House of Lords
Wednesday 9 September 2020
The House met in a Hybrid Sitting.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Durham.
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 will those asking supplementary questions keep them short and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Covid-19: Artificial Intelligence
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the report by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation AI Barometer, published on 18 June, what assessment they have made of the benefits and risks of the use of artificial intelligence in addressing the impact of COVID-19.
My Lords, artificial intelligence played a very important role in responding to Covid, from identifying potential drug candidates to AI-driven education technology. AI also has the potential to drive productivity gains across sectors, supporting exciting new careers and businesses as an essential part of economic recovery. It is important that we keep society engaged as we do, so the centre’s Covid-19 repositories and its public attitudes surveys inform our understanding of public sentiment. The independent AI Council advises the Government on how best to realise the benefits and mitigate the risks.
I thank the Minister for her Answer, and I draw attention to my registered interest as a board member of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. A year ago, the Prime Minister set out a vision, in his speech to the United Nations, for the UK to become a global leader in ethical and responsible technologies. We are discovering more deeply and painfully that ethics, good governance, human mediation and public trust are vital to realise the deeper benefits of these new technologies and prevent real harm. Will the noble Baroness affirm the importance of balancing innovation with a continued emphasis on ethics and good governance across the technology sector? In particular, will she confirm that the long-delayed government response to their own online harms consultation will be published this month, paving the way for much-needed legislation?
I thank the right reverend Prelate, all those involved in the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and all those involved in the ethics area for the important work they do. The UK remains absolutely committed to the ethical and humane deployment of AI and digital technologies, and it is absolutely right that we balance innovation with a continued emphasis on ethics and good governance. Further to the Prime Minister’s statement on this last year, we recently committed to global leadership on this issue as one of the founding members of the Global Partnership on AI, an international and multi-stakeholder initiative to guide the responsible development of AI grounded in human rights, inclusion, diversity, innovation and economic growth. On the second part of the question, we will be publishing our response to the online harms consultation shortly.
My Lords, will my noble friend welcome the establishment of the Global Partnership on AI earlier this summer? What are the Government’s hopes from it, and does she agree that we can make a success, nationally and globally, if we have human-led, innovative, inclusive and ethical AI?
My Lords, the AI Barometer talks of low levels of public trust being one fundamental barrier to the use of AI in both public and private sectors. Trust in government use of AI has been hugely damaged by the A-level algorithm fiasco. What are the Government doing to restore that trust? Is it not now crucial to put the CDEI on a statutory footing and ensure that there is a proper mechanism for ethical compliance across government services?
The noble Lord is absolutely right to focus on the importance of trust: it is a vital underpinning in the development of AI. I imagine he is aware that we have just published our National Data Strategy, which sets out very clearly the importance of public understanding of both government and non-government data within an ethical framework.
My Lords, back in April my noble friend Lord Darzi told the BBC in respect of Covid-19 that
“AI remains one of our strongest paths to achieve a perceptible solution but there is a fundamental need for high quality, large and clean data sets.”
Much of this data gets siloed in individual companies and universities, so what are the Government doing to unify these data sources to allow researchers to apply machine learning to new solutions for vaccines, monitoring and personalising care within an ethical context?
The noble Lord is absolutely right, although I am sure he would acknowledge that the quality, size and integration of those datasets vary considerably, as the recent report highlights, between different sectors of the economy. Again, the National Data Strategy and the consultation on it will be important mechanisms for addressing the issues that the noble Lord raised, as well as the open data initiatives and pilots that we are already running.
My Lords, the National Data Strategy has been published for consultation. Can the Minister assure us that the House of Lords will be included in that consultation? Perhaps the Minister would like to organise a webinar for interested Peers and guarantee that we can have a debate on the issues. The CDEI report notes that social care has been much less able to cope with providing data than the healthcare system because the level of training, funding and data collection in social care is so much lower. What plans do the Government have to help to improve that?
My understanding is that the consultation on the data strategy is open to everyone, but I am very happy to go back to the department and explore whether we can have a webinar for those Members of this House who are interested in taking part. Obviously, your Lordships’ Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence has been very influential already in our thinking. In relation to social care, the noble Lord referred to training and funding; it is also fair to say that the fragmentation of that sector is also a barrier to the adoption of AI, but we are also focusing on this.
My Lords, the EU White Paper of February 2020 promises legislation in Europe on public trust and regulation for AI next year. Will the Government commit to keeping our legislation on, and regulation of, AI in step with our former EU partners so as to benefit our creative industries?
My Lords, the endless development delays to the launch of the Covid-19 contact-tracing app, the Home Office decision, ahead of a judicial review, to scrap the controversial visa applications AI system, which was biased in favour of white applicants, and—most embarrassing of all—the A-level exam results scandal have all reinforced barriers to AI take-up as identified in this report, so what lessons have the Government learned from these fiascos?
I will make two points in response to the noble Lord’s remarks. First, it is the combination of the data and the human moderation that allows us to use AI most effectively. Secondly, the noble Lord highlighted some of the problems rather than some of the huge successes that we have had recently, including using AI and big data to identify those who needed to shield, using AI to predict the molecular structure of the virus, and many more important examples.
Office for Veterans’ Affairs
My Lords, since establishing the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, the Government have brought the Strategy for our Veterans to life. We have improved access to social housing, we are hiring Armed Forces champions in jobcentres, and we are announcing a high-intensity mental health service. The Government have also announced a veterans’ railcard, guaranteed interviews in the Civil Service, and a national insurance holiday for veterans’ employers. We awarded £6 million of Covid-19 funding to service charities.
Next month will mark the first anniversary of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. I commend all those involved, especially Johnny Mercer, for putting the welfare of our veterans front and centre. In these difficult times, can the Minister tell us what the office is doing to maintain and strengthen the mental health of our veterans? Will he agree to meet with me and Katie Reade of the campaign End Frozen Pensions to see what can be done for the 60,000 or so veterans living abroad who have been denied annual increases to their UK state pensions?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind words about the work of officials; he is a great campaigner on these matters. He is absolutely right to signal the importance of work on mental health. The existing services we have established— the Transition Intervention and Liaison Service and the Complex Treatment Service—benefit from over £10 million of investment per year and have collectively received over 10,000 referrals. However, we want to do more, and the forthcoming veterans mental health high intensity service will see even more investment, providing crisis care, therapeutic in-patient support and help with co-ordinating care. We are currently recruiting for this service. I will certainly talk to Mr Mercer about a meeting with my noble friend and we will see what we can arrange.
My Lords, when does the Minister envisage a full service returning to the Veterans UK helpline, which is offering only limited information to veterans over the phone at the moment? I tested it myself yesterday. Also, when do the Government plan to revisit their totally unsatisfactory policy on war widows’ pensions as a result of the letter from the Secretary of State for Defence to the chair of the War Widows’ Association on June 29? As a vice-president of the WWA, I know that war widows cannot wait much longer.
My Lords, the noble Baroness asked two extremely important questions. Government services for veterans have continued throughout Covid, but she is right that there have been changes to ensure safety and social distancing. For a period during the peak of the pandemic, the helpline was closed as it could not operate effectively, but support continued to be offered through email, digital means and a call-back service. I am advised that matters are now returning to normal. I will certainly pursue that in light of what the noble Baroness has said. On war widows, for whom she is a consistent advocate and I praise her for that, we are now exploring the full financial and legal implications of the options in making the move she is seeking so that the Defence Secretary can decide how to proceed. I assure her that work is continuing at pace in the Ministry of Defence and across government.
Will my noble friend join me in congratulating Mr Danny Kinahan on his recent appointment as veterans’ commissioner in Northern Ireland and wish him well? The Minister will be aware that the military covenant has been the bedrock of support for veterans for many years. That requires work with the devolved Administrations. They are required by the Act to report annually to the Secretary of State for Defence, who then puts their communication in a report that is laid before Parliament. Is the Minister aware that the Northern Ireland Executive has never complied with that requirement? What steps can the Government take to ensure and guarantee that services for veterans in Northern Ireland are properly delivered?
My Lords, will my noble friend join me in expressing our enduring debt of gratitude to those veterans who upheld democracy and the rule of law in Northern Ireland and without whose contribution there would never have been a peace process? Does he agree that these veterans would be greatly supported by legislation to limit the scope of the Human Rights Act so that it cannot be applied retrospectively in cases that happened many years before the Act came into force and which have already been extensively investigated?
My Lords, I wholly endorse my noble friend’s opening sentiments. I understand and share the frustrations he espouses. We will implement the Stormont House agreement in such a way as to provide certainty for veterans and justice for victims, to focus on reconciliation and to end the cycle of reinvestigations into the Troubles in Northern Ireland that has failed victims and veterans alike. This is an ongoing matter.
My Lords, when the Government launched the Office of Veterans Affairs, they said that the United Kingdom would lead the world in the care of Armed Forces veterans. That is obviously welcome, but could the Minister enlighten the House as to whether that is intended to include all veterans of the British services, including those Commonwealth citizens who have served us, particularly the Fijians, who occasionally have difficulties with their residency and immigration status?
My Lords, the position of Commonwealth veterans is of great importance. The Government highly value the service of all our veterans, including Commonwealth nationals and non-UK personnel. For example, Ministers are continuing to discuss visa fees with the Home Office, and I am confident we will find a positive outcome.
My Lords, I declare my interests as deputy chairman of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, which in 2019 distributed £28 million in support of 70,000 members of the RAF family. To what extent will future funding become available to enable the Armed Forces charity sector to continue to deliver the emotional, practical and financial support that our Armed Forces veterans have come to rely on, especially as charitable income has been affected so significantly by the impact of Covid-19?
My Lords, the work done by charities such as that my noble friend is associated with is vital. As a supporter of some of those charities, I know what good work they do. In June we announced that 100 UK Armed Forces charities would benefit from nearly £6 million of extra funding to support serving personnel veterans and their families during the Covid pandemic. I hope that is a sign of the importance the Government attach to this work.
My Lords, while I welcome the Minister’s response to the noble Lord, Lord Caine, can I press him on the particular situation of former veterans and members of the Royal Irish Regiment and the former Ulster Defence Regiment, who have recently given voice to complaints that they have been ignored in many aspects of support, particularly medical support? This is of particular concern to those of us in Northern Ireland at this time.
Some years ago I spent a day as a fly on the wall with a combat stress support worker helping veterans with PTSD. Sadly, another veteran has recently taken his own life in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister update us on progress in improving data collection to help prevent veteran suicides, as set out in the veterans strategy?
My Lords, I regret to say that I found it extremely difficult to hear the question. I believe it was in reference to suicide. Of course, any suicide is a tragedy and we are committed to addressing it. There is not an epidemic currently, as is often said, but there is an ongoing important problem, which our mental health initiatives are in part intended to address.
My Lords, we are committed to transforming the railways and delivering wholesale reform, putting passengers first, accelerating passenger-focused improvements right across the sector and building back better. Our reforms will be informed by the excellent work undertaken by Keith Williams, who, as rail is devolved to Northern Ireland, considered reforms across Great Britain.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Will she turn specifically to the question of railway fares? Have the Government received any representations from the train operating companies about the alterations they would like to see in the railway fares structure, particularly season tickets, and to build back confidence in the use of the railway?
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, is absolutely right that fares and ticketing must be at the heart of the reforms that the Government carry out. We recognise the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused in the short term, and this could also have longer-term effects on commuter behaviours. In response to that, we proactively sought proposals from the rail industry to ensure better value and convenience, particularly, for example, for part-time workers and flexible commuters. We are considering all of the proposals that we have received, and we will make an announcement in due course.
My Lords, on 12 August this year, in Carmont, in the east of Scotland, there was a train crash. The train went into a landslip, and three people were sadly killed. Even Grant Shapps accepts that the landslide was a result of climate change. Do the Government’s plans include talking to Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation to put in place further measures to mitigate climate change impacts?
My Lords, Network Rail is of course extremely conscious of the changes to our climate and the impact that that might have on infrastructure. The dreadful event that happened at Stonehaven is an ongoing incident and it is being investigated by the RAIB, the ORR and the BTP. We cannot make further detailed comment or speculate at this time, but those investigations continue, and the causes of the accident will be investigated fully.
My Lords, can my noble friend give an assurance that any future plans for the railways will not return us to a state-owned monopoly—as has been advocated by some—but keep the franchising principle? This has brought new operators, new ideas and new capital into the railways, and enables the Government to get the best deal for travellers and the taxpayer by the competitive tendering process.
I pay great tribute to my noble friend and his time as Transport Secretary. I had the opportunity to go back and look at some of his words in Hansard from when he was Transport Secretary—I think it was 1995 to 1997. There were also some interesting photographs, which noble Lords might want to have a look at, at some stage. My noble friend is absolutely right that we must retain the benefits of private sector involvement in the railways. That is at the heart of how we can make sure that our railways are as effective as possible. Of course, Keith Williams has looked at all these issues and very much recognises that point. The new model that we are developing will ensure that the railway benefits from all that the private sector has to offer in innovation, customer centricity, investment and so on.
My Lords, the Government’s message on transport at the moment is a bit confusing: get back to work, commute but do not use public transport, and do not work at home. In addition, there are an awful lot of people disregarding this and working at home. Are the Government looking very seriously at the future demand for rail travel, because of both the coronavirus changes and their zero-carbon commitment?
The noble Lord is right that the future demand for rail travel is a very important factor in how we will reform the system going forward. However, we need it to be as flexible as possible. I disagree with the noble Lord in that I do not feel that the Government’s messaging around the use of public transport is confusing. The messaging is absolutely clear: use public transport safely.
Does the Minister accept that planned increases for next January of 1.6% for regulated train fares are totally counterproductive if the Government want to persuade us back to using public transport? Year after year, fuel duty is frozen. Is it not time now to freeze rail fares and encourage people back on to public transport?
