House of Lords
Thursday 3 September 2020
The House met in a Hybrid Sitting.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, 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.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them short and confined to two points; and I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
My Lords, the Government highly value the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s scrutiny of UK aid and have assessed its quality in two reviews since its establishment in 2011. The last tailored review in 2017 found that ICAI’s work continued to be both necessary and important. Since its inception, the commission has contributed to improving the impact and value for money of UK aid.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. The retention of ICAI, at least in the short term, is welcome. Inevitably, however, the merger of two departments will see much jockeying for ideas. Therefore, first, does the Minister accept that it is important that ICAI’s remit is not curtailed but, instead, bolstered to ensure that transparent scrutiny is maintained and that effective and accountable aid will be the hallmark of the new FCDO? Secondly, can she tell us to whom ICAI will report?
My Lords, we are committed to more effective and accountable aid spending under the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and of course that includes transparency and external scrutiny. We will reinforce that external scrutiny by not just maintaining ICAI but strengthening its focus on the impact of our aid and the value that it adds to our policy agenda.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is very disappointing that the Independent Commission for Aid Impact rated the UK’s progress on international climate finance as inadequate? How do the Government intend to rectify this, given the urgency of much more progress before the UK hosts COP 26 next year?
My Lords, we are committed to increasing and improving our work on climate. We are doubling our funding to the International Climate Fund and, as the noble Baroness says, we are hosting COP. We are also absolutely committed to making sure that that funding is spent effectively.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s decision on ICAI. I worked with Andrew Mitchell on its establishment and the set-up agreed then has proved successful. ICAI is subject to confirmatory hearings by the International Development Committee and, through the committee, reports its programme and findings. This needs to be maintained if the UK’s global reputation is not to be risked. Therefore, I urge the Government to support a dedicated Commons Select Committee to monitor ICAI and UK aid, and to maintain the credibility of the great work that has been done to date.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for welcoming the commitment to keep ICAI. On the Select Committee point, the Government agree that Parliament has an important role in scrutinising UK aid spending, and Select Committees are of course fundamental in scrutinising the Government’s spending and policies. We acknowledge that, as a consequence of the merger, the House of Commons might have to reconfigure the Select Committee structure, but the Government’s view is that normally the committee structure mirrors the departmental structure.
My Lords, the independent commission clearly does a good and much-needed job in evaluating aid flows, but does my noble friend agree that it has been particularly useful in bringing home the fact that aid alone is not an effective driver of development or indeed of poverty reduction, and that issues such as counterterrorism, security, human rights breaches, private investment conditions and, obviously, good governance under the law are just as much part of the modern development package? Does she further agree that the proposed merger between our aid and foreign policy departments, about which I think we are going to hear a Statement later today, offers a highly effective and rational way of bringing these essential modern-day strands of development closer together?
My noble friend is right that my noble friend Lord Ahmad will be repeating a Statement later today. The advantages that my noble friend highlights are exactly the reason why the Prime Minister has merged DfID and the FCO to become the new FCDO. My noble friend is right that aid alone is not going to resolve many of the world’s problems. We need to make sure that we are taking a joined-up approach and bringing the strands of foreign policy, development and trade together in order to tackle these huge global challenges.
My Lords, the Government have confirmed that the Independent Commission for Aid Impact will continue to scrutinise all aid spending across all government departments. However, I am concerned that with the forthcoming review of its remit, and in the light of reports that the aid budget will be reduced, how will the commission ensure its independence and maintain its primary purpose?
My Lords, the review will consider how ICAI can improve the impact of aid spending across government and challenge the big decisions around aid spending so that it can provide robust and evidence-based recommendations. It will continue to follow overseas development assistance across all departments. I take this opportunity to reiterate the point that I made yesterday: the Government are committed to spending 0.7% of our gross national income on international development.
I call the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury.
We will come back to the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Northover.
My Lords, the Minister rightly argues that transparency and accountability are vital. The Government have said that it will be up to the Commons to decide whether there is an International Development Select Committee, which precedes the creation of a separate department. If a Motion is tabled to abolish that, will the Government be giving those on the government payroll and on the Back Benches a free vote, or will they be advised which way to vote?
Is the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, in a position to participate? If not, we will move on to the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine.
My Lords, I welcome the review. It is extremely timely, given the merger of the two departments. However, can the Minister confirm that the resources of ICAI will be strengthened? Surely three commissioners and a very small secretariat are not sufficient to provide the resources that the budget demands to provide assurance to Parliament and the public.
My Lords, that is certainly one of the issues that the review will look at. The terms of reference will be published on GOV.UK in due course. We are keeping ICAI because we welcome independent scrutiny, and we are committed to ensuring that it continues to give us robust and constructive criticism.
I call the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. No? I call the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie.
My Lords, I welcome the review. I very much hope that as part of it, unlike what has happened previously, the gender and disability lenses are looked at along with culture, and that there is respect for all countries in the projects that we are working on. I feel that this is very important. Further, I know this is not quite right, but there is spending in Scotland and Wales on development, and maybe we could include this in some way as an exception.
My Lords, ICAI’s reports have led to much substantive action in key areas, including the use of data and the preparation of results, as well as helping us to mainstream our policies on gender, making sure that all our policies are inclusive and that we reach the poorest and leave no one behind. We will encourage ICAI to continue to assist us on those measures. I also take the opportunity to reiterate the point that advancing gender equality and women’s rights are of course a core part of the new Government’s mission.
Lord Collins of Highbury? The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is with us.
Is the Minister aware that the recent report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, which I co-chair, highlights urgent concerns about British aid to Nigeria, especially the refusal of aid to the Middle Belt states, which are among the areas worst affected by Islamist killings, abductions, atrocities and the displacement of thousands of civilians? Will the Minister ensure a more rigorous and effective use of British aid, including food, medical care and shelter, for Nigeria’s Middle Belt states?
My Lords, I am of course aware of the report that the noble Baroness refers to, and we are looking at it very carefully. We all want to ensure that our aid is spent effectively and in a way that gives value for money but that it also really helps the people that it is designed to help. That is something that ICAI helps the department to do.
I make one last call for the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury. If he is not responding, all supplementary questions have been asked and we will move to the next Question.
My Lords, we committed to increasing planting across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025 in line with the Committee on Climate Change recommendations. We are consulting on a new England tree strategy to drive this change in England and to shape the deployment of the £640 million Nature for Climate Fund. We recently made a £2 million joint investment in domestic tree nurseries with the Scottish and Welsh Governments and announced a Green Recovery Challenge Fund to support immediate environmental work.
I thank the Minister for his encouraging reply. There is considerable enthusiasm across the country for this tree-planting initiative, but also some concern that the targets set are overambitious. Can he confirm that his department will do everything it can to reduce red tape and form-filling, within current schemes and the new ELMS, to encourage individual, corporate and local authority uptake? Can he also confirm that funds will be made available for the maintenance of trees and woods that are planted, so that those plantings can reach their full commercial and environmental potential?
My Lords, we have seen an increase in planting rates in England over the last year. They are up from 1,400 hectares in 2019 to 2,200 in this planting season but, as the noble Lord will acknowledge, that is a long way off from the target we have set ourselves by the end of this Parliament. We absolutely acknowledge that we need to ramp up rates, and rapidly. However, we have backed up that commitment with funding. The £640 million Nature for Climate Fund is part of that funding package. We are funding the new Northern and Great Northumberland forests; we have introduced a £50 million carbon guarantee. As he pointed out, the shift from the common agriculture policy to the ELM system will also provide support. We absolutely want to make that support as accessible and unbureaucratic as possible.
My Lords, it is encouraging to hear about the progress being made, but we are fighting a losing battle if we continue to import saplings rife with diseases that then kill significant numbers of trees. Will the Minister update your Lordships’ House on the tree health resilience strategy and what other steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to increase biosecurity?
Biosecurity is enormously important, not least because we are an island nation. We announced a £2 million partnership investment, which I mentioned earlier, alongside the Scottish and Welsh Governments. The Government support the Grown in Britain agenda and the Woodland Trust’s UK sourced and grown assurance scheme. Any initiatives which increase domestic production and grow more trees and plants in this country are welcome and will merit government support. In addition, for exactly the same reason, we are taking steps to increase demand for domestically grown timber. Demand massively exceeds supply in this country: we import 81% of the timber and wood products that we need, while only about 23% of homes in England are currently built with timber frames, compared to 83% in Scotland. We want to reverse that ratio as much as we possibly can to stimulate demand and the sector, while encouraging more tree-planting.
My Lords, while I appreciate my noble friend’s personal commitment, does he share my concern at the disappearance of ancient woodlands which will be consequent upon the building of HS2? Does he also guarantee that the new, threatened changes to planning law will ensure that development is concentrated on brownfield sites and not on places where trees could be planted, and that trees will be planted around new developments anyhow?
The Government are committed to protecting our ancient woodlands. Two years ago, in 2018, we strengthened the protection of ancient woodlands, ancient trees and veteran trees through the then National Planning Policy Framework. That framework also recognises the importance of community forests. Last year, we set aside and announced £210,000 to support the Woodland Trust and Natural England’s work to update the ancient woodland inventory, which we will need to protect that habitat. So far, £7 million has been committed to the HS2 woodland fund, supporting projects to restore, enhance and extend ancient woodland on private land or in partnership with multiple landowners. We have ramped up protection; that is also reflected in the Environment Bill, which will come to this House in a few months’ time.
It is encouraging to hear of the Government’s tree-planting programme but the belief that new trees absorb more carbon than ancient ones is now proved wrong. With that in mind, what is the Minister’s assessment of the current rate of international deforestation and what will he and his department do to stop that? Also, will he ensure that in our future trade arrangements we take into account not just carbon sequestration and emissions reductions by the country we are trading with but what a country itself is doing about deforestation, because what one person does affects us all on this planet?
The noble Baroness makes a hugely important point. The picture for international deforestation is depressing; around the world, we think that we are losing around 30 football pitches-worth of forest every single minute. However, the Prime Minister announced at the end of last year that we are to double our climate finance to £11.6 billion over the five-year period and, even more importantly, that a major part of the uplift will be spent on nature-based solutions such as protecting forests and restoring degraded land. We are developing ambitious programmes around the world. Finally, relating to the last part of the noble Baroness’s question, we announced just a few days ago that we are consulting on a due-diligence mechanism, requiring those large companies which import commodities to do so in a way that does not also mean that we inadvertently import deforestation from countries that grow those commodities. It is a world first and if we get it right, as I have no doubt we will, other countries will follow. That could have a meaningful impact globally on deforestation rates.
My Lords, the Minister admits that England is well below where it needs to be to meet its share of the UK’s 35,000-hectare target but Scotland is not. Scotland is living up to its commitment; it is the only part of the UK doing so. My simple question is: what is Scotland doing differently and why has the rest of the UK fallen so far behind?
There are many reasons. First, the noble Lord is right: Scotland is doing its bit. It is planting at a much higher level than we are seeing elsewhere. Scotland retains that ambition and it is a very good thing. The England tree strategy that was launched, the consultation part of which comes to an end in a week’s time, is clearly about England and not the whole United Kingdom. But we know that to deliver that manifesto commitment, which is a UK-wide commitment, we will need to work closely with the devolved areas and will certainly do so. Whatever lessons can be learned from Scotland, we will learn them.
My Lords, the Woodland Trust estimates that there are at least 20 non-native pests and diseases affecting native UK trees, six of which it says have reached epidemic levels, and a further 11 diseases that have not yet reached the UK. Can the Minister reassure the House that the Government have a robust strategy for ensuring that these diseases do not reach our shores and decimate our native trees?
This is a priority area for Defra, a department that I belong to. Yes, we are seeing increasing numbers of threats to our native trees. The whole country is aware of ash dieback and we expect a very large number of our ash trees to be infected and die. The good news is that they will not all die; we expect up to 5% of those trees to have a natural tolerance, so the UK Government are funding research into future breeding programmes for tolerant trees. We are also conducting the world’s largest screening trials and will plant the first of the tolerant trees this year. That is just part of our biosecurity focus in Defra and our plans to stave off the threat of tree diseases from this country.
My Lords, with the UK having one of the lowest levels of woodland cover of any European country, and as the England tree strategy consultation closes next week, will there be extra support for widening the eligibility criteria for the woodland creation grants as a bonus to the Government’s commitment to increase planting to 30,000 hectares a year by 2025?
We will use the outcome of the consultation—it is a genuine consultation; we know we need to hear from stakeholders across the country—to guide the manner in which we deploy the Nature for Climate Fund and ensure that it runs, in an effective manner, alongside existing sources of funding for new woodland. But given that we will be using public money, we want to achieve the biggest possible return. That means using those funds and the wider programme to deliver for biodiversity, people and climate change. Our strong default will be for mixed native woodlands and, in some cases, facilitating natural regeneration of land. It is incumbent on us, using public money, to get the biggest bang for our buck.
My Lords, there are about 1,000 births with NTDs each year. Folic acid is a valuable prophylactic. We recognise that around half of the 700,000 births each year in this country are unplanned; some of mine were. Therefore, adding it as a supplement to some flours potentially offers great value.
My Lords, that is a deplorable Answer. I at least expected an answer to the question. I wanted a date. Would the Minister discuss this with the Prime Minister, who takes an interest in issues only where he has personal experience, such as Covid and obesity? Thankfully, he has no experience of babies born with a lifelong disability, which is what my question is about. Does the Minister recall that the English Government consulted on how, not whether, to implement a policy agreed by the three devolved Governments and the Daily Mail and operated by over 80 other nations? No action is like having a vaccine and not using it. We must do better.
My Lords, I pay testimony to the good work of my noble friend Lord Rooker on the campaign for mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid. He introduced a Private Member’s Bill and his work has been earnest. My personal experience is that my cousin James was born with an NTD; he survived two weeks and, sadly, passed away. Therefore, this is a matter that has my personal commitment. However, I am not in a position to give him the date he wishes, but we will come back to the House and answer his Question in due time.
I welcome the Minister to his three and a half hours at the Dispatch Box. I first raised this matter as president of the British Dietetic Association, the trade union that represents dieticians. There is overwhelming evidence in support of adding folic acid. As long ago as 1 March 2018, I was promised that the Government would be looking at a date for this to be done. I join the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in being very disappointed about this. I ask the Minister to get on with this, please. As long ago as March 2018, we were being promised a date and we still have not got one. Please take some action.
My Lords, I completely accept the urging of my noble friend Lord Balfe on this matter. He is entirely right. There is very strong scientific evidence in this area; the Government accept that, and this is why they have launched a consultation, which was due to be published earlier this year. However, Covid has blown us away and that is why the announcement has been delayed. The Government have listened to the scientific evidence, which is very persuasive, and the decision will be made when the time is right.
My Lords, this is the fourth occasion that I have supported this Question put down by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. Every time, there has been a disappointing Answer. As an obstetrician, I have seen many, many pregnancies result in serious spina bifida and anencephaly. Previously, the Government have used the excuse that overdosing might result if we put folic acid in flour. Would the Minister confirm that the recent research does not support that view?
My Lords, the consultation on the proposal to fortify flour ran for 12 weeks from 13 June to 9 September 2019 and was undertaken on a UK-wide basis. The pilot ran extremely successfully; the use of the supplements by the flour manufacturers was affordable and their implementation of the pilot was achieved without much disruption, and it was an encouraging experience that gives us good evidence for taking this matter forwards.
My Lords, the science is clear that folate supplementation is absolutely safe and a remarkably effective public health measure. Does the noble Lord agree that further delay would be unconscionable, especially for the children still being born with spina bifida?
My Lords, I support adding folic acid to flour and, as other noble Lords have all said, the sooner, the better. Has the Minister also considered action using Instagram influencers to encourage young women who diet to use leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, which contains B-vitamin folic acid? Would the Minster agree that, while “Eat your greens” might be a call from the past, it is cheap and still relevant today?
My Lords, I entirely endorse the noble Lord’s appeal for us to eat our greens. The concern with this specific matter is unplanned pregnancies, and the suggestion of putting folic acid into flour is to target those mothers who may need the additional supplements at a time when they do not realise they need them.
My Lords, we on these Benches and across the House share the deep frustration of my noble friend Lord Rooker about the delay on this vital issue. When the consultation was announced in June last year, the Government also promised that the results would be dealt with speedily and would go hand in hand with major efforts to step up awareness raising, particularly among at-risk groups, such as Afro-Caribbean women and women under 20 years old. What actions have been taken? What assessment has been made of the reason for the stubbornly low take-up of folic acid supplements? What measurable impact has awareness raising had on reaching at-risk groups or ensuring that women whose pregnancies were unplanned are not missing out on these vital nutrients in the early stages of their pregnancies?
My Lords, the noble Baroness did, in part, answer her own question. Work to improve the diet of pregnant mothers has progressed impressively, particularly among at-risk groups. However, it is those mothers who do not know that they are pregnant that this measure particularly targets, and that is where its inherent value is. This is why we have conducted a consultation and are looking to make a decision on it in the near future.
May I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on his importunity in promoting the addition of folic acid to flour? Folic acid is essential to prevent spina bifida and anencephaly, which occur in utero before the lady knows that she is pregnant; hence the importance of putting it into flour, as they have done in the United States for years without any problems. There really can be no possible excuse for delaying the implementation any longer. Preventing this distressing condition is so essential and costs so little. Therefore, can we have a date for when it will be put into practice?
My Lords, I entirely endorse the insight of my noble friend Lord McColl. The United States, Canada and Chile were the first three countries to introduce mandatory fortification, and I note that studies demonstrate a decline in NTDs of between 20% and 25%. These are encouraging statistics and the Government recognise them.
My Lords, the 2006 SACN report Folate and Disease Prevention found that there was insufficient human data to say conclusively whether increased levels of blood folate from fortification might impact on the efficacy of anti-folate medication, which acts in chemotherapy by blocking the action of folic acid. The 2017 update is silent on this issue. Can the Minister clarify whether the absence of a reference to this issue is because there is still insufficient data, or is it because research has ruled out any adverse impact of mandatory fortification on those patients taking anti-folate medication?
