House of Lords
Thursday 19 March 2020
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.
Lord Speaker’s Statement
My Lords, I would like to make a short personal statement. This is the second major public health crisis I have experienced. The AIDS crisis of 1986 and 1987, when I was Health Secretary, was the first. It presented a particular set of circumstances but was fought on the basis of expert medical advice from the public health experts at the Department of Health. I followed the advice that I was given—in the face of some opposition, I might say—and we had more success than many other nations in preventing deaths. We can and should learn valuable lessons from the past.
My strong view from my own experience is that the best course to take in the present crisis is to follow the clear direction of Public Health England, which has issued specific advice about social distancing for those over 70 and those with specific underlying health conditions. This is not only for their own good—I should say “our” own good—but for the benefit of those in our National Health Service, who are working so incredibly hard in the current circumstances. Perhaps I could say softly that some of us are not just over 70 but over 80.
So reluctantly I will withdraw from the House for the time being, but thanks to modern technology I will still be in close contact with my office, deciding Private Notice Questions and continuing my duties as Lord Speaker. In effect, I will be doing what thousands of people are now doing: working from home. My Woolsack duties will be carried out by some of my excellent deputies, who will be further strengthened in numbers.
As to the situation more generally, my advice remains that no one should consider it their duty to be here in present circumstances. As parliamentarians, we have a duty to show leadership and heed the clear advice of the public health experts. I ask that everyone continues to reflect on their own situation in the light of that advice, for their own good and the broader public interest. Lastly, I personally thank everyone for their co-operation over the last weeks.
County Lines Drug Trafficking
My Lords, county lines has a devastating impact on our children and communities, and this Government are determined to crack down on these criminal gangs. We are providing £25 million of targeted investment this financial year and next to boost law enforcement efforts. This builds on previous activity, including establishing the National County Lines Coordination Centre, which launched in 2018 and has co-ordinated activity resulting in over 2,500 arrests and 3,000 people safeguarded.
My Lords, I first thank the Lord Speaker for his wise words and wish him and all noble Lords well.
With regard to the Question, the largest rise in child victims of modern slavery and human trafficking reported by the NCA is due to county lines crimes. However, the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which was not passed with this type of crime in mind, is being used by prosecutors to try to tackle this growing problem. Given the disturbing rise in this life-changing crime, will the Home Office prioritise an investigation into the use of the Modern Slavery Act in relation to county lines cases to determine where swift improvements can be made?
I certainly take the noble Baroness’s comments on board. The Government constantly review legislation to ensure that it is working effectively, but I shall certainly look into the point that she makes. We of course want the legislation to work in the best and most effective way.
Does the Minister agree that many of those caught up in county lines drug trafficking are extremely vulnerable children and teenagers, and furthermore, that our response should and must be cross-governmental? We need to have a grown-up conversation about drugs policy. The present policy—often described as a “war on drugs”—seems only to embolden gangs and cause misery in many communities. At the other end of this joined-up thinking, particularly to stop the disproportionality of black children being excluded from schools, must be an unprecedented recruitment drive of black male teachers.
I most certainly agree with the noble Lord about this whole thing being driven by the drugs markets. The types of people who are most predominantly targeted and engaged in this are indeed vulnerable teenagers, and in fact younger. I totally agree that a multiagency approach is entirely needed, which is what the National County Lines Coordination Centre aims to do. It is a multiagency team of experts from the NCA, the police and regional crime units. I also take his point about the stopping of black people. People should be stopped on an intelligence- led basis, not because of the colour of their skin.
Does the Minister agree that the work of the West Midlands Police and West Mercia Police in Operation Ballet, led by Detective Inspector Julie Woods, has been exemplary? It led to convictions at the Worcester Crown Court last Friday of 13 individuals who had operated a county lines scam starting in London, going to Birmingham New Street station, and then spreading out, with couriers and local people in the towns of Herefordshire and Worcestershire; these towns are not normally associated with drug trafficking, but, in the present circumstances, seem to be hotbeds of this terrible anti-social activity.
The noble Lord makes exactly the right point: towns and counties that one would usually not expect to be associated with such criminal activity in fact are. I pay tribute to Julie Woods for the convictions secured at Worcester Crown Court. For every one person convicted, an awful lot of young people are safeguarded from this terrible scourge.
My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the links between young people being drawn into county lines and increasing child poverty, the number of children in care and the number of young people being excluded from schools? Also, what are the Government doing to divert those who have been caught from a lifelong career of criminality?
My Lords, like all these things, the causes are multifactorial. The symptoms are also many and varied. It might not be drugs or county lines that a young person gets into; it might be other things as well. What was the second part of the noble Lord’s question?
Noble Lords have previously brought up in this House that the young people who are drawn into this sort of activity are not themselves criminals; they are victims of other people’s exploitation. It is very important to keep that in mind when we think about how we deal with these children and divert them into mainstream life and out of a life of crime.
My Lords, following the Government’s decision to fund an increase in the number of police officers by some 20,000, the Home Secretary told police chiefs that she now expected them to deliver a return on that funding in the form of a reduction in crime. Now that the Home Secretary has admitted through that statement that the total number of police officers available does have an impact on the level of crime—contrary to what the Government used to maintain while they were busily reducing the number of police officers over the last decade—will the Government now agree that one reason, though not the only reason, for the rate and level of expansion of child criminal exploitation, or county lines, across the country has been the reduction in the number of police officers and the resultant increasingly stretched police forces across the country over the last 10 years?
My Lords, as I said earlier, I think these issues are multifactorial. One thing that the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, would say if he were here is that it is driven by the drugs market, but the drugs market is not the only factor. It is also fair to say that at some point demands on the police, and crime, became more complex, and therefore it was the right decision to take to promote the move towards having more police officers on our streets to fight crime.
My Lords, sometimes in the past the police have caught a young criminal, a young gang member who has been involved in criminal activity, and, instead of charging or even rehabilitating them, they have actually turned them around and sent them back into the gang as a child police spy. Is that still happening? If it is, how many children are involved?
The noble Baroness will know from previous answers I have given that the number is estimated to be fewer than 10; she will recall the report that looked into that. It is something that is used only very sparingly, and its ultimate aim is to drive down crime and bring to justice those people who are exploiting children.
My Lords, the humanitarian situation in Yemen remains the worst in the world. Some 80% of the population require humanitarian assistance. Alongside our diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, we have provided over £200 million in aid this current financial year. This has met the immediate food needs of more than 1 million Yemenis each month during the year. However, we are clear that the only way to address the humanitarian crisis is through a political settlement.
I thank the Minister for his reply and for the hard work that I know he and his colleagues are putting into this situation. However, Yemen is now also suffering terrible outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria, and now Covid-19 has come along as well. So the airports have been closed. What are Her Majesty’s Government able to do to ensure that food supplies, aid and medicines are still actually getting into the country and getting where they are needed?
The right reverend Prelate raises an important point. Humanitarian assistance continues to operate through the two southern ports, Hodeidah and Saleef, which remain open. However, there are challenges in the distribution of humanitarian relief. The right reverend Prelate is right to raise the issues of various contagious diseases; 900,000 cases of cholera have been reported this year alone. As far as the Covid crisis is concerned, currently no fatalities from the crisis are shown and the number of cases is very low—but that is reflective of the challenge on the ground rather than there being a very small number of cases. We are operating under very difficult circumstances, and because of the situation around Covid there has also been a drawdown of essential staff, including from the UN, in Yemen itself.
My Lords, yesterday’s Guardian published a horrific report about the targeting of hospitals and doctors during the conflict in recent times by all sides in the conflict. I understand that that report may even form the basis of evidence-gathering for future war-crimes positions. Can the Minister tell us a little more about how we are securing evidence, and how we are challenging both the coalition and the Houthis to stop these crimes against humanity?
My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise that question, but he will also be aware of the desperate situation on the ground. For example, there has been a 70% increase in violence against women since the conflict began, and the issue of documenting such crimes, let alone bringing the perpetrators to justice, is going to be a very tall order. Nevertheless we continue to support the efforts of the UN, including those of the special envoy Martin Griffiths, in this respect. I assure the noble Lord that wherever we have influence, including with those involved directly in the crisis such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we are seeking to bring that to bear.
My Lords, can the Minister comment on what appear to be large underspends in DfID programmes in Yemen? I will highlight two, which are both scheduled to end at the end of this month: support for displaced people and migrants, which has a budget of £36 million and a spend to date £22.6 million, and the Yemen multisector humanitarian response programme, which has a budget of £92 million and a spend of just under £80 million. What are the reasons behind this? Can the Minister give the House some indication as to what degree it is our friends and allies—I use those words advisedly—in the Saudi-led coalition who are raising obstacles to aid distribution?
My Lords, as the noble Baroness may well be aware, the major obstacle to aid distribution is in the north of the country; current estimates suggest that 7 million people are affected in that part of Yemen, which is an all-time high. The situation has been exacerbated because that area is controlled by the Houthis. The noble Baroness will be further aware that they have sought to impose a 2% levy on all distribution of humanitarian aid. As Her Majesty’s Government—I am sure she acknowledges this—we are responsible for every penny of aid that is spent. It is important that this is done in a responsible manner. She should not judge the underspend but rather the effective delivery of aid to reach the most vulnerable that we are seeking to secure through UN agencies. The situation is desperate: 80% of the population are in need of humanitarian aid, but the main situation is exacerbated in the north.
Can the Minister confirm the figures being given by ACLED that, so far in this terrible war, 100,000 people have been killed including 12,000 civilians, that 85,000 people have died as a result of the famine that has ensued from the war, and that approximately 130 children are dying every single day? Is this not the moment for us to appeal to the Governments of both Iran and Saudi Arabia to urge their proxies to end this war, not least in the current circumstances where people will now be dying of the coronavirus? In this situation, does the Minister really think that anyone will be collecting data on the number of fatalities from the virus?
In answer to the noble Lord’s final question, it is extremely challenging to be able to ascertain that data, not least because of the challenges to our ability to access the most vulnerable, which I raised earlier in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan. I agree on the specific statistics. I do not have the detail in front of me, but those figures resonate with the figures we have been using at DfID. When I spoke of 80% of the population, that is 24.1 million people in Yemen who need humanitarian assistance. On calling time, yes, absolutely; we are supporting UN efforts and imploring all sides—including, indeed, those operating through proxies and those with influence, namely the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran—to call time. People are suffering, people need help and it should happen now.
My Lords, that question has come up before. We operate a very rigorous regime in this regard. I note, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, is in his place, that I have written specifically on that. There was an issue about licences being issued by the Department for International Trade. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has responded and there is a detailed report in that regard laid in the Library of the House.
My Lords, as part of its coronavirus response, NHS 111 has already trained an additional 1,000 call-handlers. NHS England has been clear that investment will increase as demand continues to rise. As part of the health system’s wider response to the coronavirus, the GMC, the NMC and other professional regulators have written to professionals who have left their registers within the past three years to ask them to return to support the coronavirus response.
My Lords, I first acknowledge the Lord Speaker’s demonstrable leadership in deciding to work from home. We need to remember that we are televised and we need to model the behaviour we are asking of the rest of the country. I thank the Minister for his response, but draw his attention to the fact that there are many retired professional health workers who wish to contribute to the NHS and social care needs of our population in all four countries of the UK but who have their own health concerns. Many, like myself, are fit enough to return to clinical practice and are of course willing to do so. However, utilising others by quickly teaching them a specific algorithm for the Covid-19 virus could relieve anxiety and provide advice to our population and, in particular, relieve NHS 111 to deal with other concerns. We are very worried that, even in the short term, people with perhaps severe problems who should be ringing 999, but do not know that until they have rung 111, will have to wait a disproportionately long time. I wonder whether we could see how quickly we could get a specific line using the expertise of the people I referred to.
The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, reflects the feeling of all the House in her comments on the Lord Speaker, and I entirely endorse her comment that we must all respect the guidance and advice given to us by the Government. I pay tribute to the Lord Speaker for his comments on that subject.
In terms of 111, she is entirely right that the NHS is under acute pressure, which is particularly felt on the front line in the interaction with concerned people who are understandably phoning 111. The 111 system is recruiting a large number of new handlers. In addition, we have put a letter through the GMC, NMC and other professional bodies and there will be a registration page on the front page of those bodies’ websites—it will be going up very shortly, either tomorrow or very soon afterwards, I believe—for recently retired professionals to register their interest in rejoining their local NHS health authorities in some way. Those applications will then be passed on to the local authorities and triaged, and the applicants will be allocated suitable responsibilities. I pay tribute to all those who are thinking of returning or have returned to active service, often putting themselves in danger and taking risks in the service of the NHS to look after patients. The skills of the recently retired may range from those who are younger and active and can be on the wards through to older people who may have desk-based tasks, but it is up to the local authorities to decide where best they can conduct their services.
My Lords, will my noble friend join me in congratulating the Lord Speaker on the leadership he has given? I declare my interest, as in the register: I work with the Dispensing Doctors’ Association. Can my noble friend address the question of professional indemnity for those wishing to return to practise as recently retired nurses, doctors or other medical professionals? Can he also address the question that I have written to him about regarding the severe shortage on the front line of PPE, which is apparently in warehouses? It really needs to get to the front line.
The question of indemnity insurance is addressed in detail in the coronavirus emergency Bill. We are fully aware of the concerns of anyone returning to work, and indeed anyone who might have indemnity insurance in one area of practice but who will be asked to take on exceptional duties required as part of this emergency—the surgeon, for instance, who takes on respiratory support duties. Those indemnities will be thorough and will cover all work. In terms of the warehouses for PPE, it is incredibly important that there is load allocation according to the need for the PPE, not necessarily the demands of local authorities. There is therefore an active allocation of PPE to those areas that have the highest incidence of the virus. That is being managed centrally in a thoughtful and professional manner.
My Lords, I direct the House to my medical and other interests in the register. I have no doubt that NHS 111 and other helpline medical professionals and health professionals will give the best advice. But Professor John Ioannidis at Stanford University has pointed out that we are making major changes in the way we run society, on necessarily limited evidence for what happens with this virus. Can those working on NHS 111 and any other advice lines also take epidemiological data on the length of time and types of symptoms and, particularly, geographical spread, and feed that data back to research institutes inside and outside the NHS, so that we can get the best handle possible, as soon as possible, on how this virus operates?
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, is entirely right: one of the features of this virus is its extremely unpredictable nature. The way in which it reacts in different people at different times is extraordinarily diverse. Some people appear to be completely knocked out by it; some have the lightest possible symptoms. There seems to be an alignment with age. We are all enormously thankful that the young and very young seem to be blessed by having the light symptoms. We are all extremely concerned about the old, but it is not even as simple or as linear as that. A huge investment is being put into understanding the virus better. I am pleased to report to the Chamber that international co-operation on that is extensive and positive, and that British researchers are at the leading edge of pulling together that data.
My Lords, this is a question on co-ordination. Yesterday, I saw the script that 111 is using right now; it was perfectly intelligible and sensible. However, it was out of step with what was on Public Health England’s website. I am sure that is a timing issue but it is rather important, because it will increase anxiety. Moreover, the digital exclusion of the elderly and vulnerable is a really serious problem because suggesting to people that they should go online in the first instance is entirely inappropriate for people who can manage a phone, but that is about it. Many of us are probably related to people in that position, so having plans to deal with that—as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins—is very important.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, is right that the Government have moved incredibly quickly, particularly in the last two weeks. The pace of the virus has been faster than initially expected. The response by some of our international partners has in part conditioned our response, and we are working extremely hard to ensure that all parts of the machine keep up with each other. There will inevitably be occasional glitches, but I pay tribute to the NHS, Public Health England and, in fact, the entire Whitehall machine for moving incredibly quickly and, under the circumstances, demonstrating a relatively high level of consistency in the advice as policy has changed.
My Lords, vaccine development is moving very rapidly but is still at a very early stage. The Government are working closely with industry to assess UK manufacturing capability for a range of potential new vaccines. The type of capacity and specific route needed to take this further will be determined by the technology used to produce the vaccines and the types of vaccines produced.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. The Question is about not just the production of vaccines but the production facilities to mass-produce them. Understandably, the priority now must be supporting those infected and the front-line staff with the production of ventilators. However, we should be planning for what comes next, as the Minister said, and the development of vaccines is part of that. What discussions have been had, or decisions made, between the Government and UKRI about scaling up? When we get the vaccine, that will be fine, but what about the ability to scale it up? We will need to build the factory now; normally that comes after. Can we explore a little further whether the work on scaling up is happening, as well as the development of the vaccine?
The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, is entirely right to focus on the importance of vaccines. The Government are extremely concerned that the entire public have a clear line to having confidence that they can rid themselves of the threat of the virus so that we can all get back to work and normal life. That will not be possible until we have a vaccine. If I may digress for a moment, one consideration is that, for a vaccine to work, it will have to be taken by billions; for that, it must be as safe as houses. I contrast that with the vaccine for Ebola, where the death rate was at nearly 80% and a just-about-good-enough approach could be taken. However, the coronavirus has a relatively low mortality rate and the introduction of an added risk factor into the population is something we can avoid. For those reasons, the development of a vaccine is considered to be at least a year or 18 months off. However, the noble Lord is entirely right that planning for the production of the vaccine, when it is fully developed, is front of mind for the Government.
My Lords, ever since John Snow discovered the link between the famous London water pump and the cholera outbreak in 1854, UK scientists and innovators have led global efforts to tackle infectious diseases. We should be very proud of that. However, many UK biotechs and healthtechs which are leading the race to fight Covid-19 are loss-leading and will struggle to raise risk capital in the current climate to maintain operations. One very simple intervention the Treasury could make would be to pay R&D tax credits in advance. This would be matched very well to each individual company and could be based simply on their most recent claims. Will the Minister look into this as a matter of urgency?
My noble friend has an important and exciting idea, and I am grateful to her for communicating it to me in advance of today’s Question. I have already taken the idea to Treasury colleagues. I have not had a formal response, but the idea supports a pressing and important need in the essential life sciences sector and seems to have strong merit. I hope it will go far.
My Lords, the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, was very clear: it is not about the production of a vaccine but the facilities to manufacture that vaccine at scale. At the moment, the Government have made £46 million available for research into the vaccine. What money and planning are going into the facilities so that, once a vaccine has been made, it can be produced at scale in the UK?
The focus on the actual production of the vaccine is a matter of sequencing. We are moving incredibly quickly in all areas, but the focus at the moment, I think understandably, is on trying to get a product developed. In that respect, I bear testimony to the Oxford Vaccine Group and Jenner Institute at Oxford University, which have been shortlisted for the CEPI group of seven for potential vaccine development. This is an incredibly important development and shows the strength of Britain’s contribution to the development of vaccines.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, as with the practice we followed yesterday, there will be a short adjournment before the Statement to allow noble Lords to maintain social distancing as they leave and enter the Chamber. I suggest that we adjourn during pleasure for five minutes until 11.44 am.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made yesterday in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement regarding changes to the operations of educational settings as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. We are facing increasingly difficult challenges, and once again I express my extraordinary gratitude to staff in all our schools, colleges, nurseries and universities who are doing so much.
I know that the situation has become increasingly challenging. I said before that if the science and the advice changed, such that keeping schools open would no longer be in the best interests of children and teachers, we would act. We are now at that stage.
The spike of the virus is increasing at a faster pace than anticipated, and it is crucial that we continue to consider the right measures to arrest this increase and relieve pressure on the health system. The public health benefits of schools remaining open as normal are shifting. It is also clear that schools are finding it increasingly difficult to continue as normal, as illness and self-isolation impact on staffing levels and pupil attendance. I want to provide parents, students and staff with the certainty they need.
After schools shut their gates on Friday afternoon—tomorrow—they will remain closed until further notice. That will be for all children except those of key workers and the children who are most vulnerable. The scientific advice shows that these settings are safe for this small number of children to continue attending, but asking others to stay away will help us to slow the spread of this virus. Examples of key workers include NHS staff, police and delivery drivers, who need to be able to go to work. Vulnerable children include those who have a social worker and those with education, health and care plans. Looking after these children will enable schools to support the country through this incredibly difficult and extremely challenging time. We are expecting early years providers, sixth forms and further education colleges to do the same. We are working with Her Majesty’s Treasury on the financial support that will be required. I am also asking that independent schools and boarding schools follow the same approach.
We will give schools the flexibility to provide meals or vouchers to children eligible for free school meals. Some schools are already doing this, and we will make sure that those costs are reimbursed. As soon as possible, we will put in place a national voucher system for every child who is eligible for free school meals. I know that all this will not be easy. I am asking nurseries, schools and colleges to be at the forefront of our national response to this crisis.
Given the unprecedented asks that we are making of all those working in educational settings at this time, I recognise that we are asking so much of them. We will be asking them to provide for these settings to be open to children of key workers and to vulnerable children during the Easter holidays as well.
I recognise that what schools will be doing in these circumstances will look very different from the normal state of affairs, and we will ensure that leaders have the flexibility that they need to face this challenge. To allow schools and other settings to focus on this new operational model and the support they can give to these young people, we are removing various duties. Ofsted has ceased all routine inspections of early years, schools, colleges and children’s social care services. I can confirm that we will not go ahead with assessments or exams, and that we will not be publishing performance tables for this academic year. We will work with the sector and Ofqual to ensure that children get the qualifications that they need.
My department is working closely with local authorities, representatives of early years, schools and headteachers, regional school commissioners and bodies such as Ofsted and Ofqual on how to deliver this change as effectively as possible. We will do whatever is necessary to support local authorities, schools and teachers through the weeks and months ahead.
I know that many universities and other higher education institutions are already taking necessary steps to keep their staff and students safe and, where possible, keep providing education. I am confident that vice-chancellors are making the right decisions and my department continues to support them in doing so.
This is a testing time for the whole nation, but by asking schools and other settings to look after the children of key workers and the most vulnerable, we will be directly saving people’s lives. Whether you are a parent or a teacher, I want you to know that your well-being and that of your children is the absolute priority for me and my department. We are completely committed to ensuring that every child receives the best education possible, and we will be working with the BBC and others to provide resources for children to access at home.
I am deeply grateful for the civic spirit and selfless dedication that has been, and continues to be, shown by teachers and other school workers every single day. I am committed to giving my full support throughout every stage of this crisis to those who are doing so much for all of us. I know that our teachers and those working in education have the full support of the House and that honourable Members will do what they can to support schools and other providers in their constituencies through this period of great change. I wish to thank them in advance for all the work that they will do. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank the party opposite, particularly the honourable Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, for their co-operation, advice and thoughts at this time.
Our headteachers and teachers are central to the country’s response to the current crisis, and I am reassured by their readiness to step up and take the lead in supporting families through this most incredibly difficult time. All of those who work in our schools, colleges and universities rightly take their place next to our NHS staff and other key workers as central to our efforts as a country in battling this virus, and I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart for all of their support and all they do. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We support the decision to close schools, which was clearly made on safety grounds. I have a list of questions for the Minister, and I ask her to write to me on any that she feels unable to answer today.
What steps are the Government taking to facilitate co-operation between nurseries, schools and childcare providers and local communities? In particular, can she offer clarification on childminders, who are not mentioned in the Statement but play a significant role in out-of-school care? Does the Minister anticipate that education providers will need to pool resources, including staff and premises, in order to care for vulnerable children and the children of key workers? This raises safeguarding considerations because usually DBS checks apply to specific schools and premises, and it may not be possible for people simply to transfer to another establishment. What planning have the Government done in that regard?
What provision will be available for what would have been the Easter holiday period? The Minister will be aware that working parents usually rely on recreational groups, clubs and camps, which will of course not be operating, as well as on grandparents and relatives, contact with whom is being discouraged. The Statement mentions that schools will have the flexibility to provide meals or vouchers to children eligible for free school meals, but as noble Lords will be aware free school meals are a passport to benefits. Given that more children are likely to become eligible for them in coming weeks as the economic impact of this pandemic claims jobs and wages, can the Minister give an assurance that these newly eligible children will also be entitled to the voucher system? I am sure she will acknowledge that we cannot afford a lead-in time for such changes.
We understand that the list of key workers will be issued tomorrow. The Statement mentioned NHS staff, but that term encompasses not merely doctors, nurses and paramedics. Hospitals need countless other categories of staff to function effectively, so I hope the Minister will confirm that they will be regarded as key because that is precisely what they are. There must surely be an absolute guarantee that we can look after the children of parents needed to carry out essential work at this time, including food distribution workers, police, fire and rescue staff and those who are working to produce medical equipment, not least those in industries that have been repurposed to produce essential ventilators. Although she will not want to list the categories of staff at this point, can she clarify whether the childcare being provided in schools will apply to children where only one parent is a key worker, or will it require both to be so categorised?
