room?”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/3/13; col. 27.]
Can the Minister tell us exactly how many rooms have been freed up by this policy? As the Work and Pensions Committee report observed, it is,
“a blunt instrument for achieving this”
aim, and one that is causing hardship, as we have already heard from other noble Lords.
Why, then, have people not moved? As has already been said, it is partly because there is nowhere to move to. In the Independent, on 3 March, it was reported that,
“a severe shortage of smaller council homes across the country is being exacerbated by the right-to-buy scheme—leaving many victims of the bedroom tax with no choice but to accept reduced benefits”.
Also, many people do not want to move because they do not want to lose social networks that are very important to them—a point I have made over and over again in this House. We are not talking about housing in the abstract, but about people’s homes within communities that matter to them.
As Demos said, in a study it carried out on social ties,
“policies can serve to actively undermine the kind of self-help and mutual support that families engage in”.
One would have thought that that would be approved of by a Conservative-led Administration who believe in the big society. Reforms such as the removal of the underoccupancy penalty—dubbed the bedroom tax—have left people with a choice of either finding more money for rent from already stretched budgets or moving away from support networks that make life liveable for many.
We have heard about rising rent arrears, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Earlier this week I attended the launch of a report by Community Links on the impact of the first year of so-called welfare reform—although I would call it social security cuts—in the London borough of Newham. The person presenting the findings pointed out that many people prioritise rent for fear of eviction. Therefore, there may not be rent arrears, but what other impact is it having on what people can spend on other essentials, and how many people are turning to payday lenders or, even worse, to loan sharks? That morning we heard tales of utter despair—the result of the cumulative impact of this and other benefit cuts such as council tax benefit.
The suggestion has been made: “Let them take lodgers”. Do we know how many people have taken on lodgers as a result of this policy? Some noble Lords who are following the Immigration Bill will know that later this afternoon we will talk about its residential tenancy provisions. Anyone who takes a lodger as a result of the bedroom tax will be turned into a mini-immigration officer and will have to check the immigration credentials of their lodger. Do we really want people on benefit being turned into mini-immigration officers to prevent illegal immigration?
The Minister, Esther McVey, pleaded that the BBC report showed how complex this is. I can suggest a simple solution: follow the policy of the Opposition—which I hope will very soon be the official policy of the Liberal Democrats—and abolish the bedroom tax.
My Lords, I think I am the only serving, elected councillor who is likely to speak in this debate, unless the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in his declining days as a councillor—I believe he is standing down shortly—joins in to proclaim the new, belated Lib Dem policy on the bedroom tax. I bring a snapshot from Newcastle, where 5,400 households are affected, at an average cost to each of them of £13.47 a week. If paid, that represents around £3.75 million to be taken out of the local economy, so there is a knock-on effect, quite apart from the housing effect, on that economy. Just under one-quarter of those are working households, one-third have children and, as we have already heard, many have disabled people in them. In my own ward, there are 315 such households.
As has already been pointed out, it is not a simple matter to transfer into a smaller property. In Newcastle, we have 3,558 people seeking one-bedroom accommodation. The average number of available one-bedroom properties per year is 64. It would take a generation or more to accommodate those people. Some 615 are seeking to move down to two-bedroom accommodation. There is, admittedly, a slightly higher availability of this—all of 101 a year. Any effect on the private sector, which in Newcastle is largely taken up with students, will drive up rents. Landlords are increasingly reluctant to take tenants who are on benefits of one kind or another. This policy is not only cruel and inefficient; it is based on a complete misunderstanding—to put it generously—of what happens in the social housing market. It is damaging people’s lives.
I conclude with an anecdote about meeting a couple of people in their fifties—not in my own ward—who benefited from the decision which required the Government to effectively refund the amount paid because of the length of their tenure of the property. I was able to tell them they would be getting the money back but I also had to give the bad news that the Government were seeking to ensure that the money returned to them was spent on paying the bedroom tax. Here were two disabled people, living in a house for just under 30 years, with one of their grandchildren staying with them when I called. This just illustrates the cruelty and incompetence of the measure and I congratulate my noble friend on bringing this Motion of Regret.
My Lords, when I saw that the Government were introducing an amendment to the bedroom tax, I mistakenly assumed they wanted to put right the wrongs visited on tenants by this unjust law. Instead, they want to close loopholes and increase the number of people victimised. As one housing expert said:
“This is a shambles caused by the DWP failing to understand the significance of their own legislation”.
This is an extraordinary failing by the Government that disproportionately burdens the most vulnerable, two-thirds of whom, as we have heard, are disabled. These people will have to wait for a Labour Government to abolish the bedroom tax—unless the Minister would like to tell us something quite unexpected today. One way that Labour will fund the reversal is to abolish the Government’s tax cuts for hedge funds. I have nothing against hedge funds—I want to see the City of London thrive because our economy depends on it. However, I do not want it to do so on the backs of the poorest and the disabled. I have rarely heard anything so perverse.
Austerity demands choices: choices reveal priorities. The Government’s priorities here are absolutely shameful. Why do they not concentrate on closing loopholes to end tax evasion by the richest instead of closing loopholes that hurt vulnerable people so much? I urge the Government to abolish this tax.
My Lords, I realise that time is at a premium so I shall be brief and say just a few words. I remember very clearly, as will other noble Lords, the words of Lord Newton of Braintree who, to the great sadness of all, is no longer with us. In his intervention on Report during debates on what is now the Welfare Reform Act, he warned his colleagues in the Government that this would not last five minutes. Once people started realising what was happening and getting on to their MPs in droves, the Government would be forced to scrap it. It has not worked out quite like that but the bedroom tax is visibly unravelling before one’s eyes. It is not saving any money or freeing up any accommodation. My advice to the Minister would be to recognise when he is beaten. He has not a friend in the House. When you are in a hole the only sensible advice is to stop digging. I advise the Minister to recognise realities and run up the white flag.
My Lords, in her powerful speech, my noble friend Lady Sherlock has explained our opposition to this statutory instrument. It brings more people into the bedroom tax which should be abolished. She has had support from all around the House today. The tax is disastrous. A previous Tory Government introduced and repealed the poll tax in the same Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Low, said, this Government should have the courage and decency to do the same.
You do, of course, need sanctions in social security to ensure, for example, that compliance with JSA work search is not voluntary. However, the bedroom tax—for the first time ever—falls on the innocent, disabled and vulnerable. They are punished when they have done no wrong: they simply occupy the house that the council allocated them. The Government have now said to them: move or pay. Most tenants can do neither. As my noble friend Lord Beecham said, tenants who want to move will be waiting three to four years. Arrears mount; single people or couples on the waiting list who want smaller accommodation will never get it; pensioners wanting to downsize cannot. As for overcrowding, outside London six times more families are underoccupying than overcrowding Just helping pensioners to move would sort it, with grace and consent. The bedroom tax destroys sound housing policy.
Will the Government, nonetheless, make their savings? No, because benefit cuts have been shunted on to tenants to become irrecoverable arrears. In Norwich, which has spent every penny of its DHPs, 60% of tenants affected by the bedroom tax are now in average arrears of £300 and mounting. Nationally, around two-thirds of affected tenants are in arrears. DHPs are utterly insufficient, short-term, and a postcode lottery, yet that is the policy on which the Minister, sadly, relies. Carers UK says that 75% of tenants trying to pay were cutting back on food, heating, medical supplies and mobility. The fragile economy of tenants collapses, as they turn to food banks, payday loans and loan sharks, with debts from which I doubt many will ever recover. The Government’s notional savings become tenants’ irreversible, irrevocable debts and, in the process, we destroy lives.
Fifteen per cent of affected tenants, nearly half of those in arrears, have already received eviction warning notices. What happens then? Do we evict tenants into the private sector—private landlords do not want them and it costs more—or into bed-and-breakfast accommodation which costs even more, or what? Should they be rough sleeping? What about children and disabled people? Through no fault of their own, there are people who cannot pay their rent because the Government have cut their benefit.
Instead, do we allow rent arrears to grow and in the process threaten the very viability of housing associations, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said? We have offered the Minister three possible strategies to help because every defence of the bedroom tax is false. The first option is that the bedroom tax should not apply to disabled people, as the Work and Pensions Committee said only yesterday. Two-thirds of affected tenants are disabled. One may ask why. Adaptions, at a cost of £6,500 a property, become wasted. As regards space, the CAB has said that for disabled people that extra room for carers or equipment is,
“a lifeline as vital as a guide dog or a wheelchair”.
Finally, disabled people need the support of neighbours, as my noble friend Lady Lister said. We talk about social or community care and at the same time the Government seek to pluck disabled people out of the very communities that provide that social care.
The second option is that it should apply only to those who refuse an acceptable alternative offer. Following the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, I should like to know what the position of the Lib Dems is. Will they continue to support the bedroom tax in Parliament while campaigning on the doorstep simultaneously for its repeal? The third option is that the Government could treat social tenants like private tenants and apply the bedroom tax only to new tenancies. Any of those options would help.
We will go further. The Labour Party is pledged to repeal the legislation. It is the most wretched piece of social security legislation that I have known in 25 years in this House. But by then, in the summer of 2015 after the election, we will have seen hundreds of thousands of social tenants—our fellow citizens, most of them disabled and many with children—punished for occupying a house that was allocated to them. They would have been doing no wrong but are unable to pay or to move. They may be deep in debt and fearing, or perhaps experiencing, the loss of their home. How can we do this to them? It is grotesque.
My Lords, I am the first to recognise a political device when it comes my way. Indeed, this is a political device to secure a wider debate on the spare room subsidy on the back of regulations which have already been made and have come into effect. I do not dispute the need for political devices or regret the use of political devices but it is clear that that is what is being used. I think I should start by clearly laying on the line our policy as Liberal Democrats. What was said at our conference and what we have heard today from noble Lords is the preamble. But two things are being called for: the first is a review and the second is to do with housebuilding.
More crucially than anything else, we want to see the effect that this policy is having in this country. As I understand it—my noble friend can tell me—the review of the policy is due to publish its initial findings soon. I always hesitate when the word “soon” is used but I know that my noble friend loves the word, so perhaps he will indicate whether it will be before the end of this Session, before the Summer Recess or whatever. It would be useful to know when we can have that information.
One would expect that a Labour Party that has designed its policy to abolish the whole thing—we could have a debate about that—will want to assert that a huge amount needs to be put right. But we need facts that stand up to such an assertion and to know exactly where we are. We need to know whether things need to be changed as a result of that independent review, which was put in place by the Welfare Reform Act. That is the position of my party.
Perhaps I may dwell on the issue of correcting secondary legislation, which is what the Motion is about. The unexpected consequences of legislation of the past must have affected all Governments. I could assert that an opposition party present today will at some time have had to use corrective secondary legislation for something which has appeared after primary legislation has been put in place. Perhaps my noble friend can tell me whether I am right or wrong.
There are problems with the 1996 legislation. Perhaps my noble friend can tell us whether it was designed for social sector tenants. The impact that we are talking about is with regard to social sector tenants but my understanding is that that original legislation was put in place particularly for private sector housing and as a protection for private sector tenants. Perhaps my noble friend can advise us whether something that was designed for a different purpose is producing unexpected and unintended consequences.
My second point concerns what is happening in local authorities. Although I do not have as many years of experience in local government as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, I did spend quite a considerable amount of time in local government. I cannot recall whether I spent more or less time than my noble friend Lord Tope. I certainly remember that we had the use of electronic equipment in the mid-1990s when I was a city councillor. How many local authorities are having to resort to paper trails in order to find out the number of people affected by the 1996 legislation? Do some local authorities have up-to-date information? When there are assertions that between 3,000 and 40,000 people are affected, somewhere there must be reasoning behind those assertions. Do we expect to find the correct solutions and answers soon? Will we be able to find out very soon how many people are affected?
Will my noble friend reassure the House that local authorities are being reimbursed for the extra work that they are having to do to trawl through the paper trails where those records have not been kept electronically or have been lost? Now that the loophole is closed, I understand that there is now an issue relating to discretionary housing payments paid to people who were subjected to the extra charge between March 2013 and March 2014. People who were awarded DHP were awarded it on the basis that they needed it at that time. Can my noble friend reassure me that there will be no question of people having to repay it and that that discretionary housing payment remains in place?
Today, the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, gave an example of a case, which has been publicised, in Torfaen, the borough in which I live. I note that the Government made additional money available for discretionary housing payments to all 386 local authorities in this land and that only about 80 applied for money. In Wales, only Cardiff, Caerphilly and Conwy—it is very easy to remember them as the three “C”s—applied for discretionary housing payments and Torfaen did not. One can only assume therefore that local authorities which say that they do not need any more discretionary housing payment have enough to make available to people who have a need. I have a number of questions to ask those who support the case, which I read about in my local newspaper. Did those involved go to the local authority? Did the local authority turn them down for extra support, given that local authorities have enough money as they did not need to apply to the Government for additional money?