The Government accept that fares sometimes have an impact on the demand for the system and we expect that the increase, when it comes in January, will be the lowest amount in four years. This increase also helps fund investment within the system. However, a number of considerations are currently under way in thinking about more short-term measures on fares, which might encourage people back into the economy.
My Lords, first, the Victorian signalling system has been in use for about 200 years. What plans are there to modernise the system, and what is the timetable for doing that? Secondly, as the development of the north-east is now a priority, what is the timetable for developing new rail lines laterally which will be accessible from the new HS2?
As the noble Lord will know, on new railway lines, CP6—the investment period we are currently in—will see investment of £48 billion over the next five years. Over that period, and in the longer term, a lot of consideration will be given to improvements in capacity for the north, including east-west routes. On the issue of signalling, it is the case that some of our signalling systems are very old, and we are looking at various ways of investing in digital signalling. I will write to the noble Lord with further details, if I may.
The Great Western emergency measures agreement has been extended until at least late June of next year. Have all the other EMAs been extended for a similar period, or will they be? What is the estimated total additional cost to the taxpayer of doing so, including the cost of the management fee? Secondly, the Minister has referred twice to the Williams review. Why are the Government now declining to publish in full the much-trailed root-and-branch Williams rail review, as opposed to simply publishing the outcomes of that review in a Government White Paper?
The outcomes of the Williams review are the most important part of the review, which is why we are publishing. On the future of the EMAs, we had to put them in place very quickly. They protected services for the people who needed to use them, at a significant cost to the taxpayer, and we had to ensure that the cost was justified. We are reviewing the approach to all the contractual arrangements which will come into place after the EMAs, and an announcement will be made in due course.
My Lords, turning to rail access to and from the continent, is the Minister aware that rail transport is becoming the preferred EU means of journeying? Beyond HS2, what plans do the Government have to join up the UK’s national rail infrastructure so as to reach all economic regions of the UK with convenient connections to the markets of the European Union?
My Lords, given the experience of Covid, there will be an element of home-working on a permanent basis. Will my noble friend ensure that the Government will look at more flexible fares, ensuring that more of us travel on the railways? What is the current barrier to rolling out the Oyster card, so that it can be used across at least the whole of England?
Flexible fares will be a feature of the landscape going forward, and the noble Baroness is quite right that some people have changed the way that they work. However, we saw some of that shift before the Covid pandemic actually struck. We are also looking in detail at pay-as-you-go ticketing and contactless travel, which is absolutely essential for those of us who live in London—we know the benefits of the Oyster card. It was a manifesto commitment to extend contactless travel to more than 200 stations in the south-east.
My Lords, does the Minister not realise that the current chaos on the railways is a result of the policies brought in by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, and other Conservative Transport Ministers? Is it not about time that the Government had a damascene conversion and returned all the railway system to public ownership?
We will not be returning to the “good old days” of British Rail, my Lords. The noble Lord mentions chaos on the railways. I would like to make him aware that the national public performance measure for our railways is currently 92%, over Monday and Tuesday. There is no chaos on the tracks at the moment.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked. We now move to the next Question.
My Lords, that is because the noble Baroness is desperate to hear my Answer, I am fairly sure. We in government and beyond—certainly residents on both sides—are keen to see the bridge open as soon as it is safe so that, at the minimum, people can cycle and walk across, river traffic can pass under it, and in time we can see it returned to full use. To help to find a speedy resolution to this rather tiresome and tardy situation, the Government have announced today that they have established a task force. I will lead it and I shall bring together the key decision-makers in London. We will get a solution, figure out how to fund it, and ensure that action is taken. This has been going on for too long; we need to get something done.
My Lords, as the Minister said, the impact on the community is absolutely dire, in particular on the transport network. More than 1,000 schoolchildren are taking nearly two hours to get to school. We urgently need a temporary solution. Regardless of the task force, under the current circumstances the only body that has the money to provide both a temporary and a long-term solution is the Government. Can she give an assurance that that money will be made available so that this hell can be lifted as soon as possible?
My Lords, one of the problems I have faced over my many months in the world of Hammersmith Bridge is that no one seems to be able to decide how much money is actually needed, and what for. That is why I have set up the task force, so that we can lift the lid on all the proposals, see whether we can assure ourselves of their validity, and then figure out how we might fund them. At the moment, I have figures ranging from £26 million, £47 million, £141 million to £164.5 million.
My Lords, I hope that the Minister’s earlier Answer does not mean that this is to be pushed into the long grass. Does she accept that this is a really urgent matter? People on both sides of the Thames are arguing for restoration of the bridge, not just for cyclists and pedestrians, although they are important, but for public transport. Can she give us a timetable of when she expects action to happen?
I reassure the noble Lord that this issue is now in the closely cropped grass so that we can see what is going on, as well as who is doing what and when. At the moment, I am confronted with a library full of engineering reports, at least eight of them, all written by a clutch of probably fairly expensive consultants and commissioned by a plethora of bureaucrats. Somehow we have to bring all this together. I intend to hold an engineer think-in where the engineers will decide on the best solutions for both the short term and the long term. This is not about pushing the issue into the long grass; it is about bringing it into the open and getting the decision-makers to come to a decision.
My Lords, I obviously welcome the commitment of the Minister to treat this as a matter of urgency. I will follow on from the questions put by my noble friend Lady Kramer. Does the Minister not accept that, irrespective of the cost, the only organisation that is going to pay for either the temporary or the permanent solution is central government? Hammersmith, Richmond and Transport for London are clearly not in a position to do so. Does she also accept the enormous urgency of the point made by my noble friend, which is that we must have a temporary solution in the form of either a road bridge or a pedestrian and cycle bridge, as well as a temporary solution for river traffic?
The noble Lord has outlined the challenge that I face with great detail and correctness. In the short term, we need to look at ferries and whether in due course the bridge might be opened to pedestrians and cyclists after remedial works. It is a complex task but not one that is beyond the wit of man, and I think that we can crack on and do it. He also mentioned funding. Over the past 16 months while the bridge has been closed, Hammersmith and Fulham Council and TfL have both been able to find various sums of money. I accept that they have not said that they can bear the full cost of the restoration at £141 million, but in March this year the Mayor of London said that he had committed £25 million. I am not sure where that money went.
My Lords, among the many reports that my noble friend has on her desk, has she seen the Hyder Consulting Ltd report of 1997 which highlighted all the problems that the bridge now faces? It underlines the neglect of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, which has not done anything for the past 23 years. Notwithstanding the fact that the bridge is a grade 2* listed property, will she keep on the agenda the idea that the bridge could be dismantled and re-erected in, say, Bishops Park, and a road bridge fit for modern-day traffic put in its place?
In terms of long-term solutions, nothing should be off the table, but at this moment we do not fully understand the extent of the damage to the bridge. I am grateful to my noble friend for mentioning the 1997 report. I have to admit that I have not seen that one, but it will be another for my library, for which I am grateful. I point out that the department has brought in National Rail. You may ask what on earth it has to do with a road bridge, but it has a lot of cast-iron bridges, knows what it is talking about, and its engineers will help us to fix the problems.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a Barnes resident and I welcome the task force that the Minister will chair. Will she separate the short-term issues from the long-term ones so that in the short term she can do whatever it takes, with whatever knocking together of heads is needed, to cut through the endless arguments about who should pay and ensure that a cheap and cheerful temporary walking and cycling bridge, which has always been recognised as part of the process, should be funded and put in place without delay?
I intend to do exactly as the noble Lord has mentioned. We are getting bogged down in the weeds where people say, “Oh, you can’t have this, you can’t have that, and we need security to push this forward.” As far we humanly can, we have to progress things independently so that they can get done as quickly as possible.
My Lords, I noted the intervention this morning of the Secretary of State for Transport. Can the noble Baroness confirm that she does not believe that bashing heads together is what is needed? Rather, what is needed is the provision of government funding. As other noble Lords have said, it is absolutely clear that only central government has the money available to repair and restore this vital and iconic bridge. Perhaps I may press her further on the timescale for her task force. She herself has said repeatedly that the bridge has been closed for quite a long time, and it is a vital connection.
I will not return to the issue of funding because we have been around that house already. The Secretary of State used a turn of phrase about bashing heads together, but all noble Lords will recognise what we are trying to do. This morning I spoke to Stephen Cowan, the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, to explain our intentions to him. He has committed that he will work collaboratively with us while recognising that there will be some political noises off, as there always are in these matters. However, it is absolutely clear to me that we must work together for the people of south-west London. I spoke also with Andy Byford, the new TfL commissioner. He reassured me that his engineers also have some good ideas, so now we have to get all these engineers together to find out what they think.
My Lords, let me cite two examples of why urgent action is needed now. First, and I declare my interest here, my niece’s 12-minute walk to school has now become an almost two-hour commute, and this is her A-level year. About 1,000 other children are likewise impacted. Secondly, let me read out an email from my honourable friend Sarah Olney in the other place, which I received a few minutes ago:
“We had a call from a complex casework constituent who has been waiting for the 533 bus at the Lonsdale Road stop for 90 minutes. Apparently, there is a whole crowd of people there waiting for a 533. She is taking someone to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital for a surgery, which she is already late for. The hospital had said if he isn’t there by 12.30, they will have to bump him from the surgery list.”
This is really urgent. Can something be done now?
My Lords, I know it is really urgent; I do not need an email to confirm that. I can reassure the noble Baroness that when I spoke to Andy Byford this morning, I asked him specifically about the 533 bus. He has reassured me that he will increase its frequency.
Lord Davies of Gower is not present. I call the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso.
My Lords, with not just Hammersmith Bridge closed but also London Bridge and Vauxhall Bridge closed to most cars, this is a total disaster for London’s infrastructure. As Hammersmith and Fulham Council is clearly unable to afford the £141 million to fully repair the bridge, can the Minister assure us that, in line with Prime Minister’s commitment to “build, build, build”, surely this qualifies as a marquee project for government funding. What is the scope for building another bridge, as several noble Lords have mentioned, to serve as a footbridge?
My Lords, again, I will not return to the issue of funding, but I will address the point that the noble Lord raised about the other bridges in London under repair at the moment. Of course, noble Lords will know that transport in London is devolved to the mayor. It is a decision for the mayor to close the bridges and do the works when they have been scheduled. I agree that it is not ideal, and we will of course be speaking to TfL to get it to increase the resources for those bridges, if it can, to get them reopened as soon as possible.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed.
Covid-19: Rise of Positive Tests
Private Notice Question
My Lords, our assessment of the recent rise in positive tests is that we are deeply concerned, particularly about rates among young people, and particularly at a time when children are returning to schools and people are returning to the workplace. We are constantly looking at the latest data on the spread of coronavirus and have worked hard to contain outbreaks early to reduce the spread, protect the NHS and social care sectors, and save lives.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. I was finding it difficult to know in which direction to point myself in framing a question about our testing system, but he has given me the two issues that I want to raise. First, can he tell the House what effect the increase in Covid infections is having on R? What is SAGE advising? The second question is to do with schools. What is a head teacher to do when they have successfully got their pupils back into school and then inevitably have pupils who have symptoms, are at home and need a test—as do their families—but are unable to get one because the nearest centres are either not carrying out tests or have run out of them, the labs cannot process them, or they have been offered testing many miles away and may not even have a car? How are our schools to remain open and safe if the national testing system is not working as it should, and when will this be resolved?
My Lords, the impact on R is not entirely clear at the moment. ONS and REACT figures will be published shortly, and they will have the statistical analysis that the noble Baroness asks for. However, it is safe to say that R is up. With regard to schools, the Government have made it clear that our support for the return to schools is completely emphatic. However, I remind the noble Baroness that the average distance travelled for tests, even at this stage, remains 6.4 miles. Ninety per cent of people who book a test travel less than 23 miles, and 90% of tests undertaken in our mobile sites are still converted in 24 hours.
My Lords, the Government have imposed 14 days’ isolation on people travelling from certain countries where the virus is increasing. What steps have Her Majesty’s Government taken to ensure that children travelling back with their parents are not returning to schools—so that a child with the virus goes to school on day one and the children then have to be isolated?
My Lords, the quarantine arrangements we have put in place are essential for containing the spread of the disease. We completely sympathise with parents who have found themselves caught overseas. However, we implore them to abide by the quarantine arrangements and return their children to school once the 14-day quarantine has passed.
My Lords, when Covid-19 first struck, care homes were almost forgotten. Will the Minister explain to the House what is the recommended Covid-19 testing regime for residents, visitors and staff in care homes, and what organisation monitors the tests in those local care settings?
Testing arrangements for care homes have, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, alluded to, risen dramatically. Testing is done in a large variety of ways. For large care homes, mobile testing facilities are put in place; for care staff, facilities at local NHS hospitals are in place; and we invite visitors to have tests in advance of visiting their loved ones. This is all overseen by the NHS Test and Trace programme, and the CQC remains the auditor of the care sector.
My Lords, I draw noble Lords’ attention to my registered interests, in particular my membership of your Lordships’ Science and Technology Committee. In his appearance before that committee in July, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser suggested that the higher the number of cases in circulation at the beginning of winter, the greater the likelihood of a significant peak of disease. What assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of scientific evidence on the threshold at which the number of new cases might suggest that we can no longer be confident that the NHS will have sufficient capacity to deliver both its routine winter service and manage resurgent Covid-19 admissions?
My Lords, we are well within the threshold that the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, alludes to, but we are concerned about winter. That is why we are putting in place new restrictions and new arrangements to stop the spread of this disease, protect the NHS and save lives.
My Lords, the level of coronavirus has risen significantly since late July and, as my noble friend the Minister knows, the disease is having a disproportionate effect on black and ethnic minority people. Can he therefore say exactly what the Government are doing to ensure that these groups are fully accessing NHS Test and Trace, and what additional support is being given to those who work in the hospital and care sectors?
