House of Lords
Tuesday 12 May 2020
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Durham in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
Arrangement of Business
The announcement was made in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, I apologise for the slight delay, which was due to a technical issue with the transmission of information. I remind Members that these proceedings are subject to parliamentary privilege and that what we say is available to the public both in Hansard and to those listening and watching. Members’ microphones will initially be set to mute, and the broadcasting team will unmute their microphone shortly before we reach their place in the speakers’ list. When Members have finished speaking, their microphones will again be set to mute. I ask everyone to keep questions and answers as brief as possible, so that we can reach as many on the list as we possibly can. Virtual Proceedings on Oral Questions will now commence.
Covid-19: Vulnerable Populations
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the measures in place to protect vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, social distancing and shielding measures are in place to protect vulnerable and clinically extremely vulnerable populations. Those identified as clinically extremely vulnerable are advised to stay at home with no face-to-face contact until at least the end of June. Our approach is under continuous review. The Government’s position on shielding and social distancing reflects the latest SAGE and clinical advice from the Chief Medical Officer.
My Lords, every person with a learning disability has the right to be supported to live in their community, but Covid-19 is putting already-delayed in-patient transfers at risk. In March some 1,900 adults and 200 children were still locked away in in-patient units, the majority sectioned under the Mental Health Act and staying for five years in facilities intended to be short-term. Can the Minister share his department’s updated assessment of whether the Mental Health Act easements provided for in the Coronavirus Act will be required, now that the peak in infections has been passed and a plan for lifting restrictions is taking shape? Does he share concerns that these easements, if enacted, would risk the delivery of the care needed to support community living and the achievement of the goals set out in Transforming Care?
The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, asks a searching question. On whether the Mental Health Act easements of which she speaks have already been enacted, I will have to find out exactly what those arrangements are and write to her. However, I assure the House that the care of the most vulnerable is absolutely the Government’s number one, top priority. It is true that some of those caring and providing important pastoral care for the most vulnerable have been worst hit by Covid—the examples she gives are really good ones—but we are absolutely putting the care of the most vulnerable at the top of our priorities.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said of his road map:
“it is a plan that should give the people of the United Kingdom hope.”
But on examination of the plan, I see no hope offered to the clinically extremely vulnerable, who are just told that they must continue to shield beyond June. The Government offer only a future review into the effects on their well-being. Can the Minister say how and when this review will be conducted, and by whom?
My Lords, the advice from the Government is that the clinically extremely vulnerable should continue to be shielded until the end of June. That is under review at the moment. We are seeking to have more refined and more targeted guidance after the end of June, and we will publish that before the end of that month.
My Lords, can the Minister reassure those healthy over-70s that they will not be obliged to self-isolate against their will? Will he also comment on evidence that many care homes were forced to admit Covid-19-positive patients, so causing this pandemic to spiral out of control in those homes?
I reassure the noble Lord that the Government are not obliging healthy over-70s to self-isolate. However, the guidance is clear: they are a vulnerable group and the disease targets those who are older. They are therefore advised to avoid all social contact, if necessary. That advice is based on the science of the disease, and we will seek ways of trying to ameliorate that once the disease has fallen back.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the most vulnerable are clearly the residents of care homes and their care workers? Will he confirm the very sad figures of, as I understand it, 10,000 deaths suffered in care homes? Will he also confirm that these figures have now been added to the total? Will the Government now prioritise care home workers for the full kit of PPE, to give them the utmost safety as they look after our most vulnerable people?
I reassure the House that deaths in care homes have always been part of the official figures. It is a very sad affair, and it shows how the disease attacks those who are most vulnerable. The arrangements for PPE in social care settings have improved dramatically, and we have put in place measures so that any care home can make its own application for PPE as it needs it.
Will the Minister tell the House what advice or support local authorities have been advised to give to the more than 100,000 vulnerable adults aged over 70 caring for their adult children who have a learning disability?
The advice given to local authorities is spelled out in guidelines. Those who are vulnerable are advised to avoid social contact. Where necessary, those whom they live with, including any children they have with learning disabilities, should also avoid the same social contact.
My Lords, I refer the House to my interests in the register. Will my noble friend tell me what work has been done to ensure that public health messaging and advice on access to support for mental health and anxiety issues among the BAME community is easily available to those communities, particularly where they live in densely populated home environments?
My Lords, mental health advice is very clearly available, most of all from GOV.UK/coronavirus, where there is a huge amount of practical and pastoral advice, and access to resources.
My Lords, I declare that I am an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine. How will the Government ensure that emergency departments never again become the crowded places that they were, which act as a source of nosocomial infection—hospital-acquired infection—for the vulnerable and those caring for them, especially child carers, who might present with acute injuries, particularly once they are out and undertaking more activities?
My Lords, a strange and peculiar feature of the epidemic has been that accident and emergency wards are, surprisingly, below normal capacity since people have sought to avoid them because of the obvious threat of the disease. That said, nosocomial infection is of grave concern. It is an inevitable and frequent feature of any epidemic, but we are applying new ways of working and seeking to section off those with the disease to ensure that the infection does not spread in our hospitals and from there into the community.
My Lords, I am pleased to note that today is International Nurses Day. I pay tribute from these Benches to all our nurses, at home and all over the world, for their work and courage in these dark pandemic times. I will ask the Minister about testing in our care homes. On 15 April the Government announced that they were rolling out testing to all care workers. On 28 April they extended this scheme to all staff and residents in care homes. Could the Minister explain why, then, yesterday’s strategy document set a target of 6 June? Which is it? It looks like the Government failed to meet the promise to provide the tests on time and have now moved the goalposts again.
I share the noble Baroness’s celebration of Florence Nightingale Day, which is an important day for the nursing profession and for all of us. We have made huge progress on testing in care homes in the last three weeks. The new portal was made live on Monday and care homes are now massively supported by satellite care home facilities manned by the Army. I am not sure about the 6 June date of which she speaks, but I reassure the House that care home testing is the number one priority of our testing facilities and is benefiting from the large increase in capacity.
My Lords, over the course of this crisis we have seen substance misuse and mental health services adapt their provision to better support homeless people facing multiple problems. Could the Minister say what the Government, in particular the new homelessness task force, will do to ensure that these flexibilities remain in place?
The noble Baroness is right to raise concern for the homeless—surely one of the groups suffering the most in the current epidemic. We are putting in place facilities for testing, housing and mental health support for the homeless. We envisage that these will continue for the length of the epidemic.
My Lords, I fear that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.
Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the operation of the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme for small- and medium-sized businesses.
The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, as of 6 May, loans worth over £5.5 billion were issued under the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme for 33,812 businesses. The bounce-back loan scheme was launched on Monday 4 May, and nearly 160,000 loans, worth almost £5 billion, were approved in the first three days of the scheme’s operation. The Government continue to monitor the schemes and to work with the financial services sector to ensure that companies receive the full benefit from the support available.
Does the Minister accept that, although the number of loans is quite large, the number of SMEs receiving them as a proportion of the whole is relatively small? Is he concerned that, under the two existing schemes, banks are primarily lending only to people to whom they would have lent anyway in normal times? This is particularly hitting the hospitality and retail sectors.
The noble Lord is right that only a relatively small proportion of the total number of SMEs have applied for or received loans. However, it is important to remember that not all businesses want loans, and of course other government support schemes are also available to help them through the crisis.
My Lords, the Government have to ease people back to work safely, increase the flow of funding to SMEs and avoid scarring unemployment. SMEs employ 60% of private sector workers, and many are now critically dependent on both government-backed loans and job retention schemes. Withdrawing these measures too soon when their very purpose is to keep jobs and businesses going will undermine them. When will the Government publish their road map for phasing out the CBILS and job retention schemes, and what impact will that have on structural employment and the longer-term stimulus package for SMEs?
The Government will continue to monitor and review all their business support schemes and make changes where necessary. I am sure that the noble Baroness has noticed that this afternoon the Chancellor will be making a Statement in the House of Commons on the job retention scheme and the Government’s wider economic coronavirus support package. I am sure that she will get more information then.
My Lords, under the bounce-back scheme, interest is charged at 2.5%, but under CBILS lenders are charging considerably more. At the same time, banks are paying savers interest of less than 1%. My noble friend Lord Razzall talked about the small number of SMEs taking up loans under the scheme. Does the Minister agree that banks have a different idea of “We are all in it together” compared with the rest of the population?
No, I do not accept that criticism of the banks. They have worked extremely hard, as have the British Business Bank and the department, to try to get as many loans approved as possible for businesses that want them. The Government are—certainly through the bounce-back scheme—supporting 100% of the amount of those loans. Therefore, a lot of work is going on in all the sectors to try to help the businesses that require support.
My Lords, I strongly commend the Government for their support for business during this crisis. Can my noble friend give more detail of the operation of both the business interruption scheme and the bounce-back scheme in Northern Ireland, which is predominantly an SME economy? Will there be regular updates on the number of successful applications, along with their value? Is he aware of concerns among some big players, including the Bank of Ireland, that they have yet to be accredited for the bounce-back scheme? Finally, has any assessment been made of support available in the Republic of Ireland and how it compares with what is on offer to business in Northern Ireland?
I know that my noble friend takes a close interest in matters in Northern Ireland. These schemes are available to businesses across all regions of the UK, and many lenders acting in Northern Ireland have received accreditation. However, we are working to get more lenders fully accredited as quickly as possible. Fourteen lenders have now been accredited for the bounce-back loan scheme and we are seeking to get more approved as quickly as possible.
Smaller companies will rely on the future fund for support, yet the Government have said that companies are required to have already raised £250,000 to be eligible. This will put both diverse funders and locations outside of the south-east at an enormous disadvantage. How will the Minister ensure that the future fund will neither deepen existing inequalities nor perpetrate new ones, particularly when, as I understand it, all 13 advisers to the fund are men?
We have introduced a comprehensive package of measures designed to support any business facing difficulties in this period, including the various loan schemes and grants and support for the self-employed. Start-ups may be able to access CBILS or the bounce-back loan scheme if they fulfil the eligibility criteria. We keep them constantly under review to ensure that as many businesses as possible receive the support that they need.
My Lords, unlike the pubs that they supply, most of our small breweries are not eligible for grants or business rate relief. As a consequence, over half of them have not been able to access any financial help from the Government. Two-thirds have stopped brewing completely and there have been many redundancies. Will the Minister agree to meet urgently with officers from the small independent brewers association to see whether a satisfactory solution can be found to this problem?
Small breweries are a subject close to many of our hearts. We are responding rapidly to feedback to ensure that all eligible businesses, including breweries, can feel the full benefit of support that is available through the package. I would be very happy to join the noble Lord in meeting representatives if that is required.
I do not expect the Minister to agree with me but it seems to the business community that the business interruption loan scheme has largely failed SMEs because the banks were not prepared to take the risk. Now, the Government are taking the risk with taxpayers’ money through the bounce-back scheme but small businesses applying for a bounce-back loan are still expected to take the full risk, which many are hesitant to do. What difference to take-up do the Government estimate that the introduction of the bounce-back scheme will make?
As I said in an earlier answer, a huge number of loans have been approved—160,000 in the first three days of the scheme—so I am afraid that many small businesses do not agree with the noble Baroness.
CBILS is much criticised for being slow due to the many checks. This approach is much more suitable for equity investment. Will the Government create such a vehicle instead, to help create new ways of working and particularly to help those firms already overloaded with debt?
As I said in earlier answers, there are a number of different support packages besides CBILS, including the furlough and direct grant schemes. A number of supports are in place for all businesses. I do not accept that the systems have been slow to operate. As I said, 160,000 loans were approved under the bounce-back scheme in the first few days of operation.
I draw the attention of the House to my interests as listed on the register. I congratulate the Government on their package of measures to support both businesses and individuals during this difficult period but, as my noble friend the Minister will appreciate, time is of the essence for businesses. Does he therefore have an average figure for the time between applications for business investment and bounce-back loans and the arrival of funds into company accounts? Secondly, on the furlough scheme, I understand there will be an announcement later today by the Chancellor. Has any consideration been given to the minimum furlough period for employees and whether it would be appropriate for a more flexible approach to be taken for those companies—many businesses—which are working week-on, week-off to cope with ad hoc business conditions?
I can tell my noble friend that many bounce-back loans are being approved within a day. We are getting the money out to companies as quickly as possible. I am sure she will understand that I do not want to give out information in advance of what the Chancellor might say in Parliament this afternoon.
My Lords, ethnic minority business owners have historically found it more difficult to access bank loans and other finance. In many cases, they operate microbusinesses where they would have to be almost a prophet to accurately forecast their profit. Have the difficulties faced by ethnic-minority business owners been factored in?
The noble Lord raises a good point but CBILS is open to businesses across all sectors in all parts of the country. We continue to monitor and review the implementation of all our loan schemes and we will not be slow to make any necessary changes. If the noble Lord has any specific information about difficulties being experienced by ethnic-minority businesses, I would be very happy to see it.
My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.
Schools: Relationships and Sex Education
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the ability of schools to deliver the new compulsory elements of relationships and sex education curriculum from September 2020.
The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, the Government have worked extensively with schools, teachers and experts throughout the development of these subjects. This has included working with over 1,500 early adopter schools to support their journey, learn lessons and share good practice. The department also conducted an impact assessment as part of the consultation. We are committed to supporting teachers, which is why we are investing in a programme of support featuring training materials, case studies and support to access resources.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree that relationships and sex education fosters self-esteem and social skills in children and young people as well as enhancing academic performance, and that those skills will be important when pupils return to school after a long absence? I welcome the Government’s decision to include RSE in the compulsory curriculum, but how is this commitment supported precisely with resources and training? Could she give an example?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that health and relationships education will be an essential part of re-socialising children as more go back to school from 1 June. A central school support package will be on offer, which will include training materials—both online and face-to-face where appropriate—and will be based on the “train the trainer” model. Schools can also access additional training support if they need particular help.
My Lords, I declare my interests as stated in the register as chair of the National Society. In November, the Church of England produced a charter to support schools in preparing for the new compulsory elements of RSHE. It is important to us and our schools that we consult parents on how best to deliver this new material, to ensure that we provide a sensitive education enabling all pupils to flourish. Will Her Majesty’s Government reassess the delivery date of the new elements of RSHE to accommodate the current constraints on schools’ time and energy due to Covid-19?
My Lords, I am grateful for the support, and in particular the charter, outlined by the right reverend Prelate. We are aware that there are a number of curriculum decisions that schools need to take. I reassure noble Lords that due consideration is being given to RSHE implementation and its implications for schools. We are working closely with the RSHE working group, which includes the teachers’ unions and faith organisations. I undertake to keep the House updated.
My Lords, three issues greatly concern me, which I have spoken about in the United Kingdom and during my visits abroad: FGM, forced marriages, and honour abuse. Can my noble friend say whether schools in certain areas will be able adequately to discuss these issues and whether teachers have appropriate knowledge and sufficient training to do so? Furthermore, what support is available centrally to assist them?
My Lords, all aspects of safeguarding are covered in the statutory guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, and issues to do with violence are considered, particularly within health education. We have also given specific guidance about sexual violence between young people to assist schools with that very delicate matter.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. What support is being provided to special schools? Are teachers in special schools well prepared to deliver relationships and sex education in a developmentally appropriate way and in a way that will support pupils’ social, emotional and mental health?
Yes, indeed, the attitude of the department is to embed SEND in every strand of the RSHE work, and we are working closely with the Sex Education Forum and NASEN to ensure that. We have also employed SEND experts to help with the development of the curriculum so that there will be specific resources in the school support package that I have outlined to assist teachers, most of whom have a child with SEND in their classroom.
My Lords, the guidance issued by the Department for Education last year stated that relationships and sex education should be
“part of the basic school curriculum … which allows schools flexibility in developing their planned programme”.
But last week the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, stated that the department was giving due consideration to the implementation of the statutory relationships and sex education curriculum in the context of Covid-19. That suggested the possibility that implementation could be delayed due to the coronavirus, even if schools have returned by September. What process of due consideration was the Minister referring to and what additional support will the Government explore to ensure that RSE can be taught online if schools have not returned by September?
My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate outlined, parents are required to be consulted as part of the process before a school introduces its policy to teach these subjects. I reiterate that we are prioritising operational discussions in relation to the curriculum and I will keep the House updated on any further developments.
My Lords, according to the government guidelines, parents need to have been consulted about the new relationships, sex and health education curriculum changes, so what expectations will there be for schools that have not been able to consult parents about the changes due to the coronavirus school closures?
My Lords, the school support package that we will issue will enable schools and give them examples of best practice in order to consult parents. We have specifically produced leaflets so that they have the confidence to distribute that resource. In terms of the operational decisions in relation to the curriculum, I will update the House when there is any further information
My Lords, I commend the department on producing sensitive and helpful guidance. The guidance makes it clear that from September, schools, in consultation with parents, will determine what is age-appropriate. Thus teaching explicitly about LGBT+ matters is not mandatory for primary schools. But current Ofsted guidance and the practice of inspectors does not reflect that. Numerous primary schools have been downgraded in at least one category for not teaching LGBT. Will my noble friend confirm that Ofsted will inspect in line with DfE policy and not its own self-generated policies, and that primary schools will not be penalised if they do not teach LGBT, according to the wishes of the parents of a particular school?
My Lords, Ofsted has welcomed the department’s guidance on RSHE and, when it is implemented in the next academic year, Ofsted will use it as a guide for assessing part of the personal development section of inspection. As my noble friend outlined, the guidance is clear that secondary schools should include LGBT content but,
“primary schools are strongly encouraged and enabled”,
when teaching about different types of relationships within families, to include families of same-sex parents. That is clearly a move from mandatory to permissive language. Obviously, the Equality Act is also enforced in schools and schools are required to take into account the other protected characteristics, including of course the religious background of students in the school.
Does the Minister share my anxiety that the opting-out provisions of the new law are so wide that children in faith schools may well be taken out of the sex education classes that they sorely need? All children need to learn to respect a variety of lifestyles, and learn how to look after themselves and avoid harmful practices such as FGM. Children in very religious schools are the ones most vulnerable to ignorance and prejudice. What steps will the Minister take to avoid large numbers of parents removing their children from this education, and how will the Government help teachers contend with protesting parents?
My Lords, as relationships education in primary schools does not usually include sex education, there is no right to withdraw your children from that provision. However, at secondary school, when sex education is part of the content, parents have the right to withdraw their child from that education up until three terms before the child is 16, and the school is required to outline that right to parents. The balance is struck by allowing this only until three terms before the child is 16. Obviously, at that stage, when approaching the age of legal consent for sexual relationships, it is appropriate to provide some sex education if the child wishes to have it. The balance is between supporting parents’ rights and giving children their own right to request sex education as they develop.
My Lords, I regret to say that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We move on to the fourth Oral Question.
Covid-19: Vulnerable People
To ask Her Majesty’s Government when the £76 million funding to support vulnerable people during the COVID-19 pandemic, announced on 2 May, will be distributed.