The second issue my party is concerned about is that of new homes. One of the problems that might come about as a result of this policy is the distortion as local authorities and housing associations decide to build more single-bedroom units. Can my noble friend give me any indication of what is happening in the housebuilding sector, not just in England but also in Wales? We could have a direct comparison with the record on housebuilding of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition and a Labour Government. On that matter, can my noble friend tell me whether the Government’s target for building 170,000 new homes in England by the end of this Parliament in 2015 is still on track? Is it being matched in Wales by the Labour Government on the number of houses that they will be building as well?
Finally, I would like to ask my noble friend a question about the overall budget for housing benefit. The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have all said that we have to try to contain the overall budget. In fact, in the other place all three parties voted in favour of the retention of that hold on the overall budget. Will the changes that have come about as a result of amendments to the secondary legislation affect the original estimates of expenditure on housing benefit, and how much, if at all, will this put up the bill for housing benefit in this coming year?
I have asked my noble friend a variety of questions. I would be grateful if he could tell us when “soon” means in terms of the first stage of the review of this policy.
My Lords, I will not test the patience of the House by going over ground that we have covered many times in recent weeks and months. On the general nature of the policy, one issue that is worth my dealing with is the recent BBC estimate that 6% of those affected by the spare room subsidy, or 30,000 people, moved during the first 11 months of its operation. Noble Lords opposite may see this as a sign of failure, but we do not. It is an example of the behavioural response that this policy is successfully driving. We have seen further evidence of this again today in the announcement by Housing Partners Ltd that in the past year it has increased by a quarter the number of successful mutual exchanges for social tenants. Its experience also shows that there is a steady supply of smaller one and two-bedroom properties available, which is at odds with some of the claims made today from the Benches opposite.
There are another couple of points on our general position that I have not dealt with before. One, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and amplified by the noble Lords, Lord Taylor and Lord Low, was about money-saving, so let me be precise on that. We know, and have stated in our impact assessment, that some people could downsize, some could move into the private rented sector and others could get discretionary housing payments. However, savings remain estimated at £500 million per annum and this did not change in the Budget, so the party opposite will not be able to argue—unless it can persuade the OBR—that this policy should be got rid of on the basis of cost because that is not what the OBR has calculated.
On the point about kinship carers, they will be treated as foster parents where they do not have a child placed with them or the child is not treated as occupying their home. However, where a carer is responsible for a child and the child is therefore treated as a member of the claimant’s household, they will be treated the same as other claimants under the size criteria.
I shall restrict my remaining comments to the Motion and the amendment to the regulations, explaining first what these regulations do. The instrument amends paragraph 4 of Schedule 3 to the Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (Consequential Provisions) Regulations 2006. These provide transitional protection for certain housing benefit claimants. The amendment removes the transitional protection from social sector tenants. This means that their housing benefit will be determined using Regulation 13 of the Housing Benefit Regulations 2006, which sets out the maximum rent in the social sector.
This transitional protection was provided for private sector tenants when local reference rent rules were introduced in 1996. These restricted the amount of housing benefit that could be awarded through private landlords charging high rents. Currently, fewer than 40,000 private sector claimants, mostly pensioners, are still covered by this protection. In answer to my noble friend Lord German’s question, it was never required by, or intended for, people living in social housing. Transitional support has already been provided for those affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy through discretionary housing payments. Unlike the loophole provision, this is available to those who claimed benefit after 1996.
Let me go through some of the specific issues raised about the loophole. My noble friend Lord German asked about numbers. The cost of the loophole will be so small that it will not impact on our forecast of housing benefit expenditure of £23.9 billion for the year. The claims that our estimates of the size are wrong are based on FoI figures that are at best speculative and at worst misleading. The claimants have 13 months to make their claims.
Regarding who will be expected to meet the costs—a question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Nye, and my noble friend Lord German—these will be met by the DWP through the normal subsidy arrangements. At the moment, we have £2 million of additional administrative funding to distribute.
My noble friend asked whether those covered by the loophole who received discretionary housing payments would have to repay it. The answer is no; the award was made when there was a need and reimbursing the housing benefit would not change that.
Let me pick up the point on inheritance, which we dealt with at some length during that recent Urgent Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. When a claimant dies, anyone living in a household who both takes over the tenancy and is awarded housing benefit within four weeks of the death can inherit the loophole protection. That was a process we already allowed for when we were looking at our costs. As my noble friend inquired, we are working on a major review of this for next year as well as an interim review, and I think I will stick with my “later this year” rather than “soon” at this point.
Turning now to what the Motion itself says, the noble Baroness’s Motion makes a series of unsubstantiated assertions. First, it states that the regulations cannot be amended without the precise number affected by the loophole being known. That simply is not true. It is not about numbers; it is a matter of principle. Parliament never intended that this transitional protection should apply to this group of claimants or to this policy. The regulations have been amended to restore that original policy intention.
Secondly, there is an accusation in the Motion of government confusion and mishandling. There is no confusion. As soon as the loophole was identified, we were clear that we would close it and that is exactly what we have done. Guidance was issued to local authorities. Arrangements were put in place to ensure that central Government met the costs of the loophole—both the benefit costs and the additional administrative costs.
The final claim in the Motion from the noble Baroness is that there is a disproportionate impact from the regulations on the most vulnerable. It is the loophole as it stood that was arbitrary and unfair. This transitional protection was never intended for this policy. As a result, it has protected a random group of claimants without a meaningful test or reason.
The removal of the spare room subsidy has now been operating for a year and it is working. The latest data show that the numbers facing a reduction in their housing benefit dropped by around 50,000 between May and November last year. Discretionary housing payments are funded and working: only £13 million of the £20 million reserve funding that we set aside has been allocated to local authorities. Revised DHP guidance was published yesterday, promoting longer-term awards where appropriate. The Court of Appeal has confirmed that the Government are meeting their human rights obligations and public sector equality duty. This year, we are saving about £490 million a year from the housing benefit bill.
In conclusion, the policy is working. The loophole has been closed. Arrangements are in place to support local authorities and those affected by the loophole. Finally, claimants have up to 13 months to make a claim that the loophole applied to them. For these reasons, this Motion should be withdrawn.
My Lords, I am in the unusual position of saying that I am not sure whether I agree with a single word that the Minister has just said. It was in fact the second most disappointing speech of the day.
The Minister has put forward three broad arguments. First, that it does not matter how many people are affected. But it matters to me, it matters to them and it matters to the local authorities, which have to deal with the mess that the Government have created.
Secondly, there is the question of savings. I noticed that the Minister failed to answer my question on what the net savings would be. Clearly, these savings are vanishing before us like a will o’ the wisp. The Minister also failed to explain how the savings remain the same, despite the Government having had to increase the money allocated for discretionary housing payments from £20 million to £190 million. The Government seem determined to ignore the costs and problems created for councils and other housing providers. If there is any doubt about that, let us remember that the National Audit Office said that the Government’s costings do not take account of,
“the full scale of potential impacts”,
and do not include the additional costs faced by local authorities. We have heard so much about those costs today from my noble friend Lord Beecham and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor.
There is then the question of overcrowding. As my noble friend Lady Hollis pointed out, this argument is frankly specious. There are not enough smaller homes to move into, a point underscored by my noble friend Lord Beecham, and where they are they are in the wrong places. They are not in the places where people are being asked to move. People have not moved because there is nowhere to move to. During the passage of the Welfare Reform Act, the noble Lord, Lord Best, and my noble friend Lady Hollis put an amendment to this House which said that the bedroom tax should not apply if someone could not be offered somewhere else to move to. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, had the courage to vote for that amendment at the time and I commend him for his consistency. Other noble Lords did not and the government Benches voted it down. Let us not therefore pretend that what the Government are really worried about is overcrowded houses. They had every opportunity to correct that and they failed it.
We have heard so many powerful speeches today about the misery and desperation caused by this policy. If the noble Lord, Lord Freud, really believes that this policy is a success, I would hate to see what his failures look like. If he feels that he is getting the right behavioural effects, what are they? Are they in the family described by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, who are not eating? Are they the families who are going without or giving up bedrooms needed by carers or disabled people? No: the handful of people who have moved are doing so out of desperation, not because they were responding to a behavioural stimulus.
I found the speech from the noble Lord, Lord German, very disappointing. I was delighted to read the reports of Tim Farron saying that the Liberal Democrats were going to withdraw their support for the bedroom tax.
When I asked my honourable friend in the other House whether that is what he had said, he said that he had not. I have his speech with me and I can also tell the noble Baroness that my honourable friend was interviewed by ITV on this matter but that ITV news decided not to broadcast his comments because they did not substantiate the allegations that the noble Baroness is now making, nor did they substantiate what the Guardian had said. Both of those sources are incorrect; the source is here in front of me and I invite my noble friends to listen to it.
My Lords, I am very grateful for that clarification. I take from it that the Liberal Democrats are in fact supportive of the bedroom tax and I thank the noble Lord for making that clear. If I have got that wrong again, the noble Lord has a very clear way of demonstrating it. They can join us in the Content Lobby today and the nation will judge them by that. If enough noble Lords were willing to come behind us today to stand up and say that this House does not believe that this is a good policy, or that this cruel, vicious, unfair and inefficient tax should be allowed to stay, a start would be to regret these regulations today. I urge noble Lords to do that and if enough people do, maybe the Government will think again. Maybe this House could start a process that would lead to the bedroom tax being repealed in this Parliament. However, if the Liberal Democrats will not do that and the Minister will not relent, let the country be in no doubt: the Labour Government will repeal this when they come to office. In the mean time, let us send a message today. I beg leave to test the opinion of the House.
Report (2nd Day) (Continued)
Clause 19: Residential tenancy agreement
24: Clause 19, page 19, line 26, at end insert—
“( ) Before implementing a pilot scheme to preclude the making of a residential tenancy agreement to which a person disqualified as a result of immigration status is party, the Secretary of State shall—
(a) consult such persons as she considers appropriate as to the criteria to be applied in order to assess and evaluate the scheme;(b) lay before Parliament a report on the proposed criteria.( ) The criteria shall include the application of an equalities impact assessment.”
My Lords, this is the first amendment in a group also containing Amendment 25 tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, along with several other amendments in her name. It is clear that there is widespread agreement that the provisions dealing with residential tenancies proposed in the Bill are complicated and risky—complicated in their operation and risky in the scope there may be for discrimination. However, I do not need to re-rehearse our previous debates today.
The Government have been very clear that—I am using a term that I hope will carry less baggage than some—the scheme will be tried out and tested in a single area from October this year, that formal evaluation will be produced, and that decisions on implementation more generally will be taken in the next Parliament on the basis of the evaluation via a negative resolution order. I have used pretty much word for word the language of my noble friend Lord Taylor in Committee on 10 March, which noble Lords can read in Hansard. Because I accept all that he said, I have therefore chosen to build on it.
It will be entirely obvious to the Minister what assurances I am seeking in my amendment: consultation as to the criteria to be applied to assess and evaluate the scheme. I acknowledge that I have of course pre-empted that consultation by reference to an equalities impact assessment. We can all think of a number of criteria, but we can also think of large numbers of organisations and individuals with expertise in the field who could helpfully have an input into the construction of the evaluation programme, and they should have an input. So my amendment proposes that,
“the Secretary of State shall … consult such persons as she considers appropriate”.
That is not a get-out because it is a well understood formula. I should say in parenthesis that I am glad that I have been allowed to say “she” of the Secretary of State and not “they”, which I understand is a new form of drafting that was imposed on me last week. The amendment would then require a report on the proposed criteria to be laid before Parliament, thus, if you like, hedging with precautions in advance. That is what the amendment is about. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that such arrangements as I have included in my amendment or others that are equally as reliable and transparent will be made. My amendment refers to a pilot scheme. I do not use the language of “phasing” or “rolling out” because I do not accept the implication inherent in those terms whereby, after the first application, further operation is unstoppable and that first application is to be in a single area.
I have two major concerns about the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. It mentions,
“one or more pilot schemes”.
There could, therefore, be more than one pilot to start with, and we know that in the Commons the proposal similar to that made by those on the noble Baroness’s Benches would apply to a London borough, a local authority and a county in each of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Alternatively, it could mean successive pilot schemes, which is rather close to a rollout. I realised this morning that it is ironic that I am more sceptical about this than the Opposition Benches.