My Lords, we are deeply concerned about the BAME incidence of this horrible disease. We have put in place extensive new marketing arrangements targeted at BAME audiences. We have targeted our testing arrangements through mobile testing and door-to-door availability at that communities that have been hardest hit, and there are guidelines to NHS trusts to put in place the necessary safety arrangements for those with a BAME background.
My Lords, following the Government’s statement that the rise in infection rates is due largely to increased spread of the virus among young people, what strategies do the Government propose to adopt to ensure that returning students, for example, and others, comply more stringently with public health regulations?
We are deeply concerned about the spread among students. Some of that spread will take place in universities, and I pay tribute to the efforts of vice-chancellors to put in place social distancing arrangements in universities; we hope that they will have an impact. However, some of the effect is in their social life—in pubs, clubs and bedrooms up and down the country. That is the responsibility of the students themselves, and we are looking at measures to enhance and enforce the social distancing measures that will stop the spread of this disease.
My Lords, on a day when the Prime Minister will order us not to meet in large groups of more than six, why have the Government agreed to support 3,600 people congregating at Doncaster Racecourse today? Have the Government not learned the lessons of the superspreader event in Cheltenham?
My Lords, I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State, Matt Hancock, announce the Government’s investment of £0.5 billion for testing innovation. Is the Minister aware of Abbott Laboratories’ new $5 antigen test, released just two weeks ago in the United States? On a card, within 15 minutes it can give results anywhere—at a school, a university, in the workplace or at the airport. Ten million are being produced this month in America, and 50 million next month. How soon will we have access to those sorts of tests, which will be a true game-changer in being able to have mass testing around the country?
My Lords, I am aware of the Abbott test. I spoke to Chris Scoggins from Abbott yesterday, and I pay tribute to innovators in this country, in America, and around the world for the dramatic increase in the speed, accuracy and scale of these tests. We hope that they will make a big difference.
My Lords, given that the virus is spreading and we are fast approaching autumn and winter pressures, can my noble friend ensure that the NHS and local authorities are communicating in different languages to communities to encourage them to go and get their flu injections as quickly as possible?
The use of different languages for promoting all aspects of our Covid response is critical. We have massively increased the number, accuracy and stylistic resonance of our marketing materials in order to reach all audiences. I very much welcome the noble Baroness’s remarks.
My Lords, many law-abiding people are offended by the organisation of raves in blatant contravention of the rules on numbers and social distancing. What assessment have the Government made of the use of intelligence by the police to stop people travelling long distances to attend such illegal gatherings?
My Lords, I used to organise raves, and I used to love them—but I implore all those who organise raves to stop, because they are creating a massive public health disaster. Fines have been put in place, and we will come after them. But I ask them, “Please, look into your conscience. Stop the raves. Protect lives.”
Lord Desai? Lord Harries of Pentregarth.
My Lords, what I am about to ask implies no criticism, because this is such a difficult question. The increase in restrictions on social gatherings that have just been announced will be so difficult to enforce. Is there at least a case for us to consider focusing more on mortality rates rather than simply on infection rates, and finding better ways of identifying and protecting the truly vulnerable, while allowing the rest of society to get on sensibly with their lives as best they can in the circumstances, before the costs of trying to protect everyone become both economically and politically unsustainable?
My noble friend is entirely right to say that the measures that the Prime Minister will describe will impose a huge burden on the whole country. However, he alludes to a hope that I am afraid cannot be borne out in practice, because we have seen, in country after country, that after prevalence follows hospitalisation and mortality, as night follows day. There is an immediate and strong connection between the rise of mortality and the rate of prevalence in the country as a whole. Children see their parents, and parents see the grandparents, so if we really want to protect all those in society, we have to lean into the disease at every level. In addition, it is emerging that the long-term effects of Covid on young people can be profound. Even those with relatively low or asymptomatic reactions to the disease can be affected by fatigue, loss of memory, breathing difficulties and other long-term effects. It is for those reasons that I ask all young people to ensure that they take every step to avoid catching this disease.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked.
Order of Consideration Motion
That the amendments for the Report stage be marshalled and considered in the following order:
Clauses 1 to 28; Schedule 1; Clause 29; Schedule 2; Clauses 30 to 34; Schedule 3; Clause 35; Schedule 4; Clauses 36 to 43; Schedule 5; Clauses 44 and 45; Schedule 6; Clauses 46 to 49; Schedule 7; Clauses 50 to 54; Title.
Functions of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner (Oversight of the Data Access Agreement between the United Kingdom and the United States of America and of functions exercisable under the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Act 2019) Regulations 2020
Motion to Approve
My Lords, I beg to move the Motions standing in my name en bloc, but I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, might like to come in.
Investigatory Powers (Communications Data) (Relevant Public Authorities and Designated Senior Officers) Regulations 2020
Motion to Approve
That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 21 April be approved.
Relevant documents: special attention drawn to the instrument by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, 13th Report. Considered in Grand Committee on 2 September.
My Lords, these regulations add more public authorities to the list of those who can access sensitive personal information in the form of communications data, such as itemised telephone bills. So sensitive is the issue that Parliament decided that additions to the list of public authorities had to be approved by the super-affirmative procedure. When these regulations were debated last week in Grand Committee, we were told that the Home Office had agreed to the addition of those public authorities on the basis of detailed business cases submitted to it by the public authorities concerned, which Members of this House have been unable, until 12.30 pm today, to see. The Minister agreed that it was not possible for this House to properly scrutinise the decisions of the Home Office without seeing the business cases, and that the business cases had not been published as they contained sensitive information, but said that she would arrange for Members to scrutinise the business cases in a private meeting.
This morning, when I saw that these regulations were due to be approved by the House, I inquired of the Minister’s office why we had not been offered a private meeting to examine the business cases. As a result of my inquiry I was emailed, at 12.06 pm this afternoon, and invited to view the business cases at 12.30. There are five business cases, and from memory, I think the Minister said that they were “lengthy”. I do not think it reasonable to expect Members of this House to scrutinise five business cases, which apparently justify giving the five additional public authorities access to sensitive personal data, in the 45 minutes between the offer being made to view them and the regulations being approved on the Floor of the House. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that this House should be given the opportunity to scrutinise regulations properly before it approves them, rather than afterwards.
I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. A private meeting before this SI is approved would certainly have enabled him and others to form a view on whether they agreed with the SI in the light of the business cases they had seen for adding these further public authorities to the list. I listened with interest to the Minister and, as I understand it, that opportunity has not been made available until the last few minutes, almost literally. I wait with interest to hear what she has to say on the points that he made.
I acknowledge the points of both the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Paddick. I did indeed say that I would set aside some time for a private meeting so that noble Lords could look at the business cases. I have those business cases with me and will arrange that meeting. It probably would have been preferable to have had it before proposing the statutory instrument. I continue to give my word that that meeting will be arranged. Obviously, it would now be preferable to have it sooner rather than later, and I will make that time available.
Immigration (Persons Designated under Sanctions Regulations) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020
Motion to Approve
Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Act 2013 (Remedial) Order 2020
Motion to Approve
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 Monday 7 September in the House of Commons.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about international travel corridors.
In June, 14 days’ isolation was introduced for travellers arriving in the UK, with a small number of workers’ exemptions. This action has helped to ensure that the sacrifices of our nationwide lockdown were not wasted, and it has played a part in keeping our infection rate lower than elsewhere. At the same time, we set up the Joint Biosecurity Centre and tasked it with pulling together intelligence in order to assess the risks of inbound travel from hundreds of territories. By July, the Joint Biosecurity Centre’s analysis helped to inform our decisions to establish travel corridors, meaning that people could return to the UK from low-risk countries without quarantine.
Of course, we all know that this dreadful disease takes instructions from no one. Even with our increased understanding about how Covid preys upon and capitalises on close human contact, we can still be taken aback by its speed of transmission, whether at home, through the imposition of local lockdowns, or abroad, where a country suddenly sees infection rates take off. I am the first to admit that the unpredictable nature of the virus can take us all, holidaymakers included, by surprise. As I landed in Spain on my family holiday, I was immediately joining a ministerial call during which I helped to impose 14 days’ quarantine on Spain, thereby effectively terminating my break—but more importantly, sadly, disrupting the holidays of tens of thousands of Brits in Spain and elsewhere. I know how distressing this has been—but I also know that the hard-won gains from the earlier days of this crisis must not, cannot and will not be sacrificed. Ministers will continue to take proportionate action informed by JBC analysis.
During July and August, we did not have the means to accurately assess risks within countries and within regions. The kind of comprehensive Office for National Statistics data that we now have through their testing was never available overseas, and it was too easy for the virus to migrate between regions without borders or boundaries. However, as JBC resources have strengthened, we have been able to collaborate much more closely with other Governments and their health authorities. This has led to a more forensic picture. Now, for the first time, we are able to consider a granular approach to assessing detailed data abroad. I have looked at whether this means that we can implement regionalised systems for international travel corridors, but in many cases the international data is still simply too patchy, and in all cases there is next to nothing to prevent people from moving around within a country’s border.
People will rightly point out that infection rates also vary across the United Kingdom—indeed they do—but the difference is that all the countries we are talking about have, by definition, higher rates of infection than we do. I hope the House understands that the JBC and the Government are therefore at present unable to introduce regional travel corridors from within the geographical boundaries of a nation state.
However, where a region has natural boundaries, such as an island, the risk diminishes significantly, and that presents us with a real opportunity. Our passenger locator form, combined with NHS Test and Trace, will, and has started to, give us a clear picture of exactly where infections are coming from. As a result, I can today announce a new islands policy. For the first time, we have the data and the capacity to add and remove specific islands from quarantine, while still providing maximum protection to the UK public.
There are thousands of islands across the globe—far too many for JBC to monitor on a detailed level—but it may assist the House if I outline the four guiding principles that we intend to apply. First, the regionalised approach can only apply to land that has clear boundaries or a clear border—in other words, an island. Secondly, the data collected must be robust, reliable and internationally comparable. Thirdly, the island must have direct flights from the UK, or at the very minimum, transport must be able to take place through quarantine-exempt territories. Fourthly, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office travel advice should align as far as practicable with the policy.
The JBC methodology for islands that I have described has been developed in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer and Public Health England. This new capability means we will now be able to nuance our decisions, first and foremost to safeguard the health of British citizens, but also to enable British tourists to enjoy trips to islands, even if the mainland is deemed too risky. However, it is worth noting that the policy will not necessarily open up additional islands immediately. For example, when we removed Spain from the travel corridor list, there were 24 cases per 100,000 people. Today there are 127 cases per 100,000, and the rate remains too high in the Balearic and Canary islands as well.
On the other hand, Greece remains within our travel corridor programme, but our new analysis shows that some of the islands are well outside the parameters. Indeed, despite overall Greek infection levels being lower than ours, Scotland has already felt compelled to add the entirety of Greece, including the mainland, to the quarantine. However, using our newly acquired JBC data, we are now in a position to remove Greek islands where holidaymakers are at risk of spreading new infections back home. Seven Greek islands will therefore be removed from the travel list at 4 am on Wednesday 9 September, while mainland Greece will be maintained.
I thank our medical experts, who have forged these professional relationships and improved capacity. However, I want to make one thing clear: travelling during coronavirus is not without risk, so those who do so should please go with their eyes open. Remember that breaching quarantine is not only an offence that can gain you a criminal record, but you are also putting the lives of your loved ones at risk, as well as the loved ones of those you have never met before.
I know there is considerable interest across the House on testing at borders to see whether we can remove the necessity to self-isolate at all. It sounds completely logical, yet, as the Chief Medical Officer reminds us, it simply will not capture most of those who are asymptomatically carrying coronavirus. As you know, Mr Speaker, those who are symptomatic should not be travelling in the first place.
The point was brought home to me in a conversation with the head of one of Britain’s major airport groups. He decided to trial airport testing for himself and a group of eight returning holidaymakers. They all tested negative. After a week in quarantine, they took a further test and one of their group was positive. This illustrates PHE’s point that, due to the incubation period of this disease, and even using highly accurate tests, the capture rate of those carrying Covid-19 may be as low as 7%, leaving 93% of people who are infected free to go about their business, more likely—most likely, under those circumstances—in the misguided belief that they do not carry coronavirus.
However, quarantine combined with testing is more promising. We are therefore working actively on the practicalities of using testing to release people from quarantine in fewer than 14 days. For the reasons described, this could not be a pure test-on-arrival option, which would not work. However, my officials are working with health experts with the aim of cutting the quarantine period without adding to the infection risk or infringing our overall NHS testing capacity, which now also needs to cater for schools going back and universities returning. The islands policy becomes active immediately, and I will of course update the House on quarantine testing in the coming weeks. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, the announcement that the Government can now implement quarantine policies for passengers from specific islands, rather than whole countries, begs one question above all others: why only now? The Government’s quarantine policy has been beset by the same question from the outset. We are still yet to hear why they introduced quarantine only in June, after 22 million people had come into the country. For months, even when the virus was at its peak, millions entered the UK without any restrictions or any contact tracing system in place. Even today, we remain in the dark as to whether it is operating as it should be. Can the Minister detail how many calls contact tracing services have made in relation to positive cases linked to flights over the last month? How many fines have been handed out for non-compliance with quarantine rules? And how many people have had a positive Covid-19 test result after returning from overseas travel?
The general policy of air bridges has the support of these Benches, but it can only be as one part of the strategy to prevent infections in the UK. There is not an individual intervention that will suffice, and only a combination of smart, targeted measures will do. The shadow Secretary of State for Transport has repeatedly called for a review of the broader quarantine policy to report as soon as possible. This must consider options for a robust testing regime in airports and related follow-up tests that could safely minimise the need for 14-day quarantine. Until this takes place, it is clear that the Government are not doing all in their ability to beat the virus and safely reopen society, while protecting jobs and the economy. At the very least, it would be helpful to understand whether these policies are even under active consideration. In this regard, can the Minister confirm when SAGE last discussed airport testing, and what is the latest update on the SAGE paper on airport testing?