The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, the £76 million government package of support to charities supporting vulnerable people, which is targeted at several different groups, will be administered by the MHCLG, the DfE, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. Departments are working hard to get the funds to where they are needed as soon as possible. Details on how domestic abuse charities can access the vital funds they need were set out by the Communities Secretary on 7 May, and the application information is clear that the department aims to announce successful grantees by the end of May.
The Minister will be aware that the £76 million is a reannouncement of part of the £750 million announced for charities on 8 April, nearly five weeks ago. Charities are reporting that very little of that money is getting through to the coalface—in other words, to them—and many are financially on their knees. Why did the Government take until last Thursday to announce that domestic violence charities must bid for £10 million of the already announced £76 million of the already announced £750 million, for housing? Why, according to the application form, must they contribute something from their own resources towards the additional costs they are facing when they are already stretched beyond their limits?
The noble Baroness is right that these charities perform an absolutely critical role. The Government and all departments are moving as fast as they possibly can to meet these needs and make sure that this funding gets to the right place as quickly as possible.
My Lords, I welcome the announced funding—I think it will do good—but I have one question. How do we promote the routes out of risk for those who are experiencing abuse? By what means can we encourage that promotion and how much of this funding will go towards ensuring that those who are most at risk have routes of escape?
My noble friend is quite right that we need to think about the long-term position of people who are experiencing abuse. In providing this funding, we will work with specialist charities, which are the real experts in this, to understand the perspective of victims and address their need for both immediate safety and long-term freedom from abuse.
Covid-19 is making the task of identifying victims of human trafficking even more difficult. Some victims may have gone underground and perhaps are in grave danger. Providing essential and practical support has become even more challenging. It has become very difficult because charities which normally provide practical support are under resource constraints. How are the Government ensuring that support and funds are reaching those charities in a timely manner and that every effort is being made by authorities to seek out such victims?
The noble Baroness touches on an important area. The lead here is the Home Office, which has been working through the modern slavery victim care contract to make sure that government-funded safe accommodation and ongoing support are made available to victims of modern slavery as quickly as possible.
Will the Minister bear in mind that asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable groups in society? They currently receive only £37 per person per week, which is 72% below the poverty line. Will the Government do something for asylum seekers in these very difficult times?
The Government are very aware that particular groups, including asylum seekers, are especially vulnerable. We have a voluntary and community sector emergency partnership involving organisations such as the British Red Cross, and we are getting regular intelligence, feedback and advice on how to respond to those particular needs.
I am sure that we all agree that the voluntary sector needs our immediate support, and we plead with the Government to do that, but we must avoid increasing the number of vulnerable people. One such increase is unemployment. Even last September, the Governor of the Bank of England said that a hard Brexit could mean half a million more unemployed people. However, it is worse than that: we face not a hard Brexit but an impossible Brexit, an impossible deal. We must do everything we can, including extending the transition period from the end of December, because we cannot have fruitful ongoing discussions under the threat of the virus. Will the Government look again and extend that transition period?
The Government are keeping all those issues under review. Their commitment to supporting people to stay in employment remains undiminished.
Voluntary sector workers with type 1 diabetes have been pressured to go back to work even where their doctor has advised otherwise. Is there some way in which this funding could be used to deal with what is an anomaly in current practice and policy?
I am unclear as to whether this fund would be applicable, but the Government’s advice on going back to work is clear: people should go back to work only if it is safe to do so, and, clearly, an existing medical condition could impact on that. As the noble Lord knows, detailed guidance is being produced. I recommend that those in the situation that he describes refer to it.
My Lords, it is a relief that the Government have recognised the urgent need for funding for domestic abuse charities. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, I am concerned about their having to match some of the contributions. I know that the Minister understands this issue well, so can she assure the House that the Government now accept that those organisations are essential and will never again face the levels of uncertainty over their funding which they have experienced over the past 10 years?
The Government have been absolutely clear. Like me, the noble Baroness recognises what a huge issue domestic abuse is, not just for women but, critically, for children growing up in homes where fear and coercion are the norm.
My Lords, one of the strands of funding is through the Department for Education to support vulnerable children, but it has become clear through the discussion this morning that there will be new cases of domestic abuse. How does the Department for Education identify new cases of vulnerability if there is not regular sight of children going to school?
The noble Baroness raises a crucial point. A number of organisations, including the Department for Education and charities in this field, are finding new ways to make sure that they have regular contact, whether by phone or online or, where safe to do so, face to face, to support those children.
My Lords, asylum seekers waiting for asylum decisions are expected to live on £37.75 a week. Can the Minister assure the House that either a generous portion of the £76 million for vulnerable people can somehow find its way to these particularly deprived people or, better still, that asylum support rates will be lifted by £20 per week in line with universal credit?
It is up to individual departments to decide exactly how the funding for vulnerable people is distributed, but I acknowledge what the noble Baroness said. This is a particularly vulnerable group.
My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. That concludes the Virtual Proceedings on Oral Questions. Virtual Proceedings will resume at 12.15 pm for the Private Notice Question on public transport.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.
My Lords, Virtual Proceedings of the House of Lords will now resume. The Virtual Proceedings on the Private Notice Question will now commence.
Covid-19: Public Transport Safety
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the announcement made by the Prime Minister on Sunday 10 May, what steps are being taken to ensure the safety of passengers who have to use public transport to travel to and from work.
The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, in his statement to the country this Sunday, the Prime Minister said, “Get back to work if you cannot work from home.” He also said, “Don’t use public transport, use cars or bikes.” I commend the Government for encouraging cycling and walking. However, many lower-paid essential workers travel long distances and do not have a car, so they have no choice but to use public transport. I recently received a paper from SOAS at the University of London, which said that security staff, construction workers, bus drivers and other essential workers are up to eight times more likely to die from the coronavirus compared with someone in a professional occupation. These essential workers fear that if they do not go to work using such so-called unsafe modes, they will lose their jobs. Passenger Focus has come up with some good ideas on this. Will the Government commit that those who cannot travel to work safely and be safe at work within the Health and Safety Executive guidelines will be able to retain any current benefit entitlements they may have at the moment?
The Minister will answer the Question and the noble Lord’s supplementary question combined.
My Lords, passenger and transport worker safety is absolutely paramount. To help make journeys safer, my department has today published new guidance for both transport operators and passengers. If people must use public transport, two-metre social distancing and hygiene should be practised and a face covering is advised.
I turn now to some of the other points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. We are of course very concerned about some of the characteristics that seem to be seen in those people who are the most susceptible to the coronavirus, and work is going on across government to investigate that further. For example, we have seen what appears to be a higher than average death rate among bus drivers. This is a tragic loss and we are working closely with bus operators to make sure that we do what we can to keep those workers safe.
My Lords, it has at long last been acknowledged that the obesity epidemic is a very dangerous situation, especially now with Covid-19. In fact, 75% of people with this infection are obese. Would it not therefore be wise to advise them not to use public transport because it is such a dangerous thing for them? If anyone is tempted to say that calling someone obese is judgmental, perhaps I may point out that it is simply an accurate diagnosis.
I thank my noble friend for his observations. The Government recognise that there is much to be done from a transport perspective to help the nation’s health. That is why we have come up with a £2 billion boost for cycling and walking, which we believe are critical elements in helping people reduce their reliance on public transport. That is why we are encouraging people, if they are making journeys of three miles to five miles, or fewer, that they should consider walking or cycling. That is good for public transport and good for their health.
On Sunday, the Prime Minister said, “Go back to work”, yet the Department for Transport did not publish its guidance to travel operators until this morning. I have read that guidance, and it is still very vague on key issues such as face coverings, screens and the handling of money. It is not prescriptive, but simply suggestions. That is not good. Why have the Government failed to provide the co-ordinated leadership needed by the bus industry throughout the UK?
I would challenge the noble Baroness in her assertion that the operator guidance is vague. It sets out the key elements that the operators must consider, but the important element is that each operator will be coming up with their own specific risk assessment which is suitable for their environment and their workforce, and, equally importantly, they will be consulting their workforce to ensure that the risk assessment is appropriate and that workers feel safe.
My Lords, the Minister acknowledges the importance of ensuring that transport workers are safe. However, any substantial return to work is bound to increase the vulnerability of transport workers and staff; she has cited the case of bus drivers. I regret to say that one of the London bus drivers who died was a friend and former neighbour of mine. Would it not have been more sensible to precede any general encouragement to return to work not with advice but very clear rules: on numbers, on social distancing and, above all, on face masks for passengers and staff on public transport? If not, and if there is nobody to enforce those standards, we will see a continuing problem with many transport workers.
My Lords, the guidance for transport operators and passengers sets out clear expectations for two-metre social distancing. At some stages that will not be possible: on busier routes and at busier times, and at certain points on the journey. The Government also advise that people should use face masks or face coverings in enclosed spaces, particularly on public transport. I am not sure how much clearer the Government can be on that.
My Lords, what assurance can the Minister give to disabled passengers who require assistance—of course within the safety considerations for all—that the current situation will not be used to dial back “turn up and go” or prevent disabled people travelling to work?
I thank the noble Baroness for raising this really important issue. In the operator guidance, there are clear points for those with protected characteristics, be they disabled, elderly or pregnant. We have been very clear with the transport operators that there must be no dialling back on the ability for all passengers to get a safe and reliable service. Travel may be slightly problematic for everybody, and therefore people are advised to plan their journey ahead where they can, to buy their tickets in advance and, most of all, to be patient. I reassure the noble Baroness that services for disabled people will continue as they did previously.
My Lords, as well as issues of safety when using public transport, many people in rural areas are worried that the already infrequent services in the countryside are now at further risk. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that public transport will be maintained to support communities and the economy in rural areas?
Rural transport is absolutely key to being able to provide for more vulnerable groups who have no alternative but to use public transport so that they are able to access the services they need. The Government have already provided funding to support the services during the lockdown, and we are in discussions with the Treasury regarding supporting more services as they ramp up. As I am sure the right reverend Prelate will understand, those services will be suffering from a revenue loss, which the Government will seek to make good to ensure that rural services can be restored to what they were before.
My Lords, as the former chairman of the APPG for cycling, I am thrilled that the Government are keen on people bicycling. However, without decent public transport, the economy cannot recover. Could my noble friend please tell me what discussions she has had with the Mayor of London? The reduction in Tube services has had a major effect on people being unable to travel, and people on the Underground are therefore much closer to each other than they should be.
I reassure my noble friend that we are in close contact with Transport for London. I speak to it probably every few days to assess exactly where it is on its restart plans—I have a call with it later on today. We are absolutely clear that the Mayor of London needs to ramp up services as quickly as possible and put in place protections such that transport workers and passengers feel safe.
First, while public transport is a devolved issue, railway services and bus routes cross the borders between UK nations; I think that a few stations in England are also managed by Transport for Wales. It is therefore vital that the different UK nations develop public transport, passenger and staff safety guidance together and in line with each other. Can the Government give an assurance that the guidance that has been announced has also been agreed with the Governments of the devolved nations? Secondly, I am not sure that the Minister answered my noble friend Lord Berkeley’s question about existing benefits being maintained for bus drivers; for example, those who decline to continue to work because they feel that their safety is being compromised.
Each devolved nation is responsible for its own guidance. However, I reassure the noble Lord that we are of course in contact with the Administrations in the devolved nations to make sure that our guidance is appropriate. Where there have to be changes or where they are desired, local considerations can be taken into account but without confusing passengers. I will have to write to the noble Lord on benefits for bus drivers.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. The Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until 1 pm for the debate on the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord True.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.
Arrangement of Business
The announcement was made in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, the Virtual Proceedings on the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord True, will now commence. The time limit for the debate is one and a half hours.
Census (England and Wales) Order 2020
Motion to Consider
That the Virtual Proceedings do consider the draft Census (England and Wales) Order 2020.
The Motion was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, in moving this Motion, I declare an interest as a member of the Society of Genealogists. In fact, last night I looked at the 1891 census online, which illustrates that a population census has been taken across the UK every 10 years since 1801, with the sole exception of 1941.
Subject to the approval of the House, this draft Order in Council provides for the 22nd census of England and Wales to take place on Sunday 21 March 2021. The draft order was laid before both Houses on 2 March 2020, under the provisions of the Census Act 1920. It prescribes the date of the census, the people to be counted, the people responsible for making a census return, and the information to be given in those census returns.
Under the terms of the Census Act 1920, delivery of the census in England and Wales is the statutory responsibility of the UK Statistics Authority and its executive arm, the Office for National Statistics. The draft order gives effect to the independent recommendations of the Office for National Statistics set out in the December 2018 White Paper, Help Shape Our Future: The 2021 Census of Population and Housing in England and Wales.
The ONS’s recommendations for the 2021 census have been informed by an extensive programme of consultation, research and engagement. Comparability of data between censuses is important, so the majority of questions will remain the same as in 2011. New questions or response options are included only after research and consultation that provide compelling evidence for their inclusion. For 2021 there will be new questions on past service in the Armed Forces and new voluntary questions on sexual orientation and gender identity for those aged 16 and over.
The Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Act 2019 enables two of the new questions, those on sexual orientation and gender identity, to be asked on a voluntary basis. As confirmed during the debates on that Act, the census questionnaires will clearly indicate which questions are voluntary, and the form of those questionnaires—both the online and paper versions—will be prescribed by law in the census regulations that will be made following this order. I express my thanks to noble Lords for their support for the Act during the debates in this House, and particularly to my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham for steering the legislation through the House.
This draft order is subject to a composite procedure. Under the terms of the Census Act 1920 the order is principally subject to the draft negative procedure, but some questions—those printed in italics in the draft order—may be included in the census only if they are approved by affirmative resolutions of both Houses. Unusually, questions subject to the affirmative procedure may also be amended by Parliament, if agreed to by both Houses. I express my thanks to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, whose 9th Report of this Session set out clearly the special procedure for this statutory instrument.
Noble Lords will be aware that this draft order was debated last week in the House of Commons, and that the Motion was approved by that House without amendment. There was considerable focus in the Commons debate on tick-box response options that have not been recommended by the ONS; notably, Cornish national identity and Sikh ethnicity. As my honourable friend the Minister of State, Chloe Smith, was clear to emphasise, it is absolutely no reflection of the ONS’s or the Government’s recognition of or respect for any ethnicity, religion or national identity that it does not have a specific tick-box response option on the census. It is simply not possible to include a tick box on the census for every group that has asked for one: to do this would make the census forms, whether paper or online, long, cumbersome and confusing.
For the ethnicity question alone the ONS received 55 requests for new tick boxes and, as I am sure noble Lords will understand, it is necessary to prioritise what is included in the questionnaire. This the ONS has done through an extensive programme of consultation, research, engagement, testing and assessment. People will be able to record their ethnic group, religion and national identity however they wish in the 2021 census, including as Cornish, using the write-in boxes. An online search-as-you-type functionality will assist people in answering these and other census questions. There will continue to be a specific Sikh response option in the census question on religion. Despite being a voluntary question, the response rate on the religion question is very high—over 92%—and the ONS is confident that religion data from the census will provide high-quality data for public bodies to inform service provision and equalities monitoring.
The 2021 census aims to be the most inclusive ever. For the first time it will be predominantly online, making it easier for people to take part when and how they want. Paper questionnaires will, however, be available for those who need or prefer to complete the census this way. There will be a wide range of help, including a contact centre offering support through various channels and services to assist people with hearing or speaking impediments. There will also be a large-print version of the paper form, language support and translated materials, and information in Braille or British Sign Language for those who may not otherwise be able to complete the census. There will be national and local promotional campaigns to encourage and help people to complete the census. This will include work with community groups, by field staff on the doorstep, and through face-to-face assistance at completion events that will be arranged, where possible, in local settings such as libraries.
To be successful in its aims, the census relies on the willing support and participation of the public, on whose behalf the information is collected. Key to this is trust that people’s personal data will not be disclosed in ways they do not wish it to be, whether deliberately or accidentally. It is made clear to respondents that their data is protected in law, and leaflets to accompany the census form set this out in more detail.
The ONS is working with the National Cyber Security Centre to ensure that processes and systems for collecting or handling census data are secure, and appropriate measures are in place to prevent unauthorised access. Census security will adhere to, and where possible exceed, the minimum set of cybersecurity standards. The information collected during the census is held by the ONS for 100 years, and by law data can be used only by the ONS for statistical and research purposes. Personal census data cannot be used to make decisions about individuals.
It is clear from useful and informed discussions with noble Lords ahead of today’s debate that there is a great deal of interest not just in the next census but in the future of the census, and in particular the question of whether this will be the last traditional census. The census is the most important source of statistics about the population available to us. It is currently the only data collection that provides accurate and reliable information about populations at a local area level. It provides the underlying information needed to inform a wide range of policy decisions, and it is used extensively to plan services and allocate funds to local areas, but it is only carried out every 10 years. Decision makers need information more frequently, to understand the changing nature of the population. The 2021 census is part of a £900 million programme of work by the ONS to transform the system of population and social statistics, making greater use of data already held by government for administrative purposes. This wider work programme will also inform whether, beyond 2021, the traditional census will remain the most appropriate way of collecting vital population data, or whether census statistics could be replicated in other, quicker ways using administrative data.
That is a debate for the future. In 2023, the National Statistician will make a recommendation on the future of the whole system of population and social statistics, including the census, based on the progress of this programme. I am sure that the House will take a great interest in that when the time comes.
The draft order before us today is concerned with the census in England and Wales. Noble Lords will be aware that the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly have approved census orders for Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. Together, these three statutory instruments allow a census to take place across the UK at the same time next March. This draft order is the first of two statutory instruments needed for the census to take place. Subject to the approval of the Order in Council, the Government will bring forward census regulations for England. These will set out the final questions and govern much of the operation of the census. Separate regulations for the census in Wales will be laid before the Welsh Parliament by the Welsh Government. The regulations will describe the content and functionality of the online forms for this first predominantly online census and will also contain copies of the corresponding paper questionnaires.
The census is unique in the insights it provides into our nation and the data it provides to support policy-making. The proposals for the 2021 census set out in this draft order will provide the data needed to inform policy and planning decisions across our national and local public services and enable national and local government, community groups, charities and businesses to better serve communities and individuals across the country. I beg to move.
My Lords, in the time available I will limit my contribution to two areas. First, it is right that we move the census online. However, as the Minister recognised, a digital-first census will undoubtedly raise questions about data security. I thank the noble Lord for outlining the Government’s plans, but will Parliament receive a report on the work the Government are doing to ensure that an individual’s details remain confidential and secure? In promoting the digital-first census, how will the Government build trust in data security to ensure that the 75% online return target is reached? The digital-first approach should allow a more effective system for counting and surveying Britain’s population. However, it is estimated that 10% of the UK’s adult population is digitally excluded. What lessons have been learned from the rehearsal areas on how best to engage the digitally excluded and, therefore, what are the plans to reach out to these communities to ensure that they are included in the census?
