House of Lords
Tuesday 6 October 2020
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.
Introduction: Lord Sikka
Prem Nath Sikka, having been created Baron Sikka, of Kingswood in Basildon in the County of Essex, was introduced and made the solemn affirmation, supported by Lord Haskel and Lord Hendy, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Lord Field of Birkenhead
The right honourable Frank Field, having been created Baron Field of Birkenhead, of Birkenhead in the County of Merseyside, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach and Baroness Meacher, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
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. Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them short and confined to two points, and I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Covid-19: Transport Industry
My Lords, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the transport industry. The Government recognise the key role that transport plays in supporting economic activity and maintaining social ties, which is why they have stepped in to support the industry where they can, to ensure that public transport is there for those who need it.
Road traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels of congestion, while trains and buses are running almost empty. The Government are reorganising the rail industry but so far have provided only emergency funding for buses. Does the Minister accept that the commercial model for the bus industry was already failing before Covid-19? The Government now have the opportunity to create a green bus revolution. Will they reform subsidies to encourage environmental efficiency and give more powers to local authorities?
The noble Baroness may be interested to know that bus demand is currently running at about 55% of normal, which is encouraging, but she is quite right, and will know that we had always planned to do a bus strategy this year. Of course, we are starting from a very different place from where we had hoped to be, but it will include an awful lot of recovery work, as she so rightly outlined, and set out how we will get 4,000 zero-emission buses on our roads.
Is the Minister aware that the coach industry feels particularly aggrieved, having been excluded from the industry-specific grants that have so benefited buses and trains? Is she also aware that long-standing family companies such as Travel De Courcey, based in Coventry, have already gone to the wall because of the economic situation? Can she offer any comfort to these vital parts of our transport industry, as far as the future is concerned?
I am aware of the very difficult situation that the coach industry finds itself in. It is a very diverse sector with, as the noble Lord points out, a large number of family-run businesses. About 80% of revenue in the coach sector comes from tourism, and we are working very hard with DCMS to ensure that where tourism—particularly domestic tourism—can take place, it does. Much of the remaining 20% is home-to-school transport, and the Government have made available £40 million for the first half of this current term, for local authorities to procure extra vehicles.
My Lords, further to the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, in 10 days’ time, the emergency funding that the Government agreed with Transport for London to keep the buses and Tubes running runs out. Can the Minister reassure the House that there will be some agreement thereafter? If the Mayor of London has asked for £5 billion, how will any future burden be shared between the national taxpayer, travellers and London’s council tax payers?
My noble friend mentions the figure of £5 billion: well, the Mayor of London would say that, wouldn’t he? As part of the first bailout, the Government commissioned a government-led review of TfL’s finances and I am afraid that it did not make happy reading, even prior to the pandemic. Multi-year fare freezes are indeed a great vote winner, but eventually one has to make very difficult choices, so the Government will be ensuring that the Mayor of London makes those choices in order to get TfL back on to a financially sustainable footing so that we can protect the interests of the UK taxpayer.
My Lords, to judge by both personal observation and hearsay, not much effort is being made by train operators to collect revenue due to them. Will the Government make sure that they understand that it is a duty to collect fares from passengers?
I thank the noble Lord for his question. This is the first time I have been made aware that some train operating companies are not collecting the amount of revenue that they should. To my mind, having also travelled on trains recently, they seem to be functioning very well and nothing much has changed in respect of revenue collection.
My Lords, it is an honour to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who was my constituent for 14 years; in spite of being a Liberal Democrat, he was extremely well behaved. The Minister will know that transport policy encompasses such innovations as e-scooters. Will she look at the myriad regulations in different boroughs across London, which are holding back the rollout of public e-scooters? Will she also look at legalising e-scooters for private use and removing pointless regulations such as requiring a driving licence in order to use any scooter?
My Lords, I again remind my noble friend and the whole House that riding an e-scooter off private land is currently illegal unless it is part of a trial. However, the Government have rolled out these trials across the country, the entire purpose of which is to gather evidence, so that we can look at the regulations to which my noble friend refers and make appropriate changes in order to benefit from such developments in micro-mobility.
My Lords, in the wake of the pandemic, the Government have promised new structures and relationships with rail and other providers based on value for money and traveller satisfaction, but will the Minister ensure that the needs of long-suffering, isolated rural communities are also taken into account?
The Government have huge ambitions for the rail industry throughout the country, in both urban and more rural areas. As the noble Lord probably knows, we have entered into emergency measures agreements with the train operating companies to make sure that they can continue to provide those services. With regard to cut-off places— places that no longer have trains—the Restoring Your Railway Fund will support the reopening of railways where possible.
May I return to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Snape? The Minister said that the 20% of the sector involved in school transport was getting support, but what about the other 80%? What additional support will be offered to that 80% of the coach industry, and with what objectives in mind? It includes small operators which, as small businesses, form the backbone of the sector and are really struggling. The Government have yet to tell us what they intend to do to support the great bulk of the coach industry.
The Government have already put in an unprecedented package of financial support, which has recently been extended through the winter economic plan to make sure that support is provided not only to coach companies but to all sorts of companies across the country. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Snape, we are working with DCMS to try to open up tourism wherever possible, but coach companies are being innovative and getting business where they can. I recently visited York Pullman, in York, and was heartened to see that it is looking to find more innovative ways back into work. I know it is difficult, and we continue to engage with the coach sector as the pandemic progresses.
My Lords, in March the Government announced a fund to improve electric vehicle infrastructure, particularly charging. Does the Minister agree that if post-Covid recovery is to be largely car-based, it is essential to bring forward that fund early so that more people will buy electric vehicles? Can she update the House as to when this money will become available?
The Government do not want the recovery to be mostly car-based. We are keen to encourage passengers back on to buses and trains, and we are clear that people can use public transport and should do so safely. The noble Baroness mentioned electric vehicles. Of course, the Government have a huge commitment to expanding the number of charge points and supporting consumers when they buy their electric vehicles.
I reassure the noble Lord that we are already a world leader in the manufacture and design of electric cars and their rollout across the country. The other important element to bear in mind is the Government’s commitment to connected and autonomous vehicles, which, of course, go hand in hand with the development of electric cars.
My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Group on General Aviation. General aviation is of course the bedrock of aviation in this country—where young pilots are trained for the future—and has taken a particular hit, along with the rest of aviation, during this Covid-19 crisis. Will the Government consider looking at VAT in respect of general aviation? Will the Minister perhaps consult with the Treasury on this issue?
The Government recognise the important role that general aviation plays in providing the grass-roots element from which so many who go on to the commercial sector come. I reassure my noble friend that the Government are focusing carefully on aviation recovery work, which will include general aviation. It will look at regional connectivity, economic growth, decarbonisation and, perhaps most importantly in the field of general aviation, workforce and skills.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that many maritime businesses have worked incredibly hard to keep supply chains open and goods flowing during the Covid crisis. However, this has resulted in businesses exhausting their cash reserves, leaving very little funding for them to begin the vital work of decarbonising the maritime industry. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will provide the necessary funding, requested by the maritime industry in recent meetings, to kickstart the urgent process of decarbonisation?
The noble Lord will know that the Government published their Maritime 2050 strategy a little while back. Of course, our commitment to decarbonisation remains extremely strong. There are a number of conversations going on at the moment about maritime decarbonisation, and some ideas have been put forward for the spending review.
United Kingdom Government-Northern Ireland Executive Joint Board
My Lords, the first meeting of the joint board, which has oversight for transformation in health, education and justice where these draw on funding provided under the New Decade, New Approach agreement, took place on 22 July. We are looking to schedule a further meeting very shortly—this autumn—for which an agenda has yet to be finalised. It will, however, include a review of progress to date.
How often do the Government envisage meetings of this important new board linking Westminster and Stormont taking place? What assessment have the Government made of the stability and prospects of their fellow board member, the Northern Ireland Executive, restored to work at the beginning of the year?
It is not clear how many meetings will be held each year, but suffice it to say that with the last one held in July and one coming up shortly, they will be frequent enough. The joint board has no specific powers of statutory underpinning; it is a discursive forum to facilitate close working between the UK Government and the Executive. Finally, the assessment is that the NDNA has proved vital in light of the pandemic. It is fair to say that it has worked well due to the commitment and leadership of the Northern Ireland political leaders.
Will my noble friend ensure that at future meetings of this body attempts will be made to ensure that the people in the devolved regions—not only in Northern Ireland—understand the sources of funds for public services? It is not clear in the devolved regions where the money is coming from and, specifically, how much additional money comes to the regions from Parliament, as opposed to money raised locally.
My noble friend makes a very good point about the accountability of funds. He will know that part of the establishment of the joint board is setting up a fiscal council tasked with assessing and reporting on the sustainability of the finances and spending proposals. As he said, it is important to put the funding for Northern Ireland in the context of funding for the other devolved Administrations.
What discussions have been taking place in this area on the question of the customs border in the Irish Sea? Can the Minister enlighten us? It seems to me that there is a misunderstanding on the part of the Government. They say that this problem will be solved if, as we hope, there is a trade deal, but the reason for that is that at present there is regulatory alignment between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If the Government’s objective with Brexit is to diverge over a whole range of areas, as they envisage, will there not have to be a proper customs border in the Irish Sea, and does that not require extensive consultation with the Northern Ireland authorities?
I admire the noble Lord’s ingenuity in steering the Question in that direction. However, I remind him that the purpose of the joint board is to review the use of funding provided under the NDNA agreement. These matters are not, as such, for the joint board.
Does the Minister agree with the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee report on the New Decade, New Approach agreement where it highlights the need for a long-term financial plan for the implementation of the agreement but acknowledges [Inaudible] on public finances in Northern Ireland? Will he confirm that long-term financial planning will be on the agenda of the next meeting of the board?
I think I picked up most of what the noble Baroness said. I know that some information has come out from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. One recommendation was for an annual report, and that is linked in with the question that the noble Baroness asked about sustainability in the future. It is not an unreasonable request but we would need the agreement of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to take that forward.
My Lords, first, will support for the aerospace industry in Northern Ireland be on the next agenda of the board? Secondly, will the victims payment scheme be on the agenda, and do the Government propose to indicate what money they will make available for that scheme?
I cannot say what will be on the agenda beyond, as I said earlier, a discussion about the progress that the joint board has made so far. However, I will certainly take the point that the noble Lord has raised back to officials. I think that we will be able to explore the victims payment scheme during the next Question, but this is very much a matter for the Executive to take forward. The funding is there and comes out of the block grant.
My Lords, the services sector accounts for 75% of gross value added in Northern Ireland and 22% of external sales by Northern Ireland firms. Can my noble friend suggest that helping this sector, hard hit by Covid, should be on the board’s agenda? It ranges from retail and transport to health and professional services, and from tourism to the arts. For example, “Game of Thrones” has brought new visitors to Castle Ward as the location for Winterfell, home of the House of Stark, and many other beautiful places, but I worry that Northern Ireland faces a chilly winter.
My noble friend makes a good point about the services sector, and I saw for myself the site of “Game of Thrones” when I was in Northern Ireland three or four weeks ago. The services sector is very important: it accounts for over 80% of employment and a total of 634,000 jobs. However, I remind my noble friend that the focus is much more on health, education and justice as part of the joint board’s remit.
Will the agenda for the next meeting of the joint board include the establishment of a UK government hub in Northern Ireland, which is envisaged in the New Decade, New Approach document, was a commitment in the last two Conservative Northern Ireland manifestos and would underline the importance that we attach to Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom?
My noble friend makes a good point about emphasising the union. This Government continue to want to show the importance of the union and how all parts of the UK, including Northern Ireland, benefit from it. The city deals are one example of direct funding to the devolved Administrations.
My Lords, I have listened carefully to the answers from the Minister, but can I take him back to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden? He asked when the next meeting would be—to which he received an answer—and what would be on the agenda. All I have heard so far from the Minister is what will not be on the agenda, despite some excellent suggestions from the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, my noble friend Lord Liddle and others. Perhaps I may press him on this, because there is a sense of urgency here. We were greatly appreciative of the work of the former Secretary of State in securing the New Decade, New Approach deal, but if all the Minister can tell us about the agenda is that there will be a review of the progress that has been made, it does not leave us with much confidence that real progress is being made. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Caine, about the manifesto is apt. I hope that the Minister can give us some meat on the bones here and tell us exactly what will be discussed and what will be on the agenda. That was the Question.
Indeed, the noble Baroness is right, and I have taken on board her question. This is very much a matter for the Executive and I do not have in front of me the details of the agenda. However, at the first meeting, the terms of reference were agreed, and it remains up to the Executive to decide whether to make this, and indeed any other matter relating to the agenda, public.
I am sure that the Minister is aware of the deep concern over the threat by the EU to block the free movement of goods, including food, from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. In the event of the Union not coming to an agreement by December, will the Government give an assurance that they will exempt goods and food from the EU-commanded checks? This has major implications for Northern Ireland industry.
Northern Ireland: Payments to Victims of the Troubles
My Lords, the UK Government brought forward legislation establishing a victims’ payment scheme in January. They did so both to fulfil their legal obligation and because they are committed to doing what they can to progress a scheme that acknowledges the harm caused to those people injured through no fault of their own during the Troubles. Implementation of the scheme is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. We will continue to prioritise supporting the Executive’s delivery of this scheme because victims have waited too long already.
My Lords, I am conscious that, during this pandemic, these individuals will be shielding. Money should be in their hands by now and it is not. When I was pushing forward this legislation in this House, two things were clear—one, there should be backdated payments and, secondly, there should be interim payments based on a simple, basic formula. Can my noble friend confirm that these elements have not been lost sight of during this particular stage and that progress will be made in real time? Otherwise, there will be nobody to pay the money to.
My noble friend is absolutely right. Speed is of the essence, as I and other noble Lords said back in June. Now that the designation of the department has taken place, what matters is moving as quickly as possible to deliver for the victims. The Justice Minister has set out a potential timeframe and highlighted key deliverables, such as appointing members to the board and developing the IT systems and application forms.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Duncan of Springbank was immensely energetic on this issue when he held this portfolio. It is an absolute scandal that people who deserve this money are dying by the week. Soon many more will be dead. Will my noble friend ensure that he tells the Secretary of State that he should immediately summon a meeting with the leaders of the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that these payments are made well before Christmas?
Perhaps I can reassure my noble friend and play straight into his question. The Secretary of State is and always has been firmly committed to seeing that this scheme is introduced as speedily as possible and payments made to victims who have waited too long. He meets regularly with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to discuss a range of important issues—and particularly this scheme as a priority.
My Lords, as noble Lords are aware, the anticipated timescale for beginning payments to the victims is spring 2021. Can the Minister tell us if the Government are committed to shortening this time? If so, how are they aiming to work with the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland to expedite matters to achieve a quicker resolution so that victims are not waiting longer than necessary for recompense?
The Northern Ireland Office is doing its best to support the Executive in speeding up this process. I gave some indication earlier as to what is required and what has started to be done. We all very much hope that the March date can be brought forward. The Secretary of State is leading the push for greater speed.
My Lords, the Minister knows my particular interest in this issue, as a former Northern Ireland victims’ Minister. I, too, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, who has really pushed this and shown a real commitment. Let us be clear what is happening. The reason why the Department of Justice is dealing with this issue is because the High Court said that the Northern Ireland Executive was acting unlawfully in delaying implementation of the scheme. The Minister of Justice, Naomi Long, has outlined the operational steps that need to be undertaken, but she says that not all of them are in her department’s control. There would seem to be a role for the NIO in asking for updates of what is happening and providing support to her, to try to make these other operational areas happen. What steps is the NIO taking and when was the last meeting with Naomi Long to discuss this?
The noble Baroness is right when she talks about the review. The judge made a clear ruling that the Executive Office was acting unlawfully in not designating a department. This is now happening—this process is now taking place. I cannot tell the noble Baroness precisely what is happening at this moment, but I reassure her and the House that the Northern Ireland Office continues to regard this as a priority. It is doing its best to work with the parties to take this forward and to get the payments made at the earliest opportunity.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has pointed out, Naomi Long, the Northern Ireland Justice Minister has—to her great credit—volunteered her department for this challenging task. She says that she is determined, if possible, to progress this by an earlier date than March. But surely the Governments need to work together to overcome these challenges. This is a UK scheme. Does the Minister recognise that UK Ministers cannot walk away from either the funding or the delivery of the scheme? They will be held accountable. If funding or operation are not adequate, they will not escape the blame.
The noble Lord’s question is unnecessary. The funding is there; it has never been a block. It comes through the block grant. In the background to the funding through the block grant, the UK Government have provided very generous financial support to the Northern Ireland Executive since the start of this calendar year. This has included an additional £2 billion through the NDNA financial package and £260 million from the Budget.
My Lords, both the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, referred to meetings. My information is that the Northern Ireland Executive is seeking meetings with both the Secretary of State and the Treasury. Have those meetings taken placed or are they planned? Of course, the Treasury is reflecting on the issue of funding, the point just raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. My information is that the Northern Ireland perspective is that this cannot go ahead without funding from Westminster.
In his supplementary question, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, said that this money, in backdated and interim payments, is urgently needed. Could Westminster not find some money to at least cover some payments now to ensure that people get the compensation they desperately need?
The noble Baroness is putting cart before horse. As I said earlier, the money is there; it has never been a block. The point that I made earlier is that certain systems need to be expedited and set up by the Ministry of Justice, and we are giving it every support. Payments cannot be made until those things are done, but it is not a matter of the money not being there.
My noble friend will be aware that, during the Troubles, 1,441 brave men and women of the British Armed Forces and the Ulster Defence Regiment were murdered, as well as 319 men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. They were among the bravest of the brave. Collectively, more than 20,000 of these people were injured and their families traumatised. Can my noble friend assure me that the injured and the relatives of these servicemen and women and police officers will be in the front line for any payments? After all, they were in the front line defending this country.
We should always remember all those who were caught up in the Troubles. The Northern Ireland Executive are responsible for the delivery of the scheme and for processing applications. This will be a matter for the independent board, which will consider applications carefully before expediting payments.
My Lords, the debate about the funding of the victims’ payments scheme is clearly frustrating its progress. In September, there seemed to be a suggestion that it was up to the board to assess the number of victims that will be supported by the scheme—and therefore its cost. Do the Government have their own assessment of the cost of the scheme? If so, how does the Minister know whether the funding that the UK Government have supplied is adequate?
I can give a little more detail. The noble Baroness is right: we do not know precisely the number of people caught up in the Troubles. A figure of 40,000 has come my way. Therefore, she is right that we do not have the exact figure. A figure of £800 million has been bandied about, but we believe that it is wholly in excess of what will be required. This needs to be taken forward by the board, which will make the decisions.