A major concern to thousands of students and their parents is the abandonment of GCSE and A-level exams. The Statement says that the DfE will work with the sector and Ofqual to ensure that children get the qualifications they need. On Radio 4 this morning, the Secretary of State provided little elaboration on those words, although he seemed to suggest that grades would be awarded based on classwork, but will that be all? I have to say that Education Ministers over the past decade have demonstrated something of an aversion to teacher assessments, which suggests that there might well be an additional measurement, perhaps some form of online assessment. I hope that the Minister will rule that out, as it would impact disproportionately on disadvantaged students, whose home environment, not least the availability of suitable IT, could leave them in some difficulty. Awarding grades may be suitable for those who are doing well, but what about those on the margins? The difference between a 4 and a 5 grade at GCSE can be crucial, and of course all sorts of options are closed to young people who do not have passes in English and maths. What comfort can the Minister offer to those students and their families?
Predicted grades may be sufficient to enable young people to go up to university later this year, but what of those who are already there who will be unable to sit their finals? Most of the restrictions announced in the Statement do not apply to universities, but I hope that the government are not willing to leave all aspects of entry to and graduation from universities in these unprecedented times in the hands of individual institutions. That would produce a patchwork system, not a level playing field, which surely must be avoided.
Never before, not even in time of war, have all schools been closed. These are extraordinary times, and naturally, parents and carers are very concerned. I put on record our thanks to and support for all those working in our education and children’s services through the crisis. They, along with parents and learners of all ages, now seek both reassurance and guidance from the Government.
My Lords, I associate myself with the last few comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson. This is an unprecedented time and an unprecedented challenge. However, we still need a bit more clarification. If we are going to hear later on today about who are the key workers and the categories, can the Minister give us more of a hint about which groups they will go into? Delivery drivers would probably not have been regarded as key workers before this occasion. Where exactly will this go? If a little more guidance could be provided today on the categories of people, if not the exact job descriptions, that would help the situation.
Then we come on to the list of those who will be going to school. I and the Minister have had, shall we say, a bit of cut and thrust already on education, health and care plans, although she has not been in post that long. This is probably an occasion where, to be perfectly honest, the health and care part of that plan is probably more important. Are all people with the plans to be treated in exactly the same way? When I listened to the Commons yesterday, people in special schools was a particularly popular topic of discussion. Will all special schools with a residential capacity automatically be gathered in? Is there any categorisation within them, and so on? The plan seems nice and comprehensive, but it covers a great deal of things. For once, I do not think that dyslexics are a special case here. My group is not the highest priority. Can we make sure that we look at this so that we get practical solutions? It might be a little bit too soon to do this, but then again it has to start functioning by Monday. What will happen there?
The Government seem to have gone to the BBC, saying “Give us a hand”. Have not times changed a wee bit? However, it has a huge resource available to it via iPlayer to enable large numbers of students to continue their courses and study. Will the Government work with the BBC to get particular packages together to help people? For instance, I think you can probably do it at the moment off the top of your head with history programmes for history and English language, and there will be other subjects which I do not bother looking at, so I do not know about them. What are the Government doing there? Also, surely the other public service broadcasters should take this up as well. Is there a co-ordinated approach coming so you have this available? A large amount of support is actually almost at our fingertips here. How are we going to use it? That would be valuable to know.
On free school meals, once again, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, how will this work? The voucher system, again, has to be functioning by Monday. What is happening there, and when will the general public know what is happening? They have to know. It is no good us finding out and then finding out in a week or two. They have to find out what is going on by Monday. Could we have a bit more guidance on that?
Nobody wanted to do this, but if the Government feel that this is the correct thing and they have the advice, we can only go with them. However, we need to know how it will work. Clichés come to mind, but the one about the road to hell being paved with good intentions is nagging at the back of my head here.
My Lords, I am grateful for the support from both the noble Lords. This action has been taken primarily to protect the public from the spread of this disease. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for accepting that some of his questions I will have to answer by letter. Registered childminders are covered by our request, and during the Easter holidays, school leaders—including those from independent schools —and local authorities will work collaboratively on the ground to deliver this. That is not just an expectation; we know it will happen. We expect that during the holidays they will be pooling so that staff can get a break as well, because the provision for key workers and this vulnerable group of children is significantly less than for a normal pupil cohort.
Eligibility for free school meals was dealt with directly by the Secretary of State yesterday afternoon, and included those who have or will become eligible for free school meals. I had to read out yesterday’s Statement verbatim, but the voucher system is sorted out and schools will be reimbursed. Certain schools have already been purchasing supermarket vouchers and will be reimbursed for those costs, while others are continuing to provide food. We are leaving to the discretion of head teachers which they choose to do.
Today, the Cabinet Office will issue a list of what are key workers in relation to school attendance. Regarding disadvantage to students, I say that the system for awarding examination grades will be fair to all. A proper and fair qualification will be awarded. We will know tomorrow what it will look like, as a lot of consultation and engagement was needed with Ofqual, universities and head teachers, about how to handle fairly and justly a situation that is unprecedented, trying to honour, respect and award properly the work that these students and young people have been putting in. It is taking some time to work out.
Every child with an EHCP is covered in the definition of a vulnerable child. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, referred to this. There will be guidance regarding atypical settings, including the special schools that are residential. There are issues around keeping children in those environments, and around what household isolation means when you are in a boarding school, because we are aware that there will still be young people in those boarding houses, particularly looked-after children within that education system. The guidance will, I hope, be the practical solution that the noble Lord was talking about, and will think through all the detailed implications of the decisions.
This is a time of national unity. Everyone is being engaged, including of course the BBC, which, along with other providers, will use its iPlayer system to broadcast educational material, enabling children to still learn while they are at home. Guidance will be going out to teachers about remote teaching. Some have a lot of experience of this and some do not. We are trying to give them the best help that we can. At a time when we are prioritising the curtailment of this disease—trying to stop its spread—it is important that we all work together. We are seeing that on the ground between different schools and with local authority staff, particularly in adult and child social care, who are working above and beyond the call of duty at the moment.
My Lords, in the light of these Covid-19 emergency measures, which are entirely understandable, what help will the Government provide to our excellent universities, which, as we heard earlier, are contributing significantly to our understanding of this emergency and to its solution? We need to recognise that those universities now face the triple whammy of uncertainty over A-levels and admissions for the autumn, and therefore fees from UK students, the loss of overseas student fees and other income—for example, from residencies—and, in the light of the falls in stock markets internationally, a potential emergency revaluation of the USS pension scheme.
Universities are separate to this Statement. It is down to the discretion of vice-chancellors following the Public Health England guidance, but we are working with universities and the Treasury in relation to the financial implications. The Secretary of State mentioned particularly the anticipated drop in international students later on in the year, so we are working closely with them and anticipate that on a case- by-case basis they will keep some of their accommodation occupied along with some of their boarding houses. Looked-after children, estranged students and students who are care leavers will potentially need to stay on campus. We are dealing with those issues, and I will write with any further detail to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, following on directly from that question, is there any clarity at this stage about predicted grades and university entrance for those currently doing A-levels or equivalent qualifications? As my noble friend will be aware, many schools and colleges predict grades that end up being higher than the actual grades received by students. Universities such as mine—I declare an interest as the pro-vice-chancellor of a university—will often take on children who have not attained the grades that they were predicted, so a large amount of our intake and that of other universities lower down the league tables, if you can say “down”, is during clearing. Has any consideration therefore been given to those universities that will be oversubscribed based on predicted grades, if that is what the requirement will be, and those that will clearly be undersubscribed? What financial packages will be put in place to ensure that we do not lose any university during this time?
The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, raises some of the detailed issues that arise in this unprecedented situation. These matters are being taken into account. Whenever you think about the situation, another implication arises. All that she says will be noted and taken back. As I say, though, the assessment of grades for examinations is something that will be out, I believe, tomorrow.
My Lords, I have to say that in the 33 years I have sat in this House this is by far the worst education Statement that I have ever listened to. It is wholly inadequate. As the National Association of Head Teachers has said, far more questions arise from it than answers. Before a Statement of this sort is produced, the work should have been done. The Department for Education and the Government have had plenty of time; they have been considering this issue for some weeks yet have come up with something that leaves parents, teachers and pupils in disarray.
I shall just give two examples—I would like to give many others but I must not take up too much of the House’s time. First, the Government have said that schools are going to be kept open for people in the workforce who are in key jobs, not only in the National Health Service but in many other areas. There is absolutely no clarity about how these schools will be chosen. The schools are closing tomorrow night, so what happens on Monday morning when a nurse who works in a crucial ICU does not know what to do or where to send her children? This preparation should have been done properly and it has not. How does the Minister think the system is going to work from Monday when there are so many uncertainties?
Secondly, there is the cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams. Any Minister who has been responsible for this area knows that you cannot play about with the exam system until you have done the necessary preparation so that pupils’ and teachers’ questions can be answered. We have a generation of young people now whose mental health is being jeopardised by the fact that they have not a clue what is going to happen to them regarding their university or job applications—or their college applications, if we are talking about GCSE.
Does the Government agree that it is vital that there is clarity about university entrance? Does the Minister agree that the simplest system would simply be to take the predicted grades, which are all centrally collected and every university has them for the applications they have received, and that any young person who has been made an offer at those predicted grades or below should be told within the next fortnight that their place will be guaranteed? If not, they will be left in extreme uncertainty and misery.
I agree with the noble Baroness that this is the worst Statement, but considering the situation the country faces, if it were possible to provide all the certainty with one click, it would be done. However, parents can be certain that, under the announcement, all schools will be open on Monday, but only for key workers and vulnerable children. In her example, that mother or father needs to go to school as normal if they are a key worker or their child is a vulnerable child. There could not be more consideration and importance being given to the disruption that we are aware will be caused to families as of Monday and to this generation of young people. As the noble Baroness accepted, it is not simple to work out a fair and just qualification for students, but if students are unhappy with the grade that they have been given in whatever the system that will be announced tomorrow is, there will be a way for them to have some form of redress. I assure her that all our education professionals, local authority professionals and central education staff are working as quickly as possible to provide accurate guidance, which, unfortunately, takes some time.
My Lords, I declare an interest: I have two grandsons about to take A-levels and one about to do music exams, all of which have been cancelled, and a granddaughter about to do GCSEs. There is very little reassurance in this Statement about what the Government intend to do for the thousands of young people who will see all their hard work being done for nothing at all. They need some solid measures about their futures urgently. The noble Baroness said that something is coming tomorrow that will provide a fair and just solution, but what are the Government planning to avoid mass distress and demotivation among our teenagers? Finally, there has been very little mention of further education and what is happening with technical qualifications. Are they equally going up in smoke?
The noble Baroness is correct: the reassurance that we need to give will be given in the guidance regarding exams tomorrow. All the qualifications, including, for instance, the independent training providers and the apprenticeship training that goes on, are up for consideration and we recognise that they are all affected in the same way.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the mother of a teacher at Graveney School, a secondary school in south London. She is working hard with her A-level students to see that they get the best support possible. However, she and other teachers I know well have expressed concern that the IT equipment they have to provide distance learning if they have to work from home is not necessarily of the order that you would expect, for example, a university lecturer to have been given. Will the Government consider emergency help for schools to purchase up-to-date IT equipment for teachers to work effectively, certainly over the next six months?
Is my noble friend aware that the 1,300 independent schools belonging to the Independent Schools Council want to do all they can to assist their local communities? I declare my interest as a former general secretary of the council. Has my noble friend noted in particular that they are anxious to help with childcare? To that end, they are getting in touch with their local authorities to concert practical plans. Finally, I ask the Government to bear carefully in mind the grave difficulties that independent schools will suffer if they are unable to secure help from insurance companies for business interruption.
I am grateful to my noble friend for that question. Yesterday afternoon, I had the pleasure of speaking to the heads of both the ISC and the Boarding Schools’ Association. They passed on that message, particularly in relation to looked-after children who are in their care and will remain in their care for the moment. We are grateful for their offer of support, which I have passed on to the Secretary of State. When we talk about collaboration locally, that means all schools and colleges, including the independent sector.
My Lords, I welcome the assurance that we will hear more tomorrow about the future of exams, particularly A-levels, but I want to return to the issue. I cannot see the building blocks that are in place for a good decision to be arrived at. Given the move to end-of-course assessment, were we not to have exams, there is no national, universal, commonly agreed coursework that has been assessed and moderated and could be put towards the final grade. I would guard against using predicted grades as a decisive factor in determining whether a child goes to university. All the evidence shows that children from working-class backgrounds are constantly underpredicted in their A-level grades. I want the noble Baroness to address this question in particular: when the decision arrives tomorrow, what are the building blocks on which the Government are trying to make a vehicle for us to go forward? I just cannot see them, which concerns me the most.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I reiterate that this will be a fair and just situation for all students. It is good that we are aware of factors such as underpredictions; all these matters are being taken into consideration. At the moment, I am not able to give details on the building blocks, but I expect that tomorrow’s guidance will give the noble Baroness the answers she requires.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a chair of governors at an inner-city primary school. I want to share some of the questions that my head teacher seeks clarification on.
First, only in the last hour have we had a communication from a social worker who is now working from home; they are attached to a vulnerable child but will be unable to see them. They are therefore asking the school to be the lead player in this relationship, rather than them. If the Minister does not have answer on this, it would be very helpful to have clarification soon on who leads in such a relationship. Whether people are working from home, or vulnerable families are self-isolating at the moment, who is the key worker who owns that relationship? If it is the school, then by all means it is the school, but we lack clarity on that at the moment. We already have a specific problem there.
My second question is about those families who are not in the free school meals category but are in-work poor. What are we going to do about them? For instance, would the Minister allow a head teacher discretionary powers to determine which families should get additional support, rather than the statutory voucher version of free school meals? Where is the ability for a head teacher, who knows the community well and can identify the children they know will not have a decent meal during this period, to use their discretion?
I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I invite all noble Lords to keep these specific questions coming. We want to hear about the issues on the ground. I will confirm to the noble Baroness who the key worker is when the social worker is at home. In relation to head teachers, we are in collaboration with local authorities and expect them to use their discretion as they know their communities best. I will have to come back to her to clarify whether all those costs are covered by the reimbursement of free school meals provision that the Secretary of State announced yesterday.
My Lords, I first commend my noble friend and her department on the heroic efforts they are clearly making to deal with the consequences and complexities of this difficult decision. I would like to ask a slightly different type of question. As an economist, I have seen so many times that models based on extrapolations or assumptions can turn out to be incorrect. Should we find ourselves in the fortunate position in a few weeks’ time that the predictions have turned out to be less dire than we might currently expect, is there some leeway to look at reviving the examination prospects for this younger cohort with respect to either GCSEs or A-levels, albeit perhaps a bit delayed, so that the knock-on consequences for universities might not be so significant and we might be able to pick up through the summer?
My Lords, on the latter part of the noble Baroness’s question, we are acting on the scientific evidence; that is what has informed this decision. It would be utterly inaccurate of me to speculate at all about the future; we are making decisions on the basis of the scientific information that we have. I agree with her that there are heroic efforts happening on the front line as we speak, for schools and local authorities to prepare for what will happen on Monday. I welcome the comments of all noble Lords. We want to hear, whether directly through noble Lords or through local authorities, about all these granular issues that we know we need to address over the coming days.
My Lords, clearly the educational world is working extraordinarily hard—one welcomes that—in its determination to deal with an extraordinarily difficult situation very quickly and under huge pressure. If we follow the Imperial College analysis model that was recently published, we can see in certain circumstances the repeated waves of Covid-19 going on for 18 to 24 months. At what point will we begin to move towards a longer-term view of what needs to happen? Clearly, schools cannot be closed for two years. I wonder whether the Government have in their mind the planning for the eventuality of longer-term infectious prevalence in this country.
I am grateful to the most reverend Primate. At the moment, the Government are responding step by step to the scientific evidence that we have. Unlike in many situations, it is not possible for us to predict what might happen in the medium and longer term. We have only the scientific information to hand at the moment. I add to the tributes paid when I say that I had the pleasure yesterday of speaking to the head of the Church of England Education Service and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who are leading on Church of England schools, and the Catholic Education Service. We are going to need all their assistance. In particular, these groups have a lot of DBS-checked people who can give further assistance to our schools, and they are sometimes geographically placed right next to the local school.
My Lords, as a non-affiliated Member, I would like to raise a special plea with the Minister. Parents will be forced to make very difficult choices between care provisions for their children and work. This will have dire economic consequences, particularly for those on zero-hour contracts and the self-employed. The hospitality sector, where a lot of these people work, is decimated, including theatres, art establishments, cinemas and other associated venues. Therefore, I plead with the Minister, to make the case to the other departments that it is absolutely vital that we have employment protection, as well as access to benefits, for the self-employed and those on zero-hour contracts.
My Lords, the Government are keenly aware that, in taking the decisions that we have in relation to movement of the public and schools to suppress the peak, there are massive implications for the economy, and a raft of measures have been introduced in relation to that. We have made changes to arrangements for statutory sick pay: it is now payable on first day off, and self-isolation is viewed as a sickness. The minimum income floor has been lowered in relation to self-employed people. But, yes, there is much work still to do on alleviating the effects on the economy for us all.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister recognises that it takes quite a while to get an education, health and care plan in place. I have been approached overnight by a number of teachers who are very concerned that there are children who are half way through the process and who will not yet have a plan, but who are vulnerable. Schools would definitely want to welcome them in. Can she confirm that it will be for the schools to decide which children come into the vulnerable category? Can she further confirm that the vouchers, which have been put in place very quickly, will actually be redeemable and that there will be somewhere for them to be redeemed, and that schools which want to keep their kitchens open will in some way or other be assured of food deliveries?
As the Minister said, local authorities will have a role in ensuring that all schools, whatever their governance, type and style, are encouraged to work together through the local authority to make provision in the most effective way. Can the Minister confirm that teachers are also key workers in these circumstances, and that their children have to go to school so that they can be at work providing a place for other people’s children to be looked after and, we hope, in some measure educated?
My Lords, on vulnerable children, the EHC plan process and the needs assessment, we expect head teachers to collaborate with the local authority. There will be discretion for them on who is considered a vulnerable child. We trust them to make the appropriate decisions.
It has been clarified by the Box that the vouchers we are talking about are supermarket vouchers. Some schools have already been purchasing supermarket vouchers, which is why we say that they will be reimbursed for that cost. I know that all schools, including those in the independent sector, and childcare providers will be working closely on the ground to ensure that we can deliver this change in education to enable key workers to keep the services going that we need to protect us from the disease. As I said, the list of key workers will come out today, but I can confirm that teachers are key workers.
My Lords, I have considerable sympathy for the Minister, because she has not been dealt a particularly strong hand. Perhaps I might ask her a question which appears to raise a slightly improbable issue: security. As I understand it, head teachers will be receiving on Monday those children who are qualified to be admitted. May I put the scenario of a desperate parent whose job may be on the line if they do not go into work? If such a person, through perfectly good motives, feels determined to press the issue, there is a severe risk of unpleasantness, if not something more. What consideration have the Government given to the notion that there will be a division between, if you like, sheep and goats, and that those who fall on the wrong side may, to put it mildly, cut up rough?
My Lords, all I can say to the noble Lord is that it is for head teachers, in collaboration with the local authority, to be making these decisions. Obviously, we do not expect hordes of parents to be presenting at school when this information will have gone out. But there may be isolated cases, which we know and trust the head teacher, in collaboration with the local authority, will deal with—safely and respectfully, I hope.
My Lords, I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister about childcare funding. Can she confirm that the Government will continue to provide the funding for the free hours of childcare, even if children are not attending? Given that nurseries often rely on additional hours and private funding to keep going, what further support might the Government provide to those nurseries so that they remain a going concern during this time?
I am grateful to my noble friend. We are aware of the situation for early years funding. Yes, all the three and four year-old entitlements and disadvantaged two year-old entitlements that the Government pay will continue to be paid regardless of who walks through the door. As of yesterday, the early years providers were included in the business rates exemption. We are working closely with Her Majesty’s Treasury because we are aware of the mixed model of free entitlements funded by the Government and private income from other parents that is used by most early years providers.
First, can the Minister tell us the legal basis under which the Government are acting? She will have picked up the concerns around the House about what happens when people feel that their livelihoods are at stake if they cannot place their children in school. If they do present on Monday and head teachers seek to turn children away, what is the precise legal basis on which they will be acting? Is there one? Secondly, on the issue of social equity, year 11 students’ whole future is at stake—whether they can go on to sixth form or college next year. I do not think that they or their parents will find it satisfactory that the arrangements for tomorrow are being put in place on a hit-and-miss basis. Would not the fair way of doing this be to guarantee that all year 11 students who wish to study in the sixth form of their school should have the right to do so, and the department should make that clear to schools, and that where their school does not have a sixth form, they should have the right to study at the local FE college? If not, there will be a massive sense of discontent and inequity in the country.
My Lords, in relation to the sixth form issue, I will have to come back to the noble Lord. In relation to the legal power, obviously the Bill in relation to the coronavirus will be published today. As a lawyer, I will have to write to the noble Lord in relation to the precise legal basis that head teachers will have. But they will have protection to make the decisions that we have asked them to make.
We are told that very few children get infected. This has been proven in other countries as well. So why are we panicking so early and closing the schools when we were going to have the Easter holidays in about two weeks’ time anyway and they would all be revising at home? In which case, we would not be possibly ruining the potential future careers of this generation of children. Some children perform much better in exams, some on coursework, so we are now going to bias it towards those pupils who have a good relationship with their teachers rather than a bad relationship and who perform well on coursework. There are gender issues in that as well.
My Lords, there is no panic in relation to this. As the Statement said, the spike of the virus is increasing at a faster pace than had been anticipated. If it had been possible to introduce this later, coinciding with the school holidays, obviously that would have been ideal, but that is not the situation that we have. We have a disease that we are trying to protect the public from and that is our absolute priority. We are aware, as I say, of all the issues in relation to having a model that will give students a fair and just qualification but which is not based on their having sat an exam.
My Lords, as a former Schools Minister and Minister for Higher Education, I can begin to imagine the immense pressures under which officials and Ministers labour as they seek to find practical solutions to the myriad difficulties that become apparent in this crisis. I thank the Minister for her candour in her responses. My question to her is about the Government’s plans for communication. She has kindly said that she will write to my noble friend Lord Watson; I am sure she has more ambitious plans for communication than that. Can I urge the Government to err on the side of excess in their communications? Will she, for example, ensure that we receive emails containing detailed answers to all the questions that noble Lords today have put and to the other questions that are being asked across the country, so that all of us can assist the department in this very important challenge of communication?
Yes, I have reassured noble Lords that communication is going out daily from the department to head teachers, as it has been since early March. However, as noble Lords have requested it, in looking for the will of the House I will write to all noble Lords to answer in one fell swoop all the questions they have raised.
Covid-19: Employment Support
My Lords, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the answer to an Urgent Question made in the House of Commons by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, John Glen. The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, this is an uncertain time for our country, but the Government are clear that they will do whatever it takes to protect our people and businesses from the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out further steps in the Government’s economic response, building on the initial response he outlined in the Budget last week. This included standing behind businesses small and large, with an unprecedented package of government-backed and guaranteed loans to support businesses to get through this crisis. I have been working very closely with him and the banks and they are very clear about their responsibility to make these work.
The Government have made available an initial £330 billion of guarantees—equivalent to 15% of our GDP. That means that any business which needs cash to pay salaries will be able to access a government-backed loan, on attractive terms. The Government will do whatever it takes to support our economy through this crisis and stand ready to provide further support where necessary.
As the Chancellor announced, we will go much further to support people’s financial security, working with trade unions and business groups. Following his appearance before the Treasury Select Committee yesterday afternoon, the Chancellor spoke to the trade unions and he will today be meeting the TUC, the CBI, the BCC and the FSB—I will not spell out those acronyms. This will be with a view to urgently developing new forms of employment support to help protect people’s jobs and incomes through this period.
I am sure that you will appreciate that these are unprecedented times. The Chancellor has said he will look at further steps to help protect jobs and incomes, and he will announce further details in due course.”
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We welcome the Government’s commitment to do whatever it takes during this crisis, and especially the comments about not just standing behind business but standing shoulder to shoulder with businesses and workers and engaging with the trade unions and the TUC. I have only two questions for the Minister. First, when will the new forms of employment support be introduced? Secondly, are the Government considering paying the majority of wages to provide the job guarantees? As Gordon Brown said earlier today, if families do not have income protection, there will be a lot of other consequences. People may try to work when they are sick, putting themselves at risk, so their health becomes a public health issue.
I thank the noble Lord for his questions and for the responsible attitude that the Opposition are taking to this emergency. I am afraid that I am unable to give him a timescale at the moment; I can say only that all government departments are working as urgently as they possibly can on these matters. As soon as we have any further information on schemes that will be introduced, the Chancellor will make the appropriate announcement.