With the announcement of the islands policy, the Government have also placed a series of Greek locations on the quarantine list. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government will publish the evidence and criteria by which locations are included on the quarantine list? With regard to the wider list, can the Minister explain how the UK Government have arrived at a different conclusion from those of the Welsh and Scottish Governments in relation to Portugal?
At a time when the aviation sector is struggling, perhaps more than any other, it would be remiss of me to not mention the impact of government policy on the industry. Can the Minister detail what assessment she has made of the financial implications of the travel quarantine measures on the aviation sector? In recent months, we have seen airlines time and time again announce plans to make significant percentages of their workforces redundant. The pain felt as a result will not be limited to those directly impacted. The consequences for the wider supply chain will no doubt cost further jobs. Poorly handled quarantine policy has only made matters worse for the 1.5 million workers across the supply chain, while the unwillingness of the Government to announce a sector deal suggests indifference.
There must be a sector deal to save airlines and support airports, and this must be based on Labour’s six conditions: it must save jobs, tackle climate change, not condone tax avoidance, not condone dividends at the expense of business viability, support UK suppliers and support consumer rights. The industry is waiting. It is now almost six months since the Chancellor first promised an aviation sector-specific deal in mid-March. Just as the quarantine policy has taken many months to emerge, the response to the aviation industry is taking even longer. Can the Minister finally confirm when the Government are going to give a financial support package to the aviation sector as the Chancellor promised in March?
Regrettably, the Statement fails to answer many more questions than it addresses. It is vital that the Government get to grips with the situation, and this can be done only with a comprehensive review of the quarantine policy as soon as possible. At this crucial point in the pandemic, it is beyond belief that there has still been no real consideration for a proper testing regime at airports and related follow-up tests. Passengers and the aviation industry need confidence that Ministers are not simply making it up as they go along. They will not have received that from today’s Statement.
My Lords, I am glad to see this small step forward towards a more logical approach to quarantine. I am particularly pleased that the Government are looking at testing combined with shorter quarantine, although news of problems with the Test and Trace system does not convince me that it will be introduced effectively and soon. However, I hope we are seeing the signals of a less chaotic approach from the Government and fewer U-turns, because we are still suffering, as a nation, from the Government’s inexplicable decision to abandon testing and quarantine for returning travellers back in March, which meant that tens of thousands of people entered the UK unchecked from areas which had higher infection rates. Clearly, many of them brought their infections with them.
My first question to the Minister relates to the reference in the Statement to FCO advice. Can the Minister explain why there would ever be different quarantine advice from the FCO and DfT? I realise there was at one point, but that was put right within 24 hours or so. I am asking this question because there are clearly insurance implications for travellers if there are two conflicting sets of advice from the Government.
There is nothing in the Statement about the timescales between the regular quarantine announcements, which usually are made on Thursday—although one was made on Monday this week—and the imposition of quarantine, which is normally at 4 am on a Saturday. Would it not be possible to extend this period to give travellers abroad longer to pack their bags, buy a new ticket and make their way back to the UK? Most travel, certainly holiday travel, tends to be from weekend to weekend. If the Government were to act slightly sooner, it would give people longer. If you think back to the situation in France, which is a country many people drive to on holidays, many people who were in the south of France found it physically impossible to get back to the UK, even if they could get a ticket for a ferry or the tunnel. They could not drive back through France safely to get to the UK before the quarantine was imposed. The tight timescale has done a lot to add to the overall nervousness about foreign travel.
Finally, I want to talk about the situation in aviation as a whole, which, as a sector, is struggling. Airports, in particular, are struggling and time is running out for some of our smaller airports. They do not have major foreign backers, like some airlines. Some are local authority-owned. Many are owned, in effect, by pension funds. You can mothball planes but you cannot mothball airports. For safety reasons, they have to maintain many staff and many of their operations, even when they have few paying customers. For instance, they must have all the experts on site to be able to host emergency flights and landings—for air ambulances, for example.
Unlike restaurants, airports have had no package of measures targeted specifically at them. Unlike restaurants, they have huge capital investment. I urge the Government to devise some tailored help for this beleaguered industry and to do it soon. One example would be relief from business rates for airports in England, so that they come into line with Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is irrelevant in Wales because the Government own the airport. They need this tailored help soon. The opportunity is there for the Government to ensure that the aviation industry becomes more environmentally friendly, because they can put conditions on their help. They can make sure that the development of airports in the future is much more environmentally friendly than it is at this moment. They can do that as a condition of their help. I urge the Minister to consult her colleagues and to announce something soon.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for their contributions to a small but very important change to our international air travel corridors. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked “Why now?”, with the implication that this could have been done sooner. It could not. The Government have had to put infrastructure in place to deal with challenges that previously were simply not under consideration. As well as putting the infrastructure in place, we had to get the data.
When we first announced the imposition of the 14-day quarantine period—the self-isolation period—at the same time we set up the joint biosecurity centre. This important group brings together intelligence from across the UK and from abroad. It has been able to build up its resources, particularly its skills and expertise in assessing the risk of inbound travel, which historically had not been a massive feature for government, nor was it required to be so. The building up of these resources in the joint biosecurity centre means that we have a much better ability to analyse the vast quantities of data we are getting, both domestically and from overseas.
The joint biosecurity centre carries out an assessment on countries and now it will look at individual islands as well. Various things go into the assessment. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked what the criteria were for inclusion on the list. If I could set out the criteria and percentages, or the various hurdles, for each one included on the list, that would be very simple. However, it is slightly more complicated than that because it is a combined assessment of all sorts of different factors—the estimate of the currently infectious percentage of the population of the country or island, virus incidence rates, trends in the incidence rates, hospitalisations and, sadly, deaths. Other factors include transmission status, testing capacity in a country or island and the quality of the data. All those things are built up and put together to form a picture of whether a country or island should be included on the list. We have got to the stage where we can do this now and we are able to include islands.
The noble Lord went on to ask how many people coming from overseas travel have had a positive test. I do not have that data to hand. Of course, it is the case that people have had positive tests when they have come from overseas travel. That is why it is clear that the self-isolation policy needs to be in place. People need to fill in the passenger locator form when they arrive in the country. I can tell the noble Lord that, to date, 4,154 cases of failure to fill in the PLF have been referred to the police. Fines have also been issued to people who failed to self-isolate. Slightly more seriously, and it should be recognised by all those who have attempted not to self-isolate, one could get a criminal record if one does not self-isolate. I suspect that that simply is not worth it.
I turn now to airport testing, which is incredibly important. If we can reduce the 14-day self-isolation period, using any means possible, it would be in everybody’s interests that we do so. I assure the House that this is under active consideration by the Government. PHE is looking at the evidence and emerging data, and this is developing over time. The first pass through airport testing showed that the capture rate for asymptomatic testing at airports on arrival was just 7%. That is barely worth doing. There are other things that we could do but we must reassure ourselves first that they will be robust and will enable us to both reduce the time in self-isolation and protect our loved ones from people who may be at a higher risk of having coronavirus.
The noble Lord also mentioned the differences between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. I have said before at the Dispatch Box that health policy is devolved. It is disappointing when there are differences, but we must reflect and respect the agreements reached for the devolved nations. They are perfectly capable of reaching their own conclusions, albeit sometimes on the same set of data. This also demonstrates how subjective some of the data, and its interpretation, is. Therefore, it is not the case that there can be hard targets for countries to be in or out of an international travel corridor.
I turn now to the impact on aviation. As a former Aviation Minister, I am well aware of the impact on aviation. To date, the sector has used a large amount of the support that the Government have already put in place. For example, the sector has used £1.8 billion from the Bank of England’s CCFF scheme, £283 million from the job retention scheme, and 56,400 staff were furloughed over time. The department is actively discussing what aviation recovery looks like and what additional regulatory or financial help can be put in place. It is a picture that is moving over time. There is a spending review coming up, which will be an opportunity to look at all sorts of different interventions, if they are deemed appropriate.
Over the summer, having had to cancel two holidays and rebook them, I found that the airlines are adapting. It gives people much more confidence to travel if they have the flexibility to cancel a flight and rebook it. Certainly, with the two airlines I dealt with, both things happened relatively easily. I am really pleased to see that the travel market is beginning to respond to the new world. The number of flights is currently down by about 60%, and loads are at around 65%. There is a long way to go to full recovery, but we are not still in those dark days where there were almost no planes in our sky.
I turn to additional questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, about the travel advice. The FCDO advice will align from now on with the international travel corridors. I recognise that there was time when there was a misalignment. That was not helpful, particularly as they were announced at slightly different times. I think the Government learned from that and we will make sure that we align from now on, if we possibly can.
The noble Baroness also mentioned the timing of the announcements. To a certain extent we have previously been lulled into a false sense of security of “Oh, it’s Thursday. Let’s look out for the tweet from the Secretary of State and then we’ll know what’s going to happen the following weekend”, yet this week we saw something different. The timing of announcements will vary, and we must not think that they are on a weekly basis in all cases. My message to all travellers is they must accept that nowadays travelling is not without risk. If one cannot take the risk of being forced to quarantine on return, it is perhaps better to stay in the UK for holidays for the time being. There is also the argument that the travel industry is doing whatever it can to help. There is a balance to be reached. Passengers must have their eyes open and fully understand the risk that travel advice may change at any time.
I go back to the intention of the Statement. It is good that we have been able to isolate islands and we will focus very much by prioritising work on the islands to which UK citizens most frequently travel, because clearly there are a number of islands that people are very keen to get back to soon.
My Lords, we now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers are brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers. The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, was not present for the start of this item of business so I call the noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon.
My Lords, while I have some sympathy with the Government in trying to combat a unique and deadly threat to life, jobs and the economy, the constant changes of direction in dealing with the virus, like the constantly changing numbers for who can meet and in which circumstances, are causing bewilderment and confusion. Consistency inspires confidence. Covid-19 is a global pandemic and, while we should try to keep our little bit of the world as safe as possible, the virus does not respect national boundaries and much greater co-operation with the devolved regions is necessary in policies. It is the same with our relationship with our neighbours in Europe to increase the efficacy of air bridges and corridors. Holidays abroad are nice, but they should not be at the expense of elderly and vulnerable groups on return home. There is a strong case for banning air travel for holiday purposes until the virus has been much better contained. In the immediate future those trapped by newly imposed quarantine restrictions on their return home should not be penalised in salary and wages. Stricter controls on air travel would undoubtedly increase hardship for those in the travel industry, and the Government should be generous and compensate—
As I explained previously on the subject of support for the aviation sector, the Government are very cognisant of the impact on the sector. Historically, it has been a key contributor to our economic health and is good for our social well-being and for connectivity within our nation. The Government are doing a huge amount to look at connectivity within the four nations and between the different regions of the UK and beyond. We will work with the aviation sector as it develops new ways of working to make sure that we can capitalise on the economic recovery when it comes.
Short questions will enable more noble Lords to be called in this session. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie.
My Lords, international travel is a great thing. We should encourage it, at least in normal times and with proper respect for the environment. However, at this time, we must think not only of those who are able to and those who do not travel abroad but of all those within these islands. They must be protected from infections coming from abroad. There must be testing at airports. If 77% are reliable, that is far from being enough. There must be second testing. Testing is vital. It needs to be at airports worldwide, and we should lead this initiative. I ask the Minister to take this forward.
As I previously mentioned, the Government are taking this forward as quickly as we can. We need to be assured of the evidence and to make sure that, if there is testing not only at the airport but at any border into the country, it is efficacious and does the job. At the moment we are not there, but I reassure the noble Baroness that we are looking at it. Obviously we would like to put it into place as soon as possible, but we will not do so unless it will make sure that our citizens remain safe.
Does the Minister acknowledge that while international travel is something of a roulette, the Government should do everything possible to encourage a renaissance in domestic travel in the UK? The Government’s tourism industry body VisitBritain is forecasting that inbound tourism revenue will be down by £24 billion this year, which equates to about 340,000 jobs, half of which will be in London. What specific measures will the Government put in place to support London’s tourism sector, which is so reliant on inbound tourism?
The noble Baroness is right that London is very reliant on inbound tourism, as are many other major cities across the country. The Government are well aware of this and there are a number of conversations going on at the moment which are looking at potential solutions, not only for London but on a nationwide basis for the larger population hubs to ensure that people can travel safely. Within all this we have a very difficult balance between keeping the virus under control, making sure that people can travel safely and protecting jobs and the economy.
My noble friend the Minister has already alluded to the disparity that has emerged between Her Majesty’s Government and the devolved nations in respect of countries identified as being on a warning list for potential travellers and those returning to the UK. Does she agree that this has caused immense confusion and anger among those affected? There are now reports of complications for the public in that, in the devolved nations, travel insurance for cancelled holidays may not be honoured. What can the Government do to assist?
Travel insurance is a private matter between the company and the individual, but it cannot be stressed enough that people should check the terms and conditions of their travel insurance before they travel so that they have the right level of coverage. As I mentioned earlier, many travel companies are being more flexible, so travel insurance is not needed as much for some as it was previously. On the point made by my noble friend about the confusion about the devolved Administrations, I beg to differ slightly because everybody across the country has to be more alert now. Things are going to be different in different places in the country. We have seen that in Bolton, Wales, Scotland and Manchester. People in general have to be more alert. While we sit as a national House and look beyond that and think it must all be terribly confusing, I am not sure. If you are an individual in Bolton, for example, you know what you have to do because you should read about the restrictions that have been applied there and respond according. It is every citizen’s responsibility to know what they can or cannot do. Things will change; we cannot stop them changing, because the evidence changes so our advice will change.