COP 26: Sponsors
My Lords, the Government have set strict sponsorship criteria for COP 26 to partner with companies committed to fighting climate change and running their businesses in a sustainable manner. The Government have published an online form for companies to register their interest in sponsorship and are already in discussion with a number of companies. We are looking for companies committed to reaching net zero by 2050 with a credible short-term action plan to achieve this.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I am very glad to hear that we are setting standards; I have indeed read the form. However, I want to press a little further. I understand that conversations have taken place between some leading oil companies and the team funding COP 26. Governments around the world are, as we know, still subsidising the fossil fuel industry, and even if many of them are developing alternative energy streams, these are still an actual fraction of their output. While this remains a fact, allowing any fossil fuel company to sponsor the climate talks seems to me not dissimilar to allowing a tobacco company that produced vaping products to sponsor something like the Olympics. Can the Government guarantee to the House that the process of sponsorship of this critical meeting will not allow any greenwashing on behalf of any company? Will the Government further agree that all the sponsorships will be very clear and transparent, and if not open to full public scrutiny, open to scrutiny by the House?
We will be working most closely with organisations that are committed to taking real, positive action and have strong climate credentials; for example, companies which have committed to achieving net zero and have published a credible plan of action on how they will achieve this.
We are looking for both monetary and value-in-kind sponsorship. Value in kind refers to goods and services that are acquired, or highly desirable, in exchange for branding, etcetera. There is of course no question of companies taking part in negotiations.
My Lords, in his reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, the Minister said that sponsorship would be restricted to companies committed to net zero by 2050, with credible and short-term action plans to achieve it. In the light of that criteria, does he not think it time that the Government themselves had a credible short-term action plan?
My Lords, I apologise for having asked a question earlier on. Ahead of COP 26 next year and given concerns about greenwashing, and with the positive move of UK businesses pledging to environmental targets of net-zero carbon by 2050, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to make sure that these companies deliver on these targets? With a gap of over 1 million people in the green economy, how are the Government promoting the upskilling of workers in this sector of the economy?
According to overnight reports, the Government are planning for all 30 million homes in the UK to be powered by gusts of wind from offshore wind installations. The Government have always maintained that they stay technology-neutral in their encouragement of renewable energy sources. Yet the Conservative Party has advised that the sun does not always shine brightly, nor the wind blow consistently. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government are now picking winners and losers among green technologies and whether this will be reflected at COP 26 in its sponsors?
No, we are not picking winners. We always examine a range of different technologies and we are backing a range of different technologies. The contract for difference auctions will not discriminate between different technologies and we will keep them all under constant review.
My Lords, while I understand that the focus of formal sponsorship is on businesses, is the Minister able to confirm that Her Majesty’s Government are also keen to engage in similarly deliberate ways with other bodies, including faith communities? These communities are highly motivated—indeed mandated—to care for God’s creation, locally and globally, and many, including the Church of England’s General Synod, have already committed to challenging targets for carbon reduction.
Can my noble friend confirm that before appointing any sponsors for the COP, Her Majesty’s Government will undertake due diligence in the supply chains of any companies under consideration with regard to negative environmental impact?
My noble friend makes a very good point. We will be carrying out due diligence on all potential sponsors. As I said, we are looking for companies that are running their businesses in a sustainable manner and working to reduce their environmental impact through net-zero targets; that will include studying their supply chains as well.
My Lords, a leader article yesterday stated bluntly that:
“The global climate crisis is the emergency of our times.”
How many heavy hitters are being targeted that meet the committed criteria outlined by the Minister? Can he give any indication of examples? In addition, and underlining other contributions this afternoon, will the Government agree that COP 26 sponsor selection must focus unreservedly on those fully committed to the cause, and not on those only paying lip service out of self-serving expediency?
My Lords, while they are doing their due diligence, will the Government look carefully at the way pension funds that decide to become a sponsor are investing, and at how all supply chains, of British and global companies, are working? Further, given that companies are pushing to have 30% women on their boards, will the Government look at ensuring that we have at least 30% women on our COP delegations—unlike the present COP delegation to the UN which has no women at all?
My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, made an interesting point that companies ought to be truly climate credible. Which climate-credible people in the Government will make the decision on which companies are climate credible?
As in all these matters, the ultimate decisions will rest with Ministers. We will judge companies closely against the criteria that we have already published, and I am sure that the noble Baroness will want to hold me to account for those decisions.
Lord Speaker’s Statement
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. Before I call the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, to ask address the Private Notice Question on Post Office prosecutions, I should inform the House that the Question concerns the Post Office’s decision not to challenge the forthcoming appeals in 44 cases that are pending in the Court of Appeal. As the House will be aware, part of my role is to decide whether, in specific circumstances, it is appropriate to waive the application of the sub judice rule, under which we do not debate matters pending the courts. I have decided that, in this case, it is right to do so. This is a rare step and one that I do not take without advice and thoughtful consideration.
I have taken the view that it is in the public interest for the House to be able to consider this matter, given that it is known that the appeals will not be contested. It is relevant to my decision that, yesterday, Mr Speaker took a similar decision to allow an Urgent Question on the same topic in the House of Commons. In taking this decision, I ask all noble Lords to exercise their normal caution about referring to individual cases and to avoid referring to the minority of cases that remain contested.
Post Office: Horizon Accounting System
Private Notice Question
[Inaudible.]—the largest number of referrals by the Criminal Cases Review Commission in history. Yet the Government are expressly excluding from the scope of their inquiry the Post Office Ltd prosecution function, the Horizon group damages settlement and the conduct of current or future litigation. Given that the sub-postmasters who sued remain impoverished and, in many cases, bankrupted by the Government, why have the Government excluded these most important things? Why are they punishing those brave people who brought this essential litigation?
The noble Lord was getting a bit ahead of himself in asking his supplementary question before he asked his main Question, so I will answer that main one first and then come on to the second one.
The answer to the Question that he originally posed to me as a Private Notice Question is that, on 2 October, the Post Office announced that it would not oppose 44 of the 47 cases referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. This is an important milestone for the postmasters appealing their convictions. It is now for the courts to decide whether their convictions should be overturned, and it would not be appropriate for the Government to comment on these cases until that process is complete.
I will now move to the question which the noble Lord just asked. The settlement was agreed in December and was full and final; for this reason, it has been excluded from the scope of the inquiry.
On the question of its prosecution function, the chief executive of the Post Office, Nick Read, has assured the Government and confirmed publicly that the Post Office is not currently conducting any private prosecutions and has no plans to do so.
As regards current and future litigation, of course only the courts can decide on criminal matters, such as whether to overturn the postmasters’ convictions, so it would not be appropriate for the inquiry to look at these questions, especially when the court process is still ongoing.
My Lords, we are all very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, for continuing to press this issue doggedly over the last decade. Under the framework document, the Post Office business plan must address
“the state of the relationship … with the community of postmasters.”
The sole shareholder—the Government—is required to meet the CEO
“at least twice a year”.
Ministers have known all about this grotesque scandal. It is not good enough to hide behind the pretence that these matters were merely operational. At how many of those biannual meetings did the Minister pursue this? If he did not, surely that is negligence? If he did, why has it taken so long?
I am not the Minister directly responsible for the Post Office; Paul Scully is the Minister who is directly responsible. He has regular meetings with the Post Office chief executive, and, indeed, I have also met him to discuss this matter. This scandal has been going on for the best part of a decade now, through successive Governments and Ministers. We are not trying to hide behind anything. That is why we have announced this inquiry with a High Court judge to try to get the bottom of these matters. It has been extensively looked at and the High Court opined on it, but we think that more can be done, and I assure the noble Lord that we want to see these matters properly examined and the appropriate blame apportioned.
My Lords, the Criminal Cases Review Commission refers cases of miscarriage of justice to the Court of Appeal. In this case, we understand that it will not receive a challenge from the Post Office on this matter. When the matters have been dealt with, would the Minister promise that the matter will be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service and the police to see what further action could be taken in relation to this matter?
My Lords, in earlier responses to questions on this issue, the Minister has confirmed that, although the review is not a statutory inquiry under the Act, the reviewer—we now know his name—will get full access to the Post Office’s and Fujitsu’s papers and personnel. Can the Minister confirm that the reviewer will have similar rights of access to Ministers and civil servants involved in this case?
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, for bringing a measure of justice to this case. In a debate in February, he said:
“It is hard to find words strong enough to condemn the people in charge of this catastrophic fiasco. What have the people in charge suffered as a result? One of them, Paula Vennells, has been given a CBE and now sits on government-sponsored boards. None of the rest, as far as I can see, have suffered at all.”—[Official Report, 25/2/20; col. GC 87.]
When the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, answered a question from the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, in March, he said:
“There is no question but that the Post Office management at the time behaved disgracefully but none of them is now in post.”—[Official Report, 5/3/20; col. 719.]
None the less, what are the Government doing to hold these people to account, at least by reviewing honours and public sector appointments awarded?
The noble Baroness makes a very good point. I made my views clear on this matter earlier in the year, and I have written to the Department of Health and Social Care—the letter is now public—expressing my views on this. Of course, there are appropriate procedures that need to be followed in appointments and in honours, but personally I would have no problem with those matters being looked at.
My Lords, as this is a reserved matter, has the Minister and the Minister for the Post Office had initial discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that the inquiry by Sir Wyn Williams will be all-encompassing and cover all the issues that emerged in the Horizon programme in Northern Ireland post offices, with assurances that such actions will never happen again and that those people will never suffer such undue burdens?
It is for Sir Wyn to decide how the inquiry gathers the necessary evidence, but I imagine it will want to gather evidence from all affected postmasters, including those in Northern Ireland. The noble Baroness makes a good point and I will ask my officials to speak with the Northern Ireland Executive on this matter.
My Lords, will the Minister tell the House how many lawyers were engaged opposing the sub-postmasters’ appeals? How much taxpayers’ money has been spent on it? How much of that money was spent since it was realised it was the Horizon scheme to blame, not the sub-postmasters?
I am afraid I cannot give the noble Lord a direct answer. I do not know how many lawyers were engaged. I will try to find out and will write to him on this. I should imagine a lot. But I do not know the number because the matter was one for the Post Office. We have announced the inquiry. These are matters that the inquiry will want to go into. I am sure Sir Wyn will want to pursue this. I hope he will produce the appropriate conclusions and will attach the blame—if there is any—to those who are responsible.
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now resume. The time limit on the Motion is one and a half hours.
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020
Motion to Approve
My Lords, I will start by summarising the changes to the regulations. These regulations, which were made on 13 September and came into force on 14 September, amend the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020. They mean that people may not participate in social gatherings, in any place, inside or out, in groups of more than six. The exceptions are members of the same household, two linked households, or exceptions that apply such as for work and schools. This is the measure we call the rule of six; its sole purpose is to halt the spread of the virus by breaking the chain of transmission.
Our message is clear. Those who flout the rules cannot do so with impunity. However, for those who follow the rules, we will provide support and encouragement. That is why the regulations gave police powers to enforce these legal limits, including issuing fines to a maximum of £3,200. It is also why we have introduced financial support for those in isolation.
After a period in the summer of reduction, or stabilisation, in the transmission of the virus, the headline numbers were clear: by mid-September we were seeing daily case numbers rise rapidly in most parts of the country. For example, on 14 August 2020, 1,168 confirmed cases were announced; whereas a month later, on 11 September, 3,286 confirmed cases were announced. That is why the Government, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Advisor jointly agreed the changes we announced.
We know that an increase in infections leads to increases in hospitalisations and deaths, and early indications were of hospital admissions increasing. For example, on 14 August, 99 patients were admitted to hospital; whereas on 11 September, 219 patients were admitted to hospital. We also looked at international data on the feedback on the transmission of the virus in large groups from contact tracing and the advice of infection control teams on the local front line who said the old rules were clearly being flouted. That is why we took the decision to act promptly to introduce these changes.
Regulations such as these are meaningful only if people comply with them. We recognise that in the last eight months the sum of all our regulations had become confusing for many people. Anecdotally, local leaders told us that the term “households” was not well understood—and could be misunderstood as including people’s extended family, whether or not you lived with them—and that a numerical limit was likely to be better understood. Our instincts and these anecdotes were supported by evidence from the Health Protection Research Unit at King’s College London, to which we owe thanks. That is why we have moved to the rule of six: one number; in all settings; inside and out; at home or in the pub. Clear, easily understood guidance, based on clear principles—that is what we have sought to do.
To be clear, in this instance, the buy-in of the public and adherence of the majority are more important than the epidemiological transmission analysis and fine-tuning points of the committees of experts. Breaking the chain of transmission is all that matters. We tightened the regulations so they exactly reflected the guidance, rather than there being one set of numbers in guidance and another set in the legal framework.
I accept that there are seemingly many inconsistencies, injustices and perceived unfairnesses in rules such as these. I have heard many of them already. Probably everyone in this Chamber has an instance where the rules do not seem to make sense. We cannot legislate for every scenario. The virus does not respect special circumstances, however moving. However, there is wisdom in simplicity and there is effectiveness in being easily understood. That is why the rules were simplified and strengthened: so that they were easier to understand, people knew where they stood, the police can act without hesitation and we can get the virus under control. If we achieve that, it is our sincere hope and expectation that the measures will be effective, and we can potentially lift the restrictions.
Let me say a few words about the impact of the measures—I note of course that they have been in place for only three weeks. We have seen the proportion of people who have socialised with six or more people from outside their household at the same time reduce by over a third to 7% last week, compared to 12% in recent weeks.
Let me say a few words about the impact of the measures by giving some examples of where local lockdowns have worked. In Northampton, the weekly incidence rate on 21 August was 116 per 100,000, mainly because of an outbreak in the Greencore factory. We brought in measures and the prevalence rate was brought down to 25.8 per 100,000. Swindon was put on the watchlist, the rise there being linked to a large-scale workplace outbreak and car-sharing issues. These were addressed and the prevalence was brought down to 15. I could go on. I accept that the picture for local lockdowns is complicated, and there are places where the numbers have gone up and have come down, but where measures have been supported by communities, we have broken the chain of transmission.
I want briefly to say something about the way these measures were introduced. Our natural inclination is to lift restrictions wherever and whenever we can. In the summer, we were hopeful that the country had got the message, that our exhortations on hands, face and space had got through and that, except for some local outbreaks, we had basically got a lid on it. However, the numbers told another story. It was therefore essential that the Government moved quickly. As in the past, we used the powers under the public health Act. Our lawyers diligently crossed every “t” and dotted every “i”, so the paperwork was not laid until hours before the measures became law.
None of this is ideal. The Government accept that parliamentary scrutiny has an important role to challenge the detail and to build support. That is why the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care told the other place last week that, for significant national measures with effect in the whole of England, the Government would consult the House of Commons wherever possible and hold votes before the regulations came into force.
I reassure noble Lords that the Government have heard the message on this point and that we are building on the success of these regulations to take them forward. For that reason, I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
To move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert “but that this House regrets the failure of Her Majesty’s Government adequately to consult the public in the preparation of the Regulations and the impracticality of enforcing the measures”.
My Lords, I have tabled this amendment to raise a few questions about the rule of six, on which I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. He has already conceded that there are lots of inconsistencies and injustices but that these are put there in the name of simplicity. However, for many people, that makes it more difficult for rules to be accepted as legitimate.
Many people want to know the basis on which the rules are made and the scientific basis for the rule of six. The very fact that there are different regimes in different countries in the UK, all based on exactly the same science, suggests that there cannot be a precise basis for the figure of six. Is it just fingers in the air for each country of the UK?
Six means that a family with four children cannot have a family gathering with even one set of grandparents. If a couple invites another couple from next door and have two children upstairs, that counts as six, but if the couple who have been invited have three children next door, for some reason the three do not count. How can this be logical and how can it be fair in terms of spreading the risk of infection? It does not make sense. Why cannot children under 12 all be exempt, as in Scotland and Wales? What is the point of the rule anyway, when one can go into a carriage on the Tube or into an office or supermarket and find oneself positively close to a lot more than six people?
It becomes more difficult to understand when one considers some of the exemptions; for example, that for “linked families” and “support bubbles”. What exactly is a linked family? What exactly is a support bubble? Who decides whether a support bubble is genuine or just a convenient excuse?
The SI that we are considering has a limit of 30 for a wedding, but it has already been altered to 15 in another statutory instrument. The 30-person limit was guidance and not law in July but overnight became a 15-person limit on 28 September without any parliamentary process. This law affects many couples and an important sector of the events industry. A rather dry, cynical, mathematical friend of mine pointed out that, at a wedding, there are two main participants: each gets seven and a half friends. At a funeral, there is one body, who gets four times as many friends. This may not be the most appropriate way of looking at it, but it has a certain logic. Can the Minister explain what his logic is and why it is superior?
There are so many different events. At a christening, is it true that a baby counts as one of the total for the six? As for Halloween on 31 October, apparently parents will be fined if children go trick-or-treating in groups of more than six. The fine, I am told, is £200; perhaps the Minister will tell me that it is £3,000. Is the person who answers the door to the trick-or-treater included in the total of six?
Edmund Burke once remarked that
“laws reach but a very little way.”
There is a limit on how far laws can influence behaviour, and a wise Government do not pass over-intrusive laws.
My amendment refers to the difficulty of enforcing these rules. How is this to be done? Will police officers force their way into private houses? The police in Glasgow have announced that they have already broken up 300 gatherings in private homes. What will this do for public support for the rules? Two Ministers have suggested that people should inform on their neighbours. It is one thing to report your neighbour if you see that he is building a bomb factory, but if he is holding a barbecue for seven people, are you really going to report him?
I deplore any suggestion that we should become a nation of informers like the old East Germany. As the Minister said, the whole point of the rule of six was to simplify things, but when the regional variations are added on top, it becomes absurdly complex. As well as the national rule of six, there are seven local regimes, and that is on top of the variations between the devolved Administrations. As we saw the other day, Ministers, including the Prime Minister, struggled to explain what the rules were in the north-east of England—I sympathise, with the “gotcha” journalists all around him—but ordinary people face fines if they do not know what the rules are. A noble Lord on the other side of the House drew my attention the other day to a cartoon in one of the newspapers which showed a man in a pub talking to his companion, and he said to him, “I’ve just downloaded a wonderful new app. It tells you whether in the last 14 days you’ve been in close proximity to anyone who understands the rules.”
My amendment refers also to the lack of consultation. With this SI, as with others, we have the element of retrospection. The SI was introduced on 13 September and became law one minute after midnight—which probably left some people breaking the law in the wrong house at the wrong time. Last week, MPs won the right to have a say in the implementation of national rules. That is welcome; I hope it will really happen, and it should have happened earlier. Local government matters. Some mayors have complained about a lack of emails, a lack of phone calls and no documentation.
