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Covid-19: Local Restrictions

Volume 806: debated on Friday 9 October 2020

Private Notice Question

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to seek Parliamentary approval for new local COVID-19 restrictions before they come into force.

My Lords, as the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care told the other place last week, for significant national measures with effect on the whole of England or UK-wide, the Government will consult the House of Commons wherever possible and hold votes before such regulations come into force. The arrangement of business and scheduling of debates in this House is a matter for discussion through the usual channels. Noble Lords will know that in this House the Government do not schedule debates without consulting the usual channels first.

My Lords, that is a very disappointing Answer. Last week, Mr Speaker criticised the Government for treating the Commons with contempt in the way that Covid regulations were dealt with and called for the most significant to be debated and decided on at the earliest point. The Government now propose to introduce a new tiered level of restrictions for local lockdowns. They are of national significance; whatever their justification, they involve a serious restriction of people’s personal liberties and will put many businesses in jeopardy. Does the Minister accept that Parliament should be asked to approve them before they come into force? Can he tell me what discussions have taken place to ensure that this happens?

My Lords, any new regulations will be scrutinised by both Houses in line with the requirements set out by Parliament in the relevant parent Act. The procedures for approving affirmative instruments are set out in your Lordships’ Standing Orders, and it is not in my gift to amend, suspend or ignore these. The local measures need to be enforced quickly if they are to be effective.

Do the Government realise that they are losing control of the virus because they are losing control of public support? Public support and the self-discipline that we have seen up to now requires that any more rigorous regime is the subject of people seeing and believing the evidence on which the Government make their decision. In addition to that, local and national elected representatives should be able to see and believe the evidence for the decision being made. Up to now, that has not been happening.

Well, I very much welcome the noble Lord’s comments, but I reiterate what I said earlier. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said on 30 September, for significant national measures with effect for the whole of England or UK-wide we will consult Parliament—and, wherever possible, we will hold votes before such regulations come into force. Of course, we will balance that with ensuring that our response to the virus means that it is delivered with speed when required. We cannot hold up urgent regulations that are needed to control the virus and save lives.

What evidence do the Government have that introducing statutory instruments without notice rather than with parliamentary debate and approval is more effective than developing effective local Covid strategies which are understood and adhered to by the population?

My Lords, where the department has used secondary legislation to put in place measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, these regulations stipulate that a review of the measures will take place within 28 days. In making a decision on how to proceed, we comply with our legal duties, and all the relevant Acts—the Equality Act, Public Health Act, National Health Act and the family test. We keep the situation under continuous review to consider whether the measures contained in the regulations are still a necessary component of our effective response.

My Lords, Covid is not a one-off, short-term emergency. There will be difficult judgments and hard decisions to be made for many months ahead. Does the Minister accept that it is imperative that we find a way to ensure legitimacy for those decisions by gaining parliamentary assent before, not after, they are taken, and that parliamentary assent before should be the rule, not the exception? Does he further accept, as I believe, that those decisions would actually be improved and better accepted by the population because of the challenge they would receive in public, in Parliament?

Well, my Lords, our rule—if there is a rule—is that we are clear that our measures should be locally led. We work with local leaders first and communities to take swift action to prevent and manage outbreaks, ensuring that our responses work for them, supported by a national service which they plug into. It is for that reason that we are considering local tiers. Local alert levels or tiers are designed to standardise the interventions in place in local areas across England to make it easier to communicate what restrictions apply, and in what areas, to the public.

I follow on from the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I thought the answer was remarkable, but maybe the Minister did not understand the question. In March, the Government were very keen to work with all parties and many others to get the emergency powers in place and, since then, really it has been nothing—letters to leaders informing them, diktats to local government, and accusations of undermining the national effort when legitimate questions are asked and comments are made. As we face another spike, will the Government change their habits and let stakeholders and Parliament, including your Lordships’ House, play a fuller role in designing and agreeing the national effort?

My Lords, I take exception to the noble Baroness’s characterisation of our approach. In fact, local planning and response are recognised as an essential part of our response to Covid, and are very much at the heart of the service. We want to have local outbreak control plans across the country. The development of local outbreak control plans is led by directors of public health; they are done on behalf of upper-tier local authorities, where the statutory responsibility for directors of public health sits, and are regularly reviewed by the local NHS, GPs, local employers, voluntary organisations and other community partners. There is also a link with local resilience forums, integrated care systems, combined local authorities and directly elected mayors as appropriate.

My Lords, this begs the question of whether local administrations in England might be given blanket parliamentary authority to make their own rules and guidance, as do devolved regions. Is that acceptable to the Government? What evidence do the Government have on whether these divergences in rules and guidance create public confusion, misunderstanding and breaches of them?

