House of Lords
Wednesday, 5 November 2014.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.
Work Capability Assessment
As of 30 September 2014, there were around 580,000 cases awaiting work capability assessments at Atos Healthcare, down from 616,000 at the end of August. These figures do not include cases where the claimant has yet to return the claimant questionnaire.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm the number of disabled people who are waiting for their first work capability assessment? The figures show that the suffering of hundreds of thousands of disabled people is being increased on a daily basis by a Government who are failing in their duty of care. The Minister is quite keen to say how he is clearing up this mess. Does he not also owe an apology to the people affected?
The service that we provided is not where we want it to be—we have been clear about that. We are pulling down the backlog; it is down by 20% since February. We announced in March that Atos would be leaving the contract, and we were able to announce last week that Maximus Health and Human Services is taking it up from that date.
My Lords, we now have a new supplier of these work capability assessments. Most of the staff are being transferred using the transfer of undertakings. May I and the House be reassured that the transfer of undertakings will not include a transfer of working practices? In particular, perhaps my noble friend can tell us whether he agrees with the recommendation from the Government’s own assessor of this policy, Dr Litchfield, that less emphasis should be placed on the number of points attained in the test and that the calculation should be used,
“simply to determine whether the threshold for benefit has been reached”.
Surely that is a much fairer way of doing these assessments. Does the Minister agree?
My Lords, in his reply to the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, the Minister said that the new contract between Maximus and the DWP had now been signed. In view of the phenomenal sums of public money which are involved in this, can the Minister tell us when that contract will be placed in the public domain, whether it will be possible properly to scrutinise it and whether it will be possible for the public to see the operating systems and all the other issues involved, in contrast to way in which the Atos Healthcare contract was administered?
My Lords, only recently, almost half of work capability assessment appeals were successful. New leaked papers tell us that even where eligibility is conceded and faulty work capability assessment decisions are reversed, employment and support allowance is providing less support to disabled people. Can the Minister rule out an announcement of new cuts to ESA in this Parliament?
My Lords, great concern has been expressed by some people about how work capability assessments are being carried out and whether those undertaking them have the right skills and expertise. Indeed, in one anecdotal case, the health professional who undertook a complex mental health assessment was a physiotherapist. If that is the case, surely it cannot be right. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that those undertaking the assessments have the right skills and experience to be able to do them properly?
The important thing about doing these assessments is that someone assesses correctly in terms of capability of performing functions and capability of working; that is, what people are able to do. As I said earlier, we have more specialist professional support going into the system to make sure that those assessments are done accurately.
My Lords, is there any foundation to the report in the Independent last week that some 6,000 people with diseases such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and severe CFS/ME have been put into the work-related activity group? If that is the case, how many of those people have been got into work? What is the point of putting them in the WRAG if they are not going to get better?
My Lords, 40% of people appeal against their assessment, some of them terminally ill. The DWP has added an extra stage to the appeals process, mandatory reconsideration by the department, but—and this is key—there is no time limit for staff to meet. Tiny numbers of appeals are being processed; the rest are being seriously delayed by six months or more. What is the Minister doing to speed up those appeals?
The noble Baroness is quite right that the rate of appeals has fallen very steeply, by 92% in the latest quarter compared with a year earlier. It is too early to tell the definitive reasons for that. It may well be due to many of the changes that have gone through—75 recommendations have gone through—or to mandatory reconsideration so that we look at it early. However, when you look at the backlog of mandatory reconsiderations, you see that the pure numbers do not seem to be a huge influencing factor in this fall in appeals.
My Lords, ticket touting is a criminal offence when tickets are sold for a designated football match. This is set out in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Arrests for ticket touting are recorded per season. There were 104 such arrests during the 2013-2014 season. Prosecutions are recorded annually, and there were 40 prosecutions in 2013. Your Lordships will be glad to know that 35 of those prosecuted were found guilty and sentenced.
Will my noble friend confirm the figures from the DCMS following the Olympic Games that there were around 1,000 known professional groups involved in ticket crime? Does she also accept last year’s National Fraud Authority report, which estimated that 2.3 million people fall victim each year to online ticket fraud, resulting in losses of £1.5 billion? Will the Government consider, as a matter of some urgency, providing greater protection for theatre and concert-goers and sports fans?
My Lords, the Olympics and Paralympics were a fantastic achievement. It took an enormous enforcement effort to police the resale of tickets at that event, which we cannot do for every event. Since my appointment, I have taken a great deal of interest in this issue. I have had meetings with event organisers, including the Rugby Football Union, the England and Wales Cricket Board and UK Music, with online marketplaces and with consumer groups, to hear how the market is working. At present, we have broadly the right balance between consumer protection, with a number of regulations and allowing the market to operate, but I am considering new evidence as it becomes available.
My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the Olympics. Will she take the opportunity of commending the report from Operation Podium of the Metropolitan Police, which so valuably made a number of recommendations about ticket fraud and abuse? Does she agree with its conclusion that self-regulation is unlikely to be successful, given the current lack of transparency, and unscrupulous practices by some? Is the Consumer Rights Bill not the ideal vehicle for reform in this area?
My Lords, Parliament has debated this issue for more than 10 hours on the Consumer Rights Bill alone, and we have legislated and produced guidance. New regulations came into force this year in June, which ensure that consumers get the information they need. We have included specific guidance on how the regulations apply to tickets. In terms of the police, consumers are protected by the Fraud Act. Action Fraud is now the single national reporting centre for fraud, and since 1 April, responsibility for that has moved to the City of London Police. They are making good progress.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Moynihan brings a great deal of expertise to our discussions. It has been very helpful during the discussions on the Consumer Rights Bill to have his knowledge of this subject. There is an issue, but there are also things being done by the Government to tackle what is wrong and make sure that this is a good market for consumers, and that fraud is not allowed to flourish.
My Lords, if I understood my noble friend’s original Answer correctly, she told your Lordships that about one-third of those who were arrested for ticket touting at football matches were found guilty. Is that a percentage that my noble friend finds satisfactory?
My Lords, I should be careful about moving on to the turf of the criminal justice services. What I will say is that this was a narrow question about ticket touting, which is regulated under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which was specifically set up to help with the terrible problems in football. I think that everyone feels that it has had some success. Clearly, our discussions have been wider, covering what we are doing for the consumers on the general question of ticket touting and how we can make sure that this is a good market, where people can buy tickets and be sure that they are not getting defrauded, while also ensuring that the consumer gets a good deal and can attend sport, the theatre and pop concerts. That is what we all want.
My Lords, Operation Podium argues, and the Government need to accept, that ticket fraud is usually,
“committed by organised criminal networks … creating legitimate-looking websites, taking payment for event tickets and then failing to supply them.”
That is the fact, but what is perhaps not realised as often is that many people who suffer from that ticket fraud then discover they are also subject to a scam which means that their credit card details are used again and again, so they are doubly hit. What sort of balance does the Minister find in that?
The noble Lord is right to express concerns but I think the House needs to understand that we have brought in new regulations as recently as June, and we have been working with the online marketplaces so that consumers are protected. The four main resale sites now go way beyond what they used to do. They are refunding or replacing unusable tickets and working with the RFU and all the other sporting bodies to make sure that things are okay. I saw the RFU yesterday and was very impressed by the action it is taking for the 2015 Rugby World Cup in using anti-forgery designs and a ballot system. We have to make progress in the real world, where consumers want to get tickets and attend games and concerts.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the statistics she gave in her original Answer were for England and Wales? What discussions is she having with her counterparts in Scotland—which thankfully is still part of the United Kingdom—about co-operation and exchanging experience?
My Lords, perhaps I could ask my noble friend the Minister about secondary selling—that is the posh term for ticket touting, in case people were wondering. Touting nowadays is not carried out on street corners with somebody waving a wodge of tickets in front of you. It is a £1 billion global business. Does the Minister not agree that with this online business, which is taking money out of the game of sport itself, the Government should ensure that the voluntary guidance is being followed?
My noble friend asked for further information. Today, on one of the well known online ticket agency sites, there are 400 tickets listed for the Ashes cricket test match in Cardiff next July. Among those 400, there is not one with any ticket detail. People within the governing bodies of sport and entertainment are looking for a kitemark of assurance that, in future, all ticket purchases will be transparent and responsible.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
We are focusing investment on regulation and technology that will put the UK supply chain in a good position to be successful in the global market for unmanned aircraft. For example, through Innovate UK, we are investing £10.3 million in developing technology and supporting UK business to research the safe integration of these aircraft into our airspace.
My Lords, the burgeoning technology of UAVs has a vast range of global applications in archaeology, agriculture, communications, exploration, firefighting, surveillance of pipelines and piracy, and indeed in many forms of delivery systems. It may even be possible to develop a delivery system for Focus leaflets, which I should have thought would be very much appreciated by these Benches. Paul Cremin, the head of aviation safety at the Department for Transport, said recently:
“I hear of a new one—
“almost every day”.
He said that it will lead to a revolution in the way we shop, observe and are observed. Is my noble friend satisfied that UK plc—the Government and the private sector—is sufficiently focused on the huge commercial opportunities for UAV systems, an area where we seem to be well behind the Israelis and the Americans?
My Lords, all that we are doing will help the UK to be at the forefront of this emerging sector and I very much like the examples that my noble friend has given. We are already investing £1 billion, matched by industry, in the Aerospace Technology Institute. Its latest £25 million competition is open to projects from a range of civil aerospace technologies, including the unmanned aircraft sector.
My Lords, do the Minister and the Government fully accept that there is much use for unmanned vehicles in policing? Will she discuss with the various police authorities the possibility of them working together to provide some cover to give constant monitoring of sensitive sites in the fight against terrorism and in other issues such as emergencies? There is a tremendous opportunity for using drones. I trust that the Government are pursuing this and will encourage the police to work together on it.
My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord that there is great potential in this area. For example, police searches for missing people can be helped enormously by this sort of technology. We are working with the police, the defence sector and with industry to take forward this important technology.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunities that are afforded by unmanned aerial vehicles and acknowledge that my noble friend referred to the regulatory regimes that are going to be necessary to ensure that this can be managed safely. Will she bear in mind that both United Kingdom and European airspace is crowded, both at the lower and the higher levels, and it will require very careful design and enforcement not only by the European Aviation Safety Agency but also by our own Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that these vehicles are safely used and monitored.
My Lords, yes. I take great comfort from the fact that unmanned aircraft are closely regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority and are treated in the same manner as equivalent manned aircraft. As with all other aircraft, they need to be safe to be flown and flown safely—an important principle. We recognise, of course, that more needs to be done to make the rules clear, particularly for small, unmanned aircraft, and to help address this the CAA is launching a publicity campaign, “You Have Control, Be Safe, Be Legal”.
My Lords, the House will be delighted by the progress that is being made by the industry, but the question of regulation goes far beyond just airspace. There is a question about privacy, the safety of the individual and the extent to which drones, which can be purchased at present for quite small sums of money—under £1,000—have wonderful technology for activities that many of us might find completely reprehensible.
My Lords, I agree that operators of unmanned aircraft must comply with privacy laws, which have significant penalties. Of course, in the wrong hands, these things can be damaging. We are working continuously, as is the CAA, to assess threats and make sure that we do not have the problems described. Obviously, government policy on some of this cannot be divulged, but privacy and taking great care in relation to terrorists and so on are very much on the mind of those developing this important technology.
Mediterranean: Refugees and Migrants
My Lords, the UK has had no involvement in Mare Nostrum, the Italian search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. Given that search and rescue is a competence of individual member states, the Government have no plans to call for the restoration or replacement of Mare Nostrum. Instead, we will continue to work with the EU and with countries of origin and transit to address the causes of illegal migration and combat people smugglers and traffickers.
Does the Minister agree with Amnesty International, which says that stopping search and rescue in the Mediterranean is causing the loss of thousands of lives? How many men, women and children need to drown before the Government change their policy?
I reiterate that we are talking about the Italian Government. It is their decision, which they have taken. We all share a concern about the situation and the safety of people in the Mediterranean. We need to take a long, hard look at the organised crime gangs who are trafficking people, pushing them out to sea with very little protection, in unseaworthy vessels, and giving them the telephone number of the Italian coastguard. That is the regrettable and appalling thing about this whole situation.
Do the Government appreciate that it is likely to take months, and even years, to stop the traffickers, to prevent violence both by states and by Islamists, and to provide work for migrants in their countries of origin? Does this not make it essential to have search and rescue now?
There is a two-pronged approach to this. First, there is Operation Triton, which the Italians started on 1 November; it is different but will tackle a lot of that. Secondly, there is the work that we are doing with our EU partners under the Rabat process and the Khartoum process, trying to tackle and head off the migration in the first place.
My Lords, it is surely immoral not to rescue those in peril of drowning if we have the capability to do so. Yet at the same time we need a coherent and ordered immigration policy, and cannot offer an open door to anyone who reaches our shores. Has an effort been made to tackle this matter at source by reaching deals with the riparian countries on the south of the Mediterranean, to pay them to destroy the ships and prosecute the traffickers? At least then we can try to deal with this matter at source.
I agree with the noble Lord that it would indeed be immoral and, of course, not to help someone in distress would be in contravention of our obligations under the UN convention on safety of life at sea. The Khartoum and Rabat processes, to which I referred, and the EU mobility partnerships that we have with Tunisia and Morocco, are trying to tackle exactly the issue that he raises.
My Lords, does my noble friend note the comment made by the UN special rapporteur on migrant rights that it is appalling to bank on a rise in the number in people who drown acting as a deterrent? Does he think that the EU views a steep rise in the number of people killed with complacency, if not with satisfaction, because more people are drowning and acting as a deterrent?
It is certainly not the case to say that the Government have been passive on this. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary had meetings with her Italian counterparts last month, and will meet them again this month. We have extended our offers of support and of course we have looked at the countries from which most of these migrants are coming, namely Syria and Ethiopia. We are putting large sums of money—£700 million in the first instance, £360 million in the second—to try and help people to give themselves a proper life at home.
My Lords, there is a long-standing commitment that mariners have always had to look after mariners in peril at sea, as the Minister says. It is very difficult to see how those in the vicinity can do anything other than help them, whether the ship happened to be British, Italian or whatever. For those who are actually based down there, surely—by UN law—they actually have to give assistance.
Absolutely, and there is no change. The obligations are there for any military ships or vessels in the vicinity. They know what they have to do in terms of contacting the maritime rescue co-ordination centre and they will be directed to take those people to a safe port or to have those people passed into safe hands.
Can the Minister recollect that last Thursday he gave me a very forthright answer to a question as to what the attitude of the commander of a British naval vessel would be if he was aware that there was a refugee ship in peril within range of his ship? I was told indeed that he would most certainly lend all assistance in accordance with the law of the sea and the highest traditions of the Royal Navy. In the light of that most honest answer, what is the point of giving any impression on the part of the Government that we are gibbing in relation to search and rescue?
The noble Lord is absolutely right that we need to be clear. There is a grave information message we need to get out here that of course there is no change in our humanitarian obligation. The only thing which is changing is that we are putting more money and resource behind it, but those obligations from a humanitarian point of view remain, in the proud tradition of this country and of seafarers.
My Lords, my noble friend the Minister mentioned the increase in refugees from, for example, countries such as Syria. In statements that I have seen, Ministers have said that we encourage those people to stay in their own country. The surrounding countries have taken millions and millions of refugees. Turkey took 250,000 Syrian refugees in one week, more than the EU has done in four years. Is it not time that we stepped up to the plate and set an example, and not let people drown in this way?
That is so, and we have introduced the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme, which is taking some of those—not enough—but of course the EU can do more. We are donating additional funds into that area but there needs to be more done to tackle the instability which is the cause of migration in the first place.
Modern Slavery Bill
The Bill was brought from the Commons, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Serious Crime Bill [HL]
Clause 61: Appeal against decision under section 60
1: Clause 61, page 49, line 40, leave out “sheriff principal” and insert “Sheriff Appeal Court”
My Lords, these technical amendments relate to the rights of appeal in Scotland against decisions on seizure and forfeiture of substances used as drug-cutting agents. In Scotland, the appeal from the decision of a sheriff under Clause 60 is to the sheriff principal. The Scottish Parliament has recently passed the Courts Reform (Scotland) Act 2014. Among other things, that Act establishes a new right of appeal from the sheriff to the Sheriff Appeal Court and, in the process, abolishes the current right of appeal from a sheriff to the sheriff principal.
Amendments 1 to 5 to Clause 61 accordingly update the avenue of appeal. The consequential amendment, Amendment 10, to Clause 74 is a transitional provision. As it is not known for definite when the Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill will come into force, this amendment provides a mechanism to refer to an appeal to the sheriff principal, if circumstances arise where this is necessary. I beg to move.
Amendment 1 agreed.
Amendments 2 to 5
2: Clause 61, page 50, line 1, leave out “or sheriff principal”
3: Clause 61, page 50, line 2, leave out “or sheriff principal”
4: Clause 61, page 50, line 4, leave out “or sheriff principal”
5: Clause 61, page 50, line 9, leave out “or sheriff principal”
Amendments 2 to 5 agreed.
6: After Clause 65, insert the following new Clause—
“Protection of children from sexual communications
After section 12 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (causing a child to watch a sexual act) insert—“12A Protection of children from sexual communications and from communications intended to elicit a sexual response
(1) A person (“A”) commits an offence where A intentionally communicates with another person (“B”) in the following circumstances—
(a) A is aged 18 or over,(b) either—(i) B is under 16 and A does not reasonably believe that B is 16 or over, or(ii) B is under 13,(c) the content of the communication is sexual or intended to elicit a response that is sexual, (d) subject to subsection (3) below, A’s purpose in sending the communication or seeking a response is sexual.(2) The communication may be in any form including verbal, written or pictorial (which may include still or moving images) and may be conveyed by any means whatever.
(3) A does not commit the offence in subsection (1) above where the purpose of the communication is for the protection of the child to which the communication is sent.
(4) For the purposes of subsection (3), a person acts for the protection of a child if he acts for the purpose of—
(a) protecting the child from sexually transmitted infection,(b) protecting the physical safety of the child,(c) preventing the child from becoming pregnant, or(d) promoting the child’s emotional well-being by the giving of advice and not for a sexual purpose.””
My Lords, on Report I posed the question of whether it would be an offence for an adult to elicit from a child a sexual photograph or to send a sexual message to that child. I posed the example of a young girl in her bedroom on her smart phone, sending messages to her friends, one of whom was someone purporting to be a boy who was in love with her who was actually a man 30 years her senior. I asked whether, if she was encouraged, cajoled and coaxed into sending a sexual image of herself, that would be an offence committed by the older man. I posed that question because it was clear that it would be an offence in Scotland but much less clear that it would be an offence in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
We had a useful and helpful discussion during Report. The Minister made several points during that debate when he stated that he believed that the offence of an adult sending a sexual message to a child was already covered by existing legislation. He stated, for example, that those convicted of an offence under Section 127 of the Communications Act,
“can be made subject to a sexual offences prevention order”.—[Official Report, 28/10/14; col. 1117.]
In reality, it is a little bit more complicated than that. If someone was convicted under the Malicious Communications Act or the Communications Act, the sexual offences prevention order would have to be applied for as a separate process. To apply for it, the prosecution would have to prove that the defendant posed a significant risk of serious harm. The Court of Appeal has had several cases in the past year in which it has criticised the use of sexual offences prevention orders in a number of sexual cases because the threshold of significant risk was not met.
It is not difficult to foresee a situation in which an adult is communicating sexually with a child and that threshold of serious harm has not yet been met. In the early stages of grooming—for example, when an adult may send a sexual message to a child—it is unlikely that he has actually met that threshold of serious harm. That is what the new clause that I propose today is all about. It is about trying to prevent harm before it is caused to the child.
The Minister made reference to the Obscene Publications Act 1959. The hint is in the title—it is the 1959 Act, which would potentially fail to cover a great deal of verbal communications through systems such as telephone, mobile telephone or Skype. Additionally, as new technology advances, new forms of electronic communication will no doubt further supersede what is dealt with in the Act. Reliance on the Obscene Publications Act would result in a person sending a text being potentially guilty but a person talking over the internet not committing the offence.
The Minister asserted that, under Section 10 of the Sexual Offences Act, it is an offence for a person over the age of 18 to cause or incite a child to engage in sexual activity. However, there are many cases where a charge of incitement may not be met. The question is: what is sexual activity and what is being incited?
The Minister rightly highlighted several common scenarios typical of online grooming which would be illegal. These include where messages are grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing. The Minister affirmed that a message of this nature would fall foul of an offence under the Communications Act. However, the new clause that I am proposing is concerned with creating a stand-alone offence by which it would always be illegal for an adult to send a sexual message to a child. It would not have to be proved in court that it was grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing, or that it caused the child distress. Similarly, it would not require an intent to meet the child. All that would be required is that the message was sexual or seeking to elicit a sexual response from the child. In most cases of online grooming the adult seeks to flatter the child, attempting to gain their trust, before inciting the child to share an indecent image of themselves. The purpose of this clause is to give the police greater powers to intervene earlier in the process of online grooming before the abuse escalates.
The Minister mentioned that the situation in Scotland was not as bright as has been claimed. I am sure it is always bright in Scotland; that is something we have all learnt in the past few months. Under the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009, it is an offence if a person,
“sends … a sexual written communication to or directs, by whatever means, a sexual verbal communication at”,
a child under the age of 16. It clearly embraces most modern forms of communication. I agree with the Minister that the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act is by no means perfect because it states that the offence has to be for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification which then requires proof in respect of the perpetrator. I understand that that has blocked prosecutions in some cases because it is too high a threshold.
The success of the Act in Scotland in catching adults entering into sexual communications with a child under 16 earlier in the grooming process is illustrated by a number of case studies. I shall give but one. In August 2013, 55 year-old Steven McLaren admitted sending sexualised written messages to a 10 year-old girl for the purposes of obtaining sexual gratification. McLaren was prosecuted, received a sexual offences prevention order, 300 hours of unpaid work and a £1,000 fine.
The concern is that the law as it stands is convoluted, complex and requires certain thresholds to be met before a prosecution can be made. For example, there to be a prosecution under some parts of the Sexual Offences Act, there has to be an intention to meet. If it were an offence under the Malicious Communications Act 1988, there would have to be an,
“intent to cause distress or anxiety”.
If it were an offence under the Communications Act 2003, it would have to be grossly offensive, obscene or menacing. In the instances I am talking about, where grooming is at the heart of what we are trying to stop, the perpetrator is not trying to be offensive or to frighten the child. The perpetrator is trying to coax the child and to convince the child that they are special, that they are being loved and that this is a loving act. That is the problem with the various ways in which other pieces of legislation are framed.
I am grateful to the Minister for organising a meeting yesterday and to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, for being there, along with a plethora of Home Office officials, in order to go through this. Following the debate on Report, they referred me to Section 10 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and to the definition in Section 78 of the word “sexual”. Section 10 relates to:
“Causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity”.
Most of it is about defining “sexual penetration”, and I will not burden your Lordships’ House with the degree of detail that the statute goes into. It essentially says that the adult commits an offence if,
“he intentionally causes or incites another person … to engage in an activity”,
and that activity is sexual. The section then goes on to talk about all forms of penetration.