My Lords, I associate myself with other noble Lords calling for proper provisions for the aviation and aerospace sector. These latest constraints will sadly affect it. Does the Minister not agree that effective testing at airports, plus a follow-up a week later, would catch most cases coming into the country, and that this would be far more enforceable than 14-days’ quarantine for everybody who comes into our country?
I agree that if we could assure ourselves that that sort of regime would work, we would put it in place. But as I have said in response to previous questions, this work is ongoing, and we will not put anything in place unless we are sure that what we are putting in place will work.
My Lords, calling on my experience of being denied boarding my flight from Istanbul for my journey to Portugal this weekend, due to my not having an in-date Covid test result, I am now a firm advocate of such a system being used at UK airports. Quick results are now possible, as illustrated in a well-run operation at Istanbul Airport, with 92% accuracy and five hours from test to a digital result being available. Would the Minister take note that it is not the testing procedure where the operation challenges lie but the bureaucratic handling of all the non-compliant passengers needing to reschedule flights, and who may not have a visa in place for the UK or enough funds to sustain themselves until such a connecting flight is available?
The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, raises another important point about airport testing and the pre-testing that could be put in place. I am well aware that that is in place in certain countries across the world. The noble Viscount will also be aware that, in the summer, travellers to Greece were denied boarding because they had not filled in their Covid form, as required by the Greek Government 24 hours before arriving in the country. This serves to reiterate to all travellers two things: travel with your eyes open and travel with enough money. It is not as simple as it was before.
My Lords, I am glad the Minister mentioned travel to Greece. When I went to a Greek island in July, I had to prove I had completed the Greek version of the passenger locator form at check-in, at the boarding gate and on arrival in Greece. When I returned from Greece to the UK, and twice when I returned from Norway in recent weeks, I was not asked if I had even completed the UK passenger locator form at any stage of those journeys, let alone asked to produce it. Why are the Government not as serious about importing Covid-19 from abroad as the Greek Government? Before imposing further restrictions on the British public, should the Government not ensure that existing measures are operating effectively?
Our existing measures are operating effectively. I had the same experience as the noble Lord: I went through the Greek system twice over the summer, on two islands, and found it to be very different in both cases. I do not think there is any country we should hold up as a great way of doing things. However, we are very open to hearing about new approaches and evidence from other countries. As I said in answer to a previous question, Border Force does spot checks on people filling out the PLF and, as I said previously, 4,154 cases have been referred to the police.
My Lords, I welcome the two changes: introducing airline testing and extending the airline corridors to islands. Can my noble friend help me understand how the excellent work being done by the joint biosecurity centre can lead to three different results in three different nations of the UK? Also, is my noble friend as concerned as I am that the distance incoming passengers have to travel for subsequent tests, having had a test at the airport, could put passengers off? Will the Government address that, perhaps through a more mobile testing system? Is my noble friend aware that with imminent changes to airline schedules—the autumn and winter schedules come into effect at the end of this month—it is of the utmost importance to give longer than two or three days’ notice of any change to airline corridors?
The international travel corridors are not just airline corridors; they are corridors for all modes. As my noble friend will know, to cope with current demand, airlines have been changing their schedules far more frequently than previously, which was twice a year. I am aware that there are small issues occasionally with Test and Trace, and of course we are working on those and looking to improve them where problems arise. We must remember that the vast majority of people are able to get tested very quickly and get their result very quickly. My noble friend also mentioned the devolved Administrations. I believe I have gone as far as I can on that one—it is up to the devolved nations to decide. Any interpretation of data is always going to be subjective and they have reached a different decision from the UK Government as it applies to England. UK citizens in the devolved nations, and indeed in England, need to be aware and understand that these things can change.
My Lords, I have two points. I commend the Government’s idea of testing people in quarantine to shorten the period, but following on from the previous speaker, how is that to be done if we are not to send people in quarantine out to testing centre, sometimes 50 miles away? Have the Government thought about how they will overcome that? Secondly, we have heard a lot about damage to the aviation industry and to tourism. As the Minister knows, there is also huge damage to the creative industries, which cannot manage tours. I realise that it is one step forward, but being forewarned is always a good thing. I encourage the Government to think ahead and talk to people representing the creative industries about how they might overcome this problem when things ease up a bit.
I know that my colleagues in the DCMS are well engaged with the creative industries and understand the challenges that they face. Certainly, as a roads Minister, I understand the knock-on impacts on, for example, the road haulage industry, which assists in putting on some of the big events. It has had a really devastating effect on those industries, and we are well aware of that. The noble Lord mentioned leaving home to get a test. Unless you get a home test, whether you have been travelling or not, and whether you are symptomatic or asymptomatic, you will probably have to leave your home to get a test. That is why the people doing the tests at testing centres have all the appropriate protection and therefore minimise the risk of transmission.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s Statement, which is sensible and pragmatic, but I need to point out the following. When my husband and I returned from France on 27 August, despite all the care we had taken with social distancing and mask wearing while abroad, we were confronted with a chaotic situation at Heathrow T5. The many staff present made no effort to keep passengers apart, and indeed forced them into queues, where we were crushed together. If there were any need for us to quarantine, it would more likely be due to our experience of queuing at Heathrow than our time in France. Can the Minister therefore clarify who is responsible for maintaining social distancing at Heathrow and other airports? Why was this not done before, and will it be done now?
Responsibility for maintaining social distancing rests in the hands of the individual. We ask individuals to socially distance from each other, and I am sorry that my noble friend had that experience at Terminal 5. I did not have that experience at that terminal; I had a very smooth and clear journey through it. We are working with the airports to increase signage and to make sure that there is adequate communication telling people exactly what they should do. However, social distancing is now not a new thing for any of us, whether we are in an airport, on a bus or in a shop.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, has withdrawn. I call the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours.
My Lords, I have given the Minister notice of my question. If a person has knowingly contracted coronavirus while travelling overseas and, on return to the United Kingdom, breaches penalty-enforceable quarantine requirements—which we learn today could lead to a criminal record—and then transmits the disease to another person by leaving the place of confinement, could the person infected sue the communicator of the disease for damages? I have in mind the debate now going on in Florida, in the United States of America.
Could that person sue the third person? I suppose that they could have a go. I am no legal expert, but one can imagine various challenges in proving that a person really did give the disease to another person and achieving any sort of compensation. However, I go back to what I said previously: breaking quarantine or self-isolation is a very serious matter and it should be treated as such. Individuals must understand that they risk getting a criminal record.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the time has come to very rapidly implement testing at airports? The ability to get quick results from mass testing at airports is available now. You could have a test, followed by another test five days later, and that would shorten the quarantine period. Furthermore, the Abbott Laboratories’ BinaxNOW test costs $5 and gives a result within 15 minutes. It is available in the United States now. Millions of these tests are being produced and I hope we will have them soon over here. What about countries with islands? In Greece, for example, people can travel to and from certain islands, but in the Maldives, a country that depends on tourism, the airport is on a separate island and infections are currently reported only in Malé, yet tourists are not allowed to go to the other islands without being quarantined.
I believe that I have mentioned airport testing a few times, so I will probably not rehearse that. However, the noble Lord raises an interesting point about the Maldives. There are four principles behind inclusion or otherwise of an island on the list. There have to be clear boundaries—that is, it has to be an island. The data available has to be robust, reliable and internationally comparable. The important point for the noble Lord is that there have to be direct flights or flights via a quarantine-exempt place. Therefore, if one is travelling from another island to Malé—on a boat perhaps—that might not be quarantine-exempt, and therefore the other outlying islands would not be exempt. For completeness, the fourth principle is that the FCDO travel advice should align.
With apologies to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, the time is up.
Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill
Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant document: 11th Report from the Constitution Committee
My Lords, hybrid proceedings will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
This is day two in Committee on the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill. I will call Members to speak in the order listed in the annexe to today’s list. Members are not permitted to intervene spontaneously; the Chair calls each speaker. Interventions during speeches or “before the noble Lord sits down” are not permitted.
During the debate on each group I invite Members, including Members in the Chamber, to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister. I will call Members to speak in order of request and will call the Minister to reply each time.
The groupings are binding and it will not be possible to degroup an amendment for separate debate. A Member intending to press an amendment already debated to a Division should have given notice in the debate. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely intends to trigger a Division, they should make this clear when speaking on the group. We will now begin.
Clause 4: Consequential etc. provision
14: Clause 4, page 2, line 42, leave out “supplementary,”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is to probe the need for supplementary in addition to incidental provision.
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 15, 16 and 17. These amendments take us back to the very wide provisions in Clause 4, on which we spent a good deal of time on Monday, when we debated the problems of a skeleton Bill and the reports of your Lordships’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and Constitution Committee. From those respective committees, the noble Lords, Lord Blencathra and Lord Pannick, applied their different but devastating critiques. My noble friend Lord Beith asked the pertinent question about what instructions had been given to the drafters of these provisions. After all, responsibility to give instructions lies with Ministers.
Had the Minister accepted the earlier amendments to Clause 4, particularly those changing “appropriate” to “necessary” and deleting the phrase “in connection with”, some of the ground would have been taken from under my feet. However, she did not and it was not; nor was the insertion of the term “only” in subsection (3)—that is, “may only make provision”—accepted.
Subsection (3) purports to explain subsection (1). The power to make regulations includes powers as listed in paragraphs (a) and (b). It does not limit those powers but just gives examples, and all my amendments seek to omit words from this clause. The first concerns the term “supplementary”. Why is it necessary to make “supplementary” provision as well as provision that is “incidental” and “in consequence of”?
The second amendment would omit the term “transitory”. I would be interested to know what is meant by the term in this context. It must mean something different from “transitional” because it sits alongside that term. It is a narrative word that I would have expected to read in a piece of fiction rather than in legislation.
Amendment 16 would take out paragraph (b), which gives the power
“to make different provision for different purposes.”
I am very familiar with this phrase; it may mean bringing provisions in at different times or for different jurisdictions and so on. However, my antennae were well up by the time I got to Clause 4(3)(b), and I would be grateful if the Minister would share with the House the different purposes that may be required, particularly in a Bill so urgent that it needs to come into effect very quickly. I can see that it may be important to bring some provisions in as soon as the Bill becomes an Act and others—particularly with regard to the settled status scheme—at a later date. However, it would be helpful to have her comments on this.
Amendment 17 would leave out subsection (4) as a whole. The amendments to this subsection had already been dismissed and one begins to wonder whether it is necessary at all, but opposing this provision will be a good summary of our concern about what are, to our eyes, its many flaws. I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak to Amendment 15. Clause 4 gives the Government substantial powers to make decisions about the future regulation of immigration without clarity about what these might be and what justifies such a wide power. Of course, we recognise that there needs to be an ability to do some tidying up of associated legislation when a Bill is passed, but the consequential amendments are normally set out in a schedule with a tidying-up clause that picks up anything that has fallen through the gaps. This does not seem to be the case in this Bill.
In August, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee said that this clause would
“confer permanent powers on Ministers to make whatever legislation they considered appropriate, provided there was at least some connection with Part 1, however tenuous”.
The committee was very clear that transitional arrangements to protect the legal rights of EEA citizens should appear in the Bill.
Last week, the Select Committee on the Constitution also made strongly worded recommendations on the Bill. It agreed with the Delegated Powers Committee’s concerns about Clause 4. Other noble Lords have already raised questions about phrases in this regulatory power. Amendment 15 is an attempt to understand why the Government need a power that makes transitory provisions, provisions that are not permanent. I hope the Minister will set out examples of what transitory provisions the Government consider might be needed.
My Lords, Amendments 14, 15 and 16 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Ludford, seek to bring more clarity to the powers that the Government are taking to make regulations, and that, for me, is a very good thing. As we have heard, words such as “supplementary” and “transition” and the phrase
“to make different provisions for different purposes”
are very unclear, wide-ranging and open to interpretation. These probing amendments today will give the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, the opportunity to add some clarity to the situation and set out for the record the intention and the scope of the powers that the Government are seeking from Parliament. As for Amendment 17, which would remove Clause 4(4), again an explanation from the Minister as to why the Government need the new power would be very welcome.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, made some very good points and made them very clearly. As she asked when referring to the noble Lord, Lord Beith, what instructions were given to the parliamentary draftspersons? We need to understand that because clarity is important when you are deciding on legislation. Without it you get yourself into all sorts of problems: courts can get involved and there can be all sorts of other difficulties. What we have been hearing from the other end of the Corridor—certainly the comments from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—about where we are going to be on certain things gives us particular worry. That is why clarity is so important. I look forward to the Minister putting the matter right for us.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for speaking to the amendments in this short debate. I agree that clarity is absolutely necessary when scrutinising the scope and extent of any Bill, as your Lordships do. Amendments 14, 15 and 16 would restrict the scope of the power by removing what are standard provisions in regulating powers concerning transitory and supplementary provisions. Because both the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked what they mean, I shall go through them.
The current illustrative draft instrument does not contain a transitory provision, but it is standard legal drafting to include scope for such a provision should it be identified as necessary. Examples of supplementary provisions can be found where we are retaining some of the references to regulations transposing EU law in benefits legislation. Supplementary provisions update the references to reflect amendments to those regulations, so references to the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006 become references to the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2016, et cetera. I hope that clarifies the provision on “transitory” and “supplementary”.
I come to Amendment 17. As I explained in response to Amendment 18 and 19, Clause 4(4) allows the regulation-making power to make provision for those who are not exercising free movement rights at the end of the transition period but who are eligible for status under the EU settlement scheme and are therefore still affected by the repeal of free movement. The regulation-making power in Clause 4 is restricted to matters that are as a consequence of or in connection with the ending of free movement. Subsection (4) needs to be read in conjunction with subsection (1). It does not allow changes to the statute book for migrants from the rest of the world, who are not affected by the repeal of free movement. Amendment 17 would hinder our ability to make appropriate provision for all those affected by that appeal.