Our approach is based on the partnership between central and local government. Local government has a distinctive and unique role to play; local authorities work with employers, businesses and other relevant commercial groups to help prevent and control outbreaks, and their local outbreak plans will provide opportunities to build on that information best to support businesses and other local services to return to normal operations in a safe way. It is that partnership between national and local government that will build a successful response to the Covid epidemic.

Parliamentarians on all sides in both Houses say that they feel that they have not been included in decision-making so far. Mayors and leaders of local authorities have made it really clear over the last few days that there has not been communication with them; they seem very angry about the way the Government have conducted themselves. There was huge compliance with the restrictions imposed during the lockdown. Surely the Minister accepts that he needs to ensure that local authorities, mayors, and indeed local MPs need to be on-side and he needs to rebuild that trust. What can he do to make sure the Government take on board the points being made?

My Lords, I completely recognise the importance of stakeholder engagement, building alliances and collaboration. I emphasise our commitment to the partnership between local and national government. When it comes to Parliament’s engagement in these measures, I can only repeat what I said earlier: my right honourable friend has made it very clear that for significant national measures with effect in the whole of England or UK-wide, we will consult Parliament and, wherever possible, hold votes before such regulations come into force. Until then, it is through the usual channels that the schedule of the House of Lords will be arranged.

Building on the Minister’s commitment to locally led decision-making, will the Government confirm that they will now consult daily with the devolved Administrations and share evidence prior to any press release, as confused messages have undermined public confidence? That way, they may avoid some of the debacles that have happened when local authority decisions have been undermined by leaks to the press.

I completely defer to the noble Baroness’s expertise in matters to do with the devolved Administrations, but I reassure her that there are numerous calls every day between Whitehall and the DAs on Covid. We very much celebrate the achievement of a four-nations approach. There are divergences in some procedural matters between the different countries; that is entirely to be expected—indeed, celebrated—as it enhances the effectiveness of our measures. But I completely take on board the noble Baroness’s points and we will endeavour to ensure that communication between Whitehall and the DAs remains firm and solid.

My Lords, the issue is indeed about collaboration with local government. However, the Government’s decision to introduce the Coronavirus Act marred the use of secondary legislation in respect of the Civil Contingencies Act, suggesting that the Executive believe that existing legislation is not robust enough to counter the threat of pandemics. Given that we live in such a world, what plans do HMG have to review the robustness of all existing legislation? If they do, can they confirm that it will not infringe on parliamentary sovereignty?

My Lords, I note and take very seriously the noble Viscount’s comments on the state of our legislative response to the epidemic. There will no doubt be a time for reflection, learning the lessons of the epidemic and reviewing the legislative processes that we have available. This is not the time; the challenge of Covid is still very much a clear and present danger, but we will take on board his recommendation to reflect and improve on the structures we already have.

My Lords, to go back to my noble friend Lord Hunt’s question, given the exponential rate of the increase in Covid in the north and Midlands, have we not again lost the advantage of acting early and acting fast? Now we are told that the Government are considering introducing a national scheme based on three tiers of severity. What is holding this up? To what extent and how are local authority leaders—who still say publicly that they are being treated with contempt—involved in this decision? And when will Parliament be told?

My Lords, I cannot help but observe the palpable irony of being told, on the one hand, to engage, form alliances and double up on stakeholder engagement and, on the other, being told to hurry up and get a move on. An effective response means a combination of both national and local systems. A huge amount of work needs to be done to build the consensus, support and technical arrangements for that response. We are putting a huge amount of work into that process and look forward to making announcements on it. Until then, I reassure the noble Baroness that officials and politicians are working night and day to make that response as effective as possible.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, with almost 30% of the country under lockdown and more lockdowns to come, the key solution is mass testing? Does he also agree that we could have the equivalent of the ventilator challenge to manufacture the portable LAMP machines, which could greatly enhance testing capability, and have the Abbott Laboratories Binax-type, $5, 15-minute test available widely? Why are we not hearing more about this being implemented urgently?

I reassure the noble Lord that we are making progress. He is entirely right: the ventilator challenge is an inspiration, and I note that we have hit our target of 30,000 ventilators. I note that we have 300,000 tests a day at the current run rate; we have re-registered 50,000 new clinicians to return to support the NHS; we have had 16 million downloads of the NHS app; we have recruited 14,200 nurses as part of our recent recruitment; we have processed over 24 million tests in laboratories as of 8 October 2020; and the Vaccine Taskforce has secured access to six different vaccine candidates across four different vaccine prototypes. These are enormous achievements and we will continue to pursue our response with energy and vigour.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Private Notice Question has elapsed. I regret that we have not been able to hear all the speakers.