House of Lords
Monday 27 July 2020
The House met in a Hybrid Sitting.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. I should remind noble Lords that, whatever might be the rule elsewhere, the House of Lords will be sitting until Wednesday evening. The last opportunity for submitting a PNQ or an Urgent Question will be by noon tomorrow for answer on Wednesday. As for today, some Members are here in the Chamber respecting social distancing, while others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them short and confined to two points? I ask, obviously, that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
English Language Learning
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to make learning (1) to speak, and (2) to read, English compulsory.
English language requirements are already in place for individuals who are seeking to live, work or study in the UK. Where appropriate, all applicants for settlement and citizenship are required to pass the Life in the UK test and to have an English language speaking and listening qualification. This financial year, we are making over £7 million available for programmes, in addition to the adult education budget, to support the integration of migrants through improving their English language proficiency.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that local authorities have a duty to ensure that, when public funds are provided for community groups and activities in areas that are predominantly populated with ethnic minority communities, they must demonstrate in an annual report what active engagement and measured outcomes have taken place in learning the English language as part of any funding application? The Covid pandemic has shone a torch on this issue in my city of Leicester, where communities have failed to understand important government messaging due to language barriers. Many people in these communities have been here for many years, but they are being excluded from the available schemes and services and the wider opportunities just because they do not have English language skills.
My Lords, a lack of English skills presents a clear barrier to social and economic mobility. As a Government, we will always focus on the practical solutions that can make a real difference to people’s lives. However, voluntary and community sector funding by local authorities is a devolved matter and it is a matter of regret that Leicester did not want to engage in our integration programme.
My Lords, the ability to speak and read English is key to social mobility and for social skills. Does the Minister agree that being able to write good English, with accurate spelling and grammar, is also important and valued by employers? This too should be compulsory. The subtleties of apostrophes and English spelling can be learned and become automatic, unless a child has specific difficulties, which of course would need other support.
My Lords, we recognise that being able to read and write in English is vital to supporting integration. That is why the ESOL for Integration Fund supports learners across 30 areas with reading and writing as well as speaking and listening, whereas previous programmes focused predominantly on speaking and listening.
The Minister will know of the practice in other similar countries. He will know that both France and Germany have a mandatory requirement for newcomers to speak their respective languages fluently. The UK has myriad exceptions from this requirement. Will he look at making it mandatory for all those wishing to remain in the UK to have a level of proficiency such that they can integrate adequately?
My Lords, there is a requirement for those applying for citizenship to demonstrate that they have appropriate English language speaking and listening qualifications and for those who wish to remain to have the requisite proficiency needed for what they are seeking to do in this country.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that English is key to helping communities to integrate in Britain and that the importance of learning English should be further emphasised as a precondition to granting British citizenship?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend, who has written eloquently on the subject of the importance the English language to integration. Those applying for citizenship are required to demonstrate that they have an appropriate English language speaking and listening qualification.
My Lords, the ability to communicate with others from different communities is vital, but those who are deaf are at a disadvantage because they cannot fully participate unless signing is provided, no matter what their culture. My experience as a past patron of Friends of the Young Deaf has taught me the importance of signing in breaking down language barriers. Do the Government plan to make provision for signing available to those with hearing impairment when they are learning English?
My Lords, there is a clear requirement under the equalities Act to provide information in a way that is accessible to all, including to those who hard of hearing or deaf. There is a requirement in place to provide that.
My Lords, I cannot believe that teaching English is not already compulsory in schools in this country. Not only English should be compulsory but clear, correct English; there would be far fewer misunderstandings. Does the Minister agree that schools could follow the advice of Bernard Levin, one of our best modern writers of English prose: just read George Orwell and Jane Austen and you cannot go wrong?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that excellent advice. Of course, good written English is very important. Being able to read will give people the joys of the English language.
I have spoken to volunteers here in the north-west of England who have continued teaching refugees English virtually, with the assistance of Zoom, during lockdown. They say that patchy access to and knowledge of how to use the necessary technology is problematic. As language is key to integration and citizenship, will the Minister look at ways in which the necessary technology could be made available to those volunteer projects to sustain this vital work?
My Lords, we recognise the important and valuable contribution that volunteers make to English speakers who speak other languages. A series of resource provisions has been made available and 500 volunteers continue to be engaged in proving those programmes, but I will take up the point the noble Lord makes.
My Lords, I refer the House to my relevant registered interests. It is important that everyone living in the United Kingdom learns to speak, read and write English. I endorse the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, and my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen. But can the Minister say something about the importance of preserving our other native languages here in the UK—Welsh, Irish, Ulster Scots, Gaelic, Scots and Cornish?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his knowledge of Cornish. Of course, it is important to have language skills so that you can stay close to your community.
My Lords, the Government have made 154 statutory instruments on the coronavirus crisis, the vast majority under emergency legislation. How many of those have included an insistence that this emergency information, which is essential and life saving for our communities, is disseminated to those whose first language is not English or who have English language or other learning barriers, as my noble friend Lady Benjamin highlighted? How many of those emergency pieces of legislation have been able to be communicated clearly?
My Lords, I will have to write to the noble Lord about the precise number. Where I have had a choice, we have made sure the provisions have been made available in numerous languages.
My Lords, the Government are committed to uniting and levelling up our country, and that means building a rich, vibrant and integrated society. With the announcement in March of the new £6.5 million English language programme for the 25 successful local authorities, will the Government request feedback at the end of the 12-month programme so that possible future bids can support our diverse communities and help deliver even better outcomes?
My Lords, in fact 30 local authorities were successful for funding, and there will be a full evaluation of the programme’s outcomes and impacts. A longitudinal study of longer-term benefits for learners is also planned.
My Lords, it is difficult to overestimate how important it is for an individual in this country to read and speak English. The dreadful manslaughter of Police Constable Andrew Harper throws a light on this issue in a slightly different way. The young men convicted, Henry Long, Albert Bowers and Jessie Cole, could not read or write. Their education from the age of 11 was only in the arena of crime, not at school. Does the Minister agree that all British citizens should speak and read our language if they are to thrive and become valued members of society? It is important to the fabric of our nation and their feeling of belonging to this nation. Not giving anyone the opportunity, and making that learning compulsory if necessary, is a failure of our system.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. The recent census showed that 770,000 people who live in England speak little or no English. We need to work hard to ensure that we provide them with those skills, so that they can benefit fully from life in this country.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked, and we now move to the second Oral Question.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development: Merger
To ask Her Majesty’s Government how the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development will enhance the United Kingdom’s ability to help (1) the poorest, and (2) the most vulnerable, communities abroad.
My Lords, the new FCDO will be a force for good in the world. Building shared global prosperity, eradicating poverty, tackling climate change, strengthening the international rule of law and global security and promoting free, open societies are all in our national interest. Development will remain central to the new department’s mission. Our commitment to spending 0.7% of our national income on aid is enshrined in law.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. Given that the Prime Minister has said promoting the UK’s national interest is at the heart of the new department, does the Minister agree that there is a possibility of real clashes between projects that directly support the nation’s interests and those that might do so in a rather more indirect way? For example, there might be a choice between a big, grandiose project supported by the recipient Government on the one hand and supporting poorer and more vulnerable communities, which supports the UK’s national interests only in a rather indirect way. What mechanism will there be in the new department to ensure that the voices of the poorest and most vulnerable communities are heard when these kinds of clashes arise?
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made absolutely clear that alleviating poverty and responding to humanitarian crises remains a priority programme in the new FCDO.
My Lords, in this context will the Minister give assurances that the Government will continue to adhere to their stated commitment to poverty reduction, observing both the letter and spirit of domestic development legislation, including not only the matter the Minister has already mentioned—the 0.7% GDP target—but matters such as independent evaluation of impact and gender equality, and that any deviation from the present pattern will be debated and agreed both here and in the other House?
My Lords, I do not doubt for a moment that we will continue to have various debates on the new FCDO. The right reverend Prelate mentioned gender equality. As he will know, the Prime Minister is a strong advocate. Indeed, since he was Foreign Secretary his mantra has consistently been about 12 years of quality education for all girls around the world.
My Lords, in the House of Commons on 30 June, the Foreign Secretary said:
“There has been no sustained pause”—[Official Report, Commons, 30/6/20; col. 144.]
in aid spending. How soon do the Government plan to resume their funding for organisations such as the World Food Programme, which does such vital work to reduce food insecurity in east Africa?
I assure my noble friend, notwithstanding the merger—and I have been directly involved in aligning responsibilities as part of the merger—we continue to retain, sustain and strengthen our commitment to helping the most vulnerable communities around the world and supporting international programmes.
My Lords, will the new FCDO provide funding for projects to combat sexual violence, particularly in Colombia, on a longer-term basis than the one year’s funding generally provided by the Foreign Office now, and with survivors more rigorously involved in programme design? Does the new department plan to host the PSVI conference in 2021, after its cancellation in April this year because of the pandemic?
As the Prime Minister’s PSVI envoy and representative, I assure the noble Baroness that it remains a key priority for Her Majesty’s Government. I am sure she respects the fact that we have to look at the idea of next year for the conference in terms of the coronavirus pandemic and how we can organise any conference effectively. We are already committed to holding the COP 26 conference in November.
My Lords, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact has ensured the highest levels of transparency and aid effectiveness for DfID. Will the Minister give the House a clear undertaking that this will continue in the new department and that it will report to Parliament on the work and effectiveness of the new department?
The FCDO will remain accountable to Parliament in how it spends UK aid. I assure the noble Lord that we remain fully committed to issues of transparency in our aid spending. There will continue to be parliamentary and independent scrutiny of the aid budget.
My Lords, the development community is in the dark about last week’s cuts to ODA. There was no consultation or notice. Will the Minister write to me with details of the process by which decisions were made and the strong case for keeping ICAI and a dedicated ODA committee for it to work through, as the best arrangement if the Government want to be trusted on their aid commitment?
My Lords, parliamentary committees are very much a matter for Parliament. I disagree with the noble Baroness on consultation. As a Human Rights Minister, I have engaged closely with human rights organisations, and my noble friend Lady Sugg and the DfID Permanent Secretary have been meeting with NGO partners on the development programmes.
My Lords, my noble friend the Minister gave us a wonderful collection of high-level aims. A neighbour of mine runs a programme through an independent charity in Madagascar, tackling environmental and poverty issues. People at that level want to know whether the Foreign Office will be better able to direct funding down to grass-roots need or whether an even larger proportion of the aid budget will be devoted to international development banks, including the European Development Bank and its like.
My Lords, we remain committed to ensuring that grass-roots organisations, such as the one my noble friend described, continue to be recipients of UK support, because they deliver excellent scope and results on the ground. But the IFIs are also important partners, and we will continue to have their expertise in the new department.
My Lords, I return to the issue of transparency. The fact that a 20% ODA cut was announced on the last day that the Commons sat does not give us confidence about the future of transparency. I ask the noble Lord for a direct personal commitment: is he personally committed to retaining ICAI, which ensures that ODA is effectively spent? Will he personally support an ODA Select Committee that would ensure full parliamentary scrutiny in the future?
My Lords, the new department carries the word “development” for an important reason, because development will continue to be a focus. The Government will remain accountable and transparent in our dealings on ODA, through parliamentary scrutiny and by answering Parliamentary Questions, as I am today. As I have already said to the right reverend Prelate, we will continue to return to the subject when the new department comes online in September.
My Lords, a £2.9 billion aid cut and an inevitably costly merger are bound to hurt the poorest. Can the Minister at least reassure us that—[Inaudible.]
I did not catch the full question; I will write to the noble Earl on the specifics.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, contrary to some views that we have heard, the proposed merger will bring together the considerable expertise and resources of both departments concerned with the modern Commonwealth network, greatly enhancing our capacities to support more vulnerable Commonwealth members and peoples, and allowing us to engage far more fully in the deployment of our soft power—or wise power, I prefer to call it—in support of both global security and our trade prospects?
I totally agree with my noble friend.
My Lords, why is the Minister being so evasive about the role of ICAI? It has been a huge success. It was introduced by Andrew Mitchell. Working with the International Development Committee—which I had the privilege of chairing for 10 years—it has proved an effective way of demonstrating real accountability for UK aid and giving confidence that we continue to be world leaders. Do the Government not recognise that dismantling that arrangement will not leave them with the trust of the aid community or the poor of the world?
My Lords, I have already answered the issue of scrutiny. I have dealt with ICAI specifically. It has made recommendations on briefs and parts of my portfolio, including PSVI, which we discussed earlier. We continue to respond to all levels of parliamentary scrutiny, as we will with the new department from September.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have again been asked, so we move to the third Oral Question.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards fulfilling their commitments as a party to the Terezin Declaration of 30 June 2009; and what discussions they have had with the government of Poland about the restitution of property seized from Polish Jewish citizens during the period of Nazi occupation.
My Lords, the United Kingdom continues to meet its commitments to the Terezin declaration, particularly in Holocaust education and remembrance. We are in regular conversation with the Polish Government on the restitution of property seized during the Nazi occupation. The UK post-Holocaust issues envoy, my noble friend Lord Pickles, is working with the US and other parties to call on Poland to pass legislation to provide restitution of or compensation for private property.
My Lords, I have been asking the same Question here for 11 years and getting the same response of no progress or promises. Poland is the only country in the EU that has not passed legislation to deal with one of the greatest thefts in history. Bills have been repeatedly introduced and withdrawn there, Bills that contained conditions that would have excluded the vast majority of Holocaust survivors. Will the Minister accept my proposal to follow the example of the American legislation called the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act, and secure an annual report to Parliament about the return of Jewish and non-Jewish property? Will he raise it at the Belvedere Forum every year? Will the UK use its position in the Council of Europe to press for a human rights agenda focusing on Poland and restitution, as required under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
My Lords, I acknowledge the noble Baroness’s question; I remember answering the first Question on this issue back in 2014. As the Human Rights Minister, I remain committed, along with my noble friend Lord Pickles and others, and I assure her that we continue to raise the issue regularly with Poland, bilaterally through our ambassador most recently, and in international for a—and I take on board the suggestion of the Council of Europe.
My Lords, the Government clearly find it difficult to make progress with Poland on this issue. However, in many ways, recognition can be as important as restitution in healing the terrible wounds of the Nazi era. But Poland obstructs the placing of inexpensive Stolpersteine—plaques commemorating Nazi victims—even though these have helped the healing process elsewhere in Europe. Have the Government pressed Poland to stop such obstruction, and if not, why not?
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we continue to raise regularly the importance of this issue with the Polish authorities. I have worked with Poland directly on broader issues concerning freedom of religion or belief, on which Poland stands very strong. I assure him that we will continue in our campaign to ensure that the important issue of restitution is kept at the forefront of our discussions.
My Lords, I need to be clear that I will not be claiming from Poland, despite my late mother being born there and my having a grandmother who disappeared in Poland. However, as the UK was a signatory to the Terezin agreement, what plans, others than those that the Minister has enumerated, have the Government to fulfil their obligations to claimants? Nothing has moved on. Can the Government, for instance, assist claimants who wish to bring action against Poland under the European Court of Human Rights?
My Lords, I have already stated what the Government are doing through their bilateral efforts with Poland and through multilateral fora. On the wider issue of the Terezin declaration, I assure the noble Lord that the UK remains fully committed to meeting its commitments to the declaration, including important elements of commemorating the Holocaust and engaging on the very issues that the noble Lord has raised.
My Lords, will my noble friend join me in paying tribute to our ambassador in Warsaw, Jonathan Knott, for his persistent commitment to restitution? His meeting last week with the Speaker of the Polish Parliament helped pave the way for the withdrawal of the Bill on Warsaw property rights from the lower House. This legislation would have been a major obstacle to restitution. This week, we should see the publication of the United States Government’s response to Congress on the JUST Act, focusing on compliance with the Terezin declaration. Will my noble friend pledge that we will work alongside our allies in the United States and Poland to see that justice is brought to the families of Holocaust victims whose property was confiscated by the Nazis?
My Lords, first, I join my noble friend in paying tribute to our ambassador to Poland, who, as my noble friend said, recently intervened on an important issue of legislation in Poland. I also join him in praising the efforts of other key partners, including the United States. When I was last in the US, I met Special Envoy Elan Carr to discuss how we can work together more closely. Finally, I want to put on record my thanks to my noble friend for all his work on this important issue.
My Lords, frequent reference has been made to “ongoing” bilateral discussions, and we must heed that and take it at face value. However, the general election in Poland has returned to power someone whose campaign proved consistently anti-German, anti-Jewish and anti-LGBTQ. Will the Minister let us know how easy it is, with a Government such as the present one, to have the kinds of conversations that might have outcomes that would prevent us discussing the matter in the future, as we have in the past? While we are emerging from the European Union at this critical time, is there enough energy to focus on this question, when so many other things demand our attention?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s final point, we do engage regularly—most recently, as we heard from my noble friend, engagement through our ambassador produced positive results. We of course look forward to working with the new Government and I assure the noble Lord that at my first meeting with the Foreign Minister we will discuss various issues, including that of restitution.
Justice dictates that huge efforts must be made to restore to families property stolen from those who died at the hands of the Nazis. All EU states signed the Terezin declaration. What arrangements are we making after the transition period to work with our EU neighbours to deliver on those commitments?
My Lords, we will continue to work with our EU friends on a number of important issues, as we will do on this and on wider issues of freedom of religion or belief.
The late Lord Janner, along with our embassy in Lithuania, carried out a huge project to mark every site of a mass atrocity across Lithuania. What has been done under Terezin to ensure that those plaques are still in place and are being properly maintained?