Secondly, it is disappointing to many thousands of Sikhs that the Government have decided not to include a Sikh tick box in the ethnic group question. There is a clear demand for this from a large section of the Sikh community. It is ethnic, not faith, data that public bodies use to make decisions about the provision of public services, so accurate data on the make-up of our communities is vital.
The Scottish Parliament seems to have gone some way to address this issue. Last week, it agreed to include a prompt for Sikhs and Jewish people next to the “Other ethnic group” tick box. Will the Government look at this decision, which the Scottish Parliament has made possible, and bring the census order for England and Wales in line with that of Scotland?
My Lords, the current crisis is demonstrating the importance of having accurate information about our population and their needs in relation to the provision of health, education, housing and many other areas. It is hugely important; there are many issues about the future of the census in general, as well as the specific issues contained in these orders, that many of us would have liked to raise if we had not been constrained by a two-minute time limit.
It is very welcome that the 2021 census will be conducted mostly online. This should reduce costs considerably and weaken the arguments of those who think that finding out the facts about our population is too expensive. We could also gain more information, at a lower cost, if we were to combine what we learn from the census with what we obtain compiling electoral registers. We could then have a more complete idea of how many people eligible to vote live where, and constituency boundaries could be drawn based on more accurate information—especially if those boundary reviews were held every 10 years as opposed to every five years, as is presently legislated for. Perhaps the Minister will pass on this suggestion.
I welcome the fact that new voluntary questions about gender identity and sexual orientation will show officially the welcome scale of diversity that exists in our society. This will help to allow distinctive needs to be provided for.
Charities—and, more importantly, government agencies—will be better able to address the needs of veterans, now to be identified in the census, far too many of whom have difficulty in finding suitable housing after serving in our Armed Forces.
However, some issues of ethnic identity still require more consideration. The strong case for allowing Sikh identity to be properly indicated as an ethnicity is not something that I can address in two minutes. I would also have argued for Cornish ethnicity to be recognised in the same way.
My Lords, I want to say a few words on the identification of the number of Welsh speakers resident in England on census day.
I add my voice to those emphasising the importance of maintaining the integrity of the census continuum to enable future generations to assess how patterns have changed over recent decades. We should not delete or modify a continuum unless there is a very good reason.
Powers to deal with the census in Wales have been partly devolved, which I welcome, within the same constraints of continuity. However, aspects of the census in England have a direct relevance to the powers exercised by the Welsh Government. One of these relates to identifying the number of Welsh speakers. This is needed by the Welsh Government to assess the effectiveness of their educational policy and to plan their future cultural policies. The Welsh Government have a target of 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050, compared with just over 500,000 Welsh speakers in Wales in 2011 but a higher figure of almost 900,000 in the ONS annual population survey last year.
Much of the targeted increase will be attained through our educational process, but to evaluate the ongoing benefit of securing the language, we must be able to assess the retention of the language after leaving school. Tens of thousands of young Welsh people migrate from Wales to England each year. Many return to Wales later, as was my own personal experience. To evaluate our education policy, we need to know how many Welsh speakers there are in England. It is thought to be around 100,000 but we need accurate information.
This issue was raised by Hywel Williams MP in the Commons debate last week; the Minister undertook to consider the matter. Today, I add my voice in support of this. For the UK to be meaningful for its citizens, it has to operate on not just agenda priorities as seen in London; in that context, I express Celtic solidarity by supporting a Cornish tick box, and I support one for Sikhs.
A fuller assessment of the number of Welsh speakers offers an opportunity for the UK Government to respond to reasonable requests emanating from Wales. I hope that the Minister can give a positive response today.
My Lords, I shall raise the refusal by the ONS to include a tick-box in the census for those who identify as Cornish. The ONS seems to see this as a localised issue, ignoring the many thousands of Cornish men and women living across the UK who want to register their nationality as Cornish. I do not have the advantage of being Cornish myself, but I am aware of the strong campaign to have a Cornish tick-box on the census. Until the start of the pandemic, I used to spend a month a year as a visitor to Cornwall and stayed in visitor accommodation.
The Cornish were recognised as a national minority in 2014, and the Government pledged that they would be afforded the same status under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as other UK Celtic peoples: the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. The inclusion of a tick-box for the Cornish on the census would achieve that.
What discussions have the Government had recently with the group leaders of Cornwall Council about the refusal of the ONS to include a Cornish tick-box? The ONS has said that there will be a write-in option to identify oneself as Cornish and that there will be a campaign to raise awareness of that. What steps will the Government take to ensure that any such campaign is national and not just focused on Cornwall, given that the Cornish diaspora is spread across the UK? It would not be a perfect solution, but it would be a step in the right direction towards delivering a census that could build a better, detailed snapshot of our society and help us to plan for the future delivery of services and for economic revival after Covid-19 has been defeated.
My Lords, I am a great fan of the decennial censuses and have made use of many of them over the years. The censuses provided much crucial information to assist administrators and policymakers at national and local level for more than two centuries. In addition, they are invaluable tools for historians in providing a picture of communities and societies at a moment in time. When, after 100 years, the details of the participating individuals are revealed, they become essential sources of information for those tracing their family tree, which is a burgeoning interest.
The Office for National Statistics planned the 2021 census with great diligence and in doing so consulted widely, adding new questions and querying established ones. Others have raised questions on ethnicity, gender status and sexual orientation, so I shall not develop that.
With modern means of collecting information and the ability of IT to tap into wider sources worldwide, what was appropriate in years gone by is not so today. I recognise that and that changes have to be made, but there is value in having one major respected piece of work providing a picture of society every 10 years. That is very useful. Finally, may I press the Minister on the rumours that the 2021 census will be the last? Is that the case or is the jury out? Let us never forget that a continuum is essential.
My Lords, I first came into statistical life at the time of the 1970 census, when we had the job of devising a definition of a one-parent family. I realise that this is probably a bit of a surprise question but, first, I would be very pleased if the Minister could write letting me know whether that definition has evolved and what it now is. Secondly, I would like to make it clear that I, too, hope that this will not be the last census. It does not cost that much and has provided a great historical snapshot of Britain through the ages.
I have one or two questions. First, is there any aim to hit people who are not online? A number of people in the community, particularly senior citizens, are not online and will not be able to fill in the census. Will they be able to register in advance? If not, and secondly, what will the follow-up be? Presumably the online responses will all go to one centre. Will there then be local follow-ups of people who have not completed it, and will this be done by addresses? I assume that it will be.
My next question is about past service in the Armed Forces. Having been in the Territorial Army almost 60 years ago, I wonder how far back this will go. Will it contain data about the Territorial Army and national service? I cannot understand why past service in the Armed Forces has gone into the thing.
Finally, on the voluntary questions, I point out the lesson that we should learn from Boaty McBoatface. There may well be people who decide that there are jokes to be made out of nationality or religion. Are any steps being taken to eliminate obvious false answers?
My Lords, the Census Act 1920 provided a framework for a census of questions on stated subjects, with an obligation to answer, subject to a penalty. It provided for the authority for a particular census to be an Order in Council, of which this is one, with supporting regulations, including a census form.
More recently, as has been mentioned, that Act was amended by statutes which provided for optional questions by providing for questions where failure to answer would not be subject to a penalty. This draft order provides for an obligation to answer three such questions, but that obligation is unenforceable. The draft regulations and the form will translate into clear language that answering these questions is optional. The correct result is reached by a circuitous route.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and I have been engaged throughout this process in trying to ensure that there is no compulsion to answer questions and that the arrangements to avoid compulsion to answer personal and private questions are secured in the legislation. The Government shared that objective, and there was a time when the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, put the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and me together more or less to sort out what we wanted and to see whether we could achieve the best result.
On close analysis, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has said, this order taken on its own, by a combination of Articles 6(1) and 6(4), does not in fact achieve that objective. The reason that it fails to do so seems, on investigation, to be that there has been a direct lift of the orders approved for the 2001 and 2011 censuses. However, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, I am satisfied that the statute, the draft regulations and the census form itself will mean that in law the voluntary nature of the questions and answers to the questions about personal matters is established, and those completing the form can confidently decline to answer those personal questions without fear of any penalty or proceedings.
To add a footnote, if there is a census in 2031, will those responsible please make sure that the Order in Council does not have the slight problem raised by this one? I very much hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, will be here to answer for everybody.
My Lords, what I am missing in this debate, and in the ministerial introduction, is contingency planning. It is as if the world will continue as before, and there are relevant questions about whether there will be a census in 2031. My question is: will a census be carried out properly in 2021? We see today’s announcement of another four months of furloughing. How on earth will electoral registration be carried out in the current cycle—the annual cycle that we still require—starting with house visits in October, at the turn of the year and onwards? It seems to me that that contingency planning needs to be there.
I am an optimist on all matters, but contingency planning requires an element of pessimism about what can go wrong. It is a shame that blockchain technology has not already been incorporated at this stage; indeed, it is in my view a shame that we do not already have an identity card which would make contact tracing in the current crisis significantly easier and more far-reaching. If electoral registration drops dramatically this year, how will we manage to go into a census that people choose not to respond to electronically? How will those face-to-face visits be managed if we are still in the crisis—or indeed the aftermath of the crisis—that Covid-19 has created?
My Lords, as the Minister has said, this census is intended to be the most inclusive ever. Question 18 asks:
“What is your main language?”
But people underreport their use of languages other than English, because the question of their main language is interpreted differently—as the language they know best, the one they use most frequently, or the one they feel most attached to emotionally. Feedback to the ONS described the question as confusing and unfit for purpose. One example of how the question can yield inaccurate data is that, in the last census, in the Manchester ward of Ardwick, while 2.2% of residents declared Urdu to be their main language, over 13% of schoolchildren in the same ward were registered as having Urdu as their first language.
Why does this matter, and what is the solution? It matters because, if linguistic diversity in the UK is underestimated or distorted, efficient and targeted use of multilingual resources in health, education and justice is undermined. Getting it right can also save costs. Interpreters and translated information, although vital, will not be enough unless the data collection itself is realistic. All that this requires is one small amendment to the question itself so that it simply asks, “What are your main languages?”
The ONS is worried about the cost of processing more complex data, but the census must produce full and accurate data for the benefit of all our citizens, not just some of us. Will the Minister agree to speak urgently with government colleagues and with the ONS to secure this minor change to Question 18, which would make a major improvement to the quality and usefulness of the data?
My Lords, as the Minister who took the Census Act through your Lordships’ House last year—I am grateful to the Minister today for his kind words—I have a paternal interest in this order, which I hope will secure the same broad support that the Act received last year.
I have a number of issues for my noble friend. He suggested—and other noble Lords have referred to this—that this could be the last census of its type, as other, more timely sources of information become available. As he said, it is too soon to say whether this is indeed the last census, but can he say what is happening in other countries that like us have relied on censuses such as this and which, I understand, may be moving away from them?
Secondly, I understand that, before the census next March, there were—or are—to be some trials. Can the Minister say how those trials went, if they took place, and what lessons have been learned from them, particularly in respect of the new voluntary questions?
Thirdly, we all hope that, by next March, we will have put this pandemic behind us, but we do not know whether there will be a second wave, or whether social distancing will have been entirely phased out. While most people will complete the census online, there was concern during the passage of the Bill about, for example, the homeless and rough sleepers; forms were to be made available in shelters and night centres. What contingency arrangements are there in case, by any chance, life has not returned to normal? Has the pandemic in any way impeded the arrangements in the run-up to the census? Are there any circumstances in which it would be necessary to postpone the census, as has happened this year in other countries?
Finally, there was a loose end in our discussions last year, referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, was concerned that, while we had abolished the penalty for not answering questions, we had not abolished the underlying offence. I was delighted to hear from both noble and learned Lords that white smoke has now emerged and that that loose end has now been tied up.
My Lords, I have just two questions for the Minister. They are in the context that our Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities are acknowledged, not least by the Government, to be the most disadvantaged in educational, health, socioeconomic and accommodation outcomes. To address the problems of minority-ethnic groups, it goes without saying—but I am going to say it—that we first need accurate and meaningful data.
I declare my interest as a holder of various unremunerated posts in service of the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities. In the order, the success of our efforts to include the Roma people is demonstrated, and I thank the census team for that. However, the order still runs Gypsies and Irish Travellers into one category. There are significant differences between these two communities in terms of all the outcomes I have referred to, so can the Minister tell me that the two categories will be split as soon as practicable, as reason and fact demand?
Secondly, what are the arrangements to visit Gypsy and Traveller sites? Public service representatives have often neglected to call at sites even when their help has been urgently needed, and I seek reassurance that census workers will speak with the travelling communities to arrange productive visits and allay any anxiety so as to obtain the data we need.
My Lords, the proposed 2021 census will probably be the most important for a generation. It will begin to show the devastating effects of Covid-19 on our communities and individuals. It is imperative that the largest number of our citizens are included. For the first time, questions will be asked about gender identity and sexual orientation—and they will be voluntary, which is to be welcomed. The long-overdue information will allow the Government to inform policy, plan for a clear picture of LGBT rights and communities, and target resources to them.
In the other place last week, many speeches were made about inclusivity and the Sikh communities. Sikhs have been recognised as an ethnic group for over 40 years, since this House made that ruling in 1983. The case and the law have been overwhelmingly made; Sikhs should have a tick box under the ethnic identity question. The same argument applies to Cornish people. In the 2011 census, 83,966 people in Britain ticked the “other” box and wrote “Cornish” on the form. In Cornwall, that figure was 73,320—that is 14% of the population. Those citizens will not go away. The Minister must act if, as the phrase goes, we are all in this together.
Finally, the guidance says that the census will be predominantly online and will be the most inclusive ever. It is vital that paper copies are made for the enormous number of people who are not on the internet and do not have online facilities. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said that could be 10% of the population. If the Prime Minister can write to every household and basically tell them to stay in, surely the same option can be given for the census form.
My Lords, an ill-conceived campaign to confine Sikh teachings open to all to a single ethnicity is being led by an extremist fringe group, the Sikh Federation, which rejects key Sikh teachings. Its un-Sikh-like argument is that being recorded under ethnicity will get us more resources than other religions. It also plays on the hurt felt by many of us over the 1984 genocide of Sikhs, saying that reducing the religion to an ethnic group will help us to get a Sikh state in India.
The Sikh Federation bases its arguments on a misunderstanding of the Mandla case in the early 1980s, in which I was an expert witness. The law then protected ethnicity, but not religion, against discrimination. The Law Lords ruled that as most Sikhs in the UK then were born in Punjab and had Punjabi ethnicity, Sikhs were also entitled to protection. The criteria of birth and origin would not be met today, as most Sikhs are born in the UK, nor is such a convoluted protection necessary. The Equality Act 2010 gives full protection to religion.
The politically motivated federation falsely claims mass support, with questionable statistics. The ethnicity argument was discussed at the large gurdwara in Hounslow, in front of ONS officials, and was firmly rejected, yet the federation includes Hounslow among its supporters. Many Sikhs and people of other faiths are appalled at the way in which some politicians, anxious for votes, are willing to trample on the religious sensitivities of others and accept as fact the absurdities of those who shout the loudest. I urge that we look to what the different religious groups actually do for the well-being of their followers and wider society.
My Lords, I pay particular tribute to all those involved with this census. I am pleased that veterans are to be included in a new question, and I hope that that is clarified to include national service. But the biggest change is the move to online. Perhaps 85% of the nation is online, but we have to remember that millions of people have come to this country from foreign countries in the last 10 years, many of whom, particularly in the older generation, do not speak English, or English is not their main language. Great care will need to be taken to ensure that there is a paper back-up for those who are not able to cope with the online form.
Secondly, in the context of our experience of the virus, I am particularly interested in the problems for communal establishments, especially our prisons and our care homes. If the department of health appears to have overlooked care homes at the early stages of this crisis, heaven alone knows what will happen with them in normal circumstances. I know a little about the prison world. Bedford prison is heavily overcrowded. The census cannot be done online in a place like that.
On ethnicity, I lived in India for a couple of years of my life and know the Sikh community well. I do not understand why they are not included under ethnicity; certainly their cause is far greater than that of the Roma, who are now included in that category.
Finally, I make a plea: this should not be the last census. We should listen to the queries raised by the noble Lords, Lord Mann and Lord Young.
My Lords, in the 1980s, when I was in the House of Commons, I served on the Home Affairs Select Committee, which did an investigation of the merits or demerits of including an ethnic question in the population census. At that time, there was quite a lot of objection from various groups to having such a question, but we took evidence abroad from a lot of people and came to the conclusion that it was desirable. Why? Because we felt that we needed to measure the disadvantage suffered by any minority and the discrimination against that minority. The best way to do that was to have a benchmark, so that every 10 years we could measure whether the policies to tackle disadvantage and discrimination were effective or not. Without that, we would not know whether the policies were working. That was the argument and it was accepted, and we have had ethnicity questions in our population census since, I think, 1991.
It is therefore a little puzzling as to why there should be such an argument about including an ethnicity question to cover Sikhs. I think it is right to do that, based on the same arguments that we used in the Select Committee all those years ago. I welcome that we will have questions on gender identity, LGBT and the Armed Forces.
I am a bit concerned that there is now talk of this being the last census. Unless we have a wonderful, effective way of covering the same information, which enables us to continue the stream of information from one census to the new system, I very much regret what we would lose by doing that. We ought to think very carefully before we lose the population census.
Lastly, there are questions on health. I appreciate the difficulty of this, but could we adapt those questions to take account of the pandemic that is now sweeping the country? We might learn more about how it happened if we include something on it in the population census.
My Lords, this census form is extensive and will provide valuable information for formulating social policies in the future. However, this extensive list poses a problem: there are a great number of questions, with a range of options, and some people will find the form very difficult to fill in. Therefore, I was very glad to learn from the Minister at the beginning of this debate that the Government intend to have a contact centre. I know that the internet will offer a great deal of help with the usual list of frequently asked questions, but my experience of FAQ lists is that they do not answer the questions that you actually want to ask.
That contact centre will be a vital ingredient in making the next census a success. It will need to be well staffed and the staff will need to be well trained. Linked to this is the fact that those who do not have English as their first language will probably need special help. I hope that it will be possible for people not only to get help answering the questions via telephone but to do so in a number of different languages. That centre will need to be well staffed with people who are well trained, with a range of languages available.
I will briefly cover two points. First, I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. From the point of view of the Welsh Government and their educational programme, it is vital to know the number of Welsh speakers in England. Secondly, I also strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Singh. Like him, I believe that Sikhism is a great and very distinguished world religion. I do not think there should be any blurring of that fact and I worry that putting this in the ethnic minority category will somehow diminish what Sikhism has to offer as a world religion.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for introducing this order and for his characteristic clarity of exposition in doing so. Like others, I very much agree about the importance of the census and I hope that we will continue with a census for many years into the future.
I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that we should consider flexing this present census to ask relevant questions in the light of the virus; these could include questions on health, transport and other matters. If we are not able to do that, we may want to do so in the future.