My second concern is that the detail of that pilot or pilots would be in secondary legislation because the noble Baroness’s amendments take out all the other clauses dealing with residential tenancies. Therefore, secondary legislation would have to deal with every aspect, every component and—importantly—every exclusion from the scheme. The legislation would have to come to Parliament in the context of a negative resolution order. There would be far less opportunity than we have had in successive stages of primary legislation to scrutinise the detail. In addition—this is a fundamental distinction—we have been able to discuss and arrive at changes, which is not something that one can readily do, if at all, with secondary legislation.
Therefore, a single pilot process—with codes of practice and exclusions, for example, for hostels, refuges and much other accommodation, including student accommodation—is a far less risky route. I am not given to quoting Members of the other House but my honourable friend the Member for Cambridge got it right when he said that if pilots were imposed on more than one area, if they went wrong, they would go wrong in more than one area. I beg to move.
My Lords, I should like to speak to Amendment 25 and to our other amendments in the group that are consequential.
Before I proceed, the comment that I should like to make to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is that if, under the terms of our amendment, the Government got it wrong over the pilot, their chances of getting a further extension of their scheme—bearing in mind that we have called for primary legislation if that were the case—would of course be extremely remote. That would be an incentive for a Government who wanted to see their scheme extended to get the pilot right and to get it fair. For that reason, the noble Baroness’s objections to our amendments are, to put it mildly, a bit thin.
This debate relates to the part of the Bill on which we spent the most time in Committee, because many noble Lords had questions about how the provisions would work in practice. However, despite the time spent debating the Government’s proposals, a great many of the questions remained unanswered. We agree with the principle of making it more difficult for illegal migrants to rent property. In Committee, we proposed a new clause seeking to put in place a pilot to be undertaken before the provisions could be put fully into effect.
We have now tabled amendments that would remove the entire chapter and replace it with a power for the Secretary of State to undertake a pilot along the same lines. If the pilot is successful, the Government could then come back to primary legislation to implement it fully. Given the substantial number of concerns that have been raised about the detail of this part of the Bill, and the need to ensure that it works well and receives proper parliamentary scrutiny, this is an eminently reasonable proposition.
A range of organisations have expressed serious concerns about the impact of the proposals on landlords and residential tenancies. The vast majority of landlords—82%—do not support the proposals, according to a survey by the Residential Landlords Association. Giving evidence in the Commons, the chairman of the National Landlords Association said:
“It is going to impose an administrative burden on landlords who are not experts in immigration … The principle of checking identity is not so much the worry as the logistics of how that is done and understanding the documentation”.
In the same evidence session, the policy director of the Residential Landlords Association said that,
“we think that the Bill and its provisions are not workable and will not be effective in achieving the objectives set out”.—[Official Report, Commons, Immigration Bill Committee, 29/10/13; col. 43.]
Of course, one of the key concerns is whether these measures will be workable. The Government have published a draft code of practice for landlords. We asked a number of questions about this in Committee, including: who will be included in the provisions? How will tenants who have never rented out a property know about their obligations in relation to subletting? How will landlords familiarise themselves with, understand and recognise all the potentially relevant documentation?
We also asked questions about enforcement, including: how will it be established that a landlord had acted in breach of their duty? How will the fine be collected? Will provision be made for landlords who repeatedly break the law? Will Home Office staff become overwhelmed as a result of landlords using the telephone notification to the Home Office that they have conformed to the requirements in the Bill as a form of shield?
The Government’s replies on these points were, for the most part, very general and not very helpful. For example, on enforcement, it was stated that the provisions would be enforced,
“as part of the normal business of enforcing immigration law”,—[Official Report, 10/3/14; col. 1653.]
that they would be applied on a “light-touch basis”, and that the Government would be relying on landlords or agents to give evidence that they have complied with the prescribed requirements.
One thing we asked for in the light of these concerns was for the code of practice to receive greater scrutiny, and we are pleased that the Government have listened and require the code to be laid before Parliament and be made by order, but they should have gone further and at least made it subject to the affirmative procedure. We are also pleased by the Government’s commitment that the code will be ready before the first phase of the rollout begins.
A further concern, which we also heard about in Committee from many noble Lords, relates to the impact on vulnerable citizens, including victims of domestic violence, those with chaotic lifestyles, and pregnant women. We know that landlords already avoid renting to groups they perceive as higher risk, and given the difficulty in identifying documents and the potential liability for landlords, it is likely that landlords will want to be on the safe side and ask for a passport in every case, but many vulnerable people do not have a passport.
On this, again, the Minister’s answers were not particularly helpful. He said that the Bill provides,
“discretionary powers for the Secretary of State to authorise a tenant who has no lawful status to rent property”.—[Official Report, 12/3/14; col. 1798.]
How will that work in practice? There is a real danger that people, vulnerable people in particular, will either become homeless or be driven into the hands of unscrupulous landlords.
There is also widespread concern about the potential discriminatory nature of the proposals. These concerns have been expressed by a number of organisations, including Shelter, Liberty and the Catholic Church. We also heard them expressed in Committee. Again, we are pleased that the Government have listened and that the code of practice in relation to discrimination will receive greater scrutiny.
We had a debate in Committee between our proposition for a pilot and the Government’s phased rollout. As we said at that time, the key difference between our positions was the opportunity to pause and to fully reflect. We think that this policy needs to be tested before it can be implemented. This needs to be done in a thoughtful and measured way and, crucially, there needs to be an opportunity for Parliament to consider thoroughly the outcome of the pilot before it can be rolled out. That is necessary because of the many unanswered concerns and questions around these provisions.
We accept that the Government have moved some way in our direction on this—I do not seek to pretend otherwise. We are grateful and welcome the moves that have been made. Amendments have been tabled to protect students from the impact of the measures and to ensure that the codes of practice receive greater scrutiny and are in place before the first phase begins. The Government have also given further information about their proposals. They have said that the scheme will be initiated in October of this year in a single geographical area; that they will continue the discussions with interested parties on the codes of practice until then; that the evaluation criteria will be established for the first phase; that the Government will make a formal commencement order and publicise it to landlords and others; that a landlords’ checking service will be put in place for when the first phase commences; and that they will then evaluate the first phase. Then, seeing as the first phase, or pilot, will be initiated under the Government’s proposals in a single area, the Government will have to make a negative order in order to roll out the scheme nationally. Finally, they will publish an evaluation of the first phase for Parliament to scrutinise, and the Secretary of State will review the codes of practice after the first phase.
Before finishing with a couple of points on what the Government have said so far, I ask the Minister to clarify on the record that the Bill provides certainty that the scheme will not be rolled out after the initial pilot without bringing it back to Parliament. I understand that is covered by Clause 71(6) and (7). If that is the case, will the Minister make it clear that that is correct?
The changes in the Government’s position to which I have referred are welcome but there has been no satisfactory explanation as to why under the Government’s proposals the order to extend the scheme further will not have to be made by the affirmative procedure. We agree with the principle of preventing illegal migrants from accessing properties, but we need to ensure that the proposals that the Government have put forward actually work as intended before we go ahead with the scheme, since there are real doubts—which have been expressed in this House and by others outside this House—about the effectiveness and consequences of parts of the Government’s proposals. That is why the terms of our amendment require further primary legislation, since it is only through that process that there is certainty that the time will be made available for proper consideration of the evaluation of the pilot and the basis on which it is then proposed by the Government of the day that the scheme should be further extended.
My Lords, I have been engaged with the landlord and tenant clauses of the Bill through all the stages of its passage through your Lordships’ House. In Committee, I tabled nine amendments covering the duty for landlords to consider the immigration status of their tenants and, as a result, have had meetings with the Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and the key civil servants from the Home Office, together with representatives of landlords and tenants. These sessions have led to a series of clarifications and alterations to the Bill on which I will now comment.
We have already heard the welcome news on student accommodation, where, very helpfully, the Government have moved a long way. Another key ingredient in our discussions has been the issue covered by Amendments 24 and 25. This relates to a pilot scheme, trial or pathfinder, which representatives of both landlords and tenants see as essential before the new measure is applied more generally.
I pay tribute to the Minister for his concerted efforts to take on board the anxieties of those from the Residential Landlords Association, Crisis, the British Property Federation and others at our meetings. It would not be true to say that the requirement for landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants is welcomed. Landlords do not want an extra administrative task, with a hefty fine if they get it wrong. Those representing tenants’ interests remain convinced that the measure will make it even more difficult than it is already for anyone who might possibly be thought of as a foreigner to get a decent flat. However, these organisations are a good deal happier today than they were at the start of the process. A whole series of undertakings and expressions of intent has now been set out. Some of the changes will appear in the Bill through the government amendments brought forward today. Others will come in the details in secondary legislation and subsequent guidance and codes of practice, including in relation to potential discrimination.
I now have a long list of commitments and clarifications from the Government which, in combination, waylay a good many of the fears we have raised about this duty on landlords. I will now summarise the most significant of these, not least to enable the Minister to correct me if I am mistaken in any respect.
First, as we have heard, lettings to almost all students are taken out of the equation, including in private sector halls and also in houses and flats. Secondly, hostels run by charities and housing associations for homeless people are excluded, as are refuges for women fleeing violence, and accommodation for vulnerable people in immediate need. Thirdly, those leaving prison will be able to rely on much simpler paperwork to satisfy requirements than was feared.
Fourthly, only in exceptional circumstances will there be any need to check on tenants after they have moved in during the period of their tenancy. Fifthly, landlords will not have responsibility for checking on anyone else moving into the property after the tenant moves in, provided any additional occupier does not pay rent to the landlord.
Sixthly, the Home Office will have a hotline to deal with queries within 48 hours. After I expressed some disbelief that this would actually happen, I received reassurances that, if the Home Office fails to provide an answer within 48 hours on working days, the landlord can assume the verification has taken place and will not incur any penalty.
Seventhly, any organisation which wants to take responsibility from landlords for verifying the status of tenants can act as an agency. I understand that a number of bodies, including some that currently conduct reference and credit checks, have already made approaches to the Home Office. No doubt such agencies could do the job more quickly and cheaply than most local managing agents by becoming real experts in the process.
Eighthly, a consultative group chaired by a Minister will be created and will involve relevant bodies including the British Property Federation, Crisis, the Residential Landlords Association and others. This group will look at the secondary legislation, codes of practice, regulations, draft instruments and so on that relate to this measure.
Ninthly, with particular relevance to Amendments 24 and 25 that relate to one or more pilots, we now know that there will be such a trial in one area and that it will be big enough to provide for a proper evaluation. The consultative group will be fully involved to assess the impact of this new duty, and there will be no rollout of this measure before the evaluation is concluded and any consequent changes have been made to the arrangements. Finally, in any case there will be no rollout beyond the one trial area before the general election next year. All of these changes, and perhaps in particular the emphasis placed upon the pilot, trial or pathfinder scheme, have been well worth the effort in pursuing negotiations with the Home Office.
The position we are now in feels very different from where we came in a couple of months ago. This says something about the value of this House in raising concerns and, I believe, in improving the legislation and influencing the actions of government that will follow from the legislation. My guess is that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will receive the reassurances she seeks by her Amendment 24. It would be churlish of me to do other than express appreciation at this Report stage for the way in which the Minister has taken matters forward. Indeed, I look forward to joining colleagues on the ministerial consultative group that will engage with the trial run of the new regime.
Therefore I cannot, in all fairness, support Amendment 25 and those that follow in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and colleagues. However, I am grateful for the consistent support of the opposition Benches for all the changes that now leave the Bill in much better shape in this regard.
My Lords, the debates on the landlord provisions in the Bill have been good. I thank noble Lords for highlighting a number of very important issues, including the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, for her notion of the importance of workability for the scheme which we discussed in Committee. I also reiterate the appreciation of the Minister’s efforts that was expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Best.
I welcome the phased approach to implementation that the Minister has put forward in discussion. This will ensure that the system works in practice and is well communicated. I welcome the good length of time which has been left for the trial, the imaginative changes that have been made relating to students, and the various other commitments so elegantly summarised by the noble Lord, Lord Best. I would add the assurance that the Minister kindly gave in discussions we had, about a simple, useable website for landlords and tenants on the new rules.
However, it seems that the amendments would confine legislation to a pilot, so there would be no promise of legislation in this important area if the first phase worked, as we hope it will. That would strike at the heart of the Bill. Moreover, I think that my noble friend Lady Hamwee is wrong to highlight only the equality impact assessment. The burden on landlords, the way that enforcement works and the operation of the fines are also important considerations that we need to assess after the trial. For all these reasons, I encourage noble Lords to support the government amendments and to reject the other amendments before us.
My Lords, in supporting Amendment 25 I will simply make two very brief points about what I hope the evaluation of the pilot will include. The helpful note from the Minister prior to today made clear that it will look at the impact on tenants, including the impact on vulnerable groups. I ask that children should be included among those vulnerable groups, given the fears about the implications for children’s rights under the UNCRC and about possible homelessness that have been voiced by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and others. There is also a possible knock-on effect on local authorities if, as feared, there is an increase in homelessness among families with children.