I wish to associate myself with the thanks for the Statement. The difficulty is that the people are being laid off now, and those who have no cash are the ones we worry about most. Have the Government considered paying two-thirds of salaries, like the Governments of Denmark and France, in order to ensure that people have temporary relief? Will the Government consider the very interesting Resolution Foundation suggestion of using a model of statutory maternity pay? The welcome measures yesterday for private renters will not be enough. I regret the lack of scrutiny of that in this House today. Will the Government consider looking at the local housing allowance, given that there is such a shortfall at the moment? Perhaps something could be done about that, because it reaches directly into the homes that we are most concerned about. Finally, what will happen to freelancers, from creative industries right through to cleaners? They are not in business and are not employed but self-employed. Often they do not even have the status where the Government will find them.
I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. Their extent reveals the number of different sectors of the economy that we will need to look at. As she says, they range from sole traders to small businesses and to the very largest companies. We are looking at a comprehensive package. There are a number of different international models that have been introduced. A number of think tanks in the UK have also produced suggestions. They are all being examined at the moment. We are guided by three principles: it has to be a comprehensive package; it has to be co-ordinated; and it has to be coherent. The noble Baroness will understand that we need to look at these things properly. It is no good having a scheme that comes into effect in six months’ time. It needs to work now, it needs to be available and it needs to be deliverable. We are doing all those things, and we will make the appropriate announcements as soon as we possibly can. I understand people’s natural frustration and their wish for urgent action.
I wish to make a very minor but important point. At the moment, if a company is insolvent, the workers do not get paid. They can have worked for several weeks up to the date of insolvency but when insolvency comes, their pay is basically at the mercy of the receiver, or whoever is winding up the company. In the Statement the Minister said that any business that needs cash to pay salaries will be able to access a government-backed loan. In other words, a company that cannot pay salaries but is not becoming insolvent will apparently be able to access it. I know that in its submission to the Government the TUC has asked for a relaxation of the rules on insolvent companies, and I realise that it will probably be beyond the Minister’s pay grade to agree that that will be done, but will he agree to reflect to the Government that this point has been raised and possibly to write to let us know what has been decided? This is a small category, but companies are going to go bankrupt and workers may be denied their wages, while others in companies that have not gone bankrupt will be able to access a loan. It is a small point, but it is very important.
The noble Lord speaks with great authority on these matters. This might be a small point, but I agree with him that it is important. Actually, within my ministerial portfolio I have responsibility for the Insolvency Service, although not for the Treasury and the guarantees that it will provide. I take on board my noble friend’s point and will make sure that it is conveyed to the Chancellor. My noble friend’s intervention is welcome.
I declare an interest as a freelance series producer working at Raw TV making content for CNN. The Minister was asked about coverage for the self-employed and freelancers who have been made unemployed and he said that he was looking at that and wanted it done properly. However, these people have no prospect of work at the moment. Their income has suddenly stopped, and their bills have not. Is it not possible very quickly to put in place an emergency fund, as has happened in other countries, and at the very least to extend statutory sick pay to all workers affected by Covid-19? Surely that could be done very quickly.
I think, again, the noble Lord makes a very good point. We have of course already announced extensions to statutory sick pay and the qualifying period. His points are well made and echo the points made earlier about freelancers. All the different sectors of the economy need to be looked at. We will do whatever it takes. We will put in place a comprehensive package and will announce details of that as soon as we are able to.
My Lords, all legal categories of worker will need income protection in this crisis, but can the Minister say whether the income protection proposals will cover, in the mind of the Government, five particular situations? First, there are those who will be off sick with coronavirus: clearly, they will be entitled to statutory sick pay, even though it is a pittance at £94.25 a week—a figure that will have to be increased. Secondly, there are those who are self-isolating and are not sick—at least not yet—and will not be entitled to statutory sick pay because they are not sick. Thirdly, there will be those who are off work to care for others, including children shut out of school, who will never be entitled to statutory sick pay but who do need income protection. Fourthly, there will be those who lose their jobs because of the loss of trade by reason of Covid-19 or following advice from Public Health England or the Government. I remind the Minister that the Financial Times this morning said that over 200,000 people in restaurants and catering have already lost their jobs—have been laid off—since mid-February. I noted that the figure did not include air transport or the holiday trade; I saw in the newspaper yesterday that British Airways had served an HR1, and it has 30,000 employees. Income protection must cover those who have lost or may yet lose their jobs. Fifthly, will it cover those who are redeployed from existing work to do emergency work, social care work or other work, not just volunteers?
I thank the noble Lord for his question, which illustrates the complexity of the problem, all the different factors that need to be taken into consideration, and how there needs to be a cross-government response, across a number of departments and obviously backed by the Treasury with comprehensive financing. The answer to his question is: yes, all these matters are being looked at. We are looking at various international options and proposals and we will hopefully have something to announce very soon.
Can my noble friend inform the House whether much broader thinking is now being done by government about employees who are affected by the coronavirus crisis, not just regarding health issues for those self-isolating or who have symptoms, but those who are now affected because they have children at home or because the people they work for do not have the orders and they are therefore short-working, and those who are not contractually protected—people on zero-hours contracts? Would it be easier for the Government simply to respond to people’s needs because they are impacted by coronavirus, rather than breaking them down into specific categories?
Similarly to the previous question, my noble friend’s question reflects the complexities of the issue and why a comprehensive response is required. We are working on that; we of course have universal credit, the social security system—the welfare system—for people to fall back on, but there are numerous different aspects to it and different sectors of the economy that will require a response. We are working on it urgently and cross-departmentally; the whole of government is focused on this and we will come back to both Houses as soon as we possibly can.
Hong Kong: Covid-19
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to move this Motion. There are major concerns for the people of Hong Kong. It is a pity that we have to raise issues affecting our former colony only when there is a crisis or two—whether the Covid-19 problems emanating from mainland China, which are now global and affecting our own country, or the problems concerning the anti-democratic, brutal measures being inflicted on the people of Hong Kong in their legitimate struggle for a return to the lives they enjoyed at the time of the Sino-British declaration of 1984 and the handover agreement of 1997.
I pray the indulgence of the House that the Motion before us is somewhat different from what I intended, but the world has moved on since I submitted it. Nevertheless, hopefully we can cover some of the main issues affecting Hong Kong today. Initially, I was concerned on hearing from some of my friends in Hong Kong about the difficulty of obtaining face masks, especially for the disabled, the elderly and low- income groups. They requested that I find out whether there was a surplus of face mask production in the United Kingdom in the hope that Hong Kong might be assisted in its plight.
In response, I put down a parliamentary Question on what steps the Government were pursuing to ensure sufficient face mask production for any such eventuality. The Minister—I hasten to add, not the Minister who will reply to this debate—answered:
“Face masks for the general public are not recommended to protect from infection, as there is no evidence of the benefit of their use outside healthcare environments.”
We cannot assist those in need in Hong Kong with that kind of answer. Happily, I have heard since that some considerable community initiatives in Hong Kong—from entrepreneurs, community groups and individuals—are together forcing the Hong Kong Government belatedly to be more positive in their response to the needs of the people they represent. Indeed, there was a flurry of companies and non-profit groups working together to combat this problem.
However, I wish to cover many of the other issues facing Hong Kong today. The United Kingdom was a co-signatory to the agreements of 1984 and 1997. The people of Hong Kong expect this country to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they attempt to preserve their heartfelt rights. Those who have lived in Hong Kong—in my case, during my national service in the Royal Air Force in the late 1950s—have followed the slow but relentless attempt to democratise Hong Kong. Mainland China is now using its muscle to break that progress in its determination to have a dictatorial, bureaucratic regime. By so doing, it is rightfully demonstrating that the problems are of its making. As a country, we have to do something about that.
At the time of the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984, there seemed to be great hope that future progress would be made. The guarantees that were signed by the United Kingdom and China in 1984 and registered with the United Nations were the hope of those who are now demonstrating. The treaty contained undertakings that the previous Hong Kong capitalist system and lifestyle would remain unchanged for 50 years and that the Chinese and Hong Kong law would remain. That included the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and association, the forming of trade unions, et cetera.
It is clear that the abandonment of these freedoms is a direct contradiction of the declarations. The noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, went on the record so aptly at that time, saying:
“Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise—and that is the unshakable destiny.”
But that was in 1997—a far cry from 2020.
Since the handover, we have seen an unfulfilled promise of democratisation, a weakening of the judiciary, a legislature dominated by corporate factions and cronies of the Communist Party and, for the past year, bloodshed on the streets as the guardians of law become the weapons of the state. There is a recent development that I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will wish to refer to, as he and the noble Lord, Lord Patten, made strong representations about the arrest of three citizens in Hong Kong. One is the former chairman of the Hong Kong Labour Party and another the former chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party. I will leave that, because I am sure the noble Lord knows rather more about it than I do.
The important part of my Motion is for the United Kingdom to support those citizens in their efforts for their democratic rights to be restored and to enlist the support of the United Nations, which was present at the declarations and should be involved in finding solutions to overcome the current situation. After all, there has been a breach of these agreements and the United Nations, the custodian of international law, must be enlisted by the Government to bring the Chinese to the negotiating table with the aim of bringing a successful conclusion to this crisis.
This historical backdrop illustrates the challenging relationship our nation has to strike with China, a vital trade partner, and Hong Kong, for which we bear a historical responsibility. We must press the issues of Hong Kong’s autonomy and institutions, as laid out in the Sino-British joint declaration. The pro-democracy movement demonstrated at the very beginning its legitimate response to the failure of both the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments to deliver on the commitments in the 1984 and 1997 declarations. In my view, we are duty-bound to take a lead.
The important issue of citizenship has once more raised its head. Many of us who raised this in another place during the handover proceedings in 1997 called on the British Government to give the right of abode to BNO passport holders in the event of China reneging on the joint declaration agreement. We all know now that China has done just that. In a very timely intervention, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, a former Attorney-General in a previous Labour Government, states that there is nothing to prevent the UK Government extending free right of abode to those passport holders and that it would not be a breach of the joint declaration. It would certainly be a way of showing that we in this country are in accord with those anxious people in need of such an assurance at this time.
Another issue I raised in the last debate on Hong Kong is what is happening in our universities, where Hong Kong students are suffering at the hands of fellow students from mainland China. The universities of Sheffield, Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and others are reporting problems of abuse in this regard. No group to my knowledge has suffered more than UK Hong Kong students studying here. In Cambridge, for instance, students campaigning to revoke Carrie Lam’s Cambridge honorary fellowship were harassed repeatedly by email and physically, while students who supported Hong Kong demonstrators were also subject to such abuse. In Oxford, a social media group campaigned against fellow students supportive of Hong Kong after the student union passed a motion condemning police brutality in Hong Kong.
So I call again, as I have done before, for our Government to take the lead in defending the rights of Hong Kong students expressing the democratic rights that they hold so dearly, as we do for our students in the universities. In response to my plea in the last debate, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, said that it was
“unacceptable for anyone to be intimidated by any bullying. Universities have a duty of care to protect all students.”—[Official Report, 24/10/19; col. 768.]
I agree. He wished me to give him more information. If the Minister wishes to obtain more, I have evidence to give him. The Government must give a firm and positive plea to our universities to uphold their distinctive rights for academic freedom. The Government should encourage our universities to ensure that freedom of expression is not tarnished by the antics employed by students from mainland China in these cases.
There is also the area, as far as the Chinese Government are concerned, of what they think of as their rights in the economy. Chinese economic progress cannot possibly be fulfilled without a stable Hong Kong stock market. Now, according to that excellent document by Hong Kong Watch, Why Hong Kong Matters, around 70% of its capital is raised by Chinese firms, and that is their main source of foreign funding. The document makes the point that Hong Kong’s unique status in the eyes of the world is as China’s leading financial centre, adding that progress depends on the rule of law and freedom of movement. In my view, it would be sheer madness for China not to agree to an independent inquiry into the disruptions that flowed from the legitimate demands of the demonstrators for freedom and democracy.
On a visit to Hong Kong in the early 1970s I met a young lady fresh from college, then a journalist, by the name of Emily Lau, who then as now was a passionate advocate of democracy in Hong Kong. Today she is still actively pursuing necessary change. Until recently Emily was the chairperson of the Hong Kong Democratic Party. She gives an inspirational lead to many who think that democracy Hong Kong must be pursued. We must not let her and her colleagues down.
My Lords, in these challenging and difficult times, right across the House we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for initiating today’s debate. It gives the House an opportunity to return to some of the issues that were raised on 24 October when we last debated this, when two former governors of Hong Kong, my noble friend Lord Wilson of Tillyorn and the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, also participated. Later in my remarks I will say something, as the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, has invited me to, about the arrests that have recently taken place. I should mention at the outset that I am a patron of Hong Kong Watch and vice-chair of the all-party groups on Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
We gather today against a sombre background of the coronavirus, which has claimed some 3,237 lives in China and a further four in Hong Kong. Outside China the number of deaths globally stands at 8,971. Since its emergence in Wuhan, some 81,928 people in China have become infected.
Initially, the Chinese Government delayed announcing the discovery of the virus and silenced those who sought to warn the world of what was unfolding, suppressing information rather than the virus. Every moment lost has set back the time required time to develop a vaccine.
One of the great heroes to emerge from this crisis is the ophthalmologist, Li Wenliang, who was forced to recant by the Communist authorities, and subsequently died, along with three other doctors, at his hospital in Wuhan, where he was ministering to his patients. Last week, in an interview with the Chinese magazine Renwu, meaning “people”, Ai Fen, director of the emergency at Wuhan Central Hospital, said that she too was reprimanded after alerting her superiors and colleagues of a SARS-like virus seen in patients in December. She said:
“If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand. I would have … talked about it to whoever, where ever I could”.
In a move demonstrating all the hallmarks of a dictatorship, the interview has been removed from the magazine and deleted from social media sites.
You could argue that this virus of concealment—silencing of opinion or dissent, and the crushing of doctors trying to save lives—is a far more deadly disease than coronavirus itself. When this is over, as I hope it will be, China should reflect on a lethal system and an ideology which has brought enormous suffering on the world. It is little wonder that the people of Hong Kong fear for their future, not because of Covid-19 but because of the accelerated and worrying attempts to disembowel their fundamental freedoms, the rule of law and the liberties which they have long enjoyed under “one country, two systems”. Anyone who doubts the nature of this ideology should read Julia Lovell’s spellbinding book, Maoism: A Global History.
The arrival of coronavirus in January led to open dissent in Hong Kong, which would have been crushed on the mainland. But that strike by Hong Kong’s doctors and 3,000 medical workers, who urged borders to be sealed and other measures to be taken, was a wake-up call which has saved many lives. It is notable that free Taiwan, with just 48 confirmed cases and one death, has not sacrificed democracy in controlling this disease. Instead of forcing the WHO to exclude Taiwan, Beijing should have learned from Taipei.
As ordinary people in other parts of the world come out on to their balconies to applaud the people working to save their lives, how bitterly ironic it is that, in Hong Kong, the authorities have been actively targeting medics with the threat of disciplinary action for missing work. Beijing should show less contempt for the strengths of liberal democracy and return to Deng Xiaoping’s path of reform.
Recall too that the Hong Kong Government’s initial mishandling of the crisis further entrenched divisions across the city and ingrained a deep distrust in the already faltering rule of the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam. Despite the coronavirus enforcing a hiatus on the large-scale democracy protests that we saw in Hong Kong last year, the Chief Executive continues to use archaic public order laws to detain political activists on politically motivated charges. This includes the recent arrest of Jimmy Lai, the most prominent pro-democracy newspaper owner in Hong Kong, and the former democratic lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum. These arrests call to mind the “knock on the door at the dead of night” and the rounding-up of opposition voices by the NKVD, the KGB, the Gestapo, the Securitate, the Stasi and the rest.
The methodology and practices of the Cultural Revolution, along with the totalitarianism and intolerance of authoritarian states, should be consigned to history, not mimicked in Hong Kong. The authorities there should be using all their energy and resources to fight the coronavirus, not to harass and intimidate proponents of democracy. I hope that the Government will use the Magnitsky powers and sanctions against those responsible for these appalling offences.
These arrests represent a truly shocking and very serious setback for “one country, two systems” and for Hong Kong’s freedoms. I hope that the Minister spells out what implications the arrests of three prominent mainstream pro-democracy leaders has for the prospects of “one country, two systems” and the protection of freedoms promised to the Hong Kong people under the Sino-British joint declaration and guaranteed under Basic Law. They should be galvanising the international community and urging the authorities to drop these charges.
If anything, under the cover of darkness, which this global pandemic is, we have witnessed a deepening of the attacks on Hong Kong’s basic freedoms; take, for example, the recent protests marking the six-month anniversary of the attack on commuters at the Prince Edward MTR station and the death of Chow Tsz-lok. The protests ended with the police pointing loaded guns, and pepper spraying and arresting unarmed protestors. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly expressed concern that the continued application of what it calls “unlawful assembly” against Hong Kong protesters risks violating their basic human rights.
In the past nine months, over 7,000 protestors have been arrested and only one in seven has been charged. Some 40% of those arrested attend either university or high school; this includes 750 children, the youngest of whom is just 12 years of age. The decision last week to move the pro-democracy activist Edward Leung, who is serving a six-year sentence for “rioting”, to a maximum-security prison reserved for serious criminals is a further sign of the hard-line approach that the Hong Kong Government are seeking to take.
It is noteworthy that even Iran has been freeing prisoners during this dangerous time—but not Hong Kong. Carrie Lam is no doubt following the lead of the Communist Party in Beijing, which has used the coronavirus as cover to install two hard-line loyalists in key positions in Hong Kong to do its bidding. This includes Xia Baolong, an ally of President Xi Jinping, who received international condemnation for waging an ideological war against Christians in Zhejiang province in 2014-15, involving the destruction of thousands of crosses and churches. Despite the petitions of the Swedish Government, Beijing has also pushed ahead with the harsh sentencing of the Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai. Abducted in Thailand in 2016 to stand trial in a Chinese court, the former bookseller was handed a 10-year sentence for allegedly “illegally providing intelligence overseas”. His kidnapping and draconian sentence will do little to ease the fears of many Hong Kongers that any future extradition Bill between the city and the mainland could see them too facing the Chinese Communist Party’s brand of justice.
The Chinese Communist Party this week also took the unprecedented step of announcing the expulsion of United States citizens working for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times from China, Hong Kong and Macau. It is a flagrant assault on press freedom and was roundly condemned by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and others. At a moment when the world needs openness, transparency and accountability, this serves to remind us of the nature of Beijing’s regime, and demonstrates why the majority of Hong Kongers are so fearful as they gaze across the bamboo curtain at a society that does not uphold human rights and the rule of law, and is willing to break international treaty obligations.
Can the Minister tell the House what representations the Foreign Office has made to the Government in Beijing over this clear violation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the Sino-British joint declaration? Can he also tell us what discussions he has had with his United States counterparts about the possibility of our Governments taking joint action in response? After all, what is to stop the acolytes and apparatchiks of the Chinese Communist Party turning their gaze to target US journalists who work for British news publications in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau, or even British journalists as well?
Our country’s historic, legal and moral duty to Hong Kong, as a counterbalance to the encroachment of the Chinese Communist Party, is indisputable. That is why I am deeply saddened and disturbed by reports in last week’s Sunday Times that the Home Office and Scotland Yard have been collaborating with the Chinese Government to produce facial recognition software to identify and target protestors who wear masks. The Minister needs to tell us how much British taxpayers’ money has been spent on developing this software, the extent of the British Government’s collaboration, and whether participation will be suspended as a matter of urgency. Failing to do so risks reputational damage, accusations of complicity in human rights abuses of people in Hong Kong and China, and forfeiting our right to be seen as an honest broker.
In seeking to play a constructive role, the British Government must help to de-escalate tensions in Hong Kong as part of their obligations under the 1984 joint declaration. They should support calls for an independent inquiry—referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Pendry—into the policing of last year’s protests and the current state of the rule of law. This is vital to the restoration of the reputation of the Hong Kong Police Force, trust between Hong Kongers and the Chief Executive, and Hong Kong’s standing as a city governed by the rule of law. I hope the Minister will comment on the evidence given in Parliament by the Hong Kong surgeon Darren Mann—which I heard personally—about the appalling treatment of medical workers treating those caught up in the protests.
Perhaps he would also respond to the proposal put to the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, by 173 Members of both Houses for a Commonwealth initiative to guarantee second citizenship and a second right of abode to all Hong Kong citizens, should they need it, and on the UK’s special obligation to the 200,000 British national (overseas) passport holders, many of whom are living in a state of fear, uncertain about their long-term future in Hong Kong and feeling abandoned by the British Government.
As the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, said, the House will want to hear the Minister’s response to the recent legal advice published by the former Attorney-General, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, which makes it clear that the UK Government would not
“be in breach of any obligation undertaken in the joint declaration were it to resolve to extend full right of abode to BN(O) passport holders while continuing to honour their side of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”
At the very minimum, we should offer Hong Kong students a right to remain in the UK after the completion of their studies and BNO passport holders preferential treatment under the Government’s new immigration system.
China needs the genius of Hong Kong’s people, but there will be a flight of people and capital if it continues to erode its freedoms, the rule of law and prosperity. From 2010 to 2018, Hong Kong was home to 73% of the initial public offerings of mainland Chinese companies—including Alibaba, which decided to list in Hong Kong at the height of the unrest last year. Similarly, the Hong Kong-Shanghai stock connect scheme is increasingly the preferred means by which western investors access the mainland stock market, and Hong Kong is the largest offshore centre for bond sales by Chinese companies.
Some mention Shanghai or Singapore as potential alternatives to Hong Kong, but the study by Hong Kong Watch that the noble Lord referred to found that neither is a reliable alternative in the short term. Shanghai and Hong Kong serve completely different markets and complement rather than compete with each other. Singapore’s stock market capitalisation is not in the same league and its business culture is starkly different.
The current deadlock between democracy protestors and the Hong Kong Government is unsustainable. Political reform, including universal suffrage, is the only way forward. As I saw while observing Hong Kong’s district council elections at the end of last year, its people want more democracy, not less. For as long as street protest is the only means of representation for Hong Kong’s disenfranchised populace, divisions within the city will remain and the threat of violence and escalating conflict will linger.
When he replies to this timely and very welcome debate, I hope the Minister will tell the House what conversations he has had with Chief Executive Carrie Lam about the introduction of universal suffrage, wider democratic reform and our obligations as a signatory and guarantor of the joint declaration. For now, our common humanity—whether in China or the United Kingdom, London or Hong Kong—should unite us in learning to better understand the deepest human needs and upholding the sanctity and dignity of every human life.
My Lords, I also commence by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for initiating this debate. What a pleasure it is to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He has been a stalwart defender of Hong Kong and its people’s rights for as long as I can remember, and that is a very long time. I also declare that I am a vice-president of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on China. I make my remarks today as someone who recognises the positive role that China can and sometimes does play in the world. In my criticisms of its role in Hong Kong today, I urge it to think of the longer term as a more confident leader in the world rather than an authoritarian one, which is where it is tending to in its actions in Hong Kong.
As many noble Lords have already alluded to, the arrival of Covid-19 has impacted Hong Kong in many ways as severely as Hubei province or other parts of China. I pay tribute to Hong Kong’s medical services, which are among the best in the world. The level of dedication of medics working in Hong Kong to its residents was seen during the worst of the clamp-down against protesters only a few months ago, when they risked their own safety to assist the wounded and those needing medical attention due to the disproportionate violence used against those protesters.
The good news is that after months on the front line of the Covid-19 pandemic, and despite Hong Kong’s numerous transport links with mainland China and cross-border commuting workers, its population of 7 million has had around 170 cases and only four deaths.
However, this crisis has also reinforced people’s mistrust of the Hong Kong Government. Their containment of the crisis has been thanks to their own efforts. Unlike in other countries, Hong Kongers did not wait for announcements from the Chief Executive to act against the spread of Covid-19. Instead, many elected to self-isolate weeks before they were formally asked to do so. They understood that the unique population density of Hong Kong required individual sacrifice in terms of their freedoms and their earnings, irrespective of the views of their Government.
Similarly, medical workers did not wait for the Hong Kong Government to shut the borders with the mainland to limit the spread of the virus. They went out on strike to ensure that the Government did so. In fact, much of Hong Kong’s response to Covid-19 has been precisely because the people of Hong Kong, after large, city-wide protests for months, do not trust the Government to act in their best interests.
In such a febrile environment, where images of protesters being brutalised by the police have become so widespread, the role a free press plays is particularly important and that is what I want to press the Minister on. While a free press is a paramount liberty everywhere, the freedom of the press in Hong Kong is vital, not only because it supports the free exchange of information, necessary for the city’s continuing survival as one of the largest financial centres in Asia, but as a safeguard for the rule of law and the freedoms that Hong Kong enjoys under the “one country, two systems” model. But, presumably under the instruction of Beijing, the Hong Kong Government continue to use public order ordinance laws to arrest pro-democracy activists, as has already been mentioned. This includes the Hong Kong police arresting Jimmy Lai, the most prominent pro-democracy newspaper owner in Hong Kong, as well as former lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, on politically motivated charges relating to illegal assembly last month.