I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, about welcoming Roma as a distinct ethnic characteristic—that is very welcome. I also underline, as she did, the importance of census workers travelling to sites to ensure that people are able to fill in the forms at the relevant time. On that point, could I ask, as the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham did, for some reassurance about census day next year, given the challenges that we face?
I lend support on the inclusion of an ethnic characteristic for Sikhism. That is a case well made out. I heard what the Minister said about the complexity of adding more groups to the form, but there is an unanswerable case on this, as there is in relation to Cornish ethnicity. I had the great privilege, as Minister, of visiting the nascent Cornish archive in Redruth to announce support for the language and of hearing just what strong support there is in Cornwall for this tick box. Indeed, it has had almost unanimous support from councillors on the county council as well as from all the main party groups.
Jains and Zoroastrians should also be added to the census questions. I would also welcome some reassurance on online provision and the difficulties that we may have post virus in ensuring that it works well.
My Lords, I want to emphasise the need for security around the database. The census is useful and is a fascinating tool for historical research. However, many of the questions, primarily numbers 31 to 42, have implications for people’s tax position. The Government rightly declare that this data will not be used other than for census and population analysis purposes, but it may affect how people answer.
The danger is that a future Government may have a very different attitude to what they think they should know about their citizens and how they might use this information. They will say that it is for more efficient government, a usual form of words being that it is for anti-fraud purposes.
Once every 10 years is sometimes too infrequent for proper planning processes, particularly in a fast-changing world. It might be better to gather some of this information by analysis of other data sources—a lot of information is available online—but some of the basic census information will always be useful, particularly for genealogical research, and should continue to be gathered periodically, so we should not just stop the census.
My Lords, both here and in the Commons, there have been some powerful speeches on the inclusion of questions on Cornish identity and Sikh ethnicity, so I need do no more than express my sympathy and support for the cases that have been made. We are moving towards a country of complex and multiple identities, not easily represented by our two-party and first-past-the-post system—but that is an issue for a different debate. I mark in passing that a strong sense of Yorkshire identity is entirely absent from the questionnaire. We face a Conservative Government who resist any recognition of Yorkshire identity in how they approach devolution in Yorkshire, which is to city regions rather than to Yorkshire as a whole, as all our local authorities have stressed.
We are a much more complex society. As the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, remarked, our local authorities often know this about languages and ethnic groups in much more detail than do our national Government. That leads me on to the relationship between local and national data. I am struck by how the Government have approached the pandemic by neglecting the skills and resources of our local authorities, going to outside private contractors for testing and other things rather than reinforcing the strengths of our local authorities.
The Minister said in opening that we should make greater use of data already held by government. A great deal of very useful data is held by our local authorities. As we consider the future of the census, we need to take further the question of how we feed in and out of different government agencies the data which they hold separately, and the safeguards that data mining and data analysis need therefore to have.
There is of course the difficult question, which we will come back to later, of why electoral registration is held separately from other forms of establishing where our citizens live and who they are. Every British citizen and long-term resident should be on the electoral register.
I welcome the statement in the Conservative manifesto last year that:
“We will improve the use of data, data science and evidence in the process of government.”
That is a highly desirable idea, although reading Dominic Cummings’s blog over the years and looking at the antics of what one has to call the Warner brothers, Ben and Marc—one of them in No. 10 and the other working for an outside company which has apparently some very privileged relationships with the Government—I think that we clearly need greater transparency as to what exactly is going on within government as we move through the digital transformation.
I thank the Minister for offering me the opportunity to talk to the Office for National Statistics on my own. However, it would be much more valuable to use the real expertise on the digital transformation that there is on all Benches in the House, and invite us for a number of briefings on how the Government plan to expand and improve their use of data, how the future census may or may not fit in with that, and how they will build in the safeguards which we will need. To comment on what the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, said, the question of data transparency as well of data ownership is an important part of that. I note that in Sweden, for example, the degree of transparency on tax returns is a great deal higher than in Britain, which apparently has a markedly positive effect on not paying some people too much money.
The Minister also talked about the need to maintain the security and secrecy of people’s personal data. That is highly desirable—we certainly need to improve the safeguards on that—but citizens sometimes need to demonstrate to government their entitlement, presence and records. The Windrush scandal, for example, was entirely unnecessary. All those people had, within other agencies of government, records that they had been living in Britain for some time: their tax returns, national insurance records, and in many cases their driving licence. The Home Office did not attempt to look at the metadata to establish whether there were records for those people before it attempted to deport many of them. That is another major issue to which we need to return.
We certainly wish to look at the wider issues here. We were promised last year that the Government would publish a White Paper on their data strategy before the end of 2020. I understand that this has now slipped several months behind schedule because officials have been detached to deal first with the threat of a no-deal Brexit and now with the coronavirus pandemic. This offers opportunities in digital transformation for improving the quality of government policy but also risks individual privacy and liberty. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will do their utmost to carry Parliament and the public with them as they move forward, and that regular briefings for parliamentarians on what is planned and whether a further census should be held in 2031 should be part of building and maintaining public trust?
Beyond this, I simply add that the quality of the data the census provides will depend on how well it manages to record marginal communities and individuals: recent migrants, the homeless, and elderly people living alone. I hope that the Minister will also assure us that the Government will target resources on such groups, who are the least likely to know how to go online or voluntarily and patiently to fill in a long and complicated form on their own.
My Lords, we welcome this draft instrument. It contains lots of positives, as we made clear when we debated the issues before, including the additional questions on military service, which is of course particularly pertinent in this week of commemorating VE Day, although of course before VJ Day. We are also aware of the millions who have served since then.
We are also pleased to see the voluntary questions on sexual orientation and gender identity, together with that on Roma people. Indeed, Roma people are now the most disadvantaged in the country, so it is encouraging to see their inclusion as a crucial step forward in data collection and the resource allocation to their community. I look forward to the Minister’s answers to the questions raised by my noble friend Lady Whitaker. However, the addition of that tick box in the ethnicity section brings us to the one contentious issue today: the lack of an equivalent tick box for Sikh people in addition to that in the religious option.
I have read the debate held on this issue in the Commons and listened carefully to the Minister’s introduction today, and two questions remain unanswered. First, why exactly was that recommendation decided on by the ONS, given, as we have heard, the recognition by the House of Lords of Sikhs as an ethnic group back in 1983, the 83,000 writings received in the last census, and the feedback received from over 100 gurdwaras? This is not necessarily to say that the ONS got it wrong and I assume that it had good reasons. However, neither its report nor the White Paper have convinced either the federation or the MPs representing Sikh areas. In her response in the other place, the Minister failed to explain that, so perhaps the noble Lord, Lord True, can make a better fist of it today. It is vital for the confidence of the Sikh community in the outcome of the census.
Secondly, and vitally, if it is the case that 12% of Sikhs, which represents 50,000 or more people according to ONS modelling, could be missing from these datasets, and given that it is on the basis of the census that it is ethnic rather than religious data on which 40,000 public bodies decide on the allocation of resources and use it to assess their responsibilities under equalities legislation, as touched on by my noble friend Lord Dubs, how will the Government ensure that suitable corrections are made so that this large and vital community gets its fair share of appropriate services and is not discriminated against through the absence of proper data?
How do the Government plan to address the inequalities that we sadly see in Sikh communities while we lack accurate data? Do they recognise that the chronic statistical underreporting of communities such as the Sikh population could allow discrimination to go unnoticed? Indeed, will the Minister comment on the point raised about the Scottish Government’s decision to add a prompt for Sikhs as well as for Jewish people to their own regulation?
We welcome the census because in this time of rapid social change we welcome the availability of up-to-date information. Indeed, as I warned the Minister earlier, I will shortly start campaigning, no doubt along with the noble Lords, Lord Balfe, Lord Naseby, Lord Bourne, the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and my noble friends Lord Dubs and Lord Clark of Windermere, to ensure that we do not lose this vital source of rich, granular data in 2031. For the moment, however, we need all sections of the community to have faith in the census, and the Minister’s answers to the debate today will be important.
My Lords, it is customary to say that we have had a wide-ranging and excellent debate, and of course that is true, particularly on this occasion. It has been a fascinating debate to me personally and I am grateful to many noble Lords, starting with the noble Lord, Lord Clark, and others, including my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham and the Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, for saying how important the institution of the census is over the long term in enabling an understanding of the familial and social development of communities and of the whole country. Both in the past and now in the present, it is an enormously valuable historical resource. As an historian, I freely acknowledge that. Indeed, I am sure that when the 1921 census comes to be published, one of the interesting things to look at will be the impact on the nation of the Spanish flu epidemic as well as that of the Great War between 1911 and 1921.
I said that in 2023 the National Statistician will publish recommendations based on views about the future of the census in light of the experience of the census that we are about to conduct, and indeed past experience along with other data and relevant material. Your Lordships will have ample opportunity, as will the other place, to consider those recommendations. The Government of the day will give them careful consideration, and I am sure will reflect on the unique nature and value of the census over time. As I said in my opening remarks, that really is a debate for another day, although I believe that all those who read this debate will note the sentiments that have been expressed by many who have spoken.
Questions were asked by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and others about whether any contingency consideration is being given to the current pandemic that we are dealing with. Census day—21 March 2021, obviously—is still nearly a year away, and currently the Office for National Statistics is working to deliver the census as planned. Like any other part of the Government, the ONS will be guided by the scientific evidence and the evolving advice from medical experts. At the same time, therefore, we are considering the contingencies that may be needed if measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 remain in place or indeed again become necessary in the run-up to census day itself. That is a matter of which those who are involved are aware. The situation, as noble Lords will know, is evolving and we will be guided by medical advice as it emerges.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made important remarks about data more generally, many of which I agreed with. He asked specifically about the national data strategy, the potential involvement of Parliament and parliamentarians in the evolution of that strategy, and the debate generally about the use of data—something that is obviously extraordinarily important to being an effective modern economy and society in the future. The position, as the noble Lord recognised, is that because of the coronavirus pandemic progress has been delayed, but I assure him that it remains the Government’s intention to publish the national data strategy in 2020. I will endeavour to keep him and other noble Lords informed as to progress.
The question of identity has come up in this House and in the other place. I underline the abounding respect and admiration that this Government—and, indeed, I believe the whole nation—have for the Sikh people and the Sikh religion, faith and values. The Sikh community is an embedded and enormously valued part of the British nation. Even today, we have heard conflicting views on whether the ONS has made the right call in respect of the questions in the census. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and others spoke strongly in one direction, while the noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, and indeed the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, spoke in the opposite direction.
The ONS has to reach a balance, and the tick-box options set out in the order have been informed by its very extensive programme of research, consultation and engagement, which has gone on for over three years. As I said in my opening statement, more than 55 requests were made for tick boxes under the ethnic group question alone. There is already a Sikh tick box for the religion question, and the ONS concluded that the needs for data on Sikh communities can be met without the addition of a Sikh ethnic tick box.
The 2011 census and subsequent research show that the religion and ethnic group questions capture similar Sikh populations. The number of people using the write-in option, which will exist in this census, to record Sikh as their ethnic group has been referred to. In 2011 the ONS promoted the ability to use that write-in option, and 83,000 people used it to write in their ethnicity as Sikh—but 92% of those also identified their religion as Sikh, and more than 423,000 people in England and Wales identified their religion as Sikh in 2011.
Qualitative research that the ONS commissioned on the acceptability, clarity and quality of the tick boxes showed that the inclusion of a Sikh ethnic tick box without other religions also having an ethnic tick box or tick boxes was viewed as unacceptable, particularly among younger, second-generation participants. The ONS has offered to work with members of the Sikh population to encourage wider participation in the census and to raise awareness of the option of writing in their identity in the ethnic group question. I hope Members of the House will help the ONS in this effort.
A question was asked about the Welsh language; the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and others referred to this. I understand the point he made that it is important for the Welsh Government to understand the extent of the Welsh language, not only in Wales but outside Wales. Obviously, the draft census order provides for a question on the Welsh language to be asked in Wales, but anyone in England who wishes to record their main language as Welsh in the 2021 census will be able to do so using, again, the write-in option in the language question. Testing by the ONS convinced it that the inclusion of that question generally might lead to confusion among the larger number of respondents about why they were being asked it. When it comes to conducting the census, I am sure that those in the ONS and working on its behalf will pay heed to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and others.
My noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns and others raised Cornish identity. Again, the Government recognise the distinct culture and heritage of Cornwall. We understand how important that is to the people of Cornwall, who are rightly proud of their Cornish history. The reality is that everyone who wants to identify as Cornish in the census will be able to do so using the new search-as-you-type facility online or the write-in option. In its consultations informing the contents of the 2021 census, the ONS found that the need for data on Cornish populations is localised and—in the context of the many requests to have questions included in the census—not strong enough to justify the inclusion of a Cornish national identity box nationwide.
I assure noble Lords who have spoken—I myself have had representations from elected representatives in Cornwall—that the ONS is committed to working with Cornish MPs, Cornwall Council and others to meet their data needs through data gathered via the write-in option. It will promote this option in both national and local census campaigns. After this census, the ONS will for the first time produce an analytical report on the population who identify as Cornish and how their health, housing, work and education differ from those of people who do not identify as Cornish. I hope noble Lords will welcome that assurance.
The social condition of various parts of the population is extremely important and relates and translates across to the question asked by many noble Lords about accessibility and support, including for those who are homeless. The ONS will offer a range of support to help people who complete the census, whether online or on paper. As I said at the outset, paper forms will be available in large print. Language support will be provided for those who need it. There will also be an option to complete the questionnaire by telephone. I referred to the fact that additional help to fill in the census online or on paper will be available at community events in community centres, libraries and places of worship. I was grateful for the remarks of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, on that.
In addition, the assisted digital service will be provided by the Good Things Foundation to provide support for those who are offline or need additional digital help. We are well aware of the importance of reaching those who are not digitally enabled; they are in fact, paradoxically, among the most important parts of the population which the ONS needs to reach in the census. It is a great responsibility to do that. That is why the ONS aims to recruit up to 40,000 field staff to support this kind of engagement. They will have a particular focus of resources on the known hard-to-count groups and areas. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, that, given the inclusion of the Roma question, there will be a great effort to reach all Traveller people. I will provide her with a written answer on the other question that she asked.
To return to the homeless, those who are homeless are particularly vulnerable and hard to reach. That is obvious. We have seen in the Covid crisis the Government’s efforts to reach that important and much underprivileged part of the population. In preparing for the census, the ONS is working to ensure that all those who are homeless, particularly those who are sleeping rough, have every opportunity to take part. Census forms will be available at day centres and night shelters over a series of days. The ONS is working closely with homelessness charities to ensure that there is help and support for those who are homeless to participate in the census.
As in 2011, special arrangements are being made to make sure that all those living in communal establishments are recorded in the census. My noble friend Lord Balfe referred to some of these, including those living in hospitals, residential care homes, student halls, prison establishments and military camps. This is an important duty laid on the ONS, and I am sure that it will rise to it.
My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham referred to the voluntary nature of questions on the census. I am grateful for the welcome that has been given again by noble Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, among them, for the inclusion of questions on sexual orientation and gender identity. These will be voluntary. I am very grateful for the discussions the Government have had with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and for their advice to enable us to better underline the fact that these questions are voluntary.
I note what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said about the 2031 census. I am sure that, in that time, something will be done to improve any deficiencies in the drafting, but I repeat what I said in my opening remarks: the regulations that will come before the House and provide opportunity for further debate will prescribe the census form. They will make it absolutely clear that these questions are voluntary. I am grateful to noble Lords for raising that important point.
The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, asked a number of questions, some of which I can answer and some of which I will have to respond to in due course. He asked what efforts have been made to test some of the provisions for the census. There has been a census rehearsal. It was held last autumn in four local authority areas: Carlisle, Ceredigion, Hackney and Tower Hamlets. These areas were chosen to reflect urban, rural and mixed areas with their varying internet coverage and places where there are Welsh speakers, students and residents from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities. Although participation was obviously voluntary, the rehearsal was a large-scale test of the census operational systems and processes. They included the online questionnaire, the field force function, digital assistance and public contact centre. The rehearsal has provided valuable insight into how the questions have been answered, and how the help and guidance is used. As I said, it covered most of the questions and areas raised in this debate.
The ONS is planning to publish a report on the rehearsal later this summer. It will incorporate the lessons from that and from the other work it has been taking on to test the census questions in its report this summer. The household response in the 2019 rehearsal was similar to that in the 2009 rehearsal, although direct comparisons are not possible because they were held in different areas. The 2011 census went on to reach 94% of the population, so this gives some confidence that the Government and the ONS will be able to reach large numbers of people in the census.
As many noble Lords stressed throughout the debate, starting with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, it is vital, of course, that the information gathered in the census is confidential. I can assure noble Lords that the highest priority is given to that. It is fundamental to trust in the 2021 census. There are strict legal safeguards: unlawful disclosure of confidential census data by the statistics authority and its employees, including the ONS, is a criminal offence with a sanction of up to two years in prison. The same applies to the Registrar-General in Scotland. We are consulting on cybersecurity, and the National Cyber Security Centre is being carefully and continually engaged in the process.
I thank all those who have contributed to the debate. It is essential that everyone is counted in the 2021 census to provide service providers and policymakers with the information they need to help target support and resources where they are most needed, and as efficiently and effectively as possible. I am very grateful to noble Lords for their contributions and I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate.
My Lords, the Virtual Proceedings on this Motion are now complete. The Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until 2.45 pm for the Motions in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.
Arrangement of Business
The announcement was made in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords the Virtual Proceedings on the Motions in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, will now commence. The time limit is one and a half hours. At the end of the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, I will hand over the Chair to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill.
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020
Motion to Consider
That the Virtual Proceedings do consider the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020.
Relevant document: 11th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
The Motion was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, I will outline what the regulations we are considering do, then set out the policies and processes underlying their development, their implementation and finally their monitoring and review. However, first, I will recap the Prime Minister’s announcement.
Informed by scientific evidence and advice, on 10 May, the Prime Minister announced that there will be further changes to the regulations. These will come into effect on Wednesday 13 May. Your Lordships will hear the details of the Statement later today, but in summary there are further regulation clarifications. First, it is permitted for a hotel or other accommodation to provide services to a worker in a critical sector whose need for accommodation is connected to their work. Secondly, additional reasonable excuses to leave or be outside the home will now include visiting a shop that is otherwise closed to collect goods or visiting a local waste or recycling centre.
In addition, there are changes affecting businesses and venues. First, the regulations expand the list of reasonable excuses to leave or be outside the home to include outdoor recreation, including but not limited to exercise, as is currently the case. Secondly, there is an amendment to allow people to spend time outdoors alone, with members of their household or with one member of another household. Thirdly, there are amendments to enable the reopening of garden centres and outdoor sports courts.