The second point refers to lodgers. I am not quite sure whether it was covered by the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, who mentioned landlords not having to check people who then move in. Will this include the tenants of landlords, or social tenants who take a lodger? Certainly in Committee it was said that they will be included. If they are included, it is very important that any pilot or any evaluation includes the impact on them. This could be a group of very vulnerable people, some of them affected by the bedroom tax, who take in a lodger in order to try to make up the shortfall from the bedroom tax. They probably do not think of themselves as landlords at all, and would then have to grapple with a long code of practice and act as mini-immigration officers. I fear that that may not work very well. Therefore, I hope that the evaluation will include that group.
My Lords, I had a number of concerns about this part of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Best, was absolutely right to say that landlords do not like it—I think that that was a point made also by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. Well, of course, they do not like it, because it is asking them to do something, and nobody likes that—it does not matter what group it is.
The question we need to ask ourselves is: is what is now being asked of them fair and reasonable? The information that I have been given to help alleviate my concerns convinces me that the provisions now in the Bill are reasonable and will be made workable by the code of practice. I want particularly to thank my noble friend the Minister for his hard work in making certain that the concerns that have been raised by all sides have been taken into account as much as possible. It is never, of course, totally possible to alleviate everybody’s concerns, but what the Home Office has now said is very reassuring that this is a scheme which, although perhaps difficult in places, will be a practical solution.
If what is in the Bill is a practical solution, is what is before us in Amendment 25 any better? The answer to that, clearly, is no. I do not think that it helps the situation at all; it lacks definitions; and it would cause far more confusion than the Bill before us, as amended.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for all his consideration, for meeting me and for his informative and constructive letter, which covered Kids Company’s concerns around young people who find themselves with non-immigration status. However, I would like to have put on record clarification around the residential tenancy provision, which is a tremendously important issue for this group and carries several implications for their well-being. Can the Minister confirm that the residential tenancy provisions do not apply in the case of a child with irregular status or any child who is under 18? If the young person, having turned 18, has applied for leave to remain in the UK and while the application is being determined, do the tenancy provisions apply? Finally, is the position the same in the provisions relating to bank accounts, which those young people will need in order to pay their rent?
My Lords, I made clear my support for the Government when I spoke on Amendment 23. Therefore, it will not surprise the House that I have some difficulty with the thinking behind this group of amendments. I shall not repeat my philosophical concerns, but where the matter comes to a sharp point is the position on overstaying and illegal migrants. We need to enforce immigration law. There is public concern about it. If we delay taking action, that public concern will increase and give rise to perhaps nastier people trying to ride that particular issue and gain publicity from it. I am interested in hearing how we minimise delays in moving this part of the legislation forward. When I heard the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, introduce Amendment 25 and how it could lead to a need for further primary legislation, it seemed to me that that could be a means by which the measure could be stopped altogether and the whole proposal would sink with all hands.
To a lesser extent, I have the same problem with the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, which seems to add another cycle into the consideration of an issue which is very high on the public agenda. If we fail to address it, we will probably regret not having done so. I hope that my noble friend, as he has on other occasions having made concessions, will stick to his guns and make sure that we can move this secondary legislation forward in the very near future.
My Lords, we have discussed at length and, I hope, to some good ends the important objective of this part of the Bill. I want to restate some of the background for the benefit of the House.
We are seeking in this Bill to control illegal migrant access to the private rented sector, because we have listened carefully to the public’s concern about the need to prevent illegal immigration. That follows on very neatly from the contribution of my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. To this end, the Government are committed to remaining firm on border controls, but we can provide a complete response to illegal immigration only if we work in partnership with those offering employment, housing and other services to deny the practical means of remaining to those without permission to stay.
The landlord provisions have been carefully drafted to deliver a scheme which works, which defines the differing responsibilities of landlord, agent and tenant, and which provides clear, robust safeguards for both landlords and vulnerable groups in need of accommodation. The drafting mirrors the existing civil penalty scheme for employers of illegal workers, which we know works well in practice. The proposed opposition amendment would sweep away these carefully constructed clauses and replace them with a pilot provision lacking the necessary detail and clarity.
I understand the desire of noble Lords to ensure that the landlords scheme is “workable” and that the provisions are tested and carefully evaluated. Indeed, it is our intention to adopt a carefully phased approach to implementation and to ensure that we get the guidance and support services absolutely right before considering wider implementation beyond the first phase. As we have made clear, decisions on further implementation will be taken after the general election during the next Parliament. I should make it clear to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that we need no further incentive to get this right than to deliver a policy which we consider is important for the control of illegal immigration to this country.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hamwee for tabling her Amendment 24. The Government have given a commitment to a carefully managed, phased implementation of the landlords scheme. The scheme will be implemented initially, as has been said by noble Lords, following on from commitments that I have already made, in a single geographical area, and the Government have committed to a full evaluation of the first phase. Any decisions on a wider rollout will be taken in the light of the evaluation after the general election during the next Parliament.
My noble friend’s amendment is intended to be supportive, and I have considerable sympathy with the objectives behind it—my noble friend seeks reassurance on issues that I know concern her. As the House will know, I have been discussing the landlord provisions with my noble friend Lady Hamwee, the noble Lord, Lord Best, and a number of expert groups, including the Residential Landlords Association, Crisis and the British Property Federation. I completely share their concern that the scheme should be introduced carefully, with the benefit of advice and input from expert groups.
I can therefore inform the House that, following these discussions and in the light of the contributions that noble Lords across the House have made in debates on these provisions, we have decided to convene a formal consultative panel to oversee the operation and evaluation of the first phase. It will be chaired by a Home Office Minister. The panel will be established within the next few months and its full composition will be finalised once a decision has been reached on the location of the initial phase—we need local knowledge to support the group. I have invited the noble Lord, Lord Best, and a number of groups to join the panel. It will also include local representatives from the area covered by the trial. The panel will provide transparency, objectivity and the necessary degree of expert input for the first phase, the location of which will be determined and published before the House rises for the summer.
We expect to announce the location for the first phase at that time and will then indicate the principal proposed themes for the evaluation, leaving it to the panel to lead work on the development of specific evaluation measures and metrics. Of course, there are obvious areas that it would be sensible for any proper valuation to cover, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, made clear in her contribution, including the ease with which landlords and tenants can comply with the new checks and access the necessary guidance and support services. I hope that I can reassure the House that one objective of such an evaluation is to eliminate any impact on vulnerable groups or the incidence of unlawful racial discrimination by landlords. The desired objective, which lies at the bottom of the whole policy, is to deny rented accommodation to illegal migrants.
However, Amendment 25, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, would remove the framework from primary legislation altogether and place it wholly in secondary legislation, lessening the degree of parliamentary oversight. That simply ignores the fact that the provisions have enjoyed the closest scrutiny in this Parliament. We have, as far as possible, placed details of the proposed scheme in the primary legislation, reserving the use of regulation-making powers only where necessary. The amendment would not provide a clear legal basis to operate new landlord duties, even as a pilot. It provides no mechanism for landlords to object or appeal against a penalty, rendering the new clause incompatible with human rights law. Neither does it provide transparency in the type of tenancy agreement to be exempt from the checking requirement.
The Bill makes those provisions clear in primary legislation, in the interest of providing certainty for vulnerable groups. The Government have worked closely with bodies representing landlords, students, the homeless and vulnerable and provided important safeguards in primary legislation. It would be understandable if they were concerned if those safeguards were no longer enshrined in primary legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, will know that the negative procedure provides for further scrutiny before any further rollout of the scheme.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked specifically about lodgers of social tenants. A social tenant who takes a lodger will be a landlord for the purposes of the scheme. The Home Office will work with social landlords to help their tenants understand their obligations.
The reason I raised the matter was to ensure that lodgers were included as part of the evaluation and, going back to the question of vulnerable groups, that children were specifically considered.
I hope that I made that clear. I think that the record will show that I said that that would form part of the evaluation.
Let us not forget that the amendment proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on which we have not yet voted, but which I think the whole House welcomes, puts the welfare of children at the centre of the Bill in all considerations. So what I am saying includes children and vulnerable groups as part of the evaluation of the scheme. That is part of making it effective. I hope that that reassures my noble friend Lady Benjamin as well. Those with outstanding in-time applications will be allowed to rent. I have written to her on many points that she has rightly raised on behalf of an important sector of vulnerable people. I thank her for her correspondence.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I refer to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, my noble friend Lady Hamwee and the noble Lord, Lord Best, for whose support I am grateful not just in this debate but in continuing to make sure that we get this right. I assure him that his little list is an accurate reflection of commitments that we have made, which will be on the record. I have already mentioned the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. I mention also my noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe, Lord Caithness, Lady Benjamin and Lord Hodgson.
I think we all agree that we have made a lot of progress since Second Reading, when lots of anxieties and concerns were expressed by noble Lords. Given that progress, I hope that the degree of reassurance that I have been able to give noble Lords will mean that my noble friend Lady Hamwee and, in turn, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, will agree not to press their amendments.
My Lords, I was never going to persuade my noble friend not to use the words “phased” or “rollout”, but it is the substance rather than the language that matters, I think.
Like the Minister, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, was not suggesting that the Government do not have an incentive to get this right. The noble Lord referred in his speech consistently to a pilot, but his amendment still talks about a pilot or pilots in the plural. As I said, one can read that as meaning either consecutive or concurrent—or possibly even both. Much of what the noble Lord said seemed to me to be an argument for what the Government are proposing, but I will thank him for one thing, because I am not normally called thin, so I am grateful for that. The matters for evaluation, to which two noble Baronesses have referred, are extremely important, and I was glad to hear the comments about them.
I do not want to take longer than another sentence or two, but I would say that the account given by the noble Lord, Lord Best, is the best evidence that I could have heard that the procedure that I seek is the one that will actually be followed, given the assurances from the Minister. I would say to noble Lords that I did not know that a formal consultative panel was to be proposed, and I am very glad to hear it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 24 withdrawn.
25: Clause 19, leave out Clause 19 and insert the following new Clause—
“Residential tenancies: pilot
(1) The Secretary of State may by order make one or more pilot schemes under which landlords in a designated area must not authorise an adult to occupy premises under a residential tenancy agreement if the adult is disqualified as a result of their immigration status.
(2) An order under subsection (1) may make provision about—
(a) the principles by reference to which the pilot (or pilots) will operate;(b) the circumstances under which a landlord may authorise an adult to occupy premises under the terms of the pilot (or pilots);(c) descriptions of persons to be identified as landlords for the purposes of the pilot (or pilots);(d) descriptions of applicable residential tenancy agreements for the purposes of the pilot (or pilots); (e) descriptions of persons disqualified by their immigration status from occupying premises under the pilot (or pilots);(f) applicable penalties for landlords in contravention of the terms of the pilot (or pilots) and enforcement of such penalties;(g) excuses available to landlords and appeals against penalties; and(h) the publication of codes of practice for landlords.(3) An order under subsection (1) must specify—
(a) the area or areas in respect of which the pilot (or pilots) operates;(b) the day on which the pilot (or pilots) comes into effect; and(c) the period for which the pilot (or pilots) has effect. (4) The Secretary of State must publish, and lay before both Houses of Parliament, a report setting out an evaluation of any pilot (or pilots) ordered under subsection (1).”
My Lords, we have a number of amendments in this group but we will not move any of them. In a sentence, although the Government have certainly not moved as far as we would like, we welcome that they have moved closer to our position.
Amendment 25 not moved.
Schedule 3: Excluded residential tenancy agreements
Amendments 26 to 29
26: Schedule 3, page 65, line 32, leave out “comprises a hall of residence predominantly” and insert “is used wholly or mainly”
27: Schedule 3, page 66, line 1, leave out from second “is” to “hall” in line 4 and insert “a”
28: Schedule 3, page 66, line 5, after “paragraph” insert “and paragraph 11A”
29: Schedule 3, page 66, line 12, at end insert—
“11A An agreement under which accommodation is provided to a student who has been nominated to occupy it by an institution or body of the kind mentioned in paragraph 11(2).”
Amendments 26 to 29 agreed.
Clause 20: Persons disqualified by immigration status or with limited right to rent
Amendment 30 not moved.
Clause 21: Persons disqualified by immigration status not to be leased premises
Amendment 31 not moved.
Clause 22: Penalty notices: landlords
Amendment 32 not moved.
Clause 23: Excuses available to landlords
Amendment 33 not moved.
Clause 24: Penalty notices: agents
Amendment 34 not moved.
Clause 25: Excuses available to agents
Amendment 35 not moved.
Clause 26: Eligibility period
Amendment 36 not moved.
