House of Lords
Tuesday 20 March 2018
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Winchester.
Tributes: Lord Richard
My Lords, it is my sad duty to lead the tributes to one of my predecessors as Leader of the House, Lord Richard, who died on Sunday.
Lord Richard was a significant figure in the political life of this country, holding a variety of high-profile public roles over several decades. He always argued with a fearsome combination of intellect and passion, directed by strong political convictions. He joined this House in 1990, becoming Leader of the Opposition two years later during a time of great change for the Labour Party before being appointed as Leader of the House after the 1997 general election. As Leader, he played a central role in the early cross-party discussions about the future of this House, which were to culminate in the House of Lords Act 1999. By then he had already had a long and distinguished record of service, both as an MP and at the highest levels of international relations, and after his time as Leader of the House he continued to make important contributions to our work and through our Select Committees.
In 1974, Harold Wilson appointed Lord Richard as the UK Permanent Representative to the UN, where he served for over five years. During this time he played a key role in bringing together the different sides in the Middle East and Rhodesia conflicts. Following the change of Government in 1979, Lord Richard was appointed as one of the UK’s European commissioners, replacing Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. He spent four years in Brussels, where he oversaw employment, social policy, education and training. My noble friend Lady Chalker tells me that Lord Richard’s unfailing willingness to listen and seek the advice of others helped him to resolve a wide variety of challenges and ultimately achieve better outcomes during his time in these international posts.
His service to this House since his period as Leader saw him making a number of invaluable contributions to the European debate as well as on major constitutional issues, including reform of this House. He was appointed as Chairman of Committees on the Constitutional Reform Bill, the Barnett formula and most recently of the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill. In each of these roles he demonstrated all the negotiating skills gleaned from his international postings in achieving cross-party consensus on serious and difficult issues. As well as chairing committees, he also served until very recently on a number of EU sub-committees.
Together with the death of my noble friend Lord Crickhowell, I am sorry that the House has had to bid farewell to two distinguished Welsh political figures in the same week. Lord Richard was a man who never abandoned his Carmarthenshire roots; he was invited to chair a commission on the future powers of the National Assembly for Wales, which reported in 2004. While its recommendations were not initially accepted by the Government at the time, the important body of work eventually resulted in the devolution of further powers to Cardiff.
At this sad time, all sides of your Lordships’ House will want to send their good wishes to his wife Janet, to whom he was a devoted husband, and to his children. We share in what must be their sense of profound loss. But it is almost impossible not to be struck at the breadth of what he achieved at high level in so many different fields He put his experience and wisdom willingly at the disposal of this House throughout his membership, and he will be greatly missed.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her comments; we are grateful for the tributes she has paid. As well as Lord Crickhowell, she will understand that we are also mourning our colleague Brenda Dean who died very recently.
In 1997 Lord Richard—Ivor—led the Labour Party in the Lords into government for the first time in 18 years. He had taken over the leadership in 1992, just after we had been defeated in an election that we went into with such high hopes. Noble Lords will understand that it was not an easy time: despite the convincing nature of Labour’s victory in 1997 the future had looked far from certain five years earlier.
Ivor was a man of great intellect and experience—a “wise owl” if ever there was one. He had strong political convictions and as someone said to me earlier, he was a true character. His time in Parliament spanned almost 54 years. He was first elected as a Member of Parliament in 1964 for Barons Court in west London and served for 10 years in the other place, returning to Westminster on the red Benches in 1990. Between his times at Westminster he served in not one but two high-profile international postings; first, as Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations and then as a European commissioner. In the former role, Ivor was at the centre of two of the key issues of the day: the Middle East conflict that still troubles us and the growing movement for independence in what is now Zimbabwe. An early advocate of Britain’s membership of the then Common Market, Ivor found himself briefly dislodged from the Labour Front Bench for defying the Whip on the historic vote to join in 1971: some things change.
We will miss Ivor’s wisdom, expertise and statesmanship as the seemingly never-ending Brexit process moves forward over the coming months and years. In 1997, his tenure as a Cabinet Minister and Leader of your Lordships’ House was inevitably dominated by the new Government’s heavy legislative programme, particularly the proposals for reform of this House. Lords reform remained a passion and an issue close to his heart, so he was the obvious choice to chair the Joint Committee considering the draft Bill at the last major attempt to reform your Lordships’ House, under the coalition Government.
A proud Welshman, he also played a key role in the development of the powers of the National Assembly for Wales, paving the way for the 2011 referendum on the Assembly’s lawmaking powers. Ivor served on more committees of this House than we have time to mention here, most recently on the Select Committee that this House set up to consider some of the most contentious aspects of the Trade Union Bill. I well recall the Monday morning when Ivor arrived at my office in your Lordships’ House, having just been appointed the previous week, with a huge pile of papers under his arm, all marked up, all flagged: he had spent the whole weekend examining in detail the issues before that committee. His contribution to Parliament and to the Lords over many years was huge. He was the last former MP to become Leader of your Lordships’ House—so far.
So today we pay tribute to Ivor, our friend and colleague whom we shall miss enormously. Our thoughts are with his family, particularly his wife, Janet. I hope that our thoughts as we remember him today will be of some comfort to them.
My Lords, Ivor Richard, as we have heard, had an exceptionally varied and successful career in both domestic and international politics. As MP for Barons Court, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, pointed out, he gained the battle honours of being sacked from his Front Bench for supporting the Bill taking the UK into the European Community in 1971. After leaving the Commons, he was a forthright UK Permanent Representative at the UN and then a successful commissioner when he succeeded Roy Jenkins at the Commission in Brussels.
On these Benches, he is especially remembered, particularly by my Welsh colleagues, as architect of the Richard commission report, which was commissioned in the early days of the National Assembly for Wales by the coalition Government, of which the Lib Dems were then part. The report looked at the powers and the size of the Assembly, and, somewhat remarkably, proposed changed the voting system to STV—which particularly commended it to my friends. He was a committed devolutionist and a committed Welshman. He helped push the boundaries of thinking on full powers for the National Assembly, which eventually, many years later, have come to fruition.
But the thing which always impressed me most was his presence and his voice. He had a solidity, an authority and a manner of speaking which commanded attention and made me, at least, want to listen very carefully to everything he said. This, in my experience, is a very rare ability and made him a most effective leader of your Lordships’ House. I will certainly miss that voice.
My Lords, on behalf of my colleagues on the Cross Benches, I too wish to be associated with the warm and very well-deserved tributes that have been paid to Lord Richard. As we have heard, he had a distinguished career before he became a Member of this House. Under the name Ivor Richard, he became very well known to the public, first as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and then as an EEC commissioner. Perhaps less well known is the fact that he had practised at the Bar for nearly 20 years before accepting these appointments. His clarity of thought, his skill as a communicator and the air of quiet authority which in later years were to become his hallmark when he spoke in the House must surely have owed much to his legal background.
As we have heard, he spent much more time on the Front Bench as Leader of the Opposition than he did when he was appointed Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House after the 1997 general election. It was not until after he had left that office that the House of Lords Act 1999, which was the first measure to reform the House that was passed during the then Labour Government, received its Royal Assent. So he had the difficult task of being Leader when the party in government were very much in the minority in this House because of the presence of the hereditary Peers. I was serving as a Law Lord during that time, so I did not see how he handled that, as I was usually sitting upstairs with the Appellate Committee during Questions and on other occasions when his skills would have been put to the test.
His contribution as Leader was by no means the only contribution he made to the work of the House. I saw him in action when he chaired the committee that has already been mentioned, before which I gave evidence, which was appointed to scrutinise the Bill that became the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. That Act is certainly steeped in my memory because it resulted in the departure of the Law Lords and the creation of the UK Supreme Court. Then he was invited to chair the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill which sat from 2011 to 2012. The careful and measured way in which he fulfilled these responsibilities and the many others that came his way was an example to us all.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred to Lord Richard’s presence. We on these Benches had the advantage and pleasure—denied to those on the Opposition Benches because of layout of the Chamber—of seeing and watching the noble Lord every day when he was in his place on the Back Benches. He was one of those remarkable men who could communicate his views by the look on his face or maybe the movement of his shoulders almost as well as he could when he spoke. There was much entertainment to be had when he was in that mood. We shall miss him very much, and to his wife and all the members of his family, we on these Benches wish to extend our condolences on their loss.
My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I also pay tribute to Lord Richard and associate myself with the comments already made. Lord Richard’s life was clearly one devoted to public service: MP, ambassador to the United Nations, where he worked hard on both the Middle East and then Rhodesia, and EU Commissioner before coming to this House, where he first became Leader of the Opposition and ultimately Leader of the House. Most of us aspire to making an impression in one area alone: he clearly excelled in many.
Although there is no one now on these Benches who had the privilege of serving under his leadership of this House, the last Bishop of Leicester had the pleasure of serving under his chairmanship of the committee looking at the coalition Government’s plans for Lords reform—an experience made all the better for his impressive command of the brief. Any Member who is given—or, indeed, accepts—the unenviable task of navigating their way through that contentious swamp has to be possessed of a formidable intellect and firm resolve, and command the trust and respect of all sides. These were qualities that Lord Richard held in abundance and which he applied to his service to the public good in so many different ways over the years. He will be much missed.
My Lords, as noble Lords have pointed out, Ivor Richard served for four years as a Commissioner in Brussels. He and I were colleagues at that time. I pay tribute first to the broader horizons that he brought to bear when he arrived: he came from being ambassador to the United Nations and this added a dimension to the Commission’s understanding of the world, which was very useful and important at that time.
Of course, he was Labour and I was Conservative and he was in charge of employment and social affairs, and I was in charge of the budget, so that in many aspects we were not natural allies. The way in which he always played his hand in those very difficult negotiations—conducted against the background of the British budget problem of the late 1970s and early 1980s—was a great tribute to his integrity and acumen. He never gave way on matters that were of particular interest to his portfolio or his beliefs, but he was always able to appreciate the wider interest, both in terms of Britain and the European Union and in terms of the Commission formulating a policy. In addition to that, he was a very convivial character, and in a multi-national body such as the Commission, where people come from different political parties and different national backgrounds, his convivial characteristics played a very useful role in cementing the group and helping to make it operate as one, rather than as a whole lot of different individuals. He was a good colleague and a good companion, and I have very happy memories of serving together with him.
Just before I sit down, I hope that the House will understand if I also say how very much I shall miss my very good friend and long-standing colleague, Lord Crickhowell.
My Lords, Ivor was one of my oldest friends. We served together as Ministers in the Ministry of Defence in the 1960s. It seems a long time ago. I looked after equipment and he looked after the Army. After his distinguished diplomatic career, he returned to the Bar and again distinguished himself as a very impressive advocate. We both turned up from time to time and appeared at the Old Bailey—professionally of course. My last recollection of him was his comment a few weeks ago that he went to the same elementary school in Carmarthenshire as Jim Griffiths, formerly deputy leader of my party and the first Welsh Secretary. Ivor was a proud Welshman who rendered very great service, particularly to future constitutional development. He will be missed.
My Lords, I should like to join in with a short tribute to Lord Richard. I was the Government Chief Whip from 1994 to 1997 when both he and Lord Graham ran a most effective and expert Opposition, which made our lives extremely difficult. Looking back over 20 years, one might have assumed that the transition from Opposition to Government under the Blairite wave of good will that swept the country would have been an easy task for a new Leader in the House of Lords. Far from it, but if his political skills, which were real indeed, were tested in that period then he never showed it, because he demonstrated with his intelligence, his Welshness and his profound belief in the Labour Party that everything could be achieved—and so it was, with him as Leader. I am glad that he came to this House regularly in the succeeding years and even until quite recently. He and I would occasionally stop and talk about those days. He will be much missed and, like everyone else, I send our condolences to his wife and his family.
My Lords, I shall add my own tribute to Lord Richard. He was the first person who I voted to be Leader of the Labour Party in this House; I had arrived in 1991 and the election was held soon after. I must mention that his devotion to reform of your Lordships’ House, and to trying to make it an elected Chamber, was profound and he worked very hard for it. At the end of the day that did not work out, but we all live in hope. I am sure that on the day when the House becomes an elected Chamber, we shall all remember Lord Richard’s contribution. It was said that he had been sacked from the Front Bench during his career for defying the whip. I have the distinction of having been sacked by him twice, but I still liked him very much.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord O’Shaughnessy on 21 January (HL5321), why there are no plans to enable women undergoing early medical abortion to take the second dose of the medication, misoprostol, at home, if they so wish.
My Lords, the Government’s priority is to ensure that women who require abortion services have access to safe, high-quality care. Abortions must be performed under the legal framework set by the Abortion Act 1967. We are not currently in a position to approve homes as a class of place under the Act. However, we will continue to keep this matter under review and assess further evidence as it arises.
I thank the Minister for his Answer, but can he inform the House of the expected timeframe for the Government’s decision regarding enabling women to choose the dignity of being as comfortable as possible in their own homes when they experience medical abortion, rather than some of them suffering while travelling home from the clinic? Journeys of over two hours are not uncommon, particularly for women from rural areas. It is also worth noting that the procedure is endorsed as a safe practice by the World Health Organization.
I thank the noble Baroness for her question. No timeframe has been set for any decision on a policy change. She will understand that any change of policy would need to be done cautiously, in the light of the evidence and of legal developments—for example, relating to Scotland’s decision to name homes as a place. It is on that basis that we will consider any further evidence.
My Lords, if women in Norway, France and now Scotland can take this drug at home, not in a clinical setting, with careful safeguards and support in place—I have looked at what has happened in Scotland, and there is no doubt about that at all—it is important that the Government should afford the same facility to women in England. I would like the Minister to perhaps go further than he has now and say that there will be a timetable for this to happen.
In terms of the experiences in other countries, of course only the countries of the UK are operating under the auspices and obligations of the 1967 Act, which any Government would have to act under. The Scottish Government have made that decision, but the noble Baroness will know that it is subject to a dispute and that a judicial review has been brought against it by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, which is obviously testing the legality of the Scottish Government and their powers to act. We shall look closely at developments in these legal proceedings, as well as any other evidence that arises. Unfortunately, this is why I am not in a position to give her a timetable.
My Lords, a study of 42,600 early abortions in Finland—where there is good registry data, unlike in England and Wales—found that, six weeks post abortion, complications after medical abortions were four times higher than after surgical procedures: 20% compared with 5.6%. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists cites one study in the UK where 53% of late medical abortions required surgical intervention. Given these facts, are Her Majesty’s Government not also concerned that so-called home abortions outside of a medical setting would compromise the health and safety of women, especially young women who may use these powerful chemicals secretly at home?
This is obviously a concern. There has been an increase in women buying online the drugs necessary for medical abortions, and that is something on which we are attempting to crack down. It is worth pointing out that 90% of abortions are NHS funded and therefore provided for in that way. The noble Baroness was talking about medical abortions at a late stage; it is worth pointing out that, actually, there has been an increase in the number or percentage of abortions that are happening at an early stage, which is obviously in the interests of women’s health.
The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, mixed up two completely different things. She mixed up early medical abortions and late abortions. Can the Minister confirm that a 2011 court case brought by BPAS established that the Secretary of State has the power to allow early medical abortions to happen at home? If he agrees, and if the evidence from the Scottish trial is convincing and underpinned by the decision of the Scottish courts, will the Secretary of State then undertake to look at the development of a facility for legal abortion which may well be to the benefit of thousands of women in this country, particularly those who live in rural areas?
I am aware of the opinion in that judicial review. It is worth pointing out that there is still uncertainty about the legal position. This is why we will watch the developments in Scotland carefully and proceed cautiously. It would be wrong of me to prejudge either the opinions that come from the court or indeed any evidence if this scheme does get up and running in Scotland.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that, up to nine weeks, it is perfectly safe for a woman to take the pills for a medical abortion? It is much better and more comfortable for her to have the consequences at home. Does he also agree that this would mean each woman would have to make half the number of appointments to get a medical abortion—a huge saving for the health service?
The importance here is making sure that, under the auspices of the Act, women have access to safe and legal abortion, and that is what they have a right to do. An important point here is that, the earlier these abortions happen, the safer they are. The proportion of abortions under 10 weeks has risen from 68% to 81% in the last 10 years. At the moment, both courses of treatment for early medical abortion should take place in a clinical setting approved by the Secretary of State.
My Lords, has any research been undertaken on the psychological feelings of people who have had abortions in their own homes?
I am not aware of any research, but I shall ask the department to see if there is any. If there is, I shall write to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, if the information we have just had is correct that more women, especially young women, are buying abortion drugs online, surely that proves the point that we need to improve the abortion services that we have within the NHS and the advice that is given to young women.
No, I do not think it proves that. The fact that illegal drugs of all kinds are being bought online, whether they are illegal drugs or prescription drugs bought illegally, is a feature of modern life. Rates of abortion in the under-18s are falling, as is the teenage pregnancy and conception rate. Those are separate issues.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, as well as in Scotland, the home use of misoprostol is common practice in the United States, Canada and multiple other European countries?
Yes, I am aware of that. As I said, those countries operate under a different legal framework from ours.
National Curriculum: Litter
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to including litter picking in the National Curriculum for Year 6 children, to tidy up the roads and encourage civic responsibility.
My Lords, as part of the science curriculum, children are taught about the scientific concepts that relate to the environment. At key stage 2, pupils should explore examples of the human impact on environments, which can include the negative impact of litter. At present, around 75% of schools in England are members of the Eco-Schools programme. We would like to increase participation in this programme overall and are working actively on anti-littering awareness, including participating in litter picks.
My Lords, that is a start and I am grateful to my noble friend. However, the shocking and disgusting proliferation of litter in our towns and countryside frankly shames this nation. While my proposal might meet with opposition and some people would understandably be very concerned about safety—and, indeed, some teachers might not like it very much—if all children spent a couple of hours clearing litter, it might not only have a gradual effect on attitudes but might in the long term have a positive educational impact. So will my noble friend please go back and look very seriously at this proposal or something similar and take radical action so that we no longer need be ashamed of the state of our highways and byways?
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that litter is a scourge. That is why the Government launched the litter strategy last year, which sets out our aim to clean up the country and deliver a substantial reduction in litter within a generation. The litter strategy brings together communities, businesses, charities and, most importantly, schools to bring real change by focusing on three key themes: education and awareness, improving enforcement, and better cleaning and access to bins.
My Lords, given the high rate of illiteracy in many of our primary schools and the low rate of numeracy among 11 year-olds, which affects their subsequent education, does the noble Lord not agree that it would be far better to concentrate on the essentials of a good education and not expose our children to unnecessary danger doing foolish things that are not part of the curriculum?
My Lords, litter is a symptom of children’s respect for our society and environment—so a good education will address these two strands, which is what we do on the people side through the citizenship programmes and PSHE, and through the recent Tom Bennett review of behaviour in schools. As the noble Lord knows, on the environmental side we have just released the 25-year environment plan. We have the Eco-Schools project that I mentioned earlier. The Great British Spring Clean is under way and has been extended because of the bad weather. So I think the noble Lord’s judgment is a little harsh, because not having litter is a symptom of a good society.
My Lords, two weeks from today a penalty of £80 will be imposed on the owner of any vehicle from which litter is thrown. This is a big advance, because previously the offence could never be prosecuted. The Government have now made it subject to a civil penalty rather than classing it as a crime. However, does my noble friend accept that the penalties for fly tipping and the enforcement of those penalties are completely inadequate?
My Lords, this comes back to my earlier statement that this is about a sense of public responsibility and duty. I am delighted that the fines for littering from cars have been increased. My noble friend will also be aware that from January this year we banned the use of microbeads in cosmetic substances—so the whole thrust is to improve the protection of our environment. I applaud the most recent action to which he referred.
My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise this issue and of course Keep Britain Tidy does a lot of work in schools. But now that we have light at the end of the tunnel, will the Minister not lobby the Government to provide more money to local authorities so that the highways, verges and streets that he is concerned about can be properly cleansed, with local authorities given the resources to carry that out? I know that this is not quite in the Minister’s brief but, while I am up perhaps I might ask—as some schools include this as part of PSHE—when the consultation on PSHE will be concluded, and will we have an opportunity to discuss the recommendations?
My Lords, in relation to the noble Lord’s first question, if we can change attitudes we will not need to spend large sums of taxpayers’ money cleaning up the litter left by careless people. In relation to PSHE, the review closed on 12 February and we had a record number of responses. We will be replying to that as soon as possible. It is also worth noting that an additional requirement that we have of schools is for the social, moral, spiritual and cultural development of children. This is a high-level duty that sits outside PSHE. It is written into legislation and also into the academy funding agreement, and it includes issues such as respect for the environment.