My Lords, I will write to the noble Lord on that important issue. However, I am sure I speak for all noble Lords when I say that wherever such atrocities took place—I have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland—we should always commemorate and remember, and commit ourselves to ensuring that this kind of genocide does not happen again.
What further practical help are HMG giving to those who need to delve into Polish archives—a very difficult issue—in their pursuit of justice? It is not only Polish Jews who suffered; many non-Jewish Poles had their properties nationalised by the Polish Government. In helping my noble friend Lord Pickles in his important work, will my noble friend the Minister institute an annual reporting system to encourage the Poles to do what is just and right?
My Lords, I note what my noble friend has said. He will know from our own conversations how committed I am personally to ensuring scrutiny. We continue to ensure that Poland stands up as a signatory of the Terezin declaration. We will work with the US. Noble Lords have mentioned JUST, and it is planned that the first JUST Act will be released at the end of July. We will look at its outcomes and work closely with our partners.
My Lords, as well as restitution, another very clear purpose of the declaration is that we should learn from these past events to build a more compassionate and understanding present and future through human rights. However, rising anti-Semitism, intolerance, racism and populism in countries that signed the declaration show that this aspect has clearly failed. Will the Government institute work to help us find out and understand why that is, so that we can also make this part of the declaration more effective?
My Lords, I am happy to give that commitment. As a Minister I am responsible for human rights and for standing up in strong support of organisations around the world that fight racism and the abhorrence of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Irrespective of party affiliations, we will continue to work together as one country to ensure that every kind of hate and abhorrent hate crime, be it religious or otherwise, is met with the full force of our unity of action and purpose. I stand ready to work with other noble Lords in the pursuit of this noble aim.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked. We will now move on to the next and final Question.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the operation, and (2) the resourcing, of the Probate Service; and what plans they have to remedy any issues identified.
My Lords, current waiting times in the probate service are within expected timeframes, but we expect that to come under pressure as case receipts rise. The service has continued to operate effectively, despite the pressures faced during the Covid-19 pandemic. Additional resources have been, and continue to be, put in place by Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service to prepare for additional demand following the increase in the overall death rate.
I thank the Minister for that Answer, but his claims do not mesh with my experiences or those of others. I appreciate that, like other service providers, lockdown has caused challenges for the probate service, but its problems of resourcing and organisation go deeper than that. It was already in the midst of an apparent restructuring. Press articles last month on the chaos experienced by relatives mirror my own saga. I received misinformation, and calls and emails went unanswered. Finally, my husband’s will, which had been deposited with the service, could not be located for a very worrying few weeks—almost a subject for the theatre of the absurd. Only once I had gone on Twitter was my case solved. People who are grieving deserve better treatment than many are getting, not least from the probate service.
My Lords, I very much regret the personal experience that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, suffered. However, particularly during the present crisis, the probate service is working effectively. There was a move in the last year to a digital system. That is bedding in and proving successful. Indeed, the average waiting time for a grant of probate in the period January to March this year was about four weeks.
Are not inordinate delays and confusion, applications stuck for four months without explanation, people kept on the line for 50 minutes and staff unable to find relevant documents symptoms of an organisation that was already underfunded and whose staff were undertrained before Covid? Is this service not unacceptable for the families and charities that need assets released? Will the Minister guarantee that fees will not be raised while the performance of the probate registry is so poor?
My Lords, I do not accept that the performance of the probate service should be characterised as poor. No guarantee can be given regarding fees.
My Lords, with continuing delays now extended over several years, is it not time for the Government to introduce a one-stop shop for dealing with probate to avoid the need to go back and forth making arrangements between the courts service, the Treasury and others?
My Lords, the introduction of a digital scheme is proving effective. Because of that, it was possible for probate staff to deal more effectively with applications during the Covid crisis. We are seeing a greater uptake in the digital service from legal professionals as well.
Given the comments already made by noble Lords, does the Minister think that adding various issues to probate, such as the signing of wills remotely by video call, could increase disputes and later administrative problems? Perhaps the probate service is being overloaded.
My Lords, in fact, we have taken steps to simplify the probate process. We are replacing affidavits with a statement of truth, accepting electronic-type signatures on probate forms, and allowing legal representatives to sign legal statements on behalf of clients. These steps will simplify and accelerate the process.
My Lords, there has clearly been a lot of adverse press and we have heard from other noble Lords about personal experiences where the probate service has not performed as we would all wish. What confidence does the Minister have that the probate service is performing as well as he claims it is? What monitoring does he think is appropriate to put in place so that we can all have confidence that the probate system is fit for the present large increase in Covid-related deaths that we have seen?
My Lords, in late 2019 we saw a very clear and discernible improvement in the turnaround of probate applications and probate grants. As I indicated, in January to March this year the average waiting time for a grant of probate was about four weeks. Some, of course, are simpler than others. Indeed, where written rather than digital applications are made, there is greater room for error and therefore of delay in respect of these matters. However, we are monitoring the system. That is why we can give figures on the turnaround on probate grants. We are training additional staff as well. We appreciate that this will be required, given that there will be an increase in probate applications over the summer, reflecting the increased death rate as a result of the Covid pandemic.
My Lords, does my noble and learned friend the Minister agree that the delay on granting probate in recent years has been far more than is reasonable? Does he not think that it would be helpful if the Government could allow, prior to probate being granted, more additional payments to be made from an estate than are allowed at present?
My Lords, I emphasise the improvement that took place in the grant of probate during 2019 and into 2020, even in the face of the increased demand on the probate service as a result of the Covid crisis. As a result, we are seeing a turnaround in the grant of probate that allows for the present system on payments to be accommodated. We have no proposals regarding my noble friend’s latter point.
My heart goes out to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, who demonstrated the personal heartache that comes when systems do not work. Could the Minister reflect on the fact that the Courts & Tribunals Service has always been under major pressure, not least because of the use of agency staff? What plans are in place for when staff who have been reallocated to probate go back to their normal working lives?
My Lords, we have undertaken the training of an additional 34 staff in the probate service. In addition, as district probate registries close in the light of the development of the digital applications, we have sought to retain some of those staff within the courts and tribunal system for probation work. However, other staff are allocated to other parts of the Courts & Tribunals Service.
Are any of the temporary measures adopted during lockdown under consideration for becoming permanent—for example, signed statements of truth replacing affidavits or HMRC accepting estimated values and then subsequent corrected values?
Certainly, it is intended that permanently replacing affidavits with statements of truth will be considered, as will electronic signatures on probate forms—albeit that the whole issue of electronic signatures should be considered more widely. Going forward, we will seek to learn from these changes what permanent improvements can be introduced to the service.
I commend the Government on the move to a digital scheme for probate, but will the Minister consider an urgent inquiry into the performance levels that we have been hearing about since March? What has happened to average waiting times? How many important documents have been mislaid, and what lessons can be learned on streamlining the service after recent experiences? I add my sincere condolences to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford.
I thank the noble Baroness for her question. We appreciate that the service will come under increased pressure in July and August, because of the increased death rate in the spring. Probate applications tend to come about three months after the relevant death. We are pleased with the rollout of the digital service and the response has been extremely good, with an increase in take-up by legal professionals. The system is being monitored and we will ensure that the improvements of the latter part of 2019 continue, while recognising the challenges of the Covid-19 crisis.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, hybrid proceedings will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
We now come to questions on the Statement on the Covid-19 response. It has been agreed in the usual channels to dispense with the reading of the Statement itself, and we will proceed immediately to questions from the Opposition Front Bench. There will then be 40 minutes for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief.
The following Statement was made on Monday 20 July in the House of Commons.
“With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on our action against coronavirus.
Thanks to the perseverance of the British people and the hard work of those on the front line, this virus is on the back foot. For over three weeks now, the number of new cases each day has been below 1,000, and daily hospital admissions are down to 142. Because of this success in slowing the spread of the virus, on Friday, the Prime Minister was able to set out a conditional timetable for the further easings of the restrictions.
Throughout the reopening, we have acted carefully and cautiously, always vigilant, and we have been able to deliver on our plan. We have protected the NHS. We have cautiously replaced the national lockdown with local action. Thanks to our action against hundreds of local outbreaks, and thanks to NHS test and trace working well, NHS test and trace has now asked 180,000 people to self-isolate—that is up to 180,000 potential chains of transmission broken by this brilliant new service. What is more, in the hundreds of thousands of tests it delivers every single day, the vast—vast—majority test negative. That provides assurance to hundreds of thousands of people who can go back to work and sleep easy.
NHS test and trace is a brand new service. Putting together a massive service of this kind, at this pace, has been a remarkable job—almost unprecedented. I would like to thank the remarkable leadership of Baroness Harding for spearheading the programme and Tom Riordan, who has driven our vital work with local authorities. Everybody in this country who loves freedom should join me in thanking all those who work in NHS test and trace, in Public Health England, and in local public health operations for successfully delivering on our plan of moving from a national lockdown to local action. The plan is working.
I would like, if I may, to set out the next stages in this plan. We refuse to be complacent about the threat posed by the virus, and we will not hesitate to put the brakes on if we need to. Our goal is that this should be done through as targeted local action as possible, like we did in Leicester, where we can now start to ease the restrictions. On Friday, we published our framework for containing and controlling future outbreaks in England. From Saturday, local authorities have had new powers in their areas so that they can act with more vigour in response to outbreaks. They can now close specific premises, shut outdoor public spaces, and cancel events. Later this week, we will publish indicative draft regulations that clearly set out the suite of legislative powers that Ministers may need to use to intervene at a local level.
As I pledged to the House on Thursday, we are publishing more data and sharing more data with local bodies. I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for the good use of data in decision-making. Properly used, data is one of the best epidemiological weapons that we have. From last month, local directors of public health have had postcode-level data about outbreaks in their area. From today, as I committed to the House last week, we are going further and putting enhanced levels of data in the hands of local directors of public health too. Of course, high-quality testing is the main source of our data, and having set targets radically to expand testing over the past few months—which have had exactly the desired effect, as each one has been met—so we are now setting the target for the nation of half a million antigen tests a day by the end of October, ahead of winter. I am sure that, as a nation, we will meet this challenge too.
The need for extra testing is not, of course, the only challenge that winter will bring. We know that the NHS will face the usual annual winter pressures, and on top of that, we do not yet know how the virus will interact with the cold weather. So we will make sure that the NHS has the support it needs. We have massively increased the number of ventilators available to patients across the UK, up from 9,000 before the pandemic to nearly 30,000 now; we have now had an agreed supply of 30 billion pieces of personal protective equipment; and we will be rolling out the biggest ever flu vaccination programme in our country’s history.
To support this, I have agreed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer the funding necessary to protect the NHS this winter too. We have already announced £30 billion for health and social care, and we will now provide a further £3 billion on top of the £1.5 billion capital funding announced a fortnight ago. This applies to the NHS in England. Those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also receive extra funding. This means that the NHS can keep using the extra hospital capacity in the independent sector and that we can maintain the Nightingale hospitals, which have provided so much reassurance throughout the pandemic, at least until the end of March. We have protected the NHS through this crisis, and that support will help us to protect it in the months ahead.
We all know that in the long term, the best solution to this crisis would be a vaccine, and I am delighted to say that Britain continues to lead the world on that. Two leading vaccine developments are taking place in this country, at Oxford and Imperial, and both are supported by government funding and the British life science industry. Today, Oxford published an encouraging report in the Lancet, showing that its phase 1 and 2 trials are proceeding well. The trial shows that the Oxford vaccine produces a strong immunity response in patients, in both antibody production and T-cell responses, and that no safety concerns have been identified. That promising news takes us one step closer to finding a vaccine that could save lives around the world.
The UK is not just developing world-leading vaccines; we are also putting more money into the global work for a vaccine than any other country. With like-minded partners, we are working to ensure that whoever’s vaccine is approved first, the whole world can have access. We reject narrow nationalism. We support a global effort, because this virus respects no borders, and we are all on the same side.
This morning I held a global conference call with other health leaders, including from Germany, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, the United States, and others, to discuss the need for global licensing access for any successful vaccine. Here at home, as well as our investment in research, we are working hard to build a portfolio of the most promising new vaccines, no matter where they are from. We have already secured 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine, if it succeeds, and today I can tell the House that the Government have secured early access to 90 million further vaccine doses—30 million from an agreement between BioNTech and Pfizer, and 60 million from Valneva. We are getting the deals in place, so that once we know a vaccine is safe and effective, we can make it available for British citizens as soon as humanly possible.
Another long-term solution to eliminating this virus and its negative effects is through developing effective treatments, and it was British scientists, backed by UK Government funding, who led the first robust clinical trial to find a treatment that was proved to reduce the risk of dying from Covid: dexamethasone. We now have preliminary results from a clinical trial of another treatment known as SNG001, which was created by the Southampton-based biotech firm Synairgen. Initial findings based on a small cohort suggest that SNG001 may substantially reduce the chance of someone developing severe disease, and it could cut hospital admission time by a third. The data still need to be peer reviewed, and we are supporting a further large-scale trial, but the preliminary results are a positive sign.
In the fight against this virus, our world-renowned universities, researchers and scientists are indispensable, so that we can develop the vaccines and treatments that will tackle this virus for the long term. We have a plan, our plan is working, and the measures I have set out today will help to protect the NHS, support our treatments and vaccines, and take our country forward together. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I gave the Minister notice on Friday that, because we had not taken a Statement about Covid for three weeks, I will need to address the three Statements that are outstanding.
Parliament entrusted this Government with huge powers to deal with Covid-19 when we put the emergency powers on the statute book in March. Certainly, in this House, at the time of the passage of the emergency legislation we sought and received undertakings from the Minister and the Government about the need for effective scrutiny, timely debate, consultation and trust. So how will accountability be achieved during the Recess and the autumn in this fast-moving world? All three Statements raised vital issues that deserve more time and scrutiny than we were able to give them, and I am grateful for the extra time that the usual channels have found for Back-Bench colleagues.
Before I address these Statements, I want to ask Minister about the sudden announcement this weekend of quarantine measures for those returning from Spain. These Benches have made it clear that we support evidence-based protective measures at the border. We have long called for the scientific evidence to be made public and for track, trace and isolate systems to be in place, to avoid the need for the blunt tool of 14-day quarantine. Does the Minister agree that the latest decision-making process regarding Spain and the short notice for travellers have created a sense of panic and suggest a loss of control? Will he agree that proper contingency plans should be in place to support people coming home where there is no guarantee that their employers will allow them 14 days of work flexibility? Why do the measures apply to the whole of Spain? As my honourable friend Jon Ashworth MP said yesterday, “We’ve got an outbreak here in Leicester, but the whole of Leicestershire is not locked down and the whole of the East Midlands is not locked down, so why are the Balearics and the Canaries included when their infection rate is so low?”
On the announcement on 14 July about face masks and shopping—a month after it became mandatory to wear masks on public transport—why did it take so long and why was the messaging so confusing? We have long known about airborne transmission. The Secretary of State warned long ago about asymptomatic transmission. The Secretary of State’s own advice published on 11 May advised in favour of wearing face masks, so it is a shame that it took two months to make that advice mandatory; it came into force last Friday. How will it be enforced? As a former member of USDAW, I am very concerned for shop workers. USDAW says:
“We are also deeply concerned that enforcing the wearing of face coverings could present a further flashpoint for abuse against our retail members.”
It makes the point that full government guidance was released only hours before the changes came into effect, so how were employers to have adequate time to put the policy in place to support their staff during these changes?
On the Leicester lockdown announced on 16 July, the people of Leicester are now in the 17th week of lockdown. We will discuss that issue on Wednesday, but will the Minister confirm what lessons the Government have learned from what they did and did not do in Leicester, for when they face other local flare-ups? Will the Minister guarantee—I would like a yes or no answer—that local authorities will now get the specific data that can facilitate action, that it will be timely and in the form of person-identifiable data, not just postcodes, and that it will include not just positive but negative results so that they can understand the overall infection prevalence? Will they receive the contact tracing data so that they will know who has been asked to isolate by test and trace and can follow them up? Will they receive the data on a daily basis? Once a week is not good enough. The virus does not wait a week, so why should local directors of public health have to wait a week?
Moving on, the financial Statement said that £10 billion had been allocated to test and trace. It would be helpful if the Minister could itemise what that £10 billion has been spent on and with whom. A letter to me lodged in the Library would probably suffice for that question. On 20 July last week, the Secretary of State made a comprehensive Statement—a sort of end-of-term report; I can pick out only one or two important matters and hope that other noble Lords will cover the rest. The news about vaccine progress was very welcome and exciting, but will the Government ensure that there is equitable access to a vaccine when it is developed? The Minister knows that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Government in taking on poisonous anti-vax propaganda. However, if a vaccine does not become available, what scenario planning is taking place right now, should we be confronted with that awful prospect? Will the Minister take this opportunity to update the House on R? Are we still below 1? Which parts of the country are not?
On social care, we welcome the fact that families are now able to visit their loved ones in care homes and we also welcome the extra funding for the NHS announced by the Prime Minister. But there was no extra funding for social care. Will social care get any more resources this winter? This is underlined by the Government’s failure to reimburse care homes properly for PPE and testing costs during the pandemic. They will actively have to meet the additional costs of ensuring that care homes stay safe for residents, staff and visitors. It must be cost-effective that they do so. The Local Government Association has today called for a social care reset after reflection on the Prime Minister’s pledge to fix social care a year ago. That representative body has urged the Government to publish their timetable for social care reform prior to Parliament’s return from the Summer Recess in September. Will the Minister tell the House whether that is possible?