Clause 27: Penalty notices: general
Amendment 37 not moved.
Clause 28: Objection
Amendment 38 not moved.
Clause 29: Appeals
Amendment 39 not moved.
Clause 30: Enforcement
Amendment 40 not moved.
Clause 31: General matters
41: Clause 31, page 28, line 19, leave out subsection (6) and insert—
“(6) The code (or revised code)—
(a) may not be issued unless a draft has been laid before Parliament, and(b) comes into force in accordance with provision made by order of the Secretary of State.”
My Lords, these amendments have been tabled in the light of comments made by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The committee recommended that the code regarding the prevention of discrimination should be laid before Parliament and then brought into force by negative resolution order. The Government accept this recommendation.
In relation to the code regarding general matters, the committee considered that this should be subject to no less a degree of parliamentary scrutiny than that which applies to the equivalent code relating to the employers’ civil penalty scheme. The committee further suggested that this code should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. We considered this carefully, but concluded that the negative resolution procedure would provide the appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny. We have discussed this to some degree in the previous amendments. This code will provide technical guidance on matters of interpretation and practical operation, such as factors to be taken into account in establishing whether a residential tenancy agreement grants a right of occupation as a main and only place of residence and the factors to be taken into account in calculating the amount of a penalty that a landlord or agent should be liable to pay.
This is analogous to the equivalent code of practice relating to illegal working, which is brought into force by the negative procedure. For these reasons the Government believe that the new code should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny in a consistent manner. The amendment has been tabled accordingly. I beg to move.
I have only one brief comment to make; indeed, the Minister has already touched on it with his comment about the suggestions that have been made, in at least one case, that the affirmative procedure would be more appropriate. I am not quite sure why the Minister is arguing that he thinks that the negative procedure would be equally effective. If the Government believe that the negative procedure is just as effective as the affirmative procedure presumably they see no distinction between the two. Clearly there is a distinction. Clearly Parliament believes that the affirmative procedure is a more effective one, since it requires an affirmative resolution by Parliament in support of the proposition that the Government have made. Can the Minister put forward a more convincing argument than he has as to why they will not accept that it should be by affirmative procedure and why they think it should be by negative procedure?
I suppose we could argue about this for quite a long time if we chose to. I laid out consistency with the employers’ regulations, which are very similar in content. As I mentioned in the previous debate, the thing about the negative procedure is that it is open to any Member to bring the subject matter to debate in this House. Parliamentary scrutiny is not overridden. My hope is that it will be possible, by the time we get to this phase, that we will indeed have a situation where the House is well informed with the issues involved, well informed with the evaluation of the scheme, and well informed of the way in which the scheme is intending to work. I believe that at that point government and Parliament will be confident that they can proceed and that proper scrutiny has been provided. One would have to say that this has been very carefully considered by the Government and we have come to the conclusion that the negative procedure is the appropriate form of introducing this statutory instrument.
Amendment 41 agreed.
Amendment 42 not moved.
Clause 32: Discrimination
Amendments 43 to 45
43: Clause 32, page 28, line 37, leave out from “draft” to end of line 39
44: Clause 32, page 28, line 39, at end insert—
“( ) The code (or revised code)—
(a) may not be issued unless a draft has been laid before Parliament (prepared after considering representations under subsection (4)(b) and with or without modifications to reflect the representations), and(b) comes into force in accordance with provision made by order of the Secretary of State.”
45: Clause 32, page 28, line 43, leave out subsection (6)
Amendments 43 to 45 agreed.
Amendment 46 not moved.
Clause 33: Orders
Amendment 47 not moved.
Clause 34: Transitional provision
Amendment 48 not moved.
Clause 35: Crown application
Amendment 49 not moved.
Clause 36: Interpretation
Amendment 50 not moved.
Clause 38: Related provision: charges for health services
Amendment 51 not moved.
52: After Clause 38, insert the following new Clause—
“Exemption of charging for primary medical services where charging is not cost-effective or poses a risk to public health
(1) Section 182 of the National Health Service Act 2006 (remission and payment of charges) is amended as follows.
(2) After subsection (1), insert—
“(2) Insofar as any regulations under section 175 provide for charges to be made for the provision of primary medical services, they shall include provision for the remission in full of any charge that falls below the minimum threshold of service cost.
(3) In subsection (2), the “minimum threshold of service cost” shall be the cost to the provider of primary medical services below which no charge is to be made for the provision of those services.
(4) Where regulations under section 175 provide for a charge to be made for the provision of primary medical services, the provider of those services may waive the charge where he or she considers that the cost of recovering the charge is not economical or where the consequences of charging may put the public health at risk.””
My Lords, Amendment 52 is to do with public health protection. In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, spoke to this amendment, for which I was very grateful as unfortunately I had a long-standing commitment which I had to attend. The noble Baroness, like me, is passionate about health safety and knows that the Bill may cause danger to the health of the nation. Some people who have not paid the health levy may not seek help when they become ill because they fear being reported to the authorities and they may not have the money for tests and medication.
I am particularly concerned because, with the resistance to antibiotics and antivirals, diseases may be spread when people leave treatment too late. If they think they have to pay for medication, they will not go to primary healthcare for diagnosis. What will be the point?
As it is, it is very difficult to find some homeless people who need screening and I congratulate the organisation Find and Treat. I thank both Ministers for the recent meeting we had with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and the noble Earl, Lord Howe. It is important that departments work together over this complex matter with Public Health England. This amendment is to do with public health and cost-effectiveness.
I declare an interest as an officer of the APPG on Primary Care and Public Health and the groups on HIV and tuberculosis.
The purpose of the amendment is to provide an exemption from NHS charges where the cost of imposing and recovering a charge is not cost-effective or where the imposition of a charge constitutes a risk to public health. Doctors of the World supports this amendment, as do other health organisations.
In its response to last year’s consultation, the Royal College of General Practitioners made clear that it,
“opposes any change to the eligibility rules for migrants accessing GP services”.
Among the reasons given for its opposition were risks to public health and the imposition of new administrative burdens. Dr Mark Porter, the chair of the BMA council, has described the proposed charges as, “impractical, uneconomic and inefficient”. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges emphasised in its response to the consultation that any proposals adopted,
“should not … create a bureaucratic process and burden that outweighs any tangible benefits”.
The amendment does not prevent charging but provides some flexibility within the proposed system to make it more cost-effective. The requirement to set a,
“minimum threshold of service cost”,
introduced in proposed new subsections (2) and (3) of Section 182 of the National Health Service Act 2006, achieves this. It requires the Secretary of State to stipulate a figure in regulations. If the cost of providing primary care falls below the stipulated figure, there is to be no charge. Similarly, if the provider of primary care considers that it will not be cost-effective to recover the charge, the provider may waive the charge. This would be achieved by the amendment in proposed new subsection (4) to Section 182 of the National Health Service Act 2006. Section 182 concerns exemptions from charges, including NHS charges to be made under Section 175, to which Clause 34(2) of the Bill refers. To this extent, the amendment responds to the concerns of the Royal College of General Practitioners, the BMA council and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. The Department of Health has acknowledged that,
“the administrative cost may outweigh the recoverable charges for frequently used but relatively inexpensive services”.
The amendment would be limited to primary care, because in this setting the provision of healthcare is most likely to raise questions about the cost-effectiveness of imposing and seeking to recover a charge. Discrete secondary care interventions are likely to be generally more expensive. At a Commons Bill Committee, the then Immigration Minister, Mark Harper MP, said,
“we will not do anything that will worsen public health”.—[Official Report, Commons, Immigration Public Bill Committee, 12/11/13; col. 310.]
Of course it is important for those who are in the UK, even if they are not here legally, to have access to public health treatment because it has an impact, not just on them but on the rest of the community. That is well understood by both the Home Office and the Department of Health. However, the Bill, and the charges for which it is intended to pave the way, will worsen public health.
The Bill extends the range of migrants who may be liable for NHS charges. Currently, those who are living in the UK lawfully for settled purposes as part of the regular order of their life have free access to NHS services. Clause 34 will mean that all non-European Economic Area migrants who do not have indefinite leave to enter or remain—that is, permanent residence—will be liable for NHS charges. The Government further intend to greatly extend the range of NHS services to which these charges apply.
Currently, primary care as accident and emergency treatment is free of charge. The Government are to introduce charging for primary care as accident and emergency treatment, although GP consultations are to remain free. It appears that any treatment that the GP may provide further to that consultation will be charged for. This is to contribute to the hostile environment that the Home Secretary says the Bill is intended to create for undocumented migrants. However, if undocumented migrants, including victims of human trafficking and refused asylum seekers, are to be charged for any treatment that they may need following a GP consultation, it seems highly unlikely that many of them will attend a GP. What will be the point if they cannot pay for any treatment that they may need?
As the RCGP emphasised in its response to the consultation,
“diagnosis of infectious disease is a core activity of general practice”.
The Department of Health has acknowledged this. The Government have committed to retaining free treatment for the specified communicable and sexually transmitted diseases but, as the RCGP said, often people suffering from infectious diseases do not know what is making them ill. It is likely that a significant number of individuals will be deterred from presenting at their GP practice for fear of charges and/or eligibility checks.
Similarly, we are concerned that limiting access to primary care would impact detrimentally on immunisation rates, as it would be more difficult to encourage presentation by parents from non-eligible migrant groups. We note that the royal college is right to be concerned about eligibility checks, particularly given the intention of the Home Office to extend its radar into the NHS via these checks, as revealed by the Home Office Permanent Secretary last year. That matter is not addressed by the amendment. However, the amendment would mitigate the potential deterrent effect of NHS charging by permitting a primary care provider to waive a fee where to do so is necessary on public health grounds. This would be included in proposed new subsection (4) to Section 182, referred to earlier. This would provide some amelioration of the concerns of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. It says:
“Although we welcome the statement that there should be exemptions from charging in respect of infectious diseases including all”,
sexually transmitted infections,
“we are concerned about the potential effect of the proposed legislation on migrants with mental health problems and/or those with developmental disorders and intellectual disabilities. There is a strong public health case for considering the needs of these vulnerable groups when making decisions about charging exemptions”.
The amendment would also permit a GP to waive a fee to treat a condition where the likely result of not doing so was that the condition would deteriorate to a point where urgent and much more expensive treatment became necessary. The NHS gains no advantage from not doing this, since the person who cannot pay for an early and relatively inexpensive intervention will be no better placed to pay for a later and very expensive one. An example was given by the Northern Ireland Law Centre in its June 2013 policy briefing of an asylum seeker who required an inhaler due to her asthma. When she was refused asylum she found herself excluded from healthcare, and without an inhaler her condition deteriorated so far that she was admitted to an intensive care unit and remained in hospital for five days. I beg to move.
My Lords, I appreciate that the charging arrangements are not ones for this Bill. I simply want to say that many of the concerns voiced by the noble Baroness are ones that we share. We had amendments on issues around this at the previous stage, and we look forward to discussing how arrangements brought in by the Department of Health will be implemented. However, I realise that that is a matter for another day.
My Lords, I very much hope that the Minister will have a deep discussion with his colleague, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, from the Department of Health, not necessarily about every single word of this quite lengthy amendment but about the general questions that it raises. I have in my hand a letter from the president of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Richard Thompson, which was not one of those colleges mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, but which raises serious questions about the public health implications unless we can look very carefully at them in the short while before Third Reading.
I think the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, who has played a crucial role in the whole area of sexual diseases, particularly AIDS, would bear out the argument made by Sir Richard. The major point he makes, and it is a very important one, is that there is considerable evidence that people who are invited to clinics, particularly the Doctors of the World Clinic in east London, to be tested for very dangerous and infectious diseases such as AIDS and drug-resistant tuberculosis—which is growing rapidly and now becoming a significant international threat to the good health even of people in relatively healthy countries such as our own—will see even relatively limited financial barriers as reasons not to attend. One of the prime difficulties is that when somebody attends a primary care facility, which is still generally available, or an A&E clinic and is referred on for testing to a hospital or another A&E clinic the real danger is that they will find this a reason not to attend. One has to accept that many people do not want to know what may be wrong with them. They are frightened of learning the results so any kind of hindrance is used as an excuse for not going.