I am wary of criticising the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, given his service in the SAS, but I suspect that there are many parents and not a few children today who, having heard him, are quite relieved that there are mercifully few chimneys left in this country. I wonder whether the noble Lord is aware that it is extremely rare for the broad and balanced year 6 curriculum not to include civic responsibility, so it is not a problem. There are many great teachers in state schools in this country, not least Andria Zafirakou, who was named as the winner of the Global Teacher Prize just a few days ago. That is a tremendous credit to her work at Alperton Community School in north London. I suspect that most teachers in this country would welcome a robust statement from the Minister that teachers should be allowed to get on and teach. Will he give that assurance?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that it is very important that teachers are allowed to teach. The core of our reforms over the last seven or eight years has been the granting of autonomy to schools and the freeing up of the key stage 3 curriculum to give space for the teaching of things that are not directly linked to exams. I come back to my general theme: much of education is about producing a spiritual sense and a sense of belonging in society—so I agree that we should not be mandating additional individual activities.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the changing situation in Syria.
My Lords, we welcome the progress made in the fight against Daesh, including the liberation of Raqqa. However, the Syrian crisis is far from resolved; violence continues and the humanitarian situation remains dire. Eastern Ghouta, besieged by the regime, is a particularly tragic example. A political settlement remains the only solution to bring sustainable peace to Syria and we support the UN Geneva process. All parties must work constructively towards a political agreement.
I thank the Minister. This is not, as Neville Chamberlain said of somewhere else,
“a faraway country of which we know very little”.
In the past week, 237 people have been killed in Syria, 37 of whom were children. Over 10,000 were killed last year and nearly 3,000 of those were children. At the same time, some of the national and international agencies have been forced to withdraw, having given so much help to alleviate this terrible catastrophe. I make special mention of the White Helmets, who have done great work. Is it not time that the Dubs amendment—originally covering 3,000 children, with the number reduced to 480—should be restored to its original total of 3,000? We cannot turn our backs. These are people in the worst humanitarian crisis since the war. I ask the Minister: will he press somehow to restore 3,000 as the aim for accommodating and welcoming these children?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the situation in Syria, although I do not agree that it is something that we know little about. Tragically, we know a great deal about it because of the things that we see every day in the media—the unfolding crisis and the continuing suffering of the Syrian people. Over 400,000 people, including many children, have now died. As I am sure the noble Lord will be aware, we have established the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme, which will settle up to 3,000 at-risk children and their families by 2020. In terms of overall resettlement, by December 2017 a total of 10,538 people had been resettled under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme since it began in 2014 and a total of 570 people had been resettled through the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme since it began in 2016.
My Lords, the Government’s position was that they would never deal with Assad and that they want to see him removed as part of any deal. Given that that is not going to happen, will the Government change their position as far as Assad is concerned?
The Government’s position is very clear. We do not believe that the Assad regime, or indeed Assad himself, can be involved in the future of Syria, and we have said that it is for the Syrian people to choose a transition arrangement. We are imploring all parties, including the Russians, the Iranians and all those who have influence over the Assad regime, to move forward so that a peaceful transition can be reached. In terms of dealing directly with the Assad regime, our position does not change: we do not believe that there is a future for Syria with the Assad regime in place.
My Lords, no one would disagree with the noble Lord’s sentiments about the need for a peace settlement involving all parties. We have recently seen Turkish forces in Afrin and it is possible that they are moving on to other towns where the US has military bases. We could be facing a scenario where two NATO allies are supporting different sides in a conflict and exacerbating the situation. What role are we playing in NATO and the UN in trying at least to bring our allies together, rather than just opponents?
I assure the noble Lord that we are following very closely the developments in Afrin and in the wider northern and western Syrian provinces. We call repeatedly for de-escalation and for the protection of civilians. We are using our good offices through NATO and the UN and through bilateral exchanges directly with the Turkish Administration to call for that very de-escalation.
My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that in the provision of humanitarian aid to those displaced in this conflict the Department for International Development’s understanding of vulnerability includes religious persecution? Will he also give an assurance that the Government will continue to ensure that the UNHCR’s procedures and criteria for determining refugee status recognise religious persecution as a distinct category?
The Government are very cognisant of religious persecution in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, I returned from Iraq only a couple of weeks ago. I visited Mosul and met directly with Christian representatives as well as those of the Yazidi community and heard first hand about the heinous crimes that have been committed against young women and children. I assure the right reverend Prelate that all forms of persecution against all people throughout Syria and Iraq are taken into account, and those issues are fully considered by all agencies, including the UNHCR.
My Lords, will the Government call for the withdrawal of all foreign forces, together with foreign fighters, from Syria? Is this not absolutely necessary to enable the Syrian people to decide their own future?
Indeed. The commitment of Her Majesty’s Government to the Geneva process includes exactly that call for all foreign forces to be withdrawn. Ultimately, we all wish to see a political settlement in Syria where the people themselves choose their leadership.
What assessment have the Government made for the Geneva peace process—to which the Minister referred—in the light of the sacking of Tillerson and the appointment of Pompeo in the United States, and the re-election of Putin? Does he think that this will makes things easier or more dangerous?
The election of President Putin was a matter for the Russian people, and the selection of Cabinet members in the US Administration is very much a matter for the President of the United States. We believe that it is important for all members of the Security Council—particularly its permanent members—to be committed to the Geneva process, and to other processes. Indeed, the Astana process, which Russia has been overseeing with Turkey and Iran, should also feed in to ensuring the peace settlement we all desire.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will consider further ways of promoting part-time study in the light of the findings set out in the report by the Sutton Trust, The Lost Part-Timers.
My Lords, we want everyone with the potential to benefit from higher education to do so. Studying part-time brings considerable benefits for individuals, the economy and employers. The recently announced review of post-18 education and funding will look at how we can encourage learning that is more flexible and complements ongoing government work to support people to study at different times in their lives.
I thank the Minister for that Answer, but I would be pleased to hear more than warm words. I would like action on the serious report by the Sutton Trust, which found a fall of 50% in part-time study in the last five years. This is very serious indeed, particularly for the Government’s intended strategy, which is supposed to improve social mobility and encourage part-time study. Will the Government therefore undertake to include in their coming report on post-18 education consideration of part-time education as a whole, which will help fulfil their industrial strategy?
The noble Baroness has spoken at length on this subject in the past. We are concerned about the decline in part-time study. I can reassure her that the review of post-18 education and funding will look at how we can address this issue further. Indeed, part of its terms of reference include consideration of:
“How we can encourage learning that is more flexible (for example, part-time, distance learning and commuter study options) and complements ongoing government work to support people to study at different times in their lives”.
Beyond the review, as the noble Baroness will be aware, the Higher Education and Research Act placed a general duty on the OfS to consider the means by which learning is provided and specifically mentions part-time study.
My Lords, it should be a matter of great concern to see the decline in mature and part-time students at such transformational institutions as Birkbeck and the Open University. Will the Government consider a better-monitored version of the individual learning account, where contributions from learners, employers and government could provide a very effective mix of funding and motivation?
I am sure that the panel will take note of the points made by the noble Baroness. The review covers all post-18 education and funding and it is important for it to look at this area. In addition to this, since 2012-13 we have provided tuition fee loans for part-time courses, and in 2018-19 we intend to introduce full-time-equivalent part-time maintenance loans, so there is some further action ongoing.
Would my noble friend accept that one of the greatest achievements of any post-war Government was the creation of the Open University? What are the Government doing to encourage mature adults to take up courses at the Open University?
The Open University is a good example. The noble Lord may know that there is a restructuring exercise going on there, and the Open University is looking to change the way it operates to take account of changing conditions and the reduction in part-time study. That is something that we will be looking at.
My Lords, the Minister is being remarkably complacent. He and his colleagues have presided over a devastating reduction in the number of part-time students. That is madness when it comes to the priority to upskill people who have missed out on higher education in the past. The Sutton Trust report makes abundantly clear that the reason for the huge reduction is that the Government got rid of maintenance grants and put the fees up by a huge amount. Incidentally, in his Statement to this House in February, the noble Viscount did not mention part-time students. So instead of a review, why do the Government not reverse that decision and restore maintenance grants?
My Lords, the important thing is to look at the reasons for the decline, and they are indeed complex. Over the past five years, there have been wider changes to the economy and there was the removal in 2008-09 of the HEFCE teaching grant for equivalent and lower-level qualifications, so there are complex issues here that need to be addressed. I also point out to the noble Lord that the numbers have fallen not only in England. The noble Baroness is right that the number has fallen significantly—actually, I have a figure of 63%—so we understand the seriousness of this, but the number has also fallen in Scotland by 22% and in Wales by 46%.
My Lords, is it not important to recognise the particular problems of part-time students, which are not faced in the same way by full-time undergraduates starting their studies at 18? In particular, there are often challenges with families, occupations, dependants, the difficulty of going back to full-time education after a long period outside and all the pressure that that has on people. In a sense, we should focus far more on the challenges that part-time students face than the rather more predictable course of full-time students.
The noble Lord is absolutely right. That falls in line with what our statistics show us, which is that part-time study typically caters for more mature students: in 2016-17, 53% of undergraduate entrants were aged 30 or older. But to look broader to the noble Lord’s question, we are looking at those people who might not have made the right career choice and in their 20s or 30s might be looking to make a change in their career. Part-time study could suit that. Returning mothers is another important group that we will be looking to encourage to get back into employment, and there are also post-retirement courses. All these areas are important and complex, and we need to look at them as part of the review.
My Lords, have the Government considered the link between immigration, particularly from the rest of the European Union, and the shortage of medium skills at all levels? I see FE colleges being cut back as well as part-time education. I am very conscious that, across Yorkshire, companies find it easier to recruit directly from Slovakia or Poland than train their own people. The new apprenticeships scheme, as the Minister will know, has led to an immediate drop in new apprentices being taken on last year, so this will not help. Investing in training, part-time and full-time, for the 50% of our people who do not go to university is not only key to our economy but key to reducing the pull factor in immigration, which comes from companies recruiting directly from abroad.
We should look at life from a more positive angle. The noble Lord mentioned the apprenticeship levy, which is just one of several apprenticeship or levy schemes that are ongoing, particularly if we look at the construction sector, which is very important indeed. The objective is to home grow our own skills.
Civil Liability Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision about whiplash claims and the personal injury discount rate.
The Bill was introduced by Lord Keen of Elie, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
National Minimum Wage (Amendment) Regulations 2018
Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 (Powers of Seizure) Order 2018
Works Detrimental to Navigation (Powers and Duties of Inspectors) Regulations 2018
Motions to Approve
That the draft Regulations and Order laid before the House on 5 February, 23 January and 18 January be approved.
Relevant document: 19th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Considered in Grand Committee on 15 March.
Brexit: Fisheries Management
My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall repeat as a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Statement is as follows:
“Can I begin by paying tribute to the hard work of the Ministers and especially the civil servants of our country’s negotiating team, who this weekend concluded an agreement on the nature and length of the implementation period which will help us to prepare for life after Brexit? Taskforce 50, on behalf of the EU and our own team of dedicated civil servants, secured an agreed text which will now go to the March Council of the European Union, and after that Council at the end of this week, the Prime Minister will update the House on Monday.
The House will be aware that there are important legal and technical questions relating to fisheries management which mean that it occupies a special position in these negotiations. Both the EU and our own negotiators were always clear that specific arrangements would have to be agreed for fisheries. Our proposal to the EU was that, during the implementation period, we would sit alongside other coastal states as a third country and equal partner in annual quota negotiations and, in making that case, we did so after full consultation with representatives of the fisheries industry. We pressed hard during negotiations to secure this outcome and we are disappointed that the EU was not willing to move on this. However, thanks to the hard work of our negotiating team the text was amended from the original proposal and the Commission has agreed to amendments to the text which provide additional reassurance. The revised text clarifies that the UK’s share of quotas will not change during the implementation period and that the UK can attend international negotiations. Furthermore, the agreement includes an obligation on both sides to act in good faith throughout the implementation period. Any attempts by the EU to operate in a way which would harm the fishing industry would breach that obligation and, of course, these arrangements will only apply to negotiations in December 2019. We are at the table as a full member state for negotiations in December 2018 and, critically, in December 2020 we will be negotiating fishing opportunities as a third country and independent coastal state, deciding who can access our waters and on what terms for the first time in over 40 years.
It is important that we use this transition period to ensure that we can negotiate in 2020, as a third country and independent coastal state, to maximise the benefits for our coastal communities; that we can control who accesses our waters and on what terms; and that we manage our marine resources sustainably. And we are already looking at a range of data to support consideration of future fishing opportunities, including the nature of catches and zonal attachment of stocks in the UK exclusive economic zone. There is a significant prize at the end of the implementation period, and it is important that all of us in every area accept that the implementation period is a necessary step towards securing that prize. For our coastal communities, it is an opportunity to revive economically. For our marine environment, it is an opportunity to be managed sustainably, and it is critical that all of us, in the interests of the whole nation, keep our eyes on that prize”.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but he will know that the Secretary of State made great play of how he would fast-track our rights to fish in our own coastal waters on EU exit day and outside of EU constraints. The fact is that he has now been overruled by others in the Cabinet, which has accepted this deal. That is why we have real concerns that, despite the Secretary of State’s promises, he will be overruled again and again—for example, when the Cabinet is confronted with the choice of new trade deals, or retaining future animal and food quality standards.
The Secretary of State has made a number of promises that are now open to question. Can the Minister clarify who exactly in the exit talks is leading the negotiations on fishing? Can we be assured that those negotiators will now be more honest with fishing communities about their negotiating position in the future? What guarantees can the Minister give that at the end of the transition period, our fishing rights will not be traded away for some other economic priority? What steps will the Government take to provide immediate support for those coastal communities who are bitterly disappointed by this decision and who, as we know, are already suffering acutely from economic hardship?
My Lords, along with my colleagues in the department we share the disappointment that the noble Baroness has suggested, but of course the UK share of quotas will not change during the implementation period and we will be attending the international negotiations. This is an extension, and the implementation period is due to conclude in December 2020, so that during that time we will be in a position to advance the things we think are absolutely right and to ensure that we fish in a sustainable manner. This country has been in the lead on that and we want to ensure, through our negotiations not only with EU members but with other independent coastal states, that the fisheries in this part of the planet are sustainably fished. That is a very important prize for us because the seafaring communities of this country are vital to us and, as I say, the changes that our negotiators have been able to secure are valuable because there is certainty. However, now we shall work on the access that we will have as an independent coastal nation, which I think is a very strong prospect for the future.
I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer. This issue has caused a great deal of unrest and anger among Scottish fishermen. It had been anticipated that the UK would withdraw from the common fisheries policy on the day after leaving the EU. Indeed, the Government promised that they would take back control of the UK’s fishing waters after Brexit. While Michel Barnier and David Davis may agree that the transition period is a decisive step, I fear that that view is not shared by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. Bertie Armstrong of the SFF has expressed the view that the Scottish industry does not trust the EU to look after its interests. Is the Minister surprised by his reaction? Why have the Government sold the fishing industry short by agreeing to this transition period? Can the Minister confirm that there has been consultation with the industry and that it was satisfied with the outcome? Are the Government prepared to let our fleet continue to be governed by rules in which our Government have had no say, and what is the Secretary of State doing to achieve a sustainable supply of fish and to avoid depleting numbers?
Trust takes a long time to build but it can be destroyed in a moment. How are the Government going to restore confidence that they do indeed have the best interests of our fishermen at heart?
My Lords, it is in the national interest that we have a vibrant fishing industry and we support fishermen in all parts of the United Kingdom. I heard Bertie Armstrong on the radio this morning and the accusation about the implementation period and the year. Interestingly, he also said that it was ironic that, regarding those parties which do not wish to leave the common fisheries policy because they do not wish to leave the EU, we would never be in a position to have the negotiation we will have when we leave the CFP. We will have access to our own waters and we will be able to decide that access for ourselves based on the science. It is important to ensure that we fish our waters sustainably and that we base our judgments on the best scientific advice available.
My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that what is clear—according to my understanding on both sides—is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed? Once you get to that position and you have a transitional arrangement, it is inevitable that there will not be any changes in the meantime. But the most important part of my noble friend’s Statement is the confirmation from the EU that there will be absolutely no attempt to change the present arrangements and that the Government will stick to their determination to improve the situation once everything is agreed.
My Lords, my noble friend is right about the arrangements for the deal, but clearly the negotiations will take time. As my noble friend has said, it is important that the UK share of the quotas will not change and that we are continuing on that basis. It is clear that there are enormous opportunities for UK fishing fleets across all parts of the kingdom, and that is a positive position. That is what we will be turning our energies towards achieving.
My Lords, the Minister is correct to be cautious about this very complicated matter. Most people know that 75% of all fish caught in United Kingdom waters is exported and that, conversely, most of the fish consumed in our fish shops, our restaurants and at home is imported. There is an important deal to be done here. The vacuous promise of taking back control has been exposed, as my noble friend pointed out. We need access to other people’s waters just as they need access to ours—otherwise fishing will grind to a halt in many of our communities. The idea that British vessels will fish only in British waters and everyone else will be excluded is for the birds—or perhaps I should say for the fish.
My Lords, this is a complicated matter. It obviously involves considerable negotiation and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Fisheries Minister will be or have been visiting the Faroe Islands, Norway and other countries—because, as the noble Lord said, we all fish in each other’s waters. The principle of this is that we must fish in a sustainable manner. That is what we all need to achieve and that is what the British Government will be seeking to achieve.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm the point made by my noble friend Lord King, given the disappointing news that is coming out of the fishing negotiations? In the Brexit negotiations nothing is agreed until everything is agreed—and if, at the end of the day, the total package presented to us is unsatisfactory we will not accept it.
My Lords, clearly Her Majesty’s Government are seeking a deal and an arrangement. As is plainly obvious, at the end of the day this will involve a huge amount of work and we will all need to see how that goes. Our intentions are in good faith. We want there to be a deal. We think that it is in the interest of this country and, indeed, of the EU 27 that we come to a reasonable, responsible deal.
My Lords, the Minister has on three occasions, I think, emphasised the fact that the quotas will remain the same during the transition period. From my recollections of times past, during the December negotiations one of the most important arguments and discussions was on the size of the total allowable catches to which the quotas apply. What will be the role of British Ministers and officials in the 2019 discussions on total allowable catches?
My Lords, I was very clear about the UK’s “share” of the quota. Obviously that goes back to the issue of sustainability. As the noble and learned Lord will know, at the Council there is a discussion about catch sizes on the basis of proper consideration of the analysis of the fish stocks. This is why I precisely said “the share” in the 2019 Council—I said it specifically for that reason.
My Lords, is there anything that would disbar Her Majesty’s Government from giving financial assistance to fishermen and their fleets during the transition period if our friends in the EU are grossly unfair in the negotiations?
My Lords, as I have said, there is already agreement in terms of the implementation period. Both sides have agreed that they will act in good faith during the implementation period and, clearly, if there was a breach—I repeat, if there was a breach—of good faith, that would be a serious mistake. But in the end this is part of an honest adventure to try to get the best deal we can for the country.
Nuclear Safeguards Bill
Relevant documents: 13th and 17th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 1: Nuclear safeguards
1: Clause 1, page 2, leave out lines 18 and 19
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 2 and 12.The amendments place the definition of “civil activities” in the Bill. The House will be aware that the term “civil activities” forms a key part of the main regulation-making power set out in new Section 76A(1)(a). Regulations can be made for the purpose of ensuring that qualifying nuclear materials, facilities or equipment are available only for use for civil activities, so the meaning of “civil activities” is one of the elements that determine the scope of the safeguards regime that can be made through those regulations.
I am grateful to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee for its recommendation on this matter: that a definition of “civil activities” should be, so far as is possible, placed in the Bill, supplemented by a power where necessary to develop its meaning in regulations. Having considered the committee’s recommendation on this matter, I am pleased to have been able to table this government amendment, which places the definition of “civil activities” in the Bill. This definition takes into account the continuing work on the draft regulations which will underpin the Bill, on which we are intending to consult by June.
It is important to emphasise again the fundamentals of what safeguards actually are and what we are hoping to achieve with our new domestic regime. Safeguards are nuclear non-proliferation reporting and verification processes by which states demonstrate to the international community that civil nuclear material is not diverted into military or weapons programmes. Nuclear safeguards measures include: reporting on civil nuclear material holdings and development plans; inspections of nuclear facilities by international inspectors; and monitoring, including by cameras in selected facilities.
As the House will now be well aware, nuclear safeguards are distinct from nuclear safety, which regards the prevention of nuclear accidents, and nuclear security, which is physical protection measures. Nuclear safety and nuclear security are the subject of separate regulatory regimes operated by the ONR.
The new domestic civil nuclear safeguards regime which we are developing is designed to ensure that we can robustly demonstrate to the international community that civil nuclear material is not being diverted into military or weapons programmes. I hope that the House will therefore agree that the proposed definition of “civil activities”, which has the concept of “peaceful purposes” at its core, suitably recognises this international commitment while including helpful detail on the types of activities covered by safeguards.
Although the committee accepted that it might still be necessary to supplement this definition with a power to embellish its meaning in regulations, I have not found that to be necessary. The amendment removes the existing power to specify in regulations activities that are or are not to be treated as “civil activities” and replaces it with a definition on the face of the Bill without creating another power. It therefore reduces the number of powers created by the Bill.
I hope that the House will agree that the amendments satisfactorily address the recommendations of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I commend them to the House and beg to move.
My Lords, I welcome the tabling by the Minister of this amendment. It is always a good idea to see on the face of legislation the definition of terms used in it. It is helpful.