I hope that with those incredibly clear clarifications, noble Lords will feel happy not to press their amendments.
I have not received any requests to speak after the Minister, so I call—oh, it looks as though the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, thinks he has given notice.
I did email; I do not know where it has gone. Oh sorry, I did not email Question Diary.
I thank the Minister for explaining how certain words have been used in previous legislation, but it would be helpful if she could write to me and place a copy in the Library of the House with some examples, just so that we are absolutely clear. I know she was able to give an example now, but that would be very helpful.
My Lords, I should be particularly interested to see examples of what “transitory” is. The noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, was also concerned about this. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, used the phrase “open to interpretation” and that is exactly the problem, because it allows activist lawyers to come and question. We are really on the side of the Government here, because the clearer the legislation, the easier it will be for them to enforce it, but there we go: that is not my business really, is it?
The Minister said that these are standard provisions. I had a very quick look at the internal market Bill shortly before this session started, because I had picked up that there are some issues in this territory—sorry, no pun intended. I could not find them, but it seems to me that the standard provisions get longer and longer. People get worried about whether a word is absolutely precisely on the point, and more words—adjectives, mostly—get added.
If the House agrees—we may come back to this at the next stage—that “appropriate” and “in connection with” are not appropriate for legislation because they are not clear enough and are too wide, as the rest of the clause comes under those overarching words, we will have got rid of the rest of the problem. But that is not for now and, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 14 withdrawn.
Amendments 15 to 19 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 20. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. I think there is a technical problem with that which I hope we can resolve in the next few minutes.
Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division should make that clear in debate. I should inform the Committee that if Amendment 20 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment 21.
20: Clause 4, page 3, line 6, leave out subsection (5)
Member’s explanatory statement
This removes the power for regulations under this clause to make changes to fees and charges currently provided for in other primary legislation.
My Lords, Amendment 20 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Rosser and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, would remove Clause 4(5) from the Bill, as suggested by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, unless a full justification for its inclusion can be provided with an explanation of how the Government intend to use it.
I shall not go over the arguments again, but this is another part of Clause 4 where serious concerns have been raised about the powers the Government are seeking to take for themselves, and an explanation would be appreciated as to why it is needed. This is the sort of issue that we may want to bring back on Report and to divide the House if we do not get a satisfactory answer from the Government.
Amendment 21 probes why the power is necessary. Maybe it is to reduce fees and charges and, if so, the amendment in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Ludford, provides the necessary clarity. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has explained, Amendment 21 is complementary to Amendment 20 in that it seeks to persuade the Government to explain how they would use this power. In the absence of that, it is hard to justify it. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has expressed great concern about this clause and the breadth of the discretion it would confer on Ministers to levy fees or charges. In this Bill, we are talking about people who, before Brexit, would have had free movement rights under EU law and would not have had to pay these kinds of charges. It is, therefore, beholden on the Government to provide some proper and explicit justification, as the committee suggested, for this inclusion and to explain how it would be used.
In preparing for this debate, I recalled that Section 9 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which gives the power to implement the withdrawal agreement by regulations, expressly excludes the power to impose fees. I seem to remember—although sometimes the last few years are a bit of a blur—that we had quite a dust-up about that provision. Of course, if other amendments to limit the Clause 4 delegation of powers— specifically Amendment 11—were to pass, then Clause 4(5) would drop because Clause 4 powers would exclude fees in that case.
There is, obviously, a great deal of concern about this subject, because the current fees impose costs on people far in excess of reimbursement to the Treasury. In some cases, they force people to become outside any permission to remain because they cannot afford the fees for themselves and their families. When the Minister replied to questions at Second Reading, she said that my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, “asked whether the visa costs would be brought in line with other countries. These immigration and citizenship fees are set at a level that helps provide the resources necessary to operate our border, immigration and citizenship system. In fairness to UK taxpayers, it is only right that those who directly benefit from our immigration system contribute to its funding.”
Of course, that is right if it means reimbursing the administrative costs that cause the fees, but anything much over that starts to get into the realm of making a profit. Some might see that as a good idea, but, of course, it is problematic when we are going to be—and this is the Government’s vision—competing internationally for skilled people. The British Heart Foundation makes the point that the up-front cost of obtaining a five-year UK global talent visa is £2,608, considerably more than 11 other leading scientific nations. The total average up-front cost for a tier 2 skilled worker visa, taking the cost for the researcher and employer together, is £8,419, 540% higher than the average cost in other leading scientific nations, which is £1,316. I confess that I have not made these calculations myself, but I have no reason to think that they are not accurate.
In the current context of families struggling for work and their incomes in the Covid-19 pandemic, this is even more of a problem. We would like to hear from the Minister the justification that the Delegated Powers Committee has suggested. If it really is only to have the power to reduce fees, that would perhaps be a reasonable point for the Government to make, but in the absence of that reassurance, it is concerning that the Government would have a free hand to raise fees which are already, by international comparisons, pretty high.
My Lords, I was pleased to attach my name to Amendment 20 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, which was also signed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark. I also agree with virtually everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, has just said. Essentially, as it appears in the Bill, this looks like a power-grab by the Government in a situation that is already iniquitous and utterly unreasonable. The cost of that to the UK —the denial of the skills, knowledge and ability of people who might go somewhere else because our fees are just too high—was set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, very clearly. I somewhat disagreed with her, however, when she suggested that it might be reasonable for the Government to cover the actual real cost through fees, and I will particularly focus on children.
In December 2019, the High Court ruled that the Home Office had acted unlawfully in charging £1,012 for children to register their right to British citizenship. This was a judicial claim brought by the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens on behalf of two children known as O, age 3 and A, age 12. They were British but could not access their citizenship because they had been priced out. The court found that the Home Office had taken no account of the best interests of the children in setting the fee. It highlighted a mass of evidence showing that the fee prevented many children from registering for British citizenship, thus leaving them,
“alienated, excluded, second best, insecure and not fully assimilated into the culture and social fabric of the UK.”
We are already in an iniquitous situation. The Government have chosen to appeal that ruling, so it is still before the courts. However, we certainly do not want a situation where the Government are not subject to full parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that such scrutiny will be applied, otherwise an utterly unreasonable situation that is bound to affect many more people will become even worse.
I now call the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. Lord Randall, we can see you, but we cannot hear you.
My Lords, I apologise—I was waiting for someone to unmute me.
I wanted to speak in this short debate, and I shall not speak for very long, because I want the clarification that noble Lords have already asked for. Presumably, this applies just to the European Union, or EEA and Swiss citizens. I have just discovered that the withdrawal agreement says that no charges will be made. Is it likely that if other countries impose charges on us, we might do it reciprocally? That is all I want to ask, and I await the response with interest.
My Lords, some very compelling speeches have already been made. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, talked about a power grab: maybe it is just a cash grab. The Home Office seems to have managed to modify fees and charges in the past very successfully—subject, of course, to the outstanding appeal which she mentioned. Is it the case that the Home Office could not charge any fees at all to those who fall within the scope of the Bill without this power? In other words, is this limited to the ending of free movement, and the other EU-derived rights, and the position of Irish citizens?
As I recall, and I may be wrong, originally, a fee was proposed for applications to the EU settled status scheme. That was dropped. I thought that that was because of the outcry, but I wonder whether in fact the Home Office thought it might be challenged on the basis that a charge was ultra vires.
What is envisaged? Is it that these three groups of citizens will be in exactly the same position as non-EEA citizens as regards these charges? Yesterday’s events and the UK’s attitude to the Belfast agreement adds to my worry about how we will treat our friends from Ireland after the Bill comes into effect.
My limitation to a reduction in fees, in Amendment 21, is of course to probe the need for a power.
My Lords, we have a technical problem with emailing the Table. I propose that the Committee adjourns for 15 minutes, in the hope that we can sort out the problem. If it is necessary to adjourn again, we will do that. The Committee will resume just after 3.15 pm.
My Lords, the email problem has not been resolved entirely, but we do have a short- term solution. Members, whether in the Chamber or participating remotely, who wish to speak after the Minister on this amendment or indeed subsequent ones, can use the alternative email address, relating to the Grand Committee, that is in the guidance notes that govern today’s session. If they send their request to the Grand Committee email address, that will find its way to the Table here and they should be included in the requests to speak after the Minister. Let us hope that works. We were about to hear from the Minister, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken on these amendments. If the new email system does not work—although I am not presuming that it will not work— I am very happy, retrospectively, to write to noble Lords who were going to speak, did not manage to, and therefore did not have their supplementary questions or requests for clarification answered.
These amendments obviously concern the use of Clause 4 powers to make changes in relation to fees and charges. Regulations made under this power may modify legislation relating to the imposition of immigration fees and charges only where they relate to a person’s immigration status and where that is as a consequence of, or connected with, the provision in Part 1 of the Bill. That confirms the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It enables the application of fees and charges to EEA citizens, who are currently exempt from them by virtue of free movement law, such as the immigration skills charge paid by employers.
The effect of Amendments 20 and 21 would be to prevent the Government aligning the treatment of EEA citizens with non-EEA citizens from January of next year. It is not our intention to use the power to increase fees. Fee levels will continue to be subject to parliamentary scrutiny via the existing fees orders and regulations.
To briefly touch on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, we do not make an overall profit on fees. While they may be different in different countries, they go towards the operation of the border.
It is the will of the British people that we bring free movement to an end. This means ending the bias in our immigration system that favours EEA citizens over the citizens of any other country, which is the primary purpose of this Bill. Limiting the Government’s ability to apply a skills charge to EEA citizens as they apply to non-EEA citizens will mean that certain elements of free movement will not have been fully repealed by this Bill and that EEA citizens will still have an advantage in our immigration system. This is not an outcome that the Government can accept. I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, we have not received any requests to speak after the Minister. Therefore, I call the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, to reply.
My Lords, I am happy to withdraw my amendment. I am sure it has not escaped the Minister’s attention that there is some concern in the House about Clause 4, not only from the Delegated Powers Committee but from every speech we have heard so far, I think, apart from the Minister’s. It will carry on in further criticism that Members will have later. I am sure the Minister understands that and will take it back. I hope that there will be some progress when we get back to these issues contained in Clause 4 on Report. With that, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 20 withdrawn.
Amendment 21 not moved.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 22. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the Grand Committee address on the guidance notes during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division should make that clear in the debate.
22: Clause 4, page 3, line 8, at end insert—
“(5A) Regulations under subsection (1) must provide that any EEA or Swiss national, and any adult dependant of any EEA or Swiss national, who has applied for asylum in the United Kingdom may apply to the Secretary of State for permission to take up employment (without limitation as to the type of employment) if a decision at first instance has not been taken on the application within 3 months of the date on which it was recorded.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to make regulations enabling asylum seekers to work once they have been waiting for a decision on their claim for 3 months or more.
My Lords, Amendment 22 is the first in a group that also includes Amendments 24, 29 and 31, all relating to asylum seekers’ right to work. On the first day of Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, on a very different amendment, talked about the purposes of work. I noted them down as being to earn money, for self-actualisation and as a matter of reputation. These all apply not just to you and me but to asylum seekers.
All the amendments in this group are variations on a theme. Our Amendment 22 would give an asylum seeker the right to work after three months if there has been no decision on his or her case. It will not escape noble Lords that the “if there has been no decision” is an important part of this.
The amendments are expressed to relate to EEA and Swiss nationals, to bring them within the scope of the Bill, but it is not beyond the scope of one’s imagination to think that there may be people seeking asylum in the UK from EU countries—Poland and Hungary might spring to mind—so it is not irrelevant. This is not just straining to debate a matter that I know has concerned many noble Lords for a long time.
The Minister may tell us that we will soon see a Bill about asylum, which the Home Office is currently reviewing. That is, it is reviewing the issue of asylum rather than a particular Bill. The Committee will be glad of any news not just about the Bill but about the consultation that the Home Office is undertaking with stakeholders about these issues. There are many stakeholders.
I see that the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, has moved to the position from which he will respond—at least it looks that way; I am looking at him on a rather small screen—and I hope he will be able to give some assurances about consultation with stakeholders with regard to the changes in our asylum provisions.
The great majority of asylum seekers are keen to work. Persistence is probably part of the make-up of many of them by definition, their having managed to get to this country. They want to pay tax and to contribute to their new society. They are often very skilled; that will be the subject of the right reverend Prelate’s Amendment 31.
It is very harsh not only to provide such a low daily allowance—I know the noble Lord would be required to disagree with that—but to take a long time in determining claims. In a way, that is the real issue. We picked three months because that gives time for an individual to settle. An asylum seeker may need longer to become comfortable with the English language if he is not already an English speaker, though I am constantly impressed by people’s facility with English. It puts me to shame.
There is also the issue of preventing working. I referred to self-actualisation and reputation, the terms used by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. We all know the value of work to each of us as individuals: the sense of self-worth and of achievement with a job well done, or at least attempted. We know what it does for our well-being and for good mental health, and how important it is to be able to support one’s family.
I know the Committee will be interested in the right reverend Prelate’s proposal for the displaced talent visa, which recognises the skills that refugees bring with them, but Amendment 31 is not an alternative to the other amendments in this group. It is about a visa and about refugees, not asylum seekers whose status is not yet recognised. It is imaginative, and the Government may consider it something to be pursued. I am sure the right reverend Prelate would be the first to agree that his amendment should not be a sop to distract us from the other issues to which I have referred. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 29 seeks to ensure that asylum seekers from the EEA and Switzerland will be granted permission to take a job from six months of their application for asylum if a decision at first instance has not yet been taken at that point. It is fairly obvious that I support the three-month amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, which is a little more radical than this one, and hope the Government may accept it.