My Lords, from these Liberal Democrat Benches, I thank and congratulate all the millions of people, whether paid staff or volunteers, who have worked tirelessly over the last five months to combat this pandemic, serving people and providing support during what is the most extraordinary health crisis in 100 years. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, outlined, it is very disappointing that the Government Whips’ Office has resisted giving your Lordships’ House the opportunity to have a timely discussion on each of the three Covid Statements, on 14, 16 and 20 July. Each covered different, urgent and serious matters for our country that should be scrutinised by your Lordships’ House, so I too will use all three Statements as the basis for my questions to the Minister today.
First, given that the report of 20 July has a strategic and end-of-term report feel, we have an overarching concern about the Government’s repeated mantra in Statements about protecting the NHS at all costs, including the preparations for a second wave. Unfortunately, it appears that lessons have not been learned from the consequences of that single priority, not least those from throwing our care sector to the wolves without adequate testing, PPE or financial support for its massively increased costs. So I ask the Minister again: do all parts of the care sector now have repeat and regular testing, the PPE they need to practise new standards of infection control and continuing financial support for the consequences of both?
As I mentioned on Friday in the debate on the coronavirus regulations, a further group feel they have been left high and dry: people who shield, whether they are disabled, elderly or have serious underlying conditions. So I again ask: will the Minister explain why the letter to shielders dated 22 June insists that shielders lose all the support for shielding from 1 August? The letter instructs recipients to follow strict social distancing at all times and to stay at home where possible but, in complete contradiction to that, also instructs people to return to work if it is Covid-safe and removes access to furlough pay and sick pay, so if it is not safe to return to work and shielders cannot work from home, they are now at high risk of losing their jobs. Blood Cancer UK is extremely concerned about this risk for people who have been shielding as from August they will face an impossible choice between returning to work and risking their health or staying at home and risking unemployment. It asked the Government to extend the furlough scheme for the small number of people involved for up to three months or to provide alternative financial support to protect them from life-threatening ill health, and we agree. Will the Minister undertake to raise this with the Chancellor of the Exchequer as a matter of urgency and write to me?
Lifting the lockdown also brings into sharp relief how much real progress has been made by the Government on testing, tracing and isolating as a key tool to manage outbreaks. To that we must again add quarantine arrangements. On the news today, following the Spain quarantine regulations, we heard the Government say that they will not be monitoring any quarantine arrangements. They are still experimenting with temperature screening at airports and are not routinely testing people as they arrive in the country. If we are serious about having a proper system for people arriving in this country and quarantining safely, when will that be put in place?
We also hear that testing capacity will shortly reach 500,000 a day, which is welcome, but there seems to be no routine to test that capacity to the full. It is still not universal, despite repeated requests, regularly to test NHS and care staff to keep them safe. We hear that many local testing centres are closing down and that the test at home system is to stop. Can the Minister reassure your Lordships’ House that a full test, trace, isolate and quarantine policy is in operation, not least to test the larger-scale, effective system that we will need in the event of a second wave? How many people were tested on Friday?
Finally—the Minister can probably recite my next question as I have asked it so often, but I will be grateful if he could answer my actual question, not repeat the usual mantra because just saying that local authorities are being given more data at postcode level is not enough—when will all local authorities and directors of public health get the full data that they have requested and signed data protection releases for on a daily basis and at a more granular level than postcode, without which they cannot effectively tackle spikes in cases swiftly? The Minister saying that he is giving them more data is not enough. It must be the data that they need and for which they have already signed data protection releases.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton, for their detailed questions, which I will go through as speedily and thoroughly as I can.
On accountability during the Recess, there are long-standing precedents on this and we will obey them, as is normal.
On the arrangements for Spain, I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, that there is a very thorough system of regular meetings to assess the exemptions on travel. This is done at several levels of government and detailed intelligence from the front line is provided to those meetings. However, the situation in many countries is fast changing, and the Spanish situation is a good example. The information we had at the beginning of last week was quite different from the information we had by the end of the week. Fast turnaround decisions are not a sign of panic or weakness; they are a sign that the system works and is working well. We are trying to be as flexible as we can and we respect the country’s desire to travel, but when the infection rate in overseas countries moves, we have to move quickly as well. Within individual countries, there is no way for us to control intra-country transport. It is therefore very difficult and challenging to have a regional exemption list. That is why we have not been able to give exemptions to the Balearics, and I say that with a personal interest in the matter.
Our guidance on face masks is based on trust. There is no compulsion and they are not mandatory. In some countries they are mandatory, but not in this country. That is why the science is so important to us, and it is one reasons that we may have moved behind some other countries. The guidance we now have on face masks is extremely clear. I pay tribute to the large and growing number of people wearing them. I believe this country is moving in the right direction.
We are concerned about shopworkers. USDAW makes a good case for the need to protect shopworkers who may be put in an awkward situation. That is why we work closely with the police to ensure that the right protections are in place.
I say a profound thank you to the people of Leicester, who have done an incredible amount in a difficult situation. The signs are that the prevalence of the disease has come down a long way in Leicester thanks to their commitment. The lessons we have learned include some of the most obvious lessons you could learn, but there is no replacement for local contacts and the involvement of local communities. However, there are hard-to-reach communities where our message has not got through and we need to do more to reach them. In particular, I am grateful to faith leaders in Leicester who are working with us on preparing for Eid and ensuring that the message on social distancing gets through in time for that important celebration.
Full details of the budget for NHS Test and Trace will be published when the time is right, and when that time arrives I will be glad to place a copy in the Library as requested.
I completely agree with the noble Baroness. Having an equitable distribution of the vaccine in this country and overseas is key to the Government’s policy. That is why we are working hard with the World Health Organization, GAVI and others to ensure that vaccines are shared as a global resource. We hope that a vaccine can be found, and the indications from Oxford are encouraging, but we recognise that vaccines for coronaviruses, particularly those affecting the respiratory system, are difficult. That is why we are making a massive investment in the test-and-trace programme and in therapeutics and why we remain vigilant over local lockdowns—to rid this country of this horrible disease.
Both noble Baronesses spoke about social care. I do not recognise the phrase used by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that the care sector has been “thrown to the wolves”. I find that an unhelpful characterisation. I say yes to regular testing, yes to PPE and yes to financial support—we have given £3.7 billion to local authorities to help them pay for the cost of Covid-19, and on 2 July we gave a further £500 million to the social care sector. We remain vigilant with regard to the financial resilience of the social care system and we are working very closely with social care providers on the ongoing costs of both testing and PPE, as well as the financial resilience of the entire sector.
On shielders, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, makes a very good case. The handling of those who need shielding is one of the most delicate challenges that we face. Those who through no fault of their own are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the disease are put in an invidious situation, and we are extremely grateful to all those who have gone through the hardship of extreme shielding during this long and difficult time. I take on board all her comments and extend my profound thanks to all those concerned. I will look into the question of the parcels that she raised in the debate last week. My inquiries are ongoing on that, and I will respond to her, as I promised to last week.
On the arrangements for travel, it is true that the current medical advice is that we are currently sceptical whether temperature testing is effective and therefore we have not imposed it.
On testing, it is a frustrating but unavoidable truth that a test today does not necessarily mean that you do not have Covid and that you may not display both the symptoms and contagiousness of Covid in the days ahead. That is why snap testing at airports cannot be a sure-fire and safe route for protecting the country, which is why we have to look at isolation as a way of protecting the country.
On the mandation of isolation, as in other matters to do with Covid, we apply a voluntary principle because we believe that trust is the best way to keep the public on side, and we have neither the legal nor the other resources necessary to impose mandation.
On the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, about the state of the testing programme, I reassure her that testing at home is not stopping and that NHS staff are regularly tested. There is a very clear plan, that plan is heavily resourced and we are continuing to invest in it with innovation, manpower and legal support where necessary.
We now come to the 40 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that both questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.
My Lords, as the management of Covid-19 moves to localised decision-making, good will is going to be more important than ever to ensure that people observe the restrictions placed on them. I use my own circumstances as an example. I am currently living under, and fully complying with, extra restrictions because of the outbreak in the centre of Blackburn, yet I have a Bolton address, a Bolton telephone number and I live in Bolton. For me, as for hundreds of others, a random line drawn on a map places us on the far boundaries of Blackburn with Darwen. This geographical disconnect, which will be replicated across the country, risks undermining co-operation. I would be most grateful if the Minister could assure the House that, should local authorities have to take the difficult decision to impose extra restrictions or lockdown, they will be charged to do everything in their power to make them as narrowly focused as possible to ensure that the necessary element of good will remains.
The noble Baroness is entirely right that these local outbreaks create invidious choices for local authorities, and the fine tuning of the boundaries is an important part of the lockdown process. We saw that in Leicester, where the boundaries of the lockdown were changed for the very reasons that she outlines, both to preserve trust and in order to be effective. However, I remind the noble Baroness that the movements of people within areas mean that the disease can spread. Therefore, the lockdowns do not necessarily apply only to those areas with high prevalence in any one period, and sometimes buffers need to be put around the infection area, which is why these areas can seem to be either unfair or overextended.
My Lords, Amnesty has reported that the UK has had 540 deaths among health and care workers, second only to Russia. Compare that to Spain, which has had 63 deaths. Have the Government carried out a root-cause analysis to find out the causes of these deaths, and will they publish the results? If the Government have not carried out such an analysis, will the Minister agree that one should be carried out with some urgency in case there is a second wave of infection?
My Lords, local trusts have been urged for many months now to undertake a profound risk assessment of workers, particularly BAME workers, in order to understand where infection may have come from. Infection control teams in individual trusts are charged with the responsibility for delivering infection control plans. It is at that level that we can understand the detailed causes of infection because in each trust those causes can be quite different.
My Lords, may I, for the second time in three days, press the Minister on what information is given or not given to local authorities during this pandemic? Is he aware that in the borough of Sandwell last week there were nearly 100 new cases of Covid-19, of which no fewer than 28 were confirmed at a single workplace in West Bromwich? Is he further aware that these 28 cases were discovered not by notification through the Government’s track and trace system but by a telephone call from the relative of one of those infected to Sandwell council’s public health department? Does the Minister agree that workplace addresses must be included in the information given to local authorities nationwide so that councils can act immediately to tackle the problem? Will he ensure that that is done in future?
My Lords, local authorities have had daily Covid-19 containment dashboards, which include 111, 119, online triage information and positive case information at UTLA and LSOA levels, for more than two weeks. Data for directors of public health who have signed the data-sharing agreement requires data-sharing agreements as personally identifiable information, and is mostly for their teams. That data includes much more granular data, including sex, age, postcode, ethnicity, occupation, test date, pillar and test location type. This question of data is one that concerns us enormously. We have moved a phenomenal amount in recent weeks, and it is my genuine belief that those in local authorities, directors of public of health and local infection teams have all the data that they need to do the job.
My Lords, social care has barely been mentioned in the last three Statements. Could the Minister clarify, in the event of a second wave of coronavirus, who in the Department of Health and Social Care is now leading on preparations with the care sector, and who from the care sector is leading in those discussions? How frequently do they meet?
My Lords, I pay tribute to my colleague Helen Whately, the Minister for Social Care. She has worked incredibly hard and tirelessly on this area, which is her ultimate responsibility. There is a social care team which handles those negotiations, and I thank all those in the social care industry who are engaged. The social care industry is highly fragmented so engaging with the entire industry is a massive challenge. That is why we have put in place new structures, new dialogues, new guidelines and new ways of working to ensure that we are match-fit for the winter.
My Lords, a number of countries, including Hong Kong and Austria, undertake testing at ports of entry. Under certain circumstances, that can limit the time that people have to spend in quarantine. Will the Government offer such testing at UK ports and airports?
My Lords, that is not in the current guidelines. The noble Lord is entirely right that it is incredibly time-consuming and not currently practicable. For the reasons I outlined in answer to an earlier question, a test today does not guarantee that someone will not be infectious either tomorrow or the next day. That is why we have not focused on testing at ports, but we remain open to suggestions. We assess a large number of options and, as evidence and trials emerge that may demonstrate the efficacy of different policies, we will of course consider them and remain open-minded.
My Lords, the Statement is clear that the intention is to mass-vaccinate the population once we have a vaccine that is safe and effective. Can the Minister inform us of Her Majesty’s Government’s plans to achieve this, in the light of concerns among general practitioners that they will be overwhelmed, and given that as many as one in six people in a recent survey said that they would not take up the vaccine if it was available? Do the Government intend, for example, to deploy the many nurses and doctors who volunteered to assist earlier this year to deliver vaccinations for both flu and Covid-19? Will they engage faith leaders in encouraging the uptake of vaccinations through proper explanation of the benefits to individuals and to society as a whole of so doing?
The noble Baroness raises an incredibly important issue and I pay tribute to Kate Bingham, who is running the Vaccine Taskforce. She is tackling exactly the issue that the noble Baroness raised. GPs are right to be concerned about capacity, which is why we are looking at ways of massively increasing the capacity to deliver such a vaccine. We will definitely look at resources such as returnees, pharmacists and other sources of people power to deliver the vaccine into the arms of the nation. On the anti-vaxxer groups, the fake news and wrong stories around vaccines are an area of deep concern. We are working with faith groups and other civic leaders to put right the arguments for a vaccine because, at the end of the day, any vaccine requires the participation of a large proportion of the country in order for it to be truly effective. It will cause huge disruption and personal suffering if trust is not maintained in the efficacy of such a vaccine.
Where does the Minister think the greatest risks of a second wave of Covid-19 now lie? What specifically needs to be achieved by early autumn to prevent that, and what extra support will be provided specifically for care homes?
The noble Baroness invites speculation; I wish that I knew the precise answer to that key question. We are extremely vigilant in a large number of areas, including the measures to release a degree of social distancing and on foreign travel, as she knows. We know that if the country remains committed to the basic principles—hand washing and hygiene; social distance; and isolation when necessary—those three principal pillars will be the ones that defend us from the spread of the disease. We are doing everything we can to shore up those pillars, and that is particularly true in social care, where we have massively boosted testing for both staff and patients and brought in hygiene control, particularly around PPE. We will continue to support the sector financially to ensure that agency workers can be used as little as possible.
My Lords, there are still issues about the length of time it takes for test results to be returned and contacts traced. Is the Minister aware that a four-week pilot scheme for the OptiGene saliva test in Southampton was completed a week ago? This test takes only 20 minutes to process. Since it does not rely on throat and nose swabs, there are less likely to be false negatives because of faulty swabbing. Can the Minister give the House the results of the pilot, which was referred to by a witness to the Science and Technology Committee as a potential game-changer? Are there plans to make the new test more widely available? In light of the latest news about travellers from Spain, will the test be given at the airport to all passengers returning from non-exempt countries so that they can be followed up quickly at the address they have given on the passenger locator form, and should they not have another test a few days later?
My Lords, I pay tribute to colleagues at Southampton, who have been managing this exciting trial of saliva-based LAMP testing. The LAMP process is extremely exciting, as it removes the time-consuming RNA extraction process from the testing; turnaround times are therefore dramatically reduced. Saliva is a much more accessible vector for the virus than swabbing and therefore has potential for mass appeal. We are extremely interested in the pilot of the OptiGene technology. It is, though, at an early stage. I would not want to raise expectations too quickly on this, but it remains one of a great many similar exciting technologies that our innovations and partnership team is looking at. I am extremely optimistic about the speed and scale of innovation in our test and trace programme, and I believe that we can move more quickly, at bigger scale and with more accuracy than we ever have before in the very near term.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that confusion arises in the UK and overseas because England and the devolved Administrations’ Covid announcements often differ in content and timing, and may lack distinction between guidance and statute? Such announcements will continue for months, so can a structured and less confusing scheme be adopted for all regions—for example, including agreed regular days and time across the UK—for making or updating announcements?
It may appear from the outside that there are differences between the devolved nations and England, but my experience is that the four-nations approach to combating Covid has been extremely united and effective, and that we have worked extremely well together. It is true that we move at a different pace on some subjects, but we are generally moving to the same destination and in the same direction, and for that I pay tribute to my colleagues in the devolved nations.
My Lords, the United Kingdom has spent 30% more than any other EU country on PPE. Of the UK’s PPE contracts, 73% went through without any competition at all, compared with 61% in Europe. The Department of Health had 137 contracts totalling more than £1.9 billion, none of which was subject to competition, according to Spend Network. The Department of Health has told today’s Financial Times:
“We have a robust process in place to ensure that orders are of a high standard and meet commercial due diligence.”
Which of those two statements is correct—that from Spend Network, or that from the Department of Health?
Anyone who has stood at the Dispatch Box to answer questions on PPE, as I have done, will feel extremely proud of the fact that we have managed to purchase a very large amount of it under very difficult circumstances. We have also responded well to the challenge of a global collapse in the PPE supply chain. Despite appearances, we have substantial stockpiles of both near-term seven-day and further-term 90-day PPE resources; by that, I am very pleased. Competition does not necessarily guarantee either quality or delivery. I pay tribute to colleagues in the NHS, in the Cabinet Office and at DH who have, under extremely difficult circumstances, thoroughly checked out the delivery and bona fides of the contracts we have signed while working closely with the NSA to avoid fraud. We continue to work closely with both domestic and overseas suppliers, which I would argue has delivered a valuable result for the country.
I will follow on from the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock. Have the Government worked out an order of priority in which people might receive a vaccine? Would it be front-line workers, the elderly or even—perhaps—government Ministers?
My Lords, the Cabinet Office is charged with the role of deciding the order of priority. There are precedents for this; it is a well-established list that is decided at a level outside the DH. I do not know if Cabinet Ministers are given priority, but I slightly suspect that junior Ministers are not.
My Lords, I will ask about the poorest of our fellow citizens. According to the ONS report last Friday, in the four months March to June this year, the mortality rate for Covid-19 in the most deprived areas of England was 140 deaths per 100,000 people. This was more than double the mortality rate—63 deaths per 100,000 of population—in the best-off areas. In fact, it was 120% above. Even worse, in June the mortality rate in the most deprived areas was 137.5% higher. In short, it is getting worse. Why was there no mention of any of these in the Statements that have been laid before us? What measures are the Government taking to address this particular problem?