I quite understand why the Minister would want to confine the definition of “civil activities” to things carried on for peaceful purposes; for example, in relation to the production, processing and storage of nuclear material—it is within the safeguarding arrangements and makes sense; the same is true for the purposes of research and development. What I do not understand is why he has felt it necessary to use the words,
“carried on for peaceful purposes”,
in the context of generation of electricity, because I am not aware that the generation of electricity is ever for anything other than peaceful purposes.
My Lords, I will enjoy the Minister’s response to my noble friend’s question. I welcome the amendments brought by the Minister; they follow our discussion in Committee and the recommendation of the Delegated Powers Committee. However, on his eloquent defence of our having this Bill before us, the Bill would be quite unnecessary if the Government were to reverse their decision to leave Euratom, which remains for many of us unfathomable and unjustified.
On the last point of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, it is not necessary to rehearse all the arguments that we have been through on this matter because the decision has been made to leave Euratom. As he knows, that was dealt with in the transition Bill, which received a large majority in another place and is now an Act. It is a done deal. That is where we are and we have legislated on that issue.
On the more detailed technical point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, about electricity generation carried out for non-peaceful purposes, I have not got a clue and will take advice on the matter. I am assured by those drafting the Bill that this was the appropriate and proper way to deal with this matter. We wanted to ensure that we did not need to keep a residual power so that we could come back to this and make further amendments. That would have upset the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who would have accused me of retaining a Henry VIII power to seek further amendments to the primary legislation. By tabling this amendment and drafting it in that way, I have been able to make sure that there is not even that residual power. That is the proper way to go forward.
Having said that, I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, to give him an idea about electricity generation that is carried on for non-peaceful purposes, if such an answer can be found. I will make that information available to other noble Lords as they so wish.
Amendment 1 agreed.
2: Clause 1, page 2, line 23, at end insert—
““civil activities” means—(a) production, processing or storage activities which are carried on for peaceful purposes;(b) electricity generation carried on for peaceful purposes;(c) decommissioning;(d) research and development carried on for peaceful purposes;(e) any other activity carried on for peaceful purposes;”
Amendment 2 agreed.
3: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Agreements required before withdrawal
(1) In the event that any of the agreements listed in subsection (3) are not in place on 1 March 2019, a Minister of the Crown must, as part of the negotiations regarding the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Atomic Energy Community Treaty, request to suspend the United Kingdom’s withdrawal until either—(a) the agreements listed in subsection (3) are in place, or(b) other arrangements have been made to enable the United Kingdom to continue to benefit from existing nuclear safeguards arrangements until the agreements listed in subsection (3) are in place.(2) For the avoidance of doubt, a request for suspension under subsection (1) applies only to withdrawal from the European Atomic Energy Community Treaty and to no other part of the United Kingdom’s negotiations for withdrawal from the European Union.(3) The relevant agreements are—(a) an agreement between the United Kingdom and the International Atomic Energy Agency recognising the Office of Nuclear Regulation as the approved United Kingdom safeguarding authority in place of the European Atomic Energy Community;(b) a Voluntary Offer Agreement between the United Kingdom and the International Atomic Energy Agency resulting from the United Kingdom no longer being a member of the European Atomic Energy Community; and(c) relevant international agreements with those nations with which the United Kingdom has exercised rights in the last three years as a party to agreements made by the European Atomic Energy Community.”
My Lords, Amendment 3 seeks to ensure that the necessary agreements to secure the safeguards for our nuclear power are in place before 1 March 2019. It does not require us to withdraw but to suspend the UK’s withdrawal from the European Atomic Energy Community treaty until the agreements are in place.
The legal relationship between Euratom and the EU is not as clear to me as it is to the Minister. I have sought the opinion of learned friends who have told me there is no binding legal agreement that obliges us to withdraw from Euratom when we withdraw from the EU. However, the Government’s position is based upon what is stated in paragraph 18(1) in the Explanatory Notes relating to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act, which states:
“The power that is provided by clause 1(1) applies to withdrawal from the EU. This includes the European Atomic Energy Community (‘Euratom’), as the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 sets out that the term ‘EU’ includes (as the context permits or requires) Euratom (section 3(2))”.
The situation is not straightforward. I am reminded of the words of Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons”—“I trust I make myself obscure”—which seems to be the situation.
As I have already stated, we are not asking for withdrawal but suspension of our withdrawal from the European Atomic Energy Community treaty until we have the relevant agreements described in subsections (3) (a), (b) and (c) of the proposed new clause in place to give the confidence that these agreements are complete and appropriate and will maintain the highest standards in safeguarding our nuclear power. This is essential if we are to maintain the nuclear baseload needed to underpin our intermittent renewables. As I said last night, if this fails we will almost certainly not be able to meet our reduction in emissions obligation.
Of all the world’s complex technologies, nuclear power is surely one where we must maintain collaboration with our partners, especially those in Europe, with whom we have been working so closely. To ensure that our energy strategy is secure, we must have the assurances contained in the amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, in the draft transition agreement published yesterday the entry on Euratom is in green, which appears to demonstrate that there is some progress being made, apart from any legal complication which might emerge from the woodwork. The Government have committed themselves to a close association with the Euratom research and training programme. The Secretary of State has also committed to report back to Parliament every three months about overall progress on Euratom, with a first update expected before Easter. All so far so good, but this does not change the position that a default clause, such as this amendment suggests, might be sensible.
The only reason I have heard why this amendment will not or cannot be accepted is that, by our own folly, we have already given notice that we are leaving Euratom, come what may. My noble friend on the Front Bench described it as a done deal—which of course it is in terms of the Act we have already passed—but that is not the best of reasons for rejecting this amendment. After all, one Bill can amend a previous Act and if we find that the default position is needed in order to make sure that we do not fall between poles between one Bill and another, I should have thought that a fallback position such as that suggested by this rather sensible amendment would at least be worthy of serious consideration.
I recognise that the assurances given by the Government, and indeed by our Minister here, are helpful so far as they go—I have enumerated them just now—and that the disastrous decision to leave Euratom may ultimately be irreversible, but I will be listening to the Minister’s response to this debate with great care.
My Lords, I strongly support this amendment. I want to focus on the one issue that will cause me to vote for this amendment if my noble friend puts it to a vote. That is the way that the Government have been playing Russian roulette with our energy security by the ill-considered and ideological rush to leave Euratom without being sure that an equivalent regime is properly in place. The jeopardy this places the UK in is well set out in the latest briefing from the Nuclear Industry Association. The Government are doing a very unusual and risky thing in ignoring the advice of the nuclear industry’s experts simply because of their obsession with the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which, let me remind the House, has never intervened in a Euratom matter during the duration of Euratom’s life.
There is little evidence that it is possible to secure UK accreditation from the IAEA and negotiate a raft of new nuclear co-operation agreements with other countries before exit day. As the NIA briefing makes clear:
“Without access to Euratom’s NCAs and common market, the nuclear new build programme, nuclear could be seriously affected”.
Clearly, a responsible Government would stay in Euratom and not risk the disruption and uncertainty to a critical industry that departure brings, but not this Government. They claim that they will secure an equivalent alternative set of arrangements to membership of Euratom by exit day. Their backstop for failure seems to be that by the end of the transition or implementation period they are trying to negotiate with the EU. Despite yesterday’s upbeat gloss put on the negotiations of a transitional period, no such arrangements have yet been agreed by the Council of Ministers; they may well not be before the Bill leaves this House. Even if they are agreed before Royal Assent they will not provide for a transition period beyond the end of 2020. That may still not be long enough to secure all the new NCAs the UK needs, especially with the United States.
As the NIA briefing makes clear, without these agreements the trade in goods and services to maintain our existing nuclear reactors—these generate 21% of the UK’s electricity—is put in jeopardy, as is the building of new reactors. Sizewell B is particularly vulnerable because it relies on an NCA with the United States, and a new NCA is effectively a treaty, which requires congressional approval.
I have had the pleasure of living in the United States—at a slightly happier time—and of working in US government. Securing congressional passage of legislation is a highly uncertain experience. This is a legislature that is willing to shut down its own government in disputes over funding, so holding up an NCA with the UK is pretty small beer for the US Congress. It is far from certain that a new NCA with the US could be secured even by the end of 2020, whatever reassuring words the Minister might utter. Congressional approval is totally outside the Government’s control. Even if by good fortune the Government did secure a new NCA in time, it is likely to be a nail-biting experience, causing great uncertainty in the industry for the best part of two years.
In these circumstances, I suggest to the House that the only responsible action the Government could take is to remain part of Euratom until new arrangements can be guaranteed to be in place. If the Government are unwilling to do this, it is in the national interest for the House to pass this amendment and ask the Commons to think again.
My Lords, I am very happy to have added my name to this amendment. I am chair of the House’s EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, which looked at the subject of Brexit and energy security. Regretfully to some, we did not come out with any great headlines that said that the country was going to grind to a halt on the energy side, although we did say there was probably going to be an increase in prices because of increased electricity trading inefficiency. However, we made one exception, which we thought at that time was probably unlikely, but the evidence since might push this the other way. If the UK did not manage to replicate the agreements that Euratom has with the rest of the world and the IAEA, then there was a real risk of our current fleet of nuclear power stations coming to a halt, Hinkley C not being built and various other problems in terms of our deep work in nuclear research.
That is why this amendment absolutely puts its finger on the issue. It goes through the three things that have to be agreed for the United Kingdom to be able not just to fulfil its own obligations internationally but to be able to trade in nuclear material, people and spare parts even, post Brexit. What are they? We clearly need our own Office for Nuclear Regulation to be approved as a safeguarding authority by the IAEA, which is clearly essential; we need a voluntary offer agreement with the IAEA; and we need to replicate a number of our nuclear co-operation agreements with the rest of the world. I have certainly not heard, anywhere, even any attempt to try to give confidence that we will be able to roll over any of these NCAs following Brexit. But there are a large number of hurdles to achieving these aims, and this is going to take time.
In terms of the approval by the International Atomic Energy Agency of a safeguarding regime, they include recruitment, which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has talked about many times and was covered in the evidence that came to the House of Commons Select Committee. There is the training of those personnel. There is the retention of those personnel, which has been highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on previous occasions, as once they are qualified, there is a very strong international demand for them. There is also the issue, which I raised in Committee, of IT systems, and I thank the Minister the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for his reply to my Written Question, which very carefully went through the new systems that are required for us to be able to function as a safeguarding authority. Those systems are quite substantial, and we will come on to that—on my Amendment 9A—later today.
Of course, we also need to negotiate an agreement with the IAEA itself. When it comes to nuclear co-operation agreements, these are absolutely essential to us for our nuclear fissile material for power stations, for repairing, for spare parts and for nuclear intellectual property. It is very difficult to replicate those agreements so, as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, absolutely showed far better than I could, two of our key nuclear co-operation agreements—one with the United States, a legal requirement, and one with Australia, as the Minister highlighted in Committee—would expect us to be full members of the IAEA and to be able to have nuclear co-operation agreements in order to trade those materials. Even just in those two countries, we have major hurdles.
Turning to the voluntary offer agreements, these agreements are only necessary—or only made—by the five nuclear weapon states, or those that have declared as such; India, Pakistan and Israel have separate arrangements. I cannot imagine, however, that as a country that is one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and that stands for the upholding of international law and for the importance of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, we would allow ourselves to go ahead without having concluded such an agreement with the IAEA.
That is why this amendment is so important. If we cannot fulfil these three criteria, then we should not go ahead: we should postpone leaving Euratom. Why is the date of 1 March 2019 there? Clearly, it is four weeks before we are set to leave the European Union. Like others, I have looked at the agreement that was made yesterday, and there is a separate article and chapter on Euratom. Paragraph 2 of Article 76 of that agreement—which is in green, meaning that it has been agreed by the European Union and ourselves in detail—says very starkly:
“The United Kingdom shall have sole responsibility for ensuring its compliance with international obligations arising as a consequence of its membership of the International Atomic Energy Agency and of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons”.
When you look to the transition chapter, there is no mention of Euratom, or of paragraph 2 of Article 76 being postponed in any way. This ties up with the Government’s own view. We will be leaving Euratom on 29 March next year unless we make other arrangements, and the EU 27 and the UK are agreed on that position. That is why this is a matter not just of energy security but of national security.
I want to say a few words in support of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Broers. I draw the House’s attention to my interest in the register: I am currently the chair of the Nuclear Industry Association.
None of us in this House or outside who has been following this debate really has any doubt at all that the Government are seized of the significance of the challenge that we face. Having made the decision, which many of us regret, to leave the Euratom treaty, the Government have to do two things against a very tight deadline. The first is to replace the existing Euratom safeguarding regime, which, as other noble Lords have said, is a very important part—in fact, the central part—of one of our obligations as a nuclear weapons state: to ensure against the risk of nuclear proliferation. That is a big challenge. We have not exercised that function, which is currently done for us by Euratom, and building up the capability under the auspices of the ONR is a difficult challenge. The ONR itself has said, in evidence in another place, that it probably will not be ready to fully discharge those responsibilities by next March. So the Government—rightly, in my view—have come to the view that they need a little more time, once we have left the EU, to ensure that the ONR can step up and do that job, but it will be touch and go.
The other thing that the Government need to do, although, with respect to the Minister, they have come to this a little late, is to put in place all the machinery necessary for the continuance of the nuclear co-operation agreements that exist between ourselves and Japan, the US, Canada and Australia, our principal nuclear friends and allies, for the continuing exchange of information, goods and services in the nuclear sector. Of course, unless we are able to move seamlessly from the current NCAs to the new arrangements, the trade in goods and services will come to an end at the end of the implementation period at the end of 2020—assuming that the implementation period is agreed—unless in that period we have successfully put in place alternative nuclear co-operation agreements.
The fundamental reason why your Lordships’ House should pay close attention to the amendment is that it is good to have a default or a back-up. Suppose we do not get to the point at the end of the implementation period where these nuclear co-operation agreements have all been agreed, renegotiated and put into legal effect. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, drew our attention to some of the issues of complexity around renewing the NCAs. The process is not in our gift; we do not have control of the process whereby these replacement nuclear co-operation agreements will take legal effect, because in many of those countries they are international treaties—and will require the consent of, in the case of the US, the US Congress.
Any student of US politics knows one thing: that international treaties progress very slowly in Congress. Something that we have come to see in the US repeatedly, under both Democrat and Republican Presidents, is the extraordinary process that we in the UK do not understand at all where the US Government shut down because of, for example, a failure in Congress to agree budgets. We have no say in or control of that. Suppose there is a prolonged shutdown in the government machinery of the US at the very time when we want the US Congress to renew the nuclear co-operation agreement. What do we do then?
Fundamentally, the amendment poses that question: what do we do, all of us, if, with the very best of intentions and the absolute commitment of the Government, which I do not doubt, to renew these nuclear co-operation agreements, the implementation period comes to an end and we have not succeeded in putting into place the nuclear co-operation agreements? It seems pretty obvious that, despite all the difficulties of trying to construct a default or backstop, we have to give attention to the risk that we come to the end of that period and we have not renegotiated successfully—through no fault of our own but simply because we do not control all the processes that are involved in moving pieces of the jigsaw—and we do not find ourselves in the situation, where we all want to be, where these NCAs can be seamlessly renewed.
If we get to that point where the NCAs are not in place with our key nuclear trading allies, we have a major problem. In my view, it would become impossible for the vital exchange of goods and services in the nuclear sector to continue beyond that point legally and lawfully, and if it cannot be done legally and lawfully then it will not be done at all. The noble Lords, Lord Warner and Lord Teverson, have referred to the problem which that might create for the energy security of the UK. I am sure I cannot be the only person in this House to say, “I don’t think any of us should take a gamble or a risk with the energy security of our country”. Given the important role of the nuclear industry, that is precisely what we will be doing if we do not find the wherewithal in this Chamber today to find a way of constructing a backstop for the “What if?” moment if at the end of the day these nuclear co-operation agreements cannot be brought into effect at the time when we want them to be. That seems to be the issue that the amendment has raised, and it is not going to go away. We have to have an answer somehow to that fundamental question, and I look forward to what the Minister has to say.
My Lords, I very much respect the expert opinion of the noble Lords who have tabled this amendment. I share their concern about whether the ONR is going to be sufficiently staffed in time, with enough appropriately qualified experts who can quickly take up all the safeguarding duties. It is also essential that the ONR should have the necessary budgets and organisation and enough duly authorised persons in order to carry out its duties. I should like to hear from the Minister that he is satisfied that this will be the case.
I should also like to ask the Minister exactly what our status is going to be during the interim or implementation period, assuming that we have managed, before March 2019, to put in place an IAEA-approved safeguards regime. This is unlikely because I think we will need most of the implementation period till the end of 2020 to establish and enter into the new NCAs, at least with our principal nuclear trading partners. Many of them have to go through their own legislatures and we have no means of guaranteeing how smoothly this will be done. I think we can be confident that it is equally in their interests to make sure that they continue the appropriate arrangements with the United Kingdom as a major player in the nuclear sector.
I feel that the noble Lord, Lord Broers, and the other noble Lords who have tabled this amendment, fail to recognise that there is an upside from our leaving Euratom. It has been suggested that it is a mistake, and that we could have remained within Euratom but left the EU. Even if this were so—and I do not know whether I believe it or not—I think there are good reasons why we would do better to have our own safeguards regime approved by the IAEA and to escape from the rather cumbersome and onerous Euratom process.
Other noble Lords were present at the briefing given by Mr Colin Parker of EDF. I have also been told by Dr Pat Upson, former director of BNFL and Urenco and former chief executive of ETC—the joint venture between Urenco and EDF—that there could certainly be advantages to the UK in having an independent safeguards regime and not seeking to replicate Euratom safeguards which concentrate too much on complicated verification processes and are less robust than IAEA requirements on process, procedures and controls.
There are those who believe that our security in this very sensitive sector will also be enhanced if we are not obliged to share all the details of our research and development programme with the 27 members of Euratom. There is, therefore, a considerable upside. Euratom is also too expensive. To replicate Euratom’s safeguards regime does not provide extra safety or security over what is required by the IAEA. I therefore have some reservations about proposed new subsection (3)(c) of the noble Lord’s amendment regarding the necessity to continue to share research and development entirely with the Euratom community.
My Lords, I am inclined to clap a hand on my head and express my utter amazement at the absurdity of this aspect of the Brexit agenda.
We are at present attempting to mitigate the deleterious consequences of a wholly unnecessary programme of the Government for leaving the Euratom consortium. The present amendment, which is supported by all other parties, foreshadows an inevitable outcome. The programme to leave Euratom will not be fulfilled by March 2019, when we shall formally leave the European Union, and the Government will have to bid for extra time. A similar amendment ought to have been brought forward by the Government. Their need to demonstrate their faith in Brexit may have prevented their doing so. Indeed, they have fostered some dangerous delusions. At the outset, the Government evinced an unreasonable optimism in the ability of the ONR to have the necessary security arrangements in place by March 2019. They have since become convinced that they will be able to negotiate a meaningful transition period thereafter from which our nuclear industry could profit. I believe that, notwithstanding recent events, it is far from certain that a workable agreement on a transition period will be reached. Certainly, a secure agreement has not yet been reached.
The Government also have an unjustified optimism regarding the likelihood that the necessary nuclear co-operation agreements, or NCAs, will be in place in time to avert a crisis in the supply of nuclear fuels and engineering materials. Without these NCAs in place, the generation of our electricity by nuclear power and the construction of the new nuclear power stations are likely to grind to a halt. Let me elaborate on these three points in the order that I have raised them, albeit that, in doing so I am conscious that I will repeat some familiar arguments. It is necessary to do so in the face of the obtuseness of the Government.
First is the question regarding the readiness of the ONR to assume the burden of nuclear safeguarding by March next year. Doubtless the Minister will attest that the ONR has declared that it is willing and able to undertake the task, and that it is working hard to meet the deadline. One is bound to retort, “It would say that, wouldn’t it?” But it has also said much else besides, which makes it abundantly clear that the best that it could achieve by that date is a threadbare organisation that would be severely understaffed. These honest admissions on the part of the ONR of its incapacity do not seem to have registered fully with the Government. However, they may have registered with other agencies that participate in the international nuclear regime. I am thinking of the foreign organisations that will require that we should have a proficient nuclear safeguarding regime in place if they are to continue to be our suppliers.
Next, there is the Government’s optimism regarding the likelihood of our being granted a lengthy transition period to ease the demands of Brexit. We have heard a statement recently from Michel Barnier to the effect that he sees a prospect for a rapid advancement of the negotiations, but he has insisted that all this depends on the precondition of an arrangement regarding the Irish border. I wonder how this sounds in the ears of the responsible government Ministers. Have they been listening more to the upbeat tone of the delivery of the message than to the preconditions that it asserts? To many listeners the message serves only to increase the anxiety that there will be no viable transitional arrangements.