Officials drew my attention to Section 78, which defines “sexual” for the purposes of the Act. It mentions “penetration” and “touching”, and then goes on to the part that is apparently important in this context,
“or any other activity is sexual if a reasonable person would consider that … it is because of its nature sexual, or … because of its nature it may be sexual and because of its circumstances or the purpose of any person in relation to it (or both) it is sexual”.
I confess that I am not a lawyer, but that phraseology strikes me as convoluted wording, which is difficult to formulate. The Home Office says that there have been some convictions using this convoluted wording. I asked this question yesterday, and maybe the Minister will be able to clarify this, but I would be interested to know whether those convictions were in the context of guilty pleas or were heard in court and led to a jury conviction, and whether they were in conjunction with a whole series of other offences that may or may not have been admitted as part of a package.
My point is that the law on what should be an offence —eliciting a nude photo from a child—is convoluted and confused. There needs to be a clear offence that makes it always an offence to send a sexual message or elicit a sexual message in reply. Rather than having to meet a series of criteria, the mere fact of sending a sexual message or eliciting a sexual message should be an offence.
The NSPCC tells me of a recent case where the perpetrator was asking a child to send an image of themselves topless. There was a prosecution under this section of the Sexual Offences Act and in court the defence argued that you could go to many beaches and see people topless, including children, so what they were doing was not sexual. It was simply as though you were on a beach. I find that a difficult argument to sustain, but it was clearly one that was used in court. I would have thought that we want to make the law quite clear. Whether or not there is a possible line of defence, it is simply not appropriate for an adult to ask a child to send such an image. I understand that it is not uncommon for the defence to make those sorts of arguments in mitigation for the actions that have been taken. We do not want to be in a position where a defence based on that sort of argument might succeed.
If you are caught speeding, it is a matter of fact. You have been speeding, and you are convicted of speeding. Why can it not be the case that if you are sending a sexual message to a child or eliciting a sexual message that should be clearly, unequivocally and without all these qualifications an offence? The real concern in all of this is that the law currently bites too late in the grooming process. These thresholds will have to be passed before the law can intervene. We need to intervene in a case before harm has been done to the child, before anything offensive has taken place and before the child is traumatised by the process that has happened. The convoluted wording means that it is simply more difficult for the police to operate. The provision sets a higher bar. Indeed, the police may never pass cases to the Crown Prosecution Service because they think that it is not worth pursuing in this way. The police need powers to intervene earlier in the grooming process so that even sending a message to a child along the lines of, “Say honey, you look hot in your bikini”, would be enough, potentially, to trigger action in this respect.
The purpose of the amendment is to make the law crystal clear that it is always an offence to send sexual messages or to elicit sexual messages from a child to make it easier for the police and the authorities to intervene at an early stage before harm is caused to the child. I beg to move.
My Lords, as I did on Report, I support the principle of this amendment. Listening to the last example given by the noble Lord—“Honey, you look hot in your bikini”—if I were a mother with a young teenage child who had received that message and I went to the police, showed them the message and was told, “There’s nothing wrong in law here”, I would have less confidence in our legal system.
I am not convinced that a new offence is not needed, as has been argued. I have not looked at Section 78; indeed, I have not done as much detailed work as perhaps I should. Listening to the noble Lord, however, I find quite a difficulty in a “sexual communication” that comes from someone and “sexual response”. It seems that a sexual response is needed for these offences, but that of course that is not at all how the child sees it. Yes, we are accustomed not to seeing but to knowing that there are a lot of photographs around with people topless on beaches, often celebrities seeking to attract attention. I am not sure that I would like to go down the route of trying to analyse their motives.
If there is to be an amendment, it must be right. The worst thing would be if there were inherent problems within it. I do as I did before and I hope it does not provoke teasing from the noble Lord; I assure him that I am trying to be supportive in this. I thank the NSPCC, with which I had the opportunity to meet briefly at the beginning of the week. I understand that it is consulting more widely on this. I do not want to refer to all the points that I have made, either in the previous debate or with the NSPCC, but I am glad to see that it is now suggested that the offence should be put into the Sexual Offences Act 2003, because that gives the context for penalties. I am not sure that there are penalties attached to this amendment.
I see that the words in proposed new subsection (4) come from Section 73 of that Act. I am not sure whether repeating them in a slightly different way in this amendment does not cause a bit more difficulty. In Section 73, they are a defence against aiding, abetting and so on. I think they may be interpreted there not as an exhaustive list, but there is a question in my mind as to whether in this amendment they are an exhaustive list.
Finally, in the context of online grooming, the terminology of “reasonably believe” in proposed new subsection (1)(b) causes me some concern about the evidential problems. Something like “making reasonable endeavours” to establish whether B is 16 or over would better lend itself to giving evidence to the court.
What all this amounts to is not opposition but urging us to get this right. Whether we get it right today or, as I said on Report, by an amendment during the Commons stages of this Bill, I hope that we end up with something that is workable, acknowledges current technology and is not simply defensive of the offences that are on the statute book at the moment. I am usually the first to say that if there is already something that covers this, we should not be looking for something else, but with this issue we should be looking for something else.
My Lords, I rise to speak in support of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Harris. As we have heard, the amendment is supported by the NSPCC, with which I have had several discussions. The NSPCC believes that the amendment is wholly necessary because it specifically proposes that a new offence be brought in so that it is always illegal for an adult intentionally to send a sexual message to a child because this is another form of child sex abuse. This proposed new clause seeks to protect children from sexual communications.
I spoke in support of the amendment on Report and I remain committed to making it—I repeat—always illegal for an adult to send a sexual message to a child. We have to understand that the current law, a stand-alone offence as part of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, is inadequate in protecting children from online abuse. What is needed is to ensure that the law is absolutely clear that intentionally sending a sexual communication to a child is illegal. This will help prevent abuse escalating and keep children safe online in this new and dangerous world in which they are being brought up. We have to put all the necessary protections in place for every eventuality. We must make absolutely sure that there will be no place for perpetrators to hide.
The Minister’s response on Report perhaps focused too much on adults possessing indecent images of children. That is not what this proposed new clause is concerned with. My noble friend the Minister was correct to assert that if an adult incites and comes to possess an indecent image of a child, legislation such as Section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act would cover the possession of those images. However, this misses the purpose of this proposed new clause. Section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act makes it an offence only to possess indecent photographs of a child. For instance, it would not be illegal for a 40 year-old adult to send a message to an 11 year-old child saying, “I’d like to see a photo of you in your underwear”.
With regard to other legislation, under the Communications Act, whether a message would be deemed indecent or not is a subjective judgment. If an adult sent a message to a child describing in sexually explicit language what they fantasised about doing together, this would clearly be considered indecent and therefore illegal. However, if an adult sent messages such as, “Send me a photo of yourself, honey”, it is not clear that this could be deemed,
“grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”,
as described in Section 127 of the Communications Act, but, in context, this clearly has a sexual intent. This is the gap that the proposed new clause attempts to fill. Its purpose is to catch offenders before the child has shared an indecent image because when, and if, a child is persuaded to send an indecent image of themselves, it could have devastating consequences for that child. They can become suicidal, start to self-harm and have low self-esteem, and be made to feel ashamed and dirty. This is what the NSPCC has found. I am sure that my noble friend and noble Lords across the House will agree with me about the risks a child faces once an image has been shared online, for it can be spread ever more widely at great speed without the child’s knowledge. We should do everything that we can to stop this behaviour before it happens.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, has dealt with how the offence is not captured by various other legislation. Rather than restating his points, I will address the Minister’s belief that the Crown Prosecution Service does not currently feel that there is a gap in the law. In 2012, Phillip Pirrie was convicted for arranging to meet and sexually abuse a 13 year-old girl whom he had first contacted online. During the trial, it was revealed that he had previously contacted a 14 year-old girl through an online game. He sent that girl sexual messages. Luckily, these were found by the girl’s father, who took his concerns to the police. Sadly, no further action was taken as a meeting had not taken place between Pirrie and the girl. Under this proposed new clause, Pirrie could have been prosecuted and convicted in respect of the first victim, the 14 year-old. As a result he could have been placed on the sex offenders register and had a civil prevention order put in place. More importantly, this could have prevented him offending against the second victim, the 13 year-old. Think of the pain and suffering that this could have saved.
As I previously stated, last year ChildLine saw a 168% increase in contacts relating to online sexual abuse. This confirms that online sexual abuse is a new blight on our children’s well-being. Clearly we must do more in this area to enable action to be taken against offenders earlier and keep children safe online. What will we do to safeguard and protect our children in this modern world? I look forward to the Minister’s response on that point.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Harris. I will not go through all the arguments that have been made already. The Minister can easily read the NSPCC submissions, which are extremely pertinent. I will make three very different points.
I know that the Minister is extremely concerned about child abuse generally, and child sexual abuse and its prevention in particular. We are about to embark on a huge inquiry. We have discussed whether an inquiry looking at past abuse might obscure what is happening today. What we must do—I am repeating this and will continue to do so—is spend our time preventing abuse now. The lessons that we can learn from the past will help us, but it is crucial that we prevent abuse now.
I declare an interest as the vice-chair of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, where grooming was first defined and understood. In relation to grooming, any of the experts will tell you that the perpetrator clears a number of hurdles to reach the full stature, if you like, of a paedophile. The first thing that they do is test whether they can gain the confidence of a child just through kindness, relationship and involvement. As I understand it, none of the current statutes would intervene at the point where a perpetrator sent a message saying, “I am really fond of you, I would like to see you topless or in your underwear”, or “I would like you to talk about sexual things”, or, as in one recent case, “I would like you to do something to your sister in front of me, so that I can see and understand how your relationship is going”. It gets worse as time goes on. As the perpetrator finds that they can cross one hurdle, they then discover that they are enabled to cross the next one, and the next one, until they are meeting children, and until they are fully abusing larger numbers of children. That is the history of grooming; it is how grooming works.
If we are serious about prevention, we need to prevent at that very first point. What the Minister will hear from the police—I am quite sure that he is in discussions—is that they find it quite difficult to sort out how they move forward among the enormously confusing entanglement of present legislation. I simply hope that the Government will have a look at this. I am not a lawyer; I only know what I experience in my day-to-day contact with the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, the NSPCC and other children’s organisations. They feel that not enough is being done, that one single law is needed to make it absolutely clear that we are serious about protecting our children, and that we should have an amendment—if not this one, something like it—to be able to act at the very first point.
My Lords, there appears to be a gap in child protection for the reasons that the noble Baroness has just given. I do not want to repeat them because everything she said was entirely accurate and always worrying. One has only to look at the stories that we have been getting around the country, not of historical abuse but of current abuse and abuse in the recent past—not just in the north but in other parts of the country. Sexual communications and the opportunity to encourage children to behave in a way that they think that they are doing to their peer group, is something that really needs to be sorted. I am no expert in this area of criminal law but if this area is not covered, as I understand to be the case, it is a serious matter that should be covered. I therefore ask the Government to look again, whether by means of this amendment or amendment of other legislation. It is not a matter to push into the long grass; it is urgent. If it is not covered, then it is urgent to cover it.
Another matter arises when a child finds that an adult is involved. If, say, this is stopped and the child finds that they were communicating not with a friend but with a grown-up, the embarrassment and distress to the child of having shown a tantalising photograph of herself or himself—remember boys are also vulnerable —has led children to commit suicide.
My Lords, those who have a sexual, and therefore illegal, interest in children know the law. They know the gaps and complexities in the law and rely on them, given the difficulty and lack of clarity, to set themselves on a path that may not start with, but certainly ends in, abuse. After a typically thoughtful, understated and well argued case from my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey, I was rather surprised that the Government did not bring back an amendment today, following the meeting with him.
However, today the point was made with absolute clarity across the House: there is a gap in the law; a point is missing. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, referred to communications between young people. On Report, I referred to a case of which I was aware, in which an 11 year-old girl was communicating with someone she thought was another 11 year-old girl, and sharing the kind of confidences that 11 year-old girls share when embarking on and discovering their own sexuality. However, she found out later that it was a 30-plus year-old man who was communicating with her when the relationship was developed.
There clearly is a gap in the law, which needs to be changed. It needs to catch up with what is happening today. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, made the point that abuse is happening now and there is an opportunity here to make changes to the law and do something that will make a difference and protect children today, tomorrow and the day after. I am disappointed that we do not have a new government amendment before us, but I hope that either the amendment from my noble friend Lord Harris will be accepted or we will hear a commitment from the Government to bring something back that addresses this problem, as the noble and learned Baroness said, very quickly indeed.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for the way in which he introduced this amendment and, too, noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. In many ways, I thought that this characterised many of the debates we have had, in that—as I am sure my noble friend Lady Benjamin would accept—there is genuine willingness and desire to make sure that all possible loopholes are tightened, and that we take this opportunity to afford every possible protection to the most vulnerable in our society, by sharing information and evidence. I have read the NSPCC’s report and we have talked to the Crown Prosecution Service and to the national policing lead about cases being brought. We will seek to move things forward. If I can, I will comment for the record in response to the very helpful meeting that we had last night with the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. As I am doing so, I will try to touch on some of the points that have been raised.
As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, knows, there is no difference between us in that we agree wholeheartedly that we need to ensure that we have a robust body of criminal law to tackle predatory sexual behaviour by adults against vulnerable children. As I said on Report, this House rightly remains united in its condemnation of the sexual abuse of children. What is more, it is determined to do something about it. I also paid tribute on Report to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which has proposed this new offence and brought its concerns to this debate.
I shall not repeat the description that I gave last time of all the offences that might be relevant in dealing with this type of behaviour. The House would not thank me for that, because the point is understood. There is a clearer point that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, raised today. However, it may be helpful if I address more specifically a couple of concerns raised on Report by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe.
The noble Lord was keen that anyone seeking to persuade a child to send a naked image of himself or herself should commit an offence. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, pointed out, this issue affects both male and female children. He was concerned that naked photographs of children might not be caught by the definition of “indecent”. I now have had the chance to look into that particular matter and am pleased to say that the noble Lord’s concerns may be misplaced. Section 10 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 provides that it is an offence to cause or incite a child to engage in a sexual activity. The noble Lord quoted Section 78 of that Act and that telling word in law, about which, as a non-lawyer, I am trying to get up to speed, although it is a well known test: what could be considered in the eyes of a “reasonable” person, or what people could reasonably conceive of, as sexual intent. Clearly, by any stretch of the imagination, a request to send a photograph of a child would fall within that category of reasonableness. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, also referred to that.
The definition of “sexual” is contained in Section 78 of the 2003 Act. That provides that an act is sexual if,
“it is because of its nature sexual, or … because of its nature it may be sexual and because of its circumstances”,
in which it takes place,
“or the purpose of any person in relation to it … it is sexual”.
In other words, the context is crucially important. Therefore, it is entirely open to the court to conclude that, if a middle-aged man is sitting in front of a computer urging a child to send him a naked photograph—which was an example that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, gave—or to pose naked before a webcam, his purpose makes the sending of that image by the child sexual, even if the child is not pictured undertaking any overtly sexual activity. The offence can be committed whether or not the victim complies with the request. The courts have convicted on that very basis and imposed substantial sentences of imprisonment; we discussed one case, which was actually a sentencing appeal, where the individual had been sentenced to three years in prison for precisely that offence under the order. In the process, the offender may also commit offences relating to the taking or making of indecent photographs of children.
I repeat my undertaking that the Government are going to take this very seriously. Despite all the legislation that we already have in place, none the less a gap needs to be filled. In particular, we need to explore further how best to deal with contact between a predatory individual and his victim where the messages are sexual in nature but where the victim is not being asked to respond in any particular way. Again, I want to get that wording precisely on the record because I think that is something that we all recognise.
I was particularly interested in the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, who of course through the Lucy Faithfull Foundation does tremendous work in this area. She pointed to the way in which paedophiles prey upon their victims and pass certain stages, and therefore how important it is to be able to tackle things as early as possible. Earlier in the Bill we discussed clauses relating to protection orders and the possession of a grooming manual being an offence. It shows that the direction of travel is recognising that we need to move further upstream in intervening at an earlier stage.
As part of that consideration, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, was kind enough to come to see me yesterday afternoon, together with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. I was accompanied by my noble friend Lady Williams. I think they will agree that we had a useful discussion, and they have given us much food for thought as the Bill goes to another place. I agreed at that meeting, and I am happy to repeat it here on the Floor of the House, that officials would arrange a further early meeting with the NSPCC to discuss this issue further. The noble Lord is welcome to attend that meeting. We will also explore with the national policing lead and the CPS what additional guidance could be given to the police and prosecutors on the options open to them in tackling such predatory behaviours. My noble friend Lady Benjamin mentioned some scepticism, perhaps, about where the CPS was on this, but it will attend that meeting and I am very happy for her to attend as well. I accept the point that was made; an example was given where the police did not intervene as they could and perhaps should have done in the first instance, which then led to a more serious offence, which is precisely the type of circumstance that we are trying to prevent, and we are united in that. We are very aware of the need to look at this.
We are grateful to the NSPCC for the work it has done in bringing this to our attention. We will have that further meeting and of course there will be that other opportunity, as the Bill progresses through another place, for legislation to be introduced if needed. Of course, this is something that we will be coming back to time and again, particularly as the inquiry gets under way. Without in any way prejudging what it might recommend, it is clear that there is going to be some tightening of the law, probably, in the light of new technology and new evidence that comes to mind.
I say again that I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for introducing the amendment. As this is possibly the last time I will speak on the Bill, I also pay tribute to all noble Lords who have contributed to its passage, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and, of course, the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Walmsley, who contributed to a reshaping of the Bill.
The large number of government amendments which have been brought forward shows that we recognise the seriousness of this and we are united about it. We want to tackle the issues raised. We are listening and we are responding, and we will continue to do so in this very important area. With that, I wonder if the noble Lord might feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I should express my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, who signed the amendment. She would have spoken to the amendment but she was, as we spoke, moving an amendment to the Consumer Rights Bill. We agreed that I would do this and she would do that, as we both have an interest in the same Bills. I am also grateful to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, to the noble Baronesses, Lady Howarth of Breckland and Lady Benjamin, and even to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who—despite her desire always to go through the minutiae of an amendment—indicated quite clearly that she supported the principles behind this. I am of course also grateful to my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon for her support.
I pay particular tribute to the Minister, to whom I am very grateful for the way in which he has approached this. He has shown courtesy, and willingness to listen and to have a dialogue. That bodes well not only for the Bill before us today, but also for other Bills which may come before us with—no doubt—great frequency, given that we are talking about the Home Office. The essence of his argument is that, given what we have at the moment, it is open to the courts to say that the sorts of things we have been talking about are in fact sexual. However, I still hope that some form of words can be found, because I am concerned that if we leave things as they are it will create some lack of clarity as to what is or is not permissible.
Under those circumstances, that may mean that the Crown Prosecution Service—or, perhaps, the police, before they even take it to the Crown Prosecution Service—may set themselves a higher threshold for deciding whether or not they should take action. The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, gave us the example of the police having clearly made a judgment that something had not passed the threshold, yet it was on an escalator which could lead to all sorts of other things. In my view, the wording which has been identified as possibly covering these circumstances is convoluted, and it is quite difficult to follow. I would have thought it better for all concerned if the law was clear—which is always a good principle—and made it always illegal to communicate with a child in a sexual fashion or in a sexual way, or to elicit such a sexual response.
However, I am grateful to the Minister for indicating that the Government will take this seriously, and for the commitment that before the Bill progresses through another place there will be further discussions with the NSPCC and the Crown Prosecution Service, involving Members of your Lordships’ House if we are available. I hope that there would also be some involvement of the police, because this may not be an issue only for the Crown Prosecution Service. It may be the issue that has been identified beforehand.
The objective should be clear. We need to be satisfied that the law is clear enough; that people are able to act on it; that they understand what it means; and that it shifts upstream the ability to intervene, so that it is possible to intervene before harm is caused to the child. On that basis and on the basis of the commitment made by the Minister, for which I am grateful, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
Clause 67: Offence of female genital mutilation
7: Clause 67, page 54, line 39, after “4” insert “of the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003”.
My Lords, these drafting amendments simply seek to split Clause 67, which, as amended on Report, now deals with two distinct, albeit related, issues; namely, the extension of the extraterritorial reach of the offences in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 and conferring lifelong anonymity on the victims of FGM.
I look forward to hearing what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has to say about her amendment before responding to it. I also understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, would like to put on the record some further observations about her proposed new offence of encouragement of FGM. For now, I beg to move.
My Lords, I am sorry not to hear further from the Minister about her amendments. We had a very helpful and productive debate on Report, where it was clear that your Lordships’ House was united in a desire to tackle FGM. The government amendment was welcomed, but it was agreed that the issues raised by our amendments, which I have again tabled today, were both valid and reasonable. There was no policy disagreement; the difference was one of approach and what would be most effective in achieving the aims that we all share.
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, emphasised the need to use civil law and family courts. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, agreed with him and said:
“I would like to see what is good in each set of amendments put together”,
and expressed the hope that,
“the Opposition and the Government will get together … and thrash out what would be the best of everything and get that into one list that could go into Third Reading”.—[Official Report, 28/10/14; col. 1092.]
That explains why we have retabled our amendment here at Third Reading. We felt that the House would want to hear what progress we have made in those discussions.
There were two issues of difference between us and the Government. I say “difference” rather than “disagreement”, as the whole approach on this matter has been consensual. Our intention in tabling amendments is to ensure that the legislation, and its application, is the best it can be. That is why we sought advice not just on policy but from leading practising lawyers in this area. I put on record my thanks and appreciation to Kirsty Brimelow from Doughty Street Chambers and the Bar Human Rights Committee and Zimran Samuel from 42 Bedford Row Chambers. Their considerable practical experience and expertise have been of enormous assistance in understanding all the implications of the proposed legislation. We are grateful to them also for attending the meeting we had with the Minister and her officials. I am also grateful to Catherine Meredith of Doughty Street and Dexter Dias of Garden Court Chambers. I am not a lawyer, but I felt that I needed to be absolutely clear on the implications of the amendments before us—not just how they would be implemented in theory but how much difference they would make in practice. There is old saying: in theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice they are often different.
As legislators, we must be concerned about practice— the very point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss— when debating the use of civil law. There are two issues of difference, both relating to the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. We welcomed the Government’s support for our calls for FGM protection orders and were grateful to them for bringing forward their own amendment on Report. The issues of difference that merited further consideration were highlighted by the Bar Human Rights Committee, whose members proposed such an order in the first place and are experts in this area.
The first issue relates to where the orders sit in relation to civil and criminal law, and which Act the amendment relates to. It might seem just an academic argument, but if that were that case, I would not raise it today in your Lordships’ House. The 2003 FGM Act, which the government amendment seeks to amend, is a criminal statute and not necessarily familiar to family law practitioners. The Family Law Act 1996, on the other hand, is their first port of call. Forced marriage protection orders, which are used all the time in the family court, are in the Family Law Act and have been successful. Having FGM orders also in the Family Law Act would mean that they would sit beside and complement the existing regime for the protection of children in the Children Act 1989.
I appreciate that the Government’s proposal remains a civil order, but it is a civil order within criminal legislation. Those who are involved in family courts told us of the practical reasons why not all family court lawyers would know, understand or appreciate that they should also look to criminal law statutes for civil measures.