The noble Lord touches on a subject that is extremely sensitive—it makes me feel emotional to think about it—but he is entirely right that those who are least advantaged in society are hardest hit by this disease and lots of other diseases. There are behavioural reasons for this: the decisions that people make about social distancing and their own health. There are also environmental reasons: the living conditions and the places in which they live. Neither of these detract from the fact that this is a very sad and upsetting truth. However, we are extremely conscious of the challenge, as we are of all health inequalities. The particular lever that we are focused on is trying to get our message out to hard-to-reach communities, who may not have heard the important messages on hygiene, social distancing and isolation. We have in place a programme of marketing in order to reach these communities to communicate these important messages.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, raised the issue of the procurement of PPE. Can I press the Minister on the procurement of vaccines? According to the Statement, the Government appear to have secured 190 million doses of vaccine—if they succeed. Could he tell us what procedures have been undertaken to procure the vaccines and reassure the House that the country will not lose money if the vaccines do not, in fact, succeed?
I am not quite sure of the 190 million number. I think that is possibly an aggregate number of different vaccines. However, the practicalities of vaccine research are extremely expensive, and there are eight, nine or 10 potential runners and riders in the global vaccine market. It is the practice for countries to contribute to those research costs up front in order to have access to the vaccine should it be successful. That is the practice for medical research of many kinds, and these are the practical costs of trying to break the difficult mystery of the disease and providing security for ourselves and for our children.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the Minister for the way he answers all our endless questions. I want to raise two issues of huge importance. I understand that the system of track and trace, in the absence of an app, will not be sufficient to prevent a second national wave of Covid-19. Can the Minister tell the House when we will introduce the Google/Apple app? Secondly, have the Government assessed the cost of full regular community testing, which would involve the entire population being tested weekly? This would certainly be costly, but surely it will be infinitely less costly than a second national wave of Covid-19—in terms of the demolition of the economy—particularly if we can use the Southampton saliva test.
The noble Baroness is entirely right that track and trace on its own, with or without an app, is not enough to prevent a second wave. The only thing that can do that is the behaviours of the British people themselves. Commitment to hygiene, distancing and isolation is the best bulwark we have against this horrible disease. In terms of community testing, given the current level of technology, mass testing of the entire nation on a weekly basis is beyond the resources of our technology, testing capabilities and, frankly, the tolerance of the British people. However, as I said in answer to an earlier question, the technology is moving incredibly quickly. It has already moved a long way in the last few months, and I am hopeful that technologies such as—but not only—the OptiGene technology may offer new opportunities. However, they have to be validated, invested in and developed: they are not on the near-term horizon.
My Lords, I am sure my noble friend is well aware of the importance of the use of language in Statements and careful use of language. Given the importance of the working relationships between national and local authorities, will my noble friend expand on the assertion that the new powers delivered last Saturday will enable local authorities to “act with more vigour”? It seems a strange phrase to me, and I would welcome some expansion on how those relationships are going.
My Lords, the relationship with local authorities is extremely good, and I recommend that noble Lords do not believe everything they read on this subject. I completely commend those who work closely with PHE, the test and trace programme, the joint biosecurity team and all the sectoral parts of government that reach out to local authorities, DPHs and local infection teams. A very strong bond is forming, and we have a very large number of outbreaks up and down the country that you never read or hear about, and which are not celebrated either for being good or bad because that partnership works well. The intelligence and data are put into the hands of the people who need them, and the teams move quickly and effectively to deal with the outbreak. I am extremely grateful for this; a huge amount of progress has already been made, and we continue to invest in those relationships.
My Lords, it is clearly good to hear that the relationship with local government is on a good level, as the Minister has said. However, why is it that directors of public health have been complaining for weeks about the lack of information? The Minister says that they are getting all the information they need, but this has occurred only in the last few weeks. If it is a question of data protection legislation, why was emergency legislation not put through in the spring to enable local authorities to have all the information they clearly need?
My Lords, it is put to me week in, week out that our relationship with directors of public health is in some way troubled. I reassure noble Lords that, every single day of the week, we are in contact with dozens of directors of public health in amicable, constructive dialogues that lead to concrete action, local interventions and sharing of data. These conversations happen in a cordial and friendly fashion. The message may have got through to some noble Lords that there is some huge acrimony and difficulty between us, but that is not the perspective that I have. The data has got through. It is a hell of a thing to have put up a huge track and trace system in a few months. That we can get such detailed data to a large number of people within the envelope of reasonable data security legislation is nothing short of a miracle. I am extremely proud and pay tribute to those involved.
My Lords, I want to follow the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, in pointing to ONS data, this time data showing that 60% of all deaths from Covid-19 have been among those living with disabilities. A recent report from Oxford University and the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights found a failure of government to embed social and human rights models of disability in its response to the pandemic, and a failure to support people with disabilities to make the adjustments required to comply with fast-changing regulations and to continue to live flourishing lives. Will the Government commit to an immediate review of the impact on disabled people of legislation passed during the coronavirus crisis, and will they put in place a disability-inclusive Covid-19 response and recovery action plan which involves people with lived experience of disabilities in decisions on economic and social recovery as well as ongoing healthcare guidance?
My Lords, it is a horrible truth that this disease hits hardest those with vulnerabilities. We have put in place a massive national programme to seek to protect the most vulnerable, and those with disabilities have been very much the focus of our attention. I cannot make the commitments that I know the noble Baroness wants me to make, but I reassure her that those with disabilities are the focus of what we are trying to do.
My Lords, the London Nightingale hospital was mothballed in mid-May and remains at standby for a second wave of Covid-19, having treated just 54 patients since it opened on 3 April. In a recent report of 19 July, Harrogate Borough Council questioned how the 500-bed field hospital based in Harrogate Convention Centre would be deployed. Given that £3 billion has been allocated to maintain the seven Nightingale hospitals until the end of March 2021, and noting that the Harrogate centre has not treated a single patient since it opened, can my noble friend the Minister say what the strategy is for those hospitals? Should they not be designated Covid centres to which all local hospitals can refer their patients, thereby allowing the NHS to resume its routine work and centres such as the London Nightingale hospital, which could reopen in six days with 250 beds, to provide assisted ventilation, hemofiltration and dialysis to support seriously ill Covid patients?
My Lords, the Nightingale hospitals have been a huge success in helping us to protect the NHS at a time when our needs were greatest. Since then, when prevalence rates were lower, we reallocated resource into restarting the NHS to gain ground during the summer months on our backlog of business-as-usual work. Those resources are needed in the hospitals where people usually work. The mothballing of the Nightingale hospitals allows us to use that capacity for what is most needed right now.
My Lords, evidence suggests that obesity doubles a patient’s chance of being hospitalised with the virus, hence the Government have put forward a strategy for reducing obesity, which I welcome. However, they could have introduced a sugar tax 10 years ago, which might have resulted in fewer obese Britons now. Is that policy under consideration?
My Lords, the obesity package that the Prime Minister announced today is one of the most ambitious, impactful and thoughtful of any Government in recent history. We will see how it plays out and consider new measures when the time is right.
Covid-19 and obesity are so often a fatal combination, and it explains the high mortality in the UK, with its dense population and the fact that two-thirds of people are either overweight or obese. Is it not therefore time for those strangers to the truth in the media and in politics to stop demoralising the public with their repeated false news, including blaming the Government for the high death rate? Should we not expect the media and politicians to use their power to support the country and the Prime Minister’s campaign to reduce obesity and its complications, in order to minimise the number of deaths from the next pandemic?
My Lords, it is not the feeling in the Government that we should duck hard questions about performance, and we embrace those who ask difficult questions about how things have gone. None the less, the noble Lord is entirely right that the country has a difficult challenge that it needs to face up to: that of obesity. It has had a profound effect on the health of the nation for a generation and we have been caught out by Covid, as obesity has undoubtedly had an impact on our total death rate. It is a point that the Prime Minister made powerfully in his video earlier today. That is why we have put together the package that we have, and we look to all civic leaders and the media to support us.
My Lords, we are all aware that more than 45,000 people have died as a result of Covid-19, and the number is still rising. Is any statistical analysis by gender available, and how will the Government support the Covid widows who have may lost the breadwinner in their family?
My Lords, PHE publishes detailed statistics which give a gender breakdown. I recommend that the noble Lord has a look at the data. We express our sadness and regret for all those who have passed away and our support for all those mourning them.
The rail industry is keen to introduce a flexible form of season ticket to support a return to rail travel for those who have been working from home so that they may in future work flexibly. Will the Minister seek on my behalf assurances from his colleagues in the Department for Transport that they are treating this matter with urgency and not obstructing it? If he could write to me about that, I would be grateful. Will he also acknowledge the health benefits of getting people out walking, cycling and using public transport again, instead of relying solely on their cars, which lead to more congestion, more pollution and little or no exercise on the part of drivers? Further government encouragement would be welcome in bringing that about.
The noble Lord is entirely right that Covid will lead to changes both subtle and profound in the way we do many things in our life, including patterns of commuting, and a renewed commitment to modes of transport that support our health, particularly cycling and walking. Local authorities such as TfL already have strong bicycling and walking plans. Those will undoubtedly be enhanced, and the Government entirely support them.
My Lords, with an eye to its impact on any autumn resurgence, I hark back to questions asked on 11 March by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and my noble friend Lord Forsyth, about deep cleansing. My experience of countries in Asia, such as Singapore and Korea, which also pioneered mask use, is that they appear to be much better than us at cleansing medical facilities and other risky premises. They use mists and sprays, applied aggressively in the hands of cleaning professionals, rather than relying on the random impact of risk assessments, NHS and care home cleaners and controllers, and personal hygiene routines, which the Minister emphasised. What does the latest guidance say about cleaning and cleansing? Can we do better?
My Lords, we can undoubtedly do better in the area of hygiene. The guidance is very clear on what types of detergents work and how they should best be administered. I pay tribute to the cleaning staff in the NHS, who have worked incredibly hard during the epidemic, putting themselves at risk; they have done a very good job. None the less, our view is that the greatest challenge is to change the behaviours of the British public. Work still needs to be done to persuade all of us to wash our hands more and to maintain cleaner personal hygiene. Transmission of the disease happens most often through manual contact—touching the face and shaking hands. That can only be challenged by washing hands.
My Lords, Public Health England has been including in its death totals those who once had Covid, recovered, but have since died from other causes. So, if you once had the virus but no longer have it, and get hit by a bus, you still get listed as a Covid casualty. How can Ministers and others reach sensible policy decisions when the basic statistics provided to them seem so flawed? Has this bizarre practice now stopped? Have Public Health England offered any justification for it?
The Secretary of State has asked Public Health England to review the logging of death statistics; we await the review’s results.
Lord Rogan? We will move quickly on to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe.
My Lords, on three occasions today the Minister has said that, if you have a Covid test today, you are not guaranteed to not have the disease tomorrow. In that case, what on earth is the purpose of having the test system at all? Secondly, the NHS is not functioning properly. Bearing in mind the precedents of my noble friends Lord Deighton and Lady Harding, would it be a good idea for the Minister’s department to appoint a specific person to get the NHS up and running again, as foreseen by my noble friend Lord Ribeiro in his perceptive question?
My Lords, we use the tests we have got because they are the tests we have got. The way in which the disease manifests itself is not, I am afraid, something that I can negotiate with. We do what we can, but I emphasise that an unfortunate feature of this disease—and many others—is that it harbours itself silently in our bodies and manifests itself both to infect and be diagnosed only when it is ready. That is a simple fact of life. However, the testing regime has a profound impact on the spread of the disease by identifying those who have some form of symptom, even if it is a quiet one. I pay tribute to Sir Simon Stevens, who is working hard to get the NHS back to business as usual and is having a profound impact on the issue.
My Lords, the time allowed for this business has now elapsed. I apologise to the four speakers who did not have time to put their questions.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will adjourn the House immediately.
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
That the Bill be now read a second time.
My Lords, despite several years spent scrutinising legislation in your Lordships’ House—and, indeed, many bad years before that drafting amendments—I must confess that this is the first Bill that I will seek to lead through the House myself. It is a great privilege to do so, and I look forward to working with all your Lordships on it in the coming months. Looking at the speakers’ list, I see that I seem to be surrounded by people responsible for organising most of the successful and unsuccessful elections for the past 50 years, so I can be sure that your Lordships’ wisdom will have great weight.
The purpose of this legislation is straightforward and, in many ways, modest. Its central aim is to enable us to achieve the Government’s manifesto commitment of delivering updated and equal parliamentary constituencies, and to do so on the basis of there being 650 seats in the House of Commons. The Bill is about the composition of the elected Chamber, and it has been backed by the elected Chamber.
Noble Lords will surely agree that the updating of our constituency boundaries is long overdue. The last parliamentary boundary reviews to be implemented in the United Kingdom were based on data—that is, the numbers of electors—from the early 2000s. That may seem like yesterday to many of us here, but the sobering fact is that our youngest voters were not even born then. Our current constituencies reflect how the UK was almost two decades ago. In those two decades, our country has changed enormously, having undergone significant demographic and migratory change. We need updated boundaries to reflect that. We also need to get back on track with boundary reviews that happen and come into effect regularly, routinely and reliably. This Bill delivers that and, in so doing, makes a number of common-sense and technical changes to update the boundary review process and the rules under which the four Boundary Commissions operate.
We have engaged with stakeholders, including the parliamentary parties and electoral administrators, as the Bill has evolved, and the provisions reflect their input. I appreciate the conversations that I have already been able to have with a number of noble Lords.
It is important to say from the outset that this is amending legislation and there are many elements of the existing legislative framework for boundary reviews that it does not seek to alter. Those elements none the less remain of interest both here and in the other place, and I will today touch on the most significant of them, such as the rules relating to constituency size. However, let me start with the things the Bill does do—the common-sense, technical changes.
First, as I mentioned, the Bill provides that future boundary reviews will be conducted on the basis of there being 650 parliamentary constituencies. To make this measure effective, the Bill brings the 2018 boundary review, which would have been the first to be based on 600 constituencies, to a close, without being implemented. Noble Lords will remember that the decision to make that reduction to 600 was taken by the coalition Government a decade ago. Since the change was brought into law in 2011, the UK’s electorate has grown and there have been significant changes in demography. Members of Parliament are representing more constituents than ever before, and they are taking on the role of scrutinising legislation and overseeing areas of policy, such as trade and immigration, that have previously been the preserve of the European Parliament. Under these circumstances, the Government think it right that the current 650 constituencies are retained. The House of Commons has assented to that.
Connected to this, the Bill also removes an obligation on the Government to make arrangements to review the effects of reducing the UK constituencies to 600. As that has not taken place, it cannot meaningfully be analysed.
Moving on to the frequency of parliamentary boundary reviews, the Bill provides for future reviews—after the next one, due to start next spring—to take place every eight years, as opposed to every five years, as currently. This new timetable will allow constituency boundaries to be updated regularly but with less disruption to local communities and their MPs as a result of constituencies changing at every general election. Let me add that a parliamentary boundary review generally takes two years and 10 months from start to finish: it is a significant exercise. The Government believe that every eight years is appropriate for something of this scale, as did the stakeholders consulted.
Still on the subject of timing, the Bill enables the next boundary review—on a one-off basis—to follow a slightly shorter timetable of two years and seven months. The formal start of the review will be in December of this year and the Boundary Commissions must submit their final reports by 1 July 2023 at the latest. Bearing in mind that it takes time for electoral administrators to implement new boundaries; for political parties to reflect them in their structures and for citizens to become familiar with them, this timing of July 2023 is important. It gives us the best chance of there being updated parliamentary constituencies in place ahead of the next general election, whenever that may be. The reduction in time is achieved by the Boundary Commissions expediting some of their processes and by shortening the public consultation process by six weeks, from 24 to 18.
The Bill also makes a small number of changes to the boundary review process—the nuts and bolts of what happens during a review. First, there is a change to the timing of public hearings. Every boundary review, as your Lordships know, includes extensive public consultation arranged over three separate periods. This engagement with the public and with political parties takes a variety of forms. For example, proposals can generally be viewed online, and comments submitted to the Boundary Commissions via their websites or by letter. In addition, there are public hearings, events at which individuals can make representations in person to members of their Boundary Commission. The commissions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must hold between two and five public hearings in their respective nations. The Boundary Commission for England must hold between two and five in each of the English regions.
Under current legislation, public hearings take place early in the process, during the first of three consultation periods. This means that the Boundary Commissions need to decide locations and book venues before they are able to get a sense of where feeling about their proposals is strongest. During our engagement with stakeholders, we heard that this timing could be better. The Bill therefore makes provision for public hearings to take place later, during the second consultation period, allowing the commissions to consider the responses received during the initial consultation and assess where public hearings are most needed. To make this change effective, the length of the consultation periods is adjusted, allowing more time in the second period for the public hearings to occur.
Secondly, the Bill makes some practical changes in relation to the data that the Boundary Commissions use when developing their proposals. Boundary Commissions look at a variety of data sources. First and foremost, they look at numbers of electors so that they can devise constituencies that fit within the size range set by legislation. The Boundary Commissions draw information on elector numbers from the electoral register, generally deriving that data from the version of the register that exists on the 1 December at the start of a review, known as “the review date”. This date is picked because it generally falls immediately after the completion of the annual canvass, the process by which electoral registration officers verify entries on the electoral register. I should add here that annual canvasses are not required in Northern Ireland in the same way, but a revised register is still published every year by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland. The electorate data drawn from the registers in Scotland, Wales and England is then checked further by relevant government agencies: the National Records of Scotland and the Office for National Statistics. The collated information—a complete and current picture of the number of electors in all four nations—is then published centrally by ONS. From this point it is used by the Boundary Commissions.