The final point to make concerns the nuclear co-operation agreements or NCAs. The importance of enacting these in good time has been stressed repeatedly by EDF, which is the owner of Britain’s existing fleet of nuclear power stations and the constructor of the first of what is planned to be a new fleet. These are surely the people to whom we should be listening. The NCAs can be established only when there is a viable UK nuclear safeguarding regime in place. There is likely to be a considerable hiatus between the time when a new UK nuclear safeguarding regime is up and running and the enactment of the necessary NCAs. The Government have said nothing about how they would accommodate the inevitable delays. As many have mentioned, one is mindful of the fact that a new NCA with the United States will require to be ratified by the Senate. This could be a hazardous and lengthy process. The US has a nuclear industry of its own. Someone in the US legislature might be minded to promote the commercial interests of the American industry at the expense of ours and at the expense of the French, who own our nuclear power stations. I believe that this amendment foreshadows an inevitable outcome. The Government will be bound to take the steps proposed in the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Broers, for tabling this amendment, to which we have added our names. I will say again what the amendment does so that we can be clear. The amendment delays the UK’s withdrawal from Euratom until the required agreements that will allow the civil nuclear industry to continue are in place. These required agreements are listed and have been debated at length in Committee. They are not in place at the moment and there is widespread opinion that they will not be— indeed cannot be—ready before exit day in March 2019 and, in respect of the proposed new subsection (3)(c) on international agreements, before the end of any transition period yet to be fully agreed.
In saying what the amendment does, we should also be clear what it does not do. It does not stop the withdrawal of the UK from either the EU treaty or the Euratom treaty. It does not seek that the UK will remain permanently either in the EU or in Euratom. The problem in scrutinising this Bill in your Lordships’ House is that the Government have been reluctant to give clarity to their negotiations—about what is and what is not included in them and how far they apply to nuclear safeguards and the Euratom treaty. The Government have even been reluctant to spell out exactly what immediate standards will be adhered to on exit day. I thank all sides of the House for the persistent challenges that have come to the Government and for remarks made again today examining the situation. I also thank the Minister for recognising the importance of this issue and providing what further assurances the Government are prepared to give. But the risks remain.
The conclusion is that the UK cannot set up its own Euratom-standard safeguards regime in time. In this situation it is only responsible that this House should insist on a delay. The importance of maintaining the UK’s integrity to be part of an international civil nuclear order cannot be overstated. Once the vital international safeguards standards have been met and agreed, withdrawal of the UK from the Euratom treaty can proceed. This may well take longer to achieve than even the transition period may be able to offer.
The Government will want to claim that the amendment is defective. That is the default position, since the Government always state that the two treaties of the EU and Euratom are legally joined. That the two treaties share common institutions is not to be denied, but the Government have not come forward with their legal advice for the interpretation that they cannot be separated. There are two distinct treaties. As was discussed last night in amendments to the withdrawal Bill, the UK was a member of Euratom distinct from the EU treaty, because this was the case before the UK joined the EU. Furthermore, in the Prime Minister’s letter of 29 March 2017 to President Tusk, she deliberately mentions both withdrawal from Euratom under Article 106a of the treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community and withdrawal from the EU. They are, therefore, separate.
Article 106a has never been invoked and was not mentioned in the drafting of the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which the Government insisted could not be amended. So the amendment does not try to undo anything legislatively that has already been agreed by Parliament. The Government claim that power to withdraw from the EU includes the power to withdraw from Euratom, so they make it a tautology in their opinion, and make no further reference or inclusion of Euratom. It can be argued that the noble Lord, Lord Broers, wishes to insist on the principle that leaving Euratom be delayed until the UK is ready. It is Labour policy to remain a part of agencies such as Euratom, as has been stated in the other place. The Government can perfect any drafting at Third Reading.
The Prime Minister herself, in her Mansion House speech on 2 March, stated that the Government want to explore with the EU how the UK can remain part of EU agencies. She mentioned three—namely, the European Medicines Agency, the European Chemicals Agency and the European Aviation Safety Agency—and went on to explain the reasons. By accepting this amendment, the Government can, in their determination to be in close association with Euratom, keep withdrawal from Euratom in suspense while they explore how far adherence to EU rules can still be beneficial to the UK. The Government have expressed this wish repeatedly without further definition. In a letter to my noble friend Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan dated 28 February, the Minister stated that,
“the Government’s focus is on the outcome rather than the means”.
That means that the House needs to focus on the outcome of the amendment.
In all the discussions in this House and elsewhere, it is rare to hear many voices criticise Euratom, perhaps with the notable exception of the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard. In the debates on safeguarding, many Members of your Lordships’ House have drawn attention to the further benefits of Euratom, notably in research and development and in medical isotopes. The amendment to delay withdrawal from Euratom comes with added benefits—the UK’s participation in further research programmes, and any assistance that the observatory brings to the timely supply of medical isotopes can continue.
Many noble Lords have spoken up about the risks that the Government are taking. We will support this amendment in a Division and urge Members of the House to undertake the only responsible action available to maintain the necessary and proper safeguards—that is, by voting in favour of the amendment.
My Lords, I hope that I can persuade the House that it could be irresponsible and would create confusion and doubt to support this amendment in a Division, as the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, wishes to do.
The amendment seeks to require Ministers to request, as part of the negotiations with the EU, that the United Kingdom does not leave the Euratom treaty if it does not have certain agreements or arrangements in place by 1 March next year—that is, four weeks before exit day. Those agreements or arrangements are set out briefly in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of new subsection (3) proposed in the amendment, and I will deal with those in due course.
The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, also made it clear that the amendment is not about stopping us leaving Euratom. He might give us that assurance but, listening to some of the other speeches, I am not sure that that is necessarily the wish of others, who have made it clear that they would like us to stay in Euratom—a point made in earlier interventions by the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, and others.
At this stage, it is important to remind the House that when my right honourable friend the Prime Minister gave notice last year of our intention to leave the European Union, she also commenced the process for leaving Euratom. The power to make that notification has already been debated at considerable length in both Houses of Parliament and authorised by the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017. That notification has been accepted by the European Union. The United Kingdom will therefore withdraw from Euratom at the same time as withdrawing from the European Union. That, as I put it to the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, earlier, is a done deal.
I commend all noble Lords’ commitment to ensuring that all the necessary measures are in place so that the United Kingdom can operate as an independent and responsible nuclear state upon withdrawal from Euratom. It is essential that the civil nuclear industry is not adversely affected by the UK’s withdrawal from either the EU or Euratom and that it can continue to operate with certainty. I underline the word “certainty”. That is our top priority and the reason for the Bill. It is why we are bringing forward all the regulations that sit beneath it—of which noble Lords will have seen draft versions—and the reason for the work the ONR is doing to put in place a regime, and that my department is doing to secure the agreements we need with the IAEA and key international partners. I will reiterate this point until the House understands the extent to which the UK stands ready to operate as an independent and responsible nuclear state from day one of exit.
The first quarterly update to Parliament, which will be available before the Easter break, will demonstrate our significant progress on this front, and I will share some of the details with the House shortly. Before I do so, however, I will address the crucial issue of the timing of our withdrawal from the Euratom treaty and the timings provided for in this amendment.
The amendment’s proposed suspension period for Euratom withdrawal is in conflict with the transition period already agreed by the UK and the European Union. This has been referred to by several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and my noble friend Lord Trenchard. The agreement is for a transition period running from 30 March 2019 to 31 December 2020 and will include all of the Euratom acquis. To be clear, the agreement reached in Brussels on 19 March is that the transition period will include the continued delivery of the Euratom safeguards regime in the UK, and the UK will continue to be covered by Euratom-level agreements with third countries during that period. Clearly, this will take effect after the UK has left Euratom, whereas this amendment refers to a period prior to the implementation of Euratom withdrawal—one of the reasons why it is not satisfactory. The amendment is, therefore, at odds with national government policy and as such mandates a request that we know is futile.
In terms of the overall principle of the amendment, I must be clear that an attempt to mandate a particular stance in negotiations, in the way that this amendment seeks to do, does not belong in primary legislation. I cannot, therefore, accept this amendment but I understand that the House will want reassurances that we have in place the international agreements that we need on safeguards.
I turn to progress on securing those new bilateral safeguard agreements. We have made very good progress in negotiating these with the IAEA, which I will simply refer to as “the agency”—I have problems with the initials, as noble Lords may have noticed. Both the UK and the agency are clear that the new agreements should follow the same principles and scope as the current trilateral agreements.
The amendment also addresses relevant international agreements with other nations—the NCAs. To be clear, the United Kingdom is not a party to nuclear co-operation agreements concluded by Euratom with other nations. These are concluded by Euratom on behalf of the member states. I understand, however, that the intention of this amendment is to cover agreements Euratom currently has in place with third countries.
As the House will be aware, the Government have prioritised putting in place nuclear co-operation agreements with those nations which have a legal or policy requirement for them to be in place as a prerequisite for civil nuclear trade. We are on track to conclude, and to secure third-country and UK ratification of, all such agreements that are essential to ensure a smooth withdrawal from Euratom in advance of 2019, in particular those with the US, Canada, Australia and Japan. We have held positive and constructive discussions with each of these four countries and remain on track to ensure that these agreements will be in place in time.
Have Her Majesty’s Government received any assurance from the Government of the United States that this legislation will be in place, having passed through both Houses of Congress, in time to ensure that there is no break in trade? Has he received that assurance?
My Lords, I am not aware of any such assurances. It is important that we get this legislation in place in good time. That is why I hope that we will complete Report today and Third Reading next week, and the Bill will receive Royal Assent some time after the Easter break. I do not know what is happening in the United States but I can assure the noble Lord that negotiations continue. We believe that we are on track to achieving the NCAs which are necessary. As I said, the important NCAs that we need are with the US, Canada, Australia and Japan. The amendment seeks relevant international agreements with those nations with which we have exercised rights within the last three years, which would include others that are not relevant. The important ones are those four—the ones that we trade with—and I give an assurance that we are on track. We have held positive and constructive discussions with each of these four countries and remain on track that those agreements will be in place in time.
All sides recognise the mutual interest in having these agreements in place to replace the Euratom agreements on which the UK currently relies. As I have said, discussions have been constructive; the substance of the new agreements is planned to follow very closely what is in the existing agreements. I am confident that sufficient progress is being made in this area, including on draft texts and ensuring that respective ratification processes and timetables have been taken into account in the planning.
Our substantial progress in international negotiations, coupled with our swift action to establish a legislative and regulatory framework for a domestic safeguards regime, not least via this Bill, means that we will be ready for exiting the Euratom treaty no matter the outcome of wider government negotiations on Brexit. The core aspects of this element of Amendment 3 will therefore already be met, and are therefore unnecessary.
Crucially, I must also bring the House’s attention to the fact that the effect of this amendment would extend to covering a number of additional agreements which, de facto, are not required to ensure a smooth withdrawal from Euratom. Introducing such requirements into the Bill will unnecessarily create huge risks and uncertainties to the UK’s ability to operate as an independent nuclear state from March 2019. I refer the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, particularly to proposed new subsection (3)(c) of the amendment, which could cover NCAs that Euratom has concluded with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Argentina, and Ukraine. As I have previously set out, none of these countries has a legal or policy requirement for an NCA to be in place to facilitate nuclear trade. Requiring us to put agreements in place with each of these countries before we withdraw from Euratom would be a fruitless exercise which could jeopardise our work to establish a civil nuclear safeguards regime for the UK with all the essential agreements in place.
Further, proposed new subsection (3)(a) refers to an agreement between the UK and the agency to recognise the Office for Nuclear Regulation as the approved UK safeguards authority. I would like to make it clear that the agency’s focus in respect of the UK’s safeguards lies with the voluntary offer agreement and additional protocol, rather than the domestic legislation underpinning the domestic regime, or the UK’s arrangements for fulfilling its commitments. It is the Government—not the ONR—who enter into these agreements, and therefore the Government who must uphold these commitments, regardless of whether or not we choose to delegate obligations to an independent domestic regulator. The additional agreement referred to in Amendment 3 as distinct from the voluntary offer agreement is therefore unnecessary, impractical, and in no way required for a smooth withdrawal from Euratom.
As I and ministerial colleagues have emphasised throughout the passage of this Bill—this has been echoed by all those taking part in this and earlier debates—certainty for the industry is essential. Creating a situation where we are compelled to secure agreements—
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister as he comes to his peroration. Will he answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, in more detail? Can he give a categorical assurance to this House that there is no risk of Sizewell B closing down as a result of the Government’s failure to put in place all the things that he assured us of by 29 March next year? As he will know, it is of a US design and relies on imported spare parts and maintenance arrangements, and generates about 8% to 10% of the UK’s electricity.
The noble Lord is asking whether that NCA with the United States will be completed. I have given all the assurances I can that it will be and I cannot go any further than what I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Hutton. With that in mind, what I was trying to make quite clear in what the noble Lord, Lord Warner, described as my peroration was the need for certainty for the industry, and this amendment would remove that certainty. The amendment would create a situation where we are compelled to secure agreements that we do not need and it runs counter to what the Government are doing: creating certainty. Even if this amendment were technically correct, its impact would be to introduce further uncertainty and potential disruption to an industry by casting doubt over establishing the domestic safeguards regime in the long term. I do not believe that can be the intention of the noble Lords who tabled it.
I believe we are on track to provide continuity and that this amendment is not only unnecessary but exacerbates the risks that it seeks to remove. I hope with the assurances I have given, and with the explanation of the weaknesses in the amendment, that the noble Lord will withdraw it.
My Lords, I very much appreciate what the Minister said with respect to the progress the Government are making to seek these agreements—it is essential that we get agreements with our major partners. I do not feel that the amendment, as it is, will put us in great danger by going beyond our major partners, but perhaps such adjustments could be made in the other place.
I do feel, however, that I have heard too many assurances that have not been fulfilled. In a case of such great importance, this amendment would secure what may be relatively straightforward, as the Minister said. We are well on the way to gaining most of these agreements already so it should not be too burdensome, but I wish to test the opinion of the House.
20 March 2018
Division on Amendment 3
Amendment 3 agreed.View Details
Clause 2: Power to amend legislation relating to nuclear safeguards
4: Clause 2, page 4, line 24, at end insert—
“( ) No regulations may be made under this section after the end of the period of 5 years beginning with the day on which this section comes into force.”
My Lords, Amendments 4 and 5 seek to place a time limit, also called a sunset, on use of the power in Clause 2. I would like first to explain how Clause 2 works.
Clause 2 contains the power to amend by regulation the Nuclear Safeguards and Electricity (Finance) Act 1978, the Nuclear Safeguards Act 2000 and the Nuclear Safeguards (Notification) Regulations 2004. It can amend those three pieces of legislation only, and amendments can only be those in consequence of a “relevant safeguards agreement”, that being very specifically an agreement relating to nuclear safeguards to which the UK and the International Atomic Energy Agency are parties.
This is a narrowly drawn power to enable the amendment of references in this legislation to provisions of safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency—which I shall refer to simply as the agency. This legislation enables the agency to carry out its activities in the UK, including by providing it with legal cover for activities of its inspectors in the UK. For the UK to have a domestic safeguards regime in future, it is essential that the legislation specified in Clause 2(1) can be amended to make correct reference to new safeguards agreements that the UK enters into with the agency.
The legislation cited in this clause is extremely unusual in that it makes detailed references to specific provisions of international agreements. As such, these references—for example, to articles—are likely to change as a result of any amendment of, or change to, those agreements. The power in the Bill is therefore necessary to make the changes to the relevant legislation to update those references when the new agreements are in place.
The UK’s safeguards agreements with the agency, and the agency’s ability to perform safeguards activities in the UK in accordance with those agreements, are absolutely fundamental to the agency’s application of safeguards in the UK. While the power is narrow, it is essential and underpins the entire regime. The unavoidable nature of negotiations means that we are tied to timing uncertainties and this power constitutes the only way we can address that uncertainty.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee agreed that the power in Clause 2 is necessary and appropriately framed. It recognised that it is intended as a way of reflecting the new agreements with the agency required to establish the UK’s civil nuclear safeguards regime, and recommended preventing the use of the power after a period of two years had expired.
The Government accept the principle of the committee’s recommendation, and of Amendment 5, that we should not retain this power for an indefinite period. However, the regime is heavily reliant on wider international negotiations and it is therefore of the utmost importance that the power is not sunsetted prematurely. Prematurely sunsetting this power could result in the relevant provisions becoming ineffective, leaving the UK without an effective domestic safeguards regime and in breach of any new international safeguards agreements put in place with the agency. The potential consequences of such failures are serious. The UK’s reputation as a responsible nuclear state would be damaged.
The international negotiations relevant to this power are unprecedented in their nature. I consider it essential to retain a provision enabling the UK to adapt to any circumstances affecting the timing of the commencement of international safeguards agreements between the agency and the UK. I hope that, in the light of my explanation, noble Lords will feel able not to press their amendment, and the House will feel able to support government Amendment 4. I beg to move.
I speak to our Amendment 5, which is in this group. In Committee, we proposed that the power of the Secretary of State to enter into relevant international agreements without parliamentary approval be limited to a two-year period. The Government have accepted the principle but wish to extend the power to five years, as the Minister has proposed. We accept that this power is necessary and that there is oversight in its use through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.
However, I would like to press the Minister on why the Government think that a two-year period that coincides with any transition period could be insufficient to conclude necessary wider international agreements. We certainly do not wish to leave the UK without an effective domestic safeguards regime, in breach of any new international safeguards agreements put in place with the IAEA, but the Minister has not properly explained why she thinks it could be premature if this sunset clause were brought in at a period of two years.
The government amendments seek a further three years beyond the end of any transition period. Can the Minister clarify the kind of agreement she thinks could still be outstanding? I wonder whether included here could be the circumstances already drawn attention to in the earlier amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Broers, under proposed new subsection (3)(c), regarding international agreements with third countries, whereby the NCA agreement with, for example, the US could well take longer than any transition period. He argued for a suspension to our leaving Euratom.
I thank the noble Lord for his contribution. It is clear that the sunset provision we are discussing relates to the arrangement with the agency; it does not cover the nuclear co-operation agreements. Those are separate agreements.
We have thought very long and hard about the sunsetting of this—I think it falls into the territory of known unknowns—and we believe that two years is certainly too short and that five years is the right length. There may be circumstances that we cannot possibly foresee at this time that will make it necessary for the sunset clause to exist for slightly longer. We have now agreed—we hope, because nothing is agreed until everything is agreed—the implementation period. I think that noble Lords should take quite a lot of comfort in that implementation period in that, during that period, our safeguard arrangements will still be provided by Euratom. Indeed, it gives us an extra 21-month period for these arrangements to be put in place. Nevertheless, I think that the five-year period is appropriate. We have looked at the recommendations of the DPRRC and agree with them. A period of five years is the most appropriate time.
Amendment 4 agreed.
Amendment 5 not moved.
6: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Report on nuclear safeguards
(1) The Secretary of State must, in respect of each reporting period, prepare a report containing information about nuclear safeguards.(2) Information about nuclear safeguards includes information about—(a) international arrangements relating to nuclear safeguards to which the United Kingdom is (or is proposed to be) a party, and(b) the establishment in the United Kingdom of arrangements relating to nuclear safeguards.(3) A report under this section must be laid before Parliament after the end of the reporting period to which it relates.(4) There are four successive reporting periods, each of which is a period of 3 months.(5) The first reporting period is the period of 3 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 6 I shall speak also to my Amendment 10. This group includes Amendments 7 and 9, of which Amendment 7 is an amendment to my Amendment 6. Therefore, I take it that after I have spoken the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will move his Amendment 7, and we can then debate the general issues. At this stage I shall speak to Amendment 6, and I shall respond to the noble Lord’s words on Amendments 7 and 9 in due course.
We all agree about the importance of ensuring that the industry can continue to flourish in trade, regulation and innovative nuclear research, no matter what the outcome of negotiations with the European Union or the final terms of our withdrawal from the EU and Euratom. Whatever the outcome and terms, we obviously want to see this great industry continue to flourish. We have made substantial progress in ensuring that the United Kingdom can operate as an independent and responsible nuclear state from day one, and we are committed to being transparent to Parliament about our work in this area. We have taken seriously the requests from Members of both Houses, across all parties, for regular, detailed updates about nuclear safeguarding arrangements in this country.
I agree that it is vital that Parliament is able to assure itself that the Government are taking effective action in relation to nuclear safeguards. In order to promote a transparent system of regular information on progress, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committed to provide quarterly updates on overall progress on Euratom negotiations, going further than the proposed amendments at the time. The House will be aware that we plan to publish the first such update at the end of this month. This is even sooner than originally envisaged, coming three months since the publication of our January statement. As the end of the three months would fall during the Easter Recess, a decision was made to bring forward the publication of the first update so that it will be laid before Parliament rises.
Further updates will be made available every three months, with the next one scheduled for June 2018. I listened very carefully in Committee and I understand that noble Lords across the House would like something more than hopeful reassurances; for that reason Amendments 6 and 10 would place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to provide quarterly reports on nuclear safeguards, covering both domestic and international matters, for the first year after the Bill receives Royal Assent. We will come on to the other amendments but I hope that our Amendments 6 and 10, as well as the current commitment under the Written Ministerial Statement of 11 January to report on wider matters relating to our withdrawal from Euratom, demonstrate our continuing commitment to provide information and clarity to Parliament and provide sufficient reassurances to noble Lords. I will listen very carefully to what the noble Lord says about his Amendments 7 and 9, in his name and those of a slightly varying list of supporters, and deal with them at the end of the debate. In the meantime, I beg to move.