The regulations to effect these changes will be for Parliament to approve and I hope that we can use the excellent facilities of this virtual Chamber to do so more speedily. I also add that, unfortunately, our original Explanatory Memorandum contained two typographical errors which, regrettably, we did not spot until after publication. First, it said that the first review would take place on 15 April, not 16 April. Secondly, it said that Parliament would need to approve the instrument within 20 days, when in fact it should have read 28 days.
On 26 March 2020, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 came into force. These regulations were then followed by the regulations made on 20 April, which came into force on 22 April. These regulations mandated three key measures to protect the NHS: first, requiring people to stay at home as far as possible, with only limited exceptions; secondly, closing certain businesses and venues; thirdly, stopping gatherings in public of more than two people, with very limited exceptions.
These regulations are similar to those introduced by other countries, and we have worked closely with the devolved Administrations—to which I pay tribute—in developing and reviewing these measures. This country has been, and still is, engaged in a national effort to beat coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed to ensure that our NHS is protected, with capacity always exceeding the demand for ICU beds for coronavirus patients. Flattening the peak, drawing down the rate of transmission of the disease and the number of infections, alongside the work to significantly expand NHS capacity, has helped to protect our NHS and to save lives. I wish to put on record our continued thanks to the NHS, to care workers and to key workers around the country for the phenomenal work that they are doing, caring for people and keeping the United Kingdom going.
The regulations that we debate today have played a crucial role in the success we are seeing in reducing the infection and transmission levels. They place significant demands on individuals and society, with impacts on businesses, the economy and daily life. I understand the sacrifices that people are making at this time, their frustrations and their anxieties, but these regulations are necessary, because the single most important step that we can all take towards beating this disease is to reduce the spread by following these regulations, thereby protecting ourselves and others.
Before we made these regulations, the number of patients in intensive care was estimated to be doubling every three or four days. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—SAGE—assessed that, at the beginning of the epidemic, the R number was between 2.7 and 3. Each person with the disease gave it to nearly three other people. This type of exponential growth would have overwhelmed the NHS had it not been contained, but then our regulations took effect. The footfall data showed a significant fall of activity; UK daily footfall fell by 80% compared to last year. These regulations came in tandem with a vast and co-ordinated effort, with schools closing and becoming virtual and massive increases in testing and NHS critical care capacity.
The latest assessment by SAGE is that, across the UK, R has reduced to between 0.5 and 0.9, meaning that the number of infected people is falling. On 4 May, 27% of critical care beds in the UK were occupied by Covid-19 patients, compared to 51% on 10 April. The number of patients in hospital in the UK with Covid-19 is under 13,000 as of 4 May, 35% below the peak of 12 April. The measures have been well enforced and, importantly, well received by the public. Between 27 March and 27 April, 8,877 fixed penalty notices have been recorded as issued in England. This is less than 5% of the number of motoring offences issued in England and Wales over a similar period. In mid-March, 62% of people were extremely worried about the threat of Covid-19. It is now 43%, while 85% of people think that the stay-at-home rules should stay in place.
However, I acknowledge the great sacrifice that these regulations have required everyone to make. Whether you are separated from your loved ones, unable to go to a funeral, face restrictions in your religious observance or simply have not been able to meet your friends for weeks, everyone has made a contribution. These are exceptional measures, brought forward to reflect exceptional challenges. They were made by the Secretary of State on 26 March and 21 April respectively and, rightly, following the return of the House after the Easter Recess, are brought before the House today for the scrutiny and debate that they require under emergency procedure approved by Parliament for such measures. The regulations are lawfully made under the power of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 and comply with all the Government’s obligations in relation to human rights. Above all, they help to save lives. That is why Parliament has given Ministers these powers. The House will be aware that there are applications for judicial reviews and other legal actions in the offing. I will of course not comment on those.
We do not use these powers lightly or without good reason. We are acutely aware of the burden that they place on society and the challenge that we face in achieving the right balance between protecting the public’s health and safeguarding individual liberties, and between saving the NHS and saving our economy. I believe that we have achieved that balance.
The reasons for my confidence are threefold. First, these regulations set out that a review of these restrictions and requirements must take place at least every 21 days to ensure that each restriction or requirement continues to be necessary to prevent, protect against, control or provide a public health response to the incidence or spread of infection in England. We completed the first review, as required, on 16 April 2020; the most recent was completed on 7 May.
Secondly, the regulations reflect the strategy that we have agreed across the UK, which is led by the best scientific evidence available along with consideration of the economic, operational, social and policy implications.
Thirdly, recognising the potential for harm to public health and the economy if measures were relaxed too soon, we have developed robust criteria to guide policy considerations on when it would be desirable for measures to be eased. These considerations are fivefold: whether the NHS can provide critical care across the UK; whether there is a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate; whether infection rates decrease to an acceptable level; whether supplies of PPE and testing meet future demand; and whether the evidence is clear that changes will not risk a second peak.
Ministers conduct the review guided by officials and experts, ensuring that the measures continue to be both proportionate and necessary. However, it would be naive to imagine that there have not been snags that public servants across the UK have had to work day and night to untangle. The JCHR and others have expressed concerns about the variations in enforcement and the approach to it adopted by different police forces. As your Lordships will be aware, guidance was issued to police forces; that has continued to be clarified and updated. It is important that the police operate within the law, as set out in these regulations. That guidance is treated as such: guidance.
In the first review, it was agreed that no changes would be made to the existing restrictions. However, a small number of minor amendments were required to clarify the regulations and ease their operation. They relate to enforcement of the measures and affected businesses and venues.
The changes announced by the Prime Minister earlier this week may well lead to further revisions of these regulations. Your Lordships need not feel, therefore, that this House’s role in scrutinising the Government and holding us to account has, because of the manner in which these regulations were made, become somewhat diminished—far from it. These debates influence the choices made in policy development.
I look forward to a high-quality and informative debate this afternoon. We will take your Lordships’ contributions on board. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to these statutory instruments. The Prime Minister’s Statement will be debated later, so I will focus on these regulations. As the Minister said, they give considerable power to Ministers to make significant demands on us: to stay at home as far as possible, closing many businesses and stopping gatherings of more than two people in public. As Liberty points out, although the regulations expire in six months, Parliament has to approve them only once, yet Ministers are required to review them every three weeks. Ministers can change the guidance and, through a ministerial direction, can terminate a requirement or restriction contained in these instruments. The Minister said that the regulations get the balance right, but Ministers are given huge authority. Liberty suggests that, as a minimum, the regulations should be remade under the Civil Contingencies Act, as opposed to the Public Health Act. This would enable regular parliamentary scrutiny. Will the Minister look at this again?
The other point which I want to raise, which the Minister touched on, is the use of police powers. Overall, the police have responded magnificently to the incredible challenge they have been given. However, there has been confusion, not least over the extent to which people are permitted to exercise and gather outside. As Liberty says, the combination of sweeping powers, haste in drafting legislation and mixed communication strategies is in part to blame for some of the police confusion. This is likely to grow, given the Prime Minister’s Statement and fears among doctors and police chiefs that the new message to stay alert rather than to stay at home may confuse the public and make it harder to enforce the restrictions.
Liberty recommends that any guidance published to supplement the regulations should distinguish between what is law and what is best practice advice to the public. The Lords Scrutiny Committee made similar points and worried about the confusion between the law and the guidelines. It is keen to ensure that the police are aware of the scope of these regulations, as distinct from the guidance. Given the road map laid out by the Government for lifting the restrictions, we are likely to see changes to the guidelines on a regular basis. I hope that the Minister can assure me that all will be done to make clear to the police just what the law is in the regulations that we are asked to approve today.
My Lords, these regulations are about the management of public health, not how to uphold public order. It is, therefore, a great pity that, due to the way that the Government have introduced them, the debate has become mainly about public order. Confusion was initially due to the words and grand statements of Ministers which were, at times, at odds with the actual provisions of the statutory instrument. On exercise, Ministers said, “Once a day, close to home”. Yet the SI does not restrict individuals to that. We had police stopping people unnecessarily and Derbyshire police using drones to shame people walking legally. There were issues around shopping, with Ministers talking about what “essential items” were. Yet the SI does not define essential or non-essential items; it states the law on where you can buy them. We had trolley spying by some police forces and the famous Easter egg debate. None of these was to do with public health issues around Covid-19. The police college had to send out guidance to cut through ministerial soundbites and state what was actually law within the SI. We are taking note of them again but tomorrow, as the Minister said, some of the provisions will change, due to them being out of date and as the new, graduated, measures to release lockdown start.
However, confusion has started again as we debate, not the science of public health, but the words and confusions of Ministers on public order issues. For example, public health advice indicates that you have a low transmission risk if you meet one other person outside your household outdoors and stay two metres apart. Yet the debate is now about the difference between meeting in a park or in your garden. The public health message is again getting lost: it makes no difference to public health, or the transmission of the virus, whether you meet one person outside, at a distance of two metres, in a garden or a park. Are we going to have police tiptoeing over people’s garden fences to see whether they are meeting one other person outside their household?
These SIs, and the new ones tomorrow, will be an important part of public health measures and the management of Covid-19. Will the Minister and the Government keep to that, and not give us soundbites that focus on people in parks or gardens, or on Easter eggs? We need to see these as helping to reduce Covid-19 and enhancing public health and not as a matter of public order where the debate moves away from people feeling safe and knowing to do the right things which the SIs say by law they have to.
My Lords, I want to sort of start my comments by congratulating the Government and the police on showing incredible restraint in acting under huge pressure in what has been an incredibly difficult period. The amendments to these regulations are welcome because they start to allow people to get more exercise and get the economy going. It is easy for us out here to sort of criticise, but I congratulate the Minister on what he and his team have been doing under huge pressure.
The Prime Minister has talked about the importance of common sense, and we now need to start thinking about these regulations and our whole approach to the response to Covid, using common sense, and involving other parties in this. I would be keen to hear from the Minister how we can start to involve the public in the way that these regulations evolve moving forward. For example, there is data at a local level about how many people are infected with Covid. Instead of using law and regulations all the time to shape behaviour, which can be a crude instrument, are there ways almost to gamify and allow citizens to understand the situation in their local area, understand what might be causing it locally and start to adapt their behaviour according to where they are, in the country or in a city such as London?
Secondly, understandably, we have had to bring in these regulations, but they are a huge infringement on civil liberties. So far we have had to take into account the needs of the NHS and public health in shaping these regulations, but do we also need to think about the enforceability of these regulations and laws? For example, on the new change that will allow people to meet one other person from outside the household, do we believe that the police have the resources to check every time they see people in the park whether an additional member has joined that household or whether they are part of the same family? Could we not start to work together with experts in this House, in the police and in the legal system, to shape laws based on natural law and common-law principles that are more tailored and risk-based? For example, we do not seem to have the resources to shut down large gatherings when they appear, so how will we be able to focus on policing individual families?
Moving forward, we will need to have a much wider debate to shape these laws, rather than the Government generating and issuing them and noble Lords in this House commenting around the edges. It feels as though we need to move forward and create these regulations together.
My Lords, we understand that the regulations require a review every three weeks. However, it is of the utmost importance that this review should include a range of engagements and practical, meaningful discussions with the opposition parties, trade unions, and, not least, the First Ministers of the devolved Governments. Mark Drakeford said recently that he does not think there has been “sufficient” communication. He said that it has been three weeks since he wrote to Michael Gove asking for a “regular pattern of engagement” between devolved Administrations and the UK Government. He said:
“We didn’t have, in my mind, that reliable rhythm of contact … Where we had it, it was good. But as I said before it was in fits and starts”—
and he did not think that that was sufficient. Does the Minister agree that three weeks is far too long for one Government to receive a communication from another? Therefore, in the light of these comments, will he assure the House that he will engage with the Government so that Mr Drakeford’s request for a regular pattern of engagement with UK Ministers becomes the norm and not the exception?
What are we doing in Wales to protect the population from the pandemic? Mark Drakeford announced on Saturday that the Welsh Labour Government would extend the stay-at-home regulations for a further three weeks, albeit with some modest adjustments, becoming the first UK leader to do that formally. Wales currently has six regional drive-through testing centres and eight mobile testing units operating across the country. Together with the ongoing rollout of an online portal for booking tests and the planned introduction of new home testing kits, that will help significantly to increase daily testing in Wales. The message remains the same: stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. The Health Minister gave a further public update on the outbreak in Wales earlier today.
Another vital area for the Government to consider is local government. Councils, with their knowledge of their local communities, are ideally placed, with the skills, knowledge and experience on the ground to help the Government achieve their ambition to ramp up the level of testing and contact tracing necessary to defeat this disease. I did not hear the Prime Minister mention in his update anything specific about their important role in this public health crisis.
The LGA has said that
“the sharing of information is essential if we are to succeed in driving down the numbers of new people being infected once the lockdown is gradually lifted and access people who will not be reached by the new NHS app.”
Key sources of data are needed by councils, such as access to testing results across all sites, hospitalisation records for those with Covid-19, death certifications in which the disease is identified, and many more indicators, so that councils can identify hotspots, map where the virus is prevalent and plan for action. Can the Minister find out how much detailed liaison work is happening with local government on these matters and if not, why not?
My Lords, the justification for not providing Parliament with a draft of these regulations, as is usual, has been
“the serious and imminent threat to public health”.
Notwithstanding that, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, is right to say that our duty is to ask awkward questions and to scrutinise. I will use my three short minutes to do that.
Confusingly, while these regulations impose restrictions and fines for members of the public breaking the lockdown, a Cabinet Minister has said of Covid-19, “let it run hot”. Our Minister, who replies for the whole Government, says that it was not his department that said this, but which of these strategies—carefully cautious or “let it rip”—is the Government’s position? When will he publish the scientific evidence behind the use of that phrase?
The Care Quality Commission is to investigate whether hospitals, some here in the north of England, might have broken the law by sending patients with Covid-19 back to care homes, where more than a quarter of Covid deaths have occurred. Managers and staff were not told that the patients being discharged were infected, triggering new fatal outbreaks among other residents. Will the Minister confirm that, in doing this, the law was indeed broken? When do the Government anticipate that the CQC will publish its report? Will the findings be presented to Parliament?
Will the Minister confirm that levels of coronavirus infection are probably at least five times higher among hospital and care home staff than in the wider population —I declare an interest in that one of my sons is an A&E doctor working in a hospital with Covid patients—and that coronavirus outbreaks in care homes are now leaking back into the community and driving the epidemic? Sir Ian Diamond, the head of the Office for National Statistics, says that the R number, referred to earlier by the noble Lord,
“is driven by the epidemic in care homes”.
Will these regulations be used to stop carers visiting multiple care facilities? If so, what thought is being given to the care needs of residents and ensuring that staff who are infected are properly isolated?
I have written to the Minister about the importance of giving public health officers and local councils greater control over tackling the outbreak in their communities. Sir David King, the former Chief Scientific Adviser, says this will be the only way to contain new peaks. Does the Minister agree? I also hope that the Minister agrees that the need for a national care service, locally administered but with central oversight, on a par with the National Health Service and with more than Cinderella status, is now self-evident and long overdue.
My Lords, I declare my interest with the Dispensing Doctors’ Association. These emergency measures were brought in at comparatively short notice, so I welcome the chance to review them, and congratulate the Government on what they have achieved in a very short time.
As my noble friend the Minister pointed out at the outset, the success of the regulations will depend on the clarity of the message and the collaboration and co-operation of the public. My concern is that the level of trust shown by the public may fall as time goes on and they become less patient. We should also note that the latest guidance, which is being issued and emerging this week, is perhaps more clouded and less clear.
There are inconsistencies in the guidance; for example, people are urged to go to work but may not have access to public transport, or have been advised not to use public transport but alternatives are simply not feasible. Those with children may have no childcare available, making it difficult for them to leave home and return to work.
Will my noble friend consider the difficulties of policing? Will the Government consider talking about physical distance rather than social distance, so that people really pay attention to the two-metre rule?
I understand that the sunset provision is not due to come in until 10 February 2022. Will my noble friend confirm that? As others have done, I urge him to really focus on the clarification required to differentiate between the regulations before us today, which are legally binding instruments, and the guidance, which is not, to ensure that the police have the very best understanding of the scope and that the regulations do not become a charter for neighbours to grass on their neighbours.
My noble friend is familiar with my interest in Regulation 61 of the National Health Service (Pharmaceutical and Local Pharmaceutical Services) Regulations 2013. This is particularly appropriate in rural areas. It allows NHS England to commission a dispensing doctor’s surgery to provide services to all—that is, not just its own registered dispensing patients—where a pharmacy is temporarily closed. This decision can be national or regional, but so far it has not been used in either circumstance. Why not? Having urged us all to avoid all but essential travel, will the Government consider keeping this under constant review and ask NHS England, both nationally and regionally, why this regulation, which permits dispensing doctors to dispense these medicines, is not being used to facilitate the lives of patients and allow dispensing doctors to do their work?
My Lords, the Minister has explained that the legislation is about to be superseded. The rule of law requires law, brought to both Houses of Parliament as soon as possible. There is enough confusion about what is intended without confusion on the part of citizens and the police as to whether what we are told to do or not do has the force of law, because a breach may carry a fine and, let us not forget, a criminal record.
I keep coming back to what is a “reasonable excuse”, which, as I understand it, is still the overarching criterion. Enforcement has to work with guidance; it is not enough for the Prime Minister to say, as he did yesterday,
“everybody understands what we are trying to do together.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/5/20; col. 30.]
The Secretary of State this morning seemed still unable to answer the question posed on Sunday: can I meet both my parents, all of us keeping well apart, physically distanced, in my back garden, accessed directly? If not, why not?
If I were an employer, I would ask—so I will ask the Minister—“If I ask or tell staff to return to work, could I be opening myself up to legal claims because of how I organise the work? If I do not tell them to return—I could do, but I am cautious—will they still get their furlough payments? If some return but others are too anxious to do so, does one group receive those payments but the other does not, and how do I handle that?”
We seem to be in a position of no substantive change —indeed, the Minister in his introduction reverted to the “stay home” mantra—but with added muddle. “Staying alert” to me is the language of not ignoring dodgy packages on the Tube, not being alert to something you cannot see. Are the Government taking advice from behavioural scientists and psychologists in both policy and communications? The noble Lord, Lord Wei, might agree.
I think all speakers so far have called for consistency and clarity. Do we need clear, and clearly intra vires, law? Yes, and so does the Secretary of State, who must terminate regulations that are not necessary or proportionate. He, and we, must be able to make that assessment. Did we need another slogan? Not in my view.
My Lords, we were not equipped to cope with the pandemic when Covid-19 hit. Despite the shortcomings identified in 2016 and the inevitability of such a viral attack, we had pitifully few intensive care beds and a dearth of PPE, so the lockdown was necessary to enable the NHS to gear up.