Last week, when we had the debate, I put to the Minister a direct question which he did not answer. May I put it to him a second time? The Health Secretary has talked of eradicating—that is the word—the virus. The PM, in his interview on “The Andrew Marr Show”, referred to bringing the virus
“to an end in the speediest possible way”.
What does this mean? Other Ministers give the impression that government strategy is simply to suppress the virus until there is a vaccine. If so, what is there to stop the virus bouncing back every time the rules are relaxed? Are we to continue suppressing the economy until there is a vaccine? What happens if there is no early vaccine? That is the key question I hope the Minister will answer. What exactly is the government strategy?
I am not arguing that we should let the virus rip. We need rules, but we have not had satisfactory explanations. I do not intend to divide the House, but I say this to the Government: this cat’s cradle of rules is in danger of collapsing under its own weight. Popular consent is undermined by arbitrary rules that are hard to follow. For rules to have legitimacy, people need to understand the rationale, and above all, government needs to observe the appropriate limits of laws.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, and surely he is right. It is one thing to publish and enact regulations, which, from the Government’s view, are simple, but there has to be some rationality behind them. I hope the Minister will answer the question. He said there was no science at all behind the plucking out of the figure of six; can he confirm that that is so? Also, I do not understand why the Government did not exempt young children in England. What on earth is the reason for that? Does he not agree that Government would carry more credibility if there was some confidence in the overall direction we are going in? As the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, has pointed out, different Ministers have been saying different things today about the endgame.
It is not surprising: we have seen a litany of failures, such as the original behaviour by Mr Cummings, which was so damaging to public confidence, and the contrast between the “world-beating” test and trace system and the shambles we have seen week after week. Watching Mr Johnson on “The Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday, when he spoke of the tension between the interests of the economy and public health, which, of course, we understand, he came across as indecisive, late to act and failing to find a way to steer between these two options. The result is that we have failed in both.
Public confidence is very important, and so too is parliamentary scrutiny. Mr Speaker intervened last week. Mr Hancock agreed that, where possible, the Commons would have a vote on national regulations in the future. What opportunity will this House have? In all the talk about new rationalisation of local lock- down regulations into three tiers, can we be assured that Parliament will debate this before they are introduced?
My Lords, on 21 September, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said:
“Assessments of the proportionality of measures must be up-to-date, based on the latest scientific evidence, and formulated as a result of a precautionary approach to minimising overall loss to life. Importantly, the Government must be transparent in justifying its decision-making, including in explaining how it has balanced competing interests and the evidence on which the balancing decision has been made.”
Twice, now, I have asked the Minister: What is the evidence base for this rule of six? I have had unsatisfactory answers.
On 14 September, the noble Lord said that the phenomenon they had noticed was that large groups of people, sometimes in pubs and other places, would seemingly say that they were from two households. It was
“proving to be extremely flexible in the minds of many people. Therefore, putting an integer into the formula makes it much clearer.”—[Official Report, 14/9/20; col. 1002.]
We now have regulations under which it is possible for a person to meet and socialise with 35 people from six households in the course of a week. The public has figured out that that, in public health terms, is an absurdity. It will not work. I am surprised that, during freshers’ week, more students have not got into trouble inadvertently due to the lack of clarity.
Between March and September, Dominic Cummings has, without competitive tendering, paid people and bodies such as Hanbury Strategy £946,000 to
“research public attitudes and behaviours in relation to”
the pandemic. That information is paid for by taxpayers’ money. It is not the property of the Government or the Conservative Party, so I ask the Minister: when will that and similar reports be published so that Members of Parliament can scrutinise the basis on which decisions such as these are being made? We are six months in, and the Prime Minister does not know what we are doing, local authorities do not know what we are doing and the general public are bamboozled by the lack of clarity and consistency. It is time for us to get real about this and stop putting people in danger.
My Lords, we are talking about the rule of six. I declare my various interests.
The hospitality industry employs 4 million people and has been one of the hardest hit in this crisis. The British Beer and Pub Association said:
“Make no mistake, a 10pm curfew will devastate our sector during an already challenging environment for pubs.”
During the current circumstances, every hour of trading is crucial to the survival of pubs. For many, this curfew will render their business unviable. Can the Minister explain on what scientific basis this 10 pm decision was made? I understand that fewer than 5% of infections come from the hospitality sector, and evidence from our trade shows that 10% of drinks are consumed after 10 pm. So, why are the Government doing this, and will they remove this 10 pm restriction?
Another aspect is that Sir Bernard Jenkin, the chair of the Liaison Committee, wrote to the Prime Minister on 29 September, saying:
“We would also like to understand what new measures the Government will be taking to achieve the ‘moonshot’ of 10 million tests per day.”
Will the Minister acknowledge that mass testing is now available? In America, there is Abbott’s BinaxNOW test—10 million were produced last month, and there will be 50 million per month from this month onwards. This is a $5 test that gives a 15-minute result on whether, on an antigen basis, you have Covid or not, with 97-98% accuracy. Why are we not getting such a test over here and making it widely available? I have heard that this Abbott test has not been approved here in the UK. Could the Minister confirm this? If that is the case, why has the FDA approved it, and why have other countries, such as Greece, which has dealt with the pandemic relatively well—it has 36 deaths per million versus our 633, which is very sad. Is this a question of the best being the enemy of the good?
My Lords, like others, I tend to think that carrots are more effective than sticks. It is, therefore, vital, if people are to behave as the Government might wish, that they understand and assent to the reasons for particular restrictions.
My understanding of the rationale for the rule of six is that is about restricting the mixing of households. I understand that, and I seek, in my role and personally, to abide by that principle. But what the Minister has said notwithstanding, the anomalies do not help to gain that consent. If I have understood things correctly, I may, in a given period, be a part of more than one group of six, and thereby, I am multiplying the households with which I have contact. Yet, as many have observed—and there are other examples—a couple with three children cannot meet with two grandparents at the same time, even though that would only be two households in most instances.
I genuinely worry about the effect of these regulations, particularly the rule of six, on the long-term flourishing of family life and cohesion, if they persist for too long. My simple point is that the rule of six gives a kind of cliff edge, which could surely be graduated without compromising the principle about household mixing. I rather hope that Her Majesty’s Government will be able to think creatively about how that might be done.
I call the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich. He is not there. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy.
My Lords, we are caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of the so-called libertarians in the Conservative Party and the well-meaning, but not very competent, government action to deal with the pandemic. The regret Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, is really a fundamental challenge to the Government’s strategy and should not be supported. However, those of us who want the Government to succeed in saving more lives need more clarity and consistency and, in particular, actual delivery of an effective test and trace system, with care homes and health staff given priority for testing and receiving results in good time.
It is very easy to mock with regard to funerals and weddings and to give examples of inconsistency. What is not easy is delivering effective policies that we all want to unite behind. Please could the Government do better?
Mr Johnson presented the new regulations as a simplification and a strengthening of the coronavirus mitigation regime, based on consultation with the police and feedback from the public that the existing rules had become quite complicated and confusing. However, the Explanatory Memorandum recorded that a public consultation had not taken place, and nor had a regulatory impact assessment, which is why the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, has highlighted the public consultation issue. Perhaps if it had occurred, the public, or local authorities in particular, would have been able to highlight some of the illogicalities of the rules, because now they are even more confusing.
I, too, would like to ask why the rule of six in England includes children, even when they are upstairs in bed, when school-age children can go to school and work in their class or year bubble of dozens of children? This appears to be contradictory. Why are children under 12 excluded from the rule of six in Wales and in Scotland but not in England? Is there evidence in England that young children are more contagious than they are in Wales? If so, why can they go to school? I would really like to know on what scientific evidence the decision is based.
Secondly, I would like to ask about people with a learning disability or autism, for whom contact with family is vital in helping to maintain their well-being, especially during the pandemic. Current guidance on visitation is mainly aimed at care homes; other settings, such as supported living, have little guidance. There is no information, for example, about people with a learning disability visiting family in the community. Will the Minister ensure that this gap is filled? Will he ensure that people who may have difficulty social distancing or following other guidelines are considered when decisions are being made about the prioritisation of testing at a national and local level?
My Lords, remarks do not target the noble Lord, Lord Bethell. If possible, he would be mentioned in dispatches as being of excellent ministerial calibre, but he has political masters. The light-hearted but serious remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, can be extended beyond the lack of public consultation to constitutional neglect by the Executive in undermining the functions of Parliament to scrutinise and hold the Executive to account. Statements and questions have their place but are not sufficient. The other place must debate and be given the opportunity to impact directly the decisions of government.
The Government had a simple and practical choice: allow parliamentarians, who are the agents of the people, to fulfil their role, or decide at the outset that existing statutory provisions should be set aside. They chose the latter course. This undermining of the role of Parliament as the prime guardian of our constitution is regrettable; provisions of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 that ensure appropriate parliamentary and civil consultation were at their disposal. The subsequent manner in which secondary legislation has been introduced has brought widespread confusion, and council leaders and some police chiefs are uncertain how to interpret local requirements, let alone enforce them.
The mindset of inadequate “consult and inform”, together with the impracticality of enforcing measures, should be reversed, with correct governance reinstalled. The urgency of the situation requires it.
Balderdash. Twaddle. Gobbledegook. Piffle. Oops, I am sorry, my Lords, I misspoke. I do not want to talk about the content of this order but about its communication, or rather non-communication, led by the Prime Minister.
Every time I speak to friends, I ask them this question: we all know that we are allowed to see only six people indoors at once, but can they be different people, or does it always have to be the same six? Of those who claim to know, a majority think that it is okay to host two guests or family members one night, and two different guests or family members another. But if we are to believe the noble Lord, Lord Bethell— I always believe him—they are wrong, as he said this afternoon and in a Written Answer to me on 10 September:
“Support bubbles should be exclusive. This means people should not … make connections with multiple households.”
I accept that communicating these rules is hard, especially since the utterly meaningless “Stay alert” was substituted in England for the clear, if unpalatable, “Stay at home”. It is particularly hard if, like me, you live in both Wales and England, or if you live in one of the local areas subject to stricter restrictions. It has been made immeasurably harder still when Ministers, from the Prime Minister down, are quite unable to spell out from day to day, even if they know, what the regulations they have flashed through Parliament with minimal scrutiny mean.
My Lords, I give my commiserations to my noble friend the Minister, who yet again finds himself in the stocks on this particular debate. I support my noble friend Lord Lamont’s regret Motion, which was introduced with typical aplomb and great good humour. I point out to the House that humour and ridicule are not far separated. I hope that he might divide the House, but he seems to be a little bit pusillanimous on this, which is not like him at all.
By what can we judge the rule of six? There was no consultation, there has been no parliamentary scrutiny until today, and, as the Motion says, it is totally impractical. Every day, and yesterday would be no exception, an average of 1,700 people die in the United Kingdom. According to the National Health Service, yesterday the total number of coronavirus deaths, every one tragic, was 19. Could my noble friend confirm that that is correct? The NHS news release yesterday of deaths in hospital in the preceding 24 hours was 10, all aged between 67 and 91, and all but one patient, who was aged 85, had known underlying health conditions.
Does my noble friend think, therefore, that the rule of six is working? Surely it has not had long enough to stop infections, and it has been widely ignored, as we hear. He said that it would reduce by one-third the number of people gathering, but I am not sure that is enough to stop the spread of infection. Does he think that actually this rule of six is entirely pointless, and that it is entirely pointless to stop young people meeting as they are not going to suffer serious illness or death? Could he also explain “long Covid”, to which he often refers, because is not any respiratory illness difficult to overcome? If you have pneumonia, it is quite likely that you may spend up to six months with effects from that.
Finally, on testing, what proportion—I am told it is a high proportion—of these tests bring back false positives? It seems to me that the testing, and the number of infections, is not the most important thing. The most important thing is who is dying and who is suffering very serious illness as a result of getting Covid.
I, too, am sorry for the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, but the fact is that the Government are making a mess of handling this health crisis. As the mayor of Manchester has said, the public have had just about enough of it. Parliamentary democracy has been sidelined, and basic civil liberties have been cancelled. In their place we have been given ever-changing draconian regulations, often incomprehensible, unenforceable and apparently based on speculation, someone’s pet theory or pure guesswork, and all done without any prior debate. This regulation is a good example.
Back in March, we gave the Government almost carte blanche; we wanted them to succeed and we still do. Now, we know a great deal more about Covid and its potential death rate. More people have died of flu and pneumonia over the same period, and many more are likely to die from conditions that have been untreated as a result of this epidemic. We also know that current repressive policies are destroying our industries, our culture, our sport and indeed our way of life.
Randolph Churchill said, “Trust the people”. The Government have not done that, but if they do not do it then people will stop trusting the Government, and that is what is happening. Of course we need rules, but we need sensible ones which everyone can see are sense and which are enforceable. Some people are foolish and irresponsible, and they are now, but no one wants to get Covid and most people will co-operate with things they think are worth doing. If you order people to obey laws which they can see make little sense and which are almost wholly unenforceable, and if you try in this particular regulation to ban things such as “mingling”—whatever that is—you undermine respect for the whole rule of law and you will come to a tipping point in compliance, even with the most law abiding among us. We are reaching it now, and I support the noble Lord, Lord Lamont.
My Lords, I strongly support a very strong response to this virus and believe we need to bear down upon it very heavily. An unadulterated libertarian approach to this public health crisis would be disastrous for our country and our people. I believe the public will respond to clear, consistent messaging, and I urge the Government to ensure that such messaging is better focused, clearer and consistent, because that has not always been the case. Indeed, there is often confusion about the basic messaging. I agree with other noble Lords and with my noble friend Lord Lamont that we need more parliamentary input and proper scrutiny in order to be able to look closely at the regulations and offer support to the Government.
On a completely different front, although one that is clearly related to the virus, I would like to say something about Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance. It was dreadful that they were attacked in the other place. I am very pleased that that has not been the case in your Lordships’ House, because they are public servants and not able to respond. They are doing a very difficult job in difficult circumstances and they deserve our support.
I would welcome confirmation from my noble friend that ultimate success will come only with a vaccine, and, in the shorter term, with effective testing and tracing. Clearly there is still much work to be done on both of those fronts. On the former, it is more difficult for the Government to take a lead on the vaccine, but in relation to test and trace, they really do need to get their act together.
I support these regulations. I cannot support the amendment, though I understand the motivation of my noble friend Lord Lamont in bringing it forward.
My Lords, these regulations came into effect 28 minutes after they were laid. That is far from satisfactory. The Minister himself accepted that there were many inconsistencies in the regulations now. As others have pointed out, the lack of logic is what makes people so angry about the ever-changing rules with which they are expected to comply.
The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, raised many valid questions, including the contrasting rules between weddings and funerals. A friend of mine, a priest, is suggesting that there should not be any split families over Christmas: the host simply has to slaughter a turkey and stage a humanist funeral. Such jokes arise because the regulations do not make sense. I can see the point in limiting the mingling of households, but where is the sense in preventing grandparents, from one home, meeting with a second household of their son, his partner and their three children? Regulations need to make sense, but they also have to be based on a degree of humanity if people are to abide by them.
Many families are now facing problems with childcare. It is fine under the regulations for them to send their offspring to a nursery or to a registered childminder, but how much more sense might it make for those children—maybe from two different households—to go to the home of their grandparents to be looked after while their parents contribute to the economy? Would that not be a healthier solution? It would limit the mixing of households, but it is not allowed. We need some common sense.
My Lords, governing in these torrid, complex, challenging times is not easy. None of us should pretend that it is. I have three questions and a plea for the Minister, specifically about the rule of six.
First, given that scientific studies have shown that the risk of transmission is 20 times greater indoors than outdoors, why does the rule of six abandon that distinction? I know the answer: simplicity. I understand the force of that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, said. However, if the Government want to use the authority of science to generate legitimacy for and adherence to rules, and the science suggests that a rule is not grounded in science, they must at the very least bring the public inside their reasoning for why there is an exception. You cannot simply cite science and say that it always supports your conclusions, and not mention it when it does not, and then simply keep citing the mantra: “We will always be led by science”.
Secondly, have the Government considered the unintended perverse behavioural effects of the rule abandoning this outdoor/indoor distinction? Eliminating the distinction between gathering in groups of up to six outside, where the risk is very low, and gathering in groups of up to six indoors, where it is around 20 times higher, means that people who want to break the rules, and are determined to do so, are incentivised to gather indoors and not outdoors, where the rules are more likely to be enforced. Why did the Government not follow the Welsh option of having more relaxed rules for outdoor gatherings?
Thirdly, if we look to our partners in western Europe, we see variations in rules, of course, but also some constants. Public gathering limits are considerably higher: 10 in France, 50 in Germany, and none in many countries. Private household gathering limits, apart from in Ireland, are rare, and mask wearing is considerably more compulsory in public than in the UK. Taken together, this suggests the UK is becoming an outlier: it is restriction heavy and face-mask-wearing light relative to other countries. Is this because our science knows something that they do not, or is it because the British people behave differently from those in other countries? What is the reason for the UK being an outlier in the portfolio of measures we seem to be taking?
Lastly, I make my plea. The Government rightly adopt a mixture of national rules and local variations. However, across England, local authorities have consistently complained about an absence of consultation, decision sharing and refining of rules in the light of local circumstances. Can the Government please now commit to greater responsiveness and flexibility towards local considerations, to allow a local refinement of rules that are, after all, unlikely to be equally appropriate for Camden, rural Dorset and Manchester?
My Lords, here we are again: post-legislative scrutiny and a hapless Minister, who has worked with prodigious vigour—we all salute him for that—given a frankly indefensible brief. The hallmark of a good law is clarity and simplicity, so that we all understand what it is. Here we have a law that is continually riddled with new anomalies and new inconsistencies. My noble friend Lord Lamont pointed out a number of them with his customary good humour, but it is not really funny, is it? This is touching the lives of people throughout our country, in a cruel way in many cases.
The rule of six was most effectively ridiculed in your Lordships’ House a week ago. Not that it was a directed ridicule, but our new noble friend Lady Morrissey said with quiet pride that she has nine children, seven of whom were still at home. We have got to have a law that can be seen to be fair. We have got to have laws that can be seen to have been properly discussed and debated in the other place, and indeed in your Lordships’ House where there is an accumulation of ministerial and medical knowledge second to none in any chamber in the world. We really must get the horse before the cart, because we are not doing that at the moment. Of course I feel sorry for my noble friend, who I genuinely like and admire, but he is being given an indefensible brief. May we hasten the day when he has one that he can truly defend and that we can all support.