Apropos Jimmy Lai, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes—with his extensive experience of Hong Kong—who has described these arrests as an attempt to frighten and intimidate the pro-democracy movement by targeting one of Hong Kong’s most notable newspaper proprietors. When people see the hand of Beijing behind these arrests, this is not a conspiracy theory; they can see the appointment of Xia Baolong as the new head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned. It is said that his appointment signals further controls by the Communist Party of China on Hong Kong and particularly on civil society.
This week has also seen the unprecedented decision by the Chinese foreign ministry to ban US journalists from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, not only from mainland China, which started happening a few weeks ago, but from Hong Kong and Macau. This move is a flagrant attack on the freedom of the press and in direct contravention of Hong Kong’s Basic Law itself and China’s obligations under the Sino-British joint declaration. This comes at a time when, due to the spread of Covid-19, the world needs openness, transparency and accountability more than ever, which is not possible without a free press. As the UK is a co-signatory to the joint declaration, I ask the Minister what conversations he has had with the Chinese ambassador regarding these moves to clamp down on the independent media, not only for Hong Kong but to prevent the rest of the world knowing what is happening there.
It would be a dereliction of our duty to Hong Kong to allow the Chinese Government to take advantage of our distractions in the West to push through a more hard-line position on these basic freedoms.
Let me give an example of why it is in China’s own interests to keep Hong Kong functioning as a free and open society. Apart from the moral and legal position, we know that the reason why Hong Kong is one of the world’s pre-eminent financial and legal services centres is that the rule of law prevails there. Its courts are trusted and respected, and its financial regulators are part of the global effort and have high standards. But we have seen that the slow erosion of trust in the Hong Kong Government has taken its toll on business confidence in Hong Kong and may continue to have a dampening effect as we go forward.
So I urge HM Government to work with the Chinese Government to retain Hong Kong’s freedoms at this time of global upheaval. We are starting to see a dangerous erosion of the “one country, two systems” model to “one country, one system”, from which there can be only losers—no winners. I also want to press the Minister on what discussion he has had with other Governments—particularly the US, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council—as these matters are a breach of the joint declaration, and we must therefore have a co-ordinated response to them.
Can the Minister confirm what expectation the Foreign Office has that UK citizens working on publications in China, Hong Kong and Macau will not be targeted? What steps are being taken to ensure that British journalists are protected and can do their work without fear of government harassment or threat of expulsion?
If the last nine months in Hong Kong have demonstrated anything, it is that the political deadlock will remain until there is a significant compromise between the democracy protesters and the Chief Executive. That compromise will inevitably involve some form of political reform that meets the original commitments under the joint declaration. The UK Government, as a co-signatory, have an indispensable role to play. I hope that the Government will listen to those who have spoken today and start living up to the UK’s legal and moral obligations to the people of Hong Kong.
My Lords, like others I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Pendry for calling this important debate today. I also want to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has for so many years been an incredible inspiration and champion of human rights the world over.
While the coronavirus has catalysed a ceasefire in the political unrest in Hong Kong, none of the underlying tension has been resolved, and therefore it is likely that unrest will resurface. We must not lose sight of the importance of this issue. The ceasefire gives the Hong Kong Government an opportunity to de-escalate and promote reconciliation, and I hope that the Government are pressing them to do this rather than continue their crack-down.
As the director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, I would like to make a few comments on the disturbing pressure that Hong Kong’s rule of law is under. The presiding justice of the Court of Final Appeal, Kemal Bokhary, recently said that Hong Kong’s rule of law was facing a “full force” storm. Given our shared legal heritage and common law system, and given the fact that the rule of law underpins Hong Kong’s position as an international business hub, I know that this will be a matter of concern for many in this House.
This House will recall that the protest movement began in 2019 precisely because the rule of law is cherished by the Hong Kong people. Civil society groups, businesses, lawyers and politicians united to condemn the extradition law because it would inevitably have resulted in Hong Kong citizens being extradited to face unjust trials in mainland China.
The institute I direct joined in with a statement from leading British and international legal bodies stating that Bill would fail to adequately protect human rights and fundamentally imperil the operation of the rule of law. We said:
“In so far as the proposals would introduce any human rights examination at all, they are vested in Hong Kong’s Chief Executive who, in view of her function and the nature of her appointment, would appear to lack the necessary impartiality and independence to adjudicate such issues.”
That of course was a veiled expression of concern about the way that Carrie Lam was carrying out her role.
While 2014’s political unrest in Hong Kong was about democratic reforms, the 2019 political unrest was primarily about the preservation of fundamental rights and the rule of law. The extradition Bill was the spark that lit the bonfire, and it was particularly toxic because it followed years of pressure on the rule of law and on fundamental rights. Victor Mallet, the Financial Times Asia editor who was expelled from Hong Kong, wrote an op ed piece before the protests broke out which stated:
“The popular myth about boiling a frog—that the animal jumps out of the pot if placed in boiling water but he will die when plonked in cold water and gradually cooked—should be recalled by anyone involved in politics, business or the law in Asia today. In most cases, freedom and the rule of law are being eroded only gradually, but the erosion is real and the cumulative effect substantial.”
The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, mentioned the undermining of press freedom. Given the commitment of this Government to media freedom, I hope that the issue is being raised with Hong Kong in our interactions with the Executive. From the abduction of booksellers in 2015 to the prosecution of political activists under anachronistic, colonial-era public order legislation, which has already been referred to; from the political screening of candidates for election following Beijing’s interpretation of the constitution to the banning of a political party, the temperature has been slowly rising for years. But with the extradition Bill, that temperature dialled up 1 degree higher than the people could stand and the protest movement was the result.
What is of most concern is that the protest movement has exposed the underlying rot in the system. The police have enjoyed impunity when using excessive force, which has eroded public trust in the system. I hope that the Minister agrees that it is vital that an independent inquiry is called into the events of recent months—other speakers have mentioned that—and,H if the Hong Kong Government are unwilling to initiate that themselves, we should urge the United Nations to do so and to initiate a truth and reconciliation commission.
Perhaps the biggest watershed moment for the judiciary went largely unnoticed around the world because of current events. After Hong Kong’s High Court rightly pronounced the Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s application of the emergency regulations ordinance as being unconstitutional, China’s National People’s Congress made an announcement which could, if translated into policy, signal the end of Hong Kong’s rule of law as we know it. I really emphasise that.
China’s constitution and the Basic Law jointly form the constitutional foundation of Hong Kong, but a spokesman for the National People’s Congress Legislative Affairs Committee said:
“Whether Hong Kong’s laws are consistent with the Basic Law can only be judged and decided by the National People’s Congress’ Standing Committee. No other authority has the right to make judgments and decisions.”
The statement also condemns the judgment of the Hong Kong court as severely weakening the legally enshrined power to govern enjoyed by the Chief Executive.
That statement makes clear where power lies and who determines, in the view of China, what the rule of law means. The statement is a naked power grab by the central government from the Hong Kong judiciary and is clearly in breach of existing Hong Kong case law and the terms of the Sino-British joint declaration. The Chinese are making it clear that they get to decide what the constitution says and what the Basic Law is, not the courts of Hong Kong. I hope the Minister agrees that any attempt to strip Hong Kong’s courts of their powers of final adjudication and constitutional interpretation would severely undermine the city’s common law system.
As elsewhere in the world, Hong Kong’s politics have paused to allow breathing space for the coronavirus. In fact, looking at the graphs, Hong Kong has been handling this emergency somewhat well, and for that we should be grateful, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, under the cover of the virus leaders around the world are taking the opportunity to override law. We have even seen President Trump doing it on his border, where people are not even allowed to claim asylum but are being turned back, so the international commitments on asylum are being abused. The events of 2019 have left the rule of law in Hong Kong in a storm of unprecedented ferocity, so will the Minister say what we are going to do to ensure that human rights are upheld and that the judicial system in Hong Kong retains its integrity?
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for the opportunity afforded by this debate to review the situation in Hong Kong. I hope he will forgive me if I do not agree with everything he said.
Happily, to a considerable extent the Government and people of Hong Kong have taken effective measures to control the spread of the coronavirus, which is evidenced by the figures showing that, out of a population of 7 million, there have been 167 cases and four deaths so far, although fears remain of a second wave due to people returning to Hong Kong from overseas trips. I do not think this is the time to criticise measures taken by Hong Kong to control the virus, as all around the world this is a new and fast-changing challenge, which is evidenced by the experiences of Governments from the UK to the European countries to the United States.
The great issue that Hong Kong and other countries face is how to contain the economic damage done by the virus and to grow the economy in a way that satisfies the aspirations of the entire population. Alongside this process, it is very important for the people of Hong Kong to concentrate on the forthcoming LegCo elections in September. On the economic front, the Government have taken many fiscal measures targeted at some of the worst affected areas of the economy. I believe that the amount that will be received by the retail sector is 30 billion Hong Kong dollars. For tourism, I gather it is 20 billion Hong Kong dollars. Tourism, which is principally from the mainland, is down 90%. In fact, this time last year, there were 200,000 visitors a day; this year, it is down to 3,000 per day. There is also a plan to distribute 10,000 Hong Kong dollars to each permanent resident, although the timing of that payment depends on proof of residence.
I am pleased to observe that a good number of owners of Hong Kong property businesses have agreed to assist in the financing of affordable housing or have provided land for housing, and at the same time China has come up with the Greater Bay scheme, which is basically an economic zone which incorporates the southern provinces, with Hong Kong and Macau, creating job opportunities. Schools have been shut since Chinese New Year, but learning continues through online devices. Courts continue to function using videoconferencing facilities. Using coronavirus to criticise the Government is, to my mind, pointless and does not help.
All sides need to move on. Those who have been protesting should now direct their attention away from street demonstrations and towards the forthcoming LegCo elections. Their success at the November district council elections should certainly encourage their efforts. At the same time, they need to rethink their five demands and be prepared to sit down and negotiate with government. The demand for the withdrawal of the extradition law has already been accomplished. Other demands need to be moderated, particularly those that affect the trials of those who committed real crimes during the riots, leading to grievous injuries.
Similarly, the Government of Hong Kong need to reflect on their own competence. They need to ensure that any illegal police behaviour is investigated thoroughly and punished. They need to reflect heavily on their leadership as any Government, whatever their nature, anywhere in the world, ultimately depend on the will of the people. That said, in any society, freedom without discipline does not work. In the case of Hong Kong, we need to acknowledge that the police are the first and only line of civic defence. Without them, disorder, or much worse, would prevail.
Turning to China, I repeat what I have said before. It is not in China’s interests to renege on the Chinese-British joint declaration and the governing principle of “one country, two systems”; it has worked well for more than 20 years, and the Chinese Government have predominantly abided by its terms. Hong Kong continues to represent an important gateway into China and is responsible, as we have heard, for 70% of inward foreign direct investment going through its territory. Chinese private companies’ debt financing in Hong Kong has more than doubled in the last five years, so its importance for China as a financial centre has in no way diminished. This is possible only because there is international confidence in the legal system; as such, it is not in China’s interests to subvert that system.
Article 3 of the joint declaration sets out the rights and freedoms to be maintained. Overwhelmingly, they have been. For instance, look at the freedom of the press. Look at “Apple Daily”—by far the most popular Chinese local newspaper, with a circulation of over 1 million—or the South China Morning Post. They are scarcely voices of the Hong Kong or Chinese Governments. Destroying the “one country, two systems” formula would lead to massive riots in Hong Kong and a humanitarian disaster on an unimaginable scale, and would ensure that Taiwan never, ever accepts this solution—scarcely a desirable outcome for China. It is firmly in China’s interests to ensure that it works, and I can see no reason why it would not be extended for a further 50 years or more. But the fact remains that Hong Kong was born into China and will remain so; hence, the Chinese policy of banning the bad-mouthing of China and its leaders is therefore understandable.
In conclusion, I ask this: following the changed circumstances resulting from coronavirus in Hong Kong, what are the British Government doing to encourage the international community, including China, to unite in convincing both the people and the Government of Hong Kong to put aside confrontation and to work together on economic reforms which provide housing and jobs? At the same time, what are they doing to encourage realistic, reform-driven manifestos for the all-important forthcoming LegCo elections?
My Lords, I too welcome and thank the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for giving us the opportunity to speak about problems facing the citizens of Hong Kong. Others have dealt with Covid-19. I will concentrate on a separate, much longer-standing issue. Responding on 8 January to the gracious Speech, I spoke about the unanswered request to Her Majesty’s Government from some veterans of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps. I will outline this issue.
Over five years ago, some 300 members of this group made requests for right of abode in the United Kingdom. The Home Office was initially dismissive, on the grounds that they were all locally enlisted and employed and so not even eligible for consideration. This assertion was inaccurate. These individuals were employed by the United Kingdom Government, serving full-time in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and not employed by the Hong Kong Government. Their service took some of them to the United Kingdom or to jungle training in Borneo. Others served in UNFICYP in 1990-91 when they replaced UK servicemen required to take part in the first Gulf conflict. They are rightly categorised by the MoD as veterans of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, so should benefit from the undertaking of fair treatment in the military covenant.
In January 2016, our Home Office Minister—then the noble Lord, Lord Bates—in answer to a Written Question agreed
“to undertake a thorough assessment of the request that this group are offered right of abode in the United Kingdom”.
Since that date over four years ago, in spite of a series of further written and oral requests from Members of both Houses, there has been no resolution or agreement by the Government, merely a depressing series of responses, some even just repeats in the cut-in-paste manner saying that the matter was being carefully considered and a decision would be made as soon as practicable.
In my speech on 8 January, I described this, after four years without resolution, as repetitive indecision syndrome. Since then I have tabled two Questions for Written Answer. The first, on 3 February, received yet another indecisive reply. The second, tabled on 2 March, specifically asked when the assessment—started over four years ago in January 2016—would be completed. Another non-answer, just received, said,
“we continue to actively consider representations made on behalf of those former Hong Kong Military Service Corps”.
It seems that the Home Office does not wish to say yes, but will not say no. Maybe it is fearful of a judicial review, but is such indecision really fit for purpose?
The original 300 possible applicants have now been reduced in number by deaths and by some deciding to emigrate to Canada, Australia or elsewhere. There are now just 64. I have received copies of their applications, with a request that I forward them to the Home Secretary for consideration and decision. I am happy to do so. Indeed, I have them here in this envelope, addressed to the Home Secretary. Tomorrow they should be on her desk.
It is instructive to look back to a debate in this House on 20 January 1986 on the nationality provisions of the Hong Kong Act 1985. The issue of nationality of veteran servicemen was raised by several speakers, in particular Lord MacLehose, who was Governor of Hong Kong for over 10 and a half years:
“This brings me to the case of the veterans … At the end of this long era of British rule inevitably there are some debts to be paid. The legislative councillors say that this is such a debt. I am sure that they are right. I think the question of precedent or of opening up claims from elsewhere can be greatly overstated. It is just a matter of definition, and I suspect that the numbers will be found to be small … we must bear in mind the very special arrangements that we made in this respect for Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. If exceptions can be made for them, surely an exception can be made for these people. In this case it is the gesture and the recognition of our responsibility that is so important, and I hope the gesture can be made.” —[Official Report, 20/1/1986; col. 91.]
The Minister winding up then acknowledged the strength of feeling across the House on this issue. After outlining some perceived complexities, he said:
“We shall need to look into these in a great deal more detail before we can say whether it would be appropriate or possible to meet the ex-servicemen’s request. But … I can assure your Lordships that we shall give this the most careful consideration.”—[Official Report, 20/1/1986; col. 102.]
That similar self-serving, evasive wording is still used today, 34 years on. The Government might argue that by grouping this cohort with those employed in the Hong Kong Disciplined Services, with the chance for some to be granted British citizenship among the negotiated figure of 50,000, they discharged their obligations. Some veterans did benefit, but it was wrong to group them with Hong Kong government employees. They were uniquely members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. It is not fair that some benefited but others did not.
Under the military covenant, now is the time to correct this unfairness and allow the 64 members I mentioned earlier to be treated equally and fairly to right of abode. I have instanced the favourable treatment over nationality of Gurkhas who served in Her Majesty’s forces. That 1986 debate drew attention to a similar treatment of Gibraltarians and Falkland Islanders. Far from setting a precedent by granting these veterans’ requests, there seem to be several precedents already set, and the numbers are minimal. As Lord MacLehose so pointedly said, to act fairly in this would be a recognition of our national responsibility. So, will the Home Office and the Government now cure themselves of repetitive indecision syndrome, prove their fitness for purpose, and bring this decades-long issue to resolution?
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Pendry for initiating this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, emailed me quite late last night, as is his wont, and reminded me that these debates are important because, while communities may be remote, they do follow these debates, particularly through new media such as Facebook and Twitter. It is important that we have continued, despite all the constraints upon us, to raise these vital issues.
Events are changing very fast. From the time that the noble Lord initiated this debate, we have seen a lot of changes. Carrie Lam announced on Tuesday that Hong Kong will quarantine all people arriving from abroad for 14 days; those restrictions will start today, Thursday. All entrants from mainland China already have to self-isolate. She said that the majority of cases had been imported, adding that strict measures were needed. As we heard in the debate about the number of cases, of the 57 new infections over the past two weeks, only seven were local cases; there are only 155 confirmed cases in the territory, which detected its first case in January.
Although it is difficult to understand the exact success of the Hong Kong response, given the incomplete testing figures, most agree that it has been at least in part successful—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. I agree with that assessment. Although the approach of the Hong Kong Government differs from that of the UK, it has included greater social distancing measures and the closure of schools which, as the noble Lord said, we are now facing ourselves.
It is right that the United Kingdom engages with our international partners to share information on best practice. Gordon Brown was absolutely right on Radio 4 this morning: this is a global problem that requires a global response. It is no good saying “America first”, or “India first”; it is something that we all have to respond and come up with proper responses to. There is a very good reason why we should work particularly well and closely with Hong Kong on this issue. Can the Minister detail how the Government have engaged with the Hong Kong authorities and the non-governmental organisations of Hong Kong to better understand their approach to response?
As we find ourselves entering further into this crisis, the WHO has made clear above all that the Government must “test, test, test” all suspected cases. This is not a pandemic that we can fight blindfolded. We must keep abreast of the spread of those who have been affected. Of course, there is a physical capacity issue and there will be a limit as to how many individuals can be tested, but the Prime Minister has announced further plans to increase testing and increase the capacity. Although it is not his brief, I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some indication about what those plans mean in practice in terms of who will be further tested. What is the impact of better understanding the spread of the virus and the disease?
Along with the success of the Hong Kong authorities in tackling the virus, we have heard that we have to recognise the concerns raised relating to misinformation, much of which has circulated online and led to instances of panic. Can the Minister explain what lessons have been learned by the UK Government as a result of this? Throughout the pandemic, the feeling of distrust in the Hong Kong Government has remained. While larger demonstrations have scaled down, the police continue to disperse small-scale demonstrations, with reports of disproportionate force. Here, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has been absolutely committed to raising these abuses of human rights—however big or small they have been, he has been there and constantly pushing the Government to act. We have heard about the protesters who were pepper sprayed on 9 March. They had gathered to pay tribute to Alex Chow Tsz-lok, who died last November during the protest.
In the light of this continued crackdown, can the Minister confirm what steps the Government are taking to ensure that British national (overseas) passport holders can gain consular access in the British embassy should mistreatment of protesters continue? This is a really important point. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned up to 200,000 BNOs in Hong Kong. I have a figure of 170,000; irrespective of that, it is roughly in the same ballpark. Whatever we say their status is—the noble and gallant Lord made particular reference to this—this country has an obligation to those nationals. They are British nationals, even if they happen to be overseas. We have an absolute responsibility.
Previously, the Government claimed that the extension of the rights of BNO passport holders would contravene the joint declaration. As we have heard, they cited an immigration report by my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith, the former Attorney-General, as proof that it would be illegal. However, as my noble friend Lord Pendry and other noble Lords have referred to, in a recent letter to both the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith disputed the misrepresentation of this view and published fresh legal advice, stating that the UK Government would not
“be in breach of any obligation undertaken in the joint declaration were it to resolve to extend full right of abode to BN(O) passport holders while continuing to honour their side of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”
I would like to hear from the Minister today whether the Government have given any consideration to extending the rights of BNO passport holders to include: working visas; or, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, the minor act of extending the length of time that Hong Kong students can stay in the United Kingdom after completing their studies; or, more importantly—because this is about the security of these people—offering them full right of abode in the United Kingdom.
I hope that the Minister will also respond to the long-outstanding issue raised by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, of servicemen who have served this country. We have a duty under the covenant to respond to them; I hope that he will do so today.
Of course, as noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, said, we must be concerned about what appear to be further politically motivated arrests, including of the newspaper owner Jimmy Lai and the legislators referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton: Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum. All of them were arrested last month by the Hong Kong police under archaic public ordinance laws. Like my noble friend Lady Kennedy, I hope that the Minister can confirm that we have made the strongest possible representations to the Hong Kong authorities regarding these arrests.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, emailed me late last night about his Written Question—to which the Minister responded yesterday, I think—on the assessment of Amnesty International’s report, Missing Truth, Missing Justice. In that response, the Minister raised the fact that the Government made their position clear on 27 February at the United Nations Human Rights Council. He said:
“A robust, credible and independent investigation into events in Hong Kong would be an important step in healing divisions and rebuilding trust that will support the process of dialogue and resolution.”
We need to know what has resulted from that support and whether the Government will continue to back the people and the elected representatives of Hong Kong.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for tabling this timely debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly mentioned, since the tabling of this debate, events have moved on apace, and it is right that, when we look at the challenges we face on the domestic front, we also cast our eye across the globe to see the how different parts of the world are meeting the challenge of Covid-19—the coronavirus—and the impacts of this, in the context of this debate, on the people of Hong Kong.
I totally concur with the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Carrington, who mentioned specifically—I mentioned it from the Dispatch Box only yesterday—that anyone involved in any shape or form, which means globally, with the challenge we now face, and, more importantly, the lessons being learned, cannot dispute that this is a global challenge requiring global solutions. That means that we share our experiences in this respect. To pick up on a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on engagement with authorities and NGOs on this, as he will already be aware, we are engaging directly on an international front—I have been directly involved with such discussions—and, as I mentioned yesterday, we have already allocated a specific package of £241 million aid funding, which we are providing through various UN agencies as well as through the IMF. We have allocated a further £65 million on research, because this is a battle against time: we need to find an early solution to this crisis.
As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, noted, as of 19 March, the number of cases in Hong Kong has been quite limited, thankfully, because of actions taken. The latest statistics I have are that as of that date, there have been 192 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Hong Kong, including a British citizen who had recently visited Japan and London—again, that reinforces Carrie Lam’s point that some cases of coronavirus have occurred due to people arriving in Hong Kong. As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, noted, four people have died, sadly, but also importantly, in this global challenge, 95 people have now recovered from that virus in Hong Kong.
I am sure that I speak for everyone in your Lordships’ House when I offer our heartfelt sympathies, and those of the whole UK Government, to all those who have been affected, in Hong Kong and elsewhere. We fully appreciate the challenges facing the Hong Kong Government and others across the world—particularly in Italy, South Korea, Iran and China—who are dealing with significant numbers of cases. We are also facing the task here of containing and delaying the spread of the virus. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, mentioned the challenge. I know that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has spoken directly with the Chinese President, again reiterating our support for China and the sharing of best experience as we collectively face the challenge of Covid-19.
All Governments are having to make careful choices, as we are, about how to respond: weighing up the task of containing the spread of the virus against the social and economic disruption resulting from the measures taken to respond. The sustainability of those responses is also critical. If I may personalise some of the challenges, as a father of three, with my wife, only yesterday, after the decision taken by the Government, the prospect of having three children home-schooled for a number of months posed one’s own domestic challenge; the reality is very much at home. I assure all noble Lords that Her Majesty’s Government are clear that all the responses being taken are critical—and, yes, they should be well informed by the views of experts and led by the science. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has prioritised this approach in close co-ordination with international partners, including through the World Health Organization.
Specifically on Hong Kong, the number of new cases remains relatively low, as I said, with 25 new cases yesterday—although I add the cautionary note that that was the highest single daily increase so far. As several noble Lords mentioned, including the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, in his opening remarks, the Hong Kong Government have taken a series of measures to contain the spread of the virus. These have been backed up by a strong societal response conditioned by personal experiences of the SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003.