Amendment 7 (to Amendment 6)
7: After Clause 2, after subsection (2), insert—
“(2A) A report under subsection (1) may include other information on future arrangements with Euratom, which may include information relating to nuclear research and development and the import and export of qualifying nuclear material.”
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for suggesting that I go next and speak to my Amendments 7 and 9. First, I welcome the Minister’s Amendment 6 and the intention that we have regular reports on nuclear safeguards; that is clearly helpful and we look forward to receiving the first report fairly soon, so I am most grateful to the Minister for his response to our debate. I hope today that we can just persuade him to go a little further.
As noble Lords will know, because some noble Lords have taken part in the debates, we have been having concurrent debates on this Bill and the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Last night—fairly late, although not as late as on some amendments—we had a fascinating debate, led by the noble Lord, Lord Broers, about research and development. There is an intimate connection here, and an absolute necessity for us to continue to invest in research and development, particularly in relation to the projects that the noble Lord referred to, such as JET, ITER, research into advanced nuclear fission reactors and so on, on which our decision to leave Euratom could potentially have an impact.
In addition, we discussed in Committee medical isotopes and the concerns among medical colleagues and the health service in general. The work of Euratom has no doubt led us to deal with issues of shortage of supply and some of the issues of the rapid transport that is required. There is some concern about whether we can ensure the security of those supplies, which are absolutely essential for the treatment of many patients on a daily basis, in future. So adding a further reporting requirement to the noble Lord’s own amendment would be important and would reassure noble Lords on some of the very important issues that have been debated both here and in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.
In relation to nuclear safeguarding, we need to be clear that we are essentially taking a kind of policing role from an international agency. Nuclear safeguards make sure that nuclear materials used for peaceful purposes are not used for military ones, so this is very important in relation to nuclear proliferation and our treaty obligations. We are removing ourselves from Euratom, establishing ourselves as a single nation, with its own existing regulator being given these duties to police our responsibilities under the non-proliferation treaties, and then having a sort of backstop of doing it in accordance with the strictures of the IAEA.
So the Government themselves are taking on a very responsible duty. Although of course I would implicitly trust any report that the noble Lord presents to us on these matters, having as a backstop an independent reviewer who could report from time to time on what is happening to make sure that those safeguards are being conducted in the way that we need to do them internationally would be an important safeguard. I hope that the Minister will see that both these amendments are wholly constructive and intended to act alongside and add to the constructive nature of the noble Lord’s own amendments.
My Lords, I have attached my name to Amendment 7. I also support Amendment 9, which will be covered by my noble friend Lord Fox.
I totally welcome government Amendment 6, which brings in the reporting system, and hope that the Minister will take Amendment 7 really as sort of an aide memoire, as if it was something he clearly forgot to put it into Amendment 6. So many areas remain of concern about the precariousness of our exit from Euratom. We discussed many of them in Committee. As we have heard across the House already today, they include the critical issue of timing, with the industries that are directly affected and their supply chains being desperately concerned to avoid the cliff edge, unsurprisingly—and all the while the clock is ticking relentlessly towards exit day. Amendment 6 seeks to reassure us in the interim with regular reporting to Parliament on key issues. However, Amendment 7 in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, amends Amendment 6 and seeks to cover those key elements of concern that we felt were missing. These include information on progress, and the form that is taking shape, on future arrangements on research and development, the import and export of qualifying nuclear material and, of course, the nature and form of future arrangements with Euratom.
I and my party still remain hopeful—Liberal Democrats are obviously optimists—that common sense will at some point take hold between now and exit day, and that we will simply be able to remain in Euratom or a bespoke associate membership of Euratom will become possible, just as a bespoke trade agreement seems to be possible in the Government’s lexicon.
On nuclear research and development, exiting Euratom has put a number of concerns on the table. It would be really helpful in dealing with the uncertainties raised over the UK’s future contribution to nuclear research and development if this were included in the reporting regime. We have benefited from Euratom funding for research. As was mentioned in Committee and earlier today, the JET project based in Culham receives £60 million a year from Euratom, covering 88% of the running costs; it provides employment for 500 people implementing the contract. We are also concerned about the impact on the ITER project, which is a magnificent international collaboration intent on proving that fusion is a viable source of large-scale, safe and environmentally friendly energy for the planet.
However, it is far more than the money itself. What should be an ongoing discussion in the negotiations, and what I would like to see reported back on in relation to our leaving Euratom, should be the co-operation and collaboration that is such an important part of research in Europe. We will discuss the talented people who forge that research and development—and their ability to come and go and work in countries around Europe—in my noble friend Lord Teverson’s Amendment 8.
It is absolutely critical that we remain a key partner when outside Euratom if we are to be able to continue to hold EU and international regard as a key player as a nuclear nation. All the programmes demand close collaboration with the EU and the international nuclear community. We currently have access to research infrastructures and capabilities not available in the United Kingdom. We are also able to leverage UK investment for industry, national laboratories and academia.
Going forward—whatever the arrangement—we have to make sure that we can continue as a leading participant in the Euratom working groups and EU-funded research projects. We do not want our ability to influence and shape this agenda to be lost, nor our access to facilities, data, people and material that has enabled us to be at the cutting edge of developing technology and innovation. Therefore, as the Government go forward on this agenda, they are going to have to come to an arrangement over the future of JET with Euratom: we hope that it can be paid for by the Euratom framework programme after 2020 if that is still the end date for the UK Government’s commitment to its funding. The Government are also going to need to come to an agreement over F4E so that we can carry on participating in the fusion programme. Future arrangements must ensure that international collaboration is ongoing so that both contributing and gaining from world-leading research continues. That is why Parliament must be kept informed on progress on all those issues and why it is crucial that research and development are part of the reporting requirement.
I turn now to the import and export of qualifying nuclear material. Currently the Euratom Supply Agency has rights over such materials produced in its member states. This confers legal exclusive rights to contract the supply of those materials entering or leaving the European Union. Our current nuclear reactors are totally reliant on this fuel supply chain so, post Euratom, the Government will need to ensure this process in relation to the export of fissile materials from Euratom to the UK. This possibly—and probably—will in future become an export and may need to be authorised by the EU Commission’s research and development department. What I am describing is a future situation regarding the import and export of fissile material that needs to be worked through so there are no additional barriers, to ensure that trade in this essential market can continue. It is vital that Parliament is regularly updated on these important issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and I have made substantive and, I hope, persuasive arguments such that I trust the Minister can see the necessity for amending Amendment 6 with Amendment 7.
My Lords, I welcome Amendment 6, proposed by the Minister. It makes a lot of sense but I do not think the House would be wise to support Amendments 7 or 9. Amendment 7 is about collaboration with Euratom in future in research and development and the import and export of qualifying nuclear material. I think we will benefit from greater flexibility by making our own decisions about research and development and committing our own funds. Of course Euratom will be an important and continuing partner for us in nuclear but we will be freed of the obligation and in the position where we will own our own research material, which of course in the JET and ITER programmes we do not. We should caution against overoptimism on what ITER is likely to bring; I understand that there is considerable scepticism in the industry about whether it is really worth the massive amount of money that it costs, and that there is some chance of a demonstration operation by 2045 if all goes well. If we were to commit funds to SMR research, by contrast, in which we in this country have several notable qualified players, we would own the outcome and could get ourselves back into the lead in nuclear by selling our new technology to others. We would have greater flexibility and the freedom not to be committed—
I remind the noble Viscount that the two are not mutually exclusive.
I accept what the noble Lord says but if you are bound to commit, through the Euratom programmes, to a greater amount of funding for the sector as a whole, that could effectively mean that you were constrained in what you do on your own. I am not saying we would not wish to contribute or to continue to participate, but it would be our decision on whether we participated or not. We would recover the right to make decisions and to apply our research and development funds, which we would then own in so far as they were invested in programmes that we were running independently.
On Amendment 9, I do not see the need for the taxpayer to have to fund a further independent reviewer. The IAEA will ensure that we follow the approved safeguarding regimes, check and verify our safeguards regime and ensure that we work only with verified customers.
My Lords, I support Amendments 7 and 9, and I compliment the Government on Amendment 6. I remind the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, that scientific research, in this area or anywhere else, is now overwhelmingly collaborative. If you do not get in the game collaboratively, you find that some of your best researchers and ideas are rapidly transferred abroad to someone else who is much more interested in collaborative research. We have moved on from being a Great Britain that does all this stuff ourselves to being a collaborative, global, international participant in research, including in this area. That is one of the reasons why I support Amendment 7; I think it takes us in the right direction. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Broers, whose amendment last night I sadly missed, will want to say a bit about that.
I am really pleased that we have come back to talking about medical isotopes and having a report that keeps Parliament up to date in that area. There is huge concern outside this House about whether the supply chains around medical isotopes will be sufficient to cope with the needs and demands of NHS research and NHS patients.
On Amendment 9, after the last debate that we had before the vote, you would have to be one of life’s perennial optimists—I am not a Liberal Democrat so I do not join that particular club—to believe that everything is going to be okay by March 2019. I suggest to the Minister that he might find it useful to have an independent reviewer who can make independent reports to Parliament to convince sceptical parliamentarians such as me and, I suspect, a few others in this House that good progress is being made on some of the critical issues. That is why I support Amendments 7 and 9.
My Lords, I support Amendment 9, to which my name is appended, and I commend the Government on Amendment 6 and support Amendment 7. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Warner: not even the Liberal Democrats are optimistic enough to imagine that everything is going to be in place in time. That is why we believe this is a helpful amendment to the Government and to the Minister. We heard in the debate on Amendment 3 that the stakes are high in achieving what needs to be achieved in time. I believe, en passant, that for the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, to use the cost as a reason for not having something like this in place is a little like trying to save the money that is down the side of the sofa when the whole house is potentially at stake. I suggest that cost is not a reason for not doing this.
The stakes are high. I will not rehearse them again but the Committee has heard scepticism, concern and worry from a vast array of people about whether the finish line can be crossed in time. The Minister—this is in no way reflects scepticism of the Minister himself—has stood up on a number of occasions and said everything is in order and we need not worry. Almost every statement he makes begins with, “I believe”. That is the problem; at this point, to some extent it is difficult to go beyond a belief system. Amendment 9 would put in place an independent voice, someone who was marking the Government’s homework but was not the Government. This is not a question of doing the work of the IAEA; it is a question of following and tracking the Government’s progress in getting to the finish line.
I echo the noble Lord, Lord Warner: this could be very useful for the Government in helping to give reassurance. It would be another voice to prove that the Minister was correct—if he was. When the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, says that this is not an aggressive amendment and not intended to be unhelpful, I know, because I participated in the discussion around this amendment, that it is genuinely not intended to wreck or harm the Bill in any way. It is intended to give support and some further credibility to the argument that things are moving in the right direction.
My Lords, I will make some brief remarks in answer to the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard. The research we are talking about here is not necessarily just in fusion—it includes fusion, but that is a great big project—but in areas that are ancillary to a certain extent but terribly important. Research is going on everywhere into radioactive waste disposal, but we happen to lead that. I do not think that this defeats the noble Viscount’s ambition—which is my ambition—that our own industry does a lot and gains a lot from that. It also gains a lot from being accepted by the community, so that when our advances come up, others will use what we did. The same is true of radiological protection, which is always a problem with workers around nuclear plants. So it is not just the new reactors, although the one gap in our knowledge is what is happening to the new generation fission reactors beyond the EPRs that people are working on. We really need international collaboration.
With respect to our own ambitions, I entirely support the noble Viscount in terms of SMRs. We are dying to get going—to be specific Rolls-Royce is dying to get going—on SMRs. In fact, Rolls-Royce tells us they are spending £1 million a month keeping that programme alive and waiting for the Government to make a decision on the competition which I hope will come.
Also, in fusion, there is Tokamak Energy. This is a very ambitious small company which feels it can contain fusion in a spherical tokamak, which is a fascinating thing. I should love to spend a lot of time talking about it. It is a very clever and effective way to up the efficiency of the use of the magnetic field to confine the plasma. So there is more to this research than just a few of the most obvious things. I think that is greatly in support of Amendment 7. I also support Amendment 6. I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Hunt, who mentioned this. I think the independent review is designed to help the Government and not be a hindrance.
My Lords, I want to begin by adding to something that the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said. He said that I repeatedly say, “I believe, I believe”, and that the House has to take it on trust. I hope this goes beyond me and officials within the department. We have seen what is happening when it comes to nuclear safeguards—
I should say that was not intended in any way to impugn the noble Lord’s integrity in his answers.
I was not suggesting that the noble Lord was doing that in any way whatsoever.
Since Second Reading, I have visited Sellafield—well, obviously I have visited it on occasions in the past because it is in my home county, but I visited it again—just to see what nuclear safeguarding amounts to. After all, Sellafield contains two of the three sites that will be relevant in terms of nuclear safeguarding. I cannot say that a one-day visit has turned me into an expert in any way. I would not want to claim that, but I can say that I can go beyond, “I believe”, and say “I have seen”.
I am amusing the clerical members of the Cross Benches and I will try to restrain from doing so. Perhaps they thought I was making some sort of evangelical speech.
Let me start by dealing with the two amendments. While expressing my deep sympathy for them, I do not think they are necessary, but I want to give some indication as to how importantly we take them. I am grateful to various noble Lords who welcomed the original amendment, which is government Amendment 6.
In relation to research and development, the Government are taking the future of UK participation in nuclear fusion and fission R&D programmes very seriously. I know this is a matter of great concern to the noble Lord, Lord Broers. We have already taken practical steps to protect existing programmes. For example, in 2017, the Government guaranteed their share of funding for the Oxfordshire-based Joint European Torus—JET—fusion reactor until the end of 2020, subject to the EU extending the JET operating contract beyond 2018. That commitment is independent of the outcome of Brexit negotiations. It underlines what both the noble Lords, Lord Broers, and Lord Warner, said about the importance of collaboration in projects of this sort. We understand that they will only make progress with collaboration.
In September 2017, our future partnership paper on science and innovation made it clear that the United Kingdom wants to find a way to continue to work with the EU on nuclear R&D. In December 2017, we committed a further £86 million to establish a national fusion technology platform. This demonstrates our continued commitment to international collaboration in this field.
In a Written Ministerial Statement in January, my right honourable friend confirmed and made it very clear that the United Kingdom’s specific objectives in respect of the future relationship are to seek a close association with the Euratom research and training programme, including the JET and ITER projects. We are also working closely with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and the Nuclear Innovation and Research Office to engage constructively with our EU partners to determine the best way forward for the United Kingdom’s nuclear R&D sector.
Similarly, while I appreciate the sentiment behind Amendment 7, I consider that it is unnecessary in light of the Government’s continued transparency on research and development and in the light of the existing commitment made in the Written Ministerial Statement to provide updates on overall progress of the Euratom negotiations and arrangements, including research and development, every three months.
Before I finish with Amendment 7, I will say just a little on import and export of qualifying nuclear material. This was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone. We recognise the importance of continuity of open trade arrangements with the EU for nuclear goods and products. This is one of the objectives of our future relationship, as set out in the January Written Ministerial Statement and covered by the commitment to report. However, the specific arrangements about trading goods, including the import and export of qualifying nuclear material, are part of the wider negotiations with the EU on our future relationship. The Government have made clear that we are seeking a bold and ambitious economic partnership, of greater scope and ambition than any such existing agreement. Draft EU guidelines for negotiation of the future framework have been circulated to the EU 27 for comment and we expect final guidelines to be formally adopted at the March European Council this week. We hope that they will provide flexibility to allow the EU to think creatively about this future economic partnership.
I did not think this debate would end without the subject of medical radioisotopes coming up—this is a course that we have been round before—and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, for raising it. They are not qualifying nuclear material. Medical radioisotopes are not subject to international safeguards and, as such, we do not propose that they be covered by the domestic safeguards regime to be set up under this Bill. I know that this is a matter of concern to the noble Lord and to others who have an interest in this matter. I can confirm specific arrangements for the import and export of medical radioisotopes are also subject to those wider negotiations with the EU on our future relationship.
Turning to Amendment 9, I just want to set out the Government’s position on the role of an independent reviewer of nuclear safeguards legislation. As the House has heard, the amendment would require the Secretary of State to appoint an independent reviewer, who would be required to report at least annually to him. The reports would have to be laid before both Houses and address issues including: the readiness of the United Kingdom’s safeguards arrangements,
“to ensure that qualifying nuclear material, facilities or equipment are available for use only for civil activities”;
compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency; nuclear co-operation agreements with other countries; and the sufficiency of the ONR’s staffing and safeguards resources.
I would like to give an assurance—if the noble Lord, Lord Fox, will accept yet another assurance from me—that, like noble Lords, I fully appreciate that there are particular circumstances in which an independent reviewer of legislation plays an important role. It is a model of scrutiny which has been fully developed in the context, for example, of counterterrorism legislation, where the role has been most ably performed by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew—the former noble friend of the noble Lord, Lord Fox, but I am sure they are still good friends—who has contributed actively to deliberations on this Bill. I am sorry that he cannot be here today.
There are, though, significant differences between counterterrorism legislation and the measures we are proposing to establish a civil nuclear safeguards regime for the United Kingdom. It is necessary, to a certain extent, in the realm of counterterrorism to ensure secrecy over certain aspects of the regime at the current time, and perhaps for a long time in the future. Without this, the regime could not work and lives could be lost. Conversely, on nuclear safeguards, although there are aspects of the regime that are not yet certain because they are the subject of negotiation with another country or countries, the Government are committed to being as transparent as they can. As I explained to the House earlier, the Government have committed to provide information to Parliament on their Euratom exit work, and that information will no doubt be scrutinised by individuals and the appropriate committees. Given this existing commitment to transparency, I do not see what additional benefit an independent reviewer could add.
I hope that will satisfy the noble Lords who have spoken to these two amendments. I am very grateful for their warm welcome for the Government’s agreement to move further in this matter and bring forward Amendment 6. Having moved Amendment 6, I feel that Amendments 7 and 9 are not necessary.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that full response. He expressed deep sympathy with the intent of our amendments but, alas, even with divine inspiration, he failed to go a little further. Essentially, his argument in relation to my Amendment 7 was that it was unnecessary in the light of existing commitments in the Written Ministerial Statement and what he has said today about the importance of research and development. I go back to our debate last night on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, in which there was an overwhelming sense that this country still has a lead in some aspects of nuclear research. The noble Lord, Lord Broers, spoke about that very eloquently. This is at risk because of what is happening in relation to Brexit and our withdrawal from Euratom. It is important to have on the face of the Bill—in primary legislation—a commitment that the Government will report on research and development. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
20 March 2018
Division on Amendment 7
Amendment 7 agreed.View Details
Amendment 6 (as amended) agreed.
8: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Freedom of employment for specialists
(1) Article 2(g) of the European Atomic Energy Community Treaty, ensuring freedom of employment for specialists, continues to have effect in UK law in relation to those who work in nuclear safeguarding, after the United Kingdom leaves Euratom.(2) In this section “specialists” includes those staff essential to the United Kingdom’s nuclear safeguarding.”
My Lords, I remind Members of what the Euratom treaty says in Article 2(g)—that, in order to perform its tasks, the community shall,
“ensure wide commercial outlets and access to the best technical facilities by the creation of a common market in specialised materials and equipment, by the free movement of capital for investment in the field of nuclear energy and by freedom of employment for specialists within the Community”.
I have not taken the whole of the article, or of part 2(g), into the amendment, but rather the important post-Brexit part, which concerns the free movement of nuclear specialists. I will not make a long speech because I believe that this is self-evident. The Government have an industrial strategy around the nuclear sector: to expand it and for it to be part of where this country goes economically.
We have heard in previous debates that our most important need in the short term is to have a functioning safeguarding authority, whether that is Euratom or—as soon as that stops—our own Office for Nuclear Regulation. We need those bodies, and that body in particular, to function. We have a shortage of qualified people in this area and a shortage of specialists in the industry more generally—although the amendment is, because of the Bill, primarily around safeguarding. Therefore, it must be in the interests of the Bill, and of the country at large, to ensure that we maintain the mobility of those specialists in the nuclear industry and the nuclear sector, so that we maintain this benefit post Brexit and post our membership of Euratom. That is why the amendment is absolutely appropriate to the Bill and is of great importance not just to this sector but to our national security.
I very much hope that the Minister will be able to give a greater reassurance—perhaps higher up on my noble friend Lord Fox’s Richter scale of assurances—than we have received so far that this area will be looked after by the Government, that we will not be browbeaten by the Home Office into having a minimal circulation of specialists, and that this country will benefit from those with the experience and skills that will enable us to perform in this sector, not just in safeguarding but in the nuclear sector more broadly. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment because, like the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, I remain concerned about the industry’s access to the workforce that it will need once the UK leaves Euratom. I suggest that the free flow of essential specialist staff could well dry up unless the Government are reasonably energetic in the guarantees that they give them. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, this is not just a safeguarding workforce issue; it affects the whole sector, as was very well brought out in the Nuclear Industry Association’s briefing. I shall not go into detail on that but it is clear that we need a very skilled workforce coming to this country to help both in maintaining existing reactors and, even more significantly, in building new ones, as well as in the safeguarding area.