There is the issue of the deterrent factor for those whom we want to come forward, when a civil measure lies within criminal law. The difference may be understood by criminal lawyers or across the Dispatch Box in your Lordships’ House, but it is not necessarily understood by those whom the orders seek to protect.
I totally understand that from the Government’s point of view it makes policy sense to have all the legislation relating to FGM in one place. It sounds logical. But when those who will use this law, and who really care that we get it right, tell us that it could make application for and gaining of an FGM order harder and therefore less likely, I feel obliged to take their views and experience into account. What matters is what works in practice.
The second issue is about the definition. As I explained in Committee, the government amendment uses the definition in the 2003 Act. The Government believe, as was the intention when we reintroduced the legislation in 2003, that this covers reinfibulation. I am not going to test your Lordships’ House again with an exact explanation of what is involved. Last time, “Today in Parliament” put out a warning before I spoke, and gave the programme a G certificate, standing for guidance. I think that is the first time that that has happened, but it does convey some of the brutality and horror of what we are talking about.
The law was intended to include reinfibulation. Any definition or interpretation should include reinfibulation, which involves unnecessary and non-medical restitching to reclose the female genital mutilation following childbirth. However, the Bar Human Rights Committee and Doughty Street lawyers tell us that there is some misinterpretation. That is why we use the World Health Organization definition instead. That would ensure that our law is consistent with recognised international standards and understandings and clarifies any existing confusion around offending conduct such as reinfibulation.
I was reassured on Report by the willingness of Ministers to discuss this further and, as a result, I agreed to withdraw our amendments. The lawyers who advised us attended the meeting with the noble Baroness and her officials. We were looking forward to the meeting, and we were optimistic that we would make the kind of progress that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and others, had wanted us to make. However, I have to tell your Lordships’ House that we are very disappointed with the outcome. It appeared to us in that meeting that the Government were not prepared to take on board any of the points raised by us or, more importantly, by the barristers who deal with this issue on a regular basis. On the issue of definition the Government are now concerned that such clarification as we have called for could affect any existing or current cases. I am surprised that that was not mentioned on Report. That assessment is questioned, including by senior lawyers who we have spoken to. Perhaps the noble Baroness and I could pursue that at another time.
No one is suggesting that the law is wrong; there is a problem with interpretation. When the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists say that the definition does not include reinfibulation, that seems to me to be an excellent case for clarification. Despite the clear will of your Lordships’ House that such discussions should take place with the intention of ensuring that whatever was brought forward works well in practice, I deeply regret that I do not consider that we had productive discussions. The Government clearly have no intention of making any modifications or improvements in this area.
I do not intend to press the amendment to a vote. The government amendments are not wrong, but they could be better. We believe that this is a lost opportunity, and I ask the following questions.
First, can the Minister tell us what the Government will do to raise awareness among practitioners and the public that these orders exist? Secondly, will she agree to report to Parliament on the number of orders that have been made after, for example, one year of operation —although that might of course be under a different Government—so that the effectiveness can be considered? Thirdly, will she clarify the legal aid position? My understanding is that legal aid will be made available because these are civil FGM orders, even though they sit within criminal legislation. Without such legal aid, these orders would fail. How does the Minister intend to make that clear, or is my understanding of legal aid wrong? Fourthly, will the Government consult on the interpretation of the definition of FGM?
While we are disappointed that we do not have the best outcome, we feel that we have done all we can to make the case. The proposals from the Government are important, they are a significant improvement and we want to see them be as effective as possible.
I am most grateful to the Minister for tabling Amendment 7, which enables me to speak briefly about the need to create an offence of encouragement of female genital mutilation, which we discussed on Report. I want to thank the Government for agreeing to have further discussions about the new amendment, drafted by Dexter Dias QC, and about the new evidence from our QC adviser. To be frank, that evidence is extremely powerful and it is a pity that we did not have access to these arguments earlier in our debates. I hope the Government will table the Dias amendment, or something very like it, in the other place, but I understand that they are in no position to make any commitment of that kind at this stage.
I will not repeat the arguments we rehearsed on Report in favour of focusing attention upon those who encourage the practice of FGM rather more than upon the families who practice this appalling form of child torture. I want to put on record only that the Dias amendment would provide an effective legal intervention because it is modelled on what is known to work: comparable powers used to combat the dissemination of encouragement to commit acts of terrorism. FGM is of course an entirely different crime from terrorism but the model for the two types of crime is similar.
The Dias amendment recognises the awful social pressure that parents are placed under by some communities. In traditional societies, which are intensely hierarchically structured, elders and preachers exert enormous influence. I think that most of us are not familiar with that or have not experienced it. We believe that the encouragement amendment will complement the important community work being done to dissuade preachers from encouraging FGM.
Mr Dias QC refers to our international obligations, which more than justify the creation of an offence of encouragement of female genital mutilation to cover anyone who makes a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to them to mutilate the genitalia of a girl. That is the essence of his amendment. These international obligations include: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979; the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989, under which the UK has positive obligations in international law to ensure that children are not subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and, finally, the UN Convention Against Torture of 1984, which has been ratified by the UK.
Mr Dias presents four pages of powerful arguments in support of the amendment he has drafted, which I hope very much that the Government will consider most seriously, as I have indicated. I will not repeat all these arguments here today—this is, after all, Third Reading—although I believe that your Lordships’ House would find them extremely persuasive. The only remaining point I want to make is that I am advised that our strong international obligations justify overriding Article 10 of the Convention on Human Rights, the right to freedom of expression. This is a very important point, particularly because we all wish to preserve that right whenever it is appropriate. All that we are saying is that in this very specific case, it is appropriate to override it.
Again, I give my thanks to the Minister for providing this opportunity for me to reiterate certain points. I hope that the Minister can confirm to the House today the Government’s agreement to have further discussions on this important issue.
My Lords, had the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, tabled this amendment I would have put my name to it. I do not want to take up time at Third Reading to repeat what the noble Baroness has said, but I ask the Minister to be in touch with those in the Home Office who will be dealing with the Bill in the other place, and not to disregard what she has said. It is really worth having a further look at this serious matter. There are communities which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has said, are different from most of us and where there is a degree of not just influence but power among certain elements of those communities. That leads to this appalling FGM taking place on children in this country. I am also supportive of what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said. This is a good part of the Bill and the Government are to be congratulated on it. However, they could do better.
My Lords, the Government have made enormous progress in addressing the legislation so well, to the extent that a Government can in practice respond to FGM. Like others, I encourage the filling of a gap which seems to have been identified. I do not want to say more this afternoon but I wanted to put on record my support for the noble Baroness and my admiration for her keeping going on this issue.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the discussions to enable the progress mentioned by my noble friend Lady Hamwee to take place. I think we all want the same thing; there is a slight difference of opinion in how we get there. I thank specifically the noble Baronesses, Lady Smith and Lady Meacher, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee for the time they have taken in the discussions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised two substantive points. The first concerned whether there would not be advantages in placing the provisions in respect of FGM protection orders in the Family Law Act 1996 rather than in the FGM Act 2003 and the second concerned whether the statutory definition of FGM should be updated expressly to refer to reinfibulation. I will take the two points in turn. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness and her advisers for discussing with me the issues she raised on Report. On the first point, I believe that the noble Baroness accepted that the Government’s provisions would allow proceedings for FGM protection orders to be heard in the family court or in the family division of the High Court as family proceedings with the full range of the court’s powers. However, she was concerned that civil or family law practitioners might not be able to find the FGM protection order provisions in a criminal statute and that victims would be deterred from availing themselves of them.
As its Long Title indicates, the FGM Act 2003 restates and amends the law relating to FGM. It is not exclusively a criminal statute nor do I think that is a particularly helpful label. We remain of the view that is sensible to have all the provisions relating to this area of the law in one place—that point was made on Report. We will work with the legal profession and others to ensure that the FGM provisions in the Bill are widely publicised when we come to bring them into force. I think this is crucial because it is not just the law but the reinforcement and the engagement with communities that will be so important.
With regard to the definition of FGM, I also had a helpful discussion with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and her advisers on whether there should be an explicit reference to reinfibulation in the FGM Act 2003. I have tried to persuade the noble Baroness of the Government’s firm view, which I set out on Report and reiterate today, that reinfibulation is already covered by the wording of the 2003 Act. As infibulation is an offence under that Act, so is reinfibulation. That reinfibulation or resuturing is an offence is clearly stated in the multi-agency practice guidelines on FGM and in the guidance of almost all of the relevant royal colleges. There may of course be a need to communicate this point to practitioners more effectively—I think there will be—but we do not accept that there is currently any need to clarify the law.
The noble Baroness also asked about the legal aid position. The Government are giving this further consideration and will clarify the position on legal aid in due course. The noble Baroness also asked whether there would be a report to Parliament on FGM protection orders after one year. We expect that the provisions of this Bill will be subject to post-legislative scrutiny in the normal way. We will ensure that our report on the working of the Bill gives figures as to the number of FGM protection orders made. I think that will be very important. It will, of course, be open to any Member of your Lordships’ House to table a Question at any time seeking such information.
I will now respond to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. Again, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the constructive way in which she has pursued her and the Local Government Association’s campaign for a new offence to outlaw statements that encourage the promotion of FGM. As I indicated on Report, the Government remain to be persuaded of the case for such an offence. The Government believe that the provisions added to the Bill at Report stage are a far more targeted, and therefore more effective, way of dealing with the problem.
Of course, as well as this now strengthened body of criminal and civil law, there is more that can and should be done to overcome the culture and attitudes that allow FGM to persist. That is why, at the Girl Summit in July, we launched a declaration condemning FGM, signed by more than 200 faith and community leaders from all major religions. The faith leaders have declared that FGM is not required by their religions and is a form of child abuse. The declaration has it made clear that all religions will work together to end FGM for good. The support from faith leaders has been overwhelming and the Government are committed to turning these signatures into further action through education and community engagement, which, as I have said, are crucial. Our aim must be for all these powerful voices from authoritative and respected local leaders to drown out the minority, to whom the noble Baroness referred, who advocate and encourage FGM.
Finally, we have real concerns about the necessity and proportionality of an offence of encouraging the promotion of FGM, given that it would engage Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects freedom of expression. None of us would condone such statements, but it does mean that we have to tread carefully before introducing what amounts to a speech crime. The noble Baroness has briefly touched on these points and has referred to the advice she has recently received from Dexter Dias QC. I am ready and willing to meet both the noble Baroness and Dexter Dias to discuss these issues further. I hope that the offer of a further meeting will go some way to reassure the noble Baroness that we will continue to explore the issues she has raised, although I hope she will understand that I cannot offer her any commitment to bring forward a government amendment on this matter during the remaining stages of the Bill.
I say again that the whole House is united in seeking to eradicate the vile practice of FGM both from this country and across the globe. Your Lordships’ House is sending the Bill to the Commons with a powerful suite of new measures to help achieve that objective. I hope that, having heard the Government’s reasons for the approach we have taken, particularly as regards FGM protection orders, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, will not press her amendment—as she has stated she will not—and will join me in commending the government amendments to the House.
Amendment 7 agreed.
8: Clause 67, divide Clause 67 into two clauses, the first (Offence of female genital mutilation: extra-territorial acts) to consist of subsections (1)(a), (b) and (d) and (3), and the second (Anonymity for victims of female genital mutilation) to consist of subsections (1)(c) and (2)
Amendment 8 agreed.
Clause 69: Female genital mutilation protection orders
Amendment 9 not moved.
Clause 74: Transitional and saving provisions
10: Clause 74, page 79, line 16, at end insert—
“( ) Before the day on which section 103 of the Courts Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 (abolition of appeal from a sheriff to the sheriff principal) comes into force—
(a) the reference to the Sheriff Appeal Court in subsection (3)(b) of section 61 is to be read as a reference to the sheriff principal;(b) the references to the court in subsections (5) to (7) of that section are to be read as including references to the sheriff principal.”
Amendment 10 agreed.
Clause 75: Extent
Amendments 11 and 12
11: Clause 75, page 80, line 1, leave out “and (2)”
12: Clause 75, page 80, line 2, leave out “68 and” and insert “(Anonymity for victims of female genital mutilation) to”
Amendments 11 and 12 agreed.
Clause 76: Commencement
13: Clause 76, page 80, line 31, after “67” insert “, (Anonymity for victims of female genital mutilation)”
Amendment 13 agreed.
A privilege amendment was made.
Bill passed and sent to the Commons.
Infrastructure Bill [HL]
Report (2nd Day)
86A: Before Clause 17, insert the following new Clause—
“National Infrastructure Commission
There shall be an independent National Infrastructure Commission.”
My Lords, I thank Sir John Armitt for his excellent work in leading the independent review for the Labour Party on long-term infrastructure planning. I also thank Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons for his invaluable work in preparing a draft national infrastructure Bill since the publication of the report. We have been consulting on the draft Bill and have received a positive response from across the infrastructure sectors. The draft Bill runs to 26 pages. Rather than propose all 26 pages as amendments, the House will be grateful that I have purposefully kept this proposed new clause concise and to the point. However, if the Minister tells us that he is prepared to accept the principle of an independent infrastructure commission, we would be delighted to discuss the provisions of the draft Bill with him with a view to subsequent legislation on a cross-party basis.
The case for an independent infrastructure commission is clear. The UK has historically, over many decades, underinvested in key infrastructure, which is why the World Economic Forum ranks the UK 27th for the overall quality of infrastructure in its 2014-15 Global Competitiveness Report. Our long-term infrastructure planning is weak. There is far too much stop-start decision-making and investment, and forging a political consensus in key areas such as airports and energy has proved notoriously difficult. The role of an independent commission would emphatically be not to replace Government, Parliament and the democratic process, but to inform and strengthen them. Under the Armitt plan, an independent national infrastructure commission would carry out an evidence-based assessment of the country’s infrastructure needs over a span of 25 to 30 years, focusing on nationally significant infrastructure —as defined by the Planning Act 2008—and consulting relevant stakeholders. The key economic infrastructure sectors—energy, transport, water, waste and tele- communications—would be considered in parallel, allowing the interdependence between sectors to be thoroughly examined. Projections of economic growth, population and technological change would inform this cross-sector approach. Environmental issues and obligations would be respected and recommendations made by the commission would need to be consistent with achieving the UK’s long-term climate change targets. The result of the commission’s considerations would be a national infrastructure assessment submitted to the Chancellor, who would have a statutory duty to bring it before Parliament within six months, accompanied by any amendments that the Government might propose. We anticipate that the first assessment would be produced within three years of the establishment of the commission.
The national infrastructure assessment would therefore come forward with the Government’s full authority. Ministers would not be bound by the independent commission but changes made by the Government to the commission’s assessment would be clear and transparent and subject to full public and parliamentary debate. The plan would be fully updated every 10 years but it would be open to the Government or a new Government to seek earlier reconsideration, again on an open and transparent basis. The assessment would be debated and voted upon in both Houses. If approved, there would then be a 12-month period in which individual government departments would be required to produce sector infrastructure plans outlining the specific schemes and projects that the Government would promote to meet the needs identified in the assessment. Proposed sources of funding, timeframes for project implementation and preferred delivery vehicles will be required in the plans in order to provide real delivery momentum, credibility and confidence for investors.
Before a vote on each sector plan in Parliament, the commission would provide a statement commenting on the consistency of the Government’s proposals with identified infrastructure needs, highlighting areas where departmental sector plans fell short, which together with the 12-month deadline for producing the plans would act as a significant new discipline for Government to get on with implementation and delivery. Together these sector plans would form a national infrastructure plan for the UK—not a wish list like the current national infrastructure plan, but a statement of priority national projects with key milestones, delivery targets and vehicles and sources of funding set out in each case.
We have shown in recent years that we can deliver on major national infrastructure. The Olympics were delivered on time and on budget and the Crossrail project continues to progress well. Financial institutions are generally keen to invest in British infrastructure so long as risk and return are well balanced, but in key areas decisions have not been timely and investment has been poorly planned, inefficient and inadequate. To take just transport, the history of the railway system and airports in the south-east of England over the past 50 years is a running commentary on the failure of long-term strategic planning. There is a real danger that energy, water and flood prevention infrastructure could soon become so. The problem clearly lies with the quality and timeliness of planning and political decision-making as much as with the delivery. The current Davies commission on airports is a kind of mini-infrastructure commission, set up precisely because of the failure to resolve airport capacity issues in south-east England over the past 15 years under both this and the last Labour Government. We are proposing a similar approach applied more broadly.
There is a wide basis of support for evidence- based decision-making in infrastructure planning and delivery, and support specifically from the Armitt review proposals, the LSE Growth Commission, the EEF—the manufacturers’ organisation—and the Institution of Civil Engineers. These proposals will promote better public understanding of the key infrastructure issues facing the country by developing evidence about the condition of the nation’s assets and the projected impact of key economic, environmental and demographic trends, as well as the implications of delayed investment or doing nothing at all.
The proposed commission tackles the problem outlined by one respondent to the Armitt review—that,
“at present, no single body in the UK takes a view of what the picture on the front of the jigsaw box looks like. Rather we hope it comes together, mainly by chance”.
National infrastructure is too important to be treated in this cavalier way. It is time for an independent national infrastructure commission to improve the process. I beg to move.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord for his amendment, which allows us to outline again the Government’s position on national infrastructure. I must admit that when he started talking about the Armitt review, I was concerned for a moment, as I was settling down, as to whether the word was Armitt or Ahmad. That threw me a bit—but we are clear which report we are talking about here.
We believe that the national infrastructure plan already delivers unparalleled levels of investment. The Government recognise—and the noble Lord acknowledged this—that infrastructure projects have been delivered on time and on budget. He referred to the Olympics. It is noteworthy that the person responsible for delivering the Olympics on time and on budget is the current Minister for Infrastructure in our Government, my noble friend Lord Deighton. I believe that all noble Lords will agree that he has great expertise in this area.
Of course the Government recognise the importance of the long term in looking at infrastructure investment. Investing in infrastructure is a central part of the Government’s long-term economic plan to build a stronger and more competitive economy. For this reason, the Government have introduced the national infrastructure plan, which has brought together our approach to investing in energy, transport, telecoms, water and waste networks into one place. This has brought a step change in delivering UK infrastructure. We are introducing an ambitious new energy strategy to incentivise additional electricity capacity for the UK and support low-carbon electricity generation. In road and rail networks, we are seeing new investment at rates not known for several decades. Our plan provides sound justification for infrastructure projects that have secured buy-in from a broad range of stakeholders.
We have set out long-term capital settlements to align with the national infrastructure plan. These commitments have led to new investment out to 2021, in sectors such as roads and flood defences, and long-term funding plans for projects such as High Speed 2. This has all helped to ensure stability and continuity of infrastructure investment in the decades to come.
I turn to the issue of the independent infrastructure body. The Government disagree with this amendment and have reservations about introducing an independent body without a clear understanding of the impacts of the change. Failure to understand this would create greater uncertainty and risk the successful delivery of UK infrastructure. We believe that resourcing requirements to support a commission have not been fully established or costed. Establishing a new authority for infrastructure would involve significant complexities and would distract from the business of providing the infrastructure that the country needs now and in the future.
It is essential that the Government focus on delivery. The central issue is to ensure that the UK has a robust plan to address the challenges facing our networks in the future. The Government have developed a strategy to meet current and future demand through the renewal of existing infrastructure and to grow a global economy with modern infrastructure networks. In doing this, we have sought to address climate change and energy security. This investment is vital for future economic growth. However, it is not clear how introducing a national infrastructure commission would address these pressing issues.
The Government already have a strong track record in major infrastructure delivery. While a national infrastructure commission is an untested and, as yet, unproven idea, the Government take delivering infrastructure extremely seriously. The latest infrastructure pipeline shows that £383 billion of investment is planned for infrastructure networks over the course of the next Parliament and beyond. The noble Lord mentioned specific transport projects. We have had 45 major road and local transport projects since 2010, and the start of construction on flagship projects, such as Northern Hub and the Mersey Gateway Bridge, as well as substantive progress on Crossrail, provides good examples. In addition, more than £45 million has been invested in electricity generation networks between 2010 and 2013 and contracts have already been signed under the electricity market reform, with a further allocation currently under way. The UK is rated as the most energy-secure country in the EU and is fourth in the world.
I believe that we are in a good place when it comes to infrastructure and investment in infrastructure for the current, medium and long term. With the reassurances I have provided, I hope that the noble Lord is minded to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He offers me a tantalising prospect that, if we were to rename the Armitt report the Ahmad report, then he might be prepared to accept the amendment. I offer him that potential deal across the Dispatch Box, though Sir John Armitt might want some hybrid name attached to the report in consequence.
I am disappointed by the response of the noble Lord. In many other areas, such as fiscal and competition policy, we have independent bodies which advise Ministers. Looking at the history of this country over the last two generations, it is clear that we have had serious problems in the planning of our national infrastructure. This is not just in bringing objective evidence to bear on the debate, but in the establishment of cross-party consensus in areas of high priority. We believe that a commission of this kind could significantly contribute to the process.
The area I know well—transport—is a testimony to the problems of failure to address long-term infrastructure planning on an independent and consensual basis. Airports policy has been a yo-yo since the 1960s. There has been stop-start on Maplin, then at Heathrow, and it has taken 15 years to make decisions about increased airport capacity in the south-east of England. Electrification of the railways has been delayed for the best part of a generation because of the lack of any long-term plan. The noble Lord mentioned HS2 and I am glad that a cross-party consensus has been reached on it. However, it was only five years ago—a generation after most of continental Europe and large parts of Asia started to develop high-speed rail networks—that we even started to consider the potential for high-speed rail in this country because there was no medium and long-term planning.
The Minister mentioned roads and the roads programme. As many noble Lords with major road developments in their areas know, this is a classic case of stop-go. Every time there is a downturn, there is a massive slashing of projects, only for them to have to be revived again a few years later at significant additional expense because there is no agreed medium-term plan. In 2010, when the present Government came in, there were huge reductions in the roads programme for strategic roads, which have since had to be partly reinstated. A system of national infrastructure planning of the kind that we propose could only strengthen the bringing to bear of objective evidence, strengthen cross- party consensus and give a louder voice to capital spending and infrastructure projects within the government machine itself.
The noble Lord referred to the resourcing requirements of the commissioners, but they would of course be a fraction of the cost of the projects themselves and there are already significant staff who develop infrastructure in individual departments. This would enable them to be pulled together to operate more effectively with some clear central direction.
It is only a matter of time before a commission of this kind is established. As I said, in so many other areas of critical policy, the bringing to bear of expert advice reporting to Ministers and Parliament to provide a basis on which decisions can be taken has been a course that has been followed. I believe it will be followed in due course in the case of infrastructure. I would therefore like to test the opinion of the House.
86B: Before Clause 17, insert the following new Clause—
“National infrastructure projects: new towns
(1) The objects of a development corporation established for the purpose of creating a new town shall be to secure the physical laying out of infrastructure and the long-term sustainable development of the new town.
(2) In this section, “sustainable development” means managing the use, development and protection of land and natural resources in a way which enables people and communities to provide for their legitimate social, economic and cultural wellbeing while sustaining the potential of future generations to meet their own needs.