After the first confirmed case in late January, over the course of February and March the Hong Kong Government introduced a number of significant measures, including: the suspension or scaling back of flights, trains, ferries and buses between Hong Kong and mainland China; the closure of most border crossings with mainland China; and from 19 March—as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, specifically mentioned—a compulsory 14-day quarantine for all travellers entering Hong Kong. This includes travellers into Hong Kong from the United Kingdom. For Hong Kong residents, including foreign nationals who live in Hong Kong, this quarantine can take place at home. For non-Hong Kong residents, such as tourists and business visitors, this will be in a Hong Kong government quarantine centre. The measures also include the prevention of entry of all non-Hong Kong residents who had been in Hubei province in mainland China or in South Korea in the previous 14 days. Individuals will also be expected to activate sharing of their real-time location with the Hong Kong Government as part of the requirement to report their location.
The noble Lord, Lord Pendry, mentioned face masks in his opening remarks. The Hong Kong Government have acknowledged public concern over the shortage in the supply of masks. I understand that they are working to increase the supply by sourcing masks globally, increasing local production and liaising with relevant authorities in mainland China to facilitate the swift delivery to Hong Kong of masks manufactured there. I have noticed updates on various news programmes, and the Chinese authorities are now shifting masks to other parts of the world as they look to contain their own outbreak.
The UK’s ability to replenish stocks of personal protective equipment, which includes fluid-repellent surgical masks, is severely constrained due to the significant increase in global demand. However, the UK Government support a collaborative approach to tackling the global challenge presented by Covid-19. The Department of Health and Social Care has strong, established links with key partners and countries to co-ordinate the response to Covid-19 across all public health issues.
The robust measures taken by the Hong Kong Government to respond to Covid-19 have inevitably had an impact on the Hong Kong economy, which was already in recession before the outbreak, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. The tourism and retail sectors have been hit particularly hard. In this regard, the Hong Kong Government have announced an anti-epidemic fund worth 30 billion Hong Kong dollars to support businesses and safeguard jobs. The Hong Kong Government’s response demonstrates just how seriously they have taken the outbreak. It demonstrates that Hong Kong shares one of the key challenges faced by all jurisdictions.
The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Carrington, asked specifically about UK action. The UK is of course closely monitoring the Covid-19 outbreak in Hong Kong. Our consulate-general is in frequent contact with the Government on their response. It is of course vital for the wider management of the outbreak that the UK and Hong Kong share our experiences and, to quote both noble Lords, work together. I assure noble Lords that we stand together with international partners to support Hong Kong as we deal with this global public health emergency. Our consulate-general continues to provide consular assistance to British nationals in Hong Kong who request and require it.
I turn specifically now to BNOs, raised by several noble Lords. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, raised specific issues relating to veterans in this respect as well. Let me say from the outset that the obligations of the UK Government towards Hong Kong residents with British national (overseas) status is something we take very seriously. As noble Lords will recall, British national (overseas) status was created in 1985 for people in Hong Kong who would lose their British dependent territory citizenship in 1997 when sovereignty was handed to China. As of February 2020, there were 349,881 British national (overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong, out of an estimated 2.9 million people eligible for such status. Individuals with this status are entitled to British consular assistance in third countries.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked specifically about consular assistance in Hong Kong for people with this status. As he may know—I am sure he is aware of this point, which has been raised before—there is no basis under the joint declaration, including in its memorandums, to provide such consular assistance to BNOs in Hong Kong itself. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said, the British national (overseas) status was part of the delicate balance and negotiations conducted and concluded at the time of the joint declaration. Full and continued respect for the provisions in the joint declaration are crucial to the future stability and prosperity of Hong Kong and to the rights, freedoms and autonomy of its people.
Several noble Lords including the noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about Her Majesty’s Government’s position. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in the other place towards the end of last year, we are not at this stage seeking to alter any one part of the package, including the consular status of British nationals (overseas).
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked about the 64 members of the Hong Kong police who have the right of abode in the UK. Under the British nationality selection scheme, which was introduced in 1990 and operated until 1 July 1997, a limited number of people were able to register as British citizens. I assure noble Lords that I will follow this up with the Home Office by letter, so that it is a matter of formal record that the issue has been raised again. I am aware that the Home Office is looking at this. I remember from my time there that it was being examined, but I will, as I say, formally write to my noble friend the Minister of State at the Home Office to see how we can progress the matter further and I will then respond accordingly to the noble and gallant Lord.
The noble Lords, Lord Pendry and Lord Alton, rightly talked about recent arrests in Hong Kong. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, also raised this important issue. As noble Lords will know, I am acutely aware of the challenges not only in Hong Kong but in mainland China on human rights issues, whether we are talking about media freedom, freedom of religion or belief, or the general suppression of rights. Several noble Lords asked about raising this issue in international fora. During my last travels prior to the current challenges that we all now face, I specifically mentioned in the UK statement to the Human Rights Council the broader issue relating to the Uighur community. I assure noble Lords that this remains a personal priority, which I continue to take forward.
On the arrests of Jimmy Lai, Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, we are following their cases closely. We are asking that due process be followed and that justice be applied fairly and transparently. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Falkner and Lady Kennedy, rightly spoke about the priority of media freedom. That is a priority campaign for Her Majesty’s Government, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, in particular, for her work on the legal panel. I assure all noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we have consistently raised our concern about media freedoms in China. I agree with him that the Chinese Government’s announcement that they will prevent certain American journalists from working in China further restricts transparency at a particularly important time. The suggestion by the Chinese MFA that the measure may apply in Hong Kong is deeply concerning. As the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, said, the Sino-British joint declaration is clear. It sets out that immigration decisions are the sole responsibility of the Hong Kong special administrative region. She is right that freedom of the press is guaranteed. It is imperative that these rights and freedoms are fully respected. We take any allegations of the arrest and intimidation of journalists in Hong Kong extremely seriously, and we expect the Hong Kong authorities to abide by international human rights laws and practices.
Several noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, mentioned the importance of what we saw in Hong Kong prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. We continue to condemn any violence and make it clear that all protests should be policed and conducted within the law and that authorities should avoid actions that could inflame tensions. As the noble Baroness acknowledged, we have called specifically for a robust independent investigation into these events and will continue to do so.
The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, asked about raising these issues with the Chinese authorities. I assure her that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and others in the Government regularly raise our concerns about rights and freedoms with the Chinese Foreign Minister, the Hong Kong Chief Executive and the ambassador to the Court of St James. I assure noble Lords that the leadership in China and Hong Kong are in no doubt about the strength of UK concern over the current situation.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked a specific question about Home Office collaboration with Chinese authorities on facial recognition technology. I can inform him that the funding of this project was allocated by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a publicly funded arm’s-length body that has formed part of UK Research and Innovation since April 2018. We ourselves as the Government are not involved in the actual funding decisions that this body makes, but I note the points that the noble Lord has raised on this issue.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, raised the issue of the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are indeed foundations on which Hong Kong’s success and prosperity have been built. Indeed, up until recent events prior to Covid-19, “one country, two systems” had worked quite robustly and well. It is our view that it should be continue to be the basis of how Hong Kong can truly prosper and continue to progress and move forward.
I would like to conclude on the specific issue of Covid-19. The Hong Kong Government have taken what we believe are a number of robust measures—indeed, a number of noble Lords acknowledged that in their contributions—and that has resulted in proactive action. I think there is a lesson to be learned there. We have had other discussions in your Lordships’ House about lessons being learned, whether from the challenges that AIDS posed or indeed any crisis. The SARS crisis in that part of the world has resulted in people really acting and checking their own behaviour, and I think there are lessons to be learned there for all of us.
I assure noble Lords that we are in close and frequent contact with the Hong Kong Government. I give reassurance, again, that we stand ready to support them and share expertise to address the complex and global threat of Covid-19. On the wider issues that noble Lords have mentioned, such as media freedom, human rights and indeed the challenges that we have seen over the last 12 months or so in Hong Kong prior to Covid-19, I assure them that those things will remain very much a priority for Her Majesty’s Government.
My Lords, I began my remarks by asking the House to understand why the Motion put down some weeks ago was not necessarily what was going to be debated, and I was right. Because things that happen by the day in Hong Kong are so different from the day before, it was right that we had a wide-ranging debate on this issue. I thank everyone for taking part in it. I thank the Minister, with one exception: he did not address the question of the problems in our universities, which I have raised before. I would like him to reflect on what was said in this debate.
I apologise to the noble Lord; I think that was one of the many scribbles that I made. If he can provide me with specifics on that question, I will be very happy to take it up internally within the Government to make sure that it is raised with the appropriate university.
I thank the Minister for that. I wish to pick out one particular contribution, which is that of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I am for ever grateful to him for taking part in debates that I am in because I learn so much from what he says, and I have done again today. The people of Hong Kong, who listen to these debates, are grateful for the interest that we show in their deliberations and, in many cases, their plights. Let us hope that we have more informed debates about that very important part of our history. I conclude with these few words: let us keep up our interest in that former colony of ours.
European Union Aviation Safety Agency
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, before I start my remarks, let me say that I regret the absence of the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, as Minister. I am sure that I speak for the whole House, such as it is at present, in sending her our best wishes. We hope to see her back here very soon.
This Motion relates to problems for the airlines and the aerospace industry. As noble Lords will know, the airline sector has manifold problems at the moment, but this is one that the Government can do something about. When the UK left the EU at the end of January, we instantly left not only the political and judicial structures—the Commission, the European Council, the Parliament and the European Court of Justice—but nearly 40 EU executive agencies that deal with day-to-day issues relating to sectors of our society and industries.
I took an interest in this dimension during the passage of the now countless withdrawal Bills over the past three years. I frequently asked different Ministers what future arrangements the Government envisaged for our relationship with each of the agencies. In general terms, the reply was that we would be leaving, full stop. The view from the EU side was not much more helpful. The EU made it clear that even for the duration of the transition period, which we are now in, the UK is no longer a decision-making member of the boards of these agencies, even though for this period, which lasts until the end of this year, we must be fully compliant with their rules and procedures.
One of the most important of these agencies is the European Aviation Safety Agency—EASA. It has been vital for the testing and certification of aircraft, aircraft parts and aerospace manufacturing processes, and for the certification, safety and flight-time rules for pilots and engineers. The enforcement of these airworthiness standards is vital across Europe. Moreover, EASA has been of global significance: together with the US Federal Aviation Administration, it has set global aviation standards. The reality is that the UK has been a key influence within EASA, through the Government and the CAA. But beyond the end of this year, we will be treated as a third country in this context. This is of vital interest to British-located aerospace manufacturing and British-based airlines and their workforces. Both sectors not only operate and sell across Europe but have significant European ownership; think of Airbus, or IAG’s ownership of British Airways. They also have a very substantial pan-European supply chain, in which many British SMEs are heavily involved.
It has always been clear that, post Brexit, the UK would have to negotiate a new aviation relationship with Europe, specifically regarding aviation safety. However, there were a number of options. EASA includes certain third countries such as Switzerland, Norway and Iceland effectively as full members. We could have sought a form of associate membership, as advocated by ADS Manufacturing, or observer status, like Ukraine, Moldova and other ex-Soviet countries. We could have sought a formal joint working arrangement between EASA and the CAA, which would have avoided duplication and the divergence of standards.
Until recently, it has been unclear which road the Government would take. However, a couple of weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, made it clear that there would be no halfway house. The CAA would in effect take over all responsibility for regulation and enforcement and we would be able to set our own standards, which might well diverge from EASA standards. This complete break has caused considerable alarm among manufacturers, airlines and unions. In the union context, I declare my vice-presidency of BALFA, whose pilot members are deeply concerned, and also my membership of GMB, which has members involved in both sectors. This concern unites all parts of the industries.
If the CAA has to replicate the role of EASA for the UK, but nevertheless its standards remain the same, then for the industry there will be substantial issues of administrative duplication, costs and delay, as it will have to go through dual processes. If, as the Government threaten, standards diverge, then there is a much bigger problem of aircraft, components and personnel being legal at one end of a European flight but not at the other. There are also questions about whether the resources and capabilities of the CAA to take on all these responsibilities in a purely UK structure of standards and enforcement will be provided and funded by the Government.
There is a history to this. When Mrs May was Prime Minister, in two of her most important speeches, in 2018 and 2019, she identified EASA as being one of only three EU agencies she considered we would need to continue to be involved in and to operate on a level playing field. Incidentally, the others were the medicines agency and the chemical agency, in both of which there are parallel problems, where questions should be asked and answered by the Government.
It is not clear what has changed—apart from the change of personnel in the top reaches of the Government—except that the new regime is simply taking an absolutist line, at least publicly. The ostensible reason for this is that, ultimately, EASA decisions are appealable to the European Court of Justice, but in practice that has hardly ever happened.
There is still hope for a more constructive approach. In the new negotiations on future relations, two of the early areas for seeking agreement proposed by the EU were aviation and aviation safety—some sort of bilateral air safety agreements. It is possible, despite Mr Schapps’s apparent negative stand, that there is still a sensible bilateral agreement to be had by both sides on relations with EASA, but at the moment that is not clear to anyone. I hope that the Minister today will be able to reassure the House and the aviation sectors that a constructive arrangement is being sought. If it is not forthcoming, I have to tell him that there will be grave concerns in all parts of the aviation industry.
My Lords, I reflect the concerns of our side of the House and I hope that my noble friend Lady Vere is very soon back with us and in good health. I too declare my interest, as president of BALPA, the airline pilots’ association.
We are dealing with one of the many unfortunate consequences of the decision to leave the European Union. We are in limbo at the moment because we can no longer take part in any decision-making of the European Aviation Safety Agency, but its regulations continue to apply to us. If you look at its website, you see that we are no longer a member, and we are no longer represented on its board, but that it is accepting applications for a variety of certificates. However, the instructions state:
“Depending on the outcome of the current negotiations on future partnership between the EU and the UK, your certificate may be sent to you by email at the end of the transition period.”
It then goes on:
“This fee is non-refundable, regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations”.
Even now we are costing people and the industry money which could be better spent elsewhere.
I wonder to what extent the whole objection is because the European Aviation Safety Agency, in its own words, is
“a body governed by European public law”?
In other words, it is subject—although, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said, it very rarely if ever happens—to the ECJ and European law. Are we withdrawing because of the obsession with getting away from anything to do with Europe?
Where are we going to end up? The EFTA countries are already members with non-voting members on the board. Switzerland has a special relationship, while a large number of other countries, as can been seen on the website, have some form of liaison or other. When these powers come back to the CAA, will a mechanism be in force for us to consult anyone at all before we take decisions? Will there be any communality or platform where information can be exchanged, and what value will our recommendations have? We have the US system and we have the European one. What will be the outcome, for instance, of the recent investigations at Boeing? Will anyone listen to what the CAA has to say unless it is identical to what is being said by the European and United States agencies? Are we taking our skills away from Europe but not actually positioning them anywhere where they could be of use?
I want also to ask the Minister about the cost-benefit analysis of this. No doubt we will save some money by not being a member of the EASA, but we will also spend a considerable amount when we repatriate the powers back to the UK and set up an institution to do the same job. Has he any figures showing how much this will cost or what we will gain? I suggest that it will be a cost, but I could be wrong.
I alluded to the observers. Will we get any sort of structure that brings in an international dimension or will we just go along on our own? Moreover, we need to know if the CAA will apply different criteria from its certification specifications. Will they be the same or are we going to set out different ones? I ask that because at the moment it looks like, through our new agency, we will have to certify each new aircraft, each new aircraft engine and each new component part of an aircraft to certify its airworthiness and so on.
I am surprised because the whole of the industry is united in believing that our interests would be best served by remaining within this system. This is not a case where there is any demand to be outside it. As far as I can see, it is purely something that has come up as a by-product of the general approach. I would hope, therefore, that even at this late stage, the Government can look again at whether we actually need this divergence from a European standard which has worked well, to a standard that to put it mildly, is untested and will have to be developed over a good many years. I realise that the Minister may not be able to answer fully all these questions, particularly as he is standing in at the last minute, but I hope that when he replies he will agree to write to those noble Lords who are here today with the answers to my questions.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for tabling this Question because it is incredibly important. I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on General Aviation, as a private pilot and as an aircraft owner/operator. Aviation is a globally connected industry at all levels. It is also a heavily regulated industry which is greatly affected by what individual Governments decide. It is clearly advantageous for the industry, which is already facing unprecedented challenges this year, if Governments can work together as much as possible to ensure equivalence in regulations and make things simple for businesses.
That is a general point. More specifically, the reality of our geography means that we must work very closely with both the EASA and the FAA to facilitate the prosperity of our airlines and air cargo operators in the future.
The UK is home to a number of world-leading airlines and many more big brands depend on us as a transatlantic hub. Maintaining this position in the global travel market must be a priority for the Government in their Brexit negotiations. I am sure that no noble Lord would be happy if they suddenly found themselves having to connect through Frankfurt on their next trip to the United States.
That said, I will focus my comments on how this change will impact the UK’s very important general aviation sector, which contributes more than £3 billion to our economy. General aviation is the lifeblood of the commercial aviation sector. Small clubs train the pilots and engineers of the future and local airfields provide the easy access entry point that inspires people into lifelong careers in the aviation industry. Yet general aviation is probably the aviation sector most reliant on EASA regulations, since its operations tend to be more localised to the European continent.
EASA has made it clear in recent weeks that it is determined not to make things easy for the UK by removing the exemptions we once held on several GA activities. One particularly damaging change is that UK national private pilot licence holders—people who have private pilot licences just for operating in the UK airspace and within visual rules—will be able to fly an aeroplane with an EASA certificate of airworthiness from 8 April, effectively meaning that many pilots will be prevented from flying until after the transition period. However, there have been more changes. Take the refusal to renew the exemption on distance from cloud minima within class D airspace, which is a safety issue, since our prevailing weather in the UK includes frequent low cloud bases. In fairness, the Department for Transport wanted to renew the measure, but its application was rejected by EASA for no reason other than rules tidying.
My point is that it is clear from these measures that this divorce is not one-sided and that the UK Government should not shoulder all the blame for this split. That said, the new situation of uncertainty about a life after EASA is unsettling for the small businesses of the GA industry. The Government must be on hand to provide clear and concrete answers about regulation changes so that businesses have time to plan. Furthermore, the Government must ensure that the transition occurs as quickly and painlessly as possible to a UK-based system. This means that pilot licences must be validated in a timely manner and that all current EASA-certified aircraft must receive an equivalent UK certification in good time.
I will say a bit about CAA resources. To facilitate the smooth transition, it is critical that the CAA is provided with increased resources, especially staff, to manage its newfound responsibilities. EASA currently has hundreds of British employees working across many different fields. The Government should look at ways to bring these people back so that we can use their expertise to make sure that the newly independent CAA gets off to a strong footing.
I will highlight the particular problems faced by flying schools in this process. Schools in the UK have students at various stages of training towards commercial licences, which can take years. These students will now be unsure whether this training will be valid or useful when they come to the end of it. The businesses themselves are concerned that student numbers will drop dramatically, since perspective candidates will get more value out of completing a licence registered in an EU country, compared with a purely UK-based licence. I therefore contend that the Government must act urgently in the wake of a split with EASA to prevent an exodus of flight training from the UK. By the way, any such measures should be accompanied by a reduction of the taxes on flight training to make the UK’s industry more competitive globally and to off-set any disruption potentially caused by a split with EASA.
The UK must recognise, as it takes back control of its aviation regulation, that global integration is advantageous for the industry. I therefore implore the Government to work with the European authorities now to agree a system of regulatory equivalence on certification, maintenance and licensing. Equivalence on certification would streamline the process for GA manufacturers, meaning that they would not have to go through bothersome processes to certify separately in the UK and Europe. This would encourage manufacturers of new, safer and greener aircraft designs not to bypass Britain in their investment plans. Equivalence on maintenance would make aircraft and the engineers who service them more interchangeable between the UK and our neighbours, benefiting the market on both sides of the channel.
Lastly, we need equivalence in licensing, allowing pilots, both commercial and private, to maintain European privileges through a paperwork exercise rather than retraining. This is similar to the arrangement EASA enjoys currently with the FAA.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for putting down this important Question and welcome the Minister to his new role. I hope he will take it in the right way when I say that I hope it is only temporary and that the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, will be back soon.
In the Government’s framework document for the UK-EU partnership, published in June 2018, the section on transport has this to say:
“We seek a comprehensive agreement on air transport, providing continuity of services and opportunities, supporting growth and innovation in the future.”
On EASA specifically, it says that participation would mean:
“Regulatory burdens for businesses would be minimised across Europe, supporting continuous improved safety outcomes for all. We would continue to provide our technical expertise.”
It goes on to say:
“The Commission has said that the UK will not have an automatic membership, but there is an established legal mechanism for third country EASA participation.”
So far, so logical, and strongly supported by the industry and, at the time, by the CAA. Wind forward to 6 March this year and reports suddenly appear in trade journals in the US that the Secretary of State has announced to them—not to Parliament or to the industry in the UK, but in the US—that the UK will be leaving EASA. On 9 March, I was at an aviation-related event attended by hundreds of senior industry representatives. Their anger was palpable: “A huge own goal” and “You do not negotiate with people’s safety” are two of the comments that stick in my mind.
Ironically, the Secretary of State was the keynote speaker. He came to the stage to thin applause. He chose not to refer to the elephant in the room, omitting to mention the whole topic of EASA. He left the stage to even thinner applause. On 12 March, the Secretary of State finally addressed the issue in the Commons in answer to a Question. He stated that EASA membership was incompatible with the Government’s red lines on the ECJ.
The aviation industry wants a number of questions answered. Why can the UK not follow the Swiss precedent and seek associate membership, which would allow the UK to continue to influence regulations? Instead of ECJ competence, there would be a joint EU-UK committee to resolve disputes. Do the Government appreciate that EASA membership is the most cost-effective and practical way to improve aviation safety? Safety is at the forefront of the travelling public’s mind. Have the Government made any assessment of the ability of the CAA—within the timescale of before the end of this year, which is very tight—to hire and train staff to issue licences and approvals once the UK becomes a third country? It is estimated that this process will take five to 10 years to fully implement, at a cost of up to £40 million a year, compared with an annual cost of £1 million to £4 million for EASA membership. By the way, EASA has a lot of British employees working abroad, and the word so far is that they are not falling over themselves to come back home.
Where does the demand to leave EASA come from? The only section of the industry which seems to think it a good idea consists of those involved with small-scale private aviation, who venture little outside the UK. The vast majority of those involved in aviation recognise that this is not a “little island” activity. It requires an international perspective, almost by definition.
Have the Government considered the impact on those involved in pilot training, especially commercial flight training? In order to be able to continue to train pilots for European airlines, such as easyJet and Ryanair, they will need to re-register the whole of their operation and individual instructor licences with an EU country.
What discussions have the Government had with industry representatives about this decision? I mean not just representatives from ADS—a big organisation which represents over 1,000 firms—but with the big individual manufacturers and airlines, and specifically with the thousands of SMEs in the supply chain? This will hit areas outside London hardest of all, since 90% of aerospace jobs are located outside the prosperous south-east of England.
The Secretary of State made his announcement on 6 March; his timing was spectacularly bad. At that event on 9 March, people were referring to hitting an industry when it was already down, as Flybe had already failed and the impact of coronavirus was already being felt throughout the sector. But I do not think anyone there realised how rapidly and drastically things would escalate. They need help, not additional hurdles. Of course people will fly again and companies will rebuild, but some of them, particularly SMEs, will fail entirely.
Even in good times, the decision to leave EASA was a typical example of ideology outbidding common sense. I hope that the events of the last two weeks have led the Government to reconsider and that, when he replies to this debate, the Minister can reassure us that this latest example of Brexiteer bravado is being rapidly reconsidered.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Whitty for creating this debate. I too am sad to see that the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, is not in her place and I hope that the Minister will pass on the good wishes of the whole House. I am incredibly sympathetic to the Minister. He does not have to answer anything, frankly, because he is going to have to write a letter anyway. I am going to speak for nine minutes because that is what the rules say—thank you very much, Patrick. I spent 22 years in the civil aviation industry, and for nine of them I flew jet transports. I was a shop steward in the famous union BALPA, which has already been referred to. I am also a remainer, but I have to make the point that this has nothing to do with that fact; it is about sheer common sense and how to run this industry.
I would like briefly to put the debate into perspective. Deciding whether to build a washing machine to the same standard as Europe’s, so that you can sell it in Europe, is a business decision. The whole of the European market works after having created that market. Aviation is different. I think it was in 1947 that aviation created ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and it did so because it realised that civil aviation was about flying bombs over other people’s territory. It is entirely different from typical rules of trade. It is about letting 747s that are built in the US, flown by all the pilots in the world and maintained to standards all over the world, fly over London while we, as a nation—a sovereign part of ICAO—have confidence that they are not going to fall out of the sky on to this building.
That is why it is so important that this structure is adhered to. In the initial ICAO days, we were a big aviation power and had a lot of might. We had things called the British civil airworthiness regulations. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they eventually morphed into the CAA, which morphed into EASA and the FAA. EASA and the FAA between them have done a great job for many decades. Their reputations are deeply stained—almost disgustingly stained—by the 737 MAX tragedies; they failed there. But they are so dominant that every major manufacturer of jet transports will build its aeroplanes to be certificated by EASA and the FAA. Realistically, there are only two major manufacturers: Airbus and Boeing.