The House will know, because it has had many discussions on infectious diseases and among its Members contains many experts in the field, the lethal consequences of people with AIDS or drug-resistant tuberculosis moving among the community where they live without being aware of the very serious, often lethal, consequences of passing on that infection. Sir Richard points out in his letter to me that one experience of that east London clinic is precisely that. There is a very rapid multiplying consequence of people not knowing what they have or knowing it and continuing to act as if they do not have to be treated. I simply plead with the House, from a non-partisan point of view, to look very closely at this amendment and consider what can best be done about it, in the interests of every citizen of this country and overseas visitors, to ensure that every possible step will be taken to ensure that highly infectious diseases are not passed on to innocent passers-by, friends or members of the family.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on speaking so powerfully on behalf of a vulnerable group. This is an important amendment. I spoke on this issue at Second Reading and I am sorry to have missed the Committee stage, when I think the noble Earl, Lord Howe, gave another response, but I am still not satisfied that the Government have taken a serious interest in this. When I spoke at Second Reading the report of Médecins du Monde seemed to me very compelling. Has the Minister seen it? The noble Baroness quoted several authorities and I will not repeat them but I think this has serious consequences, not only for that group but for the population at large, especially in the field of mental health.
My Lords, briefly, when we look at the Second Reading and Committee debates, one area of the Bill where there has been the least clarity for noble Lords is in trying to understand the implications beyond what are now Clauses 37 and 38. It is not necessarily the words of the clauses but some of the rhetoric that the Government have used in describing the Bill, such as “health tourism”. I know that there are expectations of what this Bill was going to do and concerns about the implications. I think there is an opportunity for the noble Lord. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, is to be congratulated on bringing this forward to give some clarity to what is involved. I have had several e-mails and letters from organisations that are extremely concerned. They are not trying to scaremonger; they are trying to understand the public health implications.
In a meeting I had with noble Lord, he was very helpful in explaining that he did not feel that there would be any public health implications and that people who needed treatment would receive it at the point at which they needed it. However, I think a little clarity would be helpful. The two issues of the public health of the nation and cost-effectiveness have exercised your Lordships in looking at this matter. If the Minister can bring some clarity to the two issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, it would be extremely helpful and perhaps helpful to the wider audience outside your Lordships’ House, who have genuine concerns and are trying to ensure that they operate in the best interests of public health and within the law. There is considerable confusion as to what that will be.
My Lords, I agree that this is a very useful opportunity to inform the House of where we are on this issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, will understand that the provisions in the Bill are one thing and the wider provisions for implementing health service charging are another. We had a really useful meeting with my noble friend Lord Howe where a number of noble Lords present came to talk about this issue. I think noble Lords will agree he is very much focused on the full implications of any changes. I reassure the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that Médecins du Monde corresponds with me on a fairly regular basis so I know what its concerns are and unfortunately it was not at the meeting with the noble Earl, Lord Howe. If it had been I think it would have understood better the way in which the health service reforms were being taken forward. The other thing which it would certainly have picked up is that it is absolutely clear that treatment for infectious public health conditions is free to all and will remain so. We should just make that clear; I hope that it reassures my noble friend Lady Williams and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham.
As we discussed at length when we were talking about this issue, any exemptions from the NHS charging of short-term visitors and illegal migrants are not really a matter for the Home Office. This is not a provision that is being enacted in the Bill and is not a question on which the Home Office would make a decision. Exemptions are a matter for the Department of Health. I know that they are being considered very sensitively. Let us not forget that, within the devolved remit, while there is one United Kingdom for immigration purposes there are four national health services within the United Kingdom. It is not for me from this Dispatch Box to speak on their behalf. I have no wish to cause a constitutional crisis by inadvertently taking over responsibilities for which I have no responsibility.
My noble friend Lord Howe has agreed to meet again with noble Lords. I think that everybody felt that that was a helpful meeting. I want to keep everybody in the loop; I can act as a facilitator in this respect. When my noble friend’s department has developed more detailed proposals for reforming NHS overseas visitor charging arrangements—and it is that charging which is being looked at in particular, for people on short visits here—this will provide the appropriate time and context for discussions on the NHS charging arrangements for these groups.
Going back to the beginning, I confirm that treatment for infectious public health conditions is free for all and will remain so. I hope that that is a big reassurance. Given that reassurance, alongside our existing commitment that GP and nurse consultations will remain free to all and that that is not limited to the first consultation, I hope that the noble Baroness will indeed withdraw her amendment. I look forward to having further discussions with her and my noble friend Lord Howe in the future.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and all who have supported the amendment. What is confusing is that Clauses 37 and 38 cover the new charges and restrictions of healthcare access in this Bill. Therefore, it is surely an immigration and health matter. Therefore, unless there is a combination working together on this complex matter, there will be confusion and people may fall through the net. I hope that I have helped to get the message across that public health and protection are vital, especially when dealing with vulnerable people. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 52 withdrawn.
53: Before Clause 43, insert the following new Clause—
“Recruitment agencies: local workforce
In section 5 of the Employment Agencies Act 1973 (general regulations), after subsection (2) insert—“(2A) The Secretary of State may by order prohibit United Kingdom based agencies, as defined in this section, from including only people not ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom as their clients.””
My Lords, I am moving again an amendment which we moved in Committee which we consider to be key and ought to be in the Bill. Clauses 43 and 44 deal with the issue of work and would, first, streamline the processes by which an employer can object to or appeal against a civil penalty by requiring employers to raise an objection to the Secretary of State before making an appeal to the civil court. Secondly, it would make it easier to enforce unpaid civil penalty debts in the civil courts.
Immigration is a welcome and important part of our life and our country’s success over the years owes much to the people who have come here from around the world and have helped to make it a better place. However, we are all aware of the fact that immigration can bring with it certain pressures and certain difficulties for our communities. The Bill does not include any of the important work-related measures which we have been calling for, and we tabled a number of amendments for Committee stage as a means of raising these issues. Amendment 53 has the aim of ending the practice of some recruitment agencies excluding local workers.
To state what I hope is obvious, many or most recruitment agencies are a great asset to the communities in which they work, helping employers and potential employees find work, and keeping local economies in particular ticking over. However, there has been a problem with some employment agencies effectively taking on only foreign workers and excluding British people from their books.
That has become more of an issue because, over the past couple of decades there has been a significant growth in agency employment; I understand that the figures show a 500% increase in agency workers between the mid-1980s and 2007. A look at the figures shows that migrants are increasingly overrepresented within agency work, particularly at the lower end, with A8 accession country migrants constituting the largest single group of agency workers. In some sectors—the meat and poultry processing industry, for example—there are examples which have come to light of British workers facing difficulty registering for work with some agencies which exclusively supply migrant workers, generally eastern European nationals.
We have the evidence of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which conducted a major survey in 2010 and found that one-third of agencies confirmed that they had acted unlawfully in sometimes supplying workers by judging what nationality the processing firm would prefer, or responding to direct requests often based on stereotypes about the perceived dependability of particular nationalities. There has been the example of an organisation advertising cleaning services with a message saying that it has a thorough vetting system for all its cleaners, and then going on to say that they all come from Poland and that several of them have had extensive cleaning experience in the United Kingdom. In 2010, we had the case of a British supermarket supplier accused of discriminating against local workers after insisting that new recruits had to speak fluent Polish. The firm, I believe, was one of Asda’s biggest suppliers—it was not Asda itself—and it maintained that the requirement was necessary to ensure that all employees could understand the same instructions. The condition was included in an e-mail advert sent out on behalf of the firm and dispatched to hundreds of potential applicants on that particular agency’s books. The advert read:
“Immediate factory work available! If you are available or have any friends available, work is starting tomorrow for induction training. Ongoing factory work (meat production) for 4-5 months, shifts are 7am-5pm or 9am-7pm. Transport provided. Applicants must speak Polish”.
The latter sentence would appear to indicate that it was asked for a certain category of potential employee, since I do not know that Polish is spoken very much in this country, apart from among Polish people.
My Lords, I would like to reinforce that point. In the previous election in Stoke, I found people complaining bitterly that you had to speak Polish and that all the health and safety instructions were in Polish in certain factories. There are other such stories, so it is a serious point.
I thank my noble friend for that helpful intervention. The idea that, in core sectors of our economy, recruitment agencies should exclude local workers and make a virtue of being able to offer—this is often the reason it is done—cheaper, more flexible and allegedly more compliant staff than those available locally is surely wrong. It cannot be fair on UK workers who do not have the opportunity to compete for those jobs, and it is certainly not going to help us rebuild our economy.
As I understand it, currently the only way for action to be taken is for an individual to bring about a discrimination case through an employment tribunal or for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to bring a compliance order. That is because recruitment agencies—or, rather, the recruitment agencies concerned; I do not want to suggest that it is all of them—are not legally prevented from acting in this particular way. We need to strengthen the law so that agencies are not able to operate such practices, either formally or informally. If this kind of practice is going to continue, then we need to start enforcing that law properly, with more prosecutions for agencies that flout discrimination laws. That is why we have tabled this amendment again on Report. In replying to this point in Committee, the Minister, on behalf of the Government, acknowledged that,
“there is a problem with a small number of unscrupulous employment agencies that source labour exclusively from overseas, particularly eastern Europe”.—[Official Report, 17/3/14; col. 19.]
I believe the Minister said that he was “sympathetic” to the aims of the amendment. I am not sure that sympathy, although welcome, is really enough because sympathy does not put right what is surely a wrong that ought to be rectified.
Our amendment gives the Secretary of State the power,
“to prohibit United Kingdom based agencies, as defined in this section, from including only people not ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom as their clients”.
It is an order-making power, and the principle that it is seeking to establish is clear. If the Government are sympathetic to the terms of the amendment, it would of course be open to them to set out more of the detail in the order to ensure that it achieves its aims. Alternatively, if the Government accept the principle of our amendment, they could come back with their own amendment at Third Reading if they do not agree with its specific wording. Of course, we had an example of that happening very recently with the Defence Reform Bill, where an amendment was discussed on Report. The Government clearly did not like the wording but they accepted the principle and came back with their own amendment at Third Reading, which was duly carried. So that is a very recent example of the Government saying that they agree with the principle of an amendment, perhaps do not like its wording and agree to come back with their own wording at a later stage in the Bill, in this case Third Reading.
Therefore I say, simply, that there is a problem, and, as I understand it, the Government recognise that. This amendment gives the Government the opportunity to act now to rectify this problem by either accepting this amendment or, if they do not like its wording, by agreeing to come back with their own amendment on Third Reading to address the issue I have raised. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have enormous sympathy with the intention of this amendment. It is entirely wrong that local people in particular, but also many other people resident in this country, should be bypassed in the recruitment process and not even have the opportunity to seek work. I declare an interest as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission already referred to. We have done some work in the past on the meat-processing industry, where such practices were found—not prevalent, but found. We intend also to do some work on the cleaning industry.
However, I am not sure that the amendment as it stands will address the problem adequately. That is to say, it refers to recruitment agencies located in this country. It could very readily be bypassed simply by subcontracting with recruitment agencies elsewhere. Also, there are occasions where we wish to enable employers to recruit overseas exclusively. Think of schools that seek native speakers to teach French. They probably want to be able to advertise in France, to French students, and we do not wish to prohibit that. I will just echo the point that, if the Minister thinks something can be done, it will not be through this amendment as it stands. However, the avoidance of both unfair discrimination and the appearance of it is surely an important issue.
My Lords, I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has brought this back, and it has been very useful to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, about her take on this issue. She raises some of the subtle things at the edge of any blanket restriction that might be made.
I said right at the beginning when we debated this issue in Committee that the Opposition and the Government are not very far apart at all in this area. It is a matter of time and place rather than the detail of the amendment. I think the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, accepts that the amendment may not be quite perfect. I cannot commit to come back on this issue at Third Reading. There is likely to be an announcement very shortly on this whole issue, so it would be more appropriate to wait until that announcement has been made, as it will make clear what the Government’s position is. I do not think that the Opposition or any other noble Lords will find themselves very far from the Government on this issue.
To look at where we are, the Government are committed to protecting the rights of UK workers. We have said that, and as I said in Committee, the Government have already taken tougher action against abuse of the national minimum wage, both as regards its enforcement and by increasing the financial penalty for breaches. We are taking a more robust approach to the employers of illegal workers, including through a doubling of the maximum civil penalty to £20,000, which has now been approved by both Houses.
We are ensuring greater collaboration across Government to increase our “enforcement reach” and the range of sanctions that can be brought to bear against exploitative employment practices. Furthermore, the Government have commissioned a report by the Migration Advisory Committee into the causes of low-skilled migration and its social impacts.
That is why we are trying to look at the bigger picture. The amendment identifies a particular problem—and I acknowledge that it is a problem—but there is a bigger picture: why is so much of migration into this country in low-skilled jobs? We know that the social impacts of this cause concern across wider communities. We are taking action to prevent abuse of our public services and benefits systems by migrants, including those who come from the European Economic Area. As I have said previously, employment levels have risen, since this Government came into office, by 1.3 million, of which 78% is accounted for by UK nationals. However, I recognise there is a problem with a small number of unscrupulous employment agencies that source labour exclusively from overseas, particularly eastern Europe, and subject their workers to exploitative conditions. We have to acknowledge that.