The Minister will be aware that people often wait months, if not years, for a decision. These individuals, having escaped fear of torture or death, are left to live on a pittance of £5.66 per day. As I considered what to say today, I found myself thinking that, of course, six months in this situation is far too long. What are we as a nation doing impoverishing people in our community? Frankly, £5.66 is a disgrace.
The plea for the right to work after six months is endorsed by no fewer than 200 non-profit organisations. This is a very modest and widely supported proposal. Even Sajid Javid recognised in 2019 that it is time for reform. The coalition of these 200 organisations wants the six-month reform combined with the ending of the restriction on asylum seekers from applying for jobs not on the incredibly narrow and restrictive list of highly skilled professions on the Government’s shortage occupations list. I strongly support the abolition of this restriction, which was introduced only in 2010. That is telling; we seemed to manage pretty well before that.
Now, in effect, asylum seekers are rarely enabled to work. Does the Minister really believe that this is morally right and economically sensible? As Sajid Javid recognised, reform should no longer be delayed. Reform would enable asylum seekers to begin to integrate, to support themselves and live with dignity, to support their children to lead healthy, productive lives and, very importantly, to avoid the very real risk of exploitation and modern slavery.
We would all benefit too. The coalition of 200 organisations calculates that taxpayers would save £97.8 million if asylum seekers were enabled to work from six months. In 2019 it polled over 1,000 businesses for their view on whether asylum seekers should have the right to work. Some 67% of those employers agreed that they should, and a similar number believed it would ease the UK’s skills shortages. There is also huge public support for the right to work after six months. The Government would really have a great political benefit if they would only accept this amendment.
Can the Minister give the House an update on the Home Office review of the right- to-work policy initiated in 2018? Our current policy is frankly embarrassing; we are an outlier compared with 23 comparable countries. Sweden, I understand, requires asylum seekers to wait only one day before they are entitled to work; in Portugal it is seven days. In Germany and other countries, it is three months, and in France and the US six months, which is right on the upper end. The UK is alone among these countries is keeping asylum seekers idle for a year.
At Second Reading the Minister said:
“We will continue to provide protection to those who need it”.
Can the Minister say whether £5.66 per day is really “protection” against modern slavery? I could not survive on such a sum; I would be looking for some way out. Could any of us survive on that sum?
Why are asylum seekers not permitted to become self-employed? This is an extraordinary situation. If the Government are worried about asylum seekers taking jobs from local people, surely self-employment increases job opportunities and would not adversely affect, in any way, the employment prospects of local people. I really would be grateful if the Minister could clarify why for me.
The other reason given by Ministers for restricting the rights of asylum seekers to work is the so-called pull factor. Therefore, it is important to note that there is little, if any, evidence for this. Instead, we understand that asylum seekers, in so far as they make any real choice about the country they are going to at all, are influenced by knowledge of the language, the availability of a friend or family member in that country and some confidence that the country is tolerant. We only have to think about ourselves; if any one of us were to move from the UK to a foreign country, surely we would use exactly the same criteria: knowledge of the language—we would want them to speak English there—availability of a friend or family member, and so on.
The Minister said at Second Reading that
“we are incredibly generous to those who need our help.”
Really? Maybe the Minister can explain whether preventing people from working and requiring them to live in abject poverty is “incredibly generous”. The Minister also said that
“we are committed to fortifying our immigration system”—[Official Report, 22/7/20; cols. 2294-96.]
against modern slavery. I really would be grateful if the Minister could explain whether she believes the current rules protect asylum seekers from the horrors of modern slavery, or whether she too wants to see reform of these rules?
My Lords, I declare my interests as laid out in the register, in receiving support from the RAMP project on immigration policy, and as a trustee of Reset.
I shall speak to Amendment 29 and Amendment 31. They are different in substance: Amendment 29 and others in this group relate to asylum seekers, while Amendment 31 relates to refugees currently living elsewhere. However, they both address the question of work.
In the Hebrew Bible, there is a story about a widow named Ruth, who travels with her mother-in-law to a foreign land, the family having been displaced by famine. On arrival, she gets to work, picking grain with the landowners’ permission, and she enjoys his protection and generosity. She receives not a handout but the freedom to work in the fields—her dignity is upheld.
The freedom to work, for those able to do so, is an important part of our humanity. It is how we support ourselves and our families, how we contribute to the common good and how we share, through taxation, the financial burdens of our common life. Yet for those who have come to this country fleeing persecution or conflict and are stuck too long in the administrative purgatory of the Home Office’s processes, the Government deny this freedom.
Many people seeking asylum want to work. They have skills that the UK needs, and are highly motivated to provide for themselves and their families. Instead of allowing them to do so, currently the Government force their reliance on minimal taxpayer-funded benefits.
Employment helps with smooth integration into the UK, allowing people to improve their English, acquire new skills and build relationships in the community. Work restores dignity while reducing reliance on public funds. I endorse all that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has just said in speaking to Amendment 29.
Amendment 29 does not argue for an immediate right to work, as Canada, for example, allows. Lifting the ban on working after six months—the point at which the Home Office should have determined their case, but too often has not—is a reasonable compromise. I might prefer three months, as proposed in Amendment 22, but I see six months as a reasonable compromise. I am not alone in thinking this: British Future found that 71% of the public support the right to work after six months.
I note that both Amendment 29 and Amendment 31 focus on the rights of EEA and Swiss nationals, because those rights are before us in the Bill. While the Spanish protocol might appear to obviate the need for Amendment 29, we have learned this year that the future is hardly secure and predictable. Moreover, in both cases, the underlying principle demands that we take these steps for the benefit of some now, and to move towards restoring the dignity of all those seeking the UK’s protection by allowing them to contribute through work.
I thank my noble friends Lady Lister and Lord Alton for supporting me on Amendment 31. The UN estimates that there are 79.5 million forcibly displaced people globally, who are desperate to rebuild their lives. Refugee resettlement schemes are vital, and ours must restart urgently. However, we must think creatively about ways to help the many forcibly displaced people, in need of international protection, to rebuild their lives somewhere safe.
In places like Lebanon, people fleeing the Syrian conflict are not permitted to work legally. They are dependent on handouts; their lives are on hold. Many of these people have God-given talents which are going to waste. Meanwhile, employers in the UK face critical skills shortages. Ending free movement for EEA and Swiss nationals will only make it more challenging for them to recruit people with the skills they require. Is it beyond our imagination to connect the two, for the benefit of all?
The Home Secretary introduced this Bill to the other place, saying that she wanted a system
“allowing us to attract the very best talent from right around the globe.”—[Official Report, Commons, 18/5/20; col. 398.]
Displaced people, including refugees, have skills, talents and motivations, and dream of building a new life in a new land. What if we saw such people as a gift as well as a responsibility? To do that, I urge the Government to look at what this amendment seeks to achieve for skilled forcibly displaced people. I acknowledge and thank the Minister for her help so far, pursuing conversations with her colleagues to that end.
Amendment 31, conforming to the Bill’s scope, addresses the potential situation of displaced people who are EEA or Swiss nationals. Yet, even in doing so, it addresses the need for a displaced talent visa in the new Immigration Rules, to level up access globally to labour market mobility for all those who should be able to apply for skilled jobs at UK companies. It would remove barriers, such as the need for specific documentation or proof of their English language ability which cannot be accessed because of their situation in being displaced from home.
To be clear, this is not a new humanitarian route; instead, it is about enabling fair access to work visas for skilled forcibly displaced people. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, this is not an alternative to the asylum amendments. This is a completely different point. This approach has been successfully piloted in Australia and Canada, and would complement, not compete with, the vital routes of humanitarian resettlement and community sponsorship.
In his letter to them, St Paul reminded the church in Thessaloniki of a common saying: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Far from undercutting support for providing for the vulnerable and unemployed —as has occasionally been suggested—St Paul was urging that those in the community free and able to work should do so, for the good of all.
I find myself reflecting on this saying as I think about how we might help those fleeing persecution and conflict to access employment, that they might use their God-given talents and skills to support their families and rebuild their lives with dignity for the benefit of all, and that they might be seen as a gift to us. I would like to move Amendment 31.
It may be helpful to the Committee if I remind noble Lords that we are debating a group of amendments in which Amendment 22 is the lead. It is of course possible to speak to the other amendments in the group, but at this stage it is not possible to move them individually.
My Lords, the ban on working before a whole year has passed, and then only in professions such as classical ballet dancer and geophysicist, is bad on all counts. I am aware that we have a trained classical ballet dancer in the Chamber and she is a very valued Member, but she would probably agree that it takes rather a long time to train as such. We are not asking for a radical policy like Sweden’s, which the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, reminded us allows asylum seekers to work after one day, or like Portugal’s, where the period is seven days, but, if you like, a middle way of three months or even six months. Six months is, if I recall correctly, the threshold in EU asylum law—I think it is the reception conditions directive—but the UK Government declined to opt into that provision.
It is detrimental to the well-being, dignity and self-respect of those seeking asylum to be refused the opportunity to work and to be kept in poverty on £5.66 a day. The longer that they are out of work, the more that their skills and motivation deteriorate. When I was a Member of the European Parliament, I dealt with various individuals whose physical and mental health, sometimes after years of waiting, not just for 12 months but for three, four or five years for determination of their asylum claim—maybe the Government will tell me that the situation is much better now, but I am not sure that it is—had of course deteriorated; they had shrivelled as people and were unable to provide for their families. Their status, whether in their family or in their community, was completely undermined as their skills and motivation deteriorated.
Working boosts the chances of social and economic integration. Being banned from working also feeds into the prejudice that asylum seekers are “scroungers”, which not only is not true but is galling and aggravating when in fact they are prevented from working by government fiat, policy or law, which a lot of the public do not understand. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has quoted, they would contribute to the Exchequer. Rather than taking from the taxpayer, they would be able to contribute if they were allowed to.
So, frankly, it is win-win. No wonder two-thirds of businesses support people seeking asylum having permission to work and 71% of the public, in the study by British Future, support the right to work. One would have thought that this was a bit of a no-brainer, and I look forward to the Minister explaining to us why it is impossible for the Government to change their policy.
I believe that there was an announcement in December 2018 by the Home Office that it would be launching a review into the merits of restoring the right to work to people seeking asylum. I do not know whether there is any news on how that review is getting on and when it might come to a conclusion.
Lastly, I speak in support of the amendment in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about a work visa for displaced people. Refugees, displaced people and people who for humanitarian reasons are unable to stay in their home country have many skills that are going unused. Banning people seeking asylum from working is a moral question as well as an economic and social one. Again, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher: the idea that this would operate as a pole of attraction for people is unsubstantiated, and in any case that is hugely outweighed by the benefits of allowing asylum seekers to keep going and keep up their physical and mental health. If they do not succeed in their asylum claim then they have to leave, but in the meantime they will have been able to support themselves, keep up their skills and maybe, wherever they have to go or return to, have a better view of this country than they might otherwise have.
My Lords, I am pleased to be able to advise the Committee that we seem to be back to normal with the emailing of the clerk, so Members who wish to speak after the Minister should use what they thought was the correct route at the beginning.
My Lords, I strongly support this group of amendments. I have added my name to Amendments 24 and 31. I see these amendments as being not just in the interests of asylum seekers and refugees, although we have already heard strong arguments for why they are so, but also in the country’s economic and social interests and in the interests of overall social integration, which is supposedly a government policy goal.
A recent paper from the Institute of Labor Economics throws some light on the issues raised by Amendment 24 and others, using cross-European data for a period of nearly 30 years. It concluded that
“imposing temporary employment bans on asylum seekers has large negative consequences for their subsequent labour market integration − an effect that may remain sizable for up to 10 years”.
The authors recommend that
“host country governments should carefully weigh the (alleged) benefits of such bans against their longer term costs for both refugees and the host country economy.”
They found the sooner the access to the labour market, the better, and that when access is allowed it is not helpful to restrict it according to job type or employment sector in the way that our ludicrous shortage occupation list, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, does.
The paper also found that the existence of a ban has no impact on the numbers seeking asylum, which is one of the arguments that Ministers have used to justify it. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, will not come out with that argument, because there is no evidence for it. If he is going to do so, could he please tell us what the evidence is?
Nearly a year ago, I had an exchange with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about the economic benefits of lifting the ban. As well as the survey of business leaders mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, a group of business leaders wrote to the Financial Times to make the case, and the FT quoted the CBI chief economist, who said that
“despite being keen to earn a living and participate in the society where they live, many of those displaced are prevented from using their skills to contribute to the economy.”
In a letter to me, the Minister questioned how many asylum seekers would in fact be skilled, and suggested that the priority should be speeding up decision-making and then supporting granted refugees into employment more quickly. No one would dispute the need to speed up decision-making and support refugees into employment but, nearly a year on from that exchange, the Immigration Minister acknowledged to the House of Commons committee that the asylum decision-making timeframe remains a concern. This is not an either/or situation. Worse, at present it seems to be neither: we have neither speeded up decision-making nor do we have the right to work. I accept that the assumptions about the proportion of asylum seekers who are skilled may be optimistic, as the Minister said, but that does not invalidate the case, not least because many of those deemed to be unskilled may in fact have very real skills to contribute, including to the care sector, which we heard about on Monday.
This May, the Lift the Ban campaign carried out a skills audit of people seeking asylum. Nearly half of those audited reported previous occupations that would fall into the Government’s definition of “critical workers”, with one in seven having worked in health or social care. Have the Government carried out such a skills audit on which to base their position?
In Amendment 31, which I was very pleased to be able to support, we are talking about a group of displaced refugees who would be recognised as skilled under any definition. The right reverend Prelate has already made a strong case for what I believe is a very helpful and, as he put it, creative idea that is well worth exploring. I hope the Government will explore it. I understand that there have been pilots to see how it might work. It worked rather well in other countries but unfortunately has floundered in this country because the Immigration Rules have meant that it is not practical or scalable. If nothing else, I hope there might be a way of seeing whether we can have a proper pilot in this country.