My Lords, I put my name down to speak with some reluctance because I am getting fed up with saying the same thing about the lack of parliamentary accountability and the way in which these regulations have been introduced. It is scandalous and high time that something was done. I agree that the most important point was made by my noble friend Lord Hunt, who asked whether the Minister could guarantee that when further major changes to these regulations are introduced—the new so-called three-tier system—the House can debate them before they are implemented and become law. This could be done through new arrangements for a special committee, agreed through our Procedure Committee, or by the whole House.
The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, gave a sparkling speech, much of which I agreed with. If regulations can be ridiculed in such a successful manner, they cannot be sensible and command public assent.
I end on a policy point. Far from stressing the rule of six, if we are to control this disease, it is most important to get the test and trace system right and tackle the fact that a low proportion of the people being contacted and asked to self-isolate are doing so. Getting that system right and involving local authorities on the ground is most important, as well as personal contact to persuade people to self-isolate.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lamont on two grounds. The policy is wrong for reasons that I will explain, and I am disturbed by the level of scrutiny the regulations have enjoyed.
I appreciate that life is difficult for the Government and that there are many uncertainties, which is not dissimilar to the problem that businesses face most of the time. The more difficult the problem, the more important it is to keep a cool head and have proper impact assessments or cost-benefit analyses—call them what you will. The bottom line is that urgency is not a good excuse for bad decision-making.
Such an assessment should cover at least four issues. First, is there a medical and scientific case for the measure? There seems no logic behind the rule of six other than a general wish to slow down the infection rate, but we can surely do better than that. My noble friend Lord Lamont set out the nonsenses clearly in his typically brilliant and witty speech. Dr David Strain of Exeter Medical School, in an area without much Covid, put it succinctly. He said:
“There is no science behind it and there is no logic as to why six would be useful.”
Therefore, my first question to my noble friend the Minister is: what is the scientific justification for the measure? I have asked this several times and have yet to receive a satisfactory reply, including in the Minister’s introduction.
The second issue, not yet focused on, is whether the rule can be justified economically. It is killing our service sectors—pubs, entertainment and spectator and community sport. Where is the assessment of damage that the Government should have done before embarking on such a huge step? Socially the measure has many adverse effects, notably in separating families. My third question is whether these adverse social effects are necessary or acceptable. I suspect not. Fourthly, can such a rule be implemented and enforced properly? On that, we know the answer: it cannot.
The measure fails on all four counts. Accordingly, it should be replaced with something more realistic and less damaging. I endorse everything that my noble friend Lord Lamont said regarding scrutiny.
My Lords, although the requirement in England limiting group meetings to no more than six people, indoors or outdoors, came into effect on 14 September, data from the Joint Biosecurity Centre has indicated that the incidence rates of Covid-19 around Birmingham are significantly above the national average, and increasing. The data also indicated that a high proportion of the new cases were due to transmission within or between households. The regulations therefore impose tighter restrictions on those living within the protected areas of Birmingham City Council, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council and Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council. They prohibit those living within the protected area from gatherings of two or more persons from different households in private dwellings in or out of the protected area, except for linked households as defined.
The regulations allow visits to care homes only in exceptional circumstances. When the restrictions were announced, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, said:
“After seeing cases in the West Midlands continue to rise, the decision has been taken in collaboration with local leaders to ban households mixing in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull.”
Can the Minister say how many people have been arrested or fined since the rules were declared?
My Lords, safety is, of course, paramount. Somehow, the messaging from the Government seems not to be acceptable to many. It is seen as irrelevant and sometimes incomprehensible. A young man from Leicester said to me recently, “The advice from the Government about mixing with other people makes no sense—too complicated. I would just like 100% clarity on what I can and can’t do but with an explanation based on the science behind any restriction.” It concerns me that local councillors, political leaders and people in communities complain about a lack of consultation. The Mayor of Middlesbrough called it
“a monstrous lack of communication and ignorance”.
Communities need to feel communicated with. I have much sympathy with the amendment to the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont.
I give another example. The other day, I asked the Minister a question about encouraging people to take up the NHS Covid app. One noble Lord asked how many university students had downloaded it. The Minister replied that he could not give an answer to a “reasonable question” and that we did not have that kind of demographic insight. I do not blame the Minister but that suggests that we have no knowledge of who is doing what at a local level, including in the hotspots in the north of England. I suggest that we need these granular demographic insights and efforts to influence behaviour, not only locally but in specific cases, such as among university students and younger people. We need to attract and involve younger age groups in the light of findings that, while few may be ill, many may have the virus but be asymptomatic. We also need insights from older age groups. Asking people to restrict their movements and groupings, and behave differently, means involving them in decision-making. The Government handing down edicts will simply not work.
My Lords, I endorse everything that my noble friend Lord Lamont said and I shall list as many of my concerns with the regulations as I can in the two minutes that we are allowed.
First, the rule of six is not based on science. Indeed, the Minister revealed its basis when he said on 14 September that the Government had relied on
“marketing advice from our communications department”.—[Official Report, 14/9/20; col. 1000.]
He also referred to focus groups. The Minister might think that that is science-based but most would disagree with him.
Secondly, Ministers would double down by encouraging snitching. That is not the kind of society I want to live in. Thirdly, the rule lacks logic. It is illegal for seven children to gather together to feed ducks, but it is perfectly okay for 30 adults to go out shooting them—the ducks, that is.
Fourthly, the order lacks precision. It makes mingling yet another way to break the law, but does not define it. On 14 September, the Minister said that it was
“a concept which, frankly, I do not think needs much description”.—[Official Report, 14/9/20; col. 999.]
Frankly, I think that that is an unacceptable way to legislate. Fifthly, as usual, there is no analysis of impact or alternatives and no attempt to explain the balance between the competing interests of our economic future, non-Covid mental and physical health matters and the narrow Covid impact.
I could go on, but sadly I have run out of time. I regret that my noble friend Lord Lamont is no longer pursuing his earlier fatal Motion. That would have had my vote.
My Lords, I hope that the measure we are discussing today will have the effect that the Minister and the Government intend—that it will limit the spread of the coronavirus in our society. But anyone who thought that the rule of six was going to inject some clarity and simplicity into the regulatory framework needs only to read the 25 pages of these regulations and the seven new definitions, along with the interesting new legal concept of “mingling”, which has never before surfaced in British legal history; good luck to the judges in making sense of that particular term.
I hope that the measure will have some impact—we all want it to. I have three brief points to make; many of them have been made already. First, the Government now have to find a different way of legislating to impose these restrictions. I do not believe that the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 is a viable platform for this legislation because we need more parliamentary scrutiny. I echo the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, in inviting Ministers to reconsider the use of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. As a minimum threshold of parliamentary scrutiny in this field, where our cherished personal freedoms are being overridden, the minimum requirement of 30 days’ duration for any new law is a threshold that we should follow.
Secondly, but better still, the Government should consider again devolving much more of the responsibility for imposing local restrictions to tackle the Covid epidemic to local authorities. I do not think that central government can manage the workload of doing this. The Government have centralised everything in their response to the Covid pandemic and that is failing. They have to find a different way of proceeding. If we go on this way, we will run the risk of civil disengagement and, worse still, of civil disobedience, which would bring disrespect for the law into mainstream public behaviour in the UK, which would be a tragedy.
Thirdly and finally, at the very least, we must avoid examples of last-minute lawmaking behind closed doors. Now that Parliament is sitting again, there can be no justification whatever for laws which impact on the lives of so many people being introduced with 30 minutes’ notice from behind closed doors.
My Lords, “hundreds of thousands” of people would die if we simply “let the virus rip”. That is what the Health Secretary said last week, but I am baffled because I have no idea who is making these silly suggestions. The Prime Minister has said that some people think we should
“give up and let the virus take its course”.
Who is proposing that? It worries me when we go to extreme lengths to deal with extreme arguments; that only adds to the confusion, and there is confusion. I share the confusion of my noble friend Lord Lamont about the 10 pm pub curfew and about how we are going to get through Christmas with the rule of six.
Kate Bingham, the head of the Vaccine Taskforce, in an interview with the Financial Times, has offered a rather more interesting insight: less than half the population is going to get the vaccine—if there is one. There will be no vaccinations for the under-18s because it is aimed primarily at those over 50. Looking at the death rates rather than the infection rates, that seems to make great sense. It suggests that we can and must be far more flexible in our approach by differentiating between those most at risk and younger, healthy people who are not going to die from the disease. If we can do that and put aside the one-lockdown-rule-fits-all approach, we could put our economy back into shape much more quickly. We could speed up medical help for non-Covid patients and we could strike a stronger balance between the competing medical, economic and social tensions. However, it is news to most that not everyone is going to get the vaccine and I hope that my noble friend will be able to shed a little light.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, for tabling his amendment to focus attention on the deficiencies of process which have attended these and related regulations. I very much welcome the fact that my noble friends Lady Bakewell and Lady Walmsley, the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, and others have pointed out some of the awful inconsistencies that are resulting from these kinds of regulations. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, quite rightly pointed to the failure to consult closely with local government in a number of instances where, if proper consultation had taken place, it could have made a real difference.
Confusion is widespread, as is inconsistency. A resident of Berwick, where, according to the Government’s dashboard figures, there are three cases per 7,000 people, is being subject to the same restrictions as those in parts of Tyneside 60 miles away, where in one area there have been more than 280 cases per 7,000 people. The regulations lack any ability to distinguish. Indeed, a citizen of the north of England, whether the north-east or the north-west, having secured a copy of the regulations we are debating today, might think that they would be able to glean what the law is, but they would be mistaken because they would also need to look at a series of other regulations. They would find themselves bound not just by the rule of six but by the rule of two, which is actually the rule of not meeting anybody else at all. You are not even allowed to meet one other person; you are the only person you are allowed to meet under those regulations.
To understand the law, the citizen would also need to look at the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (North of England, North East and North West of England and Obligations of Undertakings (England) etc.) Amendment Regulations 2020, which were made on 29 September and came into force at midnight on that day, but were laid before Parliament only at 10.30 am the following day, and therefore accessible to us—10 and a half hours after they had come into force. As far as I could establish, they were not on the Government website at 8 am that day. The Prime Minister had no idea what the provisions were anyway, while the previous statutory instrument relating to the north-east had to be amended within hours of being made.
I welcome that the Government have promised parliamentary votes on major orders of national application, but I have to say that the loss of freedom in Berwick, Blackburn or Bolton is no less significant than the loss of freedom in London and other parts of the country. Some of these local orders are of massive significance in terms of the civil liberties they abrogate.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hutton of Furness, who made a related point, that we need to question the Government’s attitude to the made affirmative procedure under which orders come into force before Parliament has considered or approved them. They have been overused. I recognise that sometimes there is a case for using them to guarantee that an order will come into effect quickly if there is a very serious need for it, but Parliament can act quickly if the Government are prepared to co-operate. I hear criticisms of Parliament, such as by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, for not having considered and debated these matters, but the Government control the agenda in the House of Commons, so Parliament’s inability to act quickly is a matter for the Government to resolve. I am glad to see that the Minister has noted that point because it can be the Government who hold up debate.
I do not see why new restrictions which have been announced many days—or even a week or more—before they come into force cannot be debated. When they are announced, the order should be laid before Parliament and strenuous efforts made in the days before they come into force to have at least the short debates for which our procedures provide. The capacity for democratic control over major incursions into people’s freedoms should not be diminished because not enough resources have been made available to draft the orders in time.
Parliamentary scrutiny can identify bad drafting and increase the chance that at least some people inside and outside Parliament will actually understand what the law is. There are several threats to the effective application of emergency measures: when the public do not understand them or the reasons behind making them, a point which has been illustrated in this debate by a number of noble Lords; when those responsible for enforcing them do not know what is the law and what is guidance, a mistake which has even been made by police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service; and when the measures are themselves defective to the point that even those responsible for carrying them out have failed to recognise that they are, so that prosecutions have to be abandoned or fail. All these problems would be addressed and reduced by parliamentary scrutiny. As the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, has argued, there needs to be a clear government strategy and we need to know what it is.
I start by asking the Minister a procedural question, as other noble Lords have. Will we in this House get to discuss the statutory instruments following the debate on the renewal of emergency legislation in the Commons? We know that the Commons will be able to vote. My understanding of what the Minister has said is that we will not get to see these statutory instruments in advance. I had been rather optimistic and excited, because I thought we might see an end to the dozens of pointless, time-expired statutory instruments that we have had to endure for the last few weeks and months—and indeed can look forward to between now and Christmas.
I fully understand why the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, is frustrated by the rule of six and has asked many pertinent questions. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Hunt, Lord Liddle, Lord Lipsey and Lord Wood, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Donaghy, Lady Massey and Lady Mallalieu, for making strong, sensible and quite often witty remarks today—which is quite hard when you are discussing statutory instruments that have already been in place a couple of weeks. The theme running through their remarks, and those of other noble Lords today, is that we are all fed up with these unsatisfactory legislative and accountability decisions.
I have a few questions of my own. As we know, it is now illegal for groups of more than six to meet. That is simple and clear, we are told by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. The law applies to all parts of England, except of course places with local lockdown rules, where the rules may be tighter. It is therefore clear, as long as you know the rules and the lockdown situation in your area. We are told that the reason for this restriction is the rise in coronavirus cases in England. The Government have decided to lower the number of people allowed to socialise at any one time to help keep people safe. Scotland took similar steps, cutting the number of people who can meet but excluding children under 12. Wales too has its own rule of six, which came into force on the same day, but it does not apply to children under 11 and covers only indoor meetings. Northern Ireland has stopped people meeting indoors completely, but allows six people to meet in the garden and up to 15 in a public area.
Can the Minister please point me to the science that has led to all these different decisions? His explanations did not provide that, and I dispute the idea of this being at all simple. We did not see an impact assessment. Would it be possible to see one? When is the effectiveness of the rule of six to be reviewed? When will there be an assessment of its impact on the young? The Children’s Commissioner has asked for children to be excluded from the rule in England, and I agree with that.
Last week, when she responded to the Prime Minister’s Statement, my noble friend Lady Smith pointed out that she could have breakfast with one group from this House and lunch with a different group—I think she even invited some of us to join her for a curry in the evening. This was to demonstrate the fact that the rule is flexible and probably rather unclear. I think that she is right, and I am looking forward to having a curry with my noble friend.
These rules will work only if people comply. While the police have powers to fine people who break the rule of six, forces in England and Wales have said that they will do so only as a last resort. I do not understand how that works, because people will be in a group of six or more only for a very short time. How on earth will the police issue warnings to all those people and then watch them to see whether they get themselves into another group of more than six? Can the Minister confirm how many fines have been issued for breaking the rule of six and their value? The penalty for failing to wear a mask or breaking the rule of six has now doubled to £200 for a first offence. I would like to hear from the Minister whether that is working as a deterrent.
The Metropolitan Police also said that officers will not generally pursue people retrospectively—whether famous or otherwise—if photographs or video footage emerge of them breaking these rules, including the rule of six. Does the Minister agree with that approach? Does he share my concern that people flouting the rules and getting away with breaches undermines public faith in their effectiveness? Perhaps that could act as a deterrent.
On the other hand, does enforcement of the rule of six rely on people grassing up their neighbours? Can the Minister confirm how these regulations will be enforced in public spaces? For example, if an employer suspects that two or more groups of six in his pub are actually together, and in breach of the rules, what enforcement action are they required to take?
One of the more controversial exemptions from the rule of six is for those involved in certain sports, including shooting and hunting. Will that also be reviewed? Does the Minister accept that these are often social occasions and that, if we follow his line of thought on pub curfews, people will be less likely to observe social distancing guidance across the piece?
In other words, it is a very confusing framework and the rule of six is very far from being simple.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful for this debate, not because it was particularly enjoyable for any Minister to be described in the terms that I was—although I am grateful for some of the kind words—but because it was an important one. What I heard, loud and clear, was huge frustration: it was like listening to an elastic band being stretched to breaking point—not a pleasant sound. However, it was an important moment when we heard quite clearly the deep and heartfelt concerns of noble Lords about the key issues around this statutory instrument. I will address those concerns in turn.
Fundamental is the science, and I will talk a little about the background to this statutory instrument because there is clearly enormous concern about that—about the Government’s strategy and its complexity, and about the sheer volume, sophistication and confusion of the guidelines and the requests that are being made to the public, and the process by which these instruments are being put together. It is a lot to bite off, but I will cover it as well as I can.
I want to convey to noble Lords that in the past six months our understanding of the virus has changed dramatically. From receiving telephone calls from the front line of the health system we now have a massive information system plugged into the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which was designed by the best minds that the Government have from the intelligence services, the data services and the Cabinet Office. That gives us a very clear picture of what is going on on the ground. Some of that information is data flows from the health system, hospital logs and test and trace, while some is local intelligence from infection control teams on the ground, local resilience forums and local councils. Some of it is then filtered by analysts with epidemiological training, who plug into the proper scientists—the white-coated scientists—who provide their own analysis.
I do not offer this Chamber a volume and say, “This is the science”. Rather, I offer a huge amount of technical insight that is pored over every day, is delivered in extremely sophisticated dashboards, is interrogated by inquiring minds and is challenged by sceptics. We now have a much clearer day-to-day picture of what is going on, in the country as a whole and in different parts of it. When we drafted these regulations, we considered all that information.
The story being told in mid-September was that the public had miscued: that they had, during the summer, massively relaxed their behaviour. The key form of transmission—the trigger to a huge amount of infection —was families taking an extremely lax interpretation of what social mixing they could do. The insight that came from the ground—not from the top—was that we needed to give a much clearer, more easily understood and more enforceable story, or instruction, to the public in order to separate people.
For all that has been said in the Chamber, it is clear to all of us how this disease is spread. It is spread in the aerosol from our breath and by our touching and feeling things. At the end of the day, what we are talking about here is something deeply uncomfortable. We can rightly challenge the regulations for being too complex, and I have enjoyed the speeches that poked fun at some of the difficult and potentially ludicrous parts of sophisticated and complicated guidelines. I can hear the frustration in that kind of challenge, but the bottom line is that social distancing means putting space between ourselves and the people we love. There is no avoiding that bottom line.
You can try to blame the laws, if you like, and blame the regulations for being at fault—“We’ve drafted bad regulations”. But it is not the regulations; it is the space. We all want to spend a lot more time with the people we worry about and care about. We want to enjoy the conviviality of groups we know and trust. We want to plug into the networks of spiritual connection, interest, power and familial connection. These regulations emphatically break those connections. Where there was love, they put in space. I cannot apologise for that. I cannot change it or find some form of words that transforms that simple fact, or in any way changes the grim realities of how we have to limit the transmission of this disease.