People have largely played by the rules, but the damage inflicted on people’s mental health and on the economy has been huge and should not be prolonged. The Government cannot continue prescribing people’s lifestyles as these regulations do. They must move towards trusting people’s common sense, not just talking about it. It is very clear who is most vulnerable to the virus. It is surely right to assume that a wish for self-preservation will deter those most at risk from assuming an unnecessary level of risk, but society as a whole must cope with living with the risk of Covid. We are accumulating debts, both public and private, which will affect the lives of generations. To prolong the economic misery is to make the treatment worse than the disease.
Lord Sumption has said:
“We have resorted to law, which requires exact definition, and banished common sense, which requires judgment.”
Sadly, as other noble Lords have said, exact definition is missing from much of the regulations, and it is very hard for people to apply judgment when regulations are trying to limit their behaviour. Now is the time to allow the public to exercise their judgment. If people judge it important to meet both their parents simultaneously, is it really the role of government to tell them they cannot? If young people want to go to the pub, is it really the role of government to tell them they cannot? The noble Lord, Lord Wei, suggested that perhaps the public could be told more about how the virus was behaving in their area. I agree that that would help them form their judgment.
Families must be able to resume family life. The hospitality and tourism industries must be allowed to reopen their doors. If that does not happen soon, for many of them it never will. Social distancing is a concept now well understood. The Government should trust the people to be sensible and socially distance themselves. They should concentrate their efforts on supporting our health service and care workers. This virus has highlighted the low priority given to social care for many years. Could the Minister say whether he believes that the regulations governing care homes are sufficient to ensure that they are not used as dumping grounds by the NHS?
My Lords, I absolutely recognise the difficult balancing act for the Government in grappling with the trade-off between public health protection and individual liberty—between the economy and the resources to support our population in the future, and the national health. I would like to highlight two vital elements that are part of these regulations and the ministerial thinking that has been clearly outlined by my noble friend.
I turn first to liberty and health. The regulations state explicitly that “vulnerable person” includes
“any person aged 70 or older”.
It is not clear that there is medical or statistical evidence to support the implication that anyone over the age of 70 is more vulnerable to Covid-19 than other age groups. We have done so much to improve the lives of older people, extending working life and life expectancy, so that those aged over 70 are now fitter and healthier than many younger people. While I congratulate the Government on their decision not to relax the lockdown rules in any way that discriminates against older people, these regulations contain that implication.
The latest ONS data undermines the arguments made by some that age is a predictor of fatalities from this virus. The most recent information shows that the proportion of people aged over 70 who have died with Covid-19 is 81.5%, but the annual death rate for the over-70s in the UK is normally 82% of all deaths. This does not support age alone being a relevant factor. Of course, older people are at any time more likely to pass away than younger people, so I wonder if the Government will reconsider the position of the over-70s that is indicated in these regulations and remove any age discrimination from our reaction to this virus. We must differentiate between elderly people who are at extreme risk, particularly if they have previous medical conditions, and the rest of the population.
That leads to my second point. I listened carefully to my noble friend who introduced these measures. His words each time were that they protected the NHS and ensured that it had spare capacity. However, I am deeply concerned that, as other noble Lords have mentioned, this extraordinary focus on NHS capacity, which has now reached a significant high, has resulted in discharging people who are the most vulnerable to this illness back into the community or into care settings, putting others who are also vulnerable—and the staff—at risk too. I hope that my noble friend can confirm that the department will consider the importance of upholding our national values, which reject age or any other form of discrimination, and increase the parity of esteem between the NHS and social care, which is so important for the management of this illness.
My issue with these regulations is the policy on masks. Under the heading “Restrictions on movement”, Regulation 6 states that
“no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse”.
I propose that when the Government next review these regulations, they should add the following words: “Where a person leaves the place where they are living with reasonable excuse, as set out in Regulation 6(2)(a) to (2)(m), that person shall wear a mask or face covering of such design as to reduce the transfer of the virus.” It is now nine weeks since I first raised this issue in the House on 9 March. I then argued that the public should ignore the advice on masks and follow the practice of health professionals, who in the real world can be seen daily on television wearing them. The wearing of masks should be mandatory.
Yesterday’s guidance on masks adds little to the existing arrangements. In recent weeks, a Mr Phillip Collet recently returned from a visit to Thailand, where, interestingly, the total deaths number 56 in a population of 69 million, against the UK’s total deaths of 31,000 in a population of 66 million. Almost the entire population of Thailand wears face masks. Based on research, Mr Collet argued that the Hunan in China infection rate requires further study. That study found that, on a bus, one person infected nine people. No person wearing a mask was infected. Half the people infected were four metres away from that single source. He went on to say that the study on Prevention and Control of Covid-19 by Dr Wenhong Zhang should be considered. He argues that masks with valves can be dangerous and appeals for the scientific advisory committee to consider the Wenhong and other Chinese studies.
The argument is simple. Has Mr Collet got a case? Are officials in the department listening to him? Why have the countries he cites been the most successful worldwide in dealing with the virus? Is the real reason why HMG resist mandatory arrangements the fact that they have failed to organise, invite and promote the development of a domestic manufacturing capacity and instead are relying on cheap sources in China, which is now supplying the world and is overwhelmed? Can we also have an authoritative response by Ministers to Phillip Collet’s observations? The issues around masks are not going to go away.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the National Mental Capacity Forum. I want to highlight the tension between public health measures and protection of an individual’s rights, as defined through the Mental Capacity Act.
Those with learning difficulties, dementia and brain injury through disease or trauma often also have conditions that make them vulnerable to Covid, yet society has come to realise that the vulnerable are valuable—they enrich our lives. It has been difficult to explain to them why, and which, restrictions were needed, and it is now even less clear which parts of the guidance are statutory requirements. Is there now a need for a personalised app that tailors legally-apt guidance to the risk factors of a person and those in their household?
Going forward, people with capacity impairments will need more support to adapt to the lessening of the restrictions that were imposed for public health measures. The lockdown routines, creatively structured to keep people mentally and physically well, will change again as “isolation” becomes a nuanced word. Simply saying “use common sense” will not be enough. It will be hard work supporting those who are vulnerable as they adapt to widening and changing physical freedoms. Tasks such as keeping a 2-metre distance must be learned, using bank cards instead of cash makes people more vulnerable to fraud and exploitation, keeping a face mask on is difficult, and some have lost physical strength through decreased activity. The very vulnerable, and those with physical care needs, have carers coming and going. The plan of test, trace and isolate will keep them safe only if testing is rapidly and easily available, for both the person and those who care.
Will public health plans require that all testing facilities are local to the person and get results out rapidly? Which national external quality assurance systems are commissioned labs required to adhere to? Are false positives from RNA contamination, and false negatives from specimen decay in transit or from error-prone gene tests, being detected through audits? Unless those supporting the vulnerable are maintained virus-free, our second wave may be worse than the first.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the SLSC for its typically thorough report, which identified errors in the original regulations. But with the changes announced by the Government over the last two days, I look forward to new revised regulations, which I hope will correct one glaring anomaly in the regulations of 26 March.
Regulation 6(2), relating to restrictions on movement, states that a reasonable excuse to leave home is
“the need … to obtain basic necessities, including food”.
Leaving aside the word “need”, which is quite subjective, the term “basic necessities” has led to some police officers boasting that they were patrolling shopping aisles to make sure that consumers were purchasing what the police considered were “basic necessities.” I believe that that behaviour was quickly stamped on, but the law in this regulation still says “basic necessities”.
Schedule 2, Part 3 lists the shops that may stay open. These include supermarkets, petrol stations and hardware shops, among others. The Government have confirmed that consumers can purchase anything at all in these shops which they stock, much of which is not a basic necessity. Supermarkets selling homewares, toys, video games, clothing and compost are perfectly within the law. The term “basic necessities” is confusing and unnecessary. Regulation 6(2)(a) should therefore be changed to say: “to obtain any supplies, including food”, et cetera, “from the businesses listed in Part 3 of Schedule 2”.
Schedule 2 should also have a general provision which states that any shop or retail premises can open provided that it can maintain social distancing. If the supermarkets can limit numbers and space out customers, why not permit, say, Army & Navy Stores, Debenhams or any other retailer to open if they can set up safe systems?
Finally, I commend the statement in the Government’s plan, Our Plan to Rebuild, announced yesterday, that
“the Government will continue to recognise that not everybody’s … risk is the same; the level of threat posed by the virus varies across the population”,
and that the Government expect
“to steadily make the risk-assessment more nuanced … some … may be able to take more risk … The Government will need to consider both risk to self, and risk of transmitting to others.”
Therefore, I hope that the new regulations will make it clear that everyone over 70 is not automatically vulnerable. The same goes for those of us with “underlying health conditions.” These cover a huge range of conditions, and not all of them have equal risk. We must let people over 70 or others in perceived risk categories get out, so long as they do not pose a risk to others. If they endanger themselves, that is their decision, so long as they do not endanger anyone else. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will take those points on board.
Please could we all try to keep to the timings.
My Lords, I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate on the regulations before us today. I intend in the short time I have to focus on two issues only.
Over 32,000 people have died in hospital from being infected with Covid-19. It is horrifying that the United Kingdom has one of the worst records in the world and the worst record in Europe. This pandemic will require serious questions to be asked about the Government’s handling of the crisis. However, that is the future, not for now.
Specifically, I am pleased to see amendments to the regulations with respect to attending burial grounds and gardens of remembrance to pay respects to family members and friends. There have been some welcome changes to the regulations and clarifications to guidance, as there were some instances of wrong or poor interpretation of the regulations, which was making the process of saying goodbye to a loved one even more difficult and distressing than it has been in these difficult and unprecedented times. We had situations where guidance or the regulations were interpreted, as I said before, harshly or even incorrectly. I was pleased that approaches I made to Ministers had some effect, and sensible clarifications in advice, guidance and actual regulations, made here and elsewhere, will make a difference. I appreciate the way in which the points I raised with Ministers were listened to and acted upon.
The second point I want to raise is the treatment of homeless people. The vast majority of homeless people are off the streets, but there are isolated cases where things have not gone well. I cannot see the point of prosecuting homeless people for leaving the place where they live. Court papers say, “living at no fixed address”. That seems completely ridiculous. I hope that the CPS will consider the stupidity of prosecuting such cases. Homeless people, like the rest of us, need to be protected, and criminalising them in this way does nothing to help them or the wider population. It just brings further problems, and it is a waste of public money, which could be better spent on getting a homeless person additional help and support. Can the Minister, when responding to the debate, bring the concerns I have expressed here to the attention of the Justice Secretary and the Crown Prosecution Service?
My Lords, even I will admit that these regulations were urgent and necessary, but it is a democratic and constitutional outrage that they were implemented on 26 March and are finally being debated in this House only on Tuesday 12 May. The regulations mark the greatest loss of liberty ever imposed in Britain, yet they were slipped in as emergency secondary legislation the day after Parliament closed early for a month-long recess. Parliament had just passed the Coronavirus Act and we were told to go early to recess, as it was job done. Yet it turns out that the real measures had absolutely nothing to do with that Act. Why did we break up a week early for Easter, rather than sit to give proper scrutiny to such drastic legislation? It was wrong to do it like that; it reminded me all too well of the illegal prorogation of Parliament last year.
The Government say that they are adjusting their guidance to loosen the restrictions but they must make amendments to the regulations reflecting this. For example, last week the police were threatening sunbathers in parks with a fine; this week, they will not be. Were the police wrong about the law last week or are they wrong this week? The law has not changed, so the circumstances in which people can be fined have not changed either. With so much confusion among police officers and police forces, anyone who is fined should be encouraged to challenge a fine through the courts to ensure that it has been issued lawfully and not based on a police officer’s mistaken understanding of the facts or the law. Even so, too many people will be paying fines which have been wrongly issued. Can the Minister tell me, first, what the Government are doing to protect against this?
Secondly, can the Minister explain how the Government are addressing the widespread confusion among police, prosecutors and the judiciary, which has led to people being wrongly convicted under these regulations and the Coronavirus Act? Thirdly, can he provide an update on the Crown Prosecution Service’s review of convictions under the legislation? I understand that it is even going to look at guilty pleas. Finally, can he explain the appointment of an anti-terror spook in the role of deciding how to lift lockdown restrictions, instead of the four Chief Medical Officers who were tasked with it before? When did this become a terrorism issue rather than a health issue?
It is our hard-pressed police who have been left with the unenviable job of enforcing and interpreting these rushed regulations and guidelines, which did not receive proper parliamentary scrutiny prior to being introduced. Inevitably, there have been differences in the interpretation and application of these regulations, which have statutory force, and the guidelines, which do not. It is clear that senior police officers already feel that the confusion and lack of clarity is making their job of policing by consent increasingly difficult, if not impossible.
The situation will have been made worse by the Statement to Parliament yesterday from the Prime Minister, amending or changing the interpretation of these regulations and associated guidelines. The Statement was not exactly a model of clarity. The Prime Minister stated yesterday that
“from Wednesday there will be no limits on the frequency of outdoor exercise people can take”
“You can drive as far as you like to reach an outdoor space.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/5/20; cols. 25-6.]
But the Prime Minister later stated:
“Yes, staying alert for the vast majority of people still means staying at home as much as possible.”
Can the Minister explain how, under these regulations and associated guidelines, staying at home as much as possible for the vast majority of people is consistent with there being no limits on either the frequency of outdoor exercise that people can take or how far they can drive to reach an outdoor space? How can the police be expected to reconcile those obviously conflicting statements in enforcing and interpreting these regulations and any associated guidelines?
The regulations actually preclude anyone from leaving the place where they live without reasonable excuse and set out examples of reasonable excuses. Will the intended amendments to the regulations also reflect the changes or modifications to the definitions of reasonable excuse that the Prime Minister announced yesterday, to which I have referred, or do the Government deem those changes to still come within the terms of the existing statutory definitions of reasonable excuses in the regulations and, if so, which definition or definitions?
Finally, were the changes to the regulations and guidelines announced by the Prime Minister yesterday the subject of any consultation beforehand with chief constables and elected and accountable police and crime commissioners? What are the powers of an elected and accountable police and crime commissioner to determine how, in practice, the changes announced by the Prime Minister yesterday should be applied to the constituents who elected them by the police force for which they are the PCC?
My Lords, in the Covid emergency legislation and these regulations, the Government have taken unto themselves enormous powers which remove from citizens many basic legal rights. Having done so, the Government should be under an obligation to subject their decision-making to scrutiny which is reasonable and timely. The fact that we are discussing today regulations already implemented in March is yet more evidence that the decisions made unilaterally by the House authorities to restrict House business and the ability of Members to take part are hugely damaging to democracy and preventing transparency.
The Minister, Jo Churchill, introducing the regulations in another place on 9 March, said:
“Tackling covid-19 requires a robust, integrated and proportionate response”.—[Official Report, Commons Delegated Legislation Committee, 9/3/20; col. 1.]
Today it is our duty to test whether the Government have done that so far.
What we have today is a set of regulations based on assumptions that the greatest threat to public health would arise from individual people ignoring advice to observe lockdown and defying advice on physical distancing. With some exceptions, the public have observed the public health advice pretty well. Where groups of people have not followed advice, local government, particularly mayors, has stepped in to restore compliance.
Ironically, we have seen instead that the biggest threat to life since the pandemic began has been in care homes, where it is said that there have been more than 10,000 deaths. That is not the fault of local government or local resilience hubs, which know and understand the needs of care providers and vulnerable groups in their area; it is a direct consequence of central government’s failure to prioritise testing in care homes and testing of people being discharged from hospitals into care homes. Seven weeks in, local government and care providers are still being sent detailed guidance which is constantly changing, and they have to grapple with three different systems for ordering PPE, none of which works properly. Unsurprisingly, the death rate among staff in care homes is much greater than that in hospitals.
In this morning’s Question about care homes, the Minister said:
“I reassure the House that deaths in care homes have always been part of the official figures.”
I ask him to write to me setting out the exact basis for his statement, because the Government’s advice of 28 February on Covid in care homes stated that it was very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home or a care setting would become infected. Can he explain why in daily press conferences in March and April Ministers specifically used the number of deaths from Covid in hospitals? Has he listened to the BBC Radio 4 programme, “More or Less” which has cited frequent use of different statistics at different times by Ministers and government spokespeople in response to questions on these issues?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, decision-making has been based on two assumptions: first, that the main and lasting impact of the virus would be on the NHS and, secondly, that central government, and not local government, are always best placed to lead every initiative. As some of us have been saying since March, those assumptions may have been temporarily correct for the initial medical emergency, but they are the wrong basis on which to prevent further major outbreaks. The key to managing the virus while a vaccine is developed is to work in partnership with regional and local government, businesses and charities to design, implement and monitor effective public health systems.
The regulations that we are discussing today have been overtaken by events. However, as the country prepares to exit lockdown, it is more necessary than ever that we have regulations which make clear the legal basis on which government decisions and actions have been taken, and which make a distinction between the law and good practice.
Yesterday, the Government released what they called Our Plan to Rebuild, the Covid recovery strategy. It is not a plan; it is a set of assertions and aspirations not particularly well communicated. Page 33 announces 14 supporting programmes. On closer inspection, there are at most 10 programmes, all of them centrally determined. Other Governments within the UK and local government are simply the recipients of more responsibilities. Some of those are extremely complex, such as rebuilding a social care system which is broken, but there is little detail about how it will be funded. What we have is yet another example of central government issuing demands and announcing initiatives, such as the GoodSAM app, when they have not thought through how they will work in practice. It is more like a plan for central government to get the glory while local government gets the blame.
The Government’s mantra is that they are following the science, but the job of government is more than that. It is the job of government to listen to scientific advice, consult relevant authorities and develop clearly understood legislation that will work. The public want to know what they can do safely to expedite the end of lockdown.
Will the Minister assure the House that no new criminal offence for individual citizens will be created as a result of this plan until the law and regulations have been voted upon by both Houses? There is an urgent need for clear legislation regarding key elements of yesterday’s announcements so that public health officials, local authorities, the police, schools, workers, employers and businesses understand their legal obligations and rights. Will the Minister undertake to bring the regulations, with the accompanying evidence base, to the House at the earliest opportunity? Will the Government allow sufficient time and information for Members of the House to understand how those regulations will be implemented?
When the emergency Covid legislation was passed, Ministers stressed that the government powers in that legislation would be turned on and off as necessary rather than being permanent. At that time, we asked for an updated table of measures in force at any one time so that people having to implement the laws knew under which legislation their actions would be authorised. Can the Minister say when that will happen? It is becoming a matter of urgency.
The Government have had unprecedented support from opposition parties and the population of the United Kingdom. For that to continue, they have to provide timely and accurate information that is trusted by those who hear it. I am afraid that this week, that has not been the case. By not doing so the Government have damaged their ability to take the swift action they have said they needed to take all along. The more the Government move into issuing statements based on soundbites rather than scientific evidence, the more difficult it becomes for politicians on all sides to support them in what they do. I hope that the Minister will take lessons from these regulations and that when the Government bring forward the next lot, they will have listened to the powerful messages given to them from right across the House this afternoon.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction and I thank all noble Lords for the many questions they have raised, which needed to be asked. We all wish these regulations were not necessary, but we also accept that they are. I think the counsel of the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, is dangerous and potentially fatal and I hope the Government will not heed it. This virus is still among us. It is not defeated, and we need to be cautious and, most of all, clear.