With regard to the regular reports that the Government will give to Parliament on progress in the safeguarding area, it is a bit disappointing that we did not manage to get into the Bill a specific reference to the need for an essential specialist workforce. I hope that the Minister will take this suggestion in the spirit in which it is offered, and perhaps he might encourage his officials, when they are producing these reports, to say something about the progress that is being made, particularly with the ONR getting the specialist staff that it needs.
In conclusion, I would like to raise an issue which Ministers are usually keen not to talk about out loud—Immigration Rules. Successive Governments have been surprisingly flexible when they have been really up against it in getting specialist staff in certain capped sectors of our industries—no more so that in the NHS, where the Immigration Rules have been modified, bent and utilised to bring in specialist people when the country has had a shortage of them. In terms of this debate, what assurances can the Minister give us that the Government will not lose sight of the possibility of modifying the Immigration Rules where necessary to help specialist safeguarding staff to get into this country? I suspect that the industry would also like them to be a bit more flexible when it comes to areas where there may be problems—for example, in maintaining reactors or in getting the specialist skills needed to build reactors such as Hinkley Point C.
My Lords, for at least 20 years this country allowed its specialist skills in matters nuclear to run down. There was a failure by successive Governments to address the issues and determine what our attitude was to policy on nuclear generation, medical sciences and the like. Although things have improved a little in recent years, it is certain that we will depend on specialist skills from overseas. I doubt that it is really necessary to put this amendment on the face of the Bill, but I am absolutely confident that the Minister will agree that we will indeed need specialist skills. We must give an assurance to the industry that those specialist skills will be welcomed. Therefore, I am sure that, in responding to this short debate led by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, the Minister can assure us that the Government will give due priority to those with the relevant nuclear skills.
My Lords, an important point about Euratom is that it had a research programme on connecting fusion and fission. A long-range problem in the nuclear industry is finding ways of dealing with nuclear waste. As the Euratom programme showed, one way of doing that in future would be to connect it to fusion, because fusion produces fast neutrons that can process waste and give it a shorter half-life. That is an extremely important issue, and the people who will be able to work on it will have a very broad range of specialties, not just the narrow range that experts have at the moment.
I commend the noble Lords, Lord Teverson and Lord Warner, for bringing back this amendment on Report. It concerns an important issue: that the UK must address the skills that are needed in the UK. The problem of labour supply with the necessary skills beyond those present and available in the UK will need to be addressed by several industries—and none more crucial than the power industry, in relation not only to new build but to the continuing need for decommissioning.
EDF is certainly correct to identify the importance of the specialisms needed to deliver Hinkley Point C on time. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, drew attention to this and to the Immigration Rules. With restrictions on freedom of movement, currently no route is identified for the many categories of workers to enter the UK under the points system in order to fill the vacancies envisaged. It is crucial that the Minister’s department underlines the importance of the issue to the Home Office and comes up with a solution. It will be needed in the best interests of the UK’s civil nuclear industry.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for moving his amendment, and for the contributions of other noble Lords. I accept that it will continue to be important to attract—as the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Warner, and my noble friend Lord Selborne put it—the brightest and the best, to ensure that we maintain our excellence in the nuclear field. This amendment, however, is somewhat more limited in scope than that. Our future immigration system will be set out shortly and it would not be right for me to go into it. As my right honourable friend made clear in his Statement on 11 January, we will ensure that businesses and communities, as well as Parliament, have the opportunity to contribute their views before any decisions are made about the future system that the Home Office will be developing.
Can the Minister confirm that the issues rehearsed in this debate have been presented by DBEIS to the Home Office and the people drawing up these Immigration Rules?
As I remember, the last time we debated this, by chance—I may be misremembering—a Home Office Minister was sitting next to me. I can confirm, however, that the Home Office is fully aware of the concerns expressed in debates of this sort, and we will make sure that it continues to be so. It is important to us that we continue to—as I put it—access the best talent. As the noble Lord will be aware, we have already doubled the number of available visas in the tier 1 exceptional talent review, and will be looking at changing Immigration Rules to enable world- leading scientists and researchers under the tier 1 route to apply for settlement after three years and to make it quicker for highly skilled students to apply for work in the United Kingdom after finishing a degree. We are, therefore, relaxing the labour market tests where appropriate.
The crux of this amendment, which relates to safeguarding staff—the Bill has been drafted in that way and so the amendment must be too—attempts to ensure the freedom of employment of specialists employed in that field. This is clearly a matter of particular interest in the light of the Government’s preparations for establishing a domestic nuclear safeguards regime, which, among other important work, means securing the right quality and quantity of appropriate safeguarding staff in the Office for Nuclear Regulation. Given the importance of attracting the right staff to work in this specialist field, the Government are committed to ensuring that the ONR has the right personnel. I can give the House a bit of information: in the most recent recruitment round for two further posts in this field there were 112 applicants for the ONR to look at. We will continue to work with the ONR to ensure that it has the right staff to regulate the UK’s new civil nuclear safeguards regime. Those figures show that there is no shortage, certainly in the world of recruiting and training the appropriate inspectors and building additional institutional capacity.
The noble Lord will not be surprised if I do not go into this, because he will then ask for further details. If I give him an assurance that the amendment is possibly itself defective and not suitable for inclusion, and he accepts that in spirit there is no need for it—since the Government are committed to ensuring that we have the right specialists and the Home Office continues to work in this field—I hope that he will feel able to withdraw Amendment 8.
I thank the Minister for his reply. It is good to have some figures: can we have more of them in these interactions around groups? I also remind the Minister that he regularly mentions the highly skilled and the talented. That may, I agree, be the case in nuclear safeguarding, but in a lot of Brexit areas, perhaps including some areas of the nuclear industry, the need is far broader. However, I take his point in regard to this Bill.
I also recognise that this issue will inevitably be fought out during the immigration Bill that we will eventually get. I am delighted that we will have another opportunity to debate Euratom in another Bill, to pursue sanity and perhaps get some change in this area. I therefore accept the noble Lord’s challenge—as it were—and his assurances about taking up these issues in the future immigration Bill, which we continue to await with interest. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 8 withdrawn.
Amendment 9 not moved.
9A: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Report on information technology systems necessary for nuclear safeguards
(1) The Secretary of State must, in respect of each reporting period, prepare a report containing information about the progress made to provide adequate information technology systems necessary for the United Kingdom to operate a nuclear safeguarding regime to international standards.(2) The report under subsection (1) must include the progress on, and the estimated cost of, developing the following systems—(a) a State System of Accountancy for and Control of Nuclear Materials;(b) a Safeguards Information Management and Reporting System; and(c) any other technology system necessary for the United Kingdom to operate an effective international nuclear safeguarding regime.(3) A report under this section must be laid before both Houses of Parliament after the end of the reporting period to which it relates.(4) There are four successive reporting periods, each of which is a period of 3 months.(5) The first reporting period is the period of 3 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”
My Lords, in Committee I raised an issue that I do not think has been raised before, about the information systems required for the Office for Nuclear Regulation to perform its tasks acceptably as a safeguarding agency in the international system. I subsequently submitted a Written Question to the Government on this matter, and I thank the Minister, very genuinely, for a comprehensive and interesting reply—a very good one. In that regard, I almost feel that I have to apologise to the House for the long names in subsection (2)(a) and (b) of the amendment: the State System of Accountancy for and Control of Nuclear Materials and the Safeguards Information Management and Reporting System. The Minister informed me that these were needed to fulfil our international obligations.
I also asked what those systems would cost, less to understand the cost than the size of the task that needed to be completed within the next 12 months. I will quote from the Minister’s Written Reply:
“ONR has estimated that it will cost £10 million to establish a UK SSAC and SIMRS”—
the two systems—
“is included as a part of this overall estimate. An initial tender opportunity in relation to the SIMRS is currently being advertised on the Government Digital Marketplace and responses to that tender will provide more certainty on estimated costs”.
I do not know whether we already have the other system—I do not think so—but what concerned me particularly about that reply was that we are only tendering for one of those systems. It is clearly a significant cost—£10 million for both—but we are only just getting around to advertising them. From both my corporate career and my role in this House in scrutinising what the Government are up to, and government systems, I know that it is not the easiest thing to predict when IT systems will be ready, let alone functioning. We had a debate last week about the Smart Meters Bill and all the IT needed for that, and it is 12 years later that we have come to those particular systems.
My real question is a serious one. Clearly, from the Minister’s reply, the ONR cannot function properly without these systems, but we are only at the stage of advertising just one of them. The size of them is at least £10 million and I feel very nervous that these systems will be ready when we need them to be ready on 29 March next year. That seems to be quite an ask. Therefore, with the amendment I am looking for some substantive reassurance from the Minister that this is under control and that it will be part of the Government’s reporting mechanism between now and our leaving date for Euratom, so that we can understand the progress in this critical area—an area where, to put it lightly, the Government do not have the greatest reputation in terms of delivering such systems. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendment, but I do not expect us to go for our hat trick of votes on it. I speak as someone who had the misfortune to inherit the NHS IT system as a responsibility. I also had some experience in the Home Office of IT systems. Things never work out the way that noble Lords think they will. They are usually delayed and they usually malfunction a bit when they are first introduced and used. My question for the Minister is: has he got a plan B and what is it, if this IT system does not come online to time? At the end of the day, the ONR will still have some responsibilities to discharge. If it does not have the IT system, how will it go about discharging its responsibilities?
Following my noble friend Lord Teverson’s excellent explanation for the reason for this amendment, on the long-named programmes and systems in proposed new subsection (2), can the Minister tell the House whether these are built on existing systems that are being adapted or will they be built from scratch? The Minister may have to write to me in answer. Also, on the nature of the IT companies delivering these, is there competition in delivering systems such as this or is this a very specialist area with a small pool to fish from and not much choice, which of course leads to price escalation?
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for raising the important issue of the information technology systems necessary for nuclear safeguards. I also saw the written Q&A from the noble Lord and I thank the Minister for replying so swiftly. In Committee, the importance of understanding the full inventory costs in IT management systems was debated. The Government clarified that the full implications of the mechanisms that the ONR will need to set up are matters that could be included in each report that the Government will undertake. It can only build confidence that Parliament will be reassured through any audit process that the UK’s regime will be costed, reported and certified to be robust.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for moving his amendment. He and the House really want two things. They want substantive reassurances and details of further reporting. I asked to have this amendment grouped with Amendment 6, which to some extent deals with this matter. We propose to put such reporting on the face of the Bill, and progress with the information technology systems required for the safeguarding regime will fall within that reporting duty. I hope that the noble Lord will feel that he does in due course get sufficient information. In the meantime, I will give an update about what is happening. As the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said, I might have to write with further detail later on, but let us see how the quarterly statements take place to see whether they provide sufficient information. If not, noble Lords can come back to me.
The overall system of safeguards is generally referred to as a state system of accountancy for and control of nuclear materials. The noble Lord referred to that in my original Written Answer. That is also known as an SSAC. The last time I came across SSAC it was the Social Security Advisory Committee, but that was in another world and another place. We will not go there now. As part of this, the ONR plans to put in place an IT system which it refers to as the safeguards information management and reporting system. I do not know how you pronounce “SIMRS” so we shall refer to it by its initials. The SIMRS is aimed at enabling the ONR to obtain and process the information necessary to ensure timely submission to the International Atomic Energy Agency of the reports required by any future safeguards agreements with the agency. The SIMRS will also enable submission of any specific reports required by supplier states as part of nuclear co-operation agreements.
The ONR has estimated that it will cost some £10 million—the figure I gave some weeks ago in Committee—to establish a UK SSAC, and the SIMRS is included as a part of this overall estimate. A pre-qualification questionnaire in relation to the SIMRS was recently advertised on the Government’s digital marketplace. Sixteen suppliers responded, of which six have been invited to respond to the invitation to tender by 6 April. Responses to that tender will provide more certainty on estimated costs, and the ONR expects to let the contract in early May.
I of course take note of what the noble Lord, Lord Warner, warned about IT systems from his experience with the health service and the Home Office. We are all aware of problems that new IT systems can have. I do not think that what we are proposing here is on the scale of what the National Health Service needs, but I accept that there can be problems. We and the department have a duty to examine that as carefully as we can. I give an assurance that we will do that as far as is possible.
Put very simply, that is where we are at the moment. We will keep noble Lords updated. We have accepted my Amendment 6, as amended by the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. There is no need to further complicate the Bill’s proceedings by adding this amendment, which duplicates what we already have. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and welcome his undertaking that the IT systems will be included in the regular reporting. It would be useful if the Minister could answer my noble friend Lord Fox’s question about whether they are starting from zero or whether we are effectively modifying existing systems.
I give an assurance to write to the noble Lord, Lord Fox.
I welcome that and on that basis beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 9A withdrawn.
Clause 4: Commencement
10: Clause 4, page 4, line 38, leave out “Section 3,” and insert “Section (Report on nuclear safeguards), section 3,”
Amendment 10 agreed.
Amendment 11 not moved.
The Schedule: minor and consequential amendments
12: The Schedule, page 7, line 3, leave out “76A(5) or (8)” and insert “76A(8)”
Amendment 12 agreed.
Free School Lunches and Milk, and School and Early Years Finance (Amendments Relating to Universal Credit) (England) Regulations 2018
Motion to Regret
That this House regrets Her Majesty’s Government bringing forward changes in entitlement to free school meals through the Free School Lunches and Milk, and School and Early Years Finance (Amendments Relating to Universal Credit) (England) Regulations 2018 which will undermine work incentives in Universal Credit and leave up to a million poor children unable to claim free school meals; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government not to implement the Regulations until a full poverty impact assessment has been completed and considered by both Houses, and not before six months has elapsed (SI 2018/148).
Relevant document: 20th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.
My Lords, I make no apologies for moving this Motion. I make it plain from the start that I see this in very personal terms.
Back in the 1960s, a time which brings happy nostalgia for many noble Lords, I was a teenager at secondary school, living with my mother and stepfather. Shortly before the start of the 1966 World Cup, he collapsed and died of a heart attack. I was just short of 13 years old and, frankly, my mother’s world collapsed around her. She worked, as she always had. She was then a farm worker on a soft fruit farm that produced plants for sale all year round. She picked soft fruit in the summer months and then worked in the fields, greenhouses and packaging and distribution centre the rest of the year. It was hard, backbreaking work, sometimes with long hours.
The pay was regulated by the old Agricultural Wages Board. Her weekly take home pay was 157 shillings and six pence, the equivalent today of £7.85. The equivalent today, annualised, would be £7,152.60. With overtime, it would have risen close to the threshold set by the Government for cutting off access to free school meals. My mother would have faced a hard choice akin to those who face today a modern cliff-edge judgment. Like most teenagers, I found odd jobs to try to help pay my way, but in 1966 she was what we now call part of the working poor. In fact, until I did some research today, and assuming I have my sums right, I had not realised quite how poor she was.
There were not many silver linings for my mum becoming a widow and she struggled to cope, both financially and emotionally. Eventually, the local council transferred the tenancy to her. The loss of household income led to a housing allowance and, in turn, that triggered entitlement to free school meals. When my mother eventually got her head around it, she asked me to see if we qualified for something called family income supplement—it was a sort of universal credit of its time—but apparently we did not.
Why do I mention this, and why now? Free school meals were, for my mother, a godsend. They were not an add-on, they were an essential. She did not have to spend time packing a lunch for me and it meant I had a hot meal five days a week without her having to worry. It saved her time—if you are working poor, that matters—and it saved her money. That is what makes these regulations so abhorrent. The Government seek to dress up this change as something it is not. They say, as the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, did last week, that they are an act of state generosity because, when they roll out universal credit and it is complete, there will be 50,000 additional beneficiaries. This is not because the scheme is more generous; it is simply, as the Children’s Commissioner rumbled last week, because of an increase in the size of the school-age population by nearly half a million by 2022. In fact, as a percentage of the school-age population, fewer will be entitled to free school meals.
Studies show that the educational benefit of good eating habits are profound. Northumbria University’s work on this suggests there is a real benefit in terms of educational attainment of a midday meal for those from low-income households. It was precisely because of this link that school meals were first introduced back in 1906 and why Labour has done so much to encourage breakfast clubs to ensure that kids get fed before the school day begins.
The Government are not making these changes out of the goodness of their heart. These changes are being made as part of the continuing austerity package. Will the Minister enlighten us this evening on the level of continuous savings they produce for the Treasury? However, we know the value of free school meals to individual households: £437 per child for a year and more than £1,300 a year for a three-child family where all are in education. Take those sums away and that represents a significant cut to family income.
We are supposed to be reassured by the transitional arrangements. No family should lose out if they currently receive free school meals except when they move to the next phase of schooling. On transfer from primary school to secondary school, you lose out, and you lose out when you transfer to sixth-form college. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how many will fall out of free school meals eligibility through that route each year. I ask this: how will it feel if you are in a family where the youngest child moves up to secondary school and loses their free school meals as a result of moving phases, but has a brother or sister still in receipt of free school meals? This is a divisive policy in families where some will get the benefit until they finish school and others will not. What are the total numbers who benefit now, and who will benefit at the real end of the rollout? Perhaps the Minister can give us a better and fuller picture of the long-term impact. The Children’s Commissioner suggests that we will not know the difference until 2026 or 2027 because of the protections relating to the educational phases.
I have read the consultation document. At paragraph 4.4 it states that 90% of pupils currently getting free school meals will continue to get them. The 10% who will not amounts to roughly 110,000 children, a not insignificant number. Where is their transitional protection? In the White Paper on universal credit, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said:
“At its heart, Universal Credit is very simple and will ensure that work always pays and is seen to pay. Universal Credit will mean that people will be consistently and transparently better off for each hour they work”.
The Children’s Society argues that the introduction of the £7,400 earnings limit for free school meals creates a serious cliff-edge that fundamentally undermines that objective and will mean that many families actually become worse off overall by increasing their earnings. The society estimates that some 200,000 families with half a million children are at risk of falling into a new poverty trap where they seek to increase their earnings, or are forced to do so by their work coach, and they then lose the benefit of free school meals. It also estimates that a further 150,000 families with 400,000 children will find themselves in a position where they could be better off by reducing their earnings.
The best thing that can be said for the Government’s consultation paper is that it is confusing. In it the Government tell us that 1.9 million pupils will be sufficiently in poverty for them to apply the pupil premium formula to schools. If they can apply this number to schools, why not to pupils in poverty? Another DWP report on households with below-average incomes 1994-95 to 2015-16 suggests 2.3 million and 4 million children living in poverty, yet only 1.1 million currently benefit from free school meals and even on the Government’s best estimate, the figure will increase by just 50,000. The Children’s Society states that up to 1 million children living in poverty will miss out, and, as the Children’s Commissioner says,
“under any scenario, many hundreds of thousands and possibly well over a million children living in poverty are already not receiving free school meals”.
The Children’s Commissioner suggests that the Government should do four things. First, they should release the analysis behind what looks like a spurious claim for increased eligibility. Secondly, they should provide an estimate of the future number of pupils who will be eligible under a range of scenarios, including the old system of benefits-based eligibility, and the current system based on universal credit. Thirdly, they should provide impact assessments beyond 2022 to capture the full impact over the long term. Fourthly and finally, they should publish an estimate of the number of children who were previously ineligible for free school meals who will now become eligible because of the changes as compared against the number of 110,000 whose eligibility will cease as a result of the changes.
My Motion suggests that the Government should delay the changes for six months while they put their house in order, complete a full poverty impact assessment and place it before both Houses so that we get a complete picture. We should then consider these regulations again, otherwise they will penalise many of the working poor, people like my widowed mother who lived and worked in hard times and who asked for little. However, she needed a benign state not to penalise her, but to make life more tolerable so that she could just about manage.
Poverty does not make headlines, although it should. These regulations do nothing to solve the problems of modern poverty—rather, they surely make things worse. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for tabling this Motion and I was moved by his opening comments about his own circumstances as a child with his widowed mother. For many people, in particular those whose children have left school, it may not seem important for us to debate a tiny piece of secondary legislation that tweaks the regulations about who will be entitled to a free school dinner. But this measure is about children, specifically those who most need our support: children living in poverty—children who through no fault of their own are not well fed, even in one of the wealthiest countries on this planet.
For many children, the 190 hot meals a year they get in school, which on average comes to fewer than four a week, are the only “proper” meals they get. For them, a holiday from school is also a holiday from hot dinners. I can well remember Christopher, who I taught many years ago, telling me that he was always pleased to see the end of the summer holidays so that he could come back to a school dinner once more.