(3) In achieving sustainable development, development corporations should—
(a) positively identify suitable land for development in line with the economic, social and environmental objectives so as to improve the quality of life, wellbeing and health of people and the community;(b) contribute to the sustainable economic development of the town;(c) contribute to the cultural and artistic development of the town;(d) protect and enhance the natural and historic environment;(e) contribute to mitigation and adaptation of climate change consistent with the objectives of the Climate Change Act 2008;(f) promote high quality and inclusive design;(g) ensure that decision-making is open, transparent, participative and accountable; and(h) ensure that assets are managed in the long-term interest of the community.(4) In this section “infrastructure” includes—
(a) water, electricity, gas, telecommunications, sewerage and other services;(b) roads, railways and other transport facilities;(c) retail and other business facilities;(d) health, educational, employment and training facilities;(e) social, religious, recreational and cultural facilities;(f) green infrastructure and ecosystems;(g) cremation and burial facilities; and(h) community facilities not falling within paragraphs (a) to (f); and“land” is defined as including all the matters set out in the definition of “land” in Schedule 1 to the Interpretation Act 1978, and also housing including (where the context permits) any yard, garden, outhouses and appurtenances belonging to, or usually enjoyed with, the building or part of building concerned.”
My Lords, the building of new towns and major urban extensions is a critical national issue in the face of Britain’s acute housing shortage. The designation of Ebbsfleet as a new town and the recent Wolfson Prize competition for a new town scheme demonstrates the enthusiasm and capacity that there is for developing the concept in modern conditions. All three of the major parties in the House are committed to new town or garden city developments, and I take these to mean the same thing, given the importance of green and sustainable development as part of any new town or urban extension.
This amendment intends to capture the spirit of the post-war rebuilding of the country that was spurred on by the original New Towns Act 1946, creating places that today are part of the fabric of our country, such as Milton Keynes, Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City. However, although previous new town legislation provided powers to deliver new towns, the towns that were built did not always conform to the highest design and quality standards. The objectives set out in this amendment update the existing legislation in the New Towns Act 1981—which has barely been used—to ensure protection for the natural and historic environments, to require high-quality and inclusive design and to contribute towards a low-carbon future. The aim is that no part of a new town will be eligible for the Carbuncle Cup, an annual award from Building Design magazine for the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last 12 months.
Developing places in which people love to live is a topic gathering increasing attention as we look to substantial new settlements. The winner of this year’s Wolfson Prize, David Rudlin, proposes a six-point “social contract” for the development of garden cities. The participative decision-making proposed in this amendment is reflected in Mr Rudlin’s winning entry, which proposes that existing towns and cities should be able to bid for new garden city status to build substantial high-quality and sustainable urban extensions. This includes not only high quality standards, but the requirements that new garden cities include major institutions of learning; that they be well connected by public transport and cycleways; and that for every acre of land developed, another will be given back to the city as accessible public space, including forests, lakes and country parks.
When my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton raised in Committee this issue of promoting sustainable and liveable communities in new towns, the government response was odd. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, said it was “absolutely essential” that good-quality design and the other key elements of the amendment—open decision-making, cultural and artistic development, and enhancement of the natural and historic environment—be built into new town development, but the Government were worried that to say so explicitly in statute would be “unhelpful”. But how can it be unhelpful to specify things that are so essential but are not in fact contained in the New Towns Act 1981? If they are not specified, that could lead to what David Rudlin calls “mere dormitory suburbs”.
When the Government say it is unhelpful to specify essential features of new towns, I believe they are confusing being concise with being brief. Being concise shows an excellent grasp of the issue, while being brief can demonstrate a lack of understanding of an issue. This amendment clearly and concisely prescribes the factors that development corporations should consider to achieve sustainable development, from environmental considerations to economic ones. The amendment is therefore helpful, not unhelpful. If the Government are to object on the grounds of brevity, I ask them: which factors set out in the amendment do they think should not always be considered when building sustainable new communities? I beg to move.
My Lords, I will be brief. The two amendments—the one we have just voted on and the one just moved by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—are starred amendments. It is treating this House with contempt to raise two serious issues at the very last moment for consideration in today’s business. I am not in the least surprised that in the previous debate only the noble Lord and my noble friend Lord Ahmad spoke. No one had a chance to consider what it was about and take advice. Now we have another one.
This is an important issue. As a former Environment Secretary, I dealt with planning matters, and have lived near some of the post-war new towns. I will not weary the House by repeating what I said in Committee about the appalling mistakes made, for instance in Harlow, which turned out to be a byword for the misery of large numbers of citizens who moved from the city centres out to a town that was full of lakes, parks and everything but failed to have any sense of community at all—certainly for decades. I do not in any way underestimate the need for substantial improvements in the system, and I like to think that in recent developments there have been considerable improvements; we have not had a repetition of those experiences.
However, these are important matters and one has to ask oneself: why did the noble Lord leave it until only yesterday to table this amendment and asking my noble friend to give a considered view of the matters that he raises in it? I say again: it is treating this House with contempt.
Why leave it until the last moment on Report? Why did he not put it down it a week or 10 days ago, when most of the other amendments were tabled, so that people would have a chance to look at it and consult? That is my complaint. I have great respect for the noble Lord’s ability, but sometimes he gives the impression that he walks on water.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his intervention and the noble Lord for his amendment. I feel somewhat spiritually awakened by my noble friend’s final comment about walking on water. I hope I can provide clarity on why the Government are not in a position to accept the amendment at this time.
I shall start with our common ground. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, that creating well designed, sustainable communities should be at the heart of any new development. In Amendment 86B, tabled by the noble Lord, two main objectives are proposed for a development corporation to be established for the purpose of creating a new town and for the physical laying-out of infrastructure and long-term sustainable development of the new town.
However, I do not think that prescribing the objects of a new town development corporation in detail would help to achieve that objective in a way that allowed for sufficient flexibility locally. There is much to be said for the simplicity of the current objective of new town development corporations, as indeed set out in statute: to secure the laying out and development of the new town.
The amendment proposes that sustainable development should be included in the objects of new town development corporations. Let me emphasise that the Government strongly support the principle of sustainable development. Indeed, that principle is central to the document National Planning Policy Framework, which provides a clear view of what sustainable development means in practice. We believe that creating an additional statutory definition of sustainable development could serve to reduce that very clarity.
I note that no new town development corporations have been created since 1970. However, I am clear that any future new town development corporations, as well as urban development corporations, such as the one the Government are proposing to establish at Ebbsfleet, should have a strong focus on securing sustainable development in a way that reflects local circumstances and needs. I look forward to Her Majesty’s Opposition supporting the creation of the new town at Ebbsfleet, as we seek to establish it in another Bill.
I hope that the clarity I have provided, with brevity, gives the noble Lord sufficient comfort to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for putting on record the Government’s commitment to sustainable development and high-quality design, which is of key importance.
If I may, I shall respond further to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. The amendments were tabled on Monday, which was the day before yesterday, so there was certainly time for noble Lords to engage fully with the issues—and, indeed, for the noble Lord to have read the Armitt report, which was published some months ago. It is not a recent document, by any means.
I was very willing to give way to the noble Lord, because I did mention him. I think that I had a right of reply to his points, given that he said there had been almost no notice of these amendments.
Amendment 86B was tabled by my noble friend Lord McKenzie in Committee—it is exactly the same amendment. The reason we regard it as so important that the law takes account of the issues specified in the amendment, that sustainable development should,
“contribute to the cultural and artistic development of the town … protect and enhance the natural and historic environment … promote high quality and inclusive design … ensure that decision-making is open, transparent, participative and accountable … and ensure that assets are managed in the long-term interest of the community”,
and so on, is precisely because of the point that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, raised: our last experience of developing new towns in this country was not wholly happy. There have been many very positive elements to the new towns and most of them now function extremely well. However, in some cases the quality of the initial design was not high enough. The Minister said that no new town development corporations have been set up since 1970, but we are just about to begin the process of developing new towns and major urban extensions again. The Government have named Ebbsfleet as the first. It is very likely that others will follow, given the need at least to double the rate of national housebuilding. Therefore, it seems to us, and probably to most people in the House, that having a proper set of criteria for the development of new towns is timely. If it cannot be done in this Bill—and we do not intend to press this amendment today—it should be done before we embark on the next new era of garden city development. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 86B withdrawn.
Clause 20: Deemed discharge of planning conditions
Amendment 86C not moved.
87: After Clause 20, insert the following new Clause—
“Sustainable development and design
In section 10(3) of the Planning Act 2008 (sustainable development), omit the words “the desirability of”.”
My Lords, Amendment 87 is in my name and those of the noble Lords, Lord Jenkin of Roding and Lord Tyler, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, who regrets that he is unavoidably absent. I am also honoured to have the support of the Town and Country Planning Association and the Royal Town Planning Institute. We think that this amendment is crucial to realising the aspirations of the national policy statement, which lie behind and above infrastructure development, and to furthering public consent to the essential provision of new transport and energy infrastructure.
First, I welcome the many revisions in the strategic highways company draft licence, in particular paragraph 5.22, which says:
“The Licence holder must have due regard to relevant principles and guidance on good design, such as those set out by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) and the Design Council, to ensure that the development of the network takes account of geographical, environmental and socio-economic context”.
I salute the Minister on this progress. I hope it is not churlish to do an Oliver Twist act and ask for more. Oliver Twist did, after all, ask for more necessary sustenance. The problem is that the licence does not carry nearly the same weight as the statute. It is the national policy statement that is the critical decision-making document. My plea is for explicit recognition of the crucial role of design on the face of the relevant statute, in this case the Planning Act 2008, where it sets out the obligations of the Secretary of State in preparing the national policy statement. The change that we propose is a modest one. While it strengthens and simplifies the obligation with regard to climate change—extremely important, too—and good design, it makes no change to the overarching and heavily qualified obligations in Section 10(2) that govern the section I propose to amend.
We need to look back to see why this amendment is so important. We need to remember those miles of urban highway that have created lasting problems, which my noble friend Lord Adonis referred to, by dividing communities, by ignoring the beauty element and by despoiling some of our most cherished landscapes; these include the M8 in Glasgow and the M3 in Belfast. Closer to the present time, we can think of High Speed 2’s path through the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall. Although this will be dealt with by the hybrid Bill, the issue illustrates the enormous concern we must have to ensure the right design outcomes for infrastructure with a life of many decades.
The purpose of the amendment is in a non-prescriptive way to ensure that design issues are taken more seriously by decision-makers in the preparation of policy. It does that by strengthening the Planning Act 2008’s obligation to consider good design and adaptability to climate change in the achievement of sustainable development. The 2008 Act says only that the Secretary of State must,
“have regard to the desirability of … mitigating, and adapting to, climate change”,
and “achieving good design”. We think that the words “the desirability of” must go. They make good design desirable rather than necessary, which is a misreading of the function of design. The obligation already includes a significant degree of flexibility, because of the words “contribute to” in the primary obligation of achieving sustainable development.
Experience so far shows the value of a change such as this. Both the National Policy Statement for Ports, adopted in 2012, and the most recent National Policy Statement on National Networks have very brief generic statements on good design. Indeed, they are rather depressingly similar, with little or no reference to the specific design indications of differing forms of infra- structure, such as linear road structure compared with a major power plant. It is almost as if there has been a bit of cutting and pasting, and the language is very qualified. I quote the Town and Country Planning Association’s verdict that the national policy statement on design,
“lacks ambition and emphasis and is unlikely to direct decision-makers to prioritise high quality design outcomes.”
Basically, the current legislative provisions provide some rhetorical emphasis for good design, but they do not create the kind of priority for policymakers that could reassure us that our new infrastructure will be of the design quality which Britain needs and deserves. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very happy indeed to add my name to the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness. This is partly because I have long had an admiration for the persistence with which over many years she has pursued this objective of achieving better design for our buildings and structures in this country. She deserves our support.
I referred briefly in my previous intervention to the time when I was Environment Secretary, and as such found on my desk a number of very major projects. Not all of them would have been described as infrastructure, but nevertheless one was very conscious indeed of the enormous importance of design as a criterion for desirability and for making sure that something was going to last. Indeed, there was a view in the department at the time that if a building was really bad, it would not last more than 50 years. However, 50 years is more than half a lifetime—perhaps it is less than that now, but it was then. One needs to do one’s best to avoid those bad buildings.
One particular decision with which I have always been rather pleased—which was not infrastructure except in the broadest sense of that word—concerned what is now the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. That decision turned entirely on the design that had originally been proposed, which was so memorably castigated by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales in a remarkable speech. I must say that it made me very angry at the time, because this planning decision was sitting on my desk and yet I received no advance warning at all that he was going to say anything about it.
When I then had to deal with it, I tried to see whether he was right. I came to the conclusion that, yes, of course he was right. That design was deplorable, as the recent account published by the National Gallery itself has indicated. As a result, we got an entirely new initiative from the Sainsbury brothers, and the Sainsbury Wing is now a very considerable adornment to that part of Trafalgar Square and to the National Gallery itself, based entirely on design. I therefore attach very great importance to this.
One of the important points made by the noble Baroness in her speech concerned the very limited extent to which the criterion of design has been imported into the national planning policy statements. She said that some of them gave the impression of having been cut and pasted, because they simply took the same words. If one looks, for instance, at the National Policy Statement for Ports about this, it really does not add anything to what has been said before about other forms of development. There is nothing specifically regarding ports. From time to time, I have found myself sailing past the Felixstowe dock, which is a tremendous container port. It is actually rather a fine structure when seen from the River Orwell. Then you go further up the River Orwell and there is a perfectly lovely bridge, the Orwell Bridge. We are perfectly capable of choosing first-class designs, but it needs to be at the centre. Sharpening up the obligation to put design at the heart of the planning system and planning criteria, which the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, would achieve, seems to me a very valuable thing to do. I support her amendment and I hope that she will continue to bang away at this issue. She has made great progress in other quarters and she needs to do it in this one as well.
My Lords, I support Amendment 87 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker. As she said, good design is not just desirable but necessary.
The noble Baroness talked about beauty and despoliation of the environment. They are aesthetic concerns which are aspects of wider cultural concerns, themselves a significant and necessary component of good design. I would therefore go further in paragraph 5.22 of the draft licence which the noble Baroness quoted, because I think that the absence of the word “cultural” is an omission. The relevant wording might then state that “the development of the network takes account of geographical, environmental, cultural and socio-economic context”. However, I acknowledge the work that the noble Baroness and others have put in to get as far as they have with the wording as it stands.
This is not about function, operation and maintenance versus culture or design. The precise function or functions of our highways, road networks and the built environment are themselves cultural issues. For instance, if we take into consideration initiatives very different from the norm in this country such as shared space schemes, which are intended to encourage more co-operative rather than competitive spaces, it becomes more objectively clear how form and function reflect each other in a very particular cultural sense. Good design needs to be thought of as central to planning and not as an add-on, not least because there needs to be a wider discussion about what good design is and means in relation to the precise nature of the changes which we have made and continue to make to our environment.
My Lords, I am very happy to support my noble friend Lady Whitaker’s amendment and to support those other noble Lords who have spoken in favour of it. Like the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, I am a great admirer of the way in which my noble friend Lady Whitaker has persistently championed the cause of good design and always the enlightened approach to planning.
As I understand it, the change in wording that is proposed is quite modest, but its impact could be quite profound. The 2008 Act, rather than stating that,
“the Secretary of State must … have regard to the desirability of … achieving good design”,
would state that “the Secretary of State must have regard to achieving good design”. The former, as my noble friend said, suggests that good design is somehow optional. The amendment would make sure that it was not. I hope that the Government are able to accept this small but important amendment.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. When I arrived in the East End of London 30 years ago this year, I was very conscious of the poor quality of design of large infrastructure. As you spent time in one of the most challenging housing estates, you saw the effect of some of that on ordinary people’s lives. At the Bromley by Bow Centre, we began to challenge that logic of poor-quality design. When we built the first integrated health centre in Britain, we did so from hand-made bricks—like those used at that time at Glyndebourne opera house. There followed a beautiful cloister facing a park and bringing together health, education and enterprise in what is now a rather beautiful environment, in the middle of a housing estate, that has affected many things around it.
I have noticed over the years how people are the environments that we live, work and play in. If you create certain sorts of environment, you get certain sorts of human behaviour. In our park on the housing estate, we do not have any cameras; local people have taken a lot of ownership of it. We have probably one of the few wooden playgrounds that are not burnt every night. If you put numbers around all that, you see that the value of it to people and the Exchequer is considerable. We are following similar principles in the Olympic Park—where I am a director and sit on the planning committee—and trying to ensure that we do not repeat the tacky stuff that has gone on before but build a very beautiful environment that begins to have a major catalytic effect on the quality of design that is starting to happen in the lower Lea Valley. It is interesting to watch how local people and others, and children running through the beautiful fountains, respond to all that. If one looks at the quality of what is being built and the lack of graffiti and other things, one gets a sense of how these things affect human life and their financial implications.
Yes, I suspect that it is difficult to measure in numbers terms; it is difficult to know which box you tick; but my 30 years of experience suggests that quality of design has a massive impact. I suggest that we ignore it at our peril.
My Lords, I, too, acknowledge the work that the noble Baroness has done in this respect. I agree with what she said about good design being necessary. While she acknowledged the steps that the Government have taken in this regard—for which I thank her—she cited Oliver Twist and said that she might be perceived as being churlish in asking for more. I would never accuse the noble Baroness of being churlish. I recall that the response to Oliver Twist asking for more was, “Do you want more?”. That will certainly not be my response at this juncture, but I wish to set out the Government’s position. I also thank other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Jenkin, for their contributions.
I should stress from the outset that the Government are committed to tackling issues such as climate change and the mitigation of, and adaptation to, the impacts of such change, as well as good design for new developments. Where I suspect we will differ is on the extent to which this amendment would bring any discernible change if an infrastructure project was brought forward for consent under the Planning Act.
Part 2 of the Planning Act sets out the legislative requirements where a Secretary of State brings forward a national policy statement. National policy statements form the prime basis for deciding whether a project should be granted development consent. Given this very important role, such statements, as noble Lords will know, are scrutinised by Parliament and subject to public consultation before being finalised. This process of scrutiny provides the most appropriate means of ensuring that matters such as design and climate change are appropriately covered in a national policy statement.
All national policy statements that have been prepared to date have taken into account the issues set out in Section 10 of the Planning Act. Parliament has been given the opportunity to help shape these before they were finalised. That process of scrutiny will continue when new policy statements come forward and existing ones are reviewed. The final version of the policy statement on national networks will be designated soon and the next policy frameworks to be produced will be after the Davies commission has reported in 2015. I therefore suggest to the noble Baroness that the best place in which to seek the changes and improvements that she proposes is in the wording of national policy statements when they are subject to parliamentary scrutiny before they are designated. With those assurances and the clarity that I have provided, I trust that the noble Baroness will be minded to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have supported this amendment and indeed adding the concept of culture, which was implicit in our amendment but ought to have been explicit. I am grateful for the kind words of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and his encouragement. I am half reassured by the words of the Minister. I can see that the close-woven tapestry of the structure that he has outlined could indeed offer opportunities to push the importance of design. I think that that is not as good as having it on the face of the Bill, but let us suspend judgment until we see the next version of the national networks statement. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 87 withdrawn.
Clause 21: Property etc transfers to the HCA
88: Clause 21, page 22, line 35, at end insert—
“(A1) The Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 is amended in accordance with subsections (1) and (2).”
I beg to move Amendment 88 and shall speak also to Amendments 89 to 95 and Amendment 121. Maximising the release of surplus public sector land is critical to supporting the Government’s ambitions to reduce the deficit, increase the number of houses being built and help to drive economic growth. The new public sector land programme from 2015-16 will mean transferring a significant amount of surplus and developable land from government bodies to the Homes and Communities Agency for onward disposal.
Clause 21 is intended to speed up the transfer of land from arm’s-length bodies to the Homes and Communities Agency by allowing sites to transfer directly using a single transfer scheme, rather than transferring first to the parent department in a separate scheme. However, the Homes and Communities Agency no longer has a remit to operate in London without mayoral delegation. The Greater London Authority therefore has a pivotal role in delivering housing and economic growth in the capital, and we have been working with it to consider how its expertise can best be utilised in the disposal of surplus government land. The GLA has been clear that it wishes to carry out the Homes and Communities Agency’s former functions in London with regard to the disposal of developable land. The Greater London Authority Act 1999 allows for the transfer of central government land to the authority but, as with the Homes and Communities Agency, land from arm’s-length bodies can transfer only via the parent department and not directly in a single scheme.
In Committee, my noble friend Lady Kramer agreed to consider an opposition amendment to enable direct transfers of land from arm’s-length bodies to the GLA. Following our constructive dialogue with the GLA over the past few months, we are now satisfied that there is strong potential for the GLA to have a role in disposing of surplus government land in London. This amendment, which will allow land to be transferred directly to the GLA and its subsidiaries, will help to reduce bureaucracy in the longer term. We are therefore tabling a government amendment to effect this change. Our amendment adds three new sections to the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to allow schemes to be made transferring land to the GLA and for regulations to be made naming the bodies which will be able to transfer land and setting out the tax position for transfers.
We introduced Clause 22 to ensure that appropriate development may happen quickly by bringing the powers of purchasers of land from the Homes and Communities Agency, the Greater London Authority and mayoral development corporations into line with those presently enjoyed by the purchasers of land from local authorities and other public bodies involved in regeneration and development. We have tabled this amendment to ensure that the powers will be fully available in relation to the GLA.
The bulk of GLA land is held and managed by GLA Land and Property Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of the authority. We need to make sure that the amended powers will apply to land which the subsidiary holds or disposes of in the same way as they will apply to land which the HCA, GLA or an MDC hold or dispose of. These amendments clarify that the powers will be available in relation to land which the subsidiary owns or disposes of, provided that it has been carrying out housing and regeneration functions for the GLA in relation to that land.
Amendment 121 refers to new subsection (12) of Clause 22. Clause 40 is concerned with the territorial extent of provisions. Although Clause 22 is effective in England only, there is only one legal system covering England and Wales, and that system will operate in relation to Clause 22. The legal systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland will not operate in relation to the clause. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 93A is in my name. In speaking to his amendments, the Minister referred to an opposition amendment in Committee. The amendment was in my name and, while I understand that the Minister may occasionally feel that I am in opposition, I mostly support the Government in this House and therefore perhaps we could correct that. It was not an opposition amendment; it was an amendment on behalf of the Greater London Authority, moved by a Liberal Democrat Member on the government side of the House.
My Lords, I am grateful and my pride is restored. When I received the open-door response from my noble friend Lady Kramer on that occasion, I think I predicted that the two-word amendment which I moved in Committee would come back at this stage of the Bill as a two-page amendment. I did not anticipate that it would run to eight or nine amendments over five pages, but I am grateful to the Minister and his officials for their work to try to correct what we all recognise was an anomaly.
The Greater London Authority is happy with the amendments to Clause 21 and with Clause 21 when amended, but there are still concerns about Clause 22. The Government’s proposals are welcome, but they do not go quite as far as they need to in order to correct what the Government intend. That is because the protection afforded by the new clause does not completely cover historic disposals. We are trying to correct an omission from the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008. It is the view of the GLA that to be legally robust and clear to prevent unnecessary blocking of planned strategically important developments, the legal operation of the changes made by Clause 22 needs to be retrospective and to cover historic disposals. My Amendment 93A to Clause 22(11) would ensure that the changes in the clause cover relevant developments in London from the time that Section 11 of and Schedule 3 to the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 came into force, which was 1 December 2008. That would mean that all relevant land left unprotected by the defective provisions of that Schedule 3 would be covered by the corrections made by this amended Clause 22. It would also cover the appropriate corresponding provision that applied to the London Development Agency prior to its abolition.