Before getting to the substance of these regulations and the future, it is important to remember that they represent the biggest peacetime restrictions that this country has ever seen and demand full parliamentary monitoring and scrutiny. Parliament put them through at speed, and I wonder whether the Minister agrees that a couple of hours of debate weeks after they were introduced cannot in future be sufficient to provide the level of examination and scrutiny that such sweeping laws require. The Prime Minister’s announcement, the publication of the new strategy, the subsequent debates and discussion and the statement made last night on the BBC by my right honourable friend the leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, all point to the need for greater clarity and significantly better communication. The main point concerns the need to come back to Parliament with yet more amendments to these regulations. Does the Minister anticipate that we will see further revisions to the regulations, and if so, when?
I would like the Minister to address some of the problems caused by the mixed messaging and to try to rectify the somewhat shambolic government communications over the past few days. For example, why have the Government called for people to return to work before the schools are open and not to go to work on public transport? To these Benches, that suggests a serious lack of understanding of ordinary people’s working lives. For the Prime Minister to say that he is sure employers will understand that some of their workforce will have childcare difficulties makes me wonder which planet he and his Ministers inhabit.
Will the Government bring forward further regulations, or even legislation, to provide protection for employees who are faced with the dilemma of employers demanding that they return to work when their children cannot go to school? Furthermore, is a grandparent allowed to look after one child but not two? Who exactly should return to work—as the Prime Minister said, “The next morning” —and how should employers keep their employees safe? The guidance on funerals also needs further clarification. It was championed by my noble friend Lord Kennedy but I feel that there is still considerable variety across the country, with some councils taking awful decisions and causing serious distress to families. Can the Minister ensure that the guidance issued is being followed? My noble friends Lord Kennedy, Lord Campbell-Savours, Lord Hunt and Lady Wilcox asked many questions, which I hope the Minister can answer.
These regulations allow officers to arrest and fine people for breaking the lockdown but, as many noble Lords have said, we know that they have been misinterpreted in some cases, with wrongful cases identified through social media and press reporting. Indeed, the Home Affairs Committee in the Commons voiced
“concern that police were enforcing government advice rather than the letter of the law”,
which is less strict. Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights previously warned that the police may be punishing people “without any legal basis”, causing confusion over the extent of the law. Can the Minister confirm that all criminal charges made under the Act will be duly reviewed to ensure that they are appropriate and compliant? Given the pace at which the new regulations had to be implemented, it is not surprising that there have been early problems and errors, hence the need for a second set of amending regulations.
We all know the damage that this virus is doing to our society and we all know that these measures are needed to limit that damage, but we should not forget their impact. The physical and mental toll is huge, yet virtually everyone has been adhering to these rules in a way that is testament to the resolve and determination of the British people. Like the Minister, I congratulate everyone on their discipline, their thoughtfulness and the protection that they have afforded our NHS.
We acknowledge that this is terribly difficult. We do not want these measures to be in place for a day longer than is absolutely necessary, which is why they must be accompanied by openness, accountability and scrutiny at a greater level than we would ordinarily see. I note that the Chairman of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee considered a significant number of statutory instruments that make provision, either directly or indirectly, to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. He said:
“Some of these instruments temporarily impose significant and far-reaching restrictions on citizens and businesses, and the Committee noticed the use of a wide variety of different sunset dates and provisions.”
That is absolutely true. We face a very confusing legislative and regulatory framework.
I am also concerned about the monitoring of the Care Act and the other measures in the emergency legislation that we passed just before lockdown. When will we have the opportunity to discuss them in the House?
The three-weekly review of the regulations means that the Secretary of State is legally required to terminate any regulations that are not necessary or proportionate to control the transmission of the virus. Will a statement providing a helpful examination of that requirement follow the review, and will an Oral Statement follow each subsequent review? Can the Minister assure the House that relaxation of the measures and what will happen in the future will be discussed with opposition parties, employers, trade unions and, of course, the public?
That leads me to my next point. The current rules, sweeping as they are, are too numerous. As the Minister said, the next phase will contain a longer list of reasonable excuses to leave home; it is even more important that those rules be clear and consistent. The rules need to be harmonised with the advice, guidelines and all forms of official communication, as most noble Lords said. We do not want people to infer legal authority where there is none or to act outside the law. That is vital to preserve the rule of law. We know that the lockdown was a blunt tool—effective nevertheless—that will change by definition as restrictions ease. There will be a measure of nuance, distinction and variation that requires careful explanation and policing.
In conclusion, we on these Benches do not oppose the regulations, of course, but, given that they represent the most severe restrictions imposed on British liberty in modern history, it is critical that they be subject to continual comprehensive and transparent scrutiny.
My Lords, this has been an important debate about what many noble Lords have rightly called important regulations that affect everyone in this country. I thank very much all noble Lords who contributed. Before I address specific issues raised by individual Members, I reiterate the Government’s commitment to working in partnership with opposition parties and Parliament in developing the policies that find expression in the legislation we debate in this House.
This afternoon’s debate has been a classic of its kind: an opportunity for the Government to hear, through parliamentarians, the concerns of a wide range of society, as demonstrated by the excellent contributions to the debate. The delay mentioned by many noble Lords is no one’s preference and it is not for me to comment on it, but I reassure the House that the Government’s commitment to accountability is undiminished. I remind the House that we will have a debate in September on the Coronavirus Act and that there will be a report on the measures in two weeks’ time.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that the Government are listening to parliamentarians and to the public. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that there is daily engagement with the devolved Administrations that is characterised in particular by the very close collaboration of the four CMOs. We listen very carefully to front-line workers and their representatives, remembering that those front-line workers bear the heaviest burden in combating this terrible disease. They are the people who deserve our protection. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, that guidance for employees and their roles in the workplace was published yesterday. I would be happy to send a link if that would be helpful.
We listen to the scientific and other evidence that defines the set of policy options we must choose between. I will take a moment to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that no one in this Government has ever called for us to “run it hot” and that our priority has always been to save lives. Our choices are influenced by what the country can afford to do, as well as what we can afford not to do. Our challenge therefore is to reconcile what the weight of evidence points to as the right choice, alongside people’s appetite for that choice and the resources that we can bring to bear to implement it.
I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that science remains at the centre of decision-making and transparency remains our watchword. My office will forward a link to her office of the table outlining the implementation measures under the Coronavirus Act, which was published on 7 May.
I completely recognise the very good points made by the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Scriven, and others, that the regulations issued by the Government are complex and sometimes feel overwhelming. Dozens of guidelines are issued by Public Health England to cover every aspect of public, business and civic life. It is a huge publication exercise and the goalposts have quite necessarily moved this way and that as we have sought to be flexible to adapt regulations to changing circumstances and to the advance of science.
On each occasion that we have issued new guidance, there have been, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, rightly pointed out, questions and requests for clarification from the public. However, I reassure noble Lords that the public have been hugely supportive. They massively endorse the lockdown regulations, and their understanding of complex guidelines has quickly settled down into common-sense interpretation.
It is worth noting that the number of police interventions has not been large, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. In fact, it has been tiny, with just 8,000 fines in total. That is reassuring considering the massive impact of these guidelines on people’s lives. In response to the noble Lords, Lord Scriven and Lord Rosser, I commend the police, who have applied the guidance on what the new laws will entail with remarkable common sense, professionalism and restraint.
The excellent advice that we get from our advisers is world class and has guided the choices that we have made. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that we work very closely with the Behavioural Insights Team. I pay special tribute to the team and its director, David Halpern. They have brought humanity and communication skills to the otherwise clinical epidemiological advice of the scientists.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, a face covering is not the same as a surgical mask or a respirator, which should both be reserved for those who need them most. However, we are encouraging the public to wear face coverings in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not possible.
I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, that the most vulnerable have always been at the forefront of the Government’s thinking. We have provided guidance for those implementing the regulations on quarantine, which require that, where a person lacks the relevant mental capacity, the local health protection team should liaise closely with their relatives or other persons in making a decision.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lord Wei that we are working closely with local authorities, the directors of public health and environmental health officers. That reliance on local services will only increase as our testing and tracing operations are rolled out in the community and our dependence on local knowledge is made all the more important.
However, we have to take account of what people in the UK can be expected to put up with. My noble friend Lady Wheatcroft raised very searching questions about these regulations and their impact on the economy and on personal freedoms. We recognise those concerns. I say in response that I never thought that in my life I would be standing at a digital Dispatch Box defending such draconian and expensive measures. None the less, I reject her analysis. We cannot protect the NHS and the people who are vulnerable to this disease if we do not implement the common-sense measures in these regulations, and the public, by and large, agree. That is why we have decided to protect the NHS and, in doing so, save lives.
I assure my noble friend Lord Blencathra that it is the disease and not the Government that is prejudiced against older people. I reassure my noble friend Lady Altmann that the guidance does not class individuals over 70 as clinically extremely vulnerable, and therefore they are not treated differently from the rest of the population on the basis of their age.
We now need to make careful preparations to return very gradually to a normal life, one day repealing these regulations. I assure my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering that the regulations are due to expire six months after they come into force.
This is neither easy to describe nor simple to carry out. Emerging from the lockdown requires constant and careful watch over a wide range of evidence, followed by expert evaluation of that evidence, then a precise calculation of what legislation and other changes will be needed to bring about the successful outcome. I am sure there will be many occasions over the coming weeks—and, in all likelihood, months—when we can debate these matters further. For now, I assure your Lordships that we have heard today’s contributions and will reflect on them as we develop the policies.
I end by paying tribute to the resilience, patience and fortitude that the people of the UK have demonstrated every day for the last few months in helping combat this outbreak. That investment has been worth it. We have averted a catastrophe and flattened the curve. Because of this, the NHS and other front-line staff have been able to save lives. That sacrifice has been worth it. As a Government, we will play our part by making sure that the burden is no more onerous than it absolutely needs to be. These regulations ensure that.
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020
Motion to Consider
That the Virtual Proceedings do consider the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020.
Relevant document: 13th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, the Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until a convenient point after 4.30 pm for the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell of Aynho. The noble Baroness, Lady Henig, will be chairing the proceedings.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.
Arrangement of Business
The announcement was made in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, the Virtual Proceedings on the debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell of Aynho, will now commence. I shall preside over the first and last part of this debate, which is time-limited to three hours.
Beyond Brexit (European Union Committee Report)
Motion to Consider
That the Virtual Proceedings do consider the Report from the European Union Committee Beyond Brexit: How to Win Friends and Influence People (35th Report, Session 2017–19, HL Paper 322).
The Motion was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, it is more than a year since this report was published, since when the world has changed beyond recognition. The pandemic has compelled us to reset financial and social policies and has driven reappraisal of our nation’s place among and beyond its immediate neighbours.
Even before it struck, we had in some sense resolved our national political crisis about Brexit. Just as our committee was reporting in March last year, Britain was forced to extend the departure date; this was followed by a change of Prime Minister, involved recasting the withdrawal agreement, and then saw the election of a Government with a clear majority and a mandate to get Brexit done. This report, which focuses on how the UK can maximise its influence with the EU post Brexit, is now being debated after we have formally left the EU but while the terms of our future relationship are still to be settled.
I retain in all this, I hope, some sense of proportion, yet there have been other domestic changes that set the context for this debate. It marks a coda personally, as I have retired from the chair of the EU Committee after more than seven years; and I am very grateful to the new chair, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull—if I may say, an admirable choice by this House—for his courtesy in inviting me to take the lead on this, my last bow. At the same time, I would like to thank members of the committee across the House for their dedication to, and expertise in, objective scrutiny, matched by the contribution of our excellent committee staff and, of course, our many diplomatic, official, academic and policy interlocutors. I would like in particular to thank the Senior Deputy Speaker, the noble Lord, Lord McFall, both for his careful work in reviewing our committee structures in the changed situation and for the contribution he made by convening the Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit, which has helped to develop mutual sympathy and understanding with the devolved legislatures. Finally, I welcome the presence of the Minister and of the many noble Lords who will contribute.
On re-reading the report, I have been struck by the sheer complexity of the process of disengagement set out in the withdrawal instruments and summarised in our Appendix 2. Not least among these are the most sensitive issues concerning Northern Ireland, where there were significant modifications in the revised protocol agreed after our report, but where there is still no agreement on how it will be implemented, partly because of the pandemic.
The report focuses on three main areas: first, the formal mechanisms for UK-EU engagement set out in the withdrawal agreement, notably the joint committee and the specialised committees that report to it; secondly, less formal mechanisms for engagement, including the UK’s potential participation in the work of EU agencies and programmes, the role of the UK Mission to the EU, now known as UKMis, and other UK offices and organisations in Brussels; and thirdly, the matter of interparliamentary engagement, which the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, will also touch on.
Whatever view one might take of any extension to the transition period, the pandemic coupled with the Government’s oft-stated distaste for any extension have compressed the timetable, and we now have fewer than 50 days before the June summit deadline. There is a need to clarify the arrangements applicable until the end of this calendar year, and their relationship with those that will follow, which the Government have indicated will depend on the structure of any future relationship. To date, the public have seen remarkably little effect from our formal withdrawal, and the pandemic has left little bandwidth in government to focus on the issues. These include governance and management of the remaining period of transition and, crucially the shape of any future relationship as it affects both trade and institutions. It would be very helpful if the Minister could today give us an appraisal of progress made in the talks, in spite of deadlines and the physical difficulties of communication, both in respect of trade and wider issues, with perhaps also an indication about how UKMis is working and ensuring that the collective UK voice and interests are represented in Brussels.
An important chapter in the report deals with the role of parliamentarians themselves. Over 50 years ago, long before I entered Parliament, I first visited the then EEC in Brussels. I was described at the time, rather generously, as “un expert anglais”, and I have been in and out of various European institutions and settings frequently ever since. Of course, parliamentarians are rarely inclined to take a unified position—it is through their divergence of view and diversity of experience that they make their distinctive contribution—but we all need to remain alert to all the opportunities for influence, networking and even simple personal friendships that will remain open to us.
This is no time to burn bridges or haul up the drawbridge. While for now we all understand that social distancing is important, conscious political self-isolation will never be a long-term goal. We must look to all aspects of our international relationships, both in Europe and wider afield. The pandemic reminds us that just as no man is an island, so our island nation, now rebranded as “Global Britain”, is built and thrives on constructive economic and political relationships.
As is typical in the immediate aftermath of a divorce, relations with the EU are frankly tense and difficult at the moment, and may stay that way for some time to come. But geography means that we will always be neighbours, with centuries of complex shared history. At some stage—the sooner the better—the current tensions and disagreements will dissipate and a new relationship will need to be forged. Both sides will need to work hard to rebuild it. The onus is on our Parliament to play its part, and I am confident that this House, not least through the skill and dedication of its continuing EU Committee, will continue to do so. In that spirit, and conscious that many other noble Lords wish to contribute, I beg to move.
My Lords, given the time limit, I will deal with just one issue in the report: the role of the devolved nations in the transition process.
It was about two decades ago, when I was Minister of State for Scotland, that I used to meet frequently with Scottish Ministers, on issues such as free personal care and the Barnett formula. We did not always agree, of course—as my noble friend Lord McConnell will no doubt confirm—but we had discussions, on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. Where are the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, and his deputy, Douglas Ross, now? Why are they not discussing this? Of course the UK relationship with the EU is central, but there needs to be an acknowledgement that the devolved nations are also impacted and should be involved in discussions regularly. As we have seen, their lack of involvement in the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in confusion over the messages, whether it is “Stay at Home” or “Stay Alert”, and, even more importantly, around the practical measures being implemented in all the four countries.
As the UK takes the lead on UK-EU relations, will the Minister today spell out exactly how, in practical terms, the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Governments will be involved? A continuation of the sporadic arm’s-length involvement will result in confusion, delay and bitterness. If the Minister agrees with me, as I think he does, that we favour the continuation of our United Kingdom, he and this Government are certainly going the wrong way about it.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for all he has done to lead the European Union Committee with such skill and dedication. However, I note that aiming to “win friends and influence people” does not seem to be the UK’s strategy in its current negotiations with the EU. We hear that the Government almost seem to want them to fail, with lasting damage on both sides.
Leaving the EU with no deal, or an inadequate deal, is the next major crisis we may face. We could not stop a pandemic hitting the United Kingdom; we can stop the damage that would result from crashing out of transition on 31 December. At the height of this pandemic, surely the Government must extend the transition period.
As this report indicated, so long ago now, we need to relearn how to work constructively with our neighbours, with whom we share the closest approach to global challenges. With Trump in the White House and China increasingly dominant, the EU must play a major global role. As Sir Ivan Rogers pointed out, we will need to do more than ever before to make our new relationship work. That will need engagement from the very top.
We have another global crisis threatening us: climate change. A vaccine will not take that away. The Government have said that they wish to work with the EU on issues such as this. We used to maximise our influence by leading in the EU; now, we need to ensure that we are at least involved. That will be a difficult, but essential, task.
This report laid out some of the ways in which we can stay informed and engaged. I hope that it does not fall on deaf ears.
My Lords, while there is not time for the usual courtesies, I must begin by thanking my predecessor as chair, the noble Lord, Lord Boswell of Aynho, for his long service to the committee and his excellent and hugely informative opening speech; it was a fitting swan-song.
I shall focus only on the institutional structure for the future EU relationship, and in particular its parliamentary dimension. Our relationship with the EU—its 27 member states and 450 million citizens—will be complex, and a relationship of such complexity will need structure. Within that structure, the parliamentary dimension will be vital: to support dialogue, to build relationships and to promote transparency.
There are many precedents on which we could draw in designing such a body: for instance, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly or the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. There are also precedents on the EU side. Indeed, the EU’s March draft agreement included a clause setting up a parliamentary partnership assembly, made up of representatives of this Parliament and the European Parliament. While I do not agree with every word of the EU’s proposal, I welcome it as a starting point.
When questioned by my committee on 5 May, Michael Gove agreed that
“engagement, discussion and dialogue between parliamentarians is always a good thing”,
but insisted that it was not for the Government to
“prescribe exactly how Parliament chooses to operate.”
The Government have placed the onus on Parliament to respond to the EU’s initiative. I understand the constitutional propriety of that position, but how, given the large Commons majority, is Parliament to act unless the Government take the lead?
As chair of your Lordships’ committee charged with considering EU matters, I believe very strongly that we need to establish a structured interparliamentary dialogue as part of the future relationship. Indeed, the committee supports that. My question to the Minister is: how exactly do the Government expect Parliament to signal its support for an interparliamentary body? Will a report from my committee be sufficient? Or a joint enterprise with the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union in the House of Commons? I am happy to do whatever it takes to try to break this logjam and I ask the Minister for his help.