I am sure that we will hear from the Government about how the statisticians with their electronic slide-rules have worked out who should and who should not qualify for a free school lunch, to meet the demands of the small army of government accountants employed to deliver austerity. The reality is that hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren will, each and every one of them, pay the price for our meanness. Children in our poorest communities who are born next month, children whose brothers and sisters have benefited from a free school lunch, will not have that benefit. Why? It is because they will not be four years of age by April 2022.
Margaret Thatcher is remembered for many things, one of which was taking away free milk from children. Mrs May, I am sure, will be remembered for trying to take us out of Europe, but if these regulations get on to the statute book, she will also be remembered for taking away from many children their only hot meal of the day. Marie Antoinette is believed to have said “Let them eat cake” when she was told that the poor had no bread to eat. What will the Prime Minister say to poor children who have no free school meal?
The Liberal Democrats fought hard when in the coalition to deliver universal free meals for infant schoolchildren as we recognised the importance of a nutritious meal in ensuring that children are able to make the most of their education. These regulations, once universal credit is rolled out, will ensure that 1 million children will not be getting that free meal. Last week on 14 March, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published its final report looking at what the impact of changes to the tax and welfare system on families will be in the 2021-22 tax year. It found that children will be hit the hardest, as an extra 1.5 million will be in poverty. The child poverty rate for those in lone-parent households will increase from 37% to more than 62%, and households with three or more children will see particularly large losses of around £5,600. David Isaac, the chair of the commission, which is responsible for making recommendations to the Government on the compatibility of policy and legislation with equality and human rights standards, said:
“It’s disappointing to discover that the reforms we have examined negatively affect the most disadvantaged in our society. It’s even more shocking that children—the future generation—will be the hardest hit and that so many will be condemned to start life in poverty”.
We cannot let this continue if we want a fairer Britain. Appalling though this picture is, I am pretty certain that it does not take into account the additional impact on many poor families of these changes to the free school lunch regulations.
When I taught infant schoolchildren, if they occasionally misbehaved, I would say that I was sad in my heart. I am sad in my heart about these regulations and I regret the lack of humanity that these changes to the regulations demonstrate. Our children are our future and we must cherish and nurture them. On top of the negative impact on children of the tax and welfare reforms, this change adds insult and hunger to injury.
My Lords, I do not have a flinty heart, but I am not oversentimental. However, I was moved by what the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, said about his own circumstances and his hard-working mother and how people in working poverty suffer. I do not think there is anyone in this House who is not concerned about poverty and about dealing with it properly. But that always has to be based on fact and not on sentiment. What strikes me about what the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, said in his speech is that there is a huge gap, not just in alleged or asserted numbers but in credibility, between the alleged 1 million child losers to whom he referred and the assurances given, for example, in a Parliamentary Answer by my noble friend Lord Agnew of Oulton earlier this month that by 2022 there will be an increase in the number of children getting free school meals. There is a seven-figure difference between the Answer from my noble friend and the figures of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. I am all in favour of building bridges —I would welcome building a bridge with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, if I got the chance—but there is an unbridgeable gap here; a seven-figure gap.
The noble Lord may wish to reflect on his own time as a distinguished Labour Chief Whip. In Division after endless Division, he clicked away, totting up the votes, with the ever-helpful learned clerks counting up on their devices as a back-up—we all like our statistical fact checkers, and there is no hiding place for the eventual numbers of the contents and the not-contents. Yet there are lots of independent authorities which say that his figures asserting massive losses of free school meals are—forgive my uncharacteristic bluntness—wrong. Unlike some of my colleagues, I like experts, and these authorities and experts range from the UK Statistics Authority, which makes it clear that claims that universal credit causes poverty are wrong, through to the “Channel 4 News” FactCheck, which pointed out that no child currently receiving free school meals will lose their entitlement, but rather that more will benefit from the changes.
So, while I understand the strength of feeling, it seems that we have seen the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, with his new-found arithmetical freedom, transmogrify from being an obsessive bean counter—or perhaps I should say Peer counter—of those voting content or not-content into what some might think to be a statistical tearaway, albeit in a good cause. I do not doubt that it is a good cause, but, in the end, hard facts, rather than what some would think of as exaggeration, are best to rely on.
I certainly wish to see all children in all households that are in need get help. But if all children of all households on universal credit were to get free school meals, we would be talking about a cost of billions, and I am not making that up. I wonder what the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer thinks about that. By comparison, I congratulate Her Majesty’s Government on what they are doing. All children in years 1 and 2 will continue to get free school meals—this was not mentioned in the debate—and no child will lose out as universal credit is rolled out. With respect to the noble Lord, these are facts rather than assertions.
My Lords, it is good to hear the noble Lord, Lord Patten, recognising that on all sides of the House we are very concerned about the just-managing families. Two-thirds of all children in poverty live in working families that are working hard to make ends meet and to do the best for their children. It was encouraging to hear the Prime Minister talk so strongly after the Brexit vote about reaching out to those just-managing families in need. So I hope that the Minister will take this golden opportunity offered to us by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, to give moral support to children and families in poverty today, and to say from the Dispatch Box that, yes, there may be difficulties, but he will look at how we can ensure that all children in poverty get a free school meal.
This morning, I spoke with a mother who endured poverty for several years. She was a victim of domestic violence; she was in a refuge for three months; and, last year, she spent six to seven months in bed and breakfast accommodation, living in one room with her teenage daughter and infant granddaughter. That was a hugely challenging time for her and she needed her friends around her to give her moral support. This morning, she told me that she had been successful in a visa application. She is now in a financially better state, and has found a new relationship with a good man. We need to give support to families when they are struggling through difficult times—and these are difficult times for so many families after years of austerity. Her issue is extreme, but many of the families we are talking about will be suffering severe housing problems. Increasing numbers of children are growing up in bed and breakfasts or hostel accommodation, and even those with more secure accommodation lack clear security of tenure.
Over the weekend, as your Lordships will have heard, a British teacher won the accolade of best teacher in the world. She talked of her experience in Brent, where she was very concerned about housing—so many children living in an overcrowded home and having to work in the bathroom to be able to concentrate.
These families are coping with the stress brought about by years of austerity. They have lost their early intervention services as local services have been cut. This is an opportunity for the Government—yes, perhaps a difficult one—to think about how we can offer moral support to those families. Often, it is mothers bringing up their children on their own, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said at the beginning of the debate, giving them the confidence that their child will have a good, healthy, hot meal at the beginning of the day gives them one less thing to worry about. Surely we can reach out to these families and offer them that help. I hope that the Minister will give us that assurance today.
My Lords, it normally gives me great pleasure to speak in your Lordships’ house, but this evening I speak with some sorrow. I am hoping that the proposals made by the Government—involving, I am sure, the Treasury, the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions—are perhaps the result of the complexity of those interlocking interests and have inadvertently left what surely cannot be intended. The consequences of this policy run counter to everything that the Government have said about the principle of universal credit, which I and many others have supported. If the consequences are unintended then I shall be delighted and relieved to hear the Minister say so.
I have looked at these regulations and concluded that they drive a coach and horses at some speed through the defining principle of universal credit—a principle I wholeheartedly endorse—that work should pay. They create an arbitrary cliff edge at a low-income threshold, off which many risk falling. For working families just below the current threshold, this proposal would very clearly not make extra work pay. They would be better off not seeking more paid work and leaving their children on free school meals, unless their family income increased by some considerable margin. Those just above the threshold will be worse off under the regulations, facing school meal charges. They would be better off working less. That is at best an anomaly, but I am tempted to describe it as an absurdity.
I do not, however, see this as pointing to a flaw or a contradiction in policy design. Rather, it points to the real, pressing and increasingly difficult circumstances that, over the years, families will face. More often than not, this will affect people who are already in work who earn very little—people whose weekly budgets already have little or no slack.
Some Members of your Lordships’ House may recall that recently I chaired a briefing for Members of both Houses. A number of your Lordships may remember Clare, who spoke to us. Her oldest child currently receives free school meals. She and her husband do not want to live on benefits, credits or allowances; they want to get on and get up. Clare’s husband had been made redundant, and after 18 months volunteering in a local school he now works as a teaching assistant and earns £8,000. Clare had worked for 15 years as an NHS dental nurse, but her clinic closed. I quote Clare with her permission. She said:
“We both never, ever thought we would be in this situation. We feel terribly ashamed to have to rely on help”.
Clare is retraining as a solicitor. When she has done so, her husband will complete his own retraining as a teacher; both will incur significant debts. Hers will be £56,000. Clare told me that they have many working years ahead of them and look forward to a future in which taxes are spent helping the vulnerable in society. She feels blessed to live in a society that has a safety net in place for them and others facing short-term difficulties.
These regulations will not help Clare and those like her overcome these short-term challenges. They will add to them and hinder her from creating a long-term future for herself and her family, because Clare has no slack. She told us her family of four,
“survives on £10 a day for our food and petrol … with no luxuries”.
Clare does not understand how the figure of £7,400 has been arrived at. Nor does she understand how introducing an earnings threshold as low as that could possibly benefit people in her situation. I do not understand either. She knows her eight-year-old daughter will, for now, continue to receive free school meals, but what of her son, who starts school in September and other children of their ages? As she observes, initially it seems nobody will lose out, but in the long term more and more people—and more specifically, more and more children—will.
We are potentially creating anxiety, even despair, when we should offer hope and support. We are creating a cliff edge so that work does not pay. The job of this House is often to ask the Government to think again about what may be the unintended consequences of policy. The outcomes of this one are severe. I ask the Government to think again this evening, and I do so from the bottom of my heart.
My Lords, in his very moving opening speech, my noble friend Lord Bassam quoted lain Duncan Smith when he was Secretary of State, saying that universal credit would always make work pay and people would be better off for every hour they work. I want to focus specifically on the question of work incentives. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Patten, that I trade in facts, which I offer to the House for its consideration.
Iain Duncan Smith’s quote was not a throwaway comment. It was in the foreword to the White Paper which explained why the Government were planning to abolish all the main means-tested working-age benefits and replace them with universal credit. That process is now ongoing. It has had its challenges, as we all know. There have been problems with the system and computers, design and implementation challenges and severe delays. It has been subject to repeated budget cuts with the result that it has gone from being what was originally designed as a benefit to claimants to being a net saving to the Treasury. The whole point of this enormous exercise, which will eventually include some 7 million people, was that it would always “make work pay”. Even small amounts of work and every extra hour would pay. That quote was the aim of the system in a nutshell.
Yet this SI reintroduces the mother of all cliff edges into universal credit. At the moment, if parents work, there comes a point when they lose free school meals, but at that point they gain access to working tax credit, which is worth more. Under this system it would mean if a parent were offered a pay rise—like the mother of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam—or the chance of an extra hour a week working which would take their earnings over a cash limit of £7,400 a year, they would either have to turn that down or take it knowing their children would all lose free school meals.
The excellent briefing from the Children’s Society and the CPAG modelled the impact on a single parent in 2022 at the then-expected minimum wage raising two children in a rented house. She wants to raise her hours from 12 to 16 a week, exactly the kind of thing universal credit is meant to help. Her earnings would go up by £1,893 a year but she would end up £174 worse off by the time she had lost universal credit and free school meals. Other families would actually be better off by cutting their hours or taking a pay cut. This undoes all the progress made by tax credits and all the aims of universal credit of getting away from precisely those problems in the old-fashioned benefit system. Does the Minister acknowledge that there is a problem here?
Universal credit has an in-work conditionality system in it for the first time. That means that people who have a job can still be forced to take more hours or to take a better-paid job. That makes people worried. What happens if a single parent is put in a position where she could be forced to take more hours or take a better-paying job but in doing so would lose free school meals and actually be worse off?
When this SI was debated in another place, that question was put to the Secretary of State, Esther McVey. She said that,
“we will not seek to put someone in a less advantageous situation. Therefore, if people look at the money that is coming in and the extra support that is coming from school meals, they can see that we will not seek to do that to an individual. A work coach will be working with individuals to help them to progress in work, so that they are in a better situation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/3/18; col. 764.]
Will the Minister confirm to the House today that this means that no claimant will be sanctioned for refusing to increase their earnings if the result of doing so would actually make them worse off? If he cannot do that, will he please write to me to confirm?
I hope that is true, but even if it is, how then—in the Secretary of State’s words—can parents “progress in work” if they cannot afford to take a pay rise or take more hours’ work? I thought the whole aim of universal credit was to help people get into work, move up and through it and eventually lift themselves and their families out of poverty or off universal credit. We are putting back in an enormous cliff edge right into the middle of the system. Can the Minister tell the House how that is meant to help achieve the Government’s objective of making sure that work always pays and people can progress out of poverty through work?
Absolutely finally, I want to say a word about numbers. I am not going to get into the game, but I want to challenge the Government to give the House some facts about where exactly the figure of 50,000 more children getting free school meals has come from. As well as the point made by my noble friend Lord Bassam, the Children’s Commissioner pointed out that simply on children’s numbers alone there will be another 500,000 kids by 2022 so you would expect more people to be getting free school meals.
Also, 2022, the date by which these 50,000 extra children will get free schools meals, is not a random date; it is when universal credit will finally be rolled out. Can the Minister tell us whether it has been chosen because it is the high-water mark, where as well as those who will qualify under the new system, there is the maximum possible number of people getting transitional protection from inside universal credit? Therefore that number includes people who will go on to lose free school meals when their children’s circumstances change or when their kids move from primary to secondary school. Children who start school the day after universal credit is rolled out will not get free school meals if their parents earn the same as parents on transitional protection. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, that he needs to look very carefully at the brief he has been given by the Government because it obscures as much as it reveals.
This would have been made clear had the Government produced a proper impact assessment which compares, as it would usually do, the number of people who would get free schools meals in steady state in the new system with those who would get them in steady state before reform, in other words without transitional protection. They have not done that and the Children’s Commissioner has called out the issue and asked the Government to reveal all the analysis behind the 50,000 figure and also to provide estimates of who will benefit or lose out in different categories under universal credit and the current system before and after 2022. Unless Ministers agree to do that, or to answer the repeated requests by my honourable friend Ruth George in another place—who keeps asking for figures to explain who is going to be included in this 50,000—I am afraid to say we must treat the figures with some concern.
My basic concern is that this proposal—as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth has said—drives a coach and horses through the whole aim of universal credit. The Government have taken most of the working-age benefit system, thrown it up in the air, at vast cost, at huge disruption, and for what? Just to bring back in the biggest cliff edge we have seen in the system in decades? Surely this cannot be right. Will the Government think again?
My Lords, I too echo the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, about the Government’s proposals to introduce an earnings threshold for eligibility for free school meals and milk. This is very unfair, because it takes no account of the number of children who the parents have to feed. It is a cumbersome way of doing things which will make it very difficult for families to plan their budgets and, as we have heard, will cause a poverty trap for many. This comes on top of recent cuts in benefits which have already made many working families worse off and the food banks busier.
Let me say first why free school meals are so important. There is plenty of research showing that nutrition levels in school meals are vastly better than those in either the average packed lunch, only 1.6% of which reach the same nutritional standard, or certainly those in a cheap bag of chips and a fizzy drink from the shop on the corner. One of the best services we have for school-age children is the provision of a nourishing meal at lunchtime. For some children in poverty, this is the only decent meal they will get all day, and it is essential that it is provided for them if their parents cannot afford to pay. Many teachers will tell you that they have children in their class who come to school without any breakfast. One local authority has taken this so much on board that it has decided to offer free meals for poor children every day of the year. That is because teachers notice evidence of malnutrition in some children when they come back to school after the holidays.
A nourishing, balanced meal containing fruit and vegetables is important not just for the health of the child, providing the vitamins needed for healthy growth and helping to prevent obesity; it is important also for the child’s behaviour and academic attainment. Pilot studies on the effect of universal provision of free school meals for key stage 1 children when they were introduced by the coalition Government showed a distinct improvement in behaviour, and attainment advanced by as much as two months. This was particularly so with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. So it is clear that free school meals are one of the major tools in our armoury for closing the attainment gap between the rich and the poor.
The main objective of our education system must be to help all children attain their maximum potential, and good nutrition is one foundation of this. A hungry child is not a learning child. Anything that has the potential for reducing the number of poorer children who receive such meals should be rejected. Indeed, we should provide free meals for more children, not fewer, because a free meals regime increases uptake, decreases stigma and reduces the number of children bringing in sandwiches and biscuits or going to the chip shop. That in turn improves the attainment of all children.
The Government have told us that 50,000 more children will receive free meals under the new regulations than under the old and promise that no child already on free school meals will lose their meals while at their current stage of education. The problem with that is that children grow up. They get to the end of primary school or secondary school and, suddenly, children who were formerly eligible for free meals will no longer get them. There needs not to have been any change in their parents’ earnings for this to happen because there is now an earnings threshold which takes no account of the size of the family.
Every mum and dad knows that it takes twice as much money to feed two children as one, and three times as much to feed three. That is £10 a week for lunches every week of term, or £20 or £30 for bigger families, which could easily be enough to make it not worth taking a few extra hours’ work. Where then is the fundamental work incentive that is supposed to underpin universal credit? Where now is the mantra “making work pay”?
I am not going to go through the case studies in the briefing, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, has already done so, but there is clear potential for making a lot of families worse off. The Government need to look at the disposable income of a family once the 63% withdrawal of universal credit for every extra pound earned has been taken account of and school meals paid for. If they do that, they may come up with a fairer system.
School lunches are not a luxury; they are an essential of life for those families who find it hard to feed their children. Of course, we are talking not only about meals; many other passported benefits are linked to free school meals which help make bringing up children bearable. They currently include the early years pupil premium. I beg the Minister to decouple that at the very least, because, again, it is in the interests of closing the attainment gap.
Universal credit was supposed to avoid the cliff edge and make it worth while going to work. By introducing a lower earnings threshold, the Government are creating a cliff edge at a very low earnings level where it will hurt most and undermine the whole point of universal credit. In doing so, they are putting at risk the health and academic attainment of the poorest children. Will the Minister please think again?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, made his case with characteristic vigour and force, and with deep feeling as he recalled life in the 1960s in a part of Essex with which I was very familiar myself. The Motion states that up to 1 million poor children could be deprived of free school meals as a result of government policies. As my noble friend Lord Patten has shown, independent experts have urged us to treat this truly alarming prediction with considerable caution. We should be wary about rushing to the conclusion that a crisis is in the making.
It is accepted on all sides that the introduction of universal credit throughout our country, so vital in helping more people into jobs, will affect the number of children eligible for free school meals while ensuring that poor families, whose needs must be safeguarded, remain at the centre of policy. Interim arrangements were announced last summer to secure free school meals for all pupils whose parents were at that time recipients of universal credit. Future recipients will be subject to a means test as regards the provision of free school meals to their children. There is nothing new or unexpected about this. It has been a feature of the plans for this major, constructive reform of our welfare system since 2013.
What are the implications? The Department for Education estimates that, in the years ahead, some 50,000 more children will be entitled to a free school meal than under the arrangements which universal credit is replacing. That is welcome reassurance, but the Government should perhaps consider some form of monitoring. I wonder whether arrangements could be made to publish at regular intervals between now and 2022 authoritative figures for the number of children actually receiving free school meals so that the effects of this hugely significant change of policy can be assessed. We need to be sure that the poorest families in our country continue to receive the help they need.
My Lords, I want to pick up on two statements made by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, one of which I agree with and one of which I do not. The first and possibly more substantial statement is the claim that 1 million children will lose out and that the new threshold of £7,400 changes where the line is between when people have free school meals and when they do not. This figure was chosen to try to find the right level for continuing to make that provision, so I disagree with the noble Lord there.
However, where I agree with the noble Lord, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, is on the disincentivising effects of what is almost the only cliff edge—rather than a cliff edge, it is almost a waterfall effect; it is more waterfall than the cliff edge that we are used to. Nevertheless, it is there. SSAC produced a report four years ago, which I commend to the House, looking at what we could do with passported benefits generally in order to incorporate them within universal credit and eliminate not just free school meals—there are others, such as prescriptions—and put them within the taper in a way that did not have a cash-flow impact. The report suggested a structure that the DWP response endorsed.
As SSAC pointed out, we have the most passported benefits of any country—they have proliferated—and we need a mechanism to add to universal credits and put them on a taper so that we do not have a disincentive effect. The DWP and this House care about disincentivising work, but other departments do not—they worry about feeding children and so on—so it is important to keep up the pressure in the years to come so that we do not allow these cliff edges or waterfalls to be reincorporated into the system. To do that we will have to design a way of putting the passported benefits into universal credit.
My Lords, I am very pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Freud, because it fits well with what I want to say—but first I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Bassam for his powerful introduction.
The Government have prayed in aid the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee to suggest that there is not a problem about work incentives. Last week in Oral Questions the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said that when SSAC looked at the issue it found that there was no rigorous research evidence to show that the provision of passported benefits acted as a work disincentive. I am not sure whether the Ministers have read the report—I have it here; it is a right door- stopper—but it actually says that very little is known, which is slightly different.
However, the response to SSAC from the coalition Government was interesting. It said in its introduction to the report:
“The coalition Government endorses the SSAC’s view that the design of passported benefits under Universal Credit can have a key impact on incentives to work ... SSAC notes that there is mixed evidence about the impact of passported benefits on work incentives. However, it is important to highlight that the responses gathered in the review focus on the impact of passported benefits within the current benefits and tax credit system rather than the impact under Universal Credit. This is an important distinction as, currently, at the point some passported benefits are withdrawn, recipients often receive an increase in working tax credits that helps compensate for the loss of the value of the passported benefits”.