We are sympathetic to the intentions behind this amendment but, as it stands, it would not achieve its aims at all. It will need very careful review because an agency could evade its scope and be in the clear simply by signing up a single UK recruit. That will not address the problem which the noble Lord has brought to the attention of the House. The ordinary residence test is very weak and easy to pass. However, more does need to be done to tackle such unfair recruitment practices, a view which I think noble Lords generally share. Ministers are actively considering how best to protect British workers from this type of discrimination and, as I have said, the House may expect announcements to be made very shortly on this issue. In the light of the points I have made, I hope the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.
I am disappointed by the Minister’s reply. In Committee, he said that,
“more should be done to tackle these types of unfair recruitment practices. Ministers will actively consider how best to protect British workers from this type of discrimination and we will seek to bring forward proposals shortly”.—[Official Report, 17/3/14; col. 19.]
We do not seem to have made any progress at all. The Minister is clearly not prepared to pick up what was inherent in my suggestion: that I would be happy to withdraw my amendment if he gave a commitment to come back with the Government’s own amendment at Third Reading.
I appreciate that I have not spoken in this debate but colleagues around me are confirming what I heard, which was that the Minister told us—for my part, I rather fear it—that we might hear shortly from the Government. Never in the years I have been in this House have I known “shortly” to be as short as a week or two. I have been listening carefully and I understand the problem, which everyone who has spoken on this has acknowledged. I wonder whether to have come back at this stage or be prepared to come back within a couple of sitting days, as it would be at Third Reading, would do justice to the severity of the problem that has been articulated.
Perhaps I may remind the House what I also said, which was that the Minister used the word “shortly” when we discussed it in Committee. This is not the first time that he has said “shortly”. I think that shortly is a rather longer period of time than the noble Baroness has just suggested. The other issue is that the Government have no doubt given much time to considering the provisions in the Immigration Bill as a whole. It is surprising that they do not appear to have given the same priority to the issue addressed by the amendment about the activities and practices of some recruitment agencies which do nothing to enable us to have a reasoned debate on immigration in this country. I think the Minister knows that that is an issue. We need to address today’s problems now and not at some unspecified time in the future, which really is all that the Minister has been able to say. I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
54: After Clause 44, insert the following new Clause—
“Permission to work
(1) The Immigration Act 1971 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 3(9) (general provisions for regulation and control) insert—
“(10) In making rules under subsection (2), the Secretary of State must have regard to the following.
(11) Rules must provide for persons seeking asylum, within the meaning of the rules, to apply to the Secretary of State for permission to take up employment and that permission must be granted if—
(a) a decision has not been taken on the applicant’s asylum application within six months of the date on which it was recorded, or(b) an individual makes further submissions which raise asylum grounds and a decision on that fresh claim or to refuse to treat such further submissions as a fresh claim has not been taken within six months of the date on which they were recorded.(12) Permission for a person seeking asylum to take up employment shall be on terms no less favourable than those upon which permission is granted to a person recognised as a refugee to take up employment.””
My Lords, full employment with a job for every person has been the ideal of every party here over generations. When I look at the Labour Benches I remember people such as Keir Hardie and those who, in 1908, wanted their party to be one which united the workers of the world:
“Workers of the world, unite!”.
Then, of course, being on these Benches, I remember the name—as a Welshman would—of David Lloyd George, who in 1928 published his “Yellow Book”, followed by We Can Conquer Unemployment. Looking at the Conservative Benches, we know that only last week George Osborne said that the aspiration was that every person should have a job and that we should have full employment.
Every person has potential. They have skills and dreams, so I suggest that it should be our direction in this House to make sure that we enable as many as possible of those dreams to be fulfilled. We should not shatter those dreams. Even those who are asylum seekers among us—they, too, have hopes and dreams. They are people just like us. There are 6,200 asylum seekers lawfully present in the UK who, because of present regulations, are denied that right—and more often than not, it is not their fault. It is because of the backlog of applications. So they get perhaps £36 a week, which is half the minimum amount recommended for UK citizens, and they are given an Azure card which forces them to buy their goods in the more expensive stores rather than the cheaper ones and the corner shops. Even if nothing else happens as a result of this debate, I hope that the Minister will look at the state of the Azure card. People should be able to buy their goods in the most competitive places.
Of course, some people will turn to crime or, like the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers, who were not asylum seekers, will have to work for £1 an hour. Those Chinese workers were caused to take on employment that destroyed their lives. I suggest that the present situation is not fit for purpose. What can we do? We can keep people in poverty and destitution for 12 months, which is the present statutory period. I would remind noble Lords opposite that it was in July 2002 that the term was increased from six months to 12 months. However, we could change the period—and, indeed we are the only European country not to have done so. We could reduce it to six months, and that is all I am asking for in this amendment.
There is no evidence whatever that doing this would blur the boundary between economic migration and asylum or that it would act as a pull factor. Other European countries do not find that to be the case. Also, there is no evidence that such a change would lead to unfounded claims. A pilot would show that. I have a Private Member’s Bill which requests this change, and possibly it will have to be reintroduced in the next Session of Parliament. I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment I am moving today—or, if not, that I will be assured of the Government’s encouragement if this proposal is presented in the form of a Private Member’s Bill in the coming Parliament. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am pleased to speak as a co-sponsor of Amendment 54, and I shall recap briefly the case that was made in Committee. The right to work is a human right enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Social policy in this country is premised on the importance of paid work as both a primary responsibility and the primary contribution that people can make. I drew attention to the damaging effects on asylum seekers and any children, and I cited evidence from a cross-parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people, of which I was a member, and a Freedom From Torture report which showed the hardship resulting from the policy of not allowing asylum seekers to take paid work for 12 months.
During the debate the Minister challenged the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, when she talked about people having to live on £5 a day by pointing out that families with children receive more than that. However, my understanding is that in 2013, 80% of applications for asylum were made by single adults, so the figure of £5 a day is in fact the typical sum on which someone has to live. That sum has been frozen since April 2011, and I wonder whether the Minister could explain the justification for freezing the level of support provided for one of the most vulnerable groups in our country. I also wonder whether he would be able to live on £5 a day, because I could not.
However, none of these arguments cuts any ice. I cannot say that I was disappointed by the Minister’s response in Committee because it was pretty much what I expected, but I was desperately depressed as a result. The response reflected an obsessive fear that providing this basic right could lead to a flood of economic migrants posing as asylum seekers. Why would anyone want to do that? If you want to come into this country illegally, it is not the best idea to go and make yourself known to the authorities. That argument seems odd.
What evidence is it based on? There is none—as, in fact, the Minister conceded in his letter to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts. The evidence we have points in the opposite direction when one considers that there is no relationship between other European countries allowing the right to work—admittedly often with conditions around it—and that right acting as a pull factor for asylum seekers. Indeed, I went back to the Home Office’s own study, which could find no evidence from which to reach the conclusion—upon which current policy is based—that providing the right to work after six months would act as an invitation to economic migrants to come here as asylum seekers.
I have not yet heard a convincing response to the argument that, far from protecting British workers, the policy pushes asylum seekers into the shadow economy, where they will be at the mercy of exploitative employers. Does the Minister have any estimate of the extent to which this is happening? Nor have I had any real response to the argument that the policy seriously disadvantages those who go on to be granted refugee status, because employers do not want to employ people who have no work experience in this country and no references from employers in this country. That was cited as one of the barriers by respondents in the Freedom from Torture study, who said that some of their problems began when they gained refugee status because they had not been adequately prepared, they did not have experience of employment in this country, and they had enormous difficulties making the transition from asylum seeking to full refugee status. We are making it harder for them. The Home Office’s own research has shown how the loss of skills and confidence, and difficulties getting qualifications, can mean unemployment or underemployment when refugee status is finally granted.
Governments like to talk about evidence-based policy-making, but when it comes to asylum seekers it seems to me that it is more a case of prejudice-based policy-making—despite the evidence that public opinion, which is so often prejudiced against asylum seekers, supports this policy. For me, this prejudice-based policy-making diminishes us as a country and makes me ashamed of how we treat those who seek sanctuary among us.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, has one of the most prophetic voices in this House. He can see so far ahead of us that he can see someone in government accepting his amendment—just over the horizon but not yet. I am most impressed by his fortitude because this is an issue at which all the refugee agencies and people working with refugees have looked again and again. They have presented evidence that still has not convinced the Government because they have not got rid of the backlog. As soon as they have got rid of the backlog they will seriously look at this kind of proposal. They are therefore worried about the consequences of opening up what they see as an economic draw. I do not do so and I am absolutely convinced that the noble Lord is right about this, but these are things to come.
Perhaps I may again bring in the issue of assisted voluntary return that we discussed on Tuesday, when the Minister kindly responded to a question about why it was being withdrawn, because it is very pertinent to this subject. He kindly also offered to write to me about that. I formally accept the idea that he writes to me fully.
My Lords, I cannot resist speaking on this because I so admire what the Government are doing in encouraging people in this country into work: the work of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and the Secretary of State on the introduction of universal credit. We may have concerns about the details of this policy but I think we all recognise that it is vital to encourage people off benefit and into work wherever possible.
I have a very long-standing acquaintance who, unfortunately, has mental health problems. I know him very well indeed. Thanks to the fact that he is taking benefit, he is obliged to work in a charity shop for half a day, four days a week. While this is very much against his wishes, he is being obliged to have contact with other human beings, which, I think, is a way to his recovery. I have to reflect on how deeply demoralising it must be for these people not to be allowed to work and what the consequences may be for their children to have their parents becoming depressed because they have nothing useful to do in their lives.
I hesitate to come in without being better informed about this particular debate, but I have a great deal of sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, and other speakers have said, and I hope the Minister may be able to offer some comfort to them.
My Lords, in answer to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, we need prophets and optimists, and I am glad that we have at least one.
I very much support what my noble friend has been urging us so consistently to do: for reasons of integration; for individuals to keep up skills and be able to practise their English in the context of work; and, of course, for the financial reasons that the noble Baroness has dealt with. Most of all, work is valuable for self-respect and mental health. I do not put the two situations on a par with one another but clearly we all value working: there are a lot of noble Lords in the Chamber this afternoon, and who have been in this building, who could probably have been taking advantage of what I understand has been quite nice weather outside but have chosen to spend the day working.
My Lords, when the Government brought in this law, withdrawing the right of asylum seekers who have been here for more than six months to work, I do not know what they intended to achieve, or what they have achieved so far by having that law. It does not prevent any people coming into the country. It is not an immigration issue at all. We are talking about people who are already in this country, asylum seekers whose applications are being dealt with. Through no fault of their own, their applications are taking longer than six months. We are still saying that they should not be able to work.
This law drives people into deep poverty. They are more vulnerable to exploitation. They should have a right to work, like everyone else, and they should be able to feel proud that they are not living on handouts but working for their families. This is one good thing that the children can be proud of as well. Therefore, the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Roberts should be supported. I support it. I hope that the Minister will look into this and be sympathetic to the cause of the asylum seekers.
My Lords, I briefly add my support because, although I have listened very carefully to the argument made by the Minister, I genuinely do not understand why people should not be allowed to work for perhaps six months because of the backlog of cases. Perhaps there should be a time limit, so that if someone has not heard about their case then they have the right to work. However, we must think very carefully about what the implications of that may be. As was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, maybe something should be put around that to keep the criteria very visible to the Home Office.
My Lords, I think the whole House will admire the heroic efforts of my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno for making just one more try at this issue. I have listened very carefully to the arguments in favour of allowing asylum seekers to work if their asylum claim is not determined after six months instead of the current period of 12 months. I am not convinced that it is sensible. In the Government’s view, the proposed change clearly creates a risk that some people will make unfounded asylum claims in order to take advantage of the more generous employment opportunities. Indeed, the amendment as drafted would enable the person to take any employment of their choice, rather than be restricted to those on the shortage occupation list published by the Home Office.
I agree with my noble friend and with the House about the importance of being able to work. Although paid work might not be permitted except in certain circumstances, voluntary work is allowed, as I explained on the previous occasion when we debated this. My noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, talked about the level of support provided. I remind the House that two levels of support are provided, to cover asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers. The noble Baroness asked me to justify keeping the support rate the same since 2011. The Government conducted a full review of asylum support levels last year, in June 2013. The review concluded that the payment levels were adequate to meet essential living needs. They are only to meet essential living needs.