That is entirely consistent with the Government’s intentions. I hope that the Minister will be in a position today to accept Amendment 93A. If he is not in a position to do so today, I hope that he will give a commitment to look at this point, which the Greater London Authority rightly feels to be important, and to correct it at a later stage, preferably at Third Reading in this House so that I can tie up the loose ends, but if that is too quick, then at a further stage of the Bill.
My Lords, we are grateful for the explanation provided by the Minister today and in the letter of 30 October. It follows a commitment made by the Minister when we discussed an amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Tope, which called for the GLA to perform the role of disposal agency in London. This parallels the role designated for the HCA outside London, whereby land from arm’s-length bodies can be transferred directly rather than via the parent department. We support these amendments.
We also support the amendment just spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, about the cut-off point and the date from which these provisions apply. That anomaly was pointed out in Committee. I hope that the Minister is able to give a positive response.
In Committee, we also probed the prospect of one or more local authorities adopting a similar role, particularly given the prospect of releasing substantial sums of publicly owned land to support housing development. This appeared to find some approval from the Minister, who undertook to explore further. Given that we do not have an amendment from the Government on this point, is this issue still under active consideration?
My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend for his amendment and I thank the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. After the various bilaterals that we have had in advance of Report, I also put on record my thanks for their attendance and for the discussions that we have had across a variety of issues. We may not agree in some cases but it has always been done in a spirit of having constructive ways of moving forward on various elements of the Bill.
I turn to the two non-government amendments. Amendment 92A would make provision in Clause 21 to allow land to be transferred directly from the ALBs of central government to the HCA, reducing bureaucracy and accelerating development. Amendment 93A is in the name of my noble friend Lord Tope. I do not believe that it is necessary to amend Clause 22(11) to allow powers to override easements to transfer to sites that have already been disposed of. Our clause aims to accelerate development; the proposed amendment from my noble friend would not help to facilitate this any further. Developers have bought land and entered into agreements clearly aware of what powers were available to them. The conditions that the land was sold with and the price paid will have reflected this. We are satisfied that where the land has been leased but the GLA, HCA and MDCs retain the freehold, the existing powers to override easements already apply and will continue to do so. That is sufficient to support development on most of the sites disposed of. Changing the law now to apply to sites that have previously been sold would be an unusual approach and may have unintended consequences.
I accept that in a small number of cases which I am aware of the freehold may have been disposed of, meaning that the power does not apply. However, there are alternative mechanisms available to address this such as taking out insurance, negotiating with easement owners and making references to the Upper Tribunal Lands Chamber. Given the mechanism already available and the small number of sites that would be affected, we do not believe that this is sufficient to warrant a legislative amendment which may well cause unintended consequences elsewhere.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, talked about local authorities. In our meetings, we said that the situation with local authorities was somewhat different. Beyond the discussions that we have had, the Government are certainly not in a position to provide any further detail or to accept any amendments in that regard.
Amendment 88 agreed.
Amendments 89 and 90
89: Clause 21, page 22, line 36, leave out “of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008”
90: Clause 21, page 22, line 37, leave out “of that Act”
Amendments 89 and 90 agreed.
90A: Clause 21, page 23, line 18, at end insert—
“(8) This section and section 53B do not have effect in relation to property, rights or liabilities comprising the whole or any part of the Public Forest Estate.
(9) The Public Forest Estate comprises all the land, property, rights and liabilities acquired by the Minister under section 39 of the Forestry Act 1967, including all such land not needed, or not used, for the purpose of afforestation or any purpose connected with forestry.”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 90A, I must thank the right reverend prelate the Bishop of St Albans for his support. He is following in the footsteps of Bishop James, the former Bishop of Liverpool, who did so much to safeguard the future of our woods and forests.
We now turn to concerns that powers within Clause 21 would allow the transfer of land from public bodies to the Homes and Communities Agency and could therefore allow the Government to transfer parts of the Public Forest Estate to the HCA for development. The Public Forest Estate is a precious asset providing us with beauty, space for recreation, space in which to walk and breathe, an environment for flora, fauna and wildlife to flourish and a means of preventing floods and slowing the effects of climate change. For those of us whose home is in a forest, they are part of our culture and heritage. They sustain livelihoods and support our local economy; they are the lifeblood of our communities. That is why I am passionate about protecting the Public Forest Estate.
At Second Reading and in Committee, the response to concerns that many people have about the Bill and the Public Forest Estate was confused. Ministers said that the Government had no intention of transferring land from the new body to the Homes and Communities Agency as the Public Forest Estate is currently in use and not declared surplus. I imagine that the Minister will say that it cannot be used because the land that makes up the Public Forest Estate does not constitute an arm’s-length body. However, if your Lordships were to go to the Government’s website, the Forestry Commission sits in the same section as HMRC and other arm’s-length bodies which will, I imagine, be covered by the Bill in the list that will be brought forward and covered in secondary legislation. Can the Minister commit to bringing forward between now and Third Reading a list of bodies that will be covered by the Bill?
We have the thrust of what the Minister is going to say from a Written Ministerial Statement. It is the second time on this topic that the Government have sought to ensure that their views are set out ahead of debate. I am grateful to the Minister for providing me with an advance copy, but my fears have not been assuaged. I hold this Minister in very high regard and do not doubt his intentions but, because of the recent history with respect to this Government’s cavalier attitude to our forests, words are not enough if they are not in a Bill. Indeed, to repeat the words of Viscount Bledisloe in a debate on the Forestry Bill in 1981:
“It is not what you say; it is what is in the Bill itself”.—[Official Report, 11/5/81; col. 370.]
I regret that the two commitments in the Written Ministerial Statement are simply not enough. Indeed, the second commitment on:
“Not including the new Public Forest Estate management body in any future regulations specifying which bodies can transfer land to the Homes and Communities Agency”,
is particularly strange. It depends for compliance upon an institution which does not exist—the new Public Forest Estate management body. Much of the difficulty that the Government find themselves in here rests with the fact that there is some confusion about the legal definition of the Public Forest Estate, but there need not be.
The Government committed to bringing forward a Bill to implement the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry, an important and detailed piece of work led by the former Bishop of Liverpool. The Government have argued in earlier debates that there is not enough legislative time to follow through on their promises. The Written Ministerial Statement repeats the canard that,
“it was not in the end possible to accommodate the necessary legislation within the current parliamentary programme”.—[Official Report, 4/11/14; col. WS 144.]
What a hoot, especially when your Lordships consider the paucity of legislation before us in this Session. I know that officials have been working on proposals, for which I am grateful, so why have the Government not at the very least brought forward a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny? The principal recommendation from the panel was that the Public Forest Estate should be held in trust for the nation; without a Bill, I regret that the legal ambiguity around it will continue.
The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, will no doubt claim that my amendment, which would put his own assurances into the Bill, is otiose yet a recent example from the Forest of Dean clearly demonstrates that words spoken by a Minister do not provide protection. In 2011, Bircham Wood was sold despite the fact that when the Forest of Dean was exempted from the disposals part of the Forestry Act 1981, Hansard recorded the intention also to exempt the associated woodlands. When the Forestry Commission land agent was challenged about the sale, he said that as Bircham Wood was not named in the 1981 Act, the Act did not apply to it. On such small omissions, confusions and accidents do these matters rest.
That is why it is my very firm view and the view of thousands of our citizens that the Government need to accept this amendment. These people were devastated by the Public Bodies Bill; they were delighted by the establishment and report of the independent panel; they were heartened by the Government’s response. Now, they feel totally let down by lack of action and are deeply concerned once more about the future of the Public Forest Estate. A few words in the Bill would alleviate those concerns. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am glad to speak in support of this amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. I am also glad to pay tribute to her persistence on this matter which I, too, believe is crucial. When the discussions about the future of the forestry estate have come before the public they have made their views absolutely clear that trees, woods and forests are a vital part of the make-up of the English countryside. Although they now cover only 9% of the land area of England, trees have an iconic place in our relationship with the landscape. Whether living in towns, cities, villages or hamlets, many people express affection and deep regard for the well-being of trees in the locality. Protecting the Public Forest Estate will bring many benefits to the public and the environment. I will mention three of them briefly.
First, exempting the Public Forest Estate from development and making that clear in the Bill will help secure some of the timber needs of the UK. We need our woods. They are practical things. Secondly, it would help to ensure continual public access and amenity uses. Forests and woodlands are not just places of access and recreation to be consumed but are places of relaxation and renewal, offering an opportunity to reconnect to the natural world in all its diversity. For Christians, this is part of God’s gracious provision for the well-being of humans and wildlife and should be respected as such. For many individuals, whether Christians or not, trees, woodlands and forests play a deep part in their spirituality, offering a sense of peace or well-being. They form a background to the tapestry of everyday life, from creating meeting points or landmarks for navigation to providing shade and improving the view. Whether in a cityscape or landscape, they contribute significantly to the improvement of life. Thirdly, this protection would also contribute to climate change. Trees are vital for the future of the planet in carbon sequestration—one of the things we are going to come to in Amendment 108.
I believe this is not just a peripheral thing. It is fundamental to the thriving of our communities and the environment in which we live. I shall press the Minister further to honour the commitment made following the report from the Independent Panel on Forestry. Will the Minister agree to consult with interested parties prior to Third Reading and consider including an amendment to bring forward legislation to establish that new public body to hold the Public Forest Estate to account?
My Lords, I apologise to the House that I have not participated in the debate on this Bill so far but I have been indisposed. I am now back healthy and prepared to enter the fray once again. I support this amendment from the noble Baroness and the right reverend Prelate because I think it is critical. It also brings back memories. Although I understand that the Minister is very committed to this Bill and to forestry, the coalition does not have the best of records in this respect. I remember this issue being debated during the Public Bodies Bill and the concern that was expressed. I remember the campaigns when thousands of people expressed their views. I do not know what has happened to the signatures that 38 Degrees collected. There is deep concern about forests for the very correct reasons the right reverend Prelate mentioned. I want to pay tribute—like virtually everyone in the House—to James, the former Bishop of Liverpool. He did a tremendous job of re-engaging politicians with the people out there and their love of forests.
I understand that there is a need for the transfer of land, especially for big infrastructure and housing. It would be foolish to deny that. I support this amendment because having read the Bill I am convinced of the intention of the Ministers and have no doubt about their sincerity, but I am not convinced completely that this Bill backs up their intentions. They may not be prepared to transfer land from the Forestry Commission to the HCA, but the Bill, I believe, gives other Ministers, future Ministers and future Governments the powers so to do. It may be a point of dispute or of interpretation. If it is, the amendment from my noble friend Lady Royall makes that quite clear.
As I understand it, one of the assurances that Ministers are giving us is that the forest land is not surplus land, but there is some difficulty with the issue of surplus. When I was chair of the Forestry Commission, I sold quite an amount of forest land, but I did so because I was reshaping the forest estate. In my mind, some of the forest in deep rural areas could be disposed of quite happily to the private sector, which would manage it just as well. On the other hand, we could use the money received to create new forests near the centre of population for reasons such as health, recreation and conservation, as well as for timber. I was very proud that in the time I was there we planted more than 1 million trees in Wigan, more than 1 million trees in St Helens and more than 2 million tress in Warrington because we were reshaping the estate. The argument about surplus is very difficult to define. If we rely on that to safeguard our forests, we could run into difficulties. For that reason, I am very keen to support the amendment proposed by my noble friend this evening.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment moved so clearly and effectively by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, and supported so strongly by the right reverend Prelate. I declare an interest as a patron of a charity in Coggeshall, Essex which runs a large forestry estate. Indeed, I am lucky enough to have a piece of ancient woodland. What has been said about public concern regarding this aspect of this Bill cannot be overestimated. I dare say many Members of the House have had a huge amount of correspondence from people really anxious to get the public forestry estate and, I believe, forestry charities excluded from the Bill as was successfully done during the passage of the Public Bodies Act 2011. They want to do that not because they view the Homes and Communities Agency as a malignant body but because they know only too well that large bureaucracies can lose touch with public feeling and opinion. Indeed there is a march going on at this very moment down in the West Country in the Forest of Dean about this Bill and the potential people think it brings for despoliation. People are deeply anxious in our wonderful country, which seems little by little to be being concreted over, developed and exploited, that we preserve and give special status to what forestry and woodland is left. I think that is at the root of this.
As a talisman of so many people who have written in, I will read a sentence from a letter written by Brian and Michelle Jones, who run an animal charity in the Forest of Dean. They say a good deal, including:
“For your average Brit, the freedom to roam on the beaches, by the lakes and, especially, in the forests, is sacred. It is what being British is all about”.
That would be a pretty universal sentiment.
Specifically in relation to the language of the Bill, the wording in Clause 21 to introduce into the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 new Clause 53A, entitled:
“Other property etc transfers to the HCA”—
that is, the Home and Communities Agency—is far too wide. It is absolutely right for the noble Baroness who tabled the amendment to make clear beyond peradventure that public forests are not to be subject to that clause’s provisions. It states:
“The Secretary of State may at any time make one or more schemes for the transfer to the HCA of designated property, rights or liabilities of a specified public body”.
That is typical legalese and I am a lawyer, but one wants to know what “designated property” and “a specified public body” are. On those two phrases hang the potential, or lack thereof, of the Bill to wound the public weal.
Further into Clause 21, “designated property” is defined extremely widely. It states that,
“in relation to a scheme”,
it is to be,
“determined in accordance with the scheme”.
It is extraordinarily wide. The scheme that the Secretary of State can make is to transfer property—any property—to the HCA for the purposes of housing. This whole piece of the Bill harks back to the Homes and Regeneration Act 2008, Section 2 of which states that the purpose of the Homes and Communities Agency is,
“to improve the supply and quality of housing in England”.
Very fine, too, but it is a question of how you do it. I am saying that the language in this clause is too wide.
The noble Baroness referred to “specified public body”, because there exists the contemplation that the Minister may say that the public forestry body is not caught within the new addition to the 2008 Act. However, “specified public body” is itself widely defined. It simply says that it shall be defined in accordance with,
“a description specified, by regulations made by the Secretary of State”.
Well, that is good, is it not? We all know the force of regulations in preserving our cherished rights and advantages. We know very well that you cannot amend regulation; you have to reject it in its entirety or it goes through, and the chances of rejecting a regulation in its entirety are slim. We are therefore left with a definition of “specified public body” as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.
“Public body” is defined in subsection (5) of new Section 53A as,
“a person or body with functions of a public nature”.
Well, that is jolly helpful, is it not? You could get 10 lawyers arguing for 10 years about that. I asked a well known Law Lord about this. He is not here this afternoon, or he would confirm that he believes that that definition includes, for example, all woodland charities. Every county of England has a woodland trust. He believes that they are brought within the provisions of this clause. Can you imagine the potential consequences? The charity of which I am a patron is one of thousands of woodland charities.
I anticipate that the Minister will say, “Oh, that is rubbish. ‘Public body’ does not extend that far”, and so on. I will read to your Lordships from the Local Government Act 1972; that is not some little measure, after all, but a measure central to our national life and government. Section 270 of that Act defines “public body”, inter alia, in these terms,
“any trustees … who, for public purposes and not for their own profit, act under any … instrument for the improvement of any place”—
which is also a very wide definition. Then it mentions a number of things, such as the supply of water, providing cemeteries and markets, and so on. It boils down to the fact that the definition of “public bodies” includes, of course, local authorities, parish councils and all the rest of it, but also,
“trustees … who, for public purposes and not for their own profit, act under any … instrument”.
That includes every charity in the land. The definition, the central core of charity, is that it exists exclusively for public benefit. What could be more of a public body than that? Of course, trustees cannot run charities, to use the language of the 1972 Act, “for their own profit”. They cannot charge a penny for their services.
My contention—and I shall be fascinated to know whether the noble Lord disagrees with this—is that Clause 21, introducing new Section 53A into the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, is far too wide for comfort.
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate referred to the importance attached to this issue and the strength of feeling within the church. That is significant. What was so impressive the last time this issue was being discussed, while the church played a critical part in the deliberations, was not only the size of the response to the Government’s proposal but the spontaneity and strength across the community as a whole. This was something about which people cared passionately in our society. It is hardly surprising that, in a country that is so increasingly pressurised in material terms, people take very seriously the balance that is needed for creativity, thought, reflection, and spiritual and physical regeneration.
My point is quite simple. My noble friend has said that the Minister has given assurances and that she respects him. I may also respect the Minister—and I do. However, I never understand this point. The Minister and his Government will not be there for ever. If the assurances on something which is crucial, and on which the Minister feels able to give assurances, mount, why on earth should we not put it in the Bill so that it is there as the clear expression of Parliament for future Governments as well as the present one?
My Lords, I will be brief because I sense that the House wants to reach a decision. In my former constituency of Wanstead and Woodford was quite a large part of Epping Forest. I entirely share the views that have been expressed around the House, by the right reverend Prelate and others, about the extent to which this forms an enormously valuable part of people’s lives and, indeed, is part of their being.
When Winston Churchill fell ill, went into hospital and lost his job—of course, he had a job and therefore had to give up his seat—he ended that chapter of his biography:
“And so I found myself without an office, without a seat … and without an appendix. I came to rest amid the cool glades of Epping Forest”.
Of course, he became the Member for Epping; I inherited part of that constituency.
I listened to the noble Baroness with great interest because I, too, had read the Statement made by my noble friend and published in Hansard on 4 November, and I took comfort from it. However, I have to say to my noble friend that this is what worries me: a Statement, however formally issued, is not the same as an Act of Parliament. The example quoted by the noble Baroness about the particular part of the Forest of Dean, which I had not heard before, has raised doubts in my mind. Whether this or another amendment is necessary to place the intention of the Statement firmly on the statute book, it seems to me that this amendment has a good deal to say for it. I shall listen to my noble friend’s response to this debate with considerable interest.
My Lords, I missed the opening of this debate because I was upstairs at a meeting of the APPG on arts and health, at which a series of experts in mental health said how important people’s surroundings—whether they were in the East End or the countryside—were to their good health and the well oiled working of society. As someone who has the privilege of living a lot of the time in the country and working with foresters, I feel that the transcending quality that people feel the countryside, and forestry in particular, affords them is not something with which we should play fast and loose.
The noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, made some very fair points in recognising what the Government probably want to do here, but I do not think that this is an area where we can take any risks. From what many Members of the House have said, it seems that there is a huge risk attached to the Bill as presently framed, and therefore I would like to support the amendment.
My Lords, I apologise for not having spoken previously on the Bill; at the time, I was out of action as far as the House of Lords is concerned for various reasons. I should remind the House of my registered interests in the areas of local government and countryside recreation.
I was involved in what became the Public Bodies Act, to which I will refer in a minute because there is something about it that is important here. I was very pleased that I tabled the amendments that removed on the forestry commissioners’ clauses from the then Bill. Since then, the Independent Panel on Forestry—to which the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred—has made its recommendations and the Government have accepted the recommendation for a new body to look after the forestry estate. That was taken forward within Defra. In particular, my honourable friend David Heath, when he was a Minister there, played an important role in ensuring that happened. It has not been taken forward in legislation in this Parliament, and I think people can come to their own conclusions about why that is the case and the priorities of one of the parties—the Conservative Party—within the coalition. All I can say is that the Liberal Democrat manifesto at the coming election will include a commitment to such a body. I am not saying that is a 100% guarantee that it will happen but if other parties did the same, it would be very helpful.
At Second Reading my noble friend Lady Kramer said that these powers,
“will not be used by bodies such as the Forestry Commission”.—[Official Report, 18/06/2014; col. 840.]
The question is whether it is “will” or “can”? If it is “can”, someone else perhaps could in the future, and people out there certainly think that is a problem. I want to refer to the forestry commissioners. In the then Public Bodies Bill, the forestry commissioners were treated very differently from all the other public bodies mentioned. Those who remember with pleasure debating that Bill three or four years ago will remember that there were pages and pages of schedules that were lists of organisations. The forestry commissioners were not there. They had to have their three separate clauses and be treated differently. If you look at the Forestry Commission website, it says:
“The Forestry Commission is both a Government Department and a statutory body with a board of Commissioners”.
So that sounds as though it is the same. It goes on:
“The board consists of a Chair and up to 10 other Forestry Commissioners”—
I think there are about half a dozen—
“who are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of Ministers”.
It was very clear that the commissioners were there by some kind of royal appointment or charter, and were different from other public bodies. My question, which I ask the Minister in all honesty and seriousness, is: does this Bill apply to the forestry commissioners or not? When we dealt with the Public Bodies Bill, we were told that they were different and they had to have these separate clauses, so does this apply to them or not? If the Government can say that it does not apply to them, we can all go home.
Finally, why have the Government got themselves into this silly political mess? We, the Government and the Opposition are all saying that we do not want the land that comes under the forestry commissioners—the forestry estate—to be dealt with in this way as a means of transferring it to the Homes and Communities Agency. Everyone is saying that they do not want to do it, so why have the Government got into this? All Governments get into this silly political mess where they write something in legislation and then cannot make simple compromises in the face of opposition when it comes. I think it is institutional stupidity on the part of this Government. It affects all Governments in this way, in that they cannot back down and say they have got something wrong or that they have to clarify it. We all actually agree, so we should put something in the legislation that says what we all agree on and then we can all go home happy.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment and for the opportunity to discuss this issue. There is a clear consensus around the House in opposition to the sale of our public forestry estate. I say that as someone who lives in the most wooded county in our country, which I suspect is somewhat surprising to some noble Lords—the county of Surrey.
It is a great disappointment that the promised draft legislation for a new body for the public forestry estate has not yet been provided. That is contributing to the genuine concern, to which my noble friend Lord Phillips referred, that is being articulated by the hundreds of constituents around the country who feel unsure about the Government’s intentions. In the early days of the coalition Government, when there was no Liberal Democrat Minister in Defra, it was a great shame that the possibility of selling off the public forestry estate was proposed. It was a great credit to the campaign in which many noble Lords participated that that was overturned. I should be grateful if the Minister could state what the Government’s position is now because in 2013 we had the Government’s forestry and woodlands policy statement.
In Committee, the Minister clearly set out the settled position of the coalition Government that the forestry estate is not for sale and that we will not transfer the public forestry estate to the HCA. That is the clear intention of this Government. However, future Governments could bring in new pieces of legislation and no one can speak for future Governments. Like my noble friend Lord Greaves, I know that so far the Liberal Democrat party is the only party that has committed to make developments in this area in the future.
In conclusion, I am not entirely persuaded of the need for the amendment. I can see why a belt and braces argument works in one sense, but my worry is that if we accept the amendment there will be a perception among the general public out there that this House does not believe the Government’s intentions for the public forestry estate. Although I am very happy not to agree with my Government and not to accept their position on many, many issues, I feel that on this issue they are acting in good faith. I would therefore be unhappy if the House sent out that message to the general public. Like my noble friend Lord Jenkin, I will listen very carefully to the remarks of my noble friend the Minister and hope that he can reassure us about the intentions of the Government and reassure us that this amendment is not necessary.
My Lords, first, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this important debate and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for tabling the amendment.