I completely hear the ridicule. I feel the frustration and I do not doubt that things could have been done better. Some of these regulations could have been written better. My noble friend Lord Lamont has rightly queried the differences between weddings and funerals. There is an explanation for why they are treated differently, but it would be churlish of me to stand here and plod through it in a bureaucratic and, frankly, frustrating manner. However, I would be glad to write to my noble friend with that explanation. The honest truth is that they are hurtful, they do damage the way in which we show our love, and they will leave a lasting effect on the psychological health of the country and on the economy. I would like quickly to address those two points.
I have been questioned on the strategy many times but, as most noble Lords know, the strategy is clear. The Prime Minister was clear about it last Thursday, as was the Chancellor this morning. We will suppress the virus, while supporting education and the economy, until we eliminate it by vaccine, therapeutics and mass testing. This is a middle way. It emphatically is not a national measure to lock down the country—we tried that and it was horrible, although successful and made a big difference—nor is it running hot. It is the middle way. Therefore, we have to accommodate. We have complexity. We are using local lockdowns and we are trying to instruct by consent, rather than by force. We are trying to be flexible with those who have special needs. Most importantly, we are letting those trying to defend their jobs and education pursue those interests. Those are our two major priorities.
Time is tight, so I will address just a couple of points. As a father of four children, three under 12, I completely hear the point on children. There are many parents and grandparents here who feel it harshly, but the research from the front line was crystal clear: people were using children’s birthdays, drop-offs and congregations around children to flout the rules and create events where infection was happening. Clarity and preventing those nodes of transmission became a priority, which is why we have pursued the route we have.
In reply to my noble friend Lord Dobbs, I can be crystal clear: the Vaccine Taskforce has done brilliantly in researching, identifying and buying vaccines. Advice on how they will be distributed will be given by the JCVI. Our policy on vaccine distribution will be to listen to the JCVI, which has yet to pronounce on it.
My noble friend Lord Robathan is right that some of long Covid is post-viral fatigue, but there is more to it than that. Neurological, cardiac and renal failure are being seen in many people, which is extremely alarming.
I have to draw stumps there. I reassure the House that we have learned the lesson about parliamentary scrutiny, which builds support and brings the light of scrutiny to these measures. We would not have had this debate today, with all the pain and frustration that has been present, if we had had more debates like it previously. My right honourable friend has given a commitment in the other place to bring measures to the House more promptly. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, it will be up to the usual channels and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments to bring these instruments to the Chamber for debates more promptly, as has rightly been suggested today.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who spoke. We had an excellent debate, with many good speeches and many new points made. I also thank the Minister, for whom a lot of sympathy was rightly expressed. He comes here for debate after debate, is attacked and attacked, and bears it with great good humour and is absolutely on top of his brief. He said he heard the sense of frustration in this debate loud and clear and would take that away; I hope he conveys that to the Government. He emphasised again and again that the Government have more and more information. It is one thing to have that, but are we using it to get on top of the virus? I am not sure I heard an answer to my question about the virus just bouncing back every time we go through suppress, relax, suppress, relax.
There was near unanimity in the House that the message has not been clear. It is messy and confused, which makes compliance with the law more difficult. These are not just rules; they are laws. People are subject to arrests and fines. Compliance is much more difficult without public acceptance. Important points were also made about the need, as the Government have said, to consult Parliament well in advance of legislation. That is profoundly important, but I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he has heard the frustration of the House and will convey it back to the Government. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Arrangement of Business
Debt Respite Scheme (Breathing Space Moratorium and Mental Health Crisis Moratorium) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020
Motion to Approve
My Lords, the regulations before us today will establish a breathing space scheme for individuals who live in England and Wales. This is a temporary period of respite from creditor action to help people in problem debt consider their options and engage with professional debt advice. To many in this Chamber, the scheme will need no introduction, as noble Lords were the driving force behind amendments to the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018, under which the Government present these regulations today. Since then, of course, the Government have had to make unprecedented policy interventions to save jobs and support livelihoods due to the impact of Covid-19, so the need for this scheme is even more pressing.
A breathing space—or, to use the term in the regulations, a moratorium—will pause most enforcement action, creditor contact, and interest and charges on a person’s qualifying debts. There are two kinds of moratorium. The first, a breathing space moratorium, lasts for 60 days and is open to anyone who engages with debt advice and meets the eligibility criteria. The second, a mental health crisis moratorium, available where a person is in mental health crisis treatment, extends those protections for as long as that treatment lasts, plus 30 days.
Professional debt advice providers have a central role in the scheme. They can initiate a moratorium for anyone who meets the relevant eligibility criteria and conditions. They should not do so if it would be inappropriate—for example, if their client could go into a debt solution like an IVA or bankruptcy straight away, or if they could manage their finances without a moratorium. There are other important safeguards to ensure that clients are complying with the scheme’s rules as far as possible. For example, certain ongoing liabilities such as a mortgage or rent must be paid as they fall due during a breathing space moratorium. If they are not, or if the client is not engaging with debt advice, the debt adviser can decide whether the breathing space moratorium should continue.
Of course, the Government recognise that, during mental health crisis treatment, it will be harder to engage with debt advice in this way and that it may be less reasonable to expect the individual to keep up specific obligations on them. The scheme anticipates this, with alternative access for people in mental health crisis treatment to a moratorium with equally strong protections that last longer, and where the conditions on the debtor are relaxed. This type of moratorium can only be accessed once an approved mental health professional has certified that a person is in crisis treatment. The debt adviser need not provide advice directly to the person but will still check that the relevant eligibility criteria are met and that an AMHP has provided the necessary evidence. A breathing space moratorium can only be accessed once every 12 months, but there is no limit to the number of times that a person can enter a mental health crisis moratorium.
I will now move on to implementation and begin by addressing the recommendations made by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. It recommended that the Government consider establishing a comprehensive debt adviser register. Access to professional debt advice is crucial, but our view is that instead of creating a new register, this can be best achieved by working with the Money and Pensions Service and other stake- holders to clearly direct people to free debt advice provision, including on GOV.UK and via MaPS’s existing online tools. In its most recent report on the regulations, the committee also suggested that the Government should bring forward the start date for the scheme to earlier than May 2021, in response to Covid. Simply making the regulations does not give effect to the scheme’s protections; creditors large and small need time to change their systems and debt advice providers need to plan and train their staff. This is against the backdrop of everyone making unprecedented efforts to help people affected by the financial impact of Covid. While the Government appreciate the committee’s intent, they are firmly of the view that May 2021 is ambitious but achievable. The Government continue to work to support implementation next May, and detailed scheme guidance is to be published by the end of this year.
Beyond the committee’s recommendations, there are other areas of implementation that I would like to bring to noble Lords’ attention. A barrier to individuals seeking help with debts can often be fear of the impact any intervention will have on their credit score. The Government have considered this issue carefully. Debt advice providers need clarity on this to advise their clients, and the Government are mindful to avoid unintended consequences for debtors and creditors in the scheme. A moratorium is not a payment holiday or a payment deferral scheme. Other than pausing interest and fees, no new arrangements are made regarding the debts protected in a moratorium, so the Government do not consider it appropriate to ask creditors to pause reporting to credit reference agencies. Credit files take up to 50 days to update, so the impact on an individual during the 60-day moratorium would in any case be limited.
The Government have also considered whether it would appropriate to seek a new flag or code to show a breathing space on a credit file. This could have longer-lasting effects and, in the mental health crisis moratorium, sensitive information about a person’s treatment could be inferred from credit files. This is not acceptable. We therefore propose that creditors should continue to report payments in line with their existing arrangements, encouraging payments to continue during the moratorium wherever possible. The Government will keep this position and its effects under review.
The breathing space scheme will encourage people to engage with professional debt advice and create the necessary space for them to make better decisions based on that advice. Importantly, it will also protect people receiving mental health crisis treatment until they are more able to engage in this way. I hope we can agree that these regulations are a positive step forward in an area that has long been important to many in this Chamber, with the potential to change lives. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare an interest regarding my work with alternatives to payday loans. Everyone taking part in this debate will be in favour of the modest but important measures encapsulated in these revised regulations. They are the very least we can do, given the enormity of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Government should now take two steps.
First, the Government should bring forward the implementation date from May to January. I take the Minister’s point about preparation, but many things have changed over the last eight months. People have moved more quickly than they could ever have envisaged in changing the way they operate, drawing on expertise they did not know existed. Three months would be a perfectly adequate time to get our act together nationally and locally and to implement the scheme. Secondly, consideration should again be given a register of independent advisers, because it is already clear that many unprincipled people are prepared to take advantage of what is now a tsunami of debt for individuals and companies.
Debt, by its very nature, is not deferment for ever: as the Government will find over the years to come, it is deferred repayment. For individuals and businesses across the country, including those that have taken out bounce-back loans, the day of reckoning eventually comes and it is really important that we are in a position to understand how best to schedule their repayments over a manageable period, so that their other outgoings are not affected and their livelihoods are not destroyed.
I heard a woman on the radio in the last two days saying that she was making impossible choices about whether to keep a roof over her head or to eat. She had chosen to keep a roof over her head. Other people do not, and there are knock-on consequences. I know a small company that refurbishes and then rents out houses; these are not always the most popular kind of people in my party, but I put this out as a real possibility for action across the country. This company has reached an agreement with Sheffield City Council in effect to become a social landlord. It refurbishes, maintains and is responsible for the property. The council is responsible for the tenant and the rent due, and therefore for supporting and helping that tenant to continue to pay their rent and to have a roof over their heads.
That kind of collaborative deal is something that I believe we should look at urgently. There will be hundreds of thousands of people, both those renting and those with mortgages, who find themselves in enormous difficulty. Some will do what my grandfather described as “a midnight flit”. Simply, that means that they up and go without paying anything they owe and try to make a new life somewhere else. That is already happening.
My other point is how much we can build on the work of Money and Mental Health and the campaigns that it and many others have run, such as tackling the threat that people face in the kinds of approaches that are made, the letters they receive, the knock on the door. Again, I heard someone just in the last 48 hours talking about their 16 year-old daughter being confronted at the door with a bill for £2,000. There is an enormous amount here to build on. The Government need to be sure-footed and extremely willing to put aside previous determinations of timing and methodology and, instead, work with all those who are willing to do so. They need to ensure that this debt crisis—that is what it is—does not become a prolonged crisis that destroys the livelihoods, living space and well-being of people across the country.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I broadly and warmly welcome the provisions in these regulations. While the effects of the pandemic certainly give increased importance to these provisions, the issues are, of course, of very much longer standing. I pay tribute to organisations, including the Children’s Society, which have long campaigned on these matters, as well as to the honourable Member for Rochester and Strood, Kelly Tolhurst, my own Member of Parliament, who, before she was made a Minister, proposed a Private Member’s Bill in the other place to address some of these issues.
It is estimated that 2.4 million children in England and Wales live in households with problem debt. Some 600,000 families spend more on overdue bills than they do on food. This issue has devastating social consequences for families and for wider communities, as well as for businesses, contributing significantly to mental ill-health, homelessness and relationship break- down. The matter is urgent.
Therefore, in welcoming these regulations, I want to touch on the implementation date. If it is not possible to bring this forward, I urge that it is not delayed, despite any issues there may be about implementing it. Rather, that date should be protected with vigour. I also urge that serious attention be given to connecting this with other policies and provisions to support those, especially families, experiencing debt and financial crisis. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has already referred to the connection with housing issues, and there are others.
It is encouraging to know that there is support for these provisions from within the enforcement sector, and to read about some of those organisations’ guidance to their staff on how they should act properly and in accordance with humanity and with these regulations. I applaud, and am a committed supporter of, organisations in the debt advice sector, many of them charitable. I am pleased and proud to see many lay people within congregations in my diocese volunteering to be trained as debt advisers, many of them with backgrounds in the financial world. Also, a number of churches host debt advice centres, many under the umbrella of CAP— Christians Against Poverty—an organisation with a long track record in debt advice. These and other such institutions and initiatives will need to be sustained, and of course funded, if these regulations are to achieve their intent.
I have a handful of concerns or questions to raise. It is good that benefit and council tax debt is included in the definitions of debts to be covered by these regulations. I hope, however, that Her Majesty’s Government might think again about the exclusion of debt that arises from advance payment of universal credit. Such debts are not insignificant and, again, can contribute to the problem. The 60 days provision is, of course, welcome; I believe that it is an extension from an earlier proposal. However, I would welcome some assurance from the Government that this will not be reduced in any future review of these regulations.
It is important that those delivering this scheme locally are able to refer indebted people to other sources of support and sound advice, whether from local authorities or from within the charitable sector or other places. Clear guidance about this for debt advisers—those who are offering the advice—would be incredibly useful. That is probably not something for government to mandate in detail, but rather to make sure that it happens in particular local areas so that people can be clearly signposted to organisations that can support them beyond the debt advisers themselves.
I am sure that this is not the last time we will debate these issues; the current circumstances mean that debt will continue to be an issue on the national agenda. However, I welcome these regulations as a good step in the right direction.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a founder member of the Mental Health Act commission back in the 1980s. It is because of that interest that I wish to concentrate my remarks today mostly on the aspects of the regulations that refer to mental health.
I am sure we all appreciate that debt and mental health are a bit of a vicious circle. Worrying about finances and having limited capacity, and possibly limited assistance, in dealing with money matters can exacerbate mental illness, often to the point of triggering a crisis. It follows that a person’s critical mental state means that managing finances becomes an impossible burden. I therefore welcome these proposals, which, despite applying only in limited circumstances, bring some relief to a number of those in receipt of critical treatment throughout the period in which that treatment is necessary. This breathing space is important. However, it should not be regarded as just a delay to the inevitable but as an opportunity for resolution of outstanding pressures.
I am a little disappointed that the second part of the proposals, for a statutory debt repayment plan, is not being introduced at the same time. Indeed, no date has yet been suggested by the Government. Can my noble friend the Minister give us any indication as to when those proposals might be introduced, and what, if any, problems are preventing a date being set? A moratorium of limited time and scope, without these additional provisions, may just kick the can down the road, especially if other assistance is not fully deployed in the meantime. As these first proposals are now to come into effect in May next year, speed in completing the other provisions is essential.
The Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018, to which my noble friend the Minister has referred, provides us with the powers that we are examining and which are needed to obtain debt respite, but without a wider scheme in place we are taking risks in proceeding with this element alone. They surely rely on each other to have the best chance of success. For those who are not currently under mental health crisis treatment, the regulations set out the means whereby they can get advice, as well as the criteria and qualifications needed by those who give such advice and have the powers afterwards to trigger a moratorium, pending, I hope, some settlement of the issues. Is my noble friend happy with the qualification requirements for those entrusted with those responsibilities?
Even with great care, the process itself can be daunting to anyone with a mental illness. The specific exclusions of certain categories of debt under regulation 5(4) are difficult to understand, especially if they currently include universal credit allowances and third-party deductions or if a VAT-registered business is involved. While the regulations are otherwise reasonably clear, some people may regard any moratorium as cover for all their debts at the time, so it must be clearly explained to them—as my noble friend the Minister has said—that their general ongoing liabilities must still be met, if possible, during the break. Is my noble friend happy that the qualified advisers will be able to convey this message and deliver an appropriate outcome for clients?
These general provisions apply equally to those receiving mental health crisis treatment, but, pursuing a different course, they must get relief in reliance on the approved mental health professionals, who will then need to notify the debt adviser in order to trigger a moratorium. Bearing in mind the historic and long-standing communication problems between AMHPs and local authorities, for instance, over responsibility in mental health matters, can my noble friend offer some further explanation as to how this process might be expected to work?
Sadly, many mental health patients have episodes of crisis that can be repetitive, and, in such cases, there may be difficulties in implementing the breathing space for them. It could be for one crisis treatment followed by the 30 days set down in the regulations and then a further 60 days arranged by the debt adviser. However, if further crisis treatment is necessary, this could be a very long-term situation, which can lead to misunderstandings or, even, unfairness all round. I know that the regulations acknowledge this different approach, as they, of course, limit other cases to only one breathing space in any 12-month period.
The issue of published guidance is also important. It must not be just for debt advisers or AMHPs; it must also be available in simple language for those who might benefit most from it and, surely, also for creditors, who are directly affected by these proposals. I am pleased to see that the provisions will be reviewed after five years, but I hope that, as implementation takes place, there will be careful monitoring and, if necessary, adjustments will be made as and when required. Finally, I hope that my noble friend can reassure us on that point as well.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear presentation, and speak in support of these regulations. We very much welcome the incentive the Government are providing here for people with problem debts to seek debt counselling. People with problem debt will have the chance to apply for a breathing space of 60 days, with a freeze on enforcement action, interest and charges. There will also be the opportunity—as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, has said in detail—for people suffering a mental health crisis to apply for a moratorium to take stock of their position and not to face the stress of being threatened with recovery action.
Owing significant sums of money is a very frightening experience. I know because, when I was a local councillor, I met lots of people in this position, and it can be made very much worse by being pursued to repay debt, particularly when on a very low income. It is stressful and fraught with threats of insolvency, eviction and bailiffs. As other noble Lords have said, these have knock-on effects on other services. Creditors’ overzealous use of court orders, debt collectors and bailiffs has led to dreadful experiences and compounds the desperation for vulnerable people and the risk of debt spiralling out of control through fear.
The moratoriums will provide time and resources for debtors to receive debt advice and for a sustainable repayment plan to be agreed. The statutory debt repayment plans are a welcome part of these regulations, but they are not as yet included. What timeframe are the Government looking at for SDRPs? Through the extension of continued breathing space protections, SDRPs would give people a safe way to pay back their debts and reduce the harm that debt causes.
Will the Minister also let us know what plans there are to publicise the scheme? In one of the briefings we had, we heard that—certainly—half the people who approach debt counsellors say that they had been worrying about their debts for a year or more before seeking advice. However, nearly eight in 10 surveyed said they would have got advice earlier if they had known this could stop interest charges, collection and enforcement action. Six in 10 said they would have sought advice earlier if they had known it would deliver the temporary help from creditors that they needed. Therefore, it is important that the Government give a great deal of thought to how these new regulations will be publicised to the people who need them.
I wonder whether the Minister is confident that the service can cope, particularly with the further increased demand caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the projected economic consequences. Many debt counselling organisations, such as the CAB, have ever-increasing client lists. Members of my family who work as volunteers for the CAB have drawn this growing problem to my attention. Cuts to local authority budgets have meant that funding for the service has fallen dramatically over recent years.
Can the Minister also tell us how realistic he considers the tight timescales for conducting reviews are, given the pressure on the agencies and the specific assessments that are needed for people suffering from mental health problems? What will happen to people who suffer long-term mental health issues as well as recurrent episodes, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, mentioned?