I hope noble Lords will see that the rationale here is that boundary reviews are based on the most up-to-date, robust and transparent information on elector numbers. This approach has been in place since the Boundary Commissions were created in 1944 and we do not seek to alter it. That said, the Bill makes one change in relation to electoral data for the next boundary review only; I hope that your Lordships will understand that it does so in direct response to Covid-19. Rather than being based on the electoral register of 1 December 2020, the next review will use the version of the register from 2 March 2020, before the pandemic. The aim is to sidestep any potential impact that Covid-19 may have on the operation of this year’s canvass or the electoral register. I am pleased to say that this one-off change has been widely supported.
Still on the topic of data, as well as elector numbers, Boundary Commissions will of course look to devise boundaries that reflect the other factors that they may take into account, including geographical features, local ties, existing parliamentary constituencies and local government boundaries.
The Bill introduces a change to the way in which the commissions take account of local government boundaries. Currently, the commissions can work only with local boundaries that have been fully brought into effect at an election before the start of a review. This means that, in places, a Boundary Commission may be looking back one, two or even three years to how the boundaries were at the time of the last local election in that area.
The Bill changes that. In future, Boundary Commissions will be able to take account of prospective local government boundaries—that is, boundaries that have been made by an order but not yet used in an election—at the review date: the 1 December formal start of the review. This measure will help keep constituency boundaries better aligned with local government boundaries, where appropriate. For the next boundary review, it will mean that new local government boundaries in London, Hertfordshire, Berkshire, Devon and Cornwall may all be taken into account where previously they might not have been.
We now come to the end of the process: the point where the Boundary Commissions have done their work and submitted their final reports. Here, the Bill introduces what in the marvellous world of policy is described as “automaticity”. Automaticity is simply the idea that the recommendations of the Boundary Commissions, developed through the meticulous and consultative process I have described, should be implemented without political influence or interference. Recommendations will still be brought into effect by an Order in Council; however, the draft order will no longer require approval by Parliament prior to making. As part of this measure, the Government’s ability to amend the draft Order in Council if rejected by Parliament is also removed.
In the other place, there was a degree of misunderstanding about the intentions of this change. I assure your Lordships that the purpose of this measure is straightforward: to bring certainty and confidence to the citizen and the elector that updated constituencies will be implemented without interference and further delay. I suspect that I am not alone in remembering what delay and interference look like; I will not touch on anybody’s sensibilities by referring to episodes in this country’s recent history.
I am sure that others will have different interpretations of the ins and outs of why boundary reviews have been delayed in the past, but I hope we can all agree that there is a vulnerability in our current legislation in this regard, and yet also an urgent need for the next review to start in good order and deliver updated boundaries promptly and reliably. Automaticity is the answer to that conundrum, and we are not the only ones to think so. In moving to this system, we draw on the experience of countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, where a similar approach is used.
We also heard support in the evidence sessions of the Public Bill Committee in the other place. Witness after witness spoke up for automaticity, including party representatives, the Electoral Reform Society and several academics. As they pointed out, the removal of Parliament from the end of the boundary review process in no way alters the fact that Parliament remains sovereign and continues to set the rules and parameters within which the Boundary Commissions operate. The contesting of a parliamentary constituency will always be about politics, but this Government believe firmly that the process by which that constituency is proposed, revised and implemented should never be.
I will finish by talking about aspects of the current legislation that the Bill does not fundamentally change. The key topic here is tolerance. Under existing law, the Boundary Commissions are required to propose constituencies that are within plus or minus 5% of the average UK constituency electorate, which is known as the electoral quota. This provision, which was introduced by the 2011 Act, ensures that constituencies across the United Kingdom are broadly equal in size, within a 10% range of the electoral quota. The Government are not changing this because we are committed to delivering not just updated constituencies but equal and updated ones. Both goals are crucial. Equal constituencies mean votes that carry equal weight. Our democracy relies on our electors having confidence that they are fairly represented, yet how can an elector in Milton Keynes South—one of 97,000—feel fairly represented when up the road in Northampton North, their fellow elector is one of only 59,000?
Within our broad ambition to achieve equal constituencies, we accept that there are a handful of locations in the British Isles whose unique geographies demand a greater degree of flexibility. The law therefore includes a limited number of exceptions to the tolerance rules. By and large, we are leaving these untouched. For example, the exception that exists for Northern Ireland remains in place, allowing in certain limited circumstances for a slightly wider tolerance to be applied. This recognises that nation’s small number of constituencies and the disproportionate impact that certain rounding effects that result from the allocation of constituencies to the four nations can have there.
Similarly, an exemption for very large, sparsely populated constituencies also remains in place, as do the four protected constituencies that were included in the 2011 legislation where the tolerance rules do not apply. Those four protected constituencies are Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Orkney and Shetland, and two constituencies on the Isle of Wight.
The one change we are making here, following an amendment supported by the Government, is to add a fifth protected constituency for Ynys Môn—Anglesey. This move addresses an anomaly and has been widely welcomed. All the protected constituencies are islands and Ynys Môn falls within the range they set in terms of both geographical and electoral size.
To conclude, we have before us a Bill whose core purpose is electoral equality and fairness, delivered through equal and updated parliamentary constituency boundaries. Debates and witness testimony in the other place have revealed a clear consensus that this goal needs to be met—and soon. We need constituencies that reflect the electorate as they are now, not as they were at the turn of the century.
The Bill makes sensible and supported improvements to the way boundary reviews operate. We are legislating for an appropriate number of seats, a better frequency of reviews, an improved set of review processes and a more certain method of implementation designed to enhance the independence of the impartial Boundary Commissions. The people of the UK deserve fair votes; they deserve effective representation; and they deserve to have trust and certainty in the boundary review process that delivers those things.
I commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister introducing his first Bill and I welcome being able to say that I welcome it. Of course, it rectifies a bad mistake made by the coalition, which sought to reduce the size of Parliament without a corresponding reduction in the size of the Executive and which reduced the accountability of MPs to their constituencies by giving them larger electorates and by legislating for frequent re-boundarying, making it harder to build up the knowledge and contacts that make for effective representation.
Of course, these are matters more for the elected than for your Lordships’ House. But it was ironic that the reduction of the size of that House was to happen just as this one grew disproportionately by the addition of Members who were here for life and—like all of us —neither removable nor accountable. It was hard to understand the rationale for that, so I look forward to hearing former members of the coalition Government—particularly the seven Lib Dems due to speak today, of whom three are in the Chamber—who, as Hansard reminds me, voted against our amendment on this subject, to explain the conundrum. Regrettably, neither the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, nor the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who steered it though this House, is on the speakers’ list today. Anyway, it all means that we are of course delighted to see Clause 5, and to give it our wholehearted support.
Your Lordships would, however, expect us to look carefully at the rest of the Bill, to ensure that it achieves its objectives and to see whether there are amendments that we would like to table for consideration. Perhaps the major one is something that does affect us, because it is about the role of Parliament. Hitherto, as we have heard, Parliament has had to sign off the final proposals from the various boundary commissions. Indeed, it was, fortunately, because of this very power, and the then Government’s inability to get their proposals through the other House, that we do not now have a 600-seat Chamber at the other end of this building.
However, suddenly, in this Bill, without any prior consultation, that final backstop role of Parliament has vanished—and with it, any possibility for the Commons to pause the process. Instead, the Executive will simply, via an Order in Council, trigger the whole sweep of changes. The Government maintain that this is to keep the procedure completely free of any political input. But there will still be political input—from the Executive, who retain the ability of tabling or withholding that Order in Council, because that cannot be instigated by Parliament.
So, for the sake of argument, should the Government not like the outcome, and should they be planning an election—since they have also promised to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act—would it not be very convenient to hold back that trigger, with Parliament unable to act? The Minister will, I am sure, say that the Government could do the same now, by delaying a statutory instrument—but at least that would be Parliament’s business, and therefore open to question.
Perhaps more fundamental, however, is the idea that Parliament—or politics—is somehow a bit grubby, and should not be able to give its final approval to something of such democratic consequence. Leaving major constitutional decisions to officials, with no parliamentary oversight, is difficult to defend. So I look forward to hearing the Minister—steeped as he is in Parliament and its ways—argue why, in this unique decision, Parliament should be shut out.
My noble friend Lord Lennie, who knows a thing or two about this, will say rather more about the issue of variance later, and will explain why the very small figure of plus or minus 5% is too restrictive to enable the boundary commissions to respect communities and geography, and to minimise disruption.
I will simply say two things. First, just as, in this House last time—thanks to the Lord Speaker, I think—we respected the Isle of Wight’s geography, and this time, thanks to a Conservative MP, Ynys Môn, or Anglesey, has been preserved as a seat, so we should enable the boundary commissions to respect equally important geographical realities, particularly in Wales.
I lived in Anglesey, in Bodedern, for a time—albeit I was unable to vote for Cledwyn Hughes, later Baron Cledwyn of Penrhos, as in those bygone days the voting age was 21, which I had not yet attained. So I know the island, and I feel its identity and cohesion. But I also know this in and around my maternal home of Ystradgynlais. My noble friend Lady Gale will say more about the valleys and their identity, as well as their travel challenges, in due course—things that necessitate some extra leeway to preserve community ties.
That brings me to the second point on variance. In their determination to have numerically equal electorates per seat, the Government have forgotten that MPs represent communities, not just individuals. MPs’ understanding of their local companies and schools, the local authority, the swimming pools, the universities, the sports teams, the churches, the charities, the culture and local history, means that they are embedded in the lives of their constituencies in a way that pure numerical determination fails to understand. So we will ask the Government to think again about the degree of flexibility allowed to the boundary commissions.
There are just two other points to make. One, in the context of this attempt to reach exact figures in each seat, is to remind the Minister that some 9 million—perhaps 20%—of those entitled to vote are missing from the register. That is a rough average of 10,000 per constituency. Given how many are missing altogether, that makes the obsession with the last 3,500—that is, of course, a smaller number for the 5%, now that we have 650 seats rather than 600—a little hard to understand.
Equally important for the representation of people in the Commons is that many simply do not get the chance to vote. The Electoral Commission recommended automatic voter registration, and the Select Committee of your Lordships’ House on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 recommended urgent action to tackle under-registration, including piloting automatic registration for attainers. So perhaps the Minister could respond to this proposal in advance of our tabling the relevant amendments.
Secondly, as we look to the future and to an election in, say, four years’ time—although the early date of the first boundary review makes me think the next election might be a little earlier—we have the space now to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds, whose lives will be affected by decisions in the Commons. I urge the Government not to dismiss this call but to give very careful thought to the planet, and the country, that we will leave to them, and to whether it is right to give those 16 and 17 year-olds a say over who will take the decisions that shape their lives. But for the moment we welcome the Bill, which will rectify a bad mistake, and I look forward to the speeches that will follow today, as well as to our discussions in Committee.
My Lords, it is not my usual source for a wise text, but I shall begin with a quote from the Conservative manifesto of December 2019—significantly not repeated by the Minister this afternoon. We do believe that we should be
“making sure that every vote counts the same—a cornerstone of democracy.”
However, we remind the Government that any variance in the number of electors in UK constituencies pales into insignificance when compared with the way the first-past-the-post electoral system cheats voters. Some party supporters have to be hugely more numerous to secure representation than others. In December 2019, it took 33 times as many to secure an MP for one party when compared with another, so the worst ratio inequality was a staggering 33:1. We will have to return to this when we have a more comprehensive opportunity to make our system more fit for purpose, perhaps when the promised constitution, democracy and rights commission is up and running.
We can agree to some features of this Bill. The retention of the 650 MPs is now logical, and so too is the eight years between each review and redistribution; that is helpful. The base date for electoral registration totals is certainly sensible, and the overall emphasis on avoiding unnecessary, frequent and disruptive changes is very welcome indeed. That is the area which requires the most improvement in the Bill. For a start, Parliament must give a firm instruction to the Boundary Commissions to avoid, wherever practicable, crossing top-tier local authority boundaries. The classic case is the historic boundary that gives unrivalled integrity to Cornwall. The River Tamar provides a much better boundary with England than either Scotland or Wales currently enjoy. Even the Conservative MPs there now seem to have lost their enthusiasm for a “Devonwall” seat.
There are other examples. Crossing city boundaries to avoid splitting wards within them is manifestly absurd, encumbering MPs, the cities themselves and their citizens with totally avoidable confusion. MPs seem to have accepted that splitting large wards is preferable to creating constituencies that straddle more than one upper-tier local authority area, but the Bill must be totally explicit on this objective.
However, this gives added weight to the case for more realistic and flexible tolerances. As the independent academic evidence to the Commons Public Bill Committee from Dr David Rossiter and Professor Charles Pattie, drawing on the much-respected work of the late Professor Ron Johnston, made clear,
“Ward splitting certainly helped to reduce the amount of disruption, but in our estimates it did not reduce disruption anything like as much as widening the tolerances moderately.”
This is the core issue. Given that updated analysis shows that the previously alleged distortion between the electorates and voting in Conservative and Labour-held constituencies is now less significant and due more to registration levels, third-party activity and turnout as much as to any other factor, the disruption factor is all-important. Again, the academic evidence given to the Commons Public Bill Committee is absolutely explicit:
“Most of the bias that has caused comment and concern in recent years has come from other sources that are nothing to do with the constituency size issue.”
MPs on the Committee seemed to accept that and to be anxious to avoid massive pointless disruption.
I know from my own experience how important this is both for MPs and for their constituents. Between my first period in 1974 and my return in 1992, there was a massive change in Cornwall; only the long-suffering residents in the Bodmin area had to have me as their MP twice. Elementary arithmetic reveals that the tight 5% margins either side of the desirable electorate changes when—[Inaudible]—650 constituencies, compared with the 600 in the previous legislation. With a few hundred variables, the whole political geography can change. Several constituencies can experience a knock-on effect and established representation links can be arbitrarily destroyed. A 5% tolerance invites regular disruption and ever-present insecurity. No MP with integrity wants that.
For example, the proposed extension of the franchise to more UK citizens overseas, which is planned to take place while this review is under way, could distort many of the new proposals, given such narrow room for manoeuvre. As more people from the EU achieve UK citizenship, that too can alter local totals. We will want to examine meticulously the case for a 7.5%, 8% or 10% tolerance, and it looks like the Labour Party will support us in re-examining those tolerance levels. My noble friends would also have wished to have emphasised the need for greater effort to improve the completeness of the register and to bring it into closer alignment with the census. They will wish to examine the special geographical factors at work in Scotland and Wales.
This Bill is an improvement in a number of respects. However, it will succeed only if a realistic approach is adopted to prevent excessive disruption, to preserve consistency and to respect historic integrity. Ironically, in a different era, that would have been described as conservatism.
My Lords, first, I hope that I am correct in wishing the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, a happy birthday. Secondly, I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about the sad death of Professor Ron Johnston, who would have given evidence to the committee in the other place had he not died so tragically only a few days before he was due to do so. He was a man of great and impartial expertise, to whom the political geography of redistribution came so naturally—and so charmingly to everyone he spoke to.
Given the brevity that we are required to maintain in the debate, at this stage I intend to speak on only one aspect of the Bill: Clause 5, on the number of Members of Parliament. No doubt I will return to other more contentious matters at a later stage, such as automaticity, quotas and the like, but I should add that I broadly support the other elements of the Bill as they stand.
We have too large a political class in this country. It has inflated beyond a level that is acceptable in a modern western democracy. I am therefore disappointed to see that we are moving away from 600 MPs, a number which, as far as I was concerned, was far too many. In his opening comments, the Minister justified moving back to 650 MPs in part because of Brexit. I would have sympathy with that argument were it not for the fact that when we went into the EU, no one suggested that we should reduce the number of Members of Parliament.
When we went into the EU, and when the last EU legislation was passed in 1986, we had only two elected bodies in the United Kingdom, one in Stormont and one in Westminster. The 1986 Act states:
“The number of constituencies in Great Britain shall not be substantially greater or less than 613.”
We currently have 19 more MPs than the Act recommended, and since 1986 we have added 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament, 60 Members of the Senedd Cymru, 12 more Members at Stormont, 25 Members of the GLA, 41 police and crime commissioners, and elected mayors in Merseyside, Manchester, Watford, Bedford, Teesside and the like. Then, of course, we have 792 Members of this House which, sadly, is just about to be heavily inflated, a decision that I greatly regret, particularly given that so many of the people who will be undertaking that process had said themselves that they wanted to reduce the burden of government on individuals.
Where I agree with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, is that if we have a certain number of Members of Parliament, we should also have control over the Executive. We have much larger Houses than most other democracies. If we reduce the number of MPs to what I believe to be an acceptable level, there should be some way of acknowledging the control of the Executive. That is the job of both these Houses. But at the same time as we have been adding elected bodies in one form or another, depending on how you make the calculations we currently have 120 Ministers and Whips, a not quite record 42 Parliamentary Private Secretaries, and 109 special advisers—a number that in itself is up from 27 in 1987, almost the same point at which the legislation was passed.
We should reduce the number of people who govern this country, not just stabilise the total at 650. Given that I read the Sunday Times yesterday, I hope that soon—possibly in Committee—we might have what one might describe as a Quentin Letts amendment. We should restrict the numbers in this place and the Commons.
[Inaudible]—proposal for the implementation of reports of Boundary Commissions with what has been described as automaticity, without the current parliamentary approval and, therefore, it is said, without the possibility of political influence or interference at that stage. In future, unless Parliament changes primary legislation at the time of a report’s publication, it will cease to have a role. It is said we are drawing on the experience of successful examples elsewhere, in New Zealand, Canada and Australia.