The public sector land programme is about bringing disused land currently owned by central government back into productive economic use, supporting homes and jobs, an objective to which I am sure all noble Lords adhere. Where land is no longer needed by government, it will be transferred to the Homes and Communities Agency, which will prepare the land for release to the market and work with local planning authorities to ensure that the land is used in a way that best benefits the community—for example, by supporting local housing needs. We have had many debates, and I am sure that we will continue to have them, about the importance of housing and housebuilding to boost economic growth.
Better reuse of disused land will in turn support our desire—I make it clear that it is the Government’s desire—to protect the green belt and amenity land, such as forests, woodlands and open spaces. Disused government land can and does already transfer to the HCA, but the process is often more bureaucratic than is necessary. This clause is simply about increasing the rate of delivery and efficiency by streamlining internal government procedures.
Let me be clear. The intention behind Clause 21 is not to sell off the nation’s forests. You know what—I have been to a forest or two and I enjoyed a woodland or two as a child, and I want my children to continue to enjoy those very things, as I did. I have made this clear repeatedly, in my meetings with noble Lords—with the noble Baroness in particular—and most recently in a Written Ministerial Statement, published yesterday. I assure all noble Lords that the Government have no plans to dispose of the public forest estate and the powers contained in Clause 21 of the Infrastructure Bill do not present a threat to the future of the estate in public hands. The estate is not surplus, and it is not owned by an arm’s-length body. The Homes and Communities Agency’s objectives are to work with the Government and other public bodies to unlock and accelerate the release of surplus public land for the creation of new homes and employment opportunities, in line with designated government policy. The aim is to make best use of previously used and brownfield land, protecting green belt and amenity land that create and support great places to live.
I have been listening very carefully to what the Minister said, but did he say that the estate was not owned by an arm’s-length body? I wonder whether, at some stage, he will answer the question that I asked. Does Clause 21 apply to the forestry commissioners and the forestry estate, or does it not?
Several questions were raised, and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, although he has tabled some other amendments, said that we could all go home once I had answered that question. Perhaps that means that he will not move his other amendments. However, he has asked the question again, and let me put the matter to rest. The Bill applies to public bodies. He asked whether it applied to forestry commissioners. The forestry commissioners do not own any land and the PFE is owned by the Government. I trust that that point is clear.
I would ask my noble friend to allow me to finish. Once I have concluded my remarks, his question and other questions may have been answered.
Much of the public forest estate is already protected. Many of the sites are, for example, in national parks and the estate contains almost 200 sites of special scientific interest as well as more than 800 scheduled ancient monuments. However, the Government recognise the strength of people’s concerns about the future security of the public forest estate. Indeed, I know that my honourable friend Mark Harper and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, hosted an event recently about the Forest of Dean. That is why we have made the following commitments, which I shall reiterate. The Government will not transfer any part of the public forest estate to the Homes and Communities Agency. We are amending our guidance to departments on the transfer of public land to make it clear that the public forest estate is exempted from transfer to the Homes and Communities Agency. We will not include the new public forest estate management body in any future regulations specifying which bodies can transfer land to the Homes and Communities Agency.
I hope that that clear public commitment by the Government provides a degree of certainty and reassurance to noble Lords. Having made these commitments, I must also be clear that the intention of Clause 21 of the Infrastructure Bill was simply to allow the direct transfer of land from central government arm’s-length bodies to the HCA. The noble Baroness asked about the list of arm’s-length bodies. I would be happy to share that with her and the rest of your Lordships’ House. The public forest estate is not owned by any arm’s-length body and, as such, is not covered by the aims or purpose of this policy.
Various questions were asked and my noble friend Lord Phillips raised some specific questions. If I may, in the interests of brevity and to move issues on, I shall write to him specifically on the issues that he raised.
I have listened very carefully to what has been said in the Chamber today and listened attentively to the sentiments expressed by your Lordships’ House. It has become increasingly clear to me during the course of the debate that there is still strong feeling in the House that this is an important issue on which the Government need to reflect further. Therefore, I shall seek to bring an amendment back to the House at Third Reading that will seek to exempt the public forest estate from transfer to the Homes and Communities Agency. I hope that, with that assurance, and the faith that the noble Baroness has in me, for which I am grateful, she will be minded to withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister for that very conciliatory answer. Will he be as good as to confirm that if, on reflection, he comes to the view that it is not clear that charitable woodland and forests are excluded from the Bill, that too will be covered by the Third Reading amendment?
My Lords, I feel that I have charity in abundance myself, personally. I gave an assurance to my noble friend about a detailed answer and perhaps we can take that up in the letter. If he has any concerns after that letter, I shall be happy to speak to him.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for listening. As he knows, words are simply not enough. I hold him in good faith, and I know what he wants to do. I look forward to him coming back to put an amendment in the Bill that ensures the protection of the public forests. I am extremely grateful to the Minister.
Amendment 90A withdrawn.
91: Clause 21, page 24, line 19, leave out “of that Act”
Amendment 91 agreed.
92: Clause 21, page 24, line 26, at end insert—
“(3) The Greater London Authority Act 1999 is amended in accordance with subsections (4) and (5).
(4) After section 333D insert—
“333DA Transfer schemes
(1) The Secretary of State may at any time make one or more schemes for the transfer of designated property, rights or liabilities of a specified public body to—
(a) the Authority, or(b) a company or body through which the Authority exercises functions in relation to housing or regeneration.(2) In subsection (1) “specified public body” means a public body which is for the time being specified, or of a description specified, by regulations made by the Secretary of State.
(3) On the date specified by a scheme as the date on which the scheme is to have effect, the designated property, rights or liabilities are transferred and vest in accordance with the scheme.
(4) In this section—
“designated”, in relation to a scheme, means specified in or determined in accordance with the scheme;
“public body” means a person or body with functions of a public nature.
(5) This section and sections 333DB and 333DC bind the Crown, but do not have effect in relation to property, rights or liabilities belonging to—
(a) Her Majesty in right of the Crown,(b) Her Majesty in right of Her private estates,(c) Her Majesty in right of the Duchy of Lancaster, or (d) the Duchy of Cornwall.(6) The reference in subsection (5) to Her Majesty’s private estates is to be construed in accordance with section 1 of the Crown Private Estates Act 1862.
333DB Further provisions about transfer schemes
(1) A transfer scheme may—
(a) create for the transferor interests in, or rights over, property transferred by virtue of the scheme,(b) create for a transferee interests in, or rights over, property retained by the transferor or transferred to another transferee,(c) create rights or liabilities between the transferor and a transferee or between transferees.(2) A transfer scheme may provide for the transfer of property, rights or liabilities that would not otherwise be capable of being transferred or assigned.
(3) In particular, a transfer scheme may provide for the transfer to take effect regardless of a contravention, liability or interference with an interest or right that would otherwise exist by reason of a provision having effect in relation to the terms on which the transferor is entitled to the property or right, or subject to the liability, in question.
(4) It does not matter whether the provision referred to in subsection (3) has effect under an enactment or an agreement or in any other way.
(5) A certificate by the Secretary of State that anything specified in the certificate has vested in any person by virtue of a transfer scheme is conclusive evidence for all purposes of that fact.
(6) A transfer scheme may contain provision for the payment of compensation by the Secretary of State to any person whose interests are adversely affected by it.
(7) A transfer by virtue of a transfer scheme does not affect the validity of anything done by or in relation to the transferor before the transfer takes effect.
(8) Anything which—
(a) is done by the transferor for the purposes of, or otherwise in connection with, anything transferred by virtue of a transfer scheme, and(b) is in effect immediately before the transfer date,is to be treated as done by the transferee.(9) There may be continued by or in relation to the transferee anything (including legal proceedings)—
(a) which relates to anything transferred by virtue of a transfer scheme, and(b) which is in the process of being done by or in relation to the transferor immediately before the transfer date.(10) Subsection (11) applies to any document—
(a) which relates to anything transferred by virtue of a transfer scheme, and(b) which is in effect immediately before the transfer date.(11) Any references in the document to the transferor are to be read as references to the transferee.
(12) A transfer scheme may include supplementary, incidental, transitional and consequential provision.
(13) In this section—
“enactment” includes subordinate legislation within the meaning of the Interpretation Act 1978;
“transfer scheme” means a transfer scheme under section 333DA;
“transfer date” means a date specified by a transfer scheme as the date on which the scheme is to have effect.
333DC Tax consequences of transfers under section 333DA
(1) The Treasury may by regulations make provision for varying the way in which a relevant tax has effect from time to time in relation to—
(a) any property, rights or liabilities transferred in accordance with a transfer scheme, or(b) anything done for the purposes of, or in relation to, or in consequence of, the transfer of any property, rights or liabilities in accordance with such a transfer scheme. (2) The provision that may be made under subsection (1)(a) includes, in particular, provision for—
(a) a tax provision not to apply, or to apply with modifications, in relation to any property, rights or liabilities transferred;(b) any property, rights or liabilities transferred to be treated in a specified way for the purposes of a tax provision;(c) the Secretary of State to be required or permitted, with the consent of the Treasury, to determine, or to specify the method for determining, anything which needs to be determined for the purposes of any tax provision so far as relating to any property, rights or liabilities transferred.(3) The provision that may be made under subsection (1)(b) includes, in particular, provision for—
(a) a tax provision not to apply, or to apply with modifications, in relation to anything done for the purposes of, or in relation to, or in consequence of, the transfer;(b) anything done for the purposes of, or in relation to, or in consequence of, the transfer to have or not have a specified consequence or be treated in a specified way;(c) the Secretary of State to be required or permitted, with the consent of the Treasury, to determine, or to specify the method for determining, anything which needs to be determined for the purposes of any tax provision so far as relating to anything done for the purposes of, or in relation to, or in consequence of, the transfer.(4) In this section—
“enactment” includes subordinate legislation within the meaning of the Interpretation Act 1978;
“relevant tax” means income tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax, stamp duty, stamp duty land tax or stamp duty reserve tax;
“tax provision” means a provision of an enactment about a relevant tax;
“transfer scheme” means a transfer scheme under section 333DA.
(5) References in this section to the transfer of property, rights or liabilities in accordance with a transfer scheme include references to—
(a) the creation of interests, rights or liabilities under the scheme, and(b) the modification of interests, rights or liabilities under the scheme, (and “transferred”, in relation to property, rights or liabilities, is to be read accordingly).”(5) In section 420 (regulations and orders)—
(a) in subsection (7) (instruments subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament) after the entry for section 243(7) insert—“section 333DA(2);”, and
(b) after subsection (8) insert—“(8A) A statutory instrument which contains regulations under section 333DC shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the House of Commons.””
Amendment 92A (to Amendment 92) not moved.
Amendment 92 agreed.
Clause 22: Easements etc affecting land
93: Clause 22, page 25, line 15, leave out from “Authority” to end of line 17 and insert “exercises functions in relation to housing or regeneration.”
Amendment 93 agreed.
Amendment 93A not moved.
Amendments 94 and 95
94: Clause 22, page 25, line 36, after “Authority” insert “, a company or body through which the Authority exercises functions in relation to housing or regeneration”
95: Clause 22, page 25, line 37, at end insert—
“(12) The reference in subsection (11) to land disposed of by the Greater London Authority does not include land disposed of to a company or body through which the Authority exercises functions in relation to housing or regeneration.”
Amendments 94 and 95 agreed.
Clause 23: Transfer of responsibility for local land charges to Land Registry
95A: Clause 23, page 26, line 2, at end insert—
“(3) This section shall not come into force until the Secretary of State has laid a report before both Houses of Parliament on the effects of the transferral of responsibility for local land charges to the Land Registry, and the report shall include—
(a) an implementation plan;(b) an assessment of the impact it will have on local authorities.”
My Lords, Amendment 95 would preclude Clause 23 coming into effect until a report had been prepared and submitted to both Houses of Parliament on the effects of the proposed transfer of responsibilities to the Land Registry. In doing so, I shall say more widely why we consider the proposals for the local land charges register to be misguided. We do not object to government Amendments 97, 98 and 99, which are yet to be moved, and we support Amendment 95B tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.
When we debated the issues of local land charges in Committee, it was very much in the shadow of a parallel proposition concerning a new delivery company for the Land Registry which was widely believed to be a step along the way to the privatisation of the service. The proposals for local land charges were seen as part of a strategy to fatten up the Land Registry to make it a much more attractive commercial proposition. However, just before our Committee deliberations, the Government announced that the Land Registry model would not be changed “at this time”. In the words of the Minister, there would be no change,
“for the rest of this Parliament”.—[Official Report, 15/7/14; col. GC 242.]
We accept this assurance, but it does not go very far; it takes us until only next May.
While our analysis of why the Government are misguided in their proposals for local land charges stands separate from this thread, we would be foolish to disregard the revival of that privatisation risk, should the coalition get its chance. We note that the departure of the current Chief Land Registrar has been announced. What can the Minister tell us about successor arrangements: does a change of leadership signal a different approach? Will the Minister share with us the terms of the job advert and whether it will be part of the role of the appointee to lead a privatised service? Is the aspiration to appoint someone with a background in the Land Registry or, like the departing chief, with privatisation experience? When is the new appointment expected to be made?
That aside, what the Minister has proposed is that, as part of acquiring wider powers, the Land Registry should take over statutory responsibility for holding and maintaining a composite local land charges register. It would be the sole registering authority for local land charges in England and Wales and the sole provider of local land charge official search results. Unofficial searches would continue as now to be provided by personal search companies. The Government’s rationale for the change includes the supposed benefits of standardisation of fees and format of results, improving processing times and our international rating for registering properties and supporting the Government’s Digital by Default agenda.
The Government have consulted on these proposals and have drawn significant opposition. This has come from the Law Society, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, the Local Government Association, the District Councils’ Network and the Local Land Charges Institute, as well as from private search companies from the SME sector. An important consideration is that the Government are arguing the benefits of a centralised approach, but they are actually creating further fragmentation.
Local authorities currently have responsibility in respect of two local searches— the local land charges searches and what is known as CON29. The former is divided into 12 parts and includes registering charges or encumbrances to property arising from such matters as planning conditions, Section 106 agreements, tree preservation orders, listed buildings and the like. The information on these charges is included on the register as and when the documentation which creates the charge arises. Such charges might originate in a range of council departments and it is the job of local land charges staff to update the register as soon as notified. Staff also help resolve queries where, for example, property descriptions are imprecise.
CON29 searches have been in operation for about 50 years. They are a non-statutory list of questions agreed between Government, local authorities and the Law Society. They cover a wide range of matters which may affect a potential purchaser of property, such as any pending planning applications, whether the area is about to be declared a conservation area, or if the access road is adopted. These are prospective matters which might affect somebody’s enjoyment of a property. There is no register as such but responses are provided when requests are made. Information may be held in a number of different council departments or, in the case of two-tier authorities, in different authorities.
The task of the local land charges staff is typically to peruse local information sources, including council reports, to keep abreast of developments. Local knowledge is vital and the District Councils’ Network has expressed particular concern that insufficient weight has been given to this. At present, there are 20 million entries on the local land charges register, with 65,000 changes being made each month. We also know that, for some 92% of searches, the inquiry is in respect of local land charges and CON29 searches together. The proposition is for the local Land Registry to receive updates from some 350 local authorities for incorporation on to their sole register—covering only local land charges. CON29 searches would be left as now, with local authorities. It was the intention that the Land Registry would take over both elements but, as the Local Land Charges Institute pointed out, years of trying to work out how this could be accomplished have apparently proved fruitless—unless the Minister could tell us by when these proposals could proceed. It is expected that CON29 searches will be undertaken by the Land Registry. What work is currently being undertaken to this effect?
As far as local land charges are concerned, we have no knowledge as to how often the information received from local authorities will be incorporated on to the register, the process for doing so and the format in which the information is to be supplied. What consideration has been given to data cleansing? When will there be a delivery plan for what the Government propose? What are the expected transitional arrangements in respect of local land charges? In arguing for centralisation, the Government have made much of the varying state of digitalisation of the land charges provision of local authorities. A range of different systems is apparently used by local authorities. Have all these to be standardised—presumably to a new system—before there is any transfer of the local land charges register to the Land Registry? Who is to bear the cost of this? Will it be a new burden on local authorities? Will local authorities be recompensed for investment made to date? Should they put on hold any planned new investment to digitalise their system? How is the Land Registry to cope with all this when they are in the throes of instigating complex online applications and automated processes in respect of their existing business?
The Government have also made much of the variable response times and charging arrangements of local authorities. Responding to the Government’s consultation, the Law Society stated that solicitors were broadly satisfied with the process of obtaining local land charges and other search information. They suggested that there were other issues—for example, consistent processes for discharging charges—which might be more beneficial to conveyancing arrangements.
As for lawyers’ irritation with turnaround times, they point out that the research related to the entire conveyancing process, not just the local land charge information. They say that variation in turnaround times will obviously be affected by the number and the nature of queries in each case. Of course, there will be no overall impact on turnaround times in circumstances where the later piece of the jigsaw is the CON29 process. A recent survey indicated that turnaround times for 96% of local land charge-only searches is less than 10 days, with three-quarters being returned in five days. There may be those outside this range, but surely the focus should be to help the minority of councils improve rather than turn all existing arrangements upside down. As for the variation in the level of charging, it is difficult to believe that it is the most important issue in the conveyancing process, but in any event there was a standard charge until the mid-2000s and there is no inherent reason why that could not be reconsidered for the future.
Where does this leave local authorities? The LGA expressed its opposition to this because it will leave councils with the expense of adjusting systems, breaking existing contracts and paying redundancy costs. The LGA is concerned that the longer-term cost to councils of compiling, checking and verifying data has not been properly accounted for. Of course, some local land charge staff have other duties as well, such as electoral registration, and the knock-on costs of staffing issues need to be considered. As part of this, it is planned to uplift all the existing local authority land charges register to the Land Registry for free, at a time when the Land Registry is seeking wider powers to market services. Has any value been placed on the local authority databases?
Unless there are clear plans to encompass the CON29 process into the arrangement, and there seems to be no prospect of that, all that is on offer from this proposition is a worse service and disruption to the existing arrangements. While there is always room for improvement—and the service has improved, on the testimony of those who use it and know best—why on earth fix something that is not broken and for which there is no support?
Despite the engagement of some local authorities in pilots to see the how this might work—seemingly Merton has not volunteered for this—it is obvious that there is no clear implementation plan and no comprehension of what this will mean for local authorities. These proposed changes to a vital service—vital to the health of the property market—should not proceed unless and until these matters are sorted out. I beg to move.
My Lords, I tabled amendments in this group on Monday. Had the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, put down his amendment a day earlier, I would simply have added my name to that because it covers the issues.
My interest in local land registers is very recent—a matter of days. This part of the Bill was drawn to my attention by my council officers and particularly by Richard Townson, the democratic and legal services manager, who gave me a quick tutorial. I am not terribly upset that I did not become an expert in the subject a lot earlier, but needs must. I have a number of questions that the Minister may not be able to answer today, but if he cannot, I would be grateful for a reply in writing. I am aware that I should have made this speech in Grand Committee, but as I said earlier today, I was not available for House of Lords duties at the time.
The national Land Registry deals with the register of title—ownership issues—and does not go beyond that. We are told that it is run extremely efficiently and that is certainly my experience of using it. There are then local land registers that tell you that charges on a particular parcel of land exist. Those charges may be a requirement to pay money to someone, but most of them nowadays are constraints on the use of the land due to planning decisions or highways decisions.
The LLC1 search is a simple search to know what is on the local land register. I have a copy of the form—it is a simple one-sided form. That will produce, for example, information that the house in which I live is situated in the Winewall and Cotton Tree conservation area, which is something that you would want to know if you were buying my house, which is not for sale. Then there is a search to which noble Lords have referred that is known—this is a Law Society form—as CON29, and I have a copy of that form. I am tempted to read the whole thing out to prove a point, but that would test the patience of the House even by my standards. The points that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, made are good examples of what is on the form.
The form starts with planning and building regulation involvement with that property and ends with argon gas, and there is a whole series of things in between. This is a complicated form that requires quite a lot of research. I understand that all the information required for that form is not on the local land register, which is why the second search has to take place. We are told by the LGA that in more than 90% of cases the two requests are made together. In my authority the figure is around 99%, so it is a joint job, but not simple or straightforward.
Schedule 4 provides for local land registers to be replaced by a single national register of local land charges on the grounds of centralisation, efficiency and economies of scale. Those are arguments that we hear many times—sometimes they are true and sometimes they are very untrue. But for each area this will consist of the information already in the local register for that area plus each local land charge that is subsequently registered. The originating authority for a new or amended local land charge or cancellation will in future have a duty to apply to the Chief Land Registrar—the National Land Registry—for its registration on that central register. It seems to a lot of us that that process has not been properly thought out, has not been costed properly and will lead to a lot of difficulties.
As far as the transitional period is concerned, will local authorities be able to continue to set their own charges for this service during the transitional period? What assessment has been made of the additional costs to local authorities for the transfer of records to the national register, because all the records on the existing local registers will have to be transferred to the national register? Some councils still have manual systems, believe it or not. I am told that there are 40 or 50 out of the 350-odd. What assessment has been made of the costs and the process of digitalising these manual records for the authorities that still keep them in dusty files down in the cellar? What is the timescale for the complete transfer to the national system? Has a proper timescale been worked out or is it back-of-the-fag-packet stuff?
As far as the future system is concerned, will the originating local authorities send the new amended or cancelled registrations—all the CON29 stuff and the ordinary registrations—to the Chief Land Registrar to be entered on to the system or will the local authorities have to do it themselves through their computers? Will they put it on directly or will they send it off nationally so that it is put on nationally? I am asking these questions because people are going round from the Land Registry and/or the department talking to local authorities. The local authorities I know about are no wiser when these people have gone round about what they are saying, because they do not really know.
What assessment has been made of the cost to local authorities of having to provide the updated information to the national system or put it on themselves? How will it be different from the present position? If a local authority is simply putting it on its own computer system and in future it has to put it on the national system, what is new?
What will be the future system for CON29 searches? As I have already said, at the moment most are combined with the LLC1 searches. What will be the future system for this? Will the request for CON29 searches be sent to the national system—to the Chief Land Registrar—who will then have to contact each local authority separately or each originating authority separately? If so, who will be responsible for dealing with it? Will it be dealt with nationally or locally? It seems impossible that the system will work unless it is dealt with locally; in that case, what is different from the present system and where is the saving?
Has an assessment been made of the cost to local authorities in the future? Will it be the same? Will it be less than now? Will it perhaps be even more than now because of the additional bureaucratic complications? How will local knowledge be catered for in the new system? One of the very important things about Land Registry searches at the moment is that the people dealing with them are dealing with them every day and they keep in touch with what is happening in planning, in highways and everything else in their local area. They will often say to applicants for a search, “You ought to know about this. You haven’t asked about this, but it’s important and you should know about it”. How will that sort of local knowledge and local information be provided for in a national system?
How will personal search companies fit into the new system? At the moment they go in and relate directly to local authorities. This applies to routine searches and, as I understand it, it applies to searches under the environmental information register system. Has any assessment been made of potential delays due to the fact that national and local bodies will both be involved in the CON29 searches? If there is to be a substantial transfer of work from local to national, will the TUPE regulations apply to the staff who are at the moment involved in the local work? Finally, where the existing service is outsourced, have any of the potential costs involved in ending the contract with the outsourced companies been taken into account? Will the Government compensate local authorities which have to end contracts prematurely if they have to pay compensation?