It is intended that these regulations will come into force on 4 May, and others have said that they would like the scheme to be brought forward, which I also support. However, if the scheme is to be successful, there needs to be protection for creditors. Creditor organisations will need to adapt their systems, policies and processes to ensure that they are able to fulfil the new regulations in order that no action is taken against individuals who are subject to a moratorium, no interest fees and charges accrue during it, debtors are not contacted regarding the debt during the period of the moratorium and no action is taken to challenge the grounds in applying for a moratorium that should be taken before the deadline to do so expires.
What plans do the Government have to support creditors to adapt their organisations to the new regulations? I know that the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said that a great deal has advanced in this area, but I would be interested to hear the Minister’s assessment, and I very much look forward to his response.
My Lords, as ever, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing these important regulations and to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. It is a good illustration of the breadth knowledge of the specialist areas that we find in our House, and the extent to which there has been consensus on this matter is gratifying.
I also express my gratitude to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which brought a previous iteration of this instrument to the attention of the House. It has since engaged in correspondence with the Treasury regarding its plans for effective signposting to the new measures, as acknowledged in the committee’s 27th report and paragraph 11 of the Explanatory Memorandum.
These regulations are an example of the value that your Lordships’ House brings to the scrutiny of legislation. My noble friends Lord Stevenson of Balmacara and Lord Mackenzie of Luton, and several others, took up this cause during the passage of the parent Act. It is to the Government’s credit that they heard and accepted the arguments, bringing forward their own amendments on Report. Given the volume of legislation that we are currently dealing with, perhaps the Minister could remind his colleagues that good things can come from having an open mind and working together.
The breathing space scheme introduced by this instrument has been long championed by organisations such as StepChange. It is based on a successful scheme that has been working in Scotland for a number of years and is designed to offer people with unmanageable problem debt greater access to the financial advice they need—and at an earlier stage, too. We are delighted to note that the Government accepted the views expressed by virtually everyone they consulted on the draft regulations and agreed to include in the scheme all unsecured debts, including those owed to the Crown. There is also a welcome focus on special support for those who suffer from mental stress as a result of their debts. This will make a huge difference, particularly as the pandemic continues.
Implementing a 60-day freeze on charges, fees and certain forms of interest, as well as a pause in enforcement action, will provide valuable time for advice to be sought, provided, considered and ultimately acted upon. It seems obvious to say it, but complex debt cases take time to resolve. Recognition of that will, I hope, lessen the stress and anxiety faced by those who feel that their situation is spiralling out of control. Dedicated provisions for those experiencing a mental health crisis are particularly important. The taking into account of treatment lengths and recognition that mental health problems often recur undoubtedly strengthen the scheme. I hope that we will see such issues considered in future policy-making.
The impact assessment published alongside the instrument makes clear the scale of the problem. Out of 9 million overindebted people in the UK, just over 1 million seek and receive advice each year. Estimates suggest that between 650,000 and 2.9 million people would benefit from debt advice but do not actively seek it, often due to the stigma of problem debt. The impact assessment suggests a clear net benefit to society, and the regulations include five-yearly reviews. Although it will clearly take some time to assess the full impact, can the Minister indicate whether the department plans to publish any interim analysis before 2026? This new scheme will undoubtedly help to encourage more people to seek help, but the problem of stigma requires further work. Is the Minister able to comment on the steps being taken?
Ministers have met their target to launch the new scheme in May 2021, which is to be welcomed. We could perhaps have arrived at this destination at an earlier date—the parent Act received Royal Assent back in May 2018. Earlier publication and consideration of the detail would also have afforded financial institutions additional time to prepare.
We all agree that the new scheme will be of significant value, but we must also be mindful of the fact that it is only one part of a very complex puzzle. As noted in the Explanatory Memorandum, plans to introduce the option of a statutory debt repayment plan are ongoing. I wonder whether the Minister will feel able to go beyond the contents of paragraph 2.1 of the EM by naming a target date for the SDRP to be introduced.
I will end with a brief comment on the timing of this instrument, which is hugely symbolic, if coincidental. Covid-19 and the economic challenges that it has presented have forced millions of people to deplete what little savings they had, and in many cases to take on personal debt. I raised this point in the recent Private Notice Question on personal savings.
Although it is good that we have reached this important milestone, we must also acknowledge the challenges that lie ahead. Unemployment is likely to rise in the coming months and this could have a profound impact on levels of personal debt. I hope the Minister can reassure the House that the Treasury is not only aware of this risk but proactively considering how to mitigate it.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions, and I am grateful for the chance to respond to the points that have been raised.
I think we can all agree that current events make the case for this scheme to be introduced as soon as possible. I understand the point made by some noble Lords about the need to try to bring it in sooner. However, we have worked extensively with the sector and we feel that it is unlikely that we will be able to bring it in much sooner, probably due more to the need to train advisers than to issues related to the lending sector. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester are concerned about that. However, we want the scheme to work well, so we want to get it launched properly.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, my noble friend Lord Kirkhope and the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, asked about the SDRP. Many of the challenges apply in relation to the statutory debt repayment plan, which is complex; the Government want to ensure that the strong protections promised can be achieved. The financial services Bill will shortly be debated in Parliament. It contains a clause to give the Government the full range of powers they need to implement the SDRP and ensure that the protections that it offers mirror those in the breathing space regulations. Secondary regulations will then need to be prepared, appropriately consulted on and made. I cannot commit today to a specific date for introducing the SDRP, but I assure noble Lords that the Government are aware of the desire to see the second part of the debt respite scheme up and running as soon as possible.
We have also heard concerns that creditors will struggle to be ready, given the challenges of operating in the pandemic. The Government understand those concerns, but the scheme is, and remains, a priority in the current circumstances. The date of May feels like a reasonable compromise to achieve its introduction and have it working properly.
Noble Lords asked specific questions about how the scheme will work. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked how the Government will prevent stigma in the scheme. I am aware that stigma can cause people to delay seeking advice. I am assured that this is being considered in the scheme design, including in the approach to credit referencing, which I set out for noble Lords in my opening speech. The Government’s intention is that the scheme’s strong protections should incentivise more people to see the value of taking advice earlier.
The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, asked about unscrupulous advisers. I assure him that the FCA requires the provision of sound, impartial debt advice that is in the best interests of consumers. Debt advice providers cannot charge a fee in connection with the moratorium. Fee-charging debt advice firms must also signpost clients to sources of free debt advice. They must be transparent about the fees and charges payable by their clients and must ensure that those fees and charges do not undermine their clients’ ability to make significant repayments to creditors. The FCA’s most recent thematic review of the sector, published in March 2019, found significant improvements in the standard of advice given. The FCA takes supervisory and, if necessary, enforcement action where it finds that harm is caused by firms providing inappropriate debt advice.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester asked about the inclusion of universal credit debts. Universal credit overpayments will be included in the breathing space scheme from day one. Universal credit advances and third-party deductions will be included in the breathing space scheme on a phased basis as early as possible after the policy starts. These two additional aspects require significant IT changes, which need to align with the requirements of the wider UC programme. The Government recognise the importance of including all universal credit debts in the scheme as soon as possible.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, asked about approved mental health professionals. They are qualified and experienced, approved by local authorities, and have specific expertise and training in mental health and mental capacity law. They are experienced in supporting people in crisis and usually based in community crisis or home treatment teams. The Government will provide guidance on the scheme and are working with MaPS to smooth the process for AMHPs to reach debt advice providers.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, asked whether debt advice providers would be able to navigate the definition of excluded debts in the regulations. This point will be covered in the guidance. The Money and Pensions Service is working in partnership with the Money Advice Trust to develop and deliver an online training module, which will inform and support debt advisors with the introduction of the scheme in May 2021. The intention is for the training to be accessible to all debt advisors across the sector. MaPS is also working to provide debt advice providers with access to support on technical questions.
It is a complex scheme, necessarily so, given the wide range of public and private debts included. I explained in my speech that the Government will publish scheme guidance by the end of the year to offer further explanation where possible. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, asked for whom this guidance will be provided. I can confirm that it will be prepared for debt advice providers, creditors, AMHPs, and GOV.UK will include a high-level overview of the scheme.
The Government are fully committed to closely monitoring the impact of the breathing space scheme, and developing and monitoring an evaluation strategy to facilitate an effective post-implementation review. As in all such matters, financial services firms will need to take their own legal advice on their approach. In addition to the government scheme guidance, I understand that the FCA will publish a consultation on guidance for firms shortly.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester asked about training. Government support for debt advice has already seen an extra £37.8 million support package made available to debt advice providers this year. The Government are working closely with MaPS on training for debt advice providers to help ensure that they will be ready to offer the scheme.
The noble Baroness, Lady Janke, asked about demand for the scheme. Moratorium can be accessed only via professional debt advice, so the take-up rate of the scheme is constrained by the available supply of that debt advice. Covid-19 poses many uncertainties, and we will continue to monitor the evolving situation. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, was also concerned about the impact of Covid-19 and the downturn of the economy. The Government recognise that people are struggling with their finances during this very difficult time and have put an unprecedented package of support in place to try to help people during the pandemic. We will keep this area under close consideration.
I believe that the breathing space scheme will encourage people to engage with professional debt advice and create the necessary space for them to make better decisions based on that advice. Importantly, it will protect people receiving mental health crisis treatment until they are more able to engage in this way. I hope we can agree that these regulations are a positive step forward in an area that has long been important to many in this Chamber, with the potential to change lives. I beg to move.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, hybrid proceedings will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill
Report (3rd Day)
I will call Members to speak in the order listed in the annexe to today’s list. Interventions during speeches, or before the noble Lord sits down, are not permitted, and uncalled speakers will not be heard. As this is Report, other than the mover of the amendment or the Minister, Members may speak only once in each group. Short questions of elucidation after the Minister’s response are permitted but discouraged. A Member wishing to ask such a question, including Members in the Chamber, must email the clerk.
The groupings are binding, and it will not be possible to degroup any amendment for a separate debate. A Member intending to press an amendment already debated to a Division should already have given notice in the debate. Leave should be given to withdraw an amendment. When putting the question, I will collect the 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.
During the debate on Amendment 20, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, indicated that he intended to press Amendment 23, which was grouped with it, to a Division. I will therefore begin by inviting the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, to move this amendment formally. No further speeches will be heard on this amendment. I will now put the question. Does the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, wish to move Amendment 23 formally?
Amendment 23 not moved.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 24. Once again, I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover or the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division should make this clear in the debate.
24: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—
“Recourse to public funds
(1) For the purpose of this section, a person (“P”) is defined as any person who, immediately before the commencement of Schedule 1, was—(a) residing in the United Kingdom in accordance with the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2016 (S.I. 2016/1052);(b) residing in the United Kingdom in accordance with a right conferred by or under any of the other instruments repealed by Schedule 1; or(c) otherwise residing in the United Kingdom in accordance with any right derived from European Union law which continues, by virtue of section 4 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, to be recognised and available in domestic law after exit day.(2) Regulations under section 4(1) may not be made until the Government has brought forward legislative measures to ensure that P can access social security benefits, where P is habitually resident, including repealing or amending the following provisions insofar as they relate to P—(a) section 3(1)(c)(ii) of the Immigration Act 1971;(b) section 115 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999;(c) any provision in subordinate legislation, which imposes a “no recourse to public funds” condition on grants of limited leave to enter or remain; and(d) any other enactment or power exercised under any other enactment, which makes immigration status a condition to access social security benefits.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause seeks to restrict measures prohibiting access to public funds.
My Lords, Amendment 24, which appears under my name, is one of a suite of amendments that I moved in Committee. I continue to stand by all of them, but in achieving a disappointing response from the Minister then, I have restricted myself to just one. I record now, as I did then, the role of Liberty in working on all of them. When I saw that no one else had brought forward a similar amendment, I felt that this issue had to be raised in any immigration Bill.
This amendment is about “no recourse to public funds”. It is something I find myself talking about so often that the phrase rolls off my tongue like poetry, but of course this is the stuff of nightmare, of personal desperation and great suffering. It is the situation of the victim of domestic violence facing the choice between homelessness and penury for herself and her children and the very real danger of being maimed or killed if she stays. It is the situation of the child going hungry, suffering the miserable, desperate pangs that prevent concentration or hope, when his peers get free school meals.
I assume there is no Member of your Lordships’ House who would deny the human right to life, but “no recourse to public funds” denies access to the most basic essentials. People are forced to rely on the fragile, overstretched resources of specialist charities, and people fall through the cracks of that hopelessly underresourced, fragile net of support.
I fear that in this Bill, the Minister and I are trapped on a merry-go-round. I believe I can foresee the response I am likely to receive: that this is discriminatory if applied only to people newly covered by immigration law, EU and EEA citizens, and not to everybody. At the risk of sounding like a recording, I want this to apply to everybody. The Government could and should end any application of the “no recourse to public funds” rule. In this amendment, I have tried to save as many as the rules of the Table Office will allow me. Saving some people from being penniless and homeless, from hunger and abuse, and perhaps from death, is better than saving none. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for tabling Amendment 24. In supporting it, I will not repeat the evidence I rehearsed in Committee showing the damaging impact of the “no recourse to public funds” condition on children denied free school meals, in particular—she mentioned that particular group. But I will draw attention to a national survey published since then by the Children’s Food Campaign and Food Active, which found that nine out of 10 parents agreed that eligibility for free school meals should apply regardless of immigration status.
I also want to return to some specific points I raised in Committee. First, I would like to thank the noble Baroness the Minister for responding to my question about data in her letter. I hope the department will follow this up with the Children’s Society, to see how it might improve the data so as to provide a better indicator of the levels of hardship created and the demographics of the groups worst affected.
In Committee, the noble Baroness the Minister referred to what I said about the temporary extension of eligibility for free school meals to support families with NRPF. But she did not acknowledge the point I made that this was a partial concession covering only some NRPF families, nor that the concession has now been withdrawn. I asked what possible justification there could be for this, and I quoted from a letter from 60 organisations to the Education Secretary, which among other things noted that these children will face having to make up half a year of lost learning on empty stomachs. Could the noble Lord the Minister who is speaking today respond to that point now and, at the very least, commit to taking it up with colleagues in the Department for Education?
According to a briefing from the Children’s Society and others, the Government have indicated that there will be a full review of the free school meals system and that that is needed before the extension to NRPF families can be made permanent. But why? Why does it need a full review? Hunger cannot wait for a review. What is the scope and timetable of this review? If the Minister cannot answer that now, please could it be covered in a subsequent letter?
The Minister did not respond either in Committee or in her letter to a specific question that I posed, echoing the Work and Pensions Select Committee. I asked for a definitive clarification as to whether local welfare assistance funds counted as public funds for these purposes. They act as a kind of safety net below the safety net—a rather ragged safety net below the safety net—but if even those are not available, it makes life that much harder for this group. Again, if the Minister does not have the answer, could it please be covered in a subsequent letter?
The comprehensive improvement plan, published last week in response to the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, identified the NRPF as one of six primary streams in the compliant—aka hostile—environment. It is interesting that the Home Secretary, as far as I can see, did not refer to this rather important plan of the Home Office in her speech on Sunday at the Conservative Party conference. But in contrast to the plan’s emollient tone, while talking about compassion and so forth, we have learned in the media—and I know that the Minister will say that he cannot respond to leaks, but it did not seem like a leak; it seemed like it had been deliberately placed—that there is a push by Downing Street to
“radically beef up the hostile environment in 2021.”
If this is true, it makes a mockery of the review of the hostile/compliant environment detailed in the Home Office’s plan. Can the Minister provide a categorical denial that the intention is not to radically beef up the compliant/hostile environment, because that certainly was not what Wendy Williams was calling for?
I refer back to the exchange that I had in Committee with the Minister on the Windrush Lessons Learned Review—and I thank her for the offer of the meeting. It seems to me from the comprehensive improvement plan that the review of the hostile/compliant environment will not include questioning its legislative underpinnings. For instance, it will not question the right-to-rent legislation itself, but simply how it is being implemented. What if the review concludes that the legislation itself is not proportionate in meeting the Government’s stated aims, which is part of what Wendy Williams’s recommendations said it should be looking at? I would be very happy if the Minister responds to say that I have misinterpreted what the plan says, and that the terms of reference are that it is open to those reviewing the hostile/compliant environment to question the legislation, if that is where the evidence takes them. Surely—going back to my first point—the denial of free school meals to hungry children is not proportionate.
My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. The concept of no recourse to public funds is one that causes significant difficulties to a small number of people, but for those individuals it can be very significant. Quite how many people fall under this provision is perhaps a little bit unclear. I cite a paper on no recourse to public funds written by Professor Catherine Barnard, a colleague at Cambridge University—and I declare it as an interest that she is a colleague. She quotes Stephen Timms at the Liaison Committee in May raising with the Prime Minister the issue of destitution as a result of no recourse to public funds. The Prime Minister is reported to have said:
“You have raised a very, very important point if a condition of their leave to remain is that they should have no recourse to public funds. I will find out how many there are in that position and we will see what we can do to help.”
Does the Minister know whether the Prime Minister has yet been able to answer that question of how many people fall into this category? Will he tell us what plans the Prime Minister has to help individuals who have no recourse to public funds? I suspect that his briefing does not include answers to those questions, so I confine myself to reiterating the concerns raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Lister of Burtersett. That is really to say that, while ideally the provision for no recourse to public funds should be looked at in its entirety, in the confines of this Bill we understand that it can only be the case for EU nationals. However, in the context of the Covid crisis, it has become clear that individuals can face very significant difficulties that are not covered by the normal provisions for seeking benefits precisely because they fall under this condition of no recourse to public funds. Will the Government think again on this issue? It relates not to people who are coming to seek benefits, who simply say that the United Kingdom is a country where they think they are going to be able to benefit from the system. It rather relates to individuals who are already here, exercising their rights as EU nationals. It is a finite number of people, and surely they deserve our help and a degree of generosity.
My Lords, I rise to express concern about Amendment 24 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. She has highlighted some hard cases in the cause of her apparently wide-ranging proposed new law. That is an approach that I always discourage. I think legislation of this kind has to be carefully thought about, assessed for cost and consulted on.
In Committee, the main focus of amendments on this issue was to seek greater support from public funds during coronavirus. The Minister explained that some of the Government’s coronavirus measures—quite generously, one might say—applied to those with no recourse to public funds, who are the subject of the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett.
I believe that migrants coming into the UK should be able to maintain and support themselves and their families without posing a burden on our hard-pressed benefit system. I do not know much about the detail of the arrangements for prohibiting access to public funds, but I know that taxpayers already foot large bills for lawyers to prioritise immigrants’ needs and to block the deportation of those who do not have the right to remain.