The consequence of this change must be to move the focus of any risk of political interference to the Boundary Commission, as the final decision will no longer be for Parliament. This means that any risk of interference may move to the commission and the process of appointing it. It is therefore essential that the commission is not only independent but seen to be independent and appointed independently.
As noble Lords know, commissions are chaired by the deputy chairman in each jurisdiction, who has to be a High Court judge. In Scotland the deputy chairman is appointed by the head of the judiciary, the Lord President, and in Northern Ireland by the head of the judiciary there, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. However, that is not the position in England and Wales. The appointment is not by the head of the judiciary, the Lord Chief Justice, but by the Lord Chancellor, a government Minister.
For England and Wales, this anomaly—which pre-dates the change to the position of the Lord Chancellor in 2005—must be changed, in my view, so that the deputy chairman is no longer appointed by a government Minister but, as in Scotland and Northern Ireland, by the head of the judiciary. Although, of course, the Lord Chancellor consults the Lord Chief Justice, in the light of the proposed change brought about by this Bill in effecting automaticity, that is no longer sufficient. That is because it is necessary to ensure that the independence of the judiciary is not undermined by any perception of partisanship or political influence in the appointment. It must be seen to be wholly independent of the political Minister that the Lord Chancellor now is.
At the same time it seems necessary to change the appointment of the two other commissioners. Professor Hazell and Dr Renwick of the Constitution Unit at University College London set out a number of alternatives in their evidence to the House of Commons Committee in June 2020. In agreement with them, I urge that the preference should be the appointment made by an independent committee, including the deputy chairman, as is present practice. That committee should then put forward a single name to the Minister, with a power to reject only if written reasons are given. That has proved a very effective mechanism for the independent appointment of judges.
If the commission’s decisions are, in effect, to be final and binding through automaticity and protected from political interference, the appointment process must be independent and therefore seen to be free of the risk of any perception of political interference and influence.
My Lords, I have great respect for the noble Lords, Lord Hayward and Lord Tyler, but I had difficulty following some of their points.
On the point from the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, about the size of the House of Commons, it has historically always had about 650 Members. A century ago, it was larger at 707 Members; it has come down in size over that period. I do not think it excessively large for exactly the reasons my noble friend gave: we have an unusually large Executive in this country, partly because we are a unitary state. We do not have devolved government in England. Maybe we should have a smaller Government than 100-odd members, but as long as such a large proportion of the governing party are members of the Executive—about a third of the Members of the governing party in the House of Commons are members of the Executive—I see no alternative to a House of Commons about the same size we have at the moment.
As for the House of Lords, I think the noble Lord’s memory is somewhat short. It was the last Labour Government who dramatically decreased the size of the House of Lords by removing most of the hereditary Peers. The House of Lords is now much smaller than it has been for most of recent history.
As for what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, I am a supporter of electoral reform. I support the mixed member system that Britain introduced into Germany after 1945 to get the best balance between directly elected constituency MPs and a proportional top-up—but we have had a referendum on that. We had a referendum in 2011, and whereas I was very open to exploring the results of the 2016 referendum, which was close and not on a precise proposition, the 2011 referendum on the alternative vote was on a very precise proposition and has been enacted by Parliament—and it was decisive; 69% voted against it.
My strong advice to my friends on the Lib Dem Benches is: do not go there. The way the progressive parties in this country will come to power in future is not by chimera ideas of electoral reform but by winning an election under the existing system. That is what we should devote our attention to doing.
My noble friend’s points were all well made and I agreed with them all. I amplify her final point about votes at 16. It is not clear to me what the Government’s policy is in respect of allowing the House of Commons a free vote; perhaps he could elucidate that for us in his reply. It looks as if on a free vote there probably is a majority now in the House of Commons for a voting age of 16.
Not only has the time clearly come for votes at 16— the group that wants representation and has a democratic right to it that is most unrepresented in our institutions at the moment is young people, particularly 16 and 17 year-olds—but it should go hand in hand with two other reforms. First, young people should be automatically registered at their place of study, which used to happen when I was a student. Then, all universities would automatically register all their students. The move towards individual registration has served to keep a lot of young people off the electoral roll. If we are to reduce the voting age to 16, the other change I would make is to have a polling station in every place of study—every school with a sixth form, every college and every university. The combination of those three reforms—votes at 16, automatic registration and a polling booth in every place of study—would transform the representation of young people and we would be a healthier society for it.
My Lords, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was the subject of the fiercest and longest debates I have witnessed in this House. At the time my party was seeking a route to change to the AV voting system through a referendum, while the Conservative Party was seeking to address what it wrongly considered to be a bias against it in the system. My party failed to persuade people to vote for its preferred option in that referendum, and the Conservative Party failed to persuade either House of Parliament to accept the proposals for new constituency boundaries in 2013 and knew it would fail again with those of 2018—so the 2011 Act must be replaced. But to say that this Bill has been approved by the other place means only that it has been approved by the Conservative Party.
The Bill before us is better than that of 2011 in that it retains 650 constituencies and proposes reviews every eight years, not every five, but the basis of it remains flawed in at least two major respects. First, we still have a hopelessly inadequate system of voter registration, which provides the building blocks for drawing boundaries. Secondly, as we can see from the last two aborted review processes, the tiny variation of just 5% permitted to the quota for electorates in each constituency will prevent the creation of sensible constituencies based on recognised communities and will result in major disruption to many constituency boundaries with every review.
In 2015 the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee concluded that a variation of 7.5% or 8% would be consistent with the government aims and with avoiding these problems. We see from the 2013 and 2018 proposals how this inflexible figure of 5% results in great changes to many constituencies even though both sets of proposals were for the same number of seats. It was argued in the other place that splitting local government wards could limit this disruption, but an excellent and detailed note from the Boundary Commission for England explained very carefully and in detail why splitting wards is not practical on a widespread basis. This time we must properly address the problem of being unable to create sensible constituencies all within the 5% quota and which will otherwise often cross county and other local government boundaries and involve major disruption to boundaries, splitting up many constituencies every time a review is conducted.
I remind noble Lords of the advisory speaking time of three minutes. We must finish at 8.30 pm tonight and we have a 60-Member list, so we need to get on.
My Lords, one of the many privileges of being a Member of this place is having opportunities, such as we have this afternoon, to have a role in determining the structure and process of our democracy. As unelected Peers, this is even more of a privilege, and one that we must use with considerable care.
I welcome this Bill for many reasons, some of which have already been expressed. It seeks to learn the lessons of the ill-fated 2018 Boundary Commissions review. By streamlining the review process, not only will future reviews be concluded more efficiently, but the Boundary Commissions’ recommendations will be provided in a politically neutral pathway for implementation. Some noble Lords will find the idea of the recommendations being implemented by an Order in Council rather than by parliamentary procedure uncomfortable. However, I ask them to consider the result that party politics can have on this process, as we saw in the last Parliament. The Bill will not only allow the Boundary Commissions’ recommendations to be implemented but, as the Minister said, put us in line with our sister parliamentary democracies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I do not think that it will be easily argued that this process has undermined their democracies.
However, the main purpose of the Bill is not to steal good ideas from our overseas cousins, but to deliver for the British people up-to-date and equal parliamentary boundaries, as promised in the Government’s manifesto. The current parliamentary constituency boundaries are based on data that is two decades old. Given the increase in population and changing demographics experienced across the United Kingdom, we need a Parliament that reflects that change. The next review will use the latest electoral information and return the current number of constituencies, ensuring that we have a Parliament that reflects modern Britain, providing the electorate of the United Kingdom with equal and fair votes and representation, and delivering for the British people.
The Bill has two changes which I particularly welcome: first, that the Boundary Commissions are mandated to redraw the constituencies every eight years; and secondly, that future reviews allow prospective local government boundaries to be considered alongside existing ones, helping to minimise the lack of alignment of council wards with parliamentary boundaries.
The Bill was passed by the other place with only two government-backed amendments, one to make Ynys Môn a protected constituency and the other to ensure that the next review is based on electoral data taken in March this year. Otherwise, the Bill was passed without further amendment—by Members who were returned by the electorate of this country only a few months ago, in a historic election in which this Government won an 80-seat majority with a promise to modernise parliamentary boundaries as part of a manifesto which this Bill is designed to deliver.
I agree with the Minister that it would be absurd to fight the next election on boundaries that are a quarter of a century old, but let us not exaggerate the good that the Bill does. It will not give every citizen an equal say in the nation’s affairs. It cannot while we hang on to first past the post, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, reminded us, and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, reminded us, while we reject automatic registration, leaving off the register 9 million eligible people, primarily poorer, younger and from minority-ethnic communities. Automatic registration works elsewhere. Democracy demands it here.
My chief concern is the cohesion of the kingdom. We are told that Scotland will lose three seats and Wales will lose eight seats. Are we sure that statistical tidiness makes political sense? Right now, I oppose the 2011 Act, which would have culled six Scottish seats, so of course I welcome Clause 5, but it does not address the elephant in the room: the growing perception in Scotland, Wales, and now, strikingly, in Northern Ireland—because of the Johnson frontier in the Irish Sea—that the voices of the smaller nations go unheard. The Bill will not weaken and may slightly strengthen that perception.
If it were not against the spirit of the age, I would suggest that the Government reflect on the allocation of seats in the European Parliament, which has from the start favoured smaller member states, as has the Council’s voting systems. If it were not against their perceived party interests, the Government could have proposed amending Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act to allow the Boundary Commissions to consider the additional criterion of peripherality, and to take more account of sparsity of population. The more distant a constituency, the harder the job of representing it. To drive to the highland constituency represented for so long by Lord Maclennan of Rogart, whom we greatly miss, would take 12 hours; to drive across it would take two more hours. For distant rural seats, it would make sense to widen the permitted 5% variation. To do so makes sound strategic sense if we really think that our endangered union is precious.
“Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom”.
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord True, knows his Burke.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, made some powerful points. Until now, the principle of constituency equalisation has been applied by the Boundary Commissions in a fair and sensible way, taking proper account of local views, community identity and geographical sparsity, instead of being rigidly straitjacketed, as this Bill requires, and damaging Wales more than anywhere else, as my noble friend Lady Hayter has said.
In no other nation or region of Britain, proportionate to the population, are there such large and remote areas and vast rural areas with many thousands more sheep than people and constituencies of many hundreds of square miles. Yet under this Bill, four existing geographically large constituencies across mid, west and north Wales could well become two monster ones of thousands of square miles each. The Prime Minister can drive across his constituency in five to 10 minutes, but it takes a couple of hours or more to drive from one corner of the current Brecon and Radnorshire constituency to another.
Moreover, before 2010, every Parliament and Boundary Commission understood and accepted an elementary verity about former coal-mining Welsh valleys: that you cannot communicate with the next valley by the shortest route, because that is over the top of the mountain. You must travel to the top or bottom and go around. Communities in each of these valleys have different histories and identities, including, importantly, on the Welsh language. Parliament first decided in an Act in 1944 —well over 70 years ago—that because of Wales’s uniqueness, there should be no fewer than 35 seats. This Bill will result in an arbitrary cut of fully a fifth, from 40 to 32 seats in Wales.
Most offensive is the way that the Bill sweeps away local democracy. For generations, constituency boundaries have been reviewed and adjusted by local agreement not central diktat. Local people have had the opportunity to object if community identities were threatened or unsuitable mergers with nearby towns or villages were proposed, but the Bill has unilaterally dumped this for a rigid formula, with Wales most punitively hit.
The original, fairer, more transparent and consensual boundary review system should be restored. Equalisation should not be applied in such a dogmatic, rigid and politically discriminatory fashion; then we could have a fair and democratic boundaries Bill, not this unfair one, which rides roughshod over local community views, especially in Wales.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill so ably introduced by my noble friend, even though the 1986 Act that it amends abolished the Ealing Acton constituency I represented for 23 years, making me politically homeless until the good voters of North West Hampshire offered me their hospitality.
The most controversial aspect of the Bill is its so-called automaticity. Some Peers do not like this because it goes too far; my concern is exactly the opposite —that it does not go far enough. The Government contend that this change will
“provide certainty that the recommendations of the independent and impartial boundary commissions will be implemented without political influence or interference from either government or Parliament”.
This is a worthy objective. Many noble Lords will remember—my noble friend Lady Pidding referred to it—how the Labour Party and the Lib Dems, here and in another place, joined up to postpone the boundary recommendations in 2013, even though they implemented legislation put on the statute book by Nick Clegg. Noble Lords with longer memories will recall, in 1969, Jim Callaghan laid the necessary order in the Commons and then invited his party to vote it down, described by Callaghan’s official biographer as a “a cynical partisan manoeuvre”
“pragmatic delay, untrammelled by principle”.
He was said in later life to have regretted what he did.
Those two examples show the importance of insulating the Boundary Commission from political interference, but the Bill does not do this, because Clause 2 retains the words
“as soon as reasonably practicable”,
referring to the interval before the Government lays the Order in Council to give effect to the recommendations of the Boundary Commission. This was the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. Any Government could undermine the purpose of the Bill by simply not doing this.
We have a recent example of exactly this happening. The Boundary Commission submitted its last report in September 2018 and, under the law, Ministers should have laid the order “as soon as practicable”. It still has not been laid nearly two years later. No one could argue that it was not practicable to have done so, but there has been no legal challenge. What would prevent a future Government, who find the recommendations not to their liking, simply not laying the order?
I ask my noble friend whether he will look kindly on an amendment in Committee to replace the words “as soon as practicable” with a specific time limit to remove the possibility of gerrymandering and achieve the objective of the Bill, as set out in the quotation I referred to. That would thereby achieve objectives that I otherwise wholeheartedly support.
My Lords, I am not grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, for reminding noble Lords that it is my birthday, but I thank him for the commemoration anyway. At my age, I try to forget about it. I agree entirely with my noble friends Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, so I will try not to repeat what they said. I have to say to the Labour Party that, if we want, we could spend the whole of the Bill refighting battles and arguments from 2011. I do not think that would be useful, because we need to co-operate to scrutinise carefully the legislation that the present Government are putting forward. That requires us to work together.
The 2011 legislation, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, was a shambles in almost every respect—while it was taking place, in this House and in the way it came out, on all sides. We should learn from that. It teaches a great deal of lessons that are not for today about how to work coalitions, should there ever be another one, and their internal workings. The shambles were a direct result of the internal structure of the coalition, which was far too top-down and dependent on negotiations and deals done between two people, who did not know much about many of the things they were dealing with.
The 5% is important. I have no problems with the Bill increasing the number of constituencies back to 650. I have no problems with 650, and could not understand why everybody was getting so worked up and agitated about the difference between 600 and 650. If people want to reduce it to 300 or 350, it would be something to talk about. I would not agree, but it would be an argument worth fighting if you did. This 600 to 650 is neither here nor there, nor worth talking about.
However, it will not help in Lancashire, where the two proposals were both very similar. People are restricted to 5% and, because they had to start somewhere—and they started on the coast and came inland—by the time they got to the Pennines, it was a complete botch-up. Since we will probably lose a seat because of the changes from present, I do not think it will make much difference. We can talk about that in Committee. I have used up my time. All I will say is: if we and the Labour Party want something sensible from the Bill, let us work together.
My Lords, I was a member of the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which reported earlier this month. I intervene in this debate to underline that some of the key conclusions of that Select Committee report bear directly on the aims of the Bill.
As the Minister stated, the Government wish by the Bill to deliver their manifesto commitment to have
“updated and equal UK Parliamentary boundaries … making sure that every vote counts the same”.
The process to determine this level playing field that would achieve this depends crucially on the quality of the data used, in particular the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers. The Government clearly recognise the importance of good data; as has been stated, it was one of the reasons for introducing this legislation and it led the Government to introduce the new Clause 8 in the Bill.
But the Government need to think about going further. They need to address the important finding of our committee report that much more should be done to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers, the key data for future boundary reviews. In our committee hearings, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and other noble Lords, we heard in evidence that millions of eligible voters are missing from the registers. The UK lags behind other countries in addressing this issue. We heard that there are regional disparities and that underrepresentation was more likely among certain demographic groups, including the BAME community, the young and students, the disabled and those in care homes. The committee specifically drew attention to the serious implications of this on the work of reviewing parliamentary boundaries and achieving the level playing field we all want.
Talk of completeness and accuracy of electoral registers may sound esoteric to some, but it certainly goes to the heart of much of the wider political debate about trust in the democratic process, regional disparities, race and inequality. I urge the Minister to prioritise work to improve the electoral registration process and ensure that the wider aims of the Bill can be achieved in the longer term.
My Lords, there are many positive aspects to the Bill, but I will concentrate on a couple of points. First, with regard to who finally decides, we have a view in this country that if you appoint an outside body, everybody on it is therefore independent and impartial. The trouble with that is that they are not accountable; for better or ill, Members of the House of Commons are. It would be worth looking again at this proposal because, if a body is accountable, the political decision clearly lies there. We cannot push all our key decisions to third parties and not be prepared to take tough decisions ourselves. While there is, of course, self-interest in having the power to decide, that is what the House of Commons is there for. Members are elected to the House of Commons to take decisions, not to farm them out to somebody else.
There is an issue about flexibility. Having equal constituencies and votes of equal weight is an impossibility when you have already set aside special circumstances for geography, which I fully accept. It is an unachievable dream.