In many ways, the level of certification, testing and so on is beyond the minds of most people. Aeroplanes fly through the air nice and gently most of the time, but they are manufactured to standards that allow them to go through very rough air, to be handled in various manoeuvres and to crash. Quite a big chunk of the regulations is about what happens to aeroplanes when they crash; internal fittings must not fly away and be an additional hazard and so on. There is absolutely detailed certification and testing.
Does this absurd declaration by the Secretary of State mean that the CAA will genuinely certificate aircraft and their components? He has to remember that it is down to the last bolt, fastener and tyre; it is that detailed. If you look back to the days when we were in competition with the FAA and take something like the 747, the CAA of the day demanded that British test pilots fly that aeroplane to the very edge of the envelope to try to stall it, because the requirements of the British standards were such that it should be unambiguously obvious to the pilot that this aeroplane was going too slowly. They did that. Can you imagine today the idea of generating the skills necessary to do this testing and to certificate the testing that manufacturers do? Can you imagine someone sitting and watching the tests to create the certification? It will not happen. One way or another, we will have to accept the testing and standards of EASA and the FAA; they are dominant.
If, as happened in the late 1960s, the British come up with an added little bit—in those days, when we were neurotic about stalling, things called stick pushers were invented—the manufacturers would be deeply reluctant to do it, because they would have to take that modification back to the original certificating authority to prove to it that it does not actually reduce the safety. This is exactly what happened with the 737 MAX. The aeroplane had an aerodynamic characteristic that the FAA found unacceptable. A fix had to then be bolted on, which has not worked and has killed people.
It is inconceivable—unless the Minister wants to assure me otherwise; I suggest he writes a letter and does not do it now—that the CAA will develop the skills and resources to genuinely certificate aeroplanes, engines and their parts. The skills, training and involvement necessary to do so would be at enormous cost. It is impossible to believe that this decision is anything other than pure doctrine.
Going back to refrigerators, this does not matter there. If we demand refrigerators made a bit differently from European ones, it would be a daft thing to do but, nevertheless, it would not matter. Here, it matters. At the end of the day, the maintenance of aeroplanes and their crews must be done to an internationally accepted standard.
Two days ago, we heard a financial Statement. I am delighted that the highly doctrinal Government threw doctrine out of the window and are spending money like a one-armed paper hanger to solve the crisis we face. I wish that the Department for Transport would take some of that positive pragmatism and recognise in one form or another a close relationship with EASA that would allow us to certificate all the things that matter in creating a civil aviation operation and that was acceptable to ICAO’s standards. I wish the department would create a situation in aviation similar to what we have enjoyed in Europe, where we were one of the most influential countries in developing new standards and ensuring that those standards were achieved. I hope that the Minister will convey to the Secretary of State that this should be reviewed completely and judged not from a doctrinal approach but a pragmatic one, which would be cost efficient and overwhelming efficient and effective on safety.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for instigating this debate and I thank the small but select group of noble Lords who took part in it. I thank all noble Lords who kindly expressed their good wishes to my noble friend Lady Vere of Norbiton. She is indeed indomitable, as they will know, and I am sure that she will be back in her place soon. As her co-pilot on this occasion, I will do my best to answer the points that have been made but I will be happy to consult Hansard afterwards and write on any further points, particularly points of detail that I am unable to cover today.
The Government have been clear that our future relationship with the European Union must reflect the fact that we will regain our legal and economic independence on 1 January 2021. Being a member of the European Aviation Safety Agency is not compatible with that, as it would require that we continue to apply EU aviation safety laws with the associated jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union, which we cannot accept.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, mentioned various other options, including the Swiss option. These would require the UK to continue to apply EU law, which crosses our red lines. The noble Lord also alluded to the fact that previous deals were available; I would gently point out that neither his party nor that of the noble Baroness chose to avail themselves of them. We want a future aviation relationship with the EU based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals. The EU’s negotiating mandate does not allow for the UK’s participation in EASA, but it does set out its ambition to agree co-operative aviation safety arrangements with the UK.
We are seeking two separate aviation agreements based on precedent. We want to agree a bilateral aviation safety agreement with the EU. This will facilitate the recognition of aviation safety standards, maintain high safety outcomes and enable continued regulatory co-operation between the UK and the EU. We are also seeking to agree with the European Union a comprehensive air transport agreement that includes provisions on market access for air services, close co-operation on aviation security and collaboration on air traffic management.
The negotiation of these two agreements will enable UK and EU passengers to benefit from high levels of connectivity, choice and value for money, and will help to provide operational and commercial flexibility to UK and EU industry. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was right to point out the interconnected nature of many companies in this sector. The comprehensive air transport agreement will also facilitate the maintenance of high aviation security standards, both in Europe and internationally, and will protect the continued interoperability of UK and EU airspace.
The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority currently oversees most aspects of civil aviation safety in the UK. After the transition period, the CAA will take on some additional functions from EASA and will continue to ensure that the UK has world-leading safety standards. The CAA has been preparing for the possibility of leaving the EASA system since the EU referendum in 2016, including recruiting and training new staff across the organisation.
It is important to note that, unlike on participation in EASA, both the UK and EU are willing to negotiate regulatory co-operation on aviation safety. This increases the likelihood of concluding aviation safety negotiations before the end of this year and providing some certainty to industry. Given that the EU and UK will have the same regulatory regime at the end of the transition period, it should be possible to agree a bilateral safety agreement that minimises regulatory burdens and removes the need for duplication of technical assessments in certification processes.
My noble friend Lord Balfe asked about divergence. It will be possible, but the UK is not seeking to diverge from common safety rules unnecessarily and will only do so where it makes sense for UK industry. Outside of the EASA system, the UK will have the autonomy to regulate in a proportionate manner that effectively meets the needs of industry. We are committed to agreeing these future arrangements for aviation by the end of this calendar year.
As noble Lords know, EASA, as an agency of the European Union, is responsible for drawing up safety rules and directly overseeing safety of some aspects of the aviation system. Its remit includes the design of aircraft and parts, manufacturing, aircraft operations, licensing of aviation personnel and oversight of training organisations. The aviation authorities of individual member states remain responsible for applying many of these rules. For example, they license pilots, issue certificates of airworthiness for individual aircraft and approve most organisations based in their territory. EASA itself undertakes three main areas of work: first, advising the EU on the updating of safety regulations that apply to all member states; secondly, ensuring that the rules are correctly and consistently applied across the EU and participating states; and, thirdly, issuing some certificates and licences in specific areas—for instance, certificates for the approval of design of aircraft parts or for the approval of design organisations.
Meanwhile, the Civil Aviation Authority undertakes most aspects of civil aviation safety oversight here in the UK. Any certificates or approvals that it currently issues in accordance with EU legislation are legally valid throughout the EASA system. For example, the CAA currently issues licences to pilots and engineers, certifies the airworthiness of individual aircraft and approves production, maintenance and flight training organisations based in the UK. After the transition period, much of the CAA’s work will continue as today, but it will also take on some additional functions from EASA. These include the approval of organisations designing products such as engines and propellers, the type certification of products—that is, approving the design of types of aircraft and component parts by issuing a type certificate—and responsibility for approving organisations based in third countries, including EU states, that supply services to the UK industry.
Under the EASA system most certificates, licences and approvals are issued by an individual member state’s aviation authorities. This means that the CAA already has the capability to provide a high-quality safety oversight regime. Further, the CAA is currently working on plans to develop its capability to meet its additional obligations and will continue to refine these plans over the coming months. It is also implementing plans to take over the responsibilities of EASA. This includes ensuring that it has the correct resources and level of staffing in place. In line with the user charges principle, the majority of the CAA’s costs are, and will continue to be, funded largely through charges on industry. However, the negotiation of a bilateral aviation safety agreement aims to minimise costs and burdens for industry.
The primary area where EASA performs certification functions for member states is with regard to aircraft design. The CAA is actively rebuilding its capabilities to undertake this work with additional resources and training.
As part of the no-deal contingency preparations, the CAA had previously engaged extensively with the UK industry to inform it of activities that would be necessary to prepare for a future where the UK was outside the EASA system. That work continues today, with regular updates to information on the CAA’s own dedicated EU exit site. For example, the CAA has already supported many businesses and individuals in securing the permissions that they would need to operate in Europe outside EASA systems—for instance, by supporting thousands of UK pilot licence holders and hundreds of UK maintenance engineer licence holders in transferring their licences to other national aviation authorities.
Provisions in the EU withdrawal Act mean that approvals, certificates and licences issued before 1 January 2021 will remain valid in UK law for a period of two years after the transition period ends. This includes those issued by EASA and other member states. Therefore the CAA will not be required to fulfil a responsibility to approve and oversee a large number of European-based organisations until January 2023. This has reduced the amount of additional capacity that the CAA has had to develop in the short term. If a bilateral safety agreement is agreed before that point, as expected, it may not need to develop that additional capacity.
My noble friend Lord Balfe asked about costs and benefits, and how it might be helpful to talk about how a bilateral safety agreement can help the industry. In short, a bilateral safety agreement provides for technical co-operation between national civil aviation authorities. It can help to reduce the duplication of activity and aim for the mutual acceptance of certificates and approvals. Importantly, a bilateral agreement will allow the airworthiness certification of civil aeronautical products to be shared between two countries.
In the case of the UK and the EU, a bilateral safety agreement aims to reduce the duplication of certification activity and regulatory checks undertaken by the CAA and EASA by recognising where the UK and EU aviation safety regimes deliver equivalent outcomes. This means, for example, that someone designing or building a propeller in the UK will go through fewer regulatory processes to get the product certified in the EU, as there will be mutual recognition of regulatory regimes. This means that a bilateral agreement will reduce the time and expense for an aerospace company when it comes to complying with different regulators. That will be important in minimising the regulatory burdens and costs for industry. As both the CAA and EASA will have the same regulatory regime at the end of the transition period, there will be no initial divergence in the regimes, which in practice will mean that technical recertification or reassessment will not be needed.
Importantly, there is a precedent for negotiating bilateral safety agreements in both in the UK and the EU. For example, the UK has negotiated such an agreement with the United States and Canada and with Brazil, so I make the point to my noble friend Lord Davies of Gower that this is not an untested route.
My noble friend also asked about staffing numbers. Most EASA staff are employed directly by EASA and based in Cologne, so it is a decision for UK nationals employed there whether they will remain within that agency. The Civil Aviation Authority previously had a small number of secondees working in EASA, but they have now returned to the UK.
The Government are committed to working with stakeholders to understand their views and concerns on the potential bilateral agreement. It is right that we continue to engage closely with the industry to ensure that future arrangements can deliver the best outcomes for the industry. We hope that the industry will continue to work constructively with the Government to ensure that we achieve the best possible outcome for the future.
I am close to my time. I hope that has answered all the questions that I am able to answer today. As I said at the beginning, I will be very happy to consult the Hansard of this debate and write to noble Lords on any points that remain.
UN Sustainable Development Goal 3
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Robertson, and at his request, I shall move this Motion. For understandable reasons, in the present circumstances my noble friend Lord Robertson has decided not to travel down from Scotland, and I have therefore been asked to introduce this debate. My noble friend apologises to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, in the chair, that he did not receive that information.
My noble friend Lord Robertson is the chair of the FIA Foundation. It is the second-largest global charitable funder for road safety in the world, following Bloomberg Philanthropies. He would obviously have intended to focus on the global situation and the SDG target, and most of what I say at the beginning of my remarks will be focused on that.
Clearly coronavirus is foremost in everybody’s minds at the moment, and it may seem a bit odd that we are devoting parliamentary time now to road safety, but the two are, to a degree, connected. Think about how many intensive care wards, hospital beds and ambulances will be needed to cope with coronavirus and then think about how we are squandering vital health resources around the world on entirely preventable road traffic accidents. There are five deaths every day in the UK and more than 60 serious injuries. Globally, more than 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year, and at least 10 million people are seriously injured. Some 250,000 children and teenagers will be killed by adults driving vehicles this year. That is the world’s number one cause of death among young people. It is therefore important that there is a sustainable development goal target dedicated to reducing traffic deaths and injuries.
There was a meeting in Stockholm last month involving Ministers and officials from 140 countries to approve the Stockholm declaration, an action plan for halving traffic deaths worldwide by 2030. I intended to go, but I was unable to do so in the end. I thank the Minister—or the Minister’s colleague—for attending that conference.
Many of the measures in the action plan are familiar. They are familiar in this country and around the world, but the problem is that, although we have managed to reduce road accidents in this country over the past 50 years from around 8,000 to below 1,800 by 2010, things that we have done here have not been adopted worldwide, such as seat belts, safety vehicles, road design, improved braking systems and, above all, speed management. In low and middle-income countries, which have the biggest problems here—90% of casualties occur in those countries—those relatively low-hanging fruits remain to be plucked. Too few people in those countries are wearing safety helmets on motorbikes, too many new high-speed roads are being built without safety precautions, sidewalks or protection for pedestrians, and too many world auto makers are still willing to produce and sell in those countries new vehicles without crumple zones or even basic safety technology.
This is beginning to change, and the UK has been involved in trying to change it. The FIA Foundation has also helped spread the message around the world. UK-based charities have led much of the specialist action on traffic safety. The international road assessment programme is now working with the World Bank and highways authorities in more than 100 countries. Another UK charity, the Global New Car Assessment Programme, is crash-testing popular family cars in Latin America, India and South Africa and publishing the results so that it identifies and shames poor-performing car makers. It praises well-designed vehicles and by doing so boosts consumers’ demand for safety in their cars.
Our expertise is being deployed to help meet that world aim. There was a time when the Department for International Development did not include much about road safety in its grant aid programme, but it is now providing much-needed support to the World Bank’s global road safety facilities and, together with the Department of Health and Social Care, is funding a world-leading road safety research programme. The Department for Transport was also involved in important international conferences last year.
Yet, despite these welcome interventions here in the UK, we should do much more. On funding, the UK should join and support the UN Road Safety Fund, which urgently needs new donors and technical assistance. Currently, bilateral donors include France, Russia and the European Commission. We should join them. There are plenty of schemes to be met: the last call for proposals outstripped the actual money available fifteenfold. We also need to build safety and effectiveness into western and multilateral donors, including DfID, which historically has actually helped to fund unsafe roads without a serious safety element being incorporated.
The recent inclusion of road safety in the World Bank programme is an important development. We need stronger global health governance and co-operation to ensure that road safety is treated as a serious cause of ill health, particularly among young people around the world. We need to approach road travel as a safe system, so that roads, drivers, enforcement and protection of non-vehicle road users are part of a total system. Because mistakes are inevitable, we also need to prevent collisions causing harm and to empower recovery, rescue and hospitalisation to be more effective.
These issues apply around the world. The countries that are most subject to large-scale road safety problems are the poorer and the younger countries of the world. But we should not ignore the fact that we have problems in this country. In the last 10 years, the very welcome reductions of the preceding 20 years have largely stalled for deaths and, to some extent, serious injuries. I hesitate to advance this theory, but for the preceding 20 years, up until 2010, a clear and overarching road safety strategy was adopted by successive Governments. In 1990, the then Road Safety Minister, Peter Bottomley, launched a 10-year programme and, since 2000, we have seen a major reduction in casualties. I hesitate to mention the Road Safety Minister in 2000, but we too launched a 10-year programme at that point, which saw a very significant reduction until 2010.
Much more was still to be done, and the absence of an overarching strategy since 2010 has, whether causally related or not, coincided with the fact that the reduction of casualties here has stalled. There has been some serious progress even so. For example, Highways England’s decision to star rate the inbuilt infrastructure safety of all of its roads is a very important development. Indeed, it is another example of a British institution taking on a three-star rating so that 100 countries in the world have seen their networks based on that new star rating. That was adopted by iRAP with the support of the FIA Foundation, and my organisation, the Road Safety Foundation, continues to deliver many of its benefits. Incidentally, each star gained represents a halving of the rate of death and serious injury.
About 60% of the deaths in Britain are concentrated on targetable motorways and A roads. The DfT trialled a new approach on the 50 most recent local authority roads, as measured by the Road Safety Foundation. The results proved that, within nine months, it was possible to bring forward 50 schemes on the worst roads and train 30 local authorities—through the Road Safety Foundation—in a new, systematic approach to measuring and reducing risk on those roads. A £100 million portfolio of investment was given by the Government, and the return on that was a benefit-cost ratio of 4.4. It was a good initiative by this Government, but that funding is now uncertain. It needs to be continued and new schemes need to be applied to the remaining strategic unsafe roads.
Many other things need to be done. There are issues relating to safety in vehicles. Cars are now designed to make collisions at 40 miles an hour survivable for occupants. Roads are designed, or speeds are reduced, to make head-on or side-on crashes above 40 miles an hour impossible. A pedestrian’s likelihood of dying increases exponentially above 20 miles an hour, so the new emphasis on traffic speeds, particularly in our urban areas, to below 20 miles an hour, is very important. It is not rocket science. This is, perhaps, an epidemic for which we do have the vaccines, which are—given the funding and the priority—relatively easy to introduce.
Does the Minister agree that it is time for the Department for Transport to revisit the issue of a longer-term strategic plan? I know that in 2018, the DfT commissioned a study to look at road safety management capability in this country and produced a detailed report. It called, among other things, for a clearer strategy and clearer cohesion across departments for delivering road safety targets. Can the Minister tell us what has happened to that report and whether we can anticipate another, more coherent road safety strategy when the present crisis and focus of government changes?
Many other new things are happening. We are on the verge of semi-autonomous and autonomous cars. As the owner of a relatively new car, I find it quite difficult to manage the head-up display and the electronic distraction right in front of you. The Institute for Advanced Management sent me a note saying that part of its research into in-car entertainment showed a distraction of 16 seconds, which at 70 miles an hour is a five or six-car distance distraction for the driver. That brings its own problems. So, technology that improves driving the car and the comfort of the passengers can be distracting and therefore dangerous to everybody, including the passengers. I specifically ask the Minister whether he has any comments on that research. The way in which car design and differentiation between models is going, what is on your dashboard is used as a selling point.
With those remarks, and particularly the focus that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, would want to see on the international situation and Britain’s role in that, I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I should really congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, on securing this important debate, but certainly the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, deserves to be congratulated on introducing it in such an exemplary fashion.
The background to this debate is the UK’s progress towards meeting the UN’s sustainable development goal 3, in particular target 3.6: halving global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents by 2020.
The Secretary-General’s report to the ministerial meeting of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, convened under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council on 8 May 2019, makes clear that road traffic injury is the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged between five and 29. The number of road traffic deaths globally climbed from 1.31 million in 2013 to 1.35 million in 2016. Against this background, how is the UK faring? The answer seems to be not too badly. Between 2010 and 2019, deaths remained pretty constant, increasing from 1,857 to 1,870 a year, but mainly hovering around the 1,700s. Injuries, on the other hand, declined fairly consistently, from 206,798 in 2010 to 157,630 in 2019, with a slight blip in 2014, when the figure rose from 181,957 the previous year to 194,477.
Could we do even better? How effective is the Government’s current approach to road safety? One factor of particular interest to me is that the Association of Optometrists thinks that the current rules on drivers’ vision are too weak. Poor vision causes many road accidents. We do not know exactly how many, because accidents can be caused by a combination of factors, including tiredness and distraction, as well as poor vision, and there is no requirement for a driver’s vision to be checked when an accident occurs. In 2017, there were two fatal accidents and 52 serious accidents where uncorrected defective eyesight was recorded as a contributing factor, but a 2012 study estimated that over 2,000 drivers in the UK were involved in accidents due to poor eyesight, causing nearly 3,000 casualties.
Currently, a driver’s vision is checked during their driving test by getting them to read a number plate at a distance of 20 metres. However, many drivers are never again required to have a vision test. Furthermore, the current system relies on self-reporting. If a driver has an eye condition, they must report it to the DVLA and be tested to check that they are safe to drive. Once a driver reaches the age of 70, they must complete a self-declaration to confirm that they are fit to drive, which includes confirming that their vision meets the legal standard, but they are not required to provide any evidence of this.
This system is problematic for many reasons. First, the number plate test is not necessarily a reliable indicator of whether someone can drive safely, because it does not check all the relevant aspects of visual function. Someone may pass the number plate test without having good enough vision to drive safely, and the result of the test cannot be checked in a test environment with consistent results. The number plate test should be replaced with a modern, scientific and reliable evaluation process.
Secondly, some eye conditions can be asymptomatic in their early stages, so drivers may not realise that they have a problem. For example, it is possible for someone with glaucoma to lose up to 40% of their vision without noticing. Therefore, they may continue to drive even though their reduced vision puts them and other road users at risk. We also know that some drivers will continue to drive even when they know that their vision is below the legal standard. In 2017, the Association of Optometrists carried out a survey of its members which found that one in three optometrists had in the last month seen someone with vision below the legal standard but who continued to drive.
There have been several high-profile and tragic examples of where drivers have known that their vision is below the legal standard and continued to drive anyway. Poppy-Arabella Clarke was just three years old when she was tragically killed by a 72 year-old who drove through a red light at a pedestrian crossing, which he later told the police he did not see. David Evans, aged 49, was killed by a 50 year-old driver whose vision was below the legal standard and who was fully aware of his vision problems. Natalie Wade, aged 28, was out shopping for her wedding dress when she was killed by a 78 year-old driver with vision below the legal standard. Ambrose Skingle, aged 86, was killed by an 87 year-old driver who lied to the DVLA about his sight problems to obtain his licence.
In 2011, 16 year-old Cassie McCord was killed by a driver with defective eyesight. The driver, who was 87, had been stopped by the police three days earlier and, after failing a roadside vision check, was told to hand over his licence. The driver refused and the police were powerless to do anything about it. Cassie’s mother campaigned for the police to have stronger powers, and “Cassie’s law” was introduced in 2013, enabling police officers to revoke a driver’s licence immediately if they believe that the driver represents a risk to themselves and other road users.
Are there any areas where the Government’s current approach to road safety could be improved? For reasons such as those I have outlined, the Association of Optometrists believes that the current rules on driving and vision are too weak:
“All drivers should be made aware of the importance of good eye sight as an aspect of road safety and encouraged to have regular sight tests, at least every two years. As a fall-back, all drivers should be legally required to have their vision checked when they first apply for a licence, and when renewing their driving licence—every ten years for most people, and every three years for those over 70. That check should involve standardised reliable tests, rather than the inadequate number plate test.”
How can interventions to reduce the number and severity of road traffic accidents best be implemented? As I have said, the current number plate test should be replaced by a modern and reliable evaluation process to check drivers’ vision. This check should be made compulsory when a driver first obtains their driving licence, then every 10 years when they renew their licence, and every three years once they reach the age of 70. I know that the Association of Optometrists would be happy to work with the Government to help implement these changes and take them forward.
My Lords, I will declare my voluntary interests before beginning my remarks. I had the honour of serving as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy for Turkmenistan and Iraq, both of which I will mention in my remarks. I also chair the AMAR international charitable foundation, whose example I will reference.
The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, requested this debate. We honour him for that request despite the fact that he is not in his normal seat, and we thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for putting it in front of your Lordships’ House. I wonder whether the experiences of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, as Secretary-General of NATO might have heightened his awareness of road safety issues in both military and civilian contexts. Nine years after his retirement, he clearly celebrates the 2015 sustainable development goals, including the one for road safety, the one that we are debating today, which is identified as number 3.6.
My own concern for road safety came from my experiences with the military, in Iraq, in this case, accepting the kind hospitality at Camp Victory offered by US General Chiarelli and subsequently by General Joe Anderson and General Odierno over a five-year period. When going out in on patrol in Baghdad with their soldiers, I consistently read the notice in the military vehicles stating, “Wear your seat belts. We have more deaths from traffic accidents than we do from enemy action”. I found that very hard to believe and I questioned it, but of course they were absolutely right.
Five years in Baghdad and other missions with the US military elsewhere taught me a lesson that road safety is not an add-on to personal and family health; it is an integral component of human health, life and safety. I welcome the adoption by the United Nations of the SDGs, including target 3.6 regarding road traffic accidents. For some years earlier, in my capacity as chairman of the AMAR international charitable foundation, I partnered with Shell to tackle road safety issues and the injuries and deaths of mothers and children in Maysan province in Iraq. The province is in the south of the country and has a huge oil field called al-Majnoon, meaning, “My God, what have we got here?” It is one of the biggest oil reserves in the world, and when they discovered it, that is what they named it. It has a wide population of marsh people around it.
Shell entered into a partnership with the AMAR Foundation in order to have a look at these issues. I will say that the local population were very unbriefed indeed, and it was a pleasure to be able to work with them. We did a pilot in 2013 with 1,654 pupils. We expanded it to 72 schools and 136 teachers in the autumn of 2014. From May to December 2013 we extended it to April 2014, at no cost to Shell. The total value of the Shell project was $179,000. Within that, the core part was $42,000 plus $40,000 to produce the teaching materials for the local people and the training of trainers, with a field budget of $106,000.