I know that I have asked a lot of complicated questions. I do not expect the Minister to answer them all today, but I would be very grateful if I could have answers within the next week.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for his support for the government amendments. I turn specifically to Amendments 95A, 95B and 99A, which impact on Clause 23 and Schedule 4, and the questions raised. Clause 23 and Schedule 4 provide for Her Majesty’s Land Registry to maintain a single digital local land charges register for England and Wales. There has been a good deal of discussion on the merits of the government proposals and the perceived drawbacks. I will come to those in a moment, but first we should be clear that maintaining the status quo is not an option.
Many of those noble Lords who have—as I have—served in local government know that some local councils provide a very good local land charges service today. I pay tribute to their staff’s efforts and, as my noble friend Lord Greaves said, to the local expertise that they possess. However, many local authorities continue to operate a system that is wholly, or in part, reliant on paper records. Over time, those records will decay and we need to ensure that these are replaced or the information they contain will be lost. What is the solution? The question is not, “Should the current system change?”; it must do so. The question is whether there should be 348 different changes to develop 348 different digital systems that perpetuate the current inconsistencies in levels of service and cost for the public.
In some authorities a digital service is already available. Bolton Council holds a fully digital register and returns searches within one day. Its aim is to provide an,
“end to end process where every customer has the same experience and that is what we now offer”.
The Land Registry ran a successful year-long prototype with seven local authorities. There is no need to rely on the Government’s word that the prototype was a success. Liverpool City Council has been clear that:
“Together we demonstrated that this could work and that if Land Registry were to roll this out then there could be benefits to the conveyancing process in the UK”.
One need only look at the data currently published by local authorities themselves—for example, Bath and North East Somerset and Castle Point currently quote up to a 20-day turnaround time on their websites for a full search—to see that there is scope for improvement. Customers expect to be able to access government information online without delay or complication. Therefore, the Government are committed to meeting those expectations, and creating a single, digital local land register would be another step towards doing so.
Various questions were raised. I fully understand noble Lords’ interest in how the Government’s proposal would affect local authorities and what the implementation plan would be. I am happy to provide some details this evening.
We have recognised the need to ensure that the new system takes account of local authorities from the start. That is why we have been working with a small number of local authorities, as I have already illustrated, throughout the programme, including prototyping the service with seven of them last year. While I can set out the steps the Government are taking to phase implementation and help local authorities to manage the impact, I reassure your Lordships’ House that those local authorities we have been working with are content with the steps we have taken, as can be seen from the comments by Bolton Council and Liverpool Council, which I quoted a few moments ago.
Turning to the steps we are taking to help local authorities manage the impact, it is important to understand the service they offer at present. Local authorities, we know, will remain best placed to be aware of any changes to charges on land within their area. That is why, under the Government proposals, they will continue to be responsible, as my noble friend Lord Greaves asked, for entering information into the single register and keeping it up to date. They will no longer need to provide the searches, however. There will be no loss of local knowledge under our proposals, simply a more modern, efficient process to help members of the public access that local knowledge. None the less we recognise that there may be some costs that arise because of these proposals, and—to answer a question asked by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie—the DCLG is in conversation with local authorities on how these are best met.
Turning to the implementation plan—again the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked what the Government’s intention is here—implementation will be phased. For each local authority, the first step will be collating the data it holds and checking that they are accurate. The checked data sets will then need to be transformed into a digital format before being transferred into the central land registry that will be created. The local land charges service will transfer from individual local authorities to the Land Registry only once this process has been completed and is functioning.
On Amendment 99B, which seeks to amend Clause 24, the other proposal we are discussing today is in Clause 24 of the Bill, which gives wider powers to the Land Registry to enable it to play a greater role in the property sector. Our aim is simple: to make the conveyancing process quicker, cheaper, more transparent and easier to complete. For reasons that I shall explain, the Land Registry is well placed to achieve that goal, but at present it is limited in the services it can offer, not by what is in the public interest or by what its customers want, but by its limited powers under the Land Registration Act 2002. This clause corrects that. At present, the Land Registry can undertake functions and provide services relating only to land registration. But while it can provide services in relation to register of title information, it is not permitted to in relation to other property information. And while it maintains an electronic register of title, it would not have the power to maintain a register of other property interests. These limitations are not in either the Land Registry’s or the wider public’s interests.
What more could the Land Registry do? The Land Registry is already the single largest source of property information. Where it already has the power to do so, the Land Registry has used this information and experience to develop new services, including the release of free price paid data. Giving wider powers to the Land Registry will enable it to utilise its expertise to provide a broader range of property information services for businesses and citizens, where that is what they want.
I turn to some of the questions that have been asked. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, talked about successor arrangements and the individual being recruited. The advert is available online. I believe that it also features in the Sunday Times. Our intent is quite clear—I am sure the noble Lord shares this intent—namely, to appoint the best candidate, whether that is an internal or external candidate. The appointment is expected to be made early next year.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and, I believe, my noble friend Lord Greaves, asked about local land charges and CON29. Modernising the local land charges service will provide benefits to both the conveyancing process and the wider economy, as I said. In the long term, the Land Registry may well look at the potential for providing a CON29 service. Currently, it is examining the policy and feasibility of providing the service, albeit this may to limited to arranging a single point of electronic access as a first stage. No significant change will take place in the near future. The ultimate objective of modernising the local land charges service is a step worth taking towards improving the conveyancing process.
My noble friend Lord Greaves asked whether there was sufficient knowledge to provide a local land charges service. I believe that I have already alluded to how the local expertise would be retained. The Land Registry will play a central role in the conveyancing process and is already familiar with the types of interest protected by local land charges. As my noble friend will know, it already administers a large and complex register of title and handles large volumes of applications and searches on a daily basis.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about a project plan. As I said, the Land Registry will share its project plan with local authorities and the LGA once it has completed its profiles of each local authority. I believe that I have already answered the question about data entry which my noble friend Lord Greaves raised.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about the Law Society and local land charges and about the pressing concern with regard to the conveyancing process. I think we all accept that the Land Registry cannot improve all areas of conveyancing and so is concentrating on local land charges—an area where we believe it can offer considerable benefits to the conveyancing industry. Data will be more easily accessible. There will be reductions in cost and ongoing improvements in delivery times. Access will be through one central point in one format and the quality and integrity of data will be maintained. This policy supports wider government priorities to facilitate easier property transactions by bringing efficiencies to the property sector and making public data more easily accessible to the benefit of the wider economy.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about the value being placed on local authorities’ land charges databases. I shall write to him on that, if I may. On the issue of assistance to local authorities, as I said, we believe that the cost of 348 platforms does not provide an efficient way of providing data records for that service.
We believe that the Land Registry will be able to combine data presently held by different bodies in a readily accessible form and will be able to enhance data or process it—for example, by using existing Land Registry data to identify or provide further information on properties. That will produce an information infrastructure on which businesses, including SMEs, can build to offer new commercial services. In short, this will allow the Land Registry to meet the changing needs of its customers and stakeholders and benefit the property sector and economy overall.
I have already talked about CON29 searches. We will not consider the issues around CON29 searches provided by local authorities. However, if consideration is given to them, we will, of course, report back to the House on it.
I reiterate that these powers are enabling only; they cannot be used to take on services from other bodies against their will. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, alluded to privatisation. This is another misconception. I would like to address the question: is this a step towards privatisation of the Land Registry or should it wait until a future Government look at the Land Registry’s structure? First, the Government have made it clear, including in the remarks of my noble friend Lady Kramer at Second Reading, and in Committee, that we will not change the Land Registry’s commercial model. Secondly, regardless of the structure of the Land Registry, it makes sense that, where people want it to provide a service, it has the capability to do so. The legislation should permit it to do just that. These powers are a sensible step to let the Land Registry provide the services its customers ultimately want.
In short, the provisions of Clause 23 and Schedule 4 will enable the Land Registry to create a single digital service that eliminates the current regional variations, a standard digital service that reduces delays for those buying and investing in property. This will modernise the local land charges service. Clause 24 is about building on the excellent service that the Land Registry already provides. Where its customers want the Land Registry to provide a service, and where its expertise in digitisation and the management and reuse of land and property data mean that it is well placed to do so, these provisions will enable the Land Registry to act. That, in turn, will benefit the property sector and the wider economy overall, and these are things I am sure the whole House welcomes.
I hope that I have been clear, if somewhat detailed, in my response. I will read Hansard and, if there are questions that I have not answered, I will write to noble Lords. Based on the clarity which I hope I have provided on some, if not, all the questions that were asked, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, will be minded to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for his contribution. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, “Welcome to the world of local land charges”. He has mastered his brief on that subject, as he normally does, and asked an entirely pertinent series of questions. We have had answers to some, but not all, those questions. The noble Lord stressed local knowledge, which is absolutely key to this.
I do not think that the Minister dealt with the key point that what is proposed to happen will be a fragmentation of a service. We know that currently most people undertake searches of CON29 and local land charges together. It is proposed to peel part of this off to the Land Registry, while the rest stays with local authorities. That seems to me to be the makings of a worse service, not a better one. We await very important information, certainly around the value of the database that local authorities have, which is to be taken over. The noble Lord reiterated the point about privatisation but did not deal with the point about the remit of the successor to the current chief of the Land Registry, the process for which is now under way. Clearly, if it is intended that the service be privatised, the service will be looking for someone with different qualifications from someone who will just administer the register as it is.
There is a beguiling issue about it all being digitised and all on one platform. That looks aside from the complexities of how it will be done and whether it is possible to get there with 348 authorities undertaking their daily work with some 60,000 entries each day. That really has not been addressed. We know that the process is struggling and has effectively given up on trying to take in CON29 as part of it. There are many unanswered questions. I am sure that the Minister will, as usual, be very diligent and look at the record and follow up where we have not had answers tonight. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 95A withdrawn.
Amendment 95B not moved.
Amendment 96 not moved.
Schedule 4: Transfer of responsibility for local land charges to Land Registry
Amendments 97 to 99
97: Schedule 4, page 83, line 39, leave out sub-paragraph (4) and insert—
“(4) Sub-paragraphs (5) and (6) apply to the function of the Lord Chancellor under section 14(1) of the Local Land Charges Act 1975 as amended by this paragraph so far as it relates to the power to make rules for prescribing fees and the manner of payment of fees (“the new function”).
(5) The new function is to be treated as having been transferred to the Welsh Ministers by—
(a) the National Assembly for Wales (Transfer of Functions) Order 2004 (S.I. 2004/3044), and (b) Schedule 11 to the Government of Wales Act 2006, in the same way as the equivalent function of the Lord Chancellor under that section as it had effect apart from this paragraph (“the old function”).(6) A provision made by that Order or that Act in respect of the old function continues to apply to the new function.”
98: Schedule 4, page 87, line 17, after “Schedule” insert “—
99: Schedule 4, page 87, line 18, after “Part;” insert “or
(b) in relation to the operation of any other statutory provision by virtue of which any matter is registrable in the local land charges register,”
Amendments 97 to 99 agreed.
Amendment 99A not moved.
Clause 24: Conferral of additional powers on Land Registry
Amendment 99B not moved.
Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.30 pm.
Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) Regulations 2014
Motion to Approve
My Lords, I am glad, but not surprised, that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, has shown such a keen interest in the importance of providing protection for users of health and care services. I thank him for bringing this issue to the Floor of the House. Naturally I am disappointed to understand from his amendment that he feels that the new fundamental standards are not satisfactory and undermine protection of care home residents. I seek to reassure him that that absolutely is not the case.
I begin by emphasising that the Government are serious about improving the protections offered to health and adult social care service users, both through the legislation that we have before us and through the system of regulation of health and adult social care carried out by the Care Quality Commission, of which these regulations form a part. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that the CQC has made enormous strides forward over the past two years, supported by many of the changes that we debated in this Chamber a year ago during the passage of the Care Act. Under the leadership of the three chief inspectors, the CQC’s specialist teams of inspectors are holding providers to account more thoroughly than ever before. The CQC’s inspections now look beyond mere compliance with registration requirements to provide ratings for each provider against five key questions. Are services safe? Are they caring? Are they effective? Are they responsive? Are they well led?
The first of these ratings is now being published. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that the new system provides much valuable information to patients and service users and commissioners, as well as to providers themselves. However, it is axiomatic to say that the key purpose of a regulator is to regulate—to take action where standards of care fall below acceptable levels. The regulations that we are discussing are central to this. They set the requirements for registration with the CQC, the fundamental standards that all registered providers must meet and against which the CQC can use its enforcement powers to protect patients and service users from the risks of poor care.
I will outline briefly how the new fundamental standards are an improvement on the existing registration requirements, before moving on to the detail. We are changing the regulations in order to address the issues raised by Sir Robert Francis, in his inquiry into Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. He highlighted that the legislative basis on which the CQC was operating was undermining the effectiveness of the regulator. He criticised current regulations for being “overly bureaucratic” and said that they failed to separate the “essential” from “the merely desirable”. He recommended the introduction of fundamental standards which set the line below which care must never fall. He recommended that there be regulatory consequences for providers who fail to meet these standards, including the possibility of prosecution where breaches result in serious harm.
The new regulations set the following fundamental standards. Patients must receive safe care that meets their needs and reflects their preferences. Patients must be treated with dignity and respect, be properly fed, their views listened to, and be protected from abuse. The environment in which they are cared for must be clean, safe and secure. Care organisations must be well run, properly staffed, and be open with people about their treatment.
In my response to the noble Lord, I seek to reassure him that the fundamental standards do not dilute the current regulations, remove protections or leave people at greater risk of abuse or harm. In fact, they provide much stronger protection for service users from abuse, neglect and unsafe care than the current regulations. They explicitly state that care must be provided in a safe way, that people must be protected from abuse and improper treatment, that care must not be degrading and that is it unacceptable to disregard someone’s need for care and treatment. The requirements covering degrading care and significant disregard of needs are completely new and not covered by current regulations. It will be an offence to breach these standards in a way that causes avoidable harm or presents a significant risk of such harm occurring, and the CQC will be able to bring prosecutions against providers for such breaches without issuing an advance notice, something that is not possible at the moment. This is a major improvement that provides extra protection for patients and service users.
I want to discuss one of the key fundamental standards recommended by Sir Robert Francis: the statutory duty of candour on providers. It is a little over a year since I brought forward an amendment to the then Care Bill that placed an obligation on the Secretary of State to include in the requirements of registration a duty on providers to inform patients and service users where there were failings in care that resulted in harm—the duty of candour. These regulations fulfil that obligation in respect of the NHS by placing a duty of candour on NHS bodies.
In the debate on the duty of candour a year ago, noble Lords made two key challenges: first, that we should give serious consideration to the threshold for the duty of candour; and secondly, notwithstanding any such threshold, that the regulation should enshrine the general principle of being open in all cases. I hope noble Lords will agree that we have met both these challenges. I shall take the second challenge—openness —first. Regulation 20 sets out the duty of candour, its first line setting out the general requirement of candour:
“A health service body must act in an open and transparent way with relevant persons in relation to care and treatment provided to service users in carrying on a regulated activity”.
This is a general duty to be open in all dealings with patients, service users and their representatives. Where a provider does not meet this duty, the CQC will have the power to use its civil enforcement powers. However, a failure to meet this general requirement will not be an offence.
The remainder of the regulation sets out the steps that providers will have to take when a “notifiable safety incident” occurs. Noble Lords were quite right in saying that the key issue here is defining the harm threshold for such an incident that would engage the duty of candour formal notification procedures. The Government took expert advice and gathered a wide range of views before setting this threshold. We asked Sir David Dalton and Professor Norman Williams to lead this work. They published their findings in March, and the department subsequently consulted on draft regulations based on their recommended harm threshold.
In the regulations, a notifiable safety incident is defined as any unintended or unexpected incident that has, appears to have or could still result in death or severe harm, moderate harm or prolonged psychological harm. By following the recommendations of the Dalton-Williams review, I believe we have struck a sensible balance between the need to respond formally to patients when significant things go wrong and the need to keep reporting burdens within manageable proportions.
Building on this work, the regulation sets a series of specific steps that an NHS body will have to take where a notifiable safety incident occurs. These are: to notify the relevant person that the incident has occurred, to advise them what further inquiries will be made, and to apologise. A failure to take these steps will be an offence. This verbal notification then has to be followed up in writing.
This new duty of candour will support and underpin the Government’s ambition to transform culture across the NHS and support openness and learning, both between staff and organisations and to patients and service users. We will extend the duty to all health and adult social care providers from next April. Over time, the duty of candour will contribute to safer care. Noble Lords will also be pleased to learn that this week the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council have published for consultation draft guidance on the professional duty of candour, a measure that complements the statutory duty of candour on providers.
I finish by touching on the other new registration requirement that we are introducing—the fit and proper persons test, a requirement for directors of organisations registered with the CQC. The responsibility for providing safe and acceptable care will always rest with providers themselves. The tone and culture of an organisation is set by those people at its head. No matter how effective, regulation cannot be a substitute for good leadership at a provider level. All too often, individuals at the head of an organisation have been out of reach, even where they have overseen the most shocking standards of care. These regulations put an end to this, giving the CQC new powers to remove directors who are responsible for poor care. For the first time, the regulations place a legal requirement on NHS bodies registered with the CQC to ensure that their directors are fit and proper to fulfil their role. By next April, we plan to extend this requirement to all providers of health and adult social care registered with the CQC. This new measure, alongside the ability to bring prosecutions where failures in care harm patients and service users, will greatly increase the ability of the CQC to hold corporate bodies and their senior officers to account.
Effective regulation of health and adult social care is essential to protect patients and service users from the risks of poor care. The fundamental standards will support the Care Quality Commission in holding providers to account for the quality of care that they provide. Taken as a whole, these regulations improve the legal protections offered to service users, underpin and support a more effective regulatory regime, and champion openness and transparency across the NHS. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, I should say right away that, overall, I welcome the thrust of these regulations. I am going to raise a number of points covered by my amendment to the Motion. I do so on the basis of broadly accepting the point raised by the Minister in relation to the CQC’s role and the way in which it is performing. However, there is particular concern about residents in care homes and the impact of the regulations which I would like to put to the Minister. My real concern is in respect of the three areas mentioned in my amendment in that, far from enhancing quality and public safety, the regulations actually reduce current protections in relation to complaint systems, food and emergency procedures.
I listened with great care to the Minister. He prayed in aid the remarks of Sir Robert Francis, and I will come back to them in a moment, but can the Minister also confirm that, in a sense, the regulations are a victim of the Government’s desire for lighter-touch regulation? The CQC clearly has a critical role in protecting some of the most vulnerable citizens in our country. This is not the moment for lighter-touch regulation. On any count, knowledge of the complaints system is important, particularly in view of concerns about standards of care in the health service and in many care homes. The current regulation states that the registered person must,
“bring the complaints system to the attention of service users and persons acting on their behalf in a suitable manner and format”.
The regulation goes on to require that,
“service users and those acting on their behalf,
“with support to bring a complaint or make a comment, where such assistance is necessary”.
My understanding is that the Minister’s department is briefing that the new regulations are more outcome-focused and less specific about processes. However, if being less specific about processes means not telling people about them, it meets that test, I suppose. I also understand that his department is briefing that having an accessible and open culture is the same as having a specific duty to inform people about the complaints procedure.
However, the point I should like to put to your Lordships is that most residents and relatives have little idea of what to expect from a care home. Surely it is a relief to relatives and advocates when they are informed about these rights. It makes it easy for them to raise questions about care, knowing that that the regulations have the force of law and the matter cannot simply be left to local discretion. Few people comparing the two sets of regulations on rigour about complaints could argue that the proposed replacement is an improvement.
If one considers the tragic case of Winterbourne View—which I suspect a number of noble Lords will refer to—and other reports and the reports of the Health Service Commissioner, they continually emphasise that many providers’ stances on complaints are not fit for purpose. We know in relation to NHS complaints that there are continuous problems about people wondering whether they really can use them effectively. Almost all recent major care scandals have had their roots in people not being listened to or not knowing that they can complain. That is the basis of my major concern about these regulations.
Having emergency procedures in place seems pretty important, too. I do not understand the logic of deleting this important regulation. It may be that the Minister will say that it is covered by the new Regulation 17, but that states merely that, as part of good governance, the provider must establish systems or processes which enable the registered person to,
“assess, monitor and mitigate the risks relating to the health, safety and welfare of service users and others who may be at risk which arise from the carrying on of the regulated activity”.
That could easily be interpreted by providers to mean the normal, day-to-day risk assessments that they are required to carry out. I remind the Minister that care homes are pretty fragile organisations, often with very few qualified staff, and a significant proportion are without managers in place. That is why it would be much better to be absolutely explicit that emergency procedures should be in place.
On the choice of food, I would have thought that it is pretty integral to the quality of life. I understand that the Department of Health is stressing that the new regulations have to be read in conjunction with proposed CQC guidance, which may in many respects be stronger in stating that care home residents must have their needs and preferences taken into account. That is better than the simple provision of two alternative meals, neither of which the resident likes. Frankly, if the food is neither desired nor suitable, it breaches other regulations. The way it is being described shows a limited concept of the importance of food and of having a choice in care, when many people forget to eat and may need sensitive encouragement and real choices to tempt them into nutritious and sufficient eating habits.
I refer the Minister to the evidence I have received from Action on Elder Abuse. It is not unsympathetic to where the broad thrust of the regulations is going, but it is concerned that the regulations are now very top-line, leaving the detail to be fleshed out in guidance, and that some requirements have been weakened as a result, particularly those relating to complaints procedures, food and emergency planning, which I have referred to.
The Minister says that the fundamental standards do not undermine the overall quality. He mentioned that services should not be degrading, nor should they significantly disregard needs. Of course, I very much understand that. However, there is a real concern that the department’s approach is based on the assumption that there will always be well informed inspectors who will be on the spot to sort things out on a regular basis. The Minister will know that there are many examples of homes that have not been inspected for some considerable time. The new CQC guidelines also give inspectors far more leeway about what they choose to inspect. He will also know—given that we debate this so many times—that when it comes to issues to do with being signposted to complaints systems or food choices, if they are not in the regulations they may well be seen by inspectors as optional, rather than mandatory. The Minister made a telling comment when he referred to what Sir Robert Francis said about trying to divorce the essential from the desirable. My argument is that being signposted to complaints procedures and food choice are elements of essential need.
I agree with the Minister about the CQC and its approach. I like the approach that the new board and the chief inspectors are taking. They are starting to build up confidence. However, I want to ask the Minister about CQC capacity. I noted with interest an interview a few weeks ago with David Behan, the CQC chief executive, in which he reported that the CQC has scaled back its inspection ambitions for 2014-15 in order to ease pressure on CQC staff. Is the Minister in a position to update the House on this issue of capacity and whether it is affecting the programme of inspections? I am particularly interested in the issue of care homes and the regular nature of inspections of those homes.
On the duty of candour, the Minister has answered the first question I was going to ask about the criteria, and I fully accept his answer. He will know that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee rather took his department to task on the issue of having to bring forward two regulations, one in relation to the NHS and the duty of candour, which we are seeing tonight. I guess that another SI will be brought forward in the next few months. Given the different definitions there are likely to be, particularly in relation to safety incidents, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has asked the department to ensure that the Explanatory Memorandum in relation to the second statutory instrument provides a very full explanation of the different definitions of a safety incident. Will the Minister confirm whether the department intends to do that?