I would like the Minister to run over another issue. We have four boundary commissions. Why? We are talking about seats in the House of Commons—a UK-wide Parliament. Following the recent 2018 review of parliamentary boundaries, our Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland was taken to court and lost the case. It was said that it had fettered its discretion. We can achieve the same goal of having local input by having people from all four nations on a boundary commission. We did that recently with the formation of the agriculture commission. So we need to look at that. If people think that our boundary commission is so good at local knowledge, it came up with a constituency that looked like a sausage—it had neither shape nor make nor any coherence to it. So I am not convinced that having four outfits trying to do the job of one is necessarily the best way forward. Perhaps that is something we can look at in Committee.
In general I support the Second Reading, but there are some very good points to argue. Farming decisions out to third parties is not necessarily the best way to do things.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for introducing this Second Reading debate. In general, I welcome the Bill and it is well overdue.
I am not sure that the reasons given to overturn the decision to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 are very convincing. There are many parliamentary democracies with larger populations but smaller numbers of elected representatives than is the case with our House of Commons here at Westminster.
A better reason for retaining 650 seats is that it should allow more existing constituencies to continue with their current boundaries, or with relatively minor changes. The continuing coherence of our parliamentary constituencies is more important than it is given credit for in most commentary on the Bill that I have read. The previous proposals under the Boundary Commission’s report of 2018 would have resulted in the boundaries of a large number of constituencies no longer corresponding precisely to local authorities’ boundaries. This would have been regrettable.
I have been president of the North East Hertfordshire Conservative Association for many years. Our members were not at all happy that the constituency was to be renamed Letchworth and Royston, because it was expected to incorporate small parts of both Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. There are other towns in the constituency with their own characteristics, and very many electors did not identify with either Letchworth or Royston.
Most people still identify with their county. It was a pity that, under the 2018 plan, many constituencies would have had to drop the reference to their county from their new name. My Member of Parliament, my right honourable friend Sir Oliver Heald, at present has to deal with only Hertfordshire County Council and two district councils, North Hertfordshire and East Hertfordshire. Under the 2018 plans, he would also have had to deal with councils in both Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire.
I have some sympathy with those who believe that there should be slightly more flexibility than the maximum 5% deviation from the average electorate to ensure that there is a smaller number of incoherent constituencies crossing local authority boundaries. Indeed, one of the strongest arguments for the first past the post system, which I support, is that there is one Member representing all electors in one coherent single-Member constituency.
I ask my noble friend to confirm that, at present, the high sheriff of a county is the returning officer for all parliamentary constituencies in his or her county. Where a constituency will in future straddle two counties, who will decide which of the two high sheriffs will discharge this duty?
I am generally happy and agree with the Bill’s other provisions.
Like many who have spoken, I welcome the Bill. The first eight clauses are probably the meat of it. I will try to touch on a few points on Clauses 2, 4, 5 and 8.
Clause 2 touches on the need for the approval of both Houses. This is sensible, as can be clearly seen. If we had not had a system of the approval of both Houses when the previous discussions about the boundary changes and the move to 600 went through, the changes would already be in place. So needing the approval of both Houses is both sensible and a very good backstop.
I have a question on Clause 4 regarding public hearings, which I do not think has been touched on yet, and the move from the first to the second consultation. It is sensible for input on the public consultation to be in the second round. That will allow communities and parties to have sight of other proposals that are made. My concern would be with the boundary commission having more set plans and being less able to effect or bring forward changes if we have already gone through the first part of it. Most importantly, public consultations need to be fair, open and transparent.
I have another point on Clause 5 with regard to the voice of the smaller nations. I completely understand and get the idea of moving to constituencies of a similar size. The 5% plus or minus will make it very difficult to fit in more council boundaries, so looking to move that would be sensible. However, my point goes back to what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and my noble friend Lord Hain said about the nations. Currently, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have 117 constituencies, with London and the south-east having 156. These proposals will change it so that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will have 106 and London and the south-east will have 164. That will further endanger the unity of the union. Other considerations could be brought into the Bill with regard to rural constituencies that are distant from Westminster, et cetera, that would trump the size of the constituencies.
Finally, on 23 July Jon Cruddas MP wrote to the Prime Minister raising real concerns about Havering Council’s Conservative group and conversations about the gerrymandering of boundaries. That obviously brings back for all of us memories of the wilful misconduct that happened in Westminster City Council. I raise this to put it on the record as a concern. It needs to be addressed and dealt with.
My Lords, I begin by adopting the observations made by my noble friends Lord Rennard and Lord Tyler. I will take up the issue on which the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, commented, in which he was dismissive of those of us who argue for proportional representation. I wonder whether he understands that it takes a Green MP 33 times the number of votes as an SNP MP to be elected to the House of Commons. Mr Farage’s party fought a general election and got 3.5 million votes, and yet it did not have a single representative in the Commons. How would the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, deal with that problem while we wait for the remarkable achievement of all the opposition parties coming together?
I certainly support voting for 16 and 17 year-olds in this context. If your Lordships have any doubt about that, accept one of those outreach engagements and go and talk to a class of 16 year-olds. You will find that they know just as much as anyone else about political issues and about the remedies which might be used to deal with them.
I am also of the view that the less influence that Parliament has, the better it will be for the system. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, referred a little earlier to something being grubby. Nothing has been grubbier than the fact that successive Governments of all colours, including the coalition, were willing to disregard the obvious way—the orthodox way—in which the reports of the Boundary Commission should be dealt with. In that respect, I am much attracted by the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, that the way in which to deal with the Order in Council is to make its laying subject to a time limit.
Finally, I come back to the issue of 650 constituencies rather than 600. The coalition Government took office back in 2010, and a great deal has happened in those 10 years. What has happened for Members of Parliament is that access to the internet has increased to an exponential degree among the public, and the contents of what we as MPs used to describe as our postbags has increased to a quite remarkable extent. That the demands are greater than they have ever been is reflected in the fact that IPSA has consistently raised the amount of money available to Members of Parliament for their staff. I favour some of the other parts of the Bill but I hope that we will have the opportunity to consider these issues later in Committee.
My Lords, the problem with a first past the post system is that there is no such thing as a fair constituency, let alone a fair constituency boundary. I am not a historian in these matters but, looking at the Second Reading of the Bill in the Commons and the mutual suspicion that arose during debate of what should surely be purely technical concerns, I can imagine that this mutual suspicion goes back through the ages.
I do not blame the Government that there is apprehension over the ruling party influencing the system; that is the nature of the system. PR would of course not just be hugely fairer but would mean less political interest in the problem of coherent constituencies, since it is the number of representatives for each polling district that is crucial, not the size of the electorate or the shape of the constituency. The tussle between 5%, 7.5% or 10% quota tolerances feels like another unnecessary battle, and under the present circumstances, this would be less so if all eligible voters were registered.
In Germany, everyone has to register—including, perhaps amazingly, if you are homeless—and that is the basis both of the electoral register and the calculation of the quota. In Britain, according to Electoral Commission research, 9.4 million people are missing from the electoral register—a whopping 17% of eligible voters, including the young, those who rent and those on low incomes. There is a lot of talk at the moment about how best to ensure that black and ethnic minorities are treated equally. I point out to the Minister that surely the best way to help those who are systemically disadvantaged is systemically, and that therefore we urgently need automatic voter registration.
I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, about 16 year-olds. However, up to that point, boundaries should be based on census data to improve representation in areas with lower registration. In any case, MPs represent everyone in their constituency, whoever they are. What we do not require is forcing voters to provide photographic ID at polling stations, when voter fraud was committed by 0.000063% of the population, and 3.5 million people do not have photo ID.
On parliamentary oversight, I agree with the Constitution Unit when it says that allowing politicians any role in ratifying or blocking proposals runs counter to any democratic principle and that, irrespective of the voting system we currently have for general elections, we clearly need the boundaries reviewed and based on up-to-date data. However, it also says that
“automatic implementation is clearly appropriate only if the review process itself is genuinely independent of any improper interference.”
So there is yet another question of trust: how confident can we be that that will be the case? Again, that would be less of a problem with PR because the review process would be more straightforward, with less at stake politically, and, as a matter of course, no doubt, all sides would encourage frequent consultation with communities, and at an early stage in that process.
My Lords, I welcome this Bill to address the inconsistencies in the composition of constituencies. I shall keep my remarks as brief as I can in view of the inordinate length of the speakers’ list.
It is ridiculous that in a modern, vibrant democracy, we still operate elections to the House of Commons based on data from 2000, and 2001-03 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Your Lordships will be aware that the attempts to address this in 2011 were postponed until 2013, and in 2013 until 2018, because it seemed unlikely that the other place would approve any changes both to the size of constituencies and, more importantly, to their overall number.
Of course, the electorate deserve not just to be properly but fairly represented. As with any rules, there are exceptions—such as the Isle of Wight, Orkney, the Shetlands and now Anglesey—to be taken into account, as the Bill quite rightly does. However, the differentials between seats have become too great over the passage of time, and it is quite clear that change has been resisted, particularly by Labour, to seek electoral advantage. I suppose that that is not as bad as trying to seek electoral advantage by altering the whole system in your favour, as the Lib Dems unsuccessfully tried to do—which seems neither liberal nor democratic, but I suppose one should not be too surprised about that.
The significant change in the Bill from the proposals made in 2011 and 2013 is of course the reversion from 600 to 650 seats. I have listened very carefully to the debate but I still have no idea what the right number should be. Perhaps one of the next 42 speakers will enlighten us. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that it is not exactly a revolutionary change, but it is clear to me that the Government have made this significant concession to ensure that the Bill is enacted and the electorate get the fairer representation they need. The Government have justified the change in that policy by citing the increase in the workloads of MPs following our departure from the EU. I hope that the Government recognise that that increase in work at one end of the Corridor will inevitably lead to an even greater increase in work in your Lordships’ House, which already habitually sits for longer hours and more days than the Commons—as evidenced by our sitting today while our honourable and right honourable friends frolic on the beaches.
I therefore hope that the Government will ignore the currently fashionable but woolly-headed idea that this House is too large. A House whose membership is largely part-time obviously requires more Members than a House of full-time Members if it is to fulfil its role, particularly if its workload is greater. That is just simple logic. However, I suspect that that change in the Government’s policy in relation to the size of the House of Commons may have had rather more to do with the realisation that turkeys do not vote for Christmas. Perhaps the Government will remember that when they turn their attention to the future of this House.
My Lords, I welcome to some extent the Bill before us today, as it is an improvement on the previous Act and keeps the 650 seats. However, I must say that, as far as Wales is concerned, it is not good news, reducing its Members from 40 to an estimated 32 seats.
The restrictive 5% quota will have a disproportionate impact on Wales. The geographical nature of Wales, with our beautiful and scenic mountains, our rural areas and the valleys of south Wales, with their close-knit communities, means that, under the 5% quota, there is a danger of splitting communities and creating very large constituencies. With the mountains and valleys dividing constituencies, the task of creating constituencies that make sense to the communities becomes very difficult. I urge the Minister to consider the impact that this one-size-fits-all approach to constituency boundaries would have on communities across Wales.
It is crucial that the boundary commissioners are given greater flexibility to take into account the unique geography of Wales. For example, the seats in sparsely populated areas that have a much larger acreage, such as Brecon and Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire and those in Carmarthenshire, are all rural areas with already very large constituencies. Contrast this with the geography of the south Wales valleys, with each valley tending to have its own constituency. Under the Bill, we will potentially see constituencies with more than one valley, and with a mountain range between them. Certain geographical features, such as those valleys, should be given extra consideration than the 5% variance when it comes to drawing up Welsh boundaries.
The Welsh language is a crucial cornerstone of Welsh identity, and the Boundary Commission should be given greater flexibility when drawing up boundaries around these communities. There is concern that the historic Welsh-speaking communities could be split up in the next boundary review, with no thought of the long-term implications for the Welsh language in those areas—I accept that the Welsh-speaking area of Ynys Môn is being protected, and that is a good thing.
There will always be a need for variance, and it is a question of striking a balance between having constituencies that are broadly equal and constituencies that represent community ties. The Labour Party supports drawing constituency boundaries that truly reflect the communities within them. I trust that the Minister will take note of this.
My Lords, this Bill is about the appropriate use of the various building blocks of our democracy. The first building block is the electoral register. I have been privileged to serve as chairman of your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. Committee members are very much aware that the register itself is the first building block, and we have been very concerned by its lack of completeness. The register is perhaps 80% to 85% complete, comparing very unfavourably with 96.4% in Canada. Completeness must be improved.
We are pleased that, following the rush to get on the register for the 2019 election, two-thirds of a million people registered on the last day. However, the extra registrations from those who just missed the deadline mean that March 2020 is the most accurate date for which we have numbers, and shows the radical reform that is much needed in register-making needs. In my view, the Bill’s requirement for all constituencies to be within 5% of a quota—somewhere in the region of 73,000 people—is too tight to achieve constituencies that have clear and understandably linked communities.
It is also important to note that although wards make significant building-blocks, they vary significantly in number. In North Yorkshire, there are wards of under 1,000 electors, but there are over 70,000 electors in both Leeds and Sheffield. Polling districts will often make better building-blocks in urban areas.
Let me give the House an example. In the borough of Calderdale, where I live, both constituencies, using the 2019 numbers, are near the quota: the Halifax constituency is about 3% under it, which is within the suggested 5%, but the Calder Valley is about 6% over it, and therefore outside the tolerance figure. The splitting of a ward and the transfer of three polling districts—which are themselves distinct communities—would meet the 5% objective. Either way, the Government could get a good result. I suspect that most people would prefer not to change. However, I have to say that, in our area, either of those results would be certainly far more suitable than any of the three ways put forward by the previous Boundary Commission. Happily, these were aborted, as they would have brought in three different areas from Bradford.
My Lords, it is surely presumptuous that this unelected Chamber should determine the electoral process. The need for democratic legitimacy in this Chamber is far greater than the need for the Bill.
The Bill starts from a false premise, regarding the UK as a homogenous unitary state. The devolved reality requires Westminster to move forward with a more federal approach, yet the Bill replaces the individual electoral quotas of the four nations with a single UK electoral quota.
I have always seen an MP as a representative, not a delegate. For 27 years, I represented Caernarfon, including 100 miles of coastline and the Snowdon summit. It had a huge variety of environmental, economic, cultural and sociological factors. It had 93 towns, villages and hamlets, and 28 community councils, all of which rightly expected me to visit regularly. I represented farmers and fishermen, slate quarrymen, factory workers and tourist operators, and a unique cultural heritage, where 80% of people spoke Welsh as their first language. To do justice to such a variety of electors required a far greater time commitment than twice the population within a few square miles would have.
Our voting system should aim to generate an equality of representation, not numerical uniformity, and that means flexibility in constituency size. The ultimate corollary of a strict numerical approach is compulsory voting by proportional representation and multi-Member seats. It is nonsense to say that every Member must represent the same number of voters and then allow their election on a 50% turnout, winning perhaps 30% of the vote, or just 15% of eligible voters.
The electoral registration process is woefully deficient and generates less accurate population figures than do the census and the ONS estimates. The Bill also fails to deal with the multiple registration of students and second homeowners, which causes fluctuating quota numbers through the year. Under the present system, we see economically deprived areas underrepresented. This Bill does nothing to put that right. Any one of us who has canvased in an election will know that the register has massive gaps, and these are often the very people who most need an MP’s support.
When constituents came to see me in my surgeries, I would never ask whether they were a registered elector; I would take up their case if their address was in my area. An MP’s workload is not related to electoral registration, and if we are to move to an arithmetically binding formula, we are moving away from the basic premise of Britain’s representative democracy. While I accept that there has to be improvement on the present system, the Bill does not necessarily deliver the changes needed.
I have two final points. I greatly regret the reduction of Wales’s voice from 40 to an implied 32 MPs, without an increase in the number of Senedd Members in Cardiff Bay, which will be needed to undertake the augmented legislative workload. However, I welcome that the Government have accepted Plaid Cymru’s proposal to protect Anglesey’s unique status as a community. Such a community-based approach should produce a very different pattern from that likely to come from the implementation of the Bill.
My Lords, what a pleasure it is to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, as always, and share in the pride he takes in his roots. I am not sure that he sufficiently emphasised one important point: that it is not possible to be fair to Welsh, or Irish, or Scottish voters without at the same time being fair to English voters too. It is that sense of balance between us that allows us to take strength in our differences and move forward.
The Bill comes against a long background of sordid party shenanigans, and that has been part of this issue for decades. I was first a voter in a general election in 1970. It was an election that the Labour Government tried to tweak, or fix, perhaps, by voting down its own Boundary Commission report. Who will forget the somersaults performed by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition who, having time and again promised voters their voice in a Brexit referendum, changed their minds only when it no longer suited them? So much for political virtue: “Dear Lord, may I be chaste and virtuous, but not just yet.”
We know that we need the Bill: it is long overdue. We will discuss the finer merits of 5%, 6% or 7.5% and dance on the head of a pin, although I think the Opposition need to do much better in identifying why their favoured target is better than 5%—which, of course, means 10%—because the further we get away from it, the less equal the outcome will be.
I say this about parliamentary oversight and automaticity. Frankly, it goes against all my instincts to hand over too much power to a quango, a Boundary Commission. You have only to witness the appalling record of the Electoral Commission for all doubts to magnify. Yet Parliament has shown that it is not up to the job of being both judge and jury. On the other hand, my caution about quangos still kicks in, particularly in an age of social media lynch mobs. Does the Minister have any plans to strengthen the independence and judgment of the Boundary Commissions and to protect them in their work?
This is a Bill that would have been welcomed by Chartists and suffragettes alike, and I hope that this unelected House will welcome it too.
My Lords, the Bill effectively supersedes the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 and, as such, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, is admitting, is an improvement, in that it does not force through an arbitrary reduction in the number of MPs to 600. There was no rationale whatsoever for the number 600, other than that advanced by the then Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that it was a big round number.
The Bill does, however, set the number 650 in legislation rather than allow the Boundary Commissions discretion to make recommendations that best deliver effective representation at constituency level. I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said about strengthening the role of the Boundary Commissions, because it is very important that they are able to exercise proper judgment about what is effective representation at local level. I am not worried if there is some slight variation around the 650 level, provided that the commissions’ recommendations make sense at local level in terms of the communities that our Members of Parliament are expected to represent. The essence of parliamentary democracy is that a local community elects an individual to represent it in the other place. For that to make sense at local level, the community and the boundaries should make sense for that locality.
The task the Boundary Commissions are set should not be so circumscribed that the boundaries are meaningless and represent no more than lines on a map to deliver a spurious mathematical equality. One of the elements of the 2011 Act was the requirement that the commissions were not allowed to deviate from the electoral quota by more than 5%. This reduced the flexibility that had been previously available and made it more difficult to deliver constituencies that made sense in terms of the localities on the ground. What is more, the commissions are merely permitted to consider local authority boundaries. The consequence is that far more parliamentary constituencies will straddle local council areas, and that is unhelpful. MPs need to be able to represent their constituents, and it makes sense therefore that the boundaries reflect the communities on the ground. They must recognise natural features and physical divisions in the area. None of this is easy, but it does not make sense for the commissions’ hands to be unnecessarily tied, and that is why an absolute fixed limit is unhelpful and the possibility of a larger than 5% leeway should be permitted.
The other issue is how frequently boundaries should be redrawn. The Bill substitutes an eight-year cycle for a five-year one. Five years was always far too short. No sooner had one set of boundaries been promulgated than the commission would have to start work on changing them. This in itself would undermine an MP’s relationship with those she or he represents. It would cause endless uncertainty and be destabilising for the work of Parliament, because MPs would not just have to face the electorate at the end of each Parliament but would have to spend much of the time in between defending the boundaries in their area. Eight years is better than five, but 10 years would be better and would still avoid boundaries and constituency sizes becoming too outdated.
My Lords, the Bill makes provision for the number of constituencies to remain at 650. I welcome that, as the previous recommendation for 600 seats was strongly opposed by my party colleagues. However, there should be an express provision in the legislation for a minimum of 18 seats in Northern Ireland. Concern has rightly been expressed that Northern Ireland could fluctuate up or down a seat, with a knock-on effect on the Northern Ireland Assembly, therefore causing significant unnecessary disruption to representation. Having such a safeguard is low risk but would provide certainty and stability in Northern Ireland.
Rule 7 is an important flexibility for Northern Ireland, and I welcome its retention in the Bill. Rule 7 of Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 provides for different arrangements for Northern Ireland if the commission considers that having to adhere to the maximum 5% deviation from electoral quotas in each constituency does not allow it to take account of special factors, such as geographical considerations or local ties. This discretion is vital to address our Province’s unique circumstances. Indeed, in the other place, my colleagues also supported a number of amendments to the Bill at Report, including new Clause 1, which would helpfully widen the permissible range in the constituency’s total electorate up to 7.5%, rather than 5%.
The loss of parliamentary approval—or, indeed, any parliamentary procedure—for the final proposals is, in my opinion, not acceptable. A democratic accountability mechanism is critical, and it is not appropriate for the Boundary Commissions to be given such sweeping power. The frequency of reviews in previous legislation was a concern, and I am therefore happy to see a longer, more sustainable timeframe for future reviews of eight years. The local government boundary review is something Northern Ireland will be embarking on, so this flexibility may be as relevant to us as on the mainland.
I therefore wish to give my support to the main thrust of the Bill.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill. It gives impetus to the long overdue process of revising the current constituency boundaries. MPs are representing constituencies that were drawn up on data that is now 20 years old. Election night and the incoming results show the consequences, as the different sizes of constituencies have such variable electorates.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, does not like to be reminded of his birthday, but I seem to remember that I was the Whip on a previous Bill in this House, which became the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. Its flaws have been pointed out by many speakers before me, but to address the failings of the situation that arose, the Conservative Party manifesto in 2019 made a commitment to ensure
“updated and equal Parliamentary boundaries, making sure that every vote counts the same”.
The abortive 2018 Boundary Commission proposal is cancelled under this Bill as we revert to 650 constituencies, and it ensures an automatic system for the commission to implement its recommendation. It avoids further procrastination by the Government or Parliament after the commission has made its final report, and the final report is to the Speaker of the House of Commons. He is the agency for delivering the commission’s report into law, and the Secretary of State and Parliament lose—in my view, quite rightly—the ability to amend by Order in Council.
None the less, the commission has a challenging task. As so many noble Lords have pointed out, fitting community cohesion with the power that it will need for equal-value voting within a range no greater than 5% either way is what the Bill provides for, but that is a 10% variation in constituency size. That is why I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, about the importance of the independence of the Boundary Commission. That is why it is so vital to preserve its integrity.
The first target is to implement these changes by 2023. I support the creation of excluded status for the four constituencies, which will now include a fifth, Ynys Môn. My noble friend the Lord Speaker will be delighted to see two Members for the Isle of Wight at last.
My Lords, I have three areas of particular concern about the Bill: first, the failure to give equal value to every vote; secondly, the risk that the new directions to the Boundary Commission will further exacerbate the overrepresentation of the most affluent areas at the expense of the most deprived; and, thirdly, the need to view the system for determining representation in the House of Commons in the context of the lack of democratic accountability of this Chamber.
I will not dwell for too long on the disparity in the value of one person’s vote against another’s, which has distorted our politics for so long and which is maintained in this Bill; nor in decrying the Government’s obdurate attachment to first past the post, a system that leaves millions of voters feeling that their votes count for nothing while aiding and abetting the forces of nationalism and disunity—giving the SNP, for example, 48 times the number of MPs of the Green Party with just a 1.2% greater share of the vote. I will just note that the Bill certainly does not meet the Conservative manifesto commitment, already alluded to by my noble friend Lord Tyler, to
“making sure that every vote counts the same”.
The lack of proportionality is by no means the only flaw in the Bill. The constraints that it places on the tolerance that the Boundary Commissions can allow makes the number of registered electors an even more dominant factor than before. This risks natural communities being split in two but it also raises the question of whether eligible electors rather than registered ones would not be a better base for determining constituency boundaries. Given the millions of eligible voters not on the register, it is surely time to look at automatic voter registration so we can ensure that deprived areas, where registration tends to be lower, are not disenfranchised.
Lastly, we cannot view the arrangements for the election of Members of the House of Commons without reflecting on the lack of election to this House. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in opening for the Labour Party, astonishingly asked Liberal Democrats to explain why this House continued to grow during the coalition while the original coalition proposal was that the number of Members of the Commons should reduce. I am not sure whether the noble Baroness has had a fit of amnesia, but let me help her and her party out: the proposal to reduce the number of constituencies in the Commons was part of the coalition agreement, which included the establishment of an elected House of Lords. If it had been honoured, we would have increased the number of elected representatives in Parliament as a whole and immeasurably improved the legitimacy of this House.
The establishment of an elected House of Lords, which had a massive majority at Second Reading in the Commons, was in the end torpedoed by the Labour and Conservative parties colluding to prevent it. It was a result of the Conservative Party reneging on its coalition agreement, with the assistance of the Labour Party, that led the Liberal Democrats in turn to reject the reduction in the size of the Commons, which was predicated on having elected representatives here. So if the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, wants to know why we continue to sit in a bloated and unelected second Chamber, she need look no further than her own party.
Having said that, my noble friend Lord Greaves is surely wise in his counsel that we should put these matters behind us and seek to work together to improve the Bill.
Having attended a number of boundary inquiries where issues of political advantage were quickly exposed, I want today to flag up the need to keep such issues in mind as we seek to amend existing legislation. Participants in these inquiries have a dilemma—political advantage or public interest. These can be difficult issues as there are pressures. Recommendations that offend the public interest may please some party activists but they undermine confidence in our electoral system.
This all came into focus when I retired after 22 years as a Member of Parliament. I will give an example. In 2007 the Boundary Commission came forward with its Cumbria recommendations. The commission’s original draft proposed a reorganisation of Copeland, my noble friend Lord Cunningham of Felling’s former seat. The seat had been under quota for a number of years and therefore faced inevitable reorganisation. The commission’s response was to propose a seat, the Copeland-Windermere constituency, which stretched from the west Cumberland coast all the way to Windermere, the other side of the Lake District—an extraordinary proposal. However, there was a problem: the drive from Whitehaven in the west to Windermere in the east meant journeying over the highest mountain pass in the United Kingdom, the Hardknott Pass at the heart of the Lake District, which can close in the inclement weather of winter. The proposal was ludicrous. The problem was that the parties had to take it all seriously and hassle over it.
There have been times in history when irregular boundary changes were acceptable as MPs had a very different relationship with constituencies in former times, but that has all changed. They are now closer, reflecting local loyalties and ties with more personal representation. The monthly visit staying in the local smart hotel is no longer acceptable. That is the new reality that the commission needs to consider. The Member for Copeland surely cannot represent the people of Windermere: the geography is wrong and one part of the constituency will lose out. MPs no longer just represent constituents in Parliament; they now offer a service.
The Copeland proposal was rightly rejected. However, I use it only as an example; I wonder whether that bad experience is replicated elsewhere. The Boundary Commission needs to be more sensitive to the local links and loyalties that stand at the heart of effective parliamentary representation. I hope the commission is listening, particularly to the speech of my noble friend Lady Gale, who talked of problems in the Welsh valleys. If not, I have wasted my time engaging in this debate. I really hope that the commission is listening today.
My Lords, some dozen years ago I gave David Cameron a paper entitled Reducing the Cost of Politics. I stand by most of it. It covered, for instance, the fact that there are too many councillors—often people cannot get people to stand in council seats—and too many spads, far too many researchers in the Commons hanging around Portcullis House, too many Ministers and far too many Peers.
With regard to the House of Lords, I suggested a retrospective time limit, say 17 or 22 years, which is not that far from the Burns report suggestion. Yet when I put forward the idea of retrospectivity in a debate on the Burns report, I noticed that it was not met with universal acclaim in your Lordships’ House. I also suggested a Commons of some 500 Members. I remember that David Cameron said to me that “Turkeys will never vote for Christmas”, but then, and perhaps I had some influence on this, he put in the 2010 manifesto a reduction down to 600.
The reason why that was not carried through under the coalition was that the Liberal Democrats reneged on the commitment. My memory is better than those of the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Oates: the commitment to fewer constituencies was linked to the PR vote, which they lost. The Bill was very eloquently introduced by Nick Clegg, as my noble friend Lord Young said. He then realised that his party might lose seats so he betrayed the coalition agreement. That did not actually help the Lib Dems, who went down to eight seats from 57-odd—eight too many, some would say, but I did win some money on the bet.
As a former MP of 23 years, and like my noble friend Lord Hayward, who has great experience of this matter and of psephology, I know that the arguments around Boundary Commission recommendations are based very often on personal interest or party-political interest; indeed, my noble friend Lord Dobbs referred to them as “sordid party shenanigans”. MPs are worried about their own seats and parties are worried about their chances of winning elections. We hear complete nonsense spouted about why some change or other should not happen.
After 23 years as an MP I dismiss the idea that an MP cannot deal with 100,000 constituents. Of course they can—easily. I do not claim to have been an especially brilliant MP—I am sure that nobody will be really surprised to hear that—but I never had any complaints about not dealing with constituents’ problems. Quite the opposite—although you might not always have liked my way of dealing with them. There are too many Members of the House of Commons and there are far too many Peers. They start all-party parliamentary groups because they have got to keep themselves busy somehow. I do not support the Government in keeping 650 MPs. There are too many politicians. Let us reduce the size of the Commons and the Lords, and the number of politicians all round, and the cost of politics. That might start in some way to restore the damaged faith of the British public in politics and its practitioners. We should do the right thing.
My Lords, in following the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, I have to provide one correction which I shall do with a hashtag: AVisnotPR.
I want to begin by thanking the Minister for his introduction and for meeting me in advance of this Second Reading to discuss the Bill. I particularly welcome his acknowledgement that our political system needs to be up to date. Of course, the only-two-decades-old demarcation of constituencies that this Bill updates is the newest element of our creaking, antique constitution, assembled by centuries of historical accident. Were I to be speaking now within your Lordships’ House, I would be gesturing to the roof and noting that the way in which it is falling down around our ears is truly representative of the state of our political framework. The very delay in the implementation of the review of constituency boundaries is a demonstration of the failure of the chief claim of the first past the post electoral system: namely, that it delivers strong, stable government.
The Minister also referred to democracy relying on people knowing that they are fairly represented. Of course, they cannot and will not be in the current system. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, noted that it robs voters—and of all the parliamentary parties, it is Green voters who are robbed the most, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, noted. However, that is not the primary reason why I am an advocate of proportional representation—which, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, noted, it is the only way the Tory Party could deliver on its manifesto commitment. It is because it is the only way we can have a representative Parliament: one in which, as the campaign group Make Votes Matter says, the number of seats matches the number of votes. That is a democracy: Parliament reflecting the will of the people.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, referred to the missing 9 million people entitled to be on the electoral register who are not: around 10,000 per constituency. However, if in our current system you count all the people whose votes are not represented at all, because their preferred candidate does not win, and add in those who voted for a party that won more votes than it needed to win the seat, the votes of the majority of voters in every single seat have no impact. So it is no wonder we have such a problem with low turnout.
There are some quick, practical details which I will be taking up in Committee. The 5% variance will split communities and leave MPs representing hopelessly disparate areas with no community of interest. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, that it further weakens any claim to legitimacy for first past the post. It is surely time for automatic registration and no voter ID. Almost 5.5 million Britons—almost one-tenth of Britons—live overseas. What of their representation? France has separate constituencies for overseas voters. They have a community of interest.
Finally, we should have votes at 16. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, referred to her disappointment at being excluded from voting when she was under the then required age of 21. Last weekend, I was with young people in Sheffield on a climate strike. They were doing politics. They were sharing their passion and their engagement and trying to get involved, but they do not even have the very narrow power of the vote. They should have it.
My Lords, this Bill is far from a great piece of democratic reform—it does not start to tackle the real unfairness in our electoral system—but it has some useful measures. The population is increasing and Parliament is struggling with a huge Brexit legislative programme, compounded by emergency coronavirus-related measures—so maintaining MP numbers at 650 is sensible. However, current boundaries are now almost 20 years old and a review is needed. Reviews every five years would put constituency boundaries in a continuous state of flux, so eight years is better.
So far, so good—but I have some serious concerns. The Bill confirms a strict electoral quota for each seat, with a limit of variability of 5%. Only in a few protected constituencies is there any real consideration of rurality or local geographic features. In my home country, Wales, it takes well over an hour and a half to drive from end to end of the constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire. It is one of at least five geographically enormous rural Welsh constituencies, each of them with a relatively small electorate. Such constituencies should be given protected status, just as Ynys Môn has been. The formula shows that Wales could lose eight of its 40 seats. This is worrying, as the Senedd still has only 60 Members. As Lib Dems, we would like to see many more—but that is up to the Senedd itself.
I am worried about the balance of seats across the whole of the UK. Projections suggest six additional seats for south-east England and 10 for England overall. Both Houses of this Parliament are already too dominated by the interests of south-east England. The union is in a precarious state, and increased dominance by the south-east should be avoided. Lack of trust in government is higher in the north of England and in the south-west. I suggest that a variance of at least 10%, combined with instructions to the Boundary Commissions to take account of rurality, and county and local government boundaries, should be implemented. That will produce an electoral landscape much more sensitive to community needs.
Finally, boundary reviews are a pretty well-kept secret beyond political parties, and that is unacceptable, so public consultation procedures must be strengthened. Currently, 9.4 million people are missing from the electoral register, which is also unacceptable. The commissions should be given a responsibility to promote electoral registration as well as simply counting the numbers.
My Lords, I am amazed to hear that the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, can do from north to south in the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency, where I live, in an hour and a half. It takes me two hours, or perhaps one hour and 50 minutes if my wife is driving, so it is wonderful that she can do it so speedily, But—and here is the point—at the moment the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency has 53,000 electors. The quota under the new system will be 72,000: in other words, it will have to put on 19,000 electors. Where are they to be: north, south, west or across in another valley? It beggars belief that such a proposition could be seriously put before this Parliament.
I want to join the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Hayward, in regretting the recent death of my very good friend Ron Johnston, who was the great academic expert on all things boundaries. Without him, consideration of this Bill feels a bit like “Hamlet” without the prince. This Bill is “Hamlet” without the prince. It puts right a whole lot of things in the Bill that your Lordships’ House destroyed in 2011—except its worst feature: namely, the 5% plus or minus differential between the size of electorates. I could go—and no doubt in Committee may go—into the full details of the poverty of the arguments put in favour of that, but I want to make a political argument, because that is the only thing that ever convinces this Government, in my experience.
The previous boundary reform fell apart because Tory MPs found that their constituencies were being messed with and they had to fight the Tory MP in the next-door constituency to decide who should be the candidate, when they preferred to be fighting the Labour Party—and I can understand that. The Whips got fed up, so the Minister did not lay the orders and nothing changed. Although going from 600 to 650 helps, I can tell noble Lords that the same thing will happen this time. In three years, when the penny has dropped, Tory MPs will find themselves fighting each other for the new seats that have been formed out of chunks of their old seats—and that is going to happen every eight years, ad infinitum, unless something is done about it. Indeed, I look forward, with considerable anticipation, to the moment when the then-vulnerable noble Lord, Lord True, stands up before this House and does his Callaghan, proposing that we get rid of this Bill because we have to get rid of the 5% variation.