What did we do with that money, and why was it effective? At the heart of it lay the use of women. In that sense, that is a very successful way of working in any case. We trained volunteer women to assist on the Iraqi family road safety education project. During one quarter alone, the 24 women safety volunteers in al-Nashwa and the 40 in al-Dair made a total of, and I quote correctly, 9,315 education visits to families in the community, reaching an average of 8,482 beneficiaries educated every month. Quarterly refresher training was provided both in al-Nashwa to the WSVs on 8 June that year and in al-Dair. The 40 women safety volunteers and four supervisors were divided into two groups, owing to their large size.
Part of my comments today will refer to modelling and looking at the ways in which achievements can happen. In this project, participant understanding of the training was evaluated through pre and post testing. Health staff from the AMAR clinics locally, also funded by Shell, provided road safety education to a total of 3,831 patients during that quarter, an average of 1,271 people a month.
During the quarter, a total of 226 road traffic accidents were recorded by health staff, representing a decrease from the 424 incidents and accidents reported in the previous quarter. Quarterly refresher training was provided; road safety education was delivered by the staff in the primary health centres; and the targeting of children in the schools was another outreach programme. For example, with children, a team worked hard to compose with the relevant local education department a teacher-training booklet, cards with photographs, messages and the children’s stories and songs, and this was piloted in a dozen or more schools.
I raise these details because, as the noble Lord stated, the Department for International Development has spent a very large sum of money indeed over that same period of time—£9.8 million—and now there is another surge of funding to support more research programmes.
Shell has high sensitivity to the health of populations local to the oil and gas fields where it works. Indeed, it is the principal extractor in large parts of the globe. Given the experience I have had with Shell, I very much welcome its approach to local populations. It is, as far as I am aware, the only major oil and gas institution with its own medical personnel in headquarters as permanent staff. I cannot help but compare that with the use of the funding that DfID has put into the global budget of the Global Road Safety Facility, all of which appears to have gone on research. So I seek to persuade the Minister to continue to think globally—that is essential—but also perhaps to consider acting locally. It is the people themselves who are suffering the road incidents and if they have no knowledge they will not be able to benefit from their Governments’ efforts.
Indeed, the development goals certainly highlight the need for road safety development in developing nations. There this will mean new roads and new vehicles of all types and kinds. These will be novel to the local population. They will offer huge risks to life and limb: incoming foreigners, poor road behaviour by everyone, unnecessary permanent injuries, and a lack of education on these issues.
I wonder, therefore, whether, looking at lessons learned, as we do, we should be discussing size. I suggest that given today’s more difficult environment the days of big—indeed, vast—unmonitored grants are and should be past. The trusted organisations have let us down: Oxfam and prostitution; Save the Children, where I used to be a director, employing known sexual offenders; and UNICEF claims of expenditure contradicted by knowledge on the ground—information I have already given to DfID. The evidence is contradicting the reality. Perhaps we should start to remember that small is beautiful, and although small needs monitoring, is it not better to have definitive outcomes for a number of people than global goals which, wonderful though they are, do not seem to give us the outcomes that the people themselves will achieve? It does not happen, of course, with UN grants either.
The population and local governments of the north of Iraq—I am moving my geography—have to cope with 3.8 million refugees and IDPs who have been hastily sheltered since 2013. There are Yazidis, Christians, Syrians and Muslims, none of whom believe that the UK Government have given them anything at all. Yet both I and the Minister know that we have provided one of the largest sets of grants ever known to the north of Iraq in order to assist the KRG and the Iraqi Government in Baghdad to look after that enormous influx of refugees.
However, because the funds are spent by the UN, they are not noted as being funds coming from any individual Government. The reasons are understandable, but it means that the local people of the north of Iraq believe that Britain has betrayed and deserted them by giving them nothing at all, even though that is the exact opposite of what we have done. However often I explain that to the local population and to the governments in question, both regional and national, when I visit them, the message does not get through. As I say, that is understandable, because the money is invisible to the local population and their governments. This is not necessary, because the German Government, who I am sure are just as stringent or more about their expenditure as we are, are well known for the funding they provide. Perhaps we should think about how UK taxpayers’ money needs not only more careful husbandry through monitoring—which the large grants do not get, of course—but a change of values. Perhaps we should change them from high expenditure on unmonitored international NGO projects to having our normal British respect for low-cost, high-value, well-monitored development expenditure where the overriding goal is the people’s development—the development not of the spender but of the recipients. By realigning our development expenditure with UK foreign policy and human rights, we could again offer expenditure with a British face.
Our large grants have been absolutely wonderful, but is now not the moment to rethink the way we spend our money? I have no doubt at all that the world needs Britain. We are the most successful, multiracial, best co-ordinated and outward-looking nation in the world and our charitableness is immense. The examples I have just given are offered as a model that might be capable of being copied a million times over for a minuscule amount of money. Engaging with Shell and other major global businesses in Britain is another way of doing this. I would be happy to discuss new ways of using our funding with the Minister whenever that will be possible.
Perhaps I may say again what a pleasure it is to contribute to this debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and his alter ego, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for this opportunity.
My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on his speech. I welcome the fact that reducing road traffic casualties is enshrined in the United Nations sustainable development goals and targets, but it is disappointing that so little progress has been made. Globally, road traffic crashes are the eighth leading cause of death for people of all ages, and they are the leading cause of death for children and young adults. Approximately 1.35 million people are killed on the world’s roads each year, while roughly 50 million people are injured. Some 90% of these accidents occur in low and middle-income countries, even though those countries are home to only 54% of the world’s vehicles. The average cost of all this is 3% of GDP. At a time when we are becoming all too familiar with pandemic death rates, road accidents are indeed the neglected pandemic.
Some of the poorest countries are home to the worst statistics. Anyone who visits many African countries, for instance, cannot fail to be shocked by the intensity of the traffic and the lack of basic safety measures. These countries also lack robust health services or systems of support for those unable to work, which simply magnifies the impact on families where one member is injured in a traffic accident.
There are some international initiatives to help these countries improve their road safety, but as yet they have made little headway. The UK recently participated in the third Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety and new targets were agreed. The World Bank hosts the Global Road Safety Facility, and the UK has committed £9.8 million between 2013 and 2021. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether the Government have committed funding for any other international schemes. Although I welcome the £9.8 million, it is a paltry sum.
All these statistics ignore the other unseen killer that is a product of our road transport, and that is emissions—both carbon dioxide, which creates climate change, and nitrogen dioxide, which contributes to more than one in 19 deaths in our largest cities and towns here in the UK. If it is bad here, it is even worse in poorer countries, where the vehicles are often older and therefore more polluting and large numbers of people live in close proximity to busy roads.
This debate refers specifically to our own progress here in the UK in reducing death rates on our roads. I am pretty sure that, when the Minister responds, he will refer to our relatively safe roads. Our road accident statistics—1,784 in 2018—compare well with many other countries’, yet progress on reducing the number of fatalities has stalled.
For the rest of my time today, I will simply pick on a number of separate but clear issues that lie behind those figures and can be quite easily addressed. We have seen a major increase in traffic in the UK in recent years. We have also seen significant advances in vehicle technology, which should make them safer, yet in many respects our approach to road safety has not kept pace with modern facilities or challenges.
Pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists have significantly higher casualty rates per mile travelled than those travelling in cars or buses. I commend to the Minister research undertaken at Nottingham University, which has highlighted that one of the most common forms of fatal crash is when a car pulls out in front of an oncoming bike or motorbike. They are called LBFTSs—looked but failed to see. The evidence is that when a lot of traffic is on the road, drivers often fail to remember all they have seen and simply forget bikes and motorbikes most easily. All this suggests the need for a road safety campaign to encourage drivers to reinforce their visual memory by literally thinking bike and saying “Bike”. We all remember from our childhood the “Look right, look left, look right again” and “Stop, look, listen” campaigns. Those things are simple but memorable and lifetime effective.
The group of car drivers most likely to have a fatal accident are the newest and youngest. Those aged 17 to 24 make up only 7% of full licence holders but equate to 16% of road deaths, even though on average their mileage is lower. Some 15% of the deaths of young people occur in road traffic collisions. In 2017, 313 people were killed in crashes involving young drivers; 108 of them were the drivers themselves, 55 were their passengers and 150 were other road users.
Other than introducing the theory paper, the driving test today still looks remarkably like the one I took when I was 17. I suggest that that is ridiculous. For a number of years there have been calls for a graduated driving licence. One in five new drivers crashes their car in the first year. There are a number of limitations that could be placed on new drivers so that they can gradually build up to full permission to drive at any time of day on all roads and with passengers. I was pleased to see that the Government committed to considering this last year, and I hope that the Minister can update us today. Wherever GDLs have been introduced, from California to New Zealand, death and accident rates have fallen.
However, those of us who are older can also cause problems. The World Health Organization says that poor eyesight is a key risk factor in road crashes, and approximately 3,000 casualties a year in the UK can be attributed to the driver having poor vision. The noble Lord, Lord Low, addressed this issue in considerable detail, and I congratulate him on his speech. I reiterate that the problem is that there is no structured approach to testing for adequate vision. People can lose up to 40% of their vision without even being aware that they are losing it. Although there are minimum eyesight standards, the responsibility lies with us as drivers. Once you have your licence, you are unlikely to be tested again for a very long time, if ever. Doctors and police can of course intervene and report you, but the process is pretty haphazard. We all know that eyesight declines with age, and a requirement for a simple and regular test is surely a fairly modest one.
On seat belts, there have been increasingly precise requirements since the 1970s, so you would think that the case has been made. Yet the statistics show that passengers, as opposed to drivers, are particularly cavalier about this. In 2017, 27% of car occupant fatalities were of people not wearing their seat belt. That statistic should be advertised a lot more frequently. I am pleased to see that the Government are considering imposing penalty points on those who flout the law on this. There is a steady stream of prosecutions in our courts—over 6,000 in 2018—and they achieve a high level of convictions. The figures show a stark picture. I would be careful in how I say this but the picture is stark: it is overwhelmingly a male problem. One in 10 of those prosecuted is female, and the rest—I lead your Lordships to conclude—are therefore male.
Finally, recent research from the Institute of Advanced Motorists demonstrates the dangers associated with in-car entertainment systems. We are all familiar with the dangers of texting or using our mobile phone while driving—although you can still see people doing it quite commonly—but driver distraction is still a factor in about one-third of road collisions in Europe. The IAM research showed that drivers interacting with in-car systems such as Android Auto and Apple CarPlay increase their stopping distance by four to five car lengths. That is a considerable increase. I say to the Minister that we investigate air and rail accidents and have bodies to do that and to draw strategic conclusions on safety. I suggest to the Minister that we need a body to look at road accidents as well.
History has shown us that, where the law changes, social acceptance rapidly follows—for example, on drink driving—so I encourage the Government to embrace the need for change.
My Lords, I express my thanks to my noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen for securing this debate and express regret that the current health crisis has precluded him from being here today. As my noble friend Lord Whitty said, much of his speech in opening the debate in the name of my noble friend Lord Robertson included the points and thrust of the case that the noble Lord would have made. In reality then, we have not been denied either the opportunity to hear the views of my noble friend Lord Robertson or to be made aware of the considerable and effective work that he has undertaken and is undertaking to promote road safety globally.
The sustainable development goals consist of 17 global goals covering ambitious aims such as ending hunger, poverty and inequality. They also include good health and well-being, and target 3.6 concerns road deaths and injuries. The sustainable development goals were agreed to by all 193 UN member states in 2015, with the target of achieving them by 2030. However, target 3.6 was an exception, since it provided for halving the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents by 2020, not 2030. At the end of 2018, the World Health Organization published a report assessing progress made in improving road safety globally and concluded that the sustainable development goal target 3.6 to halve road traffic deaths by 2020 would not be met. Participants at the third Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety in February called for a new target to replace target 3.6—namely, that there should now be a reduction in road traffic deaths by at least 50% from 2020 to 2030.
The SDGs replaced the millennium development goals, which had guided international development work over the period from 2000 to 2015. A key difference in the introduction of the SDG agenda was that the goals became universal, meaning that all countries, including the wealthiest nations, are required to meet them. We are therefore committed and obliged to meet these goals domestically as well as to support other countries to do the same through our international development work; hence the relevance of my noble friend Lord Whitty’s support for the Government’s work to support other countries in the field of road safety, but also his pleas for further substantial action—some of which he spelled out in specific terms—to which the Government will no doubt give their response when the Minister replies to the debate.
As I understand it, though I may well be wrong, all government departments are meant to have embedded the sustainable development goals into their single departmental plans and to have nominated an SDG champion at director level whose responsibility it is to promote the sustainable development goals in their department. If I am right, can the Government say who that person is within the Department for Transport, when they were appointed to that role and the extent to which their role as SDG champion at director level is their sole activity to which they can give their undivided attention, as opposed to being one of a number of responsibilities that they undertake?
As has already been said, road traffic accidents globally are the eighth leading cause of death for people of all ages and is the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged five to 29 years. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of road deaths globally increased, reaching 1.35 million in 2016. Over those years, the number ran at approximately 18 deaths per 100,000 people.
Approximately 50 million people are injured globally each year, some 10 million seriously. Once again, as has been said, road traffic deaths and injuries cost countries 3% of their GDP, on average. However, 90% of road traffic deaths occur in low and middle-income countries, yet these countries have only 54% of the world’s vehicles. That indicates where supported action is most needed, as my noble friend Lord Whitty highlighted in his speech.
For better or worse, I was recently in Vietnam. To someone used to driving, walking or cycling on the roads in this country the bustling city of Saigon, not dissimilar in population to London, is—to say the least of it—a completely different experience. Scooters dominate the traffic scene. Far from all significant traffic junctions are controlled by traffic lights and the number of cars, a number of them four-wheel-drive SUVs or vehicles of similar size, is increasing. Those increasing numbers of cars and large numbers of scooters are not necessarily the ideal partners when it comes to using crowded, congested city roads, where traffic regulation appears at times somewhat limited. That of course has implications for pedestrians, too.
Road safety, particularly for younger people and their parents, is apparently becoming a major source of concern in Saigon. A first new metro or subway line of some 20 kilometres is under construction in Saigon, with Japanese finance. Some there predict that it will remove a significant percentage of scooter journeys from the roads, when opened, since it will provide a much faster and safer route for many going to and from the city centre, not least commuters. It remains to be seen whether that proves to be the case but if it does, it should make a contribution to improving road safety. It also highlights that providing finance or expertise for public transport schemes, as opposed to direct investment in making roads or vehicles safer, can also impact favourably on road safety.
A further factor in determining the impact of road accidents on deaths and injuries is the quality, or otherwise, of medical care. As has been said, in those countries with a high incidence of accidents the medical facilities are not always to the highest standards or not so easily accessible to all, or both. Help in that area can also impact in a positive way on road safety.
My noble friend Lord Whitty referred to the importance of the design and construction of vehicles in reducing road deaths and injuries. He also referred to controlling the speed of vehicles in locations where they and pedestrians are alongside each other, since the speed at which a pedestrian or cyclist is hit by a vehicle determines the severity of the outcome of the incident. I have seen, as others no doubt have, projects not that far from where we are now that have revitalised residential streets and shopping areas, simply by either significantly reducing vehicle speeds and access or pedestrianising the location completely. Instead of parents with young children walking along roads that have heavy and potentially fast vehicle usage, while holding on to their offspring firmly and closely, you see a totally different atmosphere: a more relaxed and happier one, where parents no longer feel obliged to hold their children firmly in check. They no longer feel that their children are in imminent danger of being knocked down. This not only returns streets to the communities who reside or shop in them but makes a contribution to improving road safety.
I referred earlier to the size of cars in the context of Saigon. There is also an increasing prevalence and usage on our roads of SUVs and similar larger vehicles, a development which appears to have happened quite rapidly and is, presumably, continuing. What contribution is that increase making to road safety in this country, and to the sustainable development goal of a healthy and safe environment? I fear that it may be negative, if the miles driven per litre of fuel is less than for a smaller car. On a similar-speed basis, presumably the adverse impact on a pedestrian or cyclist of being hit by one of these vehicles is greater. If figures or other information on this aspect are available, perhaps the Minister could write to me with the details.
Like my noble friend Lord Whitty, I will listen to the Government’s response to his plea for more government support for road safety improvement initiatives and organisations working in this field in other countries, where such support can have a significant and marked impact.
I was struck, though not entirely surprised, by one comment made to me in Vietnam. The thrust of it was that a few years ago the individual making the comment would have wanted, if he could, to leave his country and seek a better life elsewhere. He said that things had now improved, at least for him. He felt that the country had a future and he wanted to stay to be part of it. I do not wish to suggest that supporting projects to improve road safety is the difference between individuals wanting to stay in their country and wanting to leave, but it is one of a great many issues that impact on the quality and enjoyment of life. I have never understood the approach of those who seem to begrudge every penny of what we as a nation spend on supporting improvement projects in less-developed countries, since the same people are often the most vociferous in their concerns over levels of migration into our country. One way to reduce migration worldwide is to seek to reduce people’s desire to become economic migrants from their own countries through the developed world, including our own country, providing the financial and practical resources to help to improve the standard and quality of life in those countries, so that the number of those seeking to leave, who are often those whom such countries need most to remain, diminishes.
I once again thank my noble friend Lord Whitty for his powerful contribution. I also thank my noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen for the considerable work he has done and continues to do in the specific area of road safety initiatives and improvements worldwide. I hope that the Government will be able to give a not just sympathetic but positive response to the case for more support worldwide made by my noble friend Lord Whitty. I also hope that the Government will respond to the points made by my noble friend Lord Whitty and others, including on a longer-term strategic plan relating to road safety targets for this country, continuing finance to target the most dangerous roads for action, the stalling in the fall of the rate of fatalities, and the potential implications of ever-more sophisticated dashboard technology acting as a distraction for drivers and slowing down reaction times.
My Lords, I believe that I am the second member of the Government Front Bench to attempt to translate themselves into a lookalike of my noble friend Lady Vere this afternoon. I fear that I have not been too successful, but I am very sorry that she is not in her place. I thank all who have participated in the debate. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for standing in so ably for the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, whom we miss.
Much has been done to improve road safety in the UK. I noted the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on the statistics that he raised about improving road safety since 2000. He was very modest, but I believe that he should be applauded for the work he has done in that respect. Since 2010, the UK has reduced reported road fatalities by 3%, compared with a 11% rise in North America and a 21% reduction in EU and EFTA countries. The rest of the UNECE countries had a combined average reduction of 15% over the same period.
However, as the House will agree, so much more needs to be done, and 2020 marks the start of the decade of action to accelerate progress towards the sustainable development goals. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said, there are still 1.35 million deaths a year on roads throughout the world, which is unacceptable. That is why the UK is committed to improving road safety domestically and internationally, but this must be done effectively. We should approach road safety on a number of different fronts. It is essential that we focus on education, enforcement and empathy in all that we do.
On our approach to action domestically, as noble Lords will be aware, the UK published a road safety statement last year, which focuses on cutting crashes among key groups of road users. It is a two-year action plan, targeting four of the most at-risk categories: young people, rural road users, motorcyclists, and older vulnerable users. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, put it very well when she mentioned LBFTSs. That has to be at the top of the list of issues to address.
Underpinning this work is a single principle: that of making our roads safer for all. This is exemplified by the safe-system approach that we launched in 2015. The heart of this approach is the understanding that humans are both fragile and fallible, so when mistakes happen, cars and roads should be designed to forgive, while road users should be given the best possible training to avoid crashes happening at all. This will take some time to achieve. I was very interested to hear of my noble friend Lady Nicholson’s experiences in Iraq with Shell, where some innovative and pioneering training methods were used. I found her speech particularly interesting.
The safe-system approach also aims better to manage the aftermath of crashes. We have awarded a £480,000 grant to the RAC Foundation and Highways England for a new road collision investigation project. It will trial investigation methods similar to those used following aviation and oil and gas industry accidents—perhaps referring to the experiences raised by my noble friend—to see whether they can help us better to understand the causes of crashes and near-misses on the roads.
We are also taking practical action to optimise the efficiency of crash scene investigations. The collision reporting and sharing system—inevitably known as CRASH—is now being used by 23 police forces in England and Scotland. It makes it far easier for the police, often working at dark, windy and rain-drenched roadsides, quickly and accurately to record the full details of a crash, from pinpointing the exact location to loading full witness statements. The next version of CRASH will be launched later in the year. We are continuing to hone this crucial tool that has proved invaluable to police officers around the county, and we are also working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s specialist capabilities review to develop a new version of CRASH specifically for investigators of the most serious incidents. It is my hope that the evidence gathered through these new systems will not just assist in the investigation of individual collisions but will enable us to identify previously unseen patterns and trends and help to ensure that crashes are not only fully investigated but, importantly, simply prevented.
My department has taken some significant steps on the domestic front. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, highlighted unsafe roads, and he was quite right to do so. In 2017, we launched the £100 million safer roads fund to tackle the 50 most dangerous A roads in England. My noble friend Lady Vere recently visited the A1290 in Sunderland, where crucial improvements have been completed. Others are under way around the country, and many more are soon to be started. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, raised this point, so I hope that he will be listening carefully to what I am saying.
In 2018, the cycling and walking review was announced, containing a two-year action with 21 packages of measures. This is a ground-breaking plan to cut the toll of incidents involving pedestrians and cyclists. Key interventions include reviewing guidance in the Highway Code to improve safety for cyclists, pedestrians and horse-riders, encouraging local councils to invest around 15% of their local transport infrastructure funding over time on safe and efficient cycling and walking infrastructure and investing £100,000 to support police to improve enforcement by developing a national back-office function to handle footage provided through dash-cam evidence.
My department’s 2019 road safety statement, with more than 70 actions, is targeting key interventions to improve road safety. The noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Whitty, asked about this. For young road users—who were also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who made a very important point—there is a broad aim to improve road safety for children and young people through new technology and research and by developing better learning opportunities and messaging for young drivers. This includes helping new drivers to stay safe through a number of actions, such as, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, encouraging learner drivers to increase on-the-road experience before taking their test and reinforcing vital road safety measures through our THINK! campaign.
For rural road users, we are setting up a rural road users working group. Membership will be from a diverse range of people and institutions affected by road safety in rural communities, including local authorities, rural businesses, farmers, horse-riders, cyclists and ramblers. Key issues might include: how to make it easier and quicker to make local improvements to traffic signs on country roads; the issue of rural speeding; and speed limits and rural safety enforcement.
To improve the safety of motorcyclists, we are committed to ensuring that they are equipped with the specialist skills necessary to stay safe on the road. Motorcyclists are one of the highest-risk user groups on the road, and we have proposed a range of specific actions and research initiatives designed to understand the risks, increase protection and improve behaviour. The DVSA is developing a package of measures to improve the training regime. We are working with UK industry and motorcycle groups to understand how to encourage riders to wear the best protective equipment for their needs and what, if any, improvements need to be made to protective equipment. I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, who raised the important point about helmets. I hope she will forgive me if it was not her but it was one of your Lordships. We are commissioning additional research into the use of powered two-wheelers and other vehicles in the gig economy to understand how to reduce the safety risks these drivers encounter.
For older road users—this may be of particular interest to this House—the Government have committed to assessing the recommendations from the 2016 Older Drivers Task Force. We need to better understand the extent to which driver vision issues pose a road safety risk in the UK. On that note, I took note of the interesting speech of the noble Lord, Lord Low; this was also raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson. I assure the House that the department and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency take road safety very seriously. Current licensing arrangements take into account the risks that an individual poses to road safety. Currently there are no plans to introduce mandatory eyesight testing for drivers because there is no evidence that this would improve road safety. Although an optician’s certificate or equivalent would provide assurance that someone had had their eyes tested, this would not ensure that a driver could meet the current eyesight standard on an ongoing basis. It would also not guarantee that the driver would use their prescribed glasses or corrective lenses while driving.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, spoke about seat belts—another important issue. Seat-belt use levels are generally high but there is no room for complacency. Non-seat-belt use accounts for a disproportionately high number of car occupant fatalities: 26%. That is why we are reviewing the issues behind this problem. As part of this, we are considering the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety report calling for this offence to result in penalty points.
My department is also reviewing enforcement and legislative interventions to identify improvements that can be made to road safety. Enforcement capability can and will be improved. We are undertaking a comprehensive review of roads policing and will shortly publish a call for evidence as part of that. We are also reviewing the UK’s law on mobile phones and seat belts, with a view to closing the loophole requiring proof of “interactive communication” for an offence of using a mobile phone while driving to be committed, and to understand why there is a continuing issue with non-seat-belt use, as I mentioned earlier.