Overall, I am sure that these regulations are going in the right direction, but there is concern in the care home sector around complaints, food choice and emergency procedures. I am particularly appreciative of the Relatives & Residents Association, which brought that to my attention. I hope very much that the department will be able to respond positively on those points. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, and I have a fair degree of form on this subject, going back over a number of years. Indeed, as I listened to the Minister introducing this matter to the House tonight, my mind wandered back to the dreaded days of the NHS Redress Bill, when the noble Lord, Lord Warner, sought to assure those of us who, in those days, sat on the other side of the Chamber that all would be well in the NHS and there was no need for a duty of candour because a new culture of openness was going to work its way through the NHS.
I have to say that things have changed because back then the professional bodies representing the staff of the NHS fought that duty of candour tooth and nail, so it is rather pleasing to have the news this week that they now have changed their minds and are willing to accept that they should uphold the duty of candour. They are moving to a point of discussing with their members not whether, but how, they do that.
I agree with the Minister that the CQC in its present form is a long way from CSCI and its predecessors in their various guises. It is properly constituted, far better resourced and has a focus to its work. Albeit that it works across a far bigger canvas than it ever did in the past, it is already performing to a much higher degree than before.
However, I return to the point the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, and I made during the passage of the Care Bill. In that legislation, in relation to care homes and incidents where vulnerable adults may be thought to be at risk of abuse, this House fell short in its legislative function in that it did not give a power of entry to people or bodies who suspected that there might be abuse taking place. It is with that deficiency in the law sitting in place that we have to judge all the regulations and guidance such as this that come before us and ask ourselves whether, if a person was being abused or maltreated in a care home, it would be detected.
Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is right to focus, as he has done, on the issues of complaints procedures and emergency planning. I accept that within the overall framework service providers are now required not only to provide their services but to report on outcomes for individuals and standard of care, but nonetheless, there is something slightly amiss. For me, it goes back to the issue of power of entry. It goes back to the point at which a concerned relative has the power to override things.
I would also like to ask the Minister for a point of clarification. It seems that Ministers are quite clear that the introduction of new basic standards rectifies what was clearly an unsatisfactory position whereby one could not prosecute a provider unless and until an improvement notice had been issued. That was clearly wrong, and a number of providers got off the hook on that technicality. Will the Minister clarify, if he can, that under these regulations a breach of fundamental standards is still not in and of itself a reason to trigger a prosecution and that a reason to trigger a prosecution is a breach of the regulations? I would like to know how the department sees that working in practice to cover the deficiency to which I alluded a moment ago.
Finally, I welcome the fit and proper person test. It is long overdue. It is a good job that it is coming to the statute book as quickly as it is.
My Lords, the quality of the provision in old people’s care homes varies widely. In the best of them, the residents are treated with respect and solicitude. In the worst of them, as we have witnessed recently, they are treated callously and brutally by underpaid and badly trained staff.
The increasing longevity of our population is leading to a rising demand for the provision of care for the elderly. Until recently, the implications of these developments have been ignored by all but a few concerned parties. The matter was brought forcefully to the attention of the public at large by the financial collapse of the Southern Cross enterprise, which was responsible for at least 20% of the national provision of residential places in care homes. It was running 752 homes when it collapsed in 2011 with losses of £300 million.
Southern Cross had been acquired by the private equity firm Blackstone Capital Partners for £162 million in 2004. Thereafter, it expanded rapidly. Through acquisitions, it tripled the number of homes that it was managing. The directors became multimillionaires. Inspections that were conducted during the period of its expansion raised grave concerns over the provision of care by homes within the Southern Cross portfolio. Indeed, the enterprise was warned about failing standards in its homes as it prepared to float on the stock market.
A more dramatic instance of the failure of care was provided by the scandal of Winterbourne View, a public-funded private hospital. A “Panorama” investigation broadcast in 2011 exposed the physical and psychological abuse suffered at the hospital by people with learning disabilities and with challenging behaviour.
The problems besetting care homes have been due, in part, to the inadequacy of their regulatory oversight. They have also been due, in large measure, to the increasing financial stringency under which they are operating. The income received by the homes from fees has been falling. Those fees have been paid on behalf of the great majority of residents by local authorities. Their income has been driven down by the Government’s austerity measures. At the same time, their costs have increased through factors outside their control, such as rising energy prices.
Another adverse condition is that the borrowing of the care home sector averages 75% of its net assets. This abnormally high level of indebtedness has been a result of the borrowings that were linked to the spate of acquisitions that preceded the general financial crisis of the sector. It has been pushed even higher by trading losses. This will expose the sector greatly to the widely anticipated rise in interest rates in the not too distant future.
The Government have reacted to these problems in a manner that many people regard as inadequate. They have not sought to improve the financial circumstances of the care homes. Instead, they have sought to improve the regulatory framework affecting the care homes via amendments to the secondary legislation associated with the Health and Social Care Act 2008, which will come into force in April 2015.
According to the testimony of the Minister of State for the Department of Health in the Commons on 16 October, the new regulations will,
“bolster the power of the regulator to take enforcement action, including bringing prosecutions against providers of poor care”,
and issuing penalty notices.
He remarked that, under the existing regulations,
“a notice had to be served first before moving to prosecution. If the provider complied with the notice, nothing could be done”.—[Official Report, Commons, Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee, 16/10/14; col. 4.]
The essential purpose of the new regulations is, therefore, to encourage improvements in the quality of care by strengthening the sanctions for failures.
Some additional provisions in the new regulations should also be mentioned. One much vaunted provision introduces a duty of candour, as we have heard, which is intended to facilitate the inspection regime. Another provision is a fitness test for directors of NHS bodies. That the test does not apply to the directors of other bodies concerned with the provision of care to the elderly appears to be a major lacuna. Finally, there is an allowance for the Care Quality Commission to publish ratings of care providers, which would be analogous to the league tables of schools.
The new regulations have been influenced by the Government’s overarching philosophy of deregulation. Certain duties that were imposed by the previous regulations have been omitted. It has been claimed that these omissions have been in pursuit of simplification, that existing regulations are overbureaucratic, and that they do not separate what is essential from what is merely desirable. Guidance will be offered in place of what have been deemed to be inessential regulations. Standards that were previously mandated by the regulations will now have the status merely of advice.
The claim that this will lead to simplification is belied by the nature of the voluminous and ill crafted advice of the Care Quality Commission. The inevitable result will be confusion and partial compliance. Moreover, it is doubtful whether, in such circumstances, the added threat of prosecution will be effective in raising standards.
We have been alerted, as we have heard, to some major lacunae in the revised regulations. Care homes will no longer be required to tell their residents about the existence of a complaint procedure. They will not be required to plan for and to have in place an emergency procedure. They will no longer be required to give residents a choice of food. A careful deconstruction of the revised regulations will doubtless expose many other omissions.
The new regulations reflect a very different philosophy on the part of the Government from the philosophy of our party. The Conservatives tend to characterise rules governing social provision as impediments to enterprise and initiative. Many on our side hold an opposite view. Such regulatory provisions as the ones we are now considering are seen as reflections of our social aspirations. They serve to define the civilised standards to which we feel bound to adhere.
The removal of a regulatory framework is liable to inflict significant damage on our society. A good example of this, on a practical level, has been provided by the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework. This replaced more than 1,000 pages of guidance and regulations with 50 pages, written simply and clearly, that were aimed, so it was claimed, at allowing people and communities to participate in the business of planning. In reality, a set of sophisticated and carefully crafted documents, which had provided policy guidance in many specific circumstances and which had been developed and refined over the past 25 years, has been tossed into the rubbish bin, to be replaced by 50 pages of vacuous pieties. The same damage is being inflicted on the regulatory framework governing the provisions for our care homes. We believe that it is not too late for the Government to think again.
My Lords, I will be brief, as I always am. I do not want to repeat what has been said before, much as I would love to be led down the path of talking abut the problems faced by care homes in the present financial climate. I must first declare an interest as a trustee of Livability, which provides a large number of care homes for disabled people and for other groups. I am therefore, as a trustee, in the role of a provider. I also want to speak very briefly on behalf of families and carers.
First, I say to the Minister that I welcome the regulations. I was interested in his spirited defence of them, and I know his great belief in them. There are aspects of the new regulations that strengthen the potential to hold care providers—such as my organisation—properly to account. That is all positive, but I simply want to address myself to the issues around the amendment on the Order Paper, because there is an issue and I would very much like the noble Earl to think about it.
We have been approached by a number of organisations which said that families and residents are very concerned about these three aspects of the regulations. I have looked at the old wording and at the new wording, and I found that the new wording is more elegant but much more obscure for ordinary people to relate to. It is terribly important that ordinary folk in a care home—both the providers and those receiving the service—understand that they have a right to be told about complaints procedures.
Clearly, that is there already. I disagree with those who say it is not. All of it is to be found within the regulations and the follow-up documents by those who actually dig through them. I believe that the noble Earl hoped—as he listened to all the hours of discussion of these issues—that this would be absolutely crystal clear. If these issues are clear, they also help leadership and management. It is much easier for providers to tell their staff how to take things forward if the words are absolutely clear, and if there is some sense of being given flexibility or whatever the expectation is.
When it comes to proper planning for emergencies, providers have an absolute responsibility to ensure not only that they have those plans, but that in the interests of health and safety everybody understands them throughout. Not only the providers but the residents themselves must understand. It is possible to have a great discussion about these issues among those who are receiving care. It is possible to discuss complaint procedures, choice of food and what happens if there is a fire and people can only be got out of certain areas by particular routes.
What I am saying is much simpler than the rest of the discussion. I would like the Minister to look at the wording, because in my opinion this is about language rather than intent. We have excellent regulations but, if families and users are concerned about these three areas, the Government have a responsibility to listen. I know we have a listening Minister.
My Lords, I am grateful for the questions and comments raised by noble Lords. I will do my best to answer them in the time available. Perhaps I may begin with the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. The noble Lord expressed his regret that certain phrases no longer appear in the regulations, and those concerns were echoed by the noble Viscount and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth. I should like to reassure the House that, although the regulations do not include express references to the three things highlighted in the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt—informing service users about complaints procedures, having emergency procedures in place, and offering choice of food—nevertheless providers must still demonstrate to CQC that they are doing those things.
This is possible because the fundamental standards work in a different manner from the current regulations. They set the outcomes about quality and safety that must be met, rather than just the processes that must be in place. They set out the ends, rather than merely the means. Because we describe these outcomes in regulation, we no longer need to spell out a long list of processes in regulation as well. However, all the areas highlighted by the noble Lord nevertheless fall within the scope of the new regulations. For example, planning for emergency procedures is covered by the new safe care regulation, which requires providers to ensure that care is provided in a safe way, and that they do all that is reasonably practicable to mitigate the risks of unsafe care. A provider that had no plans in place to deal with emergencies such as floods or staff shortages could not claim to be meeting the regulation, because they would not be doing all that is practicable to mitigate the risks to the health and safety of service users from emergency situations. In practice, not having a plan in place for emergencies will therefore be a breach of the regulations.
The obligation to offer a choice of food and drink falls within the new person-centred care regulation, and the newly drafted nutrition regulation. We have introduced a new person-centred care regulation which requires that a person’s needs must be met, and that their preferences must be taken into account and, where possible, met. I emphasise that this applies not only to food preferences, but to all other aspects of care as well. This is a significant step towards greater person-centred care, advocated by many over recent years.
In addition, the nutrition regulation states that a person’s nutritional needs must be met, and it will be a criminal offence to fail to meet this regulation in a way that causes avoidable harm or significant risk of such harm. These two regulations work in tandem to require that a person’s individual nutritional needs are met and their individual preferences are reflected wherever possible. This is a stronger position than merely requiring that people be offered a choice. Such a requirement could be met by offering a person a choice of two things that are neither desired nor suitable. On the issue of complaints, the new complaints regulation states:
“The registered person must establish and operate effectively a system for identifying, receiving, recording, handling and responding appropriately to complaints, and requests for action to be taken, by service users and other persons”.
A provider who does not make patients and service users aware of their complaints system could not claim to be making it accessible, or claim they had an effective means of identifying complaints. Therefore, they would be breaching the regulation. CQC’s draft guidance about compliance with the regulations, which is currently subject to consultation, includes more information about all of these areas. It is this guidance that sets out in more detail what CQC will look for when checking whether providers are meeting the regulations. If noble Lords are in any doubt or have anxiety after this debate and after what I have said, I assure them that I would be happy to feed in the concerns which have been raised this evening in the context of the guidance that is now in preparation.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, described the regulations as light-touch, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, suggested that the Government were somehow pursuing a deregulation agenda by introducing these regulations. I must say to the noble Viscount in particular that that is a complete misreading of these regulations. Indeed, his speech indicated to me that he is labouring under a number of serious misapprehensions. Past experience has shown that there are limitations to prescriptive regulation. It is very difficult to make regulation exhaustive. The list might come to be the upper limit of what is provided, rather than the floor below which care should never fall. For example, the old national minimum standards for care homes included very specific requirements that set out the minimum bedroom sizes in square metres. In practice, this minimum became the default normal size for rooms.
The guiding principle behind the fundamental standards is that they set an overall outcome that must be met. The responses to our consultation showed that the vast majority of respondents agreed with this, and thought that the regulations were clearer as a result. I hope that that reassures the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, in particular. Importantly, this approach allows the CQC to take a more rounded look at quality and safety as it inspects, rather than taking a tick-box approach to inspecting done solely against prescriptive regulations.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, expressed the worry that care residents might not be aware of their ability to improve services. Regulation 17(2)(e) states that providers must,
“seek and act on feedback”,
from service users,
“for the purposes of improving … services”.
Providers who do not do this will be in breach of the regulations.
The noble Lord also asked whether the Explanatory Memorandum in the second set of regulations will cover clear definitions of a notifiable safety incident. The answer to that is yes. The harm thresholds for NHS bodies and other providers will be as closely aligned as possible. Our approach has been to use the same definitions as are already used in each existing sector to report harm to make the implementation of the duty of candour as straightforward as possible.
The noble Lord asked about CQC capacity. The CQC has been proactive in increasing its capacity. Its new inspections will take longer and more inspectors are needed. While the CQC is recruiting, it will ensure that the quality of inspections is not compromised. The CQC has taken significant steps in the past year to change the way in which it inspects and regulates providers. Since the appointment of the three chief inspectors, it has worked hard with providers to develop new models of inspection, as I know the noble Lord appreciates. It has successfully begun to use these new-style inspections in hospitals, in adult social care and in general practice, and I am confident in the progress that it is making.
My noble friend Lady Barker suggested that the CQC would be able to prosecute only breaches of the regulations rather than breaches of the fundamental standards. It is correct that the CQC will prosecute breaches of the regulations, but the regulations lay down the standards. A breach of the fundamental standards will therefore be a breach of the regulations.
I hope that I have been able to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and all other noble Lords who have spoken sufficiently to make them feel confident that these regulations are the right way forward. I hope that the noble Lord will see fit to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short but very interesting debate. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that I agree with her on the importance of the duty of candour. We do not really have time to discuss this in detail, but alongside a statutory responsibility on duty of candour there is a need to address culture, particularly within the National Health Service. I am not convinced that the current regulators are helping the duty of candour. I think that we have a blame/risk-averse culture currently operating in the health service which is often driven from the centre. Alongside a duty of candour, we have to look at the need to change the culture to one which is far more collaborative in support of organisations dealing with very difficult issues.
I agree with the noble Baroness, too, on power of entry. Her point on prosecutions being based on breach of regulations was important, which is why the language is so important.
The Minister said that this was not a deregulatory measure. I presume that he is saying that the Department of Health is not chalking it up to the Cabinet Office as an example of deregulatory action. However, we have all had experience of deregulatory approaches taken by Governments and I have to say that some aspects of these regulations seem to have been influenced by a deregulatory approach—I know that the Minister rather chided my noble friend on this point. In the end, some regulations are essential and sometimes advice and guidance alone are simply not sufficient. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, acknowledged that there are strengths in the regulations, and I do not disagree with her about that. Sometimes there is a need to use regulations to be absolutely clear to those who are providing services and those receiving them. That is the case when it comes particularly to issues around food choice, emergency procedures and complaints.
The Minister explained why the Government have gone for what they describe as an outcome-based approach—I understand that—and he then quoted to us Regulation 17(2)(e), which states that the providers must,
“seek and act on feedback from relevant persons and other persons on the services provided in the carrying on of the regulated activity, for the purposes of continually evaluating and improving such services”.
That is elegantly written, as one would expect from his department, but it does not say to me that residents are going to be told how to make complaints. Let us think not about the chains but about the individually owned care home. I really doubt whether that would be very clear to the people in charge. It would have been better if it were explicit in the regulations.
I was going to ask the Minister if he would ensure that the CQC read the debate, but I am grateful to him for already giving us that assurance. I hope that when CQC inspectors go into care homes, they are clear that the regulations mean that there should be a proper choice of food, people should have complaints systems signposted to them, and there should be an emergency procedure in place.
This has been a very useful debate. I will withdraw my amendment. I wish the regulations godspeed. I support the CQC in its approach, but, when it comes to care homes, the CQC needs to be explicit both to the homes and the inspectors about the basic standards that need to be provided.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.
Infrastructure Bill [HL]
Report (2nd Day) (Continued)
Clause 26: Provision in building regulations for off-site carbon abatement measures
100: Clause 26, page 26, line 27, leave out “in relation to a building in England,”
My Lords, I will also speak to Amendments 101 to 107, 122, 126, 127 and 132, which provide for the off-site abatement of carbon to apply to Wales.
Welsh Ministers share this Government’s desire to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from buildings and have requested that we table amendments to extend the application of Clause 26 to new buildings in Wales. Noble Lords will no doubt be aware that the powers to make building regulations under the Building Act 1984 in Wales are transferred to Welsh Ministers. Clause 26 confers new powers to make building regulations for England on the Secretary of State, but these powers for Wales would not be conferred on Welsh Ministers in the absence of these amendments.
In its 2012 consultation on changes to the energy performance requirements of the building regulations, the Welsh Government recognised the technical and economic limits to reducing carbon emissions through on-site measures only in new buildings. The Welsh Government recognise the potential for off-site carbon abatement as a useful tool in the armoury for tackling emissions in the existing building stock and for supporting investment in renewable energy. Any proposals to use this power would be subject to public consultation in Wales and the Welsh Government have committed to a review of the current energy performance requirements of the building regulations in Wales in 2016. The Government have therefore tabled an amendment allowing for the Secretary of State to make separate commencement of the changes to the Building Act in England and Wales. This recognises that the two Administrations could adopt different timelines for implementation depending on the outcome of the review in Wales in 2016 and allows each to introduce the policy at the appropriate times.
Reducing carbon emissions from the built environment is a challenge that all Administrations must face if the UK is to meet its overall climate change targets. Applying the provisions to Wales will enable the Welsh Government to also introduce cost-effective, flexible legislation to meet their objectives. I beg to move.
Amendment 100 agreed.
101: Clause 26, page 26, line 28, leave out “the” and insert “a”
Amendment 101 agreed.
101A: Clause 26, page 26, line 29, at end insert—
“( ) The provisions in section 1(1A)(d) of the Building Act 1984 regarding action to be taken as a result of the building’s contribution to or effect on emissions of carbon dioxide shall apply to—
(a) all buildings and developments consisting of ten or more properties, or(b) from 2018 all buildings or developments of any size.”
My Lords, this amendment seeks to limit the small sites exemption to two years from 2016 and to abolish it thereafter and to require the threshold in the interim to be sites with fewer than 10 properties. The Government have sprung their small sites exemption on us with little or no consultation, although they are now consulting on the matter. In the mean time, it remains unclear what is meant by small sites or by the exemption. We were hoping to have some clarity on these issues in time for today, but, alas, no. I thank the Minister for his letter of 3 November, where he said that the Government had endeavoured to publish the consultation document and the government responses on the zero-carbon consultation for the House of Lords Report stage, but were, however, still working on the document. It would be helpful if the Minister could say more about when we will be able to see that.
As we debated in Committee, the rationale for any exemption from the zero-carbon homes standards is a bit thin. The Government have already lowered these standards. If there is any justification for a time-limited exemption for some sites, it is that, having announced it, it might be argued that some time is needed to move back to the single standard. However, the longer the uncertainty about the detail of the exemption continues, the less valid that point is. The Government have argued that the exemption will be of help to small builders who have more difficulty in responding to new regulations. While I am sure that we all wish to encourage small builders, this is not the best way to do that.
We have recently had the benefit of the report from Michael Lyons, covering a whole raft of interesting stuff on housing. Within the package of support for SMEs that he recommends, for example, are these points:
“Legislative change to permit ‘redline’ outline planning applications on smaller sites of fewer than 10 homes. Local authorities should identify small sites in public ownership in local plans, and work with … public landowners to make them available for purchase and development by SMEs. Local authorities and their New Homes Corporations, working with lead developers should offer more packaged … opportunities for serviced sites to help SMEs access the market, including in Housing Growth Areas”.
Therefore, there are other ways in which to help small builders. In any event, it was pointed out in contributions to our debate that it is assumed that only small builders build on smaller sites and that larger builders would not seek to parcel sites to take advantage of the small sites exemption. It is also the case that a significant number of homes are provided on smaller sites.
Having two-tier arrangements is anyway a potential recipe for confusion, while having what are perceived as relaxations for housebuilders means lower standards for those who buy and occupy those homes and at macro level, of course, it does nothing to address our climate change obligations. We urge the Government now to complete their consultation process as expeditiously as possible and seriously consider drawing back from this approach.
We are shortly to hear from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who is to be congratulated on taking forward his amendment and on keeping faith with the zero-carbon policy for new homes in 2016. The zero-carbon compliance test set out in the amendment is for carbon savings to be delivered on-site and it is recommended by the Zero Carbon Hub. This standard was the culmination of three years of rigorous scientific analysis and work to build consensus about a workable zero-carbon homes standard. As we know, there are three elements to these carbon savings: energy efficiency in the fabric of the building; low-carbon heat and power technologies; and off-site schemes or allowable solutions, as we now recognise them.
Things looked encouraging, at least in 2010, when the coalition Government confirmed that all homes would be zero-carbon by 2016 and set out the path to achieving this through staged improvements to the building regulations. However, things then started to slide. The 2013 building regulations fell short of the improvement required to stay on track for 2016 and although a consultation on allowable solutions was published no government response has yet been forthcoming, despite that consultation closing more than a year ago. As we have just discussed, the Government also announced small sites exemptions, the details and extent of which are as yet unknown.
The right reverend Prelate’s approach would help get us back on track to what appeared to be the starting consensus. A requirement that the compliance standards be met on-site before off-site allowable solutions are deployed is something that we support but we oppose, as our Amendment 101A makes clear, any ongoing exemption for small sites. Making real progress on zero-carbon homes is vital if we are to meet our commitment to tackling climate change and our emissions targets. We support a higher standard for homes than that set out by the coalition—the one recommended by the Zero Carbon Hub. We would structure allowable solutions in such a way that developers are incentivised to prioritise on-site measures over external offsets. If we have any reservations they are about whether, given a chance to govern in 2015, these matters can quickly be put back on to the original 2016 trajectory. The right reverend Prelate is right to remind us of where we should be heading. I beg to move.