Many noble Lords asked why we do not let failed asylum seekers work so that they can support themselves. It is important to maintain a distinction between economic migration and asylum. Failed asylum seekers, whose further asylum-related submissions have been outstanding for at least one year, may apply for permission to work. This is in line with our obligations under the 2003 EU reception conditions directive. We have considered the merits of reducing this threshold, but such a reduction could encourage those who are not genuinely in need of protection to enter the asylum system for economic reasons.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about the assisted voluntary return package, and my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness said that he will write to the noble Earl on this point. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, the desirability of the UK as a destination for economic migrants is not in doubt; one only has to look at some of yesterday’s newspapers. The Government have been successful at reducing non-EEA net migration but EEA migration remains high, as those who benefit from EU free movement come here looking for work. We are dealing with the imbalances in European migration. Throwing open access to the labour market as proposed by this amendment would send the wrong signals, and damage the significant progress this Government have made in controlling migration.
Surely the Home Office would be able to tell the difference between an economic migrant and an asylum seeker. That is why it has the caseload.
My Lords, if they are a genuine asylum seeker, in some cases it will be easy to determine that they have a good case. Once asylum is granted, people are able to work straightaway. However, if the case is difficult, possibly because the asylum seeker has made it difficult, unfortunately it takes considerably more time to determine the application.
As I was saying before my noble friend intervened, we do not believe that it is worth taking a risk with the progress that we have made so far. It is true that some asylum claims take too long to consider, but the Home Office is addressing the issue. In year 2012-13, 78% of claims received a decision within six months.
It may be generally true that unfounded claims can be considered faster than other claims, but they still need to be considered individually, which takes time and resources. Consideration of these claims therefore slows down consideration of genuine claims, at the expense of people who need international protection.
The current policy strikes the right balance. Asylum seekers are provided with support and accommodation if they are destitute. If their asylum claims are undetermined after 12 months for reasons outside their control, they can apply for permission to work. This is a fair and reasonable policy and we should keep to it. In the light of these points, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw this amendment.
I thank the Minister for his reply and say how terribly disappointed I am, even though we have brought this issue up time and again, that that there is no movement whatever on the part of the Conservative Front Bench. I note that the Labour Front Bench has not intervened in this debate and am also very sad for that; I wish that it would join us in this campaign. I will not test the feeling of the House today, but I propose to bring forward a Private Member’s Bill again in the next Session of Parliament. I therefore, most reluctantly, beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 54 withdrawn.
Amendment 55 not moved.
Consideration on Report adjourned.
Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2014
Motion to Approve
That the draft order laid before the House on 31 March be approved.
Relevant document: 25th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.
My Lords, the Government are determined to do all they can to minimise the threat from terrorism to the UK and our interests abroad. Additionally, it is important that we demonstrate our support for other members of the international community in their efforts to tackle terrorism wherever it occurs. We propose to add Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), which is also known as Ansar Jerusalem; Al Murabitun; and Ansar Al Sharia-Tunisia (AAS-T) to the list of international terrorist organisations, amending Schedule 2 to the Terrorism Act 2000. This is the 14th proscription order under that Act.
Section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000 provides a power for the Home Secretary to proscribe an organisation if she believes that it is currently concerned in terrorism, as defined by that Act. If the statutory test is met, the Home Secretary may then exercise her discretion to proscribe the organisation. In considering whether to exercise this discretion, the Home Secretary takes into account a number of factors. These are: the nature and scale of an organisation’s activities; the specific threat that it poses to the United Kingdom and to British nationals overseas; the organisation’s presence in the United Kingdom; and the need to support other members of the international community in tackling terrorism.
Proscription is a tough but necessary power. Its effect is that a listed organisation is outlawed and is unable to operate in the United Kingdom. It is a criminal offence for a person to belong to, invite support for or arrange a meeting in support of a proscribed organisation. Additionally, it is an offence to wear clothing or carry articles in public which arouse reasonable suspicion that an individual is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation.
Given the wide-ranging impact of proscription, the Home Secretary exercises her power to proscribe only after a thorough review of the available relevant information and evidence on the organisation. This includes open source material, intelligence material and advice that reflects consultation across government, including with the intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The Home Secretary is supported in her decision-making process by the Cross-Whitehall Proscription Review Group. Decisions to proscribe are taken with great care by the Home Secretary and it is right that the case for proscribing new organisations must be approved by both Houses.
Having carefully considered all the evidence, the Home Secretary believes that ABM, Al Murabitun and AAS-T are currently concerned in terrorism. Noble Lords will appreciate that I am unable to comment on specific intelligence, but I can provide a brief summary of their activities. ABM is an al-Qaeda-inspired militant Islamist group based in the northern Sinai region of Egypt. The group is said to recruit within Egypt and abroad and aims to create an Egyptian state ruled by Sharia law. ABM is assessed to be responsible for a number of attacks on security forces in Egypt since 2011. The attacks appear to have increased since the overthrow of the Morsi government in July 2013. The group’s reach goes beyond the Sinai, with the group claiming responsibility for a number of attacks in Cairo and cross-border attacks against Israel. ABM has undertaken attacks using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and surface-to-air missiles. Examples of attacks for which the group has claimed responsibility include: in September 2013 an attack on the Egyptian Interior Minister in which a UK national was seriously injured; an attack on a police compound in Mansoura on 24 December 2013, killing at least 16 people, including 14 police officers; and an attack on a tourist bus in which three South Koreans and their Egyptian driver died on 16 January 2014.
Al Murabitun resulted from a merger of two al-Qaeda in the Maghreb—AQ-M—splinter groups that are active in Mali and Algeria, the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa—MUJWA—and Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group, the Al-Mulathamine Battalion, which included the commando element “Those Who Sign in Blood”. The merger was announced in a public statement in August 2013. Al Murabitun aspires to unite Muslims from the Nile to the Atlantic and has affirmed its loyalty to the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the emir of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar. Al Murabitun’s first statement threatened France and its allies in the region and called on Muslims to target French interests everywhere. Belmokhtar has announced that he will not continue to lead the group in order to allow a new generation of jihadist leaders to come to the fore. Reports indicate that the new commander has fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the international intervention in Afghanistan.
Although the group has not claimed responsibility for any terrorist attacks since the merger, both precursor groups have participated in a number of terrorist attacks and kidnapping for ransom during the past 13 months. Belmokhtar’s group was responsible for the attack against the In Amenas gas facility in January 2013 that resulted in the death of more than 30 people including Britons. In May 2013 the two groups targeted a military barracks in Agadez, Niger and a uranium mine in Arlit which supplies French nuclear reactors. The suicide attack in Agadez resulted in the deaths of at least 20 people.
Despite previously separating themselves from AQ-M, citing leadership issues and the desire to expand their control, both precursor groups continued to co-operate and fight alongside AQ-M fighters in Mali and other regions of West Africa. This activity has continued since the merger.
The Sahel region continues to see high threats of kidnap and terrorist attacks. Hostages are currently held in the Sahel and surrounding regions, which includes Algeria, Cameroon, Libya and Nigeria. The Canadians designated Belmokhtar’s group in November 2013 and the US designated it in December 2013, specifying Al Murabitun as an alias.
Ansar Al Sharia-Tunisia—AAS-T—is a radical Islamist group founded in April 2011. The group aims to establish Sharia law in Tunisia and eliminate western influence. Between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals may be attracted to rallies organised by the movement. The group is ideologically aligned to al-Qaeda—AQ—and has links to al-Qaeda affiliated groups. It is reported that the group announced its loyalty to AQ-M in September 2013.
AAS-T’s leader, Seif Allah Ibn Hussein, also known as Abu Ayadh al-Tunisi, is a former AQ veteran combatant in Afghanistan. He has been hiding following the issue of a warrant for his arrest relating to an allegation of inciting the attack on the US embassy in Tunis that killed four people in September 2012.
Salafists believed to have links with AAS-T are assessed to be responsible for the attacks in October 2011 on a television station and, in June 2012, an attack on an art exhibit. AAS-T is assessed to be responsible for the attacks on the US embassy and the American school in Tunis in September 2012. The Tunisian Government believe that AAS-T was responsible for the assassination of two coalition assembly members: Chokri Belaid in February 2013 and Mohamed Brahmi in July 2013.
Additionally, elements of the group are believed to have been involved in the attempted suicide attack, in October 2013, at a hotel in a tourist resort in Sousse where a significant number of British tourists were staying. More than 400,000 British tourists visited Tunisia last year. The Tunisian Government listed AAS-T as a terrorist group in 2013 and the US did so in January 2014.
Subject to the agreement of this House and the House of Commons, this proscription will come into force on Friday 4 April.
In conclusion, I believe it is right that we add Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Al Murabitun and Ansar Al Sharia-Tunisia to the list of proscribed organisations in Schedule 2 to the Terrorism Act 2000. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is a serious issue. The order that the Minister has moved was agreed in the House of Commons yesterday and, as he has said, if it is agreed by this House today it will come into effect tomorrow. I thank him for the letter that he sent to my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon on 31 March, which set out the case for the proscription of the three groups named by the Minister, and he has of course repeated that case in moving the order today. This is an issue of national security, and we are happy to accept the Government’s assurances on the basis that all three groups seem to have been involved in terrorism at the highest end of seriousness, including some directed at our citizens and allies.
There are, however, two points that I wish to raise about the issue of proscription, though not specifically about the three groups in question; as I indicated, we are happy to accept and agree the order. I am sure that the two issues will not come entirely as a surprise to the Minister. As I understand it from what was said in the Commons yesterday, there are apparently 52 international and 14 Northern Ireland-related terrorist organisations that are already proscribed, and I gather that between 2001 and the end of March last year 32 people have been charged with proscription-related offences as a primary offence in Great Britain and 16 have been convicted, so there are a number of organisations on the list.
I am sure that the Minister will not be too surprised if I say that it appears that one organisation is not yet on the list: Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is of course the one that the Prime Minister said when he was leader of the Opposition that he thought ought to be banned. It is not clear why after all this time that organisation has not been proscribed if apparently, in the Prime Minister’s view, the case was so clear-cut a number of years ago when he announced his personal view of what he would do. I would be grateful if the Minister could throw any light on that, purely in the sense of whether this organisation is likely to be banned or not. What are the Government doing on this at the moment? Have they come to the conclusion that it does not require to be banned, or is it after all these years an issue that they are still considering? They seem to be taking a remarkably long time to come to a conclusion.
The other issue that I would like to raise, and it is the final one that I want to talk about, is the issue of de-proscription. This was raised in the House of Commons yesterday but I want to put a question about it to the Minister. Obviously we have a procedure for, quite rightly, putting organisations that are threats to national security on the list so that action can be taken. I have referred already to the figures that the Minister in the House of Commons gave about the number of organisations currently proscribed. My question about the issue of de-proscription is on the understanding that the only group that has ever been de-proscribed obtained that through judicial review. It is of interest to raise this issue because, according to the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, the Home Office was at one point considering an annual review of the proscribed list to see which groups still met the criteria.
That independent reviewer suggests—I do not know whether it is true—that there is no current evidence of terrorist involvement, even in this century, for some proscribed organisations. According to the independent reviewer’s website, last summer the Home Office had compiled a list of up to 14 groups that no longer met the criteria for proscription and the independent reviewer has been calling for the annual review of proscribed groups to which I have referred and which it was claimed that the Home Office was at one point considering.
In conclusion, since it appears that the Home Office now wishes to go down a different road for de-proscription for individuals or organisations, why is it not in favour of at least a regular review of the proscribed groups to see if they still meet the criteria that necessitate their being on the proscribed list in the light of an apparent view—whether right or wrong—of the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation that a number of organisations on that list no longer meet the criteria for remaining on it?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for his support for this order. I will do my best to answer his questions. As he said, there was a lengthy debate yesterday in the House of Commons where my honourable friend James Brokenshire presented this order for approval by that House. The noble Lord asked first about Hizb ut-Tahrir. Hizb ut-Tahrir has been considered by the Home Secretary. The Government have significant concerns about it and we are continuing to monitor its activities very closely. Of course, individuals are still subject to general criminal law. We will seek to ensure that the group and groups like it cannot operate without challenge in public places in this country. We will not tolerate secretive meetings behind closed doors on premises funded by the taxpayer. We will ensure that civic organisations are made aware of this organisation and groups like it, the names under which they operate and the ways in which they go about their business. I can comment no further on that organisation.
As the noble Lord will well know, de-proscription is by application. While we keep a watch—and it is quite proper that we do—on organisations about which we are concerned, it is up to organisations to apply for de-proscription. Under the current regime they can write to the Home Secretary and request that she considers that they should be removed from the list of proscribed organisations, and they should state the grounds under which they should be de-proscribed. The Home Secretary is required to make a decision on that application within 90 days. I hope the noble Lord will understand that there is a proper mechanism for dealing with de-proscription. However, it is not a proactive one. It is one made by application.
The noble Lord will accept that if you are not meant to be a member of that organisation at the time you apply it is a bit of risk applying for it to be de-proscribed—by definition you are almost admitting to be associated with the organisation that you are not allowed to be associated with.