My Lords, we must consider this report in light of the global pandemic. Decisions about our future relationship with the EU must be informed by Covid-19, recognising our international interdependence rather than being driven by ideology. Our European neighbours remain our friends and allies. This must continue for the sake of all, and especially for vulnerable children.
Concluding talks by the deadline under present circumstances will be very challenging. I am particularly concerned about the impact on refugee children and our continued co-operation with European nations through the Dublin Regulation. Can the Minister outline the Government’s plans to ensure separated asylum-seeking children in Europe continue to be reunited with family members in the UK, whatever happens to negotiations?
I am anxious too about the impact on vulnerable children who are already here. The success of the EU settled status scheme may be compromised by the pandemic. Local authorities have a duty to apply for their looked-after children. However, the Children’s Society found that just one in 10 of local authorities’ looked-after children has been awarded status. Considering Covid-19, what assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the feasibility that all looked-after children will have applied to the EUSS by June 2021?
We must consider whether we can achieve a new, fruitful, negotiated relationship with the EU by December under current constraints. Will the Government set out criteria against which Parliament can evaluate the progress of negotiations? Do the Government accept that any trade deal must be negotiated by October at the latest if it is to be ratified before the deadline? At this time, when businesses are facing significant economic uncertainty, we must be mindful that these negotiations are an additional source of concern.
My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Boswell of Aynho. He gave an exemplary, statesmanlike speech today. Two minutes does not give anyone a proper chance to develop an argument. I wish to make a plea and a point.
The plea is to my noble friend Lord True, who will respond to this debate. I beg him not to be as dogmatic and dismissive as he was in what I believe was the last debate on this general subject in the Chamber on 16 March. In that debate, I suggested that Covid was transforming the political and economic landscape and that to insist on ending the transition period on 31 December was neither necessary nor wise. I believe that everything that has happened in the weeks since that debate has underlined the good sense of that attitude.
The point I wish to make is this: I urge colleagues in all parts of the House to be alert to the dangers we face and the fact that our negotiations with the EU are not at the top of the agenda, either here in the UK or in the EU. We in the United Kingdom have troubles enough at the moment without risking, let alone choosing, the no-deal conclusion to the transition period.
My Lords, I agree with everything the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, and in particular I underline his tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell. I was a member of the European Union Select Committee for much of the time the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, was chairman. His was a very wise chairmanship; I learned a lot from him, and I am very grateful to him.
I want to make one simple point in these brief remarks. If we are to have influence in the world, it is very important—this is a key point, which the report stresses—that we build strong co-operation with other nations through institutions. Institutions matter to outcomes in foreign affairs. They create frameworks for regular meetings, they bring officials together, they facilitate instinctive mutual understanding of where other countries stand, and they make common positions easier to forge. I find it very depressing that the Government, in their drastic hardening of Brexit policy, have turned their back on institutional co-operation. They have rejected the possibility of a mechanism for co-operation in foreign affairs, refusing to talk about it. They have rejected an overarching framework for our relationship with the EU through an association agreement.
Gone completely is Mrs May’s notion of a deep and special partnership with the EU. It has been consigned to the dustbin of history. I am sorry to be harsh, and I hope that the Minister will tell me that I am wrong, but I do not think so.
My Lords, I hope that the Minister can give us some evidence that the Government are concerned to win friends in Europe now that we have left the EU. February’s white paper on the future relationship with the EU left out the references to last October’s political declaration agreeing to an
“overarching institutional framework … for ambitious, close and lasting cooperation”
in foreign policy and defence, cybersecurity, civil protection and health security. I note the unwise omission, in February, of co-operation in health security. Now, the protection of national sovereignty overrides questions of national interests and how we might promote national interests through co-operation.
The declared intention is to turn away from Europe. The Prime Minister told Parliament on 3 February that:
“We are free to reinvigorate our ties with old allies”,—[Official Report, Commons, 3/2/20; col. 25.]
as if EU membership had cut us off from other partners. We are leaving behind our oldest ally in the EU, Portugal, and we are leaving France, with which we now share a significant military deployment in Saharan Africa which the Government have told Parliament little about so far. We are putting political and economic relations with the United States first and foremost, even though we differ from Washington on an increasing number of important global issues.
This Government have no foreign policy. Beneath the empty phrase “global Britain” are buried illusions about a buccaneering Britain in a free-trading world, released from the shackles of a declining Europe. The current Foreign Secretary has made no attempt to build friendly bilateral relations with our European neighbours, nor has the Prime Minister. But the long history of British foreign policy has been centred on conflict and co-operation with our European neighbours. Now, 120 years after the Marquess of Salisbury stepped down as Conservative Prime Minister, splendid isolation is back.
My Lords, in the last few weeks, Ministers in both Houses have repeatedly been asked a series of straightforward questions about the ongoing EU-UK negotiations. They most often include: transparency, specifically of draft legal texts; the establishment of proper inter-parliamentary channels between the UK and the European Parliament; the role of Covid-19 in hampering the progress of negotiations, and the wisdom of delaying the end date of 31 December in the interests of reaching a mutually satisfactory free trade agreement; and adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights and the rulings of the European Court. Apart from the last issue, the three other questions have been met with obfuscation, half-answers and non-answers. The Government’s aim, constantly reiterated, is to finalise departure by the end of this year by any means and at any cost.
The distance between the time available to reach a satisfactory FTA and the need to abide by the legal requirement to allow Parliament to scrutinise draft agreements is absurdly short, so much so that it appears that, despite the UK Government’s statement to the contrary, a no-deal agreement on World Trade Organization terms is anticipated. That would be a disaster. The Government’s own model and that of independent experts predict that leaving without a trade deal would cost between 6% and 9% of GDP—approximately £2,500 per UK citizen. The cost to the Treasury would be in the region of £60 billion, which is one and half times our spending on defence.
May I ask the Minister three simple and direct questions? Will Parliament be allowed full access to the details of current negotiations, including draft legal texts, and when? If there is no agreement in sight by the end of July 2020, will the Government be content to reach December without an FTA? Finally, have the Government, following Operation Yellowhammer, updated arrangements in the event of a no-deal final exit from the EU?
My Lords, I wish to make two brief points relating to Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Northern Ireland has, of course, been central to the Brexit negotiations since the referendum in 2016, and as an adviser at the Northern Ireland Office I was involved in many discussions on those matters. Yet during my time I became dismayed at how much the European Commission seemed to view Northern Ireland almost exclusively through the green-tinged lenses of the Irish Government and nationalist politicians. Indeed, at a meeting I attended with Monsieur Barnier in June 2018, I found myself calmly having to explain to him what was actually meant by the consent provisions in the Belfast agreement and why they did not turn Northern Ireland into a hybrid state. It was I, regret to say, a meeting that might have turned even the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Kerr, into rabid Brexiteers.
I do not wish to denigrate the excellent efforts of our officials in Brussels, but whenever there was a difference of nuance between us and the Irish on Northern Ireland or the agreement, the Commission invariably tended towards the Irish view. Outside the EU, attention therefore needs to be given to how the UK Government, as the sovereign Government in Northern Ireland, can communicate their position much more effectively with the European Commission.
Secondly, as we move beyond Brexit, our relationship with our nearest neighbour, Ireland, becomes more important than ever. Our bilateral relationship has improved massively in recent years, which I warmly welcome, and it needs to be strengthened further. Strand 3 of the Belfast agreement contains institutions—the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and the British-Irish Council—designed to promote closer co-operation, although the BIIGC tends to focus more on Northern Ireland. We need to look at how these institutions can be developed or at whether new and bespoke ones are needed. I have an open mind on that, but as we move beyond Brexit, it needs to happen.
My thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for this debate. I will ask the Minister five quick questions about the yawning gap between the EU’s and the UK’s negotiating positions on the future relationship. First, the political declaration agreed sets out the basis for the future relationship, but while the European Commission’s position on the negotiations in February adopts the same structure as the political declaration, the UK’s negotiating objectives are markedly different. Can the Minister explain why the political declaration framework was so quickly surrendered?
Secondly, can the Minister confirm whether Gibraltar is included in the territorial scope of the agreement automatically, or will it require, as the Commission believes, the prior agreement of Spain to be included?
Thirdly, the EU sees the future EU/UK relationship being encapsulated in an association agreement, which the political declaration also mentions favourably. Is that the UK’s aim as well?
Fourthly, the political declaration agreed to forge an economic partnership that will be underpinned
“by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition”.
Does that remain the UK Government’s explicit objective, as they signed up to in the political declaration?
Fifthly, on state aid, the UK wants its own regime of subsidy control, but everyone accepts that state aid rules will continue to apply to firms in Northern Ireland after transition, as well as to UK mainland firms with employment activities inside Northern Ireland. Will the Minister acknowledge that the UK’s so-called regime of subsidy control will be available and apply to only some UK companies, and far from all?
Finally, we are, as we all know, in the midst of a global crisis of proportions unimaginable just a few weeks ago. With such chasms between the parties on the future relationship discussions, so much attention rightly focused elsewhere and so much catastrophic disruption of our lives already baked into the next 12 months, how can it be anything other than reckless to proceed on the existing timescale for concluding a transition deal?
My Lords, when I saw the title of the report that we are debating, which has been so excellently introduced by my noble friend Lord Boswell, I wondered whether our esteemed EU Select Committee was pulling our collective leg. Then I saw the date of the report—March last year—and realised that it was addressed to a different Government in a different Parliament and, shamefully, not debated when it should have been ahead of our leaving the EU this January.
The negotiations on our new partnership—I use the word to which we committed ourselves in the political declaration, not the Government’s reductive terminology of a free trade agreement—have begun, but so far they seem to be more a dialogue of the deaf than a prelude to a partnership. The Government seem to be applying social distancing to that political declaration, which provided an agreed framework.
Of the bones of contention so far identified, that of the level playing field is, in a way, bizarre, because we agreed in the political declaration to the following wording:
“Given the Union and the United Kingdom’s geographic proximity and economic interdependence, the future relationship must ensure open and fair competition, encompassing robust commitments to ensure a level playing field.”
Do the Government recognise that statement as one to which we subscribed?
Then, there is the Government’s determination to avoid an overall agreement out of a desire, apparently, to guard against the withdrawal of concessions in a different sector from the one in dispute. I fear that is futile and doomed to failure. Why? Because under the Swiss deal the EU has done exactly that, when it found that the Swiss were moving away from free movement and the EU withdrew access to Erasmus and research co-operation.
Thirdly, there is the implementation of the Irish protocol to the withdrawal agreement. Does anyone believe that checks and controls can be avoided? Obviously, there will be light ones, but none at all?
I fear that the verdict has to be that we are winning few friends and influencing few people. Why do we not just exempt the rest of the EU from the possible quarantine arrangements if they come here by aeroplane?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for this excellent report. Reading it provides a clear reminder of how intertwined the UK is with the EU. After more than 40 years of membership, that is not surprising, but the report is also a reminder of how many issues have to be settled if our final split from the 27 is to be relatively smooth.
The political declaration refers to three overarching areas where agreement is necessary: the economic partnership, the security partnership and the institutional arrangements. Achieving agreement on all that by the end of this year was never going to be easy but Covid-19 has rendered it virtually impossible. Governments have had to give their full attention to a single priority—tackling the virus—but even if the current fragmentary negotiations could produce a consensus, business simply will not be able to cope with the radical changes that final departure must bring.
The UK is no longer a member of the EU—that is not up for debate—but we need to remain in lockstep for a little while longer. Business cannot cope with sorting out the effects of the virus while simultaneously preparing for a new, but as yet unknown, relationship with the EU. The transition period must be extended, as many noble Lords have said; the sooner that happens, the better for business. The Government have said that they will not ask for an extension, in part because business needs the certainty of the December deadline. That is simply nonsense. There is no certainty in a departure into the unknown. The EU 27 share the pressures that a December rupture would create. An extension is in their interests too. If we wish to remain friends with the EU, let alone retain influence in it, a request for an extension must happen immediately. In the light of the changes wrought by Covid, why do the Government refuse to contemplate an extension?
My Lords, as a former MEP, I should consider a two-minute speech a luxury.
I will focus on a single point that the report does not cover in detail: climate change. The UK has been an active—indeed, a leading—participant in the EU’s endeavours to address climate change. With the postponement of the COP 26 gathering in Glasgow for another year, we have an opportunity to reconcile and resolve our relationship with the EU. There are certain elements on which we can do good, and there are certain areas where, by sharing, we can help all countries in the EU. We are in the middle of a crisis in terms of the pandemic, but perhaps the greater challenge going forward is how to interweave our ambitions to address the wider challenges of climate change.
I am specifically concerned about our relationship with the Emissions Trading Scheme. I would welcome some detail on that, perhaps not at this moment but in the future. I believe that we have an opportunity at COP 26 in Glasgow to demonstrate leadership, but we should do so together with the EU. Together, we can achieve more, particularly on climate change.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for his chairmanship of your Lordships’ EU Select Committee. Through his personality and role, he was able to demonstrate how one can win friends and influence people. The role of individuals, as well as that of Parliaments, is important in co-operation and building relationships.
In its excellent report, the committee noted that the UK
“will need to adapt quickly, working harder and more strategically to make use of all available tools to maximise its voice in Brussels and beyond. This in turn requires a long-term commitment, of energy, time and financial and human resources.”
Does the Minister believe that Her Majesty’s Government are delivering on those requirements, particularly in the context of the Covid-19 crisis?
The Government’s report clearly says that
“changes have been made in Brussels.”
Can the Minister explain the nature of those changes? What advice have the Government sought on the best mission for a third country to have in Brussels? For example, have the Government taken advice from our friends in Iceland or Norway, who have extensive experience of being third countries?
Finally, do the Government accept that, to be influential, we need to go beyond the sterile debates that we have had so far—perhaps also beyond Pontignano and Königswinter? They do not contribute, on their own, to civil society. Will the Government commit to supporting exchange mechanisms and the continuation of schemes such as Erasmus?
My Lords, as others have suggested, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since this report was published. Indeed, that large amount of water is—metaphorically speaking —now sitting behind a dam wall while we all wait to see whether the wall will hold or the dam will burst at the end of this year.
As a former MEP, I am conscious of the critical situation that exists between the UK and the EU. It is clear to most people that it is vital that we reach agreements covering many things, including the environment, trade, agriculture and fisheries and security. The last is of particular interest to me, as it is where I was involved for many years in my work in the European Union. It is vital to ensure a strong level of co-operation between member states to protect their citizens.
The Government seem confident that in these and other areas we can achieve good outcomes quickly. In security there can be no maybe. We cannot afford to leave any vacuum, especially if the virus crisis produces more opportunities for those who might do us harm.
No number of treaties, protocols, understandings and agreements can suffice alone. To ensure good and harmonious relationships with our European neighbours in future, we must really want that from our hearts as well as our heads. Many young people especially look to a future in which Europeans can continue to enjoy each other’s company and benefit from shared interests and aspirations.
In the next few weeks and months, we need to display not only negotiating skills but a high level of positivism, good nature, diplomacy and pragmatism. I really hope that our leaders will deliver on that.
My Lords, I join those who have paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for this very helpful—indeed, excellent—report. I take this opportunity to say how much we should all appreciate his dedicated work on the European scene for so long.
The work of the European committees becomes more important than ever. It is vital. I am totally convinced that Governments will be judged in history by their effectiveness in playing a dynamic part in international co-operation. The first reality of life—of humanity itself—is that we are, demonstrably, totally interdependent. We must therefore face the fact that the major issues that affect us—Covid-19, climate change, security, Ireland, migration or economic stability—cannot be successfully handled but on an international, co-operative basis.
I am concerned: where is the evidence that the Government understand this and have made it central to their whole approach to governance? For example, what is the evidence of what the Government are doing with European allies to combat the ugly and sinister jingoistic nationalism that is now, unfortunately, raising its head again in Europe, the United States and elsewhere in the world?
It is on international co-operation and effectiveness—not least with our European allies, although we are no longer part of the European Union—that our future depends. Anything less is to betray our people.
My Lords, I compliment the European Union Committee and my noble friend Lord Boswell on this report. I agree with all that it says, but I suggest that it should have said more, especially about the continued participation of the UK in the new European education, science and innovation programmes. These programmes include Erasmus, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and Horizon Europe and those of the European Research Council and the European Research Infrastructure Consortium. In this report the words “Erasmus” and “Horizon” appear only in footnotes and in a diagram, although reference is made to the European Union Committee’s comprehensive report published in February 2019 on Erasmus and Horizon. Overall, however, this report does not give them the prominence they deserve.
Our future competitiveness as a modern nation will depend to a huge extent on the skills of our citizens in all spheres of endeavour, and our economic survival will rely on the application of modern advances in engineering and science. It seems we have successfully negotiated our continuance in Horizon 2020 through to its conclusion in 2021, but the situation with Horizon Europe remains unclear. That programme has a budget of €100 billion and even more important than the money will be our involvement in the partnerships that it would provide. Modern advances in science, and especially in innovation, can be made only through collaboration. It is an inherently global activity and success is strongly influenced by proximity, so a large fraction of our collaborations have been with our European neighbours. Our engineers and scientists know each other. There is a lot of mutual admiration and successful collaboration. Let us make sure that that continues. Many pages of the report are devoted to the specialist committees and their importance, but I could not find any committee devoted specifically to our collaboration on education, science and engineering whose members are engineers and scientists. Will the Minister assure us that the Government are committed to doing all they can to preserve as many of our educational and scientific collaborations with Europe as possible?
My Lords, I too welcome the European Union Committee’s report, which makes a series of excellent recommendations. The one area of particular importance to me is the necessity for ongoing co-operation between the UK and the many European entities which impact sport and recreation throughout this country and the European Union. Sport contributes £37 billion to our economy and employs 581,000 people, of whom 31,000 are European nationals. We must now take advantage of new methods of exerting influence on the EU after the transition period. We will need to build close relationships with the EU committees which impact sport and recreation at all levels and, where relevant, use the UK’s diplomatic representation to the EU to exert influence where necessary—and it will be necessary, not least in dealing with the fallout from the Bosman, Cotonou and Kolpak rulings. We must finalise and then monitor and retain reciprocal arrangements which enable skilled workers, for example in seasonal sports such as skiing, to pursue employment.
Sport is also a major soft power tool for promoting our products and services and, indeed, our reputation within the European Union. We need ongoing relationships to make it easy for fans and visitors from the EU to travel to and from the UK. UK sports bodies currently benefit from European Union funding as well as UK funding. They build knowledge and share good practice with their European colleagues. I urge the Government to look at ways of retaining relationships with the relevant institutions and committees and to seek continued dialogue and involvement with European Union programmes which benefit sport and recreation to our mutual advantage. We are inextricably linked to the world of sport and recreation in Europe, not least with the tripartite agreement with Ireland and France on which the future of horseracing in this country will depend. We must win friends and influence people to ensure a win-win relationship in the future.