We cannot introduce an immigration system, as posited here, that has the effect of attracting migrants—whether from the EU, which is today’s subject, or elsewhere—for welfare benefits and not for work. This will not win the support of UK citizens who are struggling to make ends meet and are facing job losses and fiscal deficits as a result of the coronavirus crisis. In short, those who are, in reality, economic migrants should be contributors to the public purse, as I think many are. I hope that the House will reject this amendment.
My Lords, in replying to this and the other amendment on no recourse to public funds in Committee, the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, according to Hansard, that Home Office analysts were looking at the data to determine what figures could be “reduced”. I would like to think that that might have been about reducing the numbers of people with no recourse, but I suspect that it was a misprint for “produced”. The noble Baroness is nodding.
Almost all the speakers have lit on the issue of lack of data. It occurs to me that a lack of data indicates something of a shortfall in interest among the policy makers on the impact of the policy that they are making. Like much that relates to the immigration system, this amendment is about humanity and common sense: common sense because of the important public health argument about ensuring that people are not prone to disease that can be prevented and that children are fed well enough to be educated and to grow into good citizens, and humanity for obvious reasons.
Hard cases are not to be excluded when we think about policy; they have to be considered to bring attention to bad law. I do not think that the taxpayer is a single cohesive figure. Taxpayers have a wide range of views and there are quite a lot among us who would like to see our taxes spent differently and better. If that means more tax being raised, that is a price that we understand we have to pay.
My Lords, Amendment 24 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, would prevent regulations being made under Clause 4 until the Secretary of State had provided legislative measures to ensure that EEA and Swiss nationals in the UK are not subject to no recourse to public funds. This includes repealing or amending relevant no recourse to public funds provisions in the Immigration Act 1971 and the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. I assume this means any regulations under Clause 4 and not just regulations relating to no recourse to public funds.
We had an amendment in Committee that would have had the effect of not applying the no recourse to public funds rules during the current Covid-19 pandemic, and then until such time as Parliament decides. To keep the amendment within the scope of the Bill it applied only to EEA and Swiss nationals. We have been calling since April for no recourse to public funds to be suspended for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. We asked the Government to lift no recourse to public funds as a condition on a person’s migration status to ensure that nobody was left behind in the public health effort undertaken in the fight against the coronavirus. In June, the Home Affairs and Work and Pensions Select Committees recommended that the Government should “immediately suspend NRPF” for the duration of the pandemic on public health grounds. The Work and Pensions Committee said:
“As a result of the no recourse to public funds condition, many hardworking and law-abiding people are being left without a social safety net and at risk of destitution and homelessness.”
Our amendment found no favour with the Government —as, indeed, may prove to be the case with every amendment on this Bill, with the exception of perhaps just one. As set out in Hansard, I asked—as did my noble friend Lady Lister—for some numbers in relation to no recourse to public funds. The Minister said they were not part of published statistics, but that Home Office analysts were looking at the data to determine what figures could be produced. As has been pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, it said “reduced” in Hansard, but it has now been confirmed that it should have said “produced”. Whatever the situation, it would be very helpful if the Minister could say exactly when the Home Office analysts expect to complete the exercise that they are undertaking in relation to figures, information and data available.
This amendment goes further than our amendment in Committee on no longer applying NRPF, in that it does not relate only to the period of the pandemic and does not leave it for Parliament to decide if and when its terms are no longer to apply. Like the noble Baroness, I await the Government’s response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and all other noble Lords for their contribution to this debate. I completely understand the concern that they have expressed for the welfare of people with no recourse to public funds, especially during the current pandemic. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, says, it is a matter, first and foremost, of humanity, but the Government cannot accept this amendment.
As noble Lords will be aware, the Government’s general expectation is that people immigrating to the United Kingdom should be able to maintain and accommodate themselves without recourse to public funds. That reflects the importance of maintaining the confidence of the public in general that immigration overall brings benefits to our country, as it certainly does, rather than costs to the public purse. Those restrictions, which have been in place under Governments of all political hues for many years, are an important plank of immigration policy designed to assure people that public funds are being protected for those who are normally or habitually resident in the UK, reflecting the strength of their connection to the United Kingdom. This includes those with indefinite leave to remain, refugees, protected persons and people granted discretionary leave.
I acknowledge the level of concern that has been expressed today, and, indeed, in Committee, particularly regarding the deprivation of children. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, asked a number of questions about children. She generously suggested that I could write to her on the timetable for the review and other points, and I am very happy to commit to do that so she can have the fullest possible answer. I will certainly ensure that the point she raises about free school meals has been heard by the Department for Education. I am sure it has been but I will take that forward and make sure it is reinforced. On free school meals generally, they are not listed as public funds under immigration legislation; they are available to the most disadvantaged pupils, including asylum-seeking children whose parents or guardians receive support under Part 6 of the Immigration and Asylum Act. I hope that that gives her some reassurance in the meantime, but I will certainly take the point forward, as she asks.
The noble Baroness will not be surprised that I cannot comment on leaks, so I shall not, whatever their suspected provenance. I can point her to the words of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, both in her speech to the Conservative Party conference over this weekend—which I am glad the noble Baroness noted was marked by its compassion—and also in a number of Statements she has made in another place about the Wendy Williams review, committing herself and the Home Office to taking on board all the recommendations that Wendy Williams had made and shifting the culture of the Home Office. I would direct the noble Baroness to those words for the view of the Home Office.
Regarding children more generally, where a child is in need, local authorities are already required to provide support through Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. Recognising the potential financial impact on local authorities at the moment, the Government have allocated more than £4.3 billion to those in England, and additional funding under the Barnett formula to the devolved Administrations, to help them respond to the pressures of Covid-19 across all the services they deliver, including services helping the most vulnerable people. The funding will mean that councils can continue to provide vital services, including adult social care and children’s services. To ensure that children who have been affected by the no recourse to public funds condition are protected from destitution, as we pointed out in Committee, people with leave under the family and human rights routes can apply to have this condition lifted through a change of conditions application. Change of condition decisions are being prioritised, at this difficult time, and dealt with compassionately. The change of conditions team in UK Visas and Immigration is working through applications as quickly as possible and is exercising flexibility when seeking additional evidence, which is often needed, to help reduce unnecessary delays. Additional staff have also been trained to work on these cases in response to the increased demand and urgency during the pandemic.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about the statistics that would be produced—not “reduced”—on this. The Home Office chief statistician recently replied to a letter from the UK Statistics Authority on the subject. He made clear in that letter why it is not practical for the Home Office to produce an estimate of the total population subject to no recourse to public funds at any one time. However, the Home Office has acknowledged that there is a clear public interest in publishing the number of applications to have the restriction lifted by making a change of conditions application. I am pleased to say that these data have now been published, and will be released as part of the regular migration transparency data henceforth.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, also asked about the measures being put in place to help people during the pandemic, and whether no recourse to public funds should be looked at in light of that. As he will know, the Government have put in place a number of measures to help people at this difficult time. For instance, the assistance given under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-employment Income Support Scheme are not classed as public funds and are therefore available to all those who are legally working or self-employed, including those with no recourse to public funds status and those on zero-hours contracts. Similarly, statutory sick pay and some other work-related benefits, such as contributory employment and support allowance, are also not classed as public funds and so are also available to people with no recourse to public funds who are eligible for them.
The effect of this new clause would run counter to the purpose of delivering a unified immigration system, which we have referred to many times throughout the course of the Bill. The Government intend that in our new immigration system the same general eligibility rules will apply to both EEA and non-EEA citizens. We have made it clear that where EEA citizens and their family members have been living in the UK before our departure from the European Union, and where they obtain status under the EU settlement scheme, they will retain their current eligibility to access benefits.
In light of the support already available to protect vulnerable people, and given that intention to establish a unified immigration system which treats people from all nations fairly, I hope the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his response, although I am disappointed, but not surprised, by the direction of his comments. I apologise for the misidentification of the respondent. I think other noble Lords will join me in being pleased that the Home Office will produce these figures, as raised by multiple noble Lords. We will all look forward to seeing and scrutinising those.
I must thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for her powerful and detailed analysis of the Government’s current position and their review plans, and I note her overview, “Hunger cannot wait for a review”. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, referred to, we are talking about destitution. Everything is in the context of Covid-19 now, and it seems that at the Tory party conference today the Prime Minister suggested that is going to be the case for the next year.
The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, asked about the cost of this amendment. I would say, some things are priceless: ensuring that we do not see Victorian conditions of destitution in the UK in 2020 is something we should seek to deliver with every sinew, as human beings. She referred to the bills for immigration matters—for people exercising their legal rights, that means getting what the law entitles them to. I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, cited figures showing that the British public overwhelmingly do not want children to go hungry. That is what we are talking about here; as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, this is about humanity.
I note the amendment in Committee that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, referred to, which is something we could go back to in the context of Covid-19. Noble Lords will have had heard me refer in other cases to universal basic income as the best solution of all—we could then ensure that nobody was left stranded or left with nothing.
I understand that the restrictions on scope have not allowed me today to make this the amendment I would like it to be on no recourse to public funds. On this occasion I will not be pushing it to a Division, but I fully expect to take a different approach in future.
Amendment 24 withdrawn.
Amendments 25 and 26 not moved.
We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 27. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once, and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division should make that clear in the debate.
27: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—
“Grant of leave to remain for confirmed victims of modern slavery who are EEA nationals
(1) Immigration rules must make provision for leave to remain in the United Kingdom to be granted to a person aged 18 years or over when—(a) the person is either a Swiss national or an EEA national who is not also an Irish citizen; and(b) there has been a conclusive determination that the person is a victim of slavery or human trafficking; and(c) subsection (2) applies and subsection (8) does not.(2) This subsection applies if the person meets one or more of the following criteria—(a) leave is necessary due to the person’s circumstances, including but not restricted to—(i) the needs of that person for safety and protection from harm including protection from re-trafficking;(ii) the needs of that person for medical and psychological treatment;(b) the person is participating as a witness in criminal proceedings; (c) the person is bringing any civil proceedings including pursuing compensation.(3) Where the person is receiving assistance from a support worker, the recommendations of the support worker must be considered in assessing that person’s circumstances under subsection (2)(a).(4) Immigration rules must provide for persons granted leave to remain in accordance with this section to have recourse to public funds for the duration of the period of leave.(5) Immigration rules must provide for leave to remain to be granted from the day on which the conclusive determination is communicated to a person for at least 12 months.(6) Immigration rules must allow a grant of leave to remain under subsection (5) to be extended subject to the requirements of subsection (7).(7) In determining whether to extend a grant of leave to remain under subsection (6), and the period of time for which such extended leave should be provided, the person’s individual circumstances must be considered, and whether that person meets one or more of the criteria in subsection (2).(8) A person may be refused leave to remain if—(a) the person is a sexual or violent offender; and(b) the Secretary of State considers that the person poses a genuine, present and serious risk to members of the public.(9) If subsection (8) applies, the Secretary State must ensure the person affected is given reasons for the refusal in writing.(10) In this section—“competent authority” means a person who is a competent authority of the United Kingdom for the purposes of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings;“conclusive determination” means a determination that a person is, or is not, a victim of slavery or human trafficking when the identification process conducted by a competent authority concludes that the person is, or is not, such a victim;“EEA national” means a national of a State which is a contracting party to the Agreement on the European Economic Area signed at Oporto on 2 May 1992 (as it has effect from time to time);“immigration rules” in this section has the meaning given by section 33 of the Immigration Act 1971;“sexual or violent offender” means a person falling within the definition of a “sexual or violent offender” in section 327 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (section 325: interpretation) or who has been convicted of an offence under the law of another country which would have constituted an offence falling within those subsections if it had been done in England and Wales;“victim of slavery” and “victim of human trafficking” mean a person falling within the definition of a “victim of slavery” or “victim of human trafficking” in section 56 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (section 56: interpretation).”
My Lords, I am very pleased to speak to Amendment 27 in my name and that of the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I would like to thank my co-signatories for their support, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Randall, who would have been here to speak in support of my amendment had it been reached yesterday, but is unable to join us today. I would also like to thank the former Conservative Party leader, the right honourable Sir Iain Duncan Smith, for his support for my amendment, expressed in our joint PoliticsHome article yesterday. I should say at the outset that I very much hope that the Government will accept it, but if they do not it is my intention to test the opinion of the House.
I make no apology for raising once again the difficult situation that confirmed victims of modern slavery will face as a consequence of the current drafting of the Bill before us. By “confirmed victims”, of course, I mean those who have been through the national referral mechanism and received a positive conclusive grounds decision that they are indeed victims of modern slavery.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Parkinson, who responded to my Amendment 7, and to my noble friend Lady Williams, who responded to Amendment 81. The Government have made all the right noises about protecting trafficking victims, but it is clear, as I shall explain, that in future victims of modern slavery who come from EU countries will be significantly worse off than they are currently.
As a firm supporter of Brexit and advocate for victims of modern slavery, I know that, while free movement must end, the restoration of our sovereignty does not require us to create a situation in which the effective rights of some confirmed victims of modern slavery are diminished. Parliamentary sovereignty actually gives us the opportunity to improve provisions for all victims of modern slavery if we want to. It does not necessitate that we should acquiesce to the effective erosion of the rights of any confirmed victims. That we should inaugurate the Brexit era by doing so for EEA national victims is, in my judgment, unthinkable.
One of the main ways in which a confirmed victim of modern slavery who is an EEA national can seek help for their recovery today is through their treaty rights to remain in the UK and access public funds: in other words, to get benefits and access to local authority housing. In the event that an EU citizen is unable to exercise their treaty rights, perhaps because their ID documents were taken from them by the traffickers, or they have no paperwork to evidence the work they were doing while being exploited—for those exploitations, by their very nature, do not meet the requirements—they have the second fallback option of applying for what is known as discretionary leave to remain.
At the end of the transition period, and once any opportunity to apply for settled or pre-settled status has passed, victims of human trafficking who are EEA nationals will be worse off because they will lose one of the key avenues to support that is available today—exercising their treaty rights—and that will be replaced by nothing.
The confirmed victim will simply be left with the option of applying for discretionary leave to remain. This may not matter if there were a statutory basis for granting discretionary leave, with statutory criteria to make up for the loss of the opportunity for confirmed victims to access support through their treaty rights.
Discretionary leave is only given on a discretionary basis to confirmed victims in very special circumstances set out in the guidance, when they are not eligible for any other form of leave such as asylum or humanitarian protection. The criteria are that a victim is assisting police with investigations into trafficking or modern slavery, that there are compelling personal circumstances which mean the victim needs to stay in the UK, or that the victim is making a claim for compensation against their traffickers and needs to remain in the UK to pursue that claim.
As a Minister said in 2017, discretion to grant leave to remain has been considered as “exceptional”. That might have been acceptable when EU citizens had an opportunity to access treaty rights, but they will no longer be able to do so and it is unlikely that EU victims will be considered for asylum in the future.
In order to really understand this effective erosion of the rights of confirmed victims of modern slavery who are EEA nationals, it is also important to consider their lot in the wider context of that of victims who are non-EEA nationals. Many non-EEA nationals will have the option of applying for asylum, which, as I said, will not be open to EEA nationals; some will be granted humanitarian protection and the remainder will be automatically considered for discretionary leave. Given these other routes, it may not be surprising that discretionary leave has been considered “exceptional” for non-EEA victims as well.
Internal Home Office data, reported to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee in 2017, showed that just 12% of all victims of modern slavery were given discretionary leave in 2015. Of these, 52 cases were EEA nationals and 71 non-EEA nationals. On 24 September, the Government confirmed that they do not have current data in a reportable form for the different immigration outcomes for victims of modern slavery. This lack of data begs the question as to how the Government will measure the impact of changes in immigration policy on victims of modern slavery if there is no baseline from which to measure.
In July, the Centre for Social Justice, published a report on modern slavery, It Still Happens Here: Fighting UK Slavery in the 2020s. It states:
“For many, having no recourse to public funds poses further barriers to moving people on safely, putting victims at risk of homelessness and destitution, and making it more likely that they will fall back into exploitation and trafficking.”
Given this call to create a situation that will make the recourse of confirmed victims to public funds more secure, it is deeply concerning that we are actually contemplating legislation today that will make recourse to public funds for victims of modern slavery who are EEA nationals less secure. If the Government do not change course, we would expect to see more confirmed victims of modern slavery who are EEA nationals at risk of destitution and retrafficking than is the case today. This is not required by Brexit. The logic of sovereignty is that we should be more and not less free to make the right laws—if this is what Parliament wants to do.
This is the question we face today, the question in response to which I am tabling Amendment 27. I am asking the Government to ensure that EU citizens who are confirmed as victims of modern slavery have a statutory right to be considered for a 12-month grant of leave if they meet certain criteria. These are set out in subsection (2) of my proposed new clause. The statutory conditions include helping police with their inquiries; when the victim is seeking compensation, or when leave to remain is necessary due to the person's own circumstances. These can cover whether there are potential safety concerns, including the possibility of being retrafficked on their return to their home country, or the need for medical or psychological treatment.
I should stress that, while placing the criteria in my amendment in law gives them greater statutory weight, Amendment 27 does not have the effect of automatically granting leave to remain to all EEA nationals who are confirmed victims of modern slavery. It requires that individual circumstances must be assessed for leave to remain on the basis of the criteria in Amendment 27. Whether the victims meet the criteria is a separate question. Assessments would have to be made on a case-by-case basis.
Amendment 27 would ensure that all confirmed victims who are EEA nationals are automatically considered for leave to remain. Without this change, confirmed victims who are EEA nationals will lose one of the avenues for recovery that is currently accessible to them—namely, immigration status and recourse to public funds through treaty rights. They will also find themselves at a disadvantage when compared with confirmed victims of modern slavery who are not EEA nationals and who are already automatically considered for discretionary leave.
I am sure that some noble Lords are wondering about the impact of my proposals on victims from outside the EU. Amendment 27 does not affect the immigration options available to non-EU nationals who are victims of modern slavery. It addresses changes facing victims who will no longer have free movement or the ability to seek access to benefits because they are EU nationals and who do not currently have automatic consideration for discretionary leave. Brexit should not lead to confirmed victims of modern slavery who are EU nationals being more made more vulnerable to being retrafficked because they are destitute. Our sovereignty allows us to address the difficulties EU victims are likely to experience because of the end of free movement.
In considering my amendment and the plight of confirmed victims of modern slavery, it is important to remember that we are talking about very small numbers. Expressed as a proportion of the total net migration in 2017, confirmed victims of modern slavery were just 0.9%. EU nationals who would be helped by my amendment are an even smaller subset of this group, which of course includes a significant number of British nationals who have no need of leave to remain.
It will not surprise noble Lords to know that I believe that broader reform of the immigration status of all confirmed victims of trafficking is needed alongside statutory assistance and support for all confirmed victims, including UK nationals. I am grateful for the support expressed during Committee by many noble Lords for my Private Member’s Bill, the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, currently before the House and sponsored in another place by the right honourable Sir Iain Duncan Smith.