All I will add to the case already made so well by the right reverend Prelate is to emphasise a point that has already been made in a sense: we do not see this as a substitute for fulfilling our obligation to provide a safe haven to asylum seekers and refugees or for positive reforms to the asylum system, including the more general right to work after at most six months that we have been talking about.
The Government have dragged their heels over the right to work issue, as we have already heard, for nearly two years, yet suddenly it is all speed ahead with what we are told will be the new asylum Bill, designed not to help asylum seekers, as it would seem from what the media has said about it, but to make it harder for them to come here. Suddenly it has become an urgent matter, whereas there has been no urgency at all to do something for asylum seekers here.
If the Government want to dispel the fears about this forthcoming Bill—that it is all about how we keep asylum seekers out and nothing to do with how we make life better for them when they are here—I hope at the very least they will commit today to finish their review of the right to work and include it in this forthcoming Bill.
My Lords, it was my pleasure to attach my name to Amendment 24 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. I express my support for all the amendments in this group, including, as has been said, the very creative Amendment 31 in the name of the right reverend Prelate.
I am following five eloquent and powerful speeches, so I do not feel the need to add a great deal. Those speeches, collectively and individually, have utterly put paid to any suggestion that the UK is generous to people who come to our shores fleeing war or repression and desperately in need of sanctuary. As other speakers have made clear, we are an international outlier in our restrictions on work, to which these amendments refer. I am sure the Minister will recall that she very kindly took the time to hear from me about the circumstances of the asylum seekers in Urban House in Wakefield and the conditions in which people are living.
We all know that the hostile environment of the Home Office is very often chaotic. People are trapped, often for years, living in inadequate privatised housing with the desperately limited sum of £37.75 a week to try to get by on and denied the opportunity—which so many of them are desperate to take—to work. I cite a young woman I spoke to some years ago who made a huge impact on me, so eloquent was she about the situation she found herself in. She was, you might say, an extreme case, but sadly a not at all uncommon one. She had come to Britain as a young woman of 18 or 19, having been a political activist in Zimbabwe— I have no doubt that she was a victim of torture. Some 10 years later, we have still not given her status. She was studying for a degree through funding and support from a voluntary organisation, but she told me what her situation was like:
“I feel like I’m in a cage. I can see the door, and people keep walking back and forth in front of that door with a key in their hand, but they never stick the key in the lock and let me out.”
Leaving people in that situation is torture. We are talking about people who are often already victims of torture. Any of these amendments would be a significant improvement. The three-month amendment is obviously the best one. The current situation cannot continue; it is damaging to all British society as well as to individuals. I commend these amendments to the House.
My Lords, I support all these amendments very happily. I appreciate that the Bill is concerned with EEA and Swiss people, but there is a point of principle which goes wider than the limited scope of the Bill. Some of the arguments we are using apply to that wider point of principle. The first three, Amendments 22, 24 and 29, are all similar, except that they vary on the length of period necessary before permission to work is granted and/or whether one needs to apply separately and additionally to the Secretary of State or whether the right to work is automatic.
We hear the arguments about pull factors. I think every time I have been involved in debates on immigration, asylum seekers or refugees, I have heard the phrase “pull factor” used to rebut any argument used. It is a stock response from the Government and I am not convinced that it is all that powerful an argument. Sometimes it does not apply at all. I have on occasions met people desperate to work. I was in south Wales not quite a year ago and met some asylum seekers. They had two requests: first, could they be helped to learn English because, secondly, they wanted to apply for work. Work was the key thing for them.
There is another group of people who are victims of lacking the right to work: children who come here and reach the age of 18 without having had their status confirmed. There is a later amendment which will give me the chance to develop this argument further. Such people are then in a very vulnerable position. Not only do they not have a full right to stay in this country but, as I discovered from some social workers who begged me to say that they have got these young people, they are not allowed to work and are stuck in complete limbo. I am sure we can all produce other examples of people we have met who are desperate to have the right to work. I think that, statistically, 61% of all asylum seekers have waited over six months to get their status determined. That is a higher proportion than any since records began. Reference has already been made to the Home Office review, allegedly started in 2018; I hope we can learn more about what has happened to it.
I will mention briefly some of the benefits of people being allowed to work, many of which have been referred to already. Above all, there is self-respect. We want people in this country to have a sense of their own worth and self-respect. To deny that to our fellow human beings is pretty appalling. It is a matter of integrity that people should be allowed to work. It is a way out of poverty. Public opinion is overwhelmingly in support of having people here who work rather than eking their existence out of virtually no benefits—even if they were on larger benefits, public opinion would still support the right to work. We are dragging well behind comparable countries. If there is a pull factor, it is those countries that will attract people rather than this one. Above all, people want to contribute to society. Talk to any asylum seeker and they will say that they want to contribute to this country and our society.
These amendments are really important. They add to the dignity of our fellow human beings. I hope that the Government will see their way to being supportive of them.
My Lords, I speak against the backdrop of a story I read over the weekend in the Universe newspaper. It concerned a Ugandan refugee, Mercy Baguma, who in August was left to die in a Glasgow flat. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that the account left her “consumed with sadness and anger”. A representative of the Positive Action in Housing charity said that Ms Baguma’s one year-old son was found crying beside his mother’s body, weakened from several days of starvation. I know that my support for Amendments 29 and 31 would not have saved her life, and I know, too, that if these amendments are passed, they will not help everyone who is a refugee or seeking asylum. However, we must do what we can to help whoever we can whenever we can; that is surely our job and I do not think anyone in the Chamber would disagree with that.
I will speak in favour of Amendment 29 on work rights, tabled by my noble friend Lady Meacher, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I support also Amendment 31 on the displaced talent visa, tabled by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and to which I am a signatory. It addresses the widely held view that, whatever our differences about the nature of migration and the humanitarian duty, as some of us see it—and I do—to respond to people forcibly displaced from their homes and countries, this country will always have a need of skilled labour, and that where sponsorship is available from an employer, this win-win situation should at least be provided for by the creation of a new visa. The Government have said that they intend that this legislation and the new immigration system to be set out in subsequent Immigration Rules will attract the “brightest and the best” from overseas to work here.
The United Nations estimates that there are over 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world. While we clearly cannot help them all, an amendment such as this would enable us to help some of them. Many people displaced by conflict or persecution have valuable professional skills in areas such as medicine and engineering, but they are stuck in refugee camps like the one I visited a few months ago in northern Iraq, and I know that my noble friend Lord Hylton, who is in his place, has visited camps in Syria. These people have been displaced and are unable to use their skills to support their families and rebuild their lives. At the same time, for this country to fulfil the Prime Minister’s ambition to be “Global Britain”, we require an immigration system that is open, fair and allows those with much-needed skills to come here with their families to work and to build a future with us. It is easy to make slogans about attracting the brightest and the best, but how can we ensure that those with skills whose lives have been blown off course by conflict or persecution can still access labour market mobility?
Through its work in Jordan and Lebanon especially, Talent Beyond Boundaries has found that there are particular barriers under the current UK tier 2 regime that make it difficult for a displaced Syrian in Jordan, for example, to have the same opportunity to come to the UK to work as someone with the same skills from Australia, India or the United States. They are required to provide the identity documents specified by the Home Office when these can be provided only by a hostile regime. We all know that that would be an impossibility. Amendment 31 therefore urges the Government to create a displaced talent visa specifically to address such barriers and pave the way to eventually put in place a global scheme.
Events in this pandemic year have once again underlined the necessity to deal with the fragile and unsustainable nature of the world in which we live. In considering what a new immigration system for the UK should look like, we have a duty to construct models that take account of the complexities caused by conflict and persecution and to devise an immigration system that genuinely enables those who want to offer us their skills to do so, and to do much more to tackle the root causes that lead to 37,000 people being forced to flee their homes every day due to conflict or persecution, joining 70 million others. None of this should close our eyes to the importance of constructing, along with other nations, a humane and fair system for resettling refugees and others who need a place of sanctuary.
Turning to Amendment 29, I begin by saying that it is substantively different from the displaced talent visa being proposed in Amendment 31, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, pointed out. It and others in the group address the right of asylum seekers already in the UK to work after a certain period while they are waiting for their cases to be decided. In contrast, the displaced talent visa facilitates the arrival of forcibly displaced persons through labour market mobility; that is, they will have a sponsoring employer and a job offer already in place, and they are not seeking humanitarian protection as UNHCR-defined refugees. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who said that the Government should not offer the same argument in response to these very different amendments. When he comes to reply, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, will differentiate between them.
The displaced talent visa is concerned with widening access to labour market mobility, not substituting for humanitarian resettlement or as an alternative to enabling access to asylum for those who require it. Where there are similarities between the amendments, they involve the freedom to work to support yourself and your family, and the dignity, alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, of being allowed to do so, as well as providing benefits to the UK through meeting labour shortages, tax revenue, avoiding reliance on public funds and the better integration of people into the community. Research has shown that bans on working result in poorer integration outcomes because work helps people to learn English and meet other people.
Amendment 29 returns to an issue I have repeatedly raised with Ministers and in your Lordships’ House: the right to work. Indeed, it was the subject of a meeting some years ago that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and I attended with the then Minister, Brandon Lewis. I hope that the Minister will see this as a precedent for reforming the current work-banning arrangements. It would be good to know what stage the review we were told about at Second Reading, which was begun in 2018, has reached, and when we might see the outcome.
As the Minister has been told, the Lift the Ban coalition, which supports the amendment, is made up of over 240 organisations and individuals across the country calling for the restoration of the right to work for people seeking asylum and their adult dependants, if they have been waiting for a decision on their asylum claim for six months. That broad coalition includes the CBI, the Adam Smith Institute, the TUC, UNISON and the Church of England, and is supported by grass-roots organisations, national charities, think tanks, faith groups and businesses, demonstrating wide- spread support for this common-sense proposal.
I am a patron of Asylum Link Merseyside. Through its wonderful work, and that of groups in Lancashire with whom my wife volunteers as an English language teacher, as well as organisations such as Refugee Action, I have heard first-hand accounts of asylum seekers who, having been effectively prohibited from working, must subsist, as my noble friend Lady Meacher told us earlier on the derisory sum of £5.56 per day in asylum support. I repeat: £5.56 per day. Imagine for a moment trying to make ends meet on that and the effect on your human dignity and self-respect, especially when you are then denied the fundamental right to work. This is a right enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 23 insists:
“We all have the right to employment, to be free to choose our work, and to be paid a fair salary that allows us to live and support our family.”
We have heard about the benefits to the economy of allowing people to work. We were told about the survey showing that businesses overwhelmingly support this call. In denying the right to work, we damage people personally, we impede social integration, we deny the value of the work ethic, we entrench poverty and we emasculate self-sufficiency. The contribution that work makes to social integration is spelled out in terms in the Government’s own immigration White Paper, and I applaud that.
I end by saying this. The coalition has drawn my attention to the story of one young Afghan woman denied the right to work. She says, “I want to work because it gives me the feeling of being someone. I want to work because I don’t want to look back after five or 10 years and realise that I did little except sit in a room and wait for a decision on my asylum claim. I could have been doing something positive for people’s health by putting my knowledge and expertise into practice.” Those words and the story of Mercy Baguma, which I referred to at the outset of my remarks, should stir us into taking action in this Bill. I hope that the noble Lord will agree to meet representatives of the Lift the Ban coalition and consider these amendments carefully between now and Report so that it will not be necessary to call a Division.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-chair of the Human Trafficking Foundation.
We have heard some excellent speeches so far, and I find that I cannot disagree with anything that has been said. Although many identified victims of modern slavery are also asylum seekers—and those numbers may be swelled by EU citizens after freedom of movement has ended—these amendments, which I support, relate to potential asylum seekers from EEA countries or Switzerland. Of course, they will be in scope of the Bill, but it does not cover those from other countries. I guess that they will be the overriding majority, and while I would welcome the relaxation of the regulations regarding paid work for asylum seekers, I am afraid that it would be invidious to discriminate between non-EEA and EEA countries.
I am aware that, just over 100 years ago, a large number of Belgian citizens arrived in this country as a result of the conflict in their own country during the First World War. I have seen historical documents that show how well they were received. For a relatively brief time, they made their home here, and many worked here. Indeed, the presence of so many Belgians became the norm, so much so that no one batted an eyelid when Agatha Christie created Monsieur Poirot, a Belgian detective, as one of her heroes.
As I understand it, the rules regarding paid work for asylum seekers were strengthened back in 2010. I can only guess why it was decided to implement them, but I suspect that the huge backlog of cases awaiting decision made the Home Office nervous that if an asylum seeker worked, they would inevitably become an integrated part of the local community, making ties and making friends with fellow workers. As cases took so long—regrettably they still do, to which I can attest from my previous experience as a constituency MP—there would inevitably be more complications if a negative decision was received and removal was initiated.
I understand that some will say that to allow those applying for asylum to work will act as a pull. However, I am not sure whether there are any figures or statistics to back that up. In fact, regularising work for these people would be beneficial, as we have heard. I also know that Her Majesty’s Government are currently renewing the regulations. I sincerely hope that this country will have the courage to fully utilise the undoubted skills of these people, which I suggest would be a huge economic benefit in many ways. In the meantime, I believe that we should be encouraging more asylum seekers to be able to undertake voluntary work, and if noble Lords will indulge me a short while, I will give an example of what can be achieved.
Through my work with the Human Trafficking Foundation—and with its indefatigable chairman, Anthony Steen, a long-serving and dedicated Member of the House of Commons—I have become involved with a scheme that is just getting started after Covid-19 somewhat delayed it getting off the ground. Action Asylum by the Task Force Trust is offering opportunities to asylum seekers to make life better by volunteering alongside local people, so that the community is made better with their help, particularly in environmental matter