On the very important point about in-car entertainment, which I think was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, the department is aware of the research and the published report, and will be reviewing the detail. The Highway Code already warns drivers of the dangers of distraction but clearly this is not enough. This is very much work in progress.
All our interventions use an evidence-based approach to deliver the best results. For example, the department looked at 20 mph speed limits, and has published research addressing the gap in the evidence on their effectiveness. There is insufficient evidence to conclude that there has been a significant change in the number of collisions and casualties following the introduction of 20 mph limits in residential areas. I am very much aware of this as I live near Oxford and there are plenty of those in the middle of Oxford, as noble Lords will be aware.
The evaluation of 20 mph limits studied 12 case study schemes, comprising a variety of area types, road types and scale. A further three case studies covered local authorities that had chosen not to implement a 20 mph scheme.
While we recognise that speed has an impact on road safety, we do not support the introduction of blanket 20 mph speed limits nationally because they might not be appropriate for all roads’ local conditions. Local authorities have the power to set speed limits on their roads, as does Highways England for the strategic route network. Their local knowledge makes them best placed to make these decisions. The department has published guidance designed to make sure that speed limits are appropriately and consistently set while allowing for flexibility to deal with local needs and conditions.
As well as these interventions, for some time THINK!—my department’s pioneering and award-winning road safety campaign—has worked on targeted campaigns to improve the behaviour of drivers in England and Wales. The THINK! “Mates Matter” strategy focuses on young male drivers aged 17 to 24, who are four times more likely to be killed or seriously injured on the roads than car drivers aged 25 or over. The strategy challenges social norms among groups of mates; encouraging young men to watch each other’s backs. This includes targeting channels most popular with young men and aligning activity with the cultural and seasonal moments that matter most to them.
THINK! also works with trusted influencers and brand partners to extend the reach and credibility of its messages. The strategy covers a range of issues, including drink-driving, distraction from mobile phones and passengers, as mentioned earlier, and inappropriate speeds on country roads. As well as the work of THINK! in helping schools and nurseries teach children as young as three about road safety, we have awarded £200,000 to Road Safety GB to roll out augmented-reality technology resources to schools so that children can gain real-world understanding of risks from the classroom.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, raised an important point about vehicle standards. Vehicle safety is of course a key aspect of road safety, but the UK recognises the importance of regulating vehicles and supports the introduction of Euro NCAP systems around the world to back that up. The UK also works at the United Nations on vehicle standards as a leading member to ensure the safety of vehicles. However, despite this good work, more needs to be done around the world and the Department for Transport is committed to that work.
I turn to the management capacity review, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. This independent review, published in May 2018, was commissioned to identify practical and actionable opportunities for strengthening joint working, local innovation and efficiency on a national and local basis. It informed our thinking for the refreshed Road Safety Statement and two-year action plan published the following year. Work has recently been commissioned on the effectiveness of targets and will report in autumn 2020, addressing one of the main points made by the review. As mentioned earlier, we are enhancing our understanding of the causes of collisions, another of its recommendations, with the £480,000.
The statement also announced actions on our key priority groups of the young, older users, motorcyclists and rural road users, which the review raised as well. In addition, we announced that we would lead a review of roads policing, working with the Home Office, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and other agencies. As part of that review, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services has conducted a thematic inspection of roads policing in seven police forces. Its report is due to be published shortly and its findings and recommendations will inform our understanding of the current situation with regard to the effectiveness of roads policing.
We recognise that we have a reasonably good record on road safety in the UK compared to many other countries. We are exploring how we can use this to work with and learn from other countries. Department for Transport officials meet officials from other countries and international organisations to share best practice and explore how global road safety can be improved. This was very much a theme in the House today—linking with other countries and learning from them and, I hope, them learning from us. In this vein, last September we hosted the UK’s first international road safety conference, which was attended by experts and legislators from across the world and demonstrated the UK’s commitment to sharing experiences and knowledge to improve road safety domestically and internationally.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and others referred to the United Nations sustainable development goals, which were designed and adopted by all member states in 2015 and are the shared blueprint to tackle the most pressing global challenges by 2030. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that we continue to be committed to the sustainable development goals and support the aim of target 3.6 to reduce global road traffic deaths and injuries.
My noble friend Lady Vere demonstrated the importance of highlighting road safety alongside other international challenges, such as sustainability and health, at last month’s 3rd Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety. The department supports the Stockholm Declaration, which aims to halve the number of deaths and serious injuries on the world’s roads by 2030. We expect the Stockholm Declaration to include this target for delivery by 2030 when it is presented at the next UN General Assembly as a resolution for adoption. However, due to the current climate as a result of Covid-19, negotiations on the resolution have not begun. When they do begin, the UK will engage and provide its views.
To pick up on points raised by my noble friend Lady Nicholson and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, on international road safety, the UK, via DfID and DHSC, has been an active donor to the World Bank’s Global Road Safety Facility. This has helped fund a number of key initiatives, including the African Road Safety Observatory, a unique initiative that launched in 2019. It aims to foster national, international and continental co-operation to generate road safety data and to influence road safety policies in African Union member countries. The research programme on road safety was launched in 2019 with funding and support from UK aid. It comprises eight research projects. The programme will also include the development of software to assess the effectiveness of road safety interventions.
In addition, DfID, which has been mentioned by several noble Lords, works on a number of different projects connected to road safety. For example, its £12.3 million ieConnect programme provides support to the World Bank Development Impact Evaluation initiative to undertake impact evaluation on transport, including road safety.
I realise that time is marching on and I have quite a lot more to say, particularly since I have picked this up at short notice from my noble friend Lady Vere. I may well need to answer a number of other questions, which I will most certainly do by letter, but I will jump ahead to say as a summary that the UK absolutely recognises the importance of improving road safety domestically and globally. We are working in many ways to achieve this, including, as I said, with other countries. We have achieved considerable results domestically in reducing deaths and serious injuries on our roads and there have been improvements around the world. However, as has been said, much more can be done, and we are committed to ensuring that the UK is part of the global effort for road safety. With that, I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for introducing this important issue for debate today.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that summing up and for his mastery of the brief at short notice. He has covered a lot of the points.
I referred in my opening remarks to my chairmanship of the Road Safety Foundation, but I should also have referred to my chairmanship of EEAST, a charity that deals with projects in central Asia and eastern Europe. The remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, about her experience in Iraq, and indeed my noble friend Lord Rosser’s reference to Saigon, illustrated that, in both rural and urban areas, the impact of motor traffic, often for the first time, on whole communities means that you have to take the whole community to you. The link I would make with the plea relating to the strategic goals is that until relatively recently neither DfID nor, even more so, the multilaterals had included road safety in their major development projects. That has changed and they have specific funds for it. DfID has been a leader in that, which I applaud, but it is also true that very substantial aid from this country, the European Union, the World Bank and other multilateral organisations goes to promoting the development of roads and rail infra- structure in those countries. It is important that safety is not an add-on, but is built in.
Part of building it in is taking the community with you. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, that the appreciation of British engagement in these matters is an important aspect of soft power and one that undoubtedly has a real benefit to the lives of those communities and the lives saved by such interventions.
I am also happy to thank the Minister for his references to the 10-year period of action, which is close to my 10-year strategic plan. I hope he takes on board some of the suggestions in relation to eyesight that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, and the noble Lord, Lord Low, made. I had one disappointment in the Minister’s view in relation to that. Yes, there are technical difficulties in relation to eyesight and enforcement of whether or not you wear your glasses, but they are not insuperable. I believe this is an important part of saving lives and avoiding incidents on the roads domestically in the UK, and one on which other countries around the world would welcome British input. He should take seriously the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Low, of a dialogue with the Association of Optometrists. It is very important that this dimension is taken into account.
The general support for the work that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, was intending to bring to our attention is welcome. I hope we see a follow-through in the coming years. I beg to move.
Windrush Lessons Learned Review
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement given by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in the other place. The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement on the long-awaited Windrush Lessons Learned Review. I dedicate this Statement today to the Windrush generation. I have personally been deeply moved by reading this report. Given the national significance of this issue, I have published this review immediately. I thank Wendy Williams and her team for the important work they have undertaken.
The Windrush Lessons Learned Review gives voice to members of the Windrush generation who arrived legally in the UK to help rebuild post-war Britain. These are the people who have done so much for this country, from staffing the NHS to rebuilding Britain. These are the very people who worked hard, paid their taxes and had every right to be in this country. They contributed to our communities, culture and society, helping our public services and economy thrive. They made our country stronger, more vibrant and more successful as a nation—which is why we were all shocked to discover that they and their families were subject to such insensitive treatment by the very country they called home.
As this review makes clear, some members of this generation suffered terrible injustices, spurred by institutional failings spanning successive Governments over several decades, including
“ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation”.
Today’s publication is part of an ongoing mission to put this right and ensure that events such as this can never happen again, as there were far too many victims of Windrush.
Paulette Wilson was detained in an immigration removal centre and warned that she faced removal, after living in the UK for 50 years. She spent decades contributing to the UK, working for a time in this very House, yet was treated as a second-class citizen.
Junior Green had been in the UK for more than 60 years, raising children and grandchildren here, but after a holiday to Jamaica he was refused re-entry despite holding a passport confirming his right to be in the UK. The injustice that he suffered was compounded when, because of this action, he missed his mother’s funeral. Lives were ruined and families were torn apart, and now an independent review has suggested that the Home Office’s ‘institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation’ contributed to this. This is simply unacceptable.
I have heard people speak of ‘decision-making’ as a process—a process that grinds people down to the extent that it makes you want to give up. I have heard people speak of being dismissed, labelled as a group of people who just did not matter and whose voice on this issue was irrelevant. People have spoken to me about the indignity and inhumanity they still feel today from the experience of being made to feel unwelcome in their own country. They have described their experiences as unthinkable and unimaginable.
However, there are people across the UK, and even some members of this House—including myself and the Shadow Home Secretary—for whom this is unfortunately all too relatable. There are lessons to learn for the Home Office, but also for society as a whole. Despite the diverse and open nature of our country, too many people still feel that they may be treated differently because of who they are or where their parents came from. And today’s report, which suggests that in the Home Office there was an ‘institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation’, is worrying for us all.
In her report, Wendy Williams is clear that lessons must be learned at all levels and by all political parties. She describes a set of measures that evolved under Labour, coalition and Conservative Governments. These measures cover decades. She states that Ministers did not sufficiently question unintended consequences and that officials should and could have done more. But we must all look to ourselves. We must all do better at walking in other people’s shoes. We must all take responsibility for the failings that led to the unimaginable suffering of this generation.
Let me be clear. There is nothing that I can say today which will undo the pain, suffering and misery inflicted on the Windrush generation. What I can do is say that, on behalf of this and successive Governments, I am truly sorry for the actions that spanned decades; I am sorry that people’s trust has been betrayed; and we will continue to do everything possible to ensure that the Home Office protects, supports and listens to every single part of the community that it serves.
Action has already begun. In recent months, I have met and listened to people whose lives were shattered. Since 2018, we have launched measures to put right the wrongs caused to individual members of the Windrush generation. We have taken action through practical measures to give those who were affected the assistance, certainty, reassurance and support that they need.
The Commonwealth citizens task force goes into communities to help and support people to secure their legal status. Over 11,700 people have been granted a form of documentation that confirms their right to remain in the UK and guarantees their access to public services. Our vulnerable persons team has provided support to nearly 1,400 people, with approximately 120 people still receiving support. The team has supported over 360 people to secure access to benefits; and, to go some way to addressing the hardship suffered, the Home Office launched the Windrush compensation scheme.
This scheme was designed in close consultation with members of the community and with Martin Forde QC. Collectively, they have developed a compensation scheme that is straightforward to use and addresses the bespoke and personal circumstances and needs of every applicant, with dedicated caseworkers assessing claims as quickly as possible. There is no cap on payments, dozens of which have already been made, and we encourage more applications.
Over 100 community events have taken place so far. This includes more than 30 compensation scheme events across the country, from Southampton to Glasgow, Cardiff to Coventry. However, there are still people out there in need of our help whom we have not yet reached. That is why, in February, I extended the length of the compensation scheme by a further two years so that claims can be submitted until April 2023. I set up the Windrush stakeholder advisory group, to rebuild links with communities to ensure that they are supported through compensation, but also to rebuild the trust that has been broken.
Today, I can confirm that we will launch an expanded cross-government Windrush working group to develop programmes to improve the lives of those affected. That may be through employment programmes, dedicated mental health support and specialist education and training schemes. To make sure people know about the task force, the Windrush compensation scheme will have a dedicated new communications campaign promoting the scheme. We will also open a £500,000 fund for grass-roots organisations to promote these schemes, including provisions for specialist advice services. I would like to extend my personal thanks to Martin Forde QC for his support with the creation of the scheme.
I also want to put on the record my thanks to my predecessors, my right honourable friends the Members for Bromsgrove and Maidenhead, and the former Member for Hastings and Rye, who worked hard to understand and undo the suffering when these issues first came to light, and to other members of this House, including the Members for Tottenham and Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, who shone a necessary light on this injustice. I also want to thank the thousands of civil servants at the Home Office and across government who work tirelessly every single day, in challenging and demanding jobs, to keep the public and our country safe. Whether on the front line or working to develop policies for the future, their commitment to create a safer country for us all is commendable. Since these injustices were brought to light, civil servants have used every endeavour to right the wrongs, giving people their correct status and supporting them in their financial compensation claims. However, it would be wrong for the department to ignore Wendy Williams’s finding that the Home Office’s ‘institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation’ contributed to this. This is not something that can be resolved with an apology or compensation. I will review the recommendations that Wendy Williams makes in relation to the way the Home Office operates as an organisation. I will continue to look closely at its leadership, culture, practices, and the way it views the communities it serves.
Over the coming months, myself and Matthew Rycroft, the new Permanent Secretary, will work together with our dedicated staff at all levels to review and reflect on the recommendations, including those relating to compliant environment policies and cultural change. Fundamentally I want to make the Home Office a better place to work. This will include a clarification of the department’s purpose, mission and values, putting at its heart fairness, dignity and respect. We will put people before process. The publication of this review is a small but vital step towards ensuring that the Home Office is trusted by all the people it serves. I would encourage anyone who thinks they have been affected by the Windrush scandal, or who requires support or assistance, to come forward. I will bring forward a detailed formal response in the next six months, as Wendy Williams recommended, representing a new chapter for the Home Office.
Let me assure this House that everyone at the Home Office will be asking the difficult questions needed to ensure that these circumstances can never arise again.
I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the Commons. There is, of course, a marked disparity between the speed with which this review has been published and the lack of speed with which the report on—for example —Russian interference in elections has appeared, a marked disparity for which there is no obvious explanation.
We cannot overstate how damning this review has been of the Government’s
“institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race”.
The way in which individuals and families were wrongly deported and deprived of their livelihoods caused enormous suffering. Now it can only be right that the Government pave the way for a complete change in how the Home Office operates, but apparently the Government cannot say that the recommendations of the review will be delivered in full in the most appropriate timeframe possible. That seemed to be the message of the Statement. There would at least be some satisfaction if we could say that the Government had attempted effectively to make amends.
However, I believe I am right in saying that last month, new migration statistics showed that fewer than one in 20 Windrush compensation claimants had received compensation. From that, it would seem clear that the Government are still failing the Windrush victims, at least in that regard, both in terms of the number of people the compensation is reaching and the level of payouts for lives disrupted or destroyed. Can the Government say how they will ensure that further victims receive the compensation they deserve, and receive it speedily?
On the wider issue of the hostile environment, can the Government today mark a change in direction and agree to put an end to this policy, beginning by ending deportation flights for foreign national offenders who have lived here since childhood, committing that the historic case review will include those who have committed offences, and keeping open the compensation scheme for as long as necessary?
One of the more damning lines of the report was that the scandal was “foreseeable and avoidable”. Scandals which will further arise if the Government continue with the hostile environment policy are also foreseeable and avoidable. Renaming the policy, which the Government have sought to do, does not bring about the necessary culture change. Even the executive summary of the report—I am sure that the Minister will not be entirely surprised if I say that I have not read all 275 pages of it—says that
“the Home Office … must change its culture to recognise that migration and wider Home Office policy is about people and, whatever its objective, should be rooted in humanity.”
It is a fairly damning statement on the present state of affairs for that to appear as a part of this review.
We do not want similar issues arising over citizenship rights in the light of our withdrawal from the EU, and neither will a future immigration policy based on devaluing the value and skills of many people help the situation, particularly when some of those so-called low-skilled and insufficiently paid personnel are now deemed to be vital key workers in the present crisis when it comes to continuing school provision for their children.
I hope that the Government will take very seriously the recommendations in this report and the three elements into which they have been broken down in the last paragraph of the executive summary. It is disappointing that we may well have to wait some time to hear what the Government’s response is. However, clearly there needs to be a significant change in culture, and it needs to come quickly if we are to avoid further scandals—I use that word—of the kind we have seen over the Windrush generation.
My Lords, the fact that this report has now been published is of course welcome, and I thank Wendy Williams; the timing is however less than optimal. I also thank the journalist Amelia Gentlemen, without whose brilliant and dogged investigative work the report would not have happened.
In the Government’s response, which is promised within six months, we on these Benches want the assurance of a thorough overhaul of the culture of disbelief and carelessness in the Home Office, so that its attitudes, assumptions and processes around immigration are, in the words of the report, “rooted in humanity”, which is not the case at the moment. The Home Secretary surely cannot have needed this review to become aware of what the report calls the
“ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation within the department, which are consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism.”
That sounds like a very carefully negotiated sentence.
Surprisingly, the Statement says that
“we were all shocked to discover”
the insensitive treatment of the Windrush generation. That is not credible. The whole point of the hostile environment was to be brutal and send a harsh, intolerant message. As the report says, the consequences were foreseeable and avoidable, and warning signs were not heeded by officials or Ministers. It was a profound institutional failure. The scandal and the blighting of lives are not just down to staff mistakes and poor decisions, because the tone was set from the top. However, if retraining is needed then we need to hear what is happening on that front.
The Home Secretary failed to give my colleague in the other place, Wendy Chamberlain, the guarantee she sought that for the sake of public health during the coronavirus crisis no data would be passed from the NHS to the Home Office for immigration purposes, otherwise migrants with uncertain status could be deterred from seeking care or treatment. I now ask for clarity on such a guarantee. Will the Government also commit to scrapping the right-to-rent law, which, as has been shown by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, causes landlords to discriminate against people from the BAME communities and/or who do not have a British passport?
To avoid a budding new Windrush scandal, will the Government now commit to automatically guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens to stay? Something that the report highlighted was the lack of documentary evidence that the Windrush generation had. We have persistently and consistently asked that EU citizens should at least get documentary proof.
Lastly, my noble friend Lady Hamwee, who very much wishes she could have been here today, tells me that last week when she visited a school to talk to sixth-formers about Parliament and her work, they wanted to discuss immigration issues. She was critical of Home Office culture. A teacher who was sitting in out of interest could not contain herself: she told my noble friend and the students that, as a Canadian, it had taken her 10 years to get the right to be here and that the way she had been treated by the Home Office, especially at Lunar House, was the worst experience of her life.
I really hope that the Home Office will have a thorough transformation of its culture, so that it acts as a welcome to migrants who we wish to make part of our society, as well as exercising firm and fair immigration control.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for the points that they have made. Both of them questioned the timing. It is absolutely right to say that because of COVID-19 we are in very strange times. I think that the Home Secretary was absolutely right to publish the report within a day of receiving it; both Houses have been clamouring for this report to be published and she has done just that.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about the recommendations being delivered in full. One thing that comes out of this thoughtful report are the words of Wendy Williams herself, who says:
“It is, in my view, extremely important that the department undertakes a period of profound reflection on the areas identified in this report … to identify what they think needs to change, and how.”
For the Home Secretary to take a view on that the following day in a knee-jerk way would be wrong. She is perfectly right to reflect on it and to respond in a considered way.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about one in 20 claimants receiving compensation. One thing that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said today is that not only will people receive full compensation but there will not be a cap on compensation. We are trying to process the claims as quickly as possible, and payments are being made. We are trying to reach out to people. I talked about the community events that have been taking place, and the communications campaign that my right honourable friend and I talked about today will be going on. We are making interim payments on some claims where we can resolve parts of the claim much more quickly than other parts to ensure that claimants receive their awards as quickly as possible. Some cases are more complex than others, and it is right that we take the time to ensure that they are settled properly. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about further victims receiving compensation. We will absolutely be reaching out to those people. We want everybody who deserves compensation to receive it.
The noble Lord also touched upon further deportations. Of course, deportations are referenced in this, and they go far wider than Windrush, but my right honourable friend the Home Secretary stated today that no Windrush people were deported on the recent flight about which there was debate in this House and the other place. On deportations generally, the Home Secretary would breach her obligations under the UK Borders Act 2007 were she not to deport people eligible for deportation.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, also asked about keeping the compensation scheme open for longer. As I said in my Statement, the Home Secretary said earlier that it will be open until April 2023, so that is another three years.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, asked why we cannot make the EU settlement scheme declaratory. It is precisely because the Windrush people were almost under that declaratory system that they could not prove that they had the right to be here, and it was when people were having to prove their right of settled status that things began to unravel. Of course, digital status now means that that status is on the record for ever.
My Lords, the publication of this Statement is very welcome indeed. The heartfelt nature of the apology was notable.
I have a couple of questions about the recommendations to put to the noble Baroness. First, one of the historic failures of the Church of England—in many ways as bad as the hostile environment—was the terrible reception that we gave the Windrush generation, the vast majority of whom were Anglicans, when they came here. They were often turned away from Church of England churches, or were given a very weak welcome or no welcome at all. As a result, they went off and formed their own churches, which have flourished much better than ours. We would be so much stronger had we behaved correctly. I have apologised for that, and I continue to do so and see the wickedness of our actions.
However, the recommendations, particularly recommendations 7 and 8, talk about reconciliation and understanding the nature of the groups being dealt with by the Home Office. Will it consider bringing in, talking with and using the services of the black-majority church leaders, often Pentecostal church leaders, who have been gracious, wise and strong in upholding their communities? They have much to teach us.
The same point is to be made on recommendation 6, which talks about the history and the need to understand colonial history. Many of these people will now be in their 80s and 90s; capturing the live voice of those with long experiences in this country and who have contributed so much is now time limited.
Recommendations 14 and 17, on the values statement and the ethical standards, come straight back to the need for culture change in the Home Office. I am only too aware of how hard that is in any institution. In the values statement and in the way in which the ethical standards are set out, will there be metrics and clear, tangible tests rather than mere expressions of good intent so that it can be reflected on?
Finally, I ask that the emphasis on a people-centred approach continue. As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said so clearly and well, there is a profound need to avoid repetition through having a people-centred system.
I thank the most reverend Primate for those points. He has educated me this afternoon because I did not realise that the Church of England gave the Windrush generation such an awful reception. It feels a bit like a confessional at the moment, but it is reflected in the report that we all need to look to ourselves to see where we have gone wrong. The report is not a blame game but a narrative over almost 70 years of where everyone failed these people. The Home Secretary has not replied to the recommendations yet—one would not expect her to—but I will certainly take those points on the recommendations back. Reconciliation can bring out some wonderful things; in learning about people’s history, you understand people so much better. I will take those points back, and the Secretary of State will respond in full before the Summer Recess.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for bringing this review to the House so promptly and for the tone and content of the Statement. As a former Minister at the Home Office, between 2014 and 2016, I add my sense of regret at the failings that happened during that time and for the people affected in the report. Does my noble friend agree with me that one of the profound things about the report is that the story is told not through legalese and dry analysis, as is often the case, but through personal stories of individuals whose lives have been affected? It is a model and type that we should seek to follow. It reminds us that public policy is not just process; it is about people, first of all.
An important element in the Statement states:
“We must all look to ourselves. We must all do better at walking in other people’s shoes.”
That seems profoundly important as we go forward and address legislation in the future. In that regard—this is not something that I am looking for an answer to now—will my noble friend take this away? There is currently before another place the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill—a new government Bill. Probably one of the best ways of honouring the victims and survivors and addressing the heartfelt apology to the people affected by the failings of the past will be to try to find some way, as we take that Bill through, for the Home Office to reflect the humanity and the people first.
I thank my noble friend. Like he does, I feel regret for the failings, which are so well reflected. Without pinning blame or naming and shaming, it is an incredible document. I confess that I have not read it all thoroughly, but what I have read is absolutely gripping. It is a narrative of people’s lives over 70 years—personal stories, as my noble friend says. When he talks about future legislation, particularly that immigration Bill, it reflects the points made by the most reverend Primate about checking who we are by the legislation that we bring forward. That is a really helpful point, which I will take back. This review by Wendy Williams will almost form a textbook for the future, for people to learn from. It is so moving, with so many stories. I thank my noble friend for that.
House adjourned at 5.17 pm.