Amendment 27 addresses the immediate situation after this Bill becomes law for EU nationals who have experienced being trafficked or exploited. I urge noble Lords to support it, but I will continue to advocate for my Bill as the longer-term solution for all victims of modern slavery. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very happy to be a co-signatory to Amendment 27, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord McColl, along with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I remind the House of my non-pecuniary interest as a trustee of the anti-trafficking charity, Arise Foundation.
Characteristically, at midnight last night, the noble Lord, Lord McColl, who is in his 88th year, was waiting to move this amendment. If he had been required to, he would have stayed all night, such is his commitment to this cause. I admire him greatly for that. Over several decades, I have been truly fortunate to get to know the noble Lord. I have often found myself on the same side of arguments and deeply admire him on many fronts, not least in the use of his skills as a surgeon in life-saving and life-changing work on the Mercy Ships and his indefatigable efforts to raise in the House the plight of victims of modern slavery. It was also good to see the article on PoliticsHome yesterday by the noble Lord and the right honourable Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP setting out the case for this amendment.
In 2015, I participated along with many other noble Lords throughout the debates on the Modern Slavery Act and warmly congratulated the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, on pioneering with great skill and determination world-class legislation, a rarity in enjoying bipartisan and bicameral support. Following our debate in Committee on 16 September, I sent our debate on the noble Lord’s earlier amendment to Lady May, as she now is, and received a warm response encouraging us all to continue to champion and speak up for victims of modern slavery.
It has been deeply shocking for us all to see the way in which human traffickers have been fuelling the migrant crisis in Calais, Dunkirk and Zeebrugge. We have heard in our debates on amendments to this Bill about how young children have been exploited, used as pawns in a lucrative and sometimes deadly trade. The House will recall that it is less than 12 months since the deaths of 39 Vietnamese people trafficked into Tilbury. I was particularly pleased to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, said yesterday in your Lordships’ House about what she and the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, are determined to do to end this murderous trade in human misery.
No one can doubt the vulnerability of victims of trafficking and modern slavery by those who manipulate and exploit them. The Government are right to accept that other vulnerable groups such as refugees have conferred upon them an immigration status that recognises their vulnerability. When someone is recognised as a refugee in the UK, they are offered an initial period of five years’ leave to remain. That is not the case for victims of trafficking. Confirmed non-EU victims of modern slavery are able to apply for asylum, but for completely understandable reasons this option has not been open to EU nationals. That is what this amendment addresses.
After 1 January, EU victims who are trafficked into the UK will not have any free movement rights and, unless the rules change, will not be able to apply for asylum. Their immigration options are therefore slim. I am sure that the Minister will respond by confirming that victims of modern slavery are able to apply for discretionary leave to remain. Currently, non-EU nationals are automatically considered for this discretionary option if no other immigration path is available; EU nationals are not.
Looking into the background for discretionary leave to remain, I realised that the facts of who the individuals are who get such leave, and why, are opaque—to put it mildly. The Home Office has published guidance on when a victim of trafficking can be granted leave to remain. The guidance is totally discretionary and sets out three criteria on which leave to remain can be given. A person may get leave to remain, first, if they are seeking compensation for their exploitation or, secondly, if they are assisting police with criminal investigations. The third criterion is defined as “personal circumstances”. The data on how many individuals receive such discretionary leave and under which of those criteria is far from clear.
In 2017, the then Home Office Minister wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Field, when he was Member of Parliament for Birkenhead. What a pleasure it was to be here today when the noble Lord took his seat; I know that he will bring great commitment to the fight against human trafficking during his time in your Lordships’ House. In that letter, the Minister made some clear statements that DLR was the last resort and given only when there are “exceptional or compelling reasons”. Since then, no DLR data has been published in response to multiple Parliamentary Questions. This point is raised in the report of the organisation, After Exploitation, entitled Hidden Futures, published on 27 September. The report demonstrates that the Government have multiple opportunities to provide the data on the immigration outcomes of victims of trafficking. Only last week, on 29 September, the Government responded to a Parliamentary Question in another place by the Member of Parliament for Nottingham North, saying:
“Numbers and reasons for grants of discretionary leave to remain to victims of modern slavery do not currently form part of modern slavery published statistics.”
Less than a week earlier, on 24 September, the Government said that the data was not held in a reportable format. It begs the question: why not? There is considerable confusion about the immigration outcomes for victims of modern slavery and even about whether there is any data that would give such clarity.
Notwithstanding the Government’s failure to be forthcoming and transparent on this issue, in 2019 the British Red Cross was able to get information through freedom of information requests about the grants of discretionary leave to remain and it published in its report, Hope for the Future, some of its findings. These suggest that between just 8% and 9% of all victims of modern slavery were granted leave to remain between 2015 and 2017. Given the small numbers granted DLR, which the noble Lord, Lord McColl, referred to, and the fact that the individuals who are vulnerable enough to be subject to trafficking are unlikely to be those who meet the requirements of the new points-based immigration system, it is clear to me that Parliament should now act.
Without Amendment 27, European Union nationals who are victims of trafficking will find themselves significantly disadvantaged compared to the status quo. Ending free movement must not be associated with an increase in exploitation. Given that, unlike non-EEA nationals, who are considered automatically, EU nationals will have to apply for discretionary leave to remain and given that so few grants are made, EU nationals who are unable to claim residency and the benefits associated with that immigration status are more likely to find themselves destitute and subject to potential retrafficking.
It would be unconscionable for this House to acquiesce to the erosion of the legal rights of victims of modern slavery. It would be one thing for the Bill to have no effect, either for good or ill, on the rights of victims, but for it to make things worse would be extraordinary. Notwithstanding the horrendous role of cities such as London, Liverpool and Bristol in the slave trade, the United Kingdom played an historic role in leading the way to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833. It seems astonishing that we should be asked to inaugurate this new era by arranging our laws such that, from 1 January, some victims of modern slavery will have fewer rights. I cannot believe that this is what the champions of this change really want.
Today, the House has the opportunity to usher in change in a way that does not erode the rights of victims of modern slavery by supporting the modest, but very timely and important, amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McColl. It would provide EU victims with the statutory right to be granted 12 months’ leave to remain, based on the criteria set out in proposed subsection (2) in Amendment 27.
This amendment would give victims the opportunity to stay here, for up to 12 months, to address their needs,
“for safety and protection from harm including protection from re-trafficking”
“the needs of that person for medical and psychological treatment”,
to help the police or to seek compensation. Some EU citizens may naturally wish to return home instead.
As has been said on a number of occasions, and by the noble Lord in introducing his amendment today, debates on this must also be seen in the context of his Private Member’s Bill, which still stands on our Order Paper. I hope that we find time to debate that Bill. Although this amendment is welcome, and I will support it if it is pressed to a Division later, there is a bigger and wider question that has to be addressed, and his Bill is the way to do it.
My Lords, I am pleased to add my support to Amendment 27 in the name of the noble Lords, Lord McColl, Lord Alton and Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. In Committee, when introducing my Amendment 81, I made plain my grave concerns about the possible negative impact that ending free movement will have on victims of modern slavery. I said then, and I reiterate today:
“I am not opposed to the end of free movement.”
However, as I said then,
“it absolutely does not follow that we have to create a situation in which a significant proportion of trafficking victims have uncertain immigration status and will lose recourse to public funds.”—[Official Report, 16/9/20; col. 1343.]
This, however, is precisely what will happen, courtesy of the Bill before us, if the Government do not accept Amendment 27.
With the ending of free movement, victims of modern slavery who are EEA nationals and who arrive in the UK from 1 January onwards will no longer be entitled to stay in the UK or to access benefits, beyond the period of support granted under the national referral mechanism. This means that the effective rights of these confirmed victims of modern slavery will be subject to significant erosion, and there is currently nothing in the Bill to put in their place.
As the noble Lord, Lord McColl, said, from next year EEA victims, who have never enjoyed the option of asylum that many non-EEA victims can access, will lose the immigration status and recourse to public funds that they currently enjoy through treaty rights. The only remaining option for victims from EU countries to gain a credible immigration solution will be through an application for discretionary leave to remain. All victims can seek discretionary leave at present but, as with accessing the option of asylum, EU nationals are again at a disadvantage. Unlike victims of other countries, victims of EEA countries are not, at present, automatically considered for a grant of discretionary leave.
Amendment 27 would remedy this difference and ensure that all EEA nationals who are confirmed by the NRM as victims of trafficking are given a grant of leave if they meet the criteria set out in the amendment, which are similar to criteria by which applications are currently assessed under guidance. I urge the Government to support this amendment to ensure that there is a clear route for EEA nationals to have the option of immigration security and recourse to public funds to enable them to recover.
In reflecting on this, we must not forget that care for confirmed victims of modern slavery is not just about fulfilling our moral obligations to the victims, who, let us not forget, have been exploited in the UK; it is also in our self-interest. There is no point spending taxpayers’ money finding victims, then taking them through the national referral mechanism, only to release them without the requisite immigration security to enable them to access the kind of help they need to recover. Failure to provide them with security and tailored support will leave them vulnerable to being re-trafficked and make it impossible for them to have the space needed to consider giving evidence against their traffickers in court. This is unsustainable. Securing increased testimony from victims in court is crucial if we are to see an increase in the stubbornly low conviction rate of traffickers.
In reflecting on these imperatives, the truth is that, while we badly need Amendment 27 to pass today, we also need a more far-reaching solution that provides immigration certainty and support for all confirmed victims, including UK nationals. This is a position which all 27 organisations that make up the Free For Good campaign agree with. That is why the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, introduced to the House by the noble Lord, Lord McColl, and sponsored in the other place by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, is so important.
It is odd that if someone is recognised as a refugee they automatically get five years’ leave to remain, but if they are recognised as a confirmed victim of human trafficking they get no statutory leave to remain on that basis. I am not entirely sure why we consider that we have a lesser obligation to people whose lives have been exploited and traumatised in the UK than we have to refugees. I am not saying for a moment that the way we treat refugees should become less generous. I am not saying that at all. My point is simply that we should treat confirmed victims of modern slavery more generously.
The Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill states that, once someone has been through the national referral mechanism and is a confirmed victim of modern slavery, they should be offered specialist tailored support to help them recover and a minimum of 12 months’ leave to remain to access that support. In that context, they will be protected from re-trafficking and be much more likely to have space to consider giving evidence against their traffickers in court.
Moreover, it will benefit not only England and Wales but Scotland and Northern Ireland by providing immigration security to those who are given support after they have been in the NRM. I note that, in the commemoration of UK Anti-Slavery Day later this month, a Motion is to be debated at Stormont on 13 October that calls on the UK Parliament to pass the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill.
In conclusion, I hope the Minister will agree to act to ensure that there is a clear immigration path for confirmed victims of modern slavery who are EEA nationals, and to accept Amendment 27. To lead the way on modern slavery and to take immigration policy back into the hands of the UK Parliament, I call on the Government to make time for the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill to become law by the end of the year. In the 2017-19 session, it cleared the House, unamended, in less than four hours. If the Government want it, this very Conservative Bill—sponsored, as it is, by a former leader of the Conservative Party and the noble Lord—could easily become law by Christmas. Rather than inaugurating the Brexit era on 1 January by eroding the effective rights of some confirmed victims of modern slavery, we could strengthen the rights of all victims, on a basis that, as the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab has demonstrated, will save the Government money.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Randall, has withdrawn and I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is no longer with us. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, has also withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
My Lords, discretionary leave is a precarious response, as we have heard, and it is not frequently granted. We support the amendment and the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord McColl, as I have said on many occasions.
Some victims—though one would prefer to say “survivors”—want to get back home as quickly as possible. Others want to stay in order to recover—as far as recovery is possible—and for other reasons, as set out in proposed new subsection (2) of the amendment. One of the frequently expressed concerns about our response to slavery is the limited period provided for recovery after rescue, and 12 months is hardly a big ask.
One of the findings of the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act, published last year, was that few victims pursued or were granted civil compensation where that was possible. I therefore particularly support paragraph (c) of proposed new subsection (2).
Participating as a witness seems to be a factor that leads to the granting of discretionary leave. That can be a very big ask—I have used that word before—of the victim. Evidence is obviously important in prosecuting traffickers and exploiters, but granting leave to remain—the immigration response—should not be a transaction balanced by the person being prepared to give evidence. The issues that have been raised of course go far beyond the Bill. In Committee, we were reminded of the Government’s commitment to a world-leading system—and we have led the world.
Regarding the programme to transform the identification of and support for victims, and the legal framework, this is the second debate this afternoon in which data has been mentioned. Data is important. It indicates, among other things, a real interest in the impact of policy. That framework could, if we get it into the Bill, repeal the current provisions and be extended to all victims, which is what the noble Lord, Lord McColl, seeks—as do all noble Lords who have spoken. Having that framework in prospect should not preclude agreement to the amendment.
My Lords, Amendment 27, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, has been signed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and myself. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, has been tenacious and resolute in his efforts to speak up for victims of modern slavery, and it is very much to his credit that he has continued to be a voice for the victims of these appalling crimes. It is a matter of much regret that, so far, the Government have not been minded to listen to him. I join the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, in his warm tribute to the noble Lord, Lord McColl. I have respected and admired the noble Lord since my earliest days in this House. He is a thoroughly good and decent man, and an example for all of us to follow. He set out a powerful case for the amendment. If it is not accepted, I have no doubt that it will be carried by a large majority when the House is divided. It was good to note his confirmation that he had the support of the honourable Member for Chingford and Woodford Green in the other place—not somebody who would normally be described as a lefty do-gooder.
The amendment provides for the circumstances whereby a person over the age of 18 is to be granted leave to remain in the United Kingdom, and proposed new subsections (2) and (8) set the necessary parameters for granting this status. The amendment is of course confined to EEA and Swiss nationals, but that is to get it within the scope of the Bill. Many victims of modern slavery are vulnerable people who are British and so do not need this additional protection, but that does negate the importance of helping those victims from abroad.
On a separate note, I have been supportive of the noble Lord and his Private Member’s Bill, which passed through this House in the last Parliament. It is a matter of much regret that the Government left it to be wrecked by the usual suspects in the other place.
It was good to hear about the report from the Centre for Social Justice, which considered the whole question of how victims are looked after from the point of rescue to the point of recovery—both are necessary. I also note that the report’s foreword was written by the noble Lord, Lord Hague of Richmond.
The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, correctly pointed out that this Bill actually makes things worse for victims: surely that cannot be the intention of the Government. He has an excellent record in supporting victims of modern slavery. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, he steered through legislation on that issue which is generally regarded as more superior to the legislation in force here in England and Wales. It must be time for the Government to bring the legislation in England and Wales into line with the legislation in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The noble Lord, Lord McColl, is right in his call today and in his call for support for his Private Member’s Bill. If he needs to divide the House, noble Lords on these Benches will support him.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord McColl of Dulwich for instigating this important debate and I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to him for his dedicated and unswerving commitment to supporting the victims of modern slavery. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, said, it is a commitment that is strong at any hour of the day and one that applies to all noble Lords who have spoken—and would have done to my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge, who, as my noble friend said, would have spoken today had we reached this group sooner.
The Government are equally committed to tackling this heinous crime, which has absolutely no place in our society. We are now identifying more victims of modern slavery and doing more to bring the perpetrators to justice than ever before, and we are committed to supporting victims and survivors and helping them rebuild their lives. However, we do not accept that the victims of modern slavery who are EEA citizens should automatically be granted leave to remain in the UK, which is what my noble friend’s amendment seeks to do.
Granting leave to remain is appropriate in some cases, but the individual circumstances of a case are what must be central to the decision. I hope that all noble Lords will agree that a decision on whether leave is granted should not be determined by someone’s nationality. That is certainly an approach which complies with our international obligations under the trafficking convention. Where leave to remain is granted, it is normally where the victim is supporting the police either in an investigation, through being a witness in court or because of a requirement for medical treatment that needs to be provided in the UK—or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, noted, because they are pursuing compensation for the exploitation that they have suffered. It is perhaps worth reiterating, as we touched on in Committee, that the most common nationality among all referrals in 2019 to the national referral mechanism was British, with UK nationals accounting for 27% of all those being referred, so tackling this abhorrent crime is separate from immigration policy.
For those who are not UK nationals, some victims of modern slavery already have leave to remain in another capacity or may qualify for a more advantageous status, such as refugee status. Victims from the EEA, who, as my noble friend noted in his opening remarks, may find that not possible, may also qualify for leave to remain under the EU settlement scheme. There is a further option that my noble friend did not touch on in his remarks, which is that victims can apply for support from the Home Office modern slavery victim care contract, which includes accommodation and support. We want to ensure that all victims and survivors, who are often very vulnerable people, as has been made apparent so powerfully today, have the support that they need.
For those who do not qualify for leave to remain, the Government are committed to supporting them to return to their home country and to rebuild their life. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, they often want to do that as soon as possible. We have links with NGOs around the world, including a memorandum of understanding with La Strada Poland, which supports the victims of modern slavery when they return home and helps them reintegrate into their communities. The Government are proud of the work we are doing to stamp out this abhorrent crime and I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, pay tribute again to the world-leading legislation which has been passed in this area.
A blanket policy of granting discretionary leave risks creating the incentive for some—a minority of individuals—to make false trafficking claims in an attempt fraudulently to obtain leave to remain. We have to ensure that the system we have put in place is focused on those who truly need our help and is not abused by the sort of organised and callous criminality which, as has been said, profits from human misery. It is for these reasons that we believe that my noble friend’s amendment is unnecessary, and I hope that he will withdraw it.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his kind remarks and for all the support and hard work that he does on this and many other subjects. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, who has done such wonderful work in Northern Ireland, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her support and her amazing stamina. She never seems to get tired.
To respond to the debate, it is clear that my Amendment 27 does not—I emphasise this—automatically grant leave to remain to all EEA nationals who are confirmed victims of modern slavery. It guarantees leave only where the criteria in the amendment are met, which will require an assessment of the circumstances in each case. The amendment does ensure that all confirmed victims who are EEA nationals are automatically considered for leave to remain. Without this change, confirmed victims who are EEA nationals will not only lose one of the avenues for recovery currently accessible to them—immigration status and recourse to public funds through treaty rights—they will find themselves at a disadvantage when compared with victims who are not EEA nationals and who are already automatically considered for discretionary leave to remain.
Without Amendment 27, EEA confirmed victims of modern slavery will be significantly worse off as a result of the Bill. It is unthinkable that this House should acquiesce to allowing the rights of some victims of human slavery to be moved backwards, and so I wish to test the opinion of the House.