Quite—as my noble friend Lady Sherlock pointed out. But this was ignored by the Secretary of State when last week he told the House of Commons that there had always been a cliff edge. He seemed to interpret that as meaning “meal or no meal”.
SSAC’s fears have been borne out by the analysis by Professor Jonathan Bradshaw and Dr Antonia Keung, the Children’s Society and the Child Poverty Action Group—I declare an interest as its honorary president—which has already been referred to. I look to that report also to address a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. We have always known that what is happening currently is an interim arrangement, that is true, but the SSAC report was six years ago, in 2012. It is not surprising that some noble Lords have forgotten about that, because it was a long time ago.
However, the Government also said then that they would consult on new criteria that year to put in place the new system in October 2013. We have had to wait six years. What took them so long? I suspect that it was because they could not find a way round the cliff- edge problem, because SSAC repeatedly drew attention to the fact that if you go down the route of introducing an income threshold it creates a cliff-edge problem. It did not have an answer to it because there is no answer if you are not prepared to pay for free school meals for all those on universal credit. As has already been said, that undermines the foundational principle of universal credit. Perhaps that is why the noble Lord, Lord Freud—who did so much work on that benefit—is so concerned.
Yes, the Government made this clear in 2012—but the living standards landscape is very different from what it was then. For example, we did not know then that there was going to be a two-child limit on benefits for families. We did not know then that universal credit was going to be subjected to cut after cut. The CPAG has suggested that the average loss for working families on universal credit will be more than £400 a year. We did not know then that working age benefits were going to be frozen. Child benefit is particularly relevant here. Professor Jonathan Bradshaw kindly did some calculations for me—I am not very good at calculations—and calculated that for a two-child family child benefit is worth £2.66 a week less than it was in 2012 when the Government first suggested that they were not going to give it to everyone on universal credit. It is £5.44 less if we go back to 2010. That is in the context of the Resolution Foundation pointing out that for a two-child-plus family, child benefit is less generous than at any point since it was fully introduced in 1979. So, as they say, when the facts change, perhaps the policy should change as well.
Many of these matters come down to how things work in practice, so perhaps I may ask a few practical questions. We know that the earnings of people at the lower end of the labour market fluctuate repeatedly. The Government have addressed how they are going to estimate what those earnings are, but if they are going to be recalculated every month—as in the briefing referred to by the right reverend Prelate from the representatives of the Children’s Society—this will be an absolute nightmare. I cannot see any reference to what will happen to people on zero-hours contracts or self-employed people. Can the Minister explain how their earnings will be calculated?
On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, have the Government given any consideration to decoupling free school meals eligibility from pupil premium eligibility? As I understand it, it is the latter that costs so much, not free school meals. So it would be possible to pay for free school meals for everyone on universal credit at not a huge extra cost and treat the pupil premium separately.
Finally—I hope this is not too cheeky—when the Minister responds, will he respond to what has actually been said here today? Last week in Oral Questions I got the sense that officials had expected us to say the same things that had been said in the House of Commons the day before. We did not, but that was what the response was to.
I say the same to the noble Lord, Lord Patten. My noble friend Lord Bassam made it very clear what he was talking about. He produced facts from the Children’s Commissioner which showed that the facts that the Government have been presenting over and over again—that 50,000 children will be better off—are fake facts, to quote a certain President. So let us get our facts right and address what people are saying in this House rather than what we expect them to say.
My Lords, I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. His words about his experiences and circumstances as a child were very moving. However, change is often difficult to deliver. As George Bernard Shaw said, progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.
The introduction of universal credit transforms the benefits system by making work pay. At the same time, public resources can be targeted at the families most in need, and that must include setting a threshold for free school meals.
I was particularly struck by the contribution to the debate in the Commons by my honourable friend the vice-chairman of the Conservative party Maria Caulfield. She too talked about her experiences of being brought up in a working-class background where there was no hope and no ambition for working-class kids other than a future life on benefits. Universal credit, I am sure noble Lords will agree, will help such families and such individuals. I will not repeat the arguments made and the reply to the Labour smears of last week; suffice it to say that as a result of the changes we are told—facts—that 50,000 extra children will get free school meals by 2022. I have called them facts; we cannot call them facts because only in 2022 will we know the real facts on any of the projections, but those will be as a result of changes brought about by the Government. As Maria went on to say last week, what some Labour Members did was to spread fear in a political, point-scoring way and use working-class families, shamefully, as a political football. That was clear. It was clear if you read what was in the press.
I was absolutely sure that it must be right that free school meals are intended for the most disadvantaged families on low incomes. Thus, targeting taxpayers’ money at those most in need is the right thing to do. I support the Government’s position, which is good for all, and I remind those who will not accept change of the words of the late Harold Wilson:
“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery”.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Bassam for opening this debate so effectively and, like other noble Lords, I was certainly moved by his personal story. These regulations have brought widespread resistance from opposition parties and Cross-Benchers, as evidenced in this debate, as well as from the children’s welfare and education sectors in recent weeks and months. Apart from the effects of the regulations, anger has increased with the realisation that, inexplicably for such an important matter, no impact assessment was carried out by the Government. Can the Minister explain why?
I agree with the wording of the regret Motion regarding a six-month delay while that impact assessment is carried out; if it was not seen as necessary at the start, when the Government first devised these regulations, it certainly is now, because of the issues that have been raised in debates in the other place last week and in your Lordships’ House this evening. When they were debated in the other place last week, when the Opposition prayed against them, the Government lost the argument that day but fended off the Motion to Annul with the help of the Democratic Unionist Party—hardly surprising, since the Prime Minister had enlisted their support, I would say cynically, by producing a rabbit from a hat by announcing that the regulations will not apply in Northern Ireland. The Government have no such cover in your Lordships’ House.
As noble Lords have said, not receiving free school meals would cost a family around £430 a year for each child. Labour policy is that the children of all families in receipt of universal credit should receive free school meals, and of course that comes at a cost. However, not providing free school meals to the children of families stuck in poverty despite one or both parents being in work also comes at a cost, a cost of a different kind, because a key issue from the education point of view is that free school meals often act as a passport to other support, such as help with school clothing, trips, music lessons or discounted access to leisure facilities. This means that entitlement to free school meals can be worth significantly more to struggling families than the direct value of the meal itself.
The Government say they want to target the families that need free school meals most, and that is understandable and perfectly acceptable, but what about the families that may need it slightly less, but nevertheless genuinely need the benefits of free school meals? The Minister may not appreciate this fact, nor indeed some of his colleagues, but for too many children in poverty, free school meals are the difference between getting a hot meal during the day and going without. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and my noble friend Lady Lister said, teachers know only too well that an undernourished child is in no fit state to be taught effectively. The Government should adopt the policy of the Opposition and support all children living in poverty by continuing with the transitional arrangements.
The government position is that it would cost too much: by most estimates around £3 billion a year. But if free school meals were decoupled from universal credit, as other noble Lords have suggested, and as has already happened with infant school meals, which are universally free, then the cost would be substantially reduced, probably to around £500 million a year. That is not an insignificant amount of money, I am not suggesting it is, but is the Minister going to get to his feet and tell your Lordships’ House that his Government cannot afford that relatively modest amount to ensure that children from poor in-work families—I repeat that these are in-work families—are provided with a nourishing meal each school day? If so, then the Prime Minister’s claim to be supporting the “just about managing” will be demonstrably empty rhetoric. If their aim is to target the families that need free school meals most, the Minister has to answer the point made very well by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, as to how children should be treated during school holidays: in many cases they suffer considerably without any access to free school meals in that period.
As my noble friend Lord Bassam outlined, without the safety net of the current arrangements there will certainly be losers. Indeed, the Government have acknowledged that 10% of children eligible for free school meals under the benefits system existing prior to universal credit will no longer qualify. That amounts to a very significant number of children, around 110,000, whose families will be that £430 per child worse off. Does the Minister have any message for them? As my noble friend Lord Bassam asked, where is their transitional protection?
The Government are also being disingenuous at best by estimating the figure of 50,000 additional children that has been mentioned by many noble Lords this evening—not least because, in response to questions, they have consistently failed to show their working on that suspiciously rounded figure. On one point and one point only I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Polak. He said a few minutes ago that we will not know, even in 2022, what the actual figure is. That is correct and the point was made by the Children’s Commissioner in her very clear briefing, where she says it will probably be five years after 2022 before we know what the final figure is.
The Children’s Commissioner reckons that the Government’s 50,000 figure is actually an underestimate and it should be nearer 75,000—bear in mind that it is still an estimate. That may sound like good news for the Government, but it is not, because the use of “additional” is wrong. These children are not gainers who would have been denied free school meals under the old system; it is simply that, as many noble Lords have said, the school roll is rising. With 13% of children receiving free school meals, when the school roll rises that figure will go up on a pro rata basis. I do not understand, frankly, why the Government could not have said that, because that is the case. They have chosen not to do so, but it has been made quite clear by the Children’s Commissioner and we are grateful to her for that.
If one of the principal aims of the introduction of universal credit—after simply saving money of course—was to ensure that additional earnings would always leave families better off, the related issue of the cliff edge has been clearly set out by my noble friends Lady Sherlock and Lady Lister. I have to say that I am always amazed that they speak fluent DWP-ese, which I certainly do not. It is a very complicated issue and I give them credit for setting the stall out very clearly. You cannot expect people with different departmental responsibilities to have the grasp that they have and I thank them very much. The bottom line is that what the Government are proposing directly contradicts their stated aim for universal credit, which is to make work pay. As has been clearly shown, there are many situations where that will not happen in the future.
It was only last week that we learned that the regulations will not apply in Northern Ireland. A teaching assistant in England working part-time and earning £8,000 a year will not be eligible for free school meals under the Government’s plans, but that person would be in Northern Ireland. The threshold for free school meals there will be almost twice as high, at £14,000. There has been no explanation as to why hard-working parents in England do not deserve the same level of support; perhaps the Minister can fill that vacuum today. Frankly, I doubt it.
I finish by saying that there are three main reasons why these regulations should not be approved this evening by your Lordships’ House. First, as I have said, the Government have been unable to provide justification for the figures that they bandy around as to who will be the so-called gainers from the introduction of the threshold, while providing no transitional support to the people even they admit will be losers. Secondly, the new arrangements for enrolment will place unacceptably arduous burdens on overstretched school administrative staff. There should have been a system of auto-enrolment to make that much more manageable. Thirdly, the regulations tear into little pieces the Government’s much-trumpeted claim that:
“Universal Credit will mean that people will be consistently and transparently better off for each hour they work and every pound they earn”.
The cliff edge caused by the introduction of an earnings limit will be the very antithesis of that work incentive, as set out clearly by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and I think—although he may say I am quoting him wrongly—by the noble Lord, Lord Freud.
For those reasons, these regulations are not fit for purpose and not fit to be approved by your Lordships’ House. The Government must think again. Should my noble friend Lord Bassam decide to test the opinion of the House on his regret Motion, he will have the enthusiastic support of these Benches.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, on securing this important debate. I also thank many noble Lords for their contributions today. I will attempt to deal with the important points raised. This Government are committed to providing a healthy free school meal to the most disadvantaged children. I reassure the House that, contrary to some reports, no child will lose a meal as a result of these changes. In fact, more children will benefit by 2022 compared to the previous system.
Let me discuss the technicalities behind these regulations. As your Lordships will be aware, we are reforming the welfare system to ensure that work always pays by replacing a complex and fragmented system with one benefit—universal credit. Since April 2013, all families receiving universal credit have been entitled to free school meals. As my noble friend Lord Lexden said, we have on several occasions flagged up that this was a temporary measure—for example, in the Social Security Advisory Committee report on passported benefits in March 2012 and as repeated in April 2013. As the national rollout of universal credit accelerates, we are replacing this temporary measure with clear eligibility criteria for free school meals to ensure that they continue to be targeted at disadvantaged families.
Under the new eligibility criteria, we have estimated that by 2022 around 50,000 more children will benefit from a free school meal. I want to address the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that this included population growth—it does not. In addition, our protections will ensure that no child receiving free school meals now, or gaining them during the universal credit rollout, will lose their entitlement until the end of the rollout, and beyond that until the end of their primary or secondary education. Children protected in this way are in addition to the 50,000 I have just mentioned.
I am interested in this phasing argument. Say you are in primary school now, and get free school meals. If you fall outside the eligibility criteria, am I right in thinking that when you go to secondary school, in maybe two or three years’ time, you will then lose entitlement to that free school meal?
The protections are in place until 2022. It is the longer of the period of being in a phase of education or 2022.
So if you go to secondary school in 2023—which is quite possible if you are in primary school now—you will lose your free school meal. Is that what the noble Lord is telling us?
My Lords, it will depend on the circumstances of the family at that time.
I turn to the comments about the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, which published a briefing which assumed that the number of 50,000 more pupils who will benefit from free school meals does not take into account population growth. This is incorrect. Our analysis compares 2022 under a universal credit system to 2022 under the legacy benefits system, and population growth is by definition captured within this comparison. Furthermore, the Government have just published an updated equalities impact assessment, on 7 February. The majority of respondents to the consultation agreed with us that there would be no adverse impact on those with protected characteristics.
It is important to add that the £7,400 threshold relates to earned income. It does not include additional income through universal credit. A typical family earning around this threshold, depending on their exact circumstances, would have a total annual household income of between £18,000 and £24,000 once benefits are taken into account.
I take this opportunity to bust a myth. Some have claimed that these reforms will take away free school meals from 1 million children. This is simply not true. As my noble friend Lord Patten said, Channel 4 made this clear in its FactCheck article. It highlighted that this claim is based on an entirely hypothetical scenario in which universal credit was to continue being an automatic eligibility criteria. This was never going to be the case. Contrary to some people’s claims, this Government’s plan will result in more children benefiting, not fewer, and is more generous than the old system.
I also acknowledge the report published by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee on 1 March this year. We have listened to the committee’s comments and have responded to its report requesting that we publish the methodology supporting the modelling of the 50,000 children who will benefit by 2022. This has been published as part of the report.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, expressed concern about fluctuating income. We recognise that some households see their earnings fluctuate on a regular basis and have written into regulations that earnings should be checked over a period lasting up to three months, where the assessment period data is available. We are also exploring ways to ensure that families with very low incomes can receive free school meals during the initial assessment period for universal credit.
What will happen with self-employed people and those on zero-hours contracts? I could not find that in the document.
As I mentioned, we are assessing those who are on very low incomes to ensure that they can receive free school meals. That information will become available in due course.
I hope your Lordships will agree when I state the importance of targeting public resources where they are needed the most. If free school meals were extended to all families on universal credit, as some suggest, this would mean that by the end of the rollout around half of all pupils would become eligible. Some universal credit households are on middle incomes, sometimes exceeding £40,000 a year. We estimate that extending free school meals to all these families would cost in excess of £3 billion more a year by 2022, including the cost of the extra meals and associated school deprivation funding. The additional meals alone would cost in excess of £450 million a year. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, fairness requires Government to direct resources to where they are needed most. These are not the low-income families that we want to target with free school meals, and this is not a sensible or indeed fair use of public money.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, was concerned about the decoupling of free school meals from the pupil premium. The Government are very committed to providing equality of opportunity so every pupil, irrespective of their background, can realise their academic potential. Since the introduction of the pupil premium in 2011, the difference in the relative attainment of disadvantaged children and their peers has reduced across both the primary and secondary phases. It has narrowed by 10.5% at key stage 2 and 10% at key stage 4. This means better prospects for disadvantaged pupils and a more prosperous life as an adult.
Concerns were raised about conditionality and the use of sanctions. Sanctions are only ever used as a last resort. When considering whether a sanction is appropriate, a decision-maker will take all the claimant’s individual circumstances, including any health conditions or disabilities, and any evidence of good cause, into account before deciding whether a sanction is warranted.
I want to address some of the comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Lister, dealing with cliff edges. Universal credit is designed to be more generous to claimants who take on additional hours, and the smooth taper rate gives incentives to do so because, unlike under the old system, people see more money in their pocket for every extra hour that they work. As my noble friend Lord Polak said, change does involve some disruption, but in general we are seeing a better system for people who want to achieve more and to work harder or to be able to have the opportunity to work. In addition, the well-established links between employment and improved health and well-being mean that there are considerable non-economic benefits for parents who increase their working hours.
On the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, about Northern Ireland, where there are some comparisons, there is a more generous system of working tax credits there, but Northern Ireland does not have a provision for a free two-hour two year-old offer at all and its three and four year-old offer is considerably narrower. There is also no universal protection for free school meals for all pupils in reception and years 1 and 2, as in England. It does not have an equivalent pupil premium as exists in England.
In conclusion, as we have said, a threshold has to be set and we have set it as generously as we believe we can, with 50,000 more children benefiting. This Government have always gone further than Labour to extend the availability of free school meals to families most in need. We extended free meals to disadvantaged students in further education institutions and introduced universal infant free school meals. More recently, we announced an additional investment of £26 million in a breakfast club programme over the next three years, using the soft drinks industry levy. The introduction of universal credit provides us with the opportunity to make the system of free school meal eligibility fairer, simpler and more consistent for parents, carers, schools and local authorities.
On the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, about trying to find an alternative to the cliff edge, he will know far better than me that it is extremely complicated to find a way of breaking a total cliff edge, but the system is set to be fairer than its predecessor.
I do not think that the Minister has dealt with the absolutely crucial point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Freud, because if we do not have a mechanism that assimilates and deals with passporting benefits, there may be other outstanding issues that will come along and prove to be not cliff edges but waterfalls—I like that description. Will the Minister commit to refer the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, to the Social Security Advisory Committee? That is the best vehicle for coming up with an evaluation of the work-disincentive effect that these waterfalls and cliff edges are guaranteed to introduce long-term and in perpetuity into universal credit, which is a bad thing for the Government’s own policy.
My Lords, I am happy to relay those concerns and to take the matter away for further consideration.
Finally, I would like to highlight the five key improvements made by this Conservative-led Government for early years and child care. I give credit to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, as part of his party’s involvement in these important reforms, but I believe that it is incredibly important to put these into context. First, there is the 15 hours a week of free early education for disadvantaged two year-olds, which did not exist before 2010. Secondly, there is the universal 15 hours a week free childcare for three and four year-olds, now with the early years pupil premium. Thirdly, there are an additional 15 hours a week of childcare for working parents. Fourthly, through universal credit, up to 85% of childcare costs can be reimbursed, which is a higher percentage than was ever available under tax credits. Finally, nearly 1 million more families will gain support through tax-free childcare than through the existing voucher scheme.
I hope these five elements exemplify the efforts this Government have made to support vulnerable families. The continued provision of free school meals to children in households that might not be able to afford them remains of the utmost importance, and I would stress that—the utmost importance. Free school meals have always been provided to children who need them most, and we want to make sure that as many eligible children as possible continue to claim them.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that rousing conclusion. I have not really heard anything that convinces me that the Government have got their policy on this right. The Minister failed and ducked the issue of the cliff-edge point that was so eloquently addressed by my noble friend Lady Sherlock and others. The Minister actually supplemented and aided my argument on phasing when he said that, yes, it would depend on the individual’s circumstances in 2023, but if they move from one phase of education to the other then of course there would be an issue about whether they continue to have eligibility for free school meals.
I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for reminding us about fact-checking because, for me, he added to the confusion about figures. Part of the argument that we have been pushing over these last few weeks about free school meals is that nobody has quite got to the bottom of the Government’s policy because nobody can be absolutely certain about the data on which it relies. I was very heartened to hear the noble Lord, Lord Freud, express some concern about the waterfall and cliff edge, because that cuts to the core of the issue. We just do not know.
I have tabled a lot of Written Questions on this issue; most of them have not yet been answered. Most of them were directed at trying to find out at what stage of the rollout of universal credit we can expect to have hard numbers and data about the overall impact. I find that most worrying and troubling because the Government have not done a poverty assessment in this whole process. We do not know what the real impact will be of taking away free school meals from people, or what impact the new system will have on populations in the future. The failure to do a proper poverty assessment fatally flaws this new system.
I agree with the Minister and I agree with other noble Lords on the Benches opposite when they say that work should always pay. That is a laudable objective of universal credit, but I am not convinced that the levels are right or that the policy is set in the right direction. I am grateful to my noble friends Lady Lister and Lady Sherlock, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, the noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Kirkwood, and my noble friend Lord Watson for their support in this debate.
I have done a bit of a fact check since I have been sitting here. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, went to Wimbledon College; the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, went to Framlingham College; the noble Lord, Lord Freud, went to Whitgift School and the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, went to Rugby. I bet there were not too many free school meals at those schools. This evening we should stand up for those who benefit from this, and I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
20 March 2018
Division on Lord Bassam of Brighton’s Motion
Lord Bassam of Brighton’s Motion agreed.View Details
House adjourned at 8.19 pm.