My Lords, I am not aware of any conclusive scientific evidence that contradicts the benefits of folic acid. As I said, the demographic data would seem to suggest that experiences in other countries have been benign. Longitudinal studies take a very long time to emerge and, therefore, we are not expecting a massive change in that data. However, back at the department, I will ask if any science has emerged and I will write to the noble Baroness if I can put my hands on anything.
I of course join other noble Lords in pressing the Minister to implement mandatory fortification as soon as possible—it really is time—but if he needs additional motivation, can I point to the potential wider benefits in addition to vital prevention of NTDs: reducing anaemia caused by folic deficiency in older adults, for example? Given the inequalities associated with these deficiencies, is the Minister confident that such wider benefits have been fully considered? If not, will he commission the relevant research as a matter of urgency?
The noble Baroness is entirely right to explain and expand on the wider benefits, but the benefits in respect of NTDs are extremely persuasive in themselves and the consultation focuses on them. I understand that it is an analysis of those benefits that will form the basis of our decision-making.
Covid-19: Local Restrictions
My Lords, data is the key scientific commodity in our fight against Covid. We started with very little; now we have lots, and we are sharing it with our local partners as quickly as the legal, technical and privacy constraints allow. This shared intelligence informs collaborative decisions on local restrictions.
I thank the Minister. On the ministerial Zoom, I witnessed the Conservative MP for Shipley having what looked like a hissy fit when the Bradford lockdown was announced. Despite recommendations to the contrary from the leader of the council and local public health officials, a month later Shipley has been lifted out of lockdown when other parts of Bradford still in lockdown have lower infection rates. On Friday, the Health Secretary announced that restrictions in Bolton and Trafford would be eased on Wednesday, despite leaving Labour constituencies with lower infection rates in lockdown. It seems that the Government were again lobbied by local Conservative MPs to lift restrictions. However, yesterday, the Health Secretary, with what might be called a skidding U-turn, announced that current restrictions would remain following a significant increase in infection. Will the Minister commit to publishing the scientific evidence behind decisions to impose, maintain and lift lockdown restrictions? Would it be better if discussions with local MPs were on the record? Does he agree that political neutrality and transparency are essential to securing public trust and support for measures locally to prevent a national lockdown?
My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that local support, trust and collaboration between actors from all political parties are essential to fighting Covid effectively. I pay tribute to the very large number of dialogues and collaborative interventions we have had across the country with local actors from all political parties. Yes, local lockdown decisions are not always popular. They are tough choices and elected representatives find them difficult, but we have found that politics does not play a part in those decisions and we stick to that.
My Lords, it seems to have been decided that areas of low infection do not need the same degree of access to testing as the known hotspots. Indeed, there are accounts of people in London being directed to Wales because there is not sufficient testing capacity. Is this not exactly the way in which to miss the next hotspots and possibly the trigger of a national spike? Is it not another stable door that is left open? On what scientific evidence was this decision made and will it be published?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that testing capacity is naturally prioritised to those areas with a major outbreak and that, when supply is constrained, some of the recommendations for travelling, particularly later in the day and in the afternoon, can involve long distances. Our objective is to put in place massive testing capacity right across the country in all areas, whether high or low in infection prevalence. That is our ambition.
My noble friend will be aware that regulations differ in each of the home nations and within those home nations. In addition to publishing scientific advice, is he prepared to ensure that there is a single point where persons travelling within or visiting the United Kingdom can go to get the latest restrictions in each particular area so that they are properly informed of what the position is geographically?
My Lords, there is a marked polarisation in the country, particularly evident in attitudes towards and poor rates of return to work. Many would agree that this is not about where people can work most effectively but about unnecessary fear, given what the science says about transmission. What are the Government doing to reduce the level of polarisation in the country?
My Lords, we are working extremely hard to create confidence in the Test and Trace system and in the effectiveness of our two-tier system of hands, face and space combined with Test and Trace. We are appealing to the country to take necessary precautions but within those precautions to go about everyday life.
My Lords, in the pandemic, I fear that some sectors of the public are losing confidence in politicians. Scientists, on the other hand, are seen as independent and trusted. Surely, advice for politicians from scientists should be published in the interests of openness and transparency. Does the Minister agree?
I completely agree with the noble Baroness. The collapse in confidence in politicians is nothing new, I am afraid. I can only pay tribute to British scientists, who have been extraordinary in terms not only of the integrity of their work but its pioneering nature. In many fields, Britain has led the world in the innovative and brave science that we have pioneered.
My Lords, lockdowns have seen victims of domestic violence trapped at home with no escape, and underfunded and understaffed support services struggling to provide the necessary help and assistance. In the United Kingdom, support for domestic abuse survivors is often patchwork, with the availability of emergency shelters varying wildly. Can the Minister therefore say what consideration is given in the Government’s scientific advice to the impact of local lockdowns on victims of domestic violence? What measures have the Government taken to provide additional support for services for domestic abuse survivors in the areas subject to local restrictions?
The noble Baroness is entirely right that the impact of local lockdowns is far reaching. The impact is not only on families where there is domestic abuse but on children, those who are shielded, the elderly and so forth. The responsibility for caring for those vulnerable groups is with the local authorities. Central government has provided additional funding to support those interventions by local authorities; it is up to local actors to make those interventions, and we are grateful for their work.
My Lords, finally the Government are investing in preparations for widespread home testing, producing results within minutes. What priorities does the Government’s scientific advice recommend for that mass testing? Do they include avoiding local lockdowns, enabling the former shielded parents of schoolchildren to test their children daily on return from school to protect the parent, and solving the nursing-home visitor problem?
My Lords, I cannot help but feel that it is not a case of “finally”. This Government could not have worked harder to push for home testing, and we are extremely grateful for the innovations in business and government that have made home testing possible and effective. When home testing is deployable on a mass scale, we will work on a prioritisation of how best to use it. But the noble Baroness is entirely right; the kinds of use cases that she articulated are the ones that we have in mind.
Could I press the Minister on the specific Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton? The council leader of Trafford has blasted the chaotic way in which the Government have handled local lockdowns, where application and lifting of restrictions has yo-yoed sometimes daily and sometimes hourly, with inadequate consultation with local leaders. It is impossible for councils and local people to plan life on that basis, and it continues to erode trust in the Government. When will the Minister guarantee the publication of clear thresholds and criteria, backed up by published science, on which local lockdowns and their liftings will be based in future? Will he give us a date for that?
I apologise to the noble Baroness for disrupting the lives of local officials, but this disease is completely unpredictable. It is prevalent where we least expect it and it travels long distances very quickly. It is a fact of life—one that local authorities will have to get used to—that we cannot always predict where it is going to pop up and that fighting this epidemic is going to require fast action, which is why we have brought about the kinds of regulations that we will debate in this Chamber later this afternoon.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, others are participating virtually, but all Members are treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
The following Statement was made on Tuesday 1 September in the House of Commons.
“With your permission, and indeed your encouragement, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus. The latest figures demonstrate how much progress we are making in our fight against this invisible killer. There are currently 60 patients in mechanical ventilator beds with coronavirus—that is down from 3,300 at the peak—and the latest daily number for recorded deaths is two. However, although those figures are lower than before, we must remain vigilant. I said in July that a second wave was rolling across Europe and, sadly, we are now seeing an exponential rise in the number of cases in France and Spain—hospitalisations are rising there too. We must do everything in our power to protect against a second wave here in the UK, so I would like to update the House on the work we are doing to that end.
To support the return of education, and to get our economy moving again, it is critical that we all play our part. The first line of defence is, and has always been, social distancing and personal hygiene. We will soon be launching a new campaign reminding people of how they can help to stop the spread of coronavirus: ‘Hands, face, space and get a test if you have symptoms.’ Everyone has a part to play in following the social distancing rules and doing the basics. After all, this is a virus that thrives on social contact. I would like to thank the British public for everything they have done so far, but we must continue and we must maintain our resolve.
The second line of defence is testing and contact tracing. We have now processed over 16 million tests in this country, and we are investing in new testing technologies, including a rapid test for coronavirus and other winter viruses that will help to provide on-the-spot results in under 90 minutes, helping us to break chains of transmission quickly. These tests do not require a trained health professional to operate them, so they can be rolled out in more non-clinical settings. We now have one of the most comprehensive systems of testing in the world, and we want to go much, much further.
Next, we come to contact tracing. NHS Test and Trace is consistently reaching tens of thousands of people who need to isolate each week. As I mentioned in answer to a question earlier, the latest week’s data shows that 84.3% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate, where contact details were provided. Since its launch, we have reached over 300,000 people, who may have been unwittingly carrying the virus. Today, we also launch our new system of pay to isolate. We want to support people on low incomes in areas with a high incidence of Covid-19 who need to self-isolate and are unable to work from home. Under the scheme, people who test positive for the virus will receive £130 for the 10-day period they have to stay at home. Other contacts, including, for instance, members of their household, who have to self-isolate for 14 days, will be entitled to a payment of £182. We have rolled out the scheme in Blackburn with Darwen, Pendle and Oldham, and we will look to expand it as we see how it operates on the ground.
The third line of defence is targeted local intervention. Over the summer, we have worked hard to integrate our national system with the local response, and the local action that we are taking is working. In Leicester, as the honourable Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) knows well, as a local MP, in Luton and in parts of northern England, we have been able to release local interventions, because the case rate has come down. We also now publish significantly more local information, and I put in place a system for building local consensus with all elected officials, including colleagues across this House, wherever possible. Our goal is that local action should be as targeted as possible. This combination of social distancing, test and trace and local action is a system in which we all have a responsibility to act, and this gives us the tools to control the virus while protecting education, the economy and the things we hold dear.
Meanwhile, work on a vaccine continues to progress. The best-case scenario remains a vaccine this year. While no vaccine technology is certain, since the House last met, vaccine trials have gone well. The Oxford vaccine continues to be the world leader, and we have now contracted with six different vaccine providers so that whichever comes off, we can get access in this country. While we give vaccine development all our support, we will insist on safety and efficacy.
I can update the House on changes to legislation that I propose to bring forward in the coming weeks to ensure that a vaccine approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency can be deployed here, whether or not it has a European licence. The MHRA standards are equal to the highest in the world. Furthermore, on the development of the vaccine, which proceeds at pace, I will shortly ask the House to approve a broader range of qualified clinical personnel who can deploy the vaccine in order of clinical priority, as I mentioned in questions. As well as the potential vaccine, we also have a flu vaccination programme—the biggest flu vaccination programme in history—to roll out this year.
Finally, Mr Speaker, in preparation for this winter, we are expanding A&E capacity. We have allocated billions more funding to the NHS. We have retained the Nightingale hospitals to ensure that the NHS is fully prepared, and we published last month updated guidance on the protection of social care. As well as this, last month, figures showed a record number of nurses in the NHS—over 13,000 more than last year—and record numbers of both doctors and nurses going into training. We are doing all we can to prevent a second peak to prepare the NHS for winter and to restore as much of life and the things we love as possible. As schools go back, we must all remain vigilant and throughout the crisis we all have a role to play.
This is a war against an invisible enemy in which we are all on the same side. As we learn more and more about this unprecedented virus, so we constantly seek to improve our response to protect the health of the nation and the things we hold dear. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement and the Covid update that the House will discuss today. We are, of course, all on the same side in fighting this virus. I hope the Minister will understand that when we raise issues it is to urge the Government to improve their response to fighting the virus which, as he said earlier today, remains lethal and leaves many with serious, debilitating sickness. Everything must be done to drive down and eliminate infections and suppress the virus completely.
Given the news today about testing availability and the aspirations of the Secretary of State in that regard, I start by asking the Minister about the current state of testing and tracing. From the news this morning, it would seem that coronavirus testing was being prioritised in high-risk areas, leading to shortages in others. This has led to some people with symptoms being asked to drive significant distances for a swab. The Government say that areas with fewer Covid-19 cases have had their testing capacity reduced to cope with outbreaks elsewhere. Is this within the 300,000 tests which the Secretary of State has mentioned as being his aspiration? As the Minister will be aware, public health experts warn that this could miss the start of new spikes, so I would be very grateful if he could clarify the exact position on the rollout of mass testing.
Saliva testing is being used in Hong Kong, as we know. Would the Minister be able to ensure a quick turnaround of these tests? Has he seen the study from Yale which suggests that saliva testing could be as sensitive as nose and throat swabs? What is his attitude towards pool testing, which surely could increase capacity in areas of low prevalence? Does the Minister have a plan to introduce pool testing? Will we now allow GPs to carry out testing or, at the very least, arrange tests for their patients directly? They currently have to ask patients to log on to the national system, which may be causing huge delays.
A testing problem came to my notice in an email I received from an English family on holiday in Northern Ireland. They went there to have a break and did everything they could to ensure their safe passage—they did not stop for toilet breaks, they packed lunches, they booked the shortest ferry crossing, and they were heading to a house that had not been occupied for a week. However, something went wrong, and the father became ill. He said: “Getting a test should be easy, right? Well, wrong. When we first tried to get a test, the booking system was completely down. It was not working online or by telephone. When it eventually resumed, I was offered a test appointment 460 miles, and a ferry journey, away in Scotland. I was worried about having potentially to drive 20 or 30 minutes with a raging fever, so we ordered the home tests. The kits took 48 hours to arrive. Remarkably, there seems to be no test-kit storage site in Northern Ireland itself, so they have to come from the mainland, even though one of the companies than manufactures tests—Randox—is based in Northern Ireland.”
This person had the usual problems that lots of people have when doing a self-administered test and returning the results. They were in an isolated place, so they chose to use the specially designated postal box, which meant his wife driving 25 minutes. That box was inside a building. It did not seem to cross anybody’s mind that potentially infectious people should not be entering a building full of people. When the wife talked to someone about their concerns, they said that they were not allowed to handle parcels and she should put the results in another post box. It took six days from the husband developing the fever and seeking a test to getting the result. When it came, it was not absolutely conclusive. We know that these tests can sometimes be only 70% accurate. This person is still very ill and still in Northern Ireland. He is an academic who, as it happens, is also a scientist. He is very disappointed with the 111 service, which he called to ask for another test. He was told that he could not have one, that he probably did not have Covid, and that he should go back to work. It seems to me that this system is not working terribly well. What is the Minister’s view of this sorry tale, which raises all sorts of issues about testing and tracing, at least in Northern Ireland?
I move on to the cancer plan and whether a task force will be in operation. The number of new cancer patients presenting is down by one-quarter this year, the number of appointments for specialist cancer treatment is now also falling, and the amount of money available for clinical trials has fallen through the floor. This means that people will die. What are the Government’s plans to move this forward?
We know that a vaccine is our best hope to stop this pandemic. It will save hundreds of millions of lives. We on this side of the House have offered to work with the Minister on a cross-party basis to promote uptake and challenge the poison of anti-vax myths. That offer remains in place. We would work constructively with the Government on any proposals that they bring to the House to deal with those myths.
On Public Health England, the Minister is aware that we on this side of the House think that embarking on a distracting restructuring of Public Health England in the middle of a pandemic is very risky. Conservative MPs seem to like to blame Public Health England and this will sap morale even further. The UK has suffered the highest per capita death rate of any major world economy. To get through this winter safely, our NHS and public health services need resources, staff, protective equipment, fair-pay security and the support of this Government. I hope they will be able to deliver that.
Finally, the Minister said a few minutes ago that the folic acid issue would not be dealt with until after the pandemic. He needs to write to the House about exactly what that means and what the timeline is.
My Lords, yesterday it was raining when I left the house, so I decided to catch a bus. I donned my mask and got on. There were signs to say that only 30 passengers would be allowed, but I was disappointed that not only was that number exceeded, but masks were not universally worn. Some came off when the individual wanted to use their phone or talk to a friend, and there appeared to be no awareness of the reason for wearing one. I was glad to get off. It raised as many questions as it answered.
I appreciate that there is positive movement in some parts of the country. In my own part of the world, the far south-west, despite many visitors from elsewhere—the locals were anxious that they would bring the virus with them—they mainly kept to themselves and only left their footprints in the sand behind. Areas have been locked down in north-west England, Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, as there have been many cases identified. Will the Minister outline how these cases were identified?
Social distancing is difficult when you are young. We all might remember when we felt immortal; many young people catch the virus, are barely unwell but are spreaders among their generation. They then take it home and pass it on to their older family members. Mass testing would avoid this.
What is the Government’s policy on testing key workers? Do they have to book their own tests, or are some professions automatically tested or encouraged to book a test? I was contacted by text quite out of the blue by my local authority to take a test, which I dutifully did. No reason was given; perhaps it was a contact trace. I therefore looked at where the local testing stations were located and no station was nearer than 50 miles, so I ordered a postal test. Easy, excellent directions came with the test and the result came back quickly, so I had a completely different experience from that of the person who wrote to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. Could the Minister outline where test and trace is being used and what system is in operation? I know that it is going well in Northern Ireland. Have the Government considered using this in England?
The Government pay-to-isolate scheme also seems a good idea for those who cannot afford to miss work. Will the Minister tell the House what the take-up is and where the department might use it in future?
When do the Government expect to roll out a vaccine? I would like to know how many volunteers are taking part in the programme and how that number compares with the development of any other new vaccine that would be working to the usual timetable. I would expect Public Health England to organise vaccinations when it is ready. Now that Public Health England’s future is uncertain and it is being disbanded, how will this happen? What clinical personnel would the Government consider capable to deliver the vaccine? Presumably, as local pharmacies deliver flu vaccines, they would be capable of delivering coronavirus ones as well. Would this be something paid for by the patient, as with flu, or paid for by the Government? Has the department had conversations with the pharmacy profession about doing this work?
May I ask the Minister a question about numbers? In the Statement, it was mentioned that 84.3% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate. Do we have any certainty that they did so? Are local authorities or call centres checking on this?
My final point is about nurse numbers. I am delighted that they are higher, although we will still be far off full complement. Will the Minister comment on care-worker numbers? In the new year, some EU-origin workers might not be able to afford to stay under the new system. The Home Secretary suggested that we could use British care workers. Is the Minister confident that they will exist in sufficient numbers?
My Lords, I thank both the noble Baronesses for extremely perceptive and thoughtful contributions and I will try to get through as much data as I possibly can.
I completely and utterly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton: we are all on the same side. As I said earlier, I pay tribute to the huge efforts across the nation of national and local politicians and officials working collaboratively. There are the occasional lightning points that hit the headlines, but that completely disguises the overall picture up and down the country of a huge amount of collaboration that is going on to great effect. I will talk later about the impact of the local restrictions, lockdowns and infection-control efforts that are making a big impact on this disease.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, is absolutely right to raise the question of capacity for testing because the testing that we have got is proving to be incredibly effective. It is being put to work extremely hard. The marketing that we have done to the population took a massive reboot recently and is proving much more effective. The take-up of testing is up 63% since June. The amount of surveillance that we do now has been hugely upgraded in order to give local authorities and local actors the data that they have cried out for. We provide that data for them in as much quantity as we possibly can.
The regular testing in hospitals and social care, which has been the subject of a huge amount of comment here in this Chamber, is up enormously. Testing is allocated to outbreak management in areas such as some of the cities that have been mentioned here earlier and has had huge effect. Our ambition is to have 500,000 tests by the end of October. Earlier today, the Secretary of State made announcements in detail of how we are going to achieve that. I would particularly like to mention the Lighthouse Lab in Charnwood, which is exactly the kind of modern, impressive, industrialised outfit that is going to help us achieve a huge amount of capacity over the next few months.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, was absolutely on the money when she mentioned saliva tests. Saliva tests are an incredibly exciting opportunity because they are much more usable. For any of those in the Chamber who may have had a swab test, they would know that it was okay, but you do not necessarily want to have a load of them. Saliva tests are much more accessible. The Yale study she mentioned was incredibly impactful when it was published earlier this year and it surprised everyone with conclusive evidence that saliva tests would be just as accurate as a nasal or swab test. That has opened up a huge amount of interest in this area. That is one of the ideas for which we put £500 million into the innovative tests kitty. There is a huge project in Southampton, and hopefully another one in Salford, which will be using saliva testing. I pay tribute to the Southampton authorities, the hospital, and OptiGene and its LAMP test, which uses saliva, and we are really hopeful about that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, mentioned pool tests. I suspect that she meant multiplex testing, which is the combination of testing in the same well. That is, again, another technology that has the opportunity to massively increase our capacity for testing. It is exactly these kinds of innovations that we have spent the spring and summer pushing really hard on in order to get our capacity up to do the kind of mass testing that has been mentioned by several noble Lords in the discussion.
We have worked really hard in order to get access to GPs for registering patients for testing. This is a not inconsiderable technical challenge. I remind everyone that it is not that difficult for a GP to register a patient on the normal coronavirus testing page. It takes about 45 to 50 seconds. We have worked hard in order to ensure that all testing results go into the GP records and to upgrade the booking system to give GPs that special access.
In terms of the testimony of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, it is very difficult for me to comment on an individual’s experience. I do not in any way question any of that testimony. What can I say that is constructive? I share completely the frustration of the experience of the person involved. In particular, there are millions of people who want to know whether the symptoms they have are Covid or not. The ONS data suggest that a lot of people who think that they might have Covid do not actually have it. It is extremely frustrating for them not to be able to clarify that. That is one of the reasons why we are pushing so hard in order to get our capacity up. The long-distance question of when you book a test and get sent to Inverness to have your test is an odd thing to happen, but we are trying to make as many tests possible to as many people as possible. It is up to the individual to decide whether they want to travel a long distance.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, mentioned home testing, which has proved hugely effective. We recently celebrated 1 million home tests. On the whole, that experience has been extremely positive for the vast majority of people, and we have worked hard with our contractors to get the turnaround time down to 20 hours, although there is more that we could do. Not everyone is able to drive to a test site; test sites are not available in many city centres. That is why home testing is important and why we continue to prioritise it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, is entirely right about cancer. It is a huge problem that, over the last six months, cancer screenings and referrals, and the attendance for cancer procedures, have not kept up with the needs of patients. We are working incredibly hard. I pay tribute to colleagues in the NHS, Sir Simon Stevens and others who are working hard to open up facilities, to use marketing to get people back into hospitals and to create community-based facilities, so that people do not have to travel to hospitals for some of their diagnostic and procedural treatments. Those efforts are making a massive difference. Referrals in June were up by 90%, and 92% of the referrals in June were seen within two weeks. We are working through the backlog more quickly than the current numbers seem to suggest.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, raised important questions about PHE. PHE is incredibly important to both the science and organisation of our response to this public health challenge. We do not blame anyone at PHE for anything—quite the opposite. The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and others have paid tribute to the expertise and effectiveness of PHE—the staff, the scientists and the organisation—but there are immense operational benefits in getting PHE, test and trace and the joint biosecurity centre to work more closely together. I see that in my own life in the department, in the collaborative working we can do. You can decide to wait to do these things, maybe until after the epidemic, but it is right that we have used the summer months to mend the roof and to take the tough decision to pull through this organisational change now, in preparation for the second wave. No criticism is implied. We want to see these three important organisations working closer together, under joint leadership. I pay tribute to all who have collaborated in this change.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, asked about mass testing. It presents an enormous opportunity, but our capacity needs to meet its needs. As Innovation Minister, I have been blown away by the rate of progress and innovation of our partners in the NHS, business and the big medical organisations on the scale, price, speed and accuracy of tests. It has been phenomenal, and we are beginning to see a route towards mass testing opportunities that we would not have been able to dream of in February or March, when we began this odyssey.
We are conscious of testing of a diagnostic or preventive fashion to break the chain of transmission. That needs to be swift, accurate, prompt and specified on individuals who either are at risk or present symptoms. But, as alluded to by the noble Baronesses, Lady Jolly and Lady Thornton, there is also an opportunity to use testing to provide reassurance that someone is not carrying the infection and perhaps is not infectious to others. This would give them the confidence to return to the workplace and to areas where social distancing is challenging, or to see people who are at risk. We are looking at avenues to develop that kind of testing in every way possible.
We are hugely encouraged by progress made on a vaccine, not only by our own teams in Oxford and Imperial, but by vaccine teams around the world. But let me be frank with the Chamber: vaccines for coronaviruses are notoriously difficult. Vaccines for anything to do with the respiratory system are also very complex, difficult to deliver and unreliable in their long-term impact. The macro challenge is enormous but, given its size, the progress made by some of the vaccine teams is phenomenal. We are giving them all the resources they need to continue making that progress.
The delivery of a vaccine, when it arrives, will be a massive national challenge and the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, is entirely right to raise it as something worthy of scrutiny. We will need all the resources that our National Health Service, private partners and the whole nation can provide. A huge number of personnel will be required to deliver one or two doses to a large proportion of the population. Certainly, pharmacies and the pharmaceutical profession will play a pivotal and important role in that. We are deeply engaged in consultations with all parties that have a role in delivering vaccines, and we are putting plans together to do that.
We are making great progress with track and trace. I mention the outbreak in Herefordshire because it does not exist. There is no outbreak in Herefordshire: when we spotted a contagion among migrant workers on a farm in Herefordshire, we used track and trace to break the chain of transmission and close down that mini-outbreak. As a result, it did not expand widely into the community and there is no communal outbreak in Herefordshire. In the last week, 81.4% of people transferred to the contact system were reached, 80% of contacts on whom we had information were reached and 452,679 people have been newly tested under pillars 1 and 2. These are incredibly impressive numbers. Track and trace comes in for much scrutiny and attack, but I reassure noble Lords that it is an incredibly important system that provides an important tier in our fight against the epidemic, and has proved effective already.
My Lords, why do we not have testing at airports yet? Leading figures in the aviation industry are expressing frustration and it is having a detrimental impact on the industry. Other countries have managed to introduce testing at airports; why are we lagging behind?
My Lords, I completely hear the frustrations of the airport and airlines industries about testing, but I cannot hide from them the simple epidemiological facts. If someone arrives at an airport, they may not test positive if they are harbouring the infection deep inside themselves. It may take days—up to 14 days—for that infection to manifest. I wish it were different; I wish we could set our airports free. Until we find a system that can handle that complexity, I am afraid that we will have to live with the system we have.
My Lords, North Bristol NHS Trust has recently reported on an audit of 110 patients discharged after being severely ill with Covid-19. Of these, 75% were still experiencing serious symptoms three months later. This is just part of the mounting evidence of the long-term effects of Covid-19 even on those with mild infection in the acute phase. What steps are the Government taking to raise public awareness of so-called long Covid and to invest in the care of those who are now chronically ill?
The right reverend Prelate is entirely right to raise this point; it is emerging as a massive concern. The idea that Covid will somehow pass through Britain and leave people untouched, a bit like simple winter flu, is beginning to prove worryingly untrue. Her anecdote from Bristol is completely consistent with what we are seeing across the piece. In particular, those who have had acute infection but also, I fear, some who have had relatively asymptomatic or low-symptom Covid have found in later weeks and months symptoms of fatigue, arrythmia, renal impact, scarring on the lungs and memory loss. These are extremely worrying symptoms. Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, is running an operation to understand what the right reverend Prelate rightly calls long Covid; we are using big data to analyse the scans we have collected from acute patients and to understand the impact of asymptomatic infection. This is an extremely worrying manifestation of Covid, one that we are acutely aware of, and we are investigating very urgently.
My noble friend will be only too aware of the consequences of non-Covid patients’ reluctance to present themselves at hospitals and even to GPs for treatment and support. With the winter months approaching, what can he do to make sure that, at a local level, in advance of people having symptoms, they are reassured that they will be safe to approach the NHS? The idea that “it will be all right on the night” and just requires encouragement has clearly not been enough in the past and, I fear, will not be enough in the coming months.
My Lords, my noble friend is entirely right that confidence in attending NHS venues is hard hit by Covid. One of the inspiring and interesting things that has happened has been the switch to using telemedicine—video and telephone calls—for referrals. This has been particularly and interestingly used in mental health, where attendance at clinics is something that many patients would wisely seek to avoid, but in fact the delivery of mental health therapy through telemedicine and calls has proved to be incredibly effective and has worked very well. We are working hard, through the NHS, to try to de-weight attendance at venues, particularly big central hospitals, and move much more towards attendance in the community, or through technology, in order to give patients a choice and to increase our engagement at a time when people are fearful of going back to their GP surgeries.
My Lords, one of the reasons for the Statement is to look at lessons learned. As the Minister and others have already discussed, the trust of the British people in what they are being told and advised is important. Therefore, what was said yesterday about Bolton and Trafford and their local spikes was not very helpful. Because transparency is really important in building trust, can the Minister tell us what happened between 9 am and the Statement from the Minister after noon to change his mind? He tells us that it was data. What was the data?
The noble Baroness is entirely right that trust is critical, and we have to forge a system where local authorities, local MPs and central government work together on these local restrictions. The only thing that changed was that that group of people sat down at 9 am yesterday and looked at the data, and the data was deeply uncomfortable—it did not tell the story that everyone wanted it to tell. No one wanted to lock down those areas, but the data pointed in only one direction. That is the story that is playing out in communities around the country and it is a story that we will all have to get used to. One of the frustrating aspects of this epidemic is that the disease moves incredibly quickly and does not always go the way one would like it to go. That creates turbulence, as discussed earlier, but that turbulence is something that we have to get used to. Politicians, local officials and central government mandarins are all learning to work together in order to interpret that data and apply its implications in a thoughtful and trusted way.
Is the noble Lord aware of the situation at Banham Poultry in Norfolk where, as of this morning, 104 people at the factory have tested positive and the public health director has reported that only 52% of contacts have been traced? This has led to the local authority bringing in a company to see if it can improve that figure. What conclusions are being reached as to why, in this instance, there is such a low rate of positive contact with people who may be affected?
The truthful answer to the noble Baroness is that I know that there is an outbreak at Banham but I do not know the operational details of the kind she describes. What I can say is that the system is deliberately constructed so that a local director of public health, or the local authority, has the option, if they think it has local relevance, to bring in the resources that are needed for any particular arrangement. If, for some reason, a local director of public health, or the local infection control team, sees an opportunity for bringing in outside resources—a charity, a company, a technology—that is entirely appropriate and welcome. That is exactly the kind of local intelligence and expertise that we depend on to be effective. A central track and trace operation cannot do everything; that point that has been made in this Chamber hundreds of times and is a point that we entirely embrace. I am, in fact, hugely encouraged by the anecdote the noble Baroness tells.
My Lords, I was not surprised to see a report in July that a majority of postal tests were not really working. My husband received a surveillance test, but the lancets did not make a hole big enough to provide enough blood, the little bottle for collecting it was too narrow, and follow-up tests were equally problematic. However, my question today is about masks, which were not mentioned in the Statement. On what scientific advice are government recommendations on the wearing of masks based? This is a subject of heated debate in my household—my positive experience of masks in Asia against the scepticism of the scientifically trained.
My Lords, I am terribly sorry that my noble friend’s husband had a tough time with the home testing kit. That is not the experience of hundreds of thousands of people who have taken those surveillance kits, and we know that for a fact because hundreds of thousands have been returned, providing incredibly valuable information that is informing all the conversations and decisions that we discussed earlier. As for masks, the CMO has made it very clear that the scientific evidence is not conclusive, but it is reasonably evenly balanced. It is extremely difficult to prove one way or the other the efficacy of masks, but the experience of countries that are fighting the epidemic effectively has often involved masks in one way or another, and my own experience in Asia reinforces that. That is why we have made the recommendations that we have, and we keep it under review until further science emerges. The British public have shown for themselves an interest in and a relatively high commitment to wearing masks, which I think is instructive.
My Lords, I take the Minister back to airports. I have three questions. First, what is the science telling us about the likely impact—I know that this is a difficult question—of people coming off planes from highly affected countries? Have we done any research on that? Secondly, the Minister said that it is very difficult to test when people come off aircraft because the disease may be inhabiting them but not presenting. Other countries, however, are testing at five-day and even 10-day intervals: have we considered that? Thirdly, if our only strategy is quarantining, are we collecting data on how people are conforming? Are they staying in isolation? How do we know that? Can the science and the data be made available to us? If there is an unknown or even a known loophole, how do we fill that if quarantining is our only strategy?
The noble Baroness asks three extremely perceptive questions. With regard to the science of testing at airports, a huge amount of work is being done on this, and I pay tribute to the work of the scientists at SAGE, who have, I think, published several papers on this matter.
The number that sticks in my mind is SAGE’s estimate that of those infected who pass through an airport only 7% would be captured by what is called day zero testing—a tiny proportion. That uncomfortable and inconvenient statistic holds us back from doing what we would love to do—it just does not work. We are looking at seven-day testing, eight-day testing and 10-day testing. This is a lot about risk management: there is a risk curve. I would be happy to share a copy of the SAGE report, which is public, that shows that curve.
The noble Baroness is right to raise quarantine implementation: it is a cause of concern. Quarantine is critical to the effective implementation of our epidemic management. It is a trust-based system. Anyone who has read the papers will know that that trust-based system is under pressure. We are keeping it under review and will be looking at whether it needs to be updated.
My Lords, it has been widely acknowledged that Covid-19 has disproportionately affected the black, Asian and other diverse communities, with many dying—especially men. There is also a high risk of suicide among these groups. Sadly, I personally know of two people who have taken their lives because they could not cope with the uncertainty of the future. What measures, therefore, are the Government putting in place to ensure that suicide prevention is a government priority and that this group receives the support it needs to face the Covid-19 pandemic?
My Lords, on behalf of the House I pass on our sympathy to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, for her experience with the friend who committed suicide. It is a touching story and we feel sorry them.
Suicide is important for this Government and we have a number of programmes that address it. One of the peculiar aspects of the epidemic is that the mental health tsunami that we were all braced for and deeply concerned about has not manifested itself in the way we thought it might. There is currently no evidence that the suicide rate has increased in any way. We keep a careful eye on this. When a major epidemic such as this happens, we worry that it will have a huge impact, particularly on the young—particularly young girls—and those groups, such as BAME, who may feel that the prevalence is higher in their community. To date, however, the statistics suggest that we are blessed by having avoided harsh effects so far.
Will my noble friend tell the House what communication plans are in place to ensure that, as winter approaches, all communities are well informed on what measures need to be followed to prevent or reduce the impact of a second wave, and that where spikes are found in local communities, wider immediate testing is available to everyone in that locality? I also thank my noble friend for the funds that the Government gave us in Leicester to ensure that communications were sent out in languages other than English.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for her comments. What happened in Leicester has informed our response to the epidemic in many ways, including a much greater emphasis on languages. Many of the publications and technologies that we are rolling out in preparation for the second wave will use a hugely increased number of languages, so that we reach those communities which might otherwise have been overlooked.
In answer to the overall question put by the noble Baroness, I would place massive emphasis on our preparations for the flu vaccine. If we can spare the NHS the pressure of the annual flood of flu infections, we will do the country a huge favour. If we can spare patients the impact of flu that runs down their immunity and leaves them vulnerable to Covid, we will do them a huge favour. If we can get flu vaccine take-up higher, that will be a huge benefit for the system and the country.
My Lords, can the Minister advise the House whether self-isolation—in any setting—is enforceable, and if so, by whom? If it is not a legal requirement, is the moral obligation to isolate sufficient in such a serious public health crisis?
My Lords, we have limited powers to isolate individuals under the very initial regulations that were published, I think, in March. Our overall approach, however, has been a trust-based system. I pay tribute to the British public, who, on the whole, have gone along with this approach hugely, and it is a tribute to the British way of doing things that we have not been using the police or fines like some other countries have. As the second wave approaches, we must acknowledge that there is more social exhaustion with the disciplines of isolation, quarantine, hygiene and social distancing, and assess whether that approach will last the course. That review is going on now and in the near future we will be putting in place the measures we think are necessary and proportionate.
My Lords, yesterday the Minister praised Pendle Borough Council—I repeat my interest—for its work on Covid, which now includes local tracking of positive cases; that is, the kinds of cases that the national system has failed to reach. Can the Minister explain why passing cases to the local level, which should be done within 24 hours, has in some cases taken four or five days? Furthermore, when a case has been reached, and more local contacts have been discovered, why do they have to be passed back to the national level and not quickly followed up locally? They might even be in the same street. Why are district councils such as Pendle not being provided with sufficient funding to cover all the costs of this work?
My Lords, once again I pay tribute to Pendle Borough Council, which is an absolute model of local collaboration in the handling of a local outbreak. I am greatly encouraged that Pendle has stepped forward to do local tracing. I do not know the precise details and will not pretend otherwise, but the story the noble Lord tells illustrates a harsh truth: not everyone wants to be traced. Not everyone participates in the system with the kind of enthusiasm one would like. It sometimes takes persistence and determination to track people who may be recipients of some very difficult news about their isolation and how they are going to spend the next 14 days—news that may either have an economic impact on them or seriously disrupt plans for them and their family. It is tough to track and trace people. That is why we work with local authorities to do it, why I was proud to announce the numbers earlier and why I am grateful to the noble Lord for illustrating the point with his story from Pendle.
My Lords, reference has already been made by the Minister to the quicker saliva tests for Covid-19. For the avoidance of doubt, can he outline to the House the timeframe for these trials and an implementation timeframe if they are successful?
The noble Baroness is completely talking my game here. I wish I could be 100% specific about the timeframes, but we are still going through the validation process. Personally, I am hugely optimistic. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, mentioned the work in this area of Yale University, which really changed our perceptions of the role that saliva testing could play. It can be used in the big PCR machines, it may be used in point-of-care machines and there is even a possibility that it could be used in the small plastic lateral-flow machines much loved by the husband of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe. I hope very much indeed to be able to update the House soon and to lay out a framework, but I afraid that at present the validation results have not come through and it would be premature of me to try.
Although the Minister mentioned the need to get back to face-to-face visits, it is not mentioned in the Statement. In our local hospital, Addenbrooke’s, the instruction has been that no people are to be seen unless it is absolutely necessary. Indeed, one consultant told me they had been forbidden to see a patient unless they needed to. Our local GP service provides no face-to-face meetings other than after you have been triaged and jumped through some hoops. It even had a tent outside for a time. Can the Minister assure us that some pressure will be put on local hospitals and GPs to get back to normal and start seeing people? As letters in the Times have proved, the fact that you do not see people means you miss serious diagnoses.
My Lords, massive pressure is on the NHS from every level to get back to normal. Attendance rates are increasing dramatically in every area of the NHS. I pay tribute to those who have gone through enormous hoops to create safe and protected protocols to have people back in the system, but I cannot hide from my noble friend the fact that the health system will not be the same, going forward. We will have to change our approach to infection control and hygiene and have face-to-face contact in a completely different way. It makes no sense for lots of ill people to congregate in a GP surgery and to spread their disease among one another. We have to rethink the way we did our healthcare in the past in order to protect healthcare workers and patients from each other’s infections and to afford a sustainable healthcare system that can afford to look after everyone.
My Lords, one in five NHS staff is from black and ethnic-minority communities, yet six out of every 10 UK health workers killed by Covid-19 have been BAME. What progress are the Government making in urgently finding out why so many BAME health workers have been so vulnerable, even to the point of losing their lives in the cause of serving others?
The noble Lord is entirely right to raise the terrible statistics on BAME health workers. It is not conclusively understood why the numbers are as dramatic as he articulated. I am afraid we are still speculating, and a huge amount of work is being undertaken by PHE in this area to understand it better. Some of it is because BAME front-line workers selflessly put themselves in harm’s way in environments where there are higher risks, despite the extraordinary efforts of trusts and CCGs to protect them. Part of it is the living arrangements and part is the behavioural arrangements. These things are explicitly explained in the PHE report, but it is a matter of huge concern. Trusts and CCGs have been urged to put risk-management practices in place according to local needs and arrangements, and the numbers have changed as a result of these policies.
I want to talk about areas other than London. The bus industry has made huge efforts to make its buses safe for people to use, yet people who put in local lockdowns are still advising people not to use public transport. What is the scientific basis for that advice?
I asked the Minister about this earlier and will send details to him so that it can be checked. Somebody complained that when they went to get a home test for Covid, they were asked to share their information with an American credit-check company called TransUnion, which sounds like data harvesting. I am sure we are all against that. My question is this. The Government have promised regular, weekly tests for care home staff from 7 September. Is that still happening?
My Lords, I would be grateful to the noble Baroness for sharing with me the specific detail. It seems extremely strange to me; I do not recognise it at all. The way in which we put together our test registration protocols is to encourage the greatest number of people to register as possible. I am sometimes asked why we do not have more information on the gender, ethnicity and background of people tested. It is for exactly that reason. I would be grateful if the noble Baroness could send me those details and will be glad to check them out.
Huge progress has been made on care home testing. We have massively prioritised the delivery of testing kits and services through the packaging of large numbers of tests to the kinds of care homes that can deliver tests themselves; the attendance of mobile testing units to those that need that kind of support; the connection with local trusts and hospital services so that NHS resources can be used for care homes; or the attendance of care home workers at local NHS trusts for their tests if that is more convenient for them. A huge operation has gone into place, massive progress has been made and I am extremely grateful to all those concerned.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. 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 the Motion in the name of Lord Bethell. The time limit is one and a half hours.
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 3) Regulations 2020
Motion to Approve
My Lords, these regulations were made on 16 July and came into effect on 18 July. They were necessary to give effect to the announcement made on 3 July by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister setting out the Government’s goal to enable as many people as possible to live their lives as normally as possible in a way that is as fair and safe as possible. To achieve this, he set out the need to move away from blanket national measures towards targeted local measures.
Three main activities are being undertaken to support the shift in focus to managing localised outbreaks through proportionate localised responses. First, local authorities have now drafted local outbreak management plans, which set out how they will manage outbreaks in their local areas. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of these frameworks, and I thank all those who have worked so hard and so collaboratively on these important plans. Secondly, we have published the contain framework, which sets out national expectations of how and when upper-tier local authorities should make community protection orders to manage the transmission Covid-19. Thirdly, open businesses and venues have been asked to assist the NHS Test and Trace service by keeping a temporary log of their customers and visitors for 21 days—this is critical.
Local authorities already have some legal powers under existing public health, environmental health and health and safety laws. These existing powers are complicated; they apply under a confusing patchwork of triggers and, in some cases, require a time-consuming application to a magistrate. They are simply not sufficient to enable local authorities fully to implement the community protections set out in the contain framework or to do so with the speed needed to manage outbreaks effectively. The Government’s ambition is to empower upper-tier local authorities to introduce targeted restrictions; this is an important rebalance that means the need for the Government to impose more serious restrictions is greatly reduced. Before these local intervention power regulations came into force, local authorities did not have the powers to impose fully the community protection actions set out in the contain framework. These regulations are a response to points made by local authorities, which have been echoed in the Chamber, and I therefore hope this uniform set of powers to enable local decision-makers to take prompt and sufficient action will be welcomed.
The local intervention powers in the regulations are exercisable by upper-tier local authorities in England. A local authority may give directions imposing prohibitions, requirements or restrictions relating to individual premises, as in Regulation 4; events, as in Regulation 5; or outdoor public spaces, as in Regulation 6. Before giving a direction, the local authority must deem that there is a serious and imminent threat to public health in their area due to coronavirus and that giving the direction is necessary and proportionate to control the incidence or spread of coronavirus in that area.
Local intelligence is key to decision-making. The local authority must have regard to advice from its director of public health. Local authorities are supported in such decision-making by guidance published alongside the regulations. As Secretary of State, my right honourable friend has the power to direct a local authority to use its powers under the regulations where he considers that the same criteria are met. Before directing a local authority to use its powers, he is required to consult the Chief Medical Officer or one of the Deputy Chief Medical Officers of the Department of Health and Social Care. We have not, to date, had cause to issue any such direction to a local authority.
There is a mandatory requirement for local authorities to review every seven days the continuing need for any measures they impose under the regulations. The regulations require that, following the review, if the local authority considers that any restrictions or requirements set out in the direction are no longer necessary or proportionate, it must revoke the direction and either not replace it or replace it with a direction that meets the necessary conditions. A similar duty applies to the Secretary of State, who must direct the local authority to revoke the direction if he considers that the restriction or requirement is no longer necessary. If my right honourable friend directed a local authority to impose a direction, it is still for the local authority to terminate, although this could be directed by my right honourable friend.
The local authority must notify the Secretary of State as soon as is reasonably practicable once it has given a direction under these regulations. To date, 48 notifications have been received from 18 local authorities.
To manage cross-boundary impacts, the local authority must provide neighbouring authorities with notice when these powers are exercised. Neighbouring authorities are required to consider whether they should also implement any measures under their own powers.
If a local authority decides to give a direction, it must publish the decision and ensure it is brought to the attention of any person who may be affected by it. Where a direction or decision by a local authority imposes or revokes a direction, it must notify any affected person in writing.
The regulations permit someone affected by a decision to appeal the decision to a magistrates’ court and to make representations to the Secretary of State. Where representations are made to the Secretary of State, the joint biosecurity centre will consider them and make recommendations to my right honourable friend. If he determines that the local authority in question should have exercised its powers differently, he will direct it to amend its direction.
The enforcement regime is broadly based on provisions set out in the national regulations. Police will also have the power to direct an event that contravenes restrictions to stop, to direct people to leave or to remove people from the relevant area if need be. Offences are created for breaching a direction, obstructing police or local authority officers and failing to comply with reasonable instructions. These regulations have their own six-month sunset clause.
Coronavirus is the biggest challenge the UK has faced in decades. The resilience and fortitude of the British people in complying with the national lockdown that we introduced in March has been a true national effort, but we always knew that the path out of the lockdown would not be entirely smooth. These regulations have demonstrated our willingness and ability to empower local authorities to take action where they need to. I am grateful to your Lordships for your continued engagement in this challenging process and your scrutiny of these regulations. We will of course reflect on this debate as we consider the response to any future local outbreaks. I commend the regulations to the House.
My Lords, as ever, we are grateful to the Minister for introducing these regulations. They are, of course, an urgent measure and I do not disagree with their urgency, but what is deeply regrettable is that, in the name of urgency, so little that the Government and in particular the Minister’s department does is properly considered and scrutinised by either this House or the other Place.
I therefore make no apology for raising another group of issues where the Government have acted in the name of urgency, evading proper scrutiny. I refer to the fast-track procurement processes. Some of the contracts that have been awarded seem strange to say the least. Can the Minister explain why, in April, two contracts worth £8.4 million were awarded to Taeg Energy Ltd for hand sanitiser? Taeg Energy is listed as a dormant electricity production company, owned by a Mr Matthew Gowing. How and why was it selected? Who did it know in the Department of Health and Social Care to come to be awarded these contracts?
Why, in the same month, was another contract worth £692,000 for the supply of PPE gowns awarded to Kau Media Group Ltd, which is based in Hammersmith? How was a company specialising in social media, search engine optimisation and online advertising even considered by the department for such a contract? Who did it know?
Finally, how was Ayanda Capital, a company specialising in currency trading, offshore property and private equity, selected for a contract to supply £252 million-worth of face masks? How did this happen? Is it true that about £150 million-worth of these were not fit for use in the NHS? Again, who did it know?
The Minister must understand that these contracts, all rushed through without going through normal procurement policies—I do not argue with the need to get PPE—create the impression that something fishy is going on.
I would have finished in the time you took to make that intervention. If we saw this in some other jurisdiction we would say that it reeks of corruption, stinks of cronyism or, at the very best, demonstrates rank incompetence and naivety. Can the Minister reassure us?
My Lords, I apologise to the House. I came here from my office in Millbank for the beginning of Questions. I picked up my papers from my desk, and it was not until I was sitting that I realised I do not have my full speech. But we have been through this before—we have just changed the number to three. I welcome the move to local powers in this measure.
In the first of these debates, I asked the Minister about fixed penalty notices. Since we are now up to the third set of regulations, how many fixed penalty notices have been served since the first debate? How many have not been paid? Is the Minister of a view that they are a deterrent? I certainly do not think that the average member of the public would even know that they exist, but I just ask the question.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his very clear introduction to and explanation of these regulations. I will make two points. I was very pleased to hear my noble friend make it clear that Regulation 3, on the powers of the Secretary of State, has not been used. It would effectively be a failure were that to happen, so it is very good news that the collaborative work to which my noble friend referred is continuing.
As my noble friend will recall and noble Lords may remember, one of the central arguments I have made from the beginning is that the public health infrastructure established from 2013 onwards was intended to rely substantially on the work of local authorities, to which public health functions and capacities were returned. However, that capacity was not supported with the funding required in subsequent spending reviews. The public health infrastructure should have had increasing resources, at least at the pace of increase provided to the NHS as a whole.
My two points to my noble friend are, first, will he undertake that the Government will continue to work with local authorities so that the powers in these regulations continue to be used collaboratively, with local authorities working with central government rather than by way of Secretary of State directions, which should be avoided wherever possible? Secondly, we must rebuild the capacity in local authorities, not simply for the Covid crisis, but for public health infrastructure more generally.
My Lords, the statutory guidance to these regulations is clear that, prior to issuing a direction, local authorities must have due regard to the Equality Act 2010 and should consider carrying out an equalities impact assessment to determine whether the measure might disproportionately affect people with protected characteristics. However, the guidance makes no provision for those with impaired mental and decision-making capacity, which means it is unclear whether and how these regulations apply to people who cannot fully understand them, or what the consequences are of them not following them.
It is therefore not clear whether someone with reduced mental capacity would be subject to criminal sanction for unwittingly breaking local lockdown rules. Nor is it clear what is supposed to happen in a case where this new power is used to remove someone with impaired capacity from a restricted area or a mass gathering. Can the power also be used to return the person to their home, or does it seize as soon as they are outside?
Expanding the statutory guidance would help local authorities to meet their obligations to those people with reduced mental capacity, while clear, unambiguous guidance would help those people and the people who care for them to comply more easily with the regulations. It would also reduce the potential for unintended contravention, avoiding the messy question of whether criminal prosecution could follow. Can the Minister commit to reviewing the statutory guidance to include the need for local authorities to take into consideration reduced mental capacity, in accordance with the Mental Capacity Act, when exercising their power to impose restrictions?
My Lords, I appreciate that the powers under these regulations relate only to England, yet we from Northern Ireland stand firmly behind the underlying principle, which is to allow local authorities to make decisions based on the need of their respective communities in these challenging and unprecedented times. The reality is that the spread of this virus has affected different countries in different ways at different speeds. The same is true of different communities and populations right across our nation, who have experienced varying rates of—
We will try to find the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, again. I do not think that he was quite finished. However, we will move on to the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.
I hope I am not cut off like that, my Lords.
I certainly welcome the opportunity to debate these regulations, which show up the inadequacy of our procedures to scrutinise such instruments. Last night, the Minister, in the Second Reading of the medicines Bill, extolled the virtues of regulations. He said they come to Parliament and we can scrutinise them effectively, but this afternoon we can see how scanty that scrutiny actually is. These regulations came into force on 18 July. It has taken until today to have a debate on it. There are many more Covid regulations that we still have to debate, which are in power. As Big Brother Watch has pointed out, the regulations have a major impact on how people live their lives and they deserve much tougher parliamentary scrutiny. I would also remind the Minister that very few SIs have been defeated and, the last time the House defeated an SI, we were threatened with abolition by his own Government. Coming back to the medicines Bill, the idea that regulations provide a degree of parliamentary oversight and scrutiny is, I am afraid, very much mistaken.
The noble Lord who got cut off was talking about the importance of local authority leadership—I agree. The trouble is that Regulation 3 gives the Secretary of State power to override local councils. That might be justified if the intervention was based on science or some other rational explanation, whereas we have seen, in the north-west, that the decision of the Government was based on lobbying by Conservative MPs, which had to be reversed when the data came to light.
The noble Lord quoted Regulation 3. Can he explain to the House—so far today he has had two opportunities—what representations his department has received, in the last few weeks, from Conservative MPs in the north-west, to ease the lockdown? Did the Minister take account of the advice of the Chief Medical Officer or Deputy Chief Medical Officer?
The House will be pleased to know that we have managed to recover the noble Lord, Lord McCrea.
My Lords, it is certain that local authorities and councils will hold unique insight into imminent threats facing their communities. The extension of these powers to direct closure of certain premises and events is prudent. I also accept that the safeguard included legislation that allows the Health Secretary to intervene, or revoke particular directives, should it be in the national common good. It may be necessary in certain circumstances.
The foundations of our vibrant democracy allow the UK to adopt a localised and targeted approach to Covid-19 interventions, as well as enforcement of the rules. All of this is placed within a wider framework agreed between the four nations. Ultimately, it is collaboration and delegation of powers that will continue to be vital as we seek to face down this deadly threat with God’s help.
I also welcome the focus on ensuring that the coronavirus regulations, and the enforcement of them, take into consideration the impact on the fundamental freedoms of those with disabilities or other impairments.
My Lords, I bring to the attention of the House my registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
These regulations were too little, too late and introduced in a way that is becoming a national disgrace. No longer should Whitehall know best, nor emergency legislation without the proper scrutiny and revision by Parliament be enacted from the tip of a Minister’s pen, when there are significant implications for people’s freedoms and business survival. This kind of knee-jerk reaction indicates a Government not on top of the issues that this virus is seeks a competent Government to deal with.
I sought a power of general direction for local authorities back in March, but Whitehall knew best and said no. It should now be clear to those in the Whitehall bunker that they cannot control the spread of this virus from SW1A. Rather than continual emergency legislation on the back of a fag packet, a competent Government would have sat down with the local government and come up with powers and legislation useful in laying down actions, responsibilities and resources that councils up and down the country require to keep people safe and help stop the spread of the virus.
What is required is proper strategic discussion with local government, treating it as an equal partner in the fight against Covid-19, so that effective powers and responsibilities can be taken up in local areas. They should be drawn up in a proper legislative process and scrutinised and revised by this Parliament, so that when the next wave of Covid-19 hits us, powers, responsibilities and resources are in place at a local level that can be used proactively and are effective in slowing the spread of the virus.
Whitehall and the Minister said no in March when I came up with a constructive amendment. This time, I hope the Minister is listening a little more closely, and will do what I have suggested: stop relying on the Whitehall-knows-best reactive emergency regulations and produce more detailed and informed legislation—scrutinised by this Parliament—that will be far more effective in dealing with this deadly virus at a local level.
My Lords, I welcome these regulations, because the trouble with the present local arrangements is that they are far too bureaucratic. Sometimes, they even require the participation of the law. It really is so difficult to get things done. Effective local decision-making is what is required, and we should have much more of it, rather than central control.
Perhaps the local authorities could also point out to all and sundry that politicians and the media, with their enormous power, spend so much time in destructive criticism of the Government, which demoralises the public. Blaming the Government for the high mortality rate of Covid-19 is false. The high mortality rate is due to the fact that over 70% of the people in this country are obese. Obesity and Covid-19 is a potentially fatal combination. If politicians and the all-powerful media really want to help the British people, they should support the Prime Minister in his campaign to combat the obesity epidemic.
My Lords, giving local authorities these powers was the right thing to do, although we should have been discussing this in Parliament in July, not September. At present, the key issue is that local authorities need the best evidence on which to base their decisions. The gathering of that data now ought to be controlled by local authorities. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, when he said in the House yesterday:
“Give us the tools and we will get on with the job.”—[Official Report, 2/9/20; col. 350.]
If local councillors and others are saying that there is a problem, the Government need to listen and ask what they can do. They should listen to those such as Andy Burnham when he said yesterday that the emphasis should be on local door-to-door testing, rather than a national test and trace system.
Do the Government believe that testing is increasingly important in those situations where people are on the move—going back to work or school—when there is a greater chance of the disease being spread? We know, for instance, that Berlin has had to shut 5% of schools already. That is not an argument for the country not to open up; it is an argument for much more comprehensive testing, including in schools, in workplaces and before and after flying abroad.
We should, however, go further than that. If you can easily buy a reliable test kit online from one of numerous private practices, I do not see why you cannot now get a test easily and informally from your own NHS doctor, whether you have symptoms or not. The problem needs to be understood as one of availability at the local level, not capacity. I suggest to the Government that when people go for a flu jab this autumn, it will be the perfect time for a large section of the population to get tested for Covid, if mass testing is now a government objective.
My Lords, once again I congratulate the Minister on his sheer hard work, and on setting out so clearly the content of these regulations, which I support.
I want to focus again on the penalty and enforcement provisions in the regulations, which on paper are excellent. However, as we have seen time after time over the last few months, the police are simply not bothering to enforce them, and that is not the fault of the Minister or of the Department of Health and Social Care.
I am tempted to report every police force in this country as committing mass hate crimes against elderly and disabled people. We have spent four months locked away obeying the law, but what of many others? We saw mass demonstrations of Black Lives Matter and not a single person fined but the police bowing down to them. We saw mass lawbreaking of every sort in Leicester by Asian sweatshop owners, and again the police and authorities did nothing because they did not want to offend their communities. There have been hundreds of illegal raves all over the country and not a single person fined. I accept that where thousands turn up it is a problem, but the police have failed to break up and penalise small raves and house parties. Two days ago, a bunch of yobs roamed up and down a TUI flight dispensing Covid-19 to all and sundry. Not a single person has been fined or prosecuted. The police boast that they have spoken to tens of thousands of people and urged them to comply. What a joke; every young person now knows that they can pack into pubs, houses, raves and planes not wearing a mask, and not a single thing will be done about it. Fining Jeremy Corbyn’s brother £10,000 is no alternative to fining the other tens of thousands of lawbreakers.
We old gits will continue obeying the law and being put at risk every day by some people who do not give a damn and by a police force that is unwilling to enforce the law. I regret that I will not join those who say that the police are doing a wonderful job. They are not, and they should be ordered to enforce the law.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear explanation of the regulations. Clearly it is right that local authorities have these powers, but as he said, local intelligence is key to decision-making in coping with this pandemic. In 2018, with the horrific Novichok poisonings in Salisbury, we saw that local public health officials were able to deal brilliantly with containing the problem, yet while the Government pay lip service to local empowerment, their tendency is still to centralise. This was all too evident in the recent fiasco over restrictions in Stockport, Bolton and Trafford. While the Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, was adamant that the restrictions should not be lifted, the Government insisted on doing so. The Mayor went as far as advising people to continue to follow the restrictions. The local intelligence of the Mayor was right, and within hours the Government U-turned—something of a habit. Can the Minister explain why the Government originally overruled the local intelligence?
In a similar vein, we learned today that last week was the worst ever for test and trace, with a contact rate of less than 70%. Local health protection teams have a contact tracing success rate that is very close to 100%, so again, can the Minister explain why we have such a centralised test and trace system when the problem is localised?
My Lords, I have a couple of questions arising from these regulations. In asking the Minister, I acknowledge the work that he is undertaking personally in these very challenging times despite his Government’s best efforts to sow chaos and uncertainty all around him.
Can the Minister say a little about the particular support being given to BAME communities during local restrictions and lockdowns, as we are all aware of the disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on these communities? How is clarity and transparency in official communications being addressed when focusing on BAME communities?
In the case of Birmingham, a city that I used to represent and which is now, as he knows, an area of enhanced support—meaning that it is one step away from intervention—does it really make sense for us to see the city’s drive-through testing facility close? I am aware that there are other facilities outside the city boundaries, such as at West Bromwich and Solihull, but this must be the most convenient facility for people to access. Has there been any more progress in looking at alternatives as far as drive-through testing sites in Birmingham are concerned?
My Lords, often during the recent series of local lockdowns the voice of the local authorities has not been heard. When eventually it is heard, such as in the recent case of Bolton and Trafford, changes have been at such short notice as to confuse local people and make them much less likely to abide by the new restrictions. Local authorities must give reasonable notice to the public and businesses about closures. How can they do that if the Government change their mind with 12 hours’ notice?
Recently, many businesses have gone to enormous trouble to protect their clients with cleaning and distancing arrangements and PPE, which have cost them time and money, and yet sometimes they must close because of the behaviour of others or virus spikes at the far side of a large local authority area. I want to ask about their rights in those situations. According to these regulations, they can appeal to the magistrates’ court. How many such appeals have there been, and how long have they taken to be considered? What training have magistrates been given in considering these cases? Have any closure notices been overturned by a magistrate because of the rigorous safety measures being taken on the premises? Proprietors can also appeal to the Secretary of State. How many such appeals have there been, and how long have they taken to be considered? What steps have been taken to inform those running premises of their rights in this matter?
The enforcement section of this regulation contains an increasing list of fixed penalties, depending on the number of offences. What discretion do magistrates have to consider the case of an organiser or a participant in a peaceful protest where all possible precautions have been taken to protect public safety?
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on laying these regulations, his explanation for them and all his hard work in connection with the current emergency. I support the idea that the Government should not impose more nationwide controls, and the Minister’s words about people needing to get on with their lives as much as possible around the country. Targeted local measures to manage health locally are vital.
However, I echo concerns about these regulations being debated only weeks after they came into force. I am also concerned that we do not have adequate localised testing and that results from testing, where it is done, are received with such delay in too many cases. The consequence of that makes it very difficult for local authorities, or indeed the national authorities, to understand the serious and imminent threat to public health from Covid-19 and what measures are necessary and proportionate to protect public health. These very blunt instruments are all that we have at the moment. I hope that we will improve the ability to track and trace local outbreaks in the coming weeks.
The idea of using flu jab appointments as an opportunity for widespread testing is an excellent one, and freeing up local authorities to do some testing rather than being straitjacketed into a national system would encourage local authorities to use whatever local facilities are available to them to serve their local population as best they can in tracing and testing.
I express sympathy for the Minister, who, before this debate began, had already been under interrogation for an hour. However, it is almost six months since the first emergency legislation was brought in to deal with the coronavirus. The sheer urgency and importance required Parliament to pass an emergency Bill, now the Coronavirus Act, and then approve emergency regulations made under the health protection legislation.
The Government have now had plenty of time to get a handle on this, and I echo other noble Lords who are exasperated by the fact that we are still seeing emergency statutory instruments coming in on the “made affirmative” procedure. The Government should bring forth a Bill setting out a proper framework for scrutiny of future restrictions. Let Parliament debate, amend and pass legislation, so that there is a proper democratic backing for these measures.
The other piece of scrutiny is around the Coronavirus Act, which has to be reviewed by the end of this month. Can the Minister outline what the Government’s plans are regarding the Act and what will happen with the review? There are huge parts of it—the most restrictive of people’s liberties—that are obsolete and should be repealed. In particular, I refer to the parts that allow for people to be detained for testing and treatment. These were always very concerning provisions, but the Government told us that they were absolutely necessary for dealing with the pandemic—though apparently not. Can the Minister confirm that Section 51 of the Act has never been used, is not necessary, and should be repealed? Will the Government use the powers in Sections 88 or 90 to repeal those parts of the Act that are no longer necessary?
I thank my noble friend, who must be one of the hardest-working Peers in history, I would think. I declare an interest in that my wife is a doctor who has worked in India, Hackney and Islington. We are celebrating our diamond jubilee today and we discussed this particular SI over lunch.
The linkage with local government is not working properly, because people in central government do not fully respect local medical officers of health. I have been a leader of the London Borough of Islington and I know what a good job they do.
In today’s Telegraph, the Governor of the Bank of England said that consumer caution was derailing the economy. One area of the economy that is closed is the sporting world, be it cricket, rugby, football or other things. DCMS is exceedingly slow and ultra-cautious, with only 15% of its staff at their desks. We have an opportunity here. All first-class cricket clubs were ready to open for business in July, with proper Covid-19 preparations fully approved. Why do we not use local government to inspect these sporting grounds to approve them or otherwise? It already does it for safety. The cricket finishes in four weeks, and there is a real business opportunity as we deal with the T20 Blast. It will encourage our dear people to go out and enjoy themselves, spend money and get the economy moving.
While I am about it, can we please use the phrase “possible second wave”, not simply “second wave”—the Minister did use the words “second wave” earlier on today—particularly as we see falls in hospital admissions and death rates? Above all, can we forget the phrase “world-beating”?
My Lords, I have a brief question to put to my noble friend the Minister regarding the consultation on local lockdowns: how, in future, can we strive to avoid the tension that appears to have arisen in local cases, particularly in the north-west? I urge the Government, in the next campaign that I gather will be announced about face-based test and trace, to look to ensure, if possible, that young people are targeted in any campaign that we have.
In terms of the potential flu epidemic that might coincide with a national spike in Covid, can my noble friend assure the House today that his department has had contact with doctors and pharmacists to ensure that not just the over-65s will have sufficient access to vaccines and that, with the new demand, over-50s will also be able to be vaccinated and that there will be sufficient availability for both categories? My understanding is that flu vaccines are ordered months, if not a year, in advance and there may not be sufficient to cover both categories.
The noble Baroness has quite a fetching scarf. The next speaker is the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia.
My Lords, this SI gives local authorities powers relating to the control and prevention of coronavirus. This SI requires the approval of both Houses. The regulations came into force on 18 July 2020 but, if they are not approved by the House of Lords, they will cease to apply.
These are important powers to control the spread of the coronavirus. In these difficult times, it is important to give powers to local authorities to close down certain properties, such as bars, restaurants and shops. We have witnessed the various towns where there has been a flare-up of the pandemic and the powers of the local authorities have helped to close down such premises before it spreads further. Communities and local government have to work together to ensure that people wear masks, maintain social distance and regularly wash their hands with soap. Local authorities must have powers to fine individuals in premises if they do not conform to the regulations. Repeated breaking of the regulations should mean heavy fines and perhaps imprisonment.
We must realise that such powers are for the safety of public health. These powers are fair and proportionate in the present circumstances. I trust that both Houses will ensure that politics will not interfere with these regulations. Lives can be lost in these difficult times.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is essential that there is public buy-in for these and future regulations, and that that has not been the case? That buy-in can come only from a Government who gain credibility by having clear, unambiguous messaging and the courage at times to admit failure.
That being the case, why, when Public Health England was created by the Government and reports directly to the Secretary of State, has the Secretary of State not accepted responsibility for its failure? Why, given the consistent underperformance of his own track and trace system, has the person leading that failure now been given an even greater role in the Covid response programme? Is not a lack of government credibility the reason for the public increasingly ignoring these regulations, and not the police and local councils, which are totally frustrated because they do not have the means to enforce these confusing regulations?
The previous policy of whole-council lockdowns, often announced in the media before local officials are told, is now seen as disproportionate and unfair, but will the new regulations be any better? Where are the criteria by which local authorities need to judge their lockdown policies? What is the process for including or excluding individual businesses or leisure facilities within locked-down areas where no evidence of rising infections exist? How about dedicated local track-and-trace systems? They do not exist, but could accurately give evidence of an effective lockdown. People have to understand why they or their business are being targeted. They need criteria for action, rapid testing, swift and consistent feedback, and immediate support. Simply waving the threat of meaningless and unenforceable penalties will not do.
When will the long-awaited app—so effective in Germany, with over 15 million people using it—be available here? No doubt its failure to appear will be blamed on some hapless official to save the face of Government Ministers during this disaster.
My Lords, these regulations are authoritarian and disproportionate. Under the banner of responding to Covid-19, the Government’s default position is to take sweeping powers to tell citizens what to do and to punish them if they do not do it. Recruiting local authorities to this cause does not make it any better. The only good thing about the regulations is that they have a sunset clause.
Covid-19 may well have been a major public health danger in the early part of this year, but it is not one now. Hospitalisation rates and deaths are extremely low, despite a rising number of recorded infections. However, we now have two massive problems that are exacerbated by the obsession with Covid-19.
First, the NHS has virtually abandoned most patients. Access to primary care, undetected and untreated cancer patients, massive hidden waiting lists for consultations and diagnostics, and a huge backlog of elective surgery are just some of the problems.
Secondly, we have a very great economic crisis. Lockdown has had a huge, negative impact on the economy. Government borrowing is at levels not previously seen in peacetime. Businesses are struggling to get back to anything like normal and many will not survive.
These regulations are nothing to be proud of. The Government need to prioritise the real problems facing our country.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. We are in the seventh week of the regulations being in place and once more we are sleepwalking into approving regulations without an opportunity to amend or challenge decisions, undermining any notion of meaningful oversight.
I wish to make two points, the first being about localised lockdown. Despite what the Minister said, confusion seems to have reigned, creating significant turbulence in communities. By now, we should have established a blueprint for multiagency intervention in partnership with local leadership and health organisations, including local testing, as I have said before in this House. When the Government say that they are being decisive, that is not recognised by many communities, which consider that government approaches cause anxiety and resentment among residents, businesses, health professionals and law enforcement alike. Can the Minister inform the House what criteria and benchmarks are activating local lockdowns? I understand that the virus remains worryingly active, and I hope that noble Lords will agree that we must do all we can to mitigate the effect of uncertainties and the erosion of trust and confidence. That includes improving communication among minority communities, which at the moment can be considered negligent.
The other point that I wish to raise is on the impact of regulations on public gatherings. Every weekend I see young people in public and at social gatherings breaching the mask-wearing and social distancing rules, with no enforcement in sight. The health protection regulations are in place to protect the public from health risks, but they must not transgress, being used to impinge on civil liberties or stop peaceful, democratic protests. During these protests, some people have received excessive, punitive fines. Any draconian interpretation of the rules must not be countenanced or allowed to curtail our basic rights at a time when we are witnessing historic movements led by young people campaigning for social and political justice, equality and action on climate change. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baronesses, Lady Jolly and Lady Bull. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government are collecting robust data for equality impact assessments, on how and where fines are being issued, and on the ethnic and age breakdown?
My Lords, we are at a tipping point in this matter. Much of the population no longer believes in the measures that are being put forward. On Monday this week, the Times carried a story with the headline:
“Second wave … this winter could kill 85,000 people”—
that is, twice as many people who have already died. In the middle of the article was a little table showing that one person died the day before the story was published.
Many people, particularly the young, think that old people are legislating for them. Many old people feel that middle-aged people are pushing them around and telling them to isolate. Now, we have this legislation, which effectively ends political protest. I carry no brief for Extinction Rebellion, but it could easily be banned under this legislation, and that would be wrong. We will face an inability of the state to get its citizens to behave in the way we wish without coercive measures, and that we cannot do. Therefore, the Government should look, first, at exempting political protests from the regulations and, secondly, at easing up, because if they do not, the population will. The fact is that there is freedom to dissent in this country. There is also a freedom to do foolish things, and people should defend that. That is what this is about.
Finally, people often used to say to me, “Do you know that Jeremy Corbyn? He’s dreadful, isn’t he?” I used to say to them, “You should meet his brother.” I do not think that we were right to fine Piers Corbyn £10,000. He has very quickly raised that sum on the net, and if we carry on with this level of confrontation, we will regret it.
My Lords, I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for his explanation of the SI. It is good that local authorities are given local powers to deal with local situations where there have been spikes of Covid. However, to assist with these mitigating measures, I would like to ask him a few questions.
Can he tell your Lordships’ House what progress has been made on global vaccine development? I believe that people will feel safe only when a vaccine becomes available. What preparations have been made for a possible second spike of Covid? Will those preparations take the form of local lockdowns and directions to be given by councils in relation to premises, and what staff and funding resources will be devoted to such an outbreak? Is there an available supply of PPE and ventilators, and are care homes now fully equipped to deal with emergencies such as a further possible spike of Covid?
Also, what assessments have been made of the track and trace programme? If applicable, will those results be made available, and how will they instruct government on the allocation of medical, care and nursing staff resources, as well as the ready need for financial resources?
My Lords, we had a very good PQ debate on 28 July about the need to give greater priority to the economic impact of Covid. I argued on the basis of analysis from leading academics that the costs of the severe restrictions that we have imposed for medical reasons are much larger than the benefits. So there was a strong case for the recent lifting of national lockdown restrictions. Taking a lead from my noble friend Lady Penn, who is in her place and spoke very convincingly then, there was agreement that measures adopted to counter any flare-up in infections should be carefully targeted locally rather than being general in effect. I therefore support these regulations, the provision they rightly make for local lockdowns and the January sunset clause.
However, I have four concerns today. First, since lockdowns and local measures have now become more routine, I think that it was wrong not to consult formally on these regulations, and I would like to know who was consulted informally beyond charities. As we have seen, local closures have a huge impact and we are now talking about very few deaths, as my noble friend Lady Noakes said, and much improved hospital care.
Secondly, with these emergency measures as with others, there is no attempt to measure economic impact and, I believe, still no economist on SAGE. All we know is that the debt load for our children to tackle is already horrific; we must reverse that trend.
Thirdly, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care appears to be responsible for policing whether local measures are necessary and proportionate. How is this checked and enforced? Is there not a bias here in favour of caution and Covid, when the adverse impact on shops, education and the world of work and on the number of deaths of people on NHS waiting lists are a worry?
Fourthly, why is there not more local and workplace testing—including, indeed, here in the House of Lords? Care homes, in particular, are crying out for frequent testing. There is lots of capacity, so, as the Minister in charge, my noble friend should lay down the law.
My Lords, I will follow the thrust of the speeches made much earlier by the noble Lords, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and Lord Scriven. In this intervention, I am questioning not the policy but its legislative implementation. In the early days when things were very hectic we could understand why the policy was being implemented in the way that it was, but now, when we know much more, it must be a matter of doubt.
The policy is being implemented under a 36 year-old Act, the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984—I apologise to all noble Lords who know this story very well—including the emergency powers in that Act. The Act imposed duties upon bodies such as the Port of London, port health authorities and aerodromes controlled by the Secretary of State, and their duties were to report notifiable diseases. The powers in the Act were designed to make sure that they carried out their duties in a proper manner. There were even duties about the conditions in which people might live in canal boats.
My question to the Minister is: is there a precedent for picking a conveniently drafted set of powers and using them for a very different purpose? Will the Government, with their much greater knowledge, continue to use this, or do they intend to change the way in which they implement the legislation to give much more scope to Parliament for scrutiny and even possibly amendment?
My Lords, I hope the Minister managed to get a small break over the summer. I did, and I visited Salisbury Cathedral and its most famous exhibit from 1215. The entrance to the exhibition has a copy of the emergency Coronavirus Act 2020. The display says, “Do you know that the Government has taken unto itself the following powers and taken away the following rights from citizens?”, and lists them. Looking at these regulations today, it is tempting to repeat the most famous question of all: “Magna Carta: did she die in vain?” Six months ago, when we were looking at that Act, we said to the Government that it was predicated on some wrong assumptions. One of the key assumptions that was wrong was that it did not take into account the role of locally elected officials and their accountable rule in public health.
I want to draw attention to four problems that underlie all the regulations that we are having to deal with. The first is the mistaken belief that Department of Health Ministers, their spads and their friends in tech companies know better than local government and public agencies how to handle the pandemic. With every passing week, it is more evident that what my noble friend Lord Scriven said in March, which was ignored, was absolutely right: the key to managing a pandemic is to give local authorities a general power of competence, and that is becoming more and more urgent. I ask the Minister when the Government will remedy that.
I checked throughout the summer with colleagues throughout local government and found that the same issue has arisen time and again: they are ordered by central government to take action to close down establishments and to install barriers for physical distancing, but they have no power of enforcement. They are managing at the moment on the power of their own authority negotiated with local populations, but they need the Government to understand that what is being achieved is done so despite the orders from central government, not because of them.
The second problem is the failure to understand that, while central government and the NHS can focus solely on Covid if they have to, and they have done so, others cannot. The police have to deal with the consequences of the virus at the same time as carrying out routine crime policing. Local authorities have had to reorganise social care completely, maintain sanitation services, try to support local businesses to keep open and, in one case, try to decide what the consequences were of Zippos Circus not being able to open on common land. That may seem trivial, but that is what people in local government are having to deal with as yet more “helpful” advice and guidance comes from the Government. So my next point to the Minister is this: will the Government ban officials from issuing yet more advice to local government that gets changed day by day and gets in the way of implementing things properly?
The third and most important problem is the one that we have alluded to and which we knew was coming: the failure to have an effective track and trace system. The Government have thrown millions at companies that did not have to tender or even show any competence in the area at all. Directors of public health still do not have timely household data about infections so that they can use their local intelligence to work out what the transmission patterns are and take precise precautionary action. Ministers can stand there and bluster and blame all they like, but until such time as they own up to that and work with people in local government to rectify the systems and build on local intelligence, we are not going to be able to make any of this work.
The fourth problem is that immunity from parliamentary scrutiny has clearly enabled the Government to do something that has been quite counterproductive: to pay no attention whatever to the communications strategy for what they want to do. Time and again they have announced at the last minute to professionals what they are expected to do within hours rather than days. I can tell the Minister that in Oldham, hours before the beginning of Eid, it was announced that two families from separate households could not meet in a garden but it was still all right to go to the pub. That went down very badly with everyone in Oldham because they understood entirely what its effect would be. I have to say, looking at some of the other public announcements since, it is clear that people in central government have yet to understand what people in the streets understand: that they are making this up as they go along.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, rightly pointed us to the really important matter: the Act has to be reviewed by the end of this month. We have a backlog of regulations that are every bit as ineffective as these are. I do not think that in all conscience this Parliament can let the Government hide as they did behind the emergency nature of the virus outbreak six months ago. The Government have to start telling us now how they intend to revise the legislation, who they intend to involve in consultation and, above all, how they will be led by local professionals who understand what is happening in their communities, so that not only do we get something that is effective but we get ourselves back on the right side of human rights and public responsibilities.
I agree with everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, has just said. We shall get to that point by the end of this month. I congratulate the Minister on the marathon session that he has done today. I have just agreed to almost three days this month of statutory instrument conversations like the ones that we are going to have today about things that have already been enacted. They all have to be done by 25 September, so for two Fridays and a Thursday the Minister and I and many noble Lords here will be in the Chamber having similar conversations. The time has come when we actually need to review the whole process. I say that for a number of reasons.
The Minister has said a few things today that I completely agree with; for example, he says that the population are getting a bit exhausted, that we definitely have a second wave coming and that there are things that we therefore need to think seriously about. The Minister has also said that we now know a great deal more about Covid, what happens and how to deal with outbreaks than we did at the beginning of March. When you put all those things together, it should say to us that we do not need the urgent legislation on the statute book that we agreed back in March. It needs to be reviewed. There is now time to plan for the next wave if it is going to happen. There is time to have discussions in Parliament about what needs to be done, what local authorities should be doing, what resources are needed, how the NHS can function and continue cancer and other treatments at the same time as manage a Covid outbreak. We have time to do that. It is about time to ask the Minister to say to the Government that we need to end the emergency legislation. We need to review it and we need to stop it. We now need proper scrutiny of the regulations that we are discussing today.
These regulations should have been debated two months ago. I put on the record again that this process needs to be reviewed as a matter of urgency. If we are to believe the Minister and his colleagues about testing and tracing, the readiness of the NHS, the scientific basis for local lockdowns, the strengthening of local public health efforts, and the greater understanding of the virus, we do not need emergency legislation to facilitate and to avoid a national lockdown. The question that the Minister needs to answer is: when will we see a proper review and revoking of these powers instead of just rolling forward, with Parliament unable to play its part in the legitimate scrutiny of this legislation?
Another legitimate concern which the Minister has heard from several parts of the House is that this piece of legislation can be used to stop legitimate political activity. Can the Minister say whether the legislation has indeed been used to stop legitimate political protest, which this country prides itself on allowing to happen, even in its most bonkers forms?
The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and others raised important questions about the equality issues raised by this legislation. I would like the Minister to address those questions.
Can the Minister expand on the criteria for serious and imminent threats to public health and the necessary precautions? According to the Local Government Association, local authorities are unsure of the circumstances in which they can use these powers and the threshold for meeting these two tests. For example, many councils have been grappling with the lack of social distancing in venues, including licensed premises, such as pubs, but found that a small minority ignored the requirements to ensure social distancing altogether.
Where areas are on the Government’s watchlist, and there is a clear imminent public health ground to take action, councils feel confident in taking enforcement action under the regulations. However, where there is not a known spike of Covid cases locally, councils have advised that they are less certain about whether they can take enforcement action under the regulations to prevent a local outbreak. Does the Minister believe that a lack of social distancing in itself constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health?
Hesitancy is not helpful in the fight against Covid-19. The clarity for which we have been calling for months remains a priority. I think that these regulations give a Secretary of State the power to require a local authority to make or revoke a direction after consulting with the CMO or deputy CMO. Can the Minister advise whether the Secretary of State has given any such directions and, if so, where has he done that? Can he confirm whether the CMO or deputy CMO were consulted and whether their responses were shared with the appropriate authority?
I would be grateful if the Minister could explain how this particular set of regulations interacts with the Government’s guidance on other legislative regimes. However, basically, the Government need to take a thorough look at the appropriateness of these regulations and the way in which they are carried out.
My Lords, I thank everyone involved for this important debate. The restrictions that we have debated today are incredibly necessary and do, in fact, answer many of the points that have been raised in this Chamber about the way in which the Government are going about their fight against Covid, and in particular, about the interaction between central government and local authorities. Empowering local authorities to protect the people in their areas from this terrible virus is the exact reason for these regulations. I would like to pay tribute to those local authorities which are working so closely with government and bringing about important impacts in their areas that close down outbreaks that we never hear about.
I will focus on individual answers to questions, and then wrap up. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that all decisions by local action committees are based on the latest data and advice from experts, including the CMO in consultation with local authorities. That interaction between central government and local authorities has come a huge way since we last spoke in this Chamber and a huge investment has taken place during the summer in building those relationships and getting the data moving between the two. It works nine times out of 10 without any impact on the headlines whatever, and those relationships are being forged extremely closely.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, asked about fixed penalty notices. I reassure her that under Regulation 3 no fixed penalty notices have been issued. I think that is a tribute to the way in which the police have gone about marshalling these restrictions, which, despite the comments of some noble Lords, has been extremely responsible, light-touch and has relied on encouragement wherever possible.
I very much welcome my noble friend Lord Lansley’s comments on the collaborative work between government and local authorities. We are extremely committed to local-led leadership in the fight against Covid. In answer to his question, we are investing massively in systems, data, personnel and the culture of collaboration in that relationship between central and local government.
I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, that the virus hits different people in different ways. When I speak to my counterparts in other countries, what is amazing to me is the reassurance I get that many of the challenges they face are the same, but also how the disease hits different people in different ways.
I remind the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that some of his comparisons between the regulations before us today and the regulations envisaged in the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill are completely different and an unfair comparison. What we have before us today is emergency regulation in the face of an unexpected, unprecedented and horrible epidemic. It was passed quickly to fight a virus that is killing tens of thousands of people. The regulations anticipated for the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill will be highly considered, highly consultative and under the affirmative action in most cases. It is very important to get that comparison right.
I make a special note on the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, many of which were echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. I completely pay tribute to the noble Lord, who is absolutely an advocate for local decision-making and enhanced powers for local authorities. I remember well his interventions during the passage of the Coronavirus Bill and his draft amendment. The processes and resources that we are looking at today, at the beginning of September, for local intervention by local authorities, are completely different from what they were in March. We have made a massive investment of time, money, people, technology and systems to beef up those resources. Today, local authorities, local infection teams and directors of public health are being as effective as they are—and they are being effective—because we have worked so hard to build those resources. If it was not for that work, the impact would not be felt. While I completely pay tribute to the vision and accurate analysis by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and others on this point, the truth is that if we had taken that approach in March it would not have worked. But we are building those systems today, and I pay tribute to those involved who have taken it so far.
Also in response to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, I pay tribute to the hard work that went into these regulations. They are characterised as having arrived here unexpected and unscrutinised. That is not true in this case. These regulations were hammered out in conversations between government, local authorities and DPHs in response to the needs and requirements of those local authorities and directors of public health. They were in response to the political call of those in this Chamber and elsewhere. They were not unexpected or rushed; they were the subject of extensive consultation. On their quality, I remark that no one has particularly questioned the regulations themselves. Their quality is first class; they are completely fit for purpose, and I am extremely grateful to those involved in the drafting of these regulations, which have already proved to be extremely effective and have had a huge impact.
On the comments of my noble friend Lord McColl, I am afraid that I could not hear them all, but I believe that they were a sobering reminder that, as a country, we have not tackled the challenge of obesity, which has correlated the impact of coronavirus in this country. The Government take that extremely seriously. It starts at the top with the Prime Minister and his own personal experience and goes through the announcement in July of our obesity strategy, which we debated in this Chamber yesterday. It is a long-term commitment of the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Health to address the matter properly.
In response to the question from the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, yes, you can get a test wherever you live, but typically it costs around £100. That is why we are working on dramatically reducing their cost, so that we can introduce the sort of mass surveillance that he discussed.
In response to my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft, I completely welcome U-turns when the evidence changes. We need to balance between national and local resources and decision-making and analysis.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, I am very sad about the disproportionate effect on BAME. We are studying it extensively to try to understand it properly.
I completely and utterly reject the characterisation by my noble friend Lord Naseby of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which has been extremely active in this space. It is deeply engaged with cricket. The second wave has already hit France and Spain hard and it seems unlikely to avoid Lords cricket ground for any cultural superiority reasons.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh—gosh, I am running out of time here—we are offering the flu jab to 30 million people, and plans are in place to extend it to 50 million to 64 million people.
I have massively misjudged my timing on this, and there are a large number of questions that I would have liked to answer, but I have got it completely wrong. My key points are that a second wave is already reaching across Europe. If you go to Marseille or Barcelona, or, if you are in America, you go to Florida, you will see that the rise in prevalence leads to a rise in hospitalisations as night follows day. We have to be prepared for winter. The days are already shorter, and the schools are back. It is only 113 days to Christmas. We have put into place during this summer important preparations for the winter, and these regulations are an important part of it. They meet the challenge of getting central government to work closely with local authorities. They are very good regulations and answer many of the challenges that I have heard here in this Chamber. For that reason, I commend these regulations to the House.
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 virtually, but all Members are treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House. We now come to the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord True. The time limit is one hour.
Representation of the People (Electoral Registers Publication Date) Regulations 2020
Motion to Approve
My Lords, on 9 June I announced to the House that, in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government intended to bring forward legislation to delay the deadline for publication of this year’s revised parliamentary and English local government registers by two months, from 1 December 2020 to 1 February 2021. As we all know, the electoral registers are lists compiled by electoral registration officers—EROs, in the jargon—of people in their areas who are registered to vote. EROs are appointed by local authorities across Britain and each holds two registers: a local government register for local polls and a parliamentary register for national polls, primarily parliamentary general and by-elections. Both registers are also used as an information source for credit reference agencies and in jury summons.
The annual canvass is an information-gathering exercise which ordinarily runs for five months, from 1 July to 1 December, and which EROs are obliged to conduct each year to ensure that their electoral registers are as complete and accurate as possible. The information gathered during the canvass is used to identify both electors who should be deleted from the registers, for reasons such as death, ineligibility or moving address, and eligible electors who are not on the register and therefore to whom invitations to register, or ITRs, should be sent. The ITRs are a separate form from the canvass and may be completed throughout the year, either digitally or in hard copy. The revised register is then published by EROs on or before 1 December, except when an election is held in an ERO’s area during the canvass period, in which case it is automatically delayed until the following 1 February.
This legislation would allow EROs an additional two months in which to conduct their vital work, if they require it, due to the challenges caused by Covid-19. For instance, in addition to the challenges all have faced, the members of electoral services teams in many local authorities have had to contend with reallocation to focus on providing other essential services in local communities. At present, however, EROs in England, Scotland and Wales remain legally obliged to publish the revised electoral register by 1 December 2020, or they will be potentially liable for prosecution for failure to conduct their statutory duties under the Representation of the People Act 1983.
As noble Lords will remember, we brought forward secondary legislation last autumn to make much-needed reforms to the annual canvass process, which were widely welcomed. The most significant change is a new data-matching step at the outset, informing the ERO which households are likely to remain unchanged. This allows the canvass to move away from the cumbersome, one-size-fits-all, paper-based system to a modern and adaptable model in which EROs are now able to use e-communication and phone calls to communicate with electors, as well as being able to continue to use hard copy where appropriate.
Thanks to those reforms, we have reduced the number of people who will need to respond to EROs at all; introduced digital contact methods in place of paper forms, reducing the amount of paper to be manually processed; and introduced the option to use phone contacts where possible, in place of door-knocking. This year’s annual canvass will allow EROs to conduct safer and more responsive canvasses than ever before. None the less, the canvass will still involve large amounts of paper responses and, where phone calls are impossible, door-knocking where a household has not responded to previous attempts to contact them. The in-person contacts and paper elements of the canvass still play a vital role in ensuring the completeness and accuracy of our electoral registers, as they allow those for whom local authorities do not hold phone or digital contact details to be canvassed.
In spite of the impact of Covid-19, the 2020 annual canvass under the reformed system is successfully and safely under way in local authorities across the country; I thank all those involved. The rollout of the national data-matching service successfully matched the records in all local authorities and valuation joint boards across Great Britain, amounting to over 48 million electors, an impressive feat considering the current disruption. This work has been undertaken with full compliance with all data protection regulations and while safeguarding the data of all citizens.
Before bringing forward this legislation, the Government engaged with the electoral services community to consider a range of options to support EROs. One of the alternative options raised was cancelling this year’s canvass and removing the in-person contact requirement—the door knocking. However, the canvass plays a vital role in ensuring the completeness and accuracy of registers on which elections are based. This includes those elections currently due to take place in May 2021, because of the deferment of elections. By cancelling the canvass, we would risk disfranchising voters who had recently reached voting age, moved house, or for some other reason should be added to the register. This would, of course, be unacceptable.
The other option, removing the in-person canvass requirement, has been proved unnecessary due to progress in the response to Covid-19 and the success so far in controlling its spread. Much of society has reopened and we have adapted to the new necessities of Covid-secure working, as we see around us every day. The extension of the publication date, in concert with clear and carefully considered public health guidance for canvassers, will allow EROs to undertake the canvass in full compliance with all Covid-secure requirements.
The Electoral Commission has, in close co-operation with the public health agencies in each of the three nations, already issued guidance to EROs on carrying out a Covid-secure canvass, and my officials are monitoring the situation to provide further non-legislative support as needed. These measures will, together, allow EROs the flexibility to respond to local needs while complying with the prevailing public health guidance. Not only would removing the personal canvass therefore be unnecessary to protect public health, and might risk undermining the quality of the register, it would be legally extremely difficult due to the statutory requirement to consult with the Electoral Commission for three months on any changes to the conduct of the canvass. Having considered the various options, we are bringing forward this legislation to allow EROs additional time to complete the canvass. However, they would still be able to publish before 1 February 2021 if they chose to, in line with current legislation.
The Government have consulted widely across the sector, including with the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Scottish Assessors Association, the LGA—I declare an interest as vice-president of that association—and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, all of which have expressed their support for this measure. I thank my counterparts in Scotland and Wales, and their Governments, for their proactive and positive engagement on this issue. They have brought forward complementary legislation in their respective legislatures.
This legislation will provide the flexibility that EROs need to run a Covid-secure canvass, while safeguarding the completeness and accuracy of electoral registers. I hope and believe that these regulations are uncontentious and technical. They have the support of all major electoral stakeholders, of the Welsh and Scottish Governments and, I venture to hope, of your Lordships’ House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I commend the Minister both for the extremely fluent manner in which he introduced this legislation and for its sensible and proportionate content. He invited the House to support it and I doubt that there will be any dissent. It is important that we give the Government credit when they do a good job, because we are always critical when they do not. The way that the consultation on these regulations was conducted, with the devolved authorities, local authorities, electoral administrators and so on, has been almost a model of its kind. The conclusion which the Government drew—to have a short delay in the permissible period for the publication of the register but not to cancel the canvass, which would have potentially led to large numbers of people being disfranchised, as the Minister said—was the right outcome and the response to a well-conducted consultation.
Since the Minister is inviting the House to agree to these arrangements for electoral registration, I will raise a wider issue. One thing that is seriously wrong with our system of electoral registration at the moment, which goes back to the introduction of individual registration, is the way that we deal with people who live in institutions. The two largest groups of those are students in higher education and people who live in care institutions—who have been much in our mind in respect of Covid. Right back to 2015, when individual registration was introduced, electoral administrators and others have been seriously worried about the underregistration of people in institutions, who often move in and out in quite short order. They are often not aware of the fact that they are not registered and there is now no system for automatic registration as there was before. The Minister has introduced these regulations in such a reasonable way. May I invite him to at least agree to look at this further? It is obviously not going to make any change for this year, because it would require legislation, but there would be widespread support for a system allowing EROs automatically to register those in institutions. This could lead to a justifiable improvement in the way that the register works.
It was notable that the report on registrations for last December’s general election by the Office for National Statistics showed a very large increase in registrations in the run-up to the election. Total registration increased by 2.8% between December 2018 and December 2019, to its highest level ever. That is a welcome reflection of engagement in the democratic process, but it is also a commentary on how inaccurate the register was at the start of that period. If it were possible to get an automatically more accurate register, not only through the improvements such as data matching that the Minister rightly noted, but also by means of automatic registration of those in institutions, this would be a welcome advance.
My Lords, it matters enormously to English democracy to get the 2021 local elections right, after cancelling the local elections this year. Delaying the date for completing and publishing the electoral registers from December to February 2021 is therefore entirely justifiable. I therefore support this statutory instrument, but I have a number of questions for the Minister on how electoral registration will be improved further.
I note the references in the guidance notes for electoral registration officers to local and national data matching with other local authority datasets and the DWP dataset on national insurance. How does this evolution of data matching fit in with the ambitious proposals that we have just heard about to establish online identity verification throughout the UK, a project that we know is close to Dominic Cummings’ heart? Does the Cabinet Office intend to integrate data matching for electoral registers with identity verification for other purposes beyond the DWP? Will it report to Parliament on how this will be carried forward, and what safeguards against errors will be built in? We know from the controversies over AI that errors can easily be built into such activities.
The more suspicious among us sometimes suspect that Conservatives are more concerned to keep doubtful names off the register than to make sure that every citizen is registered. All democrats ought to be worried that our electoral registers remain incomplete, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, just pointed out, and that citizens at the margin, in poverty or out of work are most likely to be left off. The references to data matching that I read in the guidance implied that it would be used to remove names from the register, but not to add any of those missing. Are the Government considering moving, in good time, towards automatic voter registration for all citizens, which the move to digital government, at both national and local level, should make possible? If not, will the Minister commit to raising this issue within government as one that the digital enthusiasts around Mr Cummings should include in their plans?
I welcome the debate on this SI in the Chamber. The House must anticipate a flood of SIs this autumn, as the Government struggle to catch up with the legislation needed to complete our break from the European Union. Will the Minister and the Government Front Bench also note that Members will expect to be able to scrutinise and approve these SIs, not to face ministerial attempts to cram them through in large batches. The Brexit campaign promised to restore parliamentary sovereignty. Our current Prime Minister wants instead to restore executive prerogatives. We will resist his efforts.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I welcome this sensible proposal from government. I am sure it will have unanimity, because of its common sense. I have a few questions, even suggestions, to government to facilitate the process over the next few months.
I remain concerned about the situation for registration in care homes. I may be out of date, but I understand that managers of care homes are able to register those living in care homes and submit that to an ERO. I want to confirm that that remains the case, because the last thing we want is any requirement for visits from any council official into a care home to ensure that perhaps 50 or 60 people, some of whom would both be capable and want to participate in an election, are able to be registered. That is an important clarification. Perhaps further guidance is needed for local authorities on dealing with care homes in the current situation.
If, during January, any local authority area is hit by an ongoing lockdown, as recently with Leicester, and their staff are therefore unable to access work fully or even at all, will there be any discretion in relation to the 1 February deadline because of that longer localised lockdown? Has that been considered by government?
Perhaps most important in the current situation, where we all want to encourage the maximum economic enterprise, is the situation with young people, not least those in universities but also in school sixth forms and further education colleges. There is a danger that there will be underregistration. There has tended to be among such groups, particularly those in further education. As the Government have identified, credit reference agencies use the electoral register as a basis for credit referencing. Any young person eligible to go on the register, as they are at 17 or 18 years old, who fails to will have more expensive credit in the future, be it for a car loan, a credit card or mortgage offers. It directly impacts on their economic viability and prosperity in the immediate future. Very few realise that. I wonder whether a guidance note for local authorities and FE colleges could be given by government to assist that process.
My Lords, I concur with the generous opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, but I have questions that need to be asked about the Government’s approach to these issues. First, does the Minister accept what is set out in the 2014 legislation, which maintains the principle that it is a legal requirement to co-operate with the electoral registration process? It is a serious legal requirement, because failure to co-operate can result in a £1,000 fine. A fine may very rarely be imposed, but the mention of it on registration forms improves the rate of response. Will the Cabinet Office therefore work with the Electoral Commission and electoral registration officers to ensure that the best practice of highlighting the legal requirement and the possibility of a £1,000 fine is prominent on all the relevant forms? This should not be a matter for more than 400 electoral registration officers to determine individually.
Does the Minister also accept that Parliament determined that individuals who do not co-operate with later stages of the registration process can be subject to a civil penalty? Again, the frequency with which such penalties are imposed is not relevant; prominent reference to the possibility of such penalties can only assist the process of making the registers more complete.
Will the Minister look again at some of the problems associated with people seeking to register themselves, unaware of whether they are already registered? Many of them waste time applying, as they are already registered. They also waste the valuable time of electoral registration officers. Will he look again at models, such as those in Australia and New Zealand, where people can easily check online whether they are already registered?
Fundamentally, will the Minister accept that the right to vote should not be based on opting in, any more than people have to opt in to the right to receive medical attention, the support of the police, or other emergency services when necessary. The right to vote depends upon being included in the electoral registers. As the Electoral Commission’s market research has shown, most people wrongly assume that they are automatically included in these registers. That must be a big reason why so many of them do not return the registration forms and are therefore not able to vote, unless they realise that they must act in time to get registered.
According to the Electoral Commission, some 9 million people may be missing from the electoral registers or are not correctly included on them. This seriously distorts calculations for drawing up constituency boundaries. Finally, I ask the Minister if he has considered yet the excellent report of the House’s Select Committee, which looked at the working of the 2014 electoral registration legislation and sensibly concluded that we now need a system of automatic voter registration.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord True spoke of Covid-secure working. It is very good to see him on the Bench today and so many Members speaking in the Chamber. That has been a characteristic of the Order Paper today, with far more Peers here and speaking. It is an important symbol to the country at large as we encourage people to get back to work. Going on the Underground this week to my own office and coming back to your Lordships’ House to take part in this debate, I have seen how good it is for people to get together again. The more we have Covid-secure working, the better—whether in electoral calculations or in any other way.
That said, I intend to concentrate my remarks on two areas aimed particularly at parliamentary rather than local government registration. First, people changing constituencies, as is going to happen, and seeing them carved up and redistributed is always disturbing for the Members of Parliament involved. About 20% or 21% of your Lordships—about 170 in number—have been Members of Parliament before and have been through this turmoil. I went through it once in my life. It was disturbing in some ways but reassuring when I suddenly found I had my noble friend Lord Hayward’s family as my new constituents. They seemed to put up with the situation pretty well as time went on.
None of us knows what will happen in the next few months, and I think we need reassurances. My noble friend the Minister took us through the new forms of electoral registration—online, telephoning, less knocking on the doors and all the rest of it—which cause problems, of course. If any other Covid-19 problems suddenly occur, we must not give way to again delaying this process, because we must have the parliamentary redistribution ready by 2023. It is easy for me to say that, but the fog of pandemic seems more all-enveloping and all-confusing than the fog of war ever was. I do not know what will happen, but I look for reassurances that we are going to get on with the task, which hard-working EROs and their teams, working in a Covid-secure way, are doing.
My second point is that security is very important. As I just said, my noble friend took us through the different ways in which potential electors are being approached—telephones and all the rest of it. It is quite clear that the next general election, whenever that is, will be beset by accusations that people are trying to interfere with the elections themselves, whether they are foreign actors, hackers or whoever else. The last thing we want is to see the veracity and truthfulness of the electoral registers undermined in any way with accusations that they were improperly collected. Mercifully, as far as I heard in the list of changes my noble friend read, algorithms were not introduced at all as something that might come along down the track. We should be grateful for that. I urge the Government and EROs nationally to do all they possibly can to ensure that no security breaches happen in any way at all and that security is maintained.
My Lords, I first thank my noble friend Lord Patten for his kind comments about my family. From the elections he fought, he will have noticed that the fields and farms voted very heavily indeed for him. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for giving me due notice that she is unable to be present this afternoon and that therefore the order has been changed.
There is general agreement that these regulations are necessary, and I will not touch on that further because I share that view. I will raise just one or two points. I particularly welcome my noble friend’s comment, in his introduction of these regulations, that the AEA has been consulted. The committee to which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred was regularly overwhelmingly impressed by the effort the EROs put in as we legislators impose more and more elections on them with more regularity. They had such a positive, can-do attitude and no doubt are approaching these regulations in exactly the same way. I am under the impression from the introduction that this is providing general flexibility and building on a basis of flexibility for the system to ensure that we can adequately cope with the circumstances we face under Covid.
I will touch on two other points. First, for the record I ask my noble friend to identify the reasons why Northern Ireland is not included in these regulations. As I understand it, it is because it operates a different system, but it is worth identifying that it does not do an annual canvass.
Secondly, in the Explanatory Memorandum there is a reference to EROs and, on page 3, the
“lack of access to specialist software and printed correspondence”.
I am somewhat confused by the persistent reference to the absence of adequate software. IT programmes have been in existence for rather a long time. We heard this the other day in the committee at the other end of this building on the parliamentary constituency boundaries, and I am really not sure why the software was not available. I am beginning to wonder why that is so regularly the case.
In conclusion, I pick up on one thing the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said. He cited Australia and New Zealand. In fact, Ireland operates exactly the same system. Our committee heard evidence from the Cabinet Office that the cost was exorbitant. Not only does it seem to me that software packages in EROs’ offices are inadequate, but I encourage the Cabinet Office to look more seriously at the costings it has been given for some of these alternative programmes.
My Lords, shortly I will have some welcoming comments to add to the substantial points made by my noble friends Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Rennard and other Members of your Lordships’ House, but first I register a double disappointment with the Minister’s introduction to this short debate. It was an obvious opportunity for him to give the Government’s outline response to the formidable report of the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, published shortly before the recess, if only to indicate the likely timing for a fuller response. Other noble Lords have referred to that excellent report. Its key recommendation for the Government was that they must ensure that they treat improving accuracy and completeness as a major priority in future reforms to electoral registration and administration. Clearly, this SI forms part of that exercise.
As we have heard from colleagues on all sides, the date for revised registers to be published can have a long-term impact on their value. However, a more substantial issue that lies behind these discussions is the central priority objective of seeking to ensure that the absolute maximum of eligible fellow citizens are on that register. It would have been encouraging to hear the Minister reiterate the Government’s clear commitment to that effect.
My second disappointment relates to the Minister’s failure to make an unequivocal statement of support for the Electoral Commission. It is a statutory consultee for this SI under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. He will have seen, as we all have, an extraordinary attack on the commission last weekend by Amanda Milling, who is apparently something in the Conservative Party hierarchy. She was widely reported as accusing the commission of being “accountable to no one”. Whatever her position there, she surely has only a very limited grasp of the fundamentals of the UK constitution and particularly of the role of Parliament.
The Electoral Commission is a statutory regulator for our democracy whose independence and integrity are recognised worldwide. It is not accountable to the Government, let alone any political party, but it is accountable to Parliament. For Miss Milling to seek to undermine its authority in this way, with or without No. 10 approval, is surely outrageous. Why is she, presumably with her party colleagues, so scared of the commission undertaking the role it has been given by Parliament? For her to suggest that some of the commission’s investigatory responsibilities should be handed over to local police forces is plainly ridiculous and will rightly be condemned by her own party’s MPs and candidates. I hope and trust that the Minister will take the opportunity in this debate to disassociate the Government from this idiotic attack on the commission.
I cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of a comprehensive electoral register for the credibility of, and public respect for, all levels of elections in this country. Since, as we now know, May 2021 will see an unprecedented number and range of elections as a result of the Covid-19 postponement, this is especially topical and relevant in the months leading up to them, as my noble friend Lord Wallace reminded the House. Therefore, I echo the concerns expressed on all sides of the House and, to be brief, I will not repeat them all.
In particular, I hope the Minister will be able to answer in detail the relevant questions posed by my noble friends Lord Wallace and Lord Rennard and by other Members, if not today, then in a written response to all participating in this debate.
I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, referred to Northern Ireland because I, too, do not fully understand exactly why it is not taken as read that it has an improved system for assuring that young attainers are registered. Surely, if it is a better system, we should be looking at it more carefully to see whether it could be more relevant on this side of the Irish Sea.
I also want to reinforce what was just said by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, about the effect on constituency boundaries, with which we will, of course, be very much concerned in your Lordships’ House in the coming weeks.
The key question for the Minister is that, surely, it must be important for the Government to have a clear picture—an updated estimate—of the number of eligible citizens not currently registered to vote. That is the bedrock of our parliamentary and local democracy, and it needs urgent attention.
My Lords, first, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the noble Lord, Lord True, for introducing the regulations and setting out for the House the reasons for their introduction. I support the regulations as they stand; they give EROs two additional months before they must publish the new electoral register for the area they are responsible for. I have a few questions and some observations to make.
One of the problems, referred to by a number of noble Lords, is underregistration in the United Kingdom. One of my concerns is that the pandemic will have made matters worse. There is nothing in this proposal that addresses that situation, other than extending the period by two months. I concur very much with the comments of my noble friend Lord Adonis when he referred to the problem of underregistration, as many other noble Lords have done. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, also pointed out that it is often people on the margins of society who find themselves excluded and left off the register.
As many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Mann, said, this particularly affects not only people’s right to express their view and support a party, or whoever, at an election but also their ability to confirm their identity, particularly in terms of their credit rating. If you are not registered to vote, it has huge implications for that and we really need to make sure that people, particularly young people, fully understand the consequences for them on this issue.
The noble Lord, Lord True, is vastly experienced in local government and led a London borough for many years. I am sure he appreciates the difficulties that many local authorities face at present. A vast array of duties and burdens is placed on local government, but there also must be an adequate level of resource to fulfil those obligations. Paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum refers to the difficulties caused by the redeployment of staff to other duties in some cases, the inability to carry out some functions at home, and the lack of specialist software and printed correspondence, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. However, other than extending by two months, we have not addressed those issues at all because this is not a normal year—this is not an election year—so what are we going to do beyond that?
It was good to hear from the noble Lord that there has been consultation with the wider electoral community. When I looked through the Explanatory Notes, that was not very clear. There was a reference to the Electoral Commission, but it is good to hear that the Government have consulted it, and I thank them very much for that. The Electoral Commission has a very important role. It expresses a view, collects data from the EROs, publishes data, develops standards and comes up with proposals, but it does not do the work on the ground. It is the EROs who do this and it is very important that they are consulted, so I was pleased to hear that we have done that.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, about the security of the ballot. This is vital and it must be the Government’s most important job to ensure that the elections next year, and in future, are free and fair. We cannot go on with any suggestion that elections are being manipulated. However, it goes beyond the register. The Government have a serious job to look at the activities of foreign states—and what it is alleged that they did or did not do—and the failure of some companies that have their platforms abused by all sorts of people but do nothing about it. It is vital that the Government get a grip on this issue; we have to be confident that our elections are free and fair and that the people elected are legitimate. It is important to ensure that we do this.
However, there is no reference to consultation with political parties in the Explanatory Memorandum, which says, at paragraph 12, that for businesses, voluntary groups and everybody else the impact is minimal. I think political parties are voluntary groups and the Cabinet Office meets with political parties at the political parties panel. They usually meet on the same day that the parties meet the Electoral Commission, but it is an entirely separate meeting. This should have been brought up there because I think that the impact will not be minimal for all parties and this has not been recognised, which is regrettable.
The elections will take place in May 2021. The register will be published two months later and you then have less time to get the data on to the computer systems to run elections. Parties are a vital part of the political process in this country, so they should have been recognised there. If, as a political party, you are working from an incorrect register, you could knock on a door and find that the person behind it is not who you thought they would be. This is an issue; it is annoying and should be corrected.
Many noble Lords have made many other points and I cannot comment on them all, but I am sure the noble Lord will respond to them clearly today or, as has been suggested, we will get a round-robin letter. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken with grace, in every sense of the word, for the kind reception to the regulations and the thoughtful contributions that have been made. Certainly, I will take up the point asked about by the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Kennedy. If I fail to answer any points in the time available, I will make sure that the House is informed.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was the first to express his very understandable concern—which I and the Government share—about those who are hard to reach, including people in student accommodation and care homes. It is extremely important and the Government are concerned to make sure that the maximum number of people who should have the right to vote do have the right to vote.
I do not accept the implication of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that there is a suspicion that the Government or the Conservatives wish to stop people registering in any way. That is entirely unfounded and I thought it a little aside from the general tone of the debate. Indeed, I explained to the House that the Government had declined to abandon the personal canvass—the door knocking—which was put forward as one of the things that we might do, because that is a way in which one can visit and get to people.
On automatic registration, which crept out in the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Adonis, Lord Wallace, Lord Rennard, and others, I know that an amendment has been tabled for the discussions we will shortly have on the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill, when there will be more time to explore this topic than there is now. Some argue that automatic registration negates the need for a canvass at all. However, automatic registration, in the eyes of some, goes against the fundamental principle of individual electoral registration —of individuals taking ownership of registering to vote. Significant practical issues would need to be overcome. For example, there was reference to data matching. No single dataset has been identified that would allow an ERO to establish all aspects of eligibility to register to vote, in particular nationality. The Government are therefore opposed to the creation of a new database containing personal identifiers that has national coverage. Such a database would clearly pose a significant risk to data security, to pick up on my noble friend Lord Patten’s point.
My noble friend Lord Hayward raised Northern Ireland. He is right to say that the canvass in Northern Ireland is not an annual event like in Great Britain. Because of a different approach to voter identification it is undertaken only once every 10 years. That means that when the canvass takes place it is much more resource intensive than the annual canvass in the rest of the UK. Because of the very unique set of circumstances facing electoral staff in Northern Ireland, the Coronavirus Act delayed the canvass in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, was kind to refer to my service in local government. I said in my opening remarks that one should at every opportunity express the profoundest thanks to the EROs and others engaged in this operation. They are the oil that makes democracy work.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked some questions about making people co-operate and the co-operation requirement. I agree that that is an important point. It is currently a legal requirement to include reference to a civil penalty on the ITR form and on the canvass form, but I think that the noble Lord was saying that that could be made more prominent. I will certainly take away that point. I accept that it should be on the form. I understand that it is in the form because co-operation is important.
We welcome the Select Committee report referred to by the noble Lord and my noble friend Lord Hayward. We will respond in due course.
I touched on canvass reform, which improves the way that EROs can canvass properties such as student accommodation and care homes. That has been welcomed by all across the electoral community. Officials are working to help facilitate relationships between EROs and care homes and student accommodation, which might include items such as better guidance. It is certainly extremely important that people in care homes should have the right to vote. I used to enjoy canvassing the care home at the bottom of my road because I rarely went away without a piece of cake. I thought that this was the reverse of treating, until I was told that the other slice was being saved for the Lib Dem candidate. I noticed that it was slightly bigger than the one given to me. Everybody of every age must have access to the vote.
My noble friend Lord Patten referred to algorithms. I will not follow on that. I come from the age when we learned logarithms at school. It is a dangerous area to go into, but I assure him that security is very important. We do not wish for more electoral delay. Indeed, the boundary review will be made against the pre-Covid March 2020 register to avoid further delay.
I hate disappointing the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. He is such an agreeable Member of your Lordships’ House and he constantly tells me that I disappoint him. I fear I might disappoint him again. He referred to the Electoral Commission. The Committee on Standards in Public Life is holding a review into the Electoral Commission. It is quite reasonable that political parties give their views on the topic. I do not think that it is an outrage. I am sure that Liberal Democrat Members will equally make comments and contributions to that review.
My noble friend Lord Hayward asked about flexibility. The purpose of this is very much flexibility. The Government do not expect everybody to now wait until 1 February 2021 if this can be done in the normal timescale, as it should. Some of that flexibility is to take account of the local lockdowns that the noble Lord, Lord Mann, referred to in his very interesting and informed remarks.
I hope that I have referred to most of the points that have been raised. If I have failed to do so I apologise to your Lordships here in person and I will repeat those apologies in the letter I will send to pick up any points that I failed to pick up in the debate.
I reiterate my thanks to all those involved in the election process. I certainly commit the Government to the position that we want the maximum number of people to exercise their vote in this country and to have the access to do it. My goodness, the sacrifices and battles that people made across the generations to secure the right to vote for every citizen mean that it is vital that it should be enjoyed. I hope that this modest measure to improve the canvass will assist in that objective. I look forward to further and perhaps longer discussions—I hope not too long—shortly on the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill. Indeed, as I have said to the House before, the Government are considering many aspects of the electoral system. Over this Session we will have many opportunities to engage on these important issues. I leave informed and improved by the many contributions today. I have not agreed with all of them, but I have agreed with very many of them. I am extremely grateful to those noble Lords who took part.
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 virtually, but all Members are treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
We now come to the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh. The time limit is one hour.
Mobile Homes (Requirement for Manager of Site to be Fit and Proper Person) (England) Regulations 2020
Motion to Approve
The regulations were laid before this House on 8 July 2020. Their purpose is to prohibit the use of land as a residential mobile home site unless the local authority is satisfied that the owner, or manager, of the site is a fit and proper person to do so.
I begin with the background to these important regulations. The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone, including park home residents, has a safe, secure and affordable place to live. Park home sites make a valuable contribution to the housing sector. The majority of site owners in England provide a professional service to their residents, most of whom are elderly and many are among the most vulnerable people in our society. Sadly, their good work can be overshadowed by the minority of unscrupulous operators within the sector.
To address ongoing problems caused by such unscrupulous operators, the Government introduced the Mobile Homes Act 2013, which implemented a new local authority site licensing regime in England. In 2017, the Government carried out a review of the park homes legislation. The evidence indicated that the measures introduced under the 2013 Act had brought significant improvements to the sector. For example, site owners blocking residents from selling their homes had been eliminated and the pitch fee review process had become more open and transparent. However, the review demonstrated that some site owners continued to exploit financially and harass vulnerable residents. In some cases, residents were asked to pay £40,000 for a new long-term agreement to stay on a site, something that should have been given to them for free in the first place. In others, the use of variable service charges led to increases in pitch fees of about £1,000 a year. These practices are unacceptable. Unscrupulous site owners must not be allowed to extract ever more cash from those who may already be on fixed or low incomes, or to harass or intimidate them without any fear of being sanctioned. The case for change is compelling.
These regulations will level the playing field for the majority of good site owners and help drive up standards of management and conduct across the park homes sector. Site owners who manage their sites professionally need not be concerned about meeting the required standards, but the minority who continue to abuse and exploit residents will have to improve or make way for more professional people to manage the site.
The regulations will prohibit the use of land as a residential mobile home site unless the local authority is satisfied that the owner or manager of the site is a fit and proper person to do so. The site owner will be required to provide mandatory information, such as whether they have committed certain offences or breached certain legislation, to enable the local authority to assess the applicant’s suitability to manage the site.
A range of other factors, such as the conduct of the applicant, may also affect an applicant’s suitability. That is why these regulations give local authorities the discretion that they need to make informed and holistic decisions. The regulations will also require local authorities to establish and maintain an online register of people who they are satisfied are fit and proper to manage a site in their area. This will mean that existing residents, prospective purchasers and other local authorities will know who is managing each site and whether any conditions are attached to their entry on the register. Should any site owner fail to maintain high standards of conduct and management after they have been placed on the register, a local authority will be able to review their entry and either remove them, attach new conditions or vary an existing condition attached to that entry. If the local authority rejects an application or removes a person from the register, and the site owner is unable to find an alternative fit and proper manager, the local authority will be able to appoint a new manager, with consent from the site owner.
In recognition of the severity of abuses within the sector which these regulations will tackle, there will be serious penalties for site owners who do not comply. Conviction under any offences under these regulations could result in an unlimited fine. The regulations will also enable a local authority to revoke a site licence in certain circumstances.
Our local authorities are working hard to enforce standards in the park homes sector, so we are mindful of the risks of putting new burdens on them; that is why we have given them the power to charge application and annual fees to cover the cost of their work. The test will also be implemented in two stages. The first stage will run from when the regulations are made until 1 July 2021 to allow local authorities to prepare to receive and assess applications. The second stage will run from 1 July 2021 until 1 October 2021, by which time all existing site operators must have submitted an application to the local authority. In addition, we will publish detailed guidance to assist local authorities and site operators to understand their responsibilities under the new legislation.
These vital regulations form part of the comprehensive programme of work that we announced in 2018 to improve the sector and the lives of park home residents. They are necessary to drive up standards of management and conduct across the park homes sector and to ensure residents’ rights are respected. I commend them to the House.
My Lords, I am very grateful to be able to take part in this debate. It is the first time I have spoken in a debate with the Minister and I congratulate him. These are very strong and tough regulations, which are clearly necessary. I commend the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Kirkhope, on the work that they have put in over the years in bringing all this to the Government’s attention, and I commend the Government on bringing these regulations before the House.
From the Explanatory Memorandum, it is clear that there is a great deal of work for local authorities to do—and rightly so. It starts off with considering applications, in paragraph 7.8, and goes on to maintaining a register, in paragraph 7.10, and the monitoring that goes with it. Paragraph 7.13 talks about the ability to reject applications and, of course, requesting further information. I can see that local authorities will have a lot of work to do to get the information from the kind of people who may be covered by this regulation.
Of course, lots more information is needed. There is the ability to appeal to a First-tier Tribunal and there are three criminal offences. This is really good and important, but can the Minister give any idea of how much each application might cost if opposed? He said that local authorities would be able to charge to cover their costs, but is there going to be a limit to how much they can charge? I am really concerned about local authorities’ ability to deal with this along with all the other work that they have been given at the moment. How much extra money, if any, has been given to them for this? I am sure that the Minister will say that the Government have given enormous amounts of funds to local authorities this year, but they have also given them a lot of extra work to do.
Finally, can the Minister give me some indication as to how many applications around the country are likely to be received in the first year or two and try to give us as much comfort as possible that local authorities will have the ability and resources to deal with them? These are important regulations, and I look forward to listening to some of the comments from the experts who are following me.
My Lords, I strongly support these regulations, which are very important for the protection of vulnerable people living on mobile home sites. The need for these regulations, which ensure the safety of those living on mobile home sites, is illustrated by one of the most despicable cases in recent years: the 2013 discovery on a mobile home site in south Wales of two persons who had been enslaved for 13 years.
In September 2013, following a tip-off, police raided a site outside Newport and discovered human slavery at its worst. One of those rescued, Darrell Simester, who was originally from Kidderminster, published a book some three years later describing the 13 years of hell that he had endured as a slave. Darrell, who has autism, was first forced to work for 15 hours a day, without pay, in appalling conditions. He worked on a farm for two meals a day, and for 11 of the 13 years had to wash himself in a horse trough. For the final few years, he lived in a caravan in terrible conditions, wearing filthy clothes and losing some of his teeth. Thankfully, Darrell now lives independently with support, and the perpetrators have received long prison sentences.
This site was, however, listed by the local authority—certainly for most of the time Darrell was incarcerated there. That is why this legislation is so urgently needed: to give protection to vulnerable people like Darrell and to support those harassed by unscrupulous owners of sites.
I have some questions that I hope the Minister can answer. First, what reassurance does this legislation provide for close collaboration between the police and local authorities? In the case I referred to it was the police who received a tip-off and initiated action. This legislation places the responsibility on much-stretched local authorities. How will this important relationship between local authorities and the police be managed? I understand that some of it will be covered by DBS certificates.
My second, and not unrelated, question, is about the nature of “a fit and proper person”. Schedule 3 lists the criteria for judging whether the site manager is fit and proper to do the job. Most importantly, the criteria on harassment need to be clarified, because they refer to whether the relevant person
“has harassed any person in, or in connection with, the carrying on of any business”.
Does that mean a conviction for harassment, or would a recorded complaint of harassment be sufficient for the police?
In supporting these regulations, therefore, I hope that the Minister can answer those two questions.
My Lords, I had the privilege of taking the Mobile Homes Act 2013 through the House. It came to us as a Private Member’s Bill from the other place, where it had been brilliantly championed and piloted through its legislative stages by my colleague Peter Aldous MP.
Then and subsequently, I visited a number of these residential park home sites and met the usually retired and sometimes vulnerable residents, the owners of these static caravans. In some cases, a happy community has become established and the management of the site is perfectly satisfactory. It has, however, been shocking to learn of the exploitation, harassment and intimidation at the hands of site owners—some with criminal records—who have acquired sites expressly to extract hefty pitch fees from the residents with threats of cutting off electricity and gas supplies, or, worse, to bully elderly residents into leaving so the site owner could make big profits when the mobile homes were sold.
At the time of the 2013 Act, we debated the issue of requiring managers of park home sites to be “fit and proper persons”. Although the Act provided for such a requirement, it was hoped that the other measures in the legislation would be so successful in ending the bad behaviour of a minority of dreadful operators that this extra step would be unnecessary. The Act did indeed outlaw some dreadful abuses and has made a very real difference to the lives of many of the 180,000 people who occupy these homes. But sadly, as predicted at the time, appalling behaviour by a few site owners has persisted and the measure before us today—albeit a little slow in emerging, with its implementation coming eight years after the Act—is very necessary, as is agreed by the reputable site owners’ trade body, the British Holiday & Park Homes Association.
The question in my mind is: will the fit and proper person test be adequately enforced? Will local authorities have the resources, skills and motivation to make this new requirement a reality? Will MHCLG accompany the new obligation before us today with the funds and central government support that can make it meaningful? Fees charged to the site owners seem likely to be no more than £250 to £500 for a five-year certification of fit and proper status. This is equivalent to £50 to £100 per site per annum, so a council with 10 park home sites —not untypical—could only count on £500 to £1,000 a year to ensure its officers were trained and equipped to apply and enforce the fit and proper person test, sometimes having to pursue some pretty slippery customers. So, in strongly supporting the regulation, I ask the noble Lord the Minister for some reassurance that local authorities will be funded and assisted to implement it.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Best, who has unparalleled knowledge and experience in this area; we all owe him a massive debt for his work in this area. I thank my noble friend the Minister for setting out so lucidly this measure on mobile homes, which I very much welcome.
We know that there are many very effective site managers who provide a valuable service but, alas, there is a small minority who disregard the law and harass and exploit residents, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Best, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord German, who gave a particularly graphic and appalling example. The Explanatory Memorandum published for these regulations confirms that failure to introduce this measure would result in many vulnerable and elderly residents
“continuing to suffer from poor and unprofessional behaviour”.
I agree with that assessment, and I am very pleased that we are acting.
I have several questions for my noble friend the Minister, which I am sure he will be able to answer but, if he is not able to on this occasion, I am happy to receive a letter. The first relates to the “fit and proper person” and the local register. I am concerned that this register—indeed, not just the register but the background to it—should be something that can be shared with other local authorities and with other bodies and communities, such as the Gypsy and Traveller community. In parentheses, I am very pleased to see that MHCLG has been engaging with the Gypsy and Traveller community, and I thank it for doing so.
It is important that we have communication and collaboration between different local authorities so that experience can be shared. I know from the Public Services Committee, on which I serve and which is looking at the aftermath of Covid, how important the ability to share data is. I know that, sometimes, there are bars to this and I wonder if the Minister can say anything about how we can cut through the general data protection regulation if it is providing an unnecessary impediment to collaboration. I also hope that the devolved Administrations are able to play a part and share their experience. All the devolved Administrations have separate laws, though parallel and similar in some respects, but it would be good to know that they can collaborate and communicate.
I also ask about Schedules 2 and 3 of the regulations, in so far as the impact on other bodies that are able to serve as managers—I think particularly of companies. I would welcome reassurance from the Minister that we are ensuring that those serving on the companies—directors and shadow directors—are not disqualified and not insolvent and that that information can be shared more widely too.
With that, I very much welcome this measure and thank the Minister